On Being Set Free

Commuting days until retirement: 133

The underlying theme of this blog is retirement, and it will be fairly obvious to most of my readers by now – perhaps indeed to all three of you – that I’m looking forward to it. It draws closer; I can almost hear the ‘Happy retirement’ wishes from colleagues – some expressed perhaps through ever-so-slightly gritted teeth as they look forward to many more years in harness, while I am put out to graze. But of course there’s another side to that: they will also be keeping silent about the thought that being put out to graze also carries with it the not too distant prospect of the knacker’s yard – something they rarely think about in relation to themselves.

Because in fact the people I work with are generally a lot younger than I am – in a few cases younger than my children. No one in my part of the business has ever actually retired, as opposed to leaving for another job. My feeling is that to stand up and announce that I am going to retire will be to introduce something alien and faintly distasteful into the prevailing culture, like telling everyone about your arthritis at a 21st birthday party.

The revolving telescope

For most of my colleagues, retirement,  like death, is something that happens to other people. In my experience, it’s around the mid to late 20s that such matters first impinge on the consciousness – indistinct and out of focus at first, something on the edge of the visual field. It’s no coincidence, I think, that it’s around that same time that one’s perspective on life reverses, and the general sense that you’d like to be older and more in command of things starts to give way to an awareness of vanishing youth. The natural desire for what is out of reach reorientates its outlook, swinging through 180 degrees like a telescope on a revolving stand.

But I find that, having reached the sort of age I am now, it’s doesn’t do to turn your back on what approaches. It’s now sufficiently close that it is the principal factor defining the shape of the space you now have available in which to organise your life,  and you do much better not to pretend it isn’t there, but to be realistically aware. We have all known those who nevertheless keep their backs resolutely turned, and they often cut somewhat pathetic figures: a particular example I remember was a man (who would almost certainly be dead by now) who didn’t seem to accept his failing prowess at tennis as an inevitable corollary of age, but rather a series of inexplicable failures that he should blame himself for. And there are all those celebrities you see with skin stretched ever tighter over their facial bones as they bring in the friendly figure of the plastic surgeon to obscure the view of where they are headed.

Perhaps Ray Kurzweil, who featured in my previous post, is another example, with his 250 supplement tablets each day and his faith in the abilities of technology to provide him with some sort of synthetic afterlife.  Given that he has achieved a generous measure of success in his natural life, he perhaps has less need than most of us to seek a further one; but maybe it works the other way, and a well-upholstered ego is more likely to feel a continued existence as its right.

Enjoying the view

Old and Happy

Happiness is not the preserve of the young (Wikimedia Commons)

But the fact is that for most of us the impending curtailment of our time on earth brings a surprising sense of freedom. With nothing left to strive for – no anxiety about whether this or that ambition will be realised – some sort of summit is achieved. The effort is over,  and we can relax and enjoy the view. More than one survey has found that people in their seventies are nowadays collectively happier than any other age group: here are reports of three separate studies between 2011 and 2014, in Psychology Today, The Connexion, and the Daily Mail. Those adverts for pension providers and so on, showing apparently radiant wrinkly couples feeding the ducks with their grandchildren, aren’t quite as wide of the mark as you might think.

Speaking for myself, I’ve never been excessively troubled by feelings of ambition, and have probably enjoyed a relatively stress-free, if perhaps less prosperous, life as a result. And the prospect of an existence where I am no longer even expected to show such aspirations is part of the attraction of retirement. But of course there remain those for whom the fact of extinction gives rise to wholly negative feelings, but who are at the same time brave enough to face it fair and square, without any psychological or cosmetic props. A prime example in recent literature is Philip Larkin, who seems to make frequent appearances in this blog. While famously afraid of death, he wrote luminously about it. Here, in his poem The Old Fools he evokes images of the extreme old age which he never, in fact, reached himself:

Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin (Fay Godwin)

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening.

Dream and reality seem to fuse at this ultimate extremity of conscious experience as Larkin portrays it; and it’s the snuffing out of consciousness that a certain instinct in us finds difficult to take – indeed, to believe in. Larkin, by nature a pessimist, certainly believed in it,  and dreaded it. But cultural traditions of many kinds have not accepted extinction as inevitable: we are not obliviously functioning machines but the subjects of experiences like the ones Larkin writes about. As such we have immortal souls which transcend the gross physical world, it has been held – so why should we not survive death? (Indeed, according some creeds, why should we not have existed before birth?)

Timid hopes

Well, whatever immortal souls might be, I find it difficult to make out a case for individual survival, and this is perhaps the majority view in the secular culture I inhabit. It seems pretty clear to me that my own distinguishing characteristics are indissolubly linked to my physical body: damage to the brain, we know, can can change the personality, and perhaps rob us of our memories and past experience, which most quintessentially define us as individuals. But even though our consciousness can be temporarily wiped out by sleep or anaesthetics, there remains the sense (for me, anyway) that since we have no notion whatever of how we could provide an account of it in physical terms,  there is the faint suggestion that some aspect of our experience could be independent of our bodily existence.

You may or may not accept both of these beliefs – the temporality of the individual and the transcendence of consciousness. But if you do,  then the possibility seems to arise of some kind of disembodied,  collective sentience,  beyond our normal existence. And this train of thought always reminds me of the writer Arthur Koestler, who died by suicide in 1983 at the age of 77. An outspoken advocate of voluntary euthanasia, he’d been suffering in later life from Parkinson’s disease, and had then contracted a progressive, incurable form of leukaemia. His suicide note (which turned out to have been written several months before his death) included the following passage:

I wish my friends to know that I am leaving their company in a peaceful frame of mind, with some timid hopes for a de-personalised after-life beyond due confines of space, time and matter and beyond the limits of our comprehension. This ‘oceanic feeling’ has often sustained me at difficult moments, and does so now, while I am writing this.

Death sentence

In fact Koestler had, since he was quite young, been more closely acquainted with death than most of us. Born in Hungary, during his earlier career as a journalist and political writer he twice visited Spain during its civil war in the 1930s. He made his first visit as an undercover investigator of the Fascist movement, being himself at that time an enthusiastic supporter of communism. A little later he returned to report from the Republican side,  but was in Malaga when it was captured by Fascist troops. By now Franco had come to know of his anti-fascist writing, and he was imprisoned in Seville under sentence of death.

Koestler portrayed on the cover of the book

Koestler portrayed on the cover of the book

In his account of this experience, Dialogue with Death, he describes how prisoners would try to block their ears to avoid the nightly sound of a telephone call to the prison, when a list of prisoner names would be dictated and the men later led out and shot. His book is illuminating on the psychology of these conditions,  and the violent emotional ups and downs he experienced:

One of my magic remedies was a certain quotation from a certain work of Thomas Mann’s; its efficacy never failed. Sometimes, during an attack of fear, I repeated the same verse thirty or forty times, for almost an hour, until a mild state of trance came on and the attack passed. I knew it was the method of the prayer-mill, of the African tom-tom, of the age-old magic of sounds. Yet in spite of my knowing it, it worked…
I had found out that the human spirit is able to call upon certain aids of which, in normal circumstances, it has no knowledge, and the existence of which it only discovers in itself in abnormal circumstances. They act, according to the particular case, either as merciful narcotics or ecstatic stimulants. The technique which I developed under the pressure of the death-sentence consisted in the skilful exploitation of these aids. I knew, by the way, that at the decisive moment when I should have to face the wall, these mental devices would act automatically, without any conscious effort on my part. Thus I had actually no fear of the moment of execution; I only feared the fear which would precede that moment.

That there are emotional ‘ups’ at all seems surprising,  but later he expands on one of them:

Often when I wake at night I am homesick for my cell in the death-house in Seville and, strangely enough, I feel that I have never been so free as I was then. This is a very strange feeling indeed. We lived an unusual life on that patio; the constant nearness of death weighed down and at the same time lightened our existence. Most of us were not afraid of death, only of the act of dying; and there were times when we overcame even this fear. At such moments we were free – men without shadows, dismissed from the ranks of the mortal; it was the most complete experience of freedom that can be granted a man.

Perhaps, in a diluted, much less intense form, the happiness of the over 70s revealed by the surveys I mentioned has something in common with this.

Koestler was possibly the only writer of the front rank ever to be held under sentence of death, and the experience informed his novel Darkness at Noon. It is the second in a trilogy of politically themed novels, and its protagonist, Rubashov, has been imprisoned by the authorities of an unnamed totalitarian state which appears to be a very thinly disguised portrayal of Stalinist Russia. Rubashov has been one of the first generation of revolutionaries in a movement which has hardened into an authoritarian despotism, and its leader, referred to only as ‘Number One’ is apparently eliminating rivals.  Worn down by the interrogation conducted by a younger, hard-line apparatchik, Rubashov comes to accept that he has somehow criminally acted against ‘the revolution’, and eventually goes meekly to his execution.

Shades of Orwell

By the time of writing the novel, Koestler, like so many intellectuals of that era, had made the journey from an initial enthusiasm for Soviet communism to disillusion with,  and opposition to it. And reading Darkness at Noon, I was of course constantly reminded of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the capitulation of Winston Smith as he comes to love Big Brother. Darkness at Noon predates 1984 by nine years,  and nowadays has been somewhat eclipsed by Orwell’s much more well known novel. The two authors had met briefly during the Spanish civil war, where Orwell was actively involved in fighting against fascism, and met again and discussed politics around the end of the war. It seems clear that Orwell, having written his own satire on the Russian revolution in Animal Farm, eventually wrote 1984 under the conscious influence of Koestler’s novel. But they are of course very different characters: you get the feeling that to Orwell, with his both-feet-on-the-ground Englishness, Koestler might have seemed a rather flighty and exotic creature.

Orwell (aka Eric Blair) from the photo on his press pass (NUJ/Wikimedia Commons)

Orwell (aka Eric Blair) from the photo on his press pass (Wikimedia Commons)

In fact,  during the period between the publications of Darkness at Noon and 1984, Orwell wrote an essay on Arthur Koestler – probably while he was still at work on Animal Farm. His view of Koestler’s output is mixed: on one hand he admires Koestler as a prime example of the continental writers on politics whose views have been forged by hard experience in this era of political oppression – as opposed to English commentators who merely strike attitudes towards the turmoil in Europe and the East, while viewing it from a relatively safe distance. Darkness at Noon he regards as a ‘masterpiece’ – its common ground with 1984 is not, it seems, a coincidence. (Orwell’s review of Darkness at Noon in the New Statesman is also available.)

On the other hand he finds much of Koestler’s work unsatisfactory, a mere vehicle for his aspirations towards a better society. Orwell quotes Koestler’s description of himself as a ‘short-term pessimist’,  but also detects a utopian undercurrent which he feels is unrealistic. His own views are expressed as something more like long-term pessimism, doubting whether man can ever replace the chaos of the mid-twentieth century with a society that is both stable and benign:

Nothing is in sight except a welter of lies, hatred, cruelty and ignorance, and beyond our present troubles loom vaster ones which are only now entering into the European consciousness. It is quite possible that man’s major problems will NEVER be solved. But it is also unthinkable! Who is there who dares to look at the world of today and say to himself, “It will always be like this: even in a million years it cannot get appreciably better?” So you get the quasi-mystical belief that for the present there is no remedy, all political action is useless, but that somewhere in space and time human life will cease to be the miserable brutish thing it now is. The only easy way out is that of the religious believer, who regards this life merely as a preparation for the next. But few thinking people now believe in life after death, and the number of those who do is probably diminishing.

In death as in life

Orwell’s remarks neatly return me to the topic I have diverged from. If we compare the deaths of the two men, they seem to align with their differing attitudes in life. Both died in the grip of a disease – Orwell succumbing to tuberculosis after his final, gloomy novel was completed, and Koestler escaping his leukaemia by suicide but still expressing ‘timid hopes’.

After the war Koestler had adopted England as his country and henceforth wrote only in English – most of his previous work had been in German. In  being allowed a longer life than Orwell to pursue his writing, he had moved on from politics to write widely in philosophy and the history of ideas, although never really being a member of the intellectual establishment. These are areas which you feel would always have been outside the range of the more down-to-earth Orwell, who was strongly moral,  but severely practical. Orwell goes on to say, in the essay I quoted: ‘The real problem is how to restore the religious attitude while accepting death as final.’ This so much reflects his attitudes – he habitually enjoyed attending Anglican church services, but without being a believer. He continues, epigramatically:

Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness. It is most unlikely, however, that Koestler would accept this. There is a well-marked hedonistic strain in his writings, and his failure to find a political position after breaking with Stalinism is a result of this.

Again, we strongly feel the tension between their respective characters: Orwell, with his English caution, and Koestler with his continental adventurism. In fact, Koestler had a reputation as something of an egotist and aggressive womaniser. Even his suicide reflected this: it was a double suicide with his third wife, who was over 20 years younger than he was and in good health. Her accompanying note explained that she couldn’t continue her life without him. Friends confirmed that she had entirely subjected her life to his: but to what extent this was a case of bullying,  as some claimed, will never be known.

Of course there was much common ground between the two men: both were always on the political left, and both,  as you might expect, were firmly opposed to capital punishment: anyone who needs convincing should read Orwell’s autobiographical essay A Hanging. And Koestler wrote a more prosaic piece – a considered refutation of the arguments for judicial killing – in his book Reflections on Hanging; it was written in the 1950s, when, on Koestler’s own account, some dozen hangings were occurring in Britain each year.

But while Orwell faced his death stoically, Koestler continued his dalliance with the notion of some form of hereafter; you feel that, as with Kurzweil, a well-developed ego did not easliy accept the thought of extinction. In writing this post, I discovered that he had been one of a number of intellectual luminaries who contributed to a collection of essays under the title Life after Death,  published in the 1970s. Keen to find a more detailed statement of his views, I actually found his piece rather disappointing. First I’ll sketch in a bit of background to clarify where I think he is coming from.

Back in Victorian times there was much interest in evidence of ‘survival’ – seances and table-rapping sessions were popular, and fraudulent mediums were prospering. Reasons for this are not hard to find: traditional religion, while strong, faced challenges. Steam-powered technology was burgeoning, the world increasingly seemed to be a wholly mechanical affair,  and Darwinism had arrived to encourage the trend towards materialism. In 1882 the Society for Psychical Research was formed, becoming a focus both for those who were anxious to subvert the materialist world view, and those who wanted to investigate the phenomena objectively and seek intellectual clarity.

But it wasn’t long before the revolution in physics, with relativity and quantum theory, exploded the mechanical certainties of the Victorians. At the same time millions suffered premature deaths in two world wars, giving ample motivation to believe that those lost somehow still existed and could maybe even be contacted.

Arthur Koestler

Koestler in later life (Eric Koch/Wikimedia Commons)

This seems to be the background against which Koestler’s ideas about the possibility of an afterlife had developed. He leans a lot on the philosophical writings of the quantum physicist Edwin Schrodinger, and seeks to base a duality of mind and matter on the wave/particle duality of quantum theory. There’s a lot of talk about psi fields and suchlike – the sort of terminology which was already sounding dated at the time he was writing.  The essay seemed to me to be rather backward looking, sitting more comfortably with the inchoate fringe beliefs of the mid 20th century than the confident secularism of Western Europe today.

A rebel to the end

I think Koestler was well aware of the way things were going, but with characteristic truculence reacted against them. He wrote a good deal on topics that clash with mainstream science, such as the significance of coincidence, and in his will used his legacy to establish a department of parapsychology,  which was set up at Edinburgh University, and still exists.

This was clearly a deliberate attempt to cock a snook at the establishment, and while he was not an attractive character in many ways I do find this defiant stance makes me warm to him a little. While I am sure I would have found Orwell more decent and congenial to know personally, Koestler is the more intellectually exciting of the two. I think Orwell might have found Koestler’s notion of the sense of freedom when facing death difficult to understand – but maybe this might have changed had he survived into his seventies. And in a general sense I share Koestler’s instinct that in human consciousness there is far more yet to understand than we have yet been able to, as it were, get our minds around.

Retirement, for me, will certainly bring freedom – not only freedom from the strained atmosphere of worldly ambition and corporate business-speak (itself an Orwellian development) but more of my own time to reflect further on the matters I’ve spoken of here.

Two Pairs of Novels (Part 2)

Commuting days until retirement: 202

The Tortoise and the HareI’m not sure exactly what originally put me on to the first one of this pair; but I do remember reading someone’s opinion that this was the ‘perfect novel’. Looking around, there are encomiums everywhere. Carmen Callil, the Virago publisher, republished the book in 1983 (it originally appeared in 1954), calling it ‘one of my favourite classics’. Jilly Cooper considers it ‘my best book of almost all time’. The author, Elizabeth Jenkins, died only recently, in 2010, at the age of 104. Her Guardian obituary mentions the book as ‘one of the outstanding novels of the postwar period’. The publisher has given it an introduction by none other than Hilary Mantel – a writer whose abilities I respect, having read and enjoyed the first two books in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. She writes: ‘I have admired this exquisitely written novel for many years…’

So why, having read it, did I feel distinctly underwhelmed? Its title is The Tortoise and the Hare, and it tells the story of a somewhat troubled marriage. The husband is an eminent barrister, and the wife is – well, the wife of an eminent barrister. (We are talking about the early fifties here, after all.) And indeed, she seems like what we might nowadays call a trophy wife – the attractive and desirable spoils of her husband’s success. The novel is narrated in omniscient mode, but centred around the point of view of Imogen, the wife. She watches with concern her husband’s burgeoning friendship with Blanche Silcox, a worthy spinster of their village: no scarlet woman, but a capable and organising, but also middle-aged and tweedy one – the tortoise who threatens to snatch the prize from the hare. At the opening of the novel Imogen is with her husband in a bric-a-brac shop, tempted by a delicately decorated china mug. However he only sees where it has been damaged; he has the buying power and she feels unable to challenge him, even though she knows he would give in to her wishes if she were to insist.

So we see the ground rules established. Imogen’s inability to step outside the limits of the role forced upon her by the conventions of the time is in one way an exemplar of what is interesting about the book – as Mantel puts it, ‘its focus on a fascinating and lost social milieu’. But this also seems to me to be part of its weakness. The customs of the time overwhelm the characters to such an extent that they seem to lose any idiosyncrasy or inner volition; we are left with a sense of inert waxworks being trundled about on a stage, fixed expressions on their faces, and their limbs in stiffly adopted poses. True, there are one or two minor characters who break through the unruffled surface of stifling convention: an avant garde architect and his pretentious wife; her sister Zenobia, the ‘famous beauty’. Then there are some who seem to stretch convention almost too far, the like the cerebrally challenged snob of a mother who sends her room daughters to a school where they have ‘a particularly nice class of girl’. “I’m not crazy about examinations. They won’t have to earn their living, but they will have to keep their end up in society.”  But the characterisation seems to me hardly any better here; they are all caricatures – another collection of waxworks, this time with crudely drawn masks fastened over their faces.

The other novel of my pair seemed to invite comparison because it is by another woman novelist writing at the same time, and for the trivial reason that she is also called Elizabeth. She wrote a dozen or so novels between 1945 and her death in 1975. Her reputation has probably suffered because it has been partly blotted out by that of the Hollywood film star of the same name, Elizabeth Taylor. In a comment on the back cover of another of her books, yet another Elizabeth-named novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard, writes: ‘How deeply I envy any reader coming to her for the first time!’

Well I am one of these lucky readers; and I also noticed that a fellow WordPress blogger recently praised her in Vulpes Libris. And indeed, I in looking this post up I also found an earlier one on this same author. This latter entry is about The Soul of Kindness, the novel I first read and was going to use for the comparison. However it struck me that it was published in 1964 – only ten years after Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare, but a decade in which there was enormous social change. The Taylor novel struck me as outclassing the Jenkins one in all sorts of ways, and but I felt I should try to make a fairer comparison, and so selected one which was almost contemporaneous – The Sleeping Beauty, published in 1953.

The Sleeping BeautyStraight away we find a cast of characters which have all the idiosyncrasies, mixed motives and secrets that you’d expect in authentic, three-dimensional people. There’s the odd household consisting of two sisters – one damaged in a car accident, and one widowed, who fretfully runs the household, which includes a guest-house – and her daughter who has learning difficulties, as they wouldn’t have been called then. Alongside them is another widow, whose MP husband has recently drowned in a boating accident which their traumatised son survived, and the friend with whom she distracts herself in various random enthusiasms, including covert betting on horses. Into this circle is introduced Vinny, the slightly mysterious single man (some of whose mysteries are revealed later) and his insufferable headstrong mother. (“At least you know where you are with her, ” comments one character. “But you don’t want to be there, ” retorts another.)

So here we are, with real people in a real world. Jenkins’ characters seemed to me to be entirely defined by the conventions and the medium in which they move. They can only exist within it, like those floating, translucent sea creatures, which, taken out of water, collapse into nothing. Taylor’s characters, on the other hand, have a fish-like solidity; if taken out of the milieu in which they live they might gasp and flap, but would still be recognisably themselves. They are for all time, and indeed, once you are involved in the action of the novel and the interactions of the characters, the period background becomes just that – background. Only occasionally does a detail give you a sudden reminder of the time you’re in: someone is standing on a railway platform and is startled out of their thoughts by the clatter of a descending signal.

Taylor has a particular gift for sharp description and telling details. For example, a here’s our first sight of that guest-house with the odd menage:

At the top of the cliff, but mostly hidden in trees, he could see a gabled Victorian house of tremendous ugliness, ivy over its dark walls and one upstairs window glinting evilly in the sunset.

This is intensely visual, and and wonderfully suggestive at the same time. Compare a typical descriptive passage from Jenkins, as two characters go for a walk together:

The trees were of unusual height. Against the pale blue sky their myriad leaves, now grey-green, now silver, shivered and whispered. Beneath, the river slid on, dark and clear, till it rounded over the weir in a glassy, greenish curve, then splintered into flakes, tresses, sheaves of foam that poured, thundering, to gush into the stream below.

This is all very well; evocative and elegantly written, pleasant to read, but oh, so conventional; and it doesn’t really get us anywhere. There’s nothing to lift the scene out of the ordinary and give it a purpose, or jolt us with a little shock and portend what is to come. We learn of nothing more than the pleasant surroundings in which the book’s characters live. Taylor’s descriptions, by contrast, are spare with well chosen detail, apt complements to what is happening in the novel.

On the basis of what I have read, I don’t think I’m being unfair to Jenkins. It’s true she had a Cambridge education at a time when that was still unconventional for women, and a life full of literary connections, knowing Virginia Woolf and Edith Sitwell. She wrote biographies as well as fiction. According to the Guardian piece I mentioned earlier, The Tortoise and the Hare is based on her own experience, with herself as the spurned lover – although she never married. But from what I have seen, novel writing was not her forte, while Elizabeth Taylor seems to me to have been a much greater talent. I look forward to reading more of her.

Two Pairs of Novels (Part 1)

Commuting days until retirement: 220

Why two pairs? Well, of my recent fiction reading on the train, I found that four novels fell naturally into pairs which invited comparison with one another. I was drawn to each of the novels by their reputations, and warm praise coming from various reviewers. In each case I found that the reputation of one of the pair seemed to me better deserved than the other.

I haven’t finished writing about the second pair, so rather than holding everything up I’ll publish what I’ve written about the first pair now. What was originally to be a single post seems to have fragmented, with the previous one, into three.

My first pair are both American and 20th century − but the similarities go beyond that. Both are what you would call campus novels, in that the action is centred around the life of a university. Both give you a strong idea on the first page of what is to come.

The first is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History − a debut novel that was an outstanding success in terms of sales when it first appeared in 1992. The setting is informed by Tartt’s experience as a student of classics in an Eastern American university. The second has also been popular, but in quite a different way. Its quiet, cerebral author died in 1994 and this particular book, Stoner by John Williams, attracted only modest attention on its publication in 1965, but was reissued in 2003 and proceeded to enjoy a huge boom on both sides of the Atlantic. Again it derives from the writer’s university experience, but this time as a teacher.

The Secret History’s opening doesn’t waste any time. From the first page we have:

The snow in the mountains had been melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter… It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well…

The Secret HistoryWell, full marks for grabbing the reader’s attention. The author proceeds to go back and trace how this central event came about, and later its consequences. And trace it she does, in very great detail − sometimes, I found, in rather too much detail for me. Her account certainly has longeurs, as the movement of the characters from one encounter to another is carefully choreographed and each event constructed − at times it’s as if the stage directions are visible. And while from time to time you feel twinges of sympathy for the narrator Richard Papen, he’s hard to like. Clearly Tartt intends this, but 600 or so pages is a long time to spend with a slightly irksome companion.

On the positive side however, Tartt’s major characters − a little outlandish but for the most part just about believable − are well handled, I felt, as is particularly the way they coalesce − or not − as a group. We are introduced to them as a tightly bound coterie centred around a charismatic teacher of Greek, Julian Morrow. We are given to understand that, while employed as a teacher in a minor north-eastern American university and devoting his efforts to a very small circle of hand-picked students, this man is immensely cultured and has been on intimate terms with many major twentieth century figures from show business to high culture. He remains elusive and morally ambiguous; and for me he never seemed to escape from the page as a rounded character, but remained a rather improbable collection of attributes assembled by the author.

However the group of students at the centre of the story did achieve life of a sort in my mind. As Richard, uncomfortably conscious of his working class small-town roots in the West, slowly succeeds in working himself into the circle, what appears at first as an impenetrable, other-worldly group bound together by its eccentricity is slowly teased apart as the foibles of its individual members and the tensions between them become visible.

There’s Henry, the dominant member, perhaps also the most intellectual and serious. Improbably, as we learn at the start, he is the prime mover in the murder that takes place. Bunny, the murder victim, seems the polar opposite of Henry, raffish and unpredictable, yet they appear to have a mysteriously close, troubled – but not sexual – relationship with one another. There is a gay member, Francis, another rootless soul; and the group is made up by the twins Charles and Camilla (did that pair of names have the connotations it does now when the book was written? − an unlucky coincidence perhaps). They are inseparable for much of the novel, and a faint suggestion of incest hangs about them. Collectively, the combination of a devotion to high classical culture and the dependence of nearly all the characters on alcohol and/or drugs seemed somewhat incongruous to me. And I was a little bored at times by the endless passages in which people are shuffled between social events and each other’s rooms; it’s rather like reading a play with an excess of stage directions.

The author does nevertheless exploit well the volatile blend of character and circumstance she creates. But the problem with a spectacularly eventful plot is that you are necessarily placing your characters much closer to the dangerous cliff-edge of credibility. Tartt’s novel, it seems to me, like her unfortunate character Bunny, falls victim to this brinkmanship.

That’s not a charge you could make about Stoner. Here’s the equivalent passage on the first page that gives us our first sense of its flavour:

William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”

An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

StonerPerhaps fittingly for a novel written by a professor about the life of a character whose adulthood is entirely spent teaching at a university, this introductory passage seems almost like an abstract at the top of an academic paper, in the way that it presents us with the boiled down essence of the narrative. Stoner’s life is viewed as if from a distance, so that the details can’t be made out; shrunk in this way it becomes insignificant, an impression which is heightened in the second paragraph. The tone is simultaneously flat and suggestive − inviting rather than compelling our sympathy and attention.

We then begin at the beginning and advance into the detail of Stoner’s life, and as we share his successes and failures, his moments of joy, of disappointment and of frustration, the distant and uninvolved perspective of the introduction stays in the back of our minds. I found this to be a strangely effective way of eliciting my sympathy. The plain, unshowy and dispassionate third person description seen in the introduction continues throughout the book, almost entirely from Stoner’s point of view. This sustained understatement reflects his own earnest, workmanlike character, and leaves us space to feel the emotional effects of his personal and professional high points and, rather more often, low ones. Stoner and his family, lovers and colleagues arise from the page fully formed; I was never aware of the mechanics by which they were created, or the stage directions. While, unlike Tartt’s novel, the story’s events are all too mundane and believable, I was gripped throughout by an emotional power that The Secret History never managed to invoke.

I wondered whether I was a little unfair in pitching the work of a young author against a more mature one; but checking up I find the difference is not that great: Tartt was 28 when hers was published, and Williams 43. We can perhaps point to the fact that The Secret History was a first novel, and Stoner Williams’ third. Either way, for me, Williams wins hands down in this comparison. In a word, I’d say that Stoner had soul − I felt a depth of integrity that was missing from The Secret History.

The next post will deal with my second pair – both English novels.

In Transit

Commuting days until retirement: 230

Among what would probably nowadays be called the commuting community − if it weren’t so hard to say, that is − things have changed over the years. In my previous incarnation as a commuter, before I spent a period working from home (something like 20 years ago) the range of train-bound activities was different. Most newspaper readers struggled with big broadsheets, trying vainly to avoid irritating their neighbours by obscuring their vision or tickling their ears as they turned the pages. Now they will either skim through a free tabloid (for London commuters like me there’s the Metro in the morning or the Standard on the way home) or skip nimbly through the contents of a morning daily on their tablet. If any were using mobile phones they could only at that time have been either texting or talking on them. The rumbling of the train was punctuated by the raucous piping of that horrible Nokia tune, or some other crude electronic noise. Reading on my journey now, I’m often startled by a sudden explosion of pop music, a brass band, a morning chorus of twittering birds or a concussion of breaking glass. It takes a few moments of perplexity before you come to and realise it’s just another ring tone.

Laptop computers in those earlier times were still sufficiently rare that one man I worked with avoided using one on the train because he was afraid everyone would think he was showing off. In the intervening years they multiplied rapidly for a while, only to have their entertainment functions largely replaced by tablets and smartphones. Of course there are still the laptop diehards, mostly using the train as an extension of the office. A discreet glimpse over one of their shoulders usually shows them to be working on a financial spreadsheet, or bent over some programming code. Such dedication! It may not save me from being a dull boy, but I do take care to keep my commuting time free of work − of that sort of work, anyway.

Many of course just lose themselves in music on their noise-cancelling headphones. There’s one man on my train every day, in both directions, whom I have never actually seen without a large pair of headphones on − and that includes his walk to and from the station. I often wonder whether they have been surgically implanted. And a whole new range of activities has sprung up that were not possible formerly, the most popular of all being just to play with your smartphone. That’s what I’m doing now, in writing this, if it counts as playing, which it probably does. From where I’m sitting now, on the morning train, just at my end of the carriage I can count four Metros, one Kindle, one book, one laptop, two phone-fiddlers (including me) and one handheld game console, right next to me. The iPads seem unusually rare today − although I have just spotted one up the other end of the carriage. That leaves two deep in conversation, one asleep, and two looking out of the window − earnest students of misty early morning fields, grazing cows, builders yards and back gardens ranging from the fanatically neat to the chaotically neglected.

And so the rows of heads comprising this very twenty-first century aggregation of social chit-chat, dreams, electronic jitterbugging and imaginary digital worlds sway in synchrony with the jolting of the train as it rattles towards the capital. In the meantime I am realising that this piece, intended as an introduction to a review of some of my recent fiction reading on the train, has outgrown its purpose and will have to be a post on its own. The reviewing will be coming next.

Sharp Compassion

Commuting days until retirement: 260

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
   (from T.S.Eliot – East Coker)

Do No HarmA book review prompted this post: the book in question is Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, by Henry Marsh. I’ve read some more reviews since, and heard the author on the radio. I think I shall be devoting some commuting time to his book in the near future. It’s a painfully honest account of his life as brain surgeon, a calling from which he’s about to retire. Painful, in that he is searchingly candid aboout failures as well as successess, and about the self-doubt which he has experienced throughout his career. In fact his first chapter begins – rather alarmingly, after a life in the profession: ‘I often have to cut into the brain and it is something I hate doing.’

Some examples: we hear what it is like to explain what has happened to a woman patient in whom one of the mishaps which is always a risk in brain surgery has left her paralysed down one side. He tells her he knows from experience that there is a good chance it will improve.

‘I trusted you before the operation,’ she said. ‘Why should I trust you now?’
I had no immediate reply to this and stared uncomfortably at my feet.

He describes visiting a Catholic nursing home which cares for patients with serious brain damage. He recognises some of the names on the doors, and realises them to be former patients of his own for whom things didn’t go as well as he would have hoped.

Marsh’s title Do No Harm is of course an ironic reference to the central tenet of the Hippocratic Oath; but we know that in modern medicine things aren’t as simple as that, and that every operation should only be undergone after a weighing up of the risks and likely downside against the benefits. These are never so stark as in neurosurgery, and, not surprisingly, its sheer stressfulness ranks above that of intervention in other parts of the body. Marsh rather disarmingly says, against the popular conception, that it mostly isn’t as technically complex as many other kinds of surgery – it’s just that there is so much more at stake when errors occur. He quotes an orthopaedic surgeon who attends Marsh himself for a broken leg, and hearing what he does, clearly feels much happier being in orthopaedics. “Neurosurgery,” he says, “is all doom and gloom.”

I have often imagine what it must be like to be wielding a scalpel, poised over a patient’s skin, and then to be cutting into a stomach or a leg – never mind a brain. Of course a long training, learning from the experts and eventually taking your own first steps would give you the confidence to be able to cope with this; but it’s to Marsh’s credit that he has retained such a degree of self-doubt. Indeed, he speculates on the personalities of some of the great neurosurgeons of the past, who didn’t have the technical facilities of today. Advances could often only be made by taking enormous risks, and Marsh imagines that it would sometimes have been necessary for them to insulate themselves against concern for the patient to a point that marks them as having not just overweening self-confidence, but poitively psychopathic personalities.

I’m lucky not to have been under the knife myself very often, and never, thankfully, for the brain. But what I have experienced of the medicine has shown me that personalities which, with their unusual degree of arrogance, verge on the psychopathic, are all too common in the higher reaches of the profession. One who sticks in my memory wasn’t actually treating me: he had been commissioned to supply case histories for a medical computer program that I was involved in producing. This was not neurosurgery, but another area of medicine, in which I was aware that he was pre-eminent. We went through these case histories, some of them very complex, which he explained. “I diagnosed that,” he would say, visibly preening himself. On the whole he was perfectly good to work with, provided you showed a decent amount of deference. But at one point he moved beyond the subject matter, to lay down how he thought the program should work. This was my area, and I could see some problems with what he was saying, and explained politely. There was an icy pause. Although never less than polite, he proceeded to make it clear that nobody, least of all a cypher like me, was authorised to challenge an opinion of his, on anything. (Later I went ahead and did it my way in any case.) This was back in the eighties, nearly 30 years ago. Thinking about him before writing this, I googled him, and sure enough, he’s still out there, working at a major hospital and with a Harley Street practice. He must indeed have had enormous ability to have been at the top of his area for so long; but as a practitioner of the healing art he was, like, I suspect, many others, definitely not cuddly.

On the radio programme I heard, Henry Marsh remarked that, if you accept praise for your successes, you must accept blame for the failures, and that there are the medical practitioners who don’t follow that precept. I suspect that my friend described above would have been one of them; I have never encountered a level of self-regard that was so tangibly enormous. Perhaps we should be thankful that there are those who harness supreme technical skill to such overweening confidence – but you shudder a little at the thought of their scalpel in your brain. If this was to befall me, I’d much rather the knife was wielded by someone of Marsh’s cast of mind, rather than an equally skilful surgeon with all the humility of a bulldozer.

Read All About It (part 1)

Commuting days until retirement: 300

Imagine a book. It’s a thick, heavy, distinguished looking book, with an impressive tooled leather binding, gilt-trimmed, and it has marbled page edges. A glance at the spine shows it to be a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works. It must be like many such books to be found on the shelves of libraries or well-to-do homes around the world at the present time, although it is not well preserved. The binding is starting to crumble, and much of the gilt lettering can no longer be made out. There’s also something particularly unexpected about this book, which accounts for the deterioration.  Let your mental picture zoom out, and you see, not a set of book-laden shelves, or a polished wood table bearing other books and papers, but an expanse of greyish dust, bathed in bright, harsh light. The lower cover is half buried in this dust, to a depth of an inch or so, and some is strewn across the front, as if ithe book had been dropped or thrown down. Zoom out some more, and you see a rocky expanse of ground, stretching away to what seems like a rather close, sharply defined horizon, separating this desolate landscape from a dark sky.

Yes, this book is on the moon, and it has been the focus of a long standing debate between my brother and sister-in-law. I had vaguely remembered one of them mentioning this some years back, and thought it would be a way in to this piece on intentionality, a topic I have been circling around warily in previous posts. To clarify: books are about things – in fact our moon-bound book is about most of the perennial concerns of human beings. What is it that gives books this quality of ‘aboutness’ – or intentionality? When all’s said and done our book boils down to a set of inert ink marks on paper. Placing it on the moon, spatially distant, and and perhaps temporally distant, from human activity, leaves us with the puzzle as to how those ink marks reach out across time and space to hook themselves into that human world. And if it had been a book ‘about’, say, physics or astronomy, that reach would have been, at least in one sense, wider.

Which problem?

Well, I thought that was what my brother and sister-in-law had been debating when I first heard about it; but when I asked them it turned out that their what they’d been arguing about was the question of literary merit, or more generally, intrinsic value. The book contains material that has been held in high regard by most of humanity (except perhaps GCSE students) for hundreds of years. At some distant point in space and time, perhaps after humanity has disappeared, does that value survive, contained within it, or is it entirely dependent upon who perceives and interprets it?

Two questions, then – let’s refer to them as the ‘aboutness’ question and the ‘value’ question. Although the value question wasn’t originally within the intended scope of this post, it might be worth trying to  tease out how far each question might shed light on the other.

What is a book?

First, an important consideration which I think has a bearing on both questions – and which may have occurred to you already. The term ‘book’ has at least two meanings. “Give me those books” – the speaker refers to physical objects, of the kind I began the post with. “He’s written two books” – there may of course be millions of copies of each, but these two books are abstract entities which may or may not have been published. Some years back I worked for a small media company whose director was wildly enthusiastic about the possibilities of IT (that was my function), but somehow he could never get his head around the concepts involved. When we discussed some notional project, he would ask, with an air of addressing the crucial point, “So will it be a floppy disk, or a CD-ROM?” (I said it was a long time ago.) In vain I tried to get it across to him that the physical instantiation, or the storage medium, was a very secondary matter. But he had a need to imagine himself clutching some physical object, or the idea would not fly in his mind. (I should have tried to explain by using the book example, but never thought of it at the time.)

So with this in mind, we can see that the moon-bound Shakespeare is what is sometimes called in philosophy an ‘intuition pump’ – an example intended to get us thinking in a certain way, but perhaps misleadingly so. This has particular importance for the value question, it seems to me: what we value is set of ideas and modes of expression, not some object. And so its physical, or temporal, location is not really relevant. We could object that there are cases where this doesn’t apply – what about works of art? An original Rembrandt canvas is a revered object; but if it were to be lost it would live on in its reproductions, and, crucially, in people’s minds. Its loss would be sharply regretted – but so, to an extent, would the loss of a first folio edition of Shakespeare. The difference is that for the Rembrandt, direct viewing is the essence of its appreciation, while we lose nothing from Shakespeare when watching, listening or reading, if we are not in the presence of some original artefact.

Value, we might say, does not simply travel around embedded in physical objects, but depends upon the existence of appreciating minds. This gives us a route into examination of the value question – but I’m going to put that aside for the moment and return to good old ‘aboutness’ – since these thoughts also give us  some leverage for developing our ideas there.

…and what is meaning?

So are we to conclude that our copy of Shakespeare itself, as it lies on the moon, has no intrinsic connection with anything of concern or meaning to us? Imagine that some disaster eliminated human life from the earth. Would the book’s links to the world beyond be destroyed at the same time, the print on its pages suddenly reduced to meaningless squiggles?  This is perhaps another way in which we are misled by the imaginary book.

Cave painting

A 40,000 year old cave painting in the El Castillo Cave in Puente Viesgo, Spain (www.spain.info)

Think of prehistoric cave paintings which have persisted, unseen, thousands of years after the deaths of those for whom they were particularly meaningful. Eventually they are found by modern men who rediscover some meaning in them. Many of them depict recognisable animals – perhaps a food source for the people of the time; and as representational images their central meaning is clear to us. But of course we can only make educated guesses at the cloud of associations they would have had for their creators, and their full significance in their culture. And other ancient cave wall markings have been discovered which are still harder to interpret – strange abstract patterns of dots and lines (see above). What’s interesting is that we can sense that there seems to have been some sort of purpose in their creation, without having any idea what it might have been.

Luttrell Psalter

A detail from the Luttrell Psalter (Bristish Library)

Let’s look at a more recent example: the marvellous illuminated script of the Luttrell Psalter, the 14th century illuminated manuscript, now in the British Library. (you can view it in wonderful detail by going to the British Library’s Turning the Pages application.) It’s a psalter, written in Latin, and so the subject matter is still accessible to us. Of more interest are the illustrations around the text – images showing a whole range of activities we can recognise, but as they were carried on in the medieval world. This of course is a wonderful primary historical source, but it’s also more than that. Alongside the depiction of these activities is a wealth of decoration, ranging from simple flourishes to all sorts of fantastical creatures and human-animal hybrids. Some may be symbols which no longer have meaning in today’s culture, and others perhaps just jeux d’esprit on the part of the artist. It’s mostly impossible now for us to distinguish between these.

Think also of the ‘authenticity’ debate in early music that I mentioned in Words and Music a couple of posts back. The full, authentic effect of a piece of music composed some hundreds of years ago, so one argument goes, could only affect an audience as the composer intended if the audience were also of his time. Indeed, even today’s music, of any genre, will have different associations for, and effects on, a listener depending on their background and experience. And indeed, it’s quite common now for artists, conceptual or otherwise, to eschew any overriding purpose as to the meaning of their work, but to intend each person to interpret it in his or her own idiosyncratic way.

Rather too many examples, perhaps, to illustrate the somewhat obvious point that meaning is not an intrinsic property of inert symbols, such as the printed words in our lunar Shakespeare. In transmitting their sense and associations from writer to reader the symbols depend upon shared knowledge, cultural assumptions and habits of thought; something about the symbols, or images, must be recognisable by both creator and consumer. When this is not the case we are just left with a curious feeling, as when looking at that abstract cave art. We get a a strong sense of meaning and intention, but the content of the thoughts behind it are entirely unknown to us. Perhaps some unthinkably different aliens will have the same feeling on finding the Voyager robot spacecraft, which was sent on its way with some basic information about the human race and our location in the galaxy. Looking at the cave patterns we can detect that information is present – but meaning is more than just information. Symbols comprise the latter without intrinsically containing the former, otherwise we’d be able to know what those cave patterns signified.

Physical signs can’t embody meaning of themselves,  apart from the creator and the consumer, any more than a saw can cut wood without a carpenter to wield it. Tool use, indeed, in early man or advanced animals, is an indicator of intentionality – the ability to form abstract ‘what if’ concepts about what might be done, before going ahead and doing it. A certain cinematic moment comes to mind: in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the bone wielded as a tool by the primate creature in the distant past is thrown into the air, and cross-fades into a space ship in the 21st century.

Here be dragons

Information theory developed during the 20th century, and is behind all the advances of the period in computing and communications. Computers are like the examples of symbols we have looked at: the states of their circuits and storage media contain symbolic information but are innocent of meaning. Which thought, it seems to me, it leads us to the heart of the perplexity around the notion of aboutness, or intentionality. Brains are commonly thought of as sophisticated computers of a sort, which to some extent at least they must be. So how come that when, in a similar sort of way, information is encoded in the neurochemical states of our brains, it is magically invested with meaning? In his well-known book A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking uses a compelling phrase when reflecting on the possibility of a universal theory. Such a theory would be “just a set of rules and equations”. But, he asks,

What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?

I think that, in a similar spirit, we have to ask: what breathes fire into our brain circuits to add meaning to their information content?

The Chinese Room

If you’re interested enough to have come this far with me, you will probably know about a famous philosophical thought experiment which serves to support the belief that my question is indeed a meaningful and legitimate one – John Searle’s ‘Chinese Room’ argument. But I’ll explain it briefly anyway; skip the next paragraph if you don’t need the explanation.

Chinese Room

A visualisation of John Searle inside the Chinese Room

Searle imagines himself cooped up in a rather bizarre room where he can only communicate with the outside world by passing and receiving notes through an aperture. Within the room he is equipped only with an enormous card filing system containing a set of Chinese characters and rules for manipulating them. He has Chinese interlocutors outside the room, who pass in pieces of paper bearing messages in Chinese. Unable to understand Chinese, he goes through a cumbersome process of matching and manipulating the Chinese symbols using his filing system. Eventually this process yields a series of characters as an answer, which are transcribed on to another piece of paper and passed back out. The people outside (if they are patient enough) get the impression that they are having a conversation with someone inside the room who understands and responds to their messages. But, as Searle says, no understanding is taking place inside the room. As he puts it, it deals with syntax, not semantics, or in the terms we have been using, symbols, not meaning. Searle’s purpose is to demolish the claims of what he calls ‘strong AI’ – the claim that a computer system with this sort of capability could truly understand what we tell it, as judged from its ability to respond and converse. The Chinese Room could be functionally identical to such a system (only much slower) but Searle is demonstrating that is is devoid of anything that we could call understanding.

If you have an iPhone you’ll probably have used an app called ‘Siri’ which has just this sort of capability – and there are equivalents on other types of phone. When combined with the remote server that it communicates with, it can come up with useful and intelligent answers to questions. In fact, you don’t have to try very hard to make it come up with bizarre or useless answers, or flatly fail. But that’s just a question of degree – no doubt future versions will be more sophisticated. We might loosely say that Siri ‘understands’ us – but of course it’s really just a rather more efficient Chinese Room. Needless to say, Searle’s argument has generated years of controversy. I’m not going to enter into that debate, but will just say that I find the argument convincing; I don’t think that Siri can ‘understand’ me.

So if we think of understanding as the ‘fire’ that’s breathed into our brain circuits, where does it come from? Think of the experience of reading a gripping novel. You may be physically reading the words, but you’re not aware of it. ‘Understanding’ is hardly an issue, in that it goes without saying. More than understanding, you are living the events of the novel, with a succession of vivid mental images. Another scenario: you are a parent, and your child comes home from school to tell you breathlessly about some playground encounter that day – maybe positive or negative. You are immediately captivated, visualising the scene, maybe informed by memories of you own school experiences. In both of these cases, what you are doing is not really to do with processing information – that’s just the stimulus that starts it all off. You are experiencing – the information you recognise has kicked off conscious experiences; and yes, we are back with our old friend consciousness.

Understanding and consciousness

Searle also links understanding to consciousness; his position, as I understand it, is that consciousness is a specifically biological function, not to be found in clever artefacts such as computers. But he insists that it’s purely a function of physical processes nontheless – and I find it difficult to understand this view. If biologically evolved creatures can produce consciousness as a by-product of their physical functioning, how can he be so sure that computers cannot? He could be right, but it seems to be a mere dogmatic assertion. I agree with him that you can’t have meaning – and hence intentionality – without consciousness. For sure, although he denies it, he leaves open the possibility that a computer (and thus, presumably, the Chinese Room as a whole) could be conscious. But he does have going for him the immense implausibility of that idea.

Dog

How much intentionality?

So does consciousness automatically bring intentionality with it? In my last post I referred to a dog’s inability to understand or recognise a pointing gesture. We assume that dogs have consciousness of some sort – in a simpler form, they have some of the characteristics which lead us to assume that other humans like ourselves have it. But try thinking yourself for a moment into what it might be to inhabit the mind of a dog. Your experiences consist of the here and now (as ours do) but probably not a lot more. There’s no evidence that a dog’s awareness of the past consists of more than simple learned associations of a Pavlovian kind. They can recognise ‘walkies’, but it seems a mere trigger for a state of excitement, rather than a gateway to a rich store of memories. And they don’t have the brain power to anticipate the future. I know some dog owners might dispute these points – but even if a dog’s awareness extends beyond ‘is’ to ‘was’ and ‘will be’, it surely doesn’t include ‘might be’ or ‘could have been’. Add to this the dog’s inability to use offered information to infer that the mind of another individual contains a truth about the world that hitherto has not been in your own mind (i.e. the ability to understand pointing – see the previous post) and it starts to become clearer what is involved in intentionality. Mere unreflective experiencing of the present moment doesn’t lead to the notion of the objects of your thought, as disticnct from the thought itself. I don’t want to offend dog-owners – maybe their pets’ abilites extend beyond that; but there are certainly other creatures – conscious ones, we assume – who have no such capacity.

So intentionality requires consciousness, but isn’t synonymous with it: in the jargon, consciousness is necessary but not sufficient for intentionality. As hinted earlier, the use of tools is perhaps the simplest indicator of what is sufficient – the ability to imagine how something could be done, and then to take action to make it a reality. And the earliest surviving evidence from prehistory of something resembling a culture is taken to be the remains of ancient graves, where objects surrounding a body indicate that thought was given to the body’s destiny – in other words, there was a concept of what may or may not happen in the future. It’s with these capabilities, we assume, that consciousness started to co-exist with the mental capacity which made intentionality possible.

So some future civilisation, alien or otherwise, finding that Shakespeare volume on the moon, will have similar thoughts to those that we would have on discovering the painted patterns in the cave. They’ll conclude that there were beings in our era who possessed the capacity for intentionality, but they won’t have the shared experience which enables them to deduce what the printed symbols are about. And, unless they have come to understand better than we do what the nature of consciousness is, they won’t have any better idea what the ultimate nature of intentionality is.

The value of what they would find is another question, which I said I would return to – and will. But this post is already long enough, and it’s too long since I last published one – so I’ll deal with that topic next time.

When I Set Out for Lyonnesse

Commuting days until retirement: 405

View from Tintagel Castle

The stuff of myths: our view from Tintagel Castle

Another week’s escape from commuting, as we visit a part of the Cornish coast I haven’t been to before – the northeast stretch around Tintagel and Boscastle. The cliff walks are breathtaking, there are magnificent deserted beaches accessible only after a steep scramble down rocky paths, and the area is stiff with historical and mythical associations.
Lyonnesse is the kingdom of legend where King Arthur supposedly held his court. In writings of the past there is much confusion about its location, but it has mainly been associated with Cornwall, and sometimes the Scilly Isles. Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing in the 12th century, names Tintagel as the place of Arthur’s conception. Along with many other sandalled, bare-legged tourists we clambered up the hill to the ruined medieval castle, and from the atmosphere and views began to appreciate why it’s a place that has generated legend.

A meeting

St Juliots

St Juliot’s church

But my title is borrowed from the poet and novelist Thomas Hardy. We had arrived at St Juliot’s, a small church outside Boscastle that we’d heard was worth visiting when I suddenly realised, having read Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography a year or two ago, that this was a highly significant place in Hardy’s life. It was here that, in 1870, as a young architectural assistant with dreams of being a writer, he had come to draw up plans for restoration to the church. Emma Gifford was the sister-in-law of the incumbent priest and was living in the rectory. We are told that she opened the door to him on his first arrival, and a piece of paper bearing a poem he’d been working on during the journey was sticking out of his pocket. This immediately attracted Emma. Love ensued, and he became a regular visitor to the rectory (a full day’s  journey from his native Dorset, Tomalin notes, involving four trains and a 16 mile ride in a trap).
The poem whose title I have borrowed celebrates that first trip – it’s short and jubilant in tone, and has him returning “with magic in my eyes”. Although not published until after Emma’s death, the manuscript is dated 1870, the time of the visit.

Rescued

Emma Gifford

Emma Gifford

Young Hardy

Thomas Hardy around the time he met Emma

They were married in London in 1874. With Hardy’s career as a novelist taking off, Emma was at first strongly appreciative and encouraging of his writing. It has been debated how far his early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes was autobiographical, and whether the character of the heroine Elfride Swancourt is based on Emma. While the setting is no doubt drawn from life – Elfride is the daughter of a parson living near the sea, and visited by admiring young men – the parallels are not otherwise close. But there is one surprising scene for the time, where on a coast walk, one of Elfride’s men friends slips on a cliff edge and is trapped, dangling dangerously. However, concealed by the clifftop, Elfride is enterprisingly removing her voluminous underwear and tearing it into strips to make a rope with which she rescues him. They embrace, but overcome with embarrassment at being naked beneath her dress, she flees home alone. Quite apart from the more obvious preoccupations of a young Victorian man, perhaps there is something symbolic of Hardy’s own fortunes here.

Later in life, when Hardy’s success as a novelist had become assured, however, Emma became more disenchanted with his writing. She had nursed some literary ambitions of her own, and perhaps there was an element of resentment. But relations became strained and distant in general, and she eventually retreated to an attic room in Max Gate, the Dorset house Hardy had built, and spent much of her time there.

Memorial plaque

Memorial to Emma

In 1912 she died suddenly, and Hardy, overcome with remorse and regret, seemed fall in love with her a second time, this time in retrospect. To the right is my photo of the memorial plaque to Emma he placed in the church. By all accounts Hardy was already close to Florence, his second wife, before Emma’s death, but his posthumous love affair with Emma persisted long afterwards, sometimes to Florence’s irritation.

An engraved window

Memorial window

A part of the memorial window to Thomas Hardy

A few years ago a window was commissioned for the church, to commemorate Hardy’s association with it. Rather than being stained glass, the window is engraved, delicately and beautifully, by the late artist, Simon Whistler. I found it almost impossible to capture its quality in a photo; here is my best attempt, which just shows a part. You can see Hardy’s name in the centre pane, surrounding an image of the church  itself, and the date of his death on the right, under a representation of his architect’s tools. As you view the whole window, symbols and episodes from Hardy’s life shimmer against the backdrop of the graveyard outside, ghostly traces of the events of a century and a half ago.

The window also bears quotations from one or two poems inspired by his experiences in this part of Cornwall. In later life Hardy was independently wealthy from his novels, and after Emma’s death he turned to poetry in a way that he hadn’t before. In his collection Poems 1912-1913 he gives vent to his regret and hopeless longing. In a bottom corner of the memorial window are two lines from one of the most well known of them – Beeny Cliff. The window also depicts the figure of Emma on the cliff, astride her pony. Beeny Cliff itself is just a mile or so from the church, and some of our walks along the coastal path took us over it.

The poem made an impression on me when I first read it, before knowing anything about the context. If you are not keen on old fashioned romanticism, or a strong formal structure, then it’s probably not for you. But I have always had a soft spot for it: I like the way the emotion is powerfully conveyed by the insistent metre, and the poem contains many examples of the idiosyncratic but precise and evocative vocabulary often found in Hardy’s work. Here’s the whole poem:

Beeny Cliff

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.

The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.

A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.

– Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?

What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

View from Beeny Cliff

“That wandering western sea” as seen from Beeny Cliff