Posts Tagged 'c.p. snow'

The chain of incomprehension.

With Shakespearean knots on my mind recently, I had my eyes open for other examples of knotty writing.

Like this one in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Glanton, leader of a gang of American mercenaries hunting Apache scalps in northern Mexico, is brooding over the campfire:

He’d long forsworn all weighing of consequence and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since, before there were paths anywhere, before there were men or suns to go upon them.

I read that five or six times, getting madder each time, and finally decided it must contain a typo. Swapping in the word “by”, if it didn’t quite unfuddle the meaning, at least resolved the sentence into some kind of syntactical clarity:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and by his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

But it turns out that others had already untangled McCarthy’s knotty grammar. If that offending “be” is assumed to be in the subjunctive mood, the sentence comes smooth:

…he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the world would be to him and [though] his charter [be] written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so…

Argh. Why not just write that in the first place? Why be deliberately obscure?

…To which a Cormac McCarthy fan might answer (sans quotation marks, of course), why not print the crossword with the answers filled in?

***

Casting around for examples of long-winded drivel to contrast with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s soliloquy on Salic inheritance in Henry V, I thought of Lucky’s speech in Waiting For Godot.

To summarize the play, two hoboes are waiting in a desolate landscape for a benefactor named Godot, who will never arrive. A self-possessed rogue named Pozzo happens by, whipping along his slave, the elderly and apparently mute Lucky. For his new friends’ amusement, Pozzo instructs Lucky first to dance, and then to “Think!” …at which the slave, at first haltingly, declaims:

Given the existence as uttered forth in the public works of Puncher and Wattmann of a personal God quaquaquaqua with white beard quaquaquaqua outside time without extension who from the heights of divine apathia divine athambia divine aphasia loves us dearly with some exceptions for reasons unknown but time will tell …

…And so on for three pages, to the increasing exasperation of his audience, onstage and off. I remain of the opinion that this speech was scribbled out by Samuel Beckett in a process of free-association, perhaps incorporating snatches of whatever printed matter happened to be at hand, and taking not much longer to compose than it would take to read aloud; i.e., eight minutes or so. But there are scholars who’ve dedicated vast energies to the exegesis of Lucky’s speech, which is, we are assured, “as carefully constructed as the play itself” – which praise may, subject to your view of the rest of the play, be self-cancelling.

There’s a story called “Dear Illusion” by Kingsley Amis. (It’s the inspiration for the ugly cover for his Collected Short Stories, shown and discussed here.) A venerable and beloved poet, doubting whether he’s deserving of the critical adulation that has belatedly elevated him to national fame, dashes off a volume’s worth of poems in a single day, “just putting down whatever came into my head in any style I thought of”, including this Luckyish gem:

Man through different shell all over turns into sea swelling birth comes light through different man all over light shell into sea. Rock waits noon out of sky by tree same turns into rock by noon out of sky underneath tree out of same rock. …

That such half-assed efforts are as widely and vaporously praised as his earlier, sweated-over ones confirms to the poet the worthlessness of his life’s work, which he publicly disavows at a gala dinner in his honour:

“With respect, Sir Robert wasn’t quite right in saying I’ve been neglected. If only I had been. … I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time for thirty-eight years writing what’s supposed to be poetry; I’d have looked round for some other way of coping with the state of mind that made me write those things.”

Later, when a sympathetic journalist tries to convince the poet that his experiment hasn’t definitively proven his lack of talent:

“Not like in geometry, no. Just a very strong presumption. Quite strong enough for me.”

“But…you may still be good even though…”

“You mean God or somebody may think I’m good. I’d certainly respect his opinion. But he’s not letting on, is he?”

***

C.P. Snow’s The Sleep of Reason deals with the same themes as Blood Meridian – the unfathomable workings of fate; the ever-immanent human lust for depravity and how swiftly it reemerges when societal constraints break down – but in a modest and unfussy style that, to my mind, underlines the central mystery more effectively than McCarthy’s freakshow of bloodstained ruffians muttering curses at the remorseless sun.

Toward the end, after getting entangled in the trial of a pair of sadistic murderers whose motives are never fully explained, Snow’s narrator attends a relative’s funeral and has his attention captured by a knotty passage in I Corinthians:

[Our ancestors] must have gone to the funeral services in the village churches, and listened to this Pauline eloquence for at least a dozen generations. Some of that gene-pool was in us. Gone stoically, most of them, I thought. As with us, phrases stuck in their memories. As with me as a child, the rabbinical argumentation washed over them.

Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin: and the strength of sin is the law.

How old was I, when I first became puzzled by that gnomic phrase? We had all listened to it, the whole line of us, life after life, so many lives, lost and untraceable now.

In the unlikely event that C.P. Snow is still being read 400 years from now, our descendants will find much in his novels to confuse them: strange customs, forgotten fashions, obsolete turns of phrase…but perhaps amid the confusion they, like me, will be arrested by the image of a long chain of simple men and simple women half-following the drone of the burial service, their eyes suddenly narrowing in puzzlement, linked across time by a moment of common incomprehension.

M.

 

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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.