I want to describe the joy I felt in the parts of four books I read this morning between 6.30 and 7.45. Actually it wasn’t joy, it was something deeper, rounder, more colourful, more interesting. I don’t know who I write this for—those who share my love of reading, perhaps to urge them to read these particular books, or those, like my daughter, who haven’t developed the habit of reading? No, I write it for myself, as I write everything—to try and capture the joy, knowing I’ll fail, find new connections and understanding, and mine the experience, extract the last drop of what I’m calling joy.
Always I start with fiction. I discovered in my reading of Sapiens three days ago is that it is our capacity for fiction—for inventing worlds that don’t exist, be it religions, humans rights, or corporations—that allowed us to climb from our hazardous position in the middle of the food chain to the top.
Room with a View
My fiction is E M Forster’s Room with a View, which I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read before. I blame films. The film of the book and the film of A Passage to India were so pervasive 30 years ago that they misled me into thinking that I’d read the books. I read A Passage to India a year or so ago and liked it very much. I’m also enjoying Room with a View. It’s a comedy, gentling teasing the Victorian middle classes, but also a love story.
The young Lucy Honeychurch lives a straitlaced life, but we know that she hungers after more—because of the passion with which she plays Beethoven and Schumann. Indeed, the local vicar puts her sometimes wayward behaviour down to “too much Beethoven.” And a visit to Italy has turned her brain, as it turns the brain of all of us lucky enough to visit that blessed but also corrupted country. While she was In Italy she saw a murder and was kissed, on the cheek, by a strong, silent, radical young man. We sense that she will move her affections from her snobbish fiancée to the strong, silent, radical young man, and I’m enjoying watching it slowly happen.
In the passage I read this morning Freddie, Lucy’s brother, has just met the strong, silent, radical young man, George. Impulsively Freddie suggests they “bathe,” he means in a pond in the pine woods of Surrey. They do, stripping naked (although it’s never made explicit that they are naked), and they are joined by the middle-aged vicar. They become “delirious,” splashing, chasing, and ducking each other. Inevitably Lucy, her mother, and the snobbish fiancée (Cecil) are walking through the pines and discover them. Lucy, we know, takes another step away from Cecil towards George.
We now know that Forster was homosexual, and I can feel the erotic joy in these young men romping naked. It’s also very filmic, with Lucy walking through the woods in her white dress with parasol and coming across three wet and naked men. Forster emphasises that we can never know the future, but we, the smart readers, can see what’s coming.
And so to Sapiens, a marvellous book that tries to tell “the story of Homo Sapiens,” acknowledging that much of it is conjecture. One part I read this morning discussed whether the Sapiens [the author, Yuval Noah Harari, calls Homo sapiens Sapeins because it’s shorter and to distinguish these humans from the others now extinct] who roamed the earth before recorded history began were peaceful or warlike. There is scant evidence and what there is points both ways. But one collection of prehistoric skeletons showed that 4% had serious injuries, which were probably inflicted in battle. Today, when war is common, 1.5% of people die from war or crime, and during the 20th century, probably the most violent century so far, 5% did. So the prehistoric date suggest that prehistoric humans were warlike, but the Harari speculates that there may have been as much variation in the prehistoric world as now and perhaps some group were warlike and others peaceful.
In the next chapter Harari moves to describe how Sapiens could disrupt the environment in a way that no other animal has done. Sapiens arrived in Australia about 45 000 years ago, and Australia, which had been isolated from other land masses for millions of years, had unique flora and fauna, including 24 species of marsupial mammals, most of them huge. Within a short period 23 of them were extinct. Harari argues that it was Sapiens not climate change that did this, and he supports his argument with Sapiens having a similar impact in other isolated geographies, including New Zealand 800 years ago when the Maori arrived. (After reading this book for a while, 800 years ago feel shockingly recent.)
Sapiens destroyed the marsupials by hunting them; they had never evolved, like African and Asian mammals, to be wary of humans. Sapiens also destroyed through fire, burning down large tracts of forest.
Inevitably I think after reading this of Sapiens’ capacity to destroy the whole planet. Harari doesn’t think we’ll last much longer.
Next I read about Plotinus in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which I’m enjoying enormously. I was awarded it as a prize at school in 1968, but this is the first time I’ve tried to read it right through. I’d never heard of Plotinus, but he is the last great philosopher of the classical period. Saint Augustine described him as a man in whom “Plato lived again,” and Russell argues that he provided many of the thoughts central to Christianity.
I couldn’t read the whole chapter because I had to drive my daughter to the station, but I enjoyed a section in which Russell discusses why a particular philosophy or philosopher might matter. Firstly, it might be true, but that’s not the case with Plotinus—or, as Russell makes clear, much philosophy. Secondly, it might be beautiful in its writing. Russell believes this to be true of Plotinus. Thirdly, a philosophy “might express well what men are prone to believe in certain moods or in certain circumstances,” although with “uncomplicated joy and sorrow” poetry and music will do it better. “Only joy and sorrow accompanied by reflection on the universe,” writes Russell, “generate metaphysical theories. A man may be a cheerful pessimist or a melancholy optimist.” Plotinus was the second; I’m very much the first.
Poems of Thomas Hardy
And, finally, some poetry. I had to snatch at this because of the need to drive Flo to Clapham Junction. I’ve started reading my way through Philip Larkin’s The Oxford Book of Twentieth Century English Verse, another book I’ve had for many years without reading it right through, and I’ve been making my way through the poems of Thomas Hardy, one of England’s greatest poets, although not widely enough recognised as such.
He’s a poet of loss, inspired particularly by remorse over the death of his first wife from whom he was estranged. Married to a second wife 39 years younger, Hardy seemed to realise how much he loved his first wife only after she was dead. He has a taste as well for the wicked or at least disreputable, perhaps regretting that he never explored the wicked within himself. I read a few days ago his jolly poem, “The Ruined Maid,” and today read “The Mound.” Here are both.
The Ruined Maid
“O ‘Melia, my dear, this does everything crown!
Who could have supposed I should meet you in Town?
And whence such fair garments, such prosperi-ty?” —
“O didn’t you know I’d been ruined?” said she.
— “You left us in tatters, without shoes or socks,
Tired of digging potatoes, and spudding up docks;
And now you’ve gay bracelets and bright feathers three!” —
“Yes: that’s how we dress when we’re ruined,” said she.
— “At home in the barton you said thee’ and thou,’
And thik oon,’ and theäs oon,’ and t’other’; but now
Your talking quite fits ‘ee for high compa-ny!” —
“Some polish is gained with one’s ruin,” said she.
— “Your hands were like paws then, your face blue and bleak
But now I’m bewitched by your delicate cheek,
And your little gloves fit as on any la-dy!” —
“We never do work when we’re ruined,” said she.
— “You used to call home-life a hag-ridden dream,
And you’d sigh, and you’d sock; but at present you seem
To know not of megrims or melancho-ly!” —
“True. One’s pretty lively when ruined,” said she.
— “I wish I had feathers, a fine sweeping gown,
And a delicate face, and could strut about Town!” —
“My dear — a raw country girl, such as you be,
Cannot quite expect that. You ain’t ruined,” said she.
For a moment pause: —
Just here it was;
And through the thin thorn hedge, by the rays of the moon,
I can see the tree in the field, and beside it the mound —
Now sheeted with snow — whereon we sat that June
When it was green and round,
And she crazed my mind by what she coolly told —
The history of her undoing,
(As I saw it), but she called ” comradeship”,
That bred in her no rueing:
And saying she’d not be bound
For life to one man, young, ripe-yeared, or old,
Left me — an innocent simpleton to her viewing;
For, though my accompt of years outscored her own,
Hers had more hotly flown. . . .
We never met again by this green mound,
To press as once so often lip on lip,
And palter, and pause: —
Yes; here it was!
I also read this morning the last Hardy poem in the book, one he wrote on his 86th birthday. The first verse I particularly enjoyed:
Well, World, you have kept faith with me,
Kept faith with me;
Upon the whole you have proved to be
Much as you said you were.
Since as a child I used to lie
Upon the leaze and watch the sky,
Never, I own, expected I
That life would all be fair.
And then I leapt out of bed and drove Flo to Clapham Junction. What a magnificent start to the day.