Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category


Frank Raymond Leavis 2 — Anon

July 24, 2014
F. R. Leavis, not a happy man. Yet it is also true that in the 40s and 50s and certainly the 60s many writers felt the need to project suffering through embracing drink or drugs.

F. R. Leavis, not a happy man. Yet it is also true that in the 40s and 50s and certainly the 60s many writers felt the need to project suffering through embracing drink or drugs.

We no longer have the kind of literary brokers like F.R. Leavis who was able to tell us what to read and why was important to do so. His opinion mattered in ways that no longer exist. It is as if we now have too many experts.


Leavis moved from Emmanuel to Downing in 1931 and was elected a Fellow there in 1936. Revaluation: Tradition and Development in English Poetry, published that year, completed the anterior history suggested by New Bearings; but this was a new kind of literary history centered, as its title suggests, not in descriptive narrative but in critical evaluation, and concerned where necessary with radical reappraisals. It contained one of his most famous and controversial formulations: ‘Milton’s dislodgement, in the past decade, after his two centuries of predominance, was effected with remarkably little fuss.’ Eliot’s influence is explicitly invoked here: his alteration of poetic expression and its relationship to his interest in early 17th century literature.

Another influence was John Middleton Murry. Leavis admired his Aspects of Literature (1920) and The Problem of Style (1922), where Murry compared Shakespeare and Milton to the latter’s disadvantage. In Leavis’s dealings with poetry – and with literature and culture more generally – the Shakespearean use of language was always a touchstone.

The prose style and the underlying intellectual tenor of Revaluation are, however, already distinctively Leavisian. The book also gave rise to an important exchange with René Wellek in Scrutiny (March and June, 1937) where Leavis showed a concern (it was to be a lifelong one) to ‘vindicate literary criticism as a distinct and separate discipline’. Wellek had said he shared a number of Leavis’s assumptions but would have wished them to be stated more explicitly and defended systematically. This misconception has dogged subsequent representation of Leavis’s work, the more so in recent decades when ‘theory’ has been ascendant. The essence of Leavis’s reply is contained here:

Words in poetry invite us, not to ‘think about’ … but to … realize a complex experience … They demand … a completer responsiveness [than an abstracting process can supply]. The critic … is indeed concerned with evaluation, but to figure him as measuring with a norm which he brings up to the object from the outside is to misrepresent the process.

Leavis could be a formidable controversialist, as F.W.Bateson discovered in the pages of Scrutiny for Spring and October 1953. Bateson had challenged Leavis’s reading (in Revaluation) of Marvell’s poem ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’ (and an associated comparison with Pope) alleging deficiencies in Leavis’ scholarly knowledge. He concentrated in particular on what he called Marvell’s ‘picture language’ enlisting the Quarles emblems in support. The truth, Leavis pointed out, was the opposite. Marvell presents us with paradoxes in which a visual element is present but far from dominant:

How do we see the Soul? What visual images correspond to ‘fetter’d’ and manacled’? We certainly don’t see manacles on the Soul’s hands and feet: the Soul’s hands and feet are the Body’s, and it is the fact that they are the Body’s that makes them ‘manacles’ …

Leavis does not deny that a certain amount of specialist knowledge may assist the reading of a poem but it is always the intelligent reading of the poem itself that takes priority. The historical context in which Bateson proposes to anchor the reading is something much less determinate. Leavis takes the opportunity to make a point which is especially valid today in relation to theories of ‘cultural materialism’ and ‘new historicism’:

To suggest that their purpose should be to reconstruct a postulated ‘social context’ that once enclosed the poem and gave it its meaning is to set the student after something that no study of history, social, economic, political, intellectual, religious, can yield. The poem … is there; but there is nothing … that can be set over against the poem, or induced to re-establish itself round it as a kind of framework or completion, and there never was anything.

Middle Years
The Great Tradition, studies of George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, published in 1948, did for the English novel what Revaluation had done for English poetry: it provided literary history that possessed an essential centre of interest. Comment has been made on the narrow focus of this book: an English tradition exemplified in just three novelists, one Polish and one American by birth. In his introductory chapter, Leavis strongly justifies the need for major discriminations in so vast a field and sets his chosen subjects, with special regard to Jane Austen and D. H Lawrence, in a field of reference which illustrates his remarkable range of reading: it amounts to erudition.

The individual studies, mainly derived from Scrutiny, are finely responsive: masterpieces of Leavisian ‘moral’ analysis. Those on George Eliot in particular show a remarkable inwardness, almost unknown today, with the culture from which she stemmed. (Queenie Leavis’s writings on the nineteenth century novel show something of the same quality, and it is here most obviously that the creative partnership between the Leavises shows itself.) In his introduction to Mill on Bentham and Coleridge (1950) Leavis illustrates how the intellectual currents which met in J. S. Mill have their imaginative counterpart in George Eliot’s major novels. At the same time he sketches the nature of profitable literary study: ‘the difference between the retailing of … amassed externalities and the effort to think something out into a grasped and unified order …’

The Common Pursuit followed in 1952, collecting many of his best articles from Scrutiny, including important pieces on Milton and his reply to Wellek on literary criticism and philosophy.

Some have argued that D. H. Lawrence: Novelist (1955) showed a falling off in Leavis’s analytical gifts, having a significantly greater amount of pure quotation and of exclamatory praise. But it is hard after half a century of academic industry devoted to Lawrence (and many others on whom Leavis wrote with originality) to recognize its pioneering nature. It is also marked by a passionate intensity rarely equalled in Leavis’ oeuvre:

I am not, then, [he writes in an appendix on Eliot's attitudes towards Lawrence] impressed by any superiority of religious and theological knowledge in a writer capable of exposing what is to me the shocking essential ignorance that characterizes The Cocktail Party … ignorance of the effect the play must have on a kind of reader or spectator of whose existence the author appears to be unaware: the reader who has, himself, found serious work to do in the world and is able to be unaffectedly serious about it, who knows what family life is and has helped to bring up children and who, though capable of being interested in Mr Eliot’s poetry, cannot afford cocktail civilization and would reject it, with contempt and boredom, if he could afford it.

For all Lawrence’s diversity, which Leavis recognized, two novels, The Rainbow and Women in Love , would always for him constitute Lawrence’s central achievement. With some justification, he adduced the author’s own estimate of them in support of this claim. The emphasis for Leavis was always on Lawrence as a profound explorer of inner human experience, one who developed the possibilities of the novelist’s art in the service of this idea.

D. H. Lawrence Novelist is grounded also in a profound sense of Lawrence ‘s belonging (as he felt himself to do) to the civilization of the English people. Of the earlier novel he says:

The Lawrence who developed in the writing of it found himself compelled to another mood; he expresses in the later part of the book that sense of human problems as they were in contemporary civilization which has its profound and complete expression in Women in Love .

In spite of a sense as the novel draws on that the writer has no conclusion in view, The Rainbow has its own organic form:

And how much of England that can have no other record than the creative writer’s there is in The Rainbow . The wealth of the book in this respect is such as must make it plain to any reader that, as social historian, Lawrence, among novelists, is unsurpassed … The Rainbow shows us the transmission of the spiritual heritage in an actual society … Where Women in Love has that astonishing comprehensiveness in the presentment of contemporary England … The Rainbow has instead its historical depth.

‘These two books,’ he concluded, ‘would by themselves have been enough to place Lawrence among the greatest English writers.’

A striking feature of D. H. Lawrence Novelist – contributing to one’s sense of Leavis’s writing as of a different order from that of the general ruck of critics – is the fiercely articulate conviction with which it attempts to right the injustices perpetrated against a great writer’s reputation. Not least, Leavis takes issue with a widely held view of Lawrence as characteristically humorless. Invoking the short stories in particular, he proposes Lawrence as ‘one of the great masters of comedy’ – a truth exemplified in a wide range of his shorter fictions, ‘tales evoking many different kinds of smile and laughter, though never the cruel, the malicious or the complacent.’ This humor, Leavis suggests, is a ‘natural expression of Lawrence’s supremely intelligent vitality’. But ‘a world that finds the quintessence of wit in Congreve and Wilde will perhaps continue to find Lawrence humorless.’


Frank Raymond Leavis 1 — Anon

July 23, 2014
'In his youth', noted The Times' obituarist, 'he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.

‘In his youth’, noted The Times’ obituarist, ‘he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.

Frank Raymond (F R) Leavis (1895-1978) is now recognized as one of the most influential literary critics and teachers of his time and among the major intellectual figures of the 20th century.


Frank Raymond Leavis was born in Cambridge on 14th July 1895 and attended the Perse School there. He went up to Emmanuel College in 1914, where (resuming studies after the Great War) he read History and English, the latter being then new as a university discipline at Cambridge. He would recall those early years of the English tripos in his 1967 Clark Lectures (published in 1969 as English Literature in our Time and the University), evoking vividly the pioneering spirit of the new venture.

He served in the war in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, carrying a pocket Milton throughout the ordeal. Though he rarely spoke of them, his wartime experiences affected him deeply and remained with him for the rest of his life. He would much later recall carrying buckets of cocoa along the roofs of ambulance trains (without corridors) ‘to men who would have died without it’ and ‘the innumerable boy subalterns who … had climbed out and gone forward, playing their part in the attacking wave, to be mown down with the swathes that fell to the uneliminated machine guns.’

Early  Intellectual Influences
In another autobiographical passage he remembered ‘those early years after the great hiatus’ when he had ‘struggled to achieve the beginnings of articulate thought about literature’. The figures who ‘really counted’ then were George Santayana (though ‘not fundamentally congenial’) and Matthew Arnold, to be followed soon by T.S.Eliot: he bought The Sacred Wood when it came out in 1920. (Eliot’s paradoxical distinction would preoccupy him for much of his life.) Along with these went the influence of Ford Madox Ford’s (or Hueffer’s) English Review to which Leavis had subscribed as a schoolboy in 1912.

It was here that he first came on the writing of D. H. Lawrence (‘the necessary opposite’, as he would later call him, in relation to Eliot). Leavis was impressed by Ford’s recognition that in the ‘irreversible new conditions’ of modern industrial civilisation the concern for ‘the higher cultural values’ must reside with a small minority, while at the same time that concern must concede nothing to ‘the preciousness, fatuity or spirit of Aestheticism’. That view was to be a cornerstone of his own periodical Scrutiny (1932-53). An important aspect of the Scrutiny ‘manifesto’ also, in a Marxising era, would be its freedom from organised ideology: a ‘space’ for disinterested intellectual enquiry founded in the ‘autonomy of the human spirit’.

In Mansfield Forbes, one of the early lecturers for the tripos, Leavis found an inspiring example of critical and teaching method. He also found stimulation in the early work of I.A.Richards (though he would part company with him when Richards developed interests in semiology). In 1924 he took one of the earliest PhDs in the School with a thesis on the periodical literature of the eighteenth century with particular reference to Addison’s Spectator. He retained a lifelong interest in the sociology of literature and a profound concern for cultural continuity. His wife would exemplify similar interests in her classic study (which grew out of her PhD thesis), Fiction and the Reading Public (1932). He collaborated with Denys Thompson on a small primer for schools aimed at encouraging critical awareness: Culture and Environment (1933).

He also admired The Calendar of Modern Letters edited by Edgell Rickword, a quarterly which ran from 1925 to 1927. Leavis was to see its failure to win a sufficient public as an index of cultural decline. Its concern with the maintenance of critical standards was to be an important inspiration behind Scrutiny. The Calendar ran a series of intelligent deflations of what it saw as the exaggerated reputations of such contemporary figures as H.G.Wells, J.M.Barrie, G.K.Chesterton and John Galsworthy (the Galsworthy critique was written by D.H.Lawrence): these articles were later collected by Edgell Rickword under the title Scrutinies.

In 1933 Leavis published a selection from The Calendar, with an appreciative introduction, under the title Towards Standards of Criticism (re-printed in 1976 with both the original and a new introduction – in effect a retrospect – by Leavis). It contains one of his most important and original formulations: a reference point for the many subsequent assaults he made on the problem of value-judgement:

Literary criticism provides the test for life and concreteness; where it degenerates, the instruments of thought degenerate too, and thinking, released from the testing and energizing contact with the full living consciousness, is debilitated, and betrayed to the academic, the abstract and the verbal. It is of little use to discuss values if the sense for value in the concrete – the experience and perception of value – is absent.

Teaching at Cambridge
By 1925 he was doing some part-time teaching at Emmanuel. D.W.Harding, who was later to be a fellow editor of Scrutiny, recalled his qualities as a teacher when, looking back fifty years in a broadcast symposium in 1975, he said:

He was really superb. I remember the feelings with which this other man and I would come away. We would be partly exhilarated and partly a bit subdued and rueful, perhaps. Exhilarated because of the new insights and the fine discriminations he had made, and sobered because he kept such extremely high standards in insight and one just realised how unskilled one was as a reader. At the same time, there was no feeling that he belittled you in any way – if you had difficulties or raised objections, then he met you on those. He could scrap what he was going to say and just meet you on whatever you were interested in.

Another pupil, William Walsh, recalled:

One always had the feeling that one wasn’t simply discussing what was there on the page. This was taking place, of course, but the discussion was deeply rooted and far-reaching, dealing with all that one felt was really important in life … Leavis’s teaching always seemed to engage both these facets: one’s personal life, and the life of the mind – the search for the significance of life itself.

In 1929 he married the vivacious and prodigiously clever Queenie Dorothy Roth, whom he had supervised at Girton. The next few years brought a wonderful harvest of critical work culminating in the annus mirabilis of 1932 when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry (with its perceptive discussions of Yeats, Pound and Eliot), Q.D.L. published Fiction and the Reading Public, and the quarterly periodical Scrutiny was founded.

It is sometimes suggested that that Scrutiny in its later years was indifferent to contemporary literature, but it is worth recalling that Leavis in his earlier years was in the vanguard. He incurred the displeasure of the public authorities by lecturing on the banned Ulysses in the mid-1920s. As to the teaching of contemporary work in the 1930s, Muriel Bradbrook recalled Leavis’s interest in the poetry of I.A.Richards’s pupil, the ex-student of mathematics, William Empson. She recalled: ‘It cannot be very often that undergraduates are taught the poetry of a fellow undergraduate, but we were taught about some of Empson’s poems by Leavis.’ He was also writing on Eliot and on Lawrence in the 1920s and early ’30s.

Leavis had enemies in the English Faculty, however; his outstanding abilities and the Scrutiny project did not enable him to obtain a permanent Faculty post (the latter may even have militated against him). In 1936, however, (the year in which Revaluation appeared) he was made a Lecturer (though on a part-time salary), at the age of 41, after having been a Probationary (or Assistant) Lecturer since 1927.

This situation continued until 1947 when, at the age of 52, he achieved a full-time Lectureship. He had seen younger and less able candidates given precedence. All this (and the lack of academic recognition accorded his wife) was to be a source of bitterness to him both at the time and in later years: a bitterness contained by his high intelligence and powers of self-sufficiency. ‘In his youth’, noted The Times’ obituarist, ‘he had shown prowess at cross-country racing and the loneliness of the long-distance runner adhered.’


Introducing Proust’s Way – Roger Shattuck

November 13, 2013
À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust is one of the most profoundly visual works in Western literature. Not only are there frequent references to specific works of art, notably during the narrator's visits to Venice and in his evaluations of the style of the imaginary painter Elstir, but certain characters are also evoked by comparison to particular paintings. Bloch's appearance as a boy is likened to the portrait of Mohammed II by Gentile Bellini; Odette de Crécy strikes Swann by her resemblance to a figure in a Botticelli fresco. Even the lesser figure of a certain Mme. Blattin becomes the subject of Proustian mischief by being described as "exactly the portrait of Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo." Eric Karpeles has identified and located the many paintings to which Proust makes reference; in other cases, where only a painter's name is mentioned to indicate a certain style or appearance, Karpeles has chosen a representative work to illustrate the impression that Proust sought to evoke.

À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust is one of the most profoundly visual works in Western literature. Not only are there frequent references to specific works of art, notably during the narrator’s visits to Venice and in his evaluations of the style of the imaginary painter Elstir, but certain characters are also evoked by comparison to particular paintings. Bloch’s appearance as a boy is likened to the portrait of Mohammed II by Gentile Bellini; Odette de Crécy strikes Swann by her resemblance to a figure in a Botticelli fresco. Even the lesser figure of a certain Mme. Blattin becomes the subject of Proustian mischief by being described as “exactly the portrait of Savonarola by Fra Bartolomeo.” Eric Karpeles has identified and located the many paintings to which Proust makes reference; in other cases, where only a painter’s name is mentioned to indicate a certain style or appearance, Karpeles has chosen a representative work to illustrate the impression that Proust sought to evoke.

I attended two lectures on Proust at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston the other day, one on the paintings in In Search of Lost Time and the second on the music of Proust’s creation, the composer Vinteuil. The first talk was given by the author of Paintings in Proust, Eric Karpeles, who presents a visual companion to In Search of Lost Time. Read the excerpt here  to get an idea of what he is up to.

A hundred years separates us from the publication of  Swann’s Way and as readers we tend to lose the connections with the ecosystems of some books — so the talk was a way for me to insert myself into Proust’s world and his novel, one that really marked a break with older traditions. The following was a reading I used to prep myself for the talks.

Shattuck’s stressing of the principle of intermittence where living means to perceive different and often conflicting aspects of reality was supported explicitly in the talks and particularly the examples Proust used in music.


Among the handful of literary classics produced in this century(written in the 20th), Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is the most oceanic — and the least read. Joyce and Kafka, Faulkner and Camus sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Proust sells barely in the thousands. His substantial reputation as an extreme case of something — longwindedness, psychological vivisection, the snobbery of letters, salvation by memory — rests not on wide readership but on a myth of uniqueness that often hides his true attractions. In an era when the significance and the privileged status of the work of art are being both questioned and reinforced, this ultimate monument to the artistic vocation, banked high on all sides by interpretation and biography, refuses to sink back into the sands of time.

The inordinate length of Proust’s novel (three thousand pages) goes a long way toward explaining the wariness of readers. Balzac’s one hundred volume printout of all French society comes in separate packages the links between the volumes serve as a special reward for the persevering. The first two sections of Proust’s novel, “Combray” and “Swann in Love,” can stand separately and have earned many admirers. Yet true believers insist that there is no substitute for the cumulative effect of the whole work. Understandably, many readers hesitate to make the investment of time and attention required to assimilate even a fraction of the whole.

Compounding the challenge of sheer magnitude and of an extended plot, there is Proust’s style. His transcontinental sentences contribute to the appearance of a motionless plot. The original French is no easier than the translations. How can one follow a story line through such labyrinthine prose? One reason why true believers are right to insist on a full reading is that you cannot distinguish the plot if the first sections are all you have to go on. Proust’s first critics were at a terrible disadvantage; they had to interpret the whole from a few parts.

As a result, Proust had to serve as the sole qualified guide to his own uncompleted work. He devoted endless letters and several newspaper interviews to rebutting his critics and explaining episodes still to come. Gradually, Proust’s description of his work has been validated by several generations of critics. But for fifteen years his work appeared piecemeal in the face of enormous odds against comprehension. It looked at first like a conspiracy against readers.

Furthermore, the plot remains close to a romantic stereotype. Will the young protagonist of the Search succeed in becoming a writer? God save us from another story about a sensitive young artist trying to find his way! Poems about writing poetry, novels about becoming a novelist, literature preoccupied with the life of literature — what form of narcissism could annoy a discriminating reader more than this aesthetic self-absorption? Proust takes several measures to reduce the damage of the outworn plot.

He turns our annoyance at the posing young artist into indulgent laughter. He postpones the most crucial episodes of discovery of his vocation of art until the end of the story. And he fills the twenty-five hundred intervening pages with scenes and sensations and characters so vivid that we are sustained by this immediacy of experience. The protagonist records and animates so much of his physical and social milieu for us that we mostly forget about the overarching question of literary vocation. It’s always there, but shrouded, out of sight.

These objections to plot and style in Proust’s novel often arise from partial reading and incomplete understanding. Many of them can be traced to remarks by early commentators, some of whom were sympathetic. Edmund Wilson, one of the first and most perceptive of American critics, deeply admired Proust’s work; yet he called the Search “one of the gloomiest books ever written.” In this instance his critical acumen failed him. Proust’s novel earns its place in literature as a great comic tale, punctuated with smiles and guffaws.

Henry James produced a petulant formula: “inconceivable boredom associated with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine.” It is hard to read the sentence as anything but a mixed verdict. The volume of “tributes” a dozen English writers devoted to Proust in 1923 sows even more confusion. Joseph Conrad finds intellectual analysis at its most creative, but “no reverie, no emotion.” Three pages later, George Saintsbury insists on a “constant relapse upon — and sometimes self-restriction to — a sort of dream element.” Had they read the same author?

Arnold Bennett wrote more in outrage than in tribute and could not excuse “the clumsy centipedalian crawling of the interminable sentences.” There is Aldous Huxley’s description (though not in this same volume) of Proust as a hermaphrodite, toadlike creature spooning his own tepid juice over his face and body. On the centenary of Proust’s birth, in July 1971, the New York Times Book Review assigned its front page to the novelist William H. Gass for a discussion of Proust’s work. Gass’s rancorous article adds little to Bennet’s comments. “… there is no special truth in him…. Proust writes a careless self-indulgent prose, doesn’t he? … Epithet follows epithet like tea cakes in flutes of paper…. It is a style that endangers the identity of the self in its reckless expressions of it.”

The fact that many of these critics contradict one another does not discredit them collectively or individually. But it does mean that we must beware of incomprehension and prejudice. The most persistent negative judgments of Proust can be reduced to two. First, Proust’s work is boring because of slackness in both style and construction. Second, the moral universe of Proust’s work never breaks free from the attitude of a spoiled, sickly, adolescent snob, born to wealth on the fringes of high culture and high society. To these criticisms one could add two more that are less frequently voiced.

Clausewitz described war as the continuation of policy by other means. Like many authors, Proust often treated writing as a continuation of life by other means. The word can conquer where the flesh is weak. Having discovered this path, Proust became one of the great megalomaniacs of literature, unwilling (in part because of his semi-invalid condition in later years) to relinquish any small hold he could gain over other people by writing. In his letters he often mixed honey with acid. He dominated his mother with inter-bedroom memoranda and his friends with pitiful pleas for help. He sought to hypnotize his readers and to command the world from his sickbed. This sensitive weakling sought power and won it.

The last stricture is closely related. From Proust’s writings, as from an electric generator, flows a powerful current always ready to shock not only our morality but our very sense of humanity. He frequently undermines individual character as the source of anything coherent and reliable in our behavior. Love and friendship, honesty and sexuality crumble into mockeries of human relationships. Except for Marcel’s immediate family, no one in the Search escapes the curses of selfishness, self-contempt, and snobbery. Few grounds for human dignity survive Proust’s touch. The inhumanity of artistic creation seems to triumph over everything.

Quite deliberately I have begun with harsh and seriously distorted versions of Proust’s stature. I shall rebut these charges in the course of time. Meanwhile, I feel it is wise not simply to affirm his innocence but to ask for a far more illuminating verdict: guilty — but not as charged. For Proust had the power to modify, as he went along, the laws under which he wrote and under which he asks us to read. Neither the novel form nor “human nature” remains unchanged after he has passed. The problem is to detect and measure the shifts. Snobbery, megalomania, boredom, aestheticism, and instability of character do indeed loom large in the world

Proust creates. The first task of the critic is to prevent the uninitiated reader from reacting against these elements before one understands the role they are assigned in a remarkably coherent work of art.

No single theory or approach will make Proust easily and quickly available to all inquiring minds. The very resistance of his work to simplification and analysis constitutes its most evident general characteristic. Beyond this feature, however, we discover endless contradictions in the Search.

Walt Whitman lived at peace with the fact that he contradicted himself. He said that he contained multitudes. Proust asks the next question. How much of one’s multitudinous self can a person reveal or embody at one time? The first answer is plain common sense: it all depends. It depends on many things, from chance and volition to memory and forgetting. The second answer is categorical. No matter how we go about it, we cannot be all of ourselves all at once. Narrow light beams of perception and of recollection illuminate the present and the past in vivid fragments. The clarity of those fragments is sometimes very great. They may even overlap and reinforce one another.

However, to summon our entire self into simultaneous existence lies beyond our powers. We live by synecdoche [A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something, or vice-versa. For example, referring to a congregation as the church or workers as hired hands.], by cycles of being. More profoundly than any other novelist, Proust perceived this state of things and worked as an economist of the personality. In himself and in others he observed its fluctuations and partial realizations. Through habit and convention we may find security in “the immobility of the things around us.” 

Yet this appearance of stability affords only temporary refuge. We yield with excitement, apprehension, and a deeper sense of existence to the great wheeling motion of experience. On a single page Proust refers to that endless shifting process as both “the secret of the future” and “the darkness we can never penetrate.” He also has a word for it: our lot is “intermittence,” the only steady state we know. One of the early titles for his novel was “The Heart’s Intermittences.”

As in life itself, the scope of action and reflection encountered in the Search exceeds the capacity of one mind to hold it all together at one time. Thus the novel embodies and manifests the principle of intermittence: to live means to perceive different and often conflicting aspects of reality. This iridescence never resolves itself completely into a unitive point of view.

Accordingly, it is possible to project out of the Search itself a series of putative and intermittent authors. Precisely that has happened. The portraitist of an expiring society, the artist of romantic reminiscence, the narrator of the laminated “I,” the classicist of formal structure — all these figures have been found in Proust, approximately in that order of historical occurrence. All are present as discernible components of his vision and his creation. His principle of intermittence anticipates such veerings of critical emphasis. It is in the middle of a literary discussion that his Narrator observes, “On ne se realise que successivement.” It really means: one finds, not oneself, but a succession of selves. Similarly, Proust’s work is still going on in our gradual discovery of it.


The Walk by Swann’s Place (1913) 2 – Vladimir Nabokov

October 10, 2013
“The whole history of literary fiction as an evolutionary process may be said to be a gradual probing of deeper and deeper layers of life. … The artist, like the scientist, in the process of evolution of art and science, is always casting around, understanding a little more than his predecessor, penetrating further with a keener and more brilliant eye.” Vladimir Nabokov

“The whole history of literary fiction as an evolutionary process may be said to be a gradual probing of deeper and deeper layers of life. … The artist, like the scientist, in the process of evolution of art and science, is always casting around, understanding a little more than his predecessor, penetrating further with a keener and more brilliant eye.” Vladimir Nabokov

Contrast your understanding of memory we learn from Proust and the process of anamnēsis we encounter in the New Testament.


One essential difference exists between the Proustian and the Joycean methods of approaching their characters. Joyce takes a complete and absolute character, God-known, Joyce-known, then breaks it up into fragments and scatters these fragments over the space-time of his book. The good re-reader gathers these puzzle pieces and gradually puts them together.

On the other hand, Proust contends that a character, a personality, is never known as an absolute but always as a comparative one. He does not chop it up but shows it as it exists through the notions about it of other characters. And he hopes, after having given a series of these prisms and shadows, to combine them into an artistic reality.

The introduction ends with Marcel’s description of his despair when visitors forced him to say goodnight downstairs and his mother would not come up to his bedroom for a goodnight kiss; and the story proper begins with a particular arrival of Swann: “We were all in the garden when the double peal of the gate-bell sounded shyly. Everyone knew that it must be Swann, and yet they looked at one another inquiringly and sent my grandmother scouting.”

The metaphor of the kiss is complex and will run through the whole work.

“I never took my eyes off my mother. I knew that when they were at table I should not be permitted to stay there for the whole of dinner-time, and that Mamma, for fear of annoying my father, would not allow me to give her in public the series of kisses that she would have had in my room. And so I promised myself that in the dining-room as they began to eat and drink and as I felt the hour approach, I would put beforehand into this kiss, which was bound to be so brief and stealthy in execution, everything that my own efforts could put into it: would look out very carefully first the exact spot on her cheek where I would imprint it, and would so prepare my thoughts that I might be able, thanks to these mental preliminaries, to consecrate the whole of the minute Mamma would allow me to the sensation of her cheek against my lips, as a painter who can have his subject for short sittings only prepares his palette beforehand, and from what he remembers and from rough notes does in advance everything which he can possibly do in the sitter’s absence. But that night, before the dinner-bell had sounded, my grandfather said with unconscious ferocity: ‘The little man looks tired; held better go up to bed. Besides, we are dining late tonight.’ . .

“I was about to kiss Mamma, but at that moment the dinner-bell rang. ” ‘No, no, leave your mother alone. You’ve said good night quite enough. These exhibitions are absurd. Go on upstairs.’ “

The agony the young Marcel undergoes, the note he writes to his mother, his anticipation, and his tears when she does not appear foreshadow the theme of despairing jealousy he will endure, so that a direct connection is established between his emotions and Swann’s emotions. He imagines that Swann would have laughed heartily could he have seen the contents of the letter to his mother, “

whereas, on the contrary, as I was to learn in due course, a similar anguish had been the bane of his life for many years, and no one perhaps could have understood my feelings at that moment so well as himself; to him, that anguish which lies in knowing that the creature one adores is in some place of enjoyment where oneself is not and cannot follow — to him that anguish came through Love, to which it is in a sense predestined, by which it must be taken over and specialized….And the joy with which I first bound myself apprentice when Francoise returned to tell me that my letter would be delivered, Swann, too, had known well that false joy which a friend can give us, or some relative of the woman we love, when on his arrival at the private house or theatre where she is to be found, for some ball or party or ‘first night’ at which he is to see her, he finds us wandering outside, desperately awaiting some opportunity of communicating with her. He recognizes us, greets us familiarly, and asks what we are doing there. And when we invent a story of having some urgent message to give to her (his relative or friend), he assures us that nothing could be more simple, takes us in at the door, and promises to send her down to us in five minutes…Alas!”

Swann had learned by experience that the good intentions of a third party are powerless to control a woman who is annoyed to find herself pursued even into a ball-room by a man whom she does not love. Too often, the kind friend comes down again alone.

“My mother did not appear, but with no attempt to safeguard my self-respect (which depended upon her keeping up the fiction that she had asked me to let her know the result of my search for something or other) made Francoise tell me, in so many words ‘There is no answer’ — words I have so often, since then, heard the janitors of public dancing-halls and the flunkeys in gambling-clubs and the like, repeat to some poor girl, who replies in bewilderment: ‘What! he’s said nothing? It’s not possible. You did give him my letter, didn’t you? Very well, I shall wait a little longer.’ And just as she invariably protests that she does not need the extra gas which the janitor offers to light for her, and sits on there … so, having declined Francoise’s offer to make me some tisane or to stay beside me, I let her go off again to the servants’ hall, and lay down and shut my eyes, and tried not to hear the voices of my family who were drinking their after-dinner coffee in the garden.”

This episode is followed by a description of the moonlight and silence which perfectly illustrates Proust’s working of metaphors within metaphors.

The boy opens his window and sits on the foot of his bed, hardly daring to move lest he be heard by those below:

  1. “Things outside seemed also fixed in mute expectation.”
  2. They seemed not to wish “to disturb the moonlight.”
  3. Now what was the moonlight doing? The moonlight duplicated every object and seemed to push it back owing to the forward extension of a shadow. What kind of a shadow? A shadow that seemed “denser and more concrete than the object” itself.
  4. By doing all this the moonlight “made the whole landscape at once leaner and larger like [additional simile] a map which is unfolded and spread out” flat.
  5. There was some movement: “What had to move — the leafage of some chestnut-tree, for instance — moved. But its punctilious shiver [what kind of shiver?] complete, finished to the least shade, to the least delicate detail [this fastidious shiver] did not encroach upon the rest of the scene, did not grade into it, remaining clearly limited” — since it happened to be illumined by the moon and all the rest was in shadow.
  6. The silence and the distant sounds. Distant sounds behaved in relation to the surface of silence in the same way as the patch of moonlit moving leafage in relation to the velvet of the shade. The most distant sound, coming from “gardens at the far end of the town, could be distinguished with such exact ‘finish,’ that the impression they gave of remoteness [an additional simile follows] seemed due only to their ‘pianissimo’ execution [again a simile follows] like those movements on muted strings” at the Conservatory.Now those muted strings are described: “although one does not lose one single note,” they come from “outside, a long way from the concert hall so that [and now we are in that concert hall] all the old subscribers, and my grandmother’s sisters too, when Swann gave them his seats, used to strain their ears as if [final simile] they had caught the distant approach of an army on the march, which had not yet rounded the corner” of the street.

The pictorial effects of moonlight change with era and author. There is a resemblance between Gogol, writing Dead Souls in 1840, and Proust composing this description about 1910. But Proust’s description makes the metaphoric system still more complicated, and it is poetic, not grotesque. In describing a moonlit garden Gogol would also have used rich imagery, but his rambling comparisons would have turned the way of grotesque exaggeration and some beautiful bit of irrational nonsense.

For instance, he might have compared the moonlit effect to linen fallen from a wash line, as he does somewhere in Dead Souls; but then he might ramble away and say the moonlight on the ground was like sheets and shirts that the wind had scattered while the washerwoman peacefully slept, dreaming of suds and starch and the pretty new frock her sister-in-law had bought.

In Proust’s case the peculiar point is that he drifts from the idea of pale light to that of remote music — the sense of vision grades into the sense of hearing.

But Proust had a precursor. In part six, chapter 2, of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1864-1869), Prince Andrey stays at the country manor of an acquaintance, Count Rostov. He cannot sleep. I have slightly revised Garnett:

“Prince Andrey left his bed and went up to the window to open it. As soon as he had unfolded its shutters, the moonlight broke into the room as if it had been waiting a long time outside on the watch for such a chance. He opened the window. The night was cool and motionlessly luminous. The trimmed trees that stood in a row just in front of the window were black on one side and silvery bright on the other…. Beyond them was [some kind of] a roof all shining with dew. On the right stood a great thick-leaved tree, its bole and branches a brilliant white, and overhead an almost full moon was riding the starless spring sky.

Presently at the window of the floor above him he hears two young feminine voices — one of them belongs to Natasha Rostov — singing and repeating a musical phrase…. A little later Natasha leans out of that window above and he hears the rustle of her dress and the sound of her breathing,” and “The sounds became still like the moon and the shadows.”

Three things are to be noted in Tolstoy as foreglimpses of Proust:

  1. The expectancy of the moonlight lying in wait (a pathetic fallacy). Beauty ready to rush in, a fawning and dear creature at the moment it is perceived by the human mind.
  2. The clearcut quality of the description, a landscape firmly etched in silver and black, with no conventional phrases and with no borrowed moons. It is all real, authentic, sensuously seen.
  3. The close association of the visible and the heard, of shadow light and shadow sound, of ear and eye.

Compare these to the evolution of the image in Proust. Notice the elaboration of the moonlight in Proust, the shadows that come out of the light like the drawers of a chest, and the remoteness and the music.

The various layers and levels of sense in Proust’s own metaphors are interestingly illustrated by the description of his grandmother’s method of selecting gifts:

[First layer:] “She -would have liked me to have in my room photographs of ancient buildings or of the most beautiful landscapes. But at the moment of buying them, and for all that the subject of the picture had an aesthetic value of its own, she would find that vulgarity and utility had too prominent a part in them, through the mechanical nature of their reproduction by photography.

[Second layer:] She attempted by a subterfuge, if not to eliminate altogether their commercial banality, at least to minimise it, to substitute for the bulk of it what was art still, to introduce, as it might be, several ‘layers’ of art; instead of photographs of Chartres Cathedral, of the Fountains of Saint-Cloud, or of Vesuvius she would inquire of Swann if some great painter had not made pictures of them, and preferred to give me photographs of ‘Chartres Cathedral’ after Corot, of the ‘Fountains of Saint-Cloud’ after Hubert Robert, and of ‘Vesuvius’ after Turner, and this brought her present up to an additional stage in the scale of art.

[Third layer:] But although the photographer had been prevented from reproducing directly the masterpieces or the beauties of nature, and had there been replaced by a great artist, he was there again, in possession of his rights, when it came to reproducing the artist’s interpretation. Accordingly, having to reckon again with vulgarity, my grandmother would endeavour to make it recede still farther. She would ask Swann if the picture had not been engraved,

[fourth layer:] preferring, when possible, old engravings with some interest of association apart from themselves, such, for example, as shew us a masterpiece in a state in which we can no longer see it today, as Morghen’s print of the ‘Last Supper’ of Leonardo before it was spoiled by restoration.”

The same method was followed when she made presents of antique furniture or when she gave Marcel the old-fashioned novels of George Sand (1804-1876) written fifty years before.

With his mother reading to him — from these George Sand novels — the first bedtime theme ends. These first sixty pages of the English translation are complete in themselves and contain most of the stylistic elements found throughout the novel. As Derrick Leon remarks:

“Enriched by his remarkable and comprehensive culture, by his deep love and understanding of classical literature, of music and of painting, the whole work displays a wealth of similes derived with an equal aptness and facility from biology, from physics, from botany, from medicine, or from mathematics, that never ceases to astonish and delight.”

The next six pages also form a complete episode, or theme, which in fact serves as a foreword to the Combray part of the novel’s narrative. This episode, which can be titled “The Miracle of the Linden Blossom Tea,” is the famous recollection of the madeleine. These pages start with a metaphorical summary of the first, or bedtime theme.

“And so it was that, for a long time afterwards, when I lay awake at night and revived old memories of Combray, I saw no more of it than this sort of luminous wedge, sharply defined against a vague and shadowy background, like the triangles of light which a Bengal fire or some electric sign will bring out and dissect on the front of a building the other parts of which remain plunged in darkness: at the broadest base of this wedge there was the little parlour, the dining-room, the thrill of the dark path along which would come M. Swann, the unconscious author of my sufferings, the hall through which I would journey to the first step of that staircase; so hard to climb, which constituted, all by itself, the tapering part of that irregular pyramid; and, at the summit, my bedroom, with the little passage through whose glazed door Mamma would enter….”

It is important to recognize that the significance of these memories is at this time, even as they accumulate, lost on the narrator.

“It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture [the past]: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.”

It is only at the last party, in the final volume of the whole work, that the narrator, by then an old man of fifty, received in rapid succession three shocks, three revelations (what present-day critics would call an epiphany) — the combined sensations of the present and recollections of the past — the uneven cobbles, the tingle of a spoon, the stiffness of a napkin. And for the first time he realizes the artistic importance of this experience.

In the course of his life the narrator had experienced several such shocks, however, without then recognizing their importance. The first of these is the madeleine. One day when he was a man of, say, thirty, long after the days spent in Combray as a child,

“one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for one of those stubby, plump little cake called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner, had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through me, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place in me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity an illusion — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this mighty joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savors, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?”

Further mouthfuls begin to lose their magic. Marcel puts down the cup and compels his mind to examine the sensation until he is fatigued. After a rest he resumes the concentration of all his energies.

“I place in position before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that is loosened like an anchor that had been embedded at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the confused echo of great spaces traversed.”

There is a further struggle to clarify from the. sensation of taste the visual memory of the occasion in the past that gave rise to the experience. “And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little bit of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Leonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or of lime-flower infusion…

“And once I had recognized the taste of the bit of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden…. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little bits of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and acquiring substance, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

This is the end of the second theme and the magical introduction to the Combray section of the volume. For the larger purposes of the work as a whole, however, attention must be called to the confession, “although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy.”

Other recalls of the past will come from time to time in this work, also making him happy, but their significance is never apprehended until, extraordinarily, in the final volume the series of shocks to his senses and to his memories fuse into one great apprehension and, triumphantly — to repeat — he realizes the artistic importance of his experience and so can begin to write the great account of In Search of Lost Time.


The Walk by Swann’s Place (1913) 1 – Vladimir Nabokov

October 9, 2013

"What we call reality is a certain relationship between sensations and memories which surround us at the same time, the only true relationship, which the writer must recapture so that he may for ever link together in his phrase its two distinct elements. One may list in an interminable description the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, and encloses them in the necessary rings of his style (art), or even when, like life itself, comparing similar qualities in two sensations, he makes their essential nature stand out clearly by joining them in a metaphor in order to remove them from the contingencies (the accidents) of time, and links them together by means of timeless words. From this point of view regarding the true way of art [Marcel asks himself], was not nature herself a beginning of art, she who had often allowed me to know the beauty of something only a long time afterwards and only through something else -- midday at Combray through the remembered sound of its bells and the tastes of its flowers."

“What we call reality is a certain relationship between sensations and memories which surround us at the same time, the only true relationship, which the writer must recapture so that he may for ever link together in his phrase its two distinct elements. One may list in an interminable description the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, and encloses them in the necessary rings of his style (art), or even when, like life itself, comparing similar qualities in two sensations, he makes their essential nature stand out clearly by joining them in a metaphor in order to remove them from the contingencies (the accidents) of time, and links them together by means of timeless words. From this point of view regarding the true way of art [Marcel asks himself], was not nature herself a beginning of art, she who had often allowed me to know the beauty of something only a long time afterwards and only through something else — midday at Combray through the remembered sound of its bells and the tastes of its flowers.”

The seven parts of Proust’s great novel In Search of Lost Time (translated by Moncrieff as Remembrance of Things Past) are as follows, the Moncrieff titles in parentheses:

  1. The Walk by Swann’s Place (Swann’s Way)
  2. In the Shade of Blooming Young Girls (Within a Budding Grove)
  3. The Guermantes Walk (The Guermantes Way)
  4. Sodom and Gomorrah (Cities of the Plain)
  5. The Captive Girl (The Captive)
  6. Vanished Albertine (The Sweet Cheat Gone)
  7. Time Found Again (The Past Recaptured)

Moncrieff died while translating the work, which is no wonder, and the last volume was translated by a man called Blossom who did quite well. These seven parts, published in French in fifteen volumes between 1913 and 1927, make 4,000 pages in English or about a million and a half words. In scope the work covers more than half a century from 1840 to 1915, into the First World War, and it has a cast of over two hundred characters. Generally speaking, the society Proust invents belongs to the early 1890s.

Proust began the work in the autumn of 1906 in Paris and completed the first draft in 1912; then he rewrote most of it and kept rewriting and correcting until his very death in 1922. The whole is a treasure hunt where the treasure is time and the hiding place the past: this is the inner meaning of the title In Search of Lost Time. The transmutation of sensation into sentiment, the ebb and tide of memory, waves of emotions such as desire, jealousy, and artistic euphoria–this is the material of the enormous and yet singularly light and translucid work.

In his youth Proust had studied the philosophy of Henri Bergson. Proust’s fundamental ideas regarding the flow of time concern the constant evolution of personality in terms of duration, the unsuspected riches of our subliminal minds which we can retrieve only by an act of intuition, of memory, of involuntary associations; also the subordination of mere reason to the genius of inner inspiration and the consideration of art as the only reality in the world; these Proustian ideas are colored editions of the Bergsonian thought. Jean Cocteau has called the work “A giant miniature, full of mirages, of superimposed gardens, of games conducted between space and time.”

One thing should be firmly impressed upon your minds: the work is not an autobiography; the narrator is not Proust the person, and the characters never existed except in the author’s mind. Let us not, therefore, go into the author’s life. It is of no importance in the present case and would only cloud the issue, especially as the narrator and the author do resemble each other in various ways and move in much the same environment.

Proust is a prism. His, or its, sole object is to refract, and by refracting to recreate a world in retrospect. The world itself, the inhabitants of that world, are of no social or historical importance whatever. They happen to be what the gazettes call society people, men and ladies of leisure, the wealthy unemployed. The only professions we are shown in action, or in result, are artistic and scholarly ones.

Proust’s prismatic people have no jobs: their job is to amuse the author. They are as free to indulge in conversation and pleasure as those legendary ancients that we see so clearly reclining around fruit-laden tables or walking in high discourse over painted floors, but whom we never see in the countinghouse or the shipyard.

In Search of Lost Time is an evocation, not a description of the past, as Arnaud Dandieu, a French critic, has remarked. This evocation of the past, he continues, is made possible by bringing to light a number of exquisitely chosen moments which are a sequence of illustrations, of images. Indeed, the whole enormous work, he concludes, is but an extended comparison revolving on the words as if —. The key to the problem of reestablishing the past turns out to be the key of art. The treasure hunt comes to a happy end in a cave full of music, in a temple rich with stained glass. The gods of standard religions are absent, or, perhaps more correctly, they are dissolved in art.

To a superficial reader of Proust’s work — rather a contradiction in terms since a superficial reader will get so bored, so engulfed in his own yawns, that he will never finish the book — to an inexperienced reader, let us say, it might seem that one of the narrator’s main concerns is to explore the ramifications and alliances which link together various houses of the nobility, and that he finds a strange delight when he discovers that a person whom he has been considering as a modest businessman revolves in the grand monde, or when he discovers some important marriage that has connected two families in a manner such as he had never dreamed possible.

The matter-of-fact reader will probably conclude that the main action of the book consists of a series of parties; for example, a dinner occupies a hundred and fifty pages, a soiree half a volume. In the first part of the work, one encounters Mme. Verdurin’s philistine salon in the days when it was frequented by Swann and the evening party at Mme. de Saint-Euverte’s when Swann first realizes the hopelessness of his passion for Odette; then in the next books there are other drawing rooms, other receptions, a dinner party at Mme. de Guermantes’, a concert at Mme. Verdurin’s, and the final afternoon party at the same house of the same lady who has now become a Princesse de Guermantes by marriage — that final party in the last volume, Time Found Again, during which the narrator becomes aware of the changes that time has wrought upon all his friends and he receives a shock of inspiration — or rather a series of shocks — causing him to decide to set to work without delay upon his book, the reconstruction of the past.

At this late point, then, one might be tempted to say that Proust is the narrator, that he is the eyes and ears of the book. But the answer is still no. The book that the narrator in Proust’s book is supposed to write is still a book-within-the-book and is not quite In Search of Lost Time — just as the narrator is not quite Proust. There is a focal shift here which produces a rainbow edge: this is the special Proustian crystal through which we read the book.

It is not a mirror of manners, not an autobiography, not a historical account. It is pure fantasy on Proust’s part, just as Anna Karenin is a fantasy, just as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” is fantasy — just as Cornell University will be a fantasy if I ever happen to write about it some day in retrospect. The narrator in the work is one of its characters, who is called Marcel. In other words, there is Marcel the eavesdropper and there is Proust the author. Within the novel the narrator Marcel contemplates, in the last volume, the ideal novel he will write. Proust’s work is only a copy of that ideal novel — but what a copy!

The Walk by Swann’s Place (Swann’s Way) must be viewed from the correct angle; it must be seen in relation to the completed work as Proust meant it to be seen. In order to understand in full the initial volume we must first accompany the narrator to the party in the last volume. This will be taken up in greater detail later, but for the moment one must listen to what Marcel says there as he is beginning to understand the shocks that he has experienced.

“What we call reality is a certain relationship between sensations and memories which surround us at the same time, the only true relationship, which the writer must recapture so that he may for ever link together in his phrase its two distinct elements. One may list in an interminable description the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, and encloses them in the necessary rings of his style (art), or even when, like life itself, comparing similar qualities in two sensations, he makes their essential nature stand out clearly by joining them in a metaphor in order to remove them from the contingencies (the accidents) of time, and links them together by means of timeless words. From this point of view regarding the true way of art [Marcel asks himself], was not nature herself a beginning of art, she who had often allowed me to know the beauty of something only a long time afterwards and only through something else — midday at Combray through the remembered sound of its bells and the tastes of its flowers.”

This mention of Combray introduces the important theme of the two walks. The flow of the novel in all its seven parts (seven parts like the seven days of an initial creative week with no rest on Sunday) — through all those volumes the narrator keeps in his field of vision those two walks that he used to take as a child in the tiny town of Combray: the walk in the direction of Méséglise by way of Swann’s place, Tansonville, and the walk in the direction of the Guermantes’ country place.

The whole story through all its fifteen volumes in the French edition is an investigation of the people related in one way or another to the two walks of his young life. Particularly, the narrator’s distress about his mother’s kiss is a foreglimpse of Swann’s distress and love, just as the child’s love for Gilberte and then the main love affair with a girl called Albertine are amplifications of the affair that Swann has with Odette. But the two walks have a further significance.

As Derrick Leon writes in his Introduction to Proust (1940): “Marcel does not realize until he sees the two walks of his childhood united in Swann’s granddaughter (Gilberte’s child) that the segments into which we splice life are purely arbitrary, and correspond not to any aspect of life itself, but only to the deficient vision through which we perceive it.

The separate worlds of Madame Verdurin, Madame Swann, and Madame de Guermantes are essentially the same world, and it is only snobbery or some accident of social custom that has ever separated them. They are the same world not because Madame Verdurin finally marries the Prince de 4 Guermantes, not because Swann’s daughter eventually marries Madame de Guermantes’ nephew, and not because Odette herself crowns her career by becoming Monsieur de Guermantes’ mistress, but because each of them revolves in an orbit which is formed by similar elements — and this is the automatic, superficial, mechanical quality of existence” that we already know from Tolstoy’s works. [Here and elsewhere VN has occasionally included his own phrasing or interpolated remarks in quotations. Ed.]

Style, I remind you, is the manner of an author, the particular manner that sets him apart from any other author. If I select for you three passages from three different authors whose works you know — if I select them in such a way that nothing in their subject matter affords any clue, and if then you cry out with delightful assurance: “That’s Gogol, that’s Stevenson, and by golly that’s Proust” — you are basing your choice on striking differences in style. The style of Proust contains three especially distinctive elements:

  1. A wealth of metaphorical imagery, layer upon layer of comparisons. It is through this prism that we view the beauty of Proust’s work. For Proust the term metaphor is often used in a loose sense, as a synonym for the hybrid form [Nabokov illustrates a simple simile as the mist was like a veil"; a simple metaphor as "there was a veil of mist"; and a hybrid simile as the veil of the mist was like the sleep of silence, combining both simile and metaphor. Ed] or for comparison in general, because for him the simile constantly grades into the metaphor, and vice versa, with the metaphorical moment predominating.
  2. A tendency to fill in and stretch out a sentence to its utmost breadth and length, to cram into the stocking of the sentence a miraculous number of clauses, parenthetic phrases, subordinate clauses, sub-subordinate clauses. Indeed, in verbal generosity he is a veritable Santa.
  3. With older novelists there used to be a very definite distinction between the descriptive passage and the dialogue part: a passage of descriptive matter and then the conversation taking over, and so on. This of course is a method still used today in conventional literature, B-grade and C-grade literature that comes in bottles, and an ungraded literature that comes in pails. But Proust’s conversations and his descriptions merge into one another, creating a new unity where flower and leaf and insect belong to one and the same blossoming tree.

“For a long time I used to go to bed early.” This opening sentence of the work is the key to the theme, with its center in a sensitive boy’s bedroom. The boy tries to sleep.

“I could hear the whistling of trains, which, now nearer and now farther off, underscoring the distance like the note of a bird in a forest, unfolded for me in perspective the deserted countryside through which a traveller would be hurrying towards the nearest station: the path that he followed being fixed for ever in his memory by the general excitement due to being in a strange place, to doing unusual things, to the last words of conversation, to farewells exchanged beneath an unfamiliar lamp which echoed still in his ears amid the silence of the night; and to the delightful prospect of being once again home.”

The whistling of the train underscores the distance like the note of a bird in a wind, an additional simile, an inner comparison, which is a typical Proustian device to add all possible color and force to a picture. Then follows the logical development of the train idea, the description of a traveler and of his sensations. This unfolding of an image is a typical Proustian device. It differs from Gogol’s rambling comparisons by its logic and by its poetry. Gogol’s comparison is always grotesque, a parody of Homer, and his metaphors are nightmares, whereas Proust’s are dreams.

A little later we have the metaphorical creation of a woman in the boy’s sleep:

“Sometimes, too, just as Eve was created from a rib of Adam, so a woman would come into existence while I was sleeping, conceived from some strain in the position of my thigh…. My body, conscious that its own warmth was permeating hers, would strive to become one with her, and I would awake. The rest of humanity seemed very remote in comparison with this woman whose company I had left but a moment ago: my cheek was still warm with her kiss, my body bent beneath the weight of hers. If, as would sometimes happen, she had the appearance of some woman whom I had known in waking hours, I would abandon myself altogether to the solequest of her, like people who set out on a journey to see with their own eyes some city that they have always longed to visit, and imagine that they can taste in reality what has charmed their fancy. Gradually, the memory of her would dissolve and vanish, until I had forgotten the daughter of my dream.”

Again we have the unfolding device: the quest of the woman likened to people who journey to places, and so forth. Incidental quests and visitations and disappointments will form one of the main themes of the whole work.

The unfolding may cover years in a single passage. From the boy dreaming, waking, and falling asleep again, we pass imperceptibly to his habits of sleeping and waking as a man, in the present time of his narration. “When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the order of years and worlds. Instinctively, when he awakes, he looks to these, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth’s surface and the amount of time that has elapsed during his slumbers…

But for me [as a man] it was enough if, in my own bed, my sleep was so heavy as completely to relax my consciousness; for then I lost all sense of the place in which I had gone to sleep, and when I awoke at midnight, not knowing where I was, I could not be sure at first who I was; I had only the most rudimentary sense of existence, such as may lurk and flicker in the depths of an animal’s consciousness; I was more destitute of things than the cave-dweller; but then the memory, not yet of the place in which I was, but of various other places where I had lived, and might now very possibly be, would come like a rope let down from heaven to draw me up out of the abyss of not-being, from which I could never have escaped myself… .

The body’s memory would then take over, and

“would make an effort to deduce first from the form which its tiredness took the orientation of its various members, and then to deduce from that where the wall lay and the furniture stood, to piece together and to give a name to the house in which it must be living. The body’s memory, the composite memory of its ribs, knees, and shoulder-blades, offered it a whole series of rooms in which it had at one time or another slept; while the unseen walls kept changing, adapting themselves to the shape of each successive room that it remembered, whirling through the darkness. And even before my brain, hesitating on the threshold of time and forms, had collected sufficient impressions to enable it to identify the room, it, my body would recall from each room in succession what the bed was like, where the doors were, how daylight came in the windows, whether there was a passage outside, what I had had in my mind when I went to sleep, and had found there when I awoke.”

We go through a succession of rooms and their metaphors. For a moment he is a child again in a big bed with a canopy, “and at once I would say to myself, ‘Why, I must have gone to sleep after all, and Mamma never came to say good night!’ ” At such a moment he was back in the country with his grandfather, who had died years ago. Then he is at Gilberte’s house (she is now Mme. de Saint-Loup) in Swann’s old house in Tansonville, and in a succession of rooms in winter and in summer. Finally he actually wakes up in present time (as a man) in his own house in Paris, but his memory having been set in motion: “usually I did not attempt to go to sleep again at once, but used to spend the greater part of the night recalling our life in the old days at Combray with my great-aunt, at Balbec, Paris, Doncieres, Venice, and the rest; recalling all the places and people that I had known, what I had actually seen of them, and what others had told me.”

Then with this mention of Combray, he is once more in his childhood and back in the time of the narrative: “At Combray, as every afternoon ended, long before the time when I should have to go up to bed, and to lie there, unsleeping, far from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centered.” When he was especially wretched, the time before dinner was occupied by a magic lantern telling a medieval tale of the evil Golo and the good Genevieve de Brabant (a forerunner of the Duchess de Guermantes). This magic lantern “movement,” or “event,” becomes connected by the dining-room lamp to the little parlor where the family would adjourn after dinner on wet evenings, and the rain then serves to introduce his grandmother — the most noble and pathetic character in the book — who would insist on walking in the wet garden.

Swann is introduced: “we heard, from the far end of the garden, not the profuse and shrill bell which drenched and stunned with its icy, rusty, interminable sound any passing member of the household who set it going by pushing through ‘without ringing,’ but the double peal — timid, oval, golden — of the visitor’s bell…. and then, soon after, my grandfather would say: ‘I can hear Swann’s voice.’ … Although a far younger man, M. Swann was very much attached to my grandfather, who had been an intimate friend, in his time, of Swann’s father, an excellent but an eccentric man in whom the least little thing would, it seemed, often check the flow of his spirits and divert the current of his thoughts.”

Swann is a man of fashion, an art expert, an exquisite Parisian greatly in vogue in the highest society; but his Combray friends, the narrator’s family, have no idea of his position and think of him only as the son of their old friend, the stockbroker. One of the elements of the book is the various ways in which a person is seen by various eyes, as for instance Swann through the prism of Marcel’s great aunt’s notions:

“One day when he had come to see us after dinner in Paris, and had apologized for being in evening clothes, Francoise [the cook], when he had gone, told us that she had got it from his coachman that he had been dining ‘with a princess.’ Some princess of the demi-monde, a courtesan,’ drawled my aunt; and she shrugged her shoulders without raising her eyes from her knitting, serenely ironical.”


Paulo Coelho – Julie Bosman & Laura Sheahen

October 1, 2013
Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian lyricist and novelist. He has become one of the most widely read authors in the world today. He is the recipient of numerous international awards, amongst them the Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum.

Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian lyricist and novelist. He has become one of the most widely read authors in the world today. He is the recipient of numerous international awards, amongst them the Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum.

A publishing industry that is being transformed by all things digital could learn some things from Paulo Coelho, the 64-year-old Brazilian novelist. Years ago he upended conventional wisdom in the book business by pirating his own work, making it available online in countries where it was not easily found, using the argument that ideas should be disseminated free. More recently he has proved that authors can successfully build their audiences by reaching out to readers directly through social media. He ignites conversations about his work by discussing it with his fans while he is writing.

That philosophy has helped him sell tens of millions of books, most prominently The Alchemist, an allegorical novel that has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 194 weeks and is still a regular fixture in paperback on the front tables of bookstores.

This week (this piece was written in September, 2011) Mr. Coelho releases his latest novel, Aleph, a book that tells the story of his own epiphany while on a pilgrimage through Asia in 2006 on the Trans-Siberian Railway. (Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, with many mystical meanings.) While Mr. Coelho spent four years gathering material for the book, he wrote it in only three weeks.

Spreading the word about the book should be easy; he has become a sort of Twitter mystic, writing messages in English and his native Portuguese and building a following of 2.4 million people. (A recent example: “When your legs are tired, walk with your heart.”) In 2010 Forbes named him the second-most-influential celebrity on Twitter, behind only Justin Bieber.

Mr. Coelho continues to give his work away free by linking to Web sites that have posted his books, asking only that if readers like the book, they buy a copy, “so we can tell to the industry that sharing contents is not life threatening to the book business,” as he wrote in one post.

From his home in Geneva, Mr. Coelho spoke about his new book, his feeling of connection to Jorge Luis Borges and his leisure time spent networking with his fans on Facebook and Twitter. Following are edited excerpts.

Q. The protagonist of your new novel, “Aleph,” sounds familiar: best-selling author, world traveler, spiritual seeker. How autobiographical is this book?

A. One hundred percent. These are my whole experiences, meaning everything that is real is real. I had to summarize much of it. But in fact I see the book as my journey myself, not as a fiction book but as a nonfiction book.

Q. The title of the book, Aleph, mirrors the name of a short story by Borges. Were you influenced by him?

A. He is my icon, the best writer in the world of my generation. But I wasn’t influenced by him, I was influenced by the idea of aleph, the concept. In the classic tradition of spiritual books Borges summarizes very, very well the idea of this point where everything becomes one thing only.

Q. When did you decide to become a writer?

A. It took me 40 years to write my first book. When I was a child, I was encouraged to go to school. I was not encouraged to follow the career of a writer because my parents thought that I was going to starve to death. They thought nobody can make a living from being a writer in Brazil. They were not wrong. But I still had this call, this urge to express myself in writing.

Q. Your most famous book, “The Alchemist,” has sold 65 million copies worldwide. Does its continuing success surprise you?

A. Of course. It’s difficult to explain why. I think you can have 10,000 explanations for failure, but no good explanation for success.

Q. You’ve also had success distributing your work free. You’re famous for posting pirated version of your books online, a very unorthodox move for an author.

A. I saw the first pirated edition of one of my books, so I said I’m going to post it online. There was a difficult moment in Russia; they didn’t have much paper. I put this first copy online and I sold, in the first year, 10,000 copies there. And in the second year it jumped to 100,000 copies. So I said, “It is working.” Then I started putting other books online, knowing that if people read a little bit and they like it, they are going to buy the book. My sales were growing and growing, and one day I was at a high-tech conference, and I made it public.

Q. Weren’t you afraid of making your publisher angry?

A. I was afraid, of course. But it was too late. When I returned to my place, the first phone call was from my publisher in the U.S. She said, “We have a problem.”

Q. You’re referring to Jane Friedman, who was then the very powerful chief executive of HarperCollins?

A. Yes, Jane. She’s tough. So I got this call from her, and I said, “Jane, what do you want me to do?” So she said, let’s do it officially, deliberately. Thanks to her my life in the U.S. changed.

Q. And now you’re a writer with one of the most prominent profiles online. Are you a Twitter addict?

A. Yes, I confess, in public. I tweet in the morning and the evening. To write 12 hours a day, there is a moment when you’re really tired. It’s my relaxing time.

Q. That seems to be the opposite approach of writers like Jonathan Franzen who blindfold themselves and write their books in isolation.

A. Back to the origins of writing, they used to see writers as wise men and women in an ivory tower, full of knowledge, and you cannot touch them. The ivory tower does not exist anymore. If the reader doesn’t like something they’ll tell you. He’s not or she’s not someone that is isolated.

Once I found this possibility to use Twitter and Facebook and my blog to connect to my readers, I’m going to use it, to connect to them and to share thoughts that I cannot use in the book. Today I have on Facebook six million people. I was checking the other day Madonna’s page, and she has less followers than I have. It’s unbelievable.

Q. You’re bigger than Madonna?

A. No, no, no. I’m not saying that.


An Interview with Paulo Coelho — Laura Sheahen

With several bestselling novels translated into dozens of languages, Brazilian author Paulo Coelho is one of the world’s most popular spiritual writers. His books  – including The Alchemist, Manual of the Warrior of Light and Veronika Decides to Die — tackle everything from love to magic to suicide to the meaning of life. In a phone interview from France, Coelho spoke with me recently about the spiritual search — his own and his readers’.

In The Alchemist, you refer to the Soul of the World. What exactly is this? How is it tied to religion or spirituality?

Well, let’s distinguish religion from spirituality. I am Catholic, so religion for me is a way of having discipline and collective worship with persons who share the same mystery.

But in the end all religions tend to point to the same light. In between the light and us, sometimes there are too many rules. The light is here and there are no rules to follow this light.

The alchemist character says that “everything has a soul” — including inanimate objects like rocks and water. Do you believe that?

I do believe that everything we see, everything that is in front of us is just the visible part of reality. We have the invisible part of reality, like emotions for example, like feelings. This is our perception of the world, but God is as William Blake said — in a grain of sand and in a flower. This energy is everywhere.

Are all souls the same? Or are human souls in any way different?

I believe everything is one thing only. That said, there are some questions in my life that I don’t know … I’ve stopped asking. At the very beginning of my life, I wanted to have answers for everything. And now I respect the fact that I can’t have answers for everything.

So for this question I go to the mystery of it and say I don’t know. I only know that I am alive and there is something that manifests in my life, that it is God and one day I am going to understand my life, probably in the day that I die, or afterwards. But I try to find good questions and not good answers.

You say we might know more “afterwards”. You’re saying you think certain things might happen in the afterlife?

We cannot know anything for sure. But I don’t believe in time either. You say “when we die”, but time is another of these things that we need to help ourselves to go through life, but it does not exist. I am talking to you, but the moment that I am talking to you, the universe is being created and destroyed. I am living out my past and future lives. Whatever I do now, even in this conversation, can affect all my past and future lives.

I do believe in life after death, but I also don’t think that it’s that important. What is important is to understand that we are also living this life after death now.

So we have to get rid of the notion of time?

We have to try to get rid of the notion of time. And when you have an intense contact of love with nature or another human being, like a spark, then you understand that there is no time and that everything is eternal.

It sounds like this idea probably helped you overcome your fear of not existing, which you describe in the introduction to The Alchemist.

Yes, of course there was this fear of death. And one day when I made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I had to go through an exercise and I had to face my death.

Since then, I realize that death is not the end of life, but it is also my best friend. She is always sitting by my side, even while I am talking to you, looking to the mountains here with snow.

Your death is always sitting by your side?

By my side, sitting in the chair right in front of me. I see death as a beautiful woman.

What is she saying?

She is saying, “I am going to kiss you,” and I say to her, “Not now, please.” But she says, “OK, not now – but pay attention and try to get the best of every moment because I am going to take you.” And I say, “OK, thank you for giving me the most important advice in life  –  to live your moment fully.”

You mentioned that you’re Catholic, but you’ve said elsewhere that your Jesuit upbringing was painful in some ways. What do you see as the value of, and problems with, organized religion?

The value is that they give you discipline and they give you collective worship and they give you humbleness towards the mysteries. The danger is that every religion, including the Catholic one, says, “I have the ultimate truth.” Then you start to rely on the priest, the mullah, the rabbi, or whoever, to be responsible for your acts. In fact, you are the only one who is responsible.

The Alchemist talks about the principle of favorability, which is sort of like “beginner’s luck”. What would you say to people who feel they have never experienced beginner’s luck? People who feel that every time they try to move toward a dream, they’re blocked?

Try again [laughs]. Because when you’re really close to what God meant you to be here, you are going to experience beginner’s luck.

Are there any thoughts for a film production of your books?

Lawrence Fishburne is now going to be producing The Alchemist for Warner Brothers. It is the only book that I sold the rights and I have no intention to sell [more]. It was the very beginning of my international career and of course, you think that it’s so important to have a book as a movie. But then I realized that this is not very important. What is very important is that the reader is the director and the person who does the casting and everything.

The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader. That’s why we go to movies and say, “Oh, the book is better.” So since then I forbade the selling of the rights. No books of mine. Unless, of course, I fall in love with an idea.

In Eleven Minutes, you want to bring sexual spirituality to a healthier place. How can this happen?

Well, by accepting that sex is a physical manifestation of God, and that is not a sin — it is a blessing. And then by understanding that except for two things I consider to be really sick — rape and pedophilia — you are free to be creative. It’s up to you, how you do this. Sex was always surrounded by taboos, and I don’t see it necessarily as a manifestation of evil. I think that sexuality is first and foremost the way that God chooses for us to be here on earth, to enjoy this energy of love in the physical plane.

So with a healthy understanding of sexuality you’re helping God manifest himself in the world?

Absolutely. Not only understanding, but practicing.


Will The Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up 2 – Joseph Pearce

September 19, 2013
His words have touched the lovelorn and been pored over by brooding teenagers for more than four hundred years, but now some of the most romantic poems ever penned have been written into the molecule of life.The entire collection of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets has been spelled out in DNA by scientists in Cambridge to demonstrate the vast potential of genetic storage.

His words have touched the lovelorn and been pored over by brooding teenagers for more than four hundred years, but now some of the most romantic poems ever penned have been written into the molecule of life.The entire collection of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets has been spelled out in DNA by scientists in Cambridge to demonstrate the vast potential of genetic storage.

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides.
Cordelia (King Lear, 1.1.282)

Mutschmann and Wentersdorf are very insightful and lucid in their balanced analysis of the invocation of the saints in Shakespeare’s plays:

What traces of the Catholic veneration of saints, condemned in Elizabethan England, are nevertheless to be found in Shakespeare’s works? It would not be wise to attach too much importance to the exclamations such as “by Saint Paul”, “by Saint Anne”, “by’r Lady”, etc., which the poet often puts into the mouths of his characters. The same applies to such expressions as “by the holy rood” or “by the mass”.

It must be borne in mind that such and similar asseverations, although Catholic in origin, remained in popular use in England after the schism; it cannot be assumed that they were used in a religious sense, much less that the speakers were aware of their dogmatic significance. And yet it is noticeable that asseverations of this kind are hardly ever used by Protestant writers in their works; where exclamatory phrases are introduced, they are mostly of a neutral character such as “by heaven”, “by God”, or “by the cross”.

Furthermore, it is noteworthy that expressions such as “by’r Lady” and “by the mass”, which occur in the old Quartos, i.e., the editions nearest to Shakespeare’s manuscript, were almost entirely expunged in the First Folio edition, which quite clearly demonstrates that they were regarded as “offensive” or even unlawful.
Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism

Mutschmann and Wentersdorf also stress “the highly significant fact that Shakespeare … reveals a very exact and detailed knowledge of Catholicism”, and they quote Father Sebastian Bowden’s conclusion that the repeated allusions to Catholic rites and practices “are introduced with a delicacy and fitness possible only for a mind habituated to the Church’s tone of thought”. [Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism] The accuracy of Shakespeare’s depiction of Catholic practices contrasts with the proliferation of errors that emerge in the plays of his contemporaries, such as in the anonymously authored The Troublesome Raigne of King John (printed in 1591) or in John Webster’s The White Devil (1612).

This woefully inaccurate depiction of Catholicism by non-Catholic writers has continued to plague literature down the centuries, from Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1800) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to Dan Brown’s inanely ubiquitous Da Vinci Code. .

In contrast, Shakespeare’s depictions of, and allusions to, Catholicism are invariably accurate, proving his experience and knowledge of the Catholic Faith. Such textual evidence would suffice to illustrate that Shakespeare had been a practicing Catholic at some stage in his life, if not necessarily that he had always remained one. As we shall see in the following chapters, there is an abundance of solid historical evidence to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that Shakespeare was raised a Catholic and that he probably remained a Catholic throughout his life.

Perhaps at this juncture, however, it might be prudent to consider, albeit briefly, those who claim that Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare but that he was really someone else. Nobody denies that the real William Shakespeare existed, but many have claimed that the plays ascribed him are not really his. These “anti-Stratfordians” have erected fabulously imaginative theories to prove that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. Some have claimed that Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays, others that they were written by the Earl of Oxford, and some even believe that Queen Elizabeth was William Shakespeare!

It is difficult to take any of these rival claims very seriously. Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, died in 1604, a year after the death of Queen Elizabeth, and about eight years before the last of Shakespeare’s plays was written and performed! Needless to say, the Oxfordians, as they are known, have gone to great lengths, stretching the bounds of credulity to the very limit (and beyond), to explain why the plays were not performed until after their “Shakespeare’s” death.

The claims of the Oxfordians might be bizarre, but they are positively pedestrian compared to some of the wackier “Shakespeare” theorists. Other aristocrats who are alleged by some to have been the real Shakespeare include King James I, and the Earls of Derby, Rutland, Essex, and Southampton. Others have claimed that Mr. Shakespeare as really Mrs. Shakespeare, in the sense that the plays were really written by Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, using her husband’s name as nom de plume.

The difficulties that the Oxfordians face in trying to explain (or explain away) why many of Shakespeare’s finest plays were not performed until after the Earl of Oxford’s death are as nothing compared to the difficulties faced by another group of “Shakespeare” theorists. The “Marlovians”, as the members of this particular anti-Stratfordian sect are known, are convinced that all of Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe.

The fact that Marlowe was murdered in 1593, when most of Shakespeare’s plays had still not been written, does not trouble the ingenious Marlovians. They claim that Marlowe’s “murder” was a sham, and that Marlowe had been spirited away to France and Italy by his powerful patron Thomas Walsingham, returning secretly to England where, in hiding, he wrote plays under the pseudonym “William Shakespeare”.

Faced with such ludicrous conspiracy theories one is reminded of present-day theories about the allegedly staged death of Elvis Presley, as exemplified in the reports in the lower-brow tabloids of Elvis sightings alongside the sightings of UFOs. Yet even the resurrection of the dead, whether it be Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, or Elvis, seems uncontroversial beside the claims of another bizarre anti-Stratfordian theory that the plays were written by Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. Since Defoe was not born until r66o, almost half a century after the last of Shakespeare’s plays had been performed, it seems that we are dealing not only with the raising of the dead but with the raising of the unborn!

It would, of course, be a little unfair to suggest that the relatively sober scholarship of the Baconians or the Oxfordians is as ridiculous as the evident lack of scholarship of those who favor Daniel Defoe as the real Shakespeare. Ultimately, however, all the rival theories can be disproved through the application of solid historical evidence, combined with common sense. Take, for example, the central premise of the Oxfordian or Baconian case that the plays must have been written by an aristocrat or, at least, by one with a university education, on the assumption that Shakespeare, as a commoner without a university education, must have been illiterate, or, at any rate, incapable of writing literature of such sublime quality.

Let’s look at the facts [Subsequent chapters of The Quest for Shakespeare elaborate more.]. Shakespeare’s father was not poor but, on the contrary, was relatively wealthy. He was, furthermore, a highly respected and influential member of the Stratford-upon-Avon community. With regard to Shakespeare’s education, the historian Michael Wood has shown that the sort of education that Shakespeare would have received at the Stratford Grammar School would have been of exceptionally good quality.

On the other hand, the plays and sonnets do not display the great knowledge of classical languages that one might have expected if Shakespeare had been an aristocrat or if, like Bacon, he had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Francis Bacon did much of his writing in Latin, whereas Shakespeare, to quote his good friend Ben Jonson, had “little Latin and less Greek” and wrote entirely in the vernacular.

The evidence illustrates, therefore, that William Shakespeare would have had a good education but that he might not have been as comfortable with classical languages as he would have been had he been to Oxford or Cambridge. This excellent but non-classical education is reflected in to content of his plays. It should also be noted that Francis Bacon was vehemently anti-Catholic. His mother was a zealous Calvinist and his father an outspoken enemy of the Catholic Church. Such an upbringing would have precluded him from being able to write the profoundly Catholic plays attributed to Shakespeare.

As for the presumption of the Oxfordians and Baconians that Shakespeare’s “humble origins” would have precluded him from being able to write the plays, one need only remind these proponents of supercilious elitism that great literature is not the preserve of the rich or the privileged. Christopher Marlowe was a shoemaker’s son, and Ben Jonson’s stepfather was a bricklayer. Poverty prevented Jonson from pursuing a university education. Since Marlowe and Jonson, along with Shakespeare, are the most important dramatists of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, is clear that having humble origins did not disqualify a writer from producing great literature; on the contrary, it could be argued from the evidence that such origins were an important ingredient of literary greatness in Shakespeare’s day.

Furthermore, the importance of humble origins to the pursuit of literary greatness is not confined to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Later generations have also produced an abundance of “humble” greats. Daniel Defoe was the son of a butcher, and Samuel Johnson, arguably the greatest wit and literary figure of the eighteenth century, was also born of poor parents. Poverty would force Johnson to abandon his university education. Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist f the Victorian era, experienced grinding poverty as a child and, when his father was sent to prison for debt, the ten-year-old Dickens was forced to work in a factory.

Moving into the twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton, the “Dr. Johnson of his age”, was born of middle-class parents and never received a university education. And these are but some f the brightest lights in the humble firmament of literary greatness. Many others could be added to the illustrious list. Perhaps the most applicable parallel to Shakespeare’s situation is, however, the appropriately named Alexander Pope, the son of a draper, who was denied a formal education because his parents were Catholic. Pope’s humble origins helped him become perhaps the finest poet of the eighteenth century.

So much for the weakness of the Oxfordian argument about Shakespeare’s “humble origins”. The other argument often employed by the Oxfordians is that Shakespeare was too young to have written the sonnets and the early plays. Shakespeare was only in his mid-twenties when the earliest of the plays was written and was in his late twenties when he wrote the sonnets. There is no way that such a young man could have written such work, whereas the Earl of Oxford, being born in 1550 and therefore fourteen years Shakespeare’s senior, would have been sufficiently mature to have written these masterpieces. So the argument runs.

Whether the Earl of Oxford, a most violent and volatile individual, was ever “sufficiently mature” to have written the works of Shakespeare is itself highly questionable. Nonetheless, let’s look at the crux of the matter, namely, whether a young man is able to write great literature.

Christopher Marlowe, who was born in the same year as Shakespeare, wrote the first of his produced plays in around 1587, when he was only twenty-three, two or three years younger than Shakespeare is thought to have been when the first of his plays was produced. The first of Marlowe’s plays, Tamburlaine the Great, is generally considered to be the first of the great Elizabethan tragedies. Since Marlowe was murdered when he was still in his late twenties, the whole of his considerable literary legacy rests on his formidably young shoulders.

Ben Jonson’s first play, Every Man in his Humour, was performed in 1598, with Shakespeare in the cast, when Jonson was only twenty-six years old. Thomas Dekker published the first of his comedies in r600, when he is thought to have been around thirty years old. Thomas Middleton’s first printed plays were published in 1602, when the playwright was about thirty-two, but they were probably first performed a year or two earlier.

John Webster published his first plays in 1607, when he was twenty-seven years old, but is known to have made additions to John Marston’s The Malcontent three years earlier. As for Marston himself he wrote all his plays between 1602 and 1607, between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-one. Looking at his contemporaries, Shakespeare was at exactly the age one would expect him to be when he first started writing plays. The Earl of Oxford, on the other hand, would have been around forty when the first of the plays was performed, making him a positive geriatric by comparison.

So much for the youthfulness of Shakespeare the playwright, but what tbout the Oxfordian argument that he would have been too young to write the sonnets? Again, let’s begin with Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Michael Drayton published his first volume of poetry, The Harmony of the Church, in 1591, when he was twenty-eight years old, exactly the same age as Shakespeare is thought to have been when he wrote the sonnets. Many of John Donne’s finest sonnets were written in the early 1600s when the poet was in his late twenties or early thirties. Many other great Elizabethan poets died at a young age, having already bequeathed a considerable body of work to posterity. Sir Philip Sidney was thirty-two when he died; Robert Southwell was thirty-three; Marlowe, as already noted, was twenty-nine; and Thomas Nashe was thirty-four.

Moving forward in time to the eighteenth century it is worth noting that Samuel Johnson was twenty-eight when he finished his play Irene and was only a year older when his poem London was published, the latter of which, according to Boswell, was greeted with adulation and the judgment of his contemporaries that “here is an unknown poet, greater even than Pope”. [James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson]  And as for Pope, he published his first poems at the tender age of twenty-one.

Should these examples fail to convince us that the art of the sonnet is not beyond the reach of the young, we need look no further than the example of Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Byron had reached the ripe old age of thirty-six when he died, Shelley was thirty, and Keats a mere twenty-six years old. As for the precocious talent of the youngest of this youthful trio, Keats is said to have written some of his finest sonnets in as little as fifteen minutes! And Keats never even lived to the age at which Shakespeare is thought to have written his own sonnets.

Before we leave the anti-Stratfordians behind, we should at least address the few remaining remnants of their arguments against “the Stratford man”. The fact that Shakespeare’s signature is described as being shaky or untidy is used as evidence of his “illiteracy”. Although some Oxfordians admit grudgingly that most of the surviving signatures date from the period of Shakespeare’s retirement when the infirmity that would eventually lead to his relatively early death might account for the infirmity of the signature, there is still the implicit suggestion that the untidy signature is evidence that Shakespeare could not have written the plays.

Perhaps it is necessary to remind these “scholars” that there is absolutely no connection between calligraphy and literature, or that beautiful writing and beautiful handwriting do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many of the greatest writers had bad handwriting, and, no doubt, many of the greatest calligraphers were incapable of putting two literary sentences together. The temptation to produce a further list of great writers, this time itemizing those who had illegible handwriting, will be resisted. Let it suffice to say that any scholar who has pored over the mercilessly illegible handwriting of great writers will know that there is absolutely no connection between legibility and literacy.

In similar vein, anti-Stratfordians point a scornful finger at the lack of literary flourish in Shakespeare’s will or the questionable literary merit of the poetic epitaph on his grave. Why, one wonders, should Shakespeare feel inspired to turn his will into a work of literary art? Why, one wonders, should he bother to write his will at all? Why shouldn’t he get his lawyer to do it? And why, one wonders, would Shakespeare be the least concerned with writing verse for his own gravestone? How common is it for self-penned epitaphs to adorn the tombs of the dead? Isn’t it far more likely that someone else wrote the lines? At any rate, these pieces of “evidence” hardly warrant any serious doubt as to the authorship of the plays.

In the final analysis, there is no convincing argument against Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and, in consequence, no convincing evidence that someone else wrote them. If the very foundations upon which the anti-Stratfordian edifice is built are shown to be fallacious, the rest of the ingenious, if far-fetched, historical arguments for other “Shakespeares” fall to the ground ignominiously.

After the dust has settled on the fallen edifices of false scholarship, what is left standing among the ruins? There is no Earl of Oxford, no Francis Bacon, no Queen Elizabeth nor King James, no Christopher Marlowe, no Daniel Defoe, no Elvis. We are left with the reliable, if mundane, reality that William Shakespeare was, in fact, William Shakespeare. We are also left with the equally reliable, if paradoxical, observation of G. K. Chesterton that “Shakespeare is quite himself, it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else.” [G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy]


Will The Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up 1 – Joseph Pearce

September 18, 2013
The painting that seems to have the greatest claim to authenticity, the famous Chandos portrait, looks at us with the enigmatic suggestiveness of the Mona Lisa. As with Leonardo's famous portrait, the Chandos Shakespeare seduces us with its aura of mystery, its unanswered questions. Who is this man who looks at us knowingly from the canvas? What secrets does he conceal? The questions are asked, but there's no hint of an answer. Its eyes meet ours, teasing us with evasive promptings of we know not what. It remains silent, keeping its secret.

The painting that seems to have the greatest claim to authenticity, the famous Chandos portrait, looks at us with the enigmatic suggestiveness of the Mona Lisa. As with Leonardo’s famous portrait, the Chandos Shakespeare seduces us with its aura of mystery, its unanswered questions. Who is this man who looks at us knowingly from the canvas? What secrets does he conceal? The questions are asked, but there’s no hint of an answer. Its eyes meet ours, teasing us with evasive promptings of we know not what. It remains silent, keeping its secret.

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides.
Cordelia (King Lear, 1.1.282)

The quest for the real William Shakespeare is akin to a detective story in which the Shakespearian biographer is cast in the role of a literary sleuth, pursuing his quarry like a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. In fact, since the object of the chase is not to elicit the confession of a crime but the confession of a creed, it could be said that Chesterton’s clerical detective, Father Brown, might be better suited to the task than Conan Doyle’s coldly logical Holmes.

Chesterton certainly believed that the evidence pointed toward Shakespeare’s Catholicism, stating that the “convergent common sense” that led to the belief that the Bard was a Catholic was “supported by the few external and political facts we know”. [G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (1932); republished in G. K. Chesterton: The Collected Works, vol. 18] One presumes from this assertion that Chesterton was familiar with Henry Sebastian Bowden’s The Religion of Shakespeare, published in 1899, in which Father Bowden assembled the considerable historical and textual evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism that had been gathered by the Shakespearian scholar Richard Simpson.

Throughout the twentieth century a good deal of solid historical detective work was done, adding significantly to the “few external and political facts” known by Simpson and Chesterton. In consequence, the claims made by Carol Curt Enos in Shakespeare and the Catholic Religion, published almost exactly a century after Bowden’s volume, were more self-confidently emphatic: “When many of the extant pieces of the puzzle of Shakespeare’s life are assembled, it is very difficult to deny his Catholicism.” [Carol Curt Enos, Shakespeare and the Catholic Religion] Every piece of the puzzle, placed painstakingly where it belongs, brings us closer to an objectively verifiable picture. As more and more of the facts of Shakespeare’s life and times emerge from the fogs of history (to switch metaphors), the more clearly are those fogs lifted and the more clearly does Shakespeare emerge from the centuries-laden gloom that has surrounded him.

Even as the solid work of historians brings the real Shakespeare to life, the vultures of literary criticism continue to pick over the bones of the corpse of their unreal Shakespearian chimera. It is for this reason that Anthony Holden, on the opening page of his biography of Shakespeare, complained that “the long-suffering son of Stratford is … being picked apart by historicists, feminists, Marxists, new historicists, post-feminists, deconstructionists, anti-deconstructionists, post-modernists, cultural imperialists and post-colonialists“. “Perhaps,” Holden added, “it is time someone tried putting him back together again.” [Anthony Holden, William Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Genius]

Whereas the imagery of carrion-critics picking over the bones of a corpse, killed by the poison of their theories, is a powerful one, the implicit allusion to “putting Humpty together again” is less so. Unlike Humpty Dumpty, Shakespeare has never had a great fall and, therefore, unlike Humpty, does not need putting together. It is not Shakespeare who has fallen. He is as he always was. It is all the king’s men who have had the fall, and it is they who cannot be put together again. The historicists, new historicists, feminists, post-feminists, deconstructionists, et cetera ad nauseam, are lying broken at the feet of the unbroken Shakespeare, picking over the pieces of their own theories, arguing over the meaning of the monsters of their own monstrous musings, missing the point and impaling themselves on the point of their own pointlessness. This is where we shall leave them, arguing amongst themselves, whilst we begin to look at the real William Shakespeare.

Though Shakespeare is real, he is also elusive, defying our efforts to define him. Try as we might to pin him down, he always seems to get away. We don’t even know for certain what he looked like. The various paintings claiming to be portraits of him are most probably of someone else.

The painting that seems to have the greatest claim to authenticity, the famous Chandos portrait, looks at us with the enigmatic suggestiveness of the Mona Lisa. As with Leonardo’s famous portrait, the Chandos Shakespeare seduces us with its aura of mystery, its unanswered questions. Who is this man who looks at us knowingly from the canvas? What secrets does he conceal? The questions are asked, but there’s no hint of an answer. Its eyes meet ours, teasing us with evasive promptings of we know not what. It remains silent, keeping its secret.

“We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still, / Out-topping knowledge.” Thus wrote Matthew Arnold in his sonnet to Shakespeare. Today, almost four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death and more than a century after Arnold’s sonnet, we are still asking. We ask and ask and are still met with the same beguiling silence, the same suggestion of a smile. Perhaps, on one level at least, this is as it should be.

On the level of metaphor, the Chandos portrait serves as a representation of Shakespeare himself. The man who looks at us knowingly from the canvas is the man who looks at us knowingly through the plays. He knows us, even if we don’t know him. He shows us to ourselves, even if he conceals himself while he does so. As with the picture of Dorian Gray, the portrait is a mirror. And if the mirror shows us ourselves does it really matter that we can’t see the mysterious man who is holding it? This seems to have been the question on Matthew Arnold’s mind when he composed his sonnet and, as the conclusion of the sonnet testifies, the great Victorian believed that the identity of his elusive Elizabethan forebear was not particularly important.

And thou, who didst the stars and sunbeams know,
Self-school’d, self-scanned, self-honour’d, self-secure,
Didst walk on earth unguess’d at.
Better so! All pains the immortal spirit must endure,
All weakness that impairs, all griefs that bow,
Find their sole voice in that victorious brow.

Arnold appears to be saying that since Shakespeare shows us ourselves so well, it doesn’t really matter that he fails to show us himself. There is, however, a serious problem with such a conclusion, a problem that is so serious that it amounts to a fatal flaw in the reading of Shakespeare’s works and a consequent blindness to the truths that emerge from them.

It is this. What if the image of ourselves that we see in the mirror is distorted by our lack of knowledge of the one who holds the mirror? What if our understanding of Shakespeare is essential to our understanding of ourselves as reflected by Shakespeare? What if we misunderstand and misconstrue what he is showing us if we misunderstand and misconstrue what he means to show us? What if Shakespeare is not simply holding the mirror? What if he is the mirror? What if the plays are, in some mystical or immanent way, an artistic incarnation of the playwright? What if the words only become flesh if we understand the personhood and philosophy of the flesh that gave birth to the words?

Pace Matthew Arnold, it is clear that knowing Shakespeare increases our knowledge of the plays. It is equally clear that a misunderstanding of Shakespeare will invariably lead to a misunderstanding of the plays. Misread the man and you misread the work. This being so, it is evident that the quest for the real William Shakespeare is at the heart of Shakespearian literature. The quest for the author of the plays and sonnets is a quest for the authority needed to read them properly.

In some ways the quest for the real Shakespeare can be likened to the quest for the Holy Grail. Some refuse to join the quest on the basis that the Grail is unimportant. These are the postmoderns and deconstructionists who believe that they are as capable of understanding the plays as was the playwright himself, and that they do not need his help to do so, or else they believe that the plays have no meaning anyway and that, therefore, there is nothing to understand.

For these hollow men, slaves of the zeitgeist, there is little hope. With a yawn of tedious ennui, and a sigh of slothful hubris, they close the book and wander wearily into the vestibule of the Futile, perhaps en route to somewhere worse. Then there are those critics who join the quest for the Grail but discover that it was not, in fact, holy; it was merely a cup, like any other, or, at any rate, a cup remarkably like a graven image of the critics themselves.

For these critics, Shakespeare emerges, in spite of the abundance of evidence for his Catholicism, as a progenitor of modern secularism, as a man who, ahead of his time, turned his back on the faith of his fathers and embraced the agnosticism of the future. “The safest and most likely conclusion”, wrote Peter Ackroyd in his life of the Bard, “… must be that despite his manifold Catholic connections Shakespeare professed no particular faith. The church bells did not summon him to worship. They reminded him of decay and time past. Just as he was a man without opinions, so he was a man without beliefs.

He subdued his nature to whatever in the drama confronted him. He was, in that sense, above faith.” [Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography] One cannot resist a riposte to such arrant nonsense. The fact is that there is no such thing as “a man without opinions” or “a man without beliefs”. Indeed, “a man without beliefs” is simply beyond belief. Agnosticism is a belief, atheism is a belief, nihilism is a belief, and these beliefs obviously inform our opinions. Shakespeare may or may not have been a believing Catholic, but he clearly could not have been “without beliefs”. Such men do not exist.

Perhaps Ackroyd was trying to say, and saying badly, what the philosopher George Santayana had said much better more than a century earlier. “Shakespeare is remarkable among the poets”, Santayana claimed, “for being without a philosophy and without a religion”, adding that “the absence of religion in Shakespeare was a sign of his good sense”. With unremitting logic, Santayana concluded that the absence of religion in Shakespeare’s plays, as he perceived it, led inevitably to the implied triumph of nihilism: “For Shakespeare, in the matter of religion, the choice lay between Christianity and nothing. He chose nothing; he chose to leave his heroes and himself in the presence of life and of death with no other philosophy than that which the profane world can suggest and understand.” [George Santayana, Absence of Religion in Shakespeare]

Against this “profane” interpretation of Shakespeare’s works, there is a long tradition of belief that Shakespeare’s plays betray an element of Catholicism. In 1801 the French writer Francois Rene de Chateaubriand asserted that “if Shakespeare was anything at all, he was a Catholic”.[Quoted in H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism] Thomas Carlyle wrote that the “Elizabethan era with its Shakespeare, as the outcome and flowerage of all which had preceded it, is itself attributable to the Catholicism of the Middle Ages”. [Quoted in Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography]

Carlyle’s great Victorian contemporary John Henry Newman was even more emphatic about the Catholic dimension, stating that Shakespeare “has so little of a Protestant about him that Catholics have been able, without extravagance, to claim him as their own”.[John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1873); quoted in Peter Milward, Shakespeare the Papist]

Hilaire Belloc, echoing the verdict of Newman, insisted that “the plays of Shakespeare were written by a man plainly Catholic in habit of mind”. [Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith (1920); quoted in Velma Richmond, Shakespeare, Catholicism, and Romance] G. K. Chesterton stated his own belief in Shakespeare’s Catholicism in his book on Chaucer, published in 1932: “That Shakespeare was a Catholic is a thing that every Catholic feels by every sort of convergent common sense to be true.” [G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (1932); republished in Chesterton: The Collected Works, vol. 18] Years earlier, in 1907, Chesterton had compared the chasm that separated Shakespeare the Catholic from Milton the Protestant:

Nearly all Englishmen are either Shakespearians or Miltonians. I do not mean that they admire one more than the other; because everyone in his senses must admire both of them infinitely. I mean that each represents something in the make-up of England; and that the two things are so antagonistic that it is really impossible not to be secretly on one side or the other…. Shakespeare represents the Catholic, Milton the Protestant.… Whenever Milton speaks of religion, it is Milton’s religion: the religion that Milton has made. Whenever Shakespeare speaks of religion (which is only seldom), it is of a religion that has made him.” [G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News (May 18, 1907)]

Not surprisingly perhaps, Chesterton was asked to clarify the rationale behind his assertion of Shakespeare’s Catholicism:

A correspondent has written to me asking me what I meant by saying that Shakespeare was a Catholic and Milton a Protestant. That Milton was a Protestant, I suppose, he will not dispute…. But the point about the religion of Shakespeare is certainly less obvious, though I think not less true…. These impressions are hard to explain…. But here, at least, is one way of putting the difference between the religions of Shakespeare and Milton. Milton is possessed with what is, I suppose, the first and finest idea of Protestantism — the idea of the individual soul actually testing and tasting all the truth there is, and calling that truth which it has not tested or tasted truth of a less valuable and vivid kind.

But Shakespeare is possessed through and through with the feeling which is the first and finest idea of Catholicism that truth exists whether we like it or not, and that it is for us to accommodate ourselves to it…. But I really do not know how this indescribable matter can be better described than by simply saying this; that Milton’s religion was Milton’s religion, and that Shakespeare’s religion was not Shakespeare’s.
[G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News (May 18, 1907)]

Chesterton’s comparison of Shakespeare with Milton is intriguing, indicating that, in Chesterton’s judgment, the former belonged to the old England of Catholicism whereas the latter belonged to the new England of Protestantism. He is saying that Shakespeare, living during the crucible of religious change, was rooted in the Old Faith, whereas Milton, as a genuine modern, had embraced post-Catholicism, with the implicit relativism of a custom-built or personalized faith, in much the same way as his successors would embrace “post-Christianity”, with the explicit relativism of faithless individualism.

Milton is the missing-link between the Christian past and the “post-Christian” future; Shakespeare, on the other hand, is a remnant of the Christian past in defiance of the very same emergent and embryonic “post-Christianity”. Milton is “early modern” in the sense that he was the herald of much that was to follow; Shakespeare is only “early modern” in the sense that he was responding to, and reacting against, the emergence of the modern “enlightened” mind.

The fact that Shakespeare has much more in common with the mediaeval past than with the postmodern present has been stressed by modern Shakespearian scholars, such as Gene Fendt, who states that the “Renaissance and medieval are arguably closer to each other than, for example, we (post)moderns are to either of them“. As such, he continues, “It is more licit to read Shakespeare next to Aquinas than next to Freud, Jung, Lacan, Foucault, et al.” [Gene Fendt, Is Hamlet a Religious Drama? An Essay on a Question in Kierkegaard (Fendt is referring specifically to notions of "ecstasy" in Hamlet, but his conclusions are nonetheless applicable in a much wider sense.] Taken to its logical conclusion this means that all (post)modern readings of Shakespeare are inevitably, and by definition, awry.

Heinrich Mutschmann and Karl Wentersdorf, in their comprehensive study Shakespeare and Catholicism, documented the numerous “references to Catholic dogmas, ideas and customs” in Shakespeare’s works and concluded that “We are in every respect justified in accepting these as irrefutable testimony of the poet’s personal views, views which are quite clearly pro-Catholic.” [Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism]

Take, for example, Shakespeare’s condemnation of each of the seven deadly sins. Pride: “Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye.” [Sonnet 62] Envy: “I sin in envying his nobility.” [Coriolanus, 1.1.230] Sloth: “Hereditary sloth instructs me.” 17 Gluttony: “Let him be damned like the glutton.” [The Tempest, 2.1.223]Avarice or covetousness: “My desire of having is the sin of covetousness.” [2 Henry IV, 1.2.34] Anger: “It hath pleased the devil of drunkenness to give place to the devil of wrath.” [Twelfth Night, 5.1.47] Lust: “My blood is mingled with the crime of lust”. [Othello, 2.3.296-97.]

Shakespeare did not merely condemn each of the seven deadly sins; he ordered them in conformity to the teaching of the Catholic Church, as reflected in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and as echoed by Dante in his Thomistic masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. In league with his great mediaeval forebears, Shakespeare condemns the sin of pride, i.e., the sin of Satan and the sin of Adam, as the most grievous of all the sins: “Self-love, which is the most inhibited sin in the canon.” [Comedy of Errors, 2.2.141] And he describes lust or “unchastity” as the least grievous: “Of the deadly seven it is the least.” [All's Well That Ends Well, 1.1.144-45]

Yet even the “least deadly” of the mortal sins is still deadly, a fact that Shakespeare is at pains to illustrate. When, for example, Claudio, in Measure for Measure, makes the crucial error of suggesting that unchastity, as the least grievous of the deadly sins, is perhaps not a sin at all, Shakespeare exposes his flawed logic. He does so in the wisdom of the profoundly orthodox words of Claudio’s sister, Isabella, uttered in the previous act:

Better it were a brother died at once Than that a sister, by redeeming him, Should die for ever.
[Measure for Measure, 3.1.110]

The virtuous Isabella knows that actions have eternal consequences and that it would be better for her brother to lose his earthly life than that she should suffer eternal punishment for committing a mortal sin, i.e., a sin that kills the soul and condemns the sinner to “die for ever”. She knows that it would be wrong to “redeem” her brother temporarily, i.e., to save him from the sentence of death with which he is condemned, if, by doing so, she was condemning her own soul to eternal punishment.


Death Is The Mother Of Beauty – Christian Wiman

September 17, 2013
God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’ve always been struck — haunted, really — by Wallace Stevens’ phrase, in his great poem “Sunday Morning,” “Death is the mother of beauty.” [See yesterday's post, link above.] Like that Robert Bringhurst poem I quoted in a previous post, Stevens’ line was practically tattooed on my brain for years; it was a kind of credo by which I lived. Or, as “Postolka” makes clear, almost lived.

It’s the old carpe diem cry, Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, etc. etc. Except that Stevens, unlike Horace and Herrick, isn’t encouraging haste and excess in the face of time slipping from one’s grasp. “Sunday Morning,” right from its famous first lines, is all about slowness and deliberation, about savoring experience:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,
And the green freedom of a cockatoo
Upon a rug, mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

No, Stevens believed that a concentration on death concentrates life, that we cannot see life clearly except through the lens of death, but that once we have seen it with such clarity, we can savor it. This is what I believed, and how I tried to live — until one day I found myself looking through the actual lens of death.

The view, it turned out, was quite different. From the moment I learned I had cancer — on my thirty-ninth birthday, from a curt voice mail message — not only was the world not intensified, it was palpably attenuated. I can still feel how far away everything — the people walking on the street beyond the window, the books on the shelf, my wife smiling up at me in the moment before I told her — suddenly seemed. And long after the initial shock, I felt a maddening, muffled quality to the world around me — which, paradoxically, went hand in hand with the most acute, interior sensations of pain.

It seemed as if the numbness was not mine, but the world’s, as if some energy had drained out of things. At some point I realized that for all my literary talk of the piquancy and poignancy that mortality imparts to immediate experience, part of my enjoyment of life had always been an unconscious assumption of its continuity.

Not necessarily a continuity of reality itself — the moment does pass, of course — but a continuity in memory at least, and a future that the act of memory implies (there must be somewhere from which to remember). Life is short, we say, in one way or another, but in truth, because we cannot imagine our own death until it is thrust upon us, we live in a land where only other people die.

“Death is the mother of beauty” is a phrase that could only have been written by a man for whom death was an abstraction, a vaguely pleasant abstraction at that. Remove futurity from experience and you leach meaning from it just as surely as if you cut out a man’s past. “Memory is the basis of individual personality,” Miguel de Unamuno writes, “just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.”

In other words, we need both the past and the future to make our actions and emotions and sensations mean anything in the present.

Strictly speaking, though, the past and the future do not exist. They are both, to a greater or lesser degree, creations of the imagination. Anyone who tells you that you can live only in time, then, is not quite speaking the truth, since if we do not live out of time imaginatively, we cannot live in it actually. And if we can live out of time in our daily lives — indeed, if apprehending and inhabiting our daily lives demands that we in some imaginative sense live out of time — then is it a stretch to imagine the fruition of existence as being altogether outside of time?


From A Window

Incurable and unbelieving
in any truth but the truth of grieving,

I saw a tree inside a tree
rise kaleidoscopically

as if the leaves had livelier ghosts.
I pressed my face as close

to the pane as I could get
to watch that fitful, fluent spirit

that seemed a single being undefined
or countless beings of one mind

haul its strange cohesion
beyond the limits of my vision

over the house heavenwards.
Of course I knew those leaves were birds.

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man’s mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.

I wrote this poem a few months after getting my diagnosis. Nothing was planned or deliberate about it. I didn’t have the realization that an experience of reality can open into an experience of divinity and then go write a poem to illustrate my feelings. No, it was quite the reverse: I wrote the poem one day out of anguish, emptiness, grief — and it exploded into joy. I sought refuge in the half-conscious play of language and was rescued by a weave of meaning I never meant to make.

The poem taught me something, and one of the things it taught me was that if you do not “think” of God, in whatever way you find to do that, if God has no relation to your experience, if God is not in your experience, then experience is always an end in itself, and always, I think, a dead end.

Not only does experience open into nothing else, but that ulterior awareness, that spirit-cleansing whiff of the ultimate, never comes into the concrete details of existence either. You can certainly enjoy life like this; you can have a hell of a time. But I would argue that life remains merely something to be enjoyed, and that not only its true nature but also something within your true nature remains inert, unavailable, mute.


“From a Window” was one of a handful of poems I wrote after my diagnosis that gave me some sense of purchase and promise: the terrible vagueness of things was dispelled for a moment and I could see where I was standing, and could feel a way forward. (Feel a way forward: if someone had asked me at the time if I believed in an afterlife, I would have said no.

Yet my poems kept conjuring their eccentric heavens, kept prodding me toward new ways of understanding that verb “believe.”) It was puzzling, then, and troubling, to find myself as time went on writing poems that seemed to give up the gains I had made, seemed not simply devoid of divinity, but to relish that fact:

It is good to sit even a rotting body
in sunlight uncompromised
by God, or lack of God,

to see the bee beyond
all the plundered flowers
air-stagger toward you

and like a delicate helicopter
hover above your knee
until it finds you to be

not sweet but at least
not flinching, its hair-legs
on the hair of your leg

a coolness through you
like a soul of nerve.

Not only is there no God in this poem, the very possibility is pushed roughly to the side. And yet I felt some saving otherness everywhere in me and around me when I wrote it. There is no possibility of heaven in this poem; indeed there is an implicit contempt for the notion. And yet I felt — during that brief marriage of word and world that poetry is — projected into dimensions of existence I could never have imagined before writing the poem, or could only have imagined but never felt.

Can there be such a thing as an anti-devotional devotional poem? Hopkins and Herbert both thought that God circumscribed imagination, that faith required drawing certain lines inside of their own minds that they dared not cross, or if they crossed (for they certainly did), then they whipped themselves for it afterward. I understand the dilemma but disagree with the solution. If faith requires you to foreclose on an inspiration, surely it is not faith.


The question of exactly which art is seeking God, and seeking to be in the service of God, is more complicated than it might seem. There is something in all original art that will not be made subject to God, if we mean by being made “subject to God” a kind of voluntary censorship or willed refusal of the mind’s spontaneous and sometimes disturbing intrusions into, and extensions of, reality.

But that is not how that phrase ought to be understood. In fact we come closer to the truth of the artist’s relation to divinity if we think not of being made subject to God, but of being subjected to God — our individual subjectivity being lost and rediscovered within the reality of God. Human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.

It follows that any notion of God that is static is — since it asserts singular knowledge of God and seeks to limit his being to that knowledge — blasphemous. “God’s truth is life,” as Patrick Kavanagh says, “even the grotesque shapes of its foulest fire.” One part of that truth, for even the most devout among us, is the void of godlessness — and sometimes, mysteriously, the joy of that void.


The same impulse that leads me to sing of God leads me to sing of godlessness.

God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. . . The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The gods are back, companions. Right now they have just entered this life; but the words that revoke them, whispered underneath the words that reveal them, have also appeared that we might suffer together.
René Char

Sometimes God calls a person to unbelief in order that faith may take new forms.


Christopher Hitchens’ Forward to Brave New World 2

September 10, 2013
A map of the world that does not show Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. In Brave New World, and in his closing novel Island, Huxley tried to fix Utopian cartography in our minds. In the first setting, sex and drugs and the conditioning of the young are the symptoms of un-freedom and the roots of alienation and anomie, while in the second they are the tools of emancipation and the keys to happiness.

A map of the world that does not show Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. In Brave New World, and in his closing novel Island, Huxley tried to fix Utopian cartography in our minds. In the first setting, sex and drugs and the conditioning of the young are the symptoms of un-freedom and the roots of alienation and anomie, while in the second they are the tools of emancipation and the keys to happiness.


Christopher Hitchens wrote this forward in 2003. He was an American English author who passed away in 2011 from stomach cancer. In the later years of his life he wrote a couple of bestsellers concerning religion and took to the road to debate one and all on God and other topics, recalling Huxley’s radio debates with G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton wrote his classic The Everlasting Man as an answer book to Huxley’s Brave New World. Hitchens last days were spent reading Chesterton in the Houston hospital where he died. He wrote a poor essay on Chesterton which Ralph C. Wood answered here.

Never strong on theology, Hitchens’ opposition to God was based more on a visceral dislike of religion, be it radical Islam, American-grown fundie nonsense or the violent history of the Catholic Church. He was able to pass on his aversion to the religious but was always (I felt) an uncertain atheist as he never was able to respond in any reasoned way to theological challenges to his positions.

It did give him good reason to sell books however and to continue appearing on the tube but he was much better skewering liberals on Iraq and saying nice things about George Bush’s policies which would drive them to a frenzied apoplexy.  Imagine the fun he would have had with Obama and Syria.  I do miss him.


The study of eugenics was popular among the governing and intellectual classes of Britain in the Victorian epoch and subsequently (indeed it was an aspect of what has been termed “Social Darwinism”), and we learn from his biographer Nicholas Murray that Aldous Huxley was highly interested in “breeding,” in both the aristocratic and the scientific sense of the term. I know from Huxley’s own essays that he fell straight for the early theorists of IQ who believed in its distribution by heredity.

To this he added that it was important to encourage “the normal and supernormal members of the population to have large families,” while preventing the subnormal “from having any children at all.” So it was very clever of him — as well as quite Pyrrhonic — both to mobilize his own feelings on this subject, and then to harness them for a satire on the planned economy. One need not object to his having things both ways, as long as one notices the trick being performed.

In rather the same way, Huxley thought that free love and infidelity were all very well for people like himself (he and his first wife had an open marriage and even shared the bed of the same female lover, Mary Hutchinson). But still, when he came to describe the mindless and amoral sex lives of the men and women in Brave New World, he wrote with a curled lip.

In an article describing the “jazz age” in California in the late 1920s, he had relished the profusion of nubile young girls and wrote that: “Plumply ravishing, they give, as T S. Eliot has phrased it, `a promise of pneumatic bliss.” Eliot spent his critical and poetic energy in the attempt to revive, in a more specifically Christian and conservative form, the values of Matthew Arnold.

So it is again amusing to note that the coarse word “pneumatic,” used throughout Brave New World by both its male and female characters as a cheap synonym for good sex, derives from this rather disapproving source, as well as expressing Huxley’s own divided view of the subject.

The influence of T. S. Eliot can also be felt in the depiction of “World Controller” Mustapha Mond, described as possessing “a hooked nose, full red lips, and eyes very piercing and dark.” Martin Green has drawn attention to the resemblance to Mustapha Kemal, better known as Ataturk, who was a commanding figure when Huxley was writing.

Sir Alfred Mond, the founder of the giant chemical multinational known as ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), was also a power-celebrity of the period, and Eliot often alluded to him as the prototypical cosmopolitan Jew. (Huxley’s few references to Jews were also often disobliging: he blamed them for the mercantile sleaziness of Hollywood, among other things. As if to rub this in, there’s also a somewhat repellent character in Brave New World named Morgana Rothschild.)

And we catch another prefiguration of Nineteen Eighty-Four, when the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning finds himself nervous in Mond’s presence, because “there were those strange rumors of old forbidden books hidden in a safe in the Controller’s study. Bibles, poetry — Ford knew what.” Did Orwell half-remember this when he created the looming figure of O’Brien and the Inner Party’s secret book? If so, his review of Brave New World was again unfair to Huxley.

I find the tracing of these contemporary influences to be valuable, because Huxley was composing Brave New World at a time when modernity as we know it was just coming into full view He later reproached himself for not mentioning nuclear fission, about which he was quite well informed, but this element of the literal hardly matters. Readers then and since have filled in many gaps for themselves: they knew and they know what Huxley was driving at. Can the human being be designed and controlled, from uterus to grave, “for its own good”? And would this version of super-utilitarianism bring real happiness?

Huxley himself conceded that his fictional characters were no more than puppets to illustrate his points, and this lack of characterization (truly a drawback in his earlier and later novels, most especially in Island, his last and most self-consciously Utopian effort)) is paradoxically rather a help in Brave New World. The marionettes do their stuff, giving us a very rapid and complete picture of mindless bliss and its usefulness to power. Then they begin, or some of them are authorized by their carpenter to begin, to experience vague but definite feelings of discontent. They find themselves asking: Is this all there is?

The three deficiencies they feel, often without knowing how to name them, are Nature, Religion, and Literature. With only chemical and mechanical and sexual comforts provided to them, they sense the absence of challenge and drama and they fall prey to ennui. With no concept of a cosmos beyond the immediately human, they are deprived of the chance to feel awed or alienated. And with nothing but sensory entertainment (Huxley might not have been the best of movie critics, given his near-blindness, but he used this disadvantage to imagine “the feelies” as the culmination of “talkies” and “movies) they have no appreciation for words.

Huxley’s expression of this dilemma, and of its resolution, is, again, very didactic. He allows some of his prefabricated figures to feel the stirrings of sexual jealousy and its two accompaniments: the yearning for monogamy and the desire to bear one’s own child. He permits them the aspiration to experience the wilderness, even if it is only a reservation, and to take the requisite risks. And he leaves a tattered copy of Shakespeare lying around. (I’m sorry to keep doing this, but when Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four awakes from a haunting dream of a lost pastoral England, he does so to his own surprise “with the word Shakespeare on his lips.”)

The possessor of the Shakespeare edition is The Savage, and it is he who wreaks revenge on the overprotected and superinsulated creatures who stumble upon his existence. This revenge is partly accidental, in that his own need for authentic emotion is enough in itself to cause convulsions in the society that adopts him as a fearful curiosity or freak. Huxley later said that if he could rewrite the novel he would have given The Savage more warning of what to expect.

This shows that fiction writers do well to leave their creations alone and spare them from second thoughts: it is the effect of The Savage upon others that makes the dramatic difference, and it is his very naivete and simplicity that make a quasi-Calvary out of the final chapter. Huxley was fairly indifferent to Christianity as a religion (and his satire on the Church of England and the `Arch-CommunitySongster of Canterbury” has since been easily surpassed by the fatuous degeneration of that Church itself), but he was not immune to its metaphors, and the seeker for reality in the wilderness is only one of these. We can always be sure of one thing — that the messengers of discomfort and sacrifice will be stoned and pelted by those who wish to preserve at all costs their own contentment. This is not a lesson that is confined to the Testaments.

In a way, I have been arguing that Brave New World was both ahead of, and behind, its time. And Huxley was — shall we say? — a reactionary modernist. He had this quality in common with Evelyn Waugh, who also took his tone from Eliot’s “Waste Land” and who dilated about eugenics and euthanasia while carrying a burden of unpurged religious guilt. The disguised presence of original sin is reimagined in Brave New World when Huxley, in the most absurd of his scenarios, shows us little children being sleep-conditioned to consume, and to use up material goods and opportunities with as much abandon as possible.

Here one must ask, who but a member of the comfortable or agnostic classes imagines that people need to be brainwashed into being greedy? The acquisitive instinct, perhaps initially supplied by Satan himself in one interpretation, is after all fairly easily engaged. It was Karl Marx and not Bernard Marx who wrote that, in relation to his victims, the capitalist “therefore searches for all possible ways of stimulating them to consume, by making his commodities more attractive and by filling their ears with babble about new needs.” Marx also thought, as is usually forgotten or overlooked, that this impulse led to innovation and experiment and to the liberating process of what has sometimes been called “creative destruction.” In other words, it is a means of arousing discontent with the status quo, not a mere means of stupefying the masses. Our own contemporary world suggests that the energy of capital is not easily compatible with stasis.

Having never wanted for much himself, Huxley was quicker to miss this point than he might have been. And, in his Pyrrhonic way, he was also quicker to surrender to the blandishments of Nirvana, in its consumer-capitalist form, than most. This is what makes Brave New World Revisited into a disappointment. Once again, the clue is to be found in an exchange with Orwell, who sent Huxley an advance copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In late 1949, Huxley wrote back to say “how fine and profoundly important” the book was. However, he was convinced that future rulers would discover that:

infant-conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. .. the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblances to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency.

Perhaps it is partly Orwell’s fault, since his descriptions of the Thought Police and Room 101 are so annihilatingly and memorably ghastly, but it does deserve to be said that his own fictionalization of absolutism does not depend exclusively upon the power of fear and violence. The masses are not handed soma to tranquilize them, but they are given plentiful cheap gin. Lotteries are staged for their amusement and excitement, and cheap pornographic literature is freely available to all proles. The cinema is depicted as an orgy of distraction and propaganda, on Colosseum lines, admittedly, rather than of exquisite sensation. The Nineteen Eighty-Four regime is one of scarcity rather than abundance, but the traditional bribes of materialism and indeed of conditioning cannot be said to have been overlooked.

When he came to publish Brave New World Revisited almost a decade later, in 1958, Huxley nonetheless opened with a long contrast between his own vision and the Orwellian one; a contrast very similar to the one he had sketched in his letter of 1949. He rightly pointed out that in the Soviet Union the need for rationalization of the economy had produced some alleviation of the totalitarian system. However, his general obsession with eugenics once again caused him to replace the emphasis elsewhere:

The United States is not at present an over-populated country. If, however, the population continues to increase at the present rate (which is higher than that of India’s increase, though happily a good deal lower than the rate now current in Mexico or Guatemala), the problem of numbers in relation to available resources might well become troublesome by the beginning of the twenty-first century. For the moment over-population is not a direct threat to the personal freedom of Americans. It remains, however, an indirect threat, a menace at one remove.

If over-population should drive the underdeveloped countries into totalitarianism, and if these new dictatorships should ally themselves with Russia, then the military position of the United States would become less secure and the preparations for defense and retaliation would have to be intensified. But liberty, as we all know, cannot flourish in a country that is permanently on a war-footing, or even a near-war footing. Permanent crisis justifies permanent control of everybody and everything by the agencies of the central government. And permanent crisis is what we have to expect in a world in which over-population is producing a state of things, in which dictatorship under Communist auspices becomes almost inevitable.

In no respect is this a paragraph of prescience. The geopolitical sentences are both too detailed and too vague. One might note, also, that the chief demographic problem of the United States in 2003 is its ageing population, with the “graying” process somewhat delayed or postponed by legal and illegal immigration. Scholars, such as Amartya Sen in particular, have come up with multiple refutations of Malthus. “Population bomb” theorists, most notably Paul Ehrlich, have seen their extrapolated predictions repeatedly fail to come true — at least partly because they are extrapolations. Finally, it would appear from his remarks about Mexico and Guatemala that Huxley suddenly isn’t all that much in love with the primitive adobe and cactus natives, or not as much in love as he affected to be in Brave New World.

One element of that ancestral culture had, however, quite bewitched him in the years that separate the writing of Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited. His Lawrentian sojourns in California, New Mexico, and elsewhere — he was the editor of D. H. Lawrence’s letters — had exposed him to the psychedelic properties of peyoteand mescaline and their derivatives, such as LSD (the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” of the Sergeant Pepper smash hit). I don’t mean to be too “judgmental” about this: Huxley was almost blind and was entitled to any colorful voyage of the imagination that he could get his hands on. But there is something almost promiscuously uncritical in his Brave New World Revisited recommendation:

In LSD-25 (lysergic acid diethylamide) the pharmacologists have recently created another aspect of soma — a perception-improver and vision-producer that is, physiologically speaking, almost costless. This extraordinary drug, which is effective in doses as small as fifty or even twenty-five millionths of a gram, has power (like peyote)) to transport people into the other world. In the majority of cases, the other world to which LSD-25 gives access is heavenly; alternatively it may be purgatorial or even infernal. But, positive or negative, the lysergic acid experience is felt by almost everyone who undergoes it to be profoundly significant and enlightening. In any event, the fact that minds can be changed so radically at so little cost to the body is altogether astonishing.

Huxley became a friend of Dr. Timothy Leary, a man of great charm and wit (as I can testify from experience) and a truant Harvard scientist whose advocacy of LSD trips made him an emblem of the “Sixties.” It was this comradeship that attracted the attention of the Beatles and Jim Morrison. But again one must pause and notice a contradiction. Leary believed that the use of mind-altering drugs was essentially subversive, and would help individuals both to evade and erode “the system.”

The authorities appear to have agreed with him on this, pursuing and imprisoning him (at one point in a cell adjacent to Charles Manson)) and making it highly illegal to follow his advice, not just concerning LSD but also cocaine and marijuana. What becomes, then, of Huxley’s belief that such hallucinogens, analgesics, and stimulants are the ideal instrument of state control?

The “war on drugs” is now being extended to a state-sponsored campaign against tobacco and alcohol and painkillers: if the ruling class wants people to be blissed-out it has a strange way of pursuing this elementary goal. In our time, the symbol of state intrusion into the private life is the mandatory urine test.

A map of the world that does not show Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. In Brave New World, and in his closing novel Island, Huxley tried to fix Utopian cartography in our minds. In the first setting, sex and drugs and the conditioning of the young are the symptoms of un-freedom and the roots of alienation and anomie, while in the second they are the tools of emancipation and the keys to happiness.

The inhabitants of Brave New World have no external enemies to keep them afraid and in line; the Island-people of Pala have to contend with an aggressive neighboring dictatorship led by Colonel Dipa, a Saddam/Milosevic type who seems to think, and with good reason, that the traditional methods of club and boot and gun are still pretty serviceable. We should, I think, be grateful that Aldous Huxley was such a mass of internal contradictions. These enabled him to register the splendors and miseries, not just of modernity, but of the human condition. In his essay “Ravens and Writing Desks,” written for Vanity Fair in 1928, he said:

God is, but at the same time God also is not. The Universe is governed by blind chance and at the same time by a providence with ethical preoccupations. Suffering is gratuitous and pointless, but also valuable and necessary. The universe is an imbecile sadist, but also, simultaneously, the most benevolent of parents. Everything is rigidly predetermined, but the will is perfectly free. This list of contradictions could be lengthened so as to include all problems that have ever vexed the philosopher and the theologian.

Aware perhaps that this teetered on the edge of tautology, the old Pyrrhonist wrote elsewhere in his essay on the great Spinoza:

“Homer was wrong,” wrote Heracleitus of Ephesus, “Homer was wrong in saying: ‘Would that strife might perish from among gods and men!’ He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for if his prayer was heard, all things would pass away”

The search for Nirvana, like the search for Utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle, and Huxley assists us in attaining this valuable glimpse of the obvious, precisely because it was a conclusion that was in many ways unwelcome to him.

Christopher Hitchens Washington, D.C. November 28, 2003


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