On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 2

‘It is the task of philosophy to dispel errors so that when we talk about the immortal gods we may say only what is worthy of them.’
(Gaius Aurelius Cotta, page 219, book III, On the nature of the gods)

On the nature of Cicero’s books

Cicero’s books are extremely argumentative. By which I mean that there are no descriptive or literary passages, only the briefest autobiographical passage at the start and then – bang! – straight into 150 pages of non-stop, unrelenting argumentation. Every paragraph is arguing a point, and he sometimes makes two or 3 points on a page. On the nature of the gods is only 150 or so pages long in the Penguin paperback edition but every page is crammed with a non-stop barrage of arguments, proofs and refutations.

The one really obvious attraction of these ancient texts is that they are accessible. By that I mean that the protagonists in a text like this use examples and ideas which are completely understandable by the man or woman in the street. Unlike modern philosophy there is a complete absence of: maths and maths-style logic (as found in analytical and logical philosophy); specialised technical terms; and, above all, the clutter and detritus of hundreds of other philosophical schools which have arisen over the past 2,000 years and left their semantic and conceptual wreckage strewn across the intellectual landscape.

Instead, the three protagonists in this dialogue about the nature of the gods almost entirely use ordinary language and everyday examples to make their points. For example when Velleius says that, if God only decided to make the universe, the sun and the moon and so on at some point into infinite time, does that mean that up till that moment he had been living in darkness like a pauper in a hovel? There is a lot more like this, a lot more crude sarcasm and taunting and ridiculing than you might expect in a ‘philosophical’ work.

(Actually, that’s not strictly true: from time to time the speakers use philosophical terms coined by the original Greek philosophers. Not many and not often, though.)

The result is twofold: although a lot of the arguments come across as wrong, superficial and bizarre, nonetheless it is easy to read and enjoyable to follow the flow of each speaker’s case. The editor, J.M. Ross, points out that the text is very uneven, with chunks missing, other bits arranged in what seem to be the wrong order, with the protagonists failing to address each other’s points or wandering off the subject altogether. But this makes it all the more entertaining, like listening to a tipsy polymath holding forth at a dinner party or at the bar. I think of the comic monologues of entertainers of my youth like Victor Borges or Peter Ustinov. The combination of serious points embellished with ridicule and exaggeration are frequently more reminiscent of a comic monologue than a work of ‘philosophy’.

It also gives the book a pleasing naivety. Coming to Cicero after trying to read Derrida or Habermas is like walking from an intense undergraduate seminar down the corridor into the creche where a load of toddlers are playing with lego.

Three speakers

As explained before, the text is conceived as presenting three speakers, each of whom is a star representative of the three main philosophical schools of Cicero’s day – Epicurean, Stoic, Academic. There were many other minor schools but as his book is focusing on the specific questions of a) whether there are gods and b) what they’re like and c) how we should behave regarding them, Cicero only needed three positions or attitudes. The three interlocutors are:

  • Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view
  • Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view
  • Gaius Aurelius Cotta who represents the Academic point of view

The three positions can be summarised as:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providence / Stoic (gods exist and are identical with nature, with the visible universe and its laws)
  • sceptic (voicing objections to both the above to arrive at a ‘common sense’ view of the existence of the gods and the reverence due them)

In what follows I’m not going to give an exhaustive summary of all the points made by all the speakers, just the ones which came over to me as important or interesting or quirky.

Introduction

In the brief introduction Cicero makes a couple of points which will recur throughout the book:

Cicero takes it as axiomatic that there are gods. Only a fool or anarchist would be an atheist. Belief in the existence of the gods follows from two key axioms:

1. All of history and all of anthropology suggests that all humanity is naturally and innately inclined to believe in gods. And this universal predilection is taken as incontrovertible proof.

2. Religious belief and practice are the vital glue holding society together and underpinning all moral and social values, underpinning interpersonal ethics and the rule of law and justice.

When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life…If our reverence for the gods were lost, we should see the end of good faith, of human brotherhood, and even of justice itself, which is the keystone of all the virtues. (I.2)

So although all three speakers may at points touch on the logical possibility of there being no gods, none of them actually propounds this view. Possibly this was also because, although there was no actual law against atheism, nonetheless Greek thinkers who had propounded atheism had been vilified. Cotta gives the example of Protagoras of Abdera who wrote in a book that he was not able to say whether the gods existed or not, and was as a result banished from the city and his works burned in public. Cicero himself had been elected a member of the College of Augurs in 53 BC and so was responsible for performing various religious duties in public. As he has Cotta say:

I myself hold a religious office and I believe that public religious worship and ritual ought to be reverently observed. (p.94)

If his book had openly espoused atheism, presumably he would have been sacked from that job and maybe faced further sanctions. So hidden behind the civilised chat of our three protagonists lurks a coercive social threat. (The notion that it is ‘prudent’ to profess belief in the gods is repeated on pages 104, 120 and 193.)

1a. Gaius Velleius and the Epicurean view of the gods (pages 77 to 92)

Rubbishing the opposition

A good deal of Velleius’s discourse consists of stating, then rubbishing, Stoic and other Greek philosophical views.

Velleius kicks off by rubbishing Stoic-style notions that the universe was built by a master artificer, the view put forward by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus. Can anyone actually imagine that happening? What tools did he use, what levers and pulleys and scaffolding? How came earth and air and fire and water to obey his commands?

Plato makes the world a manufactured article but he contradicts himself by saying the universe was made but at other points saying it is eternal.

We know time is infinite, eternal. Therefore the universe was created some point into infinite time. It had a beginning. Why? Why create it just at that moment? What triggered this sudden decision? What prompted God to decorate the universe with pretty lights like ‘some Minister of Public Works’? Is it because the world was created for the benefit of the wise? Then surely, never was so much trouble gone to to please so few.

Also: if the universe had a beginning, it must also have an ending.

How can the universe be a conscious being?

He mocks people who say the universe is a great consciousness, one conscious and immortal being (i.e. Stoics). They have no idea what consciousness is. They are ‘stupid’. Plato says the universe must be a sphere because the sphere is ‘the perfect shape’. How childish. He also says it must be spinning. If this sphere is conscious and is spinning at high speed, doesn’t God get giddy? And if the universe is ‘conscious’ some parts of the world are freezing ice caps, some parts are burning desert. So doesn’t it follow that god is roasting on one place and freezing in another?

Listing and rubbishing all other philosophers

Velleius then gives a long list of Greek philosophers starting with Thales, devoting a paragraph to summarising their chief contribution and then dismissing it with a sentence, being: Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, Alcmeon, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles, Protagoras, Democritus, Diogenes, Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Speusippus, Aristotle, Xenocrates, Heraclides, Theophrastus, Strato, Zeno (father of Stoicism), Aristo, Cleanthes, Persaeus, Chrysippus, Diogenes of Babylon, and more.

In his introduction Ross describes this list as an irritating digression which the reader can skip but, on the contrary, I found it an enjoyable and informative overview. Above all it is a useful counter to Cicero’s structural claim that there are only 3 schools of philosophy. On the contrary, this list demonstrates the huge jungley undergrowth of Greek philosophical opinions.

Rubbishing Aristotle

Velleius castigates Aristotle for holding at least three separate views: in one place attributing divinity to mind only, in another saying the entire universe is God, in another setting God above the universe with the power to order all its motions; in yet another claiming the fiery ether is God, so how does that square with the entire universe being God? And if heaven is a God where do the gods reside? Anyway, how could the heavens, in their endless fast revolutions around the earth, maintain consciousness worthy of a god? And if God is bodiless how can he be in motion?

See what I mean by argumentative? In just one paragraph Velleius rubbishes 9 theological propositions of Aristotle. So this list of silly philosophers also feeds into Cicero’s Academic scepticism by demonstrating what a range of absurd and contradictory opinions have been held by such ‘clever’ people. Velleius calls them ‘the fantasies of lunatics’, no better than the fictions of the poets and the wonders of the magicians.

Velleius’s exposition of Epicurus (pages 87 to 92)

Epicurus thought the gods must exist because nature has imprinted an idea of them in the minds of all mankind. This is one of the fundamental axioms of human thought without which there can be no knowledge, rational thought or argument. It is the basis of a firm and continuing consensus.

The same nature which imprints this idea also imprints the notion that they are blessed and immortal. If this is so, the gods must be free from care, anxiety and other human emotions, and must cause no care or anxiety in others i.e. mortals.

The logical consequence of this is that a) the gods deserve reverence as everything which is excellent deserves reverence, but b) we need not fear the gods because blessed and immortal beings have no motive to cause anxiety and fear in others (p.89). This is the core aim of Epicureanism – to banish anxiety, fear, worry and care from its followers.

The gods have human form

Evidence for this includes:

  1. The universal conviction of all humanity i.e. nature has implanted this idea in all human minds.
  2. Because the divine nature is perfect, it must be clothed in the most perfect form and what form is more perfect and beautiful than the human body?
  3. Reason cannot dwell in any other form but the human form.

He gives a good example of the poor, biased and sometimes absurd arguments used throughout the book when he claims that: everyone agrees that the gods are happy, and no happiness is possible without virtue, and there is no virtue without reason, and reason is associated only with the human form: therefore, the gods must have human form. Cotta picks up on this sentence to point out that the final link – that reason is only associated with the human form – does not follow but is willed (p.104 and p.114).

BUT individual human bodies are fallible, vulnerable, age and die. Not so immortal bodies. Therefore the gods have the shape of human bodies but not actual human flesh and blood.

The gods are blissfully detached

Happiness is a state of rest. The gods do not strive and work. They have attained stasis, contemplating their own holiness and wisdom (which sounds very Buddhist). Therefore they have no involvement whatsoever in the world of men, which would involve them in anxiety and endeavour.

A being which is blessed and immortal is itself without cares and brings no cares to others. (p.104)

The universe was created by natural causes

Rather than created by some God, the universe came into being quite naturally by the clash of the infinite number of atoms falling infinitely through infinite space, banging into each other, congealing and constellating. No need for any God labouring away with levers and pulleys.

Thus there is no overseeing God, no God involved in creating the universe, it and everything in it have developed by natural processes. Thus there is no reason to be afraid of a curious god poking and prying into our lives, ‘a busybody god’.

Velleius’s conclusion

Epicurus has saved us from all such fears and set us free, so that we have no terror of the gods, whom we know neither devise any mischief for themselves nor seek to bring it upon others. And so with reverence and awe we worship them in their divine perfection. (p.92)

1b. Cotta’s refutation of Velleius (pages 93 to 120)

Cotta the sceptic is ‘one of those who can more easily see why something is false than true’. Cicero, rather unfairly, gives more space to Cotta’s demolition of Velleius than to the former’s main exposition. Cotta calls Velleius’s Epicurean views ‘irresponsible and ridiculous’.

1. Velleius’s main argument for the existence of the gods is that ‘all mankind’ believes in them. Well, how does he know the opinion of all mankind? There may be any number of wild and primitive peoples who don’t believe in gods, how can he know? Also, there is a record of known philosophers in Greece who have been out-and-out atheists; it doesn’t take many instances to disprove a claim to universality.

2. Cotta comes down hard on Velleius’s theory of atoms endlessly falling in infinite space, whose collisions eventually give rise to matter and the universe. Cotta denies the existence of atoms but says that, even if they existed, the notion that from sheer chance they have created the universe and all the order and regularity and life forms which we observe is ridiculous (p.114). The entire cock and bull theory is a working backwards from the necessary core of Epicureanism i.e. the non-intervention of the gods.

More fatally, if everything is made of atoms then the gods are made of atoms too and can be dissolved as easily as they came into being. If they had a beginning they must have an end: so how can they avoid anxiety about death and dissolution? (p.115)

3. Cotta ridicules Epicurus for saying that the gods must have a human body, as that is the highest form of perfection, and yet it is not actually a body because that is subject to decay – so they have something like a body but not subject to decay. Velleius criticised all other philosophers for their absurdities; Cotta calls Epicurus’s ideas ‘fanciful dreams’.

The notion that the gods must have human form is the product of:

  • superstitious minds who created phantom images of the gods because it was easy
  • poets and painters who need to work with something tangible, and therefore promoted the idea of gods having bodily form
  • humanity’s bias or prejudice towards thinking itself fabulous and the highest of all possible life forms; it is a form of narcissism; anthropomorphism (“the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.”)

Are the gods different as human beings are different, one from another? In which case, how can they be perfect? Surely there is only one model of perfection and all gods ought to embody it?

Anyway, it’s not true to say that all cultures envision the gods in human form: the Egyptians envision gods as animals (dog, crocodile, jackal, cat), as do many other cultures.

Similarly, is there a fixed number of gods with fixed identities? Because a) all cultures appear to have their own gods and b) many gods who are recognisably the same (king of the gods, queen of the gods, god of war, god of love) seem to have multiple names.

‘Do you really think that a god looks like me or like you? The fact is, you have no idea.’ (p.103)

Epicurus appears to say that there is no causal link between humans looking like gods and gods having human form, that both are just accidents of the infinite interaction of an infinite number of atoms in infinite space. This is a ridiculous assertion.

If the gods are so powerful why do they need bodies at all? Why do they need hands or feet or limbs let alone the complex internal organs? If they have godly powers they have no need of all these clumsy encumbrances. If they have bodies the gods would have to walk and climb and bend and stoop. they would have to eat and drink and pee and defecate. If they have the usual organs of generation they would have sex, with all the indignity that implies.

If the gods are vastly superior to us in mind and reason why shouldn’t they be similarly superior to us in body, inhabiting bodies whose shape and powers we can’t even conceive of?

Cotta ridicules the notion of the gods’ detachment. Even idle children get up to games. No human can rest idle indefinitely. What is the point of having the body he insists they have, if they don’t use them?

All creatures, all living things, have a sphere of operation within which they live and are active. Where is the gods’ sphere? To what objects do they use their mind and intelligence. If they know everything their minds are, in a sense, empty, because unexercised.

Velleius had said that the gods are happy because they have achieved the height of virtue. But virtue doesn’t mean anything unless it is tested in action i.e. someone has a choice of actions and decisions and acts accordingly. But Epicurus’s gods do not act in any way. Therefore they do not exercise virtue. Therefore they cannot be happy. Humans exercise decision and judgement all the time, therefore are more able to behave virtuously, therefore humans must be happier than the gods (p.115).

Epicurus derives all happiness, ultimately, from bodily pleasure (hence his reputation). Yet the gods have no bodies in the flesh and blood human sense and so cannot experience pleasure in the Epicurean sense and so cannot by happy (p.116).

Cotta attacks the Innate Theory i.e. that the notion of the gods is a universal aspect of human nature so must be true. Because plenty of other ideas and notions seem to be universal. Are they also true? And our minds can conceive and imagine all manner of things and situations. Are they all true, too?

Epicureanism undermines reverence for the gods

What reverence is due to beings who have never done anything and will never do anything? What reverence do we owe beings who have never done anything for us and never will? Piety is a bond but what bond can there be for beings who never interact? Why should we thank the gods if they have never done anything for us?

This undermining of any reason for humans to reverence or worship the gods in effect destroys religion.

One of the noblest qualities of people is their love and affection for others. Epicurus’s gods have no interest in anyone or anything else at all, but sit perfectly passively uninvolved with anything contemplating their own sterile ‘happiness’. This is to take away the ‘graciousness’ which is the highest attribute of humanity.

Compare and contrast with the doctrine of the Stoics that we should love all good and honest people as ourselves. Epicurean detachment teaches a terrible ethical lesson. A true human friendship is free and selfless. The love and selflessness of the gods ought to be that much superior to human love, yet Epicurus strips his gods of all fine feelings.

Cotta concludes by saying the whole tendency of Epicurus’s thought is atheist, he just tacked on his incoherent ‘defence’ of his very peculiar conception of the gods ‘in order to avoid the odour of atheism’. He was merely paying lip service to the gods that he had actually destroyed (p.120).

Summary of Velleius

Having read it twice I can see how Velleius’s points of view, with all their distortions of fact, the weird atomic theory and the, in the end, weird view of gods who are utterly detached from the world – I can see how these are all the tortured consequences of a reasonable premise and intention which was to free human beings from fear and anxiety.

As a philosophy it appeals to those who seek an oriental-style detachment from involvement in the trials and tribulations of life and instead seek detachment and calm.

Its weak spots are its implausible atomic theory about the creation of not one but infinite universes; and its bloodless vision of gods which are supposedly made in human form and yet utterly lifeless, like beautiful shop window mannequins.

2. Balbus’s presentation of the Stoic view of the gods (pages 123 to 190)

Balbus says he can divide Stoic views into 4 areas. The Stoics:

  • teach that divine beings exist
  • explain their nature
  • describe their government of the world
  • show how they care for mankind

The Argument from Design

If Velleius rested his case on the universal innate conviction of the gods’ existence, Balbus bases his on the Argument from Design. Look up at the sky and survey the beauty of the heavens. What more proof do you need that god exists? You might as well doubt the existence of the sun. Both god and the sun are as obvious to our senses. (It was to refute this age-old argument that Richard Dawkins wrote his long argumentative book The Blind Watchmaker.)

As ancient superstitions are sloughed off, true religion is growing more popular with every day. Balbus bases this assertion on:

  • the intervention of the gods in human history, especially at key moments of Roman history
  • predictions and prophecies
  • the special level of piety of the ancient Romans (like everyone in antiquity, Balbus thinks things, in this case religious piety, have declined in his day)

The proof of prophecies and soothsaying is that they have accurately predicted the future. Plenty of evidence from Rome’s history. So who can doubt the gods exist if they send messages?

‘Beings who do not exist can send us no messages. But the gods do have their prophets and messengers. So how can we deny they exist.’ (p.128)

The state prospers only under the guidance of men of religious faith.

In fact Balbus then echoes Velleius’s nostrum: The existence of gods is inscribed on the human mind from birth (p.128). Thus there is no debate about the existence of gods, only about their nature.

Cleanthes speaks of 4 influences which have formed men’s images of gods:

  1. the power and evidence and proof of divination and prophecy
  2. the blessings of a temperate climate and fertile soil
  3. the awe inspired by natural phenomena such as storms, hailstorms, blizzards, floods, plagues, earthquakes etc
  4. the regularity of the motion of the heavenly bodies. Movements so vast and purposive and regular must be guided and controlled by a divine intelligence. He lists the motion of the sun and moon and stars and the tides and oceans and says none of this would work unless it were powered by a divine and omnipotent spirit. These are all variations on the Argument from Design (p.129).

Only an arrogant fool would think there is nothing in the universe smarter than him. Therefore there must be something greater than Man. And that something must be God.

There is nothing more beautiful or perfect in the world than Reason or mind or intellect. The universe is perfect. Therefore the universe must be possessed of reason i.e. be rational. All natural laws, the passage of the seasons etc etc all these bespeak ‘the planning of a divine and omnipresent spirit’ (p.131).

The universe and God are one. He cites arguments formulated by Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism.

If a being is without consciousness then every part of it must be without consciousness. But some parts of the universe are conscious beings, therefore the entire universe as a whole must be a conscious being. Therefore the universe is a living intelligence.

The universe must be a rational being and the nature which permeates all things must be endowed with reason in its highest form. So God and the world of Nature must be one and all the life of the world must be contained within the being of God. As the universe is surely superior to any other being, then it must be endowed with reason. ‘The universe was endowed with wisdom from eternity and is itself divine.’ (p.137).

There is no quality higher than goodness and nothing more perfect than the universe. Therefore goodness must be a characteristic of the universe. (p.138)

[Pages 141 to 145 consist of a sluggish digression on astronomy i.e. the movements of the planets and stars.]

He then argues that the sun must be a conscious rational being, and so are all the stars, as proved by the regularity of their motions. The stars move of their own free will and motivated by their own intelligence – what other force could move them so efficiently?

I cannot understand this regularity in the stars, his harmony of time and motion in their various orbits through all eternity, except as the expression of reason, mind and purpose in the planets themselves, which we must therefore reckon in the number of the gods. (p.145)

At which point he makes the leap that the fact that the gods exist is so obvious that anyone who disagreed must be mad (p.141). Anyone who looks up and observes the beautiful order and regularity of the movement of the stars and doesn’t feel the power of God must be out of his mind (p.145, repetition of p.124).

As we have an innate idea in our minds that God must be a living God and supreme above all else in the world, there seems to me nothing more consonant with this idea than to recognise the whole universe, than which there can be nothing more sublime, as being the living God. (p.141)

The gods just exist because there must be some supreme being which is superior to all else. 

Another reason is that, although all men acknowledge the existence of the gods, to give them human form is to assign them limitations and imperfections. This, also, is an argument for equating God with the entire universe.

Balbus argues that the gods don’t of course have the form of humans with all the frailties and limitations that implies. The traditional names of the gods embody qualities of the universe which are gifts to humankind and which we ought to worship (p.147).

[Pages 147 to 151 consist of a digression on the etymology of the names of the gods.]

On the providence of the gods

Balbus then sets out to prove that the world is governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods.

My belief is that the universe and everything in it has been created by the providence of the gods and is governed by their providence through all eternity. (p.154)

Stoics like him give three reasons:

  1. if you grant the existence of gods, you must grant their providence
  2. all things are ordered by a sentient natural power impelling them towards their own perfection
  3. the wonders of the earth and sky (Argument from Design)

1. All men acknowledge that the gods exist. If they exist, they must be active. What kind of activity could be better than the government of the world. Therefore the world is governed by the wisdom of the gods (p.154). There is nothing greater or more wonderful than the universe. Therefore it must be governed by the wisdom and foresight of the gods (p.156).

2. Nature is a principle of reason which pursues its own methodical course. His explanation of nature/God is based on the ancients’ belief that the world was made of four elements (earth, air, water, fire) and theories about reason and mind, all of which are twaddle, so it’s difficult to follow in its complexity something you know is rubbish. A central problem is the interchangeability of the words universe’ and ‘nature’ throughout this book.

  • Nature is the power which rules the universe.

There follows an extended passage (pages 161 to 177) describing the wonders of the stars and the planets and the sun and then of geography (seas and rivers and forests and deserts) and then a lot of ‘wonders’ of the natural world, every one of which Balbus recruits as evidence for his simple-minded insistence that every single one proves the universe is controlled by an intelligent and caring providence.

From all this evidence we must conclude that everything in the world is marvellously ordered by divine providence and wisdom for the safety and protection of us all. (p.177)

Wrong. The ludicrously naive self-centredness of this view becomes apparent when he goes on to ask for whom all this wonder was laid on? Well, obviously not for the lifeless rocks or even for mindless animals. Obviously for those with mind and reason, ta-dah! Us humans!

We can therefore well believe that the earth and everything in it was created for the gods and for mankind. (p.177)

Balbus then goes on to consider the ‘perfection’ of the design of man, how perfect the human mouth is for drinking, how perfect the lungs for drawing in air, the stomach for digesting food and so on, the gift of speech, the wonder of the human hand (pages 178 to 184). Balbus attributes all this to:

the wise and careful providence of nature, which shows the great and gracious benefits the gods have bestowed upon mankind. (p.180)

Everything in the world which we enjoy was made and ordered for our sake. (p.185)

I attribute it to evolution. Balbus’s anthropocentric narcissism leaps out when he claims that ‘every human sense far surpasses the sense of beast’ (p.182) which is plumb wrong, as we now know that all human senses are far excelled by any number of other animals.

To sum up: man has been given all manner of gifts in the design of the universe, the beauty of the world, the provision of plants and animals to rear and eat, in the wonderfully apt design of his own body and, above all, in the gift of reason so we can understand it all. Contemplating all this must lead to awareness of a guiding and kindly providence working throughout the universe and in our favour, and from this stems Religion and a sense of the virtues, of the good life which is living in harmony with the universe, in loving-kindness and generosity to our fellow men.

Summary of Balbus

Although every factual claim he makes about the universe, the solar system and the natural world are howlingly wrong, I can see the aim of Balbus’s Stoic philosophy. It is for those who appreciate the beauty of the night skies and the wonders of the natural world and believe that they indicate some natural law or harmony and that, in order to live well, in order to live wisely and virtuously, we humans should acknowledge these gifts and try and bring our way of living into harmony with the natural world. A not unreasonable ambition.

Its weak spot is Stoics odd insistence on the importance of ‘prophesy’ as a strong proof of providence. Both Epicureans and Academics were quick to ridicule this and it’s hard to see why it is needed in their system and couldn’t be quietly dropped.

3. Cotta puts the academic view (pages 193 to 235)

Cotta introduces himself as a member of the College of Augurs and a priest. He will never abandon the views he has inherited from his Roman forebears about worship of the gods. He doesn’t require a load of fancy arguments to prove the existence of the gods: the traditional belief of their Roman ancestors was enough. As a rational man, he simply wants to question the arguments of the other two more closely in order to base his own belief on a sound foundation.

Remember that a substantial portion of Cotta’s book is missing, and it feels like it. Anyway, he says he will not refute Balbus’s argument in its entirety but ask him about specific aspects. He attacks Balbus’s stories about ‘prophecy’ and ‘omens’ as superstitious hearsay.

Then he attacks one of the central arguments of both Velleius and Balbus, that the gods exist because the notion of immortal gods is innate in human nature. Not so, says Cotta. Just because a large number of people believe something to be true does not make it true.

More importantly, for me, Cotta refutes most of the arguments Balbus put forward to prove that the universe, the sun and the moon and the stars are all gods. No, says Cotta. Just because something behaves with mechanical regularity and is beautiful to look at (like the stars) doesn’t mean it is either conscious or immortal (p.202).

One flaw in his argument is to assume that anything bigger than man must be Perfect and Immortal, such as the movement of tides, and rivers and the seasons and the stars. not at all. They might just be part of the mechanical rhythm of the universe. The parts of nature move in consonance but this does not require a guiding intelligence.

Nature persists and coheres by its own power without any help from the gods. (p.204)

Just because something is bigger than man doesn’t make it a god. Otherwise all mountains would be gods. Every hill, every bluff, every tree would be a god.

Cotta’s critique of Balbus is less effective than his attack on Velleius. This seems to be because he is actually missing a lot of Balbus’s point. He says that all things made up of the elements will eventually decompose and die but this isn’t as effective an attack on Balbus as on Velleius. He says the so-called gods experience no evil so cannot judge between good and evil so cannot really enact virtue. How can we respect a god who doesn’t exercise reason or moral qualities?

Then he moves on to attack the way many humans, either legendary or historical figures, have, allegedly been translated into gods. This didn’t strike me as central to Balbus’s argument. What both of them seem to be missing is the centrality of prophecy to Stoic beliefs and the enormous problems thrown up by trying to reconcile God’s Preknowledge of the future and human free will (without which there can be no morality), a topic which was to bedevil Christian theology for 2,000 years.

Instead he wastes his time on the secondary argument of which of the actual Roman gods who have temples devoted to them Balbus includes in his pantheon, and which he excludes, and why. As he rattles off an enormous list of gods major and minor and then nymphs and satyrs and demi-gods and so on, it dawned on me he is missing a major distinction to be made between religion as theology and religion as practice. I’m betting most people are attached to their religions as traditions and practices which bind together families and communities. Cotta’s attack on the pantheon of the gods makes it clear just how futile it is trying to come up with a coherent intellectual underpinning for the super-diverse world of actual religious practice. Religious practices just are.

This reductio ad absurdem list of gods goes on for some time (pages 208 to 219), with Cotta asking Balbus whether he allows the rainbow to be a god or clouds and so on, ridiculing the idea that qualities such as Faith or Courage or objects of desire such as Victory and Honour can be gods.

Lacuna in the text.

He spends so much time on it because, apparently, many Stoic writers have devoted a lot of time to giving philosophical rationales for all these gods. But, says Cotta, this is all superstitious twaddle.

Lacuna in the text.

Balbus had assumed all through his speech that Reason is the highest attribute imaginable. So Cotta sets out to destroy this view by quoting an extensive number of examples where people have used their reason for evil i.e. have acted rationally in order to achieve wicked ends.

If the divine mind willed the good of men, when it endowed them with reason, then it willed only the good of those whom it also endowed with the power to use their reason well, whom we see to be very few indeed, if any. (p.222)

Maybe it would have been better if the gods had never given man reason at all. Maybe philosophy does more to lead students astray into immoral or unnatural beliefs and activities than improve them.

The problem of pain

Then Cotta moves on to a version of the perennial ‘problem of pain’, asking why the gods gave men the power of ‘reason’ instead of the ability to act virtuously? Instead, monsters have thrived and honest men met violent ends. If the gods do look upon our world they apparently make no distinction between good and bad men.

There can be no divine guidance of human affairs if the gods make no distinction between good and evil. (p.230)

And:

The prosperity and good fortune of the wicked absolutely disprove the power of the gods. (p.232)

Why don’t the gods intervene on the side of good while letting evil prosper? It’s the central question which has plagued the Abrahamic religions with their notion of an all-powerful all-loving god down to the present day, crystallised by the central catastrophe of the twentieth century: if there is an all-powerful, all-loving God why did he allow the Holocaust?

Abrupt ending

Right at the last minute on the last page Cotta re-emphasises that he doesn’t say this to argue against the gods but to submit men’s arguments to strict scrutiny and show how difficult the issue is. This feels very much like a last-minute cop-out designed to avert accusations of atheism which most of the rest of the document strongly endorses.

The host, Lucilius, is made to say that he would take up arms to defend their venerable religious traditions and temples and so on, and Cotta repeats that he agrees and will join him and has been merely working through the arguments not denying religion. Perish the thought!

It’s worth quoting the final sentence for two reasons. It purportedly gives the view of Cicero who has been a silent witness throughout the previous 3 books, never saying a word.

The conversation ended here, and we parted. Velleius judged that the arguments of Cotta were truest; but those of Balbus seemed to me to have the greater probability.

It has puzzled commentators that Cicero came down on the side of Balbus rather than sympathising with his fellow Academician, Cotta. It rather suggests that the debate was never between three points of view, but between two major points of view both of which were then critiqued by Cotta, with the result that onlookers (such as Cicero) only had a choice of two.

Lastly, its abruptness has convinced most commentators that the work was never finished properly and would probably have been revised and polished if Cicero had lived long enough.


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On the nature of the gods by Cicero – 1

A mine of curious information about ancient science, religion and philosophy…
(J.M. Ross in his introduction to De natura deorum, p.62)

Cicero wrote this book to examine a central problem of theology, namely do the gods have any impact on human life and, if so, what? It approaches the issue by focusing on a specific question, namely: Is there a Providence? Meaning: are events predetermined and preordained by the gods? Because if they are, then this calls into question the entire concept of ‘free will’ upon which most concepts of ‘morality’ rest. No free will = no morality, no law, no justice.

The 1972 Penguin edition I own contains a translation of Cicero’s De natura deorum by H.C.P. McGregor and an introduction by J.M. Ross. The introduction is unusually long, at 64 pages, and gives a thorough introduction to Cicero, the sources and aims of De natura deorum and its place in the overall plan of Cicero’s works.

Cicero had already written extensively about social duties and responsibilities, about friendship, personal morality, politics and the state. But, in a sense, a person’s views about all these topics depends on the fundamental question, is there a God or not. Your position on the existence and nature of a god or gods stands at the centre of your position on all those issues, underpinning or undermining them all.

Very broadly, there are four possible positions:

1. There are no gods or God, in which case there is no divine sanction or underpinning for morality, for virtue or wisdom, for right and wrong. Human behaviour and values are completely up to us to define and judge.

Pessimists or theological propagandists denigrate this situation as Anarchy and Cicero is among them: he is of the atheism = anarchy party and strongly believed that religion was necessary to underpin morality.

If the Gods have neither the power nor the inclination to help us; if they take no care of us, and pay no regard to our actions…then what reason can we have to pay any adoration, or any honours, or to prefer any prayers to them? Piety, like the other virtues, cannot have any connection with vain show or dissimulation. When piety goes, religion and sanctity go with it. And when these are gone, there is anarchy and complete confusion in our way of life. (I.2)

2. There are immortal gods who in some sense underpin our moral values, but they are completely indifferent to human affairs or don’t intervene, don’t respond to sacrifices or prayers or human suffering.

As I understand it, this was the view of the Epicureans, the followers of Epicurus. Some Epicureans went so far as to claim that worshipping gods – any form of state religion – was such an irrelevance and a distraction from the problems of good governance that it amounted to a social evil.

3. There are gods but they, like humans, are caught in the mechanism of the universe, which is entirely mechanistic and deterministic. Everything has been pre-ordained by fate and nothing they or we can do can change that.

This, as I understand it, is the Stoic position. Some Stoics went so far as to claim that God is identical with the universe and that both are governed by iron rules i.e. even God himself doesn’t have free will.

4. There are immortal gods and they do intervene in human affairs, do respond to sacrifices and prayers and try to make things right.

Position 4 is Cicero’s: there are gods, they underpin a moral law, they do answer prayers and sacrifices. However, Cicero doesn’t believe this with the dogmatism that would later be associated with Christian religion, because in his time there were no widely agreed texts laying down precise rules of behaviour in the manner of Christian teaching.

Instead, Cicero was an adherent of the Academic philosophy, so-called because it was taught by members of the Academy in Athens founded by Plato back in the fourth century BC. The Academic approach was to question everything, to attack all positions and points of view with the most powerful arguments possible, until only the strongest, most likely position remained. That was then adopted. It was a thorough-going scepticism.

In his introduction Ross quotes the theory of scholar H.A.K. Hunt that Cicero’s purpose in this book was to clear the decks of the jungle of contemporary misunderstandings about the gods in order for all his other writings about friendship, citizenship and so on to make sense. The need to address the specific question of predestination (as the Christians would call it) or Providence (as Cicero’s contemporaries called it) explains why he devoted a long book to the subject of Divination, at first sight a slightly cranky choice of subject, until you realise that, if divination works and the future can be foretold, then there is no human free will, in which case all his other moral and political arguments collapse.

In fact, it turns out that Ross cites Hunt’s theory in order to refute it. Ross thinks Cicero wasn’t as narrowly focussed as Hunt suggests. He takes Cicero at his word when he says that his aim was to introduce the entirety of Greek philosophy into Latin, to ‘by devoting myself to the examination of the whole body of philosophy’ (I.4).

Ross interprets Cicero’s writings as a systematic attempt to translate all the key philosophical debates of his time from Greek – where they had a long provenance – into Latin, where they were relatively new and where some key concepts didn’t even have an adequate Latin translation. These topics included:

  • Epistemology, the problem of knowledge: can we be certain of anything, can we trust the evidence of our senses – which Cicero addresses in his book titled the Academics
  • Ethics, what is the highest ‘good’ we should aim at – treated in The Ends of Good and Evil
  • consolation for death, whether our souls survive after death – treated in the Tusculan Disputations
  • the relationship between god and the world, treated via a translation of Plato’s Timaeus
  • a more detailed look at applied ethics in On Duties

Method

The Academic tradition Cicero followed was sceptical. It held that absolute truth is impossible for humans to find and may not even exist. All we can do is weight the balance of probabilities. In order to do this we need to consider all the available evidence before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Cicero’s philosophical position is very similar to a lawyer or judge’s approach in a court of law, a comparison he himself draws:

I am asking everyone to come into court, weight up the evidence, and return their verdict (I.6).

Therefore, in their written treatises, adherents of the Academy set down all the possible views on a topic and subject them to criticism. Only at the end of this process does a likely contender for ‘the truth’ remain standing.

The dialogue form

And this explains two things about the De naturam deorum. First, the way Cicero systematically lays out the beliefs of all the existing schools before, only at the end, revealing his own position. Secondly, the book is, like most of Cicero’s works, in dialogue format. This format perfectly suits the Academic approach as it assigns each of the key positions to an individual and then lets their position be probed and questioned by all the others.

Thus the text takes the form of an imagined conversation between four educated Romans in the year 77 BC. It is set in the house of Gaius Aurelius Cotta, who is the senior representative of the Academic point of view and features Gaius Velleius who represents the Epicurean point of view, and Quintus Lucilius Balbus who propounds the Stoic point of view. And the fourth? Cicero is depicted as a late-comer, who arrives at Cotta’s house after the debate has begun and is invited to sit quietly in a corner and listen. So he doesn’t take part in the main debate at all.

Why only three schools of thought, when the Greek world pullulated with philosophies? Because a) to most educated Romans there were only 3 philosophical schools to choose from, Epicurean, Stoic or Academic; b) because the question itself boils down to only 3 positions:

  • atheist / Epicurean (no gods or, if gods, no intervention in human affairs)
  • providential / Stoic (gods exist and have foreordained everything )
  • sceptic (voicing objections to the 2 dogmatic views above and trying to find pragmatic compromises)

In fact in the text itself Cicero mentions a fourth school, the Peripatetic school, which could have been represented by its leading Roman proponent, Marcus Piso. But 1. he has Cotta explain that by the time the debate takes place the Peripatetics’ main beliefs about theology had become almost indistinguishable from Stoicism and 2. Ross suspects that Cicero probably knew less about the Peripatetics than he did about the two other schools, so preferred to stay on safe ground.

Early on, Cicero indicates that although he belongs to the sceptical Academy the last thing he wants to do is undermine religion, as he believes it provides a vital underpinning to society, is the foundation of personal morality and public justice (as per the passage quoted above). He just wants to remove the bad arguments for this position, to establish the really good arguments and then promote them. His book is a form of spring cleaning or decluttering. He wants to banish superstition (which he defines as ‘a senseless fear of the gods’), not religion (which he defines as ‘the science of divine worship’) (p.117).

It is also worth noting that Cicero himself held a post in Rome’s state religion. In 53 BC he was elected member of the college of augurs. According to Wikipedia, an augur:

was a priest and official in the classical Roman world. His main role was the practice of augury: interpreting the will of the gods by studying the flight of birds – whether they were flying in groups or alone, what noises they made as they flew, direction of flight, and what kind of birds they were. This was known as ‘taking the auspices’. The augural ceremony and function of the augur was central to any major undertaking in Roman society – public or private – including matters of war, commerce, and religion. Augurs sought the divine will regarding any proposed course of action which might affect Rome’s pax, fortuna, and salus (peace, good fortune, and well-being).

So we can probably hear his own opinion expressed through Cotta in I.61.

Three books

Since it expounds and critiques three schools of thought, the text is divided into three volumes, although not quite as neatly as you might imagine. In the first half of book I Velleius propounds the Epicurean position at length; in the second half, Cotta the academic enthusiastically demolishes Velleius’s arguments, with a wealth of exuberant abuse. Book II is devoted to a lengthy exposition of the Stoic position by Balbus. Then Book III consists of Cotta’s extensive criticism of everything Balbus has said.

Three problems with philosophy

The three things I’ve always disliked about philosophy ever since I started reading it at school are:

  1. The terrible state of most of its key texts, many of which exist in such poor shape it’s not at all clear what the authors intended.
  2. The need nearly all philosophers have felt to invent new words and terms to describe their views, terms which invariably lead to endless squabbling among their acolytes and among academics about what they actually mean, resulting in needless obscurity.
  3. The way most of philosophy’s key authors changed and developed their positions, sometimes so much so that their later philosophy ends up completely contradicting their earlier views (Wittgenstein springs to mind).

De rerum deorum demonstrates all three of these problems. Regarding the text, there are gaping holes. The master manuscript, which appears to have been the source of all the later manuscripts which survive, appears to have come to pieces and been reassembled, not in a particularly rational order, and with some big and important sections (like Cotta’s refutations of key Stoic points) altogether missing. Maybe a third of book III is missing.

Then it is patchily organised. Even without this textual confusion, it’s clear that Cicero, when he has a character refuting the previous character’s presentation, often omits key points in what they said and answers points they never made. In other words, even if we had a perfect text, it would still be uneven, and badly assembled. This is because Cicero was copying his arguments from a variety of Greek sources and didn’t manage to fully assimilate them into a smooth flow or argument.

This also explains why the text contains a number of irritating digressions, when Cicero seems to have inserted vaguely relevant topics (such as the origins of the names of gods, pages 147 to 152, or a passage on astronomy) just because he had them to hand and they were sort of relevant to the topic, but which damage the flow of the argument.

To further add to the confusion, there were not one but two main traditions of Stoicism in regard to conceptions of God and Providence, and Cicero doesn’t distinguish clearly between them, either in Balbus’s presentation or in Cotta’s refutation. Early Stoicism was pantheistic, believing that God was just another name for nature and that everything in the world is divinely determined. Later, a more Platonic conception was overlaid onto this, in which God is a free rational deity caring for men, and interfering in the world for their welfare. As you can see, these are two quite distinct beliefs, but they are bundled together in Balbus’s presentation and (in what survives of) Cotta’s refutation.

Mess

All this explains two things: why De rerum deorum has been heavily criticised by commentators and why it is one of Cicero’s less popular texts. The central criticism is that it was written at great speed and so is riddled with inconsistencies in the main argument and littered with distracting digressions. Ross concludes that it was never really finished and Cicero intended to revise, trim and make it more coherent.

In addition, all readers have criticised the way the book just stops, without any kind of summary of the results of its long-winded investigation. If it was intended to be useful, then the most potentially useful part, the conclusion, is missing. Instead Cicero seems to have decided to address to sub-aspects of the problem of gods in the supplementary works, On divination and On fate.

In other words, this book is prime evidence for my case against philosophy, a good example of the way the self-proclaimed ‘lovers of truth’ in fact produce badly organised, badly thought-through, inconsistent texts which are so badly written that even their own pupils can’t agree what they mean and, instead of shedding light on ‘the truth’ serve to sink it miles deeper into oceanic depths of murky obscurity.

The philosophical buffet

In reality:

  • although reading philosophy is entertaining and often intellectually challenging (for example when, as so often, it is written in deliberately obscure language using ad hoc invented terms and phrases designed to tease you away from your normal perceptions or habits of thought);
  • although philosophical debates, especially about ‘morality’ are inevitable, can result in real changes in people’s opinions, in social attitudes and even the law;

nonetheless, there are now so many philosophical schools, systems and arguments that, as with the Bible, almost any position you care to take, from extreme idealism to extreme pragmatism, from moral altruism to cynical selfishness, from rigid obedience to strict laws to the wildest anarchism, have been fully worked out, named, popularised and made into t-shirt slogans.

With the result that, far from being the pursuit of any kind of ‘truth’, the vast realm of philosophic discourse is more like an enormous breakfast buffet where people interested in this kind of thing can choose from a huge range of options, mix and match, and cobble together whichever belief and value systems suit them. In other words, 3,000 years of philosophy has left the world and human beings in even worse conceptual and moral confusion than it found them.

In the following two blog posts I’ll summarise the arguments used in De rerum deorum in detail.


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The legacies of Rome

At the start of Mary Beard’s comprehensive but pedestrian history of ancient Rome she gives some examples of the ‘legacy’ of Rome as reasons why people should know more about ancient Rome and read her book. I critiqued her reasons for being arbitrary, superficial and not really justifying her case. Nonetheless it does broach an interesting subject: just what should be included in the legacies left by Ancient Rome to later ages and the present day? Over the week it took to read Beard’s book, I began to make a list of aspects of the legacy of Rome which live on in the modern world. Can you add any more to my list?

Roman Catholicism, the religion of power

Surely the biggest legacy is the Roman Catholic church, founded and spread across the eastern Mediterranean but given its definitive organisational and liturgical form after it was decriminalised by the Emperor Constantine in 313 and then made the official state religion of the empire by the emperor Theodosius I in 380.

The language of the Latin Mass, Christian theology and practices, and the organisational structure of the church, which dominated the religious lives of everyone in the West till the Reformation, and still dominate Western Catholics and huge numbers of peoples living in countries colonised by Catholic Spain and Portugal to this day.

Apparently there are some 1.34 billion Catholics in the world today. Their spiritual lives, personalities and imaginations are shaped by concepts and terms crystallised in the series of church councils supervised by the Roman authorities, by a hierarchy based in Rome, almost every detail of which is based on Roman words for officials. Pope. Saint (‘sanctus’). Vatican. Mass. ‘Deus’ (Latin for God) used in countless phrases.

Moral exemplars and great lives

From the Middle Ages through to the Enlightenment it was possible to argue that Latin was the universal language of scholarship, of philosophy, science and law. As part of the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the promotion by various national groups of their national languages, this became steadily less and less true. It was possible to argue that the study of Latin disciplined the mind.

But modern justifications for studying Latin tend to overlook three aspects of the content of Latin literature:

  • the supposedly moral teachings embedded in Latin literature
  • examples of characters from literature
  • examples of characters from history

The moral teachings are straightforward. Roman moralists explicitly praised honesty, civic duty and heroism. Similarly, most Roman literature is moralistic in the sense that it embodies these values, it shows how true heroes followed their sense of duty and patriotism, maybe the most obvious example being Aeneas who turns his back on the chance of true love with Dido of Carthage in order to obey the orders of the gods, sail to Italy and found the predecessor of Rome.

But there are also the non-fictional real people from Roman history. A lot of figures from Roman history were used as examples of (mostly heroic) behaviour to later generations. The Romans themselves began this tradition, projecting back onto 5th and 4th century figures the stern devotion to civic duty they valued in their own 1st century society. But many of these figures continued to play a role in literary, philosophical, moral and political debates for centuries after the fall of Rome.

The story of Horatio holding the bridge single-handed against the Gauls is a typical example of straightforward patriotic heroism, which schoolboys from Cicero’s time down to the present day are taught to emulate. There are other Roman heroes, for example Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a legendary 5th century character, who was chosen to save Rome when it was threatened by neighbouring tribes and, once they had been defeated, retired back to his modest life on a farm (in a year traditionally dated 458 BC).

The early years of the French Revolution were packed with the imagery of Republican Rome, with paintings, frescos, badges and mottos of the families who overthrew the last Roman King, Tarquin the Arrogant, and of heroes of republican virtue.

More complex are what you might call the ‘debatable’ figures, huge and impressive figures from the historic era whose lives and fates became examples and talking points to later generations. The most obvious example is Julius Caesar: was he a military genius set to save the republic from civil war or was he poised to become an autocratic dictator? Were the assassins right to murder him?

Beginning during the Roman period itself and for the subsequent 2,000 years, Roman historical figures  have been used as guides to contemporary behaviour and politics all across the developed world.

Latin, the language of power

Throughout the middle ages and Renaissance, Latin was the language of scholarship and intellectual authority. I’m not sure exactly when that can be said to have come to an end (during the eighteenth century?)

Scholarly works on any subject are no longer written in Latin as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries. But academics, journalists and other types of authors still signal their superior education (and, by implication, superior wisdom) by deploying Latin tags, little phrases which signal membership of, or exclusion from, the club of the well educated. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of Latin tags which is intimidatingly long. More fun is this list of 50 common Latin tags. But a few points emerge from reading both, which is the different types of tag, depending on source and context.

Latin quotes

‘Veni, vidi, vici’ is just a famous quote, comparable to ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’.

Latin terms from philosophy

Philosophy and the law, two of the most conservative subject areas, still use Latin to name key concepts. Thus ‘ad hominem’ is a technical term from philosophy, describing a particular type of argument (in this case meaning, ‘at the man’, meaning it’s an attack on the speaker not their argument). Here’s a handy list of philosophical fallacies which all have Latin names.

Legal Latin

And, of course, the Law is packed with legal jargon, much of which, to this day, remains in Latin, the language of power – see this list of Latin legal terms. Forbiddingly long, isn’t it?

Latin mottos

Countless hundreds of thousands of business and organisations around the world adopt Latin mottos because it makes them sound smart. It is a tiny contribution to their authority, to their reason for existing. Members of organisations can be rallied round mottos as much as around flags or brands. If you search the list of Latin phrases for ‘motto’ (click control and f, then type motto into the search box) you get 659 results. At the end of my road where I grew up was a memorial to the Royal Air Force so I read ‘per ardua ad astra’ (‘through adversity to the stars’) every day to and from school. ‘E pluribus unum’ (‘out of many, one’) is on most American coins and bank notes.

Winnie the Pooh loquitur latine (speaks Latin)

This meme from the Mondly web page instantly indicates why people like using Latin tags. Swank , defined as ‘behaviour, talk, or display intended to impress others’.

Comic meme indicating how using a Latin tag is a cheap way to impress (source: Mondly.com)

English words derived from Latin

A staggeringly high number.

About 80 percent of the entries in any English dictionary are borrowed, mainly from Latin. Over 60 percent of all English words have Greek or Latin roots. In the vocabulary of the sciences and technology, the figure rises to over 90 percent. About 10 percent of the Latin vocabulary has found its way directly into English without an intermediary (usually French). (Dictionary.com)

Latin discrimination

There’s a handy Wikipedia article about the Latin influence in English. It ends with a section explaining the thesis that familiarity with longer Latinate words associated with education and the professions and a range of specialisms gives children confident in reading and handling these kinds of words a measurable educational advantage.

David Corson in The Lexical Bar (1985) defended the thesis that academic English, due to its large portion of Greco-Latinate words, explains the difficulties of working class children in the educational system. When exposed at home mainly to colloquial English (the easier, shorter, Anglo-Saxon words), the differences with children who have more access to academic words (longer, more difficult, Greco-Latinate) tend not to become less by education but worse, impeding their access to academic or social careers.

Romance languages derive from Latin

Apparently, some 900 million people speak a Romance language, being Spanish (543 million), Portuguese (258 million), French (267 million), Italian (68 million), and Romanian (24 million). Regional Romance languages also exist, including Catalan, Occitan and Sardinian.

The ideas, words, phrases and concepts these people use to identify themselves and operate in the world derive from the language of a small town in central Italy.

Roman architecture of power

The United States Capitol

Nations round the developed world adopted the architectural language of power perfected by the Romans. Sure it was copied from the ancient Greeks, but the enormous reach of the Roman Empire a) brought a consistency of look and design b) spread it from Carlisle to Egypt. It has been used to make politicians feel powerful and important and to intimidate populations since we regained the ability to build such imposing edifices i.e. the last 200 years or so (the US Capitol was constructed in the early 1800s).

Roman statues of power

Statues by the ancient Greeks tried to capture the idealised version of their gods and heroes. By contrast Roman statuary, particularly portrait busts, really focus on capturing the individuality of the subject. The Greeks depicted horses (as on the frieze of the Parthenon) and men riding horses, but the Romans made this subject into an important symbol of power and leadership. Not many equestrian statues survive from ancient Rome, but the ones that do became models for medieval and especially Renaissance sculptors to create three dimensional icons of power and authority. Cities round the developed world are littered with variations of these metal men on horseback.

Bronze copy of the ancient Roman statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the Palazzo Nuovo in Rome

Senates

Take the idea of a ‘senate’ as the upper house of a bicameral legislature. The name comes from the ancient Roman Senatus, derived from senex meaning ‘old man’, indicating an assembly said to be experienced and wise and therefore qualified to review and amend legislation sent through from a purely elected chamber. Apparently, 63 modern nations have a senate and senators.

Censuses

From the Latin census, from censere meaning ‘to estimate’. The census played a crucial role in Roman administration because it determined what class a citizen belonged to for both military and tax purposes. Beginning in the middle republic, it was usually carried out every five years and supplied a register of citizens and their property from which their duties and privileges could be listed.

Censuses to establish facts about the population began to be reintroduced to western countries during the nineteenth century (although the sweeping review of the country he’d just conquered which was ordered by William of Normandy and which resulted in the Domesday Book was obviously a striking example of a medieval census).

Roman calendar

On page 104 Beard makes the simple point that the calendar we all use and take for granted was invented by the Romans. This may be, literally, their most workaday legacy. On page 292 she explains that fixing the antiquated Roman calendar was just one of Julius Caesar’s many reforms.  The fundamental problem all early calendar makes have is that the two obvious natural systems of timekeeping are out of synch– the twelve lunar months add up to just over 354 days whereas the solar years lasts 365 and  a quarter days. Using know-how he had picked up in Alexandria, Caesar established a year with 365 days with an extra day added to the end of January every four years. Although the words day, month and year are of Germanic origin (Old English dæg, monað and gear in which the g is pronounced as a y) the names of the months themselves are resolutely Roman:

  • January is named after the Roman god Janus who had two faces so he could see the future and the past
  • February is named after an ancient Roman festival of purification called Februa
  • March is named after Mars, the Roman god of war
  • April takes its name from the Latin word aperire meaning ‘to open’, just like flowers do in spring
  • May is named after the Greek goddess Maia
  • June is named after the Roman goddess Juno, goddess of marriage and childbirth and the wife of Jupiter, king of the gods
  • July is named after the Roman reformer of the calendar, Julius Caesar
  • August is named after the first emperor, Augustus
  • September is named for the Roman number seven as it was originally the seventh month, before July and August were added
  • October was the eighth month before July and August were added
  • November was the ninth month
  • December was the tenth month

(Source: British Museum blog)


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

What is Waugh satirising in ‘Love Among The Ruins’?

Maybe it’s worth taking a moment to explain what Waugh was targeting in his 1953 satirical novella Love Among The Ruins. This essay is in three parts:

  1. Waugh’s conservative values
  2. The state of Britain after the war i.e. Labour represent everything Waugh detests
  3. Specific topics satirised in Long Among the Ruins

1. Waugh’s conservative values

Elitist

Waugh was an elitist in the literal sense of believing that Britain should be run by its hereditary elite, the landed gentry and aristocracy. He thought they were the best educated, the most responsible and, because of their ties to the land and to grand houses, mansions and parishes across the country, were  the most representative of a kind of mystical ideal of the English population and English values.

Snob

Waugh was a snob. It is well-documented that he liked to hobnob with the aristocracy and namedrop and social climb as much as possible. His father was ‘only’ the managing director of a medium-sized publishing company, so Waugh was a long way lower on the social ladder than the lords and viscounts and earls that he liked to litter his novels with.

Catholic elitism

Waugh was a Christian who showed an unusual interest in church architecture and ritual as a boy, even before he was sent to one of the country’s most High Church public schools (Lancing). A number of his friends converted to Catholicism in the late 1920s so there was a certain inevitability about his Christian traditionalism eventually manifesting itself in his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1930.

Waugh’s Catholicism was linked with his other values in a multi-faceted belief in old, traditions, the values of country living, the natural innate superiority of the landowner to his tenants and farmers. He valued luxurious good living, grand country houses, fine wines, the best food, the impeccable manners of the highest in society, and the aristocratic values of nonchalance and superiority.

Catholic belief

Beyond that, however, Catholicism was based on certain inflexible, timeless values. To start with, on the sanctity of human life. This meant no abortion or euthenasia. It is not for man to determine the start or end of human life. All human life is sacred. God is at the centre of all systems of value, underpinning all morality. Removing God, declaring an overtly atheist ideology, begins the process of undermining human life and all morality. Various forms of state-approved murder soon follow, abortion and assisted suicide being the two most obvious.

Individual responsibility and expression

Connected with all this is Waugh’s conservative idea of individualism. In the kind of society Waugh liked, one that implemented a low-tax, laissez-fair regime which allowed the aristocracy and upper middle class to flourish, there was lots of scope for the privileged in society, for the grand old families in their country houses and the bright young things they sent to public school and on into London’s party and cocktail bar circuit, to develop charming idiosyncracies and eccentricities.

In a sense, Waugh’s fiction is devoted to the oddballs, eccentrics and chancers who are able to flourish in the wealthy, blessed, privileged, over-educated and under-worked circles which he described. Take the outrageous practical joker Basil Seal in Put Out More Flags or the eccentric Apthorpe in Men at Arms, or, in a slightly different vein, the camp aesthetes Anthony Blanche (Brideshead) and Everard Spruce (Flags).

For Waugh, it is only his idealised conservative society that true individualism, individual tastes, aestheticism and connoisseurship are able to flourish.

The British Empire

On the global stage i.e. in international politics, Waugh saw Britain and the British Empire as embodying the finest values of civilisation, gentlemanly democracy and individual freedom. In his travel book Remote People it is very striking that Waugh unequivocally supports the right of the white settlers in Kenya to live the life of Riley at the expense of the native African population. He mocks the British Empire as everyone of  his generation did, confident in the knowledge that it was here to stay forever. Its actual dismantling after the war came as a great shock.

The international alternatives

In Waugh’s fiction English gentlemanliness is contrasted with:

  1. the irritating, bubble-gum and Coca Cola trashiness of American soldiery (in Sword of Honour) and of superficial, vacuous American consumer culture (in The Loved One)
  2. the terrifying totalitarianism of the post-war communist states, with their utterly amoral commitment to seizing complete power and reducing entire populations to modern slavery (embodied in the Yugoslav communists in Unconditional Surrender)

So that’s a brisk run through Waugh’s conservative Catholic values. Now let’s set these values against the reality of Britain in 1950, when he wrote the first draft of Love Among The Ruins.

2. The state of Britain after the war i.e. the Labour government represented everything Waugh detested

The impact of the Second World War

The Second World War was a disaster for all Waugh’s values. Britain went bankrupt, was only kept afloat by ruinous loans from America, and emerged from the war with her role greatly diminished, a diminution symbolised by the relinquishing of India (and Pakistan) in 1947.

Not only the country but large numbers of landed families were financially ruined, first by the collapse in the economy, in particular the agricultural sector many relied on, and also by the collapse in value of the stocks and shares in British companies whose dividends they’d lived on between the wars and whose value now plummeted.

The Labour Party’s socialist policies

But the greatest cataclysm was the coming to power of the Labour Party in the 1945 general election. The Labour Party embodied everything Waugh despised, disliked and even hated about the modern world. It was the antithesis of everything he valued. In those days the Labour Party contained real socialists who genuinely wanted to nationalise everything, to impose state control of huge sectors of industry (coal, steel, shipbuilding) and the professions (doctors).

Nationalisation

In its first five years in power the Labour government enacted a broad swathe of socialist policies. It nationalised the coalmining industry and the trains. More was promised in a government which pledged to take over ‘the commanding heights’ of the economy. Owners of private companies the length of the land were forcibly bought out.

The theft of private property

Conservatives like Waugh saw this not as contributing to some vague notion of social justice but the very real confiscation of people’s property and businesses.

The faceless bureaucracy

The new ministries set up to run the economy were stuffed with bureaucrats and ideologues. Quite quickly the bureaucracy of the nationalised industries became a joke. ‘The man from the ministry’ came to symbolise the interfering, know-nothing, centralised bureaucracy which conservatives like Waugh contrasted with the personalised relations between landed gentry and local tenants and populations whose names and faces and traditions and values they knew and shared, which Waugh depicted in his idealised version of rural patriarchy. Human interaction was replaced with uncaring forms and procedures.

The NHS

The Labour government’s most famous achievement was the creation of the National Health Service but people tend to forget the immense amount of pressure, which could easily be seen as state intimidation, which was brought to bear on the medical profession. Again, to a conservative like Waugh this meant that a personal relationship with a local doctor who had individual responsibility to run his own practice and, for example, to carry out works of charity, to moderate his fees according to patients’ ability to pay, was replaced by outsiders parachuted into a large, faceless bureaucratic system.

This attitude – the preference for individual and established relationships over modern bureaucratic arrangements – is typified in a passage from The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold where the narrator describes Pinfold’s relationship with his local doctor:

Mr. Pinfold seldom consulted his doctor. When he did so it was as a ‘private patient’. His children availed themselves of the National Health Act but Mr. Pinfold was reluctant to disturb a relationship which had been formed in his first years at Lychpole. Dr. Drake, Mr. Pinfold’s medical attendant, had inherited the practice from his father and had been there before the Pinfolds came to Lychpole. Lean, horsy and weather-beaten in appearance, he had deep roots and wide ramifications in the countryside, being brother of the local auctioneer, brother-in-law of the solicitor, and cousin of three neighbouring rectors. His recreations were sporting. He was not a man of high technical pretensions but he suited Mr. Pinfold well. (Chapter one)

The way the local doctor has deep roots is obviously described, but let us dwell on the phrase ‘his medical attendant’. The implication is that Pinfold prefers Dr Drake because he is more like a servant than a bossy, hurried NHS doctor would be.

To summarise: in a broad swathe of Labour Party policies a conservative like Waugh saw nothing of ‘social justice’ being implemented but only that individual relationships, individual responsibilities and individual freedom of action were being taken away by an overbearing state and replaced by surly, bad-mannered state interference.

Rationing

Rationing had been introduced under Winston Churchill’s wartime government and, of course, destroyed at a stroke the wonderful world of fine wines and expensive meals depicted in Waugh’s 1930s novels. As Waugh himself points out, one aspect of his nostalgia fest Brideshead Revisited, is the description of sumptuous meals and fine vintages which the author, writing in tightly rationed, blacked out Britain of 1943, could only fantasise about.

Waugh like many Britons hoped that rationing would end with the end of the war but it didn’t. In fact it intensified as Britain’s ruined economy struggled to rebuild itself in a world which was also ruined. Rationing was extended to more foods and services, in a world which began to seem like it was going to be grey and shabby forever.

Shabby housing

The most visible sign of the war was the ruins to be found in every British city. The Labour government came to power promising a huge programme of housebuilding and this overlapped with ambitious plans by developers and architects to implement new continental ideas of town planning and design.  A series of new towns was conceived, designed and built. Every town and village in the land acquired a penumbra of council houses built on council estates.

Unfortunately many of these developments quickly developed bad reputations, council estates for poverty and chavvy behaviour, the new town towns for being soulless concrete jungles. Tower blocks which looked gleaming symbols of modernity in the architecture magazines turned out to be badly designed, badly built, quickly stained. The windows leaked and the lifts broke.

In his post-war correspondence Waugh summed up all these changes with the satirical notion that Britain was being changed into a new state named ‘Welfaria’.

3. Specific topics satirised in Long Among the Ruins

The name of the new state, ‘New Britain’, has a suitably Orwellian, totalitarian overtone.

The replacement of traditional oaths with ones using ‘State’ instead of God indicate how the genuine source of morality and meaning in Waugh’s Catholicism has been replaced by the corrupt, fallible, pretentious and doomed-to-fail worship of the State (in oaths such as ‘Great State!’, ‘State be with you’ and ‘State help me’).

But the state has usurped not just God but all kinds of relationships, large and small. It is symptomatic that Miles Plastic is an orphan because parents interfere with the upbringing of children, do it well or badly, introduce an element of personal duty and responsibility, and also introduce that human variety and individuality which Waugh values.

The abolition of individualism

In his satirical New Britain, the State interferes everywhere to abolish individualism. So instead of individuals the State’s aim is to produce millions of identikit citizens. Hence the throwaway reference to the way everyone in New Britain speaks with the same ‘flat conventional accent of the age’.

For Waugh, this is a nightmare vision, the death of colourful individualism and the soul-destroying reduction of all human beings to the same, dull, identikit lowest common denominator.

And not just people. Where there had been a plethora and range of goods and services now there is only one brand of everything, the State brand (exactly as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four with its Victory brand of goods). Thus the State wines and State sausages and State clothes of Waugh’s fantasy.

The abolition of personal responsibility

The abolition of individual responsibility is, of course, the target satirised in the long opening passage about Mountjoy Prison, in which Waugh satirises the belief that criminals are not responsible for their actions, society is, so that any given crime is not the fault of the criminal but indicates a failure of the welfare system. And hence the satirical details, which flow from it, such as prisoners who are clearly old lags now living in the lap of luxury with prisons replaced by lovely houses in beautiful grounds and nothing more taxing than sessions of ‘Remedial Repose’ to attend and the governor isn’t called a prison governor but ‘Chief Guide’.

(The State confiscation of private property is included in the satire of Mountjoy prison when we learn  that Mountjoy Castle had been the ancestral seat of a maimed V.C. of the Second World War, who had been sent to a Home for the Handicapped when the place was converted into a gaol. Obviously the fact that the former owner was a war hero is designed to maximise the reader’s outrage at this typical act of State theft.)

The abolition of personal responsibility is further demonstrated by the way Miles’s criminal act of burning down the RAF barracks where he was stationed and burning to death half the inhabitants is dismissed by the State’s psychologist as perfectly natural adolescent behaviour.

The failure of modern architecture and town planning

It typifies the socialist removal of individuality and character and texture and colour and interest that once Miles is rehabilitated, he is not sent to a named specific town but to ‘the nearest Population Centre’ which has the generically futuristic name of ‘Satellite City’

It is also symptomatic that all the architects’ grand plans have resulted in a shoddy, half-built reality. The so-called ‘Dome of Security’ has blacked out windows, broken lifts and shabby rooms. All around it the rest of the gleaming modern town has failed to be built at all and instead the Dome is surrounded by slums made of huts, the use of the word ‘huts’ suggesting not even English habitations but African shanties.

There were no workers’ flats, no officials’ garden suburb, no parks, no playgrounds yet. These were all on the drawing boards in the surveyor’s office, tattered at the edges, ringed by tea cups; their designer long since cremated. (p.441)

It is similarly symptomatic that when Miles moves in with Clara they share a cramped compartment of a world war Nissen Hut. More than a decade after the war the coalition government has miserably failed to build adequate homes for the population.

The rise of State murder

It is no surprise that the busiest part of the local authority is the Euthenasia Department. In other words, the socialist regime has created a society which people would rather die than live in. For a Catholic like Waugh euthenasia is a sin. Only God decides when people should die. The State offering people the service of assisted suicide is not only repugnant to secular liberal values, but a sin.

State sterilisation

Same goes for sterilisation. A good Catholic believes in using no form of contraceptive device and abortion is a sin. From the same point of view, seeking to permanently sterilise people, or yourself, is a crime against nature and against God.

The irreligious amorality of modern science

The entire idea that the ‘heroine’ of the story should be beautiful but with a lush curly beard caused by the side effects of an operation to be sterilised combines at least two elements: disgust at the notion that women should sterilise themselves in order to further their career (Clara is sterilised in order to become a better ballet dancer); and the beard idea is a ludicrous satire on the unintended side-effects of modern science, in this case the fictional ‘Klugmann’s Operation’.

After the war there was a boom in the idea that ‘modern science’ would solve our social problems. As a Catholic Waugh takes a pessimistic view of human nature and of humanity’s ability to change or cure itself. Only God can do that via divine grace.

On this view there is something both blasphemous and pathetic about modern science’s hubristic claims to be able to cure the modern world. Much the same critical worldview underpins and informs C.S. Lewis’s post-war satire and fable That Hideous Strength (1945).

For Christians like Waugh and Lewis almost all the ills of the modern world stem from man’s foolish attempts to deny the reality of God and try to set up mankind in God’s place.

On a more mundane level, the inevitable failure of modern science is embodied in a) the side effects of the Klugmann Operation i.e. Clara growing a beard; and then b) the grotesque results of the ‘plastic surgery’ carried out to remedy this, which replaces Clara’s soft and beautiful face with an inflexible mask of tough, salmon-coloured rubber. Yuk.

The feeble replacement of Christmas

It’s a small detail but indicative of the whole situation that the State thinks it can simply ‘replace’ the word Christmas and Christmas trees with ‘Santa-Claus-tide’ ‘Goodwill Trees’. It’s pathetically unimaginative in itself but also indicates a deeper failure to understand the nature of human society, the way traditions and beliefs are handed down through the generations. It is exactly as shallow and doomed to fail as the French revolutionaries’ trying to replace the Catholic Church with the cult of the Supreme Being or Lenin and Stalin’s attempts to replace the Russian Orthodox Church faith in The Soviet or the Great Leader. Abolishing the church and Christian festivals masquerades as liberal and progressive but is the precise opposite: destroying history, destroying tradition, destroying diversity, destroying people’s freedom to choose their beliefs and ideas, all swept away in the name of one, centralised, totalising ideology of Unity and Progress.

Summary

Some of Waugh’s points are still relevant today. Even people on the progressive wing of politics lament the depersonalising affect of bureaucracy and form-filling which came in with the welfare state and has never gone away. None of us remember the profound poverty and immiseration of the 1930s which the nationalisation of key industries, the establishing of a welfare state and a national health service were designed to address.

It’s possible, therefore, to profoundly disagree with Waugh’s politics (such as they are) but sympathise with this or that detail of his complaint. Then again, like any satire on a dystopian future, even when it’s intended to be biting we can distinguish the political point (which we might disagree with) from the satirical humour (which we still find funny).

In some ways, then, the text is a handy checklist of issues or topics which a Christian conservative like Waugh objected to in the post-war world and post-war politics. It’s a useful primer on the conservative point of view which was, of course, to triumph in the 1951 general election, when Labour were thrown out and Winston Churchill’s Conservatives returned with a majority. And a primer on the perennial concerns of the conservative frame of mind.

And to return to its literary effects – although, in the end, Love Among The Ruins fails as a story, it is entertaining enough, especially in the dense opening passages, for the vigour of its attack and satirical vehemence.


Credit

Love Among the Ruins by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1953. All references are to its place in the 2018 Penguin paperback edition of the Complete Short Stories of Evelyn Waugh.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Watt by Samuel Beckett (1953)

‘If I tell you all this in such detail, the reason is, believe me, that I cannot, much as I should like, and for reasons that I shall not go into, for they are unknown to me, do otherwise.’
(Arthur, in part three of Watt)

It’s a challenge, but I came to really enjoy this book.

Watt was Samuel Beckett’s second published novel in English (the first being Murphy, published 1938). It was begun in 1941 but largely written while Beckett was hiding from the Nazis in a small French town in the Vaucluse in south-east France, and completed in December 1944. He revised and rewrote it as he went, experimenting not only with plot and style, but with structure and tone and, indeed, the entire conception of what a fiction is and can be.

It wasn’t published until a long time later, in 1953, and then only by the Olympia Press in Paris, a disresreputable publisher of pornography whose owner prided himself on publishing unpublishable literary masterpieces (he also published novels by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry Miller). (Publishing with Olympia established Beckett’s copyright and helped him to negotiate with English and American publishers).

Fragments

In later life Beckett dismissed the book as ‘a game, a means of keeping sane’, as ‘an exercise’ to stave off the long evenings hidden away in a French farmhouse. Its long and claustrophobic gestation possibly accounts for the complex mess of the manuscript which contains all sorts of loose leaves, doodles, fragments of plot. It was, Beckett told George Reavey in 1947, ‘an unsatisfactory book, written in dribs and drabs’. After the war Beckett carried this ever-evolving mess with him, to Paris and then back to Dublin, working over and through to a final version of the book. Four excerpts were published in literary magazines between 1950 and 1953.

The patchwork assembly of the text is recognised in the series of ‘addenda’, 37 fragments which he added at the end of the main text, concepts, sentences, scenes and phrase apparently intended for the novel but not used. Or used to form intriguing and suggestive ‘addenda’.

The general approach

Watt is another of Beckett’s tramps-cum-simpletons-cum alzheimer victims. Some kind of autistic, he struggles to fathom the most basic human interactions.

Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done. And it was true that Watt’s smile, when he smiled, resembled more a smile than a sneer, for example, or a yawn. But there was something wanting to Watt’s smile, some little thing was lacking, and people who saw it for the first time, and most people who saw it saw it for the first time, were sometimes in doubt as to what expression exactly was intended. To many it seemed a simple sucking of the teeth.
Watt used this smile sparingly.

Mind you, neither can the narrator or Beckett. All Beckett’s fictions come from a very similar place and depict people who can barely speak or communicate, who don’t understand basic human interactions, who are at the threshold of ordinary human behaviour, who can barely walk let alone speak, who fall, crawl, pull themselves forward by clutching tufts of grass through the mud of this world, obsessively repeating endless repeated phrases of endless repetition.

That, at least, is the enormously powerful impression you get from The Beckett Trilogy. The text of Watt, however, had not yet gone as far in that direction, although it has gone a long way in a very weird direction.

Paragraphs For a start the text is cast in paragraphs, lots of paragraphs, often fairly short. This may sound a trivial thing but Molloy starts with 80 pages of uninterrupted unrelieved prose, a Berlin Wall of prose, with no paragraphs or breaks of any kind, which turns out to be a real struggle to read.

Having your text chopped up into the conventional format of paragraphs which indicate when a new character speaks, or when a new action or topic starts and ends, is a vastly useful visual convention of typography – you only realise just how powerful and useful it is when it is completely absent in a work like Molloy. So Watt may use disorientating techniques but it feels much easier to read than the Trilogy.

To give an example, the conversation between Mr Hackett the hunchback, Mr Nixon and his wife Tetty, may well have surreal aspects – such as Tetty’s anecdote about giving birth by herself in the middle of a dinner party – but it is told in the format of paragraphs clearly indicating who is speaking when, and noting when characters change position or pause a bit – and so the texture of the reading experience is overwhelmingly traditional.

No speech marks Right at the start of his career, back in 1904 or so, Beckett’s mentor James Joyce had decided never to use speech marks or inverted apostrophes in his fiction and Beckett follows him in this mannerism. But it is a fairly easy-to-assimilate convention and you quickly get used to spotting what is dialogue and what is descriptive prose.

Conventional vocabulary Since we’ve mentioned Joyce, another thing worth pointing out is the utter conventionality of Beckett’s lexicon. He uses traditional words in a generally traditional way, nowhere is there a trace of the wild experiments with the English language which Joyce took to giddy heights in Ulysses and then burst all bounds in Finnegans Wake.

It also marks a distinct shift from the lexicon of More Pricks Than Kicks (1934) and Murphy (1938) which both indulged in the extreme complexification of the prose via orotund and arcane argots and terminologies. Here he is describing a character called ‘the Frica’ in the Dream:

A septic pudding hoodwinks her, a stodgy turban of pain it laps her horse face. The eyehole is clogged with the bulbus, the round pale globe goggles exposed. Solitary meditation has furnished her with nostrils of generous bore. The mouth champs an invisible bit, foam gathers at the bitter commissures. The crateriform brisket, lipped with sills of paunch, cowers ironically behind a maternity tunic…

Beckett’s prose in Watt has undergone a thorough detoxification. Trace of the spastic pedantry of the previous texts still survives, but with nothing like the same intensity:

He had seen all from his warm nest of books and periodicals. But now that the best was past he came out on the platform, with the intention of closing his stall, for the night. He therefore lowered and locked the corrugated apron. He seemed a man of more than usual acerbity, and to suffer from unremitting mental, moral and perhaps even physical pain. One noticed his cap, perhaps because of the snowwhite forehead and damp black curly hair on which it sat. The eye came always in the end to the scowling mouth and from there on up to the rest. His moustache, handsome in itself, was for obscure reasons unimportant. But one thought of him as the man who, among other things, never left off his cap, a plain blue cloth cap, with a peak and knob. For he never left off his bicycle-clips either. These were of a kind that caused his trouser-ends to stick out wide, on either side. He was short and limped dreadfully. When he got started he moved rapidly, in a series of aborted genuflexions.

There isn’t the same fol-de-rol of recherche terminology. But there is still the fundamental attitude, the satirical deployment of an over-learnèd diction to a banal subject – ‘a series of aborted genuflexions’.

Beckett’s pedantic stage directions It is drily comic. It is droll, maybe, like clever undergraduates using over-elaborate language to impress each other with the absurdity of their erudition. This taste for the sly humour of extreme pedantry remained one of Beckett’s core qualities. An often overlooked aspect of his plays is the way the stage directions became things of extreme precision, which are both deadly serious and comic at the same time, like the precise nature of the bowler hats worn in Waiting For Godot. Indeed, some of the plays are entirely wordless, consisting solely of directions for actions the actors must perform and so are closer to mime or choreography. Any reader of the later plays gets used to the way the stage directions are often longer, more detailed and hyper-precise than the language involved in a production (if any).

So your response to Watt will depend on whether you enjoy, whether you find humour in the application of finicky, over-philosophical, over-learnèd and extended meditations on trivial everyday events.

In the opening scene Mr Hackett the hunchback and Mrs and Mrs Nixon spend four pages speculating why Watt got off the tram at the stop just opposite the bench where they are sitting. They work through all the potential reasons for his alighting just there with the scrupulous thoroughness of the medieval scholastic philosophers to whom Beckett owes a large debt.

Watt gets into a compartment of a train. He thinks it is empty but then realises a man is sitting in it (in a classic example Beckett-the-narrator playing with the conventions of what is, and what is not, implied by sentences in fiction. You write one thing, the reader understands the situation to be just so. You write another thing which flatly contradicts the first thing, and the reader realises just how slippery and imprecise language is, or how slippery the narrator is, or the text. Or perception. Or consciousness itself).

My name is Spiro, said the gentleman.
Here then was a sensible man at last. He began with the essential and then, working on, would deal with the less important matters, one after the other, in an orderly way.

The scholastic method of generating content Watt’s asperger’s syndrome-like obsessiveness is central to Becket’s method, and echoes or consciously revives, the medieval scholastic obsession with categorising all possible eventualities of an occurrence, or working systematically through every possible attribute of an entity. It is absolutely no surprise at all that the man in the train compartment, Spiro, turns out to be the editor of a Catholic journal (named Crux) which delights in setting elaborate brainteasers based on obscure areas of Christian theology, one of which he proceeds to share with Watt:

A rat, or other small animal, eats of a consecrated wafer.
1) Does he ingest the Real Body, or does he not?
2) If he does not, what has become of it?
3) If he does, what is to be done with him?

The thing about this kind of scholastic, super-categorising, hair-splittingly logical approach to trivialities is that it can generate endless text out of next to nothing. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin was a question that could trigger medieval schoolmen to hours of learned debate, bringing in huge amounts of learning about angels, their bodies corporeal or non-corporeal, their abilities to change shape and size, and so on. Questions like this were set in medieval university exams not because anyone wanted to know the answer, but so the candidates could display their command of the gigantic schemas of categories and entities and types.

This is one way of looking at Beckett – as a kind of machine who generated huge amounts of prose (in his novels) by deploying mechanistic and scholastic methodologies to absolute trivia. In More Pricks Than Kicks Beckett devotes a page to the complex methodology Belacqua Shuah employs to make two pieces of toast. In Molloy he spends an entire page enumerating the method Molloy develops for sucking 16 pebbles he has collected from the seashore and stores in his four pockets, so that he sucks them each in turn, while transferring them between pockets in a fair and just way.

Given this technique for generating prose, there doesn’t need to be any plot at all, no storyline in the traditional sense, and little sense or purpose to the narrative, for the text nonetheless to ramify out in all directions till it fills 200 pages of paragraph-less prose, and reading it makes you feel like you’re having a nervous breakdown.

Watt heard nothing of this, because of other voices, singing, crying, stating, murmuring, things unintelligible, in his ear. With these, if he was not familiar, he was not unfamiliar either. So he was not alarmed, unduly. Now these voices, sometimes they sang only, and sometimes they cried only, and sometimes they stated only, and sometimes they murmured only, and sometimes they sang and cried, and sometimes they sang and stated, and sometimes they sang and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated, and sometimes they cried and murmured, and sometimes they stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated, and sometimes they sang and cried and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated and murmured, all together, at the same time, as now, to mention only these four kinds of voices, for there were others.

See? Once you establish this method, you can apply it to anything, in fact the more trivial and silly the better, since it brings out the absurdity of the procedure and, by extension, the absurdity of trying to describe anything at all, the absurdity of writing fiction, the absurdity of being human.

Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at the same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then again to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north, and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardigrade, in a straight line. The knees, on these occasions, did not bend. They could have, but they did not. No knees could better bend than Watt’s, when they chose, there was nothing the matter with Watt’s knees, as may appear. But when out walking they did not bend, for some obscure reason. Notwithstanding this, the feet fell, heel and sole together, flat upon the ground, and left it, for the air’s uncharted ways, with manifest repugnancy. The arms were content to dangle, in perfect equipendency.

Forever and ever this kind of thing can be spooled out like a spider spins webs all its life long.

Use an Irish accent If you read it in a traditional English voice, like mine, it can get quite tiresome. Which is why you should have a go at reading it aloud with a slight Irish accent. If you do this, or hear it with your mind’s ear read in an Irish accent, you can catch the sly humour behind the entire thing and make out the very dry twinkle in old Sam Beckett’s beady eyes.

And you can see why, after exhausting the possibilities of prose in the enormous trilogy, he discovered the far more potent effect of doing this kind of thing onstage, of having actors read his prose out loud. Not only read out his mechanical variations on trivial actions, but actually have them act them out. Thus he gets the puppet characters of Godot or Happy Days or Endgame to go through obsessive physical and verbal repetitions which reduce the idea of human agency to an absolute null. And yet… with a shrewd, beady, half-smile hovering around his dry lips…

(This playful disinterest in plot, and greater interest in the games implicit in language, the silliness of set phrases and so on, is a quality shared with another bleak joker, Kurt Vonnegut. When Beckett describes Watt’s walk as ‘a funambulistic stagger’ the phrase reminded me of the made-up ‘chrono-synclastic infundibula’ which plays a central role in Vonnegut’s first novel The Sirens of Titan.)

The plot

Watt has four parts.

Part one

‘Hunchy’ Hackett sits on what he considers ‘his’ bench. He is joined by Mr and Mrs Nixon who, among other things, tell the story of how she gave birth in the middle of a posh dinner party (she went upstairs and delivered the baby herself before coming back down, leading the child by the hand). Night is falling. They observe someone alight from a stopping tram and identify him as Watt. There is a typically scholastic debate about why he chose this particular tram stop.

Cut to Watt hurrying to the train station and colliding with a man pushing a big milk churn. He picks it up along with Watt’s hat, the whole incident observed by the elderly keeper of the newsagent’s booth, who now closes it up. Watt enters the train in what he thinks is an empty compartment but then realises it has an occupant, who introduces himself as Spiro, editor of a Catholic popular magazine, Crux.

Watt alights (apparently) and walks along a road. His method of walking is described with characteristic obsessive pedantry. It once impressed a Lady McCann who observed his odd method of ambulation. He is tired. He lies down in a ditch (an image of utter dejection which was to be obsessively repeated in the falling, crawling, creeping protagonists of the Trilogy).

He hears a choir singing a song and, in that 1930s avant-garde way, the text includes a two-page transcription of it. Watt bestirs himself, picks up his bags and continues to the house of a Mr Knott, where we have a typical piece of obsessively repetitive Beckettiana:

The house was in darkness.
Finding the front door locked, Watt went to the back door. He could not very well ring, or knock, for the house was in darkness.
Finding the back door locked also, Watt returned to the front door.
Finding the front door locked still, Watt returned to the back door.
Finding the back door now open, oh not open wide, but on the latch, as the saying is, Watt was able to enter the house.
Watt was surprised to find the back door, so lately locked, now open. Two explanations of this occurred to him. The first was this, that his science of the locked door, so seldom at fault, had been so on this occasion, and that the back door, when he had found it locked, had not been locked, but open. And the second was this, that the back door, when he had found it locked, had in effect been locked, but had subsequently been opened, from within, or without, by some person, while he Watt had been employed in going, to and fro, from the back door to the front door, and from the front door to the back door.

See what I mean by the technique which can spool an infinite amount of prose, of ratiocination, out of almost nothing. Every human action can be subjected to a) this degree of mindless mechanical repetition and b) unnecessarily thorough pedantic over-analysis. Either you find it irksome or, you adjust your mood to suit Beckett’s approach and find it dryly humorous, absurd, absurdist.

Watt enters the apparently empty house and sits in the kitchen by the ‘range’, taking off his hat, revealing his grey-red hair. A man enters and delivers a breathless, surreal and absurdist monologue of the kind which will dominate the Trilogy. It is really a very long monologue, 25 pages of the kind of solid block prose we will see in the Trilogy and the demented, repetitive, obscure, mad obsessive dwelling on trivial or inconsequential subject matter which characterises all Beckett’s prose.

In terms of ‘facts’, what emerges is the speaker is Arsene, the owner of the house’s former manservant, along with one Erskine and two serving girls, Ann and Mary.

Part two

The narrating voice settles into a series of philosophical meditations on the nature of reality, of our experience of the outer and inner worlds and the difference between them, the nature of time and of mind.

For Watt now found himself in the midst of things which, if they consented to be named, did so as it were with reluctance.

These lengthy and repetitive lucubrations centre on a number of characteristically minor or trivial events, such as the visit to the house of the Galls, a father and son pair of piano tuners. Then there is the case of the pot, which gives rise to a long excursus on the nature of pot-ness.

Looking at a pot, for example, or thinking of a pot, at one of Mr Knott’s pots, of one of Mr Knott’s pots, it was in vain that Watt said, Pot, pot. Well, perhaps not quite in vain, but very nearly. For it was not a pot, the more he looked, the more he reflected, the more he felt sure of that, that it was not a pot at all. It resembled a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which one could say, Pot, pot, and be comforted. It was in vain that it answered, with unexceptionable adequacy, all the purposes, and performed all the offices, of a pot, it was not a pot. And it was just this hairbreadth departure from the nature of a true pot that so excruciated Watt. For if the approximation had been less close, then Watt would have been less anguished.

It’s passages like this – and this is only a small excerpt from the long passage about the pot – that bespeak a kind of mental illness, that lead me to make the comparisons with an autistic or asperger-like inability to relate to the world, to be thrown into anxiety, into panic, by nothing, by looking at a pot.

There is a master of the house, one Mr Knott, whose names seems as much of a joke as Watt’s. Watt is Knott. Watt is not Knott. Knott is not Watt. We could go on all day, and Beckett does. The obsessive manner of Watt knocking on the front door when he first arrives, then going round to knock on the back door, then returning to the front to knock on the front door again, then returning to the back to knock on the back door again, are a fleabite compared to some of the monstrosities of obsessive repetition, or repetitions with variations, the text contains.

Watt prepares Mr Knott’s meals by mixing up a precise list of ingredients and medicines into a sort of gruel which must be served punctually at 12 noon and 7pm. Sometimes Mr Knott leaves the bowl empty, at other times leaves varying percentages of the gruel in it.

Twelve possibilities occurred to Watt, in this connection:

  1. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  2. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  3. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  4. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  5. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  6. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, nor that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  7. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  8. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, nor knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  9. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  10. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, and knew that such an arrangement existed, and was content.
  11. Mr Knott was responsible for the arrangement, but knew who was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.
  12. Mr Knott was not responsible for the arrangement, but knew that he was responsible for the arrangement, but did not know that any such arrangement existed, and was content.

All these passages say something about the madness of thinking, the madness of writing, and the madness of language. The anxiety about Knott’s dinner develops seamlessly into an even more elaborated worry about the dog Watt is ordered to give any leftovers of Mr Knott’s dinner to, worries whether such a dog might or might not exist, and then a detailed consideration of four possible permutations by which such a dog might be prevailed upon to eat the leftovers. Which leads into a consideration of the family which is required to manage the complex system of dogs which have been conjured up to eat Mr Knott’s leftovers, and who are named the Lynch family and who Beckett proceeds to list and describe at exorbitant length, 28 of them in total. When Liz, the wife of Sam, dies shortly after giving birth to her twentieth baby:

This loss was a great loss to the family Lynch, this loss of a woman of forty goodlooking years.
For not only was a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law, an aunt, a sister, a sister-in-law, a cousin, a niece-in-law, a niece, a niece-in-law, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter-in-law and of course a grandmother, snatched from her grandfather-in-law, her father-in-law, her uncles-in-law, her aunt, her aunts-in-law, her cousins, her brothers-in-law, her sisters, her niece, her nephew, her sons-in-law, her daughters, her sons, her husband and of course her four little grandchildren (who however exhibited no sign of emotion other than that of curiosity, being too young no doubt to realise the dreadful thing that had happened, for their total age amounted to no more than sixteen years), never to return, but the Lynch millennium was retarded by almost one year and a half, assuming that during that time all were spared, and so could not be expected before roughly two years from the date of Liz’s departure, instead of in a mere five months time, as would have been the case if Liz together with the rest of the family had been spared, and even five or six days sooner if the infant had been spared also, as he was to be sure, but at his mother’s expense, with the result that the goal towards which the whole family was striving receded to the tune of a good nineteen months, if not more, assuming all the others to be spared, in the meantime.

As you read this sort of thing, it’s hard not to think of Beckett’s own description that he wrote the book as an exercise, as experiments in dribs and drabs, on the long long nights hidden away in a house in the Vaucluse, with a pen, some notebooks and far too much time on his hands.

We are now in the clutches of the Lynch family and their absurd wish that the total of their combined ages reaches a thousand, something which keeps being prevented when one or other of them dies unexpectedly. Meanwhile one of the uglier cousins has twins. Which leads into an extended consideration of who impregnated her which requires a long, detailed description of the fornicatory habits of all the male members of family (cousin Sam in his wheelchair, cousin Tom with his manic depression, Uncle Jack…?)

After pages about the Lynch family, we revert to Watt, during his era of service on the ground floor, and a further disquisition about the name and nature of the dog the two members of the Lynch family, the dwarves Art and Con (remember the hunchback Mr Hackett at the start of the ‘story’), are tasked with bringing to the door of Mr Knott’s house every evening at 9pm to receive whatever leftover there may be. Or not. The dog is called Kate and we have it fully explained which Lynch family member she is named after. Kate dies and is replaced by another dog named Cis.

Eventually the book gets beyond the complex issue of the dig which eats Mr Knott’s leftovers and settles on the even more vexed matter of why the other servant in the house, Erskine, seems to spend so much of his time running up and down stairs from the ground floor to the first floor to the second floor and back down again, presumably at Mr Knott’s command, whereas Watt, at least in the first phase of his employment, remains on the ground floor throughout his working day. The possible reasons why are given the Beckett treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason.

Then there is the bell which goes off anytime day or night to summon Erskine to Mr Knott’s room. Same kind of treatment i.e. a thorough working through of every conceivable reason, including a list of every possible part of the human anatomy which could be used to press a bell. Watt decides he needs to discover the layout of Erskine’s room and in particular the location of the bell. But:

Erskine’s room was always locked, and the key in Erskine’s pocket. Or rather, Erskine’s room was never unlocked, nor the key out of Erskine’s pocket, longer than two or three seconds at a stretch, which was the time that Erskine took to take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the outside, glide into his room, lock his door again on the inside and slip the key back into his pocket, or take the key from his pocket, unlock his door on the inside, glide out of his room, lock the door again on the outside and slip the key back into his pocket. For if Erskine’s room had been always locked, and the key always in Erskine’s pocket, then Erskine himself, for all his agility, would have been hard set to glide in and out of his room, in the way he did, unless he had glided in and out by the window, or the chimney. But in and out by the window he could not have glided, without breaking his neck, nor in and out by the chimney, without being crushed to death. And this was true also of Watt.

Abruptly a first-person narrator enters the text who informs us that everything written so far was told him by Watt many years later and over the course of many years, and that he took it all down in his notebook. Which gives rise to extensive, repetitive and thorough reflections on epistemology and the limits of knowledge, specially when it comes to narratives.

And so always, when the impossibility of my knowing, of Watt’s having known, what I know, what Watt knew, seems absolute, and insurmountable, and undeniable, and uncoercible, it could be shown that I know, because Watt told me, and that Watt knew, because someone told him, or because he found out for himself. For I know nothing, in this connexion, but what Watt told me.

We don’t know his name and the text moves back to the issue of Watt breaking into Erskine’s bedroom where he discovers a mysterious geometric painting hanging on the wall which gives rise to a very deep meditation on the nature of perspective and space and time and experience within it.

Time passes and Watt wonders how long he will be serving on the ground floor, how long his predecessors did, was it service of fixed duration, or did it vary from servant to servant?

For the service to be considered was not the service of one servant, but of two servants, and even of three servants, and even of an infinity of servants, of whom the first could not out till the second up, nor the second up till the third in, nor the third in till the first out, nor the first out till the third in, nor the third in till the second up, nor the second up till the first out, every going, every being, every coming consisting with a being and a coming, a coming and a going, a going and a being, nay with all the beings and all the comings, with all the comings and all the goings, with all the goings and all the beings, of all the servants that had ever served Mr Knott, of all the servants that ever would serve Mr Knott.

Repetition with variations. Obsessive repetition of the variations of a small number of variables, like the stones Molloy sucks or the toast that Belacqua Shuah methodically burns. The passage about the possible permutations of the servants goes on for four densely-written pages. Then he remembers lying on a beach at night and hearing three frogs who croak, respectively, Krak!, Krek! and Krik! at precise numerical intervals, such that the next two pages contain a table enumerating the froggy croaks.

Which leads into a memory of Watt’s sort-of affair with Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who came round to his house every Thursday evening. Sometimes she sat on his lap, sometimes he sat on hers, which immediately sparks two pages describing all the possible permutations of lap-sitting, along with a calculation of how long it took to change position, with the additional complexity of the time required to kiss or simply clasp each other, leading into ever-more complex calculations and permutations.

Mr Graves the old gardener comes regularly to the back door. Watt brings him a cup of tea in the morning or a bottle of stout in the evening.

Watt literally bumps into Mr Knott once when the owner is staring at a daisy and a worm at his feet. They do not speak. At numerous other times he glimpses the mysterious owner through windows, which often distort his appearance so he appears sometimes tall, sometimes short, sometimes stout, sometimes thin.

Watt realises he is tired and bored, service on the ground floor has tired him out. Then one fine winter morning he comes downstairs to find a new man in the kitchen, named Arthur. And on that word part two terminates.

Part three

Is narrated by a person called Sam but his narrative voice is identical to all that came before:

Watt seldom left his mansion and I seldom left mine. And when the kind of weather we liked did induce us to leave our mansions, and go out into the garden, it did not always do so at the same time. For the kind of weather that I liked, while resembling the kind of weather that Watt liked, had certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had not, and lacked certain properties that the kind of weather that Watt liked had.

It appears they are both in an institution whose halls are crowded with what the narrator calls ‘scum’, playing ball all the time. The reference to mansions appears to be ironic. Watt appears to have ended up in a lunatic asylum, as does Murphy in his book. It is the logical place for all Beckett protagonists to end up since they are clearly suffering from advanced mental illness and inability to cope with everyday experience or any human interaction.

Watt and the protagonist are in some kind of institution, they can wander freely in separate gardens, divided by barbed wire fences. This is the most genuinely surreal. The narrator discovers a hole in his fence which parallels a hole in Watt’s fence and crawls through to him, watches him advance backwards towards him, wearing his clothes back to front, and when Watt speaks, his words are back to front.

The narrator says he has a little notebook, so maybe he is the same narrator with a little notebook who popped up in part two, saying he kept extensive notes of Watt’s stories. They often walk together in their favourite weather, sunny windy days. Then Watt’s defect deepens and he starts talking by reversing the spelling of words. In fact the narrator documents a further sequence of linguistic oddities, all laid out with the usual obsession for precise variation.

Then he took it into his head to invert, no longer the order of the words in the sentence, nor that of the letters in the word, nor that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, nor simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, nor simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, ho no, but, in the brief course of the same period, now that of the words in the sentence, now that of the letters in the word, now that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the letters in the word, now simultaneously that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period, now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the sentences in the period, and now simultaneously that of the letters in the word and that of the words in the sentence and that of the sentences in the period.

Watt describes an afternoon when he, Mr Knott, Mr Graves and Arthur are all in the garden together. Arthur makes his recommendation of Bando to Mr Graves and then proceeds to give a long, rambling, surreal or absurdist account of an academic expedition into darkest Ireland carried out by one Ernest Louit as recounted to the committee of crusty old academics who commissioned him. All this is set in Beckett’s old university, Trinity College, Dublin.

There are five crusty old dons on the committee and there is a spectacularly Beckettian, obsessive-compulsive 3-page description of precisely who was looking at who and where they were sitting and what they saw. But this is as nothing compared to the subsequent scene in which Louit brings along and presents to the committee the ageing peasant Mr Nackybal who turns out to have the uncanny ability to rattle off the square root or the cube root of very large figures. Beckett’s obsessive compulsive, obsessively repetitive mannerisms go into overdrive.

After about 25 pages of the story of Mr Nackybal Arthur abruptly tires, breaks off and goes into Mr Knott’s house. Watt is relieved, it was a very draining story. The story having desisted we move onto a few aspects of Mr Knott, and a fantastically obsessive iteration of all the possible combinations of footwear he could wear. This is surpassed by this description of Mr Knott’s activities in his room:

Here he stood. Here he sat. Here he knelt. Here he lay. Here he moved, to and fro, from the door to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the fire to the door, from the door to the fire; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the bed to the window, from the window to the bed; from the fire to the window, from the window to the fire; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the bed to the door, from the door to the bed; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the window, from the window to the fire; from the fire to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the bed; from the bed to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the door; from the window to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the window; from the fire to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the fire; from the bed to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the bed; from the door to the fire, from the fire to the window; from the window to the fire, from the fire to the door; from the window to the bed, from the bed to the door; from the door to the bed, from the bed to the window; from the fire to the window, from the window to the bed; from the bed to the window, from the window to the fire; from the bed to the door, from the door to the fire; from the fire to the door, from the door to the bed.

This scales new heights of mad compulsive repetition with a large number of small variations, even for Beckett.

It’s hard not to feel, as these mad repetition scenes mount up, that this kind of mathematical iteration is what replaces, in Beckett, a sensual feel for language. He subjects language to endless algorithmic combinations, but very rarely do you read a sentence which is vivid and breath-taking. Often it is like reading a computer program. Quite regularly there are softer sentences which appear to be recalling a kind of Tennysonian, ‘poetic’, susurration.

At ten the steps came, clearer, clearer, fainter, fainter, on the stairs, on the landing, on the stairs again, and through the open door the light, from darkness slowly brightening, to darkness slowly darkening, the steps of Arthur, the light of poor Arthur, little by little mounting to his rest, at his habitual hour.

But these are never quite convincing or consistent. Beckett is much more at home in the mechanical, in algorithmic repetitions, in perfunctory combinations, creating a new kind of 20th century ‘poetry’, based on objective descriptions, computer manuals, algorithmic permutations or – as here – a parody of bureaucratic forms:

I come from —, said Mr Micks, and he described the place whence he came. I was born at —, he said, and the site and circumstances of his ejection were unfolded. My dear parents, he said, and Mr and Mrs Micks, heroic figures, unique in the annals of cloistered fornication, filled the kitchen. He said further, At the age of fifteen, My beloved wife, My beloved dog, Till at last. Happily Mr Micks was childless.

The last few pages of part three describe Watt’s encounters with Mr Knott, or their joint presence in rooms, but they never communicate, Watt discovers or understands as little about him as when he started in his employ. On the penultimate page there is one of Beckett’s algorithmic fantasias listing all possible permutations of the elements of Mr Knott’s physical appearance, which is even longer than the one above describing the moving furniture in his bedroom.

Eventually we come to the end. Watt gives a final description of the characteristically obsessive patterns or permutations which Mr Knott applied to putting on his slippers, or shoes, or overshoes, or boots, or one slipper and one shoe, or one boot and one slipper etc etc.

And then, quite abruptly, it appears that Watt has told the narrator everything he can, or everything the narrator was able to make out from Watt’s umpteen peculiar ways of speaking, as enumerated earlier. And so Watt returns, moving backwards, through the holes in the fences between their respective gardens, and then walks backwards across his park, continually stumbling over roots and into brambles, back towards his ‘pavilion’.

Which is all very weird and disturbing. This walking backwards across dreamily huge parks, and then talking backwards, is part nonsense in the manner of Lear or Carrol, maybe, but feels more like a disturbing 20th century sci-fi dystopia or bad dream. I found it emotionally upsetting.

Part four

The shortest of the four sections. One night a stranger is sitting in the kitchen when Watt comes down for his night-time drink of milk and to smoke the remains of his cheap cigar. It is Micks, a man who has arrived, like he did all those years ago, out of nowhere. Watt realises it is time to leave Mr Knott’s house, goes upstairs, packs his two little bags, gives Micks a talk much as Arsene gave him (only infinitely shorter) and leaves the house forever. In fact he finds himself out the house, walking down the avenue and then along the road from the house, before he’s really aware of it, and regrets not having said a formal goodbye to Micks.

It’s the early hours so the station is closed. He climbs over the wicket gate, looks up at the night sky, looks back along the highway and sees a peculiar figure shuffling towards the station. It gets larger and larger and then gets smaller and smaller. So it goes.

The station master, Mr Case, is awake and reading a book by Irish writer, poet, critic etc George Russell. Watt asks if he can wait in the waiting room but as this requires entry through the ticket office, which is locked up, this triggers two pages of complex calculations about keys and locks and the correct sequence of opening, closing and relocking doors which eventually results in the answer Yes. Watt says that on reflection he would rather stay outside on the platform walking up and down.

Which makes it odd that we then find him in the waiting room lying down, possibly having a hallucination or memory of an old lady talking. There’s another unusually mysterious and ‘sensitive’ moments, which intersperse the mad combinatory passages:

He lay on the seat, without thought or sensation, except for a slight feeling of chill in one foot. In his skull the voices whispering their canon were like a patter of mice, a flurry of little grey paws in the dust.

It gets slowly very dark. And the slowly the light of dawn appears and Watt can make out shapes in the waiting room, first a chair, then a fireplace, then a picture of a horse in a field. At that point the morning staff of the station arrive, notably Mr Nixon, a loud whistling sort of gentleman who kicks the waiting room door open with great vigour. What he didn’t know was that Watt was directly in its path.

The text now becomes deliberately tricksy, a ‘hiatus’ is indicated in the manuscript, as if it were a venerable relic, and then the message that ‘MS is illegible’. Watt sees the ceiling of the room with preternatural clarity, but from the behaviour of Mr Nixon, Mr Gorman his superior and Mr Case, it seems that Watt is now lying on the floor, badly concussed and bleeding a little from the mouth or nose. (Mr Gorman? Is the husband of the Mrs Gorman the fishwoman who Watt was described as having an affair with earlier in the book?).

The traditional morning commuters turn up including Lady McCann, and Arsy Cox and Herring-gut Waller and Cack-faced Miller and Mrs Penny-a-hoist Pim.

(This all reminds me of the radio play Beckett wrote for the BBC ten years later, All That Fall, which involves a gabby old Irish lady cadging a lift to a railway station. It has the same claustrophobic smallness.)

They all decide something must be done but don’t know what. They don’t know Watt. Nixon and Gorman appear to manhandle the firebucket over to Watt’s prone form and try to tip the water over him, though from the generally lamenting tone, it seems (it’s all described with deliberate obscurity) as if they drop the bucket itself onto Watt.

Then to their surprise, Watt stands up, takes up his bags, walks through to the ticket office and asks to buy a ticket. He doesn’t know where he wants to go. When quizzed, he replies ‘to the end of the line’. ‘Which end?’ Mr Nolan asks, ‘the round end of the square end?’ The nearer end, Watt decides.

So I think what has happened is Watt has been seriously concussed, possibly suffered brain damage and this is the precursor to him going, or being taken, to the institution we found him in, in the disturbing part three.

The last page leaves Watt altogether and gives us a last little flare-up of Beckettian combinatorial obsessiveness.

Mr Nolan looked at Mr Case, Mr Case at Mr Nolan, Mr Gorman at Mr Case, Mr Gorman at Mr Nolan, Mr Nolan at Mr Gorman, Mr Case at Mr Gorman, Mr Gorman again at Mr Case, again at Mr Nolan, and then straight before him, at nothing in particular. And so they stayed a little while, Mr Case and Mr Nolan looking at Mr Gorman, and Mr Gorman looking straight before him, at nothing in particular, though the sky falling to the hills, and the hills falling to the plain, made as pretty a picture, in the early morning light, as a man could hope to meet with, in a day’s march.

This is the final paragraph. In it you can see the obsessive variation trope, but note also the way it ends with a thumping cliché. It is an ending of sorts but an ending which takes the mickey out of endings. But it doesn’t quite avoid the feeling that this is partly because Beckett is not necessarily any good at endings. This is partly because, philosophically, he appears to regard all things as taking part in an endless flux in all directions, through all directions and through time. But a few works after Watt he was to stumble across a form of words which captures this, the sense of endlessness, and one which captures both his bleak nihilism and his determination:

‘You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on…’

No wonder this formula is then repeated with variations (arguably Beckett’s basic imaginative trope, as Watt abundantly demonstrates) in his subsequent fictions, most famously at the end of Waiting For Godot:

Well, shall we go.
Yes, let’s go.
(They do not move)

Repeated until, like much else in Beckett, it itself becomes a formula and a new cliché, as predictably bleak as a Mills and Boon happy ever after is predictably sentimental.

The addenda

At the end of the book are 30 or so fragments which Beckett couldn’t find place for in the text, but which he attached nonetheless. They include fragments of sentences, songs, definitions, one-line summaries of events, learned references phrases in foreign languages, sheet music, a summary of the second picture to be seen in Erskine’s room and so on.

None of them contain any great revelations, mainly it’s just more of the same banal and trivial events. Nonetheless, puzzling over their implications or how they might have been included or altered the text, has kept scholars happily absorbed ever since. They are humorously introduced with the author’s note:

The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation.

Looking at the Amazon reviews of the book, ‘fatigue and disgust’ are what some readers of the book have experienced, who haven’t been able to approach it, who haven’t learned to approach it with the correct tangential, amused attitude, completely liberated from the desire expectation to have character or plot or dialogue that makes sense in a supposed ‘novel’.

And who haven’t been able to see, beneath or behind the obsessive repetition and deliberate anti-plot and anti-character, the sly smile of the Dante-loving cricketer from Dublin.

Thoughts

Experiments

The Wikipedia article humorously quotes S. E. Gontarski’s description of Watt as ‘the white whale of Beckett studies, a mass of documentation that defies attempts to make sense of it.’ But it makes total sense if you see it as a congeries of fragmentary exercises stitched together and this is how Beckett himself consistently referred to it.

Much later Beckett said that Watt was written in Roussillon as ‘just an exercise’ while he was waiting for the war to end and it certainly reads like a series of exercises or experiments in the obsessive-autistic manner I’ve described. The use of repetition has you initially grasping to keep the meanings in mind but after a while you submit to it like trance music and go into a kind of Beckett zone where you know none of it means anything but are lulled by the insistent repetitions with variations.

Banned

Like UlyssesWatt was immediately banned in Ireland. It’s not for the explicit sex, as there is none. The episode of the Lynch family more than hints at incest. There’s a description of cousin Ann’s ‘splendid bosom, white and fat and elastic’ and of Sam managing to have sex with countless local ladies despite being confined to a wheelchair. In part three the character Arthur refers to a product named Bando which appears to help with erectile disfunction, and openly criticises the Irish Free State for banning it.

Just as offensive might have been the blunt descriptions of bodily functions i.e. pooing and peeing, number ones and number twos, the description of 64-year-old Mr Nackybal scratching ‘a diffuse ano-scrotal prurit’.

And there is a steady stream of mocking references to God and his son, not blasphemous in the French manner, just casually disrespectful. And a few swearwords, arse and bugger, balls, the word ‘erection’ is mentioned once! Maybe, taken together, that sufficed to trigger the censor’s stamp.


Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

JOHN FAUSTUS: All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyèd in their several provinces;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;

Title and provenance

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

Date Written: c. 1589-1592.

Source: In 1587 a version of the story of Doctor John Faustus was published in Frankfurt-on-Main, in German. Soon after – a 1592 edition is the earliest one extant – an anonymous English translation, containing modifications and additions, was published in England, under the title The Historie of the damnable life of Doctor John Faustus. It is clear from the numerous similarities in plot, episodes and even language that the History was Marlowe’s primary source for his play.

Doctor Faustus exists in two versions: the 1604 (‘A’ text) quarto is shorter; a second, longer version was published in 1616 (the ‘B’ text). Which one is more ‘authentic’ has been exercising Marlowe scholars for four hundred years. The editor of the New Mermaid edition – Roma Gill – thinks the shorter A version likely to be purer Marlowe, and the later B version includes additions by other writers. This is a review of the 1616 ‘B’, long version, as found on the ElizabethanDrama.org website.

Executive Summary

The famous theologian Doctor John Faustus is spiritually unfulfilled with his chosen vocation, teaching and debating at the university in Wittenberg. He reviews all existing forms of human learning, dismissing them one by one as trash, fit only for small minds. He decides occult knowledge and magic is the only thing for him and the climax of part one is when he conjures a devil, an agent of Satan, Mephistopheles, and signs a contract with him, which gives Faustus the gift of sorcery and the secrets of the universe for 24 years, in exchange for his eternal soul.

Then there’s the middle bit where Faustus takes advantage of his magical powers, flying into space in a chariot drawn by dragons, an extended farce scene poking fun at the pope, before the most famous scene where he conjures up the most beautiful woman in all human history, Helen of Troy, with the words: ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships…’ Different printed editions of the play give different scenes demonstrating how Faustus uses his powers.

In the final part of this moralising fairy tale Mephistopheles returns and demands Faustus’s soul and, after a lot of pleading, Faustus is dragged down to hell. So let that be a lesson to you, children: Do NOT sign away your soul to the devil, no matter how tempting the short-term offer. ‘What must you not do, Johnny?’ ‘I must no sign my soul away to the devil, miss.’ ‘Good boy, Johnny.’

The play

Prologue

Consciously rejects the grand locations and warlike deeds of his earlier plays (Dido, Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta) for something more intimate. The prologue introduces Dr John Faustus with a potted biography of his birth, upbringing and education at Wittenberg, where he soon excels in theology.

Till swoln with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursèd necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.

This is very slick and professional, to take us from nothing to having a good grasp of Faustus’s character and biography in just 27 lines before the prologue indicates the scene with his hand, and the play opens. Very impressive.

Act 1

Dr Johann Faustus is sitting in his study reviewing books of learning, the law, medicine, politics, and dismisses them all as superficial trash:

Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
‘Tis magic, magic, that hath ravished me

Here, right at the start of the play a Good Angel and a Bad Angel appear to Faustus, respectively encouraging him, and telling him not to, study magic. Faustus summons two fellow students of the dark arts who have, apparently, helped him, Valdes and Cornelius. To all these characters, Marlowe allots his trademark booming verse, packed with soaring ambition, studded with stunning images of luxury and power, imagining what it will be like when they have total magical control:

VALDES: As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords,
So shall the spirits of every element
Be always serviceable to us three;
Like lions shall they guard us when we please;
Like Almain rutters with their horsemen’s staves,
Or Lapland giants, trotting by our sides;
Sometimes like women, or unwedded maids,
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows
Than has the white breasts of the queen of love:
From Venice shall they drag huge argosies,
And from America the golden fleece
That yearly stuffs old Philip’s treasury;

Faustus gets excited at the images of power and luxury his friends conjure up, and he invites them for dinner and to plan how to practice magic.

Scene 2 Street outside Faustus’s house Two scholars enter and ask Faustus’s servant, Wagner, where his master is. The scene is padded out with comic material, namely that Wagner has picked up scraps of rhetoric and logic and so teases the two scholars by proving their arguments illogical or wrongly formed etc. Eventually he spits out that his master is at dinner with Valdes and Cornelius and the two scholars go away, sad, and tutting and shaking their heads, because that pair have a bad reputation for the dark arts.

Scene 3 A grove This is the scene where Faustus, alone in a grove in the countryside, has drawn a circle and written into it various magical symbols and now recites a Latin spell, there is a crack of thunder, and a devil appears, Mephistopheles. Although he should be terrifying, he proceeds to explain the processes and procedures of devils in relatively bureaucratic terms: when they hear anyone abjure Christ, God and the Scriptures a devil will come speeding, hoping to win a soul.

Faustus’s superficiality, the lack of understanding behind all his fine reading, is amply demonstrated. He says he agrees with the ancient philosophers in thinking hell a children’s fable, of confounding heaven and hell. When Mephistopheles tries to explain that hell isn’t a world of punishments, it is deprivation of the boundless soul-filling job of being in heaven, Faustus mocks him and tells him to ‘learn of Faustus manly fortitude’. In other words, it is plain for everyone in the audience to see that Faustus is not only a blasphemer and infidel, he us stupid when it comes to the only thing in life which matters.

It is Faustus who boastfully makes the offer, telling Mephistopheles to go and tell his master, mighty Lucifer:

FAUSTUS: Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and to aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.

You can see how this kind of megalomaniac over-reaching is first cousin to Tamburlaine’s heaven-vaulting ambition, and Faustus’s ambitions are cast in very similar terms:

By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge thorough the moving air,
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributary to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany.
Now that I have obtained what I desired.

Scene 4 A comic scene with Wagner the servant (who speaks in servant prose) who encounter a ‘clown’ or beggar in the street and raises two devils to terrify the clown into serving him (Wagner).

Wagner can raise devils? This scene, in fact all the scenes with Wagner and some of the banter between Faustus and Mephistopheles has a raggedy comedy about it. T.S. Eliot described The Jew of Malta as ‘a savage farce’ and Faustus also has farcical elements, as if Marlowe can’t take his own story seriously.

Scene 5 Faustus’s study He listens to the arguments of the good and bad angel, but is resolved for bad, He realises:

The god thou serv’st is thine own appetite,

And yet he is determined to do it. He argues back against the good angel, and then – it being midnight – conjures Mephistopheles. The devil tells him to stab his arm to draw the blood to sign his pact with great Lucifer.

But something genuinely spooky happens. As Faustus tries to write, his blood keeps congealing, preventing him from continuing to sign away his soul. Mephistopheles hurries offstage and returns with a chafer of flame which they use to prevent Faustus’s blood congealing, and he finishes writing out the contract. But then appears on his arm the words Homo fuge, Latin for ‘man, flee!’ Faustus is momentarily panic-stricken, but Mephistopheles magics up a dancing troupe of devils to distract him. Thus reassured (or dazzled) Faustus reads out the contract he has drawn up: Mephistopheles will be his to command for 24 years to carry out his every wish, and then:

I, John Faustus of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents, do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister Mephistophilis; and furthermore grant unto them, that, four-and-twenty years being expired, and these articles above written being inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus, body and soul, flesh and blood, into their habitation wheresoever.

Mephistopheles again double checks that Faustus is entering into the contract of his own free will. This is important for the very legal pernicketiness which characterises Christian theology. Faustus affirms it. Now commences his 24 years of fun.

Faustus asks Mephisopheles about hell and the latter gives a famous and profound description:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.

Hell is the absence of God and of God’s grace which is what saves and redeems humans. It is not so much a place, as a condition we carry round with us. Hence Mephistopheles’ earlier declaration:

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

Once again Faustus shows his idiocy by saying he doesn’t believe hell exists, it’s an old wives’ tale. Nonetheless, Mephistopheles says he’ll bring him the most beautiful women in the world, each morning, fresh to his bed. And Mephistopheles gives him a book full of magic spells.

Scene 6 Some time later, in Faustus’s house, he accuses Mephistopheles of misleading him, of looking up at the stars and the beautiful heaven he will never see. Mephistopheles tries to talk him round, the two angels appear and the bad won triumphs, hardening Faustus’s heart. Incidentally, there’s an indication of what the pair have been up to:

Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,
Made music with my Mephistophilis?

He quizzes him about the nature of the solar system, the planets and the stars, which knowledge Mephistopheles rattles off but when Faustus asks him who made it all the devil literally cannot bring himself to utter the word God.

When the good angel prompts Faustus to try to repent he is visited by Lucifer and Beelzebub. They tell him not to think on heaven or call on God. To distract him they summon up an allegorical masque of the seven deadly sins. Faustus loves the show and Lucifer gives him a parting gift of a book of magic before exiting.

Scene 7 A comic scene between Robin and Dick, two ostlers or staff at an inn who have got their hands on one of Faustus’s books and appear to be thinking of using it to gain magical powers.

Chorus 1 The chorus describes how Faustus rode a chariot pulled by dragons out into the solar system to behold the planets in their motion. Returned to earth after 8 days, he is now riding a dragon across its surface and will soon arrive at Rome.

Scene 8 Faustus and Mephistopheles review the tour they’ve made through France, Germany and down into Italy. Faustus is loving it:

Whilst I am here on earth, let me be cloyed
With all things that delight the heart of man:
My four-and-twenty years of liberty
I’ll spend in pleasure and in dalliance…

Now they hide in order to watch the annual Festival of St Peter inside the palace of the Pope. A procession enters, the striking part of which is that a ruler named Bruno is in chains, and the Pope orders him to go on all fours so as to act as a footstool for him (the Pope) to ascend his throne.

This Bruno is a fictitious ‘anti-pope’, a role which arose in the 14th century when two different popes were elected for a period of fifty years, who opposed and anathematised each other. But there was never an anti-pope named Bruno, just as the pope in these scenes is referred to as Adrian and depicted as an enemy of the Holy Roman Emperor, whereas the one and only pope named Adrian (the only Englishman to have been pope) ruled from 1154 to 1159 and was an ally of the Holy Roman Emperor. Similarly, the scene features a King Sigismund of Hungary and there has never been a King Sigismund of Hungary. In other words, these names are just handy labels for a scene of broad farce. Similarly, the scene

Faustus and Mephistopheles watch all this then disguise themselves as cardinals of France and Padua in order to give the pope their theological opinion that the antipope Bruno should immediately be burned at the stake and the Emperor excommunicated. The pope hands Bruno over to our disguised pair to carry out the sentence.

Scene 9 The pope’s privy chamber The pope is holding a feast for king Sigismund and his cardinals. Faustus reveals that he and Mephistopheles have magically transported Bruno safely back to Germany. The two real cardinals of France and Padua enter and are perplexed when the pope asks how their imprisoning and punishment of Bruno is going; both deny any knowledge although, of course, the pope’s entire court swears they saw it happen. So the cardinals are dragged off to prison and punishment.

Faustus gets Mephistopheles to say a spell (interesting to compare these spells with the same sort of thing Shakespeare used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to make him invisible and proceeds to wreak havoc, whispering insults in the pope’s ear, as if from his neighbour, whisking away the pope’s plates and goblet of wine, etc, eventually slapping the pope. Concluding some evil spirit is loose among them, the pope calls in some friars who solemnly chant magic spells, er, prayers, until Faustus and Mephistopheles set about them, too, beating them and throwing fireworks at them as they run away.

Pantomime.

Scene 10 Street near an inn Back to the serving men Robin and Dick. The vintner accuses them of stealing a cup from the inn. Rather over-reacting, Robin uses Faustus’s book to read and spell and conjure up Mephistopheles. As punishment for dragging him away from more important work, Mephistopheles transforms them into a dog and an ape, who promptly bark and bounce around the stage. Panto.

Scene 11 Court of the Holy Roman Emperor at Innsbruck Two servants, Frederick and Martino, explain that Faustus has arrived at the Emperor’s court, having magically transported Bruno to Germany, and has promised to show the emperor all his historical antecedents.

Scene 12 The emperors ‘presence chamber’ The emperor formally greets Faustus and thanks him for rescuing Bruno, the German anti-pope. Faustus then presents a dumb show in which we all see the figure of Alexander the Great confront and defeat the Persian emperor Darius before setting the latter’s crown on the head of his paramour. The emperor is mightily impressed, though he has to be restrained by Faustus from embracing the dumbshow Alexander.

One of the emperor’s courtiers is a drunken nitwit named Benvolio, and as a result of saying he doesn’t believe in Faustus’s powers, the latter gives him the horns of a stag. Everyone laughs then Faustus menaces him with setting a pack of devils to tear him to pieces as Diana’s hounds tore Actaeon to pieces. The emperor intercedes and so Faustus relents and removes Benvolio’s horns. This is comedy, farce – but what strikes me is the use of classical myth to articulate it. The Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Scene 13 A grove near Innsbruck In revenge for his humiliation, Benvolio organises an ambush with Frederick and Martino and, when Faustus comes along, they stab him, knock him to the ground and then chop off his head! They exult over his corpse but are terrified when the headless body gets to its feet. He cannot be killed. Now he conjures up Mephistopheles and two other devils to drag the three conspirators off to dump them in mud and drag them through thornbushes and throw them off steep rocks to break their bones, and they all exit, screaming.

That’s not all. Some soldiers had been included in the assassination attempt and when they now come forward to attack Faustus, the latter conjures up Mephistopheles and other devils in the guise of an army with drums and fife who march against the soldiers and chase them offstage with fireworks.

Scene 14 Show what became of the three conspirators Benvolio, Frederick and Marino, now covered in mud, scratched and bruised and,.. with stags horns on their heads! They conclude there is nothing they can do against such magic and will retreat to Benvolio’s castle, there to live in retirement till their shame has passed.

Scene 15 A convoluted comic scene in which a horse-courser or dealer begs Faustus to sell him his magic horse, which he finally does for 40 dollars but tells the man not to ride it into water. Barely 30 seconds have passed and Faustus has just gone to bed, before the dealer returns to say he did ride the horse into water and it disappeared leaving just a straw behind. Now the dealer goes to pull Faustus out of bed but his leg comes off in his hand, Faustus wakes up shouting Murder, murder’, and the dealer runs off. Faustus’s leg is magically restored (just as his head was in scene 13) and  his servant tells him the Duke of Vanholt wishes to see him.

Scene 16 Robin, Dick, the horse-courser, and a carter are down the pub sharing their reasons for hating Faustus.

Scene 17 The Court of the Duke of Vanholt The Duke thanks Faustus for building him a castle in the air. His wife, the duchess, is pregnant and expresses a fancy for grapes. Although it is midwinter, Faustus dispatches Mephistopheles who returns a few seconds later with a spray of wonderful fresh grapes.

The Duke and Duchess are still marvelling at this when there is a load of rowdy banging at the gate. It is Robin, Dick, the carter, and the horse-courser. They’re drunk, insult Faustus and demand more beer! Faustus asks the duke to indulge him and calls for more beer. This scene takes up an inordinate space, in which the horse dealer drunkenly asks whether Faustus can remember having his leg pulled off, Faustus says yes, the dealer asks where it is, Faustus replies, back here with me, and so on. Presumably the Elizabethan audience found all this very funny.

All four begin to accuse Faustus with their grievances but one by one he strikes them dumb, last of all the hostess who’s come to ask for her bill to be paid, and they exit like zombies. The duke and duchess are very amused.

Scene 18 Back at Faustus’s, Wagner enters to tell us his master is preparing to die, has given Wagner:

his wealth,
His house, his goods, and store of golden plate,
Besides two thousand ducats ready-coined.

Then we see Faustus at dinner with two scholars. They have been discussing who was the most beautiful woman in the world (as wise and learned scholars will, after a few beers) and decided it must be Helen of Troy. Faustus promptly gets Mephistopheles to lead her in, in a dumbshow of the same style as the one where Faustus conjured up Alexander the Great. They are immensely impressed and gratified, thank Faustus and leave.

The tone completely changes as an old man enters and warns Faustus, at length, to save his soul. Faustus is stricken with remorse and tries to repent but Mephistopheles turns savage, accuses him of breaking the bargain, and warns him he will tear his flesh in piecemeal.

Faustus is so terrified he instantly promises to renew his vow, and Mephistopheles hands him a dagger so he can cut his arm and renew the contract in his own blood and then, vengefully, orders Mephistopheles to torment the good old man who just visited him. Faustus asks for just one thing – that he may possess Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world they saw a few minutes ago, to distract him from his vow.

Re-enter Helen, passing over the stage between two Cupids which prompts the famous lines:

FAUSTUS: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? −
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
[He kisses her]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! −
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

What strikes me now about this speech is, again, the way it is drenched in references to Greek myth, and references Troy, Paris, Achilles, Jupiter, Semele and Arethusa.

Scene 19 in which Faustus pays his debt and is dragged down to hell With a crack of thunder Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistophilis enter Faustus’s study. Separately, Faustus finalises his will with Wagner, gifting him all his belongings. Then the scholars visit and Faustus laments and regrets his life of sin, his promise and the threat of eternal damnation.

A scholar tells him to turn to God but the devils hold his tongue, dry his tears, pull down his hands so he cannot pray. Then he for the first time tells them the full story, of how he sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of partying, Horrified, the three scholars retire into the next room.

Now Mephistopheles closes in on him, admitting it was he who drew his taste to books of magic, closed up the books of divinity and steered Faustus’s soul to damnation. The good angel and bad angel appear, the good one showing him the throne in heaven Faustus would have been awarded, the bad one explaining now he will be dragged down to hell and hell appears to be a pretty bad place. Mephistopheles shows it to him:

EVIL ANGEL: Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare
Into that vast perpetual torture-house.
There are the furies tossing damnèd souls
On burning forks; their bodies boil in lead;
There are live quarters broiling on the coals,
That ne’er can die; this ever-burning chair
Is for o’er-tortured souls to rest them in;
These that are fed with sops of flaming fire,
Were gluttons, and loved only delicates,
And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates:
But yet all these are nothing; thou shalt see
Ten thousand tortures that more horrid be.

It is noticeable how traditional this image is, and how different from the much more subtle, psychological definition of hell (as the absence of God which all damned people carry around within themselves wherever they go) which Mephistopheles expressed at the start of the play. Too subtle for the climax of a tragedy, which requires blood and guts and screaming, or as much garish suffering as possible. And hence the reversion to a traditional fire and pitchforks interpretation here at the play’s climax.

The clock chimes eleven. He has an hour left and delivers a blisteringly intense speech of terrified desperation:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! − Who pulls me down? −
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ! −

The clock ticks relentlessly forward and then strikes midnight. There isn’t, as you might have expected, a big set-piece scene featuring Lucifer, Beelzebub et all gloatingly seizing him. Instead Faustus’s final moments are brief and brutal as a pack of devils enter and drag Faustus offstage as he screams his final lines:

O mercy, Heaven! look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books! − O Mephistophilis!

Even reading this I found genuinely harrowing. Well acted onstage it can be terrifying.

Scene 20 There is a short, half-page-long scene as the three scholars cowering next door, go into Faustus’s study and discover his body all torn to pieces, and recount the terrible screams they heard. Well, they’ll gather up his body and give him a fine funeral at which all the students of the university will wear black.

Chorus 2 Brief and to the point:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learnèd man.
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.

Thoughts

A divided text Clearly there are two completely different types or tones of content sitting cheek-by-jowl in this strange uneven text: the genuinely tragical and sometimes very moving, and the farcical, panto content. Most scholars and indeed readers and audiences can easily see that the comic scenes were almost certainly not written by Marlowe. Marlowe’s humour, as demonstrated in The Jew of Malta, is stylish, cynical and savage. Much of the humour in Faustus’s comic scenes (pulling Faustus’s leg off, cutting his head off, four churls getting drunk down the pub) is just stupid.

Endless theology There’s enough theological issues or problems in the play – the precise status of the good and bad angel, the extent of Faustus’s free will, whether God’s grace could save him up to the last minute – to keep serious-minded scholars in academic papers for the rest of time. After all, Marlowe was himself a scholarship-winning student of divinity at Cambridge and Roma Gill’s introduction informs us that Mephistopheles’ subtle vision of hell as exclusion from the bliss of salvation is in fact closely translated from a text by the 4th century Church Father, Saint John Chrysostom.

Dazzling escapades For us ordinary folk, though, it’s useful to make a list of Faustus’s various escapades: that he rides through the solar system in a chariot pulled by dragons (!), rides across Europe on the back of a dragon, gets to slap the pope and chase friars with fireworks, and that Mephistopheles changes two servants into an ape and a dog. He creates a masque featuring Alexander the Great and builds a castle in the air and, by implication, has Homer sing to him, and has sex with Helen of Troy. On the farcical end of the scale, he sells a horse dealer a horse which is in fact a straw, gives a drunken knight real stags’ horns, survives having his head cut off and his leg pulled off, and strikes four noisy chavs dumb.

Clever critics have pointed out that Faustus’s escapades mark stages on his degeneration: he starts out hymning the infinite power of the mind, associating with Homer and travelling the solar system, before degenerating into a court entertainer for the Duke of Vanholt, calling up historical masques and magicking up fresh grapes, before he becomes involved in the downright stupid escapades involving lost heads and legs and, in the final scenes, wishes to cease having a body altogether, to be buried in the earth or to become as incorporeal as the dew, so as to escape the torments of hell.

It’s a neat idea, but ignores the actual order of some of the adventures, not least that the best one – kissing Helen of Troy – happens at the end. But it does tie together all the adventures and bring out the often tawdry and banal nature of what people actually get when their dreams are fulfilled.

Marlowe’s Greek imagination Shakespeare litters his plays with references to English folklore, dialect words and imagery (the names and symbolism of English flowers, for example). There’s nothing like that in Marlowe. In Marlowe almost every analogy or metaphor references Greek myths or legends. From the masque of Alexander the Great early on through the apparition of Helen of Troy at its climax, through to the best line in the short epilogue mentioning Apollo, and via hundreds of other references, the Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Campus tragedy Dr Faustus is a tragedy about an academic. It is a tragedy about the overweening pride which comes from being very learnèd and superior, ‘glutted with learning’s golden gifts… swollen with cunning of a self-conceit’, as the prologue puts it – but lacking wisdom or morality.

In a way, it is a tragedy about the perils of over-education. There’s a modern genre called the campus novel or campus comedy, dating from Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim and characterising many of David Lodge’s novels. The presence of the three scholars right at the climax of the play highlights the fact that, all the way through, Dr Faustus is a campus tragedy.

Dr Faustus as Marlowe’s psychodrama

Marlowe studied Divinity at university, but also read widely in Latin classical literature. The quote from St John Chrysostom indicates how deeply he knew his theology, and a glance at any of the poems or plays shows how drenched his imagination was in the Greek myths and legends.

It isn’t the most obvious thing about the play, but Dr Faustus can be read as a dramatised debate between these two halves of Marlowe’s education, between the two major cultural traditions of Europe, Christian belief and the enormous cultural heritage of the classical world.

On the whole Faustus’s vision of power and the infinite reach of the human imagination are expressed through metaphors and references to Greek myth – the downsides, the price to pay for overweening ambition, the limits of the purely human, are expressed in theological terms. Man can aspire to the marvellous – but at the end of the day, he is a creature, created by a Creator, to whom he owes an infinite debt.

Obviously this tension is openly expressed throughout the play, most narrowly in the debates between the good and evil angel, or in the warnings of the old man, who wanders in off the street to tell Faustus to repent. It is encoded in the imagery of the play, in the two contrasting sets of symbols and images, one pagan, one Christian.

But you can argue that the debate, the conflict of value systems, comes to a symbolic climax in the figure of Helen of Troy, and her appearance just before Faustus is dragged offstage by the devils.

Helen is maybe the most famous figure from all Greek myth, an image of worldly beauty, of sensual bliss who also epitomises the appeal and attraction of classical culture, and by extension, the world of the Imagination, with its promise of intellectual reward, emotional comfort and psychological reassurance. How many thousands of artists and millions of art-lovers find consolation in turning from the banal, dirty, frail and disappointing realities of the world, to open a book and enter a wonderful world of imaginative consolation.

And yet… Helen has been conjured by a devil. The entire thing is a deception. She is not real, the pleasure she brings is not real. When Faustus says:

Her lips sucks forth my soul: see, where it flies! −

There is a clear and very obvious ambiguity in the line. It is simultaneously a lover’s expression of sensual bliss, the kind of erotic hyperbole common to Renaissance poets and their heirs – but at the same time has a diabolical and theological meaning. The devil who made or is impersonating Helen really is sucking out his soul. The Helen Faustus and the audience sees is a gorgeous mask over a death’s-head skull.

And so, along with being a storming theatrical entertainment, and a satire on the entire notion of the over-ambitious Renaissance Man – Dr Faustus can also be read as dramatising the tensions in Marlowe’s divided mind between the two central traditions of European thought, which he was expert in, which saturated his thinking, and which he never managed to reconcile in his short life.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design by Richard Dawkins (1986)

I hope that the reader is as awestruck as I am (p.37)

I first read this book 25 years ago and in the intervening years I had forgotten how naive, silly and embarrassingly earnest Dawkins can be.

The blind watchmaker

The basic premise is easily summarised. In a theological work published in 1802 – Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity – the English theologian William Paley said that if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a stone, you wouldn’t think anything of it, it is so obviously part of the natural world and you unthinkingly accept it as a product of impersonal geological forces.

But if you were out for a walk and stumbled over a watch, particularly if it was an 18th-century, ornately fashioned pocketwatch, you would immediately deduce that something so wonderfully crafted, with so many carefully calibrated inner workings clearly designed for a purpose, presupposed a designer – a craftsman who consciously and deliberately designed and built it.

Well, says Paley, same for the natural world about us. When we look at the countless examples of marvellous design in the world about us – our own eyes, the interaction of insects pollinating flowers, the perfect design of fish for swimming and birds for flying – who can look at all these marvels and not be prompted to declare that there must, on the analogy of the watch, be a conscious designer, an all-powerful entity which created the entire world and all the creatures in it so that they would all perform their functions perfectly? In other words, God (and, since Paley was an Anglican clergyman) the Christian God.

In fact Paley’s book was just the latest in a very long line of works promoting, describing and explaining what is called Natural Theology, the view that the existence of an all-powerful loving God can be deduced solely from observation of the world around us, without the need of any holy books or revelations. This line of argument is recorded as far back as the Biblical psalms and is believed by many people right up to the present day.

Dawkins’s book is a refutation of this entire way of thinking as it relates to the natural world i.e. to living organisms.

As Dawkins points out, it was reasonable to hold Paley’s beliefs in his day and age, it was a reasonable hypothesis in the absence of any better explanation for the origin and diversity of life we see around us.

But since Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species in 1859, all forms of natural theology have been rendered redundant. We now have an infinite simpler, more satisfying and more believable explanation for the origin, spread and diversity of life forms on earth, which is Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

Thus Dawkins’s 340-page book amounts to a sustained argument against natural theology, and against the whole crew of Christians, Creationists, theists, bishops and poets and philosophers who still espouse it, because they are wrong and Richard and the other evolutionary biologists he cites are right.

The book combines a battery of supposedly ‘philosophical’ arguments with an overview of natural history, biology and – in particular – what was then, in 1986, the latest thinking about genetics and DNA – in order to ridicule, rubbish and refute every possible variation of natural theology and to promote Darwin Darwin Darwin.

One long argument

To describe The Blind Watchmaker as argumentative is an understatement. The book is expressly not a straightforward exposition of Darwin’s theory, it is more a series of arguments which Dawkins has with proponents of the views he wishes to demolish, as well as with other biologists whose theories he disputes, and sometimes even with himself. If it moves, he’ll argue with it. It is like an explosion in an argument factory.

And Dawkins is addicted to making elaborate and often far-fetched analogies and comparisons to help us understand evolution. In other words, you have to wade through a lot of often irrelevant argumentation and distracting analogies in order to get to the useful information.

Another key part of Dawkins’ approach, something I found initially irritating about the book, then found ludicrous, and ended up finding laugh-out-loud funny, is the way he makes up people to argue with.

He will invent a naive believer of this or that aspect of natural theology, someone who can’t credit evolution with explaining everything about the natural world, put words into their mouths, and then gleefully demolish their made-up arguments.

I think it’s the purest example of an author using convenient straw men to set up and knock down that I’ve ever read. Thus in the first 40 pages he invents the following figures:

  • a distinguished modern philosopher who he once sat next to at dinner and revealed to a horrified Dawkins that he didn’t understand why the evolution and diversity of life required any special explanation (p.5)
  • a ‘hypothetical philosopher’ he invents and claims would, at this stage of Dawkins’s exposition, be ‘mumbling something about circular argument’ (p.8)
  • a hypothetical engineer who starts ‘boring on’ about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts (p.11)
  • he creates another engineer (‘our engineer’) to act as a foil for his explanation of how bat echolocation works in chapter 2
  • with similar condescension he refers at various moments to ‘our mathematicians’ in order to dismiss their arguments
  • the second half of the book is littered with references to ‘creationists’ and ‘creationist propaganda’ and ‘anti-evolution propaganda’ which he doesn’t actually quote, but whose views he briefly summarises before pulverising them

On page 13 he dismisses ‘readers of trendy intellectual magazines’ saying that, if you read them you might have noticed that:

reductionism, like sin, is one of those things that is only mentioned by people who are against it.

This thought then rapidly gets out of control as he goes on to say that calling yourself a reductionist is the equivalent, ‘in some circles’ of admitting that you eat babies.

He then goes on to compare the hypothetical simple-minded ‘reductionist’ who he’s just invented with his own, more sophisticated, materialist reductionism, and then writes:

It goes without saying – though the mythical, baby-eating reductionist is reputed to deny this – that the kinds of explanations which are suitable at high levels in the hierarchy are quite different from the kinds of explanations which are suitable at lower levels.

You can see that he’s making a serious point, but can’t help wondering why it required inventing a straw man and then attributing him the bizarre characteristic of eating babies!

This is just one tiny snapshot of Dawkins’s technique, in which serious and often interesting points are surrounded by relentless argufying and quarrelling, more often than not with entirely fictional, made-up figures who are often given ridiculously caricatured views and qualities.

In among the vast army of people Dawkins picks fights with are some real Christian or anti-evolutionary figures who he briefly invokes before subjecting them to withering criticism.

  • the ‘distinguished sceptic’ who refused to believe Donald Griffin when the latter first explained the secret of bat echolocation at a 1940 conference (p.35)
  • Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore (1920-2005) whose book The Probability of God Dawkins credits with being an honest attempt to prove God but which he quickly dismisses for its widespread use of what Dawkins calls The Argument From Personal Incredulity i.e. ‘I find it hard to understand…it is difficult to see how…’ etc which only goes to show the ignorant the author is (p.37)
  • Francis Hitching (b.1933) author of The Neck of the Giraffe or Where Darwin Went Wrong (1983) which appears to be a sustained attack on Darwinism
  • The Duke of Argyll who, apparently, supported Darwin but with the modest proviso that the loving Creator God did, of course, intervene in evolution to create new species and generally give evolution a helping hand (p.248)
  • the editor of Creationist magazine Biblical (p.251) who is quoted leaping onto the controversy surrounding the (then) new theory of punctuated equilibrium in order to claim it undermined the entire Darwinian edifice

The remorseless battering of opponents, real or hypothetical, builds up to a climax in the final chapter where Dawkins tackles head-on half a dozen or so alternative explanations for the existence of complex life forms including the Big One, Christian Creationism.

Naivety

There’s a stunning moment before the book’s even properly begun which reveals Dawkins’ amazingly earnest naivety about the real world.

He describes taking part in a formal debate (organised, apparently, at the Oxford Union). Afterwards he is seated at dinner (the book includes lots of anecdotes about conversations over dinner; Oxford is that kind of place) next to the young lady who argued against him in the debate, and made the creationist case – and Dawkins is horrified to discover that she doesn’t necessarily believe all the points she made!!

Indeed, Dawkins reveals to his shocked readers, this young lady was sometimes making arguments simply for the sake of having a debate! Richard is horrified!! He himself has never uttered a word he didn’t believe to be the complete truth! He cannot credit the notion that someone argued a case solely for the intellectual challenge of it!

At first I thought he was joking, but this anecdote, told on page two of the Preface, establishes the fact that Dawkins doesn’t understand the nature of intellectual debate, and so by implication doesn’t understand the worlds of law or politics or philosophy or the humanities, where you are routinely asked to justify a cause you don’t particularly believe in, or to argue one of any number of conflicting views.

When I told my son this he recalled being made to take part in school debates when he was 11. Learning to debate different points of view is a basic teaching, learning and cultural practice.

Philosophical simple-mindedness

Dawkins likes to brandish the word ‘philosophy’ a lot but none of his arguments are truly philosophical, they are more rhetorical or technical. For example, early on he asks ‘What is an explanation?’ before giving this definition of how he intends to use the word:

If we wish to understand how a machine or living body works, we look to its component parts and ask how they interact with each other. If there is a complex thing that we do not yet understand, we can come to understand it in terms of simpler parts that we do already understand. (p.11)

This isn’t really philosophical, more a straightforward clarifying of terms. And yet in chapter 2 he refers back to the opening chapter in which this and much like it occurred, as ‘philosophical’. Quite quickly you get the sense that Dawkins’ idea of ‘philosophy’ is fairly simplistic. That it is, in fact, a biologist’s notion of philosophy i.e. lacking much subtlety or depth.

Same goes for his attitude to the English language. Dawkins is extremely proud of the care with which he writes, and isn’t shy about showing off his rather pedantic thoughts about English usage. For example, he stops the thrust of his argument to discuss whether it is better to write ‘computer programme’ or ‘computer program’. Towards the end of the book he mentions ‘the great Japanese geneticist Motoo Kimura’

whose English prose style, incidentally, would shame many a native speaker (p.303)

There is no reason for this unnecessary aside except to let everyone know that he, Richard Dawkins, is a first class judge of what constitutes good English, and isn’t shy about letting you know it. As with the ‘philosophy’, Dawkins’s comments about the English language are fairly obvious, but presented with a great hoo-hah and self-satisfaction.

Dawkins’s sense of humour!

Way before he has given any kind of account of Darwin’s actual theory, Dawkins is assailing us with his sense of humour, sometimes with short squibs, sometimes with extended ‘humorous’ passages.

You can tell when he’s made a joke, or said something he’s really proud of, because he rounds off the punchline with an exclamation mark!

It’s quite a while since I’ve seen quite so many exclamation marks in a text and it made me realise that their cumulative impact is to make you feel the author is poking you in the ribs so you will laugh and/or marvel at the wonderful anecdote they’ve just told!

Here’s an example of the way that genuinely fascinating natural history/science is buried in Dawkins’s rib-nudging approach. Chapter two is about echolocation in bats, and moves from:

  1. a detailed description of how bat echolocation works – which is riveting
  2. to pondering what it is like to be a bat and live in a bat’s body and live and perceive the world entirely by echolocation and sonar – which is sort of interesting, but speculative
  3. to an extended passage where Dawkins imagines a conference of scientific bats – he does this in order to imagine his scientific bats listening to one of their colleagues presenting a paper with the flabbergasting discovery that humans use a previously unknown sense called ‘sight’, employing two bulbous receptors in their faces called ‘eyes’ in order to analyse light signals which appear to create in their brains 3-D models of the world which help them navigate around – almost as well as bats!!

Now this final passage is sort of helpful, maybe, if you’re in the mood, and sort of humorous. But it is at the same time more than a little ludicrous in what purports to be a serious scientific book. Above all, it gives you a powerful whiff of Dawkins’s world, a world of self-important Oxbridge academics. It does this in two ways:

  1. the choice of an academic conference as the setting for his imaginary fantasy tells much you about the milieu he inhabits
  2. the fact that he thinks he can spend an entire page of his book sharing this extended joke with his readers tells you a lot more about his supreme, undentable self-confidence

Unintentional autobiography

Dawkins likes to think he is making ‘difficult’ science more accessible by giving the poor benighted reader plenty of analogies and examples from everyday life to help us understand these damn tricky concepts. But it is one of the most (unintentionally) enjoyable aspects of the book that many of the examples he uses betray a comic out-of-touchness with the modern world.

I laughed out loud when on page 3 he writes:

The systematic putting together of parts to a purposeful design is something we know and understand, for we have experienced it at first hand, even if only with our childhood Meccano or erector set.

He explains the Doppler Effect by asking the reader to imagine riding a motorbike past a factory whose siren is wailing. Motorbike? Wailing factory siren? This sounds like a W.H. Auden poem from the 1930s. He goes on to explain that it is the same principle as the police use in their radar traps for speeding motorists.

Elsewhere he begins to explain the unlikeliness of organic molecules coming into existence by asking us to ponder the number of his bicycle lock (and later assures us that ‘I ride a bicycle to work every day’, p.84). On almost every page there is an unreflecting assumption that we will be interested in every detail of Professor Dawkins’s life, from his bicycle lock to his personal computer.

He suggests that the advantage even a slight improvement in the ability to ‘see’ would give an evolving species can be considered while ‘turning the colour balance knob of a colour television set’ (p.84).

He explains that the poor Nautilus shellfish has developed the hollow orb of a primitive ‘eye’ but lacks the lens facility that we and all mammals have, making it rather ‘like a hi-fi system with an excellent amplifier fed by a gramophone with a blunt needle’ (p.85).

Gramophone? Later he refers to ‘hi-fidelity sound amplification equipment’ (p.217). It’s possible that Dawkins is the most fuddy-duddy author I’ve ever read.

When describing the transmission of DNA he suggests it might help if we imagine 20 million ‘typists’ sitting in a row. When I asked my daughter what a ‘typist’ is she didn’t know. Reading the book now is like visiting a lost world.

The common brown bat Myotis emits sonic clicks at the rate of ten a second, about the same rate, Dawkins tells us, as a Bren machine gun fires bullets. An analogy which seems redolent of National Service in the 1950s.

His comic-book enthusiasm bubbles over when he tells us that:

These bats are like miniature spy planes, bristling with sophisticated instrumentation. (p.24)

Spy planes. Gramophone players. Factory sirens.

If you put to one side the science he’s trying to explain to us, and just focus on the analogies and stories he uses so liberally, a kind of alternative world appears – a portrait of an incredibly earnest, other-worldly, high-minded Oxford don, a man whose secure upper-middle-class childhood gave him an enduring love of toys and gadgets, and who has the sublime self-confidence of thinking he can change the world by the sheer power of his boyish enthusiasm and the secrets of his bicycle lock.

At the end of chapter 8 (which has been about positive feedback loops in evolution) he digresses into a lengthy description of the new-fangled ‘pop music’, which is introduced by what he describes as the ‘mid-Atlantic mouthings of disco jockeys’ on the radio, and reflected in something which he fastidiously refers to as the ‘Top 20’.

The whole sub-culture is obsessed with a rank ordering of records, called the Top 20 or Top 40, which is based only upon record sales. (p.219)

His point is that records are often bought by young people based on their popularity alone, not on their intrinsic artistic merit and that this is a form of arbitrary positive feedback loop, such as may also be true of some characteristics exaggerated in the course of sexual selection, such as the peacock’s tail.

But the real impact of reading this page-long digression is to make you realise that Dawkins is a real-life version of the stereotypical out-of-touch judge who has spent so long in the bubble of the legal profession (as Dawkins has spent virtually his whole life in the bubble of an Oxford college) that one of the barristers has to patiently explain to him that ‘The Beatles’ are a popular rhythm-and-blues group.

Elsewhere he refers to this new thing called ‘the mass media’. He refers to bodybuilders as members of a ‘peculiar minority culture’ (p.289). It doesn’t seem to occur to him that being a don at an Oxford college is even more of a ‘peculiar minority culture’.

Hi-fidelity gramophones. Factory sirens. Mid-Atlantic mouthings.

Then there are the directly autobiographical snippets – the references to his idyllic childhood in Africa (where he played with his Erector Set or admired a huge swarm of soldier ants), to his High Anglican public school, and on to the rarefied atmosphere of Oxford, where he spent his academic career from 1970 to 2008, and has had so many stimulating conversations over High Table which he is not shy about repeating for our benefit.

Thus, in the middle of an explanation of different theories about the speed with which evolution works, he stops because he:

cannot help being reminded here of the humiliation of my first school report, written by the Matron about my performance as a seven-year-old in folding clothes, taking cold baths, and other daily routines of boarding-school life: “Dawkins has only three speeds: slow, very slow, and stop.” (p.245)

Similarly, he begins Chapter 8 with a reminiscence of a schoolmaster of his who became uncontrollably apoplectic with rage, as an example of ‘positive feedback’.

This is followed by the story of a recent experience he had of attending Oxford’s Congregation, at which the hubbub of the large crowd slowly died away into silence – which he gives as an example of negative feedback.

My point is that The Blind Watchmaker is characterised by many pages of self-indulgent autobiography. It is an obtrusive element in the book which often gets in the way of the factual content he wants to convey. Dawkins is so in love with the sound of his own analogies and whimsical digressions, and so keen to share with you his ripping boyhood memories and High Table anecdotes, that it becomes at times, almost physically painful to read him.

Distracting analogies

But the real problem with all these analogies and reminiscences is that too often they get in the way of actually understanding his scientific points.

For example, chapter seven has an extended explanation of what arms races are in the context of evolution i.e. when predators and prey develop characteristics designed to help them outdo each other. So far so good. But then he goes off into an extended comparison with the race to build dreadnoughts before the Great War, and then to a description of the actual arms race between the USA and USSR building larger and larger nuclear weapons during the 1970s and 1980s.

My point is that the analogy takes on a life of its own, goes on at unconscionable length, and becomes steadily less useful and increasingly distracting and misleading.

Same goes when he asks us to imagine 20 million typists sitting in a row copying out a message as if that makes it at all easier to understand DNA, instead of puzzling and distracting.

Or when he spends a couple of pages calculating just how many monkeys it would take to type out the complete works of Shakespeare, as a demonstration of the power of cumulative selection i.e. if evolution really did work at random it would take forever, but if each version typed out by the monkeys kept all the elements which were even slightly like Shakespeare, and then built on that foundation, it is surprising how few generations of monkeys you’d need to begin to produce an inkling of a comprehensible version of the complete works of Shakespeare.

He thinks he is a scientific populariser but the examples he uses to explain scientific ideas are often out of date or far-fetched as to be harder to understand than the original scientific idea.

In the worst example in the book, chapter 8 about punctuated equilibrium doesn’t start with an explanation of what punctuated equilibrium actually is – instead, it starts with a two-page-long extended description of the ancient Israelites spending forty years wandering in the wilderness after fleeing Egypt.

Dawkins then invents (as so often) a hypothetical figure to mock, in this case a hypothetical historian who, he says, takes the story of the Biblical exodus literally and so calculates that, since the distance from Egypt to the Holy Land was only 200 miles and the Bible says it took them 40 years to cover, this must mean that the Israelites covered just 24 yards per day or 1 yard per hour.

‘Is the attitude of the Bible historian I have just invented ridiculous?’ asks Dawkins. ‘Yes, well, that’s how ridiculous the theory of punctuated equilibrium is.’

This example is at the start of the chapter, setting the tone for the entire discussion of punctuated equilibrium. And it lasts for two solid pages.

It is a classic example of how Dawkins is so in love with his own wit and that he a) never really gets round to clearly explaining what punctuated equilibrium is, and b) really confuses the reader with this extended and utterly irrelevant analogy.

(The theory of punctuated equilibrium takes the extremely patchy fossil record of life on earth as evidence that evolution does not progress at a smooth, steady rate but consists of long periods of virtual stasis or equilibrium, punctuated by sudden bursts of relatively fast evolution and the creation of new species. Some Creationists and Christians seized on the publication of this theory in the 1970s as evidence that Darwin was wrong and that therefore God does exist. Dawkins devotes a chapter and a host of ideas, sub-ideas and extended analogies to proving that the theory of punctuated equilibrium does not undermine the Darwinian orthodoxy – as Creationists gleefully claim – but can be slotted easily into the existing Darwinian view that evolution takes place at a slow steady pace: the core of Dawkins’s argument is that the fossil record appears to suggest long static periods interspersed with periods of manic change, solely because it is so very patchy; if we had a fuller fossil record it wold vindicate his and Darwin’s view of slow steady change. In other words, the theory of punctuated equilibrium is an optical illusion produced by the patchiness of the fossil record and not a true account of his evolution works.)

The whole tenor and shape and flavour of the book is dominated by Dawkins’s analogies and similes and metaphors and witty ideas but I can’t help thinking it would have been so much better to have devoted the space to killer examples from the natural world. Too often Dawkins’s long comparisons take the reader away from the wonders of life on earth and push you into the broom cupboard of his oddly sterile and unimaginative analogies.

To give another example, it is fascinating to learn that many bat species have scrunched-up gargoyle faces (which have terrified generations of humans) because their faces have evolved to reflect and focus their high-pitched echolocation signals into their ears. But when Dawkins tries to make this fact more ‘accessible’ by writing that bats are ‘like high-tech spy planes’, his analogy feels not only trite but – here’s my point – less informative than the original fact.

I have just read E.O. Wilson’s stunningly beautiful and inspiring book about the natural world, The Diversity of Life, which is all the more amazing and breath-taking because he doesn’t impose anecdotes about his own childhood or love of gadgets between you and the wonder’s he’s describing: the wonders are quite amazing enough without any kind of editorialising.

The Blind Watchmaker computer program

This un-self-aware, naive enthusiasm comes over most strongly in chapter three of the book which is devoted to the subject which gives the book its title, the computer program Dawkins has devised and titled The Blind Watchmaker (and which is advertised for sale at the back of the book, yours for just £28.85 including VAT, post and packaging).

At this early stage of the book (chapter 3) I was still hoping that Dawkins would give the reader a knock-down, killer explanation of Darwin’s theory. Instead he chooses to tell us all about a computer program he’s written. The program begins with a set of nine stick figures or ‘genes’, as he calls them, and then applies to them a set of instructions such as ‘double in length’ or ‘branch into two lines’ and so on. Here are the basic ‘genes’.

Basic ‘tree’ shapes developed by Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker programme

The idea is that, if you invent rules for transforming the shape of the basic ‘genes’ according to a set of fixed but arbitrary rules and then run the program, you will be surprised how the mechanical application of mindless rules quite quickly produces all kinds of weird and wonderful shapes, thus:

More advanced iterations produced by Dawkins’s Blind Watchmaker program

The point of all this is to show how quickly complex ‘creatures’ can be created by a few simple rules and endless iterations.

Having explained his program Dawkins artlessly presents it as a strong proof for Darwin’s theory. He calls the multi-dimensional cyberspace thronged with a potentially endless sequence of mutating life forms stretching out in all directions Biomorph Land, and the metaphor is invoked throughout the rest of the book.

Dawkins boyishly tells us that when he first ran the program and saw all the shapes appearing he was so excited he stayed up all night!

It’s difficult to know where to start in critiquing this approach, but two things spring to mind.

  1. At the point where he introduces the program the book still hasn’t delivered a clear exposition of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. During this chapter I began to realise it never would, and that instead the book would be all about Richard’s own ideas and inventions.
  2. Does Dawkins really think that a dyed-in-the-wool, Christian fundamentalist would be the slightest bit persuaded to change his or her lifelong beliefs by a lengthy explanation of a toy computer program which Richard has developed at home on his Dell computer? If he does, he is fabulously self-deluded and, as I’ve said, above all, naive about the ways of the world and how human beings actually think and live.

Dawkins’s declared intention is to change the world, or the way people think and what they believe about the world and the diversity of life around us – and yet virtually every word he writes – certainly extended passages like the long chapter devoted to the self-written computer program which gives the book its name – show you how completely inadequate his view of human nature is.

The book may well have explained and elucidated various concepts around evolution and genetics to an educated, secular audience which had hitherto (in 1986) had relatively few if any popular accounts to read on the subject. But given Dawkins’s fierce anti-Creationist rhetoric all through the book, his invention of all kinds of Christian or just ignorant critics of evolution throughout the book who he can pulverise with his arguments and analogies – it would be fascinating to learn if The Blind Watchmaker ever converted anyone to abandon their Christian or theist beliefs and become an atheist.

Précis of the contents of The Blind Watchmaker

Chapter 2 Bats and echolocation

Chapter 3 Cumulative changes in organisms can have massive consequences when subjected to non-random selection.

Chapter 4 Creationist propaganda often mocks the theory of evolution by pointing out that according to the theory exquisitely complicated features such as eyes must have evolved from next to nothing to their present stage of perfection and What is the point of half an eye? But Dawkins robustly replies that even 1% of an eye is better than no eye at all, and there are many animals with what you could call half or a quarter or less of a wing (i.e. bits of stretchable skin which help with gliding from tree to tree), which function perfectly well.

Chapter 5 ‘It is raining DNA outside’ as Dawkins describes the air outside his study window being full of down and dandelion seeds, innumerable flower seeds floating past on the wind. Why Life is more like a computer programme (i.e. DNA is a transmissible digital code) than pre-Darwinian ideas about blobs of matter and life forces.

Chapter 6 The idea of ‘miracles’ considered in the context of the 4.5 billion years the earth has existed, and a detailed summary of A.G. Cairns-Smiths theory of the origin of life (i.e. that replicating organic molecules originally took their structure from replicating inorganic clay crystals.)

Chapter 7 Genes are selected by virtue of their interactions with their environment, but the very first ‘environment’ a gene encounters is other genes, within the cell, and then in sister cells. Cells had to learn to co-operate in order to form multi-celled organisms. Cumulative selection produces arms races between rivals in ecosystems.

Chapter 8 Positive feedback and sexual selection, compared to steam engines, thermostats and pop music.

Chapter 9 Is devoted to taking down the theory of punctuated equilibrium put forward by the paleontologists Niles Eldridge and Stephen Jay Gould and opens with two pages about a hypothetical and very dense scholar of Biblical history.

Chapter 10 There are countless ways to categorise living things, as objects, but there is only one true tree of life based on evolutionary descent. Although in this, as everything else, there are different schools and theories e.g. phyleticists, cladists, pheneticists et al.

Chapter 11 A summary of various alternatives to Darwin – Lamarckism, neutralism, creationism, mutationism – are described and then demolished.

What is really striking about this final chapter is how cursory his dismissal of Christian creationism is – it only takes up a couple of pages whereas his analysis of Lamarckism took up ten. It’s as if, once he finally comes face to face with his long-cherished enemy, it turns out that he has… nothing to say.

Conclusion and recommendations

Back in the mid-1980s this book had a big impact, garnering prizes and making Dawkins a public intellectual. This suggests 1. the extent of the ignorance then prevailing about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and 2. the low bar set in the Anglo-Saxon world for the definition of ‘public intellectual’.

Then again, not many people actually had computers in 1986. I think the impact of the book came less from his countless and tiresome anti-Christian arguments, and more from the crisp modern way he compared DNA to a computer program. That was a genuinely innovatory insight thirty-five years ago. He was there right at the beginning of the application of computer technology to genetics and biology, a technology which has, ironically, rendered almost everything he wrote out of date.

– If you want to really understand Darwin’s theory there is no replacement for reading On The Origin of Species itself because, although many of the details may have changed and Darwin’s account notoriously contained no explanation of how variation came about (because he lacked any knowledge of genetics), nonetheless, the central idea is conveyed with a multitude of examples and with a persuasive force which really bring home what the theory actually consists of, far better than any later summary or populist account.

– If you want to read an up-to-date book about genetics and its awesome possibilities, I’d recommend Life At The Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life by Craig Venter.

– If you want to read about the wonders of the natural world, you could do a lot worse than E.O. Wilson’s wonderful and inspiring book The Diversity of Life.

The Mr Bean of biology

Having ground my way through this preening, self-important book, I came to the conclusion that ‘Richard Dawkins’ is best seen as a brilliant comic creation, a kind of super-intellectual version of Mr Bean – filled with comic earnestness, bursting to share his boyish enthusiasm, innocently retailing memories of his first Meccano set or his knowledge of spy planes and motorbicycles, inventing fictional ‘distinguished philosophers’ and ‘sceptical scientists’ to demolish with his oh-so-clever arguments, convinced that his impassioned sincerity will change the world, and blissfully unaware of the ludicrous figure he cuts.

It’s a much more enjoyable book to read if you ignore Dawkins’s silly argufying and see it instead as a kind of Rabelaisian comedy, told by an essentially ludicrous narrator, with characters popping up at random moments to make a Creationist point before being hit over the head by Mr Punch’s truncheon – ‘That’s the way to do it!’ – interspersed with occasionally useful, albeit mostly out-dated, information about evolution and genetics.

Credit

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins was published by the Harvard University Press in 1986. All references are to the 1994 Penguin paperback edition.


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The I without a self by W.H. Auden

In January 1939 the English poet W.H. Auden sailed to America where he intended to make a new life for himself. He wanted to escape the fame and notoriety he had garnered in England, and the association his work had with left-wing politics, as well as the more basic consideration that there was more work for a freelance poet, dramatist, essayist and commentator in America than in Britain.

He set about the process of shedding his politically committed 1930s persona, and embarked on an earnest attempt to understand himself and the times he lived in. This was eventually to lead him back to the Anglican beliefs of his childhood, but recast in the forms of 1940s and 50s existentialist theologians.

His poetry stopped being about gangs of schoolboys behaving like soldiers or vivid descriptions of England’s derelict depression-era industry or calls for action in civil war Spain, a fabulously thrilling mix of vivid detail and urgent mood, which makes the reader feel part of some insider gang:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

and became more consciously detached and urbane. In the worst of it, his characters carry out long monologues full of knowing references to Character Types and Schools of Thought. In the best of it he invokes or addresses the Greats of European Culture such as Horace or Goethe or Homer and writes poems of tremendous authority such as The Shield of Achilles. As the terrible war dragged on, Auden came to see it as the poet’s role to define and preserve the values of civilisation.

Meanwhile, to earn a living, he needed to deliver lectures and write reviews. He was always a highly cerebral person, from early youth given to sorting and ordering friends, poems and experiences into categories. Thus his essays and lectures have a kind of brisk, no-nonsense clarity about them, much given to invoking types and archetypes and categories, and to then explaining how they apply to this or that writer.

Thus, when he came to write about Kafka, Auden takes as his premise the notion that Kafka was the century’s greatest writer of parables and then goes on to work through the consequences of that idea. It is characteristic of Auden that his explanation requires reference to Dickens, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and an explanation of the archetype of The Quest and the Princess and the Hero, as well as references to Gnostics and manicheism. It is characteristic that Auden uses quite a lot of Christian theological language, while making no reference to Kafka’s well-known Jewish context.

The essay is already available online in its entirety and since it is so lucid I can’t see any point in garbling it through my own interpretation but quote it in full.

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

Kafka is a great, maybe the greatest, master of the pure parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by characters, situations, actions which, though they may be analogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a pure parable in this way.

Though the hero of a parable may be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be called ‘a certain man’ or ‘K’) and a definite historical and geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read. The ‘meaning’ of a parable, in fact, is different for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic can do to ‘explain’ it to others. Thanks to his superior knowledge of artistic and social history, of language, of human nature even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he does not and cannot have any idea.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, ‘This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens’, but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. ‘Where are you going?’ said the guard. ‘I’m trying to get out,’ I replied. ‘You are out,’ he said. For the moment I felt I was K.

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowledge of his personal life and character contributes almost nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by preventing one from making false readings. (The ‘true’ readings are always many.)

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The Duchess who owns the castle is kind and good but she is often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she tells the truth, and all ends happily.

What is illuminating about this information is that the castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, which suggests that those critics who have thought of the inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially correct.

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those interpreters who see in the castle the residence of ‘divine law and divine grace’. Its officers are totally indifferent to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detachment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion.

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again.

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle are, Kafka’s finest work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great Wall of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. The wall it portrays is still the world of his earlier books and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like The Penal Colony almost unbearable, has gone. Existence may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters are more humorously resigned to it.

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the traditional Quest, the goal – a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. – is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who know both and give him accurate directions and warnings.

Moreover the goal is publicly recognizable as desirable. Everybody would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he
will succeed.

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are obstructive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: ‘There is a goal but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering’. Far from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under a special curse.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what he ought to do and his one problem is ‘Can I do it?’ Odysseus knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detective knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. But for K the problem is ‘What ought I to do?’ He is neither tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; it may well be proof of his own.

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquiring the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to say I. But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt.

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to become a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to acquire.

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for which he was created, and freedom would destroy him.

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will go – not the rending or the block from its foundation, which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and with that the gay and empty journey.

The narrator hero of The Burrow for example, is a beast of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself without a mate and never encounters any other member of his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he be pursued and attacked by other animals – ‘My enemies are countless,’ he says – but we never learn what they may be like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: ‘Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable burrow?’ This is a torment because he can never be certain that there is not some further precaution of which he has not thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as he would defend himself.

One of my favourite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thickness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free space of about the same width all around the Castle Keep … I had always pictured this free space, and not without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull oneself up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe between one’s claws . . .

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but decides against it.

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in itself, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be exquisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him … I simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we must both descend at the same time, in which case the advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust can I really put in him? … It is comparatively easy to trust any one if you are supervising him or at least supervise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story breaks off without a solution.

Edwin Muir has suggested that the story would have ended with the appearance of the invisible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubtful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears have any objective justification.

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: ‘To be worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy of me.’

But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explanation. It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedicated to a particular function, whose personal existence is accidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of whom it could be said that he ‘hungered and thirsted after righteousness’, it was Kafka.

Perhaps he came to regard what he had written as a personal device he had employed in his search for God. ‘Writing,’ he once wrote, ‘is a form of prayer,’ and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his aim in writing thus:

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: ‘Hammering a table together is nothing to him,’ but rather ‘Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,’ whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and if you will, still more senseless.

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work published should at least make a reader wary of the way in which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean notion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of Kafka’s sayings come perilously close to accepting it.

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the physical world.

Kafka’s own life and his writings as a whole are proof that he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can alwaysbe recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judgment cannot be applied to its actions.

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think of the higher life they search for as existing in some otherworld sphere: the distinction they draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.


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Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubadour poetry for the following reason: troubadour poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in standard phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes.

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. They occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use standardised phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Once again, Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern’s account of how the Cistercian monks spread what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because they have the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour.

They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

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