Monday, 30 September 2013

The Idiot Questioner

To say that a proposition is true is not to say that we are justified in accepting it as true, and to say that we are justified in accepting it as true is not to say that it is true.
(from The Myth of the Given by Roderick Chisholm)

There is a flux of immediate experience of which it makes no sense to say that we are justified in accepting it perhaps because that would entail a justification of our not accepting it in some circumstance. Justifications and foundations are an element of the mental or as Santayana might say, metaphorical constructions of reality. But are they true the idiot questioner asks?

The Negation is the Spectre; the Reasoning Power in Man
This is a false Body: an Incrustation over my Immortal
“Spirit; a Selfhood, which must be put off & annihilated alway”
To cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination.
To bathe in the Waters of Life; to wash off the Not Human
I come in Self-annihilation & the grandeur of Inspiration
To cast off Rational Demonstration by Faith in the Saviour
To cast off the rotten rags of Memory by Inspiration
“To cast off Bacon, Locke & Newton from Albions covering”
“To take off his filthy garments, & clothe him with Imagination”
“To cast aside from Poetry, all that is not Inspiration”
That it no longer shall dare to mock with the aspersion of Madness
“Cast on the Inspired, by the tame high finisher of paltry Blots,”
“Indefinite, or paltry Rhymes; or paltry Harmonies.”
Who creeps into State Government like a catterpiller to destroy
“To cast off the idiot Questioner who is always questioning,”
But never capable of answering; who sits with a sly grin
“Silent plotting when to question, like a thief in a cave;”
Who publishes doubt & calls it knowledge; whose Science is Despair
(from Milton by William Blake

In dreams there is no negative and therefore no logic. If we want to negate something we have to undo it. In a dream a man wants to find the source of the self. A guide instructs him to proceed 5 steps to the right, 10 steps forward, 5 steps to the left, 10 steps back and then 5 steps to the left. He is to dig there to find the treasure. He is digging in the spot he started from. Why not say ‘dig where you are now’? The instructions symbolise the spiritual discipline that enable one to ‘know the place for the first time’.

We shall not cease from exploration,
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
(from Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot)

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Always carry a clean handkerchief

I had been searching the internet for relief but it was not given unto me until:donald anderson

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Portrait of a Man with Red Hair by Hugh Walpole

So you finished Portrait of a Man with Red Hair.


What was your final verdict?

On the whole excellent but I’ve noticed that he puts in elements in his stories which belong in much longer novels.

You mean an extended incident which might be natural in War and Peace but threatens to capsize a 187 page novel.

Precisely. I put it down to plot block. He doesn’t know quite how to proceed and tries to write himself out of it.

Is this the concept of ‘narrative traction’ that you mentioned before.

Amn’t I telling you. Any fool can write but it takes real talent to narrativize.

I like that last word, only available in American spelling I imagine.

The evil of the eponymous Crispin and his sadistic theory of love through pain is well wrought. The relationship of Crispin pere and fis and which of them is the dominant one is an acute observation of twinned psychosis. But it is in the passage where the rufous rascal,

Hold it you’ve used ‘eponymous’ and ‘rufous’ recently. Put your €2 in the Fowler box and I think €1 in the Partridge.

Might I continue. When Crispin shows Harkness his gems, jades and prints - By the way Peter Lorre would be perfect for the role with his glabrous pate covered by en brosse carrotty – it is with the horror of the true connoisseur that Walpole write:

"Yes, yes, I could show you then my power." His voice vibrated with sudden excitement. "You think me absurd. Yes, yes, you do. You do. Don't deny it now. As though I couldn't perceive it. Do you think me so stupid? Absurd, with my ridiculous hair, my ugly body? Oh! I know! You can't hide it from me. You laugh like the rest. Secretly, you laugh. You are smiling behind your hand. Well, smile then, but how foolish of you to be so taken in by physical appearances. Do you know my power? Do you know what I could do to you now by merely clapping my hands?

"If my fingers were at your throat, at your breast, and you could not move but must wait my wish, my plan for you, would you think me then so absurd--my figure, my hair, ridiculous? You would be as though in the hands of a god. I should be as a god to you to do with you what I wished. . . .

"What is there that is so beautiful that I, ugly as I am, cannot do as I wish with it? This--" Suddenly he took up the "Orvieto" and held it forward under the candlelight. "This is one of the most beautiful things of its kind that man has ever made, and I--am I not one of the ugliest human beings at whom men laugh?--well, would you see my power over it? I have it in my hands. It is mine. It is mine. I can destroy it in one instant--"

The beautiful thing shook in his hand. To Harkness it seemed suddenly to be endued with a human vitality. He saw it--the high, sharp, razor-edged rocks, the town so confidingly resting on that strength, all the daily life at the foot, the oxen, the peasants, the lovely flame-like trees, the shining reaches of valley beyond, all radiating the heat of that Italian summer.

He sprang to his feet. "Don't touch it!" he cried. "Leave it! Leave it!"

Crispin tore it into a thousand pieces, wrenching it, snapping at it with his fingers like an animal. The pieces flaked the air. A white shower circled in the candle-light, then scattered about the table, about the floor.

Clearly his evil knows no bounds. Definitely Lorre. Didn’t Walpole write for Hollywoood?

Yes he adapted the David Copperfield of 1935 which had W.C.Fields playing Micawber. You will remember that Uriah Heep is red haired.

Finally and in conclusion.

Excellent, a neglected classic of the macabre genre.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Now Reading

What are you reading?

Portrait of a Man with Red Hair by Hugh Walpole.

What's it about?

Hard to say, I'm not far into it but it draws me on.

The story so far.

Harkness an American a literary gent,30's, the unrecognised love child of Henry James and Edith Wharton is in a train on his way to Treliss via Trewth in Cornwall or Glebeshire, Walpole's onomatopoeia County. In the seat opposite him is an aged man, a grumpy individual who hearing that he is going to that resort hopes that the place won't be spoiled by his like ie. Americans, trippers and riff-raff. It drives the real place away and leaves a simulacrum in its place. Chelsea in London has fetched up in a place you wouldn't suspect.
Is this man an Ancient Mariner?


What has sent him to this Brigadoon?

Via a conversation with James Maradick at the Reform Club where he was staying while his own was being cleaned.

The old strangers one meets while ones club is being cleaned device

Precisely. They talk about places they have been. Maradick suggests that Treliss is a place one ought to visit. In a strange reverie at the club projected on a sun-lit wall he sees the image of a sea-side town.

Flash Forward.

Yes. He gets out of the train at Trewth and sending his luggage on to the hotel decides to walk the three miles over the hill to Treliss. Coming in sight of Treliss he recognises it as the seaside village of his reverie.

And the eponymous rufous?

He is staying at the hotel along with his newly wed son and daughter-in-law. There's something sinister about this set-up. The beautiful new wife is distressed and enrols Harkness as a messenger to some other man. And this is where I am now, at page 57 if you want to know.

Bags I read it after you

No can do. I have it on an e-reader from Gutenberg Australia.

The writing?

Usual Walpole. smooth with intermittent heightening and a suggestion of the diction of Harkness.

Monday, 23 September 2013

George Santayana and John Heil

Neo-Platonism opened vistas into the supernatural, but the avenues of approach which it had chosen and the principle which had given form to its system foredoomed it to failure as a religion. This avenue was dialectic, and this principle the hypostasis of abstractions. Plato had pointed out this path in his genial allegories. He had, by a poetical figure, turned the ideas of reason into the component forces of creation. This was, with him, a method of expression, but being the only method he was inclined to employ, it naturally entangled and occasionally, perhaps, deceived his intelligence; for a poet easily mistakes his inspired tropes for the physiology of Nature. Yet Platonic dogma, even when meant as such, retained the transparency and significance of a myth; philosophy was still a language for the expression of experience, and dialectic a method and not a creed. But the master's counters, current during six centuries of intellectual decadence, had become his disciples' money. Each of his abstractions seemed to them a discovery, each of his metaphors a revelation. The myths of the great dialogues, and, above all, the fanciful machinery of the Timaeus, interpreted with an incredible literalness and naive earnestness, such as only Biblical exegesis can rival, formed the starting point of the new revelation. The method and insight thus obtained were then employed in filling the lacunae of the system and spreading its wings wider and wider, until a prodigious hierarchy of supernatural existences had been invented, from which the natural world was made to depend as a last link and lowest emanation.
(from Santayana’s essay The Poetry of Christian Dogma

An interesting passage in itself but it contains in it the basis of his particular usage of ‘trope’. It departs from its meaning in Rhetoric as a figure of speech particularly one which has become established and characteristic so that the mind naturally flows into its form. This sense of the trope as an attractant, one thinks here of ‘the strange attractant’ of chaos theory, gives rise to the derived meaning of ‘trope’ as used in ontology. In the flux of essences we turn to (tropein/to turn) again and again tropes to organise what would otherwise be chaos.

John Heil in his latest book which I am perusing by Googlepeek - The Universe as we find It in his chapter on Universals expresses great admiration for the philosophical insight of Santayana and he traces the trope concept in its shape shifting progress from him through C.B. Willams and on to David Lewis. If Santayana had not written so well he would be taken more seriously is his assessment of the cause of the neglect of a thinker who was trying to re-direct American thought away from the miasms of idealism as exemplefied by Royce et al. Says Heil:
James, Dewey, Royce, Thoreau, Whitman, even Emerson, native enough by birth and animus, drenched themselves to distraction in the imported liquors of German idealism, of French spiritualism, and even of Indian mysticism.

All very interesting and from what I’ve read clear and jargon free.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Dogs and Wolves

That I will endeavour to explain, I replied. To keep watch- dogs, who, from want of discipline or hunger, or some evil habit or other, would turn upon the sheep and worry them, and behave not like dogs, but wolves, would be a foul and monstrous thing in a shepherd?
(Plato’s Republic)

An important part of the discipline of dogs is universality of command. A shepherd explains:

What does the ‘shepherd’ Eric Schlisser think of the philosopher wolf Alex Broadbent who in a moment of heartiness wrote?
Cf. stereotyper
These are all general merits of the book, which make it refreshing, stimulating, and well worth the reading time of Joe the Philosopher of Science (not to mention Joe the Doctor). In addition, the prose is clear and lively.--Alex Broadbent, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 80, No. 1 (January 2013), pp. 165-6.

Not good dog, wolf you, wolf you, ‘sexist stereotyper you’. Lie down, lie down. Sit!

In the comments section the discussion takes the well worn path and here we pause to enquire why paths tend to be ‘well worn’ and whether being a path necessitates being ‘well worn’. In any case the empirical path is taken with reference to numbers of male and female Doctors of Science. Is that a mistake or do numbers matter? The overwhelming majority of Primary School teachers in Ireland are female and using the unmarked ‘he’ in that case may seem strained and overly punctilious. I worry about this.

Still the shepherd’s invigilation of ‘she’ as the unmarked pronoun in philosophical discussion is now universal. Young philosopher dogs, who aspire to being shepherds obey. Good dog, good dog.

Monday, 16 September 2013

When you wake in your crib by William Ernest Henley

Margaret Emma Henley
(1888 -1894)

When you wake in your crib,
You, an inch of experience -
Vaulted about
With the wonder of darkness;
Wailing and striving
To reach from your feebleness
Something you feel
Will be good to and cherish you,
Something you know
And can rest upon blindly:
O, then a hand
(Your mother's, your mother's!)
By the fall of its fingers
All knowledge, all power to you,
Out of the dreary,
Discouraging strangenesses
Comes to and masters you,
Takes you, and lovingly
Woos you and soothes you
Back, as you cling to it,
Back to some comforting
Corner of sleep.

So you wake in your bed,
Having lived, having loved;
But the shadows are there,
And the world and its kingdoms
Incredibly faded;
And you grope through the Terror
Above you and under
For the light, for the warmth,
The assurance of life;
But the blasts are ice-born,
And your heart is nigh burst
With the weight of the gloom
And the stress of your strangled
And desperate endeavour:
Sudden a hand -
Mother, O Mother! -
God at His best to you,
Out of the roaring,
Impossible silences,
Falls on and urges you,
Mightily, tenderly,
Forth, as you clutch at it,
Forth to the infinite
Peace of the Grave.

William Ernest Henley

Yeats was moved by this poem though in general not fond of vers libre.

When I spoke to him of his child’s death he said, “she was a person of genius; she had the genius of the mind, and the genius of the body.” And later I heard him talk of her as a man talks of something he cannot keep silence over because it is in all his thoughts. I can remember, too, his talking of some book of natural history he had read, that he might be able to answer her questions.
(from The Trembling of the Veil)

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Santayana and the Buddhist doctrine of Anatman

Santayana in Scepticism and Animal Faith poses a question which is also applicable to the Buddhist anatman doctrine:

The ego, as Fichte tells us, unaware of itself, posits a non-ego, and then by reflection posits itself as the agent in that positing, or as the patient which the activity posited in the non-ego posits in its turn. But all this positing would be mere folly, unless it was an intelligent discovery of antecedent facts. Why should a non-existent ego be troubled with the delirious duty of positing anything at all ?

Buddhists of course go about the ‘delirious duty’ in a quite different manner postulating that vertiginous congeries, the five heaps. The fact of memory was the response of Shankara and is I think a sufficient refutation. Santayana goes beneath the tropes of faculty psychology to find in the animal response to nature an individuality which does not require demonstration but is the presupposition of demonstration and the discovery of structure. He does not seem to accept that evolution from hominid consciousness to human might bring a structure which is immediately known.

Monday, 9 September 2013

An Old Woman of the Roads by Padraic Colum

This is a poem that we learned at school about which so little can be said that it must be perfect. As a child I had an image of a long bog road and a shawled figure making her way, slowly. Padraic Colum (1881 -1972) had the gift of being able to create poetry that seems to have always been there, that enters directly into the folk tradition. He put the first three verses to She Moved through the Fair. Andreas Scholl sings it :

An Old Woman of the Roads

Oh, to have a little house!
To own the hearth and stool and all!
The heaped-up sods upon the fire,
The pile of turf against the wall!

To have a clock with weights and chains
And pendulum swinging up and down!
A dresser filled with shining delph,
Speckled and white and blue and brown!

I could be busy all the day
Clearing and sweeping hearth and floor,
And fixing on their shelf again
My white and blue and speckled store!

I could be quiet there at night
Beside the fire and by myself,
Sure of a bed, and loth to leave
The ticking clock and the shining delph!

Och! but I'm weary of mist and dark,
And roads where there's never a house nor bush,
And tired I am of bog and road,
And the crying wind and the lonesome hush!

And I am praying to God on high,
And I am praying Him night and day,
For a little house - a house of my own
Out of the wind's and the rain's way.

You can listen to Padraic Colum reciting this poem via Spotify:
An Old Woman of the Roads

Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Captives by Hugh Walpole

This book, published in 1920, is dedicated to Arnold Bennett whose reputation amongst the literati was damaged by the negative attentions of Virginia Woolf. Birds of a winged feather it seems.

The epigraph is by William James:

"I confess that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any of us may make to the religious appeal. God Himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithlessness, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears ..."
(from The Will to Believe)

If God’s power waxes and wanes according to the strivings of pilgrims here below much of the faith that is adhered to by the characters of this novel does not encourage him. That may be to the advantage of this man:

Death leapt upon the Rev. Charles Cardinal, Rector of St. Dreots in South Glebeshire, at the moment that he bent down towards the second long drawer of his washhand-stand; he bent down to find a clean collar. It is in its way a symbol of his whole life, that death claimed him before he could find one.

At one moment his mind was intent upon his collar; at the next he was stricken with a wild surmise, a terror that even at that instant he would persuade himself was exaggerated. He saw before his clouding eyes a black pit. A strong hand striking him in the middle of his back flung him contemptuously forward into it; a gasping cry of protest and all was over. Had time been permitted him he would have stretched out a hand towards the shabby black box that, true to all miserly convention, occupied the space beneath his bed. Time was not allowed him. He might take with him into the darkness neither money nor clean clothing.

He had been told on many occasions about his heart, that he must not excite nor strain it. He allowed that to pass as he allowed many other things because his imagination was fixed upon one ambition, and one alone. He had made, upon this last and fatal occasion, haste to find his collar because the bell had begun its Evensong clatter and he did not wish to-night to be late. The bell continued to ring and he lay his broad widespread length upon the floor. He was a large and dirty man.

There are many excellent passages in this novel which draw on the ecclesiastical insider knowledge of Walpole whose father finished his career in the Church of England as Bishop of Edinburgh. It has that attitude towards the Nonconformist chapel folk which the Established Church fostered. They disdained the whiff of tent. When Walpole considers the Church of England and the life of the vicarage a similar antipathy is expressed.

However between the ‘good bits’ there are narrative stretches when you long to give the authorial victrola a vigorous wind. Maggie Cardinal is the daughter of the late vicar of St.Dreot’s who goes to live with her aunts Ann and Elizabeth in London. They are prominent members of a Methodist Sect whose ‘prophet’ is Mr. Warlock. Their house is round the corner from the chapel:

They turned out of their own street into a thin, grey one in which the puddles sprang and danced against isolated milk-cans and a desolate pillar-box. The little bell was now loud and strident, and when they passed into a passage which led into a square, rather grimy yard, Maggie saw that they had arrived. Before her was a hideous building, the colour of beef badly cooked, with grey stone streaks in it here and there and thin, narrow windows of grey glass with stiff, iron divisions between the glass. The porch to the door was of the ugliest grey stone with "The Lord Cometh" in big black letters across the top of it. Just inside the door was a muddy red mat, and near the mat stood a gentleman in a faded frock-coat and brown boots, an official apparently.

It is a complex novel, ambitious in scope written from the point of view of Maggie Cardinal and it reflects the reticence of that era. The theme of captivity and liberation from theology is well sketched in many set pieces which relieve the occasional narrative drag.

To balance the picture of the ugly clear-light chapel Walpole, a man of refined artistic sense who amassed a wonderful collection of modern art which he left to the public, introduces us to the new and gaudy Anglican Church:

Early on that first afternoon she was taken to see the Church. For a desperate moment her spirits failed her as she stood at the end of the Lane and looked. This was a Church of the newest red brick, and every seat was of the most shining wood. The East End window was flaming purple, with a crimson Christ ascending and yellow and blue disciples amazed together on the ground. Paul stood flushed with pride and pleasure, his hand through Maggie's arm.

"That's a Partright window," he said with that inflection that Maggie was already beginning to think of as "his public voice."

"I'm afraid, Paul dear," said Maggie, "I'm very ignorant."

"Don't know Partright? Oh, he's the great man of the last thirty years—did the great East window of St. Martin's, Pontefract. We had a job to get him I can tell you. Just look at that purple."

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

It needs also a cynical humour; although Roy laughed so much I never thought he had a very quick sense of humour, and I am quite sure that he was incapable of cynicism.

This is Maugham’s verdict on Kear/Walpole and it seems borne out in the novels. The situations he describes are bizarre but he foregoes the humorous possibilities that might lighten the story and make it flow better. Of course the grotesque, baldly related, has its own grim comedy and the restricted length of The Killer and the Slain brings out the irony of juxtaposition. He is not allowed the luxury of length that might dissipate the effects. Those are many.

First of all the dedication:

That is a significant nod as they share the theme of spiritual oppression and possession.
jolly corner

The novel is related in the form of narrative statements by the protagonist John Ozias Talbot now 36 years of age. He begins with an account of his schooling and his first encounter with his bete noir who at first seems a saviour. John Talbot as a shy and timid schoolboy is taken up by Jimmy Turnstall who is popular and burly enough to prevent the other being bullied. It becomes very clear that he guards him only to have exclusive tormenting rights.

He was always laughing, joking, calling out, on the move. As a small boy (he was the same age as myself, born in the same month) he was friendly to all the world. I suppose, to use modern rather cheap terms, you would say he was an extrovert. I was an introvert. But there was more in it than that. He used his breeziness and heartiness to cover his secret designs. Even then, at ten years of age, he was plotting how he could use everybody and everything to his own advantage. He was helped, of course, by the fact that he never had any morals whatever.

He begins to oppress Talbot and it is his chief amusement to claim a special affinity with him even though Talbot loathes him. ‘Jacko’ is the contemptuous name Tunstall gives him:

‘You know, Jacko, I DO like you, although you’re such a goup. I think you really like me too, although you’re a bit afraid of me. I like that as well.’

‘I hate you! I hate you!’ I cried, breaking away from him.

In time Tunstall moves away to London and Talbot remains in the seaside town of Seaborne in the county of Glebeshire running the antique shop established by his deceased father and writing novels. At the date of the First Narrative, 1936, he has had 3 published, the last of which The Gossip-monger is a success. He has married by this time, a beautiful if cold woman called Eve who takes over the antique business running it successfully and allowing him to focus on his writing. Then Turnstall turns up. He is now a well known portrait painter and has taken a house where he intends to stay for part of the year. When they inevitably meet Talbot makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with him:

Then he said: ‘Don’t you want to know what’s been happening to me all this time?’
‘I don’t particularly care.’
‘That IS a rude thing to say. All the same I’ll tell you. I’m quite a successful painter. Hadn’t you heard? Especially with portraits. I paint people as they’d like to be. That’s the thing. That’s what you ought to do. What’s the use of writing these books that nobody wants to read? Simply wasting your time. I’ve made quite a bit of money, and, like a wise man, I married a woman with money.

This is the beginning of a pervasive occupation of the weaker man’s mind and spirit. The title of the book is an indication of where this leads but there is a Mr. Hyde twist to it that does not require a special potion. Is Talbot’s transformation a psychotic delusion or the absorption by an incubus?

There are excellently realised minor characters. Cheeseman aka The Rat a loathsome blackmailer is fascinatingly repellant.
I heard all this from Basil Cheeseman, a friend of his, and about Cheeseman, known to myself and some others as ‘The Rat’, I must say a word or two. Physically he resembled a rat, for he was a little man with very prominent white sharp upper teeth. He had reddish-brown hair and restless whisky-coloured eyes. When he smiled his teeth jutted out over his lower lip. He was, and is, an evil little man; a journalist by profession who had settled down in a ramshackle cottage near Seaborne and there indulged in shabby orgies with girls from London or visitors to the resort. He made a living by picking up paragraphs and sending them to London and the provincial papers. He had, and has, as malicious and dirty-minded a soul as exists in the world to-day. He was the very man for Tunstall. He was more evil, I don’t doubt, than Tunstall and yet I did not hate him half as much. He had no power over me. I thought of him possibly as a kind of emanation from Tunstall. When Tunstall couldn’t come to me himself he sent the Rat instead, and I can see him now with a faint shiny stubble on his cheeks, his projecting teeth and false grin, his restless cat-like eyes. ‘He’s come back and he’s going to stay,’ the Rat said, eyeing me curiously. His malicious curiosity knew no limit. He had long ago discovered my hatred and fear of Tunstall, but what was Tunstall’s hold over me? I did not look as though I had any vices. And, farther than that, why did Tunstall bother about me at all? What was my attraction for Tunstall?

This is an excellent novel and should be on a list of the neglected classics of the macabre.

What of the retort to Maugham that I mentioned previously?
witch's hat
One of the novels Talbot had published was called The Gridiron that Rose the well known novelist had liked although the public did not concur.

The Gridiron, into which I put so much good work—a novel, I am still convinced, with something unique in it, something that has never been done before and will never be done again—appeared and was dead as soon as born. And yet not quite so! For it roused the interest of certain critics, and Rose, the famous novelist, wrote me an enthusiastic letter concerning it. Now I consider Rose’s novels very poor indeed—old-fashioned, romantic, platitudinous— but he IS a very well known writer and when he reviews a novel he helps, undoubtedly, its popularity. I have often enough inveighed against the practice of one novelist reviewing another novelist and have especially criticised Rose in this connection, but after he had said some fine quotable words about The Gridiron in The Message I felt rather differently about him. His letter to me was kind and enthusiastic, if patronising, and when I next saw the picture of his high and shining forehead in a newspaper I felt, I must confess, quite friendly towards it.

There was in The Gossip-monger a certain dry humour and irony and it happened that the public fancied in one of the figures of my story a caricature of Rose himself. This helped its sale, and Rose was very magnanimous, alluding, humorously, in his review to the caricature as though he had enjoyed it; as a matter of fact I heard afterwards from a friend of his that it hurt him very much. It was Rose’s great ambition in life, I think, to be considered a noble character without being thought at the same time a prig—no easy ambition

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Somerset Maugham dips his nib in the witch's hat

When penmanship was taught via the medium of steel nibs and ceramic ink wells like witches hats set into the oak desks bound each to their seats with cast iron brackets, the boy behind if wanting to annoy would jab your arse with a pen. I have been from time to time been discussing such literary jabs given by Hemingway to Ford and Anderson. I believe that the more famous writer can affect the reputation of the other. It has the effect of a scorn barrier which our admiration for the jabber creates about the jabee. I felt that about Ford and also I must admit about George Moore who quarrelled with W.B . Yeats.

Somerset Maugham similarly had barefaced innocent sport with Hugh Walpole in his novel Cakes and Ale and it is said ruined the man’s reputation in the process. Seeing as I had never heard of Walpole my ignorance could be accounted for by this pasquinade which turned a successful writer into a footnote. The parsimonious explanation is merely ignorance. Alroy dit Roy Kear is the assiduous networker, a type which anyone with the slightest acquaintance with literary circles will recognise. There may and probably should be many more such characters in fiction, Lady Carbury in Trollope’s The Way we are Now is one. However it is only those established authors who feel their reputation is secure dip their nib in the witches hat.

The portrait of Roy Kear is etched with acid on the elegant burnished copper of Maugham’s prose.

I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters. His career might well have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature. I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Charles Dickens in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word (and of late the critics have been doing it with agreeable frequency) he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle.

That is the beginning of so many ink laden jabs that a tattoo is drawn on the Knight’s posterior. Cakes and Ale was published in 1930 and only in 1942 in the posthumous The Killer and the Slain does Walpole reply. Of that curious work of macabre genius more anon.

Addendum 7/9/13: Selena Hastings has a post about the Kear/Walpole slag:alroy maugham

Monday, 2 September 2013

I literally like whatever

“When she crept up behind me I was lost in thought. She tapped me on my shoulder and I literally jumped out of my skin. “ An imaginable if banal piece of dialogue that might be used in casual conversation where ‘literally’ has the role of emphasis. It has the effect of verbal grouting and means no more than ‘you startled me’ Like the use of ‘awesome’ and ‘phenomenal’ it tends to draw attention to a limited power of expression. It is not so much that the word means by strict definition the opposite of this use but that it has been emptied of force and should be left to recuperate in the infirmary of the exhausted.

One could ring the changes (oh dear!) on the phrase I literally jumped out of my skin with “I had an out of the body experience” or “I verified dualism for a moment”.

literally: We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression ‘not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking’, we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate: cf. veritable; such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.
(from Modern English Usage by Henry Fowler, 1928)