The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short, comic, laconic tale set in a 1930s Edinburgh girls school by Muriel Spark. It takes us into the heart of the metaphysics of betrayal, sin, redemption, eternal damnation, guilt and fall from grace in a light, crisp, epigrammatic style.
What is to be done?
Here is a story of hope.
Human beings are innately good and amendable to reason. As soon as, by enlightenment and emancipation, humans have overcome unreason and superstition and religion, a scientific-based humanism can be established with a chance of happiness for all. A predictive model of human behaviour can then advantageously guide economic and political relations. By this rational and scientific thinking, and a compassionate regard for all humanity, the human world can be rebuilt on secular lines. Humans, freed from archaism, will see that what is in their interest is also in society’s interest and act together in harmony upon it. Irrationality and hatred and violence, over time, can therefore be made unnecessary. What is needed is education and scientifically sound laws that promote this harmonious regulated life. This materialist philosophy of rational self-interest and progressiveness will promote happiness for all.
“How is one to give evidence of literary merit in a court of law?” asks Sybille Bedford in her short account of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial (re-published this month by Daunt Books).
The story of the trial is well known. Penguin Books, the publishers of D. H. Lawrence’s novel, were charged with publishing an obscene book under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act and tried at the Old Bailey in November 1960. Despite the condescending patrician grandstanding of the prosecutor Mr Mervyn Griffith-Jones “is this a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read”, “members of the jury for those of you who have forgotten your Greek, ‘phallus’ means the image of a man’s penis” and the moralising judge Mr Justice Byrne (and his scowling wife sitting daily with him on the bench) the jury acquitted.
Don Quixote’s madness stems from his literal reading of books of chivalric romance and his deluded belief that he actually is a knight errant. He rides out into the realist world of Cervantes’ novel with a lofty dedication, inflicting his good intentions on others, and time and again is buffeted by stubborn reality. Quixote is generous, brave, courteous, resilient, knowledgeable, eloquent, and a complete idiot. I wrote about Part 1 of the novel last month. He rides out again, in Part 2, with his trusty squire Sancho Panza, having been revived after a month’s rest and the consumption of six hundred eggs.
Don Quixote goes mad in the second paragraph of his own story. This madness, diagnosed by Cervantes, flows from the belief that everything he has read in books of chivalric romance is literally true. He fails to distinguish fiction from reality. His madness is therefore not chemical, nor genetic, nor the result of abusive nurture, but stems from too much reading and, more precisely, too little ability to read what he is reading. His is a literary ailment. In a book of chivalric romance this knight-errant would be quite normal. In a realist novel he is mad; a character who falls frequent prey to his delusions. Continue reading
What is luck? The dictionary definition is “success brought about by chance rather than by ones own actions”. To the religious mind nothing can be occasioned by luck because all is within the compass of a providential God. In Christianity what others call ‘luck’ is instead called ‘grace’. The Greeks believed in the randomness and pointlessness of luck, but they ascribed it to the capricious will of the Goddess Fortuna. Fortune was experienced as capriciousness but lay ultimately in the lap of the gods. To the secular mind the possibility of chance is an affront. To surrender to the idea that life is underscored by meaningless, pointless contingency is, for some, too brutal to be contemplated. Therefore instead, for the secular mind, providence is smuggled back in and called behavioural determinism or karma or destiny or fate or some such retrospective self-deceiving comfort. Let us steel ourselves and remain with the definition of luck as nothing more than pure mundane chance. Continue reading
And so the Rio Olympics comes to an close. The English tabloids are lobbying for the more photogenic gold-medalists to be knighted. Members of the Great Britain team are returning to London on a specially chartered plane with a golden nose. The green diving pool has been returned to blue. An IOC member has been arrested for corruption. The Brazilians can sleep peacefully now the US frat-boy swimmers crime wave is over. The favelas have been forcibly cleared. My favourite irony was the Russian minister for sport complaining that the crowd’s booing of Russian drugged up competitors was “not sporting.” Continue reading