Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: lit (page 1 of 1)

to be a pilgrim

I’ve been teaching The Pilgrim’s Progress, something that always gives me great joy. I find it simply wonderful that so utterly bonkers a book was so omnipresent in English-language culture (and well beyond) for so long. You couldn’t avoid it, whether you loved it — as George Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver did, and lamented the sale of the family’s copy: “I thought we should never part with that while we lived” — or found it puzzling, as Huck Finn did when he recalled the books he read as a child: “One was ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, about a man that left his family it didn’t say why. I read considerable in it now and then. The statements was interesting, but tough.” 

One of the “tough” things about the “statements” is the way they veer from hard-coded allegory to plain realism, sometimes within a given sentence. One minute Moses is the canonical author of the Pentateuch, the next he’s a guy who keeps knocking Hopeful down. But the book is always psychologically realistic, to an extreme degree. No one knew anxiety and terror better than Bunyan did, and when Christian is passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and hears voices whispering blasphemies in his ears, the true horror of the moment is that he thinks he himself is uttering the blasphemies. (The calls are coming from inside the house.) 

It seems likely that the last major cultural figure to acknowledge the power of Bunyan’s book is Terrence Malick, who begins his movie Knight of Cups with a voice declaiming the full title of the book: “The pilgrim’s progress from this world to that which is to come, delivered under the similitude of a dream; wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country.” 

Those words are uttered by John Gielgud, because they are taken from a 1990 performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress: A Bunyan Sequence, which is a work that Vaughan Williams wanted to compose for his whole life, but only got to near his life’s end: it is his final operatic composition. And it’s wonderful. 

The Pilgrim’s Progress is almost always illustrated, and prominent among those illustrations are maps. Here’s a post about those maps. From that post I learned that Garrett Taylor — an artist and animator who has worked for Pixar and on The Wingfeather Saga TV series — has mapped The Pilgrim’s Progress is four prints that you can buy here. I bought them and had them framed and they now adorn a wall of our house. I stop to look at them three or four times a day. 

It would be wrong for me to post the full-resolution images here, but I think I can risk one portion of one image: 

Now, if Mr. Taylor can just convince Pixar to film the whole book…. 

Maggie and her Books

There’s a really extraordinary moment in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, a moment that says something profound about what we might call the ecology of reading in the age of print.

First, some background: Mr. Tulliver – the father of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, the two central characters in this novel – embarks upon a rash lawsuit which fails, and its failure sends him into bankruptcy. His family lose almost everything. As they are trying to adjust to their economic and social fall, Tom Tulliver receives a visit from his childhood friend Bob Jakin. Bob is a packman, a kind of traveling salesman who goes about on foot bearing a pack full of random goods which he sells mainly to the working poor. Bob is little better than working poor himself, even if through diligence and shrewd bargaining he is rising in the world: certainly he is constantly aware of his social inferiority to the Tullivers, despite their distressed circumstances; he always refers to Tom as “Master Tom.” Bob visits to try to give the Tullivers some money which Tom’s pride will not allow him to receive (probably he wouldn’t receive it from anybody, but he certainly won’t receive it from Bob). During their visit Tom’s younger sister Maggie comes in to the parlor and discovers that in the recent auction of their goods her books had been sold. Her eyes fill with tears; she is especially grieved over the loss of the family copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress: “I thought we should never part with that while we lived.”

Maggie is a devoted reader, much more so than her brother, and earlier in the book, when Maggie visits Tom at the pastor’s house where he is a paying pupil, we see that her intellectual interests are far stronger than his own and her capabilities far greater. But this was not an era in which young women of such gifts were reliably provided with an education adequate to them, so Maggie must remain largely self-educated. Thus she treasures so greatly the handful of books she owns and is so grieved at their disappearance.

Bob, who adores Maggie, though as a creature far above him in the Great Chain of Being, notices her distress and some weeks later pays her another visit. He has brought with him some books that he has scavenged in the course of his labors. Some of them are illustrated books – Bob himself thinks the illustrations quite fine and likely to interest Maggie – but he’s also aware that Maggie likes books with words in them and so makes sure to bring her a parcel of those: “I thought you might like a bit more print as well as the picturs, an’ I got these for a sayso, – they’re cram-full o’ print, an’ I thought they’d do no harm comin’ along wi’ these bettermost books.” (Bob, being illiterate, can’t tell you anything about the content of the books, he can only judge quantity of print.) Maggie receives these gifts gratefully but sets them aside; she has much on her mind and it’s not until later that she thinks to take up one of the volumes.

She does so at a time of great personal and familial distress. She has been forced to leave school — where she had been learning at least a few rudimentary skills that a young woman might need — in order to tend to her father, who has collapsed in the aftermath of his financial defeat and its consequent shame. All her life now is caring for her father’s needs, but she is a teenage girl of high intellect and great passion, and the consumption of her whole being in the dreary round of daily service is of course a struggle to her. Among the books in Bob’s parcel, the one that catches her eye is an old translation of Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. She feels that she has heard the name but knows nothing about the book; she picks it up and begins to read.

And here is where something extraordinary happens.

She took up the little, old, clumsy book with some curiosity; it had the corners turned down in many places, and some hand, now forever quiet, had made at certain passages strong pen-and-ink marks, long since browned by time. Maggie turned from leaf to leaf, and read where the quiet hand pointed: “Know that the love of thyself doth hurt thee more than anything in the world…. If thou seekest this or that, and wouldst be here or there to enjoy thy own will and pleasure, thou shalt never be quiet nor free from care; for in everything somewhat will be wanting, and in every place there will be some that will cross thee…. Both above and below, which way soever thou dost turn thee, everywhere thou shalt find the Cross; and everywhere of necessity thou must have patience, if thou wilt have inward peace, and enjoy an everlasting crown…. If thou desirest to mount unto this height, thou must set out courageously, and lay the axe to the root, that thou mayest pluck up and destroy that hidden inordinate inclination to thyself, and unto all private and earthly good. On this sin, that a man inordinately loveth himself, almost all dependeth, whatsoever is thoroughly to be overcome; which evil being once overcome and subdued, there will presently ensue great peace and tranquillity…. It is but little thou sufferest in comparison of them that have suffered so much, were so strongly tempted, so grievously afflicted, so many ways tried and exercised. Thou oughtest therefore to call to mind the more heavy sufferings of others, that thou mayest the easier bear thy little adversities. And if they seem not little unto thee, beware lest thy impatience be the cause thereof…. Blessed are those ears that receive the whispers of the divine voice, and listen not to the whisperings of the world. Blessed are those ears which hearken not unto the voice which soundeth outwardly, but unto the Truth, which teacheth inwardly.”

The quiet hand – Eliot repeats the phrase: “She went on from one brown mark to another, where the quiet hand seemed to point, hardly conscious that she was reading, seeming rather to listen.” Her reading of this book becomes a kind of three-way conversation: this miserable adolescent girl in Lincolnshire, the old monk, and the long-dead reader whom Maggie thinks of as her “invisible teacher.”

Maggie has been deprived of visible teachers, at least ones who would teach her the things that she most cares about, but here she finds one – in the margins of an old book picked up in some dingy provincial shop by an illiterate packman – who is able to guide her in her time of greatest distress. I find myself remembering here the motto of the Everyman’s Library editions, words that in the medieval morality play Everyman are spoken by Knowledge:

I will go with thee,
and be thy guide,
In thy most need
to go by thy side.

So the publisher, by gathering these great books together and making them both presentable and affordable, can become itself an “invisible teacher.” 

By the time she wrote The Mill on the Floss, Eliot had (to my regret) left behind the evangelical piety that dominated her own teenage years; but that does not reduce her admiration of The Imitation of Christ:

I suppose that is the reason why the small old-fashioned book, for which you need only pay sixpence at a book-stall, works miracles to this day, turning bitter waters into sweetness; while expensive sermons and treatises, newly issued, leave all things as they were before. It was written down by a hand that waited for the heart’s prompting; it is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish, struggle, trust, and triumph, not written on velvet cushions to teach endurance to those who are treading with bleeding feet on the stones. And so it remains to all time a lasting record of human needs and human consolations; the voice of a brother who, ages ago, felt and suffered and renounced, – in the cloister, perhaps, with serge gown and tonsured head, with much chanting and long fasts, and with a fashion of speech different from ours, – but under the same silent far-off heavens, and with the same passionate desires, the same strivings, the same failures, the same weariness.

That heartfelt and heart-prompted book was once found by a reader whose own heart responded to it; and he (or she) recorded that response with a pen; and that record, many years later, gave direction and comfort to a friendless and miserable girl in a small English town.

This idea of books and their readers as friends and teachers, as a silent fellowship extending across time and space, is a very dear one to me. Like Francis Spufford, I was a child that books built; in a childhood with its own deep unhappiness, books were my best companions and almost my only real teachers. And at a moment when our educational system is in such disarray, when it so often does ill rather than good to its students, it’s important to remember that these resources are available – and available in radically more extensive forms than Maggie Tulliver could have dreamed possible. The world of print, publication, and distribution holds together an ecology of reading, a vast circulatory system by which mind speaks to distant mind, and heart to distant heart.  

That old copy of The Imitation of Christ and the invisible teacher within it guide Maggie through a great crisis in her life. Through them she learns the discipline of self-renunciation, and while she later comes to question – is forced by a man who loves her to question – whether self-renunciation is indeed her call, there is no question that what she learned from that book truly saves her in that crisis. And she never wholly forgets what she learned in that season of life, through the book’s text and through the patient directions of the quiet hand.

The lessons of the old monk and the invisible teacher might have been valuable to her much later in life, had she been granted a long life. But that is a longer and a darker story, one that I will take up elsewhere.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie comes out fighting for freedom of speech:

We are all familiar with stories of people who have said or written something and then, faced a terrible online backlash. There is a difference between valid criticism, which should be part of free expression, and this kind of backlash, ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs.

To anyone who thinks, “Well, some people who have said terrible things, deserve it,” no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism. It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is. Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity. […] 

Literature deeply matters and I believe literature is in peril because of social censure. If nothing changes, the next generation will read us and wonder, how did they manage to stop being human? How were they so lacking in contradiction and complexity? How did they banish all their shadows?


FYI, Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea tells you what happens when you banish your shadow. 


Recently I had cause to remember Gary Saul Morson’s devastating critique of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of Russian literature. (When you’re done with Morson’s critique you might want to go on to Janet Malcolm’s.) I decided that I need to read War and Peace again — I used to teach it occasionally, but I haven’t read it in maybe twenty years — and I picked up the beautiful Knopf hardcover of the P&V translation that someone gave me years ago. 

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In the second chapter we’re introduced to Princess Bolkonskaya, Prince Andrei’s young wife. Here’s that introduction in the old Louise and Alymer Maude translation

The young Princess Bolkónskaya had brought some work in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, on which a delicate dark down was just perceptible, was too short for her teeth, but it lifted all the more sweetly, and was especially charming when she occasionally drew it down to meet the lower lip. As is always the case with a thoroughly attractive woman, her defect — the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth — seemed to be her own special and peculiar form of beauty.

Here’s Ann Dunnigan’s translation

The young Princess Bolkonskaya had brought her needlework in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, shadowed with a barely perceptible down, was too short for her teeth and, charming as it was when lifted, it was even more charming when drawn down to meet her lower lip. As always with extremely attractive women, her defect — the shortness of her upper lip and her half-open mouth — seemed to be her own distinctive kind of beauty. 

And here is the P&V version: 

The young princess Bolkonsky came with handwork in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty upper lip with its barely visible black mustache was too short for her teeth, but the more sweetly did it open and still more sweetly did it sometimes stretch and close on the lower one. As happens with perfectly attractive women, her flaw — a short lip and half-opened mouth — seemed her special, personal beauty. 

Her black mustache? The down on a woman’s upper lip is very much not a mustache. What a bizarre word-choice. Horrified, I set the book down, lovely as it is to look at, and went back to the Dunnigan translation, the friend of my youth. 

But all that said: It’s remarkable, if inexplicable, how the P&V translations of Russian fiction have brought those wonderful books into the hands of many readers who otherwise might never have read them. So thanks be for that. 

being Russian

A. N. Wilson, from his biography of Tolstoy (1988): 

Being Russian, unless you are preternaturally stupid or wicked, produces violent inner tensions and conflicts, reflected in nearly all the great imaginative geniuses to emerge from Russia in the last two centuries. On the one hand, you know that you have been born into a “God-bearing” nation, whose destiny is to keep burning the flame of truth while the other nations languish in decadence. (The truth may be Orthodox Christianity or the creeds of Marxist-Leninism, but the feeling is the same.) You know that the Russians are best at everything from poetry to gymnastics, and that they invented everything: ballet, bicycles, the internal combustion engine. You know that Russia has more soul than any other country — that its birch avenues, its snows, its ice, its summers are all the more glorious than the manifestations of nature in more benighted countries. There is only one drawback, which is that it is completely horrible to live there.

How can it be that the country chosen by God, or by the destiny which moves nations, or by the unseen inevitability of dialectical materialism, should have produced, in each succeeding generation, a political system which made life hell for the majority of inhabitants and which, every so often, threw up tyrants of truly horrifying stature? These are questions which have haunted in particular those few Russians who have ever been in Tolstoy’s fortunate position of being able to choose whether to stay in Russia or to take the money and run. Today, we read precisely similar tensions in the utterances and writings of Soviet dissidents, and in particular Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose hatred of his country’s Government seems almost equally balanced by a fervent patriotism, a tragic knowledge that a Russian can only be himself when he is on his native soil.

My friend Chad Holley — lawyer, teacher, writer — describing a bold pedagogical decision:

If it was sage to leave well enough alone, I slipped up last month adding Solzhenitsyn’s lecture to the syllabus of a Law and Literature course I’m teaching at a local law school. Surely now I needed some intelligible comment on it, some ready defense. At least one faculty member, after all, had pushed back against the course on grounds of, well, frivolity. Fortunately, the dean who hired me had a delightfully simple view: the course would make students better people, and better people would make better lawyers. It carried the day, who am I to quibble? But for the Solzhenitsyn piece I was on my own. In the end I muttered to myself something about it offering an aesthetic that relates literature to morality, politics, and even the global order without succumbing to the instrumentalism of the savage. Eh. Close enough for adjunct work.

But did I say I added the piece to the syllabus? Friend, I began the course with it. We introduced ourselves, shared reasons for being here, covered some ground rules. Then I said, as distracted as I sounded, “Allll righty …so …” I had not anticipated just how much respect, how much admiration, I would feel for this small, diverse, self-selected group. They had read War and Peace “twice, but in Spanish,” their families had fled Armenia to escape Stalin, they were raising children, running businesses, staffing offices, nearly every one of them holding down a full-time day job while attending law school in the evenings, on the weekends. Had I really required these serious, ass-busting, tuition-remitting people to read an essay suggesting — I could barely bring myself to mouth it — beauty will save the world? What was I going to say for this in the face of their withering skepticism, their yawn of silence? 

Read on to find out. 


My friend Adam Roberts has written extensively about this book, but because I knew I wanted to read it, I have avoided reading Adam’s account. I’ll now go back to see what he says, which may make me repent of everything I say here. But there’s value in just getting your thoughts down without too much editing. Also: many spoilers ahead. 

H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay is a powerful but oddly constructed novel. It’s a bit difficult to describe that structure but here are what I believe to be the key elements:

1) It is most famously a story about commerce, and especially commerce based in advertising. Tono-Bungay is a patent medicine that does no one any good and might do them a little bit of harm – though its inventor, Edward Ponderevo, thinks that it might have positive psychological benefits that would justify his selling it. (Placebo effect, etc.) So the part of the novel most often commented on, what many critics would describe as the story, is about how Tono-Bungay is manufactured, advertised, and distributed throughout the United Kingdom. The business is, of course, a house of cards that is bound to collapse and eventually does.

2) But this is also a story about a man who is repeatedly thwarted in love. George Ponderevo, the narrator and protagonist, has a failed marriage, some casual affairs, and an unrequited or at least unfulfilled love for a woman – named, ironically enough, Beatrice – whom he meets when they are children and whom he definitively loses when they are middle-aged. One of the first important scenes in the book concerns his initial infatuation with Beatrice and – except for a coda which I will describe later – the book concludes with his final sight of her. (Because they are mismatched socially, the whole situation is quite like that of like Pip and Estella, with the unhappy rather than the happy ending.) Because his love for Beatrice is so prominent at the beginning and at the end of the novel, and because the middle of the novel is so occupied by his failed marriage to a woman named Marion, if I had to say whether this book is a story about commerce in advertising or a story about failed love, I would choose the latter.

3) The third element of the story is a contrast between the fixed character of social life in the world of English countryside and its small towns — a world controlled by a declining and ossifying aristocracy — and the immense energy and mobility of life in London. After early chapters establishing the rigidity of life on a country estate where George’s mother is the housekeeper, and in a sleepy small town dominated by another aristocratic family, the scene moves to London. We’re then treated to an extended panoramic celebration of the city narrated by the awestruck young George. “I got London at last with an exceptional freshness of effect, as the sudden revelation of a whole unsuspected other side to life.” More:

I came to it on a dull and smoky day by the South Eastern Railway, and our train was half an hour late, stopping and going on and stopping again. I marked beyond Chiselhurst the growing multitude of villas, and so came stage by stage through multiplying houses and diminishing interspaces of market garden and dingy grass to regions of interlacing railway lines, big factories, gasometers and wide reeking swamps of dingy little homes, more of them and more and more. The number of these and their dinginess and poverty increased, and here rose a great public house and here a Board School and there a gaunt factory; and away to the east there loomed for a time a queer, incongruous forest of masts and spars. The congestion of houses intensified and piled up presently into tenements; I marveled more and more at this boundless world of dingy people; whiffs of industrial smell, of leather, of brewing, drifted into the carriage; the sky darkened, I rumbled thunderously over bridges, van-crowded streets, peered down on and crossed the Thames with an abrupt eclat of sound. I got an effect of tall warehouses, of grey water, barge crowded, of broad banks of indescribable mud, and then I was in Cannon Street Station — a monstrous dirty cavern with trains packed across its vast floor and more porters standing along the platform than I had ever been in my life before. I alighted with my portmanteau and struggled along, realising for the first time just how small and weak I could still upon occasion feel. In this world, I felt, an Honours medal in Electricity and magnetism counted for nothing at all.

Afterwards I drove in a cab down a canyon of rushing street between high warehouses, and peeped up astonished at the blackened greys of Saint Paul’s. The traffic of Cheapside — it was mostly in horse omnibuses in those days — seemed stupendous, its roar was stupendous; I wondered where the money came from to employ so many cabs, what industry could support the endless jostling stream of silk-hatted, frock-coated, hurrying men.

This contrast between country and city is really key to everything else: surely Tono-Bungay is one of the great London novels. When Edward Ponderevo, George’s uncle, lives in a small town, trying to eke out a living as a chemist, he continually complains about the impossibility of making anything happen in such a catatonic place, and only when he is forced by bankruptcy to move to London and take up a menial job does he actually have the opportunity to create Tono-Bungay – and more important, to create a market for Tono-Bungay. It is the concentration of people in London that enables his creation to go viral. London, the viral city, in multiple ways.

London also puts people in touch with one another who in the countryside or in small towns would either not meet at all or meet only in constrained circumstances. George marries Marion, whom he has little in common with – something he comes to understand even before their marriage – but it’s only because they both live in London that they ever encounter one another. They have certain trivial habits or quasi-interests in common; everything between them arose from a chance encounter of strangers, the kind that almost never happens in the countryside but happens a dozen times a day in London. Their marriage ends because George has an affair with a young woman who works as a typist for his company – again, a connection that only the energy, congestion, and economic drive of the city makes possible.

It is noteworthy that George’s failed relationship with Beatrice happens almost wholly in the countryside, while his failed marriage to Marion happens in the city. His love for Beatrice is doomed by a world that’s too inflexible; his attachment to Marion – which he sees as a “hunger,” not as genuine romantic love – is produced by a world that’s too unbounded.

So one of the things that Wells wants to talk about here is London as a kind of universal solvent, a force powerful enough to disintegrate the long-established social structures of British life, and while we know where Wells’s sympathies lie – he despises the old division of social classes – nevertheless he is quite aware that a universal solvent will occasionally end up dissolving things that shouldn’t be dissolved.

At the end of the book, we get an epilogue in which we’re treated to another vista of London, this time as it appears from the Thames:

To run down the Thames so is to run one’s hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end. One begins in Craven Reach and it is as if one were in the heart of old England. Behind us are Kew and Hampton Court with their memories of Kings and Cardinals, and one runs at first between Fulham’s episcopal garden parties and Hurlingham’s playground for the sporting instinct of our race. The whole effect is English. There is space, there are old trees and all the best qualities of the home-land in that upper reach. Putney, too, looks Anglican on a dwindling scale. And then for a stretch the newer developments slop over, one misses Bladesover [the country house in which the book begins] and there come first squalid stretches of mean homes right and left and then the dingy industrialism of the south side, and on the north bank the polite long front of nice houses, artistic, literary, administrative people’s residences, that stretches from Cheyne Walk nearly to Westminster and hides a wilderness of slums. What a long slow crescendo that is, mile after mile, with the houses crowding closelier, the multiplying succession of church towers, the architectural moments, the successive bridges, until you come out into the second movement of the piece with Lambeth’s old palace under your quarter and the houses of Parliament on your bow! Westminster Bridge is ahead of you then, and through it you flash, and in a moment the round-faced clock tower cranes up to peer at you again and New Scotland Yard squares at you, a fat beef-eater of a policeman disguised miraculously as a Bastille.

We are moving through time: from the ancient English countryside to the city whose function was, for a long time, to consolidate the power of the rural elite, and now into modernity:

And then the traditional and ostensible England falls from you altogether. The third movement begins, the last great movement in the London symphony, in which the trim scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up. Comes London Bridge, and the great warehouses tower up about you, waving stupendous cranes, the gulls circle and scream in your ears, large ships lie among their lighters, and one is in the port of the world. Again and again in this book I have written of England as a feudal scheme overtaken by fatty degeneration and stupendous accidents of hypertrophy.

Somehow we have moved, in the course of one novel and about forty years, from social sclerosis to “fatty degeneration.” Varieties of poor health: one world in which, as Edward Ponderevo always said, “nothing happens,” and another in which too much is happening; atrophy and hypertrophy. “Amidst it all no plan appears, no intention, no comprehensive desire. That is the very key of it all. Each day one feels that the pressure of commerce and traffic grew, grew insensibly monstrous, and first this man made a wharf and that erected a crane, and then this company set to work and then that, and so they jostled together to make this unassimilable enormity of traffic.”

And from there out into the Sea – the strongest possible contrast. “The river passes — London passes, England passes…”

Wells tries at the end of the story to make an accounting of What It All Means, but I will set that aside. I think what he narrates tells a rather different story than what he means to tell, though in a way he knows that there is a key “symbol,” as he calls it, here. George Ponderevo is making this final passage through London on a warship, a “destroyer” that he has built. It’s worth noting that he had begun his career as an engineer in the immediate aftermath of his divorce from Marion; and has returned to it after his final goodbye to Beatrice. A classic case of sublimation: “Eros, builder of cities” – but in this case Eros, builder of warships. At this point George has seen the loss of some he loves and the deaths of others; indeed, he himself is a murderer; and after the failure of all his loves he motors down the Thames and through the great city of London as an avatar of Thanatos. And that, I think, is what this powerful and sad book is all about: not the manic energies of Commerce but rather the end of Eros and the triumph of Thanatos.


When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (later to be known as Lewis Carroll) was a child, his father was the rector of the Church of St. Peter, Croft-on-Tees, North Yorkshire, so young Charles created The Rectory Magazine — a sample of which you see above. 

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I wish there were a larger version of this response by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to an autobiographical questionnaire. The eye is drawn to his joking response to “If not yourself, who would you be?” — but I like his answers to “What characters in history do you most dislike?” (“Very tolerant to them all”) and to “What is your present state of mind?” (“Jaded.”) 

Chris Townsend:

Let’s face it: we largely privilege Shakespeare more than other writers today because it’s always been that way.

Or perhaps because his writing is so brilliant that it deserves the attention and devotion given to it. In fact, it hasn’t “always been that way” — it took a century or more for Shakespeare to be perceived as significantly superior to his contemporaries — but maybe it’s that way now for reasons other than the power of crowd behavior. That people gradually realized the greatness of Shakespeare because Shakespeare is indeed great ought to be one of the options on the table, and it’s slightly comical how terrified scholars are of entertaining that possibility.

Sidney was right

Sir Philip Sidney:

I conclude, therefore, that [the poet] excels history, not only in furnishing the mind with knowledge, but in setting it forward to that which deserves to be called and accounted good; which setting forward, and moving to well-doing, indeed sets the laurel crown upon the poet as victorious, not only of the historian, but over the philosopher, howsoever in teaching it may be questionable. For suppose it be granted — that which I suppose with great reason may be denied — that the philosopher, in respect of his methodical proceeding, teach more perfectly than the poet, yet do I think that no man is so much Philophilosophos as to compare the philosopher in moving with the poet. And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching; for who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? And what so much good doth that teaching bring forth — I speak still of moral doctrine — as that it moves one to do that which it doth teach? For, as Aristotle says, it is not Gnosis but Praxis must be the fruit; and how Praxis cannot be, without being moved to practice, it is no hard matter to consider. The philosopher shows you the way, he informs you of the particularities, as well of the tediousness of the way, as of the pleasant lodging you shall have when your journey is ended, as of the many by-turnings that may divert you from your way; but this is to no man but to him that will read him, and read him with attentive, studious painfulness; which constant desire whosoever has in him, has already passed half the hardness of the way, and therefore is beholding to the philosopher but for the other half. Nay, truly, learned men have learnedly thought, that where once reason has so much overmastered passion as that the mind has a free desire to do well, the inward light each mind has in itself is as good as a philosopher’s book; since in nature we know it is well to do well, and what is well and what is evil, although not in the words of art which philosophers bestow upon us; for out of natural conceit the philosophers drew it. But to be moved to do that which we know, or to be moved with desire to know, hoc opus, hic labor est


Adam Roberts:

Representation in the sense of ‘how texts figure and inscribe the world and its concerns’ overlaps with another sense of the word: representation in the sense of not occluding or effacing the variety of groups and peoples that actually make up the world….

Here’s an example of what I mean. There are no churches or temples in Middle Earth; no priests or popes among the population. This is not because Lord of the Rings is an irreligious book. On the contrary, as Tolkien said (in a letter to his friend, the Jesuit priest, Robert Murray): ‘the Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.’

We could put it this way: LotR is not a mimetic novel — there is no actual Middle Earth which it aims, accurately, to reproduce. It is a metaphorical novel: a novel about Christian revelation, about power and temptation, about resilience, hope and love.

So here’s the question: would it enhance the way LotR expresses its religious meanings to add temples, priests and congregations to its storytelling and worldbuilding? Or would it (as Tolkien believed) dilute and undermine it? 

It seems clear to me that Tolkien’s choice was, in the long run, a wise one — even though it was risky in the sense that millions of readers did not and do not perceive the “fundamentally religious and Catholic nature” of the book. But then, a good many of those readers probably would not have been receptive to a more direct appeal to their spiritual sensibilities, which they may not have had or may have had only to a small degree. Insofar as Tolkien wants to commend his own understanding of the cosmos, he directs his writing to those who are if not open-minded at least open-hearted, willing to entertain at least in their imaginations a richer and deeper world than the everyday. To use George Macdonald’s terms, Tolkien is more interested in awaking a meaning than conveying one. 

But in the present moment, and in relation to present concerns — concerns that Adam turns to elsewhere in his post — any such indirection will probably be ineffective. For the Extremely Online Discourse Police, the sole purpose of language is to declare allegiances and repudiations, and you can’t do that effectively if you “tell the truth but tell it slant.” The good news is that this moment will not last, and (again) in the long run Dickinson is exactly right to say that “Success in Circuit lies.” 

“not living merely for himself”

In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Tom Bertram — the feckless, selfish, wayward elder son of Sir Thomas Bertram — becomes very ill. It starts with a fever, but even after the fever diminishes he lingers on in a bad state. “They were apprehensive for his lungs.” (I was teaching the book yesterday and asked my students, “What does that sound like?”)

Near the end of the book we learn that Tom’s recovery is a source of reassurance to his father in difficult times:

There was comfort also in Tom, who gradually regained his health, without regaining the thoughtlessness and selfishness of his previous habits. He was the better for ever for his illness. He had suffered, and he had learned to think: two advantages that he had never known before; and the self-reproach arising from [his earlier bad behavior] made an impression on his mind which, at the age of six-and-twenty, with no want of sense or good companions, was durable in its happy effects. He became what he ought to be: useful to his father, steady and quiet, and not living merely for himself.

That’s what we should most hope when we hear that a thoughtless, unreflective, self-centered person has contracted a serious illness: that he learns to think; that he experiences self-reproach; that he emerges from the illness steadier, quieter, and more useful to others. We should surely pray for such an outcome.

the most literary decade

Popular radio shows featured literary critics talking about recent poetry and fiction. The New Yorker’s book-review editor hosted one of the most popular radio shows in America, and his anthology, Reading I’ve Liked, ranked seventh on the bestseller list for nonfiction in 1941. At the Democratic Primary Convention in 1948, F. O. Matthiessen, a professor of American literature, delivered a nominating speech for Henry Wallace, the late FDR’s vice president. Writers were celebrities. Literature was popular. The 1940s was the most intensely literary decade in American history, perhaps in world history. Books symbolized freedom.

Posters of 1942 quoted the president: “Books cannot be killed by fire. People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know, books are weapons.” During the Blitz, Muriel Rukeyser recalled, “newspapers in America carried full-page advertisements for The Oxford Book of English Verse, announced as ‘all that is imperishable of England.’ ” For the first and only time in history, protecting books in war zones became an official aim of armed forces.

— George Hutchinson, Facing the Abyss: American Literature and Culture in the 1940s. Compare the argument I made in my essay “The Watchmen.”

the greatest of the Wedgwoods

National Portrait Gallery

Cicely Veronica Wedgwood (1910–1997) was the most distinguished of the Wedgwoods — with the possible exception of her great-great-great grandfather Josiah. In the estimation of Anthony Grafton — himself one of the most distinguished historians of our time — she is “the greatest narrative historian of the twentieth century.” And that counts for a lot, in my book.

By the adjective “narrative” Grafton means to distinguish Wedgwood’s way of writing history from what has become the standard academic one, which is less concerned with telling a story than providing an analytical and often data-driven framework for understanding historical events and patterns. That model has become sufficiently dominant that most of us these days think of the writing of history as something very different than the writing of “literature,” but ’twas not always so. When Gibbon wrote his great Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he was understood to be just as literary as Alexander Pope or Henry Fielding (probably more so than Fielding). In the next century Lord Macaulay’s History of England was every bit as literary as his Lays of Ancient Rome. George Steiner, writing decades ago, understood that Wedgwood was working in this tradition, and celebrates it even as he denounces what has replaced it:

The ambitions of scientific rigour and prophecy have seduced much historical writing from its veritable nature, which is art. Much of what passes for history at present is scarcely literate…. The illusion of science and the fashions of the academic tend to transform the young historian into a ferret gnawing at the minute fact or figure. He dwells in footnotes and writes monographs in as illiterate a style as possible to demonstrate the scientific bias of his craft. One of the few contemporary historians prepared to defend openly the poetic nature of all historical imagining is C. V. Wedgwood. She fully concedes that all style brings with it the possibility of distortion: ‘There is no literary style which may not at some point take away something from the ascertainable outline of truth, which it is the task of scholarship to excavate and re-establish.’ But where such excavation abandons style altogether, or harbours the illusion of impartial exactitude, it will light only on dust.

“The poetic nature of all historical imagining” — preach it, sir! But few historians today, even those rare birds who even make an effort to tell a good story, can hold a candle to Wedgwood. Peter Ackroyd, for instance, who has shifted from being primarily a novelist to being primarily a historian, presumably because of his skills at narration, is a mechanical plodder in comparison to Wedgwood. (And he’s getting worse. His ongoing history of England is coma-inducing.)

Wedgwood didn’t describe what she did as more literary or artful than the work of academic historians, even though, of course, it is. Here’s how she understood her work:

The application of modern methods of research, together with modern knowledge and prejudice, can make the past merely the subject of our own analytical ingenuity or our own illusions. With scholarly precision we can build up theories as to why and how things happened which are convincing to us, which may even be true, but which those who live through the epoch would neither recognize nor accept. It is legitimate for the historian to pierce the surface and bring to light to motives and influences not known at the time; but it is equally legitimate to accept the motives and explanations which satisfied contemporaries…. This book is not a defence of one side [in the English Civil War] or the other, not an economic analysis, not a social study; it is an attempt to understand how these men felt and why, in their own estimation, they acted as they did.

That from the Introduction to The King’s Peace, the first volume of her history of the fall of King Charles I. This interest in representing people and events by employing categories that they themselves would have recognized may be seen in this brilliant brief portrait of Charles:

He had never had the painful experience from which his father, as a young man, had learned so much; he had never confronted insolent opponents face-to-face and had the worst of the argument. No national danger had compelled him to go out among his people and share their perils. He was, at this time, not only the most formal but the most remote and sheltered of all European kings.

Less virtuous monarchs escaped from formality in the arms of lowborn mistresses, but for the chaste Charles, no Nell Gwynne, prattling cockney anecdotes, opened a window into the lives of his humbler subjects. Like many shy, meticulous men, he was fond of aphorisms, and would write in the margins of books, in a delicate, beautiful, deliberate script, such maxims as “Few great talkers are great doers” or “None but cowards are cruel.” He trusted more to such distilled and bottled essence of other man’s wisdom than to his own experience, which was, in truth, limited; his daily contact with the world was confined within the artificial circle of his Court and the hunting field. He was to say, much later, in tragic circumstances, that he knew as much law as any gentleman in England. It was true; but he had little conception of what the laws meant to those who lived under them.

That last sentence is simply devastating. (Whenever Wedgood pauses in her narrative for a character sketch of one of her actors, you are always in for something superb.)

Wedgwood pauses from time to time in The King’s Peace, especially in its early pages, to sketch not personalities but social orders and patterns and beliefs, including the experiences of those very people whom Charles never knew. Here’s a sample:

In the wilds of Lochaber from time to time a green man could be seen, one that had been killed between daylight and starlight and belonged neither to earth nor heaven. Some thought these apparitions were only the unhappy dead but others thought them one of the many forms taken by the devil. The strong forces of nature, with the advent of Christianity, had become confused with the devil, and after the lapse of centuries witchcraft had become indivisibly compact of pagan and Christian beliefs. The devil, in many forms, bestrode the islands from end to end. Sometimes he was “a proper gentleman with a laced band,” as when he came to Elizabeth Clarke at Chelmsford; at other times you might know him, as Rebecca Jones of St. Osyth did, by his great glaring eyes. He was cold and sensual and rather mean: he offered Priscilla Collit of Dunwich only ten shillings for her immortal soul; she gave it to him and off he went without paying. Respectably dressed in “brown clothes and a little black hat,” he spoke in friendly terms to Margaret Duchill of Alloa in Scotland; “Maggie, will you be my servant?” he asked, and when she agreed he told her to call him John and gave her five shillings and powers of life and death over her neighbours.

I could quote paragraph after paragraph, page after page, of this kind of thing. And her ability to immerse you in a battle, or a court scene, or a back-room political argument, is unexcelled. Moreover, all this is based (as Grafton notes) on exceptionally thorough archival research, sometimes in multiple languages. I am writing a book that attempts to convince people that the past can be, and should be, a living world to us. That case would be much easier to make if there were more historians like C. V. Wedgwood.

She should be remembered as one of the best storytellers writing in English in the twentieth century. And yet her major works — with the sole exception of the early but masterful history of the Thirty Years War — are out of print. That is a travesty.

Editors! Publishers! Let’s redress this injustice. If you need someone to edit and/or write an introduction to a new edition of Wedgwood’s work, just call on me. I am here for you.

And readers! You can of course start with The Thirty Years War, which is as good as advertised. But I prefer her work on English history. For those, AbeBooks is your friend. If you’re not sure you want to commit to one of the big books, her third volume on the English Civil War, A Coffin for King Charles, works perfectly well as an independent story and comes in at around 250 pages. It is absolutely riveting.

the late history of modernism

first outline of some ideas to be developed later

The long-standard account of literary modernism posits a kind of Heroic Age of High Modernism marked by a series of titanic masterpieces by writers of fiction — Joyce, Proust, Mann — and large bodies of revolutionary poetic work by Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Rilke, and so on. One might add to this the writers of smaller fictions who serve as a kind of bridge linking the poets and the epic chroniclers: Woolf, Kafka, and so on. The goal of these writers, again in the standard account, is to produce what Wallace Stevens called “supreme fictions”: comprehensive accounts of experience by which experience might be grasped. The unnamed singer in Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” might be seen as the model and aspiration of all the High Modernists.

In this account, the heroic age effectively concludes with the publication of Mann’s The Magic Mountain in 1924, or at the latest with the appearance of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse in 1927. Yes, there are a few stragglers: Yeats’s late poetry, Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Pound’s endlessly unfinished Cantos — perhaps Eliot’s Four Quartets, though those might better be seen as a repudiation of modernism than a fulfillment of it. But by the late 1920s the torch was being passed to a next generation, a passing that may be said to begin with the (private) publication of Auden’s first small book of poems in 1928, and may be said to end with he death of Samuel Beckett in 1989.

I’d like to argue that even if this standard narrative bears a lot of truth, something else happens that has not been widely noticed: the shifting of the ambitions of High Modernism into genres other than the novel, the epic, the lyric. Here are the last great High Modernist masterpieces and their genres:

  • Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941, historical travelogue)
  • Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur (1946, literary history)
  • David Jones, Anathemata (1952, fragmented collage)
  • Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955, memoir)
  • Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1971, literary/art criticism)

I really do think that The Pound Era is the last achievement of High Modernism, and not the least in that company. It’s a really great book. Kenner’s day job as an English professor misleads us: he should be thought of not (or not primarily) in the context of academic literary criticism, but rather as a writer, like the writers he writes about.

The way in which literary history and criticism can extend and develop modernism is suggested by Colin Burrow, in his introduction to a recent reissue of Ernst Robert Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages:

This particular book certainly is a world. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages belongs with Frank Kermode’s Sense of an Ending and Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis as one of the three most inspiring works of literary criticism written in the twentieth century. All three of these works demonstrate a kind of literary criticism that involves looking for the large patterns and histories behind a wide range of texts, and which requires the critic to work across large swathes of time and national boundaries. All three books also combine that breadth of vision with the philologist’s microscopic concern for detail.

As will be clear, I think Burrow ought to add The Pound Era to his list, but I like the list, and I like what he says about the particular kind of greatness those books embody. Those authors’ ambitions, and the skills that underwrite such ambitions, are closely related to those than enabled Ulysses, the Cantos, and the longer poems of Stevens. (The Sense of an Ending, as Kermode freely admits, is Stevens modulated into critical prose.)

But why did High Modernism end in 1971? why have there not been further pursuits of its distinctive ambitions? Kenner himself makes a fascinating suggestion, though it is only a suggestion, in his book The Mechanic Muse: “Technology alters our sense of what the mind does, what are its domains, how characterized and bounded.”

In this book he associates the work of some of the great modernists with particular technologies: Eliot with the telephone and its “disembodied voices,” Pound with the typewriter and its techniques of spacing, Joyce with the print shop (and especially, though not exclusively, that of the newspaper). “There’s a real connection, in short, between literary Modernism and what Richard Cork has called The Second Machine Age: the age, say 1880 to 1930, that saw machines come clanking out of remote drear places (Manchester, Birmingham) to storm the capitals and shape life there.”

Telephone Switchboard Operators in the Past  27

What the telephone, the typewriter, and the print shop in the early 20th century have in common, says Kenner, is that they are socially transformative but also transparent — you can watch them and see, at least generally, how they work.


What starts happening in the middle of the century, in the aftermath of Turing’s work on computable numbers and Claude Shannon’s contributions to information theory, is the disembodiment of information, its removal to an impenetrable, unobservable digitally-generated world. And Kenner sees this transformation encoded in the work of Beckett, for whose characters information, or what wants to be information, is increasingly detached from all material contexts, social and technological alike. Thus, says Kenner in an especially brilliant moment, you can take a sentence our of a Beckett novel and readily turn it into computer code, in this case Pascal:

IMG 3726

(In candor, Kenner admits that while this is “reasonably idiomatic Pascal, … if you’re fluent in the language you’ll have noticed that it doesn’t give the computer anything to do.” Which perhaps makes it even more Beckettesque.)

At the outset of the book, Kenner notes that

High Modernism did not outlast transparent technology. Beckett, its last master, already carries it into the intangible realm of information theory. And Beckett, it’s become commonplace to say, is a bridge to the so-called Post-Modern. That is: to our present world of enigmatic “text,” or foregrounded codes and redundancies, of microchips through which what moves may be less interesting than the process of moving it elegantly. All of that absorbs, in Silicon Valley and at MIT, intelligence of a rarified order. It’s another subject.

A subject Kenner does not take up in The Mechanic Muse, or indeed elsewhere. But what a prodigious suggestion! One might anticipate an argument going something like this:

In an especially beautiful poem, Richard Wilbur speaks of Creation as a manifold word in which we read ourselves: “What should we be without / The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return, // These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?” But what if this is true of our technologies as well? What if we require, in order to stimulate deep reflection, technologies that are transparent to us, or at least translucent? It is already widely understood that the opacity of our technological order has socio-political consequences — see, for instance, this reflection by James Bridle on “the wider, networked effects of individual and corporate actions accelerated by opaque, technologically augmented complexity” — but what if it has imaginative consequences as well, that is, what if it depletes imagination altogether? In that case, then what we write produce “may be less interesting” than the code that makes the transmission of our writing possible. In that case the next book for us to read will be Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime

But Kenner — a man shaped and formed by older tools but preternaturally attentive to newer ones — did not live to make that argument. And I am not inclined to make it myself, in large part because I have been instructed by David Edgerton that old technologies, old technological environments, do not simply go away when new ones arrive. But still, I might hazard a thesis like this: As people grow more fully immersed in opaque technologies, their work becomes progressively less interesting than the work of (a) those whose work remains responsive to transparent technologies and (b) those who created the opaque technologies. 

But the question remains: might it be for people to contract and order their technological environments in such a way that the ambitions of High Modernism might be living ones for them? I’m not sure. But this much I do know: If there are such people, few very, if any, of us know who they are.

CODA: In the very last of the hundreds and hundreds of letters, one thousand eight hundred pages of letters, gathered in this two-volume set, Hugh Kenner types to Guy Davenport: “Are you still non-tech, or have you by any chance an e-mail address by now?”

ancient feelings

Why doesn’t ancient fiction talk about feelings? “I’d often wondered,” says Julie Sedivy, “when reading older texts: Weren’t people back then interested in what characters thought and felt?” Let me put this as politely as I can: What the hell are you talking about?

If you read the Iliad you’d know how Achilles felt when Agamemnon took his “prize,” or how he felt when his beloved friend Patroclus was killed. If you read the Odyssey you’d know how Odysseus felt when his men were being eaten by Polyphemus, and how he felt when he fell, at last, into the arms of his beloved wife Penelope. If you read the Oresteia you’d know how Orestes felt when faced with the task of killing his mother. If you read Antigone you’d know how the title character felt when told she could not bury her brother. If you read the Aeneid you’d know how Aeneas felt when he saw his fellow Trojans painted on the walls of a palace in Carthage — sunt lacrimae rerum, there are tears for things, possibly the most famous line in ancient literature — and how Dido felt when she learned that Aeneas would leave her. If you read Beowulf you’d know how Beowulf felt when, after slaying a dragon, he lay dying, abandoned by all but one companion. If you read the Divine Comedy you’d know how Dante the pilgrim felt about everything, from getting lost in a selva oscura to disappointing his guide Vergil to meeting his old friend Casella the musician to being reunited with Beatrice.

I’m old as dirt and have seen people take many ridiculous positions in my time, but none more ridiculous than this.

Trollope and Brexit

Trollope’s Phineas Redux, like the other Palliser novels, has a domestic plot and a political plot, and the political plot here spins out from the decision by Mr. Daubeny, the Prime Minister, to come up with a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England. (Daubeny is a stand-in for Benjamin Disraeli, who never did anything quite like this. But we’ll set aside the real-life correspondences for this post.) This a curious, indeed a shocking, decision because Daubeny is a Conservative, and the Conservative Party in the Victorian era was very much the party of the Church. How could be betray the very heart of his constituency this way?

The answer is that in the recent election his party lost their majority, and in ordinary circumstances it would be incumbent on him to resign. So he creates extraordinary circumstances. His idea, it appears — we are not privileged to know his mind — is that most of his own party will stand with him as a matter of disciplinary obedience, while the many Liberals who have long wanted disestablishment will vote with him across party lines. Thus, on the basis of this single bill-to-come — he hasn’t produced it yet, only announced his plan to — Daubeny can remain in his place as P.M.

Some Liberals are willing to join Daubeny; some, following their leader Mr. Gresham (= Gladstone), are determined to oppose him; some are uncertain. Those uncertain ones want to see the Church disestablished — and, by the way, not necessarily because they dislike the Church: some of the most devoted churchmen in England have long wanted disestablishment in order to free the Church to preach and teach the Gospel without political interference — but they do not believe that Daubeny would do the job properly. They suspect that anyone capable of acting as cynically as Daubeny does cannot possibly carry through the process of disestablishment in a competent and appropriate way.

All of which puts me in mind of Brexit. As a strong proponent of subsidiarity, I am temperamentally disposed to welcome any effort at devolution. I’d love to see Britain freed from accountability to Brussels — and, for that matter, Scotland freed from accountability to England. (I’m even open to the restoration of the Republic of Texas — but that’s a story for another post.) I will always seek to move in the direction of localism and will always be suspicious of institutional cosmopolitanism. I am therefore supportive of Brexit in principle.

But a Brexit designed and managed by these people? I don’t think so. They are more cynical than Mr. Daubeny and less — far less — competent. It’s a feeling I often have with the Trump administration as well: even on those relatively rare occasions when I think they have a good policy in mind, I simply don’t believe that they can carry out that policy honestly, fairly, and successfully. In politics, principle is important; but good principles can produce political disasters when implemented by buffoons.

the gifts of the Owner of the World

To some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come. To others He gives the eagerness to rise when they hear the call; to rise with racing blood and put on their garbs of war and go to the boundary of their town to engage the invading enemy boldly in battle. And then there are those others whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story.

The sounding of the battle-drum is important; the fierce waging of the war itself is important; and the telling of the story afterwards—each is important in its own way. I tell you there is not one of them we could do without. But if you ask me which of them takes the eagle-feather I will say boldly: the story. Do you hear me? . . .

So why do I say the story is chief among his fellow? The same reason I think that our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters — Recalling-is-Greatest. Why? Because it is only the story that can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus-fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us. It is the thing that makes us different from cattle; it is the mark on the face that sets one people apart from their neighbours.

—an old man, in China Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah [1987]

Crowley, Pynchon, and the hippies

In The Solitudes, the first volume of John Crowley’s Aegypt series, the series’ protagonist Pierce Moffett reflects:

He had the idea that not many children had been conceived in the year of his own conception, most potential fathers being then off to war, only those with special disabilities (like Pierce’s own) being left to breed. He was too young to be a beatnik; later, he would find himself too old, and too strictly reared, to be a success as a hippie.

Pierce was born in 1942 — the same year as John Crowley himself, whom he does not in other obvious respects resemble — which means that he would have been a child when the beatniks emerged, but well into adulthood when the Era of the Hippie began. Pierce was therefore born between two possibilities of rebellion against bourgeois conventionality, possibilities at which he could look longingly but into which he could never fully enter.

Thomas Pynchon is five years older than the fictional Pierce Moffett and the nonfictional John Crowley, but in his introduction to Slow Learner, a collection of his early short stories, he describes precisely the same experience. When he returned to university (Cornell) after spending a couple of intermission years in the Navy, he found that he and his classmates “were at a transition point, a strange post-Beat passage of cultural time…. Unfortunately there were no more primary choices for us to make. We were onlookers: the parade had gone by and we were already getting everything secondhand, consumers of what the media of the time were supplying us.“ The Beats had faded, but their commodified leftovers could be picked up at the local five-and-dime — or, by proxy, on TV.

So “when the hippie resurgence came along ten years later,“ Pynchon’s primary feeling was one of “nostalgia”: nostalgia for something he never quite had, and at his age at the time (early 30s) could no longer grasp. He was again an onlooker.

For Tom Wolfe (born 1931) in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, observing the hippies’ world produced a mocking disgust; for Joan Didion (born 1934) in Slouching Towards Bethelehem something more like bemused contempt, leavened by occasional moments of gentle envy. But for Thomas Pynchon and Pierce Moffett and, I think, John Crowley the feeling is more wonderment at a vast world of possibility — possibility for the hippies, but not, alas for those condemned by their age to watch the marvelous parade from the sidelines.

Many readers of both Crowley and Pynchon find their obvious affection for the Sixties hard to swallow, but that’s because we know how it all turned out. The utopian or millenarian hopes of the era — the belief that the Age of Aquarius was being ushered in (Pierce, a historian, keeps telling people that they’re a few hundred years off, though he may be wrong about that) — seem comical in retrospect. Bell-bottom jeans, tie-dyed t-shirts, Wavy Gravy, bathetically pseudo-visionary art by Peter Max…. And whatever elements of it tapped into something genuinely powerful — well, there were people who knew how to commodify that and to do so more thoroughly than those hidden persuaders of the Fifties could have dreamed of. (A point to which I shall return.)

But those bedazzled onlookers like Pynchon and Crowley didn’t know that at the time. It could have worked out differently … could it not?

The great theme of Crowley’s Aegypt is: “There is more than one history of the world.” The past, as well as the future, is a garden of forking paths. Here’s how Pierce explains that theme, about which he hopes to write:

“It’s as though,” he said, “as though there had once upon a time been a wholly different world, which worked in a way we can’t imagine; a complete world, with all its own histories, physical laws, sciences to describe it, etymologies, correspondences. And then came a big change in all of them, a big change, bound up with printing, and the discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler, and the Cartesian and Baconian ideals of mechanistic and experimental science. The new sciences were hugely successful; bit by bit they scrubbed away all the persisting structures of the old science; they even scrubbed away the actually very strange and magical way the world appeared to men like Kepler and Newton and Bruno. The whole old world we once inhabited is like a dream, a dream we forgot on waking, even though, as dreams do, it lingered on into all-awake thinking; and even now it lingers on, all around our world, in our thought, so that every day in little ways, little odd ways, we think like prescientific men, magicians, Pythagoreans, Rosicrucians, without knowing we do so.”

And the emergence of those new sciences changed not only the future — the future they would bequeath to us — but what preceded them. The world of the magicians and astrologers and mystics, of John Dee and Giordano Bruno and Paracelsus and all the disciples of thrice-great Hermes and the wisdom he learned from ancient Aegypt, not only disappeared but became retroactively false. Until the Cartesian moment magic worked and always had; after the Cartesian moment magic didn’t work and never had. The paths fork both ahead and behind.

But if the world can be changed in such a way that the validity of magic is erased from its past as well as its future, might it not possibly change again? Might not the 1960s and 1970s have been another decisive moment, another fork in the path, the initiation of a true novus ordo seclorum?

Ultima Cumaei venit iam carminis aetas;
magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo:
iam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
iam nova progenies caelo demittitur alto.

These are the possibilities of that moment as discerned by Crowley and Pynchon, and because they discerned those possibilities then they have remained ever since deeply attracted to the ideals of that era. Had the hippies won, our histories of thought would feature John Dee where they now feature Francis Bacon, and Giordano Bruno where they now feature Descartes; and who knows what the shape of our social order might be?

But the hippies didn’t win. What won instead is the Californian ideology. And if you want to picture the moment when the victory of something genuinely “spiritual” and non-commodified and non-panoptic became impossible, when the fusion of fake spirituality with commerce and governmental control ascended its throne, here you go:

Bruce Chatwin at Sotheby’s

For me, his great gift – on the page and in person – was visual generosity. He made you see different things and look at things differently. It was not works of art in galleries that interested him so much as objects, particularly those from which a story could be extracted. On the wall of his attic room in Albany, the apartment block in Piccadilly, was the king of Hawaii’s bedsheet: apricot-coloured, patterned with a shoal of jumping fish, looking like a Matisse. Chatwin had turned up at Christie’s on his bike to buy it in the 1960s. In the small Eaton Place flat designed by John Pawson – pleated like origami to hide his books – he hung pictures he had made by cutting coloured drawings from the catalogue of a broom manufacturer: rows of pinky-red-and-white toothbrushes, elegant and comic. In all his houses, he kept a prayer inscribed in Latin by the artist-poet David Jones: “May the blessed Archangel Michael defend us in battle lest we perish in the terrible judgment.” When he fell ill he took it with him in and out of hospitals.

Susannah Clapp