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Press: The mumble, shrug, and occasional snigger

19 August 2022

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ANOTHER week when everything worth writing about comes from the magazines. First, Rowan Williams in the New Statesman, on Philip Larkin. This is slightly out of date; for some reason, I thought the Lambeth Conference more important at the time. I’m sorry. This was one of half a dozen or more pieces appreciating Larkin on the centenary of his birth.

In such a context, it was refreshing to see Dr Williams open with a spot of blasphemy: “I have never found Larkin an easy poet to like; never mind for the moment the unhappy record of his personal views and attitudes. I suspect this is partly because the first collection of his that I read properly was High Windows, which struck me (and still does) as indulging the least appealing of his poetic mannerisms — the mumble and shrug and occasional snigger that warn the reader not to take any of this stuff too seriously, the tugging undercurrent of resentment, fear, self-pity.”

That said, he goes on to talk a little about a poem that isn’t famous at all, and which seems to me free of all the vices that he finds in High Windows: “Faith Healing” — about middle-aged women being prayed over by an American Pentecostalist. What on earth was Larkin doing at such a meeting, one wonders; for the poem is certainly observed from life: “Their heads are clasped abruptly; then, exiled/ like losing thoughts, they go in silence . . . but some stay stiff, twitching and loud/ with deep hoarse tears, as is if a kind of dumb/ and idiot child within them still survives/ to re-awake at kindness. . . Moustached in flowered frocks they shake.”

The balance between contempt and compassion is perfectly maintained.

“In everyone there sleeps / A sense of life lived according to love. / To some it means the difference they could make / By loving others, but across most it sweeps / as all they might have done had they been loved. / That nothing cures. An immense slackening ache . . .”

“A wonderfully characteristic Larkin phrase”, Dr Williams adds. I think this is a poem that couldn’t have been written without Christianity; not so much in the obvious sense that it is about a Christian service, but in the deeper way in which these women are shown to us as unloved — “that, nothing cures” — and unlovable, and yet made for love in some sense that their lives can’t quite erase.

Even more remarkable, perhaps was an earlier piece in the same magazine by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, on Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wartime diaries. While he served, with conspicuous bravery, in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Eastern Front in the First World War, Wittgenstein kept notebooks in which he wrote out on the right-hand pages a sketch that would eventually become the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, and, on the left-hand pages, unpublished until today, the post-personal possible musings and prayers.

Certainly, Larkin could have taught him nothing about misanthropy: “Life is a form of torture from which there is only temporary reprieve until one can be subjected to further torments. A terrible assortment of torments. An exhausting march, a cough-filled night, a company of drunks, a company of mean and stupid people. Do good and be happy about your virtue. I am sick and lead a bad life. God help me. I am a poor unlucky being. God deliver me and grant me peace! Amen.”

Wittgenstein’s prayers, if that is what they are, are notable because they ask for courage, not survival: “Again and again in moments of danger he writes ‘God be with me,’ ‘God is with me,’ ‘Thy will be done,’ ‘Everything is in God’s hands.’ These utterances seem to express hope that he will accept whatever fate brings. ‘Now would be my chance to become a decent human being since I am face-to-face with death. May the spirit enlighten me.’”

Poor Jordan Peterson — a man whose face has been entirely eaten by the mask of fame — had a piece in The Daily Telegraph, which, I think, foreshadows a mode of argument which will become increasingly popular as the costs of the climate crisis become apparent. “Peddlers of environmental doom have shown their true totalitarian colours” was the headline.

His argument against the educated consensus has two prongs. The first is to deny that there is a crisis at all, as the headline does. “Peddlers of environmental doom” conveys a rather different message from “Prophets of environmental doom”, even if the prediction is the same in both.

The second form, which I haven’t seen made before Peterson, is a kind of demented Hayekism. Only democracy and the market, he says, can produce real solutions. The corporate, globalist version “peddled” by the elites is — he manages to argue — both ineffective and tyrannical. This is very close to the belief that the Covid pandemic was simply a power grab by shadowy elites, and the virus posed no real danger in itself.

There is just enough truth in it to make it a really dangerous lie. The costs of believing it will largely be borne by other people; so we can expect it to spread.

Poet’s Corner, page 40

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