QOTD (2011-05-22); or, In Which Faith, Bettering, and Symonds Are Revisited

I think I remain faithful to Symonds because of how wonderfully comforting he can be when I am in the grasp of a crisis of existential loneliness. This is from his Memoirs:

So then, having rejected dogmatic Christinaity in all its forms, Broad Church Anglicanism, the gospel of Comte, Hegel’s superb identification of human thought with essential Being, and many minor nostrums offered in our time to sickening faith… I came to fraternize with Goethe, Cleanthes, Whitman, Bruno, Darwin, finding that in their society I could spin my own cocoon with more of congruence to my particular temperament than I discerned in other believers, misbelievers, non-believers, passionate believers, of the ancient and the modern schools. This is the way with all of us who, like the caddis worm, build houses around them. Men of a different stamp follow the ways of the hermit crab, and creep into solid shells which shelter them against the sea and assaults of neighbours. It comes to the same thing in the end; only the caddis worm is the pupa of that winged ephemeron the Mayfly, born to be eaten up by trout; while the shell into which the hermit crab has crept may last long after its tenant’s lonely death, until at last it perishes beneath the stress of elemental forces, pounding waves and churning sands.

But these things are metaphors; and there is a want of taste and sense in straining metaphors too far. Speaking simply I chose for my motto ‘to live resolvedly in the Whole, the Good, the Beautiful’. I sought out friends from divers centuries—Marcus Aurelius, Cleanthes, Bruno, Goethe, Whitman, Darwin—who seemed to have arrived, through their life throes and ardent speculations, at something like the same intuition into the sempiternally inscrutable as I had. They helped me by their richer or riper experience, by flights beyond my reach, by knowledge denied to my poor studies, by audacities which thrilled the man in me….

Because these men were so, I elected them as the friends with whom my spirit chose to fraternize. From being in their company I derived solace, and their wisdom, like in kind, was larger than my own. It is good for the soul to dwell with such superiors; just as it is also good, in daily life, to live with so-called inferiors, to learn from them and love them.

I do not seek to preach this faith which animates me…. Certainly no one but myself knows how tentative and far from stable it is, how like a gaseous fluid, in the mind of him that lives by it. After admitting so much, I may anticipate ridicule by comparing my faith to something which lifts a balloon in air, to the fermentation of a fungus, to the sulphuretted hydrogen in a rotten egg. Still, being what it is, this faith has enabled me to do my duty in so far as I have done it by my family and friends; it has brought forth my literary work, and has sustained me active under the pressure of many grievous and depressing maladies…. The perorations of all that I have written are inspired by this faith, as the substance of my labour was for me made vital by it.

I have written here before that my mind has not developed into young adulthood with the synapses that program “faith” intact. But when I am sitting here in my room on Broad Street and I can hear the college clock strike midnight, and then one, and I am cripplingly alone, I can pull Symonds’ Memoirs off the bookshelf. I am sure he would never have countenanced that he could be a “friend from divers centuries” too. He is not my God, Symonds. He is not my lover. I have held his letters and notebooks in my hands; I do not need faith to believe in his existence. But when I do believe in him, I believe in myself. And I get out of bed in the morning, and I go to the library, and I come home in the evening, and on a good day maybe I’ll have taught someone something, however small.

We all make our own ways of getting through the world. Cultural narratives notwithstanding, we all make our own betters and betterings. If we have done our duties, we will have discovered mechanisms not only of coping, but also of human flourishing; we will have divined how we may purpose an ideal of Virtue and of Good to the work that we do and the ways we help others.

It is sometimes nigh-impossible to keep doing this, and to see why we must. If we did not reach adulthood with faith synapses, we may wonder on what grounds the need to become better rests. The best answer I can give, when even my non-faith synapses are much-frayed on this not-untroubled night, is that although there is no afterlife, there is a longer durée of human flourishing than we with our short lives may always recognize. You never know when, some generations hence, a young historian will discover not only her craft, but also her moral purpose, in your life. If this should happen in the case of the legacy you leave, neither her faith nor yours will have proven anything better, but you will have taught her how to better herself. And surely that is worth as much as any eternity.

5 thoughts on “QOTD (2011-05-22); or, In Which Faith, Bettering, and Symonds Are Revisited

  1. My God even as a parody this is wretched. Everything from the stuffy and self-indulgent moral-speak to the archaisms to the lack of any intellectual spark. What you need is to get a sun tan, and stop going to the library as an excuse to hide from a world you don’t know nearly enough about to “teach” anyone about. Lord. And FYI a lot has happened since the Victorian age you might take an interest in. The idea that you are going to present an urgent point of view to anyone based on excavating third-rate men is just mind-boggling.

  2. Sorry if my comment appears harsh. A friend pointed me to this blog. I am concerned about misuse/abuse of scholarship for self-interested purposes. Am a student at Amherst and notice many students who fit a profile of wanting to do academia under the guise of a higher moral ideal when it just seems more like a way to be “in the right” in a cheap way.

  3. I would really like to retract that comment it was written in a hot moment and should obviously be disregarded as having more to do with my own bugbears than with the poster who I have only read a few posts by. :)

  4. Dear Doug,

    Thank you for your comment. As may be apparent from the biography I include in my “about” page and the link to my CV available on that page, I’m a historian by vocation, and thus my workday consists of going to the library, reading, writing, doing research and teaching. While I’m aware that I’m not anywhere near the level of a historian with 20 years more experience in the profession, I go to the library every day so that I will eventually be. That’s what higher education is, generally speaking, meant to do. (Also, I live in England. Not a lot of opportunities to get a tan.)

    By comparison with our lived experience, history can teach us a great deal about the present and about ourselves, which is only one of many reasons why it is worth considering how Victorian intellectuals (or, indeed, anyone from a different culture/historical moment) thought differently to how we do.

    If you are interested in digging a little deeper into the backlog (though certainly don’t feel obliged), you’ll notice that I discuss with some frequency my sense that my academic aspirations are a largely selfless calling, and the best way I can imagine to put what talents and skills I have to use to make in the lives of young people and to be a public advocate for the study of the humanities and of knowledge for their own sakes. Being “in the right” is furthest from my mind; although I do work on a historical figure whom I believe has been very wrongly regarded as “third-rate” by those who have studied him in the past, my intention is as much to rehabilitate Symonds as to make some much larger points about the mutability of identity categories and systems of thought, which have profound implications on the present (in which I take as great an interest as I do in the Victorian period).

    I hope that helps to clarify some of your concerns.

    Best wishes,

  5. Please delete all my comments they are refuse, embarrassed by them my friend provoked me I swear!!!

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