15 March 2020

Henley’s Invictus

W.E. Henley’s poem Invictus was written in 1875. Originally the poem was published untitled; the name ‘Invictus’ was added by anthologist Arthur Quiller-Couch when the poem was included in The Oxford Book of English Verse.

Invictus was for some decades considered to represent the epitome of the ‘stiff upper lip’ British spirit. Although stiff-upper-lipness fell out of favour during the second half of the twentieth century, the poem has remained influential, as shown by recurring twenty-first century cultural references to it. When singer Cher recently tweeted about US presidential candidate Joe Biden that ‘your head is bloodied, but unbowed’, she was invoking a line from the poem.

Below is the poem in full.

Out of the night that covers me,
   Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
   For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
   I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
   My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
   Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
   Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
   How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
   I am the captain of my soul.


For a further discussion of the psychological significance of Henley’s poem, see my book Advice to Clever Children, p.124.

21 February 2020

Vladimir Horowitz and the psychology of kingship

Vladimir Horowitz
(1903 - 1989)
Pianist Vladimir Horowitz in a 1977 interview:
When I’m on the stage I’m one person, when I’m out of the stage I’m another person.

When I’m on the stage, I feel I am a king ... I’m a king ... yes, nobody has to interfere with him ... because I have something to do, I have to bring the best which is in me.
Horowitz was a Russian pianist who later became an American citizen. His performances tended to be intense and highly individual, impressing, among others, the composer Rachmaninov.

The psychology of kingship is not a fashionable concept these days. However, there are some references to it in Gnostic Christianity. It has some connection with the psychological state I discussed in Advice to Clever Children which I termed centralisation. See Chapter 29, ‘Royalty’.

13 January 2020

The social contract

In the views of exponents of how society came to be constituted as it is (or was at the time, or should be) we note fairly constantly a willingness to ascribe untrammelled and overriding power to the legislators of the community, together with infallibility.

In early accounts some justification for society’s claim to possession of the individual is felt to be necessary. This is provided either by God, who bestows upon kings their divine right, or by a social contract, which is mythical, even if some writers lose sight of its historical implausibility. Desiring the advantages of an organised community, it is supposed that individuals freely choose to obey the government that shall be chosen by majority preference; hence minorities have nothing to complain of, as they have entered the situation of their own free will. So conflict is avoided.

I would have formulated the situation myself by supposing that, at a sufficiently primitive stage, when there was some realistic possibility of a dissident or disadvantaged individual choosing to fend for himself, there was a real balance of advantages and disadvantages for each individual which led, on the whole, to his preferring to remain, in fairly unstable equilibrium, in the settlement or compound occupied by his group. Fairly disharmonious associations of this kind gradually evolved social structures which reduced the squabbling and maximised the stability of the enterprise. At the time of, say, Hobbes, there was relatively little opportunity for any individual to dissociate himself from the pressures and demands of his society. By now there is even less.

We note that writers on political theory wish conflict between the individual and society to be an impossibility, or if not impossible, at least a clear aberration from a perfect underlying harmony.

Extract from the forthcoming book ‘The Corpse and the Kingdom’