Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I am falling in love with the melancholy late Victorian/Edwardian sense that we can never be fully alive.
This from Conrad's Victory: 'But even then there still lingered in him a sense of incompleteness not altogether overcome - which, it seemed, nothing would ever overcome - the fatal imperfection of all the gifts of life, which makes them a delusion and a snare.'
And this from Edward Thomas's Glory: 'I cannot bite the day to the core.'
Why did they suddenly feel this?


  1. Nothing new though, was it? The romantics are awash with it - especially Coleridge - and before them the Elizabethans, Jacobeans... Isn't it just a recognition that we can't, ultimately, enter fully into any experience while retaining our self-awareness? Hence drink, drugs, poetry, etc...

  2. This sense is the price of reason, isn't it? Larking puts it like this:

    Spring, of all seasons most gratuitous,
    Is fold of untaught flower, is race of water,
    Is earth’s most multiple, excited daughter;

    And those she has least use for see her best,
    Their paths grown craven and circuitous,
    Their visions mountain-clear, their needs immodest.

    You can't both see it and be it.

  3. Conrad's thought is a necessarily diseased emanation from a diseased consciousness, which given the infinite subtlety of the mind, justifies itself as truth: the isolated ego inevitably cut off from life and wholeness.
    As for how various individuals got to this point around this time: these people had been basking in the reassuring glow of self-transcendence within the various false gods of nationalism, and the empire. Thus their spiritual and secular urges were happily united in these glorious collective entities, whose truth and progressive superiority seemed proven by the European colonising march around the world. However, highly sensitive souls like Conrad were forced into shocking existential situations where the threads of faith to the benign gods was stretched to breaking point- as, for example, in the Belgian Congo, where, as relatively mildly shown in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," systematic diabolism reigned. The individual lost his false god, and was left with in a new existential position of naked consciousness, which in the person of Conrad seems to have been experienced more as a negative than a gain. It has lost what it had: self-transcendence in a collective ideal, but not yet gained faith in his own existence. DL Lawrence would be something of a positive counterpart of this spiritual evolution.
    Sadly, one still gets

    An interesting Manichaean variation on the faith shattering epiphanies: witnessing the insatiable appetites for human sacrifice and material greed of these nationalist molochs, the indiviudal is left with belief, but belief in infernal gods. Strangely, or not given the urge for self-transcendence, faith in patriotically justified diabolism is still a relatively healthy life-force.

  4. 'Larking'? Do I get a price for the most ironically inapt misspelling?

  5. Maybe it was the flipside to the hearty beef-eating confidence in Mankind's achievements (in empire and science), that under all that bearded self-assurance is the soul's tremulous "is that all?" - for all the undoubted advances of science the mystery had (apparently) been taken away, everything would one day be understood and made to serve the British Empire; maybe the disquiet is the soul questioning whether this would be a good thing, or even possible. Alexander weeps because there are no more worlds left to conquer.

    There often seems a strange tension and questioning when the human soul is born into a culture that won't accommodate certain energies, e.g. the awareness of mystery, of being a limited being who yet stands on the edge of the infinite, able to contemplate notions such as infinity & eternity while being thoroughly mortal. Because few individuals, however gifted, can really transcend their time (those who do, like Blake, usually do so through something that comes close to madness), you end up with very intelligent people like Conrad who feel a dim sense of unease and imperfection but don't really know why.

    It's often the case that great art comes from this friction between what the soul knows, deep down, and what the mere personality (the accumulation of experience in one lifetime) knows. i think you see this all the time in Shakespeare, for example, his persistent questioning, is authority a kind of madness, are kings lunatics, on the other hand is The People just another kind of lunatic? - and so on. His life as Shakespeare didn't provide him with the answers but i think he was born to this awareness that the time is out of joint.

  6. Everybody with time to reflect feels this way sometimes and I believe it's the first and best meaning of the French "ennui."

    No surprise, though, that you're seeing such peevish unhappiness in the early 20th century. The Edwardians often sound like a generation with identity problems because they're like children overshadowed by famous, never-uncertain-about-anything parents, the Victorians. Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians" could only have been written by an Edwardian trying to take them down a peg so he wouldn't feel so trivial in comparison.

    Personally, I think you need to eat another peach and pick a different book.

  7. Oh well, one can argue that this feeling of disquiet, unease, unsatisfactoriness is a universal human experience. It's hard-wired into us. Self-awareness and mind are 99 per cent successful but the 1 per cent that isn't is enough to allow us to sense a trick, like a single drop of ink that eventually discolours a bowl of clear water. The Buddha called it dukkha, and it was one of the foundation stones of his teachings.

  8. Actually, it occurs to me that perchance it was a form of Waistcoat Anxiety. According to Wikipedia:

    "During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, men often wore incredibly elaborate and brightly-coloured — even garish — waistcoats, until fashion in the nineteenth century restricted them in formal wear, and the development of the suit dictated that informal waistcoats become the same colour as the rest of a man's outfit."

    Methinks this dulling down of the waistcoat's glory may not be unconnected to the Decadent weariness.

  9. I reckon you're onto something there, Elberry. Since I've been wearing the cravat I've definitely been biting the day to the core.

  10. But remember Werther's yellow waistcoat, Elberry -- and he was suicidal! When I was teaching "Sorrows" I discovered the novella kicked off a yellow-waistcoat revolution in Weimar that lasted a few years.

    Here's a question: What clothing item now in fashion has a literary/pop cultural source? I can think of a couple, but love to hear you all's thoughts.....

  11. Right on. I wish you *were* Bill Nighy, my thesp hero. I suspect you're more likely Elberry, though.

  12. Susan, I can be anyone you want me to be - it's a perk of being an actor ( unless you're Brian Blessed, in which case you're always just Brian Blessed).

  13. Let's just say I hope you're BN -- and if you are, you'll remember me as we've both met and corresponded and you sent my son birthday wishes after meeting him -- but even if you're not, great pseudonym!

    The time is always Nighy, in my humble opinion. And I'm waiting to see a boat rock like Bill Nighy does.