Every Man In His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)

‘O, manners! that this age should bring forth such creatures! that nature should be at leisure to make them!’
(Ned Knowell, Every Man In His Humour, Act 4, scene 5)

When he came to oversee the collection of all the poetry and plays he wished to preserve in a Folio edition of his Works in 1616, Jonson chose to open the volume with Every Man In His Humour, ignoring all the earlier plays he’d written or had a hand in and asserting that this was his first mature play.

He didn’t just tweak the play, but subjected it to a major overhaul, changing the setting from an unconvincing Florence to a vividly depicted contemporary London, anglicising the names of all the characters, cutting speeches, making the thing more focused. Since the earlier version of the play had been published in a Quarto version in 1601, students of the play are quickly introduced to the existence of these two versions and invited to play a game of ‘Compare The Versions’.

The other issue you’re quickly made aware of as you read any introduction to the play, is the issue of ‘humours’. This seems to be simpler than it first appears. The ancient Greeks (starting with Hippocrates, then Galen) developed a theory that the human body consisted of four elements or humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These were quickly associated with the four elements which make up the world, as posited by Empedocles, namely earth, air, fire and water – and over the next 1,500 years the theory was elaborated into a system of vast complexity, drawing in the star signs of astrology and much more.

The basic idea is that the ‘humours’ must be in balance for the body to be healthy. All illnesses can be attributed to an imbalance or excess of one or other ‘humour’. If you were ill, doctors would diagnose the imbalance of your ‘humours’ and submit you to any one of hundreds of useless treatments, the most florid being the ‘purges’, or bleeding, which poor King Charles II was repeatedly subjected to on his death bed.

But it wasn’t just illness – human character could be attributed to the excess of a particular humour. Thus blood was associated with a sanguine nature (enthusiastic, active, and social); an excess of yellow bile was thought to produce aggression; black bile was associated with depression or ‘melancholy’, in fact the word melancholy derives from the Greek μέλαινα χολή (melaina kholé) which literally means ‘black bile’. And an excess of phlegm was thought to be associated with apathetic behavior, as preserved in the word ‘phlegmatic’ i.e. unmoved by events.

Jonson applies the theory to comedy by making the theory of humours into the basis of psychology. The idea is that every person has a hobby horse or leading passion or quirk or obsession. He explains the idea at length in a speech given to a character in the play’s sequel, Every Man Out of His Humour:

ASPER: So in every human body,
The choler, melancholy, phlegm, and blood,
By reason that they flow continually
In some one part, and are not continent,
Receive the name of humours. Now thus far
It may, by metaphor, apply itself
Unto the general disposition:
As when some one peculiar quality
Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw
All his affects, his spirits, and his powers,
In their confluctions, all to run one way,
This may be truly said to be a humour
CORDATUS: He speaks pure truth; now if an idiot
Have but an apish or fantastic strain,
It is his humour.
ASPER: Well, I will scourge those apes,
And to these courteous eyes oppose a mirror,
As large as is the stage whereon we act;
Where they shall see the time’s deformity
Anatomised in every nerve, and sinew,
With constant courage, and contempt of fear.

So the title of the play means something like ‘Every man looked at in the context of his guiding passion or eccentricity’. A really blunt translation might be ‘People as obsessives’.

It is really just a variation on the idea of comic stereotypes or types, which flourished in Roman comedy and has formed the basis of comedy down to the present. Dad’s Army springs to mind with its collection of comic types – the pompous bank manager, the lugubrious public schoolboy, the shady spiv, the weedy mummy’s boy, the excitable veteran, the gloomy Scot and so on.

But for Jonson, as for other Renaissance theorists, mere entertainment wasn’t enough, and his criticism and the plays themselves are full of snarling animosity at poets who churned out haphazard entertainments. In Jonson’s view, the comic portrayal of characters dominated by their humours or obsessions serves a purpose: by showing people behaving ridiculously on stage, comedy should make the audience reflect on their own obsessions, on their own quirky and irrational behaviour, and thus teach them to behave more rationally and charitably.

Hence the hundreds of references to the same basic idea, which is that comedy ‘scourges the follies of the time’ or ‘laughs people out of their follies’, and so on.

I, for one, don’t believe for a minute that watching a comic play for a few hours will change anyone’s behaviour. If so, if satire did change anything, how come there has always been an endless need and market for it? People are people and human nature goes very deep and laughing at a handful of caricatures for a couple of hours is not going to change anyone’s personality or behaviour.

Also there’s a subtler reason. There’s a case for saying that Jonson’s own practice undermines his theories, in the sense that all the prologues and prefaces and dedicatory letters and even characters within his plays certainly repeat ad nauseam variations on the same idea the ‘Comedy Laughs The Age Out of Its Follies’. And yet, when you actually experience the plays onstage, as dramatic experiences, it becomes vividly clear that Jonson loves the follies of the age. They’re what energise and inspire him.

Cast

KNOWELL, an old Gentleman, laments the old days and jealous of his son’s debauchery
EDWARD KNOWELL, his Son
BRAINWORM, the Father’s Man, looking to curry favour with the son and heir
MASTER STEPHEN, a Country Gull (‘he is stupidity itself’)
MASTER MATHEW, the Town Gull
GEORGE DOWNRIGHT, a plain Squire
WELLBRED, Kitely’s half-Brother, suave and sophisticated friend of Ed Knowell
CAPTAIN BOBADILL, a Paul’s Man, a bragging liar, close relative of Shakespeare’s Pistol in Henry IV
JUSTICE CLEMENT, an old merry
KITELY, a merchant driven out of his mind by obsessive jealousy of his wife
THOMAS CASH, KITELY’S Cashier
DAME KITELY, KITELY’S Wife
MRS. BRIDGET his Sister.
OLIVER COB, a simple water-bearer
TIB Cob’s Wife

Every Man In His Humour

Act one

Old Knowell dotes on his scholar son Edward until he intercepts a letter to him (Edward) from his student buddy, Master Wellbred, inviting him to debauchery. More specifically, the letter is sent from Wellbred who lives in Old Jewry (a street in the City of London) to Ned Knowell who lives in Hoxton, a few miles to the north, telling him not to be a stranger, to evade his controlling father, to pop down and see him because he is being visited by a couple of pompous idiots who will be worth his entertainment.

Scandalised, Old Knowell tells his servant, Brainworm, to pass the letter on to his son, not mentioning that he (the father) has read it. Brainworm delivers it to young Ned alright, but fully mentions that his father has read it and we begin to

During the whole act both Knowells and Brainworm are plagued by Ned’s cousin, the blowhard Stephen who combines idiocy – he has splashed out on an expensive hawk without knowing anything about hawking, and now feebly asks old Knowell if he has a book on the subject – with untimely belligerence e.g. he threatens to get into a duel with the delivery boy who brings the letter from Wellbred and is quick to imagine anyone turning their back on him or muttering is slighting him – but when faced up, quickly and feebly backs down.

Master Matthew pays a visit to the very humble abode of Cob the water carrier to see the braggart soldier, Bobbadil who is lodging with him. All three characters are played for laughs, I like the passage where the captain asks Matthew not to tell anyone where he’s staying, not because it’s too humble and squalid but because he doesn’t want to be inundated with visitors 🙂 And when Bobbadil offers to defend Matthew against the foul insults of Squire Downright, Wellbred’s elder brother, it is very funny the way Matthew praises the captain’s immense martial skill and the captain poo-poohs him while enjoying the praise, before putting him through a farcical rehearsal of sword fighting.

Act 2

At Kitely’s house. Kitely tells Squire Downward he took in a foundling and has made him his cashier and runner and named him Cash. Then he gets on to his main point which is lamenting that he ever allowed Wellbred to come and lodge with him, for he has turned the house into a tavern and brothel with loose company at all hours. Kitely now asks Downward – as Wellbred’s older brother – if he can politely ask Wellbred to leave.

During this dialogue both characters reveal their ‘humours’. Downward is quick to anger and expresses it in a volley of cliches and oldd proverbs. Kitely, for his part, reveals that the real root reason for wanting Wellbred to leave is he is consumed with jealousy about his recently-married wife.

Bobadill and Matthew briefly intrude on the scene looking for Wellbred, giving Matthew just enough time to insult Downward, who goes to draw his sword while Kitely restrains him and the others quickly exit.

Kitely has a long speech about how his doubts about his wife’s infidelity have slowly become his obsession. Two points: 1. It is (arguably) part of Jonson’s didactic strategy to have his humour-ridden characters soliloquise about them – in the sense that their description of their symptoms helps the audience identify (and counter?) them. Here is Kitely giving a vivid description of Jealousy:

But it may well be call’d poor mortals’ plague;
For, like a pestilence, it doth infect
The houses of the brain. First it begins
Solely to work upon the phantasy,
Filling her seat with such pestiferous air,
As soon corrupts the judgment; and from thence,
Sends like contagion to the memory:
Still each to other giving the infection.
Which as a subtle vapour spreads itself
Confusedly through every sensive part,
Till not a thought or motion in the mind
Be free from the black poison of suspect.

2. Martin Seymour-Smith, editor of the edition I read, suggests that Kitely’s envisioning of his wife being debauched is so vivid because, not very far from the surface, Kitely wants his wife to be ravished and wants to watch. Obviously Dame Kitely is oblivious of her husband’s feverish imaginings.

Scene 2 Moorfields, Brainworm is disguised as an army veteran and bumps into Ned Knowell and the idiot Stephen heading south to visit Wellbred. There is comedy when Brainworm tells whopping lies about his army record (mentioning battles which are nearly 100 years old) tries to sell Stephen his rapier and Knowell tries to stop stupid Stephen buying the rusty bit of trash.

Cut to Knowell making his way south to spy on his son. A soliloquy lamenting how corrupt the times are and how fathers corrupt their sons – the timelessness of this kind of sentiment confirmed when you learn that a lot of it is copied from the satires of Juvenal, written in the second century BC.

He encounters Brainworm in his disguise as a disabled soldier. Brainworm wheedles on and on begging for some alms, Knowell disapproves and asks him if he is not ashamed to be a beggar, and finally tells him to follow him and do him honest service in return for money.

Brainworm soliloquises. His ultimate aim is to ingratiate himself with young Knowell who will be his future. But meanwhile he gleefully tells the audience he will have fun doing his master mischief.

Act 3

Scene 1 Ned Knowell and his gull Stephen finally meet Wellbred, who is with Bobadill, and there is a festival of stupidity. Basically, Knowell and Wellbred are the clever ones, the ones who egg on the stupid gulls – boasting Bobadill, Matthew and Stephen who pretends to have fashionable melancholy – to display their foibles and follies in dialogue while the two smart or superior ones give a running commentary in asides to each other, and to the audience.

They are just discussing the sword Matthew bought off Brainworm, when the latter arrives onstage, still in disguise as the begging soldier. They argue about the sword he sold Matthew, more importantly Brainworm takes Ned Knowell aside and reveals his true identity, explaining that his father has tracked him and is even now putting up at Justice Clement’s house, a little further down Old Jewry, where it turns into Coleman Street.

Scene 2 At Kitely’s house. He has business to attend to but us seized with jealousy, at the thought of what Wellbred and his friends will do to his wife if he leaves the house i.e. rape her. He calls his servant, Cash, and spends a couple of pages telling him he’s going to tell him a secret, but then repeatedly pulling back at the last minute, from extreme paranoid fear, and then ultimately leaves on business for the Exchange, leaving orders to have a message sent if Wellbred shows up.

Cash realises something is up and wonders how he can exploit it. In rolls Cob the water carrier for a scene designed to showcase his dimness and allow a little aside about the nature of ‘humour’:

Cob. Humour! mack, I think it be so indeed; what is that humour? some rare thing, I warrant.
Cash. Marry I’ll tell thee, Cob: it is a gentlemanlike monster, bred in the special gallantry of our time, by affectation; and fed by folly.

‘Affectation fed by folly’, there’s a working definition of the the kind of ‘humour’ Jonson sets out to lambast.

Then enter Knowell and Wellbred marvelling at and congratulating Brainworm for his splendid disguise as the begging soldier. This leads into a complicated scene featuring Cash, Cob, Matthew, Stephen, Brainworm, Knowell and Wellbred, in which the fools interact in various comic ways, Bobadill at one point cudgelling poor Cob, apparently because he speaks ill of tobacco after Bobadillo has made a long speech in praise of it (Cob, if you remember, currently being Bobadill’s very humble landlord).

Quite a comic aspect is the way Stephen the fool is impressed by Bobadill’s big oaths but completely garbles them when he tries to repeat them.

Scene 3 At Justice Clement’s house, Cob enters to tell Kitely that a crowd (the gang of lads we have just watched) is arriving at his house, Kitely immediately begins feverishly imagining them kissing his wife and sister and worse, much worse, which puzzles Cob who last saw them all bickering about tobacco in the street.

Kitely exits leaving Cob to vow vengeance on Bobadill for beating him up at which point enter Knowell, Judge Clement and his man Roger Formal. Cob tries to get his attention to punish Bobadill for beating him, but when he explains the reason for the beating, that Cob spoke against tobacco – in a humorous twist, Clement loses his temper and tells Formal to condemn Cob to prison because he, also, immoderately worships the fine pleasures of tobacco and won’t have anyone talking against it.

Act 4

Scene 1 Squire Downright discussing with his sister, Dame Kitely i.e. Kitely’s wife. Kitely’s unhappiness at having gangs of loose livers visiting the house. And at that moment the gang enter, being Matthew, Bobadill, Wellbred and Ned Knowell, Stephen and Brainworm. The two clever ones encourage Matthew to take out some of his verses and read them to Bridget (Kitely’s sister) while they take the mickey, it appears most of them are cribbed from Christopher Marlowe’s poem Hero and Leander.

Downright disapproves of all this and finally bursts out angrily at Wellbred for keeping such rowdy company, for encouraging braggart soldiers and simpletons, and takes out his sword, at which point Wellbred takes out his and the others start screaming and/or intervening.

At which point Kitely arrives home and his servants force them all to put down their swords. Wellbred, Knowell et al all leave the stage to Downright who explains why he was so angry to his brother. The women i.e. Dame Kitely and his sister, Bridget, swear there was one among them who was a true gentleman and showed his parts. They use the word to mean honour and good nature, Kitely takes it to mean sexual parts and is immediately stricken with his morbid jealousy.

Scene 2 Cob bangs on his own front door till his wife answers it. He shows her the bruises he got from Bobadill, briefly describes his encounter with Justice Clement, then makes her swear to lick the door and not let Bobadill in the house.

Scene 3 In the Windmill tavern Knowell and Wellbred agree with Brainworm some cunning plan which the audience does not hear explained, he exits, then  Wellbred teases Knowell that he fancies Wellbred’s sister, i.e. Bridget, and promises he will make her his.

Scene 4 In Old Jewry, the London street, Brainworm in his disguise of the old soldier rejoins Knowell senior, who asks where the devil he’s been – good question, since Brainworm hasn’t exactly been much at his service since their first encounter. Anyway, now we get to hear of the boys’ cunning plan as Brainworm tells old Knowell that his son, Ned Knowell, has discovered that he – Old Knowell – read the famous letter. Anyway, Brainworm spins a florid story about how the gang of them kidnapped him but he managed to escape and overheard young Ned’s plan to go to the house of one Cob the Water Drawer for a rendezvous with a Mistress Bridget. Ha! says Old Knowell, I will go there and catch him red-handed and exits, leaving Brainworm chuckling.

Brainworm then chats to Justice Clement’s servant, a simpleton named Formal who invites him for a beer and to tell him stories about the wars.

Scene 5 In Moorfields, Bobadill swells monstrously and brags to Knowell that he and nineteen hand-picked fellows could hold at bay an army of 40,000. And he swears he will cudgel the rascal Downright next time he sees him – at which point Downright strolls onstage and, when confronted with a real threat, Bobadill piteously says he’s just remembered he had a notice of peace served on him so is not allowed to draw. Downright calls him coward and beats and disarms him, before storming off in disgust. Bobadill makes a further, hilarious excuse, that it was astrology, sure he was struck by an unlucky star that paralysed his sword arm.

In his fury Downright has stormed off leaving his cloak behind. Knowell’s companion, Stephen, picks it up, says finders keepers. Knowell warns him that wearing it might carry a cost.

Scene 6 At Kitely’s house, where he is berating brother Wellbred for egging on the fight, as Dame Kitely and sister Bridget look on. Wellbred makes a throwaway remark to the effect that Kitely’s suit of clothes might as well be poisoned which sets Kitely off in a hysterical terror that his clothes are poisoned – and the other three are all astonished at the power of his imagination, that his thoughts can make him ill. It is this scene which underpins Martin Seymour-Smith’s assertion that Jonson anticipates Freud by 300 years in attributing illnesses of the body to humours (obsessions, neuroses) of the mind.

KNOWELL: Am I not sick? how am I then not poison’d? Am I not poison’d? how am I then so sick?
DAME KNOWELL: If you be sick, your own thoughts make you sick.
WELLBRED: His jealousy is the poison he has taken.

Enter Brainworm disguised as Justice Clement’s man, Formal, who says the Justice wants to see Kitely straightaway. Reluctantly the latter exits. Wellbred sees it is Brainworm and asks how he got the disguise, viz he got the real Formal dead drunk and stole his clothes. Now Wellbred instructs him to go tell Ned Knowell to go to the Tower. He (Wellbred) will bring along Bridget and the pair will get married.

Re-enter Kitely who at some length gets his servant, Tom Cash, to promise to guard Dame Kitely, to note everyone who enters the house and, if it looks like they’re going to a bedroom, to intervene. OK? Got that? He departs.

Wellbred determines to stir up trouble and now tells Dame Kitely, his sister, that Dame Cob keeps a bawdy house and that her husband, Kitely, is often hanging round it. Well, she cries in dudgeon, she will off to catch him in the act and exits, Wellbeing watching her, chuckling at the mischief he’s stirring up.

Then he turns to his sister Bridget and tells her that Ned Knowell loves her and wants to marry her at the Tower. Not surprisingly, she points out this is all a bit sudden, and is surprised that her brother has turned pimp.

At which point Kitely returns, asking after his wife, and is horrified to learn that she’s set off for Cob’s house? What? To cuckold him? And he runs off after her. Come sister, says Wellbred, let’s go meet Ned Knowell. It’s all getting very complicated.

Scene 7 Matthew and Bobadill are in the street, Bob still explaining why he refused to fight and ran away. They bump into Brainworm, still in the disguise of Justice Clement’s man and ask him to petition the Justice for a warrant for the arrest of Downright. Brainworm/Formal says, Alright, but it’ll cost them ‘a brace of angels’, about a £1. They have no money but Bobbadil takes off and gives him his silk stockings and Matthew gives him a jewel from  his ear. Brainworm comes up with another snag which is that they will need someone to serve the warrant, them both being too scared to give it to Downright directly. So Brainworm says he’ll procure a varlet, a sergeant for them and they approve and leave.

Brainworm cackles with glee. He now has the stockings and jewel which he will pawn, along with Formal’s clothes that he’s wearing, then procure a new suit and pretend to Matthew and Bobadill to be said varlet. Money and fun!

Scene 8 Cob’s house Old Knowell arrives. Now he’s been told this is where his ne’er-do-well son is. Tib opens the door, says she’s never heard of no Knowell, and slams it in his face. Dame Kitely arrives, brought here by Wellbred’s lie that her husband attends this brothel. Knowell sees her arrive and thinks she is his son’s mistress.

Dame Kitely knocks, Tib opens and denies any knowledge of her husband. At that moment Kitely enters, muffled up in his cloak. Knowell, observing, jumps to the conclusion that it is his son, Ned, come to meet his mistress. Dame Kitely recognises her husband and accuses him to his face of coming here to meet his mistress.

Replying furiously to her accusations, Kitely accuses his wife of being a bawd and making him a cuckold with him, and indicated Knowell and accuses him directly of being a shameful old goat for debauching his wife. Knowell of course denies it all and begins to suspect someone has pulled a prank on him. Kitely says he’ll take his wife to find a justice.

At this point Cob comes home and asks his wife what all this fuss is. When Kitely accuses her of being a bawd and permitting adulterous meetings on the premises Cob starts berating and beating his wife. Knowell intervenes and says, ‘let’s all go before a justice comes to sort it out’.

Scene 9 A street Brainworm soliloquises explaining why he is wearing the costume of a city-sergeant. Enter Matthew and Bobadill, and Brainworm tells them that he is the arresting officer hired by Formal. They are pleased to point out Downright as he walks onstage.

Except that it isn’t Downright. Remember how, in scene 5, Stephen picked up Downright’s abandoned cloak? Well, the figure they all think is Downright is in fact Stephen in Downright’s cloak. So there is a moment of mild comedy when Brainworm goes to present his warrant to the wrong man. But fortunately the real Downright enters at that moment. Brainworm serves the warrant on Downright but things start to go wrong. Downright really is downright. He goes to attack Bobadill and Matthew with his cudgel till Brainworm tells him to desist. OK.

At which point Downright spots Stephen and demands his cloak back. Stephen claims he bought it at a market but Downright contemptuously dismisses this as an obvious lie and gives money to Brainworm-as-city sergeant to arrest Stephen and bring him before the justice.

This is getting a bit much for Brainworm who now tries to wriggle out of it by saying Stephen has offered to give the cloak back, all’s well etc. But Downright will have none of it and raises his cudgel, threatening Brainworm, who is now trapped into going reluctantly with the others before the justice.

Act 5

Scene 1 Justice Clement’s house. Enter the first group of miscreants, namely the people involved in the brawl at Cob’s house – Cob and his wife who he beat, Dame Kitely who thinks her husband is being unfaithful, Kitely who thinks his wife is being unfaithful, and Knowell who he thought was her lover.

When they all tell him that one person, Wellbred, told them all to go there, Justice Clement immediately realises they’ve all been had.

Next a servant enters to Clement that a soldier is waiting for him. There’s some comic business as Justice Clement insists on getting into soldier’s armour himself and going down to meet Matthew and Bobbadil, who piteously pleads that he was set upon and beaten in the street. Clements pooh-poohs him for a sorry apology for a soldier.

Next arrive Downright and Stephen and Brainworm in disguise as a city-sergeant. Clement listens to them bickering about whose cloak it is, but more to the point, quickly establishes that the first two, Bobbadil and Matthew, had got his man Formal to raise a warrant against Downright. So where is it?

Realising this is the dangerous moment for him, Brainworm says there never was a written warrant but he was ordered to do it by Clement’s man, Formal. It now emerges that this was all done on Brainworm’s say-so with no authority. Clement terrifies him by brandishing his enormous sword over his head and threatening to cut off his ears. Then tells his servant to take Brainworm to prison.

At which point Brainworm throws off his disguise (as the city-sergeant) and reveals himself as Brainworm, and is immediately recognised by his master, Old Knowell. Clement is amused by this and asks for a bowl of sack to drink while Brainworm tells his story. Brainworm explains to Knowell how he dressed up as the veteran soldier.

As well as explaining how he told Kitely to go to Cob’s, Brainworm now reveals how both Kitely and Dame Kitely were sent there to get them out the way, so Mistress Bridget could be taken by Wellbred to meet young Knowell.

Clement is so impressed by the elaborateness of the scam, that he sends a man to invite the newly married couple back to his house. But what’s become of Formal? Brainworm explains how he got him dead drunk and borrowed his clothes.

Rather improbably, Justice Clements forgives him and tells all masters present to forgive him also. At that moment Formal arrives dressed in a suit of armour. It was all they had in the bar where he woke up from being dead drunk and almost naked, so he asked the bar staff if he could wear it home! Clements forgives him his folly, also.

Enter the happy couple and friend i.e. New Knowell and his newly married wife, Bridget, and friend Wellbred. Clement welcomes them and toasts them. All are welcome – except for Bobadill and Matthew. Wellbred intervenes for Matthew, saying he is an amusing poet, if packed with prompts.

They rifle Matthew’s pockets and bring out piles of pre-written poetry, Clement is appalled and commands that they make a big pile of it and set it on fire. It blazes up, reaches a peak, then dies down – Sic transit gloria mundi.

Clement says everyone is welcome to the big wedding feast, except these two, the sign of a soldier and the picture of a poet i.e. the two pretenders Bobadill and Matthew. They will be set in the courtyard to meditate on their sins. And Formal in his suit of armour will watch over them.

As to Stephen, the cloak-stealer, Clement says he will have dinner in the kitchen with Cob and his wife who he orders to be reconciled. As must everyone. Clement tells the lead offenders to put off their humours, Downright his anger, Kitely his jealousy and Kitely does indeed give it up, recite some verse about letting it fly away into the air.

So the play ends with three happy newly-made or remade couples: Kitely and Mrs Knowell and Bridget; Cob and Tib.

Jonson’s split morality

The conclusion is fairly brief – the fifth act is by far the shortest – and its judgements seem harsh. Well, not harsh, but unfair. Bobadill and Matthew are only idiots, who boast and brag a bit, and yet they are harshly punished – whereas Brainworm is a cunning trickster, a thief and mocker of the Queen’s justice, impersonator of an officer – you’d have thought he’d be hanged by the law of the day. While Wellbred deceived Kitely and his wife, setting them at loggerheads and almost ruining their marriage.

Surely all of that is worse than being a bad poet and a pretend soldier?

Taking the theory of humours literally for a moment, Justice Clement’s final speeches claim to ‘purge’ the most humour-ridden of the characters, namely Kitely and Downright. But in my opinion, there’s quite a big gap between this purging idea and actual justice for wrong-doing, either moral or legal, according to which, as I’ve said, a different set of crooks should surely have been punished.

That play reveals that the psychological basis of the humour theory – that Jonson’s concern is to purge hobby horses and obsessions – is strangely at odds with conventional legal or moral values. There seems to be a big contradiction here and I’m not the only one to notice it. Seymour-Smith quotes the critic A. Sale as saying that Jonson: ‘is a thoroughly unorthodox moralist; it is the morality of the enemies, not the pillars, of society’.

That seems spot-on to me. The more you consider the way that the fierce Justice, Clement, takes to the crook and impersonator Brainworm as to a lost brother, pardons him his multiple crimes and toasts his health, the weirder it seems. Jonson appears to be celebrating a massive subverter of law and order.

It’s odd. Jonson’s prefaces and prologues ding on about justice and society – and yet his actual fictions are wildly anarchic and throw all their sympathy behind the biggest anarchists.

Seymour-Smith quotes the critic Elizabeth Woodbridge who long ago commented that the demarcation line in the play isn’t drawn between the good and the bad, but between the witty and the dull, and that it celebrates rogues and crooks simply because they’re quick-witted and sympathetic. The witty prevail and the stupid are punished. ‘Such a play can scarcely be called moral.’

This wonky view of justice prepares us for the imaginative thrust of his two most famous plays, Volpone and The Alchemist, in which all the best poetry and imaginative force is given to the topsy-turvy subverters of established order and morality.


Related links

Elizabethan comedies

  • The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare (1597)
  • Every Man in His Humour by Ben Jonson (1598)
  • The Shoemakers’ Holiday, or The Gentle Craft by Thomas Dekker (1599)
  • Eastward Ho! by George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston (1605)
  • Volpone by Ben Jonson (1606)
  • The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)
  • The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1607)
  • Epicoene, or the Silent Woman by Ben Jonson (1609)
  • The Alchemist by Ben Jonson (1610)
  • A Chaste Maid in Cheapside by Thomas Middleton (1613)
  • Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Elizabethan art

Restoration comedies

The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

Sicily: culture and conquest @ the British Museum

I’m aware of three exhibition spaces at the British Museum: the big Sainsbury space for blockbuster exhibitions at the back of the main hall; the temporary display room 3a, immediately on the right of the main entrance; and the medium-sized space on the first floor of the Rotunda in the main hall.

This exhibition is a medium-sized one in the Rotunda: the ticket collector on the door said it would take an hour to go round and this compactness was confirmed by the lack of audio-guide.

Two eras

I was expecting a comprehensive historical overview of Sicily – the largest island in the Mediterranean, the triangular island at the foot of Italy and only 96 miles from the coast of Tunisia. In the event, the exhibition manages to be so compact because it focuses on just two key eras in the island’s long and chequered history.

1. Classical Greek

First is the classical Greek era, from the earliest colonies founded in the 730s BC, which overlapped with sporadic Phoenician settlement in later centuries, all the way through to the period of the Roman conquest, circa 200 BC. In fact the decisive battle in which Rome won the island was fought on 10 March 241 BC.

The early rooms contain fascinating artefacts from this long period, which taken together show the evolution of Greek sculptural art from abstract designs through stylised human figures and onto the astonishing realism of full classical Greek art. As an example of the earliest artefacts, there is a large stone tomb cover, decorated with a huge abstract carving – fertility symbols, some kind of religious imagery? No one knows.

Representing the middle period is a marvellously preserved terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, featuring the standing figures of three fertility goddesses.

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

There are numerous other statues, including a glass case with 10 or more foot-high figures of Cybele, goddess of fertility, festooned with her distinctive necklace of grapes, hieratic heads from temples, along with numerous coins from this, the earliest period of coin history, before you start to encounter the supremely realistic depictions of human and animal figures which are the glorious achievement of classical Greek art.

For me the outstanding example of this later period was the stunning  terracotta horse’s head from an equestrian group which surmounted a temple in Sicily, c. 480–460 BC.

The flared nostrils and the swollen veins of the horse bring it vividly to life; you can hear the whinnying, the snorting and smell the hot sweaty horse smell.

2. The Normans

Then – surprisingly – the show skips the Romans altogether, along with the reconquest by the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I (530s) and conquest by Muslim forces (820-1020), leaping over 1,000 years forward to the Norman period, starting when the Normans conquered the island in 1061 and continuing through their period of dominance to around 1300.

I found this second section the more interesting of the two, which may be a simple reflection of the fact that we have much more written evidence from this period. Normans (descendants of 9th century Vikings who had settled the area that became ‘Normandy’ in north-west France) had already established bases on mainland Italy and during the 11th century mounted raids on Sicily. Eventually in 1061 they established control over the entire island.

Marble bust of Frederick II, Italy, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Marble bust of King Frederick II of Sicilty, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Due to its long history, sketched above, the island was now home to a checkerboard of communities including Italians, Byzantine Greeks, Muslims, Jewish immigrants and now its Norman rulers. Sicily was ruled by a succession of Norman kings – Roger II, William I and William II – who turned it into a military power base but also created a unique hybrid, multi-cultural court. The exhibition has a room devoted to the amazing Palatine Chapel, commissioned by Roger to sit at the heart of the royal palace at Palermo, which was covered in gorgeous decoration mixing twelfth-century Byzantine-style mosaic with marble and wooden Islamic-influenced architectural decorations.

Sicilian facts

Sicily has always enjoyed an unusually fertile soil created by the regular volcanic eruptions of Mount Etna. This large sloping mountain dominates the island in every direction.

Sicily contains some of the best-preserved classical temples in the Mediterranean and a stunning ancient theatre built on a hillside overlooking a bay with Mount Etna in the background.

Speaking of stunning landscapes, probably the most striking feature of the exhibition is a number of really massive, wall-sized, colour photographs of the Sicilian landscape, along with temples and ruins, which cover many of the walls and really bring the subject to life. It’s a technique the Museum used in the Viking exhibition a few years ago, and it really helps situate the dry artefacts into a living breathing (and very sunny) environment.

My favourites

The show includes some 200 artefacts from its two chosen eras. I went with my son and we each chose our favourite objects. I liked:

Gilded falcon, dating from the early 1200s and harking back towards the winged eagles and birds of prey which formed bowsprits to Viking warships.

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palatine chapel ceiling The chapel stood at the centre of the royal palace in Palermo. It was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II and consecrated on 28 April 1140. For the exhibition the extraordinary ceiling of the chapel has been recreated (admittedly the three-dimensional roof with alcoves and arches has been recreated as a flat two-dimensional photograph) and is suspended low above one of the exhibition rooms. Shame there wasn’t a mat for visitors to lie on and look up and study the highly detailed intermixing of abstract patterns, decorated with Islamic script, among which sit rosettes holding quaint medieval portraits of Christian saints and holy men – all the work of Fatimid woodworkers and painters from North Africa.

My son’s favourites

Bronze rostrum The exhibition includes a direct remnant of the battle in which the Romans conquered Sicily in 241 BC: a bronze battering ram that was fitted on the front of the Roman warships to sink enemy ships, and which was only recently excavated from the waters around the island.

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Tabula Rogeriana The book of maps which King Roger II commissioned from the Arab scholar Al-Idrisi, who took 15 years creating a description of the world and world map, the first one anyone had attempted in a thousand years. The Tabula Rogeriana was completed in 1154 and the exhibition has a splendid 14th century copy of it.

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily - A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily – A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Summary

So the exhibition is far from being a complete overview of Sicilian culture. Instead it’s a collection of many wonderful artefacts from two distinct moments of European history which – along with the dazzling and enormous colour photos of various landscapes of the island – really whet your appetite to go and visit this fascinating and beautiful island.

The trailer

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum shows

%d bloggers like this: