Catastrophe by Samuel Beckett (1982)

Catastrophe is a very short play by Samuel Beckett, written in French in 1982 at the invitation of the Association Internationale de Défense des Artistes and first produced in the Avignon Festival on 21 July 1982.

Unlike most of Beckett’s plays or works, which are notably apolitical and even asocial in their studiedly abstract, experimental and often very solipsistic focus, Catastrophe is something like a political play, an impression Beckett fostered by dedicating it to the Czech playwright and political reformer, Václav Havel who was, at the time, imprisoned by the Czech communist regime.

That said, the play is still very late-Beckettian in at least three respects:

  1. It is really very short – the Beckett Project production clocks in at just five and a half minutes
  2. It is very claustrophobic, small and confined and, as so often, only has two speaking parts, in this instance a bossy theatre director and his assistant
  3. As mention of the characters suggests, it isn’t set in a prison or concentration camp or dictator’s courtroom or party meeting or hideout of rebels and freedom fighters or any other overtly political setting that the word ‘political’ implies –instead it is set in a theatre


As so often, Beckett’s stage directions convey half the information or impact of the piece. As so often there are only 2 speaking roles. As so often they and the two non-speaking roles don’t even have names but are assigned only initials.

Director (D).
His female assistant (A).
Protagonist (P).
Luke, in charge of the lighting, offstage (L).

Rehearsal. Final touches to the last scene. Bare stage. A and L have just set the lighting. D has just arrived.
D in an armchair downstairs audience left. Fur coat. Fur toque to match. Age and physique unimportant.
A standing beside him. White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.
P midstage standing on a black block 18 inches high. Black wide-brimmed hat. Black dressing-gown to ankles. Barefoot. Head bowed. Hands in pockets. Age and physique unimportant.
D and A contemplate P.
Long pause.

It is, in its telegraphese, prosey way, a kind of poem.

The plot

We are in a theatre. A haughty director snaps and bosses around a female assistant as they put the finishing touches to some kind of ‘last scene’ of some kind of dramatic presentation. This appears to consist entirely of one man, called The Protagonist, standing stock still on a plinth on the stage while the director and assistant circle him considering his dress, posture and so on.

In this respect – two characters animatedly discussing a third who does not move or speak – it is identical to Rough For Theatre II where two characters, A and B, discuss the character and case of a third figure, C, who stands in the open window, unmoving and unspeaking.

The Assistant has arranged the Protagonist atop the 18-inch-high black block and draped him in a ‘black dressing gown’ down to his ankles and wearing a ‘black wide-brimmed hat’. The action of the play consists of the irritable, domineering Director over-riding her presentation and fussing about innumerable details of the Protagonist’s posture, his hands, the hat, his face, telling the assistant to take off the Protagonist’s coat and roll up the trousers of his old grey pyjamas.

His irritability is symbolised by the way his big Director’s cigar keeps going out and he keeps snapping at the Assistant to provide him a light.

When he has got the Assistant to largely strip the Protagonist, she points out that he is now shivering. The Director doesn’t care. Or worse, he pretends (to himself) to care, saying ‘Bless his heart,’ but not changing his behaviour at all. He’s only interested in achieving his great creative effect, and also mentions that he’s late for a meeting (which he refers to by the unusual term of a ‘caucus’).

Throughout, whenever the Director makes a more general suggestion, the Assistant replies with the unusual phrase ‘I make a note’, rather than ‘I will make a note’ or ‘I’ll take a note’ or make sure it’s done’ or any of a  number of possible phrases. No. ‘I make a note’ has a surprisingly large impact in making the dialogue, and consequently the entire setup, appear strangely brittle and unnatural.

When the Director withdraws to the stalls to get a proper view of his handiwork, the Assistant flops down in an empty theatre seat, but only for a moment. She springs right back up and wipes the seat vigorously, as if to avoid contamination, before reseating herself.

In the last minute they call on Luke, the lighting technician, who has two lines, though he doesn’t appear, and who obeys the Director’s imperious instructions about changing the light on the Protagonist in order to create the most dramatic possible tableau. It is at this point that the title of the piece appears. When Luke adjusts the lighting so it falls solely on the Protagonist’s face, the Director goes into raptures.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag. Once more and I’m off… Terrific! He’ll have them on their feet. I can hear it from here…

‘In the bag’. Good. And with that the Director is ready to whisk off to his ‘caucus’. But it’s in the last 30 seconds that the piece acquires its bite. For in these last seconds, the Protagonist, who has been standing stock still, with his head down, submitting to all these indignities, finally raises his head and looks the audience directly in the eye, and the audience, which has been acquiescing in this bullying and humiliation, is slowly shamed into silence.

P raises his bead, fixes the audience. The applause falters, dies. Long pause

Beckett, whose every utterance was, by this late stage of his life, taken down and recorded for the use of future scholars, apparently told American theatre critic Mel Gussow that:

‘it was not his intention to have the character make an appeal… He is a triumphant martyr rather than a sacrificial victim… and it is meant to cow onlookers into submission through the intensity of his gaze and stoicism.’



In Aristotle’s seminal work of literary criticism, the Poetics, the Greek philosopher defines the catastrophe of a play as the moment when the tragic hero pulls down ruin and pain on himself and his society, when Oedipus blinds himself, when Pentheus is torn to pieces by the Maenads. More broadly, it is:

the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot, which unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. (Wikipedia)

Catastrophe is obviously nothing like Aeschylus or Sophocles. It is muted and boring, the only real interest being the character of the thuggish, bullying male director, a character who could have walked directly from the accusations of the #metoo movement.

And yet the word ‘catastrophe’ is deliberately uttered by the key character, and he appears to be using it in its correct technical sense.

D: [Pause.] Good. There’s our catastrophe. In the bag.

The Director is satisfied that this tableau, of the protagonist stripped down to his undergarments and lit just so will provide just the right climax to whatever drama has preceded it.

There is, then, a tremendous irony in the way the play then proceeds, in the final 30 seconds, to enact Beckett’s ‘catastrophe’, the one whereby the Protagonist lifts his face to confront the audience and cow them into silence and shame.

This catastrophe doesn’t bring tragic recognition and ruin in the classic sense, but it does transform the figure from utterly passive object, rudely talked about, to a man who is fighting back, defying his owners and manipulators.

Thus the concept of the ‘catastrophe’ is correctly used twice at the end of the play, but to highlight the fact that it contains two narratives – the play-within-a-play whereby the Director achieves his effect – and the wider play, the Beckett play which the audience is watching, which achieves its catastrophe in an entirely different way. Or is working to a completely different aesthetic. Or to a completely different set of moral values.

For such a short piece, it’s quite a dense and complex effect.


If it hadn’t been dedicated to Havel, a world-famous dissident and political reformer, it might not have been easy to see Catastrophe as a ‘political’ play at all. But in the event, Beckett was involved in several of the productions around the West and left some pretty explicit comments about his intentions in this regard. Most notably, in answer to a reviewer who claimed that the ending was ambiguous, Beckett replied angrily:

‘There’s no ambiguity there at all. He’s saying, you bastards, you haven’t finished me yet.’

So quite obviously Catastrophe is about a figure who is poked and prodded and reified or objectified and reduced to a wordless mannequin to suit the whims of the Director. But who at the last minute asserts his freedom and agency.

Whether you think this rather slender ‘plot’, and the fairly tame and super-familiar setting (a rehearsal for a play, or part thereof) is sturdy enough to bear the heavy freight of political symbolism which the play has been loaded with, is a judgement call. In the febrile world of the theatre and the glib world of literary criticism it can easily be made to pass for one.

The Beckett on Film production

The Beckett on Film project set out, at the turn of the century, to produce high quality, filmed productions of all 19 of Beckett’s plays. The producers approached leading directors and actors, but not always with happy results.

To direct Catastrophe they chose acclaimed American playwright and director David Mamet, cast playwright and Beckett enthusiast Harold Pinter to play the Director and, in a great coup, secured acclaimed Shakespearian actor Sir John Gielgud as the Protagonist. It was Gielgud’s last role and he died only a few weeks after filming it.

Which makes it all the more of a shame that Mamet seems to have made quite a balls-up of the piece. Mamet made his name as the author of a series of plays about hairy, testosterone-fuelled toxic American men such as Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), and American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and Speed-the-Plow (1988).

If you’re familiar with Mamet’s attraction to strong, unpleasant male characters, often depicted in exploitative relationships with younger women, it comes as no surprise that his production devotes all its attention to the domineering figure of the Director, played by a characteristically offensive, barkingly pukka, alpha male Harold Pinter, and his bullying relationship with the (very attractive) Assistant.

Re, this Assistant, it is notable that, whereas, in the stage directions the Assistant wears shapeless ‘White overall. Bare head. Pencil on ear. Age and physique unimportant.’ in Mamet’s production, she is a) very attractive b) wearing the smart and shapely outfit of a briskly willing secretary, as per the Hollywood BDSM movie, The Secretary.

All subtlety whatsoever is scorched away from the piece. It has been turned into Sexual Perversity in Theatreland.

It doesn’t help your sense that Beckett’s original intentions have been left far behind when you learn that the actress playing A, Rebecca Pidgeon, is a) American – which helps to explain what is subtly wrong about her posh English accent – and b) is, um, married to David Mamet. Aha. People talk, these days, about crony capitalism. Maybe there’s such a thing as crony thespianism.

All of which is getting on for tragic because of the criminal under-use of one of the greatest English actors of all time, Sir John Gielgud, who stands out of vision for almost the entire piece.

Now, you can understand why they keep his figure peripheral for the scripted part of the play – it is in order to raise the tension and expectation so that when the Big Reveal comes it will be all the more dramatic. Reasonable idea.

And yet, when the Big Reveal does come, the moment which the entire interpretation of the piece as a political play hangs on, the notion that his final facial expression conveys the Protagonist’s revolt and defiance and cows and shames the audience which has acquiesced in his humiliation into embarrassed silence – well, Mamet muffs it big time and makes Gielgud look exactly like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Instead of a look of defiance designed to shame the audience which has tamely acquiesced in his torment, Gielgud is made to look like a grinning goblin. It’s a travesty. A travesty of a mockery of a sham.

Mamet’s mangling of this subtle play is a good piece of evidence for the broader argument that Americans simply can’t understand European culture because they have never been invaded, overrun, defeated, cowed and crushing into submission, as almost the entire continent of Europe was from 1939 to 1945.

And then that, while half of Europe groaned under communist tyranny for decades after the Second World War, and their intellectuals agonised about communism and decolonisation, Americans were enjoying a bubblegum postwar boom, driving bigger and bigger cars, building bigger and bigger houses equipped with swimming pools and ever-more convenient domestic appliances, and ogling pneumatic pinup girls. Brainless consumerism.

So, in my opinion, Mamet completely misses what so many critics take to be the play’s central importance, namely the way the dominating Director functions as a symbol of the thoughtless, bullying authority which forms the basis of most repressive regimes.

But not only this, Mamet also completely omits the artistic subtlety of the piece – the Beckettian overtones, the weird, abstracted, formalised armature to be found in so many of Beckett’s plays, the oddities of language and phrasing (the way the Assistant says ‘I take a note’ and the Director keeps saying, ‘Come on. Say it’) the language oddly off kilter, which alert the viewer or reader that we are in a strange and unusual place, in Beckettland.

No, Mamet and Pinter conspire to make this piece all about cocky, swaggering masculinity, about a big swinging theatrical dick, so that the subtlety of language, the oddity of the action, and the ghosts of Europe’s history of oppression and struggle, are all utterly erased.

In the theatre

In several other reviews I’ve pointed out a basic fact of much of Beckett’s prose, which is that it can be seen as consisting of narrators who pose, position and direct other characters.

Take Ill Seen Ill Said which I’ve just reviewed. There is very little plot in the ordinary sense; what there is, is a narrator who is trying to arrange the disparate elements of the situation into some kind of order and, in doing so, he frequently stops to comment on his own efforts, wonders whether he should pose the old lady protagonist in this, that or the other position even, at one point, stops arranging the action altogether in order to wonder whether his approach is correct or valid.

In other words, in a lot of Beckett prose pieces the narrator behaves like a theatrical director, getting his characters to do things or say things over and over again, with multiple variations, as he struggles to achieve the desired effect (the desired effect often explicitly being described as ‘finishing’, completing the task, achieving the closure which, however, the texts forever hold out of reach of all concerned, both characters and author).

In this respect Catastrophe brings this situation up out of the shadows of the (often hard to read) prose pieces and makes it explicit.

1. It is one thing to read the play as a political allegory, with the Director as a heartless and ruthless brute treating people like objects to achieve a satisfying result, whether fascist, communist or any other way tyrannical…

2. But Catastrophe is obviously also a simple and straightforward account of what bastards theatrical directors can be, treating people like meat, forcing them to undergo humiliating actions, costumes and poses in order to achieve the desired effect.

3. And not very far behind that, is the even simpler interpretation, of what utter bastards writers can be – on the one hand, playing havoc with people in real life, exploiting their names and characters and lives and stories and mannerisms regardless of the consequences, in order to create the all-important ‘work of art’; and then subjecting their fictional characters to a vast array of humiliations, fiascos, tortures and death, in order to entertain and amuse their readers.

Writers of fiction like to tell themselves they are educating the nation and firing the imagination and liberating people’s minds and striking blows for freedom and justice and all the rest of the standard boilerplate. But when you compare this rhetoric with most of the works of fiction that are actually published in a year – the slushy romances, the thrillers and cop novels, and the vast number of fantasy, sword and sorcery novels in which endless legions are hacked, stabbed, burned and eviscerated to death, you realise what a weak and self-serving argument that is.

Being a writer of fiction is a profoundly morally compromised activity, and it is the way this realisation is one of the three or four layers of meaning packed into Catastrophe – much more than the supposed ‘political’ interpretation – which is what I take away from this incredibly short but amazingly dense and multi-levelled piece of drama.

Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Double Dealer by William Congreve (1693)

‘I will deceive ’em all, and yet secure myself…This double-dealing is a jewel.’
(thoughts of the Double Dealer himself, the villainous Jack Maskwell)

After the smash hit success of his first play, The Old Bachelor, Congreve quickly followed up with his second play, The Double Dealer, performed later the same year (1693).

It is an experimental play, quite a bold move for a young man of 23. What makes it experimental is that the action is set almost entirely in just one place, namely A gallery in the Lord Touchwood’s house, with chambers adjoining.

In the dedication to the printed version of the play, Congreve explicitly says he set out to observe Aristotle’s three unities, unity of time and place and subject matter, to produce what he describes as ‘a true and regular comedy’.

The so-called unities derive from Aristotle’s work The Art of Poetry or Poetics, written around 335 BC. In this text Aristotle analysed the successful plays of ancient Greece to see what they had in common and deduced some common features they shared, that:

  • most of them concern just one subject uncluttered by sub-plots or digressions
  • they all take place in one location
  • and they all tale place in the space of at most a day, often often in ‘real time’ i.e. over the same amount of time that the play takes to perform and watch i.e. about three hours.

In Aristotle’s book these three ‘unities’ are the results of an empirical analysis of the plays that had been written up to his time. In the hands of later critics and theorists they were turned into ‘rules’ which good drama must obey, especially in France and especially in the 17th century.

And it was from contemporary French writers that Congreve took the idea of the unities and, indeed, some of these French critics (le Bossu, Rapin and Dacier) are mentioned in the play itself – albeit the reference is given to the pretentious bubblebrain Lady Froth and so played for laughs. (I wonder whether this is because the idea was seen as frenchified and pretentious…)

Anyway, in the dedicatory letter to the printed edition, Congreve is explicit about his wish to fulfil them, saying he ‘was resolved to preserve the three unities of the drama’. The Double Dealer is a playwright’s experiment at using Aristotle’s three unities in the composition of a Restoration comedy.

We’ve mentioned how The Double Dealer fulfils unities of time and place (almost all set in the long gallery at Lord Touchwood’s house, and taking place on just one evening) – but the unity of subject matter?

The classic Greek plays were extremely sparse and pure. Restoration comedy, by contrast, made a virtue of building up a labyrinth of complex plots and sub-plots, with the characters themselves hatching schemes, putting on disguises, and carrying out endless cons and scams. So you’d have thought that unity of subject was a non-starter for a playwright working in the genre Congreve was engaged in, yet that is not his opinion.

I made the plot as strong as I could because it was single, and I made it single because I would avoid confusion, and was resolved to preserve the three unities of the drama.

Is it single? Maybe he’s referring to the way everything in the plot stems from just one event, the planned marriage – the next day – of Mellefont and Cynthia, and the way the play then proceeds to engender numerous plots (and counter-plots) they all spring, at root, from that one theme.

Well, so much for the theory he expounds in the preface – how much does it work in practice?


Maskwell, a villain; pretended friend to Mellefont, gallant to Lady Touchwood, and in love with Cynthia
Lord Touchwood, uncle to Mellefort
Mellefont, promised to, and in love with Cynthia
Careless, his friend
Lord Froth, a solemn coxcomb
Brisk, a pert coxcomb
Sir Paul Plyant, an uxorious, foolish old knight; brother to Lady Touchwood, and father to Cynthia

Lady Touchwood, in love with Mellefont
Cynthia, daughter to Sir Paul by a former wife, promised to Mellefont
Lady Froth, a great coquette; pretender to poetry, wit, and learning
Lady Plyant, insolent to her husband, and easy to any pretender


As with The Old Bachelor, the incidental music and settings of songs were written by Henry Purcell.

NB Scene divisions The Penguin paperback edition of the four plays of William Congreve is very light on scene division, dividing acts into 2 or 3 scenes at most, based on a change of location.

By contrast, the Project Gutenberg online edition – which is itself a facsimile of the edition edited by critic G.S. Street at the very end of the 19th century – indicates the start of a new scene every time the personnel on stage change i.e. when anyone exits or enters. Since people are continually coming and going in Restoration comedies, this means there can be as many as 25 ‘scenes’ in each act.

To begin with I summarised the play just in paragraphs addressing the main plot or character developments. But in Act 4, I switched to using Street’s notation, copying his ‘scene’ numbers, even when they indicated that a character was alone onstage for only a couple of sentences.

I did it as an experiment to see if it makes my text more or less readable. I think it makes it slightly more disjointed and maybe harder to read. On the other hand, it means the reader (you) gets definitive information about who is on stage, or leaving or entering, at every moment of the play.

Which layout do you prefer?

Act 1

Introduces the location – A gallery in the Lord Touchwood’s house, with chambers adjoining – key characters and the set-up. A formal dinner is taking place.

Male characters Mellefont is the male lead. His sidekick is Careless. There is a shallow fop who fails to see how crude and tactless he is, named Brisk. Lord Touchwood, whose home they’re in, is Mellefont’s uncle. Mellefont is engaged to the daughter of Sir Paul Plyant, who is a guest at the dinner. They are scheduled to be married the following morning. Other male guests include the pert coxcomb Brisk and the solemn coxcomb, Lord Froth (‘But there is nothing more unbecoming a man of quality than to laugh; ’tis such a vulgar expression of the passion; everybody can laugh…when I laugh, I always laugh alone.’) And also there is a fellow rake on Mellefont and Careless’s level, Jack Maskwell.

Female characters The ladies attending the dinner are Lord Touchwood’s wife, who has a secret passion for Mellefont. Cynthia, the daughter of Sir Paul Plyant who is engaged to Mellefont. Sir Paul’s wife and Cynthia’s mother, the lascivious Lady Plyant, and the solemn coxcomb Lord Froth’s wife, the pretentious Lady Froth.

The play opens with Mellefont following Careless out into the gallery. Dinner is over. The menfolk are in one room, presumably the dining room, while the women have retired to another room at the end of the gallery for tea and gossip.

Careless is fed up of the men’s guzzling and senseless words and so was going to pay the women a visit. Mellefont catches up with him and says he has something important to tell him but at exactly that moment they are interrupted by Brisk who has also followed Careless from the dining room and now makes a display if thinking himself a grand and clever fellow, using elaborate metaphors which he then points out – which the other two put up with, and the audience laugh at, till he’s dispatched back to the dining room.

It’s very important to all these plays that the lead characters are established as being on an upper plane of wit and sophistication. They all use the same technique to establish this which is to include at least one pretentious, high-falutin and idiotic fop to show how not to do it – how wit and style easily degenerate into clever-clever mannerisms and pretentious speech which at the same time fails to understand what is going on. In a way it’s a most important dynamic than the more obvious one of that between the sexes. Through this simple device the audience is invited to identify with the two clever lead figures (it’s always two, the minimum number which allows dialogue) and to share in their mocking scorn of the stupid fop figure.

The plays are designed to make the audience feel superior and clever.

Mellefont reveals that Lady Touchwood came to his bedroom and made an advance to him, which he rejected, since when she has taken a furious hatred of him and is doing everything she can to undermine his reputation with Sir Paul, his prospective father-in-law. Therefore Mellefont asks Careless if he will woo Lady Plyant to take up her time and ensure she isn’t influenced against the marriage by wicked Lady Touchwood. Lord and Lady Froth will be too busy admiring each other and the idiot Brisk. Mellefont will keep an eye on his uncle, Lord Touchwood, and Jack Maskwell has promised to keep a watch on Lady Touchwood.

But as his name, and the cast list, indicate, Maskwell is ‘a villain’ working directly against Mellefont’s interests, who is prepared to egg on Lady Touchwood’s malice, because he himself is in love with Mellefont’s fiancee, Cynthia. Though Mellefont thinks he is a trusted friend, Careless quickly explains that he (Careless) doesn’t like him (Maskwell) and suspects him of conspiring with his Aunt, Lady Touchwood.

So, in just the first few minutes of the play, Congreve has established all the characters, their relationships, the baddies’ scheme against him and his counter-plan. It reminds me of the game of strategy, Risk. You feel some kind of process flow diagram is required to capture not only the relationships, but the flows of energy, of ‘hate’ and ‘love’ and the elaborate scheming.

The other menfolk join Mellefont and Careless in the gallery, Sir Paul and Lord Touchwood drunk and reel off to see the women, leaving Brisk and Lord Froth to display their pretentiousness and folly to the two male leads e.g. Lord Froth goes to plays solely not to laugh at them and thus mock the authors. Which Careless says is idiotic, and they then debate what is meant by wit. Then go off to join the ladies

Enter Lady Touchwood and Maskwell, in effect The Conspirators. She is livid with him. He is sly. It becomes clear that, on the rebound from Mellefont’s rejection, hot and indignant, she allowed Maskwell to sleep with her, or:

MASKWELL: I pressed the yielding minute, and was blest.

Thus – as Lady Touchwood sees it – degrading her and betraying his patron, Lord Touchwood, her husband, who has sponsored Maskwell’s rise.

At his words Lady Touchwood quickly flares up into a fury, pacing up and down, and Maskwell keeps having to wait for her to calm down. Maskwell shrewdly sees that what lies at the root of her fury is her ongoing unrequited passion for Mellefont. She loves him and hates him at the same time. Maskwell vows to help her by breaking off Mellefont’s match with Cynthia to which she greedily agrees.

Maskwell tells her he has a Cunning Plan. Lady Touchwood must persuade Lady Pliant that Mellefont is secretly in love with her. Do this, and more of the plan will follow… They exeunt.

Act 2

Lady Froth (dim) and Cynthia (Mellefont’s clever fiancée). Froth is comically pretentious and patronising.

LADY FROTH: For sure my Lord Froth … wants nothing but a blue ribbon and a star to make him shine, the very phosphorus of our hemisphere. Do you understand those two hard words? If you don’t, I’ll explain ’em to you.
CYNTHIA: Yes, yes, madam, I’m not so ignorant. —At least I won’t own it, to be troubled with your instructions.  [Aside.]

In this scene Lord and Lady Froth get ample room to display their nauseatingly self-satisfied love for each other, they praise Brisk for his infinite wit, and generally preen and show off to each other. Lady Froth writes, poems and plays, she has even now completed an epic poem titled The Syllabub, a play on words given that her husband’s name is Froth.

These scenes powerfully convey the sense that ‘we’ – the Truly Tasteful – are adrift in a sea of fools.

They push off, leaving the stage to the two young lovers, Mellefont and Cynthia, who proceed to demonstrate that they are intelligent, level headed and, above all, equal in the cut and thrust of witty conversation. They compare marriage to a game of bowls, or a game at cards.

Into this civilised conversation intrude Lord and Lady Plyant, the former hopping mad because he thinks Mellefont is using Cynthia as a pretext (‘a stalking horse’) to seduce his wife, Lady P. Both are outraged and insist on taking Cynthia away from this snake in the grass. Mellefont instantly detects the malign hand of Lady Touchwood.

Leaving Lady Plyant and Mellefont alone. The comedy in this scene comes from the way Lady Plyant starts out outraged and scandalised at what they’ve been told of Mellefont fancying her, but then slowly dwells on the weakness of the flesh, and of course she is attractive, very attractive, and so, well, nature must take its course:

LADY PLYANT: I know love is powerful, and nobody can help his passion. ’Tis not your fault; nor, I swear, it is not mine. How can I help it, if I have charms? And how can you help it, if you are made a captive?

Lady Plyant becomes increasingly confused about her own attitude, then, as other characters approach, flees.

Mellefont soliloquises that this complication – the red herring that Mellefont fancies Lady Plyant – is his aunt’s doing sure enough – yet it is a relatively simple ruse, ‘a trifling design’. Surely there is more behind. A suspicion which echoes Maskwell’s earlier explanation to Lady Touchwood that he has ‘a stronger plot’.

Enter Maskwell. He feigns hearty friendship with Mellefont and proceeds to tell him most of the truth i.e. Lady Touchwood is conspiring against her marriage and has asked him, Maskwell, to be her tool, to conspire to cancel the marriage, in reward for which he, Maskwell, will receive Cynthia.

Mellefont is innocently grateful to ‘his friend’ and asks for details but Maskwell says people are coming. Return in an hour and he will explain everything. Mellefont exits.

Maskwell delivers a soliloquy, much like one of Iago’s soliloquies, explaining his ideology i.e. all’s fair in love and war, and lying and cheating appear the same to the external viewer as truth and honesty.

MASKWELL: Treachery?  What treachery?  Love cancels all the bonds of friendship, and sets men right upon their first foundations.

Most of the poems and songs in these plays are conventional jingles, but he delivers a quatrain which has genuine psychological power:

Why will mankind be fools, and be deceived,
And why are friends’ and lovers’ oaths believed,
When each, who searches strictly his own mind,
May so much fraud and power of baseness find?

Act 3

Lord and Lady Touchwood during which the Lord finds Lady all too quick to believe bad things of Mellefont and wanting to call the marriage off. He suspects her. She moves to overcome this doubt by going on to say that Mellefont made a pass at her too, only a few days ago, it was probably nothing… and so cunningly infuriating Lord Touchwood till he vows to strip Mellefont naked and throw him out in the street. She pushes him into a side room.

Enter Maskwell and he and Lady Touchwell continue with their conspiracy i.e. they must continue to work on Lord Touchwood and not let his anger to Mellefont cool. Maskwell tells her to tell Lord Touchwood that he (Maskwell) is a good friend to Mellefont, but tried to restrain his passion for Lady T, and vowed he would tell Lord T next time Mellefont told him he was about to make another pass at her. Lady Touchwell agrees, but in an aside Maskwell tells the audience this manoeuvre will also allow Maskwell to cheat Lady Touchwood – the person he’s talking to at that moment. What a bad man!

Lady Touchwood departs to continue playing on Lord Touchwood’s anger at Mellefont. They arrange to meet back up at 8pm that night.

Maskwell has a soliloquy in which he thinks aloud how difficult it is to keep up a pretence of passion for Lady Touchwood who now bores him. He makes the cynically unpleasant point that pretending passion is easy enough in the build-up sex, ‘before fruition’ – but afterwards much harder.

Along comes Mellefont and Maskwell outlines a cunning plan to him. He explains that Lady Touchwood – as payment for Maskwell fouling up the marriage of Mellefont and Cynthia – has offered him, Maskwell, her body. He is to go to her apartment at 8pm to ravish her. Now – how about Mellefont comes along a little after and catches them about to have sex? Maskwell will run out a back passage, leaving Mellefont to confront Lady Touchwood with her attempted adultery. She will have to comply with his wishes, and they will be to cease and desist putting obstacles in the way of his marriage to Cynthia.

Mellefont overflows with gratitude to Maskwell, promises to rendezvous with him at 7.45 tonight, Maskwell exits.

Careless joins Mellefont and tells him how his wooing of Lady Plyant is going i.e. he’s struggling, she goes on and on about her virtue, and they both laugh and what a hen-pecked husband she has made out of Lord Plyant.

At which point Lord and Lady Plyant enter. It becomes clearer than ever that Lady P really henpecks, badgers and humiliates her husband in public. A boy brings a letter. He goes to give it to Sir Paul but Lady P insists she receives it. Just one of the ways in which the normal hierarchy of male authority is undermined in their marriage.

While she opens the letter, Sir Paul laments to Careless that he has a fine estate, town houses and so on, but no heir. Surely that is easy to remedy, says Careless. No, alas, replies Sir Paul, his wife will only let him touch her once a year, if then. In fact they go on to describe the way Sir Paul lets himself be swaddled in blankets like a baby before bed-time to render him utterly incapable of movement, let alone seduction.

Presumably this is meant to be comic, and the audience is meant to fall about at Sir Paul’s pathetic figure, but it comes across on the page as rather sad. The comic patter continues to its logical conclusion, which is Lord Plyant wishing Careless could help him to achieve a male heir. Well, says Careless, I may be able to help you out there…

Enter Lord Froth and Cynthia. Lord Froth is the fool who has a downer on anyone laughing, such a vulgar habit! Cynthia humours the old fool.

Boy enters with another note, Sir Paul tries to interrupt Lady Plyant but she is deep in conversation with Careless, who says aside to Lord Plyant that he is managing the matter they talked of – i.e. Sir Paul thinks Careless is somehow wrangling Lady P into having sex with her husband, whereas we realise Careless is chatting her up to at least give her the impression he wants to have sex with her. Or does he want to have sex with her? And is Sir Paul in fact, genuinely encouraging Careless to do so?

Exit Sir Paul. Enter Brisk and Lady Froth. She, if you remember, fancies herself as a writer, so they enter discussing the merits of scenes in her epic poem, a passage designed to expose their ignorance and lack of taste so the audience can laugh at them. They join with Lord Froth in ridiculing some acquaintances, Lady Whiffler, Mr Sneer and Sir Laurence Loud.

In an aside Cynthia says she has realised there’s no-one so stupid as can’t find even stupider people to mock and condemn. She often makes remarks like this, choric comments on the action.

A chair has arrived in which apparently is conveyed Lady Froth’s daughter. It is indicative of her vain pretensions that she has named her daughter Sapho (after the ancient Greek poet) and very publicly claims she can’t be without seeing her every two hours or so. For some reason, giving children pretentious names reminded me of Posy Simmonds’s cartoon strip, Posy, mocking middle class pretensions. Three hundred years separate the two. Nothing really changes.

Act 4

Mellefont and Cynthia. I find them an attractive couple. Neither is cheating or deceiving the other. They speak as complete equals without recourse to all the insults common in Restoration comedy. They contemplate running off and marrying for love, damn the fact that she’s an heiress (aha). Then she says no, but to prove his devotion, she is counting on Mellefont bringing Lady Touchwood to heel.

They exit and give way to Careless and Lady Plyant. If you remember, Mellefont asked his friend Careless to seduce Lady Plyant so as to prevent her listening to and becoming part of Lady Touchwood’s campaign to derail Mellefont’s marriage. This scene is designed to show Lady Plyant’s wordy self-regard, which is quite funny, but the real comedy lies in Careless adopting and exaggerating the rhetoric of a devoted lover, interspersed with exasperated asides to the audience complaining about how difficult it is to keep up this charade.

Finally, after reams of loverly doggerel, Lady Plyant breaks and weeps at his loverly devotion – at which point Careless tells the audience he’s struggling not to burst out laughing. At which point Sir Paul appears with his daughter, Cynthia. Careless quickly hands Lady Plyant a love letter and scarpers.

Now, you may remember that Lady Plyant had caused a great fuss when she accused Mellefont of making a pass at her. Now she changes her tune. Now she declares it was an honest mistake on her part, she believes Mellefont is honourable, and when her husband pushes her on the subject, says she believes so because Mr Careless has told her so. Smart Cynthia immediately see her (step)-mother is in love with Careless, and has changed to her (Cynthia’s) side i.e. supporting the marriage of Cynthia and Mellefont – because Careless has asked her to.

Now Lady Plyant asks for that letter which Sir Paul received in the last act. She wants to read Careless’s love letter under pretence of reading Sir Paul’s. As you might expect it is full of lovey expressions but when she goes to return Sir Paul’s letter to him, she gives him Careless’s love letter by mistake!

Brisk arrives to say there’s music and dancing in the hall and can they please release Cynthia to go dance and also, could Sir Paul send Careless to the dancing if he meets him. Sir Paul promises and exits.

Brisk, by himself, soliloquises, telling us he is love with Lady Froth and fussing and fretting about what to say to her.

Enter Lady Froth for a ridiculous comic scene in which they both declare their love yet mock each other, incapable of taking themselves or the situation seriously. They embrace and at that precise moment her husband, Lord Froth, enters.

Scene VII Thinking quickly, Lady Froth converts the embrace into practicing the country dancing which even now is taking place in the main hall. Lord Froth is momentarily jealous then realises they are dancing and relaxes. A bit. Still suspicious.

The scene contains a particularly crude piece of double entendre. Embroidering on her excuse, Lady Froth asks her husband if he will practice dancing with her.

LADY FROTH: Shall you and I do our close dance, to show Mr. Brisk?
LORD FROTH: No, my dear, do it with him.
LADY FROTH: I’ll do it with him, my lord, when you are out of the way.

You can well imagine the arch way an actress can deliver that line to the audience which roars with laughter, 330 years ago, as today. They all exit.

Scene VIII Enter Lady Plyant and Careless. Now we see the denouement of the mistaken letter gag. Lady P just has time to tell Careless she’s given her husband Careless’s love letter before…

Scene IX he enters, reading the letter which makes it perfectly plain Careless is scheduled to rendezvous with his wife that night and plough her. He is incensed and very bitter that he has spent three years being swaddled up every night, while his wife is all the time arranging for him to become a cuckold.

Scene X However, Careless has had time to come up with a cunning plan and Lady Plyant now enters, asks her husband if he has read this outrageous letter, and turns the tables by asking whether he – Sir Paul – was complicit in this scheme to debauch her? Eh? Eh? And Sir Paul is so hen-pecked that she brilliantly succeeds in persuading him that she is the wronged party, insists she will ask for a divorce. Because of course, Sir Paul did ask Careless to melt his wife, so he feels somehow responsible.

There’s a little exchange which makes it clear that, as punishment, not only will Sir Paul be utterly swaddled again tonight, as usual, but his right hand which is usually kept free so he can… will also be bound in cloths. So he can what? Pee, presumably, Surely. Lady Plyant storms impressively out.

Scene XI Enter Careless. The audience now sees Careless spinning elaborate excuses. He says he tried to talk Lady Plyant into being more amenable to her husband, then pretended to be in love with her and her, then went to the lengths of writing her a love letter. He promises to report back if it has any effect, but laments that she is a tower of chastity! This is an impressive story and Sir Paul falls for it, rejoicing in his wife’s virtue.

Scene XII Mellefont and Maskwell. It’s 7.45pm. Maskwell tells Mellefont to sneak into Lady Touchwood’s chambers so as to be ready to leap out apparently catching her in the act of being unfaithful with Maskwell, thus putting himself in a position to make her stop trying to undermine Mellefont’s marriage. Got it?

Scene XIII Maskwell soliloquises, explaining that he has an ‘after game’ to manipulate the situation further.

Scene XIV Enter Lord Touchwood. Maskwell plays him, playing up to what Lady Touchwood told her husband, namely that Maskwell knew about Mellefont’s wish to ravish Lady Touchwood, but tried to stop him. Maskwell plays the loyal friend who doesn’t want to betray his best friend, but… says he had hoped it was a one-off indiscretion, but now finds Mellefont resolved in his villainy. Prove it! says Lord Touchwood. And now we see why Maskwell has arranged for Mellefont to be in Lady Touchwood’s chambers. Maskwell tells him to meet him 15 minutes hence outside Lady Touchwood’s chamber and he will give the lord the proof he requires. Touchwood agrees and they part.

Scene XV Mellefont hiding, wishes Lord Touchwood were her to see his wife debauched by Maskwell.

Scene XVI Enter Lady Touchwood saying Maskwell is late. She is expecting simply to have sex with him.

Scene XVII Enter Maskwell apologising for being late. They start to kiss, at which moment Mellefont leaps out from behind an arras, Lady Touchwood screams, Maskwell runs out the back door.

Scene XVIII It takes Lady Touchwood a while to calm down during which she and Mellefont converse in a relatively high-flown tragic register, he recommending her to Christian penitence, she talking about hell and damnation. All a bit damned serious, what. Finally they reach the stage Mellefont wants, which is for Lady Touchwood to repent and say she will put no more barriers in the way of Mellefont’s marriage to Cynthia.

Scene XIX Maskwell softly lets Lord Touchwood in through the door.

Scene XX Lady Touchwood sees Lord Touchwood in hiding. Suddenly she realises she can switch the situation to her own advantage. Suddenly she starts struggling with Mellefont and begging him not to ravish her. He thinks she’s gone mad until Lord Touchwood leaps out of hiding and runs towards him with his sword raised.

Lady Touchwood virtuously holds her husband back, claiming Mellefont knows not what he does. Mellefont realises he has destroyed his own case, and becomes almost delirious. [This all feels a lot more like a tragedy than a comedy.] When Touchwood’s back is turned Lady T grins at Mellefont and makes the horn symbol behind her own husband’s back. God, she has totally totally triumphed and Mellefont is driven to paroxysms of frustration as they exeunt.

Scene XXI Mellefont soliloquises with an intensity which recalls Hamlet.

Oh, I could curse my stars, fate, and chance; all causes and accidents of fortune in this life!

Even at this nadir of his fortunes he believes Maskwell is his friend and they had a good plan and it’s just bad luck that it went wrong.

Act 5

Scene I Lady Touchwood is blessing her good fortune that her husband happened to enter the chamber at that moment, Maskwell enthusiastically agreeing, although we know it was his doing.

Scene II Lord Touchwood approaching, Lady T exits. Maskwell has a brief soliloquy saying he will manage Touchwood.

Scene III Seeing Touchwood in earshot Maskwell delivers a fake-honest monologue in which he berates himself for being false to his friend in order to be virtuous and help Lord Touchwood. In case I haven’t emphasises this, remember that Maskwell owes his place in the world, i.e. position and money, to Touchwood’s support.

It works perfectly. Persuaded of his saintly virtue, Touchwood comes forward and declares that he will blast Mellefont from the family, and put Maskwell in his place. Maskwell feigns being overcome and then says there is one last thing to make his happiness complete… Cynthia’s hand in marriage? says Touchwood. He will arrange it with Sir Paul. He exits.

Scene IV Maskwell alone realises a) his scheme has totally succeeded but b) if either Mellefont or Lady Touchwood hear about his betrothal to Cynthia they will both immediately realise he’s been gulling them and will unite against him. He must be cunning. He must mix a lot of truth with his lies. The best deceits are the almost true ones.

No mask like open truth to cover lies,
As to go naked is the best disguise.

Scene V Enter Mellefont and Maskwell makes haste to tell him the complete truth, that Lord Touchwood has appointed Maskwell his heir and affianced him to Cynthia, but claims he wants none of it, and says he has a cunning plan. They go off to find Cynthia.

Scene VI Cut to the scene in which Lord Touchwood tells Lady Touchwood his plan i.e. to make Maskwell his heir and marry him to Cynthia. Lady Touchwood is appalled, specially when Lord T tells her Maskwell himself told him how in love with Cynthia he is. Lady T is furious. The rat!

Scene VII Lady Touchwood alone soliloquises. O villain! This isn’t at all funny, it has real tragic force:

What, have I been bawd to his designs, his property only, a baiting place?  Now I see what made him false to Mellefont.  Shame and distraction!  I cannot bear it, oh! what woman can bear to be a property?  To be kindled to a flame, only to light him to another’s arms; oh! that I were fire indeed that I might burn the vile traitor.

Scene VIII Enter Sir Paul. Lady Touchwood with Lady MacBeth hauteur calls him a fool and a cuckold which feeble Sir Paul takes to be a joke. He wants to find his wife to discuss the revolution in events i.e. Touchwood disinheriting Mellefont and replacing him with Maskwell. Lady T tells him that if he allows for the cancellation of the marriage and raising of Maskwell, she will tear his eyes out! He thinks she’s mad and goes off to find his wife to discuss the fate of their daughter (Cynthia).

Scene IX Maskwell reveals his cunning plan to Cynthia and Mellefont which is to arrange to borrow Lord Touchwood’s coach and six and elope with Cynthia, and the family chaplain to marry them. Or at least tell Touchwood that’s the only way he can gain Cynthia. He assures Mellefont he’s not actually going to do it – though of course he is.

Maskwell tells Mellefont that he, Mellefont, will dress up as the chaplain so the whole thing will be under his control. Both he and Cynthia are bamboozled by the complexity of the double bluff of the plan (as was I) but Mellefont agrees to meet in my lady’s dressing chamber. Mellefont exits.

Scene X Maskwell tells Cynthia he’s had second thoughts, He’ll meet her in the chaplain’s chamber on the corner of the gallery. She agrees but says you must tell Mellefont. Of course I will, says Maskwell, lying. She exits.

Scene XI Maskwell soliloquises the deep down the deceived want to be deceived. He told them exactly what the plan is yet neither of them smelt a rat. Now to recruit the chaplain or, as they seem to have been called in the aristocratic cant of the day, the ‘Levite’, in this case a Mr Saygrace.

Scene XII He knocks on the door of Mr Saygrace who opens it. There is some comedy about the chaplain’s garrulity but Maskwell now explains the plot. He has paid Saygrace to provide a clerical suit but sewn up the sleeves. They’ll now send the suit to Mellefont’s rooms. While he struggles to get into it Cynthia will arrive back, the room will be kept dark and Cynthia will be persuaded that Saygrace is really Mellefont. And so will accompany Maskwell down to the carriage and so be carried away and married against her will.

Saygrace is a small but perfectly formed example of the claim that Congreve gives every one of his characters distinctive speech patterns, e.g:

MASKWELL: Have you stitched the gown sleeve, that Mellefont may be puzzled, and waste time in putting it on?
SAYGRACE: I have: the gown will not be indued without perplexity.

Scene XIII Maskwell is with Lord Touchwood who tells him something has triggered Lady Touchwood and she has gone mad with rage, something about him, Maskwell. Damn, Maskwell had feared just this possibility – she’s realised how he has used her. Lord Touchwood is irked that his wife is disobeying him and wishes Maskwell’s marriage could be signed and sealed this evening. This falls perfectly into Maskwell’s wishes and he tells Lord Touchwood he has a cunning plan…

Scene XIV Enter Careless and Cynthia. Careless has seen and overheard just enough to realise Maskwell is concocting some wicked plan.

Scene XV Enter Mellefont, joining Careless and Cynthia. Careless tells him Maskwell is a villain and intends to betray him. Mellefont refuses to believe it. They all see Saygrace leaving his room with a bundle under his arm and the two men follow him.

Scene XVI Leaving Cynthia to encounter Lord Touchwood. Touchwood is musing to himself, surprised that Maskwell had such an intricate plan already worked out, and had arranged it with the chaplain. When she overhears the word chaplain, Cynthia really realises something is wrong. She begins to tell Lord Touchwood that here is betrayal but at that moment they hear the voices of Maskwell and Lady Touchwood from a nearby room.

Scene XVII Touchwood and Cynthia hide and witness the following scene: Lady Touchwood is so outraged by Maskwell’s betrayal she is holding a dagger and prepares to strike. But his impassive confident smile disarms her, she drops it and starts weeping, saying she never could resist him. Lord Touchwood is stupefied.

Lady Touchwood tells him why she was so angry – because she heard he was to marry Cynthia. Maskwell asks her how could he, who had enjoyed bliss in her arms, possibly choose any other woman? Listening to this Lord Touchwood splutters and chokes with anger.

Maskwell now tells Lady Touchwood that the entire plan has been to please her and prove faithful to her. How so? Well, explains Maskwell, he has told Mellefont to meet them in my lady’s dressing chamber. Well, Lady Touchwood should be there disguised as Cynthia, and accompany him down the stairs. When he realises it is her not Cynthia, he will be in her power and she can force him to love her. And if he won’t, she can stab him in the heart – and Maskwell gives her the dagger! He tells her to run and change. She is amazed at the cunning of his villainy and runs off.

Scene XVIII Maskwell soliloquises, overheard by Cynthia and Touchwood. He congratulates himself on his quick thinking and hopes out loud that Cynthia is ready at the meeting place. (She’s not; she’s still hidden onstage overhearing everything along with Lord Touchwood.) And exits.

Scene XIX Cynthia and Touchwood emerge from their hiding place. Touchwood is beside himself with rage and mortification. His wife the adulterer and Maskwell the villain! He vows to forgive Mellefont and to humiliate the baddies. Let’s round up the entire cast, he says, and bring them back here. Exeunt.

Scene XX A funny scene in which dim Sir Paul explains everything is topsy-turvy to Lord Froth who’s been having a nap. What’s topsy-turvy asks Froth, my wife? No no, says Sir Paul, she’s in the garden with Brisk. Doing what? Laying their heads together? What? Writing poetry, my lord, making couplets. WHAT? So it’s a little bit of comic relief between the tragic outbursts and the final scene.

Scene XXI Enter Lady Froth and Brisk, greeting her husband and unwittingly continuing the rude double entendres when she says she has been lying on her back in the garden studying the stars. Has she now?

Scene XXII Enter Lady Plyant, Cynthia and Careless i.e. almost the entire cast is assembled. Careless is explaining to Lady Plyant about the conspiracy they have discovered, she says Oh my Lord are all men so fickle and Careless gallantly replies, ‘Madam, you have charms to fix inconstancy’, to which she blushes.

Scene XXIII At that moment there is a loud shriek and Lady Touchwood comes running onstage pursued by her husband dressed as a curate. They struggle, she breaks free and runs away.

LORD TOUCHWOOD: Go, and thy own infamy pursue thee.

Scene XXIV Enter Mellefont dragging Maskwell. He accuses him to his face, contemns him, but Maskwell (like Iago) says nothing. Touchwood orders his servants to seize him. This is all very tragic and Shakespearian. Congreve brings off a nice little bit of comic repartee right at the end of the play, for the assembled fops and fools are of course astonished by what they’re witnessing.

BRISK: This is all very surprising, let me perish.
LADY FROTH: You know I told you Saturn looked a little more angry than usual.

That made me laugh out loud. But the whole thing suddenly ends. Lord Touchwood says, Mellefont I forgive you, and tells everyone to be merry.

LORD TOUCHWOOD: We’ll think of punishment at leisure, but let me hasten to do justice in rewarding virtue and wronged innocence. Nephew, I hope I have your pardon, and Cynthia’s.
MELLEFONT: We are your lordship’s creatures.
LORD TOUCHWOOD: And be each other’s comfort. Let me join your hands. Unwearied nights, and wishing days attend you both; mutual love, lasting health, and circling joys, tread round each happy year of your long lives.

Well, yes, but mainly No, no they can’t because the tone has become intense and serious and a few cheerful words cannot undo the generally dark tendency of the previous few hours.

Aspects of The Double Dealer

The Plot

I can see why the play was not a success, but it’s not, I think, from the ‘experimental’ unity-of-place aspects. Instead it’s the plot. It feels like everything has been sacrificed to the fiendishly complex set of interlocking schemes, which continually escalate in invention and complexity until, as Lord Touchwood says:

I am confounded when I look back, and want a clue to guide me through the various mazes of unheard-of treachery.

It feels like so much energy went into mapping out these plots and stratagems that none was left over for the comedy. Comedy comes in numerous forms, but 1. the play has no dominating comic figure such as the great Widow Blackacre in William Wycherley’s The Plain Dealer or the awesome Lord Foppington in John Vanbrugh’s play The Relapse. And 2. there are surprisingly few comic situations. Instead the core situations are often quite serious, and the comically dim characters – weak-willed Sir Paul Plyant and his bossy wife, and the absurdly pretentious Lady Froth and her giggling husband Lord Froth, plus the idiot fop Brisk – are simply wheeled on at regular intervals to plaster over the more serious foundations.

In other words, the comedy doesn’t very often arise from the plot or situations, but feels bolted on, almost as an afterthought.

Tragedy not comedy

The other really obvious element which undermines its enjoyment as a comedy is that quite a lot of it deals with genuine, extreme and tragic emotions, which are expressed in extreme tragic rhetoric. When Lady Touchwood goes to stab Maskless she is in real emotional agony:

LADY TOUCH: Ha! Do you mock my rage? Then this shall punish your fond, rash contempt. [Goes to strike.]

When Lord Touchwood realises a) how Maskwell has played him but even worse b) how his wife has been unfaithful to him with one man and is planning to do it again with another, he is in real torment.

LORD TOUCHWOOD: Astonishment binds up my rage!  Villainy upon villainy!  Heavens, what a long track of dark deceit has this discovered!  I am confounded when I look back, and want a clue to guide me through the various mazes of unheard-of treachery.  My wife!  Damnation!  My hell!

Maskwell has more in common with a tragic villain such as Iago than a comic character like Lord Foppington, and he sets the tone which, despite various comic interludes, ends up feeling really quite dark and intense.

Tragic register

Extreme words and expressions predominate.

Hell Almost from the start Hell is invoked, Mellefont describes the hell in Lady Touchwood’s imagination (‘hell is not more busy than her brain, nor contains more devils than that imagination); it is a frequent ejaculation (‘Hell and damnation!’, ‘Confusion and hell!’, ‘Hell and the devil!’, ‘Hell and amazement!’

Villain I associate the word ‘villain’ with Hamlet:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,–meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;

The word villain occurs 11 times in all of Hamlet, but 26 times in The Double Dealer.

Devil 16 times.

But it’s the way this tragic vocabulary is combined into firebreathingly earnest speeches:

LADY TOUCHWOOD: Death, do you dally with my passion?  Insolent devil!  But have a care,—provoke me not; for, by the eternal fire, you shall not ’scape my vengeance.  Calm villain!  How unconcerned he stands, confessing treachery and ingratitude!  Is there a vice more black?  Oh, I have excuses thousands for my faults; fire in my temper, passions in my soul, apt to ev’ry provocation, oppressed at once with love, and with despair.  But a sedate, a thinking villain, whose black blood runs temperately bad, what excuse can clear?


Right at the start Mellefont tells Careless that, provoked, Lady Touchwood made a run for his sword to do him or herself an injury. Later Lady Touchwood threatens to stab Maskwell. Maskwell gives her back the dagger so she can stab Mellefont. Lord Touchwood has to be restrained from drawing his sword and stabbing Mellefont when he thinks the latter has deflowered his wife, threatening to write the word ‘villain’ in his face with the tip of his sword!

Divorces not marriages

Comedies generally end in marriages, and this one sort of does, but the over-riding impression is of the catastrophic collapse of Lord Touchwood’s marriage, which dominates everything else, and finds echoes in Brisk’s adultery with Lady Froth and Lady Plyant’s verging on the edge of adultery with Careless.

Normally in these plays, one marriage at most is adulterated and its failure is outnumbered by two or so happy new marriages at the end. In this play the almost certain adultery of three marriages just outweighs the supposedly happy marriage which concludes it.


In fact, now I come to review the play, the theme of incest is almost more prevalent than marriage.

1. Mellefont is Lord Touchwood’s nephew. That means that, when Touchwood is led to believe Mellefont has been sleeping with Lady Touchwood it meant he was having sex with his own aunt – which was, in those times, considered incest – a crime she makes the most of when she play acts that Mellefont is ravishing her for the benefit of Lord Touchwood who has just entered the room:

LADY TOUCHWOOD: I’ll grow to the ground, be buried quick beneath it, e’er I’ll be consenting to so damned a sin as incest! unnatural incest!

2. Cynthia is Sir Paul Plyant’s daughter. Her mother died and Sir Paul remarried, so the current Lady Plyant is Cynthia’s step-mother. In other words, early in the play when Lady Plyant is led to believe that Mellefont wants to sleep with her, she stretches a point to claim that sleeping with your fiancée’s step-mother is incest:

LADY PLYANT: Oh, the impiety of it… and the unparalleled wickedness! O merciful Father! How could you think to reverse nature so, to make the daughter the means of procuring the mother?
MELLEFONT: The daughter to procure the mother!
LADY PLYANT: Ay, for though I am not Cynthia’s own mother, I am her father’s wife, and that’s near enough to make it incest.

Sir Paul Plyant and Lady Touchwood are brother and sister, tying the family relationships even tighter together. This sense of the characters forming a close-knit circle is a kind of geneological counterpart to the unity of place. It is a kind of unity of family which helps to make the play feel claustrophobic, as if it is all taking place within one family. It isn’t, but sometimes it feels as if it is.


Lord Touchwood is Mellefont’s Uncle. The accusation of incest keeps recurring. The keyword ‘villain’ is repeated. That, along with the frequent drawing of swords, reminds me more than ever of Hamlet. As does the unity of place – the claustrophobic castle at Elsinor and the claustrophobic gallery of Lord Touchwood’s house. And as does the frequent hiding in order to hear characters make key confessions – as Polonius hides behind an arras or Hamlet comes across Claudius praying, and as Touchwood sees the scene where Lady Touchwood pretends to be ravished, or Cynthia and Touchwood hide and finally discover the truth about Lady T and Maskwell.

Not the plot – the mood are sometimes cognate.

A family alliance

In fact in his introduction to the Penguin edition, Eric Rump points out that the marriage of Mellefont and Cynthia will not only unite two families but save them. It is made plain that Sir Paul Plyant has no male heir, only a daughter (Cynthia) and the way his second wife treats him, is unlikely to have any more children, while it is equally clear that Lord Touchwood, though blessed with properties, has no heir at all which is why he has adopted his nephew Mellefont as heir.

In other words, without the marriage, both families will go extinct. So there’s more than just money and a pretty woman riding on the marriage. There is the survival of two lineages, which explains Lord Touchwood’s outburst when Cynthia casually says she has vowed never to marry if she can’t marry Mellefont:

SIR PAUL: Never to marry! Heavens forbid! must I neither have sons nor grandsons? Must the family of the Plyants be utterly extinct for want of issue male? O impiety!

In which case:

All were ruined, all my hopes lost. My heart would break, and my estate would be left to the wide world.

A plight which will, presumably, have carried more weight and been more readily understandable to its original audience 330 years ago.


And that brings me to another of the ways the play was experimental which is the large number of soliloquies it contains. In other Restoration comedies plenty of characters give little asides directly to the audience, but this is different. An ‘aside’ is almost always comic, whereas a soliloquy or dramatic monologue is almost always serious and, in this play, often very serious, Machiavellian and wicked.

The widespread use of soliloquy is another way in which the play feels like it’s using the language, the tone and techniques more associated with tragedy than comedy.

In fact the extensive use of soliloquy was singled out by commentators on the play for criticism, and Congreve goes to some lengths to defend it in the dedicatory epistle. He argues that a man alone talking to himself is generally a bad sign in life, but that a man thinking – weighing the pros and cons of an action – cannot be conveyed any other way onstage except through the medium of words. The audience cannot sit and watch a man doing nothing but think silently for 3 or 4 minutes. Therefore soliloquy must be allowed, or as Congreve drolly puts it, the playwright is ‘forced to make use of the expedient of speech, no other better way being yet invented for the communication of thought’.

And he makes the additional point about soliloquy that it tends to depict a character who’s contemplating criminal or anti-social activity. If a character is in love or anxious or afraid, they can easily share these feelings with a confidant – and hence most of the lead characters in Restoration comedy come accompanied by a confidant and a lot of the text consists of lead and confidant sharing thoughts, analysing the situation and so on.

But if a character is contemplating a crime, or a scheme whereby he or she plans to deceive some or all of the other characters, then by its very nature the character has to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Thus the surprising ubiquity of soliloquy in The Double Dealer is not a wilful experiment, it reflects the fact that two of the central characters – Maskwell and Lady Touchwood – spend a great deal of time devising schemes and then evaluating their schemes. It reflects the high proportion of ‘villainy’ in the text.

And pondering all this has made me understand better why soliloquy is more often found in tragedy – where wicked characters such as Iago or Macbeth are scheming – than in comedy – where the mere fact that you have characters joking about themselves or others requires dialogue.

So the mere existence of soliloquies in a play is a good indication of its fundamentally tragic nature. And the number of soliloquies in this play indicate that beneath all the (often very funny) comic scenes, lurks a fundamentally serious plot structure.

The happy couple

A final peculiarity is that the (often deeply buried) motor of the plot is the planned marriage of Mellefont and Cynthia which Maskwell’s malignancy is devoted to spiking. And yet the happy couple are very rarely on stage alone together, only two or three times and each one relatively brief.

In other words, the central relationship the whole narrative is meant to be about, is only very thinly sketched in. Eric Rump describes it as having a certain ‘autumnal feeling’ about it. And this is another reason why it pales into insignificance compared to the twin infidelities of Lady Touchwood and her towering tragic rages, which carry vastly more dramatic weight.

I can see why it ‘failed’. It’s a tragedy masquerading as a comedy. There are quite a few really funny scenes and moments in it – Brisk and Lady Froth converting a passionate embrace into a dancing lesson springs to mind, Careless brilliantly explaining away the love letter to his wife which was enraging Sir Paul, and Brisk’s nonchalant comment right at the end – but there are also howling rages, threats of murder and violence, references to incest, and it ends with a woman running howling offstage, an honourable marriage in ruins, and a Machiavellian villain dragged off virtually in chains.

And I can see why Congreve was cross that it failed and defends himself at more than usual length in the dedicatory epistle to the printed version. He had put a lot of effort into it. He was trying to do something new. He was hurt that carping critics attacked almost every aspect of his play.

Anyway, once bitten… In his third play he returned to a purity of comic tone and to the trusted comic techniques, which helped make it one of his best.


Having noticed Congreve’s stylish use of metaphors in The Old Bachelor, I was alert for them in this play, such as Careless’s casual military metaphor:

CARELESS: So you have manned your works; but I wish you may not have the weakest guard where the enemy is strongest.

Describing Maskwell’s faithlessness uses metaphors of gardening:

CARELESS: His affection to you, you have confessed, is grounded upon his interest, that you have transplanted; and should it take root in my lady, I don’t see what you can expect from the fruit.

This ability to choose an appropriate metaphor and then to extend it gracefully, is a sign of wit, and a sign of fools is that their analogies or metaphors are graceless or inappropriate. Here is Lady Plyant mixing her metaphors with laughable effect (and being complimented on it by her doting husband):

LADY PLYANT: Have I behaved myself with all the decorum and nicety befitting the person of Sir Paul’s wife?  Have I preserved my honour as it were in a snow-house for these three years past? Have I been white and unsullied even by Sir Paul himself?
SIR PAUL: Nay, she has been an invincible wife, even to me; that’s the truth on’t.
LADY PLYANT: Have I, I say, preserved myself like a fair sheet of paper for you to make a blot upon?
SIR PAUL: And she shall make a simile with any woman in England.

Whereas cognoscenti like Mellefont and Maskwell are masters of the extended metaphor:

MELLEFONT: Maskwell, welcome, thy presence is a view of land, appearing to my shipwrecked hopes. The witch has raised the storm, and her ministers have done their work: you see the vessels are parted.
MASKWELL: I know it. I met Sir Paul towing away Cynthia.  Come, trouble not your head; I’ll join you together ere to-morrow morning, or drown between you in the attempt.
MELLEFONT: There’s comfort in a hand stretched out to one that’s sinking

Useful phrases

When Lady Touchwood picks up a suggestion of Maskwell’s and adds an improvement, Maskwell says admiringly:

Excellent! Your ladyship has a most improving fancy.

‘You have a most improving fancy.’ I’d love to say that to someone in real life.

Radio production

Related links

Reviews of Restoration plays

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary for the rest of the interwar period, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for the Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács was fortunate enough to survive – unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the end of the Second World War Lukács was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse philosophical phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority, Lukács was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again Lukács had experienced at first hand the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957 on the condition that he abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and on this basis was allowed to keep his academic posts, to continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the clarity with which he presents his premises and works through the ideas and theories which support his case.

Lukács begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the nineteenth century, which paid more attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism, when applied to society by right-wing theorists, could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, while late-Victorian socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Émile Zola (1840 to 1902) was the chief exponent of Naturalism. He regarded his novels as sociological experiments. In Lukács’s opinion, Zola abandoned the tricky balance which the realist novelists maintained between character and ‘type’, in favour of the latter: he created countless social types, which helps explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century (during the 1890s) a shoal of literary movements developed which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity. Modernism turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot, Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into mumbling vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these Modernist works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because:

  1. it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points
  2. it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition so which we Brits are not very familiar with
  3. it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas


There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Lukács compares and contrasts Joyce and Woolf’s approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is also stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar (1939). Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, when he uses stream of consciousness it is as a tool to help particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static Modernism versus dynamic Realism

Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic has pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism

A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobilise and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their backs on a healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap for Modernists, in Lukács’s view, to pass from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

  1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness, Beckett’s monads)
  2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self – a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely a record of the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

As Lukács puts it:

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (page 24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (page 26)

Heidegger versus Hegel

In this context, Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, that human beings have been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which have been promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (page 38)

By contrast, Lukács goes back to the origins of Western philosophy to invoke the fundamental insight of one of its founders – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight recurs in various Western thinkers and finds its fullest modern embodiment in the vast system of Georg Hegel (1770 to 1831) who, in the early nineteenth century, applies his theoretical model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch and the Great Reform Bill, War and Peace and the Napoleonic War).

It is the realist’s interest in the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment – from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn – which gives us a fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, Lukács goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (whereas you can, for example, have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (page 54)

So much for the Realist worldview, then.

The Modernist, on the other hand, rejects all this. More often than not Modernist characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad. Lukács points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, trapped in the cage of their solipsism, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, or of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities.

Details are chosen not to highlight the characters’ representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted (Faulkner), or barely exists (Joyce), or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or an entry-level fridge freezer, page 53)

In a striking manoeuvre Lukács invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. In other words, one of the major planks of thought underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on generalisations from the morbid and the unnatural (page 30).

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (page 36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction –which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he selected with absolute genius in order to convey his crushing sense of the utter, paralysing futility and nonsense of existence.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pages 44 to 45).



This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a very clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable, as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s doctrine of Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of these aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.


However, all this good stuff is in the first part of the book. As the book progresses an increasingly more dogmatic tone emerges. What are at first scattered references early in the book to the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into a sustained political polemic. Lukács links his concept of the Good Realist writer directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, Lukács explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism, which is clearly not true, think of Kafka, and Joyce and Faulkner.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by dropping the insights of the early part in order to make a direct and crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and current developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring. When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (page 77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude, and I immediately thought of counter-arguments:

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police or, indeed, Stalin’s Russia.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless, useless bureaucracy lampooned in his books is precisely not that of snappily efficient America or dogmatically thorough Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home with startling force.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a communist commissar like himself – and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments like this in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács – at one moment, immensely rewarding, at the next genuinely disgusting.

Related links

Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Marx and communism

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution

Communism in England

A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes by Stephen Hawking (1988)

The whole history of science has been the gradual realisation that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order. (p.122)

This book was a publishing phenomenon when it was published in 1988. Nobody thought a book of abstruse musings about obscure theories of cosmology would sell, but it became a worldwide bestseller, selling more than 10 million copies in 20 years. It was on the London Sunday Times bestseller list for more than five years and was translated into 35 languages by 2001. So successful that Hawking went on to write seven more science books on his own, and co-author a further five.

Accessible As soon as you start reading you realise why. From the start is it written in a clear accessible way and you are soon won over to the frank, sensible, engaging tone of the author. He tells us he is going to explain things in the simplest way possible, with an absolute minimum of maths or equations (in fact, the book famously includes only one equation E = mc²).

Candour He repeatedly tells us that he’s going to explain things in the simplest possible way, and the atmosphere is lightened when Hawking – by common consent one of the great brains of our time – confesses that he has difficulty with this or that aspect of his chosen subject. (‘It is impossible to imagine a four-dimensional space. I personally find it hard enough to visualise three-dimensional space!’) We are not alone in finding it difficult!

Historical easing Also, like most of the cosmology books I’ve read, it takes a deeply historical view of the subject. He doesn’t drop you into the present state of knowledge with its many accompanying debates i.e. at the deep end. Instead he takes you back to the Greeks and slowly, slowly introduces us to their early ideas, showing why they thought what they thought, and how the ideas were slowly disproved or superseded.

A feel for scientific change So, without the reader being consciously aware of the fact, Hawking accustoms us to the basis of scientific enquiry, the fundamental idea that knowledge changes, and from two causes: from new objective observations, often the result of new technologies (like the invention of the telescope which enabled Galileo to make his observations) but more often from new ideas and theories being worked out, published and debated.

Hawking’s own contributions There’s also the non-trivial fact that, from the mid-1960s onwards, Hawking himself has made a steadily growing contribution to some of the fields he’s describing. At these points in the story, it ceases to be an objective history and turns into a first-person account of the problems as he saw them, and how he overcame them to develop new theories. It is quite exciting to look over his shoulder as he explains how and why he came up with the new ideas that made him famous. There are also hints that he might have trodden on a few people’s toes in the process, for those who like their science gossipy.

Thus it is that Hawking starts nice and slow with the ancient Greeks, with Aristotle and Ptolemy and diagrams showing the sun and other planets orbiting round the earth. Then we are introduced to Copernicus, who first suggested the planets orbit round the sun, and so on. With baby steps he takes you through the 19th century idea of the heat death of the universe, on to the discovery of the structure of the atom at the turn of the century, and then gently introduces you to Einstein’s special theory of relativity of 1905. (The special theory of relativity doesn’t take account of gravity, the general theory of relativity of 1915, does, take account of gravity).

Chapter 1 Our Picture of the Universe (pp.1-13)

Aristotle thinks earth is stationary. Calculates size of the earth. Ptolemy. Copernicus. In 1609 Galileo starts observing Jupiter using the recently invented telescope. Kepler suggests the planets move in ellipses not perfect circles. 1687 Isaac newton publishes Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy) ‘probably the most important single work ever published in the physical sciences’, among many other things postulating a law of universal gravity. One implication of Newton’s theory is that the universe is vastly bigger than previously conceived.

In 1823 Heinrich Olbers posited his paradox which is, if the universe is infinite, the night sky out to be as bright as daylight because the light from infinite suns would reach us. Either it is not infinite or it has some kind of limit, possibly in time i.e. a beginning. The possible beginning or end of the universe were discussed by Immanuel Kant in his obscure work A Critique of Pure Reason  (1781). Various other figures debated variations on this theme until in 1929 Edwin Hubble made the landmark observation that, wherever you look, distant galaxies are moving away from us i.e. the universe is expanding. Working backwards from this observation led physicists to speculate that the universe was once infinitely small and infinitely dense, in a state known as a singularity, which must have exploded in an event known as the big bang.

He explains what a scientific theory is:

A theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make… A theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: it must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predictions about the results of future observations.

A theory is always provisional. The more evidence proving it, the stronger it gets. But it only takes one good negative observation to disprove a theory.

Today scientists describe the universe in terms of two basic partial theories – the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. They are the great intellectual achievements of the first half of this century.

But they are inconsistent with each other. One of the major endeavours of modern physics is to try and unite them in a quantum theory of gravity.

Chapter 2 Space and Time (pp.15-34)

Aristotle thought everything in the universe was naturally at rest. Newton disproved this with his first law – whenever a body is not acted on by any force it will keep on moving in a straight line at the same speed. Newton’s second law stats that, When a body is acted on by a force it will accelerate or change its speed at a rate that is proportional to the force. Newton’s law of gravity states that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres. But like Aristotle, Newton believed all the events he described took place in a kind of big static arena named absolute space, and that time was an absolute constant. The speed of light was also realised to be a constant. In 1676 Danish astronomer Ole Christensen estimated the speed of light to be 140,000 miles per second. We now know it is 186,000 miles per second. In the 1860s James Clerk Maxwell unified the disparate theories which had been applied to magnetism and electricity.

In 1905 Einstein published his theory of relativity. It is derived not from observation but from Einstein working through in his head the consequences and shortcomings of the existing theories. Newton had posited a privileged observer, someone outside the universe who was watching it as if a play on a stage. From this privileged position a number of elements appeared constant, such as time.

Einstein imagines a universe in which there is no privileged outside point of view. We are all inside the universe and all moving. The theory threw up a number of consequences. One is that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared, or E = mc². Another is that nothing may travel faster than the speed of light. Another is that, as an object approaches the speed of light its mass increases. One of its most disruptive ideas is that time is relative. Different observes, travelling at different speeds, will see a beam of light travel take different times to travel a fixed distance. Since Einstein has made it axiomatic that the speed of light is fixed, and we know the distance travelled by the light is fixed, then time itself must appear different to different observers. Time is something that can change, like the other three dimensions. Thus time can be added to the existing three dimensions to create space-time.

The special theory of relativity was successful in explaining how the speed of light appears the same to all observers, and describing what happens to things when they move close to the speed of light. But it was inconsistent with Newton’s theory of gravity which says objects attract each other with a force related to the distance between them. If you move on of the objects the force exerted on the other object changes immediately. This cannot be if nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, as the special theory of relativity postulates. Einstein spent the ten or so years from 1905 onwards attempting to solve this difficulty. Finally, in 1915, he published the general theory of relativity.

The revolutionary basis of this theory is that space is not flat, a consistent  continuum or Newtonian stage within which events happen and forces interact in a sensible way. Space-time is curved or warped by the distribution of mass or energy within it, and gravity is a function of this curvature. Thus the earth is not orbiting around the sun in a circle, it is following a straight line in warped space.

The mass of the sun curves space-time in such a way that although the earth follows a straight line in four-dimensional pace-time, it appears to us to move along a circular orbit in three-dimensional space. (p.30)

In fact, at a planetary level Einstein’s maths is only slightly different from Newton’s but it predicts a slight difference in the orbit of Mercury which observations have gone on to prove. Also, the general theory predicts that light will bend, following a straight line but through space that is warped or curved by gravity. Thus the light from a distant star on the far side of the sun will bend as it passes close to the sun due to the curvature in space-time caused by the sun’s mass. And it was an expedition to West Africa in 1919 to observe an eclipse, which showed that light from distant stars did in fact bend slightly as it passed the sun, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory.

Newton’s laws of motion put an end to the idea of absolute position in space. The theory of relativity gets rid of absolute time.

Hence the thought experiment popularised by a thousand science fiction books that astronauts who set off in a space ship which gets anywhere near the speed of light will experience a time which is slower than the people they leave behind on earth.

In the theory of relativity there is no unique absolute time, but instead each individual has his own personal measure of time that depends on where he is and how he is moving. (p.33)

Obviously, since most of us are on planet earth, moving at more or less the same speed, everyone’s personal ‘times’ coincide. Anyway, the key central implication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity is this:

Before 1915, space and time were thought of as a fixed arena in which events took place, but which was not affected by what happened in it. This was true even of the special theory of relativity. Bodies moved, forces attracted and repelled, but time and space simply continued, unaffected. It was natural to think that space and time went on forever.

the situation, however, is quite different in the general theory of relativity. Space and time are now dynamic quantities. : when a body moves, or a force acts, it affects the curvature of space and time – and in turn the structure of space-time affects the way in which bodies move and forces act. Space and time not only affect but also are affected by everything that happens in the universe. (p.33)

This view of the universe as dynamic and interacting, by demolishing the old eternal static view, opened the door to a host of new ways of conceiving how the universe might have begun and might end.

Chapter 3 The Expanding Universe (pp.35-51)

Our modern picture of the universe dates to 1924 when American astronomer Edwin Hubble demonstrated that ours is not the only galaxy. We now know the universe is home to some hundred million galaxies, each containing some hundred thousand million stars. We live in a galaxy that is about one hundred thousand light-years across and is slowly rotating. Hubble set about cataloguing the movement of other galaxies and in 1929 published his results which showed that they are all moving away from us, and that, the further away a galaxy is, the faster it is moving.

The discovery that the universe is expanding was one of the great intellectual revolutions of the twentieth century. (p.39)

From Newton onwards there was a universal assumption that the universe was infinite and static. Even Einstein invented a force he called ‘the cosmological constant’ in order to counter the attractive power of gravity and preserve the model of a static universe. It was left to Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann to seriously calculate what the universe would look like if it was expanding.

In 1965 two technicians, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at Bell Telephone Laboratories discovered a continuous hum of background radiation coming from all parts of the sky. This echoed the theoretical work being done by two physicists, Bob Dicke and Jim Peebles, who were working on a suggestion made by George Gamow that the early universe would have been hot and dense. They posited that we should still be able to see the light from this earliest phase but that it would, because the redshifting, appear as radiation. Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987.

How can the universe be expanding? Imagine blowing up a balloon with dots (or little galaxies) drawn on it: they all move apart from each other and the further apart they are, the larger the distance becomes; but there is no centre to the balloon. Similarly the universe is expanding but not into anything. There is no outside. If you set out to travel to the edge you would find no edge but instead find yourself flying round the periphery and end up back where you began.

There are three possible states of a dynamic universe. Either 1. it will expand against the contracting force of gravity until the initial outward propulsive force is exhausted and gravity begins to win; it will stop expanding, and start to contract. Or 2. it is expanding so fast that the attractive, contracting force of gravity never wins, so the universe expands forever and matter never has time to clump together into stars and planets. Or 3. it is expanding at just the right speed to escape collapsing back in on itself, but but so fast as to make the creation of matter impossible. This is called the critical divide. Physicists now believe the universe is expanding at just around the value of the critical divide, though whether it is just under or just above (i.e. the universe will eventually cease expanding, or not) is not known.

Dark matter We can calculate the mass of all the stars and galaxies in the universe and it is a mystery that our total is only about a hundredth of the mass that must exist to explain the gravitational behaviour of stars and galaxies. In other words, there must a lot of ‘dark matter’ which we cannot currently detect in order for the universe to be shaped the way it is.

So we don’t know what the likely future of the universe is (endless expansion or eventual contraction) but all the Friedmann models do predict that the universe began in an infinitely dense, infinitely compact, infinitely hot state – the singularity.

Because mathematics cannot really handle infinite numbers, this means that the general theory of relativity… predicts that there is a point in the universe where the theory itself breaks down… In fact, all our theories of science are formulated on the assumption that space-time is smooth and nearly flat, so they break down at the big bang singularity, where the curvature of space-time is infinite. (p.46)

Opposition to the theory came from Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle who formulated the steady state theory of the universe i.e. it has always been and always will be. All that is needed to explain the slow expansion is the appearance of new particles to keep it filled up, but the rate is very low (about one new particle per cubic kilometre per year). They published it in 1948 and worked through all its implications for the next few decades, but it was killed off as a theory by the 1965 observations of the cosmic background radiation.

He then explains the process whereby he elected to do a PhD expanding Roger Penrose’s work on how a dying star would collapse under its own weight to a very small size. The collaboration resulted in a joint 1970 paper which proved that there must have been a big bang, provided only that the theory of general relativity is correct, and the universe contains as much matter as we observe.

If the universe really did start out as something unimaginably small then, from the 1970s onwards, physicists turned their investigations to what happens to matter at microscopic levels.

Chapter 4 The Uncertainty Principle (pp.53-61)

1900 German scientist Max Planck suggests that light, x-rays and other waves can only be emitted at an arbitrary wave, in packets he called quanta. He theorised that the higher the frequency of the wave, the more energy would be required. This would tend to restrict the emission of high frequency waves. In 1926 Werner Heisenberg expanded on these insights to produce his Uncertainty Principle. In order to locate a particle in order to measure its position and velocity you need to shine a light on it. One has to use at least one quantum of energy. However, exposing the particle to this quantum will disturb the velocity of the particle.

In other words, the more accurately you try to measure the position of the particle, the less accurately you can measure its speed, and vice versa. (p.55)

Heisenberg showed that the uncertainty in the position of the particle times the uncertainty in its velocity times the mass of the particle can never be smaller than a certain quantity, which is known as Planck’s constant. For the rest of the 1920s Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac reformulated mechanics into a new theory titled quantum mechanics. In this theory particles no longer have separate well-defined positions and velocities, instead they have a general quantum state which is a combination of position and velocity.

Quantum mechanics introduces an unavoidable element of unpredictability or randomness into science. (p.56)

Also, particles can no longer be relied on to be particles. As a result of Planck and Heisenberg’s insights, particles have to be thought of as sometimes behaving like waves, sometimes like particles. In 1913 Niels Bohr had suggested that electrons circle round a nucleus at certain fixed points, and that it takes energy to dislodge them from these optimum orbits. Quantum theory helped explain Bohr’s theory by conceptualising the circling electrons not as particles but as waves. If electrons are waves, as they circle the nucleus, their wave lengths would cancel each other out unless they are perfect numbers. The frequency of the waves have to be able to circle the nucleus in perfect integers. This defines the height of the orbits electrons can take.

Chapter 5 Elementary Particles and Forces of Nature (pp.63-79)

A chapter devoted to the story of how we’ve come to understand the world of sub-atomic particles. Starting (as usual) with Aristotle and then fast-forwarding through Galton, Einstein’s paper on Brownian motion, J.J. Thomson’s discovery of electrons, and, in 1911, Ernest Rutherford’s demonstration that atoms are made up of tiny positively charged nucleus around which a number of tiny positively charged particles, electrons, orbit. Rutherford thought the nuclei contained ‘protons’, which have a positive charge and balance out the negative charge of the electrons. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered the nucleus contains neutrons, same mass as the proton but no charge.

In 1965 quarks were discovered by Murray Gell-Mann. In fact scientists went on to discover six types, up, down, strange, charmed, bottom and top quarks. A proton or neutron is made up of three quarks.

He explains the quality of spin. Some particles have to be spin twice to return to their original appearance. They have spin 1/2. All the matter we can see in the universe has the spin 1/2. Particles of spin 0, 1, and 2 give rise to the forces between the particles.

Pauli’s exclusionary principle: two similar particles cannot exist in the same state, they cannot have the same position and the same velocity. The exclusionary principle is vital since it explains why the universe isn’t a big soup of primeval particles. The particles must be distinct and separate.

In 1928 Paul Dirac explained why the electron must rotate twice to return to its original position. He also predicted the existence of the positron to balance the electron. In 1932 the positron was discovered and Dirac was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Force carrying particles can be divided into four categories according to the strength of the force they carry and the particles with which they interact.

  1. Gravitational force, the weakest of the four forces by a long way.
  2. The electromagnetic force interacts with electrically charged particles like electrons and quarks.
  3. The weak nuclear force, responsible for radioactivity. In findings published in 1967 Abdus Salam and Steven Weinberg suggested that in addition to the photon there are three other spin-1 particles known collectively as massive vector bosons. Initially disbelieved, experiments proved them right and they collected the Nobel Prize in 1979. In 1983 the team at CERN proved the existence of the three particles, and the leaders of this team also won the Nobel Prize.
  4. The strong nuclear force holds quarks together in the proton and neutron, and holds the protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. This force is believed to be carried by another spin-1 particle, the gluon. They have a property named ‘confinement’ which is that you can’t have a quark of a single colour, the number of quarks bound together must cancel each other out.

The idea behind the search for a Grand Unified Theory is that, at high enough temperature, all the particles would behave in the same way, i.e. the laws governing the four forces would merge into one law.

Most of the matter on earth is made up of protons and neutrons, which are in turn made of quarks. Why is there this preponderance of quarks and not an equal number of anti-quarks?

Hawking introduces us to the notion that all the laws of physics obey three separate symmetries known as C, P and T. In 1956 two American physicists suggested that the weak force does not obey symmetry C. Hawking then goes on to explain more about the obedience or lack of obedience to the rules of symmetry of particles at very high temperatures, to explain why quarks and matter would outbalance anti-quarks and anti-matter at the big bang in a way which, frankly, I didn’t understand.

Chapter 6 Black Holes (pp.81-97)

In a sense, all the preceding has been just preparation, just a primer to help us understand the topic which Hawking spent the 1970s studying and which made his name – black holes.

The term black hole was coined by John Wheeler in 1969. Hawking explains the development of ideas about what happens when a star dies. When a star is burning, the radiation of energy in the forms of heat and light counteracts the gravity of its mass. When it runs out of fuel, gravity takes over and the star collapses in on itself. The young Indian physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar calculated that a cold star with a mass of more than one and a half times the mass of our sin would not be able to support itself against its own gravity and contract to become a ‘white dwarf’ with a radius of a few thousand miles and a density of hundreds of tones per square inch.

The Russian Lev Davidovich Landau speculated that the same sized star might end up in a different state. Chandrasekhar had used Pauli’s exclusionary principle as applied to electrons i.e. calculated the smallest densest state the mass could reach assuming no electron can be in the place of any other electron. Landau calculated on the basis of the exclusionary principle repulsion operative between neutrons and protons. Hence his model is known as the ‘neutron star’, which would have a radius of only ten miles or so and a density of hundreds of millions of tonnes per cubic inch.

(In an interesting aside Hawking tells us that physics was railroaded by the vast Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and then to build a hydrogen bomb, throughout the 1940s and 50s. This tended to sideline large-scale physics about the universe. It was only the development of a) modern telescopes and b) computer power, that revived interest in astronomy.)

A black hole is what you get when the gravity of a collapsing star becomes so high that it prevents light from escaping its gravitational field. Hawking and Penrose showed that at the centre of a black hole must be a singularity of infinite density and space-time curvature.

In 1967 the study of black holes was revolutionised by Werner Israel. He showed that, according to general relativity, all non-rotating black holes must be very simple and perfectly symmetrical.

Hawking then explains several variations on this theory put forward by Roger Penrose, Roy Kerr, Brandon Carter who proved that a hole would have an axis of symmetry. Hawking himself confirmed this idea. In 1973 David Robinson proved that a black hole had to have ‘a Kerr solution’. In other words, no matter how they start out, all black holes end up looking the same, a belief summed up in the pithy phrase, ‘A black hole has no hair’.

What is striking about all this is that it was pure speculation, derived entirely from mathematical models without a shred of evidence from astronomy.

Black holes are one of only a fairly small number of cases in the history of science in which a theory was developed in great detail as a mathematical model before there was any evidence from observations that it was correct. (p.92)

Hawking then goes on to list the best evidence we have for black holes, which is surprisingly thin. Since they are by nature invisible black holes can only be deduced by their supposed affect on nearby stars or systems. Given that black holes were at the centre of Hawking’s career, and are the focus of these two chapters, it is striking that there is, even now, very little direct empirical evidence for their existence.

(Eerily, as I finished reading A Brief History of Time, the announcement was made on 10 April 2019 that the first ever image has been generated of a black hole –

Theory predicts that other stars which stray close to a black hole would have clouds of gas attracted towards it. As this matter falls into the black hole it will a) be stripped down to basic sub-atomic particles b) make the hole spin. Spinning would make the hole acquire a magnetic field. The magnetic field would shoot jets of particles out into space along the axis of rotation of the hole. These jets should be visible to our telescopes.

First ever image of a black hole, captured the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The hole is 40 billion km across, and 500 million trillion km away

Chapter 7 Black Holes Ain’t So Black (pp.99-113)

Black holes are not really black after all. They glow like a hot body, and the smaller they are, the hotter they glow. Again, Hawking shares with us the evolution of his thinking on this subject, for example how he was motivated in writing a 1971 paper about black holes and entropy at least partly in irritation against another researcher who he felt had misinterpreted his earlier results.

Anyway, it all resulted in his 1973 paper which showed that a black hole ought to emit particles and radiation as if it were a hot body with a temperature that depends only on the black hole’s mass.

The reasoning goes thus: quantum mechanics tells us that all of space is fizzing with particles and anti-particles popping into existence, cancelling each other out, and disappearing. At the border of the event horizon, particles and anti-particles will be popping into existence as everywhere else. But a proportion of the anti-particles in each pair will be sucked inside the event horizon, so that they cannot annihilate their partners, leaving the positive particles to ping off into space. Thus, black holes should emit a steady stream of radiation!

If black holes really are absorbing negative particles as described above, then their negative energy will result in negative mass, as per Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc² which shows that the lower the energy, the lower the mass. In other words, if Hawking is correct about black holes emitting radiation, then black holes must be shrinking.

Gamma ray evidence suggests that there might be 300 black holes in every cubic light year of the universe. Hawking then goes on to estimate the odds of detecting a black hole a) in steady existence b) reaching its final state and blowing up. Alternatively we could look for flashes of light across the sky, since on entering the earth’s atmosphere gamma rays break up into pairs of electrons and positrons. No clear sightings have been made so far.

(Threaded throughout the chapter has been the notion that black holes might come in two types: one which resulted from the collapse of stars, as described above. And others which have been around since the start of the universe as a function of the irregularities of the big bang.)

Summary: Hawking ends this chapter by claiming that his ‘discovery’ that radiation can be emitted from black holes was ‘the first example of a prediction that depended in an essential way on both the great theories of this century, general relativity and quantum mechanics’. I.e. it is not only an interesting ‘discovery’ in its own right, but a pioneering example of synthesising the two theories.

Chapter 8 The Origin and Fate of the Universe (pp.115-141)

This is the longest chapter in the book and I found it the hardest to follow. I think this is because it is where he makes the big pitch for His Theory, for what’s come to be known as the Hartle-Hawking state. Let Wikipedia explain:

Hartle and Hawking suggest that if we could travel backwards in time towards the beginning of the Universe, we would note that quite near what might otherwise have been the beginning, time gives way to space such that at first there is only space and no time. Beginnings are entities that have to do with time; because time did not exist before the Big Bang, the concept of a beginning of the Universe is meaningless. According to the Hartle-Hawking proposal, the Universe has no origin as we would understand it: the Universe was a singularity in both space and time, pre-Big Bang. Thus, the Hartle–Hawking state Universe has no beginning, but it is not the steady state Universe of Hoyle; it simply has no initial boundaries in time or space. (Hartle-Hawking state Wikipedia article)

To get to this point Hawking begins by recapping the traditional view of the ‘hot big bang’, i.e. the almost instantaneous emergence of matter from a state of infinite mass, energy and density and temperature.

This is the view first put forward by Gamow and Alpher in 1948, which predicted there would still be very low-level background radiation left over from the bang – which was then proved with the discovery of the cosmic background radiation in 1965.

Hawking gives a picture of the complete cycle of the creation of the universe through the first generation of stars which go supernova blowing out into space the heavier particles which then go into second generation stars or clouds of gas and solidify into things like planet earth.

In a casual aside, he gives his version of the origin of life on earth:

The earth was initially very hot and without an atmosphere. In the course of time it cooled and acquired an atmosphere from the emission of gases from the rocks. This early atmosphere was not one in which we could have survived. It contained no oxygen, but a lot of other gases that are poisonous to us, such as hydrogen sulfide. There are, however, other primitive forms of life that can flourish under such conditions. It is thought that they developed in the oceans, possibly as a result of chance combinations of atoms into large structures, called macromolecules, which were capable of assembling other atoms in the ocean into similar structures. They would thus have reproduced themselves and multiplied. In some cases there would have been errors in the reproduction. Mostly these errors would have been such that the new macromolecule could not reproduce itself and eventually would have been destroyed. However, a few of the errors would have produced new macromolecules that were even better at reproducing themselves. They would have therefore had an advantage and would have tended to replace the original macromolecules. In this way a process of evolution was started that led to the development of more and more complicated, self-reproducing organisms. The first primitive forms of life consumed various materials, including hydrogen sulfide, and released oxygen. This gradually changed the atmosphere to the composition that it has today and allowed the development of higher forms of life such as fish, reptiles, mammals, and ultimately the human race. (p.121)

(It’s ironic that he discusses the issue so matter-of-factly, demonstrating that, for him at least, the matter is fairly cut and dried and not worth lingering over. Because, of course, for scientists who’ve devoted their lives to the origins-of-life question it is far from over. It’s a good example of the way that every specialist thinks that their specialism is the most important subject in the world, the subject that will finally answer the Great Questions of Life whereas a) most people have never heard about the issues b) wouldn’t understand them and c) don’t care.)

Hawking goes on to describe chaotic boundary conditions and describe the strong and the weak anthropic principles. He then explains the theory proposed by Alan Guth of inflation i.e. the universe, in the first milliseconds after the big bang, underwent a process of enormous hyper-growth, before calming down again to normal exponential expansion. Hawking describes it rather differently from Barrow and Davies. He emphasises that, to start with, in a state of hypertemperature and immense density, the four forces we know about and the spacetime dimensions were all fused into one. They would be in ‘symmetry’. Only as the early universe cooled would it have undergone a ‘phase transition’ and the symmetry between forces been broken.

If the temperature fell below the phase transition temperature without symmetry being broken then the universe would have a surplus of energy and it is this which would have cause the super-propulsion of the inflationary stage. The inflation theory:

  • would allow for light to pass from one end of the (tiny) universe to the other and explains why all regions of the universe appear to have the same properties
  • explain why the rate of expansion of the universe is close to the critical rate required to make it expand for billions of years (and us to evolve)
  • would explain why there is so much matter in the universe

Hawking then gets involved in the narrative explaining how he and others pointed out flaws in Guth’s inflationary model, namely that the phase transition at the end of the inflation ended in ‘bubble’s which expanded to join up. But Hawking and others pointed out that the bubbles were expanding so fat they could never join up. In 1981 the Russian Andre Linde proposed that the bubble problem would be solved if  a) the symmetry broke slowly and b) the bubbles were so big that our region of the universe is all contained within a single bubble. Hawking disagreed, saying Linde’s bubbles would each have to be bigger than the universe for the maths to work out, and counter-proposing that the symmetry broke everywhere at the same time, resulting in the uniform universe we see today. Nonetheless Linde’s model became known as the ‘new inflationary model’, although Hawking considers it invalid.

[In these pages we get a strong whiff of cordite. Hawking is describing controversies and debates he has been closely involved in and therefore takes a strongly partisan view, bending over backwards to be fair to colleagues, but nonetheless sticking to his guns. In this chapter you get a strong feeling for what controversy and debate within this community must feel like.)

Hawking prefers the ‘chaotic inflationary model’ put forward by Linde in 1983, in which there is no phase transition or supercooling, but which relies on quantum fluctuations.

At this point he introduces four ideas which are each challenging and which, taken together, mark the most difficult and confusing part of the book.

First he says that, since Einstein’s laws of relativity break down at the moment of the singularity, we can only hope to understand the earliest moments of the universe in terms of quantum mechanics.

Second, he says he’s going to use a particular formulation of quantum mechanics, namely Richard Feynman’s idea of ‘a sum over histories’. I think this means that Feynman said that in quantum mechanics we can never know precisely which route a particle takes, the best we can do is work out all the possible routes and assign them probabilities, which can then be handled mathematically.

Third, he immediately points out that working with Feynman’s sum over histories approach requires the use of ‘imaginary’ time, which he then goes on to explain.

To avoid the technical difficulties with Feynman’s sum over histories, one must use imaginary time. (p.134)

And then he points out that, in order to use imaginary time, we must use Euclidean space-time instead of ‘real’ space-time.

All this happens on page 134 and was too much for me to understand. On page 135 he then adds in Einstein’s idea that the gravitational field us represented by curved space-time.

It is now that he pulls all these ideas together to assert that, whereas in the classical theory of gravity, which is based on real space-time there are only two ways the universe can behave – either it has existed infinitely or it had a beginning in a singularity at a finite point in time; in the quantum theory of gravity, which uses Euclidean space-time, in which the time direction is on the same footing as directions in space it is possible:

for space-time to be finite in extent and yet to have no singularities that formed a boundary or edge.

In Hawking’s theory the universe would be finite in duration but not have a boundary in time because time would merge with the other three dimensions, all of which cease to exist during and just after a singularity. Working backwards in time, the universe shrinks but it doesn’t shrink, as a cone does, to a single distinct point – instead it has a smooth round bottom with no distinct beginning.

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

Finally Hawking points out that this model of a no-boundary universe derived from a Feynman interpretation of quantum gravity does not give rise to all possible universes, but only to a specific family of universes.

One aspect of these histories of the universe in imaginary time is that none of them include singularities – which would seem to render redundant all the work Hawking had done on black holes in ‘real time’. He gets round this by saying that both models can be valid, but in order to demonstrate different things.

It is simply a matter of which is the more useful description. (p.139)

He winds up the discussion by stating that further calculations based on this model explain the two or three key facts about the universe which all theories must explain i.e. the fact that it is clumped into lumps of matter and not an even soup, the fact that it is expanding, and the fact that the background radiation is minutely uneven in some places suggesting very early irregularities. Tick, tick, tick – the no-boundary proposal is congruent with all of them.

It is a little mind-boggling, as you reach the end of this long and difficult chapter, to reflect that absolutely all of it is pure speculation without a shred of evidence to support it. It is just another elegant way of dealing with the problems thrown up by existing observations and by trying to integrate quantum mechanics with Einsteinian relativity. But whether it is ‘true’ or not, not only is unproveable but also is not really the point.

Chapter 9 The Arrow of Time (pp.143-153)

If Einstein’s theory of general relativity is correct and light always appears to have the same velocity to all observers, no matter what position they’re in or how fast they’re moving, THEN TIME MUST BE FLEXIBLE. Time is not a fixed constant. Every observer carries their own time with them.

Hawking points out that there are three arrows of time:

  • the thermodynamic arrow of time which obeys the Second Law of Thermodynamics namely that entropy, or disorder, increases – there are always many more disordered states than ordered ones
  • the psychological arrow of time which we all perceive
  • the cosmological arrow of time, namely the universe is expanding and not contracting

Briskly, he tells us that the psychological arrow of time is based on the thermodynamic one: entropy increases and our lives experience that and our minds record it. For example, human beings consume food – which is a highly ordered form of energy – and convert it into heat – which is a highly disordered form.

Hawking tells us that he originally thought that, if the universe reach a furthest extent and started to contract, disorder (entropy) would decrease, and everything in the universe would happen backwards. Until Don Page and Raymond Laflamme, in their different ways, proved otherwise.

Now he believes that the contraction would not occur until the universe had been almost completely thinned out and all the stars had died i.e. the universe had become an even soup of basic particles. THEN it would start to contract. And so his current thinking is that there would be little or no thermodynamic arrow of time (all thermodynamic processes having come to an end) and all of this would be happening in a universe in which human beings could not exist. We will never live to see the contraction phase of the universe. If there is a contraction phase.

Chapter 10: The Unification of Physics (pp.155-169)

The general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics both work well for their respective scales (stars and galaxies, sub-atomic particles) but cannot be made to mesh, despite fifty of more years of valiant attempts. Many of the attempts produce infinity in their results, so many infinities that a strategy has been developed called ‘renormalisation’ which gets rid of the infinities, although Hawking conceded is ‘rather dubious mathematically’.

Grand Unified Theories is the term applied to attempts to devise a theory (i.e. a set of mathematical formulae) which will take account of the four big forces we know about: electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

In the mid-1970s some scientists came up with the idea of ‘supergravity’ which postulated a ‘superparticle’, and the other sub-atomic particles variations on the super-particle but with different spins. According to Hawking the calculations necessary to assess this theory would take so long nobody has ever done it.

So he moves onto string theory i.e. the universe isn’t made up of particles but of open or closed ‘strings’, which can join together in different ways to form different particles. However, the problem with string theory is that, because of the mathematical way they are expressed, they require more than four dimensions. A lot more. Hawking mentions anywhere from ten up to 26 dimensions. Where are all these dimensions? Well, strong theory advocates say they exist but are very very small, effectively wrapped up into sub-atomic balls, so that you or I never notice them.

Rather simplistically, Hawking lists the possibilities about a complete unified theory. Either:

  1. there really is a grand unified theory which we will someday discover
  2. there is no ultimate theory but only an infinite sequence of possibilities which will describe the universe with greater and greater, but finite accuracy
  3. there is no theory of the universe at all, and events will always seems to us to occur in a random way

This leads him to repeat the highfalutin’ rhetoric which all physicists drop into at these moments, about the destiny of mankind etc. Discovery of One Grand Unified Theory:

would bring to an end a long and glorious chapter in the history of humanity’s intellectual struggle to understand the universe. But it would also revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe. (p.167)

I profoundly disagree with this view. I think it is boilerplate, which is a phrase defined as ‘used in the media to refer to hackneyed or unoriginal writing’.

Because this is not just the kind of phrasing physicists use when referring to the search for GUTs, it’s the same language biologists use when referring to the quest to understand how life derived from inorganic chemicals, it’s the same language the defenders of the large Hadron Collider use to justify spending billions of euros on the search for ever-smaller particles, it’s the language used by the guys who want funding for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), it’s the kind of language used by the scientists bidding for funding for the Human Genome Project.

Each of these, their defenders claim, is the ultimate most important science project, quest and odyssey ever,  and when they find the solution it will for once and all answer the Great Questions which have been tormenting mankind for millennia. Etc. Which is very like all the world’s religions claiming that their God is the only God. So a) there is a pretty obvious clash between all these scientific specialities which each claim to be on the brink of revealing the Great Secret.

But b) what reading this book and John Barrow’s Book of Universes convinces me is that i) we are very far indeed from coming even close to a unified theory of the universe and more importantly ii) if one is ever discovered, it won’t matter.

Imagine for a moment that a new iteration of string theory does manage to harmonise the equations of general relativity and quantum mechanics. How many people in the world are really going to be able to understand that? How many people now, currently, have a really complete grasp of Einsteinian relativity and Heisenbergian quantum uncertainty in their strictest, most mathematical forms? 10,000? 1000,000 earthlings?

If and when the final announcement is made who would notice, who would care, and why would they care? If the final conjunction is made by adapting string theory to 24 dimensions and renormalising all the infinities in order to achieve a multi-dimensional vision of space-time which incorporates both the curvature of gravity and the unpredictable behaviour of sub-atomic particles – would this really

revolutionise the ordinary person’s understanding of the laws that govern the universe?

Chapter 11 Conclusion (pp.171-175)

Recaps the book and asserts that his and James Hartle’s no-boundary model for the origin of the universe is the first to combine classic relativity with Heisenberg uncertainty. Ends with another rhetorical flourish of trumpets which I profoundly disagree with for the reasons given above.

If we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. (p.175)

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think this is a hopelessly naive view of human nature and culture. Einstein’s general theory has been around for 104 years, quantum mechanics for 90 years. Even highly educated people understand neither of them, and what Hawking calls ‘just ordinary people’ certainly don’t – and it doesn’t matter. 


Of course the subject matter is difficult to understand, but Hawking makes a very good fist of putting all the ideas into simple words and phrases, avoiding all formulae and equations, and the diagrams help a lot.

My understanding is that A Brief History of Time was the first popular science to put all these ideas before the public in a reasonably accessible way, and so opened the floodgates for countless other science writers, although hardly any of the ideas in it felt new to me since I happen to have just reread the physics books by Barrow and Davies which cover much the same ground and are more up to date.

But my biggest overall impression is how provisional so much of it seems. You struggle through the two challenging chapters about black holes – Hawking’s speciality – and then are casually told that all this debating and arguing over different theories and model-making had gone on before any black holes were ever observed by astronomers. In fact, even when Hawking died, in 2018, no black holes had been conclusively identified. It’s a big shame he didn’t live to see this famous photograph being published and confirmation of at least the existence of the entity he devoted so much time to theorising about.

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The Book of Universes by John D. Barrow (2011)

This book is twice as long and half as good as Barrow’s earlier primer, The Origin of the Universe.

In that short book Barrow focused on the key ideas of modern cosmology – introducing them to us in ascending order of complexity, and as simply as possible. He managed to make mind-boggling ideas and demanding physics very accessible.

This book – although it presumably has the merit of being more up to date (published in 2011 as against 1994) – is an expansion of the earlier one, an attempt to be much more comprehensive, but which, in the process, tends to make the whole subject more confusing.

The basic premise of both books is that, since Einstein’s theory of relativity was developed in the 1910s, cosmologists and astronomers and astrophysicists have:

  1. shown that the mathematical formulae in which Einstein’s theories are described need not be restricted to the universe as it has traditionally been conceived; in fact they can apply just as effectively to a wide variety of theoretical universes – and the professionals have, for the past hundred years, developed a bewildering array of possible universes to test Einstein’s insights to the limit
  2. made a series of discoveries about our actual universe, the most important of which is that a) it is expanding b) it probably originated in a big bang about 14 billion years ago, and c) in the first few milliseconds after the bang it probably underwent a period of super-accelerated expansion known as the ‘inflation’ which may, or may not, have introduced all kinds of irregularities into ‘our’ universe, and may even have created a multitude of other universes, of which ours is just one

If you combine a hundred years of theorising with a hundred years of observations, you come up with thousands of theories and models.

In The Origin of the Universe Barrow stuck to the core story, explaining just as much of each theory as is necessary to help the reader – if not understand – then at least grasp their significance. I can write the paragraphs above because of the clarity with which The Origin of the Universe explained it.

In The Book of Universes, on the other hand, Barrow’s aim is much more comprehensive and digressive. He is setting out to list and describe every single model and theory of the universe which has been created in the past century.

He introduces the description of each model with a thumbnail sketch of its inventor. This ought to help, but it doesn’t because the inventors generally turn out to be polymaths who also made major contributions to all kinds of other areas of science. Being told a list of Paul Dirac’s other major contributions to 20th century science is not a good way for preparing your mind to then try and understand his one intervention on universe-modelling (which turned, in any case, out to be impractical and lead nowhere).

Another drawback of the ‘comprehensive’ approach is that a lot of these models have been rejected or barely saw the light of day before being disproved or – more complicatedly – were initially disproved but contained aspects or insights which turned out to be useful forty years later, and were subsequently recycled into revised models. It gets a bit challenging to try and hold all this in your mind.

In The Origin of the Universe Barrow sticks to what you could call the canonical line of models, each of which represented the central line of speculation, even if some ended up being disproved (like Hoyle and Gold and Bondi’s model of the steady state universe). Given that all of this material is pretty mind-bending, and some of it can only be described in advanced mathematical formulae, less is definitely more. I found The Book of Universes simply had too many universes, explained too quickly, and lost amid a lot of biographical bumpf summarising people’s careers or who knew who or contributed to who’s theory. Too much information.

One last drawback of the comprehensive approach is that quite important points – which are given space to breathe and sink in in The Origin of the Universe are lost in the flood of facts in The Book of Universes.

I’m particularly thinking of Einstein’s notion of the cosmological constant which was not strictly necessary to his formulations of relativity, but which Einstein invented and put into them solely in order to counteract the force of gravity and ensure his equations reflected the commonly held view that the universe was in a permanent steady state.

This was a mistake and Einstein is often quoted as admitting it was the biggest mistake of his career. In 1965 scientists discovered the cosmic background radiation which proved that the universe began in an inconceivably intense explosion, that the universe was therefore expanding and that the explosive, outward-propelling force of this bang was enough to counteract the contracting force of the gravity of all the matter in the universe without any need for a hypothetical cosmological constant.

I understand this (if I do) because in The Origin of the Universe it is given prominence and carefully explained. By contrast, in The Book of Universes it was almost lost in the flood of information and it was only because I’d read the earlier book that I grasped its importance.

The Book of Universes

Barrow gives a brisk recap of cosmology from the Sumerians and Egyptians, through the ancient Greeks’ establishment of the system named after Ptolemy in which the earth is the centre of the solar system, on through the revisions of Copernicus and Galileo which placed the sun firmly at the centre of the solar system, on to the three laws of Isaac Newton which showed how the forces which govern the solar system (and more distant bodies) operate.

There is then a passage on the models of the universe generated by the growing understanding of heat and energy acquired by Victorian physicists, which led to one of the most powerful models of the universe, the ‘heat death’ model popularised by Lord Kelvin in the 1850s, in which, in the far future, the universe evolves to a state of complete homegeneity, where no region is hotter than any other and therefore there is no thermodynamic activity, no life, just a low buzzing noise everywhere.

But this is all happens in the first 50 pages and is just preliminary throat-clearing before Barrow gets to the weird and wonderful worlds envisioned by modern cosmology i.e. from Einstein onwards.

In some of these models the universe expands indefinitely, in others it will reach a peak expansion before contracting back towards a Big Crunch. Some models envision a static universe, in others it rotates like a top, while other models are totally chaotic without any rules or order.

Some universes are smooth and regular, others characterised by clumps and lumps. Some are shaken by cosmic tides, some oscillate. Some allow time travel into the past, while others threaten to allow an infinite number of things to happen in a finite period. Some end with another big bang, some don’t end at all. And in only a few of them do the conditions arise for intelligent life to evolve.

The Book of Universes then goes on, in 12 chapters, to discuss – by my count – getting on for a hundred types or models of hypothetical universes, as conceived and worked out by mathematicians, physicists, astrophysicists and cosmologists from Einstein’s time right up to the date of publication, 2011.

A list of names

Barrow namechecks and briefly explains the models of the universe developed by the following (I am undertaking this exercise partly to remind myself of everyone mentioned, partly to indicate to you the overwhelming number of names and ideas the reader is bombarded with):

  • Aristotle
  • Ptolemy
  • Copernicus
  • Giovanni Riccioli
  • Tycho Brahe
  • Isaac Newton
  • Thomas Wright (1771-86)
  • Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
  • Pierre Laplace (1749-1827) devised what became the standard Victorian model of the universe
  • Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) discussed the physical conditions of a universe necessary for life to evolve in it
  • Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) material falls into the central region of the universe and coalesce with other stars to maintain power output over immense periods
  • Rudolf Clausius (1822-88) coined the word ‘entropy’ in 1865 to describe the inevitable progress from ordered to disordered states
  • William Jevons (1835-82) believed the second law of thermodynamics implies that universe must have had a beginning
  • Pierre Duhem (1961-1916) Catholic physicist accepted the notion of entropy but denied that it implied the universe ever had a beginning
  • Samuel Tolver Preson (1844-1917) English engineer and physicist, suggested the universe is so vast that different ‘patches’ might experience different rates of entropy
  • Ludwig Boltzmann and Ernst Zermelo suggested the universe is infinite and is already in a state of thermal equilibrium, but just with random fluctuations away from uniformity, and our galaxy is one of those fluctuations
  • Albert Einstein (1879-1955) his discoveries were based on insights, not maths: thus he saw the problem with Newtonian physics is that it privileges an objective outside observer of all the events in the universe; one of Einstein’s insights was to abolish the idea of a privileged point of view and emphasise that everyone is involved in the universe’s dynamic interactions; thus gravity does not pass through a clear, fixed thing called space; gravity bends space.

The American physicist John Wheeler once encapsulated Einstein’s theory in two sentences:

Matter tells space how to curve. Space tells matter how to move. (quoted on page 52)

  • Marcel Grossmann provided the mathematical underpinning for Einstein’s insights
  • Willem de Sitter (1872-1934) inventor of, among other things, the de Sitter effect which represents the effect of the curvature of spacetime, as predicted by general relativity, on a vector carried along with an orbiting body – de Sitter’s universe gets bigger and bigger for ever but never had a zero point; but then de Sitter’s model contains no matter
  • Vesto Slipher (1875-1969) astronomer who discovered the red shifting of distant galaxies in 1912, the first ever empirical evidence for the expansion of the galaxy
  • Alexander Friedmann (1888-1925) Russian mathematician who produced purely mathematical solutions to Einstein’s equation, devising models where the universe started out of nothing and expanded a) fast enough to escape the gravity exerted by its own contents and so will expand forever or b) will eventually succumb to the gravity of its own contents, stop expanding and contract back towards a big crunch. He also speculated that this process (expansion and contraction) could happen an infinite number of times, creating a cyclic series of bangs, expansions and contractions, then another bang etc
A graphic of the oscillating or cyclic universe (from Discovery magazine)

A graphic of the oscillating or cyclic universe (from Discovery magazine)

  • Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) most distinguished astrophysicist of the 1920s
  • George Lemaître (1894-1966) first to combine an expanding universe interpretation of Einstein’s equations with the latest data about redshifting, and show that the universe of Einstein’s equations would be very sensitive to small changes – his model is close to Eddington’s so that it is often called the Eddington-Lemaître universe: it is expanding, curved and finite but doesn’t have a beginning
  • Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) provided solid evidence of the redshifting (moving away) of distant galaxies, a main plank in the whole theory of a big bang, inventor of Hubble’s Law:
    • Objects observed in deep space – extragalactic space, 10 megaparsecs (Mpc) or more – are found to have a redshift, interpreted as a relative velocity away from Earth
    • This Doppler shift-measured velocity of various galaxies receding from the Earth is approximately proportional to their distance from the Earth for galaxies up to a few hundred megaparsecs away
  • Richard Tolman (1881-1948) took Friedmann’s idea of an oscillating universe and showed that the increased entropy of each universe would accumulate, meaning that each successive ‘bounce’ would get bigger; he also investigated what ‘lumpy’ universes would look like where matter is not evenly spaced but clumped: some parts of the universe might reach a maximum and start contracting while others wouldn’t; some parts might have had a big bang origin, others might not have
  • Arthur Milne (1896-1950) showed that the tension between the outward exploding force posited by Einstein’s cosmological constant and the gravitational contraction could actually be described using just Newtonian mathematics: ‘Milne’s universe is the simplest possible universe with the assumption that the universe s uniform in space and isotropic’, a ‘rational’ and consistent geometry of space – Milne labelled the assumption of Einsteinian physics that the universe is the same in all places the Cosmological Principle
  • Edmund Fournier d’Albe (1868-1933) posited that the universe has a hierarchical structure from atoms to the solar system and beyond
  • Carl Charlier (1862-1934) introduced a mathematical description of a never-ending hierarchy of clusters
  • Karl Schwarzschild (1873-1916) suggested  that the geometry of the universe is not flat as Euclid had taught, but might be curved as in the non-Euclidean geometries developed by mathematicians Riemann, Gauss, Bolyai and Lobachevski in the early 19th century
  • Franz Selety (1893-1933) devised a model for an infinitely large hierarchical universe which contained an infinite mass of clustered stars filling the whole of space, yet with a zero average density and no special centre
  • Edward Kasner (1878-1955) a mathematician interested solely in finding mathematical solutions to Einstein’s equations, Kasner came up with a new idea, that the universe might expand at different rates in different directions, in some parts it might shrink, changing shape to look like a vast pancake
  • Paul Dirac (1902-84) developed a Large Number Hypothesis that the really large numbers which are taken as constants in Einstein’s and other astrophysics equations are linked at a deep undiscovered level, among other things abandoning the idea that gravity is a constant: soon disproved
  • Pascual Jordan (1902-80) suggested a slight variation of Einstein’s theory which accounted for a varying constant of gravitation as through it were a new source of energy and gravitation
  • Robert Dicke (1916-97) developed an alternative theory of gravitation
  • Nathan Rosen (1909-995) young assistant to Einstein in America with whom he authored a paper in 1936 describing a universe which expands but has the symmetry of a cylinder, a theory which predicted the universe would be washed over by gravitational waves
  • Ernst Straus (1922-83) another young assistant to Einstein with whom he developed a new model, an expanding universe like those of Friedman and Lemaître but which had spherical holes removed like the bubbles in an Aero, each hole with a mass at its centre equal to the matter which had been excavated to create the hole
  • Eugene Lifschitz (1915-85) in 1946 showed that very small differences in the uniformity of matter in the early universe would tend to increase, an explanation of how the clumpy universe we live in evolved from an almost but not quite uniform distribution of matter – as we have come to understand that something like this did happen, Lifshitz’s calculations have come to be seen as a landmark
  • Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) posited a rotating universe which didn’t expand and, in theory, permitted time travel!
  • Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle collaborated on the steady state theory of a universe which is growing but remains essentially the same, fed by the creation of new matter out of nothing
  • George Gamow (1904-68)
  • Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman in 1948 showed that the ratio of the matter density of the universe to the cube of the temperature of any heat radiation present from its hot beginning is constant if the expansion is uniform and isotropic – they calculated the current radiation temperature should be 5 degrees Kelvin – ‘one of the most momentous predictions ever made in science’
  • Abraham Taub (1911-99) made a study of all the universes that are the same everywhere in space but can expand at different rates in different directions
  • Charles Misner (b.1932) suggested ‘chaotic cosmology’ i.e. that no matter how chaotic the starting conditions, Einstein’s equations prove that any universe will inevitably become homogenous and isotropic – disproved by the smoothness of the background radiation. Misner then suggested the Mixmaster universe, the  most complicated interpretation of the Einstein equations in which the universe expands at different rates in different directions and the gravitational waves generated by one direction interferes with all the others, with infinite complexity
  • Hannes Alfvén devised a matter-antimatter cosmology
  • Alan Guth (b.1947) in 1981 proposed a theory of ‘inflation’, that milliseconds after the big bang the universe underwent a swift process of hyper-expansion: inflation answers at a stroke a number of technical problems prompted by conventional big bang theory; but had the unforeseen implication that, though our region is smooth, parts of the universe beyond our light horizon might have grown from other areas of inflated singularity and have completely different qualities
  • Andrei Linde (b.1948) extrapolated that the inflationary regions might create sub-regions in  which further inflation might take place, so that a potentially infinite series of new universes spawn new universes in an ‘endlessly bifurcating multiverse’. We happen to be living in one of these bubbles which has lasted long enough for the heavy elements and therefore life to develop; who knows what’s happening in the other bubbles?
  • Ted Harrison (1919-2007) British cosmologist speculated that super-intelligent life forms might be able to develop and control baby universe, guiding the process of inflation so as to promote the constants require for just the right speed of growth to allow stars, planets and life forms to evolve. Maybe they’ve done it already. Maybe we are the result of their experiments.
  • Nick Bostrom (b.1973) Swedish philosopher: if universes can be created and developed like this then they will proliferate until the odds are that we are living in a ‘created’ universe and, maybe, are ourselves simulations in a kind of multiverse computer simulation

Although the arrival of Einstein and his theory of relativity marks a decisive break with the tradition of Newtonian physics, and comes at page 47 of this 300-page book, it seemed to me the really decisive break comes on page 198 with the publication Alan Guth’s theory of inflation.

Up till the Guth breakthrough, astrophysicists and astronomers appear to have focused their energy on the universe we inhabit. There were theoretical digressions into fantasies about other worlds and alternative universes but they appear to have been personal foibles and everyone agreed they were diversions from the main story.

However, the idea of inflation, while it solved half a dozen problems caused by the idea of a big bang, seems to have spawned a literally fantastic series of theories and speculations.

Throughout the twentieth century, cosmologists grew used to studying the different types of universe that emerged from Einstein’s equations, but they expected that some special principle, or starting state, would pick out one that best described the actual universe. Now, unexpectedly, we find that there might be room for many, perhaps all, of these possible universes somewhere in the multiverse. (p.254)

This is a really massive shift and it is marked by a shift in the tone and approach of Barrow’s book. Up till this point it had jogged along at a brisk rate namechecking a steady stream of mathematicians, physicists and explaining how their successive models of the universe followed on from or varied from each other.

Now this procedure comes to a grinding halt while Barrow enters a realm of speculation. He discusses the notion that the universe we live in might be a fake, evolved from a long sequence of fakes, created and moulded by super-intelligences for their own purposes.

Each of us might be mannequins acting out experiments, observed by these super-intelligences. In which case what value would human life have? What would be the definition of free will?

Maybe the discrepancies we observe in some of the laws of the universe have been planted there as clues by higher intelligences? Or maybe, over vast periods of time, and countless iterations of new universes, the laws they first created for this universe where living intelligences could evolve have slipped, revealing the fact that the whole thing is a facade.

These super-intelligences would, of course, have computers and technology far in advance of ours etc. I felt like I had wandered into a prose version of The Matrix and, indeed, Barrow apologises for straying into areas normally associated with science fiction (p.241).

Imagine living in a universe where nothing is original. Everything is a fake. No ideas are ever new. There is no novelty, no originality. Nothing is ever done for the first time and nothing will ever be done for the last time… (p.244)

And so on. During this 15-page-long fantasy the handy sequence of physicists comes to an end as he introduces us to contemporary philosophers and ethicists who are paid to think about the problem of being a simulated being inside a simulated reality.

Take Robin Hanson (b.1959), a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University who, apparently, advises us all that we ought to behave so as to prolong our existence in the simulation or, hopefully, ensure we get recreated in future iterations of the simulation.

Are these people mad? I felt like I’d been transported into an episode of The Outer Limits or was back with my schoolfriend Paul, lying in a summer field getting stoned and wondering whether dandelions were a form of alien life that were just biding their time till they could take over the world. Why not, man?

I suppose Barrow has to include this material, and explain the nature of the anthropic principle (p.250), and go on to a digression about the search for extra-terrestrial life (p.248), and discuss the ‘replication paradox’ (in an infinite universe there will be infinite copies of you and me in which we perform an infinite number of variations on our lives: what would happen if you came face to face with one of your ‘copies?? p.246) – because these are, in their way, theories – if very fantastical theories – about the nature of the universe and he his stated aim is to be completely comprehensive.

The anthropic principle Observations of the universe must be compatible with the conscious and intelligent life that observes it. The universe is the way it is, because it has to be the way it is in order for life forms like us to evolve enough to understand it.

Still, it was a relief when he returned from vague and diffuse philosophical speculation to the more solid territory of specific physical theories for the last forty or so pages of the book. But it was very noticeable that, as he came up to date, the theories were less and less attached to individuals: modern research is carried out by large groups. And he increasingly is describing the swirl of ideas in which cosmologists work, which often don’t have or need specific names attached. And this change is denoted, in the texture of the prose, by an increase in the passive voice, the voice in which science papers are written: ‘it was observed that…’, ‘it was expected that…’, and so on.

  • Edward Tryon (b.1940) American particle physicist speculated that the entire universe might be a virtual fluctuation from the quantum vacuum, governed by the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that limits our simultaneous knowledge of the position and momentum, or the time of occurrence and energy, of anything in Nature.
  • George Ellis (b.1939) created a catalogue of ‘topologies’ or shapes which the universe might have
  • Dmitri Sokolov and Victor Shvartsman in 1974 worked out what the practical results would be for astronomers if we lived in a strange shaped universe, for example a vast doughnut shape
  • Yakob Zeldovich and Andrei Starobinsky in 1984 further explored the likelihood of various types of ‘wraparound’ universes, predicting the fluctuations in the cosmic background radiation which might confirm such a shape
  • 1967 the Wheeler-De Witt equation – a first attempt to combine Einstein’s equations of general relativity with the Schrödinger equation that describes how the quantum wave function changes with space and time
  • the ‘no boundary’ proposal – in 1982 Stephen Hawking and James Hartle used ‘an elegant formulation of quantum  mechanics introduced by Richard Feynman to calculate the probability that the universe would be found to be in a particular state. What is interesting is that in this theory time is not important; time is a quality that emerges only when the universe is big enough for quantum effects to become negligible; the universe doesn’t technically have a beginning because the nearer you approach to it, time disappears, becoming part of four-dimensional space. This ‘no boundary’ state is the centrepiece of Hawking’s bestselling book A Brief History of Time (1988). According to Barrow, the Hartle-Hawking model was eventually shown to lead to a universe that was infinitely large and empty i.e. not our one.
The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

The Hartle-Hawking no boundary Hartle and Hawking No-Boundary Proposal

  • In 1986 Barrow proposed a universe with a past but no beginning because all the paths through time and space would be very large closed loops
  • In 1997 Richard Gott and Li-Xin Li took the eternal inflationary universe postulated above and speculated that some of the branches loop back on themselves, giving birth to themselves
The self-creating universe of J.Richard Gott III and Li-Xin Li

The self-creating universe of J.Richard Gott III and Li-Xin Li

  • In 2001 Justin Khoury, Burt Ovrut, Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok proposed a variation of the cyclic universe which incorporated strong theory and they called the ‘ekpyrotic’ universe, epkyrotic denoting the fiery flame into which each universe plunges only to be born again in a big bang. The new idea they introduced is that two three-dimensional universes may approach each other by moving through the additional dimensions posited by strong theory. When they collide they set off another big bang. These 3-D universes are called ‘braneworlds’, short for membrane, because they will be very thin
  • If a universe existing in a ‘bubble’ in another dimension ‘close’ to ours had ever impacted on our universe, some calculations indicate it would leave marks in the cosmic background radiation, a stripey effect.
  • In 1998 Andy Albrecht, João Maguijo and Barrow explored what might have happened if the speed of light, the most famous of cosmological constants, had in fact decreased in the first few milliseconds after the bang? There is now an entire suite of theories known as ‘Varying Speed of Light’ cosmologies.
  • Modern ‘String Theory’ only functions if it assumes quite a few more dimensions than the three we are used to. In fact some string theories require there to be more than one dimension of time. If there are really ten or 11 dimensions then, possibly, the ‘constants’ all physicists have taken for granted are only partial aspects of constants which exist in higher dimensions. Possibly, they might change, effectively undermining all of physics.
  • The Lambda-CDM model is a cosmological model in which the universe contains three major components: 1. a cosmological constant denoted by Lambda (Greek Λ) and associated with dark energy; 2. the postulated cold dark matter (abbreviated CDM); 3. ordinary matter. It is frequently referred to as the standard model of Big Bang cosmology because it is the simplest model that provides a reasonably good account of the following properties of the cosmos:
    • the existence and structure of the cosmic microwave background
    • the large-scale structure in the distribution of galaxies
    • the abundances of hydrogen (including deuterium), helium, and lithium
    • the accelerating expansion of the universe observed in the light from distant galaxies and supernovae

He ends with a summary of our existing knowledge, and indicates the deep puzzles which remain, not least the true nature of the ‘dark matter’ which is required to make sense of the expanding universe model. And he ends the whole book with a pithy soundbite. Speaking about the ongoing acceptance of models which posit a ‘multiverse’, in which all manner of other universes may be in existence, but beyond the horizon of where can see, he says:

Copernicus taught us that our planet was not at the centre of the universe. Now we may have to accept that even our universe is not at the centre of the Universe.

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