Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Barbara Pym and historical relativism

Corinthian helmet - British Museum
Barbara Pym is a novelist I can happily read and reread. I've recently been reading a biography of her*, and in a chapter devoted to her undergraduate days (in Oxford) there's an extract from her diary of 1932 or 33:

Henry [her boyfriend] wrote in German on some of my Milton notes 'Kommst Du - Ja?' and a few other things. I went and he was extremely nice - but Jockie [a mutual friend] came in and caught us reading Samson Agonistes in bed with nothing on. Really rather funny. Jockie forgave me as I was penitent and was very sweet.**

In 2015 the meaning of this is unequivocal. Barbara and Henry were naked, almost certainly after having made love. But is this what she intended to convey, or what a reader of her diary in the 30s would have understood it to mean? I'm not sure.

The key phrase is 'with nothing on'. Does Pym mean this literally, or, as I suspect might be the case, does she mean with outer garment removed but underwear decently intact? Would she and Henry have been in bed naked (reading Milton or otherwise engaged) if there were any possibility of someone else walking in? It seems doubtful. Furthermore, this was the 30s when sexual mores were very different, and Pym was a 'well-brought up', rather idealistic (and even innocent) churchgoing young woman of 19 or 20. She loved Henry and refers to their relationship as an 'affair', yet I'm not completely convinced that an affair necessarily meant the same thing in the 30s as it does in the 21st century.

I'm not naive enough to think that no one had fully physical affairs before sexual intercourse began in 1963; of course they did. So did Pym. But was she writing about having one in her diary in the early 30s? I can't be sure, and perhaps I am being naive, but I rather think she wasn't, though I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise.

I bring this up not out of any prurient interest in Pym's sex life, but because it strikes me that if we can't be sure how to interpret something written a mere eight decades ago, how can we possibly understand the more distant past? Our implicit cultural assumptions, and those of our forebears, are buried so deeply that we can never disentangle them. (This is a horribly mixed metaphor: deep things are not necessarily tangled. Perhaps I should say that we can never unearth and brush the soil off them in order to examine them fully.) When Pym wrote 'with nothing on' did she leave unsaid 'except our underwear' because that was too obvious to need saying? The past is a foreign country not only because they do things differently there, but because they talk about it in a different language, and often one which (as in this case) is all the more confusing and misleading because it gives every appearance of being the same language. If I say I'm meeting someone for a drink, I don't feel the need to add that it will very likely be an alcoholic drink in a pub because I assume that my audience understands that, but will someone in a few hundred years time (or for that matter someone from a different but current culture) make the same assumption?

Two more examples of a similar possible misinterpretation or misunderstanding, one serious, one almost comically trivial:

In the current issue of Ancient Warfare magazine (which I see because my son reads it) there's a discussion about whether or not warriors in the ancient world (and specifically the ancient Greeks) suffered from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Supporters of the universalist school of thought claim that they did. The ancients were at some deep level, so the argument goes, not so very different from us, and we know that people today, when faced with the horrors of war, suffer from PTSD, ergo the ancients did too.

Gorgias of Leontini, probably writing during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE), described those who had witnessed war:

And some people before now, on seeing frightful things, have also lost their presence of mind at the present moment; fear so extinguishes and expels thought. And many have fallen into groundless distress and terrible illness and incurable madness; so deeply does sight engrave on the mind images of actions they have seen.

Universalists claim that this is a description of the symptoms of PTSD. On the face of it, this seems extremely plausible. However, is it possible that we're making too many unwarranted cultural assumptions, as we perhaps do if we take Pym's 'nothing on' to mean 'completely naked'? This is what historical relativists believe.

Writing in the magazine, Dr Jason Crowley concludes that to diagnose the ancients as suffering from PTSD is 'to ignore the vast social, religious and tactical differences that separate the modern from the ancient world. The Greeks, then, were not just like us. They were not susceptible to PTSD, nor is that susceptibility universal. Instead, PTSD is a historically and culturally specific condition unknown in Antiquity.'

If you want a solution to this conundrum - universalism or relativism? - I'm afraid you'll have to seek for it elsewhere, somewhere far more erudite than this blog.

A few years ago I taught Macbeth to a GCSE class. I explained that it was important to remember that the Macbeths are childless (though they have had a child or children). Lady Macbeth must still be of child-bearing age, as Macbeth evidently hopes that they will have a son who will one day inherit the Scottish throne. In a subsequent essay, one student wrote that the Macbeths have consciously chosen to delay having children while they pursue their ambitions. This student's cultural assumptions - that it's the norm for couples to use contraception to plan their families, and that careers, both men and women's, take precedence - were so deeply embedded that I found it very hard to convince him that life hasn't always been like that. He simply couldn't grasp that life in north London in the 21st century was fundamentally different from life in medieval Scotland (or Jacobean England). At some level, however hard we try, we can never fully comprehend that earlier generations saw the world in ways that would seem quite alien to us.

It's not at all the same sort of mistake, but I can't resist concluding with one of my favourite spellcheck-generated errors in an essay written by one of my students. They wanted to say 'Lady Macbeth uses emotional blackmail to persuade Macbeth to kill King Duncan.' But it emerged as 'Lady Macbeth uses an emotional black male to persuade Macbeth to kill King Duncan.'

*  A Lot to Ask, by Hazel Holt, 1990.
** p. 49

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