Monthly Archives: August 2022

Mark Holloway, in his biography of Norman Douglas, makes the following observation:

It is a mark of Douglas’ lively intelligence (as distinct from his intellectual ability) that he seldom failed to learn the lessons that he felt were suited to his temperament …

As a young man, Douglas was a keen amateur naturalist. Just before leaving school he met the eminent zoologist Franz Leydig, who made just such a formative impression on him:

What I liked about his books and pamphlets was not so much his minute histological researches, clear-cut description, and the admirable drawings done by himself; it was something else; his a s i d e s, his footnotes to the text, his generalisations. He would indulge in an excursus of “historical and critical remarks” on some species and even go into details about those artists who have successfully reproduced its shape; he would open up unexpected vistas, citing copiously from authorities old and new. This extensive documentation testified not only to wide reading, but to a wide outlook. His suggestiveness is what attracted me to Leydig. He was no ordinary Professor; he was something more comprehensive, more human.

quoted in Holloway, p. 64

Holloway adds that

It was Leydig’s strong emphasis on individuality that impressed Norman most. He was interested in differences of character between animals of the same species, and observed them among his dogs and among his pet birds and reptiles. He thought individuality should be fostered and not repressed …

and counselled Douglas against university for that reason, though himself a professor.

As Holloway says, this “suggestiveness” is a hallmark of Douglas’s style, the broad outlook, the “quality of continual reference to the greater world beyond the immediate subject”. That is the individual cast of his mind, even when he turned to diverse subject-matter.

All this brought to mind my aperçu that stupidity is a moral failing. The aphorism loses its pointe by tedious explanation, but the distinction above is obviously pertinent. I would add that the salient characteristic of a lively intelligence, as it unfolds and flourishes over time and circumstance, is a sympathy for its own individuality. There is an affinity between those whose casts of mind are distinctive, which does not lie in mutual similarity, but distance from the herd. It can be recognised, and should be fostered, in children, who are apt to have it knocked or smothered out of them.

Alban Berg was the most lyrical of the serialists; so says the NYRB, and I thought of my real enjoyment in Wozzeck, even though “that sort of thing” is not generally my cup of tea. Berg seems to have understood dissonance as an ornament rather than a programme. He wrote that dissonances

give music and love, friendship and nature their true worth, and really everything that has any life — even sensuality itself.

Alban Berg, apud NYRB

When modernism is programmatic, its harshness and difficulty presumably have the ambition of being more honest, and more penetrating, in response to a world which, while probably no bleaker than any other age, wears its darkness on its sleeve. Such are the times and the individual artist cannot fight it: all our works are salted with the uncanny, whether liberally, or with discretion. Those pulls are tediously familiar (another “wrong question”), and Berg’s words (though I would like to see them in German) show a way to get away from them. I was reminded of the words of a friend, whose parents — especially an infuriating but kindly mother — died several years ago.

He proposed to me (or hit upon while speaking) a shift in perspective over the difficulty that inheres in all intimate relationships: rather than loving the person despite their flaws, in the end, perhaps you love them for their flaws. I had thought of it differently: that we are charitable, though not blindly so, to those we love, and overlook their faults, out of humility as well as devotion. That’s a maxim hard enough in itself. The better you know someone, the closer you are, the more chances for friction. Sartre is supposed to have said “Hell is other people”, though again, I would like to see it in French; the encroaching misanthropy I wrote about a few days ago perhaps drinks from the same poisoned well. When I think of my friend’s mother, whom I knew well — as an honorary member of the family — I desperately wanted her to put aside her compulsion to outdo Elizabeth David in the kitchen, and write, as she had been unable to since having her children. In the end, her need for someone to feed extended to the local seagulls and pigeons, a hypertrophy of the same generous disposition which led her to take me under her wing, decades before. There was no overlooking it. She cared about words and sentences, and she taught me to care about food, too; which at bottom is about caring for the comfort of others, with no English meanness. I raise my glass to her.

There is a line in the text of the Dies Irae about being dragged before the throne of judgement, something like “reus cogor ante thronum”. The Latin word means both the accused, and guilty, with no distinction. We are inclined to think the whole of justice lies in the difference; and even the ducking-stool purported to reveal the truth. In English law, mens rea is one of the elements required to establish guilt (along with the corpus delicti, as it were the smoking gun). It immediately occurs to me to wonder, what about manslaughter as opposed to murder; you’d better not hire me as a lawyer. In most times and places, once the wheels of justice start to grind, they are likely to turn you to mincemeat. There’s no smoke without fire. Mud sticks. Even in these enlightened times, to a considerable extent, it’s still the case. Once you start to dig, something unsavoury will turn up. Perhaps the best mark of a more civilised approach to justice is a presumption in favour of leaving people alone, unless there are pressing grounds to begin turning over stones, looking for worms. If you look at it like this, judicial torture starts to seem more comprehensible. The thumbscrew and the rack are like instruments of exorcism.

So much by way of preamble. We speak of someone ‘living a lie’: perhaps they’re in the closet, or a secret agent. The truth lives just beneath the deceiving surface. Once the question has been raised, the disguise is likely to become leaky, like the false skin of the alien Body Snatchers. The whole trick of leading a double life is to avoid suspicion. But what if they’re falsely accused, and the lie is slander? The more you protest, the more you sound as though you protest too much, impaled on the forensic steel of someone else’s question. And after all, in some accounts, Joseph found Potiphar’s wife comely.

More broadly, I mean to suggest that every situation, every life, exists on the cusp between different lights in which it may be seen. Such ambiguity is the cutting edge of fiction — there has to be an open question, else it’ll be a mere morality tale — as can be seen more crudely in the cinematographic cliché of the murder mystery, where the same events are presented several times, according to competing accounts. In life, the abyss on either side of the path we tread only comes to conscious awareness when something has gone wrong, but we subsist in a balanced tension. It is on the way we take that we will be judged, and that is the foundational humanistic premise of fiction, that it matters, and we can choose. Punishment and reward need not be in the hereafter. We hold our life in our hands, with every breath.

The nineteenth-century poet William Johnson Cory is remembered chiefly for this translation from Callimachus, which I include for anyone not familiar with it:

 They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
 They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
 I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I
 Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

 And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
 A handful of grey ashes, long long ago at rest,
 Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
 For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

That must surely count as one of the great poems of the English language. I stumbled on Cory at a tangent while reading on the lawn. Here is another by him, not so fine, but with a similar elegiac zest for life, if I may be allowed the oxymoron:

     Mimnermus in Church

     You promise heavens free from strife,
     Pure truth, and perfect change of will;
     But sweet, sweet is this human life,
     So sweet, I fain would breathe it still;
     Your chilly stars I can forego,
     This warm kind world is all I know.

     You say there is no substance here,
     One great reality above:
     Back from that void I shrink in fear,
     And child-like hide myself in love:
     Show me what angels feel. Till then,
     I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

     You bid me lift my mean desires
     From faltering lips and fitful veins
     To sexless souls, ideal quires,
     Unwearied voices, wordless strains:
     My mind with fonder welcome owns
     One dear dead friend's remembered tones.

     Forsooth the present we must give
     To that which cannot pass away;
     All beauteous things for which we live
     By laws of time and space decay.
     But oh, the very reason why
     I clasp them, is because they die.

Mimnermus, I did not know, is an early Greek poet whose work is almost completely lost. But there is this:

τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς Ἀφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή·
οἷ’ ἥβης ἄνθεα γίγνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν· ἐπεὶ δ’ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθῃ
γῆρας, ὅ τ’ αἰσχρὸν ὁμῶς καὶ καλὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,
αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,
οὐδ’ αὐγὰς προσορῶν τέρπεται ἠελίου,
ἀλλ’ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν·
οὕτως ἀργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.

The following version, lacking Cory’s grace, gives the sense, more or less; found on Wikipedia:

What is life, what is sweet, if it is missing golden Aphrodite?
Death would be better by far than to live with no time for
Amorous assignations and the gift of tenderness and bedrooms,
All of those things that give youth all of its coveted bloom,
Both for men and for women. But when there arrives the vexatiousness
Of old age, even good looks alter to unsightliness
And the heart wears away under the endlessness of its anxieties:
There is no joy anymore then in the light of the sun;
In children there is found hate and in women there is found no respect.
So difficult has old age been made for us all by God!

The translation of the penultimate line is euphemistic, or ignorant of Greek ways; and the more literal sense of ‘even good looks’ is that age, the leveller, reduces the ugly and the handsome man to the same state.

For good measure, here are some fine words by Cory on the purpose of education:

At school you are engaged not so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism. A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spent on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness.


There must be nearly as many Kants as there are serious readers of the philosopher. I belong to the katechoumenoi: I am a convert, and I believe there are not many such. Kant, especially in the first Critique, offers a system, and I think he says that the whole edifice must fall if any fault be found in it. In English-speaking countries where the analytical tradition dominates, it is customary to raid those crumbling, though perhaps still imposing ruins for their masonry; that is, the arguments stand on their merits, which are suspect, and have value iff they are sound. ‘Kantians’ are like the followers of Freud, each to his own school and improved system. Kleist famously shot himself because of the despair provoked by reading the Critique of Pure Reason, but (it is generally accepted) he got it wrong. It’s a difficult book.

Possible readings can perhaps be divided into three regions (like Gaul): empiricist, rationalist, and idealist, in other words, they cover the entire terrain of philosophy. I’m not well-versed in the reception of Kant after the eighteenth century, but idealist reworkings of Kant seem to cover most of the nineteenth century in Germany. I’m in the empiricist camp, seeing his entire purpose as having been to close the door on such speculations; and I find the building imposing, unmoved by any cracks or gaps. But when I think of ‘Kantianism’ today, it’s figures like Chomsky and Stephen Pinker that come to mind. They would perhaps not claim to be followers of Kant, but the influence is clear though with a different emphasis from the original.

I am no philosopher, and my original encounter with Kant was as an intellectual historian. It’s got to be illuminating to place any thinker against his context, see what he was reacting to, and how he understood his own contribution. The Preface to the first Critique, with its metaphor of the ‘Wohnhaus’, or humble abode of reason, is actually pretty clear. We can kill idle speculation dead by keeping our feet on the ground. If what we know comes from the evidence of our senses, we can’t say either way how the universe began or whether there is a God. (Such questions were still dynamite, so had to be skirted around). The problem with this was Hume, who had argued that you couldn’t make much sense of the world, in particular, it was not possible to establish causation. Surely it should be possible to explain a bit more than that, without letting the mediaeval fancies back in? Kant’s innovation was to argue that experience of anything at all is only possible if it is structured in various ways (most notably through causation): otherwise nothing makes sense. That explanation would probably attract red ink in an undergraduate essay, but it is not my aim to offer a lucid summary; there is no substitute for reading Kant at first hand. The argument has the same structure as that of the second Critique: if experience is possible at all it must have this shape; if there is morality it must be internally consistent, else it would not be morality, therefore it must unfold to contain justice, equality and so on, with a certain cut of the sails that is distinctively Kantian.

Kant was thinking of human beings, but I think his argument applies to Martians, and spiders, too: this is what experience as such must be like. The contemporary rationalists believe that our modes of thought are hardwired, and therefore species-specific. Clearly, our sense organs have certain limitations (a range of wavelengths for both sound and vision, for instance) and there is some flesh-and-blood plumbing in there to make sense of it all. But I would like to believe the Martians must do very much the same thing by other means, unknown to us.

And so finally I come to my point, just a speculative trifle. All this favours the sense of sight. On the whole, the other senses are much blunter instruments. The sense of touch (divided perhaps into proprioception, pain, temperature, sexual sensation, etc) tells more about our own body, and only indirectly anything external; and maybe taste and smell are a bit like this too. But what about hearing? I don’t mean that we can hear, say, certain sounds that speak of the burn rushing through the glen, though it is immediately interesting that what those sounds convey naturally falls into visual shape. Through our ears comes language, and with it a set of beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and social capacities we can no more shake off than the urge to duck when a cricket ball comes at us.

There is a body of theological argument that we imbibe faith with the mother’s milk of human kindness. I bristle and can feel my readers bristling at the very thought, because of the obvious problems of relativism and authority. But what if there were a Kantian bootstrapping argument, that there must be — what? Some form of social order? Some sense of ‘self’ and ‘other’ and a mode of communication between them, or at least recognition? Some body of shared beliefs, perhaps amounting to ‘culture’? It being possible for these to be more or less elaborate, with perhaps a canonical minimum case (the mating behaviour of the praying mantis)? Just as there must be things, perhaps, there must be social objects, which in turn must satisfy some criteria to be capable of functioning as such? Like: continuity of identity through time despite change? A presumption of trustworthiness? Having an opaque ‘inside’ that must be mediated to the world through deliberate utterance? The mantis would never copulate if it were unable to conceal its final intentions.

It certainly seems to be the case that Robinson Crusoe can’t exist without Friday. A man on a desert island, without language or intercourse, in some sense ceases to exist as a human being. A more mundane but frequent example is lonely old people driven mad by isolation. Perhaps this is something that is a matter of degree: social exclusion, due to class (McJobs), or a stigmatised identity (ex-cons), diminishes and brutalises the individual.

Here is what looks like a good account of the central ‘move’ on Kant’s part: