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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

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