The Last Man Who Knew Everything

Electric Test 2014_Shower

Who first demonstrated experimentally the wave theory of light but left it to Fresnel to perfect? Who placed the study of tides on a sure footing? Who showed that the eye accommodates varying focus by modifying the lens? Who truly paved the way for Champillion to conquer the interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphs? Who had phenomenal   knowledge of languages and their development and coined the term Indo-European languages? Who formulated the modulus of elasticity? Who advised the British Government as to the improved construction of wooden ships? Who definitively explained refraction and double refraction? Whose discoveries echoed long into the ground-breaking scientific era of the twentieth century? Who advised the British Government on the replacement if the 1190 London Bridge? Who related earthquakes to sound waves and applied elasticity to the measure of the Earth? And much more besides. Look no further. It was the acclaimed physician, Thomas Young.

Born in 1773, this contemporary of Davy, Faraday, Goethe, Beethoven and Gauss was the first successfully to challenge Newton’s corpuscular theory of light – we now know that light behaves as a mixture of both. Later, Maxwell was to deal comprehensively with light as electro-magnetic waves. Yet he challenged Newton with a subtlety and humility that did not detract from his reverence for the greatest scientist of all time. Indeed, both scientists gut-wrenchingly passed instruments behind their own eyeball, Newton, I recall, to see the colour effects, Young to measure its depth. I wonder where Young got the idea from.

Young lectured at the Royal Institution during the same period as Faraday and Davy and became Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society and a foreign associate of the elite French National Institute

Andrew Robinson’s biography, The Last Man Who Knew Everything, is a carefully researched work of scholarship that barely conceals admiration for his subject. He compares him to Leonardo da Vinci. While lamenting the time it took for Young’s achievements to be fully recognised, except by his immediate loyal friends, and to disprove the charge of dilletantism,  he discerns a trace of intellectual detachment towards his most loyal supporter, his wife. The marriage was loving and successful but childless.

Intellectually detached, he may have been, but he was well travelled, he spent five months in Italy with his wife when the Napoleonic Wars came to an end. After  Edinburgh and Cambridge, where his reputation had already preceded him, he was awarded his doctorate at Göttingen – his dissertation was in Latin, concerned the organs of the human voice and identified an alphabet of 47 letters to express the entire gamut of the sounds it can produce.

Unlike Newton, he possessed social grace and often by his tact and generosity defused potentially acrimonious dispute. Perhaps it was his pacifist Quaker upbringing: the Quakers cut him off when he spent two years at Cambridge, an institution requiring membership of the Anglican church, for going to the theatre and other such  activities unacceptable to them. A Cambridge Master’s degree was required before he could be elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, so this was important if he was to have a successful medical practice. The former he achieved, the latter never quite, largely because of the other pursuits that engaged him, and despite his long service at St George’s Hospital.

For all Robinson’s scholarly excellence, which I am unable to judge and can only gather from others, it leaves me decidedly cold. There is no attempt to delve to any extent into the workings and motivations of this remarkable mind. His conclusion that, “We can safely say, with the endless expansion of knowledge, that no one will be able to stake this awesome claim [to be a polymath] ever again,” is a depressing one, especially in the light of science’s ambition to unify all things.

Young died at the age of 56 of  – what is now seen to be –  cardiac failure.

Goethe: Elective Affinities

It is extraordinary how Goethe’s genius takes the most ordinary, if privileged, lives of his times and moulds them into a moral reflection of the most soul-searching kind. This he does with a lucidity and economy that make it accessible to all, even in translation.

The starting-point is familiar enough, a married couple bask in the exclusivity of their love and companionship. Charlotte and Eduard enjoy the estates and style of leisured privilege, but then the cracks begin to appear. Eduard has an old friend, the Captain, who is short of employment and he wants to bring him into their household. Charlotte is doubtful and reluctant but he is annoyingly persistent. In the end, she agrees and, at Eduard’s suggestion takes her foster-child, the beautiful and reticently charming Ottilie, now a young woman, out of school and back home as her companion.

The Captain is gifted and of an aesthetic turn of mind and brings his influence to bear upon the design of the estate’s landscapes and buildings, an enterprise which Charlotte considered she had all but completed.

The bringing together of this quartet leads to a sexual chemistry. It is this chemistry that explains the title of the work where early on discussions expound upon affinities in chemical reactions. Goethe himself was something of a quack scientist and had his own theory of colour in opposition to Newton. He was not a polymath, though. For a real polymath, reflect upon Thomas Young and his achievements.

Other personalities come and go and there is about it all an inevitability as Goethe picks up tiny threads and develops them into central themes. Mittler, who arrives and disappears at whim, is an eccentric ex-preacher, cack-handed mediator and damaging moraliser.

Charlotte handles well her infatuation for the Captain, who is also in love with her, but Eduard and Ottilie cling to their mutual attraction, even though Eduard goes away to war.

The whole culminates in awful tragedy: and there is the moral.

On the way, Goethe plucks the profound out of the ordinary and gives cause to ponder on daily life. In this, he rivals Shakespeare, though he lacks the noble and melancholic edge.

In the end, it is a vivid essay on the Christian experience in all its fullness. At one point, for me the high point, Charlotte speaks of:

“That holy spirit which, invisibly encompassing us, alone can protect us from daemonic powers which press upon us.”

A Moral Backwater

Home and Gilead

While my dear wife tried a range of designer clothes donated, unworn, by Caterham’s well-to-do, I cast my eyes over the charity shop’s bookshelf, aware, as always, of my two principal readers.

There, in the middle of the second shelf down, as if by some transatlantic osmosis through the North American continent, oozed the words Home and Marilynne Robinson. I snatched at the spine, whipped open the front cover and rejoiced at the pencil marking there £1.50. That must be within a pensioner couple’s meagre budget.

I chose my moment, though, and as my dear one hoisted her garments to the counter for ringing through, I tentatively placed the well-thumbed paperback on top. “Of course, dear,” she said and the purchases were completed.

I confess that on reaching home I barely noticed the fashion parade as I flipped over the initial pages to start the novel. That was some weeks ago and The Critical Word has since lain fallow. But now that other existence, literature, awakens it from its slumbers.

In England, the Anglican Church is the established church. The Archbishop of Canterbury is second in precedence only to the Queen, so he always follows immediately behind her in state processions. Thus, for the most part, the institution is perceived rather as a function of the State, even amongst adherents. The weekly attendance, much diminished nowadays, was less an act of worship and more a routine social event, spiced with entertaining hymns and pulpit performances in return for a small donation in the collection plate. Theology was taboo. The result was a tolerance of wide-ranging attitudes. Alas, in recent times its pronouncements have had a more party-political edge and, together with a strong movement towards disestablishment, the rise of evangelism and faith-healing and the indecorous infighting on issues such as the ordination of women and gay rights, have led to a drastic decline in numbers. A similar flow and ebb has occurred in many of the non-conformist denominations, while the Roman Catholics chug on much as before, with all the weight of Constantine and the Vatican to support them and a little liberalisation peppered here and there.

In the United States, the Constitution jealously guards the secular status of the federal State, along with freedom of religion, which naturally leads to a far greater concentration on religious matters than is healthy. It is against this backdrop that I bring my unschooled judgment upon Gilead and Home. Both are about two preachers, their forbears and their families. One The Reverend John Ames, a Congregationalist, the other The Reverend Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian. Both books are astute observations about the uncompromising atmosphere of obligation to the Christian faith. Both are highly regarded by the literati and Marilynne Robinson won a Pulitzer for Gilead. My contribution is therefore of no consequence and I have a free hand.

Set aside for a moment the fine descriptive passages and the miraculous articulation of the tensions in the two families and one is left with a much biased account of the troubles which beset them, particularly the Boughtons and how they cope with John Ames Boughton – “Jack” – their black sheep, who is an intellectual and emotional match for them all.

It is tempting to perform a micro-analysis of the beliefs and psychological dynamics, as indeed Robinson does, but these are works of fiction, the characters are made up, and so the exercise is a futile one. The novels are best taken at their face value, for anything else is an examination of Robinson’s own beliefs and psychology and nothing more. That is not to minimise her work, but to place it in perspective.

Home concerns the 1950s family of a dynasty of Presbyterian ministers in the small community of Gilead in Iowa. Jack, who had the temerity to rebel, fathers an illegitimate child, leaves home for twenty years and returns again, destitute, to find his sister Glory, a fugitive from a broken relationship, caring for her father, now frail and nearing the end. She watches over and tactfully counsels her brother. They develop a common understanding, often unspoken. She herself is something of a rebel too, and has a secret. Jack turns out to be not such a bad egg, helps with the care of the father, brings the garden back to order and skilfully restores the jalopy in the barn. His unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation with his father’s old friend, the Reverend John Ames, briefly causes a rift between the two sickly old men. Despite the Congregationalist’s pointed sermon aimed, it seemed, at Jack’s abandonment of his illegitimate child and her mother, the friendship is easily repaired by the forgiving intervention of Jack himself, but at the cost of his own re-adjustment. Jack writes letters to his wife Della – or de facto wife,  there were laws against marrying or cohabiting with a coloured woman  –  but they come back marked “return to sender”, supposedly by her protective, negro preacher father. In his misery Jack resorts to drink, contemplates suicide in the barn and is found by Glory in the nick of time. Things are never quite the same, though; his father begins to lose his mind and death becomes imminent. Jack leaves home again before the event, a pity because Della and his young son turn up two days later. A last-ditch letter he wrote at the suggestion of Glory to an intermediary brought them looking for him.

Home, published in 2008, provides a Sebaldic periscope upon Gilead, published in 2004. On finishing the later novel, I felt compelled to read the earlier again, if only to check events it dealt with in more detail, especially those in Jack’s life, and to remind myself of The Reverend John Ames’s true assessment of Jack. Gilead neatly takes the form of a letter fromthe minister to his seven-year-old son Robbie, named after Robert Boughton. The two works overlap substantially in time and events. The epistle, written as the writer nears the end of his life, is part family history, part autobiography and part confessional with the haphazard quality of a diary. Thus far it is harmless enough but then he struggles to reconcile his Christian ethic with his judgmental assessment of Jack. This exposes his inner hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that blights the whole culture. A culture that spouts platitudes and believes Scripture holds the answer to all things. Such convolutions led to the initially inadvertent troubles with that sermon taken so hard by Jack.  Perhaps Christianity demands too much. At one point, the letter says the old man will never forgive Jack. This unchristian thought concerns Jack’s wayward childhood pranks and adult moral and criminal aberrations that embody fundamentalist Christian doubt: serious enough , but not so serious as to invoke eternal damnation, a damnation unbefitting a supposedly loving  Father. The Ames family has its own black sheep, the brilliant and successful Edward. He goes away to study in Germany and comes back an unrepentant atheist, but  the old man can deal with that. Atheism is just another intellectual challenge, even though there is no repentance and repentance is the key to salvation. The whole creaky edifice, nothing whatever to do with the ancient teachings, threatens to collapse. Jack challenges his very core and he cannot cope because he over-intellectualises, and he knows it. He obsesses and speculates, but doesn’t know it. In the end, it is through Jack’s efforts that the a full understanding eventually emerges. The preacher was scarred by the death of his first wife and their baby daughter.  None of  these perspectives, I emphasise, appear in the book itself. They are my own and I take responsibility for them.

Little Robbie’s prospects, regarded so naively by Glory towards the end of Home, give cause for apprehension, what with the combination of his upbringing, his likely discovery of the eerie message from the dead, and the rapport he has with Jack. Robbie’s mother is a generation younger than his father. She was an uneducated and impoverished, but intelligent, woman who had suffered hard times before she appeared in her future husband’s church, a little later proposing marriage. The widowed minister and she, his second wife love and respect each other well. And she understands the real Jack. He had moved from relative comfort to despair, she from destitution to relative comfort.

Viewed from the vantage of The Presbyterian Church of England, now united with the Congregationalist Church as The United Reformed Church, of which I am a lapsed elder, the novels come across as oddly sympathetic to the stultifications in the New World of those traditions. They are, I imagine, substantial building-blocks of the American dream.

Notwithstanding these concerns, I have to confess to an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable read. Robinson lures and beguiles as she tightens the bible belt, examines abolition and discrimination, moral issues seen most clearly by Jack and the eccentric grandfather Ames, assesses the Civil War and closely observes personalities through the blinkered eyes of highly educated, clever religious families who try to mean well. These introspective ruminations are to be lingered over and relished, not least because of Robinson’s smooth, gifted and accessible style, enhanced here and there by a quietly mischievous and sparkling sense of humour.

The Magic Mountain

If a man spends twelve years of his life, interrupted only by the Great War, dedicated to my entertainment and edification, he surely deserves a few words in response, especially since my own engagement may be measured in as many weeks. Still, time presses, a watched pot never boils and I must not be tempted into paraphrase or précis, so for the full version I refer you to “The Magic Mountain” by the Nobel prizewinner, Thomas Mann, or rather the translation by Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, Boris Johnson’s great-grandmother.

My purpose is not to spend twelve weeks or even days in fulfilment of my obligation but little more than twelve minutes. When Thomas Mann started out he intended a novelette. I must, therefore, in deference to him, reserve a space of twelve hours if I am to toy with this major work of twentieth century literature. Not that I shall compare my attention to the movement of hands on the clock or resist other activities in between. That would render any chronology doubtful.

“A space of twelve hours.” An odd mixture of space and time, that. A consideration our author plants early on in the mind of his callow hero, Hans Castorp, on a three-week visit to his cousin Joachim, who is undergoing a cure at the International Sanatorium Berghof, high up at Davos in the Swiss Alps. A visit which, in keeping with the same property of time, extends to seven years hardly perceived as such. The stay follows discovery of tuberculosis in his lung by the “Hofrat”, or clinical director, Behrens, the Merry Widower. The young man’s intent upon on an apprenticeship with a shipbuilder following success in his examinations is thus frustrated.

Our young hero accounts for time’s flexibility in that we cannot sense it and so it is better thought of as motion in space. Inconveniently, one supposes, since we cannot sense space either, and a lot else besides.

Still, I must not be picky. He is only twenty and brings with him the burden of a tragic, though cared for, childhood, suffering the loss of both parents, and the beloved grandfather who took him on. Subsequently he is fostered by a benign if otherwise fully occupied uncle, who is a notable local politician.

Hence, after a long train journey from Hamburg, he comes to the Berghof well versed in illness, death and the arts of grief and condolence. Less well versed is he, however, in the craft of love, for at school he had become emotionally obsessed with a fellow schoolboy and, in the course a few years’ education, had but two brief contacts with the object of his admiration – once to borrow a pencil and once to return it. At the Sanatorium he falls in love with Clavdia Chauchat, a married Russian, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the schoolboy. He is again reticent, having only two, admittedly longer, private contacts with her. He declares his passion, in French, while drunk, at a party, at the Berghof, during a carnival and she departs the next day, returning a few months later with an ageing lover, a larger-than-life personality, one Mynheer Peeperkorn. On his death, all hope of romance dissolves, much to my disappointment.

It is fortunate our esteemed author speaks through his characters, for that way he takes no responsibility for the ideas and beliefs they express. Time, as fickle and indeterminate at it is, seems to acquire a personality all its own. Mann, indeed grants it a leading rôle in the novel. He must, for in this isolated location, all but shorn of hope, patients seek artificially to relieve their boredom, suspend accepted morality, as in any closed community of mixed gender, and lose touch with actual – if there is such a thing – time and the world of normal cares.

Two sufferers, an Italian, humanist and literary scholar, Herr Settembrini, and Naphta, an ex-Jesuit, of poor and persecuted Jewish stock, a specialist in the mediaeval church, supply a comprehensive assessment of much of what it is to be human. These two have interminable irreconcilable hi-brow quarrels and vie to influence Hans Castorp’s intellectual development. Wearying of life in the institution, Settembrini leaves and takes lodgings above Naphta in the town. His are stark and austere, Naphta’s are plush and extravagant, courtesy the Society of Jesus. The quarrels end in tragedy – doubly so, for there is little that truly separates them.

Absorbing and ingenious though their respective discourses may be, they are no more convincing than Hans Castorp’s notion of time, particularly in Settembrini’s dismissal of music as bound to actual time, a limitation, he says, not applying to literature.

Equally suspect is the treatment of mathematics, psychology, cosmology, anatomy, botany, spiritualism, communism, revolution, religion, eastern and western cultures compared – everything comes under the author’s pen. Are they his own views or those of people stricken with the terrible body- and mind-eroding disease? It is kinder to suppose the latter.

Have no fear. What matter are the superbly balanced and observed depictions of the mountain environment, the mental struggles of Hans Castorp to come to terms with his destiny, the personalities he meets, the moving passages devoted to infatuation, its joys, its pains, its dominance, its moods. Ultimately, divine love prevails and explains all.

Fees at the Berghof mean all patients are of the privileged class but they are of various sorts from the coarse and ignorant, a touch of intellectual snobbery there, to those insufferable intellectual antagonists, mercifully overshadowed by the charismatic entrepreneur, Mynheer Peeperkorn. Interaction at their allotted dining tables, on walks and excursions provide much of the material.

Joachim, whose soldierly duty foreshortens his “cure”, a duty which causes a relapse and kills him, is a devastating loss to Hans. Things are never quite the same for Hans afterwards, nor for the reader: Joachim is the light that shines above those who abandon courage and noble purpose.

Hans, contrary to the rules, learns to ski, gets lost in a snowstorm high up in the mountains and, assisted by time and his variable relationship with it, attains enlightenment.

One has the impression in the last two hundred pages or so that Mann became desperate to finish his labours. His studies become finicky and detail becomes tiresome rather than a stimulant to his exquisite expression. I hazard the guess that he composed these after the Armistice. They are immaculately constructed, and conclude unpredictably in captivating battle-worn poignancy.

In the appended “Making of the Magic Mountain”, Thomas Mann tells us to read the work twice since it is more in the nature of a symphony than a novel, and one always has to listen at least twice to a musical work in order to begin to appreciate it. Whilst acknowledging his genius, I do think that’s stretching it a bit, unless one reads aloud all seven hundred and fourteen pages to turn them into sound.

The notion was too abstract for me. I’ll stay with the book version.

The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

Edgar Allan Poe portrait B

… the larger proportion of all truth has sprung from the collateral …

These words are taken from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Rogêt. They are spoken by M. Dupont, Poe’s archetypal fictional detective, a model drawn upon for Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and countless others.

Poe’s tale has a difference, though. His mystery solves a real murder.

Written a year after the first appearance of Dupont in The Murders in the Rue Morgue and published in November 1842, it studies the unsolved violent death of a popular young woman in New York. Poe shifts the setting to Paris and has Dupont amass distorted and biassed newspaper reports, focus on fine detail and reach the only logical conclusion. Publication led ultimately to real-life confessions in accordance with Dupont’s deductions.

A triumph for logic, one might suppose. Consider, though, the tale’s opening paragraph:

“There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly so marvellous a character that as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them. Such sentiments–for the half-credences of which I speak have never the full force of thought–such sentiments are seldom thoroughly stifled unless by reference to the doctrine of chance, or as it is technically termed, the Calculus of Probabilities. Now this Calculus is, in its essence, purely mathematical; and thus we have the anomaly of the most rigidly exact in science applied to the shadow and spirituality of the most intangible in speculation.”

You could not wish for a more succinct and complete description of synchronicity, a term not invented by Carl Gustav Jung or investigated by him until well into the twentieth century. Not only this, Poe asserts the supremacy of intuition over logic, applying it in the tale with surpassing effect. Nor should one neglect the profundity of his remarks concerning chance, for he could not have known in 1842 of the central role played by the mathematics of probability in that most successful of sciences, quantum theory.

Here Poe exposes the shaky foundations upon which logical reasoning rests. Where evidence is limited and the observations selected, it is possible to draw an infinity of conclusions. The only reliable source of truth is the intuition, tried and tested by the disciplines of logic. A process so marvellously demonstrated in the tale.

Dupont has this to say about how the courts determine the facts of a case:

” … it is the malpractice of all courts to confine evidence and discussion to the bounds of apparent relevancy …. a vast, perhaps the larger, proportion of truth arises from the seemingly irrelevant.”

The image of Edgar Allan Poe must be wrenched from the disservice to him rendered by the juvenile horror movies. He is a formidable philosopher, poet and seer, able to distil his insights within accessible stories and verse. Further injustice is perpetrated on his memory by a highly prejudiced biography by Rufus Griswold in pursuit of a personal hatred of the author, who has thus suffered an irradicable slur on his reputation.

A Dream Within a Dream

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Edgar Allan Poe

Last Night I Met Einstein

His housekeeper ushered me into a darkened room and disappeared. He smiled at me, propped up against his pillows, his head turned towards me. I lay beside him on the bed, my head turned half towards him. He spoke.

“Professor M… ?”
“Not a professor.”
“Not a doctor.”
“Not a master. Not even a bachelor.”

Together we paused long enough for me to feel the proposterousness of my situation. I awaited the peremptory dismissal, then feebly broke the silence.

“I have been reading about the Riemann hypothesis…” There was another pause. “…. the Critical Line …… ,” I ventured.

“Hm. The Critical Line.”

He reached for a small sheaf of A4. There were no creases in it. The paper was unlined white. He drew, he wrote and he drew on a single sheet and showed it to me. At the top of the sheet was an Argand diagram on which he had traced, from top to bottom, the Critical Line. Diagonally to the left and a little beneath were a few lines of calculation in immaculate handwriting. The symbol A3 seemed to stand out. Beneath that was another Argand diagram with a line running from left to right a little above and parallel to the horizontal axis. He spoke.

“Combine them.”

I had no idea what he meant and merely observed: ” I see how carefully you write and form your letters. Is that important?”

A moment passed as the inanity of what I said seeped into every crevice.

“Very important, take your time.”

“You are very kind.”

“Take those.” He shuffled the papers towards me. They slid about. I didn’t know whether to take them all, even the blank ones. Incompetently, I tried to stuff them into one of those light, transparent plastic folders but they half spilled out. He turned away from me. The room filled with light. He, the bed and the walls had disappeared.

Pereunt et Imputantur

1 Sanderstead Church

2 Clock Sanderstead Church

They are gone and counted.

Not, though, for William Faulkner in Light in August, for literature allows us to examine and extend, clarify and muse, irrespective of the passage of what we call time.

Lives conjoining for a short period may profoundly and permanently affect each other. Some may not survive, others face irrevocable change, others pass onward unmoved.

So Lena, a penniless, orphaned, pregnant, white girl treks on foot from her rejecting relatives in Alabama, seeking the white, feckless father of her child and reaches Jefferson, where the child is born.

The reliable, non-descript Byron Bunch at the timber mill there falls in love with her.

Also in Jefferson, half-white, Joe Christmas, and a wealthy, aging spinster of a New England family, conduct an incongruous love affair that ends in a catastrophic tragedy.

To the despair of his grandmother, after his mother’s death in childbirth, Joe’s grandfather had left him to the care of an orphanage but he was ultimately adopted into the household of a childless bigoted bully. The grandparents, too, arrive in Jefferson.

A protestant minister in Jefferson had been hounded out of his church by his flock because of his wayward wife who committed suicide in Memphis – he refuses to leave Jefferson.


Plait these lives together and soak in religious bigotry, violent racial hatred and injustice; examine closely the lives and family histories in a fastidious psychological and emotional analysis over parallel periods and the result is a mash of highly recognisable, personal images following closely, one upon another in flat monotony, imperceptibly forcing the reader into judgment.

This agonising monotony yields a warped travesty from an old negress, a freed slave, who had served the grandfather of Rev Hightower, who, ruminating in obese self-pity, sitting in the half-light of his dingy study, recalls her words:

“… Free? What’s freedom done except git Morse Gail killed and maiden a bigger fool outen Pawmp den even de Lawd Hisself could do? Free? Don’t talk to me about freedom …”

That this should issue from the author’s pen tells more of a mind addled by heat than one who has shed the chains of bondage.

There is no doubting the beauty of the narrative passages with their rich vocabulary, nor of the laboured expressiveness of the vernacular in which the memories, conversations and reflections are set. Yet the chaos of ideas, presented in artificial order and saccharine overplay, eventually pall, particularly for this Englishman, who can only read in his own accent.

Contrasts – those of pace from pure poetic stillness to insane haste, affluence and poverty, love and hate, doubt and certainty – conveyed in a somewhat random, though effective, attention to tense – evoke the heat and the haze from which the worn-out characters emerge, taking their respective parts in the inevitable moral disintegration of a self-righteous, unrelentingly unforgiving community

Lena was there at the start and has the final word as she approaches Salisbury, Tennessee, half smiling and with a companion:

“My my. A body does get around. Here we aint been coming from Alabama but two months and its now already Tennessee.”

And she aware of so little, even of her own predicament. Yet her courage and hope, her loyal companion and her new baby restore freshness and the promise of a cooling breeze as August and Jefferson fade, at last, from memory.

The Star Maker

Globular Cluster in Centaur

Globular Cluster in Centaur

Science fact is a difficult enough notion to grasp in itself. It suggests discipline and adherence to well-accepted rules in the passage from observation to experiment, conclusion and further experiment as a continuous cycle. Science fiction will have none of this: no discipline, no rules, no observation, no experiment, no conclusion – only that which has gone before. Perhaps because of this release and hint of anarchy it is often beloved of scientists themselves. Sometimes it predicts science fact, since it starts it journey where science leaves off. Published in 1937, Olaf Stapledon’s “The Star Maker” is acclaimed by many as a remarkable work of science fiction.

Drawing on a significant knowledge of astronomy and evolutionary biology, he finds his narrator on a short nighttime walk and sends him off on a romp through the Cosmos. His mode of transport is nothing more than a dream-like disembodied state, yet in this manner he overcomes all supposed physical limitations of distance and time. Before long he discovers a planet similar to Earth and dubs it “the Other Earth”. The environment is somewhat dissimilar, but there he finds living creatures, in form partially resembling Man, partially not. He occupies the body of one without their knowledge, from which position of advantage he learns all about them and their very human desires, virtues and vices. Ultimately a vague telepathic rapport is achieved and he and his host, Bvaltu, set off together to continue the journey.

They meet a diverse series of physical forms, some, where the conditions for evolution are broadly similar to ours, close to Man’s. Again, they learn about these alien life-forms by dwelling inside their bodies unnoticed, and some travel with them, even though they are unable physically to perceive each other. On they go together to discover, for example, living sailing ships, evolved from an upturned mollusc, that build harbours and cities on the coastline.

There is a symbiosis of fish and crabs where the former are the philosophers and artists and the crabs are the scientists and engineers. After discovering telepathy, the crabs ultimately separate and inhabit a part of the galaxy, while the fish stay in their primaeval ocean.

There are the swarms of sparrow-like creatures who communicate by radio but who face conflict between individual and collective philosophies and between the collectives themselves.

Plant-men photosynthesise in their bright sunlight during the day and pursue frenzied mobile activities during the night. As technology advances, these beings do away with their reflective, natural, static, photosynthetic existence and devise an artificial process that permits continual activity. They lose their spiritual character and become insane. Some ultimately find a balance to the benefit of the galaxy as a whole.

Each humanesque form has its own means of sexual gratification and reproduction, faces environmental, social and economic challenges, fights for survival and domination, achieves temporary peace and succumbs to war. Some are destroyed forever, others, such as the insectoids, collectives of insects, attain a higher spirituality than the travellers can comprehend.

The reader might be impressed by the life-form consisting of ultra-microscopic, sub-vital elements, communicating electronically, as reminiscent of electronic computers.

The travellers acquire an intense sense of community without losing their individuality. Sometimes they regard the whole Cosmos as a self-sufficient all-creating intelligence. At other times they wonder if there is an external influence, creating and destroying its own work; they never know.

Stapledon takes it as given that when lesser elements combine and cooperate, a higher level of being is attained. Whether or not derived from Darwin’s observation that larger brains are acquired by social animals, it is a convenient peg, perhaps, on which the reader might hang a socialist philosophy. The unavoidable message is: The bigger the better.

Thus the first half of the novel.

By now, I was suffering from speculative overload, but more was to come in a vision of complete worlds, comprising artificial and natural planets, that acquire a homogeneous, living, communistic whole and break out of orbit to explore the Galaxy. Some take up residence in orbit round suitable stars. Although they attain a higher awareness, it is unfortunate they still possess a full range of human traits. Thus religious empire-builders destroy complete systems by blowing up stars. Pacifist worlds readily accept destruction in order not to forego principle. The galaxy might come to an end.

Recall the symbiotic ichthyosaurs and arachnoids? Fishes in their oceans who devote themselves to learning and spiritual advancement and their partners, crabs, enjoying periods on dry land and pincers to manipulate, become the practical scientists and technologists. Both have telepathic powers and communicate one with another despite far distant separation. The ichthyosaurs become so advanced in their reflective, homely pursuits in the oceans that the arachnoids are reduced to near-redundancy and decline in numbers. The united pairs have no urge to explore beyond their sub-galaxy. Instead they use telepathy to explore other distant galaxies. They seek an ideal. One of love and eternal harmony.

Alas, they cannot ignore the mayhem of destruction wreaked in the larger part of the galaxy. They quell the aggressors by telepathy and watch with detachment as they are annihilated.

More trouble is to come, though, for the stars are found to be living beings who suffer as a result of the proliferation of orbiting planets. They forsake their quiet ways and proceed to destroy the planetary systems, until at last they manage to recognise the nature of each other’s existence and establish a modus vivendi so that peace prevails.

Stapledon presses forward with his theme and discovers that the nebulae, yet to condense into stars, also live, as does the entire Cosmos itself. Our traveller comes to sense he is, in fact, the whole Cosmos and experiences a flash of light. This, at last, is the Star Maker. The Cosmos is a hobby of his. He had made others as he grew up and will make some more. He rather likes how our Cosmos expands to virtual nothingness, with an eye to the second law of thermodynamics and likes to observe the sufferings caused to the creatures by the limitations he imposes. He has a complete free creative hand but, mystifyingly to the reader, is bound by the rules of logic.

So it is with considerable relief that the traveller returns to the comfort of his suburban villa.

It takes a measure of perseverence to finish the novel, mostly, I think, because one is exposed to the author’s incoherent fantasies wrapped up in an artificial order. In many respects, reading is the mirror of writing, condensing down to the initial ideas that the author has expanded into the full work. Conscious determination to accommodate the reader provides a pleasurable experience. Stapledon makes no such effort, he merely unloads the contents of his fevered mind. Whether he has produced science fiction or not, I would not know. I dislike the genre and this book has not helped.

Thank you, though, Giovanni, for trying. I must remember that in 1937 the Second World War was only two years away, there was no radio astronomy nor space travel nor cellphone nor Big Bang theory, that particle physics was in its infancy, relativity still a novelty and an expanding universe controversial.

Slow pace, the heat of Alabama and the Light of August are a welcome refuge … so far …