Farewell, Cruel World

A weekly letter from the founding editor of The Browser. Correspondence and criticism gratefully received and always read: robert@thebrowser.com

This week: Hermits, Charles Dickens, Martin Amis, Questions

DOES ANYBODY out there need a hermit?

The last time there was much of a market in hermits was probably in 18th-century England when the job description went something like this:

The hermit, according to the terms of the agreement, must continue in the hermitage seven years, where he should be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, a mat for his feet, a hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for his timepiece, water for his beverage, and food from the house. He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of Mr Hamilton’s grounds, or exchange one word with the servant. If he remained without breaking one of these conditions for seven years he was to receive the sum of seven hundred pounds.

Seven hundred pounds sterling in 18th-century England was roughly the equivalent of $100,000 in 21st-century America, a useful bonus for reintegrating into civilian life but not a sufficient reason for spending seven years in seclusion. To do a hermit's job with any enthusiasm one would need to view the hermit's life as something desirable in itself — which I think I could manage, subject to one or two tweaks of the terms and conditions.

I will take a Kindle in place of a Bible. I will reserve the right to cut my nails. I will want a calendar as well an hourglass if I am to be paid once every seven years. Living conditions in a hermitage were doubtless pretty spartan circa 1720, but I will assume that in 2023 a hermitage will have a bed, a chair, electricity, and mains water. Subject to that I am good to go.

The vocation of the eighteenth-century hermit was to be ornamental. There was no requirement to be available 24/7 for discussions about the meaning of life with one's employer, nor to write an end-of-mission impact report. The one obligation of the hermit was to take a solitary walk around the estate every evening so that he or she might be admired by dinner guests, much as those guests might also be encouraged to admire a flock of prize sheep or a gazebo in the oriental style. I would discharge that duty if hired.

Would I stick it for seven years? Mr Hamilton's first hermit lasted just three weeks, and I am sure I could do better than that.

But if I could write my own terms, if I could find an enlightened patron willing to spring for something more ambitious than a hut on a hillside, I could imagine finding perfect happiness in a secular monastery designed not for one hermit but for many. We would sleep in our whitewashed cells, read and write all day, and observe a vow of silence save for mealtimes and late evenings when conversation would be allowed.

Ideally one would enter such a retreat with the privileges that used to attend signing on with the French Foreign Legion: Take a new name, disown any past identities and previous convictions, disappear from the records and registers of the State. Lifelong immunity to buff envelopes and court orders.

Is there such a place in the world, or room for such a place? I doubt I am alone in feeling that, subject to my limited means, I would pay more for medieval austerity than for modern comfort.

My information about the life of the ornamental hermit I drew from English Eccentrics: A Gallery Of Weird And Wonderful Men And Women (1933), by Edith Sitwell, which despite its irresistible title turned out to be a rag-bag of disparate essays carelessly digested from contemporary biographies of people who were not classically eccentric and in some cases not even English; rather, they were people who might better be described as obsessive, notorious, fraudulent, miserly, reckless, or deluded. Still, that is still promising set of criteria, and the book does have its moments.

I was pleased to learn — even if further investigation proves the claim untrue — that the term "quack" for a bogus doctor is abbreviated from "quacksalver", has some claimed association with ancient Egypt, and was first used in the 17th century to salute the effusive reassurances which were held to be part of the quack-doctors' spiel:

In The Antiquities of Egypt, by William Osburn, Junior, published in 1847, the author says that the idea of a physician is frequently represented by a species of duck; the name of which is Chini. The Egyptian equivalent for cackling, or the noise of a goose, was Ka Ka, and, in Coptic, Quok, pronounced very much like Quack.

I also enjoyed encountering Squire Mytton, described in Sitwell as a "half-mad hunting creature" who drank eight bottles of port each day, and who once set his nightshirt on fire, while wearing it, as a cure for hiccups. The hiccups were cured but the burns almost killed him.

Mytton was born into great wealth, died in a debtor's prison at 38, and enjoyed life while it lasted:.

The Squire was constantly riding at dangerous fences, falling off his horse when drunk, driving his tandem at a frantic speed, and paying no more attention to crossroads and corners than he did to creditors.

Animals did well to keep their wits about them when in Mytton's vicinity:

A horse named Sportsman dropped dead because Mytton, out of kindness of heart, had given him a bottle of mulled port. There was a day, too, when disaster came because Squire Mytton deserted the horse as a steed and rode into the dining-room on a large brown bear. Dinner was waiting, and all went well until the Squire, who was dressed in full hunting costume, applied his spurs to the bear, whereupon that injured pet bit him through the calf of his leg, inflicting a severe wound.

I was also interested to discover via Sitwell that Herbert Spencer, the Victorian philosopher, was most particular about his train travel:

Mr Spencer had been taught by experience that by travelling in a hammock when going a long journey he avoided the evil consequences which usually followed the shaking of the train. The slinging of the hammock in the saloon carriage reserved by Mr Spencer was no light matter; indeed it aroused the interest of all the denizens of the station; but when Mr Spencer became aware of this interest, he called out in stentorian tones: "Draw down those blinds". The four officials who were temporarily under bondage to him did so immediately, so that all the fun was spoilt, as far as the crowd was concerned. Mr Spencer continued his survey of the hammock-slinging, and then, as the train was about to start, he bestowed warm words of praise upon his companions, bending from the hammock to do so: "You have done very well. Good-bye".

I begin to see that Charles Dickens's variegated universe of minor characters owes less than I had thought to Dickens's powers of invention and more to his powers of observation.

I am listening each evening to a chapter of Dickens's Bleak House, which I had never found enjoyable in print but which proves a garden of delights when read aloud by a sympathetic voice. I see now why Henry Oliver considers Bleak House to be the best of Dickens's novels and perhaps of all English novels.

Of the many sub-plots in Bleak House, I am particularly taken by Dickens's prescient critique of Effective Altruism through the person of Mrs Jellyby, a middle-class Londoner who is so preoccupied with raising money for missions to Africa that she has no time to spare for her own children. The unwashed little Jellybys fall downstairs, dress in rags, and weep with misery, while their mother, indifferent to what is going on in front of her eyes, devotes her energies to the promotion of grand projects for improving the future well-being of distant peoples. I find it hard not to think of San Francisco as Mrs Jellyby's house writ large.

In my daytime reading, after finishing Sitwell's Eccentrics, I succumbed briefly to a desire for guilty pleasure, and began re-reading Martin Amis's Money (1984), which I remembered as the best-crafted novel of Amis's golden age, the one that came closest to being a classic.

The style is still a marvel. Nobody in the 20th century wrote sentences more to my taste. But the years have not been kind to the substance.

I know that critics tend to argue that style is substance; that in attempting to separate style from content you are asking, in effect, for a different book. But in the case of Money it is painfully apparent that the words are telling you one story while the events and characters are telling you quite another.

Amis mocks the vulgarity and venality of Money's anti-hero John Self. This is the stuff of the book. But Amis is always on Self's side and of Self's party, he never flips Self from anti-hero to villain. He caricatures Self's male-chauvinist piggery while wallowing in it, even revelling in it. What was offered once as satire reads now as wish-fulfilment.

And yet, and yet, there is delight in every sentence of Money:

“Yeah", I said, and started smoking another cigarette. Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette.
I’m scared of flying. I’m scared of landing, too.
My head is a city, and various pains have taken up residence in various parts of my face. A gum-and-bone ache has launched a cooperative on my upper west side. Across the park, neuralgia has rented a duplex in my fashionable east seventies. Downtown, my chin throbs with lofts of jaw-loss. As for my brain, my hundreds, it’s Harlem up there, expanding in the summer fires. It boils and swells. One day soon it is going to burst.
When English people say they can play tennis they don’t mean what Americans mean when they say they can play tennis.

I fear that Amis belonged, as I still do, to a generation that rejected the necessity of growing up. If you are having a fabulous time in your twenties, why not live there for ever?

This had obvious attractions as a way of passing the time, but it was a fashion statement rather than a change in the fundamentals of the human predicament. Authors who refused to put aside their childish things when they turned 40 evolved a genre of fiction which came to be called "hysterical realism" and which had something of the character of HDR photography. Successful novels were highly coloured, superficially intense, immediately pleasing, but with little in the way of staying power.

Time has a way of catching up with all of us sooner or later, and I fear it has caught up posthumously with Martin Amis. Much as I still admire Amis's prose style, the prose style is the only thing about Amis that I do still admire.

Against all early expectations, I am sure now that posterity will consider Martin a lesser writer than his father, Kingsley Amis. Kingsley played the bigoted buffer while Martin played the cool cat. Kingsley was the past, Martin was the future. But Kingsley's novels betray a genuine curiosity about human nature which is wholly lacking in Martin's work. I said earlier that Martin wrote satire, but I think now that I was wrong. It was Kingsley who wrote satire, while Martin wrote pastiche.

I am getting oracle envy. Every day I see a blog post somewhere that begins, "I am frequently asked ..." or "People often ask me ..."

When I was a journalist many years ago, one or two people did ask me: "Where to do you get ideas for stories?" At The Browser, if we have an event, it is not unknown for a guest to ask how we come across our more offbeat articles. But those cases aside, to a first approximation, nobody asks me anything.

I don't think I am imagining this. Here are some real-life examples of the "I am often asked" format which are so foreign to my experience as to be scarcely credible:

"I’m often asked some version of this question: How can we fix American democracy?"
"A question I’m often asked: What’s my process for taking notes?"
"I am frequently asked to define branding"
"I'm often asked, "Which power meter should I buy?"
"I am frequently asked to describe public health"
"I am frequently asked: What is your outlook for the markets for the rest of the year?"
I am frequently asked how I managed to survive in the Japanese science community"

It may be that nobody asks me such questions because I never do anything to provoke such questions. On the other hand, what if the world really is divided into "askers" and "guessers", as Oliver Wainwright and at least 4,039 other people have claimed at various times over the past twenty years, the more scrupulous among them crediting the formula to a Metafilter comment posted in 2007; and what if, in my neck of the woods, everybody is a "guesser" and the "askers" have moved elsewhere to be with their kind. We might have sorted ourselves subconsciously. Certainly, I have always led my own life in guess-only mode, walking miles in the wrong direction rather than seeking advice along the way.

When I have to ask a question, I ask it of Google, because that is what Google is for, and on Google I can find an answer that suits my purpose. As for asking and answering questions in real life, let me conclude with two rules of thumb. As in a court of law, never ask a question to which you do not already know the answer; and, as in Rosencrantz And Guildernstern, always reply to a question with another question:

How about that?


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