Posts Tagged 'max beerbohm'

Max Beerbohm’s “A Clergyman” and posterity.

Every man illustrious in his day, however much he may be gratified by his fame, looks with an eager eye to posterity for a continuance of past favours, and would even live the remainder of his life in obscurity if by doing so he could insure that future generations would preserve a correct attitude towards him forever. This is very natural and human, but, like so many very natural and human things, very silly. [The dead] need not, after all, be pitied for our neglect of them. They either know nothing about it, or are above such terrene trifles.
–Max Beerbohm, “A Clergyman”.

A funny word, posterity. When we picture ourselves in relation to the flow of time, it’s with our faces thrust toward the future – toward posterity – and our posteriors toward the past. Those we describe as “backward” we imagine gazing adoringly at their antecedents while they retreat, as it were, into the future.

Posterity has two meanings, and it’s not always clear which is intended. It can refer to one’s direct descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so forth – or it can refer more vaguely to everyone who comes after us, whether related to us or not.

Thus the conservative blogger Steve Sailer observes that when the Founding Fathers wrote in the preamble to the U.S. constitution that their intention was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”, they had in mind chiefly the descendants of people then living in the United States; while the modern tendency is to interpret the passage as referring to the well-being of the people of the future more generally, including all those who aren’t Americans, but whose children or grandchildren might be, should one of them endeavour to splash across the Rio Grande.

robert graves i claudius

Claudius, the narrator of I, Claudius by Robert Graves, seems to have the more expansive definition in mind when he imagines his readership of the inconceivably remote future. The stuttering Roman emperor, puzzled by a prophetic couplet declaring that he will “speak clear” in nineteen hundred years, concludes that the prophecy is

an injunction to write the present work. When it is written, I shall treat it with a preservative fluid, seal it in a lead casket, and bury it deep in the ground somewhere for posterity to dig up and read. If my interpretation be correct it will be found again some 1,900 years hence.

(On second thought, he reflects that his memoir may have a better chance of survival if he simply leaves it lying around unprotected: “Apollo has made the prophecy, so I shall let Apollo take care of the manuscript.”)

Knowing from the same prophecy that Rome is destined to fall long before his manuscript is recovered, Claudius writes not in Latin but in Greek, which he believes “will always remain the chief literary language of the world”. I have no idea what Greek word or phrase would be translated as “posterity”, but Google suggests απόγονοι (apogonoi), which I gather is the modern form of classical Greek επίγονοι (epigonoi), a word that carries its own hint of a double meaning: the Epigoni, meaning “later-born”, were the offspring of the legendary heroes known as the Seven Against Thebes. From them we derive the English word “epigone”, meaning an unworthy successor or imitator – a rather inapt commemoration for the Epigoni, who unlike their fathers actually succeeded in conquering Thebes. (Apparently a 19th century German novel was responsible for the shift in meaning.)

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It’s common to observe that those with children of their own are more invested in the future than those without. That’s probably true, and yet I suspect it’s childless folks like me who spend more time thinking about posterity, precisely because we’re more self-absorbed: we’re more inclined to brood (because we have more free time in which to brood) over why we’re here, what was the point of it all, and what will survive of us after we’re gone.

As a backward-gazing person, I’ve always been interested in messages from the past to the future: time capsules, that sort of thing. My life has been too uneventful to make journal-keeping worthwhile, but for one whole calendar year – the year 2000 – I kept a journal, in which I looked back on the quarter of a century I’d then been alive, and speculated on what the next quarter-century would bring. On the last working day of the year I printed the journal, sealed it in a big envelope along with some photographs and letters (sealed already in smaller envelopes) that I’d solicited from friends, and mailed it to myself, to be opened in the year 2025.

time capsule 2000-2025

At the time, 2025 seemed nearly as remote to me as the 20th century must have seemed to Claudius – and yet here I am, already four-fifths of the way there. I’m curious to see what messages my friends enclosed for me, but I’m not exactly looking forward to re-reading my journal. I expect it to be quite depressing. Although I can’t remember precisely what in my mid-twenties I expected to achieve by my late forties, I know it was far more than I will actually have achieved. And I fear I have achieved so little precisely because I’m the kind of person who worries more about what the younger version of me would think of the current version, than about what the future version will think of himself.

As for what future generations will think of me: if for some reason you are reading this 1900 years in the future, I can only assume something has gone terribly wrong – an asteroid or nanobot swarm has wiped out all of earth’s literature, except for the contents of a single hard drive recovered from a tide-powered offshore server farm, kept in working order by a hereditary priesthood that has elevated my writings to the status of holy scripture. In that case, it’s only through my blog that knowledge of Shakespeare, Robert Heinlein, and Max Beerbohm has been preserved.

Sorry, 40th century digital monks: I know you’re dying to hear more about what a schmuck I was in my twenties, but I feel it’s my duty to preserve a few more fragments of Beerbohm…

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max beerbohm selected prose

In his touching essay from 1918, “A Clergyman”, Beerbohm draws our attention to a very peripheral character in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson.

Johnson and his amanuensis are visiting friends at their country villa when Boswell solicits the doctor’s opinion on “what were the best English sermons for style”. On this question, as on most, Johnson has strong opinions, and there follows a brief scene of Boswell lobbing out the names of then-celebrated ecclesiastics – Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, Smalridge – and Johnson flicking them aside with a word or two.

Finally another, previously unmentioned member of the party, whom Boswell describes merely as “a Clergyman, whose name I do not recollect”, pipes up to wonder, “Were not Dodd’s sermons addressed to the passions?”

To which Johnson replies, “They were nothing, Sir, be they addressed to what they may.”

On that abrupt note, the conversation ends, and the clergyman is never heard from again. Beerbohm alone marks his departure:

I know not which is the more startling – the debut of the unfortunate clergyman, or the instantaneousness of his end. Why hadn’t Boswell told us there was a clergyman present? … We may assume that in the minds of the company around Johnson he had no place. He sat forgotten, overlooked; so that his self-assertion startled every one just as on Boswell’s page it startles us. …

I see him as he sits there listening to the great Doctor’s pronouncement on Atterbury and those others. He sits on the edge of a chair in the background. … He has no positive intention of speaking. Very much, nevertheless, is he wishing in the back of his mind that he could say something – something whereat the great Doctor would turn on him and say, after a pause for thought, “Why yes, Sir. That is most justly observed” or “Sir, this has never occurred to me. I thank you” – thereby fixing the observer for ever high in the esteem of all. And now in a flash the chance presents itself. “We have,” shouts Johnson, “no sermons addressed to the passions that are good for anything.” I see the curate’s frame quiver with sudden impulse, and his mouth fly open, and – no, I can’t bear it, I shut my eyes and ears.

A sad fate for the unlucky clergyman; and yet thanks to Boswell’s and Beerbohm’s combined attentions, his sole recorded utterance still rouses the imaginative sympathies of 21st century readers. Can as much be said for whole volumes of Atterbury, Tillotson, Jortin, or Smalridge? They rose to the top of their profession, they inspired and instructed the rich and the worthy, their reputations were so great that Dr. Johnson could summarize their achievements in a word. And yet 150 years later their names communicated nothing but, as Beerbohm puts it, “a dim, composite picture of a big man in a big wig and a billowing black gown”.

He looks forward another 150 years and foresees readers being similarly unedified by a discussion of the famous authors of his own time – and indeed, of the seven names he mentions (Wells, Galsworthy, Mrs. Ward, Caine, Miss Corelli, Upton Sinclair, and Mrs. Glyn) as being comparable in stature, in his era, to Atterbury et al. in Johnson’s, I recognized only three. And it’s barely been a century. Another fifty years should see off the survivors.

By that time Beerbohm will also be forgotten, and with him the flickering shade of that nervous clergyman. But of the latter at least we can assume that he went to his rest confident that a more enduring afterlife awaited him – that he was “above such terrene trifles”.

If only we all could believe the same…

M.

“A Clergyman” inevitably brings to mind Beerbohm’s marvellous short story “Enoch Soames”, in which a talentless author of that name sells his soul to the devil to be transported a hundred years into the future – to the year 1997 – to see how posterity has treated him. I have previously referred to Dr. Johnson in a postscript to my reflections on growth vs. fixed mindset in 2017, and to Max Beerbohm in a discussion of the Italian actress Eleonora Duse a few weeks ago.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Eleonora Duse: “I had the feeling that I understood every word.”

Early in Robert Heinlein’s 1958 sci-fi adventure novel Have Space Suit – Will Travel we meet a lemur-like alien called the Mother Thing, whose language resembles the “endlessly varied songs of a mockingbird”.

robert a. heinlein have space suit will travel

When she is introduced to Kip, our youthful hero, he is surprised to realize that he understands her twitterings:

I would have been an idiot not to know that the Mother Thing was speaking to me because I did understand and understood her every time. If she directed a remark at Peewee alone, it was usually just birdsongs to me – but if it was meant for me, I got it.

Call it telepathy if you like … I never read her mind and I don’t think she read mine. We just talked.

As Kip, Peewee, and the Mother Thing are in the middle of escaping from some nasty space pirates, he is obliged to postpone examination of the mystery. Later, on the Mother Thing’s homeworld in the Vega system, Kip finds that he is able to communicate, though somewhat less consistently, with others of her species. He theorizes:

The Vegans have a supreme talent to understand, to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I don’t think it was telepathy, or I wouldn’t have gotten so many wrong numbers. Call it empathy.

… I once read about an actress who could use Italian so effectively to a person who did not understand Italian that she always made herself understood. Her name was “Duce”. No, a “duce” is a dictator. Something like that. She must have had what the Mother Thing had.

I had never heard of this legendarily expressive Italian actress, but Heinlein’s story bumped along so irresistibly that within a couple pages I’d forgotten my vague intention of looking her up. It was only by chance that a few days later, in an essay by the novelist and critic Max Beerbohm – whom I’ll return to later – I came across the name Eleonora Duse.

While her elder rival Sarah Bernhardt to this day occupies a small but lively alcove in the popular imagination, Duse has been pretty much forgotten by everyone except historians of the theatre. But to American writers of Heinlein’s generation her name would still have been familiar. From the 1890s until the rise of silent pictures, the Italian Duse contended with the French Bernhardt for the position of world’s most famous actress. At the height of her fame she toured the United States and, at a time when actors were still seen as a tad declassé, was hosted by Grover and Mrs. Cleveland in the White House. Later she had the mixed luck – bad for her, but good for her American reputation – to die in Pittsburgh.

In an 1895 essay George Bernard Shaw commemorated an unusual head-to-head acting battle between Bernhardt and Duse when, in the same week, in competing West End theatres, they performed the same role in the same play. In Shaw’s judgement, the contest wasn’t even close:

[Bernhardt]’s stock of attitudes and facial effects could be catalogued as easily as her stock of dramatic ideas: the counting would hardly go beyond the fingers of both hands. Duse produces the illusion of being infinite in variety of beautiful pose and motion. Every idea, every shade of thought and mood, expresses itself delicately but vividly to the eye; and yet, in an apparent million of changes and inflexions, it is impossible to catch any line of an awkward angle, or any strain interfering with the perfect abandonment of all the limbs to what appears to be their natural gravitation towards the finest grace.

What’s noteworthy about the above review is that Shaw doesn’t see it as necessary to mention that the parallel productions were in, respectively, French and Italian – for Bernhardt and Duse performed only in their native tongues.

Most educated Londoners of Shaw’s era would have been (like Shaw) literate in French – though not in Italian. But an inability to follow the dialogue wasn’t seen as an obstacle, in those days, to relishing a performance by a foreign touring company. The modern reader will no doubt share my dubiety at this anecdote from one of Bernhardt’s tours of the American West:

On February 22, 1913, she performed for the two thousand-odd inmates of California’s San Quentin state prison a one-act drama, Une Nuit de Noël sous la Terreur (“A Christmas Night under the Terror”). “For an hour,” read a letter from the prisoners, “through your wondrous personality and entrancing art we have been, in soul and in mind, at perfect liberty – captive only of that remarkable force and fire which have made men call you divine…”

Yes, the inmates wrote those words, so transported were they by this sixty-nine year old Frenchwoman’s performance, in French, of an hour-long play about the French Revolution.

As for the legend of Eleonora Duse, that she could make herself understood even to non-speakers of Italian, it gets some support from Anton Chekhov, who wrote after seeing her in St. Petersburg:

I don’t understand Italian, but she played so beautifully that I had the feeling I understood every word. A remarkable actress. I’ve never seen anything like it.

max beerbohm selected prose

On the other hand, Max Beerbohm, who saw Duse in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1903, argued that the rapture that had greeted her performance was insincere:

[It would] be an impossible feat not to be bored by the Italian version of Hedda Gabler. Why not confess your boredom? … [T]here seems to me no form of humbug sillier or more annoying than the habit of attending plays that are acted in a language whereof one cannot make head nor tail.

Beerbohm attempts to project himself into the minds of those who pursue such masochistic pleasures:

Perhaps they really do feel that they are taking a means of edification. “We needs must praise the highest when we see it”; Duse is (we are assured) the highest; therefore we needs must see her, for our own edification, and go into rhapsodies. Such, perhaps, is the unsound syllogism which these good folk mutter. I suggest, of what spiritual use is it to see the highest if you cannot understand it?

…And goes on to imagine the mesmerized playgoer flapping away self-doubts:

“Oh, Duse’s personality is so wonderful. Her temperament is so marvellous. And then her art! It doesn’t matter whether we know Italian or not. We only have to watch the movements of her hands” (rhapsodies omitted) “and the changes of her face” (r. o.) “and the inflections of her voice” (r. o.) “to understand everything, positively everything.” Are you sure? I take it that you understand more from the performance of an Italian play which you have read in an English translation than from the performance of an Italian play which never has been translated. There are, so to say, degrees in your omniscience. You understand more if you have read the translation lately than if a long period has elapsed since your reading of it. Are you sure that you would not understand still more if the play were acted in English?

Setting the language question aside, Beerbohm proceeds to doubt Duse’s heretofore unchallenged acting chops. While Shaw had asserted that “behind every stroke of [Duse’s acting] is a distinctively human idea”, the trouble as Beerbohm saw it was that those human ideas had little connection to the characters they were meant to vivify:

I have seen her in many parts, but I have never (you must take my evidence for what it is worth) detected any difference in her. To have seen her once is to have seen her always. She is artistically right or wrong according as whether the part enacted by her can or cannot be merged and fused into her own personality.

And he closes by complaining that throughout the performance of Hedda Gabler he could hear Duse’s prompter hissing her lines to her, “like the continuous tearing of very thick silk”.

Duse’s genius, if such it were, is lost to us. A proposed collaboration with the American director D.W. Griffith never got off the ground. A recording of her voice made by Thomas Edison in 1896 was somehow misplaced. The only extant record of her acting is a silent film called Cenere, from 1916, when she was fifty-eight years old and in semi-retirement. Surviving prints are extremely degraded. The intertitles are in Italian. I couldn’t sit through it.

For whatever reason, Duse’s stage persona was electrifying to turn-of-the-century audiences. But the notion that she could dissolve the language barrier by force of charisma, or emotional expressiveness, or body language, or what-have-you, I think we can consign to the realm of science-fiction.

M.

In previous essays I’ve discussed G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (and the toleration of heresy) and Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (and the demographic death-spiral).

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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