The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud (1900)

‘Tell me some of your dreams and I will tell you about your inner self.’
(E. R. Pfaff, quoted on page 134 of The Interpretation of Dreams)

Long

The Interpretation of Dreams may be an epoch-making book but it is far too long, running to 871 pages in the Pelican Freud Library (783 of actual text, 86 of appendix, bibliographies, index of dreams, and general index).

The first quarter or so is a vast review of the many, many theories of dreams held by people throughout Western history (seers and prophets and oneiromancers, historical philosophers and writers, right up to present-day psychologists such as Havelock Ellis), with Freud’s own commentary designed to itemise and categorise all aspects of dreams (their confused illogical nature, how we forget them soon after waking and so on).

Only about page 200 does there come the decisive insight delivered via his own dream about a patient he names Irma, namely that every dream has meaning because every dream is a wish-fulfilment. This is followed from page 200 onwards by an equally extensive series of actual dreams derived from his patients, described in great detail each with a painstaking decipherment.

The literary focus

It isn’t till page 363 that Freud takes the further step of asserting that almost all the dreams of most of his patients ultimately derive from fantasies about their parents. Here he stop for three pages to describe the legend of Oedipus and then to assert that something like Oedipal feelings occur in all his patients.

No sooner has he finished making the shocking claim that all of us, to some extent or other, go through a phase of loving the parent of the opposite sex and hating the parent of the same sex, than he moves on to a similar version of the same story, retold thousands of years later, and culturally rearranged and overlaid, to become Hamlet, then going on to mention other Shakespeare plays, Goethe, German literary critics and so on. (Goethe and Shakespeare are both mentioned about 20 times in the text, along with writers as diverse as Schiller, Heine and Zola, Jonathan Swift and Rider Haggard, the Bible, poetry in general, the music of Wagner 3 times, Mozart 4 times, Offenbach and so on.)

In other words, right from the start Freud’s conceptions of the mind were heavily conditioned and shaped by literature and by cultural forms (myths, legends, religion, folk tales) as much as, or more than, by ‘science’.

It is entirely characteristic of Freud’s focus on culture as source and subject to be investigated that in the preface to the Third Edition, he speculates that new material for the book will not be generated by, say, widening the types of patients he treats or the fast-expanding number of analyses being carried out by his followers i.e. scientific evidence based on data. No, he says the next edition will have to:

afford a closer contact with the copious material presented in imaginative writing, in myths, in linguistic usage and in folklore.

Autobiographical

Also, it is astonishingly autobiographical. Freud shares a surprising number of important experiences in his life, starting with the place and date of his birth followed by quite a few important and poignant memories from his childhood and youth. More than that he shares, and analyses at length, upwards of 30 of his own dreams, many of which show him in a less than flattering light, which are embarrassingly candid about his ambitions, his delusions of grandeur, his sense of failure, and so on and so on.

The Interpretation of Dreams is one of the great autobiographical studies in the history of mankind; in it Freud drew freely on his inner life in an effort to construct a psychological system relevant for all of us.’ (Freud and His Followers by Paul Roazen, page 35)

For Roazen this over-sharing was a heroic achievement and sacrifice the great man made on our behalves. But many critics have pointed out the weakness of a theory which relies so very heavily on just one person’s life and experiences and feelings, and on his own interpretation of them, and then claims to extrapolate them into universal principles underpinning all of human nature.

Introduction of key concepts

The book is important because it represents Freud’s first full-length description of the unconscious and the vast role it plays in the mental life of human beings. His theories about the unconscious would be elaborated and developed right up to his death 40 years later, but this is the first, primal statement of its central role.

Freud wrote to his colleague and confidant Wilhelm Fliess, who played a vital role as sounding board for his developing ideas in the 1890s, that the Interpretation of Dreams was substantially finished by 1896. It was published in 1899 but Freud was careful to ensure that it had ‘1900’ on the title page; he was very aware of his image and reputation and that the arrival of a new century heralded the dawn of a new age. All these considerations were in the mind of this very ambitious man.

And yet, after all this careful planning, only 351 copies were sold in the first six years.

Freud began writing this immense book while on holiday in the summer of 1985 at the Schloss BelleVue near Grinzing in Austria. Later he jokingly wrote to Fliess suggesting that a plaque be put on the wall of this castle reading: ‘In this house on July 24 1895 the secret of dreams was revealed to Dr Sigmund Freud’. (Mentioned in a note by the editors on page 199.)

Early days

Personally, I find Freud’s theory of dreams, his confidence that every dream represents a wish and that virtually all dreams can be decoded into various kinds of libidinal fantasy, optimistic and implausible. There feels to be a lot of pseudo-science in it. It feels very dated. For Freud, though, his ‘discovery’ that dreams have meaning, that they were suppressed and distorted wishes, was his big intellectual breakthrough, and the existence of the unconscious was always tied up for him with the breakthrough of dream interpretation.

But when I came to Freud it was through the later metapsychological works and the second theory initiated by Beyond the Pleasure Principle. By comparison with the sophistication of the second theory, with the greater role it assigns to the Death Drive, the Nirvana Principle, the greater account taken of violence and aggression (prompted by the catastrophe of the First World War), the sociological theorisation of the psychology of groups and crowds – compared with all this, going back to his early dream theory seems a little embarrassing, almost childish.

The final 50 or 60 pages take us deep, deep into what is in effect a new theory of human nature and existence, which is visionary and strange. But the hundreds and hundreds of pages of sometimes clunky dream interpretation which precede them are often cringe-inducing. Specially when he makes his stock sexist comments about women and their innate inferiority to men…

Executive summary

The Interpretation is important because it introduces several central ideas of Freud’s theory, namely the unconscious as a reservoir of instinctual wishes and desires which have been repressed from the conscious mind by censorship. These repressed urges try to re-enter the mind when the censorship is relaxed during sleep, but even then can only do so in garbled and distorted form.

So all dreams have two layers or levels which Freud defines as manifest content and latent content (p.381).

The manifest content is the narrative or series of images which we remember on waking, maybe write down or recount to a therapist. The latent content refers to the underlying ‘meaning’ of the dream.

The work of psychotherapy is to dig below the surface or manifest content to try and establish the meaning of the latent content i.e. to discover the wish lying behind the dream.

Freud then categorises the ways in which the ‘censorship’ garbles the latent content of the dream. It does this through distinct processes which he labels as:

  • Condensation – can happen in many ways, for example many ideas or wishes may be represented in one dream, or two or more people or ideas may be combined in one representation
  • Displacement – the fundamental notion that latent content, the expression of the wish underlying all dreams, is distorted and ‘displaced’
  • Representation – a great variety of ways in which images, words, sounds, word and phrases can represent the dream-wish
  • Secondary revision – not part of the process of censorship, this is what happens as the mind returns to consciousness and, half-asleep, tries to ‘make sense’ of the half-remembered dream by rearranging its elements into something closer to a coherent narrative

The comprehensive nature of this rewriting of the repressed wish explains why people can often make no sense at all of their dreams, so completely censored and disguised have they been.

Using the talking cure, free association and dream interpretation, the therapist can analyse a patient’s dreams, uncovering the secret wish which lies behind them and find a way into the reservoir of all our drives and urges and the words and images and behaviours which have become attached to them. Hence Freud’s famous declaration:

The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.

THE INTERPRETATION OF DREAMS

The text is immensely schematic, divided and sub-divided and sub-sub-divided into numbered parts, sections, sub-sections, sub-sub-sections, as if to conceal the relative simplicity of what Freud was proposing under a mountain of academic apparatus. He recognised the work’s unmanageable length and published a much shorter version On Dreams in 1901, revised and expanded in 1911. The fact that the abbreviation is a mere slip of a thing at 53 pages in the English translation strongly hints at the redundancy of most of the material in the longer work. It’s there to bludgeon the reader into submission with the sheer quantity of ‘evidence’.

Part 1. The scientific literature dealing with the problems of dreams

The ancients had two theories: dreams as helpful messages from the supernatural or diabolical fantasy. These were said to emanate from gates of horn and of ivory, respectively.

A) The relation of dreams to waking life

Dreams seem at the same time totally removed from waking life yet continue many of the concerns of waking life.

B) The material of dreams: memory in dreams

Dreams often preserve memories much more clearly than waking life and yet what is remembered is often trivial.

C) The stimuli and sources of dreams

1. External sensory stimuli

For example, alarm clock prompts dreams of church bells etc. But why do the same external source prompts different dream-imagery?

2. Internal (subjective) sensory excitations

3. Internal organic somatic stimuli

News from internal organs, often warning of disease. But how are these messages conveyed?

4. Psychical sources of stimulation

Present definitions of psychical stimulation do not suffice.

D) Why dreams are forgotten after waking

Natural that the intensity of daytime experiences blots out dreams. More importantly, everyone proceeds to reconstruct partially remembered dreams, stringing together half-memories in usually very misleading ways.

E) The distinguishing psychological characteristics of dreams

Dreams perceived as immediate experience. Lack of critical self-consciousness. In dreams we don’t think, we experience.

Crazy chains of association. Logic and causation which we (mostly) demand in conscious life are conspicuous by their absence.

Regression to earlier impulses. The tremendous virtuoso intensity of dream experiences. Freud reviews a wide range of views about dreams, from total disparagement to hymns to dreams’ poetic intensity.

F) The moral sense in dreams

Some say people lose all moral sense in dreams and behave with shocking amorality; others say you act in dreams according to your character. Dreams often show us insight into our deeper feelings, unknown to our conscious selves. Dreams reveal illicit desires, as in saints’ confessions of being miserable sinners. In dreams our instinctual life is exposed. We acquiesce in desires we spend our waking lives controlling and resisting.

G) Theories of dreaming and its function

The ancients thought dreams are sent from the gods as a guidance to action. More recently three schools have emerged:

  1. Rational. The dream-mind works just like the conscious mind but deprived of the sense-data of consciousness
  2. Mechanistic. Sleep relaxes the conscious control and dreams are responses of different parts of the mind to the passing sensory stimulants of the night. Or dreams are the excrescence of all the semi-cogitated impressions and thoughts of the day.
  3. Dreams are a holiday for the mind. Rest and recuperation.

H) The relations between dreams and mental diseases

Patients sometimes cured during the day continue their pathological behaviour in dreams or while asleep. ‘The madman is a waking dreamer’ etc. Dreams and psychoses are both fulfilment of wishes.

2. The method of interpreting dreams: analysis of a specimen dream

The aim which I have set before myself is to show that dreams are capable of being interpreted. (p.167)

Lay interpretation confined to symbolic reading (for example, pharaoh’s seven fat and seven lean kine; also mentioned p.448) and decoding (treating dream-language as a code).

Outline of the technique of free association.

An extended analysis of Freud’s own dream, the ‘dream of Irma’s injection’ interpreted to show how it conflates evidence to justify Freud’s treatment of her, i.e. a wish to be impregnated (pages 180 to 199).

3. A dream is a fulfilment of a wish

Elaboration of Freud’s fundamental insight, that every dream is the symbolic fulfilment of an unconscious wish. Examples of children’s dreams. The point is dreams may express wishes, but so comprehensibly distorted and garbled as to usually be unrecognisable to the dreamer.

4. Distortions in dreams

If all dreams are wish-fulfilments, why do some present as the opposite – wishing the death of a loved-one, anxiety dreams etc?

Because the wish is distorted. There are thus at least two aspects to a dream, the manifest content (the coherent narrative we make from the dream imagery) and the latent content (the real concern), and there is always an element of repression or censorship. This is the dream-work, which translates latent content into the manifest content we experience and remember.

The similarity of distortion in dreams and the hallucinations or obsessions of neurotics.

5. The material and sources of dreams

A) Recent and indifferent material in dreams

Frequent occurrence of material from the day before, the ‘dream-day’; but radically disguised or itself masking other meanings. Thus the concept of displacement.

B) Infantile material as a source of dreams

The deeper one carries the analysis of a dream, the more often one comes upon the track of experiences from childhood which have played a part among the sources of that dream’s latent content.

C) The somatic sources of dreams

All dreams are in a sense dreams of convenience. They serve the purpose of managing the processing of unconscious content in such a way as to preserve sleep. Dreams are the guardians of sleep.

If dreams are prompted by internal somatic stimulation, why do we not dream continuously of flying (the working of the lungs) etc? Because somatic stimulation is brought into the formation of a dream only when it fits with the ideational content derived from the dream’s psychic sources; only when it’s needed.

D) Typical dreams

He reviews:

1. Embarrassing dreams of being naked

2. Dreams of the death of persons whom the dreamer likes (childhood rivalries)

It is in this section that Freud describes the fierce emotions and rivalries attributable to children, which can spill over into hostility against their parents:

Being in love with the one parent and hating the other are among the essential constituents of the stock of psychical impulses which is formed [n childhood] (p.362)

He starts to invoke the Greek myths and this leads up to page 363 on which he posits the central role of the Oedipus legend.

It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. (p.364)

3. Other typical dreams

4. Examination dreams

6. The dream-work

Freud reviews the different mental processes he claims are at work in dreams, which collectively he calls the ‘dream-work’:

A) The work of condensation

Seen at its clearest when it handles words and names. In dreams words are often treated like things, chopped up, compressed etc.

B) The work of displacement

A dream is often differently centred from the dream-thought which lies behind it. The work of displacement as well as condensation are the result of the censorship imposed on the unconscious wish material.

The kernel of my theory of dreams lies in my derivation of dream-distortion from the censorship. (p.418)

C) The means of representation in dreams

Dreams do not have any of the methods with which we construct narratives or logical arguments at their disposal.

The most striking example of absence of logic is the absence of the negative, meaning that no means yes, that something can be represented by its exact opposite: the process of reversal (p.429) This can apply to causality where normal cause and effect are reversed.

Or dream images can appear by a process of similarity or consonance of even a tiny part of it with something else (p.431).

The common sensation of running but never getting anywhere.

Dreams are completely egoistic. They deal with the dreamer and only the dreamer (p.434).

D) Considerations of representability

Some dreams make use of ‘primeval’ imagery, being similes reaching back to remote antiquity (p.462).

Wherever neuroses make use of such disguises they are following paths along which all humanity passed in the earliest days of civilisation. (p.463).

E) Symbols in dreams: some further typical examples

Tempting to think that recurrent symbols in dreams may be universal symbols, specially when they recur in ‘popular myths, legends, linguistic idioms, proverbial wisdom and current jokes’ (which gives you a good sense of Freud’s evidence base).

Freud proceeds to give a lexicon or handbook of symbols, starting with the King and Queen who are, of course, the dreamer’s parents, moving on to how playing with a little child, especially beating it, betokens masturbation, and so on.

  • a hat is symbolic of a man, or the male genitals
  • a little one is the penis
  • being run over is coitus
  • buildings, stairs and shafts represent the genitals
  • female genitals represented by a landscape
  • castration dreams
  • urinary symbolism
  • staircase dreams
  • flowers represent the genitals (p.496)
  • dreams of flying or floating have a very varied meaning

He makes the ‘shocking’ claim that psychoanalysis makes no qualitative distinction between normal and neurotic life i.e. there is no ‘normality’ i.e. we are all on a spectrum (p.493).

And the centrality of sex in all these hundreds and hundreds of examples:

The more one is concerned with the solution of dreams, the more one is driven to recognise that the majority of the dreams of adults deal with sexual material and give expression to erotic wishes. (p.520)

F) Some examples: calculations and speeches in dreams

The special significance of numbers in dreams.

Speech rarely makes sense in dreams, being recombinations of words or phrases taken from other sources.

G) Absurd dreams: intellectual activity in dreams

Obviously many dreams are absurd or absurdist in content, but Freud tries to identify different reasons for this, often to do with negative or contradictory elements in the motivating dream content.

The dream-work produces absurd dreams and dreams containing individual absurd elements if it is faced with the necessity of representing any criticism, ridicule or derision which may be present in the dream-thoughts. (p.576)

H) Affects in dreams

It is commonly observed that the mood induced by a dream lingers longer than most of the details into the waking day.

I) Secondary revision

This occurs at the end of the process of dream-construction and is the application of conscious thought processes to the dream material. Just before waking the renascent ego tries to gloss over inconsistencies in the dream narrative, trying to create sense out of absurdity.

So it’s not part of the censor’s work, not part of displacement and condensation; it comes after that and re-arranges elements of the dream, but has the practical effect of scrambling it even more, making dream interpretation even harder (pages 641 and 642).

7. The psychology of the dream process

The dream-work is not simply more careless, more irrational, more forgetful and more incomplete than waking thought; it is completely different from it qualitatively and for that reason not directly comparable with it. (p.650)

A) The forgetting of dreams

Forgetting details of a dream is a common experience. But Freud is convinced that more is retained than we commonly think and that in the therapeutic situation more can be reclaimed than you’d expect. And often the so-called ‘forgetting’ of a dream is really only the work of the censor and repression; with sensitive work it can be recalled.

Can we interpret every detail of a dream, or every dream? No. Because the power of repression and resistance is so severe. But you can interpret much more than you’d initially believe.

B) Regression

Freud works through a series of diagrams meant to convey the relationship between dream wishes, memories, the preconscious, the unconscious and so on. By ‘regression’ Freud means that, with the motor system i.e. active use of the body, shut down in sleep, wishes express their outcomes not in (sleeping) body but by bouncing back into the psyche. Regression refers to internally generated images which are fed backwards into the cortex as if they were coming from the outside. He goes on to distinguish three types of regression:

  1. topographical regression
  2. temporal regression, the harking back to earlier psychic structures
  3. formal regression, where primitive methods of expression and representation take the place of the usual ones (p.699)

He concludes by making the picturesque but now discredited claim that some element of dreams also connects us with primeval memories of our ancestors.

We may expect that the analysis of dreams will lead us to a knowledge of man’s archaic heritage, of what is psychically innate in him. Dreams and neuroses seem to have preserved more mental antiquities than we would have imagined possible; so that psychoanalysis may claim a high place among the sciences which are concerned with the reconstruction of the earliest and most obscure periods of the beginnings of the human race. (p.700)

C) Wish-fulfilment

It may be intuitively agreed that a dream expresses a wish, albeit heavily disguised by the censorship, but Freud goes on to address the paradox that anxiety and negative dreams can also express wishes. He devotes 2 pages to explaining the definition of a ‘wish’ as it first comes to be experienced by the screaming baby, considered as an inchoate organism seeking the most basic physical satisfactions.

During which he makes the kind of comment that I like, namely that ‘thought is after all nothing but a substitute for the basic physical wish’.

D) Arousal by dreams: the function of dreams: anxiety dreams

Further clarification of why anxiety dreams and other dreams with acutely negative affect are, nonetheless, expressions of a wish. The anxiety is an index of the force of the repression needed to keep the unacceptable wish material under wraps.

E) The primary and secondary processes: repression

In technical and difficult phraseology, Freud repeats the basic idea that the primary system (the unconscious) is concerned with securing the free discharge of the quantities of excitation which are troubling it, while the second system, attempts to inhibit this discharge (p.759).

The primary process endeavours to bring about a discharge of excitation in order that, with the help of the amount of excitation thus accumulated, it may establish a ‘perceptual identity’ with the experience of satisfaction. The secondary process, however, has abandoned this intention and taken on another in its place – the establishment of a ‘thought identity’ with that experience.

All thinking is no more than a circuitous path from the memory of a satisfaction (a memory which has been adopted as a purposive idea) to an identical cathexis of the same memory which it is hoped to attain once more through an intermediate stage of motor experiences. (pages 761 to 762)

These final pages take us deep, deep into Freud’s most theoretical musings about the nature of the mind and of thought, which tend to undermine the possibility of ‘reason’ at all, because he makes all the activities of the mind arise from a really primeval stratum of primitive needs, as transmuted into wishes, as repressed and distorted into a thousand and one memories, behaviour patterns, obsessions and so on. Nobody can think rationally, because this unconscious swamp is the basis of all human thought.

I’m not sure it’s worth reading the preceding 750 pages to get here, but they are in a sense the preface to a deep dive into a truly other vision of human nature, the human mind, human existence. All thinking is, in a sense, repeated attempts to recapture the primeval, primitive physical satisfactions of the baby which have been so thoroughly repressed that they can never be achieved. All humans are, in a sense, condemned to search endlessly for the unfindable. Hence [Freud doesn’t say this, I’m saying this] the universal notion of The Quest found across all human cultures.

F) The unconscious and consciousness: reality

The unconscious is vast and the basis of the psyche. The conscious mind is a small, fragile blip floating on the great unknown ocean of the unconscious.

The unconscious must be assumed to be the general basis of psychical life. The unconscious is the larger sphere which includes within it the smaller sphere of the conscious….The unconscious is the true psychic reality. (p.773)

Typically, Freud immediately goes on to say that this explains a lot of creative process too, with numerous poets and composers describing how their great works ‘came to them’ without planning, unexpectedly, whole and complete. Well…the unconscious!

The conscious mind is like a kind of sense organ for the perception of psychic qualities. It is entirely typical of Freud that this dense and difficult conceptualising gives way, on the page before last, to yet another reference to Greek mythology, and to the story of Zeus castrating his father, Kronos. Literature and myth are never far away in Freud’s writings. And are often a welcome respite from the more difficult technical passages.

And one of the oldest traditions of dreams, which he mentioned right at the start, 780 pages earlier, widely believed in the ancient world that they predict the future. Do they? No, not in a literal sense, no. And yet, in another sense:

By picturing our wishes as fulfilled, dreams are, after all, leading us into the future. But this future, which the dreamer pictures as the present, has been moulded by his indestructible wish into a perfect likeness of the past. (last sentences, page 783)

Criticism

The same period (1895 to 1900) saw the zenith of detectivehood in the fictional figure of Sherlock Holmes. Very widespread was the idea human personality as a mystery, a puzzle to be solved.

And the idea of psychic division into two opposing parts, light and dark, good and bad: the döppelgänger or split personality abounds in the stories of the time: Jeckyll and Hyde and The Secret Sharer and Dorian Gray and all the characters in Holmes leading respectable lives while concealing depths of vice and criminality.

After the long dull review of existing dream literature, Freud’s exposition his new theory of the interpretation of dreams contains steadily more and more personal material, including candid stories of antisemitism. He shares with us his identification with Hannibal; he describes himself as a conquistador; the narrative of the dream of Irma’s injection is above all a wish to be justified.

Surprisingly, maybe, there is no mention of the Oedipus Complex and little mention of childhood sexuality. He added notes about these to all the later editions, but reading the text as first published makes you realise how very bare of all his theories it is, or to put it another way, what a huge edifice of complex psychological theory it was to grow into.

Throughout the book you can see Freud extending the mechanisms revealed by his own dream analysis backward and forward in order to derive a psychology of all stages of life; in particular pushing the source of dreams back into childhood. The nature of childhood fantasy and its connection with childhood sexual feelings were become central to the development of the theory over the next five years.

Freud’s Antiquity: Object, Idea, Desire @ the Freud Museum

The Freud Museum

The Freud Museum is located at 20 Maresfield Gardens, London NW3 5SX, a 6 or 7 minute walk from Finchley Road tube station.

It’s the house which Freud’s English colleagues and supporters bought for him and his family to come to after the Nazis annexed Austria, and Freud’s lifelong home town of Vienna, in March 1938, forcing him to flee the country.

Freud himself was already very ill with the throat cancer which would kill him 18 months later in September 1939. But after his death Maresfield Gardens remained the Freud family home until his daughter, Anna Freud, herself a pioneer of child psychoanalysis, died in 1982. The house opened as a museum four years later.

It’s a fascinating place to visit at any time, light and clean and airy, with a comprehensive bookshop at the back, opening into a leafy London garden.

But the centrepiece of the museum is the ground floor where Freud recreated the study from his house in Vienna and which has been lovingly restored to how it was in his time. You can see the desk where he wrote so many great works, his bookshelves packed with leather-bound volumes of psychology, history and literature.

Freud’s desk at the Freud Museum, London (photo by the author)

You can see the famous couch, smothered in dark patterned rugs, where his patients came and lay and free associated their thoughts, projecting their hopes and fears and fantasies onto the inventor of psychoanalysis, who sat quietly listening.

Freud’s couch at the Freud Museum (photo by the author)

So far, so Victorian, in décor and furnishings.

But maybe the most striking and unexpected aspect of the room is the astonishing number of antiquities scattered everywhere. There are half a dozen or more glass cases packed with ancient statuettes and figurines, vases and jugs, there are busts on platforms and stands, lined up along shelves all round the room, and a double row of small antique figurines on his desk right in front of him, in his field of vision every day as he either wrote or listened to his patients.

Freud was an obsessive collector of ancient figures and antiquities all his life, building up a collection of several thousand by the time he died, and literally hundreds are stacked on shelves, in cases, on mantlepieces and stands. Everywhere you look, in every direction, hundreds of ancestral presences sit silently, looking out at you with a cold timeless regard, from very angle.

Another view of Freud’s study, showing desk (in the foreground), shelves and glass cases packed with antiquities

And that’s what this exhibition is about. It’s a small but powerful exploration of Freud’s lifelong fascination with archaeology and antiquity and the role they played in his writings, his practice, in his deepest formulations of the new ‘science’ of psychoanalysis which he invented and developed through 40 intensely productive years, and in the successive models of the human mind which he developed, refined and publicised.

Freudian reservations

Let me explain my position regarding Freud. Very like the other two world-shattering geniuses, Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, Freud’s influence is so enormous and all-pervasive, so underpins almost everybody’s modern notions of human nature and our behaviour in the world, that it’s more or less irrelevant whether most or all of it is ‘true’ or not.

The various versions of his theories and the hundreds of insights they generate have provided mental maps, sociological constructs amounting to an entire worldview which we all now inhabit, thronged with insights, phrases and terminology (Freudian slip, the unconscious, the ego, being repressed, ‘anal’ behaviour, Oedipal conflict) which are freely used in newspapers, magazines and conversation.

With regard to the psychoanalytical method – the talking cure – my understanding is that many scientific trials have been undertaken to assess the efficacy of psychoanalytical therapy compared with other depth psychologies, with more orthodox psychiatric treatment, with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and with drugs. But the attempt is problematic for quite a few reasons. For a start no two people are alike so what works for one patient might simply not work for another. It’s impossible or very challenging to set up a double-blind, controlled study.

For another thing, Freudian psychoanalysis doesn’t necessarily aim at a fixed outcome. CBT may cure a symptom which is preventing you from living your life happily, but Freudians would say it’s only addressed a symptom, not the underlying cause. Freudian psychoanalysis can be open-ended, can indeed last the whole of the rest of your life – which leads cynics and critics to attack it as a money-making scam, hooking the vulnerable into an endless sequence of sessions, at an exorbitant fee.

I was offered and took depth therapy on the NHS in my 20s, and know lots of people who’ve had extended psychotherapy of one sort or another. It didn’t cure me of anything but it certainly helped to be listened to, at length, discussing issues and memories which became quite painful to recall.

Nut even then, in the 1980s, there were lots of varieties and schools and flavours of psychotherapy and my understanding is that the range of practices and theories underlining them has continued to grow. But my understanding is that Freud invented the paradigm of counselling, of extended therapy which aims to dig deep to resolve deep psychological problems, on which all other schools of therapy are based.

Another line of attack is the number of scandals which have come to light about abusive analysts, drunk analysts, power-mad analysts, and so on. The analyst-analysand (therapist-patient) relationship does give the therapist an unprecedented amount of power to steer and control the emotional lives of the very vulnerable. But my understanding is that this kind of thing, like the abuse of power in many other positions (in the church, in sports coaching) can be reported and handled by the relevant professional bodies as well as the police and legal system.

Another line of attack comes from feminists who, right from the start, pointed out the hair-raisingly sexist nature of almost everything Freud wrote and protested his engrained view of women as biologically, physically and mentally inferior to men. You can’t deny it, it’s there on almost every page, along with entire essays dedicated to proving women’s inferiority. Feminist Freudians have tried to overwrite concepts like the notorious ‘penis envy’ which he thought girls and women suffered from, but  in this and many other concepts and assumptions, Freud remains rebarbatively sexist.

Then there’s the earliest and most unimaginative argument against Freud, that his obsession with sex, sexual drives, libido, anal eroticism, fetishism and so on prove that he himself was a sex maniac, a pervert, and so discredit the theory. You can see why a one-sided reading of his earlier theory, especially the early focus on the sexuality of children, would trigger this attack. But, for me, it betrays ignorance of the wider context of the theory which, especially in its later, expanded form, is just as interested in aggression, anger, depression, group psychology, and spends a lot of time exploring the idea of the conscience, the part of the mind which holds us to high standards and punishes us for our failures.

And most powerful of all is the accusation that, although many of his patients in the 1890s told him they had suffered real, physical sexual abuse as children, he was so disturbed by its apparent ubiquity that he couldn’t countenance it, couldn’t accept it; and that one of his central claims – that children fantasise about sexual activity (sex with the parent of the opposite sex, while hating the parent of the same sex, the insight he named the Oedipus complex) – was a denial of the reality of child abuse; that  Freud made what we now regard as the cardinal sin when treating child abuse, which is to refuse to listen and refuse to believe what his patients were telling him.

If true, this was obviously shameful for a physician, sworn to help his patients; but, more powerfully, successive critics have argued that this rejection of actual real-world abuse compromises his entire theory, leading to the accusation that the entire theory is based on a self-serving lie. His rejection of the fact of child abuse and transformation of it into the realm of infantile fantasy may be the most difficult accusation to counter and one which resonates to this day.

So I hope I’m aware of the battery of arguments which can be brought against Freud the man, against his theories, against his personal attitudes, against the inefficacy and/or luxury nature of his type of therapy, of the disproveability of the efficacy of the talking cure, along with plentiful historical examples of its abuse.

But, in my opinion, although many of these attacks deserve to be taken seriously, especially the final one, none of them can really dent the incalculable impact, for good or ill, which Freud has had on the vast shared set of values, ideas, concepts, phrases and ideas which we call Western culture.

Ancient figurine of the sphinx, central player in the legend of Oedipus, symbolising for Freud, as for generations of thinkers before him, the riddle of human existence, but which Freud boldly (arrogantly) thought he had solved

Until Freud’s time most psychologists, most philosophers and lawyers and, following them, most people thought of the human mind as basically Rational, a thinking machine which is aware of its own thoughts, can order and control them, home to Reason which guides our behaviour to rational, definable ends.

If people behaved irrationally then experts directly involved with human nature, such as philosophers or theologians or lawyers, developed explanations and excuses for this falling away from Ideal reason, ideas of possession by outside forces, or temporary madness and so on, notions which explained away people’s irrational behaviour in such a way as to preserve the basic premise that man is the Rational Animal.

In the Christian tradition which dominated western thought for a thousand years, and which in fact predates Christianity, going back through Stoic philosophy for centuries before Christ (cf Cicero and Seneca) – in this immense tradition, human beings have been endowed with reason by the Creator of the universe and, although this spark of Divine Reason may sometimes be clouded by ‘passions’ or frenzy or extreme emotion or drink or drugs, these are temporary aberrations from the basically rational soul which God has given each of us.

Freud’s theory blasts this model to smithereens. By the 1890s there had been plenty of secular thinkers, especially in the life sciences which were swiftly converted to Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution by natural selection, but no-one who undermined the old models of a God-given, rational mind so completely.

For Freud the mind is a battlefield, a site of endless conflict between conflicting psychological forces, drives, urges, instincts, wishes, dreams, fantasies, angers, anxieties and many more. His fundamental insight was that the human mind, far from growing into a stable, mature and reliable tool for managing our way through the world, is a dynamic, ever-changing site of tremendous psychic conflict.

Because – second big idea – the majority of mental activity is unconscious. We are only dimly aware or not aware at all, of the tremendous forces, urges, drives and so on which motivate us every waking moment and haunt us in our dreams. Why do so many people behave so irrationally? Why are so many people in the grip of compulsive behaviour which they know is self-destructive (smoking, alcohol, over-eating, drugs, risk-taking, outbursts of psychopathic anger or helpless despair) yet feel powerless to change?

Because we are driven by tremendously powerful unconscious forces which we repress and prevent ever emerging into full consciousness.

As Freud stumbled deeper into these discoveries in the 1980s, trying to make sense of what his clinical patients were telling him, engaging in the slightly dubious ‘self analysis’ of his own dreams and memories and feelings, and corresponding with his friend and intellectual confidant Wilhelm Fliess, he threw again and again used metaphors around the idea of having to dig down below the level of conscious thought, having to excavate layer after layer to get down to the basic fears, anxieties and so on which seemed to be driving his patients.

“Thus it came about that in this, the first full-length analysis of a hysteria undertaken by me, I arrived at a procedure which I later developed into a regular method and employed deliberately. This procedure was one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a buried city.”
(Studies on Hysteria, 1895)

Again and again Freud referred to the work he was doing with his patients to try and rediscover their childhood memories in order to free them of their adult illnesses, and the parallel work he was doing on himself, digging deeper and deeper into his own repressed memories, as forms of archaeology.

And it’s this, the meeting place between Freud’s continua use of the metaphor of excavation and archaeology, and the ancient objects derived from the actual practice of real world archaeology which Freud obsessively collected and packed into his study and invoked in his writings from the start to the end of his career as a thinker and writer – which this exhibition addresses and explores. Which it excavates.

The exhibition

The exhibition space is upstairs. It’s only one room but, considering the ideas whose origin it describes and investigates went on to transform all human culture and to underpin how almost everyone alive today conceives of human nature and of themselves, it feels like it contains an entire world. An atom bomb of ideas.

Installation view of ‘Freud’s Antiquity: Object, Idea, Desire’ at the Freud Museum, showing three of the six themes and their display cases, being Oedipus, Charcot and Dreams. Note the small number of items on display. But it isn’t the number of artefacts, it’s the ideas behind them that fill the room.

Exhibition structure

The exhibition selects twenty-five key objects – antiquities, figurines and statuettes, books and prints – each normally hidden from view, extracted from the clutter of Freud’s study for special attention and investigation at close range, to illustrate how Freud’s collecting was bound up with his development of the concepts and methods of psychoanalysis.

The exhibition is divided into six themes, which I’ll briefly list here then explore in greater detail:

  1. Oedipus:
  2. Charcot
  3. Dreams
  4. Gradiva
  5. Totem and Taboo
  6. Moses

1. Oedipus: the riddle of desire

Inevitably the narrative must start with Oedipus who gave his name to Freud’s notion of the Oedipus Complex. This is in fact just one part of the process of growth and maturing which Freud thought all boys go through. At around the age of 5 all boys have grown enough, and experienced enough pre-pubescent sexual feeling, to sense that they want to be very close to their mother and come to resent their father’s possession of her. In the unconscious mind, the boy wants to have sex with his mother and kill his father. Freud introduced the idea in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) and coined the term in his paper A Special Type of Choice of Object made by Men (1910).

The Oedipus story is super well-known ad previous thinkers had interpreted it and its symbolism. Freud used it to dramatise what he saw as a universal condition, a universal experience of all growing boys which they have to completely suppress in order to mature properly, but whose repression leaves its marks on the adult and, in some men, is constantly threatening to return, so that it has to be staved off with harsh mental defences which sometimes result in florid mental beliefs, patterns and behaviour.

But early on in the myth of Oedipus he has to solve the riddle put to him by the sphinx and so the story had another significance for Freud: for trying to excavate down into the psyche of each patient could also be described as solving their riddle.

Objects on display

On display from Freud’s collection are six objects connected with Oedipus, three vases, a statuette, an amulet and a print of Ingres’ classic painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx.

2. Charcot: from iconography to archaeology

Jean-Martin Charcot was a French neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology. Freud went to study with him in Paris in 1885 (when Freud, born in 1856, was 29). Charcot used hypnosis to treat patients who displayed physical symptoms with no organic cause, a class of patients categorised as ‘hysterics’. His work made the subject of ‘hysteria’ a popular one for doctors interested in psychology across Europe. A book was published containing comprehensive descriptions of Charcot’s work and numerous prints of his hypnosis of hundreds of patients.

A Clinical Lesson at the Salp​etri​ere​. Print of engraving by E. Pirodon after the oil painting by Andre Brouillet​ (​1888​)

But this stuff about Charcot is really here because Charcot was about the surface. There was a fair amount of showmanship in Charcot’s demonstrations, made to auditoriums full of admiring students, and Freud came to dislike the way Charcot exaggerated the patient’s superficial symptoms in order to cure them.

In reaction against Charcot, Freud set off in the opposite direction. His cures would be conducted not in public but in private; they would not be wonder cures achieved in one flashy demonstration, but the result of sustained engagement over a prolonged period of time. And above all they would not work by bringing florid symptoms (hysteria, weeping, sobbing, moaning, screaming) to the surface of the human mind, but quite the opposite, entail a systematic, extended, and ever-deeper excavation down through layer after layer of the human psyche.

Which is why the exhibition places next to the Charcot print a copy of the big leather-bound volume of Ilios, the huge work in which the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann described his discovery of the legendary city of Troy (in western Turkey). Freud was going to be an archaeologist of the human psyche.

3. Dreams: decoding the way to the wish

From ancient times through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, dreams were given a special place as omens, as warnings from the gods, as indicators of good or bad fortune for the dreamer, and thousands of books had been written interpreting the universal symbolism of dreams. In 1880s and 1890s scientific circles the view was the opposite: that dreams are the meaningless by-products of physiological processes of the mind.

In his breakthrough book, The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud proposed a middle way: that dreams do have a meaning, a symbolic purpose, but that they are not universal to mankind. Each dream has a meaning which is specific to the dreamer. Each dreamer’s mind selects images which symbolise individual and specific hopes, fears etc.

Each dream is a wish fulfilment but what exactly the wish is, and how it is converted into particular images, can only be established by lengthy, in-depth excavation down through the layers of the conscious mind and into each patient’s unconscious.

The display case shows an ancient wine jug, a bust and a warrior figurine. The Interpretation of Dreams includes scores of Freud’s own dreams. In one of them his wife Martha gives him a drink from an Etruscan cinerary urn like the one on display here. The urn represents satisfaction of a basic instinct (thirst) but also symbolises the wished-for return of an object like it which he had given away then regretted.

It’s a fairly simple demonstration of the way we humans give objects multiple everyday or conscious meanings, and then how images of the objects are recombined in the unconscious to emerge in strange combinations, accompanied by sometimes haunting, sometimes terrifying, sometimes blissful emotional feelings, in our dreamlife.

4. Gradiva: tracing the pathways of archaeological desire

Gradiva plays a special role in the history of Freud’s writing about writing i.e. about literature, which he was to come to have such a seismic influence on. In 1907 he published his first full-length analysis of a literary text, a novel by the German writer and poet Wilhelm Jensen titled Gradiva: A Pompeian Fantasy which had been published in Vienna in 1902, so it was quite a current work.

Straightaway the word Pompeii should alert us to the fact that the book is going to play straight into Freud’s fascination with ancient ruins. Freud refers to the relevance of Pompeii, where secrets had been long buried and were now being excavated and restored to the light, to his own concepts of psychoanalytical therapy, in his letters to Fliess in the mid-1890s, and he actually visited Pompeii itself in 1902.

In this novel the hero, Norbert Hanold, who is studying archaeology, ‘falls in love with’ (becomes obsessed with) an ancient bas-relief of a young woman striding along in a Roman toga.

Cast relief of ‘Gradiva’​ (​1908​)

Since the relief was found as part of the excavation of the buried city of Pompeii (just recently being unearthed) the hero decides to travel to Italy, and to the archaeological site, to find this woman, or her spirit, or her reincarnation.

So you can straightaway see how the novel is about a man in the grip of a delusion and a compulsion, psychological territory Freud was striving to make his own during the later 1890s and early 1900s.

In the end, after failing to find the modern avatar of the beautiful statue anywhere in the real world and after some painful self-analysis, Hanold comes to realise that who the woman reminds him of is a childhood friend who lives opposite him back home, returns, tells her of his love etc.

For Freud the novel is rich in confirmations of his theories. The hero had youthful erotic feelings for this neighbour but his strict upbringing forbade him from acknowledging them. Instead he repressed them and sublimated them i.e. redirected his psychic energy into the socially acceptable medium of studying archaeology and ancient history.

When he came across the bas relief as part of his studies, he was seized, possessed by something about it which he couldn’t define. Well, that’s because he had completely repressed his childhood longing for his sweetheart. the feeling remained but divorced from its source. So the bas relief became what Freud calls a compromise formation i.e. a real-world object which can ‘satisfy’ his libidinal drive and desire, but in a socially acceptable mode (i.e. a perfectly natural part of his adult studies).

The obsession he develops with it, however, obviously goes beyond the bounds of the ‘normal’ and this is like the patients who came to see Freud, people in the grip of obsessive, compulsive, neurotic thoughts or behaviour which they couldn’t explain and couldn’t shake off.

It also plays right into Freud’s hands that the hero is depicted as having numerous florid and bizarre dreams, thus allowing Freud to apply the insights he’d recorded in The Interpretation of Dreams to show how Hanold’s dreams were continually urging acknowledgement of his real-world love, but were blocked from doing so by the forces of repression and so emerged in complex combinations of symbols and imagery.

And the way the heroine, Zoe, cares for Hanold after his breakdown, slowly coaxing him back to health and to accept his love for her, is comparable to the psychoanalytic method Freud had devised, the famous listening cure.

Objects on display

On another level, the novel is about the journey of a repressed north European to the warm south which has, for centuries, symbolised release into and acceptance a world of sensual pleasures which we uptight northerners deny ourselves in order to function in our advanced capitalist economies.

The excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii had unearthed a surprising number of explicitly sexual objects, specifically depictions of the erect penis, often with wings, a magical object worthy of veneration or kept as a lucky charm or amulet. The fact that this is still regarded as shocking or bizarre shows you how far we are from the ancient world’s frank acceptance of the facts of sex.

Six phallic objects and amulets from various cultures of antiquity, part of Freud’s collection. You are free to regard these as sinister, sexually suggestive, funny (as I do), or as examples of the ancient world’s frank acknowledgement of the importance of sexuality in human life, which had to be censored, suppressed and policed in industrialised, capitalist societies. At the same time, this or any other view you have is quite obviously a projection of your own personal ideas, memories, associations and patterns of thought onto simple, cold, inanimate objects, and it is this power of mental projection onto objects which it is part of the aim of the exhibition to both explore and to demonstrate.

5. Totem and Taboo: the search for origins

Another criticism of Freud is that he quite early on strayed beyond his area of supposed expertise i.e. psychology (theory of the mind) and psychiatry (practical cure of mental illness) into subjects quite beyond his speciality. And it’s true. He not only produced a substantial body of literary and art criticism (essays and book-length studies) but did the same in anthropology and theology.

In 1913 he published Totem and Taboo. It was partly a response to his protegé Carl Jung who was rebelling against Freud’s insistence on the centrality of repressed sexuality and the Oedipus Complex in all human development. Therefore it ups the stakes by asserting that the Oedipus Complex is not only a part of the normal development of every boy, but explains a founding event in actual, real-world history.

Freud asserted that the founding event of ancient societies was an actual parricide, where the sons of the chief rose up and killed him, then claimed access to the queen or women of the harem. A sexual rebellion. But, crippled by guilt at murdering their father, the sons then set about repressing all memory of it, denying and blocking anything which would indicate their great crime. And this is the origin of the compulsive taboos which contemporary anthropologists observed in so many ‘primitive’ societies.

Freud then goes on to make the grandiose claim that this Primal Event was the foundation stone of all religion, morality, society and related art.

Objects on display

On display are copies of ‘The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion’, the hugely influential compendium of myths, legends gathered from all round the world by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, which influenced a generation of writers and thinkers. A two-volume edition had been published in 1890 but Freud owned the twelve volumes of the third edition, published serially from 1906 to 1915. His copies, some of which are on display here, are covered with pencilled notes and he incorporated much material from the book into Totem.

Amusingly, Freud sent a copy of Totem and Taboo to Fraser, who didn’t deign to reply.

The curators don’t mention this but my understanding is that almost every aspect of Totem and Taboo has been disproved. It very obviously represents a kind of imperial ambition by Freud to move his theory out of the world of private practice and discreet papers written for specialist journals, and stake a claim to making major discoveries in history, anthropology, the origins of religion, morality and so on.

Although the specific claims made about ‘primitive’ societies being comprehensively rejected by actual anthropologists, Freud successfully made a new myth about himself and his role as explainer of everything. It was the kind of grandiose ambition which drove one-time followers like Jung, and others like Adler and Rank, to secede from the official psychoanalytic movement and set up their own variations.

A digression on Freud’s sociological writings

This world-claiming ambition, this tendency to stray way beyond his area of expertise and set himself up as a master explainer of society is evident in many of Freud’s later works. In The Future of An Illusion (1927) he sets out to disprove religious belief by rewriting every religious belief and practice in terms of psychoanalytic terminology (repression of sexual urges, ‘sublimated’ into love of an all-powerful father, accompanied by a world of obsessive-compulsive rituals and ceremonies).

In 1930’s Civilization and Its Discontents Freud applies psychoanalysis to sociology, arguing that modern, mass, industrial, capitalist societies need to enforce widespread suppression and control of people’s libidinal urges, not just to sex but to express other needs and drives, and it is this systematic repression of human needs which makes so many people unhappy in modern society. In many ways this turned out to be Freud’s most influential work, because it influenced social reformers and would-be revolutionaries, especially in the utopian 1960s.

Anyway, this final display is about Freud’s deepest foray into myth, legend and so on as he took on the roots of Christianity and, behind it, of Christianity’s parent, Judaism.

Freud was a Jew who accepted his secular inheritance but rejected the religious aspects of Judaism. Running alongside the obsessive references to archaeology throughout his writing career, which this exhibition focuses on, was Freud’s parallel obsession with denying and debunking religious belief and practice at every opportunity.

There are quite a few Freudian explanations of this noticeable obsession. One is that he was guilty about rejecting the religion of his forefathers and so spent his entire life trying to deny its reality. A subtler one is that Freud didn’t so much deny the reality of the Jewish religion as attempt to rewrite it in his own terms. In his imperial way, he attempted to overwrite religion, to write it away. Coming from a different angle, you could say that this ‘obsession’ was a response to the lifelong anti-semitism which he and his family and Jewish friends and colleagues suffered on an almost daily basis, in personal encounters but also in the press and culture of turn of the century Vienna.

Everyone mentions the fact that from 1897 to 1910 Vienna was run by the unusually powerful mayor, Karl Lueger, who oversaw the transformation of the city into a modern metropolis but at the same time exploited populist and anti-semitic feeling, legitimising widespread and semi-official antisemitism which some historians think established a model for the psychotic racism promoted by Adolf Hitler who was, of course, Austrian and an impressionable teenager during Lueger’s time in office.

You can take your pick of interpretations or mix and match all of them and this, also, is a Freudian idea which he called over-determination. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud speculated that individual dream images or narratives can operate on multiple levels or be representing more than one wish or drive. Same with the symptoms his patients presented with. Overdetermination occurs when a single-observed effect is determined by multiple causes any one of which alone would be sufficient to account for the effect.

Thus I routinely describe historical events as ‘over determined’, such as the First World War, for which historians have proposed a vast number of causes. The Freudian notion of over-determination i.e. multiple cause for one event, frees you up, allows you to accept a number of different explanations, allows you to experiment with apportioning different levels of responsibility for different events.

It’s an example of the way Freud’s theory gives conceptual definition to the complexity of life, motivation, simple and complex events which we all know are multi-levelled and multi-motivated. Freud’s theory provides a theoretical underpinning for this multiplicity of viewpoints, about anything.

6. Moses: the return of the repressed

Freud’s last published work was not a grand summary of his theory (although he was working on one, which remained unfinished). It was the long, densely argued and eccentric work of religious sociology, Moses and Monotheism. In it he applies the Oedipus story to the entire history of the Jewish people, his people, in an attempt to dethrone the founder of Judaism, Moses. It was itself a nakedly Oedipal attempt to overthrow the father and assert his (Freud’s) moral and intellectual independence.

For Freud makes the scandalous assertion that Moses was not himself Jewish. Freud argues that Moses was in fact an Egyptian prince, but one who followed the heretical teachings of the pharaoh Akhenaten. From what we can tell, Akhenaten, the tenth pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, who ruled from 1353 to 1336 BC, attempted to overthrow the Egyptians’ traditional polytheism i.e. belief in a large and florid pantheon of gods, and replace it with worship of the One True God.

Tasked with overseeing the Israelite captives in their slave tasks, this Egyptian prince, Moses, tried to impose Akhenaten’s strict monotheism on them but they rose up and, as in the classic Oedipal narrative, murdered their father figure. But, like all good Oedipal actors, they then couldn’t cope with the guilt of their deed and repressed it, wiping out all memory of the historical event, and instead reinventing Moses as one of their own and a wise and good teacher.

Following the basic model of the mind he had postulated as long ago as 1897, Freud speculated that knowledge of their collective murder kept threatening to leak out and so the Jews, as a people, instituted a comprehensive system of taboos and restrictions, the most famous being not to eat pork, but there are hundreds of others. As time went by these taboos were expanded and elaborated until they dictated almost every aspect of everyday life, as well as a host of religious rituals.

This last display takes Moses and Monotheism to be not only the climax of Freud’s career as a writer but of his vaulting ambition to establish a psychoanalytical version of human history, society, and the origins of religion and morality. Like Totem and Taboo there’s something slightly mad about this book, disreputable about its theories and the interpretations which Freud applies to history and strain to breaking point. It’s absurd. But there’s also something awe inspiring about the man’s grandiose ambition.

If you stop thinking about it as a serious piece of archaeology or sociology and consider it as simply a piece of imaginative writing, the ambition and the ingenuity with which Freud attaches his theory to every aspect of Jewish history, theology and practice are dizzying.

Objects on display

A small statuette of the Egyptian god Amon-Ra, who Akhenaten promoted as the one true God. A print of Rembrandt’s famous painting of Moses coming down from the mountain holding the tablets of the law. An edition of the Philippson edition of the German Bible. And a small hannukah lamp, associated with domestic Jewish ritual.

The end wall and right-hand wall of the exhibition, showing the section about Gradiva (at the end) and Totem and Moses, on the right

Objects and meanings

The title of the exhibition includes the word ‘objects’ because among Freud’s many insights is the way all of us project wishes, desires, anxieties onto all the objects around us all the time. We not only relentlessly anthropomorphise the world – that’s level one psychology; we also personalise the world by investing all manner of objects around us with value and meaning. And these meanings alter over time, over very short periods as our moods or memories change, as events invest them with new auras of meaning, some of them over lifetimes.

In other words, all the objects around us are invested with some measure of significance, we can’t stop ourselves. And so the exhibition’s attention to the objects which Freud a) collected obsessively b) positioned all around him in his working environment c) described, discussed, referred to and invoked endlessly in all his writings from start to finish is both an ‘exploration’ of the significance of some of the objects, but also the evocation of all kinds of associations and feelings in us, the visitors.

H.D.’s interpretation

Freud arrived in London before his belongings. When these arrived, especially the crates containing his carefully wrapped antiquities, his friend and former patient, the American poet H.D., sent Freud a bunch of gardenias with a note ‘to greet the return of the Gods’.

HD is also represented by a short but powerful quote on the main introductory wall label. Here she is recorded as noting, in her memoir of Freud and her psychoanalytical treatment, what we’ve already observed, that his rather staggering array of figurines, statuettes and antiquities were intimately bound up with his development of the concepts and methods of psychoanalysis. But she goes on to say something more. She has the insight that they helped Freud to ‘stabilise the evanescent thought’ that was continually at risk of dissipation.

This is a new and powerful insight. I’ve already mentioned the idea of ambivalence, which follows from Freud’s dual structure of the mind (conscious mind struggling to repress all kinds of unconscious urges). Once developed, this explains how we can all have ambivalent or contradictory feelings about objects, because there is so much going on in the unconscious which we’re not aware of, and because the human psyche’s tendency to project these feelings, moods, anxieties, desires onto all manner of inanimate objects around us.

So much for ambivalence. And so much for the notion that Freud used the antiquities to inspire his ideas about excavating and archaeology. It’s a typically voodoo, Freudian, psychoanalytical insight, one which appears absurd on the surface but slowly makes more sense the more you ponder it, that the figurines littering his desk and study, also in some sense, limited and controlled his thought.

Because if there’s one thing about Freud’s achievement as a writer, it’s that he was so very fecund with ideas. From the initial insights around 1900 were to spring an exploding, ever-ramifying, ever-more complex system or network or matrix of ideas and insights and categories and theories and terminology which he never ceased developing and refining, and which he consciously amplified and spread beyond psychology into disciplines far removed from his area of expertise, as this exhibition makes abundantly clear.

So maybe the figurines not only inspired his writing (and his treatment) but also brought him back to the thing he started writing about, focused things back on the project in hand. They were instruments of inspiration and control.

Who’s to say whether this is ‘true’ or not, but by this stage, hopefully, you have joined me in not being so concerned about the truth of a lot of this so much as its interpretive and, above all discursive power. It enables the imagination. Psychoanalysis’s uncanny combination of scientific phraseology applied to ideas which sometimes seem acute, sometimes way off beam, sometimes suck you in and make you see the world in a completely different way, this all leaves the pragmatic world of truth values far behind as we go romping through a wild and shaggy, dense and huge, huge and fascinating imaginative realm.

Three figurines from Freud’s collection. Which one – smooth elegant Egyptian, primitive fertility figure, or happy dancer – do you identify with, and why?

Digital archive

The exhibition is accompanied by a digital multimedia resource, containing video recordings, podcasts, photos of rarely seen objects from the collection, and a list of suggested reading.


Related links

The Freud Museum has had a previous exhibition specifically on the theme of archaeology:

Related books

The Museum has produced a comprehensive catalogue for the exhibition, with essays expanding the themes raised in the wall labels. But, unsurprisingly, there also turn out to be quite a few book-length academic studies of Freud’s fascination with antiquity and obsession with collecting:

Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) by Jerome K. Jerome (1889)

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’ He said we should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds (including what there was of Harris’s); and the hard work would give us a good appetite, and make us sleep well.

Three Men in A Boat is routinely included in any list of the funniest books ever written in any language. It describes the lazy dawdling progress of three late-Victorian ‘chaps’ on a 2-week boating holiday up the River Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back again. Despite being slapdash in ‘plot’ and very uneven in tone, it was wildly popular upon publication, has sold solidly ever since and been translated into loads of languages. Why?

Guidebook to a new type of activity

One answer is that the book caught the spirit of a moment when commercial activity on the Thames had all but died out, almost the entire barge traffic which dominated it having been decimated by the railway revolution of the 1840s and 1850s. As a result a new fashion had been developing since the 1870s for boating as a leisure activity. In fact at various points the narrator complains about the Thames becoming too busy with pleasure craft, with thousands of skiffs and rowboats and his particular bete noire, the steam pleasure cruiser.

The book was originally conceived as a mixture of history book and tourist guide to cash in on the newish pastime, and quite literally showed ‘how to do it’, with advice on how to hire a boat, what kind to get (our heroes hire ‘a Thames camping skiff’, ‘a double-sculling skiff’), an itinerary with top sights to spot, what to expect, how far to expect to travel each day, with historical notes about Romans and Saxons and kings and queens and the castles and monasteries of each Thames-side settlement.

‘We won’t take a tent,’ suggested George; ‘we will have a boat with a cover. It is ever so much simpler, and more comfortable.’

Admittedly the book as we have it now almost completely submerges this factual information in prolonged comic digressions and humorous sketches, but as a practical guide, it still has a vestigial interest: most of the route, the locks and so on are unchanged and most of the pubs and inns named are still open. Here’s an example of Jerome’s factual but dreamy guidebook style:

From Wallingford up to Dorchester the neighbourhood of the river grows more hilly, varied, and picturesque. Dorchester stands half a mile from the river. It can be reached by paddling up the Thame, if you have a small boat; but the best way is to leave the river at Day’s Lock, and take a walk across the fields. Dorchester is a delightfully peaceful old place, nestling in stillness and silence and drowsiness. Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times; it was then called Caer Doren, ‘the city on the water.’ In more recent times the Romans formed a great camp here, the fortifications surrounding which now seem like low, even hills. In Saxon days it was the capital of Wessex. It is very old, and it was very strong and great once. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.

How to holiday

The second element is it shows you what tone to approach such a holiday in, namely one of humorous self-deprecation. It is not only a guide to the route and its sights, but the mood and manner of insouciant larking around to take on such a holiday.

The book is less of a guidebook than a toolkit of whimsy, humour, comedy, irony, pranks, mishaps and ironic reversals. Reading any passage at random makes you feel lighter and gayer. In fact it is a model, in its simplicity and sustained good humour and sheer fun, of what a modest staycation should be like and, as most of us know to our cost, rarely is.

Humour

This brings us to the third and most obvious element which is the humour, the comedy, and the most striking thing about the book which is how incredibly well the humour has lasted. Much of Three Men in a Boat is still very funny indeed. Jerome manages to turn almost every incident and passing thought into comedy with the power of his whimsy and frivolous invention.

I was hooked from the moment in paragraph three when the narrator describes what a hypochondriac he is, how the minute he reads any advert for a new medicine he becomes convinced he has all the symptoms of the relevant illness, and proceeds to develop this into a comic riff about how he once went to the British Museum to read up on a slight ailment he thought he had, and then found his eye diverted by another entry in the medical encyclopedia and, in the end, ended up reading the entire thing from cover to cover, convinced he had every symptom of every ailment listed in the book, from Ague to Zymosis.

I had walked into that reading-room a happy, healthy man. I crawled out a decrepit wreck.

He doesn’t stop there. His new-found health anxiety led him to pay a worried visit to a doctor friend who  sounded him out, discovered where he’d been and what he’d been reading and calmly gave him a prescription for… exercise, fresh air and to stop poking about in subjects he didn’t understand!

The narrative opens on this mood of restless and entirely fictional hypochondria, as the narrator (‘J’) and his two pals meet up for a drink and a pipe, and all agree they need some kind of break, some kind of rest cure… This leads into a comic consideration of all the alternative types of holiday available with the invariable disasters they entail, with a particular lingering taking a sea cruise and a vivid comic description of the prolonged sea sickness it so often leads to… until:

George said: ‘Let’s go up the river.’

They discuss the novel charms of a slow cruise up the River Thames… And off we go. (Actually, as the book progresses, we discover that they have been on quite a few boat trips up the Thames before, but somehow that doesn’t dampen the initial boyish enthusiasm.)

Play acting

And this is another aspect of it: the three chaps in the boat are in a sense playing at being late-Victorian larks. There is a strong element of play-acting, of theatricality, in many of the best scenes and this encourages the reader to take part in the acting.

When I was a student there were chaps who liked to wear boaters and blazers and hire punts on the river. They were acting the part of chaps punting along the willow-strewn river while their lady loves lay back among the pillows, trailing one hand in the river and holding a glass of chilled champagne in the other. It encourages a spirit of acting.

The models of the narrator’s two chums, Harris and George were, in real life, the founder of a London printing business (Harris) and a banker who would go on to become a senior manager in Barclays (George). But not on this trip. On this jolly jaunt they are acting the parts of incompetents and fools larking around.

Male friendship

Which brings us to the chappiness of the chaps, the fact that the book is not only a record of an idyllic trip through an idealised bit of English landscape, but is also an idealised account of male friendship. If only our real friends were as whimsical, funny, amusing and doggedly loyal as the chaps in the boat.

Having gone on various all-male holidays myself, I know that a key element of them is the sense of exaggerating each other’s shortcomings and characteristics. Things always go wrong and the sign of a good holiday, and of a good relationship, is to retain good spirits and a sense of humour whatever happens.

Without wanting to sound too pompous about it, a key element in this kind of practical, camping, outdoors-style venture is the element of forgiveness. If one of you sets the tent up all wrong so that it falls down in the middle of the night in the middle of a rainstorm, it takes a lot of character, and of love, not to get angry but to keep your sense of humour.

One way to manage this is to turn each other into cartoons. I had a couple of friends who went on an epic journey across South America. They had difficult times made worse by drunkenness and general incompetence. They discovered early on that the way to avoid anger and arguments was to treat each other as cartoon caricatures of themselves, so they weren’t criticising each other (which is hurtful) but were attacking each other’s cartoon avatars (which was funny and defused tensions).

In fact they developed a particularly powerful variation on this theme which was to mimic a couple of  fictional sports commentators, Brian and Peter, alternating commentary on their real-life activities in wheedling, whining, microphone voices of two fictional

‘In a long career of cocking up travel arrangements, surely this is Dave’s biggest screw-up of all, turning up at the airport a day after their flight had left. Brian.’

‘Thank you, Peter, yes in a lifetime of commentating on drunken Brits fouling up abroad, I think this definitely takes gold medal. It looks like young Dave now has no serious competition for the Most Incompetent Tourist of the Year award which he has, to be fair, put so much effort into winning’.

By turning each other into comic caricatures, male friends can be quite brutally critical about each other, but in a way which defuses tension and increases male bonding.

George and Harris

So the three chaps are not only characters but caricatures, types. Very early in the book we learn that Harris is caricatured as the Lazy One.

Harris said he didn’t think George ought to do anything that would have a tendency to make him sleepier than he always was, as it might be dangerous. He said he didn’t very well understand how George was going to sleep any more than he did now, seeing that there were only twenty-four hours in each day, summer and winter alike; but thought that if he did sleep any more, he might just as well be dead, and so save his board and lodging.

And the drinker.

I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: ‘Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;’ ‘Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of ’88;’ ‘Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886.’

No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. ‘Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!’ The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.

And the glutton:

Harris said there was nothing like a swim before breakfast to give you an appetite.  He said it always gave him an appetite.  George said that if it was going to make Harris eat more than Harris ordinarily ate, then he should protest against Harris having a bath at all.

While George is caricatured as Dim, so that everyone can enjoy feigning surprise every time he makes a sensible suggestion (which he does, in fact, all the time; the whole idea of a trip up the river is his, after all). George always knows ‘a little place just round the corner’ which will serve a jolly fine whisky or brandy or whatever the occasion demands. ‘George said he felt thirsty (I never knew George when he didn’t)’.

And ‘J’, the narrator, thinks of himself as the imaginative, soulful one who does all the organising, a contention the other two vehemently deny.

Englishness

A central aspect of Englishness is a kind of dogged incompetence. I have Canadian cousins and I am quietly appalled at how good they are at everything. Their jobs, their cars, their airplane deals, the house on the lake, their camping, their barbecues, they’re just super capable at everything.

By comparison, whenever I try a barbecue the sausages are burned on one side, raw on the other or smell of paraffin; I not only can’t handle the massive armoured cars most people drive around in these days, but they terrify me. Whenever I went camping the inner tent always touched the outer tent so that the rain came through and, generally, dripped precisely on my face or that of my angry partner. I went canoeing once but, although I’m quite confident on water, ended up going round in circles and eventually gave it up in frustration.

In all these respects and more I think of myself as very English, in living a life of quiet frustration, putting up with endless humiliation by shop assistants, local government officials, crooked financial advisers, maladroit tradesmen, pestering insurance salesmen and countless other rip-off merchants, living in a small, over-crowded, angry country run by buffoons, painfully conscious all the time of my own failings and lack of ability.

For a whole year I’ve been meaning to fix the trellis currently leaning against the fence to the fence with battens and screws so I can plant some climbers for it. But in order to do that I need to figure out where to go to buy the wood to make the battens, how to saw them to length, which make of electric screwdriver to buy (battery or cord) and then which size of screws. It is a forest of impenetrable obstacles. I wonder if it’ll ever get done. Can’t help feeling my Canadian cousins would have done it in half an hour and then got on with organising another delicious barbecue.

(I’d written that paragraph, looking out the window at the trellis, before I came across the sequence in chapter 3 of Three Men In A Boat describing at comic length the legendary incompetence of the narrator’s Uncle Podger and the mayhem he causes his entire extended family, the servants and neighbouring shopkeepers in his cack-handed attempts to simply hang a picture on a wall. The inability to do even the simplest household chore reminds me of all Charles Pooter’s domestic accidents in Diary of a Nobody. Both books show that being useless at even the simplest household tasks has been a hallmark of English comedy for at least 130 years.)

Heroic failure is the English way. As no end of commentators have pointed out, the British most remember their military disasters, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the siege of Mafeking, the massacre at Isandlwana, the Somme, Dunkirk and the Blitz. We like it when we’re being hammered. Until very recently our tennis players and our footballers have been notable for their dogged third-rateness (Tim Henman, any England squad since 1970).

American humour tends to be smart and snappy, a festival of fast-talking, wisecracking one-line-merchants from Groucho Marx through Cary Grant in his screwball comedies to Woody Allen. English humour is about fumbling and falling over things: Dad’s Army, Some Mothers Do Ave Em. Ooh Betty. They don’t like it up ’em, Captain Mainwaring. This tone of perplexed failure is perfectly captured in the narrator’s description of bathing in the sea from the start of the book:

It is the same when you go to the sea-side. I always determine—when thinking over the matter in London—that I’ll get up early every morning, and go and have a dip before breakfast, and I religiously pack up a pair of drawers and a bath towel. I always get red bathing drawers. I rather fancy myself in red drawers. They suit my complexion so. But when I get to the sea I don’t feel somehow that I want that early morning bathe nearly so much as I did when I was in town.

On the contrary, I feel more that I want to stop in bed till the last moment, and then come down and have my breakfast. Once or twice virtue has triumphed, and I have got out at six and half-dressed myself, and have taken my drawers and towel, and stumbled dismally off. But I haven’t enjoyed it. They seem to keep a specially cutting east wind, waiting for me, when I go to bathe in the early morning; and they pick out all the three-cornered stones, and put them on the top, and they sharpen up the rocks and cover the points over with a bit of sand so that I can’t see them, and they take the sea and put it two miles out, so that I have to huddle myself up in my arms and hop, shivering, through six inches of water. And when I do get to the sea, it is rough and quite insulting.

English weather

Foreigners often accuse the English of being obsessed with the weather. This is because it is so perverse and unpredictable. Occasionally we do actually have hot summers but my lifetime has been marked by confident predictions of ‘barbecue summers’ which end up being dismal washouts. Not that the English weather’s particularly interesting, it’s rare that you have really hot blue-sky summer days and, where I live in London, we rarely if ever have snow in winter. English weather is usually boring and mundane, lacking vivid extremes, like English culture generally. I read once in the CIA Handbook that for more than 50% of the time the English sky is grey and overcast. I remember it feeling like that during the entire premiership of John Major, 1990 to 1997.

Anyway, any adult English person has had the experience of organising a barbecue or birthday party or wedding reception outdoors in a garden or park or grand mansion only to have it rained off by steady, grey. ‘Rain stopped play’ is one of the commonest terms in cricket. It’s amazing that Wimbledon ever makes it to the final on schedule given the amount of time lost to English summer rain. The gloomy weather is a big part of that heavy-hearted sense of entirely predictable failure and disappointment which is at the heart of the English character.

Hence the national obsession with weather forecasts, on telly, the radio, in all the papers, despite the fact that any rational adult knows the weather forecast is usually wildly wrong. I remember looking at the BBC’s weather forecast for my part of London which told me it was hot and sunny despite the fact that, out the window, at that very minute it was chucking down with rain. As in so many big organisations, reliance technology meant the weather forecasters were relying more on their expensive computer model than looking out the bloody window.

Three Men In A Boat shows you that nothing has changed, the weather forecast was just as rubbish 130 years ago:

I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper. ‘Heavy showers, with thunderstorms, may be expected to-day,’ it would say on Monday, and so we would give up our picnic, and stop indoors all day, waiting for the rain.—And people would pass the house, going off in wagonettes and coaches as jolly and merry as could be, the sun shining out, and not a cloud to be seen.

‘Ah!’ we said, as we stood looking out at them through the window, ‘won’t they come home soaked!’

And we chuckled to think how wet they were going to get, and came back and stirred the fire, and got our books, and arranged our specimens of seaweed and cockle shells. By twelve o’clock, with the sun pouring into the room, the heat became quite oppressive, and we wondered when those heavy showers and occasional thunderstorms were going to begin.

‘Ah! they’ll come in the afternoon, you’ll find,’ we said to each other. ‘Oh, won’t those people get wet. What a lark!’

At one o’clock, the landlady would come in to ask if we weren’t going out, as it seemed such a lovely day.

‘No, no,’ we replied, with a knowing chuckle, ‘not we. We don’t mean to get wet—no, no.’

And when the afternoon was nearly gone, and still there was no sign of rain, we tried to cheer ourselves up with the idea that it would come down all at once, just as the people had started for home, and were out of the reach of any shelter, and that they would thus get more drenched than ever. But not a drop ever fell, and it finished a grand day, and a lovely night after it.

The next morning we would read that it was going to be a ‘warm, fine to set-fair day; much heat;’ and we would dress ourselves in flimsy things, and go out, and, half-an-hour after we had started, it would commence to rain hard, and a bitterly cold wind would spring up, and both would keep on steadily for the whole day, and we would come home with colds and rheumatism all over us, and go to bed.

Voilà the English national characteristics: the complete incompetence of the forecasters, the blithe indifference of the newspapers (or radio or telly) which publish this twaddle day after day, the utter unreliability of official information, the inevitability that whatever you decide to do will be wrong, and the one over-riding certainty of disappointment. A Philip Larkin world.

Hence, the one time our trio of chums need a cab to collect their stuff from the front door and take them to Waterloo station in a hurry the road, which is usually packed with empty cabs hurtling back and forth, is empty. Similarly, when they get to Waterloo they can’t find anyone who knows the platform for the train to Kingston.

Activities the English (in the shape of J, Harris and George) are doomed to fail at

  • going on an ocean cruise – seasickness
  • putting up a tent in the rain – recipe for homicidal rage
  • hanging a picture on a wall – reduce entire family to tears
  • swimming in the sea – cut your feet to ribbons and get half drowned
  • running a train system – it was an over-priced shambles in the 1880s and still is
  • washing their own clothes in the river – disaster
  • rigging up the hoops and canvas over the boat for the night – they manage to get tangled in the cloth and nearly throttled
  • cooking scrambled eggs – J had never heard of this dish before but Harris turns it into a burned mess
  • opening a tin of pineapple with a knife – impossible to do without serious injury
  • finding a room for the night in Datchet – never do this
  • singing a comic song after dinner – Harris should be banned from even trying
  • playing the bagpipes – when a young fellow J knew practiced at home the neighbours called the police and accused him of murdering his family

To say nothing of the dog

I’m not a dog person, but I appreciate that many English people are, and so I can see that the character of the dog Montmorency, a mischievous fox terrier, is a vital component in the story. He brings a warm, snuffling supplement to the human narrative, either getting into mischief or shedding an ironic light on the human shambles, adding the final cherry on the cake to many a comic moment.

Take the scene in chapter 14 where the chaps knock up a supposed Irish stew by combining the leftovers in the party’s food hamper:

I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.

A cat couldn’t do that, add that final comic touch. Any sensible cat would have sloped off long ago to the warm lap of a homely lady happy to stroke and feed it fishy titbits all day. A dog sticks it out through thick and thin, no matter how incompetent his master(s). Mind you, Montmorency is not quite the tail-wagging, faithful hound some people make out.

When first he came to live at my expense, I never thought I should be able to get him to stop long. I used to sit down and look at him, as he sat on the rug and looked up at me, and think: ‘Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him.’

But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.

To hang about a stable, and collect a gang of the most disreputable dogs to be found in the town, and lead them out to march round the slums to fight other disreputable dogs, is Montmorency’s idea of ‘life’.

And again:

Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.

And:

We spent two very pleasant days at Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had got to heaven.

The dog is one more prompt for that amused exasperation which is the tone of the book throughout, that resigned tolerance of each other’s foibles (that’s to say inadequacies and incompetence), the cussed obstinacy of the universe, the stupidity of other river users, with the dog thrown in as an additional element of chaos and frustration.

Montmorency’s ambition in life is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.

He came and sat down on things, just when they were wanted to be packed; and he laboured under the fixed belief that, whenever Harris or George reached out their hand for anything, it was his cold, damp nose that they wanted. He put his leg into the jam, and he worried the teaspoons, and he pretended that the lemons were rats, and got into the hamper and killed three of them before Harris could land him with the frying-pan.

Harris said I encouraged him. I didn’t encourage him. A dog like that don’t want any encouragement. It’s the natural, original sin that is born in him that makes him do things like that.

Montmorency helping to untangle the tow line

The dog speaks, by the way. It is given a variety of opinions and several passages of dialogue, once with the cat in Marlow High Street, once when it challenges the kettle to a fight. And it’s not the only normally non-speaking entity to be attributed agency. I was particularly taken with the story of his earliest attempt to sail a boat in which he and his friend struggled to even erect the mast and then managed to get themselves completely tangled up in the sail.

The impression on the mind of the sail seemed to be that we were playing at funerals, and that I was the corpse and itself was the winding-sheet. When it found that this was not the idea, it hit me over the head with the boom, and refused to do anything.

Digressions

Three Men In A Boat in a sense consists almost entirely of digressions. It’s as if, having laid out the narrative of what actually happened in its logical order, Jerome then pondered how he could exaggerate every single incident into the most preposterous comic riff possible.

He has a fantastic comic conceit, i.e. the ability to take a simple idea and develop it into a preposterous and fantastical series of exaggerations. Thus when they’re discussing what food to take, they all solemnly agree no cheese, which prompts J to launch a fairly straightforward joke about the way cheese is very smelly.

For lunch, he said, we could have biscuits, cold meat, bread and butter, and jam—but no cheese. Cheese, like oil, makes too much of itself. It wants the whole boat to itself. It goes through the hamper, and gives a cheesy flavour to everything else there. You can’t tell whether you are eating apple-pie or German sausage, or strawberries and cream. It all seems cheese. There is too much odour about cheese.

But this is only the beginning: mention of cheese leads the narrator to remember the time a friend bought some cheeses in Liverpool –

I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool. Splendid cheeses they were, ripe and mellow, and with a two hundred horse-power scent about them that might have been warranted to carry three miles, and knock a man over at two hundred yards.

– a story which becomes steadily more inflated and preposterous over the next four pages, as the cheese proceeds to alienate all the passengers in the train back to London, his cab driver who collects him at the station. The wife of the man he transported it for announces she is moving out of her house (and taking the children) until the cheeses are removed, and then the story develops a surreal, almost horror story persistence as the narrator tries dumping the cheeses in a nearby canal only for the barge drivers to insist the smell is making them ill and that he trawls them back up; he next sneaks them into a mortuary, but the coroner complains that he is trying to wake the dead, and the entire, by this stage surreal and absurd fantasy, only comes to an end when he takes them all the way to the coast and buries them deep in the sand, although people can still smell their strong whiff, but (comically) attribute it to ‘bracing’ sea air.

So it’s: 1. a book of wonderful comic digressions, a kind of unscholarly, more mundane version of Tristram Shandy – but also 2. it struck me how extended these digressions are; he rarely stops a comic conceit after a sentence or two when he can carry it on for as many paragraphs as possible.

Look at the four paragraphs about Montmorency’s character quoted above. Jerome could have stopped after the first paragraph, he’s made his point, it’s very funny. But he presses on for another three paragraphs, milking the notion of Montmorency being a serious hindrance to anyone trying to pack a bag to the absolute max.

Or take the extended sequence about the utter rubbishness of weather forecasts which I quoted above. That’s only the beginning. The weather riff then goes on for twice as much again, leading into a prolonged passage about the barometer in a hotel in Oxford which obstinately pointed to ‘Dry weather’ while it was raining so hard the lower part of the town was flooded.

Probably the book’s central quality is the ability of these digressions to take a comic ball and run with it for a really extended period of time, never dropping it, but blowing the original comic balloon up to the size of a zeppelin.

The fantastical

This raises a third point, which is the tendency of many of the jokes to cross a border from the realistic  to the ridiculous and then continue on into the positively fantastical. Many if not most of J’s extended anecdotes have this quality of exorbitancy, meaning: ‘exceeding the bounds of custom, propriety, or reason’.

I realised this during the account of their inability to find the right platform at Waterloo for the train to Kingston. At first it is realistic, in the sense that big train stations often are chaotic. Then it becomes enjoyably farcical as porters, officials and even the station master give completely contradictory advice. But then it crosses a borderline from exaggeration into outright fantasy when they find a train driver who’ll take them wherever they want to go for half a crown, so they pay up and this man drives his train to Kingston, without telling the station authorities or any of the passengers aboard apart from our chums.

So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston. ‘Nobody will ever know, on this line,’ we said, ‘what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.’

‘Well, I don’t know, gents,’ replied the noble fellow, ‘but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”

By this point it’s become as fantastical as a children’s story. You feel it’s only a small hop and skip and a jump from here to the Hogwarts Express. And then the punchline:

We learnt, afterwards, that the train we had come by was really the Exeter mail, and that they had spent hours at Waterloo looking for it and nobody knew what had become of it.

The book is generally described as a heart-warming story of a trio of chaps messing about in a boat. This element of fantastical exaggeration is surprisingly under-reported.

And excess. Here is the narrator descanting at length about the types of people who insist on fencing or chaining off their little bits of the Thames waterfront, or erecting officious noticeboards:

The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

‘Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.’

People associate the book with mellow nostalgia, but I hope I’m showing that it’s quite a lot more extreme and disruptive than that suggests. There’s a surprising amount of this comic excess, talk of murdering and strangling and burning and trampling and so on.

There’s a good microcosm of the process in chapter 12 where in just a few sentences you can follow the thought process going from reasonable to exaggerated to manic.

Maidenhead itself is too snobby to be pleasant. It is the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion. It is the town of showy hotels, patronised chiefly by dudes and ballet girls. It is the witch’s kitchen from which go forth those demons of the river—steam-launches!

(The more I read, the more I realised Jerome isn’t dealing in jokes; he writes entire comic sketches. Although he doesn’t do the deliberate surrealism, the way he carries a comic conceit from the funny onto the exaggerated and then to outlandish conclusions reminds me a bit of Monty Python. It is no surprise to learn that he started his career in the arts, in the theatre, as an actor, and wrote a dozen or so plays alongside his career as a prose writer and magazine editor.)

Purple prose and historical fantasias

This brings us to the last aspect of the book worth noting which is the continual advent, in between the extended comic digressions, of passages of over-ripe purple prose. This comes in two flavours: 1. soppy rustic idylls about nature and 2. historical fantasias when the author presents sub-Walter Scott descriptions of the passage of Good Queen Bess or some such historical personage through whatever historic old town or castle they’re boating past.

The many over-ripe nature passages are clearly written with his tongue firmly in his cheek:

The red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing. The little sail stood out against the purple sky, the gloaming lay around us, wrapping the world in rainbow shadows; and, behind us, crept the night.

We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset.

And are nearly always the prelude to an almighty thump of bathos. In this case J experiences this great communing with Nature at its most spiritual just before he steers their boat into a punt full of anglers who proceed to curse and excoriate them in extensive and colourful terms. So the purple passages are, at bottom, another type of joke, a variation on the idea of the extended comic passage.

Although some of them are maybe just meant to be happy, light and evocative, slightly tongue in cheek, but also capturing the beauty of unspoilt countrside.

Down to Cookham, past the Quarry Woods and the meadows, is a lovely reach. Dear old Quarry Woods! with your narrow, climbing paths, and little winding glades, how scented to this hour you seem with memories of sunny summer days! How haunted are your shadowy vistas with the ghosts of laughing faces! how from your whispering leaves there softly fall the voices of long ago!

Like P.G. Wodehouse a couple of generations later, the over-egging of these descriptions is part of their knowing, light, good humour.

2. A good example of his historical fantasias is when the trio reach Runnymede and J gives an extended imagining of Bad King John being forced to meet his rebellious Barons and taken on a barge to the island where he is obliged to sign the historic Magna Carta, all visions of bluff, manly, hearts-of-oak Englishmen.

the heart of King John sinks before the stern faces of the English fighting men, and the arm of King John drops back on to his rein, and he dismounts and takes his seat in the foremost barge. And the Barons follow in, with each mailed hand upon the sword-hilt, and the word is given to let go.

Slowly the heavy, bright-decked barges leave the shore of Runningmede. Slowly against the swift current they work their ponderous way, till, with a low grumble, they grate against the bank of the little island that from this day will bear the name of Magna Charta Island. And King John has stepped upon the shore, and we wait in breathless silence till a great shout cleaves the air, and the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty has, now we know, been firmly laid.

Many critics have objected to these passages as disrupting the flow of what they think of as a comic novel and feel ought to remain strictly in character as a Comic Novel. But I have already shown that the text is not as straightforwardly humorous as people think. To my mind both the rural visions and the historical fantasias are natural extensions of Jerome’s tendency to really extended comic fantasy. They are another type of tall tale. They share, along with the comic passages, the tendency to exorbitance, to overstep the bounds of ‘realism’ into fantasy.

Many critics have come down hard on these passages but, personally, I found them amusing and entertaining diversions, a relief from the need to be laughing all the time, so they added to the variety and pacing the text.

Also they have the charm of their time. It’s not as if we, nowadays, in 2021, get to read very much high-minded Victorian patriotic history. Modern historians are devoted to debunking the past and showing what a sexist, racist, slave-ridden society Britain has always been. It’s as pleasant to slip into Jerome’s manly, patriotic visions of English history as it is to pretend, for the duration of the reading, that one is a late-Victorian young buck messing about on the river.

Mock heroic

The mock heroic as a literary genre consists of:

satires or parodies that mock Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature. Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.

Obviously Three Men In A Boat isn’t a mock heroic work in this sense but, like much comedy, it uses mock heroic techniques. All I mean by this is two things:

1. As an extension of his habit of slipping into extended historical fantasies, Jerome also slips, often in the space of a sentence, into humorously comparing one or other of his companions or the dog, to heroic historical counterparts; as when Montmorency sees a cat in Marlow High Street:

We were, as I have said, returning from a dip, and half-way up the High Street a cat darted out from one of the houses in front of us, and began to trot across the road. Montmorency gave a cry of joy—the cry of a stern warrior who sees his enemy given over to his hands—the sort of cry Cromwell might have uttered when the Scots came down the hill—and flew after his prey.

He doesn’t say which of Cromwell’s battles he’s referring to, maybe to Cromwell’s decisive victory over them at the battle of Worcester in 1651. But the point is the humour in the vast dysjunction between a dog spying a cat in a road and one of the great battles of British history.

2. My other point is more specifically lexical, meaning specifically about language, and more specifically than that, about quotes. Like many comic authors before and after him, Jerome creates a comic effect by juxtaposing descriptions of his clumsy mates and their scrappy dog with solemn and portentous quotes, the more solemn and portentous the funnier the effect, and what language is more solemn and portentous than quotes from those twin peaks of the English language, Shakespeare and the Bible?

Thus he ends a comic passage about his school days and the unfairness of the way the only boy in his class who loved schoolwork was always ill and off school, whereas J and his mates, who hated schoolwork, always showed disgusting good health no matter how hard they tried to get ill and get days off school – he ends this passage with a mockingly solemn aphorism from the Bible:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven…

Although the naughty schoolboy in him can’t help adding a comic and demotic phrase to the end of this quote:

Such is life; and we are but as grass that is cut down, and put into the oven and baked.

You can almost imagine J or one of his friends solemnly intoning these phrases in the persona of a dreary vicar, delivering a wise and learned mock sermon on the subject of Harris falling into a stream or George driven mad with frustration at having a tin of juicy pineapple but no can opener to open it with.

(Compare and contrast with the use of Biblical quotes and phraseology by Jerome’s contemporary, Rudyard Kipling, who was saturated in the Bible, its phrases and rhythms, and aspired to, and sometimes matched, the solemnity of the original, as in Recessional.)

So much for comically inappropriate use of Biblical phraseology, as to Shakespeare, comic characters for centuries have used tags from the Bard out of context in order to heighten a comic moment. Thus when George forgets to wind his watch and wakes in the early hours to see, with panic, that it is a quarter past eight and he needs to be at the office by nine, his response is to repeat in comic mode an exclamation from Hamlet, tragically intense in its original context, but long since watered down to become a comic expostulation:

‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ exclaimed George; ‘and here have I got to be in the City by nine.’

3. As I wrote this I realised that alongside the mock heroic presence of these two reliable old warhorses, the Bible and Shakespeare, in the text, there is a notable absence: there are no Latin tags. Jerome had a surprisingly harsh upbringing in the East End, attending a day school, unlike most of the authors and critics of the time, who enjoyed the blessings of a preparatory school followed by public school followed by Oxford or Cambridge, all of which of course, soaked them in the Classics and explains why later Victorian literature is littered with Latin tags which ‘everyone’ was supposed to understand.

Not so Jerome. The absence of Latin is one of the subtle indicators of the slightly lower class vibe of the text which contemporary critics picked up on and criticised (see section on Demotics, below).

The narrator as raconteur

This wide range of comic effects is possible because the narrator early on establishes his persona as a raconteur, a story-teller and memoirist, which allows him very casually to introduce as many memories and incidents and anecdotes as he wants. The narrator’s tone and voice immediately create a very relaxed, flexible and roomy atmosphere. It’s indicated by the number of passages or sequences which overtly begin as memories and tales:

  • I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch—hay fever, I fancy it was…
  • I remember my brother-in-law going for a short sea trip once…
  • Another fellow I knew went for a week’s voyage round the coast, and, before they started, the steward came to him to ask whether he would pay for each meal as he had it, or arrange beforehand for the whole series…
  • He always reminds me of my poor Uncle Podger…
  • I remember a friend of mine, buying a couple of cheeses at Liverpool…
  • I lived with a man once who used to make me mad that way. He would loll on the sofa and watch me doing things by the hour together…
  • I remember a holiday of mine being completely ruined one late autumn by our paying attention to the weather report of the local newspaper…
  • There was a boy at our school, we used to call him Sandford and Merton…
  • It was my misfortune once to go for a water picnic with two ladies of this kind [fussed about their dresses]. We did have a lively time…
  • One golden morning of a sunny day, I leant against the low stone wall that guarded a little village church, and I smoked, and drank in deep, calm gladness from the sweet, restful scene…
  • Speaking of comic songs and parties, reminds me of a rather curious incident at which I once assisted…
  • I remember being terribly upset once up the river (in a figurative sense, I mean). I was out with a young lady—cousin on my mother’s side…
  • I remember going up once from Staines to Windsor—a stretch of water peculiarly rich in these mechanical monstrosities—with a party containing three ladies of this description…
  • I knew a young fellow once, who was studying to play the bagpipes…
  • I was one of a party who hired an up-river boat one summer, for a few days’ trip….

Some highlights

Passages that stood out for me included:

  • the time Harris not only got lost in the Hampton Court Maze but persuaded a whole load of other people to follow him until they were all lost
  • the time J took some young ladies dressed in the latest fashion for a boat trip and the comedy of their things getting wet and dirty
  • the comic passage about the time he was having a soulful moment in a graveyard which was interrupted by an interfering old man who wanted to show him all the tombs and monuments
  • the extended description of Harris making a complete fool of himself trying to sing a comic song after a dinner party
  • the comic anecdote of the German professor who sang a tragic song about a dying maiden but who two mischievous German students had told the foreign audience was actually a cheerfully comic song so that the foreigners guffawed and tittered all the way through, rendering the professor speechless with anger
  • the notion that the kettle can hear you expressing a wish for tea and so deliberately refuses to boil, so the best thing is to talk loudly about how the last thing you want is tea, then the perishing thing will boil, alright!
  • how, back in good King Henry’s day, the innocent day tripper couldn’t go anywhere without bumping into the bloody king and Ann Boleyn on one of their many snogging trips
  • the procession of our heroes down Marlow High Street after a shopping expedition for food and drink, accompanied by the ‘boys’ of almost every shop in the town, plus random urchins and various stray dogs

by the time we had finished, we had as fine a collection of boys with baskets following us around as heart could desire; and our final march down the middle of the High Street, to the river, must have been as imposing a spectacle as Marlow had seen for many a long day.

Jerome’s demotic tone

Nothing excuses violence of language and coarseness of expression…

Contemporary critics, upper-middle class to a man, tutted about Jerome’s slangy expressions and disapproved of the lower-middle-class character of the protagonists. They disliked their levity, their lack of respect for their elders and betters and authority figures of all types. Nothing is taken seriously, everything is debunked. Education.

I don’t understand German myself. I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since.

Or the high minded activities of worthy philanthropists.

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who ‘have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.’ Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year! It is not worth it.

Even the modern reader can, I think, detect moments when Jerome seems to be deliberately using slang expressions for effect:

  • She was nuts on public-houses, was England’s Virgin Queen.
  • For once in a way, we men are able to show our taste in colours, and I think we come out very natty, if you ask me.
  • We—George, Harris, and myself—took a ‘raw ’un’ up with us once last season, and we plied him with the customary stretchers about the wonderful things we had done all the way up. [where ‘stretchers’ seems to mean tall tales or whoppers]

The narrator has a habit of adding ‘like’ at the end of sentences, which is clearly non-orthodox and deliberately put in to make the tone just that bit East End.

  • Neither the beef nor the strawberries and cream seemed happy, either—seemed discontented like.
  • We had had a sail—a good all-round exciting, interesting sail—and now we thought we would have a row, just for a change like.

Equally non-U is the way the tone of many of the passages is surprisingly immoderate.

I never see a steam launch but I feel I should like to lure it to a lonely part of the river, and there, in the silence and the solitude, strangle it.

Take the extended passage about the wretched people who put up loud signs warning boaters from mooring on their river frontages which I quoted above, in which J tells us he’d like to burn down their houses and Harris declares he’d like to slaughter their entire families and sing comic songs on the ruins!

In addition to humorously contemplating murder and arson, the narrator cheerfully confesses to having, as a boy, been a thief, pure and simple:

Having acquired a taste for the water, I did a good deal of rafting in various suburban brickfields—an exercise providing more interest and excitement than might be imagined, especially when you are in the middle of the pond and the proprietor of the materials of which the raft is constructed suddenly appears on the bank, with a big stick in his hand.

And appears to recommend stealing a boat in the here and now:

To those who do contemplate making Oxford their starting-place, I would say, take your own boat—unless, of course, you can take someone else’s without any possible danger of being found out.

And the text contains a number of incitements to actual vandalism, which I can well imagine the property-owning classes and all right-minded critics sharply disapproving of.

Of course the entrance [to the Wargrave cut off the Thames] is studded with posts and chains, and surrounded with notice boards, menacing all kinds of torture, imprisonment, and death to everyone who dares set scull upon its waters—I wonder some of these riparian boors don’t claim the air of the river and threaten everyone with forty shillings fine who breathes it—but the posts and chains a little skill will easily avoid; and as for the boards, you might, if you have five minutes to spare, and there is nobody about, take one or two of them down and throw them into the river.

The three chaps come over as fairly middle class with their ‘drats’ and ‘dashes’ and ‘come on old chap’s so I was surprised when J admits a more working class accent in his circle. He describes going boating with a lady friend and how much it changed her temper for the worst. But it was her accent which surprised me.

‘Oh, drat the man!’ she would exclaim, when some unfortunate sculler would get in her way; ‘why don’t he look where he’s going?’

And it’s a telling detail that J doesn’t like Maidenhead because it is ‘too snobby’ and la-di-dah:

The London Journal duke always has his ‘little place’ at Maidenhead; and the heroine of the three-volume novel always dines there when she goes out on the spree with somebody else’s husband.

To summarise: it’s not as posh as it seems. In fact it’s odd to think a book so entirely associated with Hooray Henries dressed in boaters and blazers, hiring punts and hampers and recreating what they considered to be the book’s ineffably upper class and joshing tone, was ever criticised for its lower class attitude

It is just a comedy, but it’s a good deal more rough, anti-social and subversive than most people remember.

It is an ancient place, Streatley, dating back, like most river-side towns and villages, to British and Saxon times. Goring is not nearly so pretty a little spot to stop at as Streatley, if you have your choice; but it is passing fair enough in its way, and is nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill.

What he thought of the nineteenth century

  • some quaint-perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.
  • The sun had got more powerful by the time we had finished breakfast, and the wind had dropped, and it was as lovely a morning as one could desire. Little was in sight to remind us of the nineteenth century.
  • I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.
  • Mr. W. Lee—five times Mayor of Abingdon—was, no doubt, a benefactor to his generation, but I hope there are not many of his kind about in this overcrowded nineteenth century.

A purple patch about the river Thames

The river—with the sunlight flashing from its dancing wavelets, gilding gold the grey-green beech-trunks, glinting through the dark, cool wood paths, chasing shadows o’er the shallows, flinging diamonds from the mill-wheels, throwing kisses to the lilies, wantoning with the weirs’ white waters, silvering moss-grown walls and bridges, brightening every tiny townlet, making sweet each lane and meadow, lying tangled in the rushes, peeping, laughing, from each inlet, gleaming gay on many a far sail, making soft the air with glory—is a golden fairy stream.

But the river—chill and weary, with the ceaseless rain-drops falling on its brown and sluggish waters, with a sound as of a woman, weeping low in some dark chamber; while the woods, all dark and silent, shrouded in their mists of vapour, stand like ghosts upon the margin; silent ghosts with eyes reproachful, like the ghosts of evil actions, like the ghosts of friends neglected—is a spirit-haunted water through the land of vain regrets.

He’s fallen in the water

In chapter 13 they moor in a grassy spot for lunch. Harris makes himself comfortable on the loose edge of a little stream, starts to carve the appetising steak pie they’ve brought with them but, before anyone can do anything, the earth gives way and he falls into the stream, emerging moments later from amid the reeds muddy, wet and cross. The steak pie isn’t too happy, either.

The incident itself is fairly funny, but two things make it Jeromian. One is that Harris doesn’t just fall in the water, he vanishes! One minute he’s there, something distracts the other two for a second or so and, when they turn back, Harris has vanished leaving them utterly bewildered! For a moment they are thunderstruck… until they hear a wet groaning coming from the reeds. The book is full of moment like this, not just a bit funny, but extreme, like theatrical coups de grace, like a kind of verbal special effect, which stuns author and reader alike.

The second element is the cod Biblical, mockingly philosophical tone of the narrator as he describes the scene, a tone which marinates the entire book, by assuming a high-falutin’ tone in effect mocking all things earnest and pompous, mocking teachers and vicars and property owners and stationmasters and sextons, mocking Great Writers and Lofty Sentiments; contrasting the Timeless Wisdom of the Books of Books and the Immortal Spirit of Nature with the clumsy reality of three hapless young chaps who keep falling in the water and endlessly fighting.

Harris believes to this day that George and I planned it all beforehand. Thus does unjust suspicion follow even the most blameless for, as the poet says, ‘Who shall escape calumny?’ Who, indeed!

Shakespeare, again.


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Richard Dawkins and Christianity

Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

Dawkins obviously has a psychological problem with Christian believers. He won’t stop or let up in his attacks on the ‘foolish’, ‘misguided’ Christians and creationists who persist in their religious faith – despite the theory of evolution having provided a comprehensive answer to how life on earth originated but, above all, on why it has proliferated, become so diverse, and is so intricately interlinked, giving such an appearance of wonderful ‘design’ that the badly-educated or wilfully ignorant persist in claiming there must be an Omnipotent designer of it all.

‘Wrong wrong wrong!’ as Dawkins puts it with typical subtlety puts it in River Out of Eden.

Dawkins has devoted most of his adult life to writing a series of books which effectively repeat the same arguments against this kind of Christian obscurantism over and over again:

  • The Blind Watchmaker
  • River Out of Eden
  • Climbing Mount Improbable
  • Unweaving the Rainbow
  • A Devil’s Chaplain
  • The God Delusion
  • The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution
  • The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True
  • Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist

All of which lead up to his latest book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, published just last year as he entered his 78th year.

What motivates Richard Dawkins’s anti-Christianity

What drives this unyielding commitment to attack, criticise, undermine and ridicule Christians and creationists at every available opportunity?

Well, consider this excerpt from Dawkins’s Wikipedia article:

From 1954 to 1959 Dawkins attended Oundle School in Northamptonshire, an English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour, where he was in Laundimer house… Dawkins describes his childhood as ‘a normal Anglican upbringing’. He embraced Christianity until halfway through his teenage years, at which point he concluded that the theory of evolution was a better explanation for life’s complexity, and ceased believing in a god…

‘An English public school with a distinct Church of England flavour’. Aha.

In a nutshell, I think Dawkins argues so fiercely and unrelentingly with Christians, and with all the Christian attempts to adapt the theory of evolution to Christian belief, because he is arguing with his own younger self.

This explains why the arguing is so ubiquitous – why he finds The Enemy everywhere he looks – because the Enemy is in his own mind.

And it explains why the war can never end – because the young Dawkins’s naive and earnest Christian belief will be with him, dogging his every thought, like an unwanted Mr Hyde, until he dies.

It explains why Dawkins never takes on anti-evolutionary believers from other faiths, such as Jews, Muslims, Hindus and so on, and entirely restricts his obsessive attacks to Christian anti-evolutionists.

And it explains why the cast of straw men he sets out to demolish consists almost exclusively of Church of England bishops and American fundamentalists – because these are Protestant Christians, Christians from his own Anglican tribe.

Richard Dawkins’s Christian turn of thought

It also explains something else about The Blind Watchmaker and River Out of Eden, which is unexpected, counter-intuitive and easy to overlook.

This is that, amid the endless analogies, metaphors, comparisons and parallels that Dawkins is constantly drawing in order to make his polemical anti-creationist points, he still automatically invokes Christian examples, stories and texts – and here’s the most telling point – sometimes in a very positive light.

At these moments in the books, you can envision the bright-eyed schoolboy Dawkins, proudly taking part in each Sunday’s Morning Service at his Anglican public school, peeping through the text.

His fundamental attachment to Christian tropes pops up all over the place. Take the title of the book, River Out of Eden – why bring Eden into it at all? Why Christianise the story of DNA?

Same with ‘African Eve’ and ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, terms applied to the hypothetical female ancestor from which all currently living humans are supposedly descended… Why introduce the misleading word ‘Eve’ into it at all? Why piggy-back on Christian myth?

Casually he says a person’s DNA may be compared to their ‘family Bible’ (p.44) and that the mitochondrial DNA within our cells can be compared to the ‘Apocrypha’ of the family Bible (p.55). I wonder how many modern readers know, unprompted, what the Apocrypha are.

Later he casually mentions that the famous Big Bang which brought the universe into being ‘baptised time and the universe’ (p.168). Baptised?

Why reinforce the framework of Christian ideology like this, with a continual drizzle of Christian references – why not create entirely new metaphors and concepts?

Take the passage which purports to explain how the process of sex mixes up the parents’ DNA as it passes into their progeny. Within a sentence of explaining that this is his subject, Dawkins veers off to compare the mixing up of DNA to the textual history of the Song of Songs from the Bible.

Why? Does he really imagine his secular, multi-cultural audience will be sufficiently familiar with the text of The Song of Songs to take his point about changes and mutations in it? For the Song, he tells us:

contains errors – mutations – especially in translation: ‘Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines’ is a mistranslation, even though a lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal of its own, which is unlikely to be matched by the more correct: ‘Catch for us the fruit bats, the little fruit bats…’ (p.45)

‘A lifetime’s repetition has given it a haunting appeal’? A lifetime’s repetition by who, exactly? Have you spent a lifetime repeating these words from The Song of Songs? I haven’t.

This is pure autobiography and gives us a window into Richard’s mind and – it is my contention – demonstrates that Dawkins is coming from a far more deeply rooted Christian worldview than any of his secular readers.

Take another, longer example – the extraordinary passage in The Blind Watchmaker where Dawkins devotes a chapter of the book to arguing against the newish theory of evolution by punctuated equilibrium which had been proposed by paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould in the early 1970s.

But here’s how he starts the chapter on this subject: he asks the reader to imagine themselves in the scholarly field of ancient history, and to imagine a new scholarly paper which has just been published and which takes a literal interpretation of the story of the 40 years the ancient Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt and before they reached the Promised Land.

Dawkins goes into loads of detail about what this hypothetical paper would contain: He explains that the paper takes the claim that the ancient Israelites took 40 years to travel from the borders of Egypt to what is modern-day Israel at literal face value and then works out that the travelling horde must have covered about 25 yards a day, in other words, one yard an hour.

This is so patently absurd that the hypothetical ancient historian in this hypothetical paper Dawkins has invented, dismisses the entire story of the Exodus as a ridiculous myth, and this is what has rattled the cages of the scholarly world of ancient historians and brought it to the attention of the world’s media – in Dawkins’s made-up analogy.

At the end of two pages devoted to elaborately working out all the details of this extended analogy, Dawkins finally announces that this literalistic ancient historian’s approach is precisely the approach Eldridge and Gould take towards evolution in their theory of punctuated equilibrium – taking the physical facts (of the patchy fossil record) literally, in order to ridicule the larger theory of neo-Darwinism (neo-Darwinism is the twentieth-century synthesis of Darwin’s original theory with the Mendelian genetics which provide the mechanism by which it works, later confirmed by the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953; it is, strictly speaking, this neo-Darwinism which Dawkins is at such pains to defend).

Anyway:

1. I couldn’t believe Dawkins wasted so much space on such a far-fetched, fantastical, long-winded and, in the end, completely useless analogy (Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated evolution is like a hypothetical scholar of Bible history coming up with a new interpretation of the Book of Exodus!)

2. But for my purposes in this review, what is really telling about the passage is the way that, when he’s not consciously attacking it, Dawkins’s religious education gave him such a deep familiarity with Christian stories and the prose of the King James Bible and the Book of Prayer – that he cannot escape them, that his mind automatically reaches to them as his first analogy for anything.

And 3. that Dawkins expects his readers to be so equally imbued with a comprehensive knowledge of Christian stories and texts that he just assumes the best analogy for almost anything he wants to explain will be a Christian analogy.

Other examples of Dawkins’s Christian turn of mind

In the last third of River Out of Eden Dawkins introduces the rather abstruse idea of a ‘utility function’ which is, apparently, a concept from engineering which means ‘that which must be maximised’.

When it comes to life and evolution Dawkins says it is often useful to apply this concept to various attributes of living organisms such as the peacock’s tail, the extraordinary life-cycles of queen bees and so on, in order to understand the function they perform.

But then he staggered me by going on to say:

A good way to dramatise our task is to imagine that living creatures were made by a Divine Engineer and try to work out, by reverse engineering, what the engineer was trying to maximise: What was God’s Utility Function? (p.122)

And in fact this entire 44-page-long chapter is titled God’s Utility Function.

This flabbergasted me. The whole point of his long, exhausting book The Blind Watchmaker was to explain again and again, in countless variations, how the complex life forms we see around us were emphatically NOT designed by a creator God, but are the result of countless small mutations and variations naturally produced in each new generation of organism, which are selected out by the environment and other organisms, so that only the ones which help an organism adapt to its environment survive.

So why is he now asking the reader to imagine a God which is a Divine Engineer and Grand Designer?!!!!

Similarly, in Unweaving The Rainbow, which I’ve just read, he starts the rambling chapter about DNA finger-printing with a quote about lawyers from the Gospel of Saint Luke. Why?

And compares the lineage of DNA down the billennia to God making his promise to Abraham that his seed will inhabit the land, going on to give the complete quotation.

When he wants to cite a date from ancient history, it’s none of the acts of the ancient Greeks or Romans which spring to mind but but, of course, the birth of Christ, a handy two thousand years ago.

Continually, throughout all his books, the Christian framework, Christian dates, Christian stories, Christian quotations and Christian turns of phrase recur again and again.

Conclusion

In conclusion, you could argue, a little cheekily, that although Dawkins’s conscious mind and intentions and numerous books and lectures and TV programmes are all directed (with monotonous obsessiveness) at countering and undermining Christian belief – his unconscious mind, his boyhood memories, his love of the rhythms and images of the Christian Bible – mean that the Christian mythos, its legends and stories and even particular phrases from its holy texts, continually recur to him as his first choice for comparisons and analogies, and that as a result – unwittingly – he is reinforcing and re-embedding the very thing he claims to want to overthrow.

You could argue that Richard Dawkins is a fundamentally Christian author.


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William Blake @ Tate Britain

This is the largest survey of work by William Blake to be held in the UK for a generation. It brings together over 300 famous and rarely seen works, from the whole of his career, from all of his publications and projects, and sets them alongside works by contemporaries, friends and influences, in a blockbuster exhibition which spreads over 13 rooms.

Engraving

Blake was born in 1757 into a poor family in London’s Soho – his father was a hosier – who, nonetheless, supported his ambitions to be an artist. Aged 15 he got an apprenticeship to an engraver. At the age of 21 he became a student at the Royal Academy. He appears to have been studious, the exhibition contains a typical plaster cast classical statue which students had to sketch along with Blake’s drawings of it.

Distinctive style

Muscles

But from early on Blake developed an idiosyncratic and eccentric way of depicting the human body. Most of his work is depictions of the human body. Most of the bodies in question are naked or draped in simple Biblical robes, and all of them are extremely muscley, with a heavy, musclebound weight which is reminiscent of Michelangelo. Although the curators don’t mention it I’ve read somewhere that this striking musculature is in fact anatomically inaccurate, and designed purely for expressive purposes.

Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824 to 1827) by William Blake © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Flat and close

Other elements of his style include the lack of perspective. Figures almost always appear in a flat space. This gives them dramatic immediacy and directness, as in this striking image.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea by William Blake (1805)

Noses

In both these images note the strikingly aquiline noses of his figures. Sounds trivial but its a trademark of his style.

Anti-commercial art

Blake rejected much of the commercial art of his day, came to despise the Royal Academy, hated the way late 18th century art was dominated by society portraits or landscapes of rich people’s properties.

Visual purity

He wanted to forge something much more visionary and pure. This search for a kind of revolutionary purity reminds me of the Republican phase of the art of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, which also features: legendary, classical or mythical subject matter; half naked men showing off their six-packs; in striking poses; flowing robes and togas.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

But a comparison with David vividly brings out the difference: Blake was never an oil painter. None of his works evince the kind of lavish, luxurious depth and perspective and colour and light and shade of an oil painter like David.

Most of Blake’s images are engravings, of which he produced over a thousand, and a central quality of an engraving is its flatness.

There are also watercolours but, as the curators point out, these have the clarity of line, formality and flatness of engravings which have simply been coloured in.

There is rarely any perspective or depth. The backgrounds are generally sketchy. All the focus is on the (generally melodramatic postures) of the foreground figures.

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God by William Blake (1799 to 1809) © The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

Illustrations

Cain Fleeing exemplifies a major fact about Blake’s visual work, which is that the majority of was illustrations for classic works. Over his life he was commissioned to produce illustrations for:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft – Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
  • John Gay – Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
  • Edward Young – Night-Thoughts (1797)
  • Thomas Gray – Poems (1798)
  • Robert Blair – The Grave (1805 to 1808)
  • John Milton – Paradise Lost (1808)
  • John Varley – Visionary Heads (1819 to 1820)
  • Robert John Thornton – Virgil (1821)
  • The Book of Job (1823 to 1826)
  • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824 to 1827, unfinished)
  • Dante – Divine Comedy (1825 to 1827)

The exhibition features generous selections from most of these works, for example ten or more of Blake’s illustrations for the Grave or Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.

Bad pictures

What comes over from many of these obscure and little exhibited illustrations is how bad they are. Milky, washed out, strangely lacking in the dynamism which Blake, in his written works, claimed for his art.

Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, Design 113 by William Blake (1797 to 1798)

Bad, isn’t it? All the illustrations for the Elegy are like this.

Towards the end of his life Blake made 29 watercolour illustrations of the Pilgrim’s Progress which are similarly not much mentioned in his oeuvre. Being woke, the curators suggest this might be because his loyal, hard-working and artistic wife, Catherine, is said to have had a say in designing and colouring them, so their neglect is a sexist conspiracy. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just because they’re not very good. Here’s an example.

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

The composition, the use of perspective, the crappy buildings, the ludicrous posture of the figures, and the badness of their faces – everything conspires to make this picture, in my opinion, poor. And there are lots more of this low standard in the exhibition.

Good pictures

But what makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to evaluate is that Blake was also capable of coming up with images which turned his manifold weaknesses – the lack of depth, the odd stylised postures, the inaccurate anatomy – into strengths. This is true of many of the illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Take this depiction of the fate of the corrupt pope – the very unnaturalness of the postures and the weirdness of the setting work in its favour. To make it a deeply strange and troubling image.

The Simoniac Pope’ by William Blake (1824 to 1827) Tate

Take another of his archetypal images, Newton. The closer you look, the weirder it becomes – not least his musculature which makes him look more like an insect with a segmented back than a human being – and yet, and yet… it’s so weird that it’s true – true not to lived life or anything anyone’s ever seen, but to something stranger, more mysterious and more visionary.

Newton by William Blake (1795 to 1805) Tate

The illustrated books

Of course Blake was also a poet, an epic poet, a writer of immense long epics featuring a mythology and mythological characters he made up out of a strange mishmash of the Bible, the classics and Milton. Not many people read these long poems nowadays although, as it happens, as a schoolboy I read all of them cover to cover in the Penguin Complete Blake edition, so I have a feel for the vastness and strangeness of his imaginary world.

Blake produced the poems in books which featured his own line illustrations and decorations of the handwritten texts.

  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
  • Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
  • The Book of Thel (written 1788 to 1790, edited 1789 to 1793)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790 to 1793)
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
  • Continental prophecies
  • America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
  • Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794 to 1821)
  • The Song of Los (edited 1795)
  • There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794 to 1795)
  • The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794 to 1818)
  • All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
  • The Book of Los (edited 1795)
  • The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
  • Milton (written 1804 to 1810)
  • Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804 to 1820, edited 1820 to 1827 and 1832)

The exhibition features many of these illustrations to his own verse. There is, for example, half a room devoted to individual pages from America a Prophecy, which have been removed from the book and framed as prints. Some of them are displayed in double-sided cases set up on plinths so that visitors can walk around and see both sides. The most immediate thing you notice is how very small they are, old-fashioned paperback book size, which makes much of the writing very hard to read without a magnifying glass.

Title page of America a Prophecy, copy A (printed 1795) by William Blake © The Morgan Library

The shorter works

Even his contemporaries struggled with the obscure mythology, strangely named characters (Los, Urizen) and difficult-to-make-out plots of the longer poems. By contrast, two of the shorter works have always been popular, namely the pithy proverbs gathered in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

  • “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

and the short and simple poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contain his best-known and most anthologised poems. Of these probably the most famous is 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is undoubtedly a classic, but there is an odd and telling thing about it, which is that has become, over time, essentially, a children’s poem.

And this is emphasised by the illustration Blake did for it, which often comes as a shock to people who are familiar with it as an isolated text before they come to it in Blake’s illustrated version. It’s not just a children’s book illustration. It’s almost a baby‘s book illustration.

Tyger Tyger from Songs of Experience (designed after 1789, printed in 1794) by William Blake

Extremely hit and miss

And I think at some stage during the exhibition, it struck me that at some level, Blake is not a serious artist. He took himself very seriously, the small group of acolytes who gathered round him in his last years – the self-styled Ancients – took him very seriously, and critics and curators ditto, but… his long poems are all but incomprehensible and his own illustrations to his books are strange but often curiously childish and amateurish. His illustrations for Pilgrims Progress or the Elegy are deeply damaging to your sense of him as an artist. Some of the illustrations of Paradise Lost or Dante have a peculiar power, but many feel weak or half-finished. And strange random images throughout the exhibition leap out as expressing something no-one else had conceived or tried.

The Ancient of Days

Because every now and then, his peculiarities of style and technique (he pioneered new methods of acid engraving which the exhibition explains) come together to create something magical and genuinely visionary, something of depth and maturity.

‘Europe’ Plate i Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1827) by William Blake (1757 to 1827) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The curators end the exhibition with this painting, which Blake was working on right up to his final days, at his house overlooking the Thames. Who is it, what is he doing, nobody is sure, although the hand gesture which seems to be creating a sort of compass is, unexpectedly, a negative gesture in Blake’s symbolism, because mathematics and science are the enemies of the liberated and revolutionary imagination which Blake defended and praised.

Still, as with so much of the rest of his ‘thought’ and personal opinions, it doesn’t matter. Again and again the curators have had to admit that nobody knows what this or that picture really means or whether it is illustrating this or that scene from one of his vast mythological books – so much about Blake’s output is scattered, broken up and mysterious, that one more mystery doesn’t make any difference.

At his best, Blake created images of startling power and resonance which, even if we don’t understand their intention or meaning, have stood the test of time. But the high risk this exhibition has taken is placing that dozen or so brilliant imagines amid a sea of ok, so-so, mediocre and downright poor images which do a lot to dilute their impact.

Two gaps

No explanation of Blake’s politics

The curators mention in several places that Blake was a revolutionary thinker who engaged with the Great Issues of his day, and list those Great Issues as political revolution, sexual politics, and slavery, and he certainly did, in his long radical poems and his notes and essays.

The odd thing is you’d expect there to be, in such a big exhibition, some sections devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, explaining his revolutionary views, his support of the American and French revolutions, his ideas of the power of the unfettered Imagination, sexual liberty and his violent anti-slavery sentiments.

But panels or sections devoted to Blake’s beliefs are strangely absent. His views are mentioned in passing, in the context of t his or that work, but you can’t make sense of a work like America A Prophecy without some explanation of the attitude English radicals took to the war their own government was fighting to put down men committed to freedom & Liberty.

No explanation of Blake’s mythology

More importantly you can’t understand a lot of his images without delving into Blake’s own mythology, which was built around praising the power of the unfettered Imagination, in the arts and politics and private life, and which he elaborated out inventing a whole cast of pseudo-Biblical gods and goddesses.

This also was strangely absent – I mean all it would have taken was a panel explaining the symbolic roles of the characters he invented for the epic poems:

  • Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law
  • his daughters Eleth, Uveth and Ona represent the three parts of the human body
  • his sons Thiriel, Utha, Grodna, Fuzon match the four elements but are also aligned with the signs of the Zodiac
  • Los is the fallen (earthly or human) form of Urthona, one of the four Zoas

and so on, to at least give you a flavour of how strange, eccentric, but oddly beguiling his personal mythology could be.

Maybe – I’m guessing – the curators wanted to focus narrowly on his art, and on the technical ways in which he experimented with techniques of engraving, and with the immediate facts of his biography. That would explain why there were rooms devoted to particular patrons such as John and Ann Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, Thomas Butts and the Reverend Joseph Thomas.

I bought the audioguide. At the end of several sections on specific series of works, it said; ‘If you want to know more about the relationship between Blake and John Flaxman, press the green button’. My point being that all the additional information was biographical. Not one of them said: ‘If you want to hear more about Blake and the French Revolution, Blake and slavery, Blake and sexual Liberty, Blake’s theories of the imagination’ – all topics I’d love to have heard given a modern summary.

This biographical approach also explains why there is a big reproduction of a period map of London with markers indicating where Blake lived over the years. And even an entire room recreating the room in the family home in Broad Street where Blake staged a quirky one-man show in 1809, a show which was a disaster as hardly anyone showed up and the one critic who wrote about it dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the curators have opted for a heavily biographical approach to Blake’s work, placing the works in the context of his real life career and biography, his houses and wife and friends and champions and critics. This is all interesting in its way, but not as interesting as Blake’s imaginative universe.

At the age of eight William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a bush in Peckham Rye, then a rural backwater south of London. A few years later he had a vision of a tree full of angels nearby and, a month after that, a third vision of angels, walking towards him through the rye.

Blake really meant it. All through is life he claimed to have visions of angels and other divine beings, dancing and cavorting in London fields and streets. He was a visionary in the most literal sense of the word.

Although – with over 300 images – this exhibition is thoroughly documented and copiously illustrated, maybe the reason I left feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied was because I felt that Blake’s weird, peculiar and compelling imaginative universe had been almost completely left out of it.

There were plenty of framed pages taken from the illustrated versions of his ‘prophetic books’ covered with verse. But the verse itself wasn’t printed out on a label on the wall for us to actually read. There was an introduction to the subject matter of each one, but little explanation of what they meant or what he was trying to achieve.

This exhibition feels like a big, elaborately assembled, beautifully curated and presented catalogue of all Blake’s visual works. A list. A documentation of his works. But somehow, with all the fiery life, rebellion and pride of the Imagination taken out.

Blake’s life is presented as a story of professional frustration – rather than as a life of extraordinary imaginative triumph.


Related links

More Tate Britain reviews

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson (1992)

There is something to be said for inhabiting the gloomy corners of yourself; there are surprises to be gleaned there, jewels of the soul that only those willing to mine underground will ever find. (p.153)

This is an extraordinarily imaginative, powerful and original novel – quite a stunning bravura performance and mind-blowing conception. Its dense 340 pages describe the adventures of Cain, the Biblical son of Adam and Eve who murders his brother Abel, in a richly rhetorical, biblically heavy and sometimes impenetrable style.

The narrative alternates between third person descriptions of the young earth and the teeming mysterious creation, and Cain’s first person narrative – well after the murder – when he has become an outcast among men detailing, in particular, his experiences in the cosmopolitan and confusing city of Babel.

Jacobson’s natural prose style tends to the rhetorical and pontificatory. In this ancient, elevated subject matter it finds its natural home, raising itself to a permanent orotundity, incorporating Biblical phraseology, high-flown rhetorical tropes and repetitions, with extended meditations on membership of the First Family, of the nature of the jealous God, the passions of angels, the devious hero worship of the sectaries of Babel, and so on.

But, at moments, the book showcases something completely new in his work – an extraordinary visionary quality in the descriptions of the new-minted earth and heavens, still sparkling with freshness, unstable and experimental, of weird creatures, strange astronomical phenomena, of angels and mythical beasts, rendered in the style of a hallucinatory science fiction.

And then, all smiles, the skies opened and poured down shafts of rosy light; beams, in every sense of the word – great grinning girders of lambency in whose brilliant refractions the merest specks of dirt shone magnified like jewels hung around one gorgeous universal neck. The earth jolted, rocked once, then fell upon its axle. Stopped in its tracks, the engorged sun bounced as weightless as a bubble, pricking its circumference against mountains, leaking redness. (p.143)

It is an astonishing, visionary, strange and disturbing book.

The plot

There are two storylines. In one Cain in the first person reminisces about coping with his parents, the first humans, who are strange, puzzled, innocent, confused. His father does conjuring tricks and imitations  of the first animals, crand gets cross with God that he’s not allowed to have sex with Eve while she is still unclean from giving birth to Abel. Cain spends a lot of time naming all the new and puzzling things.

Eve, set apart in her impurity, is distant, remote. They are visited by two scruffy angels and Cain sees close up how badly designed they are, their great wings chafing against their arms. The biggest of them, Semyaza, returns to try and ravish Eve but, as he carries her screaming into the sky, the Almighty does his thing and suddenly the weakened angel falls to the ground, depositing Eve and shrinking away into dust.

These events are interwoven with the second storyline, a third-person account of Cain’s sojourn in Babel. He meets Naaman, his daughter Zilpah, Sisobk the Scryer, Preplen the satirical poet. Cain is now a performer, a lecturer, who addresses theatres full of fans and oglers keen to hear his story and the long-winded conclusions he draws from it. Cain has periodic conversations with Preplen who takes the mickey. Skinny Zilpah tails him and, in a memorable scene, in his bedroom, adopts a doggy position for him, pulling her buttocks apart to reveal her swart orifice, emitting its sour arable flavour (p.171), inveigling her way into his bed, pleading to be his slave and dog.

And Sisobk the Scryer appears to be the gateway to yet a third timeline: for he has visions and foresees biblical events far in the future: in one thread Moses and Aaron impose seemingly endless new divine regulations on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness until they rebel under the leadership of Korah at which God opens a crack in the earth into which the rebels fall screaming. Then Sisobk skips forward to the birth of Esau and Jacob from the womb of Rebekah, giving rise to lengthy and inconsequential meditations on the meaning of this Stone Age story.

Cain kills Abel

In the end Cain is overcome by Abel’s goody-goodiness, snaps and murders him, punching him to the ground then kicking his prone body, then covering his corpse in dust and rubble and stone until only his lifeless face remains. He is retelling and reliving the moment to the audience in the theatre in Babel, and abruptly we cut back to them, embarrassed by what they’ve hear, by the nakedness of Cain’s story, and the performance stops while they visit the rest room or order a refreshing sherbert. Cain stands dazed at the memory of what he did.

During this pause Naaman sidles up to him and – wishing to sever Cain’s unhealthy connection with his submissive daughter – says he’s heard about the murderer’s ambition of building a tower, here in Babel. Well Naaman just happens to know one which has been started, and can supply a troop of builders.

A lot of the warm puzzlement and ingenuity, the enthusiasm at the start of the book, the life, has drained out of the book by now. More and more characters are described as sad, melancholy, and the story feels abandoned. At some point it began to feel to me like a bleak modern allegory, like Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

After Cain has murdered his brother and is sitting pointlessly, abandoned, derelict, cradling his dead body  there is a powerful sequence when a talking raven asks him what he has done and then offers to dig a grave for him. It reminded me of the set of harsh modern myths Ted Hughes wove around the figure of his trickster bird, the crow. Harsh, dry, barren. For all its gorgeous rhetoric the lingering aftertaste of the book is of dust and ashes.

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)


A Jacobson stylistics

The Very Model of a Man is a powerful and bizarre creation but quite hard going in places. Even when I understood the events of the plot, they seemed strangely inconsequential compared to the tremendous wall of prose which Jacobson deploys, which far swamps the ostensible subject matter and drowns any ‘moral’ or ‘philosophical’ content which the book may be intended to have.

Most of the enjoyment, for me, came from analysing the techniques Jacobson uses to generate his magniloquent style. Almost all of the book is written in a high, ornate and ritualised poetic prose which few modern authors would dare or could achieve.

Repetition of clauses

As the German proverb has it, All Dinge sind drei, buses come in threes and so do clauses from orators who wish to grandstand and impress with the sonority of their rhetoric. These sets of three clauses, or phrases, occur liberally throughout the book; these are just from one page:

  • It wasn’t always a joy to him to be pierced by their mineral blue-green eyes, to be irradiated by the gold-filled tusks they showed in laughter always laughter, to be dazzled by the electric frizz of orange hair which many of them left uncovered.. (p.35)
  • They were brilliant, they were stellar, they were a moving mosaic of light… (p.35)
  • … a grandeur of feature, a weight of expression, an extravagance of facial swoops and circumflections. (p.35)

Using three booming clauses make it sound like you’ve said something deep and moving. Throw in a rhetorical question or a sweeping generalisation and you are moving into Cicero and Churchill territory:

  • Was this not proof of the generosity of their minds, the receptivity of their intelligences, the breadth and scope of their sympathies? (p.37)
  • He sees, for the first time, that it is artificially enlarged, the lobe distended, weighed down by a hanging ball of lead, the porch to the cavity itself gaping obscenely with the promise of infinite attention, infinite indulgence, infinite receptivity. (p.40)
  • Blind, blind, every woman in the hour of her adoration. Blind to reason. Blind to refusal. Blind to herself. (p.41)
  • He needed to speak further to his wife, repeat his performance for her, watch the dagger flashing in her glance. (p.82)
  • The other outdoor venues – the market squares where the prophets and pranksters gather, the parks and river banks that are popular with acrobats and near-sighted poetesses, the temple steps favoured by the little brown fairy-tellers from beyond the Indus… (p.114)
  • A slight woman confirms all his worst fears about existence. A slight woman proves the nugatoriness of things. A slight woman proves there is no hereafter. (p.171)
  • There he would be, up before any of us, already in the dirt, already rigid, already crying. (p.180)
  • All I knew of death was in his voice. It was without music, without colour, without desire. (p.251)
  • [God is] an indefatigable Proscriber. A rigorous Segregationalist. And a most fastidious Picker at food. (p.256)
  • It was up to me in other words. There was no order, no promise, no prediction. (p.260)

At some point repetition bursts the bounds of the threesome and just goes for it, the sophisticated rhetorician rejoicing in the fecundity of his proliferating periods.

  • Babel was thus ultimately the centre of every story, the haven to which all exiles dreamed of returning, the goal of every traveller, the reward of every virtue, the pattern for every striving, the paradise by whose loss every sinner calculated his deprivation and every criminal his fall. (p.38)
  • In Adam’s case a blow to the heart and to the soul, a stab in the back, a poisoning of the central nervous system, a torture to the mind, a suffocation and a braining and a garrotting… (p.54)

Eventually, if pressed in this direction, the prose spills over from numbered clauses to become a list and lists have a pleasure all of their own, conveying a sense of giddy profusion, the abundance of creation or, at least, of the author’s limitless lexicon.

In the cities of Shinar a shuri is assumed to be capable of discharging the simultaneous duties of daughter, sister, mother, companion, interpreter of dreams, reader of palms and minds and foreheads, laundress, seamstress, manicurist, pedicurist, defiled virgin, chaste harlot, contortionist, singer, dancer, looker, listener, linguist, mute, physician for all ailments of body or soul. (p.39)

Rhetorical questions

There are hundreds of these liberally scattered throughout the book, they are a fundamental building block of the style.

  • Who can go on dining on the gruel of fact once they have tasted the rich meats of uncertainty? (p.61)
  • Who would dare adjudicate between two such liberties taken with the name and justice-mechanism of the Almighty? (p.73)
  • How could I possibly have been ignorant of what was taking place? What kind of a son would I have been to my mother had I not seized every opportunity to observe her in her finest hour, captor and mistress of her Creator’s heart? (p.85)
  • [Eve] had always been weak before the power of art? What woman is not? Which of them is proof against a little culture laced with compliment? A song, a dance, a pretty turn of wit, for which she might conceivably be credited with the inspiration? (p.88)
  • You find me too sophistical in this matter? You would have a spade called a spade and greed and grudging given their proper names? (p.90)
  • When God smelled the smoke of Abel’s sacrifice, spread wide his nostrils to accommodate every pungent wisp and curl of it, do you think I fretted over the bounty He was sure to extend my brother in return? Do you think there were any cubits of inhospitable crawling scrub or homers of rotting straw to be handed over, that I could not bear to be without? (p.91)
  • Where would gods be without the devotion of women? (p.96)
  • Does it surprise you that I could feel concern for my brother’s safety, when it was I who at the very hour of his birth had passed a death sentence on him? It shouldn’t. Who can you possibly care more for than a person whose continuing existence depends largely on yourself? (p.104)
  • What else is a First Cause to do to spice up the tedium of predestined effect? (p.131)

The dense profusion of rhetorical questions suggests at least two sources. 1. Jacobson was a university teacher for a long time and asking rhetorical questions of your students is a basic pedagogic technique.

What else makes envy the most excruciating of the passions if not the dread of discovering your utter redundancy in the world’s business? (p.90)

2. The book is about Jewish history, Jewish teaching and Jewish hermeneutics. It powerfully suggests something particularly disputatious in a tradition so cluttered with hundreds of minute stipulations, all of which must be weighed and considered, and discussed and debated, never really reaching a conclusion.

Should he remove his clothing and then recite the ordinance, or should he recite the ordinance and then remove his clothing? (p.75)

Years ago I read the entire Old Testament and some books about Judaism and Paul Johnson’s epic history of the Jews, my conclusion was that it is a tradition designed to prompt endless questioning and debate about its plethora of prohibitions. The joy, the pleasure, is not necessarily in reaching any conclusion – because there are no conclusions – but in the learning and wisdom and intricacy and subtle humour of the argumentation.

Thou shalt? How did the grammar of that work? Was it an order? A prediction? A promise? Was the kingdom of sin being dangled before me as an enticement, a reward if I did such and such? Or had it been given to me, there and then, with no strings attached? (p.260)

However, there are risks. For a start, the addiction to questions sometimes topples over into questionable territory, posing posers which, on closer examination, don’t make too much sense.

What father does not want to hear his daughter confess an ugly and, if possible, unrequited infatuation? What father does not nurse the furtive ambition of having the old jealous dread – the humiliation of rivalry, the vicarious ignominy of rejection – realised just once? (p.265)

Not every statement which can be put into the grammatical form of a question deserves answering. And so isn’t there a risk that after the first hundred or so questions, the reader starts caring less and less about the answers?

Who would settle for being merely the apple of his mother’s eye, when he could be the arrow in her side, the thorn in her flesh, the pestilence in her blood? (p.283)

That the average reader, requiring some substantial points of narrative to cling onto, to orientate himself by, might eventually come to feel he is adrift in a never-ending surf of inquisition? That – on the 217th question, worn down by this cornucopia of quizzicality – the harassed target of these questions might simply reply: ‘I don’t know. You’re the bloody author. You tell me.’

Word play

Related to the joy of questions is a mindset which enjoys puns and quibbles over meaning. The simplest form is a thesaurus-like repetition of synonyms, or near-synonyms, which jostle a definition, cajole and cosset a concept, towards its unclear centre:

  • My father’s incautiousness, or absent-mindedness, or inability simply to feign knowledge when he lacked it… (p.47)
  • … the place we fled from: the fertile valley, our teeming cradle, omphalos, hell, home. (p.52)
  • The teeming land sent up more monsters in an afternoon than I could have catalogued in a year, but its store of validating commendation was exhaustible, finite, dwindling. (p.56)
  • his apostasy, disloyalty, defection (p.123)
  • The word is invariably grotesque to him now – overblown, foolish, laughable. (p.123)
  • He is as particular about his floor as he is about his appearance. Traveller’s scruples. Fugitive’s fastidiousness. (p.213)

Chiasmus and inversion. Jacobson is fond of using sentences which rework clauses, reword them, invert word orders or use the same word orders to extend or modify the concept.

  • They see into each other; she with pity threatening to be love, he with disinclination determined to be hate. (p.112)
  • He would like to lie down for a while. Rest his feet. Close his eyes. And try not to imagine all the ways he has inadvertently amused Naaman. To say nothing of inadvertently unamusing Naaman’s daughter. (p.113)
  • Had Moses been an early Freud – as Freud surely was, for the purposes of another sort of Jewish deliverance, a later Moses… (p.119)
  • He would not want to swear that he has heard what he has heard. But then again he would not want to swear that he has not… If he is unsure what he’s sure of, he is at least sure of what he isn’t. (p.325)

The narrator frequently uses homophonous words, multiples of words which sound around a notion, slinking and sliding around a concept’s slippery centre.

That’s the way to leave; that’s the way to turn your back on home. Fly like a stone out of a sling. Not slink, as he had. Not slope. Not sneak. Not snake. (p.270)

The pedantic correction

A variation on this is a professorial fussiness which insists on correcting itself, making a song and dance about its fossicking and finicketying, about how subtle and refined its perceptions are, a habit of self-adjustment which gives a (spurious) sense of precision to the narrator’s meditations. But not necessarily to the reader’s enlightenment.

  • And so saying – so intuning – … (p.111)
  • It could almost be said that although he hasn’t met her he has talked to her, for she regularly, no, she religiously, attends his recitals… (p.112)
  • His audience was exactly as Naaman had predicted it… with the exception – that’s to say, with the inclusion – of Naaman’s own daughter. (p.115)
  • ‘I intend – that’s too grand a verb – I think, only of a tower.’ (p.125)
  • And the someone else in question – the someone else I do not hesitate to put in question – (p.144)
  • All right, my mother said, let us suppose. But first what am I to suppose is the purpose of this supposition? (p.146)
  • I was man enough. Man enough to think I was man enough, anyway. (p.149)
  • He is in love with his own vagrancy. Would be in love with his own vagrancy. (p.153)
  • He isn’t a cause of Cain’s spongy fungoid blight – he is Cain’s spongy fungoid blight. (p.153)
  • He didn’t love her. He didn’t, that’s to say, discretely love her. (p.155)
  • She stopped what she was doing – what she was undoing – (p.178)
  • Over a shallow stream that we could wade across in three strides my father had thrown – no, had erected – a bridge… (p.178)
  • I do not believe it is his beauty that inspires this heaving love in me. That imposes this heavy love on me. (p.184)
  • He is in the womb of Rebekah… no… no… he is the womb of Rebekah. (p.217)
  • In the case of the last motive – no, I must return to my original word: the last prompting I have attributed to him. (p.245)
  • Which is a claim I am at least prepared to make for the disgust I felt – no, the digust I mensurated – (p.251)
  • An expression of the finest, most unadulterated angelic distaste passed over his features. Passed? No. (p.254)
  • He looked surprised that I needed to ask. No, not surprised – how could any of us surprise him? – sickened. (p.255)
  • She cannot conceal her shame. Or rather, she cannot conceal her awkwardness, and that is a cause of shame. (p.263)

The author is aware of this pedantic fossicking, the habit of never letting one word do when you can turn it over, examine it and try out several synonyms, as if searching for ever-diminishing, finer distinctions. He has the characters address it. In a late section of the book, when the character Sisobk the Scryer appears to have a convoluted dialogue with a roomful of rabbis, the narrator specifically attributes it to the Jewish tradition of learned exegesis, explication, which is described as ‘bookish and biblical’, characterised by a’passion for exegesis prevailing over all other passions’, making it:

Scholiastic. Disputatious. Talmudical. (p.272)

Learnèd tags

The verbal mannerisms of a pompous professor litter the discourse, as if it is an old-fashioned scholarly article.

There is an argument that says… A word of caution here… There is a rumour in circulation that… Accounts vary as to how long… It is sometimes said that… Who would dare adjudicate between… It could almost be said that…. so to speak… It may be a fact that… It could be said… I have a theory to explain… not to beat about the bush… in short… Suffice it to say… I have heard it said… It could be argued…

On a less high-falutin’ plane, he also uses more everyday phrases to give an air of adjudication and authority, using tags which sometimes remind me of civil service pomposity and at others veer closer to classic football manager rhetoric.

as chance would have it… in so far as he can be said to possess… as it were… it could be argued… to wit… if the truth is told… come to that… that’s to say… it goes without saying… when all is said and done…

Learnèd vocabulary

The text evinces a steady enjoyment of words as objects in themselves, as rare and precious as Biblical unguents:

  • ossicle – The ossicles are three bones in either middle ear that are among the smallest bones in the human body.
  • verrucose – Covered with warts or wartlike projections.
  • bacillophobic – An abnormal and persistent fear of bacilli (bacteria).
  • collops – a small slice of meat, especially a small rasher of bacon.
  • venereous – Relating to sexual desire or sexual intercourse; Addicted to sexual pleasure; lustful
  • frit – the mixture of silica and fluxes which is fused at high temperature to make glass.
  • sciolist – One who exhibits only superficial knowledge; a self-proclaimed expert with little real understanding.
  • feldspar – an abundant rock-forming mineral typically occurring as colourless or pale-coloured crystals and consisting of aluminosilicates of potassium, sodium, and calcium.
  • slub – a lump or thick place in yarn or thread.
  • squab – In culinary terminology, squab is a young domestic pigeon, typically under four weeks old or its meat.
  • epiphytic – A plant, such as a tropical orchid or a staghorn fern, that grows on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients.
  • funebral – belonging to a funeral, fr. funus funeral. Pertaining to a funeral or funerals; funeral; funereal.
  • alacrious – Brisk; joyously active; lively.
  • hin – A unit of liquid measure used by the ancient Hebrews, equal to about five litres.
  • mendicaments – a substance used for medical treatment.
  • nigrescent – The process of becoming black or dark. Blackness or darkness, as of complexion.
  • allopathic – a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated. The opposite of homeopahic.
  • coccygeal – a small triangular bone forming the lower extremity of the spinal column in humans, consisting of four ankylosed rudimentary vertebrae.
  • tenuity – lack of solidity or substance; thinness.
  • ensorcelled – enchanted, fascinated.
  • homer – an ancient Hebrew unit of capacity equal to about 10.5 or later 11.5 bushels or 100 US gallons.
  • foison – a plentiful supply or yield.
  • sacrarium – the sanctuary of a church. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a piscina; (in the ancient Roman world) a shrine, in particular the room in a house containing the penates.
  • fugacy – banishment.

Generalisations

Paradoxical generalisations infest the text like weeds. Jacobson is like a mordant Oscar Wilde, Wilde without the lightness or wit, Wilde with blood in his mouth and slub in his heart.

  • You have to be verbal to be disgusted. (p.51)
  • Words are power, and power has no truck with sensibilities. (p.51)
  • Ridicule is the jealous man’s salvation, the breath of all our being. (p.85)
  • Treachery stokes its own fires. It needs no circumstances or pretexts or motives. Motivelessness is the very thing it thrives on. (p.100)
  • What we call infatuation is nothing other than being mesmerised by the realisation that we can juggle violence. (p.105)
  • All obsessional behaviour this side of madness must make a concession to normality somewhere. (p.107)
  • Despair drives men to believe that riches and salvation are incompatible; and so, sometimes, does repletion. But seldom hope; and never hope in its infancy. (p.119)
  • As with mortals, so with gods: we lose ourselves in ill-definition and crave elucidation – heroic elucidation if we can find it – of who we are. (p.142)
  • Barring exceptional circumstances, there are only two reasons why a man of marriageable age remains a bachelor: either he doesn’t love women at all, or he loves them too much. (p.154)
  • A serious man talks to no-one but himself. (p.185)
  • The more a thing grows, the smaller its capacity to amuse itself. (p.189)
  • Mothers, of course, are always sad. (p.209)

There are scores of sweeping generalisations like this, part of the book’s discourse-creating machinery – but I don’t think there’s a single sententious sentiment which, upon reflection I don’t think is bogus. They sound high and mighty but – like a lot of the text – in the morning have melted and gone like snow.

Rhetoric instead of character

All this goes partly to explain why it’s difficult to remember much of what goes on in a Jacobson novel. In the texture of the prose there is an never-ending display of rhetorical fireworks, but events, actions ‘in the real world’? Which are structured into a sequence which creates a ‘plot’? Harder to discern. Often invisible, buried beneath the magnificent tapestry of rhetoric.

Teachers of creative writing say that character in a novel is revealed by dialogue and action but there is little of either in a Jacobson novel. Not much gets in the way of the ceaseless enchanter’s weaving of the ornate narratorial prosody. The 23-page chapter Cain Expatiates describes Cain’s feelings as he spies on his mother, Eve, nursing baby Abel and being wooed – sort of – impressed, and shown off to by a surprisingly anthropomorphic God. Cain expatiates exactly describes the scene, because in the entire long meditation on what it means for the Creator to be so attracted to one of his muddy creations, we get a beguiling and bewitching 20 pages of Cain’s elaborately rhetorical thoughts – and not a word from Eve. She does and says nothing. At one point Cain describes her character – ‘she was brittle, obstinate, unadaptable, impervious’ (p.93) and I realised, once these fine words had stopped dazzling me – that I had no idea what they meant, was not even sure, in fact, if they mean anything.

And so for all its gorgeous tapestries of words, for all its peculiar and intense inhabitation of Cain’s tortured consciousness and its imaginatively weird descriptions of the First Family, for all the appearance of scrupulous moral and psychological investigation created by the professorial tags and scholarly discriminations – for all its bizarre Talmudical reincarnations –  after I put the book down, the ornate baroque music of the prose rang on in my head for a while, humming and reverberating but… the plot, the meaning, the message of it all, whatever the book was actually about – evaporated from my memory like dew in the desert.

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)


Credit

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson by Howard Jacobson was published in 1992 by Viking Books. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator on an extended sojourn in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
1992 The Very Model of a Man – An extraordinary achievement, a bizarre and rhetorical imagining into the mind of Cain – son of Adam and Eve and murderer of his brother Abel – as he tortuously remembers the events leading up to the first fratricide, and spends his days as an outcast in the corrupt and cosmopolitan city of Babel.
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –

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