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Shakespearean knots.

Shakespeare could be immoderately knotty.
It’s odd: he must’ve thought in knots a lot.
His thought can be unknotted – but could not he
Have sought a little less to knot his thought?

Look, I’m the first to admit that I’m lazy and not too bright. But I’m also the kind of person who reads Shakespeare for fun, and there aren’t too many of us around these days – so please, all you brainy and diligent Shakespeare nerds, indulge my unsophisticated complaint.

It’s about the knots.

Is there a technical term for them? In his book From Dawn To Decadence the French-born American scholar Jacques Barzun admitted to being less than wholly enthusiastic about Shakespeare because he too often had trouble keeping up with “the involutions of the thought” – a phrase that’s always stuck with me. Consulting the index, I see that the passage in question is actually discussing Racine:

The unprepared listener grasps the sense of the action but – as often in Shakespeare – the involutions of the thought are too fine to seize at the speed of their delivery.

Well, I haven’t read Racine. But in Shakespeare’s case, I think of them not as fancy Latinate involutions but as homely old Anglo-Saxon knots.

Every play has them. I happened to be revisiting King John recently – I remembered next to nothing of the plot, but it came back to me as I read. The biggest challenge in the early scenes, as with so much Shakespeare, is figuring out who’s related to whom. That must have been easier for Elizabethan audiences, who were attentive to the complications of royal bloodlines, and were used to nobles being referred to miscellaneously by title, house, epithet, and Christian name.

But a knowledge of the vastly ramified Plantagenet family tree is not necessary to follow King John. The story unwinds smoothly until Act II, Scene I, where Constance, the mother of young Arthur – the rightful king, as she believes, of England – hurls these curses at her mother-in-law Elinor – Arthur’s grandmother – who supports the claim of Arthur’s usurping uncle John:

I have but this to say,
That he [Arthur] is not only plagued for her [Elinor’s] sin,
But God hath made her sin and her the plague
On this removed issue, plague for her
And with her plague; her sin his injury,
Her injury the beadle to her sin,
All punish’d in the person of this child,
And all for her; a plague upon her!

See: a knot. Usually I can keep up with Shakespeare at a reading pace, with occasional delays to double back and reconnect a distantly severed subject and predicate, or to put back in order some poetically inverted adjective and noun; but a knot like this I might have to read five or ten times just to extract the basic meaning. In all honesty, I’m still not sure what “plague for her / And with her plague” means.

Elsewhere in From Dawn to Decadence Barzun lists the “tenable objections” to Shakespeare’s genius, including:

[T]he dull passages, including the puns, often obscene and prolonged; the inflated sentiments, the ludicrous images, the insoluble syntax, the contradictory details, the theatrically awkward turns, and the sheer excess where terseness or silence would be best.

He means “insoluble” in the sense of “unsolvable”, but the other meaning works too, if you picture Shakespeare’s knots as tightly compacted lumps of matter that refuse to soften up no matter how long you soak ’em.

Returning to the play, the next knot comes in Act III, Scene I, once again courtesy of Constance. She’s trying to convince the French king to do his religious duty, abandon his alliance with the excommunicated John, and switch his support to Arthur. She’s accused of arguing “not from her faith / But from her need.” She replies:

O, if thou grant my need,
Which only lives but by the death of faith,
That need must needs infer this principle,
That faith would live again by death of need.
O then, tread down my need, and faith mounts up;
Keep my need up, and faith is trodden down!

As Professor Barzun said, what characterizes passages like these is involution – ideas looping around on themselves like interlocking ouroboroses. They remind me of the logical puzzles known as sorites [1] presented by Lewis Carroll in his book Symbolic Logic:

(1) No one takes in the Times, unless he is well-educated;
(2) No hedge-hogs can read;
(3) Those who cannot read are not well-educated.

Conclusion: No hedge-hog takes in the Times.

That’s an easy one. When the propositions are multiplied, a sorites can quickly grow too cumbrous to be parsed on the fly:

(1) All the dated letters in this room are written on blue paper;
(2) None of them are in black ink, except those that are written in the third person;
(3) I have not filed any of them that I can read;
(4) None of them, that are written on one sheet, are undated;
(5) All of them, that are not crossed, are in black ink;
(6) All of them, written by Brown, begin with “Dear Sir”;
(7) All of them, written on blue paper, are filed;
(8) None of them, written on more than one sheet, are crossed;
(9) None of them, that begin with “Dear Sir”, are written in the third person.

With a little patience, these propositions can be reduced to pairs of eliminands, which cancel out, leaving the two retinands “letters written by Brown” and “letters that I cannot read”, comprising the conclusion: “I cannot read any of Brown’s letters.”

[Full disclosure: Despite Carroll’s jaunty assertion that none of the exercises in Symbolic Logic should be “beyond the grasp of an intelligent child of (say) twelve or fourteen years of age”, I haven’t attempted them myself. I’m a lot dimmer than a well-brought-up 19th century English schoolboy.]

Coincidentally, just as Shakespeare reminded me of Carroll’s sorites, Carroll had Shakespeare on his mind while composing them:

(1) All writers, who understand human nature, are clever;
(2) No one is a true poet unless he can stir the hearts of men;
(3) Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet”;
(4) No writer, who does not understand human nature, can stir the hearts of men;
(5) None but a true poet could have written “Hamlet”.

Conclusion: Shakespeare was clever. Too blasted clever, one sometimes grumbles…

***

In Act III, Scene I, of King John, shortly after Constance’s speech about faith, Cardinal Pandulph makes his own religious appeal to the French king, who is torn between the oath he recently swore to King John and his loyalty to the church. Pandulph unfurls this string of small knots:

O, let thy vow
First made to heaven, first be to heaven perform’d,
That is, to be the champion of our church!
What since thou sworest is sworn against thyself
And may not be performed by thyself,
For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss
Is not amiss when it is truly done,
And being not done, where doing tends to ill,
The truth is then most done not doing it:
The better act of purposes mistook
Is to mistake again; though indirect,
Yet indirection thereby grows direct,
And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d. [2]

Did Shakespeare trust that contemporary theatre-goers could follow this display of Jesuitical rope-trickery? Or, like a Hollywood screenwriter throwing masses of jargon into his space opera script to set an atmosphere of scientific authenticity, was he content that the knots should plink melodiously off his audiences’ skulls, communicating nothing but “ah, this Cardinal fella’s real smart”?

I recall reading Henry V for the first time and nodding off at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s eye-glazing explanation in Act I, Scene II, of Henry’s claim to the French throne. Then I saw Olivier’s film of the play, where the scene is played for comedy, with Canterbury shuffling through stacks of paper, losing his place, being assisted by his flustered deputy, seeming to wind down only to wind back up again, and so on. It culminates with Canterbury on his knees amid drifts of fallen parchment, declaring to the bemused noblemen that Henry’s claim is “as clear as is the summer’s sun.” Which I suspect, though I can’t be sure, Shakespeare intended as a punchline.

Have the play’s interpreters always leavened this scene with buffoonery? Or was the buffoonery a necessary adjustment for modern audiences, who are less engrossed than their ancestors by genealogical disquisition? Anthony Brennan, in his Critical Introduction to the play, argues that Canterbury was meant to be played straight:

Given the extended arguments throughout Shakespeare’s whole cycle of history plays as successive figures try to legitimise their claims to the crown and to dispute that of others, it seems inherently unlikely that the Elizabethan audience regarded such a huge speech as laughter-fodder. [3]

(For his Henry, filmed a half-century after Olivier’s, Kenneth Branagh opted for the stodgier solution of forgoing the comedy, but compressing the speech to a quarter of its length.)

As with Canterbury’s evolution into a figure of comedy, I can imagine Pandulph being performed as a suave word-spinner, dazzling the blunt-witted nobles (who broadly mime their incomprehension) into acquiescence. But the fact that Constance is as nimble a spinner as Pandulph makes me wonder whether Shakespearean audiences, raised in a more verbal culture, were simply more adept at uncoiling knotty rhetoric.

M.

1. Sing. sorites [pron. so-righties], pl. sorites or (Carroll’s preference) soriteses; from the Greek for heap; not to be confused with the sorites paradox.

2. “…as fire cools fire / Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d.” Apparently in Shakespeare’s time medical orthodoxy held that burns should be treated by the application of heat:

Fernelius asserted that fire was its own antidote and should be applied to the burned part to drive it out which abates the pain. Ambrose Pare similarly called for the burned part to be held near a flame or live coal to draw out the igneous particles in the tissues.

3. I was pointed to this quote by Anthony Boyd-Williams’s 2002 master’s thesis, “I Am Left Out – A Study of Selected Clerical Characters in Shakespeare’s History Plays”, which contains meaty chapters on Pandulph and Canterbury, with detailed scene-by-scene notes on several high-profile filmed and theatrical performances of King John and Henry V, focussing on the portrayals of these characters.

In Robert Heinlein’s 1980 novel The Number of the Beast – discussed in my essay on Heinlein’s Crazy Years – the dimension-hopping heroes bump into Lewis Carroll and trade sorites to pass the time.

 

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A sympathetic reaction: C.P. Snow’s The Light and the Dark.

In a subplot of Kingsley Amis’s 1978 novel Jake’s Thing, an Oxford college debates whether to surrender to the Zeitgeist and admit female students. It’s mentioned that a strange alliance is forming between the more reactionary of the men’s colleges – attached to the status quo for the reasons you’d expect – and the women’s colleges, who fear losing their student base to the more prestigious, traditionally all-male institutions.

“It’s like something out of C.P. Snow,” someone observes.

For C.P. Snow’s novels are famously About Politics. I capitalize the words to emphasize that this is not the same as being Political, as the word is usually meant: when we attend an evening of Political comedy, we don’t expect a bunch of gags about coalition building, or how to swing a recalcitrant committee member to your side; we expect to be lectured about how awful the Republicans are, with (if we’re lucky) a few jokes thrown in.

I would be hard-pressed to name a book more About Politics than 1951’s The Masters, which concerns the manoeuvres leading up to a vote by the dozen or so fellows of a Cambridge college to elect a new Master from among themselves. It’s a topic that would lend itself to black humour; but however low-stakes their dissensions appear, however petty their motives, Snow never treats his characters cynically. As he wrote elsewhere, in what could serve as a thesis statement for all his fiction:

Put your ear to those meetings and you heard the intricate labyrinthine and unassuageable rapacity, even in the best of men, of the love of power. If you have heard it once – say, in electing the chairman of a tiny dramatic society, it does not matter where – you have heard it in colleges, in bishoprics, in ministries, in cabinets: men do not alter because the issues they decide are bigger scale.

That passage comes from 1954’s The New Men, which is about British physicists working to develop the atom bomb during World War II, and subsequent efforts by the idealists among them to prevent the bomb from actually being used. It belongs, along with the better-known The Masters, to the Strangers and Brothers series: eleven novels written over a span of thirty years, collectively depicting a life and career arc roughly paralleling the author’s own. I’ve read three others:

The Affair (1960), set twenty years after The Masters and at the same Cambridge college, concerns an apparent case of academic fraud by a stridently left-wing scientist that divides the administration.

The Sleep of Reason (1968), set in a grimy corner of England during the 1960s sexual revolution, examines both sides of a sexually sadistic murder trial where the sanity of the defendants is in doubt. (It was Peter Hitchens’s review of The Sleep of Reason a few years back that inspired me to start collecting Snow’s books.)

The Light and the Dark (1947) I’ll be discussing below.

Our narrator and authorial stand-in Lewis Elliott takes an active part in the conflicts animating these stories. He’s usually aligned with the “radical” side, meaning he supports the modern progressive agenda, more or less, albeit with more central economic planning and less freaky sex stuff. But Elliott, like his creator, is a level-headed, good-humoured chap who keeps up friendships even with political foes.

But it’s not only the author’s fair-mindedness that keeps the novels from feeling propagandistic – Political in the typical sense. It’s that Snow isn’t much interested in rehashing topics that at the time would have seemed wearisomely familiar from op-eds and dinner party debates. Perhaps because he sees political beliefs as being formed by personality and social pressures rather than by reasoned-out arguments, or perhaps simply because he finds political debate dull as a subject for fiction, the content of those debates is usually skimmed over. His characters let fall acid remarks at parties, unburden their souls while strolling by the Cam, reveal too much under the influence of alcohol, but their words are always slightly askew of the main point. On occasion a key revelation will be so artfully, annoyingly lacking in specifics that you wonder if you’ve skipped a page.

The Light and the Dark, though less About Politics than the other books mentioned above, is somewhat more Political. It’s about Lewis Elliott’s friendship with a dashing, brilliant, emotionally troubled linguist named Roy Calvert, whose specialty is the early writings of Manichaeism, the extinct faith whose name has become shorthand for black-white thinking.

The setting is Cambridge and London in the 1930s. Calvert’s researches take him frequently to Berlin, where in his naturally gregarious way he makes friends in both low and high society: among the Bohemian fringe as well as in the ruling Nazi elite.

Back home he is reproached by some of his fellow academics for his apparent Nazi sympathies, but such sentiments are not uncommon at a time when many moderate Englishmen are still eager to believe that war can be avoided. Calvert is protected by his reputation for frivolity. At the faculty dining table he amuses himself by teasing the more hawkish fellows; with a straight face he suggests that the college’s Jewish scholars be reclassified as “Welsh by statute” to remove a potential source of friction with the Germans. And yet he’s personally unprejudiced, twits his Nazi friends openly about their “mad” Jewish policy, and at some personal risk and expense helps a family of German Jews resettle in England.

Inviting the narrator to visit him in Berlin, Calvert opens up about his hopes for the regime:

The future [said Calvert] would be in German hands. There would be great suffering on the way, they might end in a society as dreadful as the worst of this present one: but there was a chance – perhaps a better chance than any other – that in time, perhaps in our life time, they would create a brilliant civilisation.

“If they succeed,” said Roy, “everyone will forget the black spots. In history success is the only virtue.”

To us this sounds callous and nuts, but Calvert knows that it will be difficult for Elliott to refute without being hypocritical; it so closely parallels the arguments of their pro-Soviet friends.

(As a real-life example, here’s Snow’s contemporary, the poet Stephen Spender, remembering in The God That Failed what he believed as a young Communist in 1930s England:

One ceases to be inhibited by pity for the victims of revolution. … These lives have become abstractions in an argument in which the present is the struggle, and the future is Communism – a world where everyone will, eventually, be free. … It is “humanitarian” weakness to think too much about the victims. The point is to fix one’s eyes on the goal, and then one is freed from the horror and anxiety – quite useless in any case – which inhibit the energies of the liberal mind.)

Calvert, though himself intellectually subtle and temperamentally moderate, is attracted to simple and radical solutions. He is fond of a paradox (apparently a paraphrase of a famous line of the Cambridge clergyman Charles Simeon) that “the truth lies at both extremes. But never in the middle.” We see that his attraction to Nazism is connected to his religious yearnings – an atheist despite himself, he is terrified by the implications of free will, and suspects that he and others would be happier with their choices constrained. He perceives a germ of good sense at the core of the Nazi’s authoritarian philosophy which allows him to forgive their excesses.

It’s fascinating to hear such a likable character propound a tolerant view of Nazism, a view which must have been widespread in pre-war England but which now is so utterly abominated that it’s given voice only by cranks. As I’ve written before, despite its current reputation as a cesspool of drooling halfwits, had Nazism lasted longer as a governing philosophy it would inevitably, like Soviet Communism, have accumulated a vast library of subtle encomiums by anti-bourgeois intellectuals. People are capable of believing any implausible thing, and clever people are both better than the rest of us at coming up with good arguments for implausible beliefs, and more likely to be attracted to beliefs that give them the scope to demonstrate their cleverness. (The question, in this as in any other age, is whether our prevailing belief system is likely to stand up to the judgement of history, or whether we too will be revealed to have been taken in by a lot of fine-sounding razzmatazz.)

Calvert never exactly renounces his sympathies; when war breaks out he falls patriotically back into line. He tries retrospectively to explain to his friend his mixed feelings:

Roy said that he had never quite been able to accept the Reich. It was a feeble simulacrum of his search for God. Yet he knew what it was like to believe in such a cause. “If they had been just a little different, they would have been the last hope.” I said that was unrealistic: by the nature of things, they could not have been different. But he turned on me:

“It’s as realistic as what you hope for. Even if [the Germans] lose, the future isn’t going the way you think. Lewis, this is where your imagination doesn’t seem to work. But you’ll live to see it. It will be dreadful.”

As usual, Snow doesn’t spell out what Calvert means. I’d guess that in his disdain for the comfortable middle way Calvert dreads the triumph of Nietzsche’s Last Man, that stunted mediocrity incapable of higher aspirations than securing the safety of his own supple and well-moisturized hide:

One no longer becomes poor or rich; both are too burdensome. Who still wants to rule? Who still wants to obey? Both are too burdensome.

No shepherd, and one herd! Everyone wants the same; everyone is the same: he who feels differently goes voluntarily into the madhouse.

“Formerly all the world was insane,” – say the subtlest of them, and they blink.

They are clever and know all that has happened: so there is no end to their derision. People still quarrel, but are soon reconciled – otherwise it upsets their stomachs.

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health.

“We have discovered happiness,” – say the Last Men, and they blink.

–from Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nearly eighty years later we’re much further along the road to Last Manhood, and it’s a good bet that if Calvert had lived to see it he would have despised our culture of trigger warnings, social media mobs, and corporate thought policing. Whether the progressive Lewis Elliott would have adapted better to present-day pieties is unclear. In his broad-minded way he would no doubt have found much to praise about them; but I suspect he would have felt a twinge of compunction when he saw some so-called Nazi being harried from his career for threatening the highly-evolved sensibilities of the modern Left.

M.

Last year I voiced my revulsion at all the trendy talk about Nazi-punching, and more recently I expressed some sympathy for racist idiots. Nietzsche’s Last Man has been on my mind quite a bit over the last few years; witness this 2016 post about time travel, immigration, and the End of History which, I’ve come to realize, pretty much sums up everything I currently believe.

“You think I know f*** nothing?”

Toward the end of Nicholas Monsarrat’s World War II novel The Cruel Sea we find the frigate Saltash in charge of a convoy delivering supplies to the Soviet port of Murmansk, far above the Arctic Circle. The Russians are suspicious and resentful of their British allies who, as they see it, have been shirking their fair share of the war effort – hunkering down behind the Channel, postponing their promised invasion of France, while the Red Army fights a desperate defensive war.

These resentments bubble over in a shouting match between First Lieutenant Lockhart and a Russian interpreter. The fight ends on a farcical note:

At the head of the gangway [the interpreter] turned, for a final blistering farewell.

“You English,” he said, in thunderous accents and with extraordinary venom, “think we know damn nothing – but I tell you we know damn all.”

For a novel published in 1951, The Cruel Sea is rather more forthright than I was expecting. Death and mutilation are unflinchingly described, and prostitution, abortion, and venereal disease come up for discussion – albeit in language much less salty than real-life seamen were likely to have used.

While overall this linguistic propriety scarcely handicaps the novel, it struck me that the scene with the Russian would have been more effective if Monsarrat had been permitted fuller access to the vernacular – as David Niven enjoyed, a quarter century later, when he used the exact same gag in his Hollywood memoir Bring On The Empty Horses. The title derives from a supposed incident on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade:

Mike Curtiz was the director of The Charge and his Hungarian-oriented English was a source of joy to us all.

High on a rostrum he decided that the right moment had come to order the arrival on the scene of a hundred head of riderless chargers. “Okay!” he yelled into a megaphone. “Bring on the empty horses!”

[Errol] Flynn and I doubled up with laughter. “You lousy bums,” Curtiz shouted, “you and your stinking language…you think I know fuck nothing…well, let me tell you – I know FUCK ALL!”

It’s possible that Niven – who had no compunctions about rustling a stray anecdote and passing it off as his own – swiped this line from Monsarrat’s novel. It’s somewhat less likely (but still in the realm of possibility) that Michael Curtiz really was the originator of the “I know fuck all” gaffe, on the set of The Charge of the Light Brigade in 1936, and the punchline made its way across the Atlantic to Monsarrat’s ears.

Far likelier, the tale was floating around the British military during the war, and Monsarrat (Lt. Cdr., Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) and Niven (Lt. Col., British Army) independently heard it and stored it away for later use.

***

I shouldn’t single David Niven out for scorn; he just happens to be associated with the most famous version of the anecdote. A Google search reveals that it’s been recycled any number of times, and the verbal flub attributed to any number of funny-talking foreigners.

(By the way, I mistakenly assumed that “fuck nothing / fuck all” was the “authentic” version, and “damn nothing / damn all” a weak-tea substitute; but the latter seems to be the one more commonly reported by speakers of British English.)

In this biography of Sidney Poitier, the quote is put in the mouth of Hungarian director Zoltan Korda.

In a British humour book called Funny Shaped Balls the setting is a football match between England and Scotland, overseen by an exasperated Hungarian referee.

In this article credit is given to yet another Hungarian, conductor Georg Solti

…However, the Rough Guide to Classical Music assigns it to conductor Ernest Ansermet, a French-speaking Swiss.

The line is spoken by an Arab officer in a 1967 British theatrical farce called Bang Bang Beirut (…which it somehow pleases me to see was being performed as recently as 2017, at a high school in Austin, Texas).

This old British sailor claims to have heard it in the sixties from a Calcutta dock supervisor with a “sing song Indian accent”.

In a recent memoir by an American Air Force veteran, it’s delivered by a German guard in a WWII POW camp…

…But that Yank airman was beaten to it by a one-legged RAF POW who got his version of the story into print way back in 1957.

…The “unnamed German POW camp guard” attribution seems to be the most frequent; I can’t link to them all. I will single out the commenter on this blog who mistakenly remembers the line occurring somewhere in The Great Escape.

Who knows where the anecdote originated. Its appearance in The Cruel Sea is the earliest I’ve found; however, that may simply be because much before 1951, “damn all” (let alone “fuck all”) would’ve been considered pretty racy. The joke may have circulated for many years, without leaving a trace on the printed language, before Monsarrat seized on it.

M.

PS. Here’s a discussion of the origins of the expression “fuck all” and its variants, claiming that the horrific murder of the English girl Fanny Adams in 1867 inspired a morbid sailor’s joke comparing their unappetizing meat rations to the girl’s remains – later abbreviated to “sweet F.A.” – later misunderstood to denote “sweet fuck all”.

The Phrase Finder, however, claims that “fuck all” predates “Fanny Adams” and that the two phrases were conflated sometime between Fanny’s murder and World War I.

In a post last year that attempted to answer the question “Why read?” I quoted some other dubious David Niven anecdotes from Bring On The Empty Horses. On a related note, here’s Nevil Shute being told by the publishers of his first novel, in 1926, to replace every instance of the word “bloody” with “ruddy”.

Sergeant, erect that flagpole.

Early in Nicholas Monsarrat’s Second World War novel The Cruel Sea, newly commissioned Sub-Lieutenant Ferraby, serving on his first ship, is given an order he doesn’t understand:

“Single up to the stern-wire,” Bennett had said, and left it at that – though not forgetting to add, by way of farewell: “And if you get a wire round the screw, Christ help you!”

Ferraby wanders aft and looks despairingly at the mooring ropes leading off in various directions, not knowing how to proceed, sweating under the gaze of the old salts under his command. Then he has an inspiration:

He nodded to Tonbridge and said, simply:

“Single up to the stern-wire.”

Tonbridge said: “Aye aye, sir,” and then, to the nearest seamen: “Take off those wrappings,” and then, to the hands waiting on the jetty: “Cast off breast-rope and spring.” Men moved: the wires splashed in the water, and were hauled in: the moorings quickly simplified themselves, to one single rope running aft. It was easy as that.

Although relieved, Ferraby feels that he has “cheated” – disguising his ignorance by fobbing the responsibility onto his men. But perhaps he has actually demonstrated good military leadership. Steve Sailer, in his obit for his friend, the sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, shares a lesson he learned from the Korean War vet:

He once recalled a question from the Army Officer Candidate School test:

Q. You are in charge of a detail of 11 men and a sergeant. There is a 25-foot flagpole lying on the sandy, brush-covered ground. You are to erect the pole. What is your first order?

The right answer is:

A. “Sergeant, erect that flagpole.”

In other words, if the sergeant knows how to do it, then there’s no need for you to risk your dignity as an officer and a gentleman by issuing some potentially ludicrous order about how to erect the flagpole. And if the sergeant doesn’t know either, well, he’ll probably order a corporal to do it, and so forth down the chain of command. But by the time the problem comes back up to you, it will be well established that nobody else has any more idea than you do.

M.

Twelve years ago, in an essay inspired by the premise of Mike Judge’s barely-released movie Idiocracy, I summarized the climax of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s apocalyptic sci-fi classic Lucifer’s Hammer: “Ultimately the army of property rights and technological progress prevails in a bloody battle against the army of cannibalistic former welfare recipients.”

Aspects of the Novel and the limits of readers’ memories.

Midway through his famous discussion of “flat” versus “round” characters in Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster asks us to:

Suppose that Louisa Musgrave had broken her neck on the Cobb.

Forster has been evaluating the roundness of Jane Austen’s characters, so we can deduce that an incident from one of Austen’s books is being referred to; and toward the end of the next sentence, that book is disclosed as Persuasion.

I’ve read maybe a quarter of the books mentioned in Aspects of the Novel, and Persuasion happens to be one of them. Thinking hard, I reconstructed the scene: an excitable girl demands that her gentleman friend “jump her down” from the harbour wall to the pavement below; she miscalculates her jump, the gentleman misses, and (Austen females having the approximate constitution of ninety-year-old rheumatics) she spends the next few chapters on death’s door.

Aspects of the Novel was originally delivered, in 1927, as a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. Forster was confident not only that his hearers would recognize the allusion to Louisa on the Cobb, but that they would process it rapidly enough to give their attention to the fairly involved sentence that follows. Was he realistically gauging his audience’s recall – here, and on the many other occasions in Aspects where he takes for granted what I would consider a remarkable level of intimacy with these books?

Obviously, modern folks would be intimate with a different set of books than a 1927 crowd. Jane Austen remains well-known, though not so well that “Louisa Musgrave on the Cobb” will ring many bells. Henry James is still read; Oliver Goldsmith, less so; George Meredith, not at all.

No-one would today pick Walter Scott as an example of a novelist with “a trivial mind and a heavy style” whose continued fame relies on “happy sentimental memories” of having encountered him before our judgement had matured. Maybe Jack Kerouac or William S. Burroughs occupy a cultural space today comparable to Walter Scott’s circa 1927 – middlebrow relics evoking a bygone era of freedom and adventure, with enough residual literary cred that teenage readers are willing to pretend they’re not bored to death by them. But I doubt that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty are one-tenth as widely known to modern readers as Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood would have been to Forster’s audience.

Perhaps Tolkien is a closer modern parallel to Scott. But before Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations came out, I don’t recall the names Gandalf or Aragorn being known to anyone outside nerd circles. In fact, when I try and think of literary non-title characters famous enough that a modern Forster could confidently drop their names – Tom Joad, Scout Finch, Mr. Rochester – most of them are famous at least in part because of the movies.

The 21st century schmoe remembers as many fictional characters as a 1927 Cambridge lecture-goer, but the memory slots that would once have held the members of Fagin’s gang or the murderers of Julius Caesar have been filled instead with Mos Eisley background freaks and Hogwarts house-elves.

***

The Introduction to my edition of Aspects quotes two esteemed Cantabrigians who in their youth attended the talks upon which the book was based: theatre director George Rylands, who was charmed by Forster’s undogmatic appeal to “the Common Reader”; and the critic and generally acknowledged lemon-sucker F.R. Leavis, who was “astonished at the intellectual nullity” of Forster’s ideas, and dismissed his fawning audience as “sillier dons’ wives and their friends”. Forster himself, in his Author’s Note, all but begs forgiveness for his unrigorous tone.

At any rate, it seems he wasn’t trying to be obscure. I wonder whether a modern lecturer would make such breezy assumptions about the Common Reader’s cultural literacy. Or would it be safer to aim at the level of the dull students imagined by Kingsley Amis in a 1967 essay on the consequences of dumbing down the education system:

You will use up less of your allotted time, and thus enable yourself to cover that much more ground, if you can say “As Eliot wrote”, instead of “As Eliot wrote…What’s the trouble? Oh, sorry. As T.S. Eliot – ee ell eye oh tee – the poet, dramatist, playwright, that is, and critic wrote…” While the thicks get what they need, the bright people doodle. [1]

Put aside whether we modern readers are more shoddily educated than our great-grandparents. Even if we’d been equally well-schooled in literature, and spent as much of our recreation time reading, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of additional novels have appeared in the past ninety years. Granting that most of those novels were worthless and quickly forgotten, the pool of “important” novels from which to choose is enormously larger now than it was then.

Picture what it was like at the other end of literary history. Taking Aristotle to task for his comment in the Poetics that “All human happiness or misery takes the form of action”, Forster forgivingly mentions that Aristotle “had read few novels and no modern ones – the Odyssey but not Ulysses“.

(…Which contradicts Forster’s earlier definition of a novel as “a fiction in prose of a certain extent”; but never mind, the Odyssey functions very much like a novel.)

Granting that the Odyssey and Iliad are novels – and that there then existed a handful of other verse epics, now lost – it was ordinary for a Greek gentleman of Aristotle’s time to have read one hundred percent of all the novels ever written in his language; and with a little more effort, that gentleman might familiarize himself with most extant plays, poetry, philosophy, and history as well. Thus it was easy to carry on a literary conversation with a fellow educated gentleman. You could be confident that when you mentioned Nausicaä doing her washing, or Hector’s frightening helmet, he’d get the reference.

By Forster’s day it was no longer possible, let alone desirable, for an educated Englishman to be familiar with every novel in his language. But avid readers had, of necessity, at least peeked into a broad sample of all the ones that mattered: there weren’t that many, and there wasn’t that much else to do. The odds of two people having read any given book were lower than in Aristotle’s day, but still high enough that Forster didn’t have to worry about the sillier dons’ wives losing the thread.

Forster in 1927 is nearer in time to us than he was to Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe; let’s say chronologically he’s at roughly the two-thirds point in the 300-year history of the English novel. But if you imagine him standing alongside a row of all the books ever published, laid end to end in order of publication, he’s surprisingly close to the beginning of the row. Because the earliest books have been around longest, and have had more time to influence the ones that came after, their importance is disproportionate to their small number; and Forster has read most of the books that, even now, matter the most; which is why we can still read him with interest. But with every passing year, the likelihood decreases that a lecturer and his audience – or any two readers of similar taste and educational background – will have peeked into the same books. The Common Reader has less and less in common.

At some point, as the frontiers of the subject recede further and further beyond the horizon, it may become impractical to talk broadly about literature in the way that Forster in 1927 still could. In an empire so vast, a single obscure province – young adult sci-fi by British women authors, say – will be spacious enough that a reader need never leave it; and the critic who presumes to generalize will, like a foreign correspondent who claims familiarity with a place based on a couple days hanging out in the hotel bar, risk exposing the breadth of his ignorance.

M.

1. “Why Lucky Jim Turned Right”, in Amis’s collection What Became of Jane Austen? And Other Questions.

Just a few weeks ago I built a long, depressing essay around a passage from E.M. Forster’s collection Two Cheers For Democracy and his favourite word, muddle. I shared my embarrassingly belated first impressions of the Odyssey last year. My negative opinion of the critic F.R. Leavis comes mainly from some sarcastic remarks directed at him by Clive James, mentioned in my 2012 discussion of the entangled afterlives of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Christopher Hitchens.

Updike’s The Coup: Opposite possibilities.

An African official, in the act of organizing the non-violent coup which culminates John Updike’s The Coup, slyly invites the complicity of some visiting Americans:

“The channels of the mind, it may be, like those of our nostrils, have small hairs – cilia, is that the word? If we think always one way, these lie down and grow stiff and cease to perform their cleansing function. The essence of sanity, it has often been my reflection, is the entertainment of opposite possibilities: to think the contrary of what has been customarily thought, and thus to raise these little – cilia, am I wrong? – on end, so they can perform again in unimpeachable fashion their cleansing function. You want examples. If we believe that Allah is almighty, let us suppose that Allah is non-existent. If we have been assured that America is a nasty place, let us consider that it is a happy place.”

The official is advertising to the Americans his ideological flexibility, in contrast to his country’s dictator, the prophet of a macaronic anti-Western creed called “Islamic Marxism”. Putting aside the speaker’s cynical intentions, is there something to be said for entertaining challenging thoughts to activate the cilia in the “channels of the mind”?

It’s not a fashionable idea at present; witness (to pluck three examples from as many weeks of escalating Social Justice puritanism) the firing of Kevin Williamson by The Atlantic for carrying his anti-abortion beliefs to their logical conclusion, or the conviction of a Scottish YouTuber over a gag about his girlfriend’s Nazi pug dog, or the preposterously overheated responses to Jordan Peterson’s mild conservative nostrums.

Some of us are old enough to remember when the Left represented resistance to mob freakouts over sacrilege and indecency; we imagined this was a question of principle, not opportunism. Now it’s obvious that my young adulthood happened to coincide with a period of uncertainty between the collapse of one set of taboos, and the rise of another. For a half century or so, the skill of entertaining opposite possibilities was valued, idealized. Those of us who grew up during that half century assumed that keeping our cilia well-lubricated and flexible was healthy in itself. But maybe rather than the cilia, the fontanelles of the infant skull are a better analogy: they’re soft and yielding during the time of transition – the passage from one state to another, from pre- to post-natality – and then protectively harden. If taboos are a natural condition in human societies, thick-skulled acquiescence may be the healthiest option.

The Coup is a cilia-stimulating exercise in opposite possibilities, asking us to sympathize with the despot who, among other atrocities, burns alive a well-meaning American diplomat on a pyre of food crates intended for famine relief. His overthrow is possible because he takes leave of the capital to tour his country’s remote north, where he discovers an oil refinery, complete with an American-style suburb to house the native workers, has sprung up without his knowledge. He incites the locals to rise up and smash “this evil visitation, this malodorous eruption” of Western greed that is despoiling their pristine desert; his wavering mob is seduced away by the management’s offer of a free beer apiece at the refinery’s canteen.

Deposed, ignored, the ex-dictator winds up working as a short-order cook in a luncheonette, slinging burgers for the refinery workers. “[I]mmersed…relaxed at last” in the homogenizing, bourgeois End of History he had struggled to resist, he discovers subtle virtues in his deracinated countrymen:

There was no longer, with plenty, the need to thrust one’s personality into the face of the person opposite. Eye-contact was hard to make … The little hard-cornered challenges – to honor, courage, manliness, womanliness – by which our lives had been in poverty shaped were melting away, like our clay shambas and mosques, rounded into an inner reserve secret as a bank account; intercourse in Ellelloû moved to a music of disavowals that new arrivals, prickly and hungry from the bush, mistook for weakness but that was in fact the luxurious demur of strength.

I think in 1978 Updike assumed the reflexive anti-Westernism of the newly decolonized Third World was a last gasp, fated to be swept under in the inundation of pop culture and fast food and cheap consumer goods. I used to think so too; now I’m not so sure. Forty years on, Muslim opposition to the soft, seductive, soulless West of their imagination is more widespread, more entrenched than Updike could have foreseen; while in the West itself, impatience with the unevenness of our prosperity gives rise to new fanaticisms.

It remains to be seen whether we inheritors of the bourgeois order will prove to have reserves of unexpected strength on which to call.

M.

Shabby Russians, tidy Prussians.

Early in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel of World War I, August 1914, the Russian army advances into East Prussia, which has been evacuated in expectation of the invasion. Lieutenant Kharitonov and the men of his platoon marvel at the neatness and efficiency of the German farmlands they march through unopposed:

To think that there were farms supplied with electricity and telephones, and that even in this hot weather there were no flies and no stink of manure! Nowhere had anything been abandoned, scattered, or thrown down at random – and the Prussian peasants were hardly likely to have left their farms in such parade-ground order just because the Russian troops were coming! The bearded peasant soldiers were amazed. How, they asked, could the Germans keep their farms so tidy that there were no traces of work to be seen, everything put away in its place, ready for use? How could they live in such inhuman cleanliness, where you couldn’t even throw your coat down?

…And the uncannily spick-and-span towns and villages:

Soldau, like all German country towns, did not sprawl and take up good farmland as Russian towns do; it was not surrounded by a derelict belt of rubbish dumps and waste land; wherever you entered it, you at once found yourself passing neat, closely built rows of tiled, brick houses, some of them even three or four stories high, with roofs pitched to half the height of the house. The streets in these towns, as neat as corridors, were closely paved with flat, smooth setts or flagstones … Then equally suddenly the town would come to an end, the streets would stop, and only a few paces beyond the last house there would be a tree-lined highroad and precise, carefully marked-out fields.

Seeing all this evidence of German prosperity, they wonder:

And with so rich a country as this, what could have induced Kaiser Wilhelm to make a bid to conquer and take filthy, backward Russia?

As a Vancouverite, I’m used to hearing American visitors discussing my city in terms much like Solzhenitsyn’s Russian soldiers would’ve used to describe East Prussia – as a sterile tomorrowland of unlittered sidewalks and rational planning.

But every big city has a few neighbourhoods that seem to have been tidied by anal-retentive Prussians – along with a great many others, rarely shown to tourists, that appear to have been recently occupied by the Russian army.

I’m sure my city has some streets that would be up to Prussian standards. But imagine those Russian invaders transported a hundred years into the future and halfway around the world, and marched up the Fraser Valley into Vancouver. What would they think of the vast tracts of good farmland converted into empty parking lots? The suburban roads lined with used car lots, pawn shops, and run-down motels? The Downtown Eastside with its urine-reeking doorways, tents pitched in empty lots, alleys littered with used hypodermics?

Perhaps the invaders would wonder at the maniacs who, given all the extraordinary wealth and resources at their disposal, had built a metropolis as ugly, sprawling, and unclean as a pre-Revolution Russian peasant village.

Or perhaps they’d wonder how a society to all appearances as feckless and disorganized as tsarist Russia had managed to become so unfathomably wealthy.

Either way, they’d be just as surprised if they were transported back to modern-day Russia, and found its cities and towns looking pretty much like their North American equivalents. The blights afflicting Vancouver are in large part symptoms of modernity – cheap mass-produced goods, auto dependency, ever more potent narcotics, ever fewer opportunities for the non-brainy.

In Solzhenitsyn’s novel, after the Russians move into an abandoned town Lieutenant Kharitonov notices that it’s being “Russianized”:

A few men were rolling a barrel of beer. Others had obviously found poultry in the town, as bloodstained feathers from a plucked chicken were being blown along a pavement by the breeze, mixed with coloured wrapping papers and empty cartons. Spilled sugar and shattered glass crunched underfoot.

Soon looting breaks out, and buildings are set afire. But there’s no real malice to the occupiers’ destructiveness. The town is despoiled through boredom and drunken high spirits and the awareness that someone else will have to clean up the mess…an attitude hardly exclusive to Russian peasants.

M.

2011 vancouver stanley cup riot

Post-Stanley Cup riot, June 2011, Vancouver.
© Arlen Redekop / Pacific News Group.