We all make at least one journey into the Heart of Darkness

“It seems to me,” writes Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness, “I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….” Perhaps it is because of its dreamlike quality that this great book means so many things to so many people: “There is now virtually an interpretation of the story to suit every predilection – the psychoanalytic, philosophic, political, post-colonial and gender-based.”

Outwardly it’s the story of a journey up a river deep into Africa to find a man, Kurtz, who set out with great talents and noble aims and degenerated to something fiendish. But it’s surely much more of a symbolic than a literal book.

The most obvious interpretation is that the book is a condemnation of the rampant Jingoism of those celebrating the British Empire and its bringing of “civilisation” to ”savages.” And the condemnation extends not only to Britain but to all the colonial powers of Europe.

But then is it a racist book? The Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe argued strongly that it was. We hear nothing from Africans, although the book is set in Africa. But perhaps that is because although set in Africa it is primarily a book about the degeneracy of Europe, the degeneracy that will culminate in the First World War that followed publication of the book by less than two decades.

Then we all make at least one journey into the heart of darkness if that darkness is death, but most of us also make several such journeys, setting out with a bold mission and good intentions but creating havoc. The darkness might be some individual failure or climate change. “The mind of man,” writes Conrad, “is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.”

I read the book first many years ago and, as usual, enjoyed it even more second time. I took many quotes from both the introduction and novel (below), but—with my obsession with death—one of my favourite quotes is about dying and about the possibility that everything suddenly and momentarily makes sense just as we disappear into oblivion forever:

“Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be….Perhaps all wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the Invisible.”

Quotes:

Introduction

The episode [his physical breakdown in the Congo] formed ‘the turning-point in his mental life’, shaped ‘his transformation from a sailor to a writer’ and ‘swept away the generous illusions of his youth’.

Heart of Darkness was written against a background of recent imperial celebration of a feverishly utopian kind. Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897 occasioned an exaltation of the British Empire and the importance of the imperial idea to the country’s future as an international power.

Articles in the New Review evoke the wider note of intoxicated eulogy in lauding the Queen as ‘the Great White Mother, the fame of whose virtue has won the loyalty of native races as the genius of Alexander or a Napoleon never could’ and characterizing the British imperial idea as an onerous religious destiny: ‘Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression’.

There is now virtually an interpretation of the story to suit every predilection – the psychoanalytic, philosophic, political, post-colonial and gender-based.

Later generations have been overshadowed by the Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe, whose angry polemic of 1975 accused Conrad of virtually betraying his subject by eliminating ‘the African as a human factor’, lamented his ‘preposterous and perverse arrogance in reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind’ and condemned the author as a ‘bloody racist’.

In more senses than one, Marlow loses navigational clarity and purpose. The pressures put upon him reflect more widely on a tradition of liberal humanism that, when faced by the flinty actualities of wider colonial politics, has commonly suffered painful defeat and been left with a legacy of nervous irritation, panic, hysteria and frustrated silence.

The iconoclastic power of this portrait depends upon our recognizing that the ‘heart of darkness’ has its roots firmly in Europe and that Kurtz, as its malformed outgrowth, strikes Marlow as a symbol of present and active degeneration.

In other words, Kurtz’s protean incarnations reflect upon the insufficiency of language to express anything more than a frustrated desire for meaning.

 

Novel

What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river [Thames] into the mystery of an unknown earth! … The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.

“And this also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

The yarns of seamen have an effective simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But, as has been said, Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

Imagine him here—the very end of the world, a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke, a kind of ship about as rigid as a concertina—and going up this river with stores, or orders, or what you like. Sandbanks, marshes, forests, savages—precious little to eat fit for a civilised man, nothing but Thames water to drink. No Falernian wine here, no going ashore. Here and there a military camp lost in a wilderness like a needle in a bundle of hay—cold, fog, tempests, disease, exile, and death—death skulking in the air, in the water, in the bush. They must have been dying like flies here.

They were men enough to face the darkness.

All that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forests, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.

Your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others.

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

It was the furthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience. It seemed somehow to throw a kind of light on everything about me—and into my thoughts. It was sombre enough too—and pitiful—not extraordinary in any way—not very clear either. No, not very clear. And yet it seemed to throw a kind of light.

“True, by this time it was not a blank space any more. It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names. It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery—a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness.

As I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me like a snake would a bird—a silly little bird.

The snake had charmed me.

Something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle.

The merry dance of death and trade

I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire….But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly.

‘He is an emissary of pity, and science, and progress, and devil knows what else.

The silence of the land went home to one’s very heart—its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life.

It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream—making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams….”

Still, I was curious to see whether this man, who had come out equipped with moral ideas of some sort, would climb to the top after all, and how he would set about his work when there.”

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.

We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.

We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.

The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.

Principles? Principles won’t do. Acquisitions, clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake. No; you want a deliberate belief.

No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour, and the perdition of one’s soul—than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true.

The point was in his being a gifted creature, and that of all his gifts the one that stood out pre-eminently, that carried with it a sense of real presence, was his ability to talk, his words—the gift of expression, the bewildering, the illuminating, the most exalted and the most contemptible, the pulsating stream of light, or the deceitful flow from the heart of an impenetrable darkness.

He was very little more than a voice.

All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.

‘You don’t talk with that man—you listen to him,’

There was no sign on the face of nature of this amazing tale that was not so much told as suggested to me in desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted phrases, in hints ending in deep sighs.

But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude—and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating.

It was as though an animated image of death carved out of old ivory had been shaking its hand with menaces at a motionless crowd of men made of dark and glittering bronze.

‘Ah! I’ll never, never meet such a man again. You ought to have heard him recite poetry—his own too it was, he told me. Poetry!’

I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.

“Anything approaching the change that came over his features I have never seen before, and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath— “‘The horror! The horror!’

Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid scepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be.

Perhaps all wisdom, and all truth, and all sincerity, are just compressed into that inappreciable moment of time in which we step over the threshold of the Invisible.

“‘Intimacy grows quick out there,’ I said. ‘I knew him as well as it is possible for one man to know another.’

Notes

‘As there is a darkest Africa is there not also a darkest England?’ William Booth

Darkness

 

 

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Why do doctors make great tyrants?

Searching for a blog I wrote comparatively recently on stopping tyrants, I discovered this blog I posted in the BMJ in 2013, a blog I’d completely forgotten.  https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2013/11/25/richard-smith-why-do-doctors-make-great-tyrants/

Simon Sebag Montefiore, the son of a doctor, recently argued that doctors make highly effective tyrants. Is he right and if he is why might it be?

His article was not a systematic review but rather a brutal case study. The doctor tyrant of the moment is Bashar al-Assad. His regime has killed tens if not hundreds of thousands, while we see him on television as a gentle, unassuming, mildly perplexed ophthalmologist trained in London whom we would happily have remove our cataracts.

Hastings Banda, like me an Edinburgh graduate, liquidated his opponents, saying they should be “food for crocodiles,” and became a ruthless and absolute leader of Malawi.

Papa Doc Duvalier helped treat the poor in Haiti before becoming “the daddy of all tyrants,” organising the Tonton Macoute, the cruellest of secret police, who killed 30 000. “A doctor,” observed Papa Doc, “must sometimes take a life to save it,” but 30 000 is surely overdoing it.

Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a doctor from the Ivory Coast, was less into killing people and more into power and wealth. After serving as president for 30 years he legalised the opposition but won a seventh term easily at the age of 85. Although his people were poor, he was worth $7 -$11 billion with houses in France, Switzerland, and Italy. Perhaps trying to buy himself a place in heaven, he built the world’s largest church, the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, at a cost of $300 million.

Trained at Columbia in New York, Radovan Karadžić wrote poetry as well as committing genocide and organising the massacre at Srebrenica. While supposedly “in hiding” in Belgrade he attended Serie A football matches and practised alternative medicine for a company called Human Quantum Energy.

Sebag Montefiore notes that doctors are just as good at being terrorists close to the killing as well as presidents who remain at a distance. Dr Ayman al-Zawahari, a leader of Al-Qaeda, was the mastermind of 9/11, while another two doctors, Dr George Habash and Dr Abdel Rantisi, led suicide bombings in Israel.

Che Guevara is not mentioned by Sebag Montefiore, but is surely the best known doctor terrorist. Another reader of poetry, who could recite Rudyard Kipling’s If, Che, as we know him, is still revered and surely killed no more than is essential in the terrorism business. His saint status doesn’t fit comfortably with Sebag Montefiore’s parade of monsters.

So why are there all these doctor tyrants? The BMJ reader with a feel if not a deep understanding of statistics will first think chance. There have been many tyrants and many doctors, and so there are bound to be some who are both. There have probably as well been many tyrants with red hair, who were breastfed, or who were only five feet tall, and already we can see that many read poetry—but these things are probably incidental rather than causal. Sebag Montefiore has entertained the readers of the Evening Standard but hardly proved his case, and we doctors might be flattered that his piece depends on the world not expecting doctors to be tyrants. Nobody is surprised that soldiers, policemen, newspaper barons, tycoons, or even lawyers make good tyrants, but we expect doctors to be good.

But perhaps there is something in the hypothesis. Doctors do, after all, seem to be more likely than members of any other group to be serial killers, and doctors were among the fastest to join the Nazi Party.

Sebag Montefiore doesn’t attempt an explanation, but makes some observations that come close: “I wonder if instead of making flint-hearted murder harder, a medical training actually makes it easier?” The training certainly provides a familiarity, even a casual relationship, with death. Then, reflects Sebag Montfiore, “If the society is a body politic, isn’t a doctor perfectly qualified to purge it of the germ of opposition, cleanse it of the bacterium of treason, use the scalpel of power to cut out the tumours? Isn’t the scalpel a finer instrument than the sword, the mace, the machine gun?” This is more poetry than epidemiology.

So here are some other possible explanations.

Most of these doctor tyrants are from developing countries. If you are a clever and ambitious boy (there are no girls in our list) in a developing country, then becoming a doctor is a great step up. And once you see the dreadful conditions in which many of your patients live you might understandably, entirely rationally, become a revolutionary. With all your education and chutzpah you become leader and president if the revolution is successful. The country is not ready for democracy and so like a good doctor you tend to your flock. Then power does its work—and soon you are convinced that nobody else could do what you do. Enemies must understandably be liquidated so as not to upset your benign reign, and naturally you should reward yourself handsomely for a life of public service.

Perhaps it’s because doctors are good game players, or perhaps it is because they are used to inflicting harm to achieve net gain.

Or maybe it’s more Freudian, something to do with that deep seated idea that people become doctors because they fear death, psychiatrists because they are mad, and gynaecologists because they hate women. Perhaps people become doctors and then tyrants because they can’t tolerate mess: they want to tidy, cleanse everything.

Or perhaps they get bored with being “just doctors.”

How Dickens would draw the bald eagle of America

“I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its short-sightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity; like a ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it—’ ‘And like a Phoenix, for its power of springing from the ashes of its faults and vices, and soaring up anew into the sky!'”

Bald eagle

An exuberant and wonderfully entertaining performance of The Dream

As I listened to a radio programme https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00046rp on a Midsummer Night’s Dream I took notes and they describe the play as “Pure pleasure, exploring, experimenting, most poetical.” It is Shakespeare letting rip, having huge fun, running his unequalled imagination at its fastest and wildest, and we felt all that last night in the exuberant production at the Bridge Theatre.

The theatre is new, incorporated into an office block right beside Tower Bridge. It is  a modern version of the Globe, which is just a short distance away, also on the south bank of the Thames. It’s a theatre in the round with three galleries, but the best place to be was down with the actors, to be part of the show. We had seats in the lowest gallery, and as I looked on the crowded pit I wondered how the actors would find room to perform.

Before the scheduled start the actors entered with the young man at the front dressed in a suit, looking very serious, and beating a drum. All were dressed in grey, and they sang what sounded like a hymn. Were they meant to be the Puritans who disapproved of theatre? If so, they were transformed, like everybody else in the play, into the characters of the play. “Thou art translated” is one of the great themes of the play along with the power of love, which itself has the capacity to transform. The troop of actors/puritans pushed their way through the crowds, singing in four different places in the pit.

The play proper then began with Hippolyta, the captured Amazon queen also dressed in grey, emerging into the pit in a glass case. It was inspired casting to have the actress Gwendoline Christie, who is well over six feet tall, play Hippolyta. She was also, as is usual, Titania, but the roles of Titania and Oberon were reversed, meaning that its was Oberon who fell in love with Bottom as an ass, causing extra laughs, particularly when they suddenly appeared in a bath together. There was lots of gender bending with Titania and Puck using “love-in-idleness” to cause Lysander to fall in love with Demetrius and Hermia with Helena as well as the usual couplings. All this could be said to be messing with the play to fit modern concerns, but it was completely in the spirit of the play. (In the interval I was taken aback to see what I thought was a woman in the men’s loo, but outside the loo there were signs indicating that it was not only men but also for those with a “third gender.”)

The Rude Mechanicals, a mixture of men and women, were extremely funny with Bottom, played by Hammed Animashaun outstanding. The other actor who really shone was David Moorst, who played Puck with almost pathological animal energy and posturing and in a Northern accent. He’s clearly one to watch. It’s no longer enough to be simply an actor: Moorst swung from trapezes as he spoke many of his great lines, and the fairies were all gymnasts and trapeze artists as well as actors. During the interval the fairies performed on trapezes, keeping up the fiesta atmosphere. At one point the audience in the pit joined hands and were dancing round the stage, and at the end of the play everybody began to dance with the actors while huge inflatable balls were tossed into the audience for them to keep bouncing above their heads.

Micheal Billington, the Guardian critic who must have seen 50 versions of The Dream, admired the comic energy but wasn’t keen on the switches to the script and concluded: “I would have enjoyed it still more if it released the microscopic beauties of Shakespeare’s text as well as the play’s comic energy.”

I don’t agree, but whenever I see a Shakespeare play I regret that the exquisite poetry and profound thoughts whizz by with such speed, but it’s because they do that we can enjoy seeing the plays again and again and reading them. I read the play recently after listening to the radio broadcast on the play and copied some of the best poetry (quotes below).

I also took notes on the radio broadcast (also below), but what struck me most from the broadcast was the observation that the outer acts are from the rational, familiar world, whereas the middle acts represent the unconscious, magical, dream world where anything can and does happen. The language also reflects this difference with the most intense poetry in the middle acts.

Shakespeare wrote his play three centuries before Freud familiarised us with the unconscious, but the Elizabethans believed much more than we do now in magic, fairies, ghosts, witches, and the devil. Perhaps how we view the play is not so different, and like us they were unsure whether dreams were the froth of fantasy or were messages from God. Where we are different is that they viewed imagination negatively, thinking that its unruliness was against God, whereas we celebrate imagination. Shakespeare—and, indeed, many of his artistic contemporaries—were more like us than the mass of the fellow Elizabethans.

What an achievement I thought at the end of the play to have written something so beautiful and powerful that 400 years later it is being performed again and again and giving huge pleasure (and wisdom if they want it) to audiences all around the world—and to the actors who perform the play.

Quotes from the play:

The course of true love never did run smooth.

 

Things base and vile, holding no quantity,

Love can transpose to form and dignity.

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind;

And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blind.

 

Over hill, over dale,

Thorough bush, thorough brier,

Over park, over pale,

Thorough flood, thorough fire,

I do wander everywhere,

Swifter than the moon’s sphere;

 

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,

Where ox-lips and the nodding violet grows;

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine:

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,

Lulled in these flowers with dances and delight;

 

I’ll follow you; I’ll lead you about a round,

Through bog, through bush, through brake, through brier;

Sometime a horse I’ll be, sometime a hound,

A hog, a headless bear, sometime a fire;

And neigh, and bark, and grunt, and roar, and burn,

Like horse, hound, hog, bear, fire, at every turn.

 

Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.

Fairies, be gone, and be all ways away.

So doth the woodbine the sweet honeysuckle

Gently entwist,–the female ivy so

Enrings the barky fingers of the elm.

O, how I love thee! how I dote on thee!

 

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact:

One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;

That is the madman: the lover, all as frantic,

Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,

That, if it would but apprehend some joy,

It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Or in the night, imagining some fear,

How easy is a bush supposed a bear?

 

The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.

 

And thorough this distemperature we see

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts

Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose;

And on old Hyem’s thin and icy crown

An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds

Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries; and the maz’d world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evils comes

From our debate, from our dissension:

We are their parents and original.

 

And notes from the radio broadcast:

 

Written in 1595

Transition between early and mid-Shakespeare

Not the Golden Comedies—As You Like It

Pure pleasure, exploring, experimenting, most poetical

The great theme of love

New level of language

Writing Romeo and Juliet at the same time—”sister plays”

Nicked, stole took whatever

A pay about mixng—Metamorphosis, Plutarch—low side, fairies, folk festivals, Mayday

What you can make from incongruities—Titania and Oberon

Set in Athens—source of philosophy, great plays, democracy, but now a fallen world

Threat of death all the way through

Four lovers entwined in triangles

 

Watched first by a wide social class

Working men and women would stand

Middle classes sat

Aristocrats came in masks

Wasn’t seen as a play for the young, but became such in Victorian times

Seen as very English, can be trimmed down to purely the innocent

But movement between the comic, the irreverent, and the tragic

A surprisingly political plan

Elizabeth 1 unpopular, lots of anxiety about who will follow her; she’s seen a weak. Sense of masculine impatience. Female power suppressed in the play. Queens are ruled by Kings.

 

“I wooed thee with my sword.”

 

Set in the wood the dream space, the unconscious

Acts I and II rational, middle acts fantasy, unconscious

Can we believe what we see? They should not.

Can we believe with what we hear?

Eloquent and inflated language to try and rationalise their love predicaments.

Instability of love a major theme.

 

Diverse ideas about dreams—froth of fantasy/nonsense or deep and meaningful, a message from God

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Imagination viewed negatively (unruly, against God) by Elizabethans, but Shakespeare celebrates it

Our ideas of imagination are the opposite of those of those of the Elizabethans

 

Bottom, the lowest, to Titania, the highest, most ethereal; longest and hardest phallus of all the animals; originally the sexual side played up

Importance of Holy fools in Shakespeare

 

Nature, lunacy, madness, aging Elizabeth

Flowers of the Warwickshire countryside; folkloric

 

Dark side, sexist, racist—the way the men speak in the play; comedy always shadowed by tragedy; wood is a dark and threatening place

 

The natural and supernatural combined at this time; the possibility of being in league with the devil always there

 

The forces of female desire are lined up with the patriarchal forces at the end of the play

 

Love in the mind not in the eye—”not the rational part of the mind but the wild part”

Dream pic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on sitting between two Nobel prize winners

As I sat some 30 years ago at a meeting in Germany between two Nobel Prize winners, I reflected on when I was at primary school and was facing the prospect of doing the 11-plus exam.

In 1962 when I took the 11-plus it was a life-defining exam: if you passed you went to a grammar school and had a good education; if you failed you were tossed into schools that were little more then child prisons. I imagined that people who had passed the exam must be remarkably clever, people very different from me. At Southwark Park Primary School, which I attended, six of perhaps 90 children passed the exam. I was one of them. My memory, perhaps wrong, is that at a similar school about a mile away that must have had a similar intake to my school about 40 of 90 passed. The exam was, I fear, a highly unfair life-defining exam.

When I arrived at Roan Grammar School for Boys I imagined that all the boys must be tremendously clever. I soon found that that wasn’t the case. The next test was O-levels, and I thought that anybody who passed nine O-levels must be terribly clever. I found that that wasn’t the case. Nor was it the case with A-levels.

Starting at Edinburgh Medical School I felt I an imposter, as probably, I realise now, did everybody else. How could I possibly keep up? I soon found that I could. Yet the whole process of imaging that people who had graduated must be much cleverer than me continued, until again I found it wasn’t the case.

The process of imagining that people who had achieved goals that I had not achieved must be far clever than me had its culmination in sitting between the two Nobel Prize winners. I had been invited to the meeting by David Weatherall, the Regius Professor of Physic at Oxford. I can’t think why he invited me, but perhaps he had been asked to find a younger person to invite—and I had recently interviewed him. I was much younger than anybody else at the meeting, although the Nobel prize Winner on my right may have been only 10-15 years older.

The meeting was on medical ethics. There were about 20 of us sat round a table. The Nobel Prize winner on my right had won his prize for work on monoclonal antibodies. The much older winner on my left had won his prize for work that came soon after Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double helix. I’m not claiming that I was as clever as these two men, both of whom must have done remarkable work, but when it came to a discussion on medical ethics they didn’t have more to offer than me. The younger winner seemed incapable of talking about anything other than monoclonal antibodies, and the older winner, perhaps with his brain failing, hardly made sense in his long unappreciated contributions.

The moral of this reflection is not that I’m as clever as a Nobel Prize winner, which I certainly am not, but that we are all flawed human beings, none of us better than others.

Nobel

Are you a good liar? A test

Climbing into bed last night I listened to a radio programme that concluded “Dishonesty is the best policy.” Most people tell two important lies lie each day, and four fifths of lies go undetected. Lying makes the world go round because complete honesty destroys relationships and business (and, of course, politics): “Did you like my book?” “I loved it. You’re an amazing writer.” “Do you think I look good in this dress?” “Stunning.” “Before I buy can I ask if there are any problems with this house?” “None, none at all.” The programme included a simple test that would show whether or not you were a good liar: the Q-test. I tried it, and I suggest you try it.

With your first finger draw a Q on your forehead. Does the down slash at the bottom of the Q point to your right eye or your left eye?

Mine pointed to my right eye. Which eye does your point to?

Q

Supposedly you are a better liar if the down slash points to your left eye—because you are drawing a Q that would look right to people looking at you rather than one that feels right to you. Liars are always thinking how they are perceived, what others are thinking about them. Poor liars are locked up in their own world.

How reliable, I wondered, if this test? I tried looking on Google Scholar for evidence but could find none, but the psychologist Richard L Wiseman (perhaps it was him on the radio) has written about it in the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/science/2007/apr/21/weekendmagazine :

“This quick test provides a rough measure of a concept known as “self-monitoring”. High self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be seen by someone facing them. Low self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be read by themselves.

High self-monitors tend to be concerned with how other people see them. They are happy being the centre of attention, can easily adapt their behaviour to suit the situation in which they find themselves, and are skilled at manipulating the way in which others see them. As a result, they tend to be good at lying. In contrast, low self-monitors come across as being the “same person” in different situations. Their behaviour is guided more by their inner feelings and values, and they are less aware of their impact on those around them. They also tend to lie less in life, and so not be so skilled at deceit.”

I try gathering my own data. I ask my wife which if us is the better liar. We agree that I’m a poor liar and she’s better. I get her to do the test. She too has the down slash going to her right eye. Perhaps we are both poor liars.

My starting hypothesis is that the test is a poor one, but I will continue to gather data. Perhaps you might contribute some.

 

 

Making and loving poetry

In his book The Making of Poetry: Coleridge, the Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels Adam Nicholson tries to do the impossible—to show where poetry comes from and how it is made. But his failure is noble; he has produced a beautiful and inspiring book that will make anybody who reads it want to read more Wordsworth and Coleridge and walk the Quantock Hills. (I’ve already done the former but will read more, and I plan to be on the Quantocks before the year is dead.)

Nicolson tells the story of the year from June 1797 to Autumn 1798 that Wordsworth, his sister, Coleridge and his wife and child, and various other friends spent living in the Quantocks and preparing the poems that were published in Lyrical Ballads. In order to write the book Nicolson went and lived in the Quantocks and walked the paths that the poets walked, often at night by moonlight.

The poets, both of them poor, walked, read, wrote, feasted, and talked, talked, talked. Wordsworth, a largely silent man, was traumatised from his experience of the French Revolution and from abandoning his French wife and child (they must have been traumatised much more), and Coleridge, one of the world’s greatest talkers, needed space: “Both were in retreat: from cities; from politics; from gentlemanliness and propriety; from the expected; towards nature; and – in a way that makes this year foundational for modernity – towards the self, its roots, its forms of self-understanding, its fantasies, longings, dreads and ideals.”

Many of the locals were suspicious of these free-living poets, and the government had them spied on as subversives. And they were subversive: they were out to change how we viewed not only poetry but the world: “The driving and revolutionary force of this year was the recognition that poetry was not an aspect of civilisation but a challenge to it; not decorative but subversive, a pleasure beyond politeness. This was not the stuff of drawing rooms. Its purpose was to give a voice to the voiceless, whatever form that voicelessness might have taken: sometimes speaking for the sufferings of the unacknowledged poor; sometimes enshrining the quiet murmuring of a man alone; sometimes reaching for the life of the child in his ‘time of unrememberable being’, beyond the grasp of adult consciousness; sometimes roaming in the magnificent and strange disturbedness of Coleridge’s imagined worlds….Poetry, because of its basis in imagination, could do more than politics or political theory ever could to change the presuppositions and expectations on which injustice was founded.”

We now associate Wordsworth strongly with the Lake District where he was born and lived most of his adult life, but it was his time in the Quantocks that made him a great poet who created a poetry unlike anything that had gone before. The hills themselves and the people he met were important ingredients in making him a poet, but Coleridge was crucial, helping him recognise that everything is interconnected. The poems they contributed to Lyrical Ballads—Coleridge’s being mostly supernatural (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kublai Khan, and Cristabel) and Wordsworth’s earthy and spiritual. Coleridge recognised Wordsworth as a great poet, but Wordsworth didn’t have the same respect for Coleridge, By the end of the year their friendship had cooled.

“Consubstantiality – the interfusion of flesh and spirit, symbol and fact – is at the heart of what this year gave to posterity,” writes Nicolson, but for him the year was a failure: “This is the central failure of the Quantocks year: its hope for integration, for the general understanding that a love of nature needed to be intimate with a love of self and a love of man, remains unfulfilled, and no more likely to be fulfilled now than it was two centuries ago.”

 

Perhaps that was to ask too much, but for me a year that produced Lyrical Ballads could not be thought a failure. I encountered Lyrical Ballads when I was 14 and wrote a “project” on it for which I got a high mark. It was those poems that gave me a love of poetry, which I count one of the greatest gifts of my life.

 

“Not useless do I deem

These shadowy sympathies with things that hold

An inarticulate language; for the man

Once taught to love such objects as excite

No morbid passions no disquietude,

No vengeance & no hatred needs must feel

The joy of that pure principle of love

So deeply that unsatisfied with aught

Less pure & exquisite he cannot choose

But seek for objects of a kindred love

In fellow-natures & a kindred joy.”

 

I took many quotes from the book:

Both were in retreat: from cities; from politics; from gentlemanliness and propriety; from the expected; towards nature; and – in a way that makes this year foundational for modernity – towards the self, its roots, its forms of self-understanding, its fantasies, longings, dreads and ideals.

The driving and revolutionary force of this year was the recognition that poetry was not an aspect of civilisation but a challenge to it; not decorative but subversive, a pleasure beyond politeness. This was not the stuff of drawing rooms. Its purpose was to give a voice to the voiceless, whatever form that voicelessness might have taken: sometimes speaking for the sufferings of the unacknowledged poor; sometimes enshrining the quiet murmuring of a man alone; sometimes reaching for the life of the child in his ‘time of unrememberable being’, beyond the grasp of adult consciousness; sometimes roaming in the magnificent and strange disturbedness of Coleridge’s imagined worlds.

Wordsworth called poetry ‘the first and last of all knowledge’,

What is it about walking for days on end? Partly it is the love of self-reliance, of not needing to be dependent on anything or anyone. It is psychically naked, with the curious effect that this self-reliance seems to make your own skin more permeable. Alone on foot, not in any great heroic landscapes – these are not high mountain singular mist-visions – but in just such a place as the Somerset Levels, where the knitted ordinariness of everyday life forms the texture of the landscape through which you move – the small farms, the stalled animals, the life of the hedges – you become absorbent, inseparable from the world around you. Walking in that way is a dissolution of the self, not a magnification of it, a release from burdens, in which all you have to do is walk and be, as plainly existent as grass growing, continuous with everything that is.

Southey was someone, as Coleridge wrote later, who had ‘the power of saying one thing at a time’. Can you imagine, one thing at a time! The sterility of it!

‘The Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth …’,

Her mind not a grand instrument of connection like Coleridge’s, nor vastly present to itself like Wordsworth’s, but full of bright remembered visions, exactly recalled, seen in detail: the sky-blue hedge sparrows’ eggs in a childhood nest, the bilberries in the bowl of a black porringer.

A beautiful connectedness in all living things, by which all were part of one life, a coherence to which human society should be tuned and in which poetry, if it was to be valuable, needed to find its language.

To be happy he ‘must have books, pictures, theatres, chit-chat, scandal, jokes, ambiguities, and a thousand whim-whams’.

‘The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship’, William Blake

Remembered solitariness elevates present friendliness, and that surely is what Coleridge also loved here, a confirmation of his connectedness in the world.

Warm from the labours of benevolence,

The world, and man himself, appeared a scene

Of kindred loveliness.

 

He, who feels contempt

For any living thing, hath faculties

Which he has never used.

 

The legacy of these poets is a universal human inheritance, one of the bonds between us, so that to be alone in the world is not to be alone at all.

On a walk ‘the volume of nature is ever open at some page of instruction and delight … These fields, these hedgerows, this simple turf, Shall form my Academus.’ The walker was no landowner, and in that way democracy and nature, walking and liberty were the same thing.

Poetry, because of its basis in imagination, could do more than politics or political theory ever could to change the presuppositions and expectations on which injustice was founded.

Consubstantiality – the interfusion of flesh and spirit, symbol and fact – is at the heart of what this year gave to posterity.

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep.

[From Paradise Lost, quoted often by Wordsworth]

 

‘A great poet,’ Coleridge told his friend, must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest and the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child.

 

Here was the foundation of one of the core Romantic values, what Wordsworth would call ‘wise passiveness’, and what Keats would describe to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds in 1818:

 

“Let us not therefore go hurrying about and collecting honey-bee like, buzzing here and there impatiently from a knowledge of what is to be arrived at: but let us open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive – budding patiently under the eye of Apollo and taking hints from every noble insect that favors us with a visit – sap will be given us for Meat and dew for drink – I was led into these thoughts, my dear Reynolds, by the beauty of the morning operating on a sense of Idleness – I have not read any books – the Morning said I was right …”

 

Not useless do I deem

These shadowy sympathies with things that hold

An inarticulate language; for the man

Once taught to love such objects as excite

No morbid passions no disquietude,

No vengeance & no hatred needs must feel

The joy of that pure principle of love

So deeply that unsatisfied with aught

Less pure & exquisite he cannot choose

But seek for objects of a kindred love In fellow-natures & a kindred joy.

 

[This is what the year in the Quantocks meant to say.]

 

This simplicity is radical minimalism. Wordsworth had already practised great elaboration and complexity as a poet, toying with all kinds of modes and languages. The moralist, the satirist, the landscape painter, the gentleman poet, the gothic artist, the visionary, the agonised soul and the prophet – all of which he had been over the last few years – have been banished. He has shed his clothes and is now free of them, free of books, free of learning, free of pretension and out in the world, as free as a child.

 

“The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both. These are the poetry of nature.” Coleridge

 

Coleridge writing about the origin of Lyrical Ballads: “In which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic; yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural, by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”

 

The double negative that lay somewhere near the centre of Wordsworth’s own mind. Are the stories they tell true or untrue? Or not untrue?

 

And, in that, the poem makes one giant claim: the point of poetry is not beauty but truth, and if truth is awkward and uncertain then poetry should be like that too.

 

O reader! had you in your mind

Such stores as silent thought can bring,

O gentle reader! you would find

A tale in everything.

 

In the midst of all this, and using all the same materials of mental disturbance, social isolation, poverty, radically simplified language, and the wooded combes and open tops of the Quantocks, Wordsworth suddenly drops in a comedy.

 

This is the central failure of the Quantocks year: its hope for integration, for the general understanding that a love of nature needed to be intimate with a love of self and a love of man, remains unfulfilled, and no more likely to be fulfilled now than it was two centuries ago.

 

‘It is the honourable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind,’ Wordsworth

Quantocks