The imponderable bloom of life and relationships

This is my review of At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell.

I read this popular philosophy in search of enlightenment on a fundamental but elusive theme: “the nature of being”.

Sarah Bakewell is strong on anecdotal biography, linked to a vivid sense of time and place. Sartre with his “down-turned grouper lips.. and eyes pointing in different directions..but if you forced yourself to stick with the left eye, you would invariably find it watching you with warm intelligence”. When held as a POW by the Germans, “his eyes gave him his escape route”, in the improbable form of a medical pass to leave the camp for treatment. Yet he missed the comradeship of being forced into close quarters with other prisoners. It filled him with fear to enter a Parisian café to observe “the few drinkers… more distant than the stars…each entitled to a huge section of bench…these men shimmering… within their tubes of rarefied light seem inaccessible to me”. Then he enraged his soul-mate Simone de Beauvoir by criticising her for having given in to the practicalities of life under Occupation, by buying tea on the black market, and signing a paper to certify that “she was not a Jew or a Freemason”.

I liked the illustrations which, being untitled, are open to one’s own interpretation: the influential Heidegger and Husserl, his former mentor and the “father of phenomenology” (definable as “the ways we experience things”), standing on a sunny slope against a background of wooded hills. Are the two men arguing over their different viewpoints, or exchanging polite banalities to mask how far they have grown apart?

The author ends the first chapter with useful if partial definitions of what existentialists do, in their concern with “individual, concrete human existence”. Individuals are responsible for all their actions, in a world where, as Sartre realised to his initial horror, everything is “contingent” and “it could all have happened a different way”, if individuals had taken alternative courses of action.

The author sheds light on some difficult ideas like Sartre’s “specific nothingness” with the example that when one has made an appointment in a café to meet a friend, the most important factor is the absence of that person. She is good on analysing the importance of Simone de Beauvoir’s arguably undervalued “The Second Sex” and the theories of the polymath philosopher-cum-psychologist Merleau-Ponty, also underestimated. His ideas may seem more accessible than most since they are underpinned with a scientific knowledge of neurology. It is easy to relate with a sense of relief to his views that an understanding of child psychology is essential to sound philosophy, that we need to study perception scientifically to make sense of the connection between our consciousness and the world around us. We have to connect socially with other people to exist in a meaningful way ourselves, rather than speculate about the reality of existence external to our own, as many philosophers have done.

Sarah Bakewell refers frequently to the opaqueness, and radical shifts in thinking of Sartre, Heidegger and Levinas. Sometimes, this seems like an excuse for the inability to present a coherent explanation of the essence of their ideas. With what often seems like the prime aim of entertaining us, complex theories are fragmented into bite-sized chunks, with explanations descending into a kind of woolly gimmickry which falls apart under close scrutiny: “If you had to sum up Heidegger’s opening sally in ‘Being and Time’ in one word, that word might be ‘wow!’..As a fresh starting point for philosophy, this ‘wow!’ is itself a kind of Big Bang. It’s also a big snub for Husserl… and his followers…..They have forgotten the brute reality on which all of us ought to be constantly stubbing our toes….Wake up, phenomenologists! Remember being – out there, in here, under you, above you, pressing in on you. Remember the things themselves, and remember your own being!”

Although I found parts of this book very interesting and felt the need to reread it, I also doubted whether this would actually add to my understanding. Apart from the fact that a chapter or two pulling together the essential theories would have been useful, I cannot escape the sense that much of the philosophy covered is highly arbitrary and subjective. It may appeal to one’s emotions, like Heidegger’s “notions of humans as a clearing into which Being emerges into the light”, but such ideas merge into each other in a muddled morass.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

“Obstinate questionings of sense and outward things”

This is my review of Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time by A S Byatt.

Daily life, the structure of society, political views, education and childhood, the literary world and the landscape: these themed chapters explore the response of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the two pioneers of the Romantic Movement, to the unsettled period in which they lived with the fear of political revolution and disruption of industrial development.

The introduction supplies some very astute analysis of the marked differences between their personalities: “Wordsworth, in his innermost self, proud, solitary, courageous and self-regarding was on the surface suspicious and awkward. Coleridge, who lacked self-respect or self-confidence at the deepest level, was on the surface charming, warm, welcoming and quick to relax and involve people…Wordsworth increased Coleridge’s sense of his own value” and Coleridge had a “humanizing influence” on Wordsworth. Both, initially excited by the French Revolution, were so appalled by its violent excesses that they both became much more politically conservative with age, but Wordsworth, as a respected national figure , became ever more “remote, arrogant, self-absorbed and self-praising”, while Coleridge, a much more profound thinker, found his life severely blighted by frequent illness and opium addiction, for which he was too often dismissed contemptuously.

This book is packed with entertaining anecdotes and fascinating observations. In his sincere if somewhat theoretical concern for the deserving poor, Wordsworth’s poem about “The Leech-gatherer” was based on research that they “did not breed fast and were of slow growth” because of dry weather and being gathered too much so that “formerly 2/6 per 100, they are now 30s”.

Both poets agreed that young children should be allowed to develop naturally, with education a process kindling natural curiosity. Coleridge’s observation of his small children makes moving reading (“a little child, a limber elf, singing, dancing to itself”), and his natural skill in teaching them through play sounds quite modern. It is therefore a shock to learn how he abandoned them for long periods, at one point preferring to stay in Germany where he was having a good time studying rather than return to England to comfort a wife grieving over the loss of their infant son.

Wordsworth questioned the desire of Utopian idealists to educate working class girls on enlightened lines since it was likely to make them “unsettled…..indisposed to any kind of hard labour or drudgery. And yet many of them must submit to it or do wrong”. This was arguably true, but not what one might hope for from a Romantic poet.

A.S. Byatt is clearly shocked by Wordsworth’s support for capital punishment on the basis that time spent in the condemned cell gave a fortunate opportunity to repent. Nimbyism is evident in the opposition to construction of railways in his beloved Lake District which would be spoilt by “droves” of working people from Lancashire who would not appreciate the mountains

He opposed the extension of the right to vote, as likely to produce frequent parliaments and “convert the representatives into mere slavish delegates, as they now are in America, under the dictation of ignorant and selfish numbers misled by unprincipled journalists”. In view of the recent shock of democracy producing a Trump victory, these ideas seem remarkably relevant today, even if one disagrees with his opinion.

Perhaps because he tended to consider issues from more angles, Coleridge comes across less clearly than Wordsworth, but as more engaging. Yet even he came to fear democracy as the misguided pursuit of an abstract idea: “the incorporation of individuals into one unnatural state, the deluded subjects of which soon find themselves under a dominion tenfold more oppressive and vexatious than that to which the laws of God and nature attached them”.

The many quotations are often inserted clunkily into the text, and assume more practice in interpreting poetry than most readers are likely to possess. The passages wrapped round these extracts are often indigestible, even disjointed, since they read as if condensed down from detailed notes.

Recommended, but best read with other texts, such as the biographies of Richard Holmes on the Lakeland poets.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

A marmite of reflections

This is my review of This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes.

Having read his two-part study of Coleridge, and “The Age of Wonder” which explores how the Romantics were influenced by “the beauty and terror” of the scientific discoveries of their day, I admire Richard Holmes as outstanding amongst biographers. So perhaps my expectations were too high for “The Long Pursuit”, the third in a series of reflections on the nature of biography, fleshed out with brief portraits of past lives.

Despite attending a lively talk by the author, I remain unclear about the three-part structure of this book: “Confessions” which explores the process of writing a biography, with many digressions, asking to what extent it can be formally taught as a “body of knowledge; “Restorations” which amounts to five short biographies of it would seem arbitrarily-chosen women who mostly formed part of the Romantic period, including Mary Wollstonecraft, already covered in his work “Footsteps”, and finally “Afterlives” which focuses on five “Romantic era” men, mostly poets (Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Blake) with the at times almost invisible “common thread” of how reputations may fluctuate after death, as individuals are misremembered, judgements alter as society's attitudes change, source materials are selectively destroyed or discovered, biographers develop rival interpretations, and so on.

The book contains fascinating “nuggets” such as the author’s collection of two-hundred handwritten notebooks, with objective facts on the right-hand page, and subjective responses to the person under study on the left. There are amusing anecdotes such as the fact that, when Richard Holmes- who rightly travels in the footsteps of all his subjects – climbed on to the roof terrace at Greta Hall where Coleridge wrote and observed "the old moon with the new moon in her arms", he found that the pupils at what is now a girls' boarding school hid their vodka and cigarettes there. The portraits included as illustrations are also striking.

However, the book contains too much rehashing of “old material”, a patchwork of fragments from works by Richard Holmes which I have already consumed, leaving me with a sense of being cheated. In all the previous books of his which I have read, there has been a strong cohesive theme linking the chapters, providing a clear context for the often minute detail. Here, I felt unengaged by the continual flitting around without a clear purpose. I concluded that the book is best treated as a series of free-standing essays.

“This long pursuit” has a detailed index, and may include points of value to students. It has a “serendipitous” quality by which I mean that reading it, you may discover the odd point of interest by chance, without actively looking for it. This may make it very appealing to some readers, but I suspect others will skip through or abandon it with a sense of regret.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

Making the most of a woman’s lot

This is my review of Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Biography (WOMEN IN HISTORY) by Marion Meade.

Eight centuries on, records still remain to prove that Eleanor of Aquitaine was a remarkable woman: beautiful, robust, energetic, courageous, resilient, intelligent, cultured and a shrewd negotiator when given the chance. In a world where the status and security of feudal lords depended on the possession of lands, her inheritance of the extensive and prosperous French Duchy of Aquitaine made her an attractive marriage partner for two rival kings: firstly, the indecisive and monkish Capetin Louis VII of France, whom she grew to despise, and later by complete contrast the Angevin Henry II, Plantagenet ruler of England, a vigorous, driven man with an uncontrollable temper and insatiable sexual appetite.

Eleanor accompanied Louis on an ill-fated Crusade, slowing the procession down with her vast quantities of baggage. She often risked dangerous voyages, even when heavily pregnant, and almost up to her death, aged eighty-two, embarked on tours round her lands to maintain the loyalty of vassals and foil rebellions.

In the unlikely event of her being as promiscuous as painted by detractors, this would have fallen far short of Henry’s predatory treatment of women. Scandalous gossip, embellished long after her death, buzzed round her close friendship with handsome men like Uncle Raymond of Antioch, her probably mythical, failed attempt to elope with Saladin, and demand for divorce from Louis and immediate marriage to Henry, fourteen years her junior. Yet ultimately she was always to be constrained by the superior power of men: the Pope blocked her divorce until Louis decided to end the marriage because of her apparent inability to bear sons. Ironically, she produced four boys in rapid succession for Henry, the ill-fated John born some years later being the last of her ten children. When, in the 1170s, Henry’s heavy-handed mismanagement of his sons provoked their revolt, Eleanor’s support for them was punished with sixteen years of imprisonment, but this did not break her spirit.

When it suited Henry to let her administer affairs in his frequent absences from England, she performed with great competence. Similarly, in her self-imposed exile to Aquitaine, unable to tolerate close at hand the humiliation of Henry’s overt affair with the legendary Rosamund Clifford, she again stabilised with her shrewd and fair management a region which Henry had only disturbed. Yet again, when her favourite son Richard Coeur-de-Lion succeeded Henry, she ran Aquitaine in his absence and drummed up a heavy ransom for his release when he was kidnapped by, of all people, the Duke of Austria.

Marian Meade’s journalistic style, which sometimes slips into quaint phrases involving “hie” and “goodly”, and often seems padded out with purple prose, succeeds in breathing life into what could be a tedious, indigestible wade through long-forgotten events. I have to believe her assertion that “none of the dialogue is invented”, but the continual references to, say, Eleanor’s thoughts, together with a lack of clear sourcing of anecdotes (at least in the edition I read) make this seem like “faction” rather than academic biography. Whatever the truth, this very readable account brings home the insecurity of Medieval life. Apart from the risk of sudden death, feudal property-owners were forced into a continual soap opera of shifting allegiances, trying to take advantage of each other, or avenge some past wrong. It is fascinating to appreciate the lack of a sense of “nation state”, the ease with which castles, lands and marriageable offspring were traded: even the Lionheart did not speak English! The ephemeral fragility of the Angevin Empire which Eleanor worked so hard to build with Henry gives sobering food for thought.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

To be a parrot or a wren

This is my review of The Poets’ Daughters: Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge by Katie Waldegrave.

The remarkable two volume biography of Coleridge (STC) by Richard Holmes inspired me to read Katie Waldegrave’s very readable and apparently effortless achievement of the difficult task of interweaving the parallel lives of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, brought up a few miles apart, and friends from childhood.

Dora should have been the happier and more successful of the two: her parents’ marriage was stable, her father was a renowned poet with a supplementary income from his sinecure as “Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland” and they lived in a large house with dramatic views over the Lake District. Yet it seems that for much of her adult life, Dora suffered from acute anorexia, which eventually debilitated her so much that she died in her early forties. Although we cannot be sure of the cause, it must have been related to periods of intense emotional repression. The only times she is recorded as clearly happy are when flirting innocently with the married poet, Edward Quillinan who eventually became her husband, when teaching in a local boarding school against her parents’ wishes, and on various trips away from home, as far afield as Portugal. Otherwise, Dora’s role as a dutiful daughter, working tirelessly as her father’s assistant, coming to terms with the realisation that he would never complete his masterpiece “The Recluse” as he had promised Coleridge, was in conflict with the sadness over seeing other young women of her age finding husbands and forging lives separate from their parents. Her reluctance to marry without her father’s approval delayed her own wedding by several years, and must have caused her considerable stress.

Abandoned by her brilliant but erratic father, Sara Coleridge was dependent on the goodwill of her mother’s brother-in-law, Southey. Like Wordsworth a successful and reasonably affluent poet, Southey fortunately treated her (almost) like a daughter, although on becoming an adult she would have been obliged to work as a governess if her beauty and intelligence had not caught the eye of her first cousin Henry Coleridge. Sara was as it proved justifiably nervous that the duties of housekeeping and childcare would divert her from intellectual pursuits. Before marriage, she confessed to her brother Derwent, “I should have been much happier, with my tastes, temper and habits, had I been of your sex……The thing that would suit me best …would be the life of a country clergyman – I should delight in the studies necessary.. and am sure I …..should not…. shrink from the active duties of it”. The malaise which dogged her throughout her adult life, and led to her own opium addiction, ironical in view of her father’s history, seems to have been worst when her children were young.

What galvanised Sara from her sickbed were Thomas de Quincy’s critical essays accusing her father of plagiarism. Although she had never really known him, apart from his habit of blazing into her life for a few weeks at a time to bewitch her with frightening fairy-tales or to teach her Italian, Sara made it her life’s work to “set the record straight” by editing and interpreting her father’s writings, not shrinking from difficult metaphysical works like the Biographia Literaria. She clearly felt qualified to comment on Coleridge, because she had come to know and understand him through reading his work. They clearly had a similar cast of mind. Prematurely facing death in her forties, Sara wished briefly to have spent more of her all too limited time writing poetry, yet in fact managed to write some fine pieces, including that it is better to know “the stains of frailty” of a noble mind, like her father’s, “than fain would see it white as snow”. She appears quite modern in her insistence on honesty.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Addictive genius

This is my review of Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834 by Richard Holmes.

The second part of this remarkable two-volume biography covers the last half of Coleridge’s life, from his self-exile to Malta to escape his unhappy marriage, debts and impossible love for Wordsworth’s sister “Asra”. Although much of the poetry for which he is now most remembered had already been written, and he sometimes mourned the loss of his ability in this area, often in lyrical terms which ironically belied this view, he still produced some striking verses, also writing a good deal of philosophical work, which was not fully appreciated in his lifetime.

Richard Holmes shows how Coleridge continually ricocheted between the depths of despair and degradation to moments of high achievement. On the downside, he had a dramatic falling out with Wordsworth which became the subject of London gossip, which also began to feast on his failures as a husband and father, and the squandering of his early great talent through his opium addiction, no longer a secret. His metaphysical writing was mocked by the critic Hazlitt, in terms with which one can sympathise judging by some of the quotations provided. Less acceptable were his cruel personal attacks, which seem particularly ungrateful since Coleridge had once smuggled him out of the Lake District to escape justice for having molested a local girl. The negative feedback naturally made publishers wary, so that Coleridge was forced to use a firm which went bankrupt, denying him much-needed earnings from several years of work which he had managed to sustain against the odds. To some extent reunited with his two grown-up sons, it was a bitter blow when the older boy Hartley proved too like his father in his intensely imaginative but addictive personality, so that he was deprived of his Oxford fellowship because of his drunken habits.

On the plus side, when in Malta, Coleridge proved a competent civil servant, although he had mixed feelings about a role which distracted him from his “true calling” of creative writing. On another occasion, he wrote a highly successful play for the London stage. He always seemed to have enough admirers to bale him out in his hour of need, such as the surgeon Morgan with his wife and sister, who became a kind of replacement copy of his intense relationship with Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy and Sarah Hutchinson (Asra). For the last eighteen years of Coleridge’s life, he lived with the family of a successful London doctor, Gillman, who understood how to regulate his opium addiction, receiving in return the reflected “kudos” of managing a man who, although always controversial, ended his life as a “national treasure”, visited by a succession of admirers of romantic poetry, of the glittering conversation which never faded, and writing, considerable despite all the stillborn and uncompleted plans.

Coleridge is at time maddening in his apparent “lack of will” in resisting opium. On the one hand able to analyse his failings with remarkable candour and insight in his calmer moments, he also believed that the addiction which induced nightmares, inertia, embarrassing outbursts and despair bordering on suicide was beyond his control, due to something in his personality or perhaps early experience. It seems likely that he was manic-depressive at a time when laudanum was the sole, over-used painkiller for both physical and mental ailments. Despite all this, it is hard not to share Richard Holmes’ admiration for his resilience and the fact that he never “gave up” for long. Many aspects of his thinking all seem remarkably modern, so that one can imagine him joining in some current intellectual debate.

Part Two is in some ways sadder and more sombre as Coleridge, no longer the energetic young man running down Lake District fell-sides, becomes heavy, shambling, and prematurely aged, often haunted by the destructive effects of his addiction. Yet, as his astute long-standing friend Charles Lamb observed, it was wrong to dismiss as “Poor Coleridge” a man who had in fact experienced and created so much. He even suggested that the addiction was in part necessary to Coleridge’s originality, and enhanced it. Following his death, Lamb wrote: “I feel how great a part he was of me, his great and dear Spirit haunts me. I cannot think a thought, cannot make a criticism of men and books, without an ineffectual turning and reference to him. He was the proof and touchstone of all my cogitations….Never saw I his likeness, nor probably can the world see it again.” Richard Holmes’ lasting achievement is to enable us to understand and relate to these sentiments.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

Live not by lies

This is my review of The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War by Arkady Ostrovsky.

In his quest to understand how Russia got from the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 to the aggressive, chauvinist state of Russian under Putin in 2015, the Russian-born author takes us back to Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s repression in 1956, paving the way for Gorbachev’s formal launch of “Perestroika” or restructuring from 1985.

Ostrovsky focuses on the media’s key role in both assisting and obstructing change. In the 1960s, newspapers and television were dominated by intellectuals bent on “cleansing” Communism of the distortions Stalin had imposed. They had not yet progressed to demanding economic freedom. It took leading journalists like Alexander Yakovlev years to realise that “the Bolshevik religion was false” and that “socialism with a human face” might not be feasible under communism. Following the crushing of the 1968 “Prague Spring”, journalists like “Yegor” (also a Yakovlev, but “no relation”), felt alienated by the use of Soviet tanks, but continued to compromise, not speaking the truth in the belief that they could achieve more “from the inside”, not to mention their concerns for self-preservation.

Yet the irony was that eventually, “words rather than tanks” meant that the generation which had intended to vindicate the ideals of fathers purged by Stalin ended by unintentionally destroying socialism. “Glasnost” and the opening up of minds through the media proved more important in effecting change than “altering the means of production”. Unrest grew as the media helped people to perceive their relative lack of consumer goods, or the failure of the Afghan War. When Gorbachev dithered over economic liberalism, “Moscow News” had the confidence to urge him to act decisively or resign.

Under his successor Yeltsin, there was a generational shift from men like Yegor to his son Vladimir who founded the magazine Kommersant to promote capitalism of a primitive kind, operating in a moral vacuum. The “oligarchs” who benefitted from the “loans for shares” scheme saw the influence to be gained from owning TV channels: Gusinsky took over the TV channel NTV which established a reputation for honesty in, for instance, its reporting on the Chechnyan war. When his oligarch acquaintances urged him to sell the station that was putting their business at risk, or make it non-political, his journalist Malashenko resisted, pointing out that NTV had the strength to survive under a weak and dysfunctional state. The truth was of course that freedom of speech was fragile, dependent on Yeltsin’s goodwill.

This became clear after Putin’s appointment as a decisive and authoritative heir to the ailing Yeltsin. Gusinsky was ordered to sell NTV to Gazprom, after “the last straw” of parodying Putin on the Russian equivalent of the political satire “Spitting Image”. By 2004, the state-controlled “Channel One” was reduced to showing mainly soap operas during the Chechnyan crisis in Beslan, playing down the number of casualties, pretending hostages were safe when more than 300 were dead, and showing scenes from military dramas of terrorists being beaten.

Ostrovsky claims that by 2014, the Russian media had become not just a metaphorical but a real weapon causing genuine destruction, not just distorting reality but inventing it “using fake footage” to report on conflict in, for instance, Ukraine, even using actors: “sometimes the same actor would impersonate both the victim and the aggressor on different channels.” Nemtsov, the charismatic politician who warned against the use of TV to produce “patriotic hallucinations” was himself murdered outside the Kremlin shortly afterwards. For Russians, violent newsreels have become a form of entertainment: “the vast majority of Russians now contemplate the possibility of a nuclear war …..and 40 per cent of the younger ones believe that Russia can win, as though it were a video game”. The once brash Vladimir Yakovlev now warns that people live in a crazy illusion tha the country is surrounded by enemies… The information war is first and foremost destroying ourselves”.

The subject matter is fascinating and the bibliography impressive, but some clear and striking analysis is buried in the at times frenetic journalese which makes for hard reading, along with the large cast of characters with unpronounceable names, for a non-Russian reader. I was also surprised to find so little mention of the economic hardship I believe to have been endured by many ordinary Russians post 1991.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars