a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘literature

The last of Wilde, I hope: De Profundis, etc, and why I rarely read fiction these days…

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Henry James

Oscar Wilde

So I’m writing this on the day that a book group I’m a part of will be discussing The picture of Dorian Gray,  which I’ve written about quite disdainfully in a couple of previous posts. Interestingly, I’ve been sorting my very messed-up library in recent days, putting stuff into categories, and fiction into alphabetical order. During this process I made the shocking discovery that I had a ‘Penguin Classics’ copy of the novel all along, leading me to wonder whether I’d read the book years ago or not. I think not. More interestingly, I discovered a copy of De Profundis, Wilde’s ‘letter’ to Lord Alfred Douglas, written from prison and clearly intended for a wider audience. The most touching thing for me about the book was the name of the original purchaser, ‘Ethel Gwmes, or Gwymer, 1913’.  Not that I wasn’t affected by Wilde’s plight – the fall from grace, the plank bed, the hard labour (for a time), the injustice, the humiliation – but it soon became clear in the reading that Wilde was still Wilde. As one would expect. (NB – I’ve just read, in a brief chronology of his life, that he was received into the Roman Catholic church the day before his death, so the concept of sin, which comes up so often in Dorian Gray, was one he really took seriously, maybe. If only he’d known what we now know about that August institution, he could’ve taken Holy Orders long before, diddled as many young lads as he liked, and ended life as a fat, self-satisfied Cardinal).

In De Profundis he makes a number of self-flattering observations and comparisons:

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it. Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.

Oh dear. Never trust people’s views of themselves – we’re evolved to have an overly positive view of ourselves, after all, for our survival and thriving. Nevertheless, reading of others’ high opinions of themselves can be a fun pastime. And so let’s on:

I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation…

Interesting lines, of course, in considering Dorian Gray as an autobiography, of sorts. I certainly find it hard to see it as a moral work. The word ‘sin’ is often used – a perfunctory term that has no place in the courts or in works of moral philosophy. And for much of the novel – up to the murder of Basil – his evil-doings are a matter of ‘strange conjecture’, delineated more in ‘the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth’ of the portrait, rather than in any account of actual crimes or debaucheries. This is what makes it ‘gothic’ of course – more creepy and horror-show than in any way thought-provoking from an ethical perspective.

Now, having attended the book club’s discussion of the novel – all very lively and civilised – I want to return to a chapter discussed with some interest (chapter 18), in which James Vane, Dorian’s nemesis, is accidentally shot dead during a hunting party, while skulking in the bushes, apparently awaiting an opportunity to shoot the anti-hero. Lord Henry, one of the party, reveals himself in all his colours in this scene. Dorian, who’s recently been spooked by the sight of Vane peering into the window of some mansion that he (Dorian) is visiting, is deeply troubled by this shooting, which at this time was thought to be of one of the aristocrats’ servants, acting as a ‘beater’ to frighten the quarry into view:

Dorian looked at Lord Henry, and said, with a heavy sigh, ‘It is a bad omen, Harry, a very bad omen.’

‘What is?’ asked Lord Henry. ‘Oh! this accident, I suppose. My dear fellow, it can’t be helped. It was the man’s own fault. Why did he get in front of the guns? Besides, it is nothing to us. It is rather awkward for Geoffrey, of course. It does not do to pepper beaters. It makes one think that one is a wild shot…

These remarks occur after the man has been pronounced dead, and presents Lord Henry as something worse than a droll, loquacious layabout. The question our readers were discussing vis-a-vis this passage, I think, was whether Wilde was censuring Lord Henry in any serious way, or just gently mocking the upper classes as he does in his plays. I would tend to think the latter is true, (or more true) as he never breathes any life into his ‘lower-class’ characters, except when they’re instrumental to the plot, as is the case with the Vane siblings. But then, considering the class he wholly identified with, maybe it’s just as well that he didn’t try to.

But returning to De Profundis, Wilde’s predilection for trying to say something impressive (whether witty or wise) in a sentence works well enough in the plays and in the remarks of Lord Henry and his entourage, but when he writes them in his own voice, they come across more like Daniel Dennett’s ‘deepities’, unworthy of too much scrutiny. But I don’t necessarily consider Wilde’s comparison of himself with Christ (whom I prefer to call Jesus) as an act of vanity, since Jesus is delineated in the ‘gospels’, in my view, as a more or less kindly ‘everyman’, from a period when depth and complexity of character is hardly explored.

And then there’s the matter of class. When I were a lad I worked in factories and read about working people in the 19th century, especially through the novels of Thomas Hardy – stonemasons, farmers and milkmaids – and their emotional highs and lows. I read Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch and lived a kind of extra life through the characters in those novels. But I can feel no emotional connection to the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m now an old codger. My teenage obsession with Hardy caused me to buy a biography of the author, in which I read of Henry James’ disdainful opinion of him. My reaction was typical – I thought ‘what an arsehole’, and then I went out and bought one of James’ most acclaimed novels, The portrait of a lady. What I got from it, some 50 years ago now, was an intro to the same world as Wilde – the parasitic upper class – a lot of intellectual verbiage, and a vague sense of outsiderdom and resentment (James, as it turned out, was also homosexual, FWIW). Nowadays I don’t read fiction at all, except for these book club choices. I’m not quite sure why that is, I just seem to get more of a buzz from learning about Neanderthals, nuclear fusion and stuff that stretches my brain such as AI and other new technologies. Perhaps because, in doing so, I can leave class and relative poverty behind, and feel myself a part of the great wave of transcending humanity…

Written by stewart henderson

July 12, 2023 at 11:07 am

a change of focus, and Charlie Darwin’s teenage fantasies

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He's just so moi, though I'm more rough than ruff

He’s just so moi, though I’m more rough than ruff

“bashful, insolent; chaste, lustful; prating, silent; laborious, delicate; ingenious, heavy; melancholic, pleasant; lying, true; knowing, ignorant; liberal, covetous, and prodigal”

Michel de Montaigne, ‘Myself’

Sitting at my computer with the ABC’s ‘Rage’ on in the background, when on came a video by an artist who’s taken the moniker ‘Montaigne’, and how could I not be attracted? Good luck to her. I first stumbled on the original Montaigne decades ago, and like thousands before and since, I was fairly blown away. He’s been an inspiration and a touchstone ever since, and to think I’m now approaching his age at his death. One thing he wrote has always stayed with me, and I’ll misquote in the Montaignian tradition, being more concerned with the idea than the actual words – something like ‘I write not to learn about myself, but to create myself’. This raises the importance of writing, of written language, to an almost ridiculous degree, and I feel it in myself, as I’ve sacrificed much to my writing, such as it is. Certainly relationships, friendships, career – but I was always bad at those. All I have to show for it is a body of work, much of it lost, certainly before the blogosphere came along, the blogosphere that retains everything, for better or worse.

The New Yorker captures the appeal of Montaigne well. He wasn’t an autobiographical writer, in that he didn’t dwell on the details of his own life, but as a skeptic who trusted little beyond his own thoughts, he provided a fascinating insight into a liberal and wide-ranging thinker of an earlier era, and he liberated the minds of those who came later and were inspired by his example, including moi, some 400 years on. So, I’d like to make my writings a bit more Montaignian in future (I’ve been thinking about it for a while).

I’ve been focussing mainly on science heretofore, but there are hundreds of bloggers better qualified to write about science than me. My excuse, now and in the future, is that I’m keen to educate myself, and science will continue to play a major part, as I’m a thorough-going materialist and endlessly interested in our expanding technological achievements and our increasing knowledge. But I want to be a little more random in my focus, to reflect on implications, trends, and my experience of being in this rapidly changing world. We’ll see how it pans out.

what's in that noddle?

what’s in that noddle?

Reading the celebrated biography of Charles Darwin by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, I was intrigued by some remarks in a letter to his cousin and friend, William Darwin Fox, referring to the ‘paradise’ of Fanny and Sarah Owen’s bedrooms. This was 1828, and the 19-year-old Darwin, already an avid and accomplished beetle collector and on his way to becoming a self-made naturalist, was contemplating ‘divinity’ studies at Cambridge, having flunked out of medicine in Edinburgh. Fanny was his girlfriend at the time. These bedrooms were

‘a paradise… about which, like any good Mussulman I am always thinking… (only here) the black-eyed Houris… do not merely exist in Mahomets noddle, but are real substantial flesh and blood.’

It’s not so much the sensual avidity shown by the 19-year-old that intrigues me here, but the religious attitude (and the fascinating reference to Islam). For someone about to embark on a godly career – though with the definite intention of using it to further his passion for naturalism – such a cavalier treatment of religion, albeit the wrong one, as ‘inside the noddle’, is quite revealing. But then Darwin’s immediate family, or the males at least, were all quasi-freethinkers, unlike his Wedgewood cousins. Darwin never took the idea of Holy Orders seriously.

Written by stewart henderson

February 8, 2015 at 10:53 am

books and e-books

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don't bother, at least not with the ebook version

don’t bother, at least not with the ebook version

Change is the only certainty, and the world of books (made of paper), booksellers and publishers is having this little apothegm rubbed painfully in its face at present, it seems to me, and, as a person who loves books but has always been poor as a church-mouse, I feel rather caught in the middle of all this transition, and pulled more or less equally in the directions of tradition and transformation.

After all, the choice between e-books and the traditional version is a little more fraught than that between CDs (please note – no fucking apostrophe) and MP3 downloads. Books don’t just go back to the days of Gutenberg and Caxton, or the movable type that was used in Korea from at least the thirteenth century. The library of Alexandria, founded well over 2000 years ago by the Ptolemaic dynasty (Ptolemy Soter, the ‘illegitimate’ son of Philip of Macedon, half-brother and general of Alexander the Great,  and subsequent ruler of Egypt, was probably its originator) is said to have contained some 500,000 papyrus scrolls, all now lost to history. That’s one advantage of e-books; they render book-burnings obsolete.

So writing on paper, or its antecedents, has a long and proud history, and is now being threatened for the first time in millennia by new technology. So I’ve been feeling this weight of history when ducking into the odd bookshop lately. I’ve been a bookshop-haunter for forty years, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re going through tough times now. As with CDs, makeshift shops full of cheap editions are cropping up here and there, then just as suddenly disappearing when the number of buyers drops off. I was in one the other day, and held in my hand a prettily-packaged volume of Ovid, called The Art of Love, selling for a mere $7. It was apparently an amalgamation of two collections, Amores and Ars Amatoria, and a ridiculous bargain, but even that tiny amount gave me pause. I’d always wanted to explore Ovid’s works on love, because of their influence on Shakespeare, but I’ve been so caught up with reading sciencey stuff lately, almost to the point of addiction, and then it occurred to me that, with my new Kindle, I could probably download all of Ovid’s works for free…

I ended up buying three cheap books, one of them sciencey. The lab rat chronicles: a neuroscientist reveals life lessons from the planet’s most successful mammals comes with a recommendation from Patricia Churchland, no less, and I suspect that such books aren’t available through Kindle, at least not at anything less than $10, the price I paid. Ok I’ve just checked, and it is available, at exactly the same price. The 2 other books I bought were God is not one: the eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter, by Stephen Prothero ($10), and How to win a cosmic war: confronting radical religion, by Reza Aslan ($8). Interestingly, the Prothero book isn’t available on Amazon, but the Aslan one is, for $10. So there are still bargains to be had offline. However Amazon is always reducing its prices, as books move from ‘must read-nows’ to ‘has-beens’. That’s happening in the bookstores too, of course, but not at the same rate. Then again, though you’re unlikely to get hold of the complete works of Plato (Benjamin Jowett translation, presumably with his excellent introductions) in a second-hand bookshop for a dollar – the going Amazon price – there are book exchanges (there’s one in the caf around the corner from me) where you can pick up one of an admittedly limited selection of books for free, with the idea that you exchange it for something of your own, honour bound.

So I weigh the pros and cons and ponder the senses of guilt and obligation. The kindle is light and convenient, and easy to read in bed. My eyesight is poor, so I appreciate a backlit screen as opposed to the foxed and mouldering pages of a second-hand text, though I wonder if the light is damaging my eyes even more. On the other hand its caveat emptor with some of these e-books. One of the first ones I bought (okay it was free so I’m not really allowed to complain) was A very brief history of the first crusade, by one Mark Black. Brief it was, more of a pamphlet than a book. I have a copy of Christopher Tyerman’s monumental history of the crusades on my shelves, but I gave up on it a few years back after about 200 pages = too many Count Theobalds and Sir Roberts, too many family connections and names and names and names, I felt as confused as any medieval plebeian might have felt when caught up in the thick of it, but without the concentration of the mind an imminent death would’ve usefully brought on. So I thought this brief history might offer a clearer view, but I was more than disappointed. I suspect everything in it was lifted from Tyerman’s book, so it told me nothing new. What was worse, though, was that the grammar was often hilariously bad. I have a feeling it wasn’t actually edited by a human being. Possibly the text was used as an experimental test case for robotic proofreading. A black mark for Mark Black, whose name, I note, crops up for many of these ‘brief histories’, mostly unrelated to each other. Anyway, an odd experience.

So I’m not entirely convinced of the new reading technology, though the possibilities are obvious, and it’s clearly a mode still in its infancy. Hopefully the two ways of packaging good reading material will live side by side for a while to come, and I look forward to accessing both, long into the future.

Written by stewart henderson

May 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm