Biological History

Sailboats and sun, seen through a mist and reflected in calm water
Tarabya Marina, Sarıyer, Istanbul
January 1, 2023

“As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity,” says Glaucus to Diomedes in the Iliad (Book VI, line 146, in Lattimore’s translation). However, leaves are normally considered biologically; humanity, historically. I touched on the distinction in the previous post; now I want to say more. I shall be looking again at R.G. Collingwood’s notion of biological history as a kind of mistake. Collingwood does not mention astrology, but it would seem to be an analogous mistake. A correlative mistake could be called historical biology and be a kind of social constructionism (unfortunately the Wikipedia article on the subject currently [January 8, 2022] “needs attention from an expert in Sociology,” and I am not one).

I shall be considering the notion that your identity can depend on a sperm donor who is not your father. I shall look at some stories of Somerset Maugham—“The Lion’s Skin,” “The Outstation,” “The Alien Corn”—about people who do not recognize what it means to be the kind of person that they want to be. First I shall look at blogging as history, because I have seen it called that, and I am in fact writing in a blog.

This is a long post, whose scope grew as I wrote it (as often happens). The length is important, because I am going to make claims that may be controversial in some circles:

  • Your genes don’t make you who you are (for example, a writer or a mathematician).
  • Who you are doesn’t determine your physical features (such as ancestry or sex).

The contradictory claims would be biological history and historical biology, respectively. One may make them anyway. Perhaps indeed one uses one’s genes in being a writer, the way one uses one’s writing hand or typing fingers. In any case, I want my own claims to be considered, if at all, in the context of everything that I have written here. Of course it is possible to write a lot and not say anything to the point.

I’ve been blogging since May of 2012, and my posts are listed on my “About” page. When Monique Judge writes (in The Verge, December 31, 2022) an exhortation called “Bring back personal blogging,” I think I have nothing to bring back, or else I am already doing it. My reasons for blogging may be different from Judge’s, who says,

Personal stories on personal blogs are historical documents when you think about it. They are primary sources in the annals of history, and when people look back to see what happened during this time in our lives, do you want The New York Times or Washington Post telling your story, or do you want the story told in your own words?

My posts may be history, but they are history of my own thoughts. There is no story to tell, unless I tell it first by thinking the thoughts. There may be stories of others, such as Homer, that I try to understand.

Meanwhile, I wonder: How many people really need to worry about what the Post or the Times will say about them?

Perhaps Judge recommends blogging in the spirit of Thucydides, who said of his history of the Peloponnesian War,

if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.

How many forgotten people have written words like his, or thought them? In “The Round Dozen,” published in 1931 as one of Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular, Somerset Maugham recounts the words of a stranger who bummed a cigarette at a seaside resort in England:

“It must be a wonderfully interesting thing to be an author, sir. I’ve often thought I had quite a turn for writing myself. At one time and another I’ve done a rare lot of reading. I haven’t kept up with it much lately. For one thing my eyes are not so good as they used to be. I believe I could write a book if I tried.”

“They say anybody can write one,” I answered.

That was a hundred years ago, before Amazon and Lulu. Having run off with the wealth of eleven brides, the fictional Mortimer Ellis served five years for bigamy. He carried newspaper cuttings about his trial, and he expected people to be interested in his story.

“If anybody was to make it worth my while I wouldn’t mind writing my memoirs.”

“It’s very fashionable just now.”

“There are not many people who’ve had the experiences I’ve had in one way and another. I did write to one of the Sunday papers about it some little while back, but they never answered my letter.”

Today he could write a blog, or a Substack newsletter; but who would read it? Most of us are like leaves. We burst forth, but then wither and die and are forgotten.

Some of us have not let the stories of Homer and others be forgotten. I also remember words of Elliott Templeton, recounted by Maugham in The Razor’s Edge (1944), one of my favorite novels:

“You don’t think that I’ve moved in the highest circles for nearly fifty years without realizing that if you’re not seen everywhere you’re forgotten.”

Maugham’s ensuing comment to the reader is apt: “I wondered if he realized what a lamentable confession he was then making.”

I am happy to have the story of my maternal grandfather, Kenneth Gale Crawford, both in his own words and in obituaries in the Post and the Times; but he was given those obituaries, and his memoir is worth reading, because he was a professional writer.

There may well be a lot more people who deserve to be professional writers than can be; and some who are professional may not deserve it.

I have a memory of some letters that were saved for a while, but ultimately discarded as having no historical interest. My late mother told me the story. Somebody was sorting through her effects when she came to a batch of epistles, carefully preserved, between her father and her younger self (perhaps when she was at school). The archivist in attendance said, “Those will be of interest to nobody but you.” Into the bin they went.

I do wish I knew more of that story. It must have taken place before my sister and I were old enough that our mother could return to a full-time job. Meanwhile she did some secretarial work for a few persons; or maybe it was only one person, Katie Louchheim, my grandparents’ friend and neighbor. She had a large corner house in Georgetown, DC, that surrounded a swimming pool on two or three sides. I am sorry I was too young to form clear lasting memories of that house. I do recall taking down from a shelf there a volume that had the curious title, The Domesday Book. It is a primary source for history.

The person who threw out her letters with her father could have been Mrs Louchheim. However, since some of Louchheim papers ended up in the Library of Congress, I should think all of them would have. Maybe not. My mother is not around to ask, and perhaps nobody else would know. The old generation of leaves have all but disintegrated.

I keep this blog in the spirit with which I began it in “Hello World!”

When I learn things that might be worth remembering, and when I have thoughts that might be worth pursuing, it may be useful or convenient to type them up as here.

I also quoted Maugham in that post. Perhaps I should have referred more explicitly to things that might be worth remembering by me. As Clive Thompson wrote in a post called “How Blogging Changes the Way You Think” (Medium, January 1, 2023),

my head is full of thoughts and stuff I have opinions on … But when I sit down to write a blog post about something—that’s when I have to figure out what I really think, and what I really know, about a subject.

Perhaps what Thompson goes on to say is not true for me: “Very often, the process of writing a blog post sharpens my focus.” I keep finding more connections to make. When I set out to write my last post, about Book VI of the Iliad, I didn’t expect to see the relevance of the last post that didn’t concern Homer, namely “Parenthood and Sex.” I hadn’t thought about how, contra Glaucus, the generations of humanity were not like those of leaves.

Leaves are studied by biology; humanity, history. R.G. Collingwood wrote about biological history, but as a mistake. I could have spelled this out more in that last post. At first I was going to, but then I decided to save it for this post.

Collingwood wrote “Notes on Historiography” during his voyage to the Dutch East Indies, 1938–9, when he was supposed to be recovering from overwork. He also wrote An Essay on Metaphysics and got started on “The Principles of History.” He could never finish the latter, but the Notes (a selection of them) and the surviving manuscript of “Principles” were published in 1999 in The Principles of History and Other Writings in Philosophy of History. In the Notes, biological history is a second example of historical naturalism, the first being “geographical (and climatic) history.” Collingwood says he uses the term historical naturalism

as a name for that kind of failure to think historically which ends in either

  1. substituting natural facts for the historical facts about which one is trying to think (losing the distinction between them altogether), or else
  2. superordinating natural facts to historical facts, as the causes of which these historical facts are the effects (here the distinction is, superficially, preserved intact; but only superficially, because it is, to a more penetrating eye, destroyed by the μετάβασις εἰς ἄλλο γένος [‘change into another kind’] which makes a fact of one order the cause of a fact in another order. Only historical facts can be causes of historical facts).

The list formatting here is by me; the translation of the Greek phrase is by the editors, Dray and van der Dussen. Concerning biological history, which includes psychological history, “so far as psychology is a naturalistic science of man,” Collingwood says,

Here the causal relation is between what certain men are (this conceived as a biological matter) and what they do (history).

I would suggest that what we do, as an historical matter, depends on who we are. The interrogative and relative pronouns who and what are distinct in gender, being animate and inanimate respectively. Biology studies beings that are alive and in that sense animate; but even psychology does not study them as being fully animate, the way history does. Briefly, biology and psychology concern what we are; history, who.

I note that Hannah Arendt (The Human Condition, Chapter I, § 1, page 10, note 2) traces the distinction between who we are and what we are to Augustine. In Book X, chapter vi, of the Confessions (translated by Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics), he asks, “And what is the object of my love?” The earth, the sea, “the living creatures that creep”: they said it was not they.

I asked the breezes which blow and the entire air with its inhabitants said, ‘Anaximenes was mistaken; I am not God.’ …

Then I turned towards myself, and I said to myself, ‘Who are you?’ I replied, ‘A man.’

In chapter xvii he raises the other question:

Great is the power of memory, an awe-inspiring mystery, my God, a power of profound and infinite multiplicity. And this is mind, this is I myself. What then am I, my God? What is my nature? It is characterized by diversity, by life of many forms, utterly immeasurable …

Arendt’s summary (with my formatting) is,

  • the answer to the question “Who am I?” is simply: “You are a man—whatever that may be”; and
  • the answer to the question “What am I?” can be given only by God who made man.

We are not exactly answering the questions in that way. Neither question is simple, but each of them requires a different kind of thinking for its answer. We are labelling that thinking as historical or biological, respectively. At the highest level, it is difficult to do even one of these kinds of thinking. Perhaps we can all be historians and biologists as amateurs, and this is all I am. In a post “On the Idea of History,” with documentary evidence, I did stake out a claim of being an historian of ancient Greek mathematics.

I think Collingwood’s account of biological history and of historical naturalism generally applies to a book that a reviewer compares to another one of my favorites, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As an Australian having travelled in the United States, Lauren Burns apparently writes in Triple Helix,

the desert is most shaped by the thing it lacks—water. Much of my life had been shaped by what was missing from it, too.

What was missing from Burns’s life was her so-called biological father. Burns learned at age 21 that the man who had raised her as a father was not the man who had supplied the sperm cell that joined with an egg to produce the zygote that became Burns.

The zygote didn’t really become Burns. To say that it did is, as Collingwood says, to substitute natural facts for historical. The zygote is a biological entity, studied by the natural science called biology; the subject of one’s own memoir is an historical entity.

There is nothing to stop you from putting biology into your memoir. “Once upon a time, there was a large immotile egg and a small motile sperm …” The biology will tell us nothing of who you are. Your seeing fit to include it anyway may tell us something.

Burns was able to learn that the sperm donor enlisted for her conception was the youngest child of an historian and a linguist. Burns herself is an engineer; but now that she has written a book about finding that sperm donor,

She also wants to continue with her writing. A big moment for her was recasting herself and her identity in relation to her biological father and the realisation she came from a family of writers.

Those words are by Jane Gleeson-White, author of my source, “‘Why did I need to know who my father was?’: one woman’s battle for her biological truth” (The Guardian, March 4, 2022). As I read Gleeson-White’s account, in Collingwood’s terminology, Burns is “superordinating” her genes to her new interest in writing. This superordination may well inspire Burns’s writing; but the inspiring then is done by Burns’s own thought, not her DNA.

A similar thing happens “In the Hands of Destiny,” number 62 of 101 Zen Stories, part of Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, yet another of my favorite books:

A great Japanese warrior named Nobunaga decided to attack the enemy although he had only one-tenth the number of men the opposition commanded. He knew that he would win, but his soldiers were in doubt.

On the way he stopped at a Shinto shrine and told his men: “After I visit the shrine I will toss a coin. If heads comes, we will win; if tails, we will lose. Destiny holds us in her hand.”

Nobunaga entered the shrine and offered a silent prayer. He came forth and tossed a coin. Heads appeared. His soldiers were so eager to fight that they won their battle easily.

“No one can change the hand of destiny,” his attendant told him after the battle.

“Indeed not,” said Nobunaga, showing a coin which had been doubled, with heads facing either way.

This is just a story, but a plausible one. As the character called Jesus says in another story, at first not so plausibly,

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

It is a difficult saying, and when searching for its location in the Gospel (Matthew 17:20), I saw that a number of people had written commentaries to explain what Jesus was not saying.

I once knew a struggling student who thought the problem with her studies lay in her low self-esteem. She may have been correct, in a way; but it was a vacuous kind of correctness, since self-esteem is not something you can just give yourself, and neither is a faith that can move mountains. Nonetheless, you may turn out to have had it, like the men of Nobunaga, or Lauren Burns.

When my father bought me my first bicycle, and I had to learn to ride it, we went to an empty parking lot, and he had me pedal while he held up the bicycle. I rode along, thinking he was staying behind me; but he had soon let go. Collingwood describes such an experience in Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (1925), a book which is therefore still worth reading, even though, when it went out of print, the author replaced it with The Principles of Art (1938):

You can make a novice climb by roping him and leading him; he supports himself because he thinks some one else is supporting him. This applies to all education. The student is really painting pictures of his own; his own hand and eye are doing the work, and the copy is only setting the pace. When the student awakes to the consciousness of this truth, he is no longer a student, but has graduated as a master.

It sounds as if Lauren Burns wants to continue writing, because she thinks her genes will support her. It will still be she who is doing the work.

In “Notes on Historiography,” Collingwood continues discussing the mistake that is historical naturalism:

The cause of this failure, in both its forms, is the thinker’s relative immaturity and incompetence in historical thinking, as compared with his greater freedom and ease in the pursuit of natural science: this gives him a constant motive for switching over from a kind of thinking in which he feels ill at ease, to one in which he feels more at home. The cure for it is, of course, historical methodology.

When they learn they have a problem, some people try to solve it; others deny it. At school, I was at home with science, ill at ease with history. In seventh grade, I said I didn’t need to learn it. A couple of years later, in the newsletter of a high-IQ society (which I didn’t join), I read an article attempting to assess the relevance (or some such good quality) of particular fields of study to “the totality of fields.” In a list ordered from most to least relevant, physics was at the top, then other natural sciences, and mathematics; history was lower, with politics at the bottom. That is how I remember it. Back then, as somebody for whom politics was incomprehensible, I wanted to think that the ordering of subjects was correct; now I like to think that I knew deep down, even then, that such lists were misguided.

Maugham told stories of misguided souls who tried to become British gentry. As C.S. Lewis would write,

The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property … But then there came people who said—so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully—“Ah, but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?”

That was in the Preface of Mere Christianity, when Lewis was explaining his “use of the word Christian to mean one who accepts the common doctrines of Christianity.” For future reference, I note on Patheos a critique of Lewis’s book with the summary, “Cotton candy apologetics—engaging and conversational but shallow.”

Published in 1940 in “The Mixture As Before,” whose title was apparently taken from a review of Maugham’s previous story collection, “The Lion’s Skin” features an American woman who “was not rich by American standards, but by our English ones in affluent circumstances.” As a nurse in France during the Great War, she met and married her husband, “the perfect type of an English gentleman,” and moved with him to the South of France.

Captain Forestier was almost too perfect a type of the English gentleman … When you saw him walking along the Croisette, a pipe in his mouth, in plus-fours and just the sort of tweed coat he would have worn on the moors, he looked so like an English sportsman that it gave you quite a shock. And his conversation, the way he dogmatised, the platitudinous inanity of his statements, his amiable, well-bred stupidity, were all so characteristic of the retired officer that you could hardly help thinking he was putting it on.

You can well guess that Captain Forestier was putting it on. However, what he was after was not his wife’s money as such, or even what it could buy.

He was no common swindler who had got hold of a silly woman to keep him in luxury and idleness. She was only a means to a greater end. He had been captivated by an ideal and in pursuit of it had stuck at nothing … He wanted—it was grotesque, it was pathetic—he wanted to be a gentleman. The war, with the commission it brought him, gave him his chance. Eleanor’s money provided the means. That wretched fellow had spent twenty years pretending to be something the only value of which was that it wasn’t a pretence.

I am only a compatriot of the fictional Mrs Forestier, and I may have an inadequate understanding of the British class system. However, Maugham’s point seems to be the following. Gentility—being a gentleman—has meaning only in a society that recognizes it. If you admire the system, you respect its definitions. Captain Forestier admires the system, but violates its definitions. He hasn’t got a British estate, and he hasn’t got an hereditary title; but he acts as if he had, for no other reason than to seem as if he had. Thus he suffers cognitive dissonance, which leads to his death.

None of this implies that Maugham himself admires the class system.

Myself, I would say that there is no value in being a gentleman, any more than there is value in being a man or a woman. Being a member of a hereditary class or a sex class is a biological fact. You cannot assign it a value, because you cannot choose it. You can choose what to make of a system of classification; but that is something else.

When I joined the migration to Mastodon initiated by Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, I suspected there would be new difficulties, and now I have experienced them. I think they involve the kind of cognitive dissonance that Captain Forestier suffered.

I joined, “a Mastodon instance for people who love maths,” but two of my posts there have been removed by moderators, for the sake of being inclusive. Specifically, my posts are said to have violated the following rule:

We want to be inclusive; do not engage in exclusionary behaviour or language against anyone based on their race, caste, gender (binary, assigned or otherwise), disability, mental health, sexual orientation, level of education or age.

I note that sex is not included on the list of protected characteristics. Sexual orientation is there, but perhaps what is meant is gender orientation, unless the moderators are going to respect the right of asserting that trans women cannot be lesbians. I’m pretty sure the assertion was made in the documentary film, Adult Human Female; but I linked to this film in one of the two posts of mine that were removed.

The other removed post of mine linked to a post of the blog language: a feminist guide called “2022: the highs, the lows and the same-old-same-old.” I don’t know what is objectionable here. Maybe the author, Debbie Cameron, is on a blacklist of people who have putatively denied that trans women are women. Alternatively, perhaps feminism as such is exclusionary towards men, and Cameron offends for describing April of 2022 as “a month of Men in (British) politics Behaving Badly.”

As for Adult Human Female (which I did watch), protesters managed to prevent its showing at Edinburgh University, and they issued a statement that began,

When we tolerate intolerant views and they take hold in society, people become intolerant of each other. We have to be intolerant of intolerance in order to have a tolerant society.

This seems like a form of black-and-white thinking. It bears superficial resemblance to words of Lillian R. Lieber in two books I read in high school. Unfortunately, The protesters at Edinburgh University haven’t made the kind of distinction that Lieber does with the words freedom and license, as follows.

  • From “Freedom and License,” Chapter XIV of The Education of T.C. Mits (1944; Paul Dry Books edition, 2007; pages 148–9):

    note that he [the mathematician] has a very clear
    realization of
    where freedom ends and
    license begins:
    he knows full well that
    he cannot introduce anything
    into a system which would
    destroy the system itself
    by contraction.

    Page those pseudo-liberals
    who try to introduce into
    a system of Democracy
    ideas which would
    destroy Democracy itself.

    even FREEDOM OF SPEECH itself
    is necessarily limited,
    since it must not be used
    to contradict
    the other postulates for Democracy.

  • From “Paradoxes,” Infinity: Beyond the Beyond the Beyond (Reinhart & Company, 1953, chapter 25, pages 328–9; Paul Dry Books, edited by Barry Mazur, 2007, chapter 17, pages 238–9):

    But of course
    you now know that
    further paradoxes may arise
    at any time,
    not only in this theory [of transfinites],
    but in any human theory—
    this we MUST EXPECT,
    but we must BRAVELY carry on
    and continue
    to GROW and IMPROVE what we have made,
    for that is our
    or we shall perish.
    That is why
    the “lie”, the “big lie”,
    the confusion it creates
    is the most
    DESTRUCTIVE force in existence,
    much worse even than the atom bomb—
    for the bomb produces
    PHYSICAL destruction,
    which is bad enough,
    the big lie,
    undermines our very ability to
    use our minds,
    our human-ness.
    And consequently,
    we really must not,
    in the name of “free speech”,
    allow ourselves to be led by
    anyone who uses the technique of
    the “big lie” and its resultant confusion.
    Yet this does NOT imply
    the ELIMINATION of “free speech”—
    far from it!

If you want a tolerant society, I think you have to tolerate even the showing of a film that you think preaches intolerance; you just don’t want it to be shown to the exclusion of anything else.

I suspect the Mathstodon moderators are serving people who want to exclude biological truth from their awareness. My own posts were exclusionary, only in the sense of offending people who didn’t want to be reminded that not everybody believes that sex is a matter of how you feel inside.

The intolerance of the Mathstodon moderators is unfortunate, since as I think Lieber says, mathematics itself requires facing the truth, even such an unpleasant truth as the existence of a false step in the proof you thought you had found.

To refuse to face biological truth is to accept the mistake that Collingwood calls biological history. It means biology does matter to who you are. You wouldn’t hide from what was meaningless.

Maugham’s Captain Forestier could not face his common birth. He could not let his mask of gentility drop, even with somebody who knew what he really was. That person was friendly, and would not reveal Forestier’s secret; but still the imposter would have nothing to do with Sir Frederick Hardy, Bart, and in the end ignored a sensible warning.

Bob Forestier had pretended for so many years to be a gentleman that in the end, forgetting that it was all a fake, he had found himself driven to act as in that stupid, conventional brain of his he thought a gentleman must act. No longer knowing the difference between sham and real, he had sacrificed his life to a spurious heroism.

Wearing the skin of a lion doesn’t make you one; likewise with the clothes of the gentry. However, Forestier also tried to adopt genteel manners, as he understood them. They had him enter a burning house to save his wife’s dog. There may be good times to give up your life, but this was not one of them, and it didn’t matter what class you belonged to. Nonetheless, Mrs Forestier could go to her own grave believing her husband had been “a very gallant gentleman.”

It’s a simple story, seemingly easy to understand, thus an example of why Maugham had popular but not critical success. Nonetheless, it may be difficult to understand the notion of “pretending to be something the only value of which was that it wasn’t a pretence.” I think it is what gender-critical feminists criticize regarding sex, thus maddening some trans activists, who are given to what might be called historical biology: a belief that not only is biology historical, because it is a human activity, but so is what it studies. That biologists recognize haploid cells called gametes that are either small and motile or large and immotile is an historical fact; that there are such cells is not. The distinction is subtle, but I think Maugham gets it, or at least gets its analogue regarding social class.

As I read “The Lion’s Skin,” it was ridiculous (at best) of Captain Forestier to wear the tie of the Coldstream Guards, even though he had enlisted in them, because his commission was in the Army Service Corps, which for the danger involved was like being in the US National Guard during the Vietman War. It seems as ridiculous for male athletes—bicyclists, swimmers, weightlifters—to compete as women. Of course, analogies are not perfect.

I first became aware of Maugham in the ninth-grade English class of Stanley Willis, who had us read the anthologized story called “The Outstation” (included in 1926 in The Casuarina Tree). Mr Warburton was a man whose

name figured insignificantly in Burke’s Peerage, and it was marvellous to watch the ingenuity he used to mention his distant relationship to the noble family he belonged to; but never a word did he say of the honest Liverpool manufacturer from whom, through his mother, a Miss Gubbins, he had come by his fortune.

Maugham loves pointing out how the only thing keeping the aristocracy afloat was capitalism. Mr Warburton went broke.

When a man in his set had run through his money, he went out to the colonies. No one heard Mr. Warburton repine. He made no complaint because a noble friend had advised a disastrous speculation, he pressed nobody to whom he had lent money to repay it, he paid his debts (if he had only known it, the despised blood of the Liverpool manufacturer came out in him there), sought help from no one, and, never having done a stroke of work in his life, looked for a means of livelihood.

I cannot say definitively that Maugham is not engaged in biological history here, with that reference to the “blood of the Liverpool manufacturer.” The fictional Mr Warburton believes in biological history, even as he tries to deny a part of his own. More cognitive dissonance. Point out to Mr Warburton that he has inherited the values of his mother’s side of the family, and he might have a moral crisis.

Writing in the Wales Arts Review (November 3, 2013), Adam Somerset derives from Maugham’s story “The Alien Corn” the moral, “the world was never designed with our personal convenience in mind.” This is a kind of assertion that the “just world hypothesis” is a fallacy. I learned recently that such an hypothesis had been named as a cognitive bias. I think it is rather an absolute presupposition of all thinking; the fallacy is to believe that you know definitively what justice is.

In “The Alien Corn,” an English boy has gone off to Germany to study, and he tells the visiting Maugham,

Of course I know I need a lot more work. I’m only a beginner, but I know I can do it. I feel it in my bones. It’ll take me ten years, but then I shall be a pianist.

It’s hard to imagine a young person’s really saying such a thing, but I still enjoy the story. Perhaps it helps that the story is set a hundred years ago, with characters who are not my compatriots. As Maugham himself says, at the beginning of The Razor’s Edge,

It is very difficult to know people and I don’t think one can ever really know any but one’s own countrymen. For men and women are not only themselves; they are also the region in which they were born, the city apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives’ tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are and these are things that you can’t come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them. You can only know them if you are them. And because you cannot know persons of a nation foreign to you except from observation, it is difficult to give them credibility in the pages of a book.

It is funny to read this from an Englishman who spent his first ten years in Paris and spoke English with a French accent. He was an outsider, like the people in “The Alien Corn.”

Young George Bland is not going to be a pianist. It doesn’t take him ten years to figure this out. Something else is not going to happen either, but Adam Somerset does not discuss it in his review. He says only,

On re-reading ‘the Alien Corn’ it is rambling and ill-structured, distasteful in its racial stereotyping.

The racial stereotyping presumably concerns the Jewishness of George’s family, which Somerset does not mention. I think Maugham is sympathetic with the family as fellow outsiders. As for the structure of the story, who taught Somerset what it was supposed to be? I admire Maugham’s story for being “rambling and ill-structured.” Maybe this is how I excuse my blog posts.

Maugham gives “The Alien Corn” a preamble wherein is recalled a plan made by George Bland’s great uncle,

that the loveliest woman of this generation (this was in the ’eighties) should pay her respects to the loveliest woman of the last.

I remember the ’eighties, but they were a century later. The moral of Great-uncle Ferdy’s story resembles part of Glaucus’s analogy in the Iliad: “beauty dies.”

George’s parents share the ideal of Captain Forestier in “The Lion’s Skin,” but they can actually realize it in a technical sense. George’s father is a baronet, even the son of a baronet, and the family have bought an estate. Maugham has the father explain what it all means to him.

Freddy gave me a sidelong glance as though he wanted to say something but hesitated in case I thought it ridiculous; but there is one advantage in being a writer that, since people look upon you as of no account, they will often say things to you that they would not to their equals. He thought he would risk it.

“You know, I’ve got an idea that nowhere in the world now is the Greek ideal of life so perfectly cultivated as by the English country gentleman living on his estates. I think his life has the beauty of a work of art.”

Unfortunately the life of the English country gentleman is not really a work of art, but an accident of nature. You cannot live it by force of will. The problem is as in the conundrum that I first heard attributed to Abraham Lincoln, though it predates him:

“Suppose,” said he, “you call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs will the sheep have?” “Why five, to be sure,” answered the would-be-school-master with an air of wisdom. “Very well” said the parson: “So if you call a sheep’s tail a leg, it is a leg, is it?”

Born male, you may nonetheless get a legislature to call you a woman. I think it still doesn’t make you what you wish you could be (and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen an admission of this by a trans woman philosopher).

In “His Excellency,” one of the Ashenden stories of 1927, Maugham has to tell the British ambassador (in the unnamed city of Petrograd) that his aristocratic manners offend his American counterpart, who

was a he-man and a hundred-per-cent American and he had no more use for protocol and etiquette than for a snowball in hell. Why didn’t they get together, like a couple of regular fellows, and have a good old crack?

The British ambassador asks Maugham quâ Ashenden, “What does one do to be a regular fellow?”

“I am afraid one can do nothing, Your Excellency,” replied Ashenden gravely. “I think it is a gift of God.”

Back in “The Alien Corn,” Maugham describes the Bland’s house in the country:

The dining-room was adorned with old English sporting pictures and the Chippendale chairs were of incredible value. In the drawing-room were portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough and landscapes by Old Crome and Richard Wilson. Even in my bedroom with its four-post bed were water-colours by Birket Foster. It was very beautiful and a treat to stay there, but though it would have distressed Muriel Bland beyond anything to know it, it entirely missed oddly enough the effect she had sought. It did not give you for a moment the impression of an English house.

Why not? You were seeing art, not nature, and you could tell the difference, at least if you were as sensitive as Maugham. I have interrupted his paragraph, which continues:

You had the feeling that every object had been bought with a careful eye to the general scheme. You missed the dull Academy portraits that hung in the dining-room beside a Carlo Dolci that an ancestor had brought back from the grand tour, and the water-colours painted by a great-aunt that cluttered up the drawing-room so engagingly. There was no ugly Victorian sofa that had always been there and that it never occurred to anybody to take away and no needlework chairs that an unmarried daughter had so painstakingly worked at about the time of the Great Exhibition. There was beauty but no sentiment.

Be yourself. That’s the message I get. Don’t think that accidents of birth—yours or somebody else’s—tell you what you have to be or ought to be. So far at least, the Blands could have been Gentile. Maugham elsewhere ridicules people, presumably or explicitly Gentile, who don’t keep their old things; an example is the sister-in-law of the title character of “Jane,” who

had been seized with the prevailing passion for decoration; and with the ruthlessness of her sex had sacrificed chairs in which she had comfortably sat for years, tables, cabinets, ornaments on which her eyes had dwelt in peace since she was married, pictures that had been familiar to her for a generation; and delivered herself into the hands of an expert. Nothing remained in her drawing-room with which she had any association, or to which any sentiment was attached.

As for the Blands, lest we get the wrong impression about them, Maugham tells us more about their house and themselves in his next paragraph from “The Alien Corn”:

And yet how comfortable it was and how well looked after you were! And what a cordial greeting the Blands gave you! They seemed really to like people. They were generous and kindly. They were never happier than when they were entertaining the county, and though they had not owned the property for more than twenty years they had established themselves firmly in the favour of their neighbours.

Again I interrupt a paragraph. Maybe Maugham has been paying backhanded compliments; but then see what he implies about old families:

Except perhaps in their splendour and the competent way in which the estate was run there was nothing to suggest that they [the Blands] had not been settled there for centuries.

The Blands are not frauds the way Captain Forestier was, though they do not want their Jewish origins known. Perhaps they are dishonest with themselves, the way Mr Warburton was, for not recognizing how the aristocracy has become a sham, relying now on manufacturing for its survival. Referring to George’s father, Maugham tells us,

His tenants must have found Sir Adolphus a wonderful landlord, for I never saw farms kept in such order, the barns and cow-sheds were spick and span and the pigsties were a picture; the public-houses looked like old English water-colours and the cottages he had built on the estate combined admirably picturesqueness and convenience. It must have cost him a pot of money to run the place on these lines. Fortunately he had it.

“The Alien Corn” was also one of Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular, thus published before the Nuremberg Laws. Maugham has George Bland tell him in Munich,

“I used to hate hearing great-uncle Ferdy tell his Jewish stories. I thought it so damned mean. I understand now; it was a safety valve. My God, the strain of being a man about town. It’s easier for daddy, he can play the old English squire at Tilby, but in the City he can be himself. He’s all right. I’ve taken the make-up off and my stage clothes and at last I can be my real self too.”

“My real self”! George has only changed his make-up and clothes. Maugham has him continue:

“What a relief! You know, I don’t like English people. I never really know where I am with you. You’re so dull and conventional. You never let yourselves go. There’s no freedom in you, freedom of the soul, and you’re such funks. There’s nothing in the world you’re so frightened of as doing the wrong thing.”

“Don’t forget that you’re English yourself, George,” I murmured.

He laughed.

“I? I’m not English. I haven’t got a drop of English blood in me. I’m a Jew and you know it, and a German Jew into the bargain. I don’t want to be English. I want to be a Jew. My friends are Jews. You don’t know how much more easy I feel with them. I can be myself.”

Young people want to be themselves today, and they wanted it a hundred years ago. Despite their protestations, and with curiosity as to what my own younger self would have said to this, I think the only hindrance to being oneself is lack of experience, which only time can supply.

I saw a curious kind of denial of that recently:

For the Blackfoot, self actualization (the true self, our identity) comes first, not second last. Maslow wants to know how we become self-actualized, how knowing who we are happens. For the Blackfoot we’re born that way. We know who we are, and in many native cultures children are treated with particular respect because having just come from the Creator’s side they remember things we’ve long forgotten. We are born with our identity, we don’t have to chase it, try to find it, try to figure it out after we’ve done all the other things as if we need enough experience points before we can level up to having an identity other people will respect.

Thus Patty Krawec in “Maslow’s Hierarchy is Bullshit,” which I learned about from Mastodon. The title seems juvenile to me, although Debbie Cameron also uses such language in the blog post I mentioned that was censored from Mastodon:

Perhaps it helps if you know that in the animal world it’s lionesses who rule: they run the pride and do most of the hunting (forget The Lion King, it’s bullshit).

As for Krawec, her first-person reference to the Blackfoot would seem to be a fantasy, if she is the person in a CBC story, “How finding her father helped Patty Krawec understand her Indigenous identity,” and if the story is correct. In that case, her father was Ojibwe, and Krawec didn’t see him again till she was in her twenties, after her white mother moved away with her when she was young.

Perhaps by saying “We know who we are,” Krawec means that the knowledge of the Blackfoot is in fact shared by all of us humans. But then why did Krawec need to search for her father? Referring to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò in Elite Capture, Krawec says,

Broadly speaking he’s talking about how the elite of any given social group will take control of that identity and then put forward the their own priorities, how they will use the language of identity to suit their interests at the expense of others.

Compare the rhetorical sense of that with another of Krawec’s sources, “Could the Blackfoot Wisdom that Inspired Maslow Guide Us Now?” by Teju Ravilochan, who says of First Nations,

Because knowledge can vanish as people pass on, each generation sees it as their responsibility to perpetuate their culture by adding to the tribe’s communal wisdom and passing on ancestral teachings to children and grandchildren.

This reminds me of how the same people can be called freedom fighters or terrorists, depending on whether they are fighting somebody else or you. In any case, Krawec told the CBC,

I was the little brown child in the white family … The moment where I found my father was incredibly significant. Because although I had always known that I was native, talking to him and seeing myself reflected in my parents’ face … It changed it from me being different from everybody else, to me belonging somewhere.

That much is in the text promotion of the voice recording, where Krawec also says of her time growing up,

People … expected me to be an Indian and to know how to be an Indian, and I didn’t … I didn’t know anything about the Ojibwe people.

Later, like the fictional George Bland among the Jews of Munich, Patty Krawec found a home among people she hadn’t known. This was not because of ancestry and skin color, but what people believe about these things.

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  1. By On Homer’s Iliad Book VII « Polytropy on January 14, 2023 at 9:26 am

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