Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Today, it’s clean, well-organised and beautiful, in its own manner. There are many places to dispose of your surplus pocket-money on books, maps, pictures, pretty cakes, fountain-pens, classy antiques. I find myself imagining how it would be, living here, to become a professor of international renown; at twenty-one, a young blood, brilliant double-first and Blue; at my age a Prof. Emeritus, my once-original ideas now considered shallow, echoing hollow in the quads. To stay vigorous and relevant, one would need to escape the enervating Ivory Tower. Then I think of Richard Dawkins. He lives in the city, in Summertown, I’m told.
Sidewalks are clogged with groups clustered round guides who point out the sights, relate their history. I’m glad I can just float along pursuing my non-agenda, soaking up the vibe—or not, as I please; reserving the right to be impressed, or not. I feel the sharp edge of glittering intellects, as a constant fencing-match of privilege and fashion, backed up by centuries of the same: it’s in the very air I breathe, stimulating me to improve my game, as a worthy opponent does for a tennis-player. This is where la crème de la crème gathers. Here, like filings to a magnet, come Rhodes Scholars from corners of the globe. I pass an impressive building with a Latin inscription which I translate roughly as “After despoiling Africa, Cecil Rhodes was noble enough to endow this building and scholarships to perpetuity.”
I’m outside Basil Blackwell’s famous bookshop, sitting on a bench to write this, when a thought pops up: for me, the safe place to be is on the edge of nothing. I don’t mean nothingness, with all its philosophical flummery, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and so forth, but just plain simple nothing. Simple life, simple death. I imagine myself clinging to a safety-rail at the edge of an abyss. What more do I need? Not that I see any vertiginous chasm in my own life; only everyday examples of hopelessness, such as you meet on every street, at any rate in my home town. Why is it that in tourist traps, or should I say world-class cities like Oxford, the shambling examples of hopelessness are so much more lurid and gaudy? I’m not even talking about beggars, just people like you and me going about our business, but with some tell-tale sign, some stigma, that says they have nothing going for them, and they know it?
One of my favourite novels, unknown in any list of great books, ignored by the critics, passed over even by the small clique of its author’s aficionados, is Wood and Stone, by John Cowper Powys, first published in 1915. In his Preface, he refers to “that world-old struggle between the ‘well-constituted’ and the ‘ill-constituted’, which the writings of Nietzsche have recently called so startlingly to our attention.”. He goes on to say, “In a universe whose secret is not self-assertion, but self-abandonment, might not the ‘well-constituted’ be regarded as the vanquished, and the ‘ill-constituted’ as the victors?” Well, he may be right, and his novel demonstrates how it can work. But for me, and I don’t know why, despite greatly admiring the insights of Nietzsche, I’ve yet always had, like Powys, an instinctive and unreasoned compassion for the ill-constituted, those pathetic creatures who remain vanquished, except in the imagination of a romantic few. At least let them be victors in their own imaginations! That is all that matters.
I arrived at a rainy Oxford, after dark. I had a bad cold and should have stayed in bed. I know it was 1959 because I went to see ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, starring Pat Boone, at the Odeon cinema—it’s still there, just as I remembered it. Next morning, I was in no state to sit the papers, do the essays, and the same evening I flunked my interview with two dons in the twilight of some book-lined study. I easily fell for a trap, when they asked me about how I would interpret lines by the poet John Donne. But I don’t hold that against Oxford. I would have failed even without the cold.
I go to look in Blackwell’s window. On prominent display is a book of memoirs by Christopher Hitchens: Hitch-22. I go in, browse its pages, discover that the author is mortally ill from esophageal cancer. (As soon as I get home I check Wikipedia to make sure he’s still alive.) Apart from my instinctive urge to harbour no negative thought of the dead and dying, I find myself disliking his self-depiction. His militant atheism, as screamed from the title of his book god Is Not Great, seems at odds with the behaviour of an English gentleman who enjoyed the hospitality of Balliol College in his student days—in several ways. Being an obstinately obsessive egotist is one of them. Later, I forgive him the obstinate egotism: he’s on a mission, his days are numbered, let him plumb his own depths and speak his truth, whilst he has time! I download a sample of his book on my Kindle reader, but delete it before I’ve had time to read it, such is my antipathy to this apparent monster, I shall not engage him in debate, alive or dead.
But that happens later. Still in Oxford, pacing the streets, I look back on my life and how it unfolded, after I failed to secure the glittering prize of a scholarship to Oxford, which I’m certain I didn’t deserve. I note that I’ve somehow cultivated a policy of randomness in my life: a strategy which like certain types of spread-betting may take a lifetime to hit the jackpot. Randomness is the wrong word. At the time it appeared like choicelessness, which is perhaps the thing which has linked me to all the ‘ill-constituted’ persons who walk this earth—those who are physically able to walk. There is a voluptuous pleasure in choicelessness, if you can learn the trick. It is precisely this, dear Hitchens, now facing choicelessness yourself, which drives the ill-constituted and hopeless into religion. Who are we to push them off their life-raft?
I downloaded the sample of Hitchens’ memoir again, and read it this time. The first chapter is about his mother, whom he calls by her name, Yvonne. Now his sincerity starts to break through my mindless prejudice. I start to see who he is, make a distinction between him and Richard Dawkins, against whom I still uphold a prejudice. Hitchens, you arrogant swaggerer, Devil’s Advocate (yes, official, as once appointed by the Vatican), opponent of so many principles of behaviour I hold dear! You are a contrarian, that’s your role, a seeker of conflict, a partisan: this is how you want to contribute to the world’s betterment, not unlike your equally misunderstood predecessor, Nietzsche. I don’t say you are his equal, but this is not a competitive sport, even though I suspect you of being one of the world’s more competitive intellectuals. When I think about it, try naming anyone who claims to be an intellectual who is not driven by a competitive urge as compulsive as any racing driver!
Hitchens, you may yet do honour to Oxford, even as you have tried to subvert the selfsame religious foundations of your alma mater. At any rate, you are as showy as those who have endowed those dreaming spires, those ageless colleges and so forth. I think I may, after all, buy your book. You have, despite everything, endeared yourself to me. God bless you!
PS: A propos writing one’s autobiography—the thought occurs to me that most of the facts that I would want to include could not be verified by anyone else living. I decided therefore, if I ever get round to the final memoir, and don’t leave it too late to be of sound mind, that I shall compete with Hitchens for the brevity of Preface, Prologue or Foreword—let him choose his own weapon! Here’s what I shall say:
How do I know that any of this is true? I shall just have to take my own word for it. As for you, dear Reader, I’ll be delighted if you consider it fiction.
Posted by Vincent at 5:24 pm