Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

I love the way blogs continue to survive the onslaught of mega-umbrella-sites. In this case, I’m thinking of Margery Sharp Day, initiated several years ago by the blog Beyond Eden Rock, and picked up by lots of readers who maintain their own blogs. Each has their own community of followers and commentators.

This year Jane, for the day she put into the calendar, read Britannia Mews and as chance would have it, I picked up a copy (along with several other Sharps) just a couple of days later. I put it at the top of the pile.

It’s almost entirely lacking the often acerbic humor of her books, presumably because it was written just after WWII. Instead, there is a story which might almost be a metaphor for the stubbornness without which the UK could not have stood against Hitler, stubbornness without which it is impossible to think of how the world might look now. Adelaide, the chief protagonist, is a young woman with no future she can bear to look towards. She is deprived in the late nineteenth century of the higher education her undeserving brother is permitted. She watches her cousin fall into the sensible marriage that is her only real future and while that is happening, a revolution takes place in her life.

Her painting instructor makes love to her and she instantly is transformed by it. She believes she is in love and nothing – NOTHING – is going to take that away from her. After secret assignations, she announces to her family that she is going to marry this man and elopes with him because it is that or nothing.  They go to live in what is at that point, the slum of Brittania Mews. She soon discovers that he is an alcoholic wastrel. Her life is ruined. And yet she displays all the stiff upper lip of the English in WWII. She has made her bed and although it has been made clear to her than she (but not the scoundrel husband) can come ‘home’ whenever she likes, that is not an option in her mind. When he dies it is still not an option.

After a while she becomes involved with a married man (whose wife is in India and wants nothing to do with him). They live together unmarried for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t mean life becomes easy for Adelaide, it isn’t. But she remains strong and stubborn. Most importantly she relishes being in control; she’d rather a hard life like that, than an easy life as the doormat of family. Independence is everything to her.

This is clearly no conventional kowtowing-to-the-morals-of-the-time storyline. Adelaide has a niece whom she eventually meets and takes under her wing. The niece – and really, this is a long time after Adelaide’s young adulthood – has exactly the same experiences. The utter meaningless of her life insofar as it would be perforce marriage and the running of a house, a loveless union, but no doubt a civilised and practical one. She breaks off her engagement, leaves home, and in a state of profound confusion ends up in the Mews. I don’t know if these things sound trivial these days, but there is no doubt that they are brave and far from trivial acts at the time.

So here we have Adelaide, an eloper, living ‘in sin’ for decades with a married man who takes his wife’s name and Dodo her niece living a fulfilling single life – the implication being this will never change, when the book ends. The book sees the women who behave in the ‘right’ way feeling as if they are losing out to the women who eschew their duty. How unfair! Both Adelaide and Dodo fail to give the filial love which is the only important thing women can do with their lives. Yet it is these two women who carry the book morally. They are true to themselves; though there are moments made to tempt them, they never seriously waver. Sharp makes it quite clear that the women who stay at home and keep house and raise children are not the good women in this story. I thought this was interesting for the period – but maybe that reflects no more than my ignorance.

At the same time, it should be made clear that Adelaide and Dodo aren’t doing what they do, taking the paths they do, living the way they do, because they are moral people trying to do a moral thing. They are simply doing what they want to do. If they are good people, that’s incidental. Indeed, going back to the start of the story, it is entirely Adelaide’s aim to rehabilitate the ‘painter’ she marries. Her plan is for his success (as she dotingly expects in the first instance) to carry them back triumphantly into the mainstream of upper-class society. Tragically, her no-good husband has one talent, it’s for making marionettes. But far from understanding and appreciating this, she scorns them, and him for making them. She wants something to get him into the National Gallery. Later she discovers how wrong she was and interestingly, her defacto partner is presumed to have made them. Neither he nor Adelaide sees any need to rehabilitate the name of the husband. Indeed, the defacto takes on Adelaide’s married name, the first husband is quickly forgotten and nobody even knows within the story that the defacto is not the original husband. It’s all odd and interesting.

There is a movie of the book and it murders the whole idea of it, from what I’ve read of the plot. Nonetheless, I’m looking forward to watching it.

 

 

 

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The Well and the Shallows by GK Chesterton

I hope it isn’t true, as described on GR, that this is his best collection of articles. It is my first of his. Curiously, although the GR blurb for it calls it a book of essays, one of the pieces in it specifically discusses the notion that he is writing something entirely different from that genre. Indeed, he seems to rather scorn the ‘essay’.

In the main it’s ponderous discussions of Catholicism. Almost however it starts, whether it’s Evolution, Fascism, Birth Control, Liberal politics, it fast becomes what’s good about Catholicism and bad about the other ones. Especially Protestantism, which being Germanic, is linked to the appalling state of affairs in Europe. The one unhesitating thumbs up for the book is that he gets stuck into Hitler, Nazis and Fascism.

But even when he is engaged elsewhere, such as the first essay on alliteration and puns, it all reads like it was hard work to write. He even has the gall to include unaltered as his opening piece, one that has a go at TS Eliot for having a go at him, even though it transpires that it wasn’t TS Eliot he should have been attacking. His preface apologises. But why didn’t he rewrite the piece to fix this? It strikes me as the writer being too fond of his words and not for any good reason.

This is a 1935 collection, which I’m considering interesting primarily for its comments on what’s happening in Germany/Italy etc. I’m not going to give up on him yet as I had a friend stay recently who picked up another from our shelves and stayed up half the night reading it. It must have been a darn sight better than this one.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq

I’m just not sure

I wonder why it is that sticking my dick up girls’ arses doesn’t interest me like it used to

why a book that has something interesting to say about academia

The girls love it. Especially when I take my dick out of their arse and get them to lick it. They really like that.

and also about politics

Maybe if I fucked two girls arses and then got them to lick my dick. Maybe I’d enjoy that like I used to. Hmmmm.

should interleave his ideas and quite amusing prose

Or maybe. Oh, I don’t know. Young student? Arse? Licking excrement covered dick? While another one likes my balls maybe? Yeah. Let’s try that.

with tedious, ludicrous shit about girls liking his pathetic (to the reader) dick up their anusses. Maybe it gets guys to read the book.

I kind of wish that it wasn’t a book where the ending was just what you thought it was going to be, but maybe that was the point. That his scenario is inevitable. I don’t know.

Any girls reading this like having dicks shoved up their arses and then get to lick them after? That being the author’s definition of love? Form an orderly queue. I’ll let him know.

The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp

Jane Austen + Anne Tyler =…?

I wasn’t sold on this until the dominant character makes her entrance, which is after quite a long scene-setting. Suddenly the malevolent Tilly appears, whose only pleasure in life seems to be putting spokes in those of others. Even the most well-meaning and delusional of characters can see how utterly ghastly she is. But how to get rid of her? And what of the title-character’s idiotic intentions to even the score?

Having read my second Sharp, it’s tempting to compare her with Tyler – in the first instance because they both care about their creations and in the second because the endings are never happy. Sorry for that spoiler. They aren’t high tragedy either, but are simply of the ordinary level of unhappiness which might be expected to prevail upon very ordinary lives. In this novel there is the possibility of an extraordinary event which could entirely change everybody’s life for the best – but it never happens. Sharp has no choice but to mention it – it is the elephant in the room, it can’t be ignored – but that’s as far as it goes. It remains at some Tyler level of the mundane.

But at the same time, where Tyler is entirely soft, Sharp’s wit and barbs are always at the fore. She comments as well as records and that puts her more in the camp of Austen etc.

Jane Austen + Anne Tyler = Margery Sharp. High praise indeed.

For more on The Foolish Gentlewoman see here.

Human Nature, Human Survival by Brian Medlin

Lately I seem to be reading philosophers who live by their sword. Medlin spent the part of his life that most academics use to collect citations and increase their h-indices, living philosophy. He brought philosophy to his work in restoring bushland.  He was a primary leader in the anti-Vietnam war movement in Australia, going to gaol as a consequence.  He fought university administration. He insisted that philosophy courses should bear direct relevance to life: politics, art, feminism. He appalled his employers and no doubt some students, whilst inspiring many. He has been written out of the history books, but now sufficient time has passed that he will be written back into them. A nice little earner for an academic or two.

Presciently he said:

Even intellectual liberty has failed to be a totally liberating force. Confronting bourgeois ideology, in the face of bourgeois authority, it has failed to deliver a general objectivity, a determination to think and act well and effectively about the whole of life. It has tended towards a purchased and partial objectivity, a servile scientism. A remark made in this city illustrates the failure: “I’m an ecologist, not a breast-biting conservationist”. This tendency can be expected to worsen as the concept of private intellectual property gains ground, as universities get tied tighter and tighter to the tail of market forces and become increasingly enslaved by private funding.

A yet darker prospect opens before us: that the large capitalist enterprise should eventually find itself able to dispense entirely with academic research. From that time on the concept of objectivity will be a mere ideological bauble, beads for the natives. The bourgeois philosopher will have joined the Sioux Nation and the Nez Perces on the shrinking reservation.

Going on for three decades later, it is as Medlin predicts here. But he was most certainly not of this corporate slave academic elite.

Although he could write philosophy, he generally chose not to, preferring instead the intimacy of the letter and the poem. A man unmoved by the h-index, if ever there was one. Nonetheless, he did write this small work towards the end of his life and if nothing else, one can see in it the energy, arrogance, the devilish attractiveness and the passion that dictated his philosophical life – for philosophy was his life, not his career. He was a wonderful talker and speaker, and this shines through Human Nature, Human Survival.

It is engaging from the start.

The following essay, though not meant to be beneath the notice of
philosophers, is aimed first at a general audience rather than a specialist one.
It is offered as a serious piece of philosophy, yet I am sure that it can be
followed by any cultivated reader, even by one without philosophical
· training. This doesn’t mean that every such reader can expect to understand
perfectly every word from now on. Here and there I assume a bit more than
general culti'{ation. Mostly I have indicated these places and invited you to
press bravely on. And even where I have not, you may give yourselves the
same excellent advice. I hope that in the end you will be rewarded with a
pretty good understanding of the work as a whole and with something worth
either your acceptance or rejection.

After a brief set of examples of what philosophy is considered to be by others, he sets out his own thoughts. ‘Let me take a rough stab’, he says. ‘Take me seriously enough, but not too seriously.’ Like all good teachers he insists that he should be questioned and doubted. For him, however:

  • Philosophy is the commitment to thinking about the whole of life, the whole universe animate and inanimate, the whole of living nature, human and non-human, about fact and value, about what is and is not, about what might and might not be, about what may and must be, about what ought to be and ought not:
  • All this (and more) together with the commitment to uncompromising rationality:
  • This latter commitment being to rationality in action as well as in thought, the two being not rationally separable:
  • The commitment extending further to the rational ordering of desire and feeling: for
  • The philosophical life is not cold, unemotional, dehumanised; only a passionate, compassionate person could hope to achieve it:
  • Philosophy is not a trade, a craft, a skill, though it involves craft and skill, though people are paid to profess it:
  • Philosophy is a way of life, a passion, an obsession – for those in its grasp, a duty and a right.

In the course of discussing the relationship of science to society, he keeps in mind throughout his keen, but not necessarily philosophically ept audience. After bringing Social Contract theory into the discussion, his aside: ‘(If you haven’t heard of Social Contract theory, don’t worry about it. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you.)’ and on the Invisible Hand ‘(And if you haven’t heard of the Invisible Hand, again don’t worry. Just think of it as the doctrine that if dog eats dog, all dogs grow fat.) ‘

This small monograph must really be imagined as a living thing, being presented to an audience. The point is simply to get human beings to understand that it is necessary to act to save the world in the face of environmental catastrophe. In the end everything always comes down to the earth and what we are going to do about it. The only rational thing we can do is to act, to assume that we can be successful. Nothing has really changed since he wrote, if anything it gets worse. We must, nonetheless, like Medlin, be energetic optimistic activists. To be anything else is irrational.

I have also argued elsewhere (1991) that the Principle of Rational Action requires us to assume as well, what we don’t know for certain, not only that successful social revolution is possible, but also that we can indeed and will indeed find ways of resolving the ecological crisis and of preserving the human species.

First mooted by the bourgeois philosophers, transformed by the disappointment of great hopes, now promulgated as scientific truth and formidably opposed to this enterprise, stands the bourgeois view of human nature. This view would imply that, by our very being, we are too aggressive, say, or too selfish, too greedy, to save ourselves. Even too stupid or too irrational – for it has been the rationalist tradition that has disappointed us.

These claims are not known to be false. But neither are they known to be true. Nonetheless, our agnosticism ought not to paralyse the will. Assuming these claims to be true is the surest way of making them true, the surest path to extinction. Assuming them to be false is the best first step towards making them false. Hence, by the Principle of Rational Action, the rational practical assumption is that these claims are indeed false.

That none of these claims about human nature is known to be true is a large claim itself and not to be established here. I can render it plausible though not here as thoroughly as by S. A. Barnett (1988). I select a couple of positions and examine their support. I shall ask you to consider for yourselves, perhaps after reading Barnett, whether similar positions are not just as lamentably supported.

Apart from the utterances of John Keats, my cases are drawn from popularisations of science – at least in the sense that they come from documents addressed to general audiences. This is because I want to indicate how pervasive are the views I challenge.

We shall only evade extinction by setting about evading it. That we shall never do if we are not bright enough to see through rotten argument claiming to establish our invincible stupidity.

We are not going to evade our peril without careful thought. Not without setting our philosophy in order, without rethinking and refeeling our own nature and our relation to the rest of the world. Nor without strenuous and disinterested scientific enquiry yielding a sensitive technology.

I can’t offer you a philosophy of art. That would be too hard a job for a mere philosopher. I wouldn’t go all the way with R. K. Narayan (1985, vii) for whom all theories of writing are bogus: I do know that the usefulness of literature depends largely on the large fact that intuition is often the better road to truth.

We see now the urgent practical importance of philosophy. Unless enough of us get our philosophy right enough and quickly enough, we are all dead. Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, 38A). That’s false and you can ask any dog out for a walk. But for us, now, the unexamined life is no longer an option. (It never really was.) For us, henceforth, the examined life is the only life on offer. Finally, I hope that I haven’t given you the impression that we are likely to achieve a human life without aggression, selfishness, greed, stupidity, irrationality… That would not be human life. We live by standards, moral, aesthetic and intellectual. This is not a casual, incidental matter. Standards are needed because they are needed, because we frequently fall short of them. That is what it is to be moral, rational animals. Show me reason, I’ll show you unreason.  The saint and the sinner are shackled together by their common humanity. Wisdom and folly are Siamese twins. Imagine a human life without praise and commendation, without sense of achievement. That would be the cost of life without ugliness, wickedness, foolishness and stupidity. The Christian heaven is possible only to lobotomised automata, dehumanised social insects. Angels are merely souped-up flying ants. The enterprise before us is not to achieve heaven on earth. Yet it would be daft indeed to let the unattainability of heaven condemn us to our present hell. The question is not whether we can eliminate our vices. The question is whether our virtues will allow us to survive by carrying us into a better world. Not a question to be answered by speculation about human psychology. To be answered, not by canvassing the possibilities, but by setting about what is necessary. It is a question demanding action. If we want to know whether we are equipped to survive, the best way of finding out is to make sure that we do.

This is a manifesto and we could do worse than read it and take it to heart and mind.

Amnesia by Peter Carey

I don’t understand why people are down on this, I thought it was a cracker. First Carey I’ve wholeheartedly enjoyed for many years. I am only uneasy because it reads like a movie. When you can see the movie reeling along as you turn the page – it makes me wonder whenever I read a novel which seems like it’s waiting to become a movie. If the author wrote the novel aiming for the screen is this okay? Are we reading a movie pitch or a novel?

If you want a book to read on a plane which is well-written, a nicely evoked picture of Australia starting at WWII and ending when children are computer hackers, stereotypical characters whom we all know – really well done, I thought – this is it. I won’t read it again, but I’m glad I’ve read it once.

Dürrenmatt: an anecdote by Feyerabend

Feyerabend was referring to a seminar series he ran while teaching at Zurich university. One of the invited speakers was Freidrich Dürrenmatt. He

…came to speak on Platonic entities, and used a chair instead of a bed as an example. His conclusion: the Platonic chair is nothing but the idealised hind end of the sitters. Dürrenmatt had been warned that there would be other talks and that he had to restrict himself to twenty minutes. ‘Oooch’, he replied. ‘I won’t know what to say anyway, I won’t talk for more than ten minutes.’ He was late, and we started without him; when he arrived, he produced a huge manuscript and would have gone on forever if he hadn’t been stopped after twenty-five minutes. (Mrs Huber, who was chairing the meeting, hestitated to interrupt, but I, sitting next to her, egged her on: ‘No exceptions for big shots!’) Dürrenmatt didn’t say a word. He came to dinner with us afterward, tried to get me drunk, told me he had read Against Method, and entertained us with stories about himself and Hohler. But he refused to come again. ‘You don’t let a person finish!’ he yelled at the organiser when he next rang him – and hung up.