The modern world firmly equates the intelligent person with the well-read person. Reading books, a lot of books, is the hallmark of brilliance as well as the supreme gateway to prestige and understanding. It’s hard to imagine anyone arriving at any insights of value without having worked their way through an enormous number of titles over the years. There is apparently no limit to how much we should read. We might – logically and ideally – be reading all the time and get ever cleverer with every moment we do so. The number of books we have managed to read by the day we die will tell us pretty much all we need to know about the complexity and maturity of our minds.
This so-called maximalist philosophy of reading enjoys enormous cultural prestige. It is backed up by enormous publishing and journalistic industries that constantly parade new titles before us – and imply that we might be swiftly left behind and condemned to a narrow and provincial mindset if we did not rush to read four of this year’s major prize winning books as well as seven fascinating titles that have received ardent reviews in the Sunday supplements since March. As a result, our shelves are overburdened and our guilt at how far behind we are intense.
Yet amidst this pressure to eat our way through an ever-larger number of titles, we might pause to reflect on a fascinating aspect of the pre-modern world: it never put people under any pressure to read very much at all. Reading was held to be extremely important, but the number of new books one read was entirely by the by. This wasn’t principally an economic point. Books were very expensive of course, but this wasn’t really the issue. What mattered was to read a few books very well, not squander one’s attention promiscuously on a great number of volumes.
The premodern world directed us to read so little because it was obsessed by a question modernity likes to dodge: what is the point of reading? And it had answers. To take a supreme example, Christians and Muslims located the value of reading in a very specific and narrow goal: the attainment of holiness. To read was to try to approximate the mind of god. In each case this meant that one book, and one book only – the Bible or the Koran – was to be held up as vastly and incomparably more important than any other. To read this book, repeatedly and with great attention, probably five or so pages every day, was thought more crucial than to rush through a whole library every week; in fact reading widely would have been regarded with suspicion, because most other books would – to some extent – have to prove misleading and distracting.
Similarly, in the Ancient Greek world, one was meant to focus in on a close knowledge of just two books: Homer’s Odyssey and his Iliad, because these were deemed the perfect repository of the Greek code of honour and the best guides to action in military and civilian affairs. Much later, in 18th century England, the ideal of reading came to be focused on Virgil’s Aeneid. To know this single long poem, almost by heart, was all a gentleman required to pass as cultivated. To read much more was viewed as eccentric – and probably a little unhealthy too.
We can pick up the minimalist attitude to reading in early visual depictions of one of the heroes of Christian scholarship, St Jerome – who was by all accounts the supreme intellect of Christendom, who translated the Greek and Hebrew portions of the Bible into Latin, wrote a large number of commentaries on scripture and is now the patron saint of libraries and librarians. But despite all his scholarly efforts, when it came to showing where and how St Jerome worked, a detail stands out: there are almost no books in his famous study. Strikingly, the most intelligent and thoughtful intellectual of the early church seems to have read fewer things than an average modern eight year old. To follow the depiction by Antonello da Messina, St Jerome appears to be the proud owner of about ten books in all!
Antonello da Messina, St Jerome in his study, 1475
The modern world has dramatically parted ways with this minimalist pre-modern approach to reading. We have adopted an Enlightenment mantra that runs in a very different direction, stating that there should be no limit to how much we read because, in answer to the question of why we read, there is only one response that will ever be encompassing and ambitious enough: we read in order to know everything. We aren’t reading to understand God or to follow civic virtue or to calm our minds. We are reading to understand the whole of human existence, the full inventory of the planets and the entirety of cosmic history. We are collective believers in the idea of totalising knowledge; the more books we have produced and digested, the closer we will be to grasping everything.
The sheer scale of the ambition helps to explain why the depictions of libraries in the Enlightenment period showed off vast and endless palaces to learning and hinted that if money had been no object, they would have been constructed to ring the earth.
Étienne-Louis Boullée, Project for the National Library in Paris, France, 1785
We may not be aware of how indebted we are to the Enlightenment idea of reading, but its maximalist legacy is present within the publishing industry, within the way books are presented to the public at school and in shops – and within our own guilty responses to the pressure to read more.
We can also hazard an observation: this exhaustive approach to reading does not make us particularly happy. We are drowning in books, we have no time ever to re-read one and we appear fated to a permanent sense of being under-read when compared with our peers and what the media has declared respectable.
In order to ease and simplify our lives, we might dare to ask a very old-fashioned question: what am I reading for? And this time, rather than answering ‘in order to know everything,’ we might parcel off a much more limited, focused and useful goal. We might – for example – decide that while society as a whole may be on a search for total knowledge, all that we really need and want to do is gather knowledge that is going to be useful to us as we lead our own lives. We might decide on a new mantra to guide our reading henceforth: we want to read in order to learn to be content. Nothing less – and nothing more.
With this new, far more targeted ambition in mind, much of the pressure to read constantly, copiously and randomly starts to fade. We suddenly have the same option that was once open to St Jerome; we might have only a dozen books on our shelves – and yet feel in no way intellectually undernourished or deprived.
Once we know that we are reading to be content, we won’t need to chase every book published this season. We can zero in on titles that best explain what we deem to be the constituent parts of contentment. So for example, we will need a few key books that explain our psyches to us, that teach us about how families work and how they might work better, that take us through how to find a job one can love and how to develop the courage to develop our opportunities. We’ll need some books that talk about friendship and love, sexuality and health. We’ll want books about how to travel, how to appreciate, how to be grateful and to how forgive. We’ll look for books that help us to stay calm, fight despair and diminish our disappointments. Finally, we’ll look for books that gently guide us to how to minimise regret and learn to die well.
With these goals in mind, we won’t need a boundless library, we won’t have to keep up frantically with publishing schedules. The more we understand what reading is for us, the more we can enjoy intimate relationships with a few works only. Our libraries can be simple. Instead of always broaching new material, re-reading might become crucial, the reinforcement of what we already know but tend so often to forget. The truly well-read person isn’t the one who has read a gargantuan number of books, it’s someone who has let themselves be shaped – deeply shaped in their capacity to live and die well – by a very few well-chosen ones.
On Valentine’s Day in 1895, the most famous playwright in the English speaking world, Oscar Wilde, presented his new play, The Importance of Being Earnest, in London at St. James Theatre. The audience was packed with celebrities, aristocrats and famous politicians, eagerly awaiting another triumph from a man universally heralded as a genius. At the end of the performance, there was a standing ovation. Critics adored the play and so did audiences, making it Wilde’s fourth major success in only three years.
Yet, only a few short months later, Wilde was bankrupt and about to be imprisoned. His reputation was in tatters and his life ruined beyond repair. It was, as everyone then and now agreed, a tragedy, the swift fall of a great man due to a small but fateful slip.
The story of how Oscar Wilde went from celebrity playwright to prisoner, in such a short space of time, has much to teach us about disgrace and infamy. We don’t have to be acclaimed to understand that Wilde’s poignant tragedy urges us to abandon our normal moralism and have sympathy for those who stray, it calls for us to extend our love not just to those who obviously deserve it but precisely to those who seem not to. We talk a lot of what a civilised world should be like. We might put it like this: a civilised world would be one in which Oscar Wilde could have been forgiven – and in which those who make errors of judgement could be treated with high degrees of sympathy and, even, of kindness. It would be a world in which we could remember that good people can at times do bad things – and should not pay an eternal price for them.
Wilde’s tragedy began several years earlier, when he was introduced to a beguiling young man named Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas, known to family and friends as ‘Bosie’, was extremely handsome, charming and arrogant. He enjoyed gambling, spent money carelessly and was prone to outbursts of anger as well as moments of great intellectual insight.
By 1892, a year after they had met, the two men had fallen profoundly in love. Although Wilde was married with two children, he spent much of his time with Bosie: there was a sixteen year age gap, Douglas was twenty-four, Wilde forty. They travelled together, stayed in hotels and hosted large dinners for their friends.
Oscar and Bosie.
Their relationship was tempestuous, but Wilde was ineluctably drawn to the younger man. ‘It is really absurd,’ he wrote to him in one love letter, ‘I don’t exaggerate: I can’t live without you.’
By 1894, the pair were constantly seen together in public and rumours of their love affair had spread as far as Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury. The Marquess was a cruel, aggressive character, known for inventing the ‘Queensbury Rules’ of amateur boxing. Having decided that Wilde was corrupting his son, he demanded that the pair stop seeing each other.
When Wilde refused, Queensbury began to hound him across London, threatening violence against restaurant and hotel managers if they allowed Wilde and Bosie onto the premises.
Queensbury booked a seat for the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. He planned to throw a bouquet of rotting vegetables at Wilde when he took to the stage.
When Wilde heard about the stunt, he had him barred from the theatre and Queensbury flew into a rage. He tried to accost Wilde after the performance at the Albemarle Club in Mayfair. When the porters refused to let him in, he left a calling card which publicly accused Wilde of having sex with other men.
Since homosexuality was illegal and deeply frowned upon in Victorian society and its mass media, it was a dangerous accusation.
Seeing no end to Queensbury’s bullying behaviour, Wilde decided to take legal action. By suing Queensbury for libel, Wilde hoped to clear his name and put an end to the harassment.
Friends begged him to drop the case, certain that he would lose, but Bosie insisted that he go ahead with it so that they might be vindicated and be able to live without censorship.
When the trial began, Wilde was confident. He took the stand and gave witty, distracting answers during his cross-examination.
Within a few days, however, the tide had turned against him.
In the opening speech for the defense, Queensbury’s barrister announced that they had several witnesses: young men whom Wilde had entertained in his room at the Savoy Hotel, and who would testify that Wilde had paid them for sex.
It became clear that Queensbury’s lawyers had hired private detectives to uncover an uncomfortable truth: that both Wilde and Bosie had hired male prostitutes. Some had even blackmailed Wilde in the past, successfully extorting money from him in return for their silence.
The trial was hopeless and Wilde withdrew his case, but events had spiralled beyond his control.
Queensbury’s lawyers forwarded their evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions and Wilde was soon arrested on charges of gross indecency.
The legal costs left him bankrupt and theatres were forced to abandon his plays.
Wilde’s criminal trial began at the Old Bailey on April 26. He faced twenty-five charges, all of which surrounded his sexual relationships with younger men.
Wilde continued to deny the allegations and the jury could not reach a verdict, but when the prosecution were allowed to try Wilde a second time he was eventually found guilty.
It was rumoured that the then Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery had also had an affair with one of Queensbury’s sons and so pushed for Wilde to be convicted in order to keep his own secret hidden.
The judge said at his sentencing, “It is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this.”
Wilde was sentenced to two years’ of hard labour. Inmates in London’s Pentonville Prison, where he was sent, spent six hours a day walking on a heavy treadmill or untangling old rope using their hands and knees.
For someone of Wilde’s luxurious background, it was an impossible hardship. His bed was a hard plank which made it difficult to fall asleep. Prisoners were kept alone in their cells and barred from talking to one another. He suffered from dysentery and became physically very frail.
After six months, he was transferred to Reading Gaol. As he stood on the central platform of Clapham Junction, with handcuffs around his wrists, passers-by began to recognise the celebrity playwright. They laughed and mocked. Some even spat at him.
‘For half an hour I stood there,’ he wrote afterwards, ‘in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me, I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.’
Wilde’s prison cell in Reading Gaol.
During his last year in prison, he wrote an anguished essay, De Profundis: ‘I once a lord of language, have no words in which to express my anguish and my shame… Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still…. The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease…I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility… I have lain in prison for nearly two years… I have passed through every possible mood of suffering… The only people I would care to be with now are artists and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me.’
In May 1897, Wilde was finally released. He set sail for Dieppe in France the very same day.
His wife, Constance, had changed her name and moved abroad with their two sons, Vyvyan (now 11) and Cyril (12). Wilde would never see his children again; he missed them every day.
Constance Wilde, with her son Cyril, November 1889
Constance agreed to send him money on the condition that he end his relationship with Bosie, but only a few months later, the pair reunited and the money stopped.
They moved to Naples and Wilde began using the name Sebastian Melmoth, inspired by the great Christian martyr Saint Sebastian and a character from a Gothic novel who had sold his soul to the devil.
They hoped to find privacy abroad, but the scandal seemed to follow them wherever they went. English patrons recognised them in hotels and demanded they be turned away. After Constance stopped sending money, Bosie’s mother offered to pay their debts if he returned home and the pair once again parted ways; it proved equally impossible.
Scorned by many of his former friends, Wilde moved to Paris where he lived in relative poverty. He spent most of his time and money in bars and cafes, borrowing money whenever he could and drinking heavily. His weight ballooned and his conversation dragged. He was slowly inebriating himself to death.
When a friend suggested he try to write another comic play, he replied: “I have lost the mainspring of life and art […] I have pleasures, and passions, but the joy of life is gone.”
His final piece of writing, a poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was published in 1898. The author’s name was listed as ‘C.3.3.’ – Wilde’s cell block and cell number from his time in the prison.
Towards the end of 1900, Wilde developed meningitis and became gravely ill. A Catholic priest visited his hotel and baptised him into the church. He died the following day at the age of 46.
More than a century later, in 2017, a law was passed to exonerate those who had been convicted due to their sexuality and Oscar Wilde received an official pardon from the UK government. ‘It is hugely important,’ declared a government minister, ‘that we pardon people convicted of historical sexual offences who would be innocent of any crime today.’
Our society has become generous towards Wilde’s specific behaviour – but it remains intransigently moralistic in identical ways towards a huge number of other errors and transgressions; we need only read the newspaper to be reminded of the cruelty. Many of us would – across the ages – want to comfort and befriend Oscar Wilde. It’s a touching hope, but one that would be best employed in extending love and sympathy to all those less talented or witty figures who are right now facing ruin and disgrace, who cry out for our love and sympathy and beg us not to judge them too harshly or spit on them too callously on their way to jail; that would be true civilisation and a world in which Wilde’s horrifying downfall had not been in vain.
It is crucial to note the subtitle of 18th century Europe’s most famous novel, written in three inspired days in 1759: ‘Candide – or Optimism’. If there was one central target that its author wanted satirically to destroy, it was the hope of his age, a hope that centered around science, love, technical progress and reason. Voltaire was enraged. Of course science wasn’t going to improve the world; it would merely give new power to tyrants. Of course philosophy would not be able to explain away the problem of evil; it would only show up our vanity. Of course love was an illusion; power a chimera, humans irredeemably wicked, and the future absurd. Of all this his readers were to be left in no doubt. Hope was a disease and it was Voltaire’s generous goal to try to cure us of it.
Nevertheless, Voltaire’s novel is not simply a tragic tale nor is his own philosophy mordantly nihilistic. The book ends on a memorably tender and stoic note; the tone is elegiac; we encounter one of the finest expressions of the melancholic viewpoint ever written. Candide and his companions have travelled the world and suffered immensely: they have known persecution, shipwrecks, rapes, earthquakes, smallpox, starvation and torture. But they have – more or less – survived and, in the final pages, find themselves in Turkey – a country Voltaire especially admired – living in a small farm in a suburb of Istanbul. One day they learn of trouble at the Ottoman court: two Viziers and the Mufti have been strangled and several of their associates impaled. The news causes upset and fear in many. But near their farm, Candide, together with his friends Martin and Pangloss, pass an old man who is peacefully and indifferently sitting under an orange bower next to his house:
Pangloss, who was as inquisitive as he was argumentative, asked the old man what the name of the strangled Mufti was. ‘I don’t know,’ answered the worthy man, ‘and I have never known the name of any Mufti, nor of any Vizier. I have no idea what you’re talking about; my general view is that people who meddle with politics usually meet a miserable end, and indeed they deserve to. I never bother with what is going on in Constantinople; I only worry about sending the fruits of the garden which I cultivate off to be sold there.’ Having said these words, he invited the strangers into his house; his two sons and two daughters presented them with several sorts of sherbet, which they had made themselves, with kaimak enriched with the candied-peel of citrons, with oranges, lemons, pine-apples, pistachio-nuts, and Mocha coffee… – after which the two daughters of the honest Muslim perfumed the strangers’ beards. ‘You must have a vast and magnificent estate,’ said Candide to the turk. ‘I have only twenty acres,’ replied the old man; ‘I and my children cultivate them; and our labour preserves us from three great evils: weariness, vice, and want.’ Candide, on his way home, reflected deeply on what the old man had said. ‘This honest Turk,’ he said to Pangloss and Martin, ‘seems to be in a far better place than kings…. I also know,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.’
Voltaire, who liked to stir the prejudices of his largely Christian readers, especially enjoyed giving the idea for the most important line in his book – and arguably the most important adage in modern thought – to a Muslim, the true philosopher of the book known only as ‘the turk’: Il faut cultiver notre jardin: ‘we must cultivate our garden’ or as it has variously been translated, ‘we must grow our vegetables’, ‘we must tend to our lands’ or ‘we need to work our fields’.
What did Voltaire mean with his gardening advice? That we must keep a good distance between ourselves and the world, because taking too close an interest in politics or public opinion is a fast route to aggravation and danger. We should know well enough at this point that humans are troublesome and will never achieve – at a state level – anything like the degree of logic and goodness we would wish for. We should never tie our personal moods to the condition of a whole nation or people in general; or we would need to weep continuously. We need to live in our own small plots, not the heads of strangers. At the same time, because our minds are haunted and prey to anxiety and despair, we need to keep ourselves busy. We need a project. It shouldn’t be too large or dependent on many. The project should send us to sleep every night weary but satisfied. It could be bringing up a child, writing a book, looking after a house, running a small shop or managing a little business. Or, of course, tending to a few acres. Note Voltaire’s geographical modesty. We should give up on trying to cultivate the whole of humanity, we should give up on things at a national or international scale. Take just a few acres and make those your focus. Take a small orchard and grow lemons and apricots. Take some beds and grow asparagus and carrots. Stop worrying yourself with humanity if you ever want peace of mind again. Who cares what’s happening in Constantinople or what’s up with the grand Mufti. Live quietly like the old turk, enjoying the sunshine in the orange bower next to your house. This is Voltaire’s stirring, ever relevant form of horticultural quietism. We have been warned – and guided.
It was no coincidence that Voltaire should have put his lines about the cultivation of the garden into the mouth of a Muslim. He had done a lot of reading about Islam for his Essay on Universal History, published three years before, and properly understood the role of gardens in its theology. For Muslims, because the world at large can never be rendered perfect, it is the task of the pious to try to give a foretaste of what should ideally be in a well tended garden (and where that is not possible, in the depiction of a garden in a rug). There should be four canals that allude to the four rivers of paradise in which were said to flow water, milk, wine and honey and where they intersect represents the umbilicus mundi, the navel of the world, where the gift of life emerged. Gardening is no trivial pastime, it’s a central way of shielding ourselves from the influence of the chaotic, dangerous world beyond while focusing our energies on something that can reflect the goodness and grace we long for.
Babur Supervising the Laying Out of the Garden of Fidelity (Manuscript c. 1590).
The “Wagner” Garden Carpet, 17th century, Iran
We melancholics know that humans – ourselves foremost among them – are beyond redemption. We melancholics have given up on dreams of complete purity and unblemished happiness. We know that this world is, for the most part, hellish and heartbreakingly vicious. We know that our minds are full of demons that will not leave us alone for long. Nevertheless, we are committed to not slipping into despondency. We remain deeply interested in kindness, in friendship, in art, in family life – and in spending some very quiet local afternoons gardening. The melancholic position is ultimately the only sensible one for a broken human. It’s where one gets to, after one has been hopeful, after one has tried love, after one has been tempted by fame, after one has despaired, after one’s gone mad, after one’s considered ending it – and after one’s decided conclusively to keep going. It captures the best possible attitude to pain – and the wisest orientation of a weary mind towards what remains hopeful and good.
James Baldwin was a novelist, essayist and activist whose writings on racism and the idea of self-acceptance in 20th century America challenged readers to investigate their innermost thoughts and beliefs.
He was born in Harlem, New York in 1924 at a time when racial segregation was rife in America. From housing to hospitals, everything was split between those for white people and those for black people.
Baldwin’s family had very little money and he was treated badly by his overbearing step-father. A precocious, intelligent boy, he spent much of his time alone in libraries reading books by Charles Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
At school, his large, sensitive eyes led to other children nicknaming him ‘popeyes’. He was bullied for being small and unathletic. Books and writing became his great place of refuge.
At 14, Baldwin became interested in the Pentecostal Church where his step-father was a preacher. He began to do his own preaching, several times a week, but gradually became disillusioned.
Reflecting on that period many years later, he described a community which had succumbed to its own form of discrimination.
“When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant everybody,” he wrote. “But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all.”
His step-father died just before his 19th birthday and the funeral coincided with the onset of the Harlem riot of 1943. “As we drove him to the graveyard,” he wrote, “the spoils of injustice, anarchy, discontent and hatred were all around us.”
As a young man, Baldwin worked odd jobs and became friends with members of Harlem’s thriving artistic community, such as the painter Beauford Delaney.
He nurtured his ambition to be a writer, but also struggled more and more with the prejudice he faced on account of his race and his homosexuality.
In December 1946, his close friend Eugene Worth committed suicide by jumping from the George Washington Bridge. The incident traumatised Baldwin and convinced him to leave America. He feared that if he stayed in New York, he too would be driven to despair and take his own life.
He arrived in Paris in 1948 with only forty dollars in his pocket. He befriended a literary crowd, including writers he knew from New York, who helped to publish some of his earliest writing.
Whilst living in Paris, he drew inspiration from another great American writer, Henry James, and completed his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. A collection of essays, Notes of a Native Son, was published two years later, and by the mid 1950s, Baldwin had established himself as an important new voice.
However, his second novel, Giovanni’s Room, was less successful. His American publishers told Baldwin that its frank depictions of homosexuality would destroy his career and suggested that he burn the manuscript.
In 1957, he returned to America to report on the civil rights movement. He travelled widely in the American South and became close friends with key figures such as Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr. His experiences in those years formed the basis for numerous essays such as ‘Down at the Cross’ and ‘My Dungeon Shook’ which won acclaim for their mixture of autobiography and incisive analysis on the realities of racial hatred.
As the civil rights movement grew in standing, so did the racially-motivated violence of those who opposed it. In 1963 Baldwin wrote to the Attorney General Robert Kennedy to criticise the government for failing to prevent outbreaks of violence in Birmingham, Alabama. He accused the President of not using “the great prestige of his office as the moral forum which it can be.”
At that time, protest was split into two distinct camps. There were those who believed in Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent strategy of civil disobedience, and those who followed Malcolm X and his arguments in favour of aggressive resistance. Baldwin, however, trod a slightly different path.
He believed that racism began with the problem of self-deception. He saw American society as one which lied to itself about its past, where people were told not to think too deeply about themselves and others.
He described the mental barriers people place between the outside world and their innermost thoughts as being like a ‘dreadful, private labyrinth’ in which we become terminally lost.
Unable to properly confront their own true desires and beliefs, unable to recognise their own vulnerabilities and fears, they projected these anxieties onto an imaginary evil: a black community who wished only to be free from persecution.
In the essay ‘Down at the Cross;, he wrote: “It is galling indeed to have stood so long, hat in hand, waiting for Americans to grow up enough to realise that you do not threaten them.”
Baldwin emphasised the atrocity of what his friends and family had suffered, but he insisted that racism was a disaster for everyone. Time and again, he explained that racist beliefs only demonstrate how difficult people find it to understand and accept their own authentic selves.
He continued to write novels, essays and one stage play throughout the 60s and 70s, publishing his final novel Just Above My Head in 1979.
In 1970, Baldwin purchased a large country house in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, in the South of France. It became home for the rest of his life, a place where he liked to entertain famous friends such as Miles Davis, Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone.
He died in 1987, age 63.
Today, Baldwin’s work is remembered for its psychological clarity and the elegance of his writing.
Above all, his writing on love and the responsibility that love demands of people stands out as one of his great gifts to those who wish to reject intolerance and injustice.
In his 1964 essay, ‘Nothing Personal’, he writes about ‘the miracle of love’ that comes about when we can be honest with one another and trust in each other’s kindness.
This is not the love of pop songs or billboards, but a love inspired by the wounds we all carry and the tenderness we all crave.
‘The moment we cease to hold each other,’ Baldwin wrote, ‘the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.’
In January 1941, the twenty-eight year old French writer Albert Camus began work on a novel about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans and ends up destroying half the population of a representative modern town. It was called La Peste/The Plague, eventually published in 1947 and frequently described as the greatest European novel of the postwar period.
The book – written in sparse, haunting prose – takes us through a catastrophic outbreak of a contagious disease in the lightly fictionalised town of Oran on the Algerian coast, as seen through the eyes of the novel’s hero, a Doctor Rieux, a version of Camus himself.
As the novel opens, an air of eerie normality reigns. ‘Oran is an ordinary town,’ writes Camus, ‘nothing more than a French Prefecture on the coast of Algeria.’ The inhabitants lead busy money-centered and denatured lives; they barely notice that they are alive. Then, with the pacing of a thriller, the horror begins. Dr Rieux comes across a dead rat. Then another and another. Soon the town is overrun with the mysterious deaths of thousands of rats, who stumble out of their hiding places in a daze, let out a drop of blood from their noses and expire.
The inhabitants accuse the authorities of not acting fast enough. The rats are removed – and the town heaves a sigh of relief but Dr Rieux suspects that this is not the end. He has read enough about the structure of plagues and transmissions from animals to humans to know that something is afoot.
Soon an epidemic seizes Oran, the disease transmitting itself from citizen to citizen, spreading panic and horror in every street. In order to write the book, Camus immersed himself in the history of plagues. He read books on the Black Death that killed 50 million people in Europe in the 14th century; the Italian plague of 1629 that killed 280,000 people across the plains of Lombardy and the Veneto, the great plague of London of 1665 as well as plagues that ravaged cities on China’s eastern seaboard during the 18th and 19th centuries. In March 1942, Camus told the writer André Malraux that he wanted to understand what plague meant for humanity: ‘Said like that it might sound strange,’ he added, ‘but this subject seems so natural to me.’
Camus was not writing about one plague in particular, nor was this narrowly, as has sometimes been suggested, a metaphoric tale about the recent Nazi occupation of France. Camus was drawn to his theme because, in his philosophy, we are all – unbeknownst to us – already living through a plague: that is a widespread, silent, invisible disease that may kill any of us at any time and destroy the lives we assumed were solid. The actual historical incidents we call plagues are merely concentrations of a universal precondition, they are dramatic instances of a perpetual rule: that we are vulnerable to being randomly exterminated, by a bacillus, an accident or the actions of our fellow humans. Our exposure to plague is at the heart of Camus’s view that our lives are fundamentally on the edge of what he termed ‘the absurd’.
Proper recognition of this absurdity should not lead us to despair pure and simple. It should – rightly understood – be the start of a redemptive tragi-comic perspective. Like the people of Oran before the plague, we assume that we have been granted immortality and with this naivety come behaviours that Camus abhorred: a hardness of heart, an obsession with status, a refusal of joy and gratitude, a tendency to moralise and judge.
The people of Oran associate plague with something backward that belongs to another age. They are modern people with phones, trams, aeroplanes and newspapers. They are surely not going to die like the wretches of 17th century London or 18th century Canton.
‘It’s impossible it should be the plague, everyone knows it has vanished from the West,’ says one character. ‘Yes, everyone knew that,’ Camus adds sardonically, ‘except the dead.’
For Camus, when it comes to dying, there is no progress in history, there is no escape from our frailty; being alive always was and will always remain an emergency, as one might put it, truly an inescapable ‘underlying condition’.
Plague or no plague, there is always – as it were – the plague, if what we mean by this is a susceptibility to sudden death, an event that can render our lives instantaneously meaningless.
And yet still the citizens deny their fate. Even when a quarter of the city is dying, they keep imagining reasons why the problem won’t happen to them. The book isn’t attempting to panic us, because panic suggests a response to a dangerous but short term condition from which we can eventually find safety. But there can never be safety – and that is why for Camus we need to love our fellow damned humans and work without hope or despair for the amelioration of suffering. Life is a hospice, never a hospital.
Camus writes: ‘Pestilence is so common, there have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared. When war breaks out people say: ‘It won’t last, it’s too stupid.’ And war is certainly too stupid, but that doesn’t prevent it from lasting. The citizens of Oran were like the rest of the world, they were humanists: they did not believe in pestilence. A pestilence does not have human dimensions, so people tell themselves that it is unreal, that it is a bad dream which will end. The people of our town were no more guilty than anyone else, they merely forgot to be modest and thought that everything was still possible for them, which implied that pestilence was impossible. They continued with business, with making arrangements for travel and holding opinions. Why should they have thought about the plague, which negates the future, negates journeys and debate? They considered themselves free and no one will ever be free as long as there is plague, pestilence and famine.’
At the height of the plague, when five hundred people a week are dying, one of Camus’s particular enemies in the novel steps into a view, a Catholic priest called Paneloux. He gives a sermon to the city in the cathedral of the main square – and seeks to explain the plague as god’s punishment for depravity.
But Camus’s hero Dr Rieux loathes this approach. The plague is not a punishment for anything deserved. That would be to imagine that the universe was moral or had some sort of design to it. But Dr Rieux watches a young innocent child die in his hospital and knows better: suffering is entirely randomly distributed, it makes no sense, it is no ethical force, it is simply absurd and that is the kindest thing one can say of it.
The doctor works tirelessly against death, he tries to lessen the suffering of those around him. But he is no saint. In one of the most central lines of the book, Camus writes: ‘This whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.’ A character asks Rieux what decency is. Doctor Rieux’s response is as clipped as it is eloquent: ‘In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.’
Despite the horror, Camus (who in an earlier essay had compared humanity to the wretched character of Sisyphus but then asked us to imagine Sisyphus ‘happy’) maintains a characteristically keen sense of what makes life worth enduring. His Doctor Rieux appreciates dancing, love and nature; he is hugely sensitive to the smell of flowers, to the colours at sunset and – like Camus – adores swimming in the sea, slipping out after an evening on the wards to surrender himself to the reassuring immensity of the waves.
Eventually, after more than a year, the plague ebbs away. The townspeople celebrate, it is apparently the end of suffering. Normality can return. But this is not how Camus sees it. Doctor Rieux may have helped to defeat this particular outbreak of the plague but he knows there will always be others: ‘Rieux knew that this chronicle could not be a story of definitive victory. It could only be the record of what had to be done and what, no doubt, would have to be done again, against this terror… As he listened to the cries of joy that rose above the town, Rieux recalled that this joy was always under threat. He knew that this happy crowd was unaware of something that one reads in books, which is that the plague bacillus never dies or vanishes entirely, that it remains dormant for dozens of years, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs and old papers, and that the day will come when…the plague will once again rouse its rats and send them to die in some new well-contented city.’
Camus speaks to us in our own times not because he was a magical seer who could intimate what the best epidemiologists could not, but because he correctly sized up human nature and knew about a fundamental and absurd vulnerability in us that we cannot usually bear to remember. In the words of one of his characters, Camus knew, as we do not, that ‘everyone has inside it himself this plague, because no one in the world, no one, can ever be immune.’
People have always had trouble pronouncing his name. The 19th-century British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was once mocked in Parliament for getting it wrong. If you don’t speak German, it’s not at all obvious how you are supposed to say it. A safe bet is to start with a hard g on ‘Ger…’ and end with a ‘ter’: Ger-ter.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) has often been seen as one of Europe’s big cultural heroes – comparable to the likes of Shakespeare, Dante and Homer. He excelled in a wide range of areas: he wrote many poems, was a huge hit as a novelist and made scientific contributions in physiology, geology, botany and optics. He was also a diplomat, fashion guru, a senior civil servant, a pornographer, the head of a university, a fine artist, an adventurous traveller, the director of a theatre company and the head of a mining company. No wonder another polymath, Andy Warhol, appropriated him for his pantheon of heroes:
During his life, Goethe’s admirers were impressed by his literary works. But more than any of his books, what impressed people at the time was how he lived his life, the kind of person he was. The life was more significant than the books (which helps explain why, unlike Jane Austen or Marcel Proust, his literary works are relatively unknown).
Goethe was born in the city of Frankfurt in 1749. His family was comfortably off – it was new money, made from inn keeping.
The family house where Goethe grew up
The Goethe family: 14-year-old Johann Wolfgang and his younger sister Cornelia look after a pet sheep
Goethe’s parents took great care with his education: he was mainly educated at home; he wrote poetry for his friends, took art classes, learned Italian. He went to the theatre a lot and became friends with actresses. As a member of the upper class, he wore a sword in public from the age of twelve.
Goethe, Self-Portrait, aged about 15
He studied at the University of Leipzig and later did a master’s degree in Law at the University of Strasbourg.
He often skipped lectures and went to a viewing platform high up on a nearby cathedral tower. He was afraid of heights. But he made himself do it because he liked to overcome obstacles – and loved the view.
We can pick up some vital lessons from Goethe:
One: From Romanticism to Classicism in Love
Goethe’s first proper job, after law school, was as an assistant at a national tribunal judging cases between the many minor German states that, at that time, made up the Holy Roman Empire. While he was working, he fell in love with the fiancée of one his colleagues. He then committed a huge indiscretion and wrote up the love affair as a novel. He called it The Sorrows of Young Werther – the central character, Werther, is a lightly disguised self-portrait.
It tells the story of how Werther/Goethe falls in love with a young woman, Charlotte. It’s a very detailed description of all the tiny steps one takes on the road to infatuation: they dance together, at one point their feet accidentally touch under the table; they smile, they write each other flirtatious little notes. It makes being in love seem like the most important experience in life. Werther asks himself: “What is a life without romantic love? A magic lantern without a lamp.”
This deeply charming novel was a bestseller across Europe for the next 25 years. Napoleon boasted he had read it seven times. The story has a miserable ending. Charlotte doesn’t really love Werther and finally rejects him. In despair he kills himself. The tragic dénouement shows Goethe beginning to see the limitations of the romantic view of life. Romantic love is deeply attractive but it causes immense problems too.
The core problem – as Goethe sees it – is this: Romantic love hopes to ‘freeze’ a beautiful moment. It’s a summer’s evening, after dinner, Werther is walking in the woods with his beloved. He wants it to be always like this: so he feel they should get married, have a house together, have children. Though, in reality, marriage will be nothing at all like the lovely June night. There’ll be exhaustion, bills to pay, squabbles and a sense of confinement. By comparison with the extreme hopes of Romanticism, real love is always necessarily a terrible disappointment.
That’s why Goethe gradually moved away from Romanticism towards an ideology of love he termed Classicism – marked by a degree of pessimism, an acceptance of the troubles that afflict all couples over time, and of the need to abandon some of the heady hopes of the early days for the sake of tranquillity and administrative competence. Goethe was a critic of Romantic ideology not because he was cold hearted or lacking in imagination but because he so deeply and intimately understood its attractions – and therefore its dangers.
Goethe’s career shows us a journey away from the initial Romanticism of Werther towards a mature, classical view of life. His later play, Iphigenia, fully develops the Classical alternative to Romanticism.
Iphigenia is a Greek princess at the time of the Trojan wars, the daughter of the chief king of the Greeks, Agamemnon. She and her family are caught up in a horrific sequence of murders and feuds: a dramatic exaggeration of the traumas of ordinary family life.
Iphigenia, in white – with her difficult parents: Clytemnestra and Agamemnon
Typically, the cycle of intense passion continues itself from one generation to the next. Goethe imagines Iphigenia as the person who finally brings forgiveness and peace.
Iphigenia persuades her brother to forgive their parents
Iphigenia sees her role in life as that of “making men mild.” She is always encouraging people to calm down and be merciful. She is committed to love, but a love marked not by wild passion, but by understanding, sympathy and a desire for harmony:
Remembering that we all must die
Should move the hardest heart to tenderness;
Are we not required to show others
The best kindness we ourselves have known?
Goethe first audiences, brought up on Romanticism, were slow to get the message. Was Goethe turning his back on Romantic love? Where was all the passion? They described the story of Iphigenia as like “watching grey mist.”
Goethe, now in middle-age, was undaunted. He’d had enough of Werther and expressed his own view emphatically – “Romanticism is sickness, Classicism is health.” But he encountered an elemental cultural problem: Romanticism feels more exciting. Goethe pinpointed one of the central problems of culture: how to make things that are good for us compete successfully for attention with the thrilling passionate stuff?
Two: The Dignity of Administration
In April, 1775, not long after his big success with Werther, Goethe took a job as a civil servant.
Carl August, the Duke of Weimar, appointed him as his chief adviser and senior administrator to help run his country.
Carl August, Goethe’s employer – for most of his life
Goethe continued in this employment for most of the rest of his life; his main jobs were as minister for roads – which was vital to trying to improve trade. He was the overseer of the state owned silver-mining operation. He undertook diplomatic missions and made major decisions around education and urban planning. He spent a lot of time in the twice-weekly cabinet meetings (which involved a lot of writing and reading of briefing papers).
It can sound like a strange move for a very successful creative figure: as if the winner of the Booker prize became a civil servant at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We just assume that art and literature are at odds with an enthusiasm for government administration.
But Goethe didn’t see it that way. Over the years, he spent a lot of his time drawing up reports and sitting in meetings about the pros and cons of purchasing specialist drainage equipment, the best material for resurfacing a highway and how to deal with with their overbearing neighbour, Prussia.
He felt that he needed responsibility, power and experience to become a more mature and wiser person – and a better poet and philosopher. But it did something else as well: it enabled him to put ideas in practice.
Goethe expanded from being a solitary writer of plays to being head of Germany’s leading cultural institution at that time – the Weimar State theatre
Later, he held the position of arts minister. He was able to establish the best theatre in Germany – and put on the first performances of many of the plays of the era. In modern terms, it was like setting up as a major film producer. The encounter with power, responsibility, budgets and money – with the mechanisms by which the world is run – enabled Goethe to purse a crucial developmental path. He moved from being a solitary creative thinker working essentially on his own to someone able to put his ideas into action. Instead of writing about how good it would be to have a national theatre, he was able to establish one; instead of just saying that cities should have green spaces, he was able to rev the governmental machinery into action and actually create a model urban park.
Goethe made the move from writing about the importance of nature to setting up a large park near the city centre
Three: Travel as Therapy
In September 1786, after ten years in the Weimar civil service, when his fortieth birthday was coming into view, Goethe was gripped by the fear that he was wasting his life. He was weary of the cold winters, the endless meetings, the work load that made it hard to find time for writing. He headed for Italy – first to Vicenza and Venice where he was especially impressed by the buildings of Andrea Palladio.
Goethe wanted his life to become like Palladio’s buildings: serene, ordered, sensuous and dignified
Then he went to Rome, which was his main base. He spent nearly two years in Italy. He had a very classical idea of the point of travel. The outer journey was intended to support an inner journey towards maturity. He felt that there was a part of himself that could only be discovered in Italy – “I am longing for grapes and figs.”
Piazza del Popolo – 18th-century Rome: Goethe’s flat was just a few steps from here – a few doors down the middle street between the two domes, on the left hand side
But like many visitors to Rome, when he got there he felt disappointed.
In a collection of poems he wrote about his experience – The Roman Elegies – he describes how the great city seemed to be filled with lifeless ruins that were famous but didn’t actually mean anything to him: “speak to me, you stones!” he pleads. It’s a feeling many later visitors have had.
He realised that what he needed was not a more elaborate guide book, but the right person to have an affair with – someone who would share their love of Rome with him and show him the real meaning of the place. In a poem, he describes the woman he meets – he calls her Faustina. They spend lazy afternoons in bed; she’s not a great intellectual, she tells him about her life, about the buildings she passes on her way to the market – the Pantheon, a Baroque Church designed by Bernini – which she hadn’t realised were famous; they were just the buildings that happened to be around, that she happens to like. In his bedroom next to Faustina, Goethe realises that he’s entering into the spirit of Classical culture: a simple, comfortable relationship to sex and beauty; and the idea that the classical poets were people like him.
For Goethe, the point of travel isn’t relaxation or just taking a break from routine. He’s got a bigger goal in mind: the aim of travel is to go to a place where we can find the missing ingredient of our own maturity.
The goal: maturity
Goethe didn’t stay in Italy. After nearly two years, he had developed enough to go back to Weimar and get on with his work political and creative work.
Four: Living Life to the Full: The Faustian Hero
One of the most striking things about Goethe is how much he did, how broad his horizons were, and how wide his interests were. He explored this particularly through his most famous work, Faust. Goethe worked on Faust all his life. The earliest sketches go back to his teens. And he only decided he’d done with it when he was in his early eighties. Faust comes in two parts and together the performance takes about thirteen hours. Goethe himself never saw the whole thing – and few people have since.
Faust is a medieval academic and scholar. He’s very learned but he doesn’t do very much: he is unfulfilled in love, he hasn’t made any money, and he has no power. His knowledge is sterile. His life feels pointless and he wishes he could die.
But then he is visited by a devil, called Mephistopheles – who offers him boundless energy, good looks and the ability to do whatever he wants. The question is: what will Faust want to do? The first danger for Faust is to stay an academic who resists worldly impact.
‘Hemmed in by heaps of books,
Piled to the highest vault and higher:
Worm eaten, decked with dust’
With the Devil’s help he could be the ultimate bookworm: he could get his hands on the oldest, rarest manuscripts. But he gets weary of words and longs for action.
The second danger is that he will use his new powers to gratify every sensual appetite. He will become a pure hedonist. Faust goes some way down this path: he goes to a bar and gets everyone very drunk, he goes to a huge orgy – but then he realises that what he really seeks is beauty and love and this leads him on from sex and alcohol.
The third danger is that Faust will become a confident but shallow political leader. But in the second part of the play, Faust pursues a grand purpose: eventually he organises the development of a new country – along the lines of the Dutch Republic – which at that time was the most Enlightened and successful society in the world.
The final wisdom: space for millions,
free to work on fertile fields, where men and herds
can settle and gain comfort from the new-made earth:
a paradise, where hard working people win their freedom every day
Faust is a morality tale for all of us: he shows us both the pitfalls of life and how we might avoid them. Faust knows a great deal – but he resists being an academic; he loves sex, but he doesn’t give way to debauchery. He likes power but he doesn’t use it for megalomania: he puts it to work in the service of noble ends.
Faust’s career path is not unlike Goethe’s. Faust is essentially tracing for us a theory of how to live a full life. He is very interested in ideas, but not a scholar. He visits Italy, but doesn’t stay there. He goes back to work. He tries out administration and learns how to wield power, but once he has mastered this side of himself he moves on. The Faustian idea is that in order to develop fully, we have to flirt with things that are quite dangerous, but hold on to a sense of higher purpose.
In 1807 the Emperor Napoleon tried to persuade Goethe to come and work for him – Goethe refused, but was glad to have the offer
Five: Science for Artsy People
Goethe was the last European to do a certain kind of remarkable thing – to write great novels and plays and also play a significant role in science. His interests ranged through geology, meteorology, physiology and chemistry. But his most important work was in botany – in 1790 he produced his study, Metamorphosis of Plants, and on optics and colour, where his research was summed up in the Theory of Colours which was published in 1810.
Thereafter, this combination of very significant work in the arts and in the sciences disappears from European civilisation completely. Goethe gives us some guidance as to why this has happened. Goethe is a hero for people of a more literary and artistic sensibility who are attracted from a distance to the broad subject matter of science – but who find the details of science less appealing.
Goethe likes science that you can do yourself, by looking carefully at the world around you.
Goethe did a lot of his research on plants in his own back garden in Weimar
He did a lot of his research on optics with candles and coloured pieces of paper in his study. He liked the training this gave in asking oneself: what do I actually see? This could combat our tendency to see only what we expect. And also, it usefully turned our attention outwards, as a relief from preoccupation with ourselves.
Goethe was very interested in the psychological aspect of our relationship to the sort of things that science investigates: plants, light, stones. Rather than exclude the issues of personal meaning, Goethe sees these as central to the proper and full investigation of nature.
Why do the colours of her dress work well together
He wants to understand why green and russet silk make a great design combination – as an aid to couturiers and artists.
He was struck that different kinds of rock have a different character. And he chose granite – the hardest stone – for a monument to good fortune, which he put in his garden.
Why is granite good for a monument to luck?
What does an elephant jawbone (Goethe found it in a quarry near Weimar) mean to me?
And he was very moved by the continuity between human life and the life of plants and animals. The point of studying an elephant’s jaw was to understand the traces of our evolution. Goethe thought of human nature as being a gradual refinement of animal nature.
Goethe was very worried by the direction that science was taking – which he particularly associated with the work of Isaac Newton. As Goethe saw it, the academic, profession scientist wasn’t interested in the personal meaning of the things they investigated.
Goethe thought Newton had ‘tortured’ light – breaking it up to extract its hidden secrets
Goethe’s point isn’t that Newton is technically wrong. It’s that he dislikes the direction of effort.
As he aged, Goethe kept on working.
He often dictated his ideas
And he kept on seeking love – and sex.
In his 70s, Goethe fell in love with Ulrike – his passion was unrequited
Goethe died at his house in Weimar in 1832. He was 83.
We have so much to learn from him. We don’t often hear people declaring a wish to be a little more like ‘Goethe’. But if we did, the world would be a more vibrant and humane place.
Charles Dickens was the most famous writer in the English language during the nineteenth century and he remains one of the best selling authors of all time.
He can seem remote: the frock coat, velvet collar, the fishtail beard, bow tie…
But he has a lot to say to us today. And that’s because he had a remarkable ambition: he believed writing could play a big role in fixing the problems of the world.
Dickens didn’t just write. From the very beginning, he was a showman. As a child, he loved putting on plays in the family kitchen and singing songs standing on a table in the local pub.
He was a performer – a star, an exceptional showman.
Often to the dismay of later literary friends, entertainment remained at the heart of the literary enterprise for Dickens. Even after he had secured his reputation as ‘the Inimitable’, he adapted his own novels for public readings and from 1858 took them out to perform himself to audiences in Britain and America. Profound as his works were, he was never any doubt that they were also entertainments.
Dickens is always hoping to get us interested in the evils of an industrialising society – horrendous working conditions in factories, child labour, vicious social snobbery, the degradation of the poor, the reckless scramble for money and the maddening inefficiencies of government bureaucracy… In theory we recognise that these – and their modern versions – are worthy themes. But when we are honest with ourselves, we admit that they don’t sound very inviting as things to read about in a novel in bed or at the airport.
Dickens’s genius discovery was that the big ambitions to educate his society about its failings and to spur social reform didn’t have to be opposed to what his critics called ‘fun’ – racy plots, a chatty style, clownish characters, weepy moments and happy endings. He rejected the idea that we have to make a fatal choice between being worthy but dull or popular but shallow. He set out to educate via entertaining – because he so well understood how easy it is for us individually and collectively to resist certain tricky but important lessons.
Dickens is significant because he was working out – for his own time – how to do something that’s crucial for ours: how to be seductive about serious things.
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth on February 7 1812. His father was a clerk in the Navy Office; they had to constantly move to follow his different appointments. It was a genteel life at first but there were always money troubles looming. When he was only ten,Dickens had to leave school because his parents could no longer afford the modest fees. He was sent to work in London at a blacking factory where they made polish for giving a dark sheen, much admired at the time, to metal surfaces. It was a grim experience. He hated the fumes and numbing speed with which he had to carry out repetitive tasks; the people he worked around were bullying and sinister.
Then his father was arrested for debt. At that time debtors could be confined to prison, along with their dependents, by their creditors until they they were able to start paying off what they owed. The whole family moved into the squalid Marshalsea Prison, except young Dickens who lodged nearby and continued with his horrible job.
Part of the continuing popular affection for Dickens comes from his strong sense of the precariousness of life and the deep compassion for those who are its victims. When his life improved (in his early twenties he discovered that he was an outstandingly brilliant journalist), Dickens was very good at remembering his own suffering. He used it in a very clever way. He always put really nice characters into the awful places of Victorian England. The blacking factory is described in David Copperfield, through the eyes of young David – who is a sensitive, intelligent, charming child. David is the reader when young, or the reader’s son or nephew. Dickens is saying: imagine someone like you, or someone you like, was in there.
When he writes about Poor Houses (which were local forced labour camps for people unable to support themselves) Dickens sends in little Oliver Twist – who actually belongs to a well to do family from whom he has been separated by a series of tragic accidents. He’s not at all typical of the people who ended up in Poor Houses, but he’s there so his readers (who at that time would be generally quite prosperous) can think: what if it were me?
On one occasion when Dickens shows us the miseries of a debtor prison, it’s in the company of a loveable buffoon – a rather muddled but very sweet and well meaning man called Mr Micawber. The background, protective assumption that only rather shady types could end up here is punctured.
Dickens was working with a key assumption: of course everyone knew already that there were Poor Houses, horrible working conditions and Debtors’ Prisons: these were obvious facts of early 19th century life in England. The point was that comfortable people – the kind of people who had the power to change things, if they were motivated – generally didn’t feel much sense of urgency. They didn’t feel personally connected to the problems.
Dickens used his own experience to get people to feel interested in, and sympathetic to, the plight of others that they’d normally have been emotionally distanced from. He didn’t say: look how awful it is for them; he says: here’s what it would be like for you.
In an ideal world, we’d perhaps care equally about everyone; but, in reality, our concern is much more readily directed towards the misfortunes of people we find likeable. So, if like Dickens, your project is to draw attention to a failure of the system, it’s probably a good strategy that he’s using: get us to like the people who are having a hard time and we’ll start to feel engaged.
Nice, ordinary things
The other thing that Dickens did – to keep us on board with his high-minded vision of social reform – was to keep on showing how well he understood the cosy, pleasing, enjoyable things of life. He desperately didn’t want the big causes to come across as meaning you couldn’t keep on liking all the sweet comforts of life. He was particularly good at evoking the pleasures of home. In one of his novels (Our Mutual Friend) he take us to the house of a loveable old eccentric who has refashioned his small suburban house as a miniature castle, complete with a tiny drawbridge that can be pulled up (by lengths of twine) to keep the wild world at bay. Dickens loves picnics, games of cricket in the park, going shopping for a new tie, a sizzling chop, doughnuts, sitting by the fire, having friends round for dinner, warm blankets and going on holiday. Being a caring and good person – he is saying – doesn’t mean disdaining the ordinary small pleasures.
It’s a key element in his general strategy. He knows that it’s hard to get people to care about difficult things if you don’t start from a deep recognition of what we like already. Otherwise you come across as cold and a bit obsessive.
Dickens took the practical, business side of writing very seriously. He was immensely productive. He didn’t have the ideal of producing a single perfect work, polished over many years. He churned out his books. And he was deeply concerned about copyright laws, sales figures and profit margins.
But Dickens didn’t simply want to sell a lot of novels; he wanted to change things in the world; but he knew perfectly well that a book wouldn’t have an effect unless it was in wide circulation – unless the business side was going well.
His writing draws attention to many things that were going wrong: the Poor Law (which forced people into Work houses); the dreadful state of schools, rampant nepotism, and harsh working conditions. But he wasn’t trying to advocate specific schemes of reform. If you’d asked Dickens what exactly the Government should do to improve the conditions in factories or what a better legal system would look like he wouldn’t have had a carefully worked out alternative policy to hand.
What he was doing was shaping the climate of feeling and opinion. Which makes it much easier for people trying to get an act through parliament, raise funds, or make local improvements. Others can much more readily see the point, the issues move up the mental agenda and feel closer to home.
* * *
Dickens was very interested in trying to help the world, and hugely sensitive to the suffering of others. But closer to home things didn’t work out so well. He wasn’t a good husband or father.
He got married in 1837 (when he was in his mid-twenties) to Catherine Hogarth and they had ten children together, eight of whom survived into adulthood. But Dickens increasingly found her dull and passive and when he was in his mid-forties, he fell in love with an 19-year-old actress Ellen Ternan. He couldn’t get divorced – it was completely taboo for a major public figure to take such a step. They separated. His wife left, after twenty years together, and never saw him again.
Dickens was unimpressed by all of his children, whom he regarded as idle and ever ready to sponge off him. They were prone to drinking too much and to gambling.
He’s a painful reminder of the terrible conflicts that can arise between different kinds of devotion. Dickens was immensely painstaking with his work, he’d stay up as late as needed, he’d think of it first thing in the morning; he’d exhaust himself, he’d use every resource of his imagination to improve it. Yet around his children and his wife he was plodding, conventional and often coldly detached.
We could blame him and say he should have been a better partner and father. Or we could feel a touch of pity for the horrible limitation of our nature which makes it hard for us to be very good at two very different kinds of thing at the same time. And hopefully a little of this pity can extend to ourselves, since we are the ones who now actually need it.
On 8 June 1870, when he was 58, Dickens died at home after his usual intense day’s work. He was at the early stages of his fifteenth novel. The Guardian published an obituary the next day:
“Wherever the English language is spoken the intelligence we publish this morning of the decease of Mr Charles Dickens will be received with feelings of deep regret. Early last night it became known that the distinguished novelist had been seized with paralysis, at his residence, Gad’s Hill, Kent.”
Dickens’s power doesn’t lie just in the particular things he wrote. What’s even more impressive is the bigger idea to which he was loyal all his life: that the task of writing, and art more generally, is to make goodness attractive; to make it easier and bearable for us to learn uncomfortable lessons; and to broaden our sympathies by helping us identify with people whose outwards lives may be unlike ours but whose inner lives are not dissimilar – and through this – to create the cultural foundation for a more humane and happier society.
Gustave Flaubert was a great French 19th-century (1821-1880) novelist who deserves our love and sympathy; as much for what he wrote as who he was.
We can admire him for four reasons at least:
HE UNDERSTOOD THE PURPOSE OF TRAGEDY
Flaubert produced arguably the single greatest tragic novel ever written: Madame Bovary – which he worked on for five years and published in 1857.
The point of a tragedy is to allow us to experience a degree of understanding for others’ failure so much greater than what we ordinarily feel. It shakes us from our customary moralism and brittle superiority. It helps us empathise in the way the modern media usually prevents.
In the summer of 1848, a terse item appeared in many newspapers across Normandy. A twenty-seven year old woman named Delphine Delamare living in Ry just outside Rouen, had become dissatisfied with the routines of married life, had run up huge debts on superfluous clothes and household goods and had committed suicide under emotional and financial pressure. Madame Delamare was leaving behind a young daughter and a distraught husband.
One of those reading the newspaper was a twenty-seven year old aspiring novelist, Gustave Flaubert – who grew so fascinated by the story, he used it to provide him with the exact plot structure for his eventual novel.
One of things that happened when Madame Delamare, the adulteress from Ry, turned into Madame Bovary, the adulteress from fictional Yonville, was that her life ceased to bear the dimensions of a black-and-white morality tale.
Readers saw how easy it is to have a thoroughly miserable marriage without being in any way a bad person. Flaubert’s novel shows us the tensions and travails of married life without taking sides.
Emma gets bored with her husband, loses interests in her child, runs up debts, has affairs – and eventually kills herself. But by the time readers had taken in how she had pushed arsenic into her mouth and been laid down in her bedroom to await her death, they would not be in a mood to judge. All they could feel was pity at the cruelty and senselessness of life.
Flaubert seemed almost deliberately to enjoy unsettling the desire to find easy answers. No sooner had he presented Emma in a positive light, than he would undercut her with an ironic remark. But then, as readers were losing patience with her, he would draw them back to her, would tell them something about her sensitivity that would bring tears to the eyes.
We end Flaubert’s novel with fear and sadness at how we have been made to live before we begin to know how, at how limited our understanding of ourselves and others is, at how great and catastrophic are the consequences of our actions and at how pitiless and vengeful the upstanding members of the community can be in response to our errors.
Tragedy inspires us to abandon ordinary life’s simplified, judgemental perspective on failure and defeat; rendering us generous towards the foolishness and errors that are endemic to our nature.
WHAT WE READ MATTERS
A particular aspect of Madame Bovary’s tragic end sticks out: Flaubert tells us in no uncertain terms that the reason Emma Bovary grew so dissatisfied, unfairly so, with marriage – and therefore embarked on her disastrous affairs – was because of the books she had read.
He tells us that from a young age, Emma used to read Romantic novels that gave her an unrealistic, overly rosy picture of love that left her unprepared for the reality of marriage.
Emma was unprepared for how boring it can be to have dinner with the same person every night and by how difficult it is to keep a relationship alive after one has a baby – and therefore responded with too great a degree of panic, having multiple affairs to remind herself that she was still capable of passion and going shopping for more than she could afford as an alternative to the sometimes tedious business of bringing up a child.
What might ultimately have saved Emma Bovary was to read the novel of which she is the heroine. It’s a novel about love designed to cure us of the naive illusions about love created by bad novels.
THE STUPIDITY OF MODERN MEDIA
Flaubert couldn’t stand newspapers. He belonged to a generation that had experienced the rise of mass-circulation newspapers at first hand and believed that these were spreading a new kind of stupidity – which he termed ‘la bêtise’ (idiocy) – into every corner of France.
Idiocy wasn’t the same as ignorance for Flaubert, because it was compatible with knowing a lot of things – it just meant understanding nothing.
The most loathsome character in Madame Bovary, the pharmacist Homais, is introduced early on as an avid consumer of news who sets aside a special hour every day to study ‘le journal’ (Flaubert keeps the word in italics throughout, to send up the neo-religious reverence in which this object is held).
In the 1870s, Flaubert began keeping a record of what he judged to be the most idiotic patterns of thought promoted by the modern world in general and by the newspapers in particular. Published posthumously as The Dictionary of Received Ideas, this collection of clichés, organised by topic, was described by its author as an encyclopédie de la bêtise humaine (an encyclopedia of human stupidity). Here is a random sampling of its entries:
BUDGET: Never balanced.
CATHOLICISM: Has had a very good influence on art.
CHRISTIANITY: Freed the slaves.
CRUSADES: Benefitted Venetian trade.
DIAMONDS: To think that they’re nothing but coal; if we came across one in its natural state, we wouldn’t even bother to pick it up off the ground!
EXERCISE: Prevents all illnesses. To be recommended at all times.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Will make painting obsolete.
It is worth noting how many of the Dictionary’s clichés touch on sophisticated disciplines such as theology, science and politics, without, however, going anywhere very clever with them
The modern idiot could routinely know what only geniuses had known in the past, and yet he was still an idiot – a depressing combination of traits that previous ages had never had to worry about. The news had, for Flaubert, armed stupidity and given authority to fools.
A HATRED OF THE FRENCH BOURGEOISIE
Flaubert was a bourgeois, a middle class Frenchman, and yet he loathed a great deal to do with his country and class.
For Flaubert, the French bourgeoisie could be a repository of the most extreme prudery, snobbery, smugness, racism and pomposity.
‘It’s strange how the most banal utterances [of the bourgeoisie] sometimes make me marvel,’ he once complained in stifled rage, ‘There are gestures, sounds of people’s voices, that I cannot get over, silly remarks that almost give me vertigo…the bourgeois…is for me something unfathomable.’
He wrote that he had nothing but disdain for this ‘good civilisation’ that prided itself on having produced ‘railways, poisons, cream tarts, royalty and the guillotine.’
What Flaubert hated above all was pomposity. This quote to his girlfriend Louise Colet, written in 1846, gives us an insight: ‘What stops me from taking myself seriously, even though I’m essentially a serious person, is that I find myself extremely ridiculous, not the kind of small-scale ridiculousness of slapstick comedy, but rather a ridiculousness that seems intrinsic to human life and manifests itself in the simplest actions and most ordinary gestures. For example, I can never shave without starting to laugh, it seems so idiotic. All this is very difficult to explain…’
He was in the end a global citizen: ‘I’m no more modern than Ancient, no more French than Chinese, and the idea of a native country, that is to say, the imperative to live on one bit of ground marked red or blue on the map and to hate the other bits in green or black has always seemed to me narrow-minded, blinkered and profoundly stupid. I am a soul brother to everything that lives, to the giraffe and to the crocodile as much as to man.’
In his Dictionary of Received Ideas, there was an entry on: FRENCH – ‘How proud one is to be French when one looks at the Colonne Vendôme’.
Paradoxically, one can be proudest to be French when one reads Flaubert, for aside from hating a lot about his country, he also captures some of its best and wisest sides.
We should read him for his earthiness, his humanity, his frankness and above all else his generosity of spirit.
At the age of 17, Flaubert wrote, in a melodramatic mood, ‘Art is superior to everything, a book of poetry is worth more than a railway.’
It rarely is; but it might almost be worth giving up a railway line or two for the sake of Flaubert’s works.
A good trick, with his name, is to say ‘toy’ in the middle: Dos-toy-ev-ski.
He was born 1821 and grew up on the outskirts of Moscow. His family were comfortably off – his father was a successful doctor, though he happened to work at a charitable hospital that provided medical services for the very poor. The family had a house in the hospital complex, so the young Dostoevsky was from the very beginning powerfully exposed to experiences from which other children of his background were usually carefully sheltered. Like almost everyone in Tsarist Russia his parents were devout Orthodox Christians – and Dostoevsky’s own religious faith got deeper and stronger all his life.
At the age of 12 he was sent away to school first in Moscow and later in the capital, St Petersburg – he got a good education, though as a child of the tiny professional middle-class he felt out of place among his more aristocratic classmates. While he was away at school his father died – possibly murdered by his own serfs.
After graduating Dostoevsky worked as an engineer for a while. He started gambling and losing money (something that was to plague him all his life). In his late twenties he became friends with a group of radical writers and intellectuals. He wasn’t deeply involved but when the government decided to crack down on dissent, Dostoevsky was rounded up too and sentenced to be shot by a firing squad. At the last moment – when the soldiers were ready to fire – the message of a reprieve arrived. He was sent instead to Siberia for four years of forced labour in horrific conditions.
It was only after his return from Siberia that Dostoevsky established himself as a writer. Starting in middle age he produced a series of major books.
1864 – Notes from Underground
1866 – Crime and Punishment
1869 – The Idiot
1872 – Demons
1880 – Brothers Karamazov
They are dark, violent and tragic – and usually very long and complicated. He wrote them to preach five important lessons to the world.
(The discussion of Dostoevsky’s ideas involves revealing the plots of some of his novels. It’s not something that would have worried him because his books are written to be read more than once. But if it bothers you, this is the place to break off.)
1. The value of suffering
His first big book – Notes from Underground – is an extended rant against life and the world delivered by a retired civil servant. He is deeply unreasonable, inconsistent and furious with everyone (including himself); he’s always getting into rows, he goes to a reunion of some former colleagues and tells them all how much he always hated them; he wants to puncture everyone’s illusions and make them as unhappy as he is. He seems like a grotesque character to build a book around. But he’s doing something important. He’s insisting – with a peculiar kind of intensity – on a very strange fact about the human condition: we want happiness but we have a special talent for making ourselves miserable – “Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering: that is a fact,” he asserts.
In the novel, Dostoevsky is taking aim at philosophies of progress and improvement – which were highly popular in his age (as they continue to be in ours). He is attacking our habit of telling ourselves that if only this or that thing were different, we could leave suffering behind. If we got that great job, changed the government, could afford that great house, invented a machine to fly us faster around the world, could get together with (or get divorced from) a particular person, then all would go well. This, Dostoevsky argues, is a delusion. Suffering will always pursue us. Schemes for improving the world always contain a flaw: they won’t eliminate suffering, they will only change the things that cause us pain. Life can only ever be a process of changing the focus of pain, never removing pain itself. There will always be something to agonise us. Stop people starving, says Dostoevsky – with calculated wickedness – and you’ll soon find there’s a new range of agonies: they’ll start to suffer from boredom, greed or intense melancholy that they haven’t been invited to the right party.
In this spirit, Notes from Underground launches an attack on all ideologies of technical or social progress which aspire to the elimination of suffering. They won’t succeed because as soon as they solve one problem, they’ll direct our nature to become unhappy in new ways. Dostoevsky is fascinated by the secret ways we actually don’t want what we theoretically seek: he discusses the pleasure a lot of people get from feelings of superiority (and for whom, consequently, an egalitarian society would be a nightmare); or the disavowed (but real) thrill we get from hearing about violent crimes on the news – in which case we’d actually feel thwarted in a truly peaceful world. Notes from Underground is a dark, awkwardly insightful, counterpoint to well-intentioned modern liberalism.
It doesn’t really show that social improvement is meaningless. But it does remind us that we’ll always carry our very complex and difficult selves with us and that progress will never be as clear and clean as we might like to imagine.
2. We don’t know ourselves
In Crime and Punishment, we meet an impoverished intellectual, Rodion Raskolnikov. Though he’s a currently nobody, he’s fascinated by power and ruthlessness. He thinks of himself as a version of Napoleon: “leaders of men, such as Napoleon, were all without exception criminals, they broke the ancient laws of their people to make new ones that suited them better, and they never feared bloodshed.”
Raskolnikov is also desperate for money and so, with his philosophy of aristocratic superiority in mind, he decides to murder an old woman who is a small time pawn broker and money lender and steal her cash. He’s tormented by the mad injustice of the fact that this horrible, mean old character has drawers full of roubles while he – who is clever, energetic and profound – is starving. (He doesn’t spend much time thinking about options like taking a job as a waiter.) He breaks into her apartment and bludgeons her to death; and – surprised in the act by the woman’s pregnant half-sister – kills her too.
But it turns out he’s nothing like the cold-blooded, rational hero of his imagination. He is tormented by guilt and horror at what he has done. Eventually he turns himself over to the police in order to face the proper punishment for his crime.
We’re (probably) never going to do what Raskolnikov did. But we often share a troubling tendency with him: we think we know ourselves better than we actually do. Raskolnikov thinks he’s ruthless; actually he’s rather tender hearted. He thinks he won’t feel guilt; but he’s overwhelmed by remorse.
Part of our life’s journey is to engage in the tricky task of disentangling ourselves from what we think we’re like – in order to discover our true nature. Raskolnikov is especially fascinating because of the direction this self-discovery takes. His striking realisation is that he’s actually a much nicer person than he takes himself to be.
Whereas so many novelists delight in showing the sickly reality beneath a glamorous or enticing facade, Dostoevsky is embarked on a more curious but rewarding mission: he wants to reveal that beneath the so-called monster, there is very often a far more interesting tender-hearted character lurking: a nice but deluded, intelligent but frightened and panicked person.
3. Nice people do some terrible things
Sticking for the moment with Crime and Punishment, it’s very significant the way Dostoevsky gets us to like his murderous hero. Raskolnikov is clearly an attractive person. At the very start we’re told –
“By the way, Raskolnikov is handsome, above the average in height, slim, well-built, with lovely dark eyes and dark brown hair.”
Dostoevsky is lessening the imaginative distance between ‘us’ who live mainly law abiding and more of less manageable lives and ‘them’ – the ones who do terrible things and wreak havoc with their lives and those of others. That person, he is saying, is more like you than you might initially want to think – and therefore more accessible to sympathy.
The idea that you can be a good person, do something very bad and still deserve some compassion sounds very slight and obvious – until one has need of this kind of forgiveness in one’s own life (you may have to be over 30). This is where Dostoevsky wants to enter our inner conversation with ourselves – and tell us all about his character Raskolnikov – a serious, thoughtful, good-looking man who did worse then we have and still can be compassionately understood, as we can and must all be. This is Dostoevsky’s Christianity at work: no one is outside the circle of God’s love and understanding.
4. We must learn to appreciate the beauty of life
Dostoevsky’s next great book, The Idiot, takes off from his near-death experience before the firing squad. In the novel, he recounts what it was like. Three minutes before his expected death he is able to see life clearly for the first time. He notices the gilded spire of a nearby church, and how it glitters in the sun. He’d never before realised how entrancing a glint of sunlight could be. He is filled with an immense, deep love of the world. You might see a beggar and think how you would love to change places with them so as to be able to continue to breathe the air and feel the wind – merely to exist seems (at that moment of final revelation) infinitely precious. And then the revised order comes and it is not over at all.
What would it be like to go through one’s whole life in such a state of gratitude and generosity? You wouldn’t share any of the normal attitudes. You’d love everyone equally, you’d be enchanted by the simplest things, you’d never feel angry or frightened. You would seem to other people to be a kind of idiot. Hence the title of the book.
It’s an extreme version of a very interesting step. We’re continually surrounded by things which could delight us, if only we saw them the right way, if only we could learn to appreciate them. Dostoevsky was desperate to communicate the value of existence before death would overtake him – and us.
5. Idealism has its limits
In Dostoyevsky’s final great work – Brothers Karamazov, which came out when he was nearly sixty – one of the central characters tells a long story-within-a-story. It’s called The Grand Inquisitor and imagines that the greatest event looked forward to by Christian theology – the second coming of Christ – has in fact already happened. Jesus did come back, several hundred years ago and turned up in Spain, during the highest period of power of the Catholic Church – the organisation established, in theory at least, entirely in devotion to him. Christ is back to fulfil his teachings of forgiveness and universal love. But something odd happens. The most powerful religious leader – the Grand Inquisitor – has him arrested and imprisoned.
In the middle of the night, the Grand Inquisitor visits Christ in his cell and explains that he cannot allow him to do his work on Earth, because he is a threat to the stability of society.
Christ, he says, is too ambitious – too pure, too perfect. Humanity can’t live up to the impossible goals he sets us. The fact is, people haven’t been able to live according to his teachings and Jesus should admit he failed and that his ideas of redemption were essentially misguided.
The Grand Inquisitor is not really a monster. In fact, Dostoevsky portrays him as quite an admirable figure in the story. He is a guide to a crucial idea for Dostoevsky, that human beings cannot live in purity, cannot ever be truly good, cannot live up to Christ’s message – and that this is something we should reconcile ourselves to with grace rather than fury or self-hatred.
We have to accept a great deal of unreasonableness, folly, greed, selfishness and shortsightedness as ineradicable parts of the human condition and plan accordingly. And it’s not just a pessimistic thesis about politics or religion that we’re being introduced to. The primary relevance of this thesis is as a commentary on our own lives: we won’t sort them out, we won’t stop being being a bit mad and wayward. And we shouldn’t torment ourselves with the dream that we could – if only we tried hard enough – become the ideal beings that idealistic philosophies like Christianity like to sketch all too readily.
Dostoyevsky died in 1881. He had a very hard life, but he succeeded in conveying an idea which perhaps he understood more clearly than anyone: in a world that’s very keen on upbeat stories, we will always run up against our limitations as deeply flawed and profoundly muddled creatures. Dostoyevsky’s attitude – bleak but compassionate, tragic but kind – is needed more than ever in our naive and sentimental age that so fervently clings to the idea – which this great Russian loathed – that science can save us all and that we may yet be made perfect through technology. Dostoyevsky guides us to a more humane truth: that – as the great sages have always known – life is and ever will be suffering, and yet that there is great redemption available in articulating this message in great and complex works of art.
Marcel Proust was an early 20th-century French writer responsible for what is officially the longest novel in the world: À la recherche du temps perdu – which has 1,267,069 words in it; double those in War and Peace.
Marcel Proust (seated), with Robert de Flers (left) and Lucien Daudet (right), ca. 1894
The book was published in French in seven volumes over 14 years:
Du côté de chez Swann, 1913
À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1919
Le Côté de Guermantes, 1920
Sodome et Gomorrhe, 1922
La Prisonnière, 1923
Albertine disparue, 1925
Le Temps retrouvé, 1927
It was immediately recognised to be a masterpiece, ranked by many as the greatest novel of the century, or simply of all time.
What makes it so special is that it isn’t just a novel in the straight narrative sense. It is a work that intersperses genius-level descriptions of people and places with a whole philosophy of life.
The clue is in the title:
À la recherche du temps perdu
In Search of Lost Time
The book tells the story of one man – a thinly disguised version of Proust himself – in his developing search for the meaning and purpose of life. It recounts his quest to stop wasting time and start to appreciate existence.
Marcel Proust wanted his book to help us. His father, Adrien Proust, had been one of the great doctors of his age, responsible for wiping out cholera in France. Towards the end of his life, his frail, indolent son Marcel, who had lived on his inheritance and had disappointed his family by never taking up a regular job, told his housekeeper Celeste: ‘If only I could do for humanity as much good with my books as my father did with his work.’ The important news is that he amply succeeded.
Proust’s novel charts the narrator’s systematic exploration of three possible sources of the meaning of life.
The first is: SOCIAL SUCCESS. Proust was born into a comfortable bourgeois household; but from his teens, he began to think that the meaning of life might lie in joining high society, which in his day meant, the world of aristocrats, of dukes, duchesses and princes. We shouldn’t think ourselves superior for having no interest in these types. We’re much more likely to be implicated if we convert this category to its present day equivalent: celebrities and business tycoons.
Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, 1905, who served as the model for the character of the Duchesse de Guermantes
For years, the narrator devotes his energies to working his way up the social hierarchy; and because he’s charming and erudite, he eventually becomes friends with lynchpins of Parisian high society, the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes.
Count Henry Greffulhe, 1881, who served as the model for the Duke of Guermantes
But a troubling realisation soon dawns on him. These people are not the extraordinary paragons he imagined they would be. The Duc’s conversation is boring and crass. The Duchesse, though well mannered, is cruel and vain.
Marcel tires of them and their circle. He realises that virtues and vices are scattered throughout the population without regard to income or renown. He grows free to devote himself to a wider range of people. Though Proust spends many pages lampooning social snobbery, it’s in a spirit of understanding and underlying sympathy. The urge to social climb is a highly natural error, especially when one is young. It is normal to suspect that there might be a class of superior people somewhere out in the world and that our lives might be dull principally because we don’t have the right contacts. But Proust’s novel offers definitive reassurance: life is not going on elsewhere.
The second thing that Proust’s narrator investigates in his quest for the meaning of life is: LOVE.
In the second volume of the novel, the narrator goes off to the seaside with his grandmother, to the vogueish resort of Cabourg (the Barbados of the times).
There he develops an overwhelming crush on a beautiful teenage girl called Albertine. She has short hair, a boyish smile and a charming, casual way of speaking.
For about 300 pages, all the narrator can think about is Albertine. The meaning of life surely must lie in loving her. But with time, here too, there’s disappointment. The moment comes when the narrator is finally allowed to kiss Albertine:
“Man, a creature clearly less rudimentary than the sea-urchin or even the whale, nevertheless lacks a certain number of essential organs, and particularly possesses none that will serve for kissing. For this absent organ he substitutes his lips, and perhaps he thereby achieves a result slightly more satisfying than caressing his beloved with a horny tusk…’
The ultimate promise of love, in Proust’s eyes, is that we can stop being alone and properly fuse our life with that of another person who will understand every part of us. But the novel comes to dark conclusions: no one can fully understand anyone. Loneliness is endemic. We’re awkward, lonely pilgrims trying to give each tusk-kisses in the dark.
This brings us to the third and only successful candidate for the meaning of life: ART
For Proust, the great artists deserve acclaim because they show us the world in a way that is fresh, appreciative, and alive.
Now the opposite of art for Proust is something he calls habit. For Proust, much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters. It dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything, from the beauty of a sunset to our work and our friends.
Children don’t suffer from habit, which is why they get excited by some very key but simple things like puddles, jumping on the bed, sand and fresh bread.
But we adults get ineluctably spoilt; which is why we seek ever more powerful stimulants (like fame and love).
The trick – in Proust’s eyes – is to recover the powers of appreciation of a child in adulthood, to strip the veil of habit and therefore to start to look upon daily life with a new and more grateful sensitivity.
This for Proust is what one group in the population does all the time: artists.
Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory, for example, when they lavish appropriate attention upon water lilies or service stations.
Proust’s goal isn’t that we should necessarily make art or be someone who hangs out in museums. It’s to get us to look at the world, our world, with some of the same generosity as an artist, which would mean taking pleasure in simple things – like water, the sky or a shaft of light on a roughly plastered wall.
It’s no coincidence that Proust’s favourite painter was Vermeer: a painter who knew how to bring out the charm and the value of the everyday.
The spirit of Vermeer hangs over his novel: it too is committed to the project of reconciling us to the ordinary circumstances of life – and some of Proust’s most compelling pieces of writing describe the charm of the everyday: like reading on a train, driving at night, smelling blossom in spring time and looking at the changing light of the sun on the sea.
Proust is famous for having written about the dainty little cakes the French call ‘madeleines’.
The reason has to do with his thesis about art and habit. Early on in the novel, the narrator tells us that he had been feeling depressed and sad for a while when one day he had a cup of herbal tea and a madeleine – and suddenly the taste carried him powerfully back (in the way that flavours sometimes can) to years in his childhood when as a small boy he spent his summers in his aunt’s house in the country. A stream of memories comes back to him, and fills him with hope and gratitude.
Thanks to the madeleine, Proust’s narrator has what has since become known as A PROUSTIAN MOMENT: a moment of sudden involuntary and intense remembering, when the past promptly emerges unbidden from a smell, a taste or a texture.
Through its rich evocative power, what the Proustian moment teaches us is that life isn’t necessarily dull and without excitement – it’s just one forgets to look at it in the right way: we forget what being alive, fully alive, feels like.
The moment with the tea is pivotal in the novel because it demonstrates everything Proust wants to teach us about appreciating life with greater intensity. It helps his narrator to realise that it isn’t his life which has been mediocre, so much as the image of it he possessed in voluntary memory.
“The reason why life may be judged to be trivial although at certain moments it seems to us so beautiful is that we form our judgement, ordinarily, not on the evidence of life itself but of those quite different images which preserve nothing of life – and therefore we judge it disparagingly.”
That’s why artists are so important. Their works are like long Proustian moments. They remind us that life truly is beautiful, fascinating and complex, and thereby they dispel our boredom and ingratitude.
Proust’s philosophy of art is delivered in a book which is itself exemplary of what he’s saying; a work of art that brings the beauty and interest of the world back to life.
Reading it, your senses are reawakened, a thousand things you normally forget to notice are brought to your attention, he makes you for a time, as clever and as sensitive as he was – and for this reason alone, we should be sure to read him and the 1.2 million life-giving words he so deftly assembled.