08 December 2021

Beethoven’s housekeeper

Beethoven had a housekeeper.* She did the cooking and housekeeping while he composed music. I am sure the modern view of the matter is that Beethoven did not need a housekeeper, or, if he did, he should not have done. Plainly, they should both have composed music, and both have cooked their own meals. The fact that Beethoven composed music better than the housekeeper could have done is beside the point. It is the business of society to iron out these unfair advantages of endowment, not to enhance them. Why should the housekeeper not have had just as much chance to practise creative self-fulfilment?

It is interesting to observe that the housekeeper could probably have composed music just as well in the intervals of her cooking and housekeeping as she could have done if she had had all day free to devote to thinking about music. Beethoven, on the other hand, probably could not have composed nearly as well as he did if he had had to do so part-time. This proves that the housekeeper had a better social adjustment than Beethoven, and is all the more reason why Beethoven should not have received preferential treatment.

* The housekeeper’s name was Sali.

(Extract from The Corpse and the Kingdom, due for publication in 2022.)

22 October 2021

G.I. Gurdjieff

G.I. Gurdjieff
George Gurdjieff (d. 1947) was a mystic who believed in the possibility of a higher state of consciousness, and who tried to convey a method for reaching that state. Although he published several books, his ideas are best approached via the work of his pupils, particularly that of Peter Ouspensky. In his book In Search of the Miraculous, Ouspensky tells of his meeting Gurdjieff in Saint Petersburg in 1915 and of how he spent several years trying to learn from him techniques for overcoming ‘mechanical’ psychology.

Central to the teaching of Gurdjieff is the idea that the normal human personality is largely mechanical, and that the ego falsely imagines itself to be in control, and able to make choices, while in reality it is merely reacting predictably to impulses. In order to make genuine choices, Gurdjieff held, it is necessary to develop radically different psychology, which requires first overcoming the delusion that you are already in control.
I asked G. what a man had to do to assimilate this teaching.
   ‘What to do?’ asked G. as though surprised. ‘It is impossible to do anything. A man must first of all understand certain things. He has thousands of false ideas and false conceptions, chiefly about himself, and he must get rid of some of them before beginning to acquire anything new. Otherwise the new will be built on a wrong foundation and the result will be worse than before.’
   ‘How can one get rid of false ideas?’ I asked. ‘We depend on the forms of our perception. False ideas are produced by the forms of our perception.’
G. shook his head.
‘Again you speak of something different,’ he said. ‘You speak of errors arising from perceptions but I am not speaking of these. Within the limits of given perceptions man can err more or err less. As I have said before, man’s chief delusion is his conviction that he can do. All people think that they can do, all people want to do, and the first question all people ask is what they are to do. But actually nobody does anything and nobody can do anything. This is the first thing that must be understood.
   Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him — all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as rain falls as a result of a change in the temperature in the higher regions of the atmosphere or the surrounding clouds, as snow melts under the rays of the sun, as dust rises with the wind.
   Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, and habits are the results of external influences, external impressions. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels — all this happens. Man cannot discover anything, invent anything.
   It all happens.
   To establish this fact for oneself, to understand it, to be convinced of its truth, means getting rid of a thousand illusions about man, about his being creative and consciously organizing his own life, and so on. There is nothing of this kind.
   Everything happens — popular movements, wars, revolutions, changes of government, all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as everything happens in the life of individual man. Man is born, lives, dies, builds houses, writes books, not as he wants to, but as it happens. Everything happens. Man does not love, hate, desire — all this happens.
   But no one will ever believe you if you tell him he can do nothing. This is the most offensive and the most unpleasant thing you can tell people. It is particularly unpleasant and offensive because it is the truth, and nobody wants to know the truth.
   When you understand this it will be easier for us to talk. But it is one thing to understand with the mind and another thing to feel it with one’s “whole mass,” to be really convinced that it is so and never forget it.’
P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, Harvest Books, 2001, pp.20-21.

18 August 2021

Richard Church’s levitation experience

Richard Church (1893-1972)
Richard Church was a poet and novelist who was particularly active during the 1930s and 1940s. Perhaps his best known work of prose is the semi-autobiographical trilogy consisting of the novels The Porch, The Stronghold and The Room Within.

Church became better known in later life for his childhood autobiography, Over the Bridge. In this, he recounts two phenomena which he experienced while spending time in a convalescent home (he was prone to poor health as a child).

The first experience involved the perception of time.
One heavy morning, when the outside world was iron-bound with frost, I stood at a long french window in the play-room waiting to go down to breakfast. The sun was just risen beyond the ground, and stood above the lawns, his great red disk etched with naked twigs of the bushes. Under these bushes a gardener was chopping down a dead tree. I watched him. The axe flashed red, and fell. It rose again. The movement, steady and sure, fascinated me. Suddenly I realised that the sound of the blows did not synchronise with what I saw. The thud came when the axe was on an upstroke, ready for the next blow.

I disbelieved the evidence of my eyes. Then I thought my spectacles (those miracle workers) must have betrayed me; or that my illness had begun to affect my vision. I stared intently, screwing up the eye-muscles against any possible intrusion of light or irrelevant image. But the picture I saw and the sound I heard remained disparate. Then, while I stared, knowledge came to me; the knowledge that follows a recognition of fact, of concrete experience, bringing with it a widening both of the universe and of the individual's understanding of it. [...] I had found that time and space are not absolute. Their power was not law. They were not even unanimous; they quarrelled with each other; and through their schism the human imagination, the hope, the faith, could slip, to further exploration where intuition had formerly hinted, but where logic and fatal common sense had denied.
Church continues by describing a second experience, involving him apparently levitating.
Since time and space were deceivers, openly contradicting each other, and at best offering a compromise in place of a law, I was at liberty to doubt further, to carry on my exploration of the horizons of freedom. Still conscious of the warm blood whispering in my veins, I looked down at my wrist and saw the transparent flesh, the bird-bones, the channels of blue beneath the skin. All this was substance as fragile as a plant. It could not possibly outweigh the solid earth under my feet, where I and the rest of duped mankind walked with such docility. [...] I sensed, with a benignancy deeper and more assured than reason, that my limbs and trunk were lighter than they seemed, and that I had only to reduce them by an act of will, perhaps by a mere change of physical mechanics, to command them off the ground, out of the tyranny of gravitation.

I exerted that will, visualising my hands and feet pressing downwards upon the centre of the earth. It was no surprise to me that I left the ground, and glided about the room (which was empty) some twelve or eighteen inches above the parquet floor. At first I was afraid of collapsing, of tumbling and hurting myself. But I had only to draw in a deep breath, and to command the air through the heavy portions of my anatomy, watching it flow and dilute the solid bone and flesh through the helpful chemistry of the blood, this new, released and knowledgeable blood, and I soared higher, half-way to the ceiling. This thoroughly frightened me, and I allowed myself to subside, coming to ground with a gentleness that was itself a sensuous delight.

I could not leave the matter there. I must put my discovery to the test again, and accordingly I drew in a deep breath and was just about to visualise that downward pressure of will upon body, when the door opened, and a nurse came in.

'Why, little boy?' she said. 'Haven't you heard the breakfast bell?'

Then she took a second glance at me, stooped and peered into my face. 'Is anything wrong? Are you feeling poorly this morning?'

I was almost indignant, and disclaimed the suggestion that I might have a temperature, for that would mean going to bed in the large ward where a pail stood conspicuously in the middle, on a sheet of mackintosh; an improvisation which disgusted me.

I hurried away without replying, leaving the nurse looking after me with some inquiry in her manner. The corridor and staircase were empty, for everybody was at breakfast in the vast dining-room below. Here was another opportunity! I drew my breath again, I scorned the liars of time and space, I took the presence of Christ into my hollow, featherweight bones, and I floated down the staircase without touching either tread or baluster. Alighting outside the dining-room door, I entered and took my seat, content now to live incognito amongst these wingless mortals.

Extracts taken from Richard Church, Over the Bridge, London: Heinemann, 1970, pp.170-173.

13 June 2021

Mary Somerville, Scottish polymath

Mary Somerville, born Mary Fairfax in 1780, was a Scottish scientist, known particularly for her books on astronomy and other physical sciences. Somerville College in Oxford is named after her. However, when I was at Somerville there was little sign of her in the college. I came across no portraits of her, and none of the undergraduates I knew seemed aware of who the college was named after.

In spite of the limited availability of education for girls at the time, Somerville seems to have seized her opportunities whenever they arose. For example, when she heard a teacher advising another (male) student to read Euclid’s Elements, she decided that she should do so too, as it would help her understand a textbook on navigational theory.

Her inheritance from the death of her first husband gave Somerville the freedom to pursue intellectual interests. She started to make a name for herself in 1811 when she was awarded a medal for solving a mathematical problem.

In 1827 Somerville was hired to translate Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste. She produced an expanded version of the first two volumes which was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens. This book made her famous, and remained a textbook for undergraduates until the 1880s. Somerville’s second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, sold over 10,000 copies and consolidated her reputation in physical science.

When Mary Somerville died in 1872, she was described in an obituary as the ‘queen of science’.

17 April 2021

A shortage of domestic servants in 1909

Extract from pamphlet Canada wants domestic servants, issued by Canada’s Minister of the Interior in 1909:
The domestic servant problem is to-day one of the most serious questions which the Canadian ladies have to deal with, and it would be beneficial alike to the employer and employee if a large number of female domestics should decide at once to emigrate to the Dominion.

[In the four years 1904-1907] the number of domestics arriving in Canada from the British Isles has been [over fifteen thousand] but this number would not have a noticeable effect in decreasing the demand even if all had remained in service, while as a matter of fact a very large percentage enter the matrimonial state shortly after their arrival and in turn become themselves mistresses requiring help in their household duties.
Extract from section ‘Letters from satisfied domestics’:
Dear Sir:
   Just a line or two to let you know how I am getting on since I came out to Virden in the spring. I like Canada very much, and can’t write too highly about the people in the district, they are all so kind to us strangers. There are fifteen of the girls who came out on the “Corinthian” round about Virden, and all liking it well. Virden is a fine clean little town and one man or woman is considered as good as another.
   It is about the way I was treated lately when I was ill that I wish to tell you particularly. I was in a situation and took typhoid fever and I don’t know who was the kindest to me. I was sent to the hospital at Brandon by the St. Andrew’s Society of Virden, who got a semi-private ward for me and when I was better they paid off the hospital and doctors’ expenses and the Government paid the rest, so I was not out one cent. It was almost good to be ill to see people so kind, for although the doctor would not allow visitors, the Brandon ladies sent in the most lovely flowers to me and nearly every day some one was telephoning and enquiring for me. I am all right again and able for work.
   There are far more people wanting help than there are girls for. I would like so much for my two sisters to come in the spring. Three of the Edinburgh girls who came out with me are in Brandon. I got my baggage all right and we had a nice trip out. I have been long in writing to tell you how I am getting on, but time passes so quickly. Believe me,
   Yours truly,
   Annie Cameron

28 February 2021

Lawrence of Arabia

Extract from Advice to Clever Children, about the modern obsession with qualifications.
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935)
In the University of Oxford there used to be more understanding than there is now of the fact that there were a lot of ways in which a person of very high ability could get disconnected from his education, but that this ability might still be too good to waste. T.E. Lawrence, as he approached his final examinations in history, regarded himself as unprepared for them; and it may be doubted whether he would have got a First if a tutor, sympathetic to his evident ability, had not drawn to his attention the possibility of offering a thesis on a subject of special interest to him to supplement the usual papers, and been instrumental in arranging finance for an expedition necessary for the proposed thesis.

There was always a certain tradition that colleges could, and sometimes did, if they knew a person had very high ability, disregard his examination results and make it possible for him to continue his academic career. When I was an undergraduate there was a story about a certain Professor who had got a Fourth, but had still gone on with his academic career and arrived at his present eminence.

Even while I was at college a case occurred of a girl who got a Third, but the dons liked her and thought she was suited to doing research, so she duly got a research scholarship. Of course, with the advance of socialism and the increased dependence of the colleges (or, strictly speaking, the university) on state finance, the tendency is for nothing to matter except exam results, regardless of how they have been brought about.

10 January 2021

‘Man should become God’

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, a key idea is that man should become God, and that the universe will become deified with him.

Here are some quotations from Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church* which illustrate this idea.
Man, according to St. Basil, is a creature who has received a commandment to become God.

Man was created last, according to the Greek Fathers, in order that he might be introduced into the universe like a king into his palace.

God became man in order that man might become god, to use the words of Ireneus and Athanasius, echoed by the Fathers and theologians of every age.

* Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, James Clarke 1957, reprinted 1968. Quotations are taken, respectively, from pages 124, 111 and 134.