I was in Cambridge for a few days speaking for some events that took place far too late at night for me (carol services at 10pm!!). So naturally, my mind wandered from time to time while the shepherds were watching. And my gaze settled on this memorial which was just above my head. It looks like any other, and is quite wordy. But those words definitely bear close reading. For this particular plaque testified to something far greater than the usual pieties of such things. Read more
It’s Friday, and so that would normally call for some Friday fun. Well, this post more or less qualifies as a bit of fun, but it’s also a bit of seriousness too. So I’ll let it stand on its own merits. Here is a very helpful and salutary public health warning from the great nineteenth century social reformer and polemicist William Cobbett. It has much to teach us. As I’m sure you’ll agree… Read more
Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.
- “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
- “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”
It could have been at a rather upmarket fancy-dress party. The dress was certainly fancy; the guests well-to-do; the event evidently unusual. But as well as being a deeply solemn occasion, and even a family occasion, it was an era-defining moment. Read more
It has been a schoolboy dream to visit this place (yeah, I know; I was, and am still, a bit of a classics geek): the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion (the southern tip of Attica, just below Athens). There’s not a lot of it left sadly. But it is one of the most spectacular spots for any building, let alone one of such antiquity and distinction. Having had an action-packed but positive few days doing some Langham teaching in Athens, it was a joy to get out to the cape for Monday morning, followed by a great seafood lunch with good friends overlooking the Aegean. Read more
Which is a title sufficiently conceited to put anyone off reading this post. But let’s face it – it’s a not uncommon attitude. It lies at the heart of individualism, that pervasiveness western sickness that lies at the root of so many of our ills. It was the title I had in our current series, Great Lies of Our Time (I’m assured that the talks were not allotted because of some particular problem that needed addressing in each speaker – but who can say for sure?).
You can now download the talk here.
Well, the US presidential election is in its final month at last. Will any of us sleep safely in our beds again?
History has been full of people who have hedged their bets and emulated the venerable Vicar of Bray. And in smaller ways, politicians are doing it all the time. Saying things that don’t actually say too many things in case they be accused of actually saying things they don’t want to be heard actually to be saying. Read more
Last week saw the final instalment of the little 1 Cor 1 series in the undercroft chapel in Westminster. Unfortunately, we had the slight inconvenience of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement happening on the same day, and as this had been brought forward to 12.30, there were few who were able to come. No worries though. We happy few had a happy time.
And how nice it was to have a Christmas tree in the centre of Westminster Hall. No thought of winterval here… yet. But give it time I suppose. Now, was it my imagination or does this tree look as though it is leaning to the right…? I’m sure that can’t be significant, can it?
Here’s another gem from Elaine Feinstein’s lovely anthology of city recollections and reflections. This time though it is of a more historical nature, the tribute from of a contemporary Jewish Briton about another, one of the great leaders of the Victorian era, Benjamin Disraeli (aka Dizzy). Read more
Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…
There is a word of plural number
A foe to peace and tranquil slumber.
Now any word you chance to take
By adding “S”, you plural make;
But if you add an “s” to this,
How strange the metamorphosis!
Plural is plural then no more
And sweet, what bitter was before.
What is the word?
Can you solve this without googling it?! Read more
Having finished Metaxas major biography of Bonhoeffer the other day, lots of things have jostled around my mind. I confess I skimmed bits of it (it is nearly 600pp including notes); I found the style a bit jarring at times (especially when he allows his inner satirist to get the better of him when describing Hitler’s Nazis; or when there is a sudden interruption of an incongruous colloquialism, such as the moment when Bonhoeffer ‘delivered an unrelenting homiletic bummer’ – p209!!); and I wasn’t too comfortable with some of the assumptions, or even appropriations, of his churchmanship (there has been quite a blogosphere debate about quite how evangelical it is possible to claim Bonhoeffer was).
But I learned a great deal – especially when Bonhoeffer is allowed to speak for himself, through his writings, letters and papers. This is a substantial book about an exceptional and challenging life. It is definitely worth investing time in.
However, one section blew me away – in the course of his discussion of the Nazi’s infamous book-burning orgy of May 1933, Metaxas quotes the poet Heinrich Heine at a couple of points…
Thus Germany would be ‘purged’ of the pernicious ‘un-German’ thoughts of authors such as Helen Keller, Jack London, and HGWells. Of course Erich Maria Remarque’s books were included, as were those of many others, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. In 1821, in his play Almansor, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote the chilling words: “Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.”
Heine was a German Jew who converted to Christianity, and his words were a grim prophecy, meaning “Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too”. That night across Germany his books were among those thrown into the crackling flames. Sigmund Freud, whose books were also burned that night, made a similar remark. ‘Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them.’ (p162)
But then Metaxas ends this chapter with these words:
Heinrich Heine’s famous words about the book burnings are often quoted and today are inscribed at the Opernplatz as a memorial of the ghastly ritual. But another passage from Heine’s works is perhaps more eerily prophetic of what would take place in Germany a century hence. They are the concluding words of his 1834 book, Religion and Philosophy in Germany:
Christianity – and this is its greatest merit – has somewhat mitigated the brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals… Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder… [W]hen you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history, then you know that the german thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar, the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll. (p163)
Breathtaking, but terrifying, prescience.
I didn’t quite know what to expect having picked this book up in the States last year. I think I assumed it would be something on the lines of a Victorian version of Hustle or the fascinating novel Dizzy City by my old friend Nicholas Griffin (who is certainly NOT to be confused with his odious BNP namesake). You know, a fun, historical romp through true stories of New York hucksters and con-artists.
But it wasn’t quite that at all. In fact, the more I read of this enjoyable, well-written but sometimes awkwardly structured, book, the more I realised it had serious intent. In fact it was sad but unfortunately recognisable in its portrayal of Christianity.
For the focus is of a series of anonymously written articles in the pioneering penny-newspapers of 1835. This became known as The Great Moon Hoax. In time, it became clear that they were the work of English émigré, Richard Adams Locke. But they gripped the whole of New York and were later serialised in many other cities’ papers. He described in great detail the apparent findings of the famous astronomer English Sir John Herschel from his Cape Town Observatory: an entire civilisation of flying man bats and other fantastical creatures living on the moon. People discussed at great length whether or not it could possibly be true. The city was divided.
One thing that few people realised, however, even after Locke came clean, was that he was not seeking to create a hoax – but to write a satire. He was satirising the extraordinary lengths to which some theologians would go in an effort to bend and influence scientific discoveries to their worldview.
So The Sun and The Moon is, in fact, a book about widespread reactions against the Christian gospel and contains a cast of many names well known to those familiar with the period: Edgar Allan Poe, P T Barnum, the Herschel family, even the father of James Gordon Bennett (whom I’d previously only encountered as a mild expletive!). Integrating science and theology is of course a noble and even essential enterprise. But the lengths to which people would go does no credit to either science or theology. Here is one example that especially got under Locke’s skin, taken from a book called Celestial Scenery.
In his letter Locke addressed only a single point from Celestial Scenery, which he believed would be sufficient to illustrate “the serious trespasses of Dr Dick’s theological school of philosophy upon the paramount jurisdiction of physical science”. Thomas Dick had long insisted – the face of substantial evidence to the contrary – that there could be no volcanoes on the moon. Volcanoes, like earthquakes and hurricanes, were evidence of God’s displeasure, and God could be displeased only with sinners; because the lunarians existed in a state of innocence, their landscape would not be blemished with such agents of physical destruction. “Is not this pretty stuff to pass for philosophy,” asked Locke, “and to be presented to our youth as a rule of judgement in determining questions of fact?”
The real world of nature, he pointed out, contains an astonishing multiplicity of functions, and it was the height of arrogance – not to mention pitiable scientific reasoning – to reserve to oneself the right to define certain of them, arbitrarily, as the products of ‘goodness’ or ‘sin’.
The fang of the viper, the claws of the tiger, the tail of the spider, the sing of the wasp, and the beak and talons of the eagle, are as ‘very good’ for their respective purposes, as the milky foundations of the mammalia, or the curious chrysalis of the butterfly… (Moon & Sun, p278)
Unfortunately, by such extreme lengths, the cause of apologetic integration was severely discredited. It demonstrates the need to be very careful about what reductionist assumptions we bring to bear on the discussions. For is it really the case that volcanoes can only be understood as a sign of judgement? Or that lunarians are necessarily innocent? Etc etc etc.
Another of the subplots of the book, sadly, is the inconsistencies of Christians during the Second Great Awakening. Barnum was a fascinating figure, the inventor of the ‘humbug’ which he saw not as a con, but as an entertainment.
As P T Barnum explained in his book on the subject, a humbug “consists in putting on glittering appearances – outside show – novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.’ Superficially, at least, Barnum’s humbug is similar to Edgar Allen Poe’s diddle, as each is a form of hoax. The diddle, however, is carefully designed to preclude any awareness that it has taken place: the grocery story owner does not realize he has been tricked out of his whiskey, or the camp-meeting attendee out of his bridge toll. A humbug, on the other hand, noisily calls attention to itself; it also allows for the possibility of doubt, and requires consent from those who participate in it. The humbug might well turn out to be authentic (many of Barnum’s attractions were just what they were advertised as being), but whether it is true or false, the customers must depart believing they have gotten their money’s worth. A promoter who fails to provide his customers what Barnum called a “full equivalent for their money” will be denounced as a swindler and a fraud, while one who delivers a proper humbug will find his customers coming again and again – the first time because they believe his attraction is authentic, the second time because they are not sure, and the third time to figure out how the trick has been pulled off. The entertainment lies in the nature of the attraction (although as Barnum pointed out, a certain amount of ‘glitter’ is essential) than in the implicit competition between patron and promoter, each one seeking to outwit the other in a game of deception. (p263)
But one of his key influences was the small-town Christianity of his childhood, one which he resolutely rejected in adulthood. And he had many of his ideas from the cons pulled off by Christians – in contrast to whom, he liked to think, he had seized the moral high ground. This is a simple illustration of this:
Barnum loved to tell the story of a grocer who doubled as the deacon at the town’s church. One morning, before breakfast, he called down to his clerk:
“John, have you watered the rum?”
“And sanded the sugar?”
“And dusted the pepper?”
“And chicoried the coffee?”
“Then come up to prayers.” (p103)
I enjoyed the book as it brought to life the streets of early Victorian New York in a remarkable way. But I was also challenged afresh: for the acute need for both rigour in our apologetic and integrity in our living. And there, but for the grace, go I…
I love some poetry – but I have to say that sometimes I find that it has been too refined, too worried at, too precious. That’s not to deny its beauty or power, of course. But still…
Good prose, on the other hand, … especially if it occurs in surprising places… I find mesmerising. I love being forced to read slowly, having to chew on it, to reread a paragraph. It’s hard not to be impressed when this happens regularly – the sheer torrent of words that never lose their quality despite their number, the entering of other worlds and other minds, the apparent lack of artifice. And then to have all this as part of a gripping narrative that not only entertains but provokes and evokes. What could be better?
So here’s a little handful of passages I’ve read recently – passages which I found myself underlining or noting in the margin. You might not think they’re particularly special. But I enjoyed them just for their ability to evoke a sense of being in the moment, enabling the reader to smell the air and feel the temperature.
From Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train
The book is sometimes published as ‘Orient Express’, and was written in 1931 as (what he termed) an entertainment rather than a serious novel. The first page of the book, this sets up the narrative of a number of very different people travelling on the Orient Express all the way from the Ostend ferry terminal to Istanbul. One of the book’s themes, presciently, is anti-Semitism, which is alluded to even here. But it is the way that Greene immerses us in this world immediately and completely.
The purser took the last landing-card in his hand and watched the passengers cross the grey wet quay, over a wilderness of rails and points, round the corners of abandoned trucks. They went with coat-collars turned up and hunched shoulders; on the tables in the long coaches lamps were lit and glowed through the rain like a chain fo blue beads. A giant crane swept and descended, and the clatter of the winch drowned for a moment the pervading sounds of water, water falling from the overcast sky, water washing against the sides of the channel steamer and quay. It was half past four in the afternoon.
‘A spring day, my God,’ said the purser aloud, trying to dismiss the impressions of the last few hours, the drenched deck, the smell of steam and oil and stale Bass from the bar, the shuffle of black silk, as the stewardess moved here and there carrying tin basins. He glanced up the steel shafts of the crane, to the platform and the small figure in blue dungarees turning a great wheel, and felt an unaccustomed envy. The driver up there was parted by thirty feet of mist and rain from purser, passengers, the long lit express. I can’t get away from their damned faces, the purser thought recalling the young Jew in the heavy fur coat who had complained because he had been allotted a two-berth cabin; for two God-forsaken hours, that’s all.
He said to the last passenger from the second class: ‘Not that way, miss. The customs-shed’s over there. His mood relaxed a little at the unfamiliarity of the young face; this one had not complained. ‘Don’t you want a porter for your bag, miss?’
‘I’d rather not,’ she said. ‘I can’t understand what they say. It’s not heavy.’ She wrinkled her mouth at him over the top of her cheap white mackintosh. ‘Unless you’d like to carry it – Captain.’ Her impudence delighted him. ‘Ah, if I were a young man now you wouldn’t be wanting a porter. I don’t know what they are coming to.’ He shook his head as the Jew left the customs-shed, picking his way across the rails in grey suede shoes, followed by two laden porters. ‘Going far?’
‘All the way.’ she said, gazing unhappily past the rails, the piles of luggage, the lit lamps in the restaurant-car to the dark waiting coaches. (pp3-4)
From Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
This famous dystopia was written in 1953 and describes a society which has forbidden books. The title is the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns. Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is not to put out fires but cause them; his job is to burn books secretly stashed by dissidents. But he turns – and runs. This sequence describes the point after he has escaped from the menacing mechanical hound that pursues dissidents. It’s no accident that his life line has been a river, down which he has floated for some distance. As he floats, he reflects…
He saw the moon in the sky now. The moon there, and the light of the moon caused by what? By the sun, of course. And what lights the sun? Its own fire. And the sun goes on, day after day, burning and burning. The sun and time. The sun and time and burning. Burning. The river bobbled him along gently. Burning. The sun and every clock on the earth. It all came together and became a single thing in his mind. After a long time of floating on the land and a short time of floating in the river he knew why he must never burn again in his life.
The sun burned every day. It burned Time. The world rushed in a circle and turned on its axis and time was busy burning the years and the people anyway, without any help from him. So if he burnt things with the firemen, and the sun burnt Time, that meant that everything burned!
Of of them had to stop burning. The sun wouldn’t, certainly. So it looked as if it had to be Montag and the people he had worked with until a few short hours ago. Somewhere the saving and the putting away had to begin again and someone had to do the saving and keeping, one way or another, in books, in records, in people’s heads, any way at all so long as it was safe, free from moths, silver-fish, rust and dry-rot, and men with matches. The world was full of burning of all types and sizes. Now the guilt of the asbestos-weaver must open shop very soon.
He felt his heel bump land, touch pebbles and rocks, scrape sand . the river had moved him toward shore. (p180-181)
From Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard
I’m still in the middle of this one but thoroughly enjoying it. Set in 1860 (first published in 1958), The Leopard describes a crucial moment in Italian history. It portrays the life of an aristocratic, Sicilian Prince at the time of Garibaldi’s unification of Italy (the so-called Risorgimento) as he contemplates the inevitable decline of his class in an age of revolution and democracy.
Here, he is spending time in his favourite bolt-hole at home, a tower-room in his palace from which he indulges in his pastime of astronomy.
Such was the calm produced in the Prince’s mind by the political discoveries of the morning that he smiled at what would at other times have seemed to him gross impertinence. He opened one of the windows of the little tower. The countryside spread below in all its beauty.
Under the leaven of the strong sun everything seemed weightless; the sea in the background was a dash of pure colour, the mountains which had seemed so alarmingly full of hidden men during the night now looked like masses of vapour on the point of dissolving, and grim Palermo itself lay crouching quietly around its monasteries like a flock of sheep around their shepherds. Even the foreign warships anchored in the harbour in case of trouble spread no sense of fear in the majestic calm. The sun, still far from its blazing zenith on that morning of the 13th May, was showing itself the true ruler of Sicily; the crude brash sun, the drugging sun,which annulled every will, kept all things in servile immobility, cradled in violence and arbitrary dreams. (p27)
So… A virtual crunchie bar for the best suggested link between the 3 passages…
Just back from a church week away in Bath. What a place. I adore that whole area even though I’ve only visited a few times. It is full of Regency era perfection. Unfortunately, due to the general hecticness of it all, I never actually managed to venture out of the school we were using even once. However, that didn’t stop me looking up.
We go on holiday tomorrow – so normal transmission will not resume for a week or two. Meanwhile… enjoy looking into the sky…
and then there was the sign for Mr Morgan’s Regency coffee and snuff shop which i rather took a fancy to…
Just been leafing through the latest Tate magazine – one of my favourite bits is the regular feature MicroTate where people from different walks of life offer a brief reflection on something from the Tate collections.
I was gobsmacked by this picture painted in around 1827: John Simpson’s Head of a Negro. It portrays such dignity and yet also such stoicism – above all, it surely points to a common humanity. There shouldn’t be a surprise there – of course. But just consider what was going on in that year (a few very random factlets):
- George IV, the former Prince Regent, had 3 more years left to reign
- Beethoven and artist William Blake died
- Aluminium was discovered (!)
- More significantly, it was 20 years after the British Slave Trade Act (1807) but 6 years before the Slavery Abolition Acts (1833)
So slavery was still a gruesome reality around the British Empire at the time. The famous Wedgwood medallion was still profoundly necessary.
I don’t know whether John Simpson had a model for this portrait, whether he met a real black man who sat for him, or whether he glimpsed someone on the street whose eyes he could not forget, or whether the picture simply came straight out of his imagination. When I look at the painting, I like to imagine what its first viewers saw. Those eyes pull you in without looking at you; you cannot turn away. Did they recognise a common humanity shining from those eyes, those first viewers in the age of slavery? Did they recognise that beauty can come in this form? There is beauty in those eyes, yes, and there is a look of nobility and suffering borne with defiance.
I cannot help but think of the first two verses of HW Longfellow’s poem The Slave’s Dream:
Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.
Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain-road.
The poem about a dying slave’s remembered past life of contented nobility, complete with a dark-eyed queen, kissing children, a powerful stallion and bright flamingos, was written on the other side of the Atlantic, and long after Simpson’s painting, so it cannot have influenced this portrait. There is no possibility of a direct connection, other than in the idea of the enslaved nobleman, a romantic notion that has a strong pull on the imagination. Perhaps it was necessary that those first viewers saw this man as a king in chains in order for them to understand that black slaves were people too. This is ultimately what those eyes demand; a recognition of a shared humanity.
Head of a Negro was presented by Robert Vernon in 1847 and is currently not on display.
Yet more from Holmes’ Age of Wonder. This time the focus is the new-found fascination with flight, as provided by hot air balloons. For the first time human beings could escape the shackles of gravity and deliberately ‘fly’ – albeit in a rather clumsy and highly dangerous way. What struck me was the contrasting reactions from those who gawped from the fields below.
On the one hand, balloons provoked a wild sense of possibility, with all the enlightenment fervour and ambition that entailed. Here’s the poet Shelley again, dreaming of abolition:
Perhaps Shelley put it best, when he was a young undergraduate at Oxford in 1811, and had just witnessed another of Sadler’s balloon ascents one sparkling summer morning from Christchurch Meadows:
The balloon has not yet received the perfection of which it is surely capable; the art of navigating the air is in its first and most helpless infancy; the aerial mariner still swims on bladders, and has not yet mounted the rude raft… It would seem a mere toy, a feather, in comparison with the splendid anticipations of the philosophical chemist. Yet it ought not to be altogether condemned. It promises prodigious faculties for locomotion, and will allow us to traverse vast tracts with ease and rapidity, and to explore unknown countries without difficulty. Why are we so ignorant of the interior of Africa? – Why do we not despatch intrepid aeronauts to cross it in every direction, and to survey the whole peninsula in a few weeks? The shadow of the first balloon, which a vertical sun would project precisely underneath it, as it glided over that hitherto unhappy country, would virtually emancipate every slave, and would annihilate every slave forever. (p162)
And yet, as at every great technological advance, there is the dread of the malicious ends to which it might be used.
Surprisingly, balloons did not appeal to the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, though perhaps at sixty-six he was a little old for such perilous novelties. He thought balloons might be sinister [as he wrote in a letter of 1783]:
Well! I hope these new mechanic meteors will prove only playthings for the learned and idle, and not be converted into new engines of destruction to the human race – as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science. The wicked wit of man always studies to apply the results of talents to enslaving, destroying or cheating his fellow creatures. Could we reach the moon, we should think of reducing it to a province of some European kingdom.
It was an ominous prophecy. (p135)
As ever, the rough with the smooth – and our forebears were all too aware of both… It is no surprise therefore that Holmes gave his book the subtitle: How the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science.
Mungo Park was an unusual figure who was sponsored by Joseph Banks and the Royal Society to explore the unknown parts of central Africa – a scottish doctor, a Christian believer, a driven explorer. Above all, Banks clearly saw in Park a reflection of his younger self in his now long-past exploration of Tahiti.
But I was very struck by this description of how he had his assumptions completely overturned after ending up in dire circumstances.
At dusk Park was greeted by a Negro woman who had been labouring in the fields near the river. She invited him back to her hut, lit a lamp, spread a mat and made him supper of fish baked over a charcoal fire. Evidently Park half-expected some kind of sexual overture. But instead the woman invited into the hut various female members of her family, and they all quietly sat round him in the firelight, spinning cotton and singing him to sleep. Park suddenly realised the song was extempore, and the subject was himself. He was amazed when he began to understand the words: ‘It was sung by one of the young women, the rest joining in a sort of chorus. The air was sweet and plaintive, and the words literally translated, were these: – ‘The winds roared, and the rain fell. The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree. He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn. Chorus: Let us pity the poor white man, no mother has he…’
The women reversed all Park’s assumptions about his travels in Africa. He realised that it was he – the heroic white man – who was in reality the lonely, ignorant, pitiable, motherless and unloved outcast. It was he who came and sat under their tree, and drank at their river. He found it hard to sleep that night, and in the morning he gave the woman four brass buttons from his coat before he left, a genuinely precious gift. (p217)
It brilliantly illustrates why, despite its challenges and unexpected outcomes, we should relish the opportunity to relate cross-culturally.
Richard Holmes’ magisterial Age of Wonder has worked its magic on me. Having worked my way through it over several weeks before Christmas, many of its scenes and images have jostled unforgettably in my mind. This is not simply the account of a great period in the Royal Society’s history (although it is that); nor is it a cultural history of the Georgian era in Britain (although that would have been completely fine by me, since that’s easily one of my favourite periods).
It is instead a window into the relationship between the sciences, the arts and the popular imagination at a very important moment for the culture of the modern world. Combined with Holmes’ easy and fluent writing style and gentle humour, this makes it constantly compelling, regularly provocative and always insightful. I simply couldn’t put it down, eagerly anticipating the next ‘aha’ moment! One myth that Holmes seeks to dispel (and does so expertly) is the common notion that the Romantic era was anti-science. Of course it was more complex than that. Holmes is a renowned biographer of the Romantic poets and so clearly qualified constantly to weave his tale of scientific endeavour in and out of their’s.
Giants of the Royal Society
The book opens in 1769 with a very young Joseph Banks intrepidly setting his sights on Tahiti (and thus pioneering the world of cultural anthropology), and ends in the 1830s with the next generation of scientists like Faraday and Babbage.
Various names from the British scientific pantheon take turns in Holmes’ spotlight (like the William Herschel and his equally gifted sister Caroline, Mungo Park, Sir Humphry Davy), and we see what drove them and inspired their science, as well as their impact on the likes of Coleridge, Percy & Mary Shelley (there’s a brilliant chapter on her pioneering novel Frankenstein), Keats and Byron etc. But if there is one constant thread, it is the guidance and patronage of Banks, in his capacity as President of the Royal Society.
There are so many things one could pick out from the book as it is so densely wide-ranging. But while I learned a lot about so many things of which I was previously woefully ignorant, I was especially keen to understand more of the worldview questions, and especially the theological debates which anticipated those of the Darwinian era only a few years later. (In fact, the narrative closes around the time Darwin was setting off on his fateful voyage to the Galapagos). And therefore this story is of huge importance. As Holmes says on the very penultimate page:
It seems to me impossible to understand fully the contemporary debates about the environment, or climate change, or genetic engineering, or alternative medicine, or extraterrestrial life, or the nature of consciousness, or even the existence of God, without knowing how these arose from the hopes and anxieties of the Romantic generation. (p468)
That’s absolutely right – and this book is a brilliant way to do all of that.
The Challenge from the Heavens
Astronomy, more than those later protagonists of botany and biology, was producing the biggest challenge to old theistic ways of thinking – especially after the discoveries and thoughts of the extraordinary William Herschel with his revolutionary 40ft telescope at Slough. This was profoundly affecting people’s sense of place in the universe – the cosmos had always been a place of awe and wonder, but now it was far bigger and far older than anyone had before imagined.
So notice the shift from Coleridge’s more neutral description of star-gazing with his father to that of Shelley’s polemical take:
At all events, Coleridge treasured the memory of (The Reverend John Coleridge) his father’s eager demonstration of the stars and planets overhead, and the possibility of other worlds: ‘I remember that at eight years old I walked with him one evening from a farmer’s house, a mile from Ottery – & he told me the names of the stars – and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world – and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them – & when I came home, he showed me how they rolled round. I heard him with profound delight and admiration; but without the least mixture of Wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii etc etc – my mind had been habituated to the Vast.’ (pp111-2)
I just love that final phrase: habituated to the Vast. Wonderful.
Shelley used Herschel’s vision of an open-ended solar system, and an unimaginably expanded universe, to attack religious belief. His arguments went as follows. The cosmos as revealed by science must contain many thousands of different nebular systems, and therefore millions of habitable planets, so it was impossible to sustain a narrow, religious concept of one Almighty Christian Redeemer. Since there would be so many other ‘fallen’ worlds to redeem, the idea of God being born and crucified on each planet became absurd. As Shelley put it provokingly, ‘His Works have borne witness against Him.’ He wrote a particularly fierce note ‘On the Plurality of Worlds’ in Queen Mab:
The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation… It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman… The works of His fingers have borne witness against him… Sirius is supposed to be 54 trillion miles from the Earth… Millions and millions of suns are ranged around us, all attended by innumerable worlds, yet calm, regular, and harmonious, all keeping the paths of immutable Necessity. (p391)
But not everyone shared that view – or saw the direct threats that science would pose to religious belief in the years to come:
For many Romantic scientists, with a robust intellectual belief in the ‘argument by Design,’ there was no immediate contradiction between religion and science: rather the opposite. Science was a gift of God or Providence to mankind, and its purpose was to reveal the wonders of His design. This indeed was the essence of ‘natural’ religion, as promoted for example by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802), with its famous analogy with the divine watchmaker. It was the faith that brought Mungo Park back alive from his first Niger expedition. It was the faith that inspired Michael Faraday to become a Deacon in the Sandemanian Church in July 1832. (p450)
Which is much more nuanced than the vitriol of the anti-religion brigade, let alone the anti-science religious types, would have us believe. They simply ARE compatible – which his why so many cosmologists and ‘hard’ scientists are perfectly comfortable with their theism.
The Wonder of Science
But in many ways, the background to the apologetic debates that we get ourselves tied up is was not the book’s most valuable contribution (helpful thought it undoubtedly is). What most gripped me was the fact that I found myself again and again swept up in the sheer romance of science – the sense of awe at both the cosmic and microscopic, the desire to know, to understand God’s thoughts after him, if you like. I found myself frequently transported to the Oxford’s Christ Church meadow where spectators watching in astonishment at the first balloon flights, or to Herschel’s observatory, or to the audience of Faraday’s Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution.
My appreciation was only deepened, not diminished, when the romantic myths of the noble scientist get dispelled. I was very struck by this point, sadly tucked away in a footnote:
Michael Hoskin has suggested in his essay ‘On Writing the History of Modern Astronomy’ (1980) that most histories of science continue to be ‘uninterrupted chronicles’, which run along ‘handing out medals to those who “got it right”’. They ignore the history of error, so central to the scientific process, and fail to illuminate science as a ‘creative human activity’ which involves the whole personality and has a broad social context – Journal for the History of Astronomy 11 (1980). To this one might add that Romanticism introduced three important themes into science biography.
- First the ‘Newton syndrome’, the notion of ‘scientific genius’, in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals.
- Second, the existence of the ‘Eureka moment’, in which great discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden, blazing instant of revelation and synthesis.
- Third, the ‘Frankenstein nightmare’, in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction. (p94)
Now, there were one or two moments where I did feel that Holmes’ objectivity temporarily deserted him, mainly in his depictions of theistic or Christian worldviews. Too often, Christian morality or theology was implicitly charged as unhelpful or even destructive (e.g. in the interactions between later Christian visitors to Tahiti), or individuals would be described as ‘fundamentalist’, as the painter Benjamin Haydon is on p319 (which was both jarring and anachronistic). But on the whole, I can forgive these as lapses because the narrative is so sweeping in scope and brilliantly told, and they are few and far between.
I think I’ll stop there for now – there are loads of other gems, which i might post separately and without too much verbiage. But I couldn’t have agreed more with these, the very last words of the book – inarticulately before reading The Age of Wonder, and passionately since:
The old, rigid debates and boundaries – science versus religion, science versus the arts, science versus traditional ethics – are no longer enough. We should be impatient with them. We need a wider, more generous, more imaginative perspective. Above all, perhaps we need the three things that a scientific culture can sustain: the sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe. And that is how this book might possibly end. (p469)