The reaction to his incident is interesting; and partially revealing. The children though shocked are glad of its consequences – no Ivy. Their nursemaid is indignant, while Mrs Tulloch is angry; but whom do they blame? Isabel believes Chrissie’s family circumstances are the cause. Mrs Tulloch is made of sterner stuff: “when a nature’s bad, bad it is.” It is in the genes, and is the fault of the individual, born with original sin. These are the first reactions. For Ivy’s mother, who doesn’t really know Chrissie, they remain the only ones. Not so with Isabel. Later,
…[she] stood by our bedroom window, fingering the curtain, looking out over the garden, arrested in an unfamiliar pose, a quietness that suggested brooding, almost dejection. From this window, the chimney of Wyatt’s cottage was just visible between the poplars. Flat on our pillows, we watched her. Suddenly we heard her say quietly: “It was jealousy.” She was speaking to herself. Then: “Poor little beggar.” She heaved a deep sigh, shook her head. “Ah well, what you can’t cure, you’d best let alone.”
The incident took place not long after Sylvia, the socially conscious sister, had invited the Wyatt children to tea. During the visit Chrissie had snuggled up to Isabel, obviously desperate for any kind of affection. It awakened a response in the nursemaid, who hadn’t wanted the Wyatts in the house. They were poor, and thus disreputable, and so a source of potential trouble, she believed. But Isabel is only a servant and has little power; and is defeated by the guile of Sylvia, the absence of their mother, and the liberal aloofness of their kind but detached father. The Wyatts will come to tea! And they do….
Their presence creates, however tenuous, an intimate connection between Isabel and Chrissie which affects her response to this incident; a response we see develop in two stages: the first meeting with Mrs Tulloch, where the women share the same moral indignation; and the later one, when her initial reaction is transformed completely by confused feelings of sympathy, and the genuine understanding which such sympathy can engender. If Chrissie had never visited the house, Isabel’s only response would have been that first dispassionate one; a few words spoken to confirm the obvious; like saying “that is an oak tree” when passing one in the field: the phrase merely a label to confirm an immediate experience. Her words ephemeral and forgettable; simply part of an insignificant conversation about a trivial event; the absolute minimum of attention paid to it, relative to its importance (for even insignificance can be graded; some events not even meriting a shrug).
In such cases the culprit is treated solely as an object, the only interest generated by Isabel’s own vague feelings of dislike and unease, which are often associated with specific events or things; such as forests with fear and madness with wariness; or in this case unpredictability with the desperately poor; an association the incident appears to confirm; and absolutely. But later, in that bedroom, Isabel is overcome by the emotional attachment that now exists between them, transforming the bad Wyatt children, a symbol for the undeserving poor, into the specificity of an individual, into Chrissie. Through her emotions the young girl has entered into Isabel’s being (she swims around inside her!) turning an object into a subject, a generalised beast into a particular human. And this imaginative sympathy, this absorption of another person into our senses, is the first precondition for thought, and genuine understanding.
Immediately the complexities begin.
Humans are porous. They are adaptable, liable to change and growth, and to the influence of outside forces. So much can affect them, as they in turn can affect it: the simple boundaries of an object vanishes when it is transformed into a living thing; when a Poor Child is turned into Chrissie Wyatt. Suddenly she is embedded within Isabel’s being; is part of her local “environment”, a flower planted inside her mentality, which she will now change and change again as her influence grows: as the images she generates are absorbed into the nursemaid’s emotions and thoughts. The girl’s actions have become entangled with Isabel’s own personality, binding them both together; so that the meaning of the original incident becomes unstable. No longer the simple idea - she is a poor child and this is what poor children do –; there is now the complex thought expanding deep into Chrissie’s existence; as Isabel tries to understand her pain, explain its causes, and justify her actions: in part she is attempting to see the child from the inside (the shutters are up and she is peering through the windows), but more importantly she is seeing (feeling is a better word) Chrissie from within her own being (they are cuddled up together in the same room). The fluidity of creative thinking has replaced the received idea; and real understanding emerges.
A further connection develops through Isabel’s own loneliness; so musing on her animal desire to be held and wanted she can feel Chrissie's desperate needs, her wish to belong; for they are what she herself lacks: the comfort of another person’s emotional warmth.
Chrissie has been transformed into a human being; and the incident shifts from being a simple morality tale into a complex short story, involving many concrete variables: her person, her background, the recent tea party; and Isabel’s own personality – her feelings of loss, of sympathy and of pity. None of which can be isolated when Isabel now thinks about what has happened. Before the visit Chrissie was a symbol of a general idea; and this event would simply have been a confirmation of it.[ii] Such a view has become too simple now that Isabel has held and comforted her. There are so many things to think about! It is all so involved, and for a moment such insight overwhelms Isabel, as we see, I think, above. Her feelings have created an organic whole, fusing Chrissie’s actions with her Isabel’s own character, and with their lives inside the community; none of which can be separated out.[iii] Before Isabel was merely a spectator at the Wyatt drama, now she’s improvising on stage with them, and can both imagine and feel what Chrissie must be experiencing (she is recognising some of the child in herself). Immersed in this feeling suddenly it all comes together, and she recognises a new truth: “it was jealousy.”[iv] It saddens her. And she cannot articulate precisely what she feels; and so she returns to an old formula, but one which is richer, full of individual meaning; for Isabel now has a sense of the particular reality of this event and the person who did it. So that a second hand idea, a mere truism, which she applies to Chrissie’s actions, has been turned into real experience, which in turn replaces mere opinion with knowledge, however poor and inadequate.
The difference between Isabel’s initial reaction to Mrs Tulloch and her later reflections also suggests something about the nature of language. No thought seems to have gone into this conversation; the words are merely reflexive; as if they have no connection with the thinking mind (seen working later in the children’s bedroom). In the first scene Isabel is only talking; and mostly in response to the other person. That is, there appears to be something about the conversation that exists independently of her cognisant mind. Here the words are more akin to gesture than thought; like raising a hand to deflect a blow; or screaming when in pain. It’s as if talk proceeds without us, once the first impulse is triggered, just like walking: after the initial decision to go out we no longer think about each individual step. The same sort of process seems to be happening here: Isabel’s words an instinctive reaction to Mrs Tulloch’s; the conversation an unthinking reflex to an event which, through habit and custom, is understood as self-evident: a bad person does bad things, like a hot kettle scalds. Chrissie’s lie is thus fitted into a mental pattern that already exists, and which calls up a simple generalisation that neither woman has to think about. Language, it seems, is a reflex, and in conversation with other people it reflexively responds to the situation, requiring the absolute minimum of thought – enough to bring up those habitual mental patterns absorbed by our previous responses and framed by the linguistic climate in which a person lives; and which are usually adequate for daily living.[v] But when Isabel is alone something different happens – she thinks.[vi] In this scene she seems to be groping at language; her thoughts trying to connect with her feelings, which she then tries to articulate; a process that gives her words a profundity they had previously lacked.[vii]
If this is an accurate description of this scene the theory that the essence of language is communication becomes doubtful. For here language is doing two separate things. In ordinary conversation it confirms an existing picture, usually instinctively; just as we close a door because it is open or zip up a coat because it is cold: it is something we are conditioned to do and we do it reflexively. There is a mental element to the process; but language here is very much concerned with the external environment; it is about fixing our place inside it; either physically, by making us comfortable with other humans, or mentally, by locating us in a fixed, and commonly understood, that is, shared, mental pattern. This is the social part of language, and is generally used to adapt ourselves to human society – to make us fit in.[viii] Fortunately, we don’t have to think too much about it; these verbal occurrences are almost automatic. This, perhaps, was the truth of behaviourism: a significant part of our language is excessively influenced by the surrounding environment; although the discipline’s tests and assumptions were just a little too crude and ill-conceived: even the social use of language is richer than simple stimulus and response.[ix]
When Isabel is alone the process seems to slow down; her words articulating thoughts that arise from both her emotions and her unconscious,[x]and which are completely outside of her ordinary language use. Rather than simply using language she is now straining to fit it onto her thoughts. Trying to say something she intuitively knows but cannot quite elucidate…[xi] It is like matching different colour combinations of skirt and blouse – she may “feel” when they are right but she will not be able to precisely articulate that feeling.[xii] At this interface, between the emotions, the conscious mind, and language, the latter begins to break down, as it tries both to capture and simplify those evanescent thoughts (arising out of the senses and the emotions, and the subconscious).[xiii] It is the moment we realise the inadequacy of our sentences and paragraphs; and when language takes on a different role: that of creator or explorer; a hard and often unsuccessful task - that final sigh, and the old cliché, at the end.
Thinking makes us all human. Talking reduces anyone else to objects. And this appears related to a strange aspect of language that a number of thinkers have noted: every sentence requires a generalization – except for proper names all nouns and verbs are universals.[xiv] Our very speech turns the world into objects; yet thought can return them to their particularity; bring them back to the natural world.[xv] It is through thought (and physical contact) that Chrissie can be made into a human being.[xvi] This suggests something else about language: its tendency to fix things into a static pattern, which may account for that instinctive retrieval: it is easier to remember facts than explicate causes; while it is almost impossible to re-experience one’s feelings once they have gone.[xvii] Communication, which requires the rapid use of language is, it appears, connected to memory; and its efficient recall. Which may explain why talk both confirms the obvious and facilitates the spread of ideas:[xviii] it is recalling an already existing matrix that confirms habit and custom;[xix] thus Mrs Tulloch’s reflexive ability to dismiss what is new and odd. Language is gesture; and like the rest of our senses has to respond automatically to stimuli – which in this case are mostly other people’s words. One consequence is that language can prevent us from thinking; although it helps spread civilisation; defined as conformity to agreed standards.[xx]
Let us return to the scene at Rebecca’s window. What do we think was running through Isabel’s mind as she stared out into the night at the Wyatt’s cottage?
Is she remembering Chrissie, comfortable on her lap; like some household pet? Or is she recalling her own contempt for the Wyatt family? Is there some guilt mixed in amongst these reflections? Perhaps she is thinking of her employers; about how they put Chrissie into a false position, by inviting the Wyatt children to their house. After all, she believes that the classes should be kept apart. By bringing them together her forebodings have been realised. Maybe this is what she is thinking: that a situation was created where something bad had to happen; Sylvia creating the grounds for jealousy, where previously they didn’t exist.[xxi] They have played with fate, and someone has paid the penalty – the person least able to afford it. Are these the thoughts she sees on the window pane….
Yet Chrissie has done exactly what Rebecca and her siblings desired. Shouldn’t this make us just a little suspicious? Was it accident or design? Was it jealousy purely distilled, or had Chrissie caught a whiff of their dislike, and took it up and… told Ivy Tulloch the truth that she wasn’t wanted…
Chaotically, the facts emerged. Stunned, we pieced them together. They were these. Little Ivy, dressed in her best and feeling a wee bit shy, bless her, but innocently trusting to be met as arranged by Isabel at the back door, had come tripping across the fields at the appointed time. But at the turn of the lane, who should be lurking in wait, pressed up against a small wooden side door in our garden wall – who but Chrissie? And then what happened? Chrissie Wyatt had the downright demon wickedness to declare to Ivy she wasn’t wanted inside, that she, Chrissie, had been specially posted there by us to tell her so; that it was horrible, awful in there anyway, a kind of torture chamber: nobody was allowed to talk, not even to smile at the tea-table; and Ivy had best run along home quick before anybody appeared to beckon her within. So what was left for Ivy but to hurry back home to her Mummy, frightened out of her little wits, sobbing her heart out?
Notice the language. Rebecca has reconstructed the incident through the words of Ivy and Mrs Tulloch (and possibly Isabel). The result is that much of the description is weighted with moral condemnation; we can even hear it in this somewhat ironical account; which differs from the narrator’s normal, rather cool and detached, voice.
The later incident with the gypsy’s baby, where Chrissie was again caught lying, makes us return to this description. How true is it? How much have Ivy, Mrs Tulloch and Isabel put themselves into it, and so distorted the original scene? Chrissie’s opinion of the dinner is not that far from Rebecca’s description: at the time the Wyatt children looked very uncomfortable when in the house. We could easily imagine them believing the whole experience a kind of hell. This complicates matters, for it suggests another motive for Chrissie actions: she may have been trying to protect Ivy from what she regarded as something unpleasant. Isabel, when she reflects on those moments of affection, is convinced the cause is jealousy – because it’s her strongest impression of the day. But it doesn’t follow that Chrissie shares this view. Along with her brothers and sisters, and perhaps influenced by them, it is possible she really hated the party and it is this feeling she remembers above all else; she may not even connect Isabel with the visit; assuming she remembers her. This seems more likely. We have been led astray by the nursemaid’s egoism – we are only seeing it from her perspective. Was it pure chance that Chrissie was standing by the gate at this particular time; or did she know that Ivy was going to be there? The probability is that she intended to waylay her. She must have heard the children talking about Ivy. If so, it is inconceivable that she would not have gathered something of their views. She had experienced a few hours of hell and now another innocent was going to be put through the same experience… Was Chrissie trying to help Ivy? Was she trying to warn her? Did she think Rebecca and her sisters were malicious kids who purposively invited guests to mentally torture them? Isn’t this quite possible….[xxii]
Of course, the outright lie – they posted me here to tell you to go away - demolishes all of these speculations. It is the most shocking part of the story. But is that accusation true? Think about it.
Later we hear that Chrissie’s story of finding a dead baby at the gypsy’s abandoned site is a lie. But for a while everyone believed it, indeed Isabel and the nurse wanted to believe the story was true: at last the neighbourhood has a real horror show to get excited about. Moreover it was a story that usefully confirmed old prejudices about an outcast social group. They could be horrified and they could exercise their moral condemnation. The best kind of entertainment.
Chrissie’s earlier behaviour also provides the opportunity for drama and the confirmation of prejudices. Unlike the later one about the gypsies this story is not completely made up; however, there is something about it that doesn’t ring true. The tone of the piece, so different from the rest of the narration, is very arch, making the episode sound like a classic fairy story about evil and innocence. Why? Is Rebecca trying to distance herself from what happened? Does she feel guilty about what Chrissie did?
And how much has Ivy herself made up? Was Chrissie’s description of the party an excuse for her to quit the manor house? Because in her heart she did not want to go; for she knew the sisters didn’t like her. And of course she didn’t like them. She was right on time. Doesn’t that sound more like an appointment than a meeting of friends; which of course it was, organised by Mrs Tulloch and Isabel – trying to force a friendship, where one didn’t exist. Wouldn’t Ivy rather be at home playing with her pet rabbit? What if someone gave you an excuse to do just that; and to avoid all that unpleasantness? All you would need to do is to invent one small detail, “they told me to tell you not to come”, and you have the perfect reason to return home. It is the only phrase that will suffice. Emotionally that is exactly what you’d like them to say; for now Ivy can tell her mother that it is their fault I didn’t go. Of course, no-one would ever believe Chrissie – you’d expect someone like that to be nasty.
Also, think about how two children, who hardly know each other, might interact: there would be some wariness, some bravado, some kindliness and also some banter; even some verbal aggression, if they don’t take to each other; as these two probably didn’t. Out of that mix a confused resolution could naturally emerge, where descriptions about the horridness of the party become accounts of how horrid the rich sisters actually are; exemplified by their request that I tell you not to come to their house. A lie has popped out under pressure of the conversation, but it is a falsehood that reflects a real truth, both about their own feelings, and the atmosphere inside the house. That is, when quoted out of context what Chrissie said is a lie, but when put back within the texture of their conversation her words becomes true. Is this plausible? I think it is.
I think it is?
Exactly! Because Chrissie, like the Gypsies, is an outcast, a blank page on which any story can be written, providing it accords with current prejudices, people can believe anything of her; and language, as we have seen, facilitates this; for it doesn’t need, in fact it hinders, thought. Instead, with the pattern already created, Chrissie is poor thus bad, the story is simply retailed as self-evident truth. Gossip triumphs, and Chrissie is condemned, and the facts are left un-investigated; so that even someone like Isabel who is sympathetic believes the original story. The ugliness of language?
It is the same when the story of the dead baby first appears. No one has any doubts that it is true: such inhumanity is common to the Gypsies, who are not proper humans like us. The instinctive reaction is to then heighten the effects, the imagination exaggerating each retelling: never do we simply retail an anecdote, our excitement is too much for that, it creates when it retells.[xxiii] Very quickly an extraordinary fantasy has come into existence; the community having constructed a gothic ruin, made entirely of words, where they can go to enjoy themselves. What this story captures is how remarkably simple this process is. Take the following exchange:
“Ah, there’s more in it than meets the eye.”
“Mark my words,” said Isabel. “It’s that man. You know the one – the older one with the nasty expression of face. I always did think he looked the part.”
“If you ask me,” said the Nurse, “they’re all in it. The shock for that little mite! – I can’t get her off my mind…”
Notice the clichés, which makes the communication even easier – absolutely no thought is needed to understand what is being said. And notice how confident they are about what has happened, their absolute certainty over the details; which they are creating as they converse. Of course the two are linked: such certainty can exist only in our own minds; bring in actual facts from the real world and they mess up any self-created picture.
When the truth is revealed the reaction is swift. Chrissie is humiliated by the authorities, and abused by the whole village. Her behaviour confirming that is she rotten all the way through.
But exactly what did she do? This is not so clear. She admits she made the story up, but cannot say why she did so; which seems right: there are no reasons for many of the things we do; creation itself is a form of organic growth and has no cause beyond its own natural expansion; which is often difficult for the layman to understand. Also, have you noticed how people always want to give reasons for behaviour which often seems instinctive or unconscious?[xxiv] Always there is a need to label what others do or say, for we need the certainty of language; it anchors us to the world. Thought, on the other hand, undermines our security, and sets our reasoning afloat.[xxv] It is the reason people fear it.
What did Chrissie actually do? Infected by the prevailing opinion of the gypsies she made up a story to confirm it; like some hack writer writing a column to expose our enemies as evil. She is a child and is probably just copying what the adults say; although embellishing it with one awful detail; of the kind kids love to hear – most want to be scared by a little bit of horror. When she first went to the quarry pit it is possible Chrissie thought she saw a baby, and running away in fright elaborated the story to the other village children. Or perhaps that baby emerged in conversation between them. Imagine this… You go to the quarry, and you find nothing there; and yet the Gypsies have only just left. Now, a little later, your friends ask where you’ve been, and when you tell them, they expect you to talk about something fantastic and wild; and yet you saw nothing special. Wouldn’t there be pressure to make something up, to save face? They might not even believe you if you say you saw nothing… And thus the story starts.
The fault is really with the parents, for believing the fairy tale – they should have investigated it first. That is, they should have stopped talking and thought more. They are too lazy for that!
Chrissie must be punished for the community’s own prejudices and stupidity, and the guilt these arouse when exposed. When the story is revealed to be a fake all the gossipmongers are made to look foolish and narrow-minded, and so protect itself from its own self-knowledge the village must excommunicate the outcast child. She is poor and alone, helpless before the majority, and must, therefore, take on all of the community’s guilt. Only thought could save her; but society is built on its suppression; for it needs certainty and security, it needs words that everyone can easily understand; not those about which it must find and ponder.[xxvi]
[i] The story is told in the first person, and we get to know the narrator’s name almost by accident – when her father calls her to come for a walk, with her brother and the dog. It’s a nice narrative touch.
[ii] Note how that general idea fuses a fact with a moral value: they cannot be simply poor; it must also be a sign of their own (moral) failure. There is something about these value judgements which suggests they are reflexive. We seem do them automatically, and without conscious thought.
In order to separate a fact from a value you have to really think about them, and consciously pull them apart. One of the interesting characteristics about 20th century British philosophy was its obsession with the fact/value split: most philosophers were very careful not to mix what they regarded as these two very different things. However, the most obvious and interesting question is not that you can rationally separately a fact from a value, but why our natural propensity is to couple them together. For doesn’t this say something particular about the mind? That this lack of separation in our normal thinking is evidence that facts are tinged with the mind’s workings, which tends towards binary responses – the mind likes or doesn’t like your contention that Lenin was a bad man? And this mental processing is closely related to our senses, so that both our language and our emotions form part of our conscious appreciation of a fact; giving it value? This was surely the basis of Hume’s thinking on morality: fundamentally it is related to pleasure and pain – it is the judgement of our senses.
Mary Midgley explores this issue in a brilliant discussion of G.E. Moore and his influence on professional philosophers in Wisdom, Information & Wonder. Her argument is that Moore’s naturalistic fallacy was very useful to a growing profession of technical experts who wanted to treat philosophy as a scientific discipline, free of all the mucky and ambiguous stuff of normal human interactions. Thus ethical philosophy became an exercise of virtuoso rational technique rather than a study of actual morality. She quotes a revealing passage from C.L. Stevenson (from his book Ethics and Language):
“One would not expect a book on scientific method to do the work of science itself, and one must not expect to find here any conclusions about what conduct is right or wrong. The purpose of the analytical study, whether of science or ethics, is always indirect. It hopes to send others to their tasks with clearer heads and less wasteful habits of investigation…. In ethics, any direct enquiry of this kind might have its dangers. It might deprive the analysis of its detachment, and distort a relatively neutral study into a plea for some special code of morals… The present volume has the limited task of sharpening the tools which others employ.” (My emphasis)
In its own way this is brilliant: the professor is scared of directly getting involved with ethics in case he catches its disease; and infected actually gives (his own subjective) values to his inquiry. He wants to be a scientist not a human being.
One of the curious elements to Bryan Magee’s collection of interviews, Modern British Philosophy, is the number of professional philosophers who said that the state of ethical philosophy was poor. No wonder! Their profession was dealing with a topic that didn’t exist – they had replaced it by their own “scientific” method.
And this tendency, to concentrate on the method, seems have to been widespread in the humanities, particularly during the middle of the last century: even in film criticism emphasis tended to be on the methods of production. The major critics arguing that the essence of the movies was the perspectives produced by the technical functions unique to the industry – editing or the framing of an image, for example (V.F. Perkin, Film as Film)
Curiously, although these approaches are influenced by science the working scientist appears not to be obsessed by their methodology. They are more interested in the subject itself, which they explore through technique, feel and intuition. Chomsky has strongly argued that the practice of science is a craft; while there is a good discussion of the actual working methods of the scientist in Peter Medawar’s The Limits of Science. The social sciences and some of the humanities seem to have taken one aspect of science, its tidying up bureaucratic side, and idealised it; replicating it onto their own subject areas. The reasons for this given by Midgley above; although there is also a deeper cause: the less creative academics have been overly determined by the bureaucratic nature of the academy in which they work (for related discussion see my Russian Climate).
[iv] This is a brilliant example of David Hume’s theory of knowledge – any new insight comes from the senses.
[v] This may partly explain why we get angry when a person disagrees with us about an idea we assume is obvious. Suddenly we have to think about a thing we usually ignore, and a different part of our mind has to come into operation. Now we have to expend energy and consciously think about some point to which we would normally pay little attention. Something simple has suddenly become a problem. Our interlocutor has disturbed our habitual comfort, our natural laziness, and suddenly we have to work. This releases both energy and resentment… Driving down the A34 our car has a puncture. How annoying! With a big sigh we get out and try to repair it...
[vi] And notice Lehmann’s very close observation here: there is something passive about Isabel’s disposition, which, I think, is related to our deepest thinking: we have to receive it from inside our body, which means tuning other parts of it down – such as our external senses. (I am currently writing a piece where I explore this in more detail.)
[vii] Hume’s theory about impressions can help us. When we experience another person their presence impresses itself upon us, both mentally and physically. Out of that impression, Hume argued, comes the ideas on which our understanding is based; and which can be used to construct our theories by employing abstract reason. I think this is true. I also think the purely physical element to this sense data is greater than Hume thought: most of that impression is probably purely physical. And through a process we still do not understand its effects on the body provides us with intuitive knowledge, which remains unknown until we grope after it with the aid of our language faculty. Here is Hume:
“All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSONS and IDEAS. The difference betwixt these consists in the degrees of force and liveliness, with which they strike upon the mind, and make their way into our thought or consciousness. Those perceptions, which enter with most force and violence, we may name impressions; and under this name I comprehend all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul. By ideas I mean the faint images of these in thinking and reasoning; such as, for instance, are all the perceptions excited by the present discourse, excepting only, those which arise from the sight and touch, excepting the immediate pleasure or uneasiness it may occasion.” (A Treatise of Human Nature)
Those “faint images” suggest we are conscious of these impressions. For many (most?) of them I don’t believe we are, thus my argument for this process being much more physical, much more unconscious, than Hume will perhaps allow – there should be no “exceptions” (of sight, of touch and of pleasure) at all. (For more discussion on Hume and impressions see my Bashing Brodsky III)
[viii] We have a general tendency to be comfortable in our environment. For most people that will be mean accepting the simple compromises, of work, home and public space. There are some, though, who only feel comfortable when they control their local environment, and thus try to make others fit into the patterns they create.
[xi] Chomsky has forcibly argued that language isn’t communication. It is simply an expression of thought. Something else must happen to it, at the interface with the other cognitive faculties (or “mental organs”), for it to become a means of communication; the latter residing not in the language faculty itself but the faculty of external verbalisation, or possibly the interface between them.
See his On Language for a relatively early development of these ideas. In his later work he seems to be arguing that thought exists in sorts of amorphous cloud clusters until it is captured (or “merged”) by the language organ; a process that turns thought into sentences by the simplest, most minimal, of structural means – his now revised and simplified Universal Grammar. This closely resembles the double aspect theory of Spinoza, which is fundamental to Schopenhauer’s work: an empirically unknowable metaphysical world without time, space or causality that is the other side of the phenomenal world; and is somehow translated into it. See Bryan Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer.
[xii] No phrase will describe the actual physical texture of the feeling; which can only be evoked by the highly skilled use of words: by poets and writers who can create powerful analogies which produce the corresponding emotions. Marcel Proust’s The Search for Lost Time is both an extended treatise and an example of this idea.
[xiii] That layer of semi-conscious thought that seems to float in the mind, and is separate from our emotions; and out of which non-articulated thoughts slowly taken on shape and form and come into language – if we are mentally attuned to them.
[xv] See Antonin Artaud’s extended attack on language in The Theatre and Its Double. In many ways this is the most extreme version of the modernist impulse to downgrade language, believed to form part of the problem of representation; that turning of organic life in simple intellectual formulas and aesthetic conventions, which rather than elucidating reality repressed it. Artaud wanted to bring out the primal beast in man: the natural forces that underlay his personality; which he believed could be achieved by a theatre of primarily gesture and dance; drama turned into music. Artaud is an extremely interesting figure for his writing, at its best, often feels like the creative impulse itself; and this, I am sure, is the meaning (and lasting power) of his critical work. Himself full of the creative spirit he wanted the theatre to be an arena of perpetual creation, its natural forces constantly alive; and not weakened by conventions and other reflexive habits. An impossibility! However, he recognised the generalising, uncreative aspect of language and attacked it vigorously as the enemy; advocating a theatre that was both more particular and more amorphous; something highly stylized yet indeterminate. It would be a theatre you would feel rather than think about.
See Antonin Artaud, The Complete Works Volume 4. See also The Theory of the Modern Stage, edited by Eric Bentley, which puts these ideas in context: Artaud was an extreme but nevertheless conventional exponent of the received modernist wisdom; which reacted against the rationalist and commercialist pressures on art, which preferred the clichés of entertainment to real aesthetic enlightenment. There is an extraordinary essay in the book by Arnold Hauser, which puts these ideas in an essentially Marxist perspective. Remove the Marxism, and replace the class war with a conflict between art and commerce, and we begin, I believe, to have an understanding of late 19th century modernism.
[xvi] I have further discussion of this in a forthcoming post.
[xvii] This is one of the central preoccupations of Proust. Literature for him offered a solution: by recreating the past in art, which then generates an analogous response. Stanislavski appears to have believed something similar. Describing the importance of the actor’s imagination, which must call up a continuous series of images, like a film in the cinema, David Magarschack summarises his views thus:
“These visual images create in him a corresponding mood which will influence his spirit and arouse in him a corresponding inner feeling.” (The Theory of the Modern Stage)
[xviii] After their initial creation, by a Freud or a Marx, the ideas tend to be memorized, copied and distributed amongst the acolytes. They are rarely used as the material for new creation; until another “big figure” in the movement arrives, an Adler or Lukács, who develops a new theory consistent with the works of the original genius.
This may go some way to explaining the fanaticism of followers: their ideas are like possessions which they try to stop others from stealing. Thus when criticised, rather than engage in open dialogue with their opponents they shout them down, or try to destroy them (by calling them a class enemy or repressed). They act like a scared householder repulsing a burglar. A creative thinker would use an opponent’s ideas to develop their own: only rejecting that with which they disagree or find wrong. In contrast a disciple hoards what they have got, and denying errors and contradictions will allow no diminution of the theory's original purity
It may also account for why there are more disciples than thinkers: the natural urge is to make the least effort, and thus the preference to copy rather than create. See my In Pieces for Hume’s reflections on our human propensity to laziness. Chomsky’s ideas on computational efficiency, the mind will find the simplest means of performing a function, is suggestive: its implication is that our actions do indeed gravitate towards minimum effort. However, Chomsky, Hume and Russell do not argue this is the only tendency in human thought; which clearly it isn’t.
[xix] This wonderfully captured by Carl. L. Becker:
“Very few people read Newton,” Voltaire explained, “because it is necessary to be learned to understand him. But everybody talks about him.”…[for they wanted a philosophy to confirm their pre-conceptions; one which w]ith eyes uplifted, contemplating and admiring so excellent a system [they could fulfil t]he desire to correspond with the general harmony [that] springs perennial to the human breast.” (The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers)
Thought is turned into language, which confirms a pre-existing pattern of ideas. Effectively this is the thesis of this famous book; although Becker doesn’t put it like that (he is keen to show just how much of the old Christianity was carried over into the philosophes’ thinking). The philosophes were actually propagandists for the enlightenment; rather than its true originators: Galileo, Newton, and all the 17th century scientists, together with Locke, their great systematizer, produced their major ideas for them. Paul Hazard’s important book The European Mind 1680-1715 argues that the main intellectual shift had taken place before 1716.
[xxi] We could go deeper: there is her resentment at being overruled, and anger at the disregard of her superior knowledge – closer to the world of the Wyatt family, Isabel knows more about them than Sylvia.
Isabel has superior knowledge? Surely Sylvia has that… No, there is a different kind, not articulated via rational intelligence, but embedded in culture and feeling, something of which is captured in this exchange from Dostoevsky’s story, White Nights:
“…’although I’ve never acted as an adviser before, let alone an intelligent one, I can see now that if we are to live like this always, that would be a most intelligent thing to do, and we will give one another lots and lots of intelligent advice! Now, my pretty Nastenka, what advice do you need then? Tell me straight out; I’m in such a good mood, happy, brave, and clever, I’ll have lots to say.’
‘No, no!’ Nastenka interposed, laughing. ‘It’s not one bit of sound advice, I need. What I need is warm, human advice as if you had loved me all your life!” (My italics)
The rational intelligence is a weak and dry affair; and often wrong when it comes to understanding people – for it abstracts and generalizes too much (it is too simple); and cannot emotionally grasp how the other person feels in all their individual complexity. Warm human advice, on the contrary, captures what cannot be articulated, at least in ordinary conversation; that is the essence of the person we are with.
[xxiv] It was this position, I think, that Gilbert Ryle was attacking in his The Concept of Mind. The idea that every action is consciously thought out before it takes place. The implication of this kind of thinking is that there has to be a motive for everything we do. Sometimes there is; but mostly there is not. Ryle’s mistake was to confuse this common sense understanding of the mind with its real workings. Able to show the common view wrong he thought he had got rid of the mind completely. Fortunately it still exists; and is infinitely more complicated than Ryle could possibly imagine (for further discussion see footnote ii of Dusty Answer).
[xxv] Another reason why people with different ideas are often hated: it undermines our own certainty (that is, our sense of security) and it forces us to think; the latter a seemingly unnatural activity. For more discussion see my comments on John Locke in Dropout Boogie.
[xxvi] For further comment see my Poor Choices; which deals with the class assumptions of the heroine.