Jerome K. Jerome and S. Bernard on Sleep


No Novel has made me laugh so much as Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The humor of Three Men in a Boat is remarkably universal. Comic writing is often the most time-bound and least universal sort of writing. The ridiculous has to do with the concrete; it is bound up with the fact that material. Man’s immortal soul is the form of an immortal body, and he is thus caught up in all the imperfections of matter. Much comic writing turns on the circumstances of embodied human life, the vagaries of culture; it tends to be full of references to particular events, politicians etc. This is what makes Aristophanes so obscure. There is a certain amount of such humor in Three Men in a Boat, but that is not its main mode of humor. What makes Three Men in a Boat so much funnier than its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, is that the latter is so much more particular, fueled primarily by concrete contrasts between Victorian England and Wilhelmine Germany. Three Men in a Boat on the other hand is fueled by the absurdities of the human condition an sich. The contrasts that it thrives on are the contrasts inherent in human life itself, the contrasts between matter and spirit, between eternal destiny and dependence on the trivial.

There is something very Pascalian about Jerome K. Jerome’s sensitivity to the contrasts of the human condition. It is not just a sensitivity to the absurdity of embodied spirit; it is a sensitivity to the fallenness of the world, to original sin, or, as J.K.J. calls it, “the natural cussedness of things in general.”

Perhaps the most Pascalian scene in Three Men in a Boat is on the morning of the day that the three men set out. Jerome and Harris wake up late and snarl bad-temperedly at each other till they see that George is still asleep:

There he lay – the man who had wanted to know what time he should wake us – on his back, with his mouth wide open, and his knees stuck up.

I don’t know why it should be, I am sure; but the sight of another man asleep in bed when I am up, maddens me. It seems to me so shocking to see the precious hours of a man’s life – the priceless moments that will never come back to him again – being wasted in mere brutish sleep.

There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time; his valuable life, every second of which he would have to account for hereafter, passing away from him, unused. He might have been up stuffing himself with eggs and bacon, irritating the dog, or flirting with the slavey, instead of sprawling there, sunk in soul-clogging oblivion.

It was a terrible thought. Harris and I appeared to be struck by it at the same instant. We determined to save him, and, in this noble resolve, our own dispute was forgotten. We flew across and slung the clothes off him, and Harris landed him one with a slipper, and I shouted in his ear, and he awoke.

The Pascalian element is of course the brilliant juxtaposition of eternal destiny with the habit of diversion. Jerome and Harris cannot propose any alternative to the soul-clogging oblivion of sleep except the waking sleep of diversion.

I have discovered [Pascal writes] that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber. A man who has enough to live on, if he knew how to stay with pleasure at home, would not leave it to go to sea or to besiege a town. [… ] When, after finding the cause of all our ills, I have sought to discover the reason of it, I have found that there is one very real reason, namely, the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.

I have often thought that Pascal here gives us the key to understanding the monastic life. The monastic life consists in sitting still in one’s own chamber, in facing the misery of the human condition squarely, weeping over it, and watching and waiting eagerly for the coming of the master who frees us from it. Woe to the servant whom the master finds sleeping when he comes!

Bernard_of_Clairvaux_-_Gutenburg_-_13206In his part of the Vita Prima William of St. Thierry writes (n.21) about S. Bernard’s scorn for sleep (rough translation):

What should I say of sleep, which in other men is a restoration after labor, a recreation of sense and mind? From that time till now he was awake more than is humanly possible. For no time did he regard as so wasted as the time of sleep. He held the comparison of sleep and death for very fitting; for as the sleeping seem dead to men, so the dead are sleeping in the eyes of God. Hence he could scarce keep his patience when he saw a religious in sleep who either snored too loud, or sprawled indecently; he thought such a one a carnal or worldly sleeper. The meagerness of his sleep was proportionate to the meagerness of his food; in neither did he indulge his body to satiety, in both he was satisfied if he had any at all. As for night-watches, he considered a watch moderate if he did not spend the whole night sleepless.

At the rare times when he slept he could truly make the words of the bride his own, “I slept but my heart was awake.” (Sg 5:2)

Kingsley on Froude’s History of England


A scan of the entire January 1864 number of Macmillan’s Magazine, with Kingsley’s famous review of Froude’s History of England, Vols. vii. – viii. (211-224) is available from The slander of Newman that lead to the writing of the Apologia is on page 217.

It is remarkably fitting that Kingsley’s controversy with Newman began with his review of a History of Tudor England. Oddly enough, the history in question was by J. A. Froude, the violently anti-Catholic younger brother of Newman’s friend Richard Hurrell Froude. Kingsley begins his review with fulsome praise for the newly awakened historical consciousness of his generation. He even praises the Oxford Movement for contributing to knowledge of history. (212) But the effect of the praise is short lived as the rest of the review is concerned with attacking the view of British history which the Oxford Movement – and especially converts from it to “Romanism” – had developed. He analyzes the reign of Queen Elisabeth, which he reads as the story of the shaking off of the evil influence of Catholicism. He closes with an appeal to remember that Elisabeth’s cause was “the cause of freedom and of truth, which has led these realms to glory,” and a warning against the anti-English attitude of “those who have lately joined, or are inclined to join, the Church of Rome,” and are teaching the young to prefer “the cause of tyranny and of lies,” which Elisabeth opposed. “After all,” he closes, “Victrix Causa Diis placuit. ” It was a thought dear to his heart: the successful cause is right! (224)

Henry VII and the End of the Middle Ages


In England the disintegration of the medieval order coincided with the rise of the house of Tudor. In fact, already Henry VII (1457 – 1509), the founder of the Tudor dynasty, made certain key decisions which were to erode the medieval way of life and the world view of Christendom. When he came to power in 1485 England was weakened both by the hundred years war with France (1337 – 1453) and the Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1485), a civil war which decimated the English nobility. The effects of these two wars gave Henry the opportunity to begin the remolding of England along new lines. By the peace of Etaples (1492) Henry VII gave up English claims to French territories , a key step in the development of English nationalism. Removed from the continent the English could less and less conceive of themselves as part of the higher unity of “Christendom.”

The weakening of the English nobility through the Wars of the Roses enabled Henry to strengthen the monarchy, thus ending the hierarchy of subsidiary feudal authorities, and leading English subjects to see themselves primarily as members of the English nation. At the same time it led to the an increase in the power of the mercantile class, with which Henry allied himself. The Intercursus Magnus (given its effects, the Flemish name Malus Intercursus seems more apposite) led to an explosion of the wool trade that was to be a driving force behind the fundamental changes represented by the agricultural and industrial revolutions. The wool trade led to enclosure which destroyed the medieval economy (which Phillip Blond calls the “Catholic Economy”). It led to the primacy of the kind of dehumanized contractual/mechanical economic relations that are typical of capitalism.

Kingsley on Lectures

Charles Kingsley, whose clumsy attack on Newman lead to the writing of the Apologia, was a popular lecturer. He had, however, no illusions about the usefulness of lectures:

I myself prize classes far higher than I do lectures. From my own experience, a lecture is often a very dangerous method of teaching ; it is apt to engender in the mind of men ungrounded conceit and sciolism, or the bad habit of knowing about subjects without really knowing the subject itself. A young man hears an interesting lecture, and carries away from it doubtless a great many new facts and results: but he really must not go home fancying himself a much wiser man ; and why ? Because he has only heard the lecturer’s side of the story. He has been forced to take the facts and the results on trust. He has not examined the facts for himself. He has had no share in the process by which the results were arrived at. In short, he has not gone into the real scientia, that is, the ‘ knowing’ of the matter. He has gained a certain quantity of second-hand information: but he has gained nothing in mental training, nothing in the great art of learning the art of finding out things for himself, and of discerning truth from falsehood.

The point is so obvious that it is difficult to see how the German method of teaching primarily though lectures came to be so widespread. For the Victorians lectures were a form of amusement:

Now mind—I do not say all this to make you give up attending lectures. Heaven forbid. They amuse, that is, they turn the mind off from business; they relax it, and as it were bathe and refresh it with new thoughts, after the day’s drudgery, or the day’s commonplaces; they fill it with pleasant and healthful images for afterthought. Above all, they make one feel what a fair, wide, wonderful world one lives in; how much there is to be known, and how little one knows; and to the earnest man suggest future subjects of study.

Mourinho and Alcibiades

I have often been struck by the similarities between the graceful, lisping, robe-trailing, genius Alcibiades and Jose (“The Special One”) Mourinho. Recently it occurred to me that I could not be the only one to have noticed the resemblance, and sure enough Google uncovers this parallel life. They could have fleshed the parallels out a lot more of course. One thinks of Alcibiades switching his allegiance to Sparta and Mourinho leaving Chelsea etc. Plutarch writes the following of Alcibiades:

He had great advantages for entering public life; his noble birth, his riches, the personal courage he had shown in divers battles, and the multitude of his friends and dependents, threw open, so to say, folding-doors for his admittance. But he did not consent to let his power with the people rest on anything, rather than on his own gift of eloquence.

Mourinho also had great advantages entering “public life,”  but it is probably true that his power with the “people” rests as much on his eloquence and Selbstdarstellung as on the fact that he is arguably the greatest football manager of all time.

I wonder what in Mourinho’s makeup would correspond to Alcibiades’ devotion to Socrates. Perhaps that kind of ability to recognize true nobility is found in Mourinho’s religion: “I pray a lot. I am Catholic, I believe in God. I try to be a good man so He can have a bit of time to give me a hand when I need it.” The motive is maybe a bit ulterior…

Saki on Edwardian Religion


Saki (Hector Hugh Munro, 1870-1916)

One tends to think of Saki as a rather flippantly cynical sort of blighter, whose famous last words – “put that bloody cigarette out” – were entirely fitting. My confidence in this view of Saki was shaken by the glowing tribute that Maurice Baring pays him in The Puppet Show of Memory.

He certainly was certainly a great satirist. Here is a magnificent sneer at Edwardian Christianity, which was the predictable harvest of Victorian Liberalism:

They had come to look on the Christ as a sort of amiable elder Brother, whose letters from abroad were worth reading.  Then, when they had emptied all the divine mystery and wonder out of their faith naturally they grew tired of it, oh, but dreadfully tired of it.  I know many English of the country parts, and always they tell me they go to church once in each week to set the good example to the servants.  They were tired of their faith, but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a sort of Socialism which made for the greatest dulness of the greatest number.  You will find plenty of them still if you go into what remains of social London. (When William Came)

Victorian Optimism

I have been working on a chapter on “historical context” in my paper on Newman’s Apologia. Victorian England was not an easy audience for Newman. The Baconian project of domination over nature reached a high-point of confidence in the Victorians.  The tremendous technological and commercial achievements of the time had not yet been clouded by the shock to the faith in progress that WWI was to give – nor by the ideological critique of capitalism and imperialism through Marxism etc. The religion that appealed most to the Victorian Zeitgeist was the liberal Christianity of Newman’s opponent Charles Kingsley, which substituted the optimism of progress for Christian hope, to the point of practically identifying the scientific, technological and commercial success of British society with the coming of the kingdom of God. Kingsley is (no surprise) a huge fan of Bacon:

Remember that while England is, and ever will be, behindhand in metaphysical and scholastic science, she is the nation which above all others has conquered nature by obeying her; that as it pleased God that the author of that proverb, the father of inductive science, Bacon Lord Verulam, should have been an Englishman, so it has pleased Him that we, Lord Bacon’s countrymen, should improve that precious heirloom of science, inventing, producing, exporting, importing, till it seems as if the whole human race, and every land from the equator to the pole must henceforth bear the indelible impress and sign-manual of English science. And bear in mind, as I said just now, that this study of natural history is the grammar of that very physical science which has enabled England thus to replenish the earth and subdue it. Do you not see, then, that by following these studies you are walking in the very path to which England owes her wealth ; that you are training in yourself that habit of mind which God has approved as the one which He has ordained for Englishmen, and are doing what in you lies toward carrying out, in after life, the glorious work which God seems to have laid on the English race, to replenish the earth and subdue it? (“On the Study of Natural History,” available through the magic of google books)

The incredible English chauvinism that he shows here is wholly typical of his age. Ronald Knox thinking back about his Victorian childhood expresses it like this:

Only those of us, I think, who were born under Queen Victoria know what it feels like to assume, without questioning, that England is permanently top nation; that foreigners do not matter, and if the worst comes to the worst, Lord Salisbury will send a gun-boat. (Ronald Knox, God and the Atom (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945) 53-54.)

Victorian Liberal Christianity was impatient of what it saw as the irrelevant subtlety of speculative doctrine; it was a very practical religion. For Newman to make a history of the theological investigations that lead him to abandon the religion of England for the “superstitions of Rome” palatable to Victorian England was a challenge indeed.