Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Vessel of Wrath

Lanchester's Miss Jones

For all his limitations Somerset Maugham is still a pleasurable read, and a writer we can gain from. I’ve just read ‘The Vessel of Wrath’ from volume 2 of his collected short stories. It was written in 1931 [and in fact filmed in 1938 by Erich Pommer with an impressive cast including Charles Laughton as Ginger Ted, Robert Newton as the Dutch Contrôleur and Elsa Lanchester as Miss Jones, though for some unfathomable reason it was released in the USA as The Beachcomber] and set on the Dutch controlled island of Baru, principal island of the Alas Islands. Nowadays, these islands, just to the west of the Solomons, are part of Papua New Guinea.

There’s a certain datedness in Maugham’s surface style which is revealing as it preserves attitudes and considerations well. Early on in the story, for example, he writes ‘The population of the [Alas island] group is estimated at about 8000, of whom 200 are Chinese and 400 Mohammedans. The rest are heathen.’ It’s an odd and arbitrary division in which Chinese is apparently counted as a religion, but it’s pragmatic enough. The point being that the vast majority of the populace will provide raw material for the missionary work that is a part of the story.

It’s a story of four white people, set against an amorphous background of restless natives, and Maugham tells his story with an eye for detail and a mordant humour that masks a certain remoteness and lack of empathy. The fat controleur and Ginger Ted the scapegrace are in a sense pitted against the humourless Joneses [brother and sister rather than husband and wife] who are missionaries with a bit of doctoring on the side [or vice versa, I’m not sure]. Miss Jones [her first name isn’t provided] is middle-aged and unattractive but strong-willed and competent, much like her brother, yet the more laid-back controleur and even the drunken Ginger Ted have their practical capabilities, and the author clearly finds this pair the more congenial.

Miss Jones might be described as the stereotypical ‘old maid’, disapproving of but obsessed with sex. Having just watched D W Griffiths 1916 film Intolerance, which features middle-aged matronly do-gooders wreaking destruction on those they regard as depraved, I recognise the zeitgeist out of which these ‘types’ are constructed, but Maugham does at least make us feel sympathy as well as a callous amusement at poor Miss Jones’ self-concocted excitation at the prospect of being raped [she finds herself, in a key scene in the story, forced to spend a night on a desert island with Ginger Ted, who has a reputation for sexual depravity]. We might also feel a grudging admiration for the woman’s final sexual victory, when in the end she wins over the former scapegrace, persuading him to at least give lip service to the missionary position.

In the end, it’s a story about sex. Miss Jones imagines being raped by Ted, and when he doesn’t do so but covers her up instead, she’s able to combine the qualities of a gentleman with those of a sexual conqueror, thereby purefying her lustful thoughts, while still retaining them. Not that it’s likely that Ted will remain totally tamed, or that the missionary position will retain much flavour for too long.

The author’s own view is of course not explicit, he speaks through his characters, variously. Some remarks on god and providence, however, struck me as well calculated. Miss Jones and Ted had become stranded on their island [in an ingenious touch Miss Jones insists on consummating their marriage on this same island] when they were off together fighting a cholera outbreak on outlying islands, in which 600 islanders lost their lives. Miss Jones believes, of course, that the Lord’s will has brought them together:

‘Do you think so?’

Í know it. Don’t you see? Except for the cholera Edward would never have found himself. Except for the cholera we should never have learnt to know one another. I have never seen the hand of God more plainly manifest.’

The Controleur could not but think that it was rather a clumsy device to bring those two together that necessitated the death of six hundred innocent persons, but not being well versed in the ways of omnipotence he made no remark.

These kinds of grotesque arguments are still made by even the most supposedly sophisticated of believers, as Dawkins [God Delusion, chap 2, p64] well illustrates.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008


something like this, with buttons?

I’ve come across this term in Maugham’s story The vessel of wrath, set in the East Indies. It was an item of clothing with bright brass buttons. It appears to be something like a shirt, but with no lapels. There’s very little on the net about it.

I’m reading a collection of Maugham stories that I’ve read before. It took me a while to realize this. Something in his style – droning and forgettable. A certain shallow knowingness, to paraphrase Coetzee, though informative about the colonial world and the general feel of the times – eg anti-semitism and class attitudes in Britain between the wars, in Alien Corn.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Something joyously irrelevant

Troian and others decided to head for Vladivostok, so as to reach Italy by sea, and in an epic Anabasis they crossed Siberia

Claudio Magris

Not knowing the word Anabasis – Magris is a slow read, rich with allusion – I’ve just looked it up, opening myself into the wonders of Xenophon and the Ten Thousand. The Greek term anabasis actually refers to an inland journey from the sea, whereas Xenophon’s Anabasis described a journey the other way round, though towards a semi-internal sea, the Black Sea. Presumably that's why Magris has capitalized it, referring specifically to Xenephon's work. Basically, the Ten Thousand were Greek mercenaries fighting for Cyrus the Younger, who was trying to overthrow his brother, Artaxerxes II. They defeated Artaxerxes at the Battle of Cunaxa, but Cyrus was killed, so it was all for nothing, and the mercenaries were trapped deep in enemy territory. They decided to head northward to the Black Sea, abounding in Greek settlements. It was a huge trek, an odyssey of sorts, and they were hounded, harassed and killed by the Persians along the way. Arriving at the Black Sea hardly brought an end to their troubles, but the cry on sighting the sea – Thalatta, Thalatta [aka Thalassa, Thalassa], has rung through the ages. More gilding to the life.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

brief altercation

gospel? - I doubt it

I’m not a very sociable person – I don’t get close to people, though I generally get on well enough with them. It occurs to me, though, that though I’m a social animal through and through, I’m never more sociable, more relaxed, more witty, more thoughtful, more loving and caring than when I’m alone.

I teach English to people from Vietnam and other mostly Asian countries, and I perform quite well for them and no doubt give an impression of being affable and friendly, and I’m friendly enough with those I associate with through foster caring, but I’m very bad at keeping up with friends, I don’t always, or often, respond to emails, I never visit or ring people unless I have to, and I generally avoid. I’ve completely lost contact with my ‘real’ family and things are pretty rocky too with the family I married into. My former wife keeps promising to divorce me, but she hasn’t yet. We’re quite good friends, but she’ll be moving further away from me in a few days.

I would really like to have someone to argue with. Someone knowledgeable and secure in themselves who can takes things I say and scrutinize and question them and give me a hard time without being in any way personal, someone who’ll add to my thoughts and deepen them, not letting me away with anything lax, urging me on, with a kind of unserious but really very serious respect. Why are such energizing people so incredibly incredibly rare?

I had the briefest of altercations yesterday. One of my former step-daughters, a theology student, was talking to the recent spouse of another former step-daughter about the various texts that did or didn’t make it into the holy book. She ‘explained’ to him that those other texts were rejected because they were full of myths[?!!] I’d just arrived on the scene at this point, and I couldn’t help chipping in with the sarcastic, “Yes, and those texts that were included contained no myths at all’’. “No, they didn’t,” my former step-daughter said, loudly and emphatically. At the same time, the husband of my other former step-daughter said laughingly, “oh no now, settle down, settle down”, for he’d no doubt heard of my belligerent atheism though I’m quite sure he’d never heard anything from me. Meanwhile, my response to my former step-daughter was a forehead-slapping “Of course they did,” to which she responded with some claim to being an expert, as a long-time and high-flying student of theology. I muttered something about the uselessness of theology, while the husband of my other former step-daughter went on trying to becalm the ruffled waters. That’s when I let it go. End of altercation. Bloody boring. And then went on chatting with my former step-daughter about the house she was hoping to buy, and it was all very amicable… and boring.

Of course [ah, alone again] the question of whether the Bible tales are myth or historical fact isn’t a theological question, it’s an empirical one. Perhaps more specifically an archaeological one, and it’s already been largely answered by that discipline. There is, as far as I’m aware, not a single historical claim made in the bible that has been backed by a scrap of archaeological evidence. Not a single scrap. Of course, theologians don’t take much of an interest in archaeology. And they wonder why they’re considered irrelevant!


Sunday, August 10, 2008


On this morning’s Ockam’s Razor, a reminder of Alfred Wallace, whose papers outlining an evolutionary theory in the 1850s prompted Darwin’s friends, most notably the great geologist Charles Lyell, to prompt Darwin to get publishing on evolution [though the term evolution was only coined later, by Herbert Spencer, according to the presenter].

Of course I knew of Wallace, and recognized that he probably hasn’t been given his due as an evolutionary theorist, that he was an intriguing figure with a very different social background to Darwin, a prodigious worker and thinker who in later life, I heard, became a bit mentally erratic, sadly becoming preoccupied with the dead-end subject of ‘spirituality’.

I’ve met at least one person who imagines that Wallace was done out of recognition by Darwin, but his view was more due to a fondness for conspiracy theories than to a deep knowledge of the history of evolutionary theory. As I’m currently reading a lot on evolution, and on Darwin, via Stephen Gould’s essay collection Eight Little Piggies, this reminder of Wallace is timely. His achievements can hardly be underestimated, especially considering his impoverished and unpromising background. After his long period in the field, Wallace returned to England, full of praise and admiration for his fellow theorist, Darwin. He went on to publish an enormous number of papers on a wide variety of scientific subjects, and had no less than 191 of them published in Nature, still one of the most prestigious science magazines in the world. Clearly he was a recognized and respected scientist in his time, and there was even a plan to have him buried at Westminster Abbey, but his family preferred something simpler. Presumably the reason he’s not so associated in the public mind with the natural selection version of evolution is that Darwin’s Origin of Species is seen as the succinct account of the theory, and its publication as the starting point of the great controversy and debate that continues to this day. My interest, though decidedly amateur, lies in the similarities and differences between Wallace’s account of the theory and that of Darwin – given that Darwin didn’t get everything right, of course.

I’m constantly amazed at how fantastic a resource the internet is. Here, for all to access, is an original copy of Wallace’s book Contributions to the theory of natural selection, published in 1870. Note it belongs to the library of the celebrated Woods Hole biological institute, founded by the great biologist and evolutionary opponent of Darwin, Charles Otis Whitman. Whitman favoured the theory known as orthogenesis, or ‘straight line generation’’, which basically was the idea that particular organisms had limited developmental pathways, and that there could be no jumping from one pathway to another. It was, according to Gould, one of three evolutionary theories in competition with natural selection, a competition that didn’t end until the thirties. The others were Lamarckism, or the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and mutationism, which involved quantum leaps of change via mutation.


Friday, August 08, 2008

the marquis and me - 6

All of this sounds like hearty progressivist stuff, thoroughly acceptable to a modern secularist, but Sade, at this point, doesn’t elaborate on these ethics. We get an inkling further on, when one of Sade’s favourite terms, capitalized Nature, is invoked. Naturally, in terms of Nature, or nature for that matter, Sade is no David Attenborough, and he even asserts that it’s ‘far less essential to inquire into the workings of nature than to enjoy her and obey her laws’. Basically, this means if it feels good do it, for it must be natural.

In the section on Manners, Sade is more explicit, asserting that ‘there are very few criminal actions in a society whose foundations are liberty and equality’. First, with the abolition of all deities, religious crimes – far more numerous and more ‘offensive’ in the seventeenth century – become obsolete. Sade can’t help another dig or two here at believers, and he anticipates Dawkins et al, recommending that the religious be mocked rather than criticized, as a surer way of depriving them of the oxygen that gives them life and power. However, in the same paragraph he recommends proscribing all religion, and we know that trick never works. Consistency isn’t of great concern to Sade, I think [he would say it’s against Nature]. He’s passionately anti-religion, and he’ll grab any weapon at hand to fight it, regardless of effectiveness.

Unimpressed with the ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ principle, Sade argues for pragmatism. We can love others as brethren or friends depending on how we find them. Interestingly, what he’s pleading here is a case for diversity:

…let us do without blaming, and above all without punishing, those who, of chillier temper or more acrimonious humour, do not notice in these yet very touching social ties all the sweetness and gentleness others discover therein; for, it will be agreed, to seek to impose universal laws would be a palpable absurdity….

He advocates a flexible legal system [the principle of precedent would hardly be congenial to him] in which those incapable of bending to the law’ would be treated very differently from the more malleable. The problems here are evident. Our crime and punishment system moves in the opposite direction – the habitual, irredeemable offender will be treated ever more harshly, on the solid enough ground that the public must be protected. Sade, implicitly here and more flagrantly elsewhere, disdains the concept of victimhood.

Sade is opposed to capital punishment [he’d been witness to a glut of guillotining during the reign of terror], on the distinctive ground that, though we’re justified in murdering each other out of ‘natural’ passion, the sort he assumed to pertain in the animal kingdom, the law, having no relation to nature, has no ‘passionate’ justification for execution. Basically his argument against capital punishment is an extension of his argument against anything interposing itself between humans and their ‘natural inclinations’.

Reducing all crimes to four types calumny, theft, impurity and murder – Sade proceeds to defend each one, directing legislators and authorities to encourage and reward them.


Saturday, August 02, 2008

The marquis and me - 5

definitely my favourite picture of Sade

Sade is certainly correct to claim that monarchies and despotisms have always been supported by the church, especially the Catholic Church, itself a model for despotisms and their traditional claims to ‘divine right’. The restoration of extraordinarily repressive monarchies in Europe after the fall of Napoleon was aided and abetted by that church – but I’m veering off topic, for the point of Sade’s attack upon the church is to undermine all moral authority, so that everything can be permitted, according to his view of nature’s dictates. It’s the kind of argument that embarrasses many brights, and that’s jumped on gleefully by believers as proof of the corrupting force of non-belief. I’ve even read critiques, from philosophers of a spiritual bent, that Sade represents the corrupting or nihilistic effects of pure rationalism. I can only suppose they’re misled by Sade’s frequent use of the term logic in his commentaries, which are in fact no more logical than the average.

Yet Sade’s warnings about the church are just as relevant today:

Well understand that your system of liberty and equality too rudely affronts the ministers of Christ’s altars for there ever to be one of them who will either adopt it in good faith or give over seeking to topple it, if he is able to recover any dominion over consciences. What priest, comparing the condition to which he has been reduced with the one he formerly enjoyed, will not do his utmost to win back the confidence and authority he has lost? And how may feeble and pusillanimous creatures will not speedily become again the thralls of this cunning shavepate?

Accepted that Sade’s comments are a bit extreme and absolutist, his understanding of the church’s need to re-establish and maintain a power that was ever arbitrary is pretty well spot on. The modern commentator Pascal Boyer, in Religion Explained, points out the need for religious orthodoxy, because of its arbitrariness, its lack of empirical grounding, to maintain itself through rigorous and ruthless policing of boundaries. See my own commentary on Boyer here and here. The problem, of course, lies in the establishment of established churches, or orthodoxies. They become established because the credulity of the general populace allows them to.

I want to move on, though, to Sade’s more general views on society, manners and the state. Of course he sees connections here – there is never more than a single step from superstition to royalism, he writes. However, like many thinkers witnessing times of revolution - year zero times we might call them, and how many zeros there have been – he was overly optimistic about the refashioning of human society. The blank slate disease, as Steven Pinker might call it:

Frenchmen, only strike the initial blows; your state education will then see to the rest. Get promptly to the task of training the youth, it must be among your most important concerns; above all, build their education upon a sound ethical basis, the ethical basis that was so neglected in your religious education.


pavlov's cat