by Lucy Beckett (February 2012)
John Eliot Holmes, his wife Jane, and their daughter Claire, all died in a car accident in Australia in 2010. I never got the chance to know him well, but I certainly liked him. He worked with me briefly as a legal consultant at Glasgow City Council in Scotland, and so it came to pass that on a rainy morning just before Christmas I had the gloomy task of looking through the items he had left behind in his office on the top floor of Glasgow’s palatial City Chambers.
I remembered vividly the experience of clearing out the drawers of my father’s desk after his sudden death in 1979, and the terrible poignancy of little things – an orange, a pen that had been a gift from me, a photograph of my mother – all signifying how he would never have thought in a million years that his last afternoon at work was going to be his last afternoon at work ever. The man who never got round to eating that orange was no longer in the world, no longer experiencing the world, no longer experiencing anything. We can read fancy books until we’re blue in the face, but we can never quite think that thought. You can’t imagine yourself not existing. Obviously.
John must have thought about these things, though, and maybe about deeper things altogether. I admire that. He doesn’t seem to have been an out-and-out bookish type but yet most people would probably have thought that that was exactly what he was. I’m a bit like that too – I like good novels, by people like E M Forster and Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark – but I can’t be bothered with people like Kafka and Beckett. John also had a bit of classical learning – he wanted to be a Latin teacher, of all things – and felt he was less well-read in subsequent western literature than people often assumed he was.
But he was very well-read, by modern standards anyway. And what he’d read he’d read properly. He wasn’t looking for a credo in the novels he enjoyed. You live, you try to feel alive, maybe you have to keep busy, you hope to die before you suffer indignity and pain. There are mysteries in existence but we don’t know what they are; that’s why they’re mysteries. Most good stories have something of this in them, but let them be. He hated secondary literature, or most of it. We only spoke about this once.
Anyway there was nothing even faintly unusual in his desk apart from mouthwash and dental floss, and I had known he was very fussy about dental hygiene. No orange but some grapes he’d forgotten about. Pens and paperclips. A stapler. Council papers, of course. Files. Notepads. Computer, phone, coffee cup, spoon.
And the prelude to Capriccio. At first I thought: he’s written a literary paper of some sort, just the sort of thing he said he didn’t like. Then I read the first line and saw it was actually an editorial introduction to essays of unknown provenance. Oh.
I was hooked. I made myself a coffee and sat down to read it. His daughter and her (lesbian!) lover – he was cool about that – were also named as editorial figures. I had never read anything quite like it. But, as I was to find out, I could have, if I had read Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.
Educated people are likely to have heard of Kierkegaard but never read him. He was born in Copenhagen in 1813, the youngest of seven children. By the time he was 21, four of his siblings and his mother were dead. It’s an amazing story of family melancholy, and even madness. But in 1830 he entered the University of Copenhagen to study theology, still something of a young man about town.
In 1837, when he was twenty-four, he fell in love with the fourteen-year-old Regine Olsen. Three years later they were engaged. Thirteen months later he broke it off. His writings sometimes suggest that the reason was a desire to protect Regine from his “thorn in the flesh”.
Two weeks after ending his engagement, Kierkegaard left for Berlin, where, in the same lecture theatre as Karl Marx – there’s no evidence they ever met – he sat listening to the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Here his authorship began to take shape, in many ways as a contradiction of Hegel’s assumption that the individual was the sum of his or her outward manifestations. Kierkegaard spent the next eighteen years insisting that the inner person and outer actions are incommensurable. Something within each of us can never be given direct outward expression. As the American writer Gordon Marino says, one can be a wizard of introspection, an expert on one's emotional life, and remain totally unselfconscious in the Kierkegaardian sense.
Sounds puzzling, and indeed (as David Wemyss says in the New English Review of November 2011) people complain that, when the chips are down, Kierkegaard’s insistence on a mysterious and deeper self doesn’t seem to amount to anything. But then, if they’ve lost it without even knowing, we needn’t be surprised if they don’t know what it is.
The aforementioned Gordon Marino has written an excellent introduction on the website of the Kierkegaard Library in Minnesota (just google the names), and this was helpful to me in finding my way around a truly extraordinary character, but I actually had the privilege of meeting David Wemyss at the Edinburgh Festival last year.
I shall explain more about this later, but, in the meantime, suffice to say that I was googling “Kierkegaard + Virginia Woolf” and up popped David’s articles at the NER. Evidently, he lived in Scotland – in Aberdeen, the famous “Granite City” – and so I tracked him down quite easily after that. He was fascinated by what I had to tell him (I’m beginning to get a little bit ahead of myself here) and we agreed to meet in Edinburgh at Festival time because he and his wife were going to be there anyway. As I say, more of this later.
But my most important early discovery about Kierkegaard was the bizarre nature of his sprawling masterpiece Either/Or. However weird I’ve made him sound already, nothing could have prepared me for this. You’re expecting a philosophy book, but what you get (to begin with) are several pages in which a fussy and fastidious Copenhagener in the 1840s mulls over whether or not to buy an old éscritoire from an antique shop. It’s all marvellously well done, but not at all what you’re expecting.
Eventually – after a lot of wordy procrastination – the narrator does buy the writing-desk, and then tells us more about how he feels about it. Just when he’s beginning to try his readers’ patience, we hear of what (at this juncture) might pass for a bit of drama. He’s in a hurry one day because there’s a horse-drawn carriage outside waiting to take him on a trip into the countryside (something Kierkegaard especially liked doing, apparently) and he ends up taking an axe to the desk in temper. A secret compartment springs open, containing a enormous collection of mysterious documents.
These turn out to be the papers and letters of a young aesthete and a (much older) pillar of the community, an eminent judge. Suffice to say that the aesthete wants to live for literature and music and sex (although it’s not as simple as that) whereas the judge tells him that this is empty and transient, and extols the deeper virtues of marriage and civic responsibility. And then there’s a bit at the end by a Jutland pastor – one of the judge’s old classmates, supposedly – who gets parachuted in to suggest that neither of the main protagonists is right – or wrong – but that the tension between their “aesthetic” and “ethical” positions can be resolved in the quietistic immediacy of a third position – an essentially religious one. Fascinated, the narrator assumes the editorial role of publishing his discoveries.
Anyway, when you start reading Capriccio, it’s immediately obvious (if you’re in the know) that the whole thing is a pastiche of Either/Or, a modernized version in which the mysterious papers have been found on a floppy disk mixed up with classical CDs lent to John by a late colleague called David Evans. But this time the mystery papers are missing, and we’ve only got the prelude. Mysteriouser and mysteriouser.
Did the papers ever exist, or was the prelude never really a prelude to anything? That sounds a bit unlikely, but be warned. This Kierkegaard takes a bit of watching. In 1844 he published a little book called “Prefaces – Light Reading for People in Various Estates according to Time and Opportunity” – which was, quite literally, a set of short prefaces but no actual book! The pseudonymous author was one Nicolaus Notabene.
You get the idea. So all bets are off. Maybe Capriccio is a pastiche that was a prelude to non-existent essays, but then again it may be a pastiche that once continued with four essays I would love to see. And if they exist (or once existed) they could have been written by David Evans (as John purports to suspect) or by John himself – in which case not only the essayists but also Evans are presumably fictional characters. Yet one can also imagine John as author of the prelude only, with the late David Evans – and maybe four other people too – genuinely responsible for the (lost) remainder. Indeed we’re told that Claire Holmes was inclined to believe that “there really might have been four different people – not necessarily with those names – who had been asked to try writing in the style of a fifth person, and to elaborate certain themes. The obvious place where this might have occurred would have been a university tutorial group carrying out some sort of literary experiment. If so, there might have been ten or twenty efforts to begin with; maybe these were just the best four.”
Anyway, if the papers ever existed, their detail now seems lost forever. John and his wife and daughter appear to have had no other family – believe me, I’ve tried – and the trail went cold when I tried to track down Marie Hamilton, Claire’s partner. It was as if she had never existed – although I believe she did, because John spoke about her a few times, and, whatever his penchant for literary jokes, he wouldn’t have sat in his office telling me a lot of rubbish about himself.
However it does seem clear that each of the papers tried (or is to be taken to have been trying) to deal with the difficulty of people for whom the experience of speech was blighted by dead words and overcast feelings. And this is of great interest to me because I’m one of them! A lot of intelligent men and women must have some sense of this – but they can move on. For me, though, twilit stasis descends several times a day.
I can never move on – not so much from the memory but from the immediate concrete impact of having said something – and I think Capriccio is/was trying to say something about this feeling of malign otherness in the opacity of language.
But until I sat down to read the prelude in that bleak little room in Glasgow City Chambers, I had never found a single hint of it anywhere in literature or film. Now it was obvious that it was out there after all, and that someone – John at least – had actually been drawing attention to it. I so much wished I could see him again. And what if those essays had existed? What if they still existed? And, either way, if so, who really wrote them? How far back did the literary hall of mirrors go?
I always compare my language problem to the way people with obsessive-compulsive difficulties are unable to shake off the oppressive feeling that they knocked someone down a mile or two back, or that a cooker switch is on even though they “know really” that it’s off. Of course it would be easy to say that it is OCD – along with narcissistic self-awareness – but both models lack explanatory power. I’m sure they’re partly true, but, in the end, I think they have to be feeding on something deeper. It’s almost as if second and third and fourth-level meanings hovering above a conversation are dispelled only when the elegance of first-level meaning is sensual enough to accomplish the effect.
So a narcissistic desire to protect a carefully shored-up self-image isn’t always able to be imputed. But an aesthete’s craving for a sense of classical poise in the experience of speech can be. Just for its own sake. But that begs the question: how does someone get to be like that? If it’s not pathological, or if pathologies are just the dust the symptoms turn into when we try to handle them, or bring them to the surface, is it that a few of us are actually getting a look at a terrible void behind language – something no one should see? Do you remember Ray Milland in that old sci-fi movie “The Man With The X-Ray Eyes”, who started out having fun seeing through things but ended up seeing too much, and too far?
I’m not saying that the prelude to Capriccio sorts all of this out, but I’m mindful of that bit in early Wittgenstein about the solution to the problem coming with the disappearance of the question. John’s marvellous writing has just about made the question disappear for me – and I wonder if the missing essays are part of the trick. We only get to hear a tiny bit about them – but then maybe that’s how it works. David Wemyss told me in Edinburgh that another of Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms produced a book mulling over whether the New Testament story was an idea that “could not have arisen in any human heart”, and suggesting at one point that a mere scrap of paper could be the occasion for faith.
Even if the contemporary generation had not left anything behind except these words – “we have believed that in such and such a year the god appeared in the humble form of a servant, lived and taught among us, and then died” – this is more than enough. The contemporary generation would have done what is needful, for that little announcement, this world-historical nota bene, is enough to become an occasion for someone who comes later, and the most prolix report can never in all eternity become more for the person who comes later.
When I started writing this little piece, I had it in mind to set down a fitting and affectionate tribute to John in the hope that it might draw out an approach from Marie Hamilton, wherever she is. Then I sent it to David to see if he thought it was any good, and he was very enthusiastic. After suggesting one or two little revisions – warmly appreciated – he suggested that we submit it to the New English Review, where he already had a major literary project underway.
So here’s my NER debut! It’s all very pleasing, and I think it does justice to its dedicatee – someone I hardly knew but can never forget. For me, the prelude to Capriccio really was “an occasion for faith” because it convinced me that a certain question had to disappear – not be answered – but that such a disappearance can only occur for the individual who needs it individually.
And Marie – if you’re out there – I understand why you would be reticent about getting in touch. But I’m here if you change your mind.
— Lucy Beckett
John Eliot Holmes – Claire Holmes – Marie Hamilton
The following four essays came into my hands somewhat unusually, six or seven years ago now. I tend to think they were written by the same person but my daughter Claire has never been so sure. From time to time I too experience a frissõn of doubt about this. If pushed, though, I’d say it was extremely likely not only that they share the same author but also that they form an intended tetralogy. Apart from the significance of the way in which I got hold of them – of which more later – they exhibit obvious thematic and stylistic similarities, to say nothing of the telling appearance in all of them of Soren Kierkegaard, for whom pseudonymous literary polyphony was a way of life. However, whereas his stages of aesthetic, ethical and religious are commonly regarded not as literally chronological but as categories that come and go, the pieces presented here should probably be read in the order in which they are introduced below.
“Yesterday” by Carole Wilding is the first and most conventional of the essays. It adopts a faintly patrician tone and proposes a largely unexplained notion of ancestral authority as a justification for immediacy in speech. This is apparently intended as a kind of antidote to political correctness, but what it actually means is hardly explained at all. The whole thing is very nebulous, and has a playful (or disdainful) air. The historian and political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once observed that one of his chums “would rather be bilked than bothered”. That might seem unappealing (to Claire, certainly not), but, whatever you think of it, it certainly catches the tone of this piece.
Then we have “Letting language be”, in which Victoria Cartmel moves things on by tackling Wittgenstein and T S Eliot, from whom she derives an essentially tragic sense of the experience of speech. Language promises an impossible harmony, we are told. Once you grasp this, a snare has been set for your life, one that tightens the more you struggle. In what is surely an allusion to the first paper, it seems that a conservative appeal to ancestral authority and classical poise is not enough after all. The experience of language reminds us time and again that genuine peace is that which one takes straight to the grave. And the silence of the grave is not amenable to any kind of Promethean theft. Without God, felicitous speech no more redeems the insufficiency of conversation than a lovely day in the country means we are going to live forever.
This leads us very nicely into “A Kierkegaardian twilight” by Helen Samuels, a somewhat insubstantial (but oddly memorable) piece of devotional writing. There must be more to Kierkegaard than this, one thinks, but there is something deceptive about its vertiginous implication that our true likeness is glimpsed precisely inside a felt limitation of sense and language – the ache and tug of experiential scar tissue.
In the fourth paper – “A time there was” – Richard Salisbury shifts us into the controversial world of Martin Heidegger. We hear that a longer or happier life could never be worth the loss of a line drawn under it in so-called Edenic primitivity – whatever that is. Yet the article remains strangely compelling, rounding off with a striking injunction that we “should live with the willingness that we be set free into our most immediate and pressing meaning”.
I think all four works were written by the same person: one David Evans, whom I knew briefly in Norwich in the summer of 2002. It is said that he moved to Edinburgh in Scotland a year or so later, but my attempts to trace him there ended in failure. He seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. If he is still alive, he would now be very old.
In the main, he was an outwardly unremarkable character, devoted to his wife and son, whom I never saw. One admittedly unconvincing story had it that they had ended up in New York after he had died in Paris, of all places. I do recall him talking about Paris – a Stravinsky pilgrimage, if I’m not mistaken – but he got back from that visit safely enough, and I also have a feeling that his wife hated America. I never heard of any close friends, just a few colleagues whom I also knew (professionally, and not at all well).
They remembered him with fairly mixed views: kindly, aloof, witty, awkward. A fantasist, even a Walter Mitty type, someone said, but I never got any explanation of the kind of fantasy he might have gone in for. He was very fond of classical music, but went to concerts alone. All in all, he seemed like one of those intensely private individuals whom one would take to be unmarried and childless, possibly homosexual.
In fact, he once told me that he was drawn to women more than men in all respects. He hated the sound of men laughing together. Like C S Lewis, it was a sound he associated with venality. But he loved being a father. Nothing brought him greater pleasure than to watch football with his son, sharing a few beers. So utterly normal – indeed, what so many people would wish for yet often don’t manage to attain. Otherwise, though, sociality seemed to be a closed book.
Intriguingly, he also told me it was very likely that he was the most misanthropic person I had ever met but that he had been granted the social skills with which to disguise the fact – most of the time. He was a civil servant, although his bizarre view of this was that he was a confidence trickster. Here was my only direct hint of the fantasist theory. I sometimes wondered if he was a bit like the Cambridge spy Donald Maclean, who, when drunk, sometimes revealed his treason to people who just couldn’t hear what was actually being said to them quite plainly. If so, for whom was he spying? Judging by these papers, he was trying to infiltrate the opacity of his own words, in the thrall of an unknown country he couldn’t even name.
So how did I get them? Quite simply, he gave me some CDs he no longer wanted – he was the kind of person who would have more than one recording of a favourite symphony or string quartet – and there was an old floppy disk amongst them. I laid it aside and forgot all about it. Soon afterwards I heard he had moved to Edinburgh. He never said goodbye, but then we really hadn’t known each other at all well.
I assumed the floppy disk was useless on account of its antiquity, but one Saturday morning I found my daughter Claire (then only seventeen) had printed off its contents, her curiosity having been aroused by having heard my wife remark that she wouldn’t have been surprised if David Evans had put something quite nasty on there. My wife had never much liked him, calling him “plausible”. And indeed she wasn’t convinced subsequently that the contents hadn’t indeed been a bit nasty. “Yesterday” she thought a reactionary piece of nonsense. “Letting language be” persuaded her that Evans had suffered from obsessive-compulsive and narcissistic awareness of his speech acts, and that “A Kierkegaardian twilight” was an aggrandisement of the language-illness into death-haunted pseudo-religious sleight-of-hand. Jane has a way with words (and hyphens).
As for “A time there was”, well, it really took the biscuit. Jane had read quite a bit about Heidegger and his Nazi enthusiasms, and she tended to read her distaste for this paper back into her reception of the other three.
But she didn’t put me off. Her scepticism seemed to me to be missing the pulse or heartbeat I could discern in this peculiar writing. I wished I could see again the person whom I assumed had been the author of such unsettling material. Yet this question of authorship still troubled me.
Of course I googled the names Carole Wilding, Victoria Cartmel, Helen Samuels and Richard Salisbury, but nothing interesting came of it. They were pseudonyms, all right. But did that mean the real author was the person who had possessed the floppy disk? David Evans had been an appositely enigmatic character, but, in truth, the author could have been anyone really. Even more apposite was the idea that he had become irretrievably unknowable.
Unlike her mother, Claire was very taken with her find. She had been trying out people like Knut Hamsun and Kafka and Proust, and was susceptible to the idea that mysterious existential tracts of some sort had been found by her. Much more importantly, but unknown to me at that time, the paper by Victoria Cartmel had rippled through her being.
Also, she was quite strongly inclined to believe that there really might have been four different people – not necessarily with those names – who had been asked to try writing in the style of a fifth person, and to elaborate certain themes. The obvious place where this might have occurred would have been a university tutorial group carrying out some sort of literary experiment. If so, there might have been ten or twenty efforts to begin with; maybe these were just the best four.
Certainly, some of them contain very informal references that suggest a tutorial or seminar context rather than readiness for publication in a journal or suchlike. For example, Victoria Cartmel says in a piece of marginalia (of Wittgenstein) that “maybe I just want to find in his life and work some stories to intellectualise the incorrigibility of my strange personality. I don’t really care any more”. Not very professional, but, on the other hand, the paper is beautifully written, and its impact on Claire can hardly be overestimated.
Also, the first two pieces have a distinctive anecdote in common – literally word for word – something which a single author playing pseudonymous games might have been expected to avoid.
Later, though, I stumbled on a radio programme about Kierkegaard, which was how I heard about his penchant for pseudonyms and literary puzzles. So maybe the tutorial idea was fanciful. Anyway, Claire and I started our own little tutorial group, which annoyed Jane.
In the six years since all this happened, Claire has turned into an enigmatically original thinker, but yet, if this makes sense, an unintellectual thinker. Nowadays she is likelier to have her nose in Jane Austen than in Kierkegaard or Wittgenstein, although the Four Quartets go with her wherever she is. And she has always remained loyal to the essays of Messrs. Wilding, Cartmel, Samuels and Salisbury, not only because they got her round a corner in her life but also because, once she had turned it, she preferred them to most of what she then encountered at university.
They are now being published at last, although most of the editorial work has been done by Claire’s partner Marie Hamilton, a lovely person whom Jane and I now count as a second daughter. It has been a great relief to us that our first one – beautiful and poised as she is, but potentially the most solitary woman in the world – has found someone with whom to share her life, someone similarly out of sympathy with the managerial impress of the present age.
In fact I sometimes think that Claire and Marie are out of sympathy with any thinkable polis at all, and that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they could sometimes be located outside conventional probity.
Now it has to be said that the girls have read an awful lot of twentieth century literature that has simply passed me by, but I like to think nevertheless that they enjoy my company, and that I do occasionally interest them with remembered snippets from a strong classical education.
In particular – and apposite to our present concerns – I was familiar with the second volume of Plutarch’s Moralia, containing the famous Letter to Apollonius.
We hear in this how Silenus, when Midas inquired of him what was the best thing for mankind and the most preferable of all things, was at first unwilling to tell, but eventually gave the following answer –
A life spent in ignorance of one's own woes is most free from grief. But for men it is utterly impossible that they should obtain the best thing of all, or even have any share in its nature (for the best thing for all men and women is not to be born); however, the next best thing to this, and the first of those to which man can attain, but nevertheless only the second best, is, after being born, to die as quickly as possible.
Of course it will be objected that this is a terrible way to think, and that it is refuted by a moment’s further thought. After all, for example, would it dictate that one should care nothing for the urgency with which doctors and nurses rush about a hospital to save a child’s life, or alleviate a child’s suffering?
But although a moment’s further thought certainly obscures the Silenian lucidity, the instant before may yet be more compelling – if we can hold it in place. This may be viewed as a Wittgensteinian instant, pregnant with future words, but yet a Kierkegaardian instant, in which we don’t really want to speak – or live – at all.
I’m not sure. Sometimes I just don’t know where I stand in relation to all of this, and I’m not even sure I can explain what the last paragraph means. But I don’t want to change it. On a more positive note, however, I feel a good deal happier with the way in which we are going to round off this little prelude.
To repeat: Claire and Marie have read an awful lot of twentieth-century novels but are quick to acknowledge that they weaken when led back a century, whereas I’m reasonably literate in classical texts I studied at school but weaken as the centuries pass. However it was Jane – grudgingly, but, in time, affectionately – who alerted us to the connections outlined below.
In The Figure in the Carpet – a tale from 1896 by Henry James – a novelist called Hugh Vereker befriends a young critic who becomes obsessed with the author’s claim that there is an idea – a trick – woven into his authorship like a hidden figure in a Persian rug, and that one day the form and texture of the writings may offer initiates an adequate representation of the mystery. But several people go to their graves with the answer unforthcoming, and, at the end of the story, the critic is no further on.
Then, in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s epistolary and eponymous masterpiece, the mysterious Lord Chandos writes to announce the loss of his ability to deal with everyday remarks:
Even in familiar and humdrum conversation all the opinions which are generally expressed with ease and sleep-walking assurance became so doubtful that I had to cease taking part in such talk. My mind compelled me to view all things occurring in speech from an uncanny closeness, just as once, through a magnifying glass, I had seen a piece of skin on my little finger look like a field full of holes and furrows.
Now although Western literature has pretty well forgotten this very slender novella (it was published in 1902 as a longish letter from a fictional nobleman) its matchless evocation of “holes and furrows” in speech is reprised eerily in the Capriccio papers, 108 years later. But of course in between the two publications came two historical milestones.
First of all, modernist literature honoured incongruity in the experience of speech by recognising its elusiveness and variety – but the genuine originality of this was sanitised by waves of secondary literature written by people unable to see beyond their own narrow cultural imperatives. Then, in the later part of the twentieth century, post-modernism said everything was broken and that we could only play with the pieces – but refused to play with the bits that remained stubbornly antithetical to brokenness.
So we would enter a plea for the rediscovery of von Hofmannsthal’s aristocratic sufferer, not least because his suffering reminds us that in the experience of speech there are incongruities much older than those which the twentieth century pretended to have discovered in modernity and post-modernity.
And the Capriccio papers reinforce the feeling that these incongruities are such that admitting defeat is the only step on the road to recovery. Equally important, however, is the understanding that admitting defeat is something that must be accomplished individually. Anyone for whom this means anything will be confronting idiolectical peculiarites from which no common principle can be drawn. But read on! Family resemblances can yet be discerned. And surprising motions of the heart may be just a page or two away.
John Eliot Holmes – Claire Holmes – Marie Hamilton
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