Flannery and Dante
For my money Dante is about as great as you can get.
—Flannery O’Connor, Letter to Elizabeth Hester, November 10, 1955
Tell me, poet, pilgrim, friend
how you managed to make a world.
Your lines a sturdy scaffold we climb
to heaven, gawking at the sinners we find
along your highway out of hell. You own
a genius for evil, as well as good,
but it’s the former that haunts me, a man
who eats his child a thing I could
not forget if I tried, and I don’t.
It’s part of me now, like last night’s corn-
bread I ate for supper. Deep under the skin
you and I are kin,
conjuring words, eager to atone
for the pity of being blood and bone.
Recently I was at Dreams, Hallucinations and the Imagination, a conference organised by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience. Dreams and like experiences are an interest of mine generally, clinically and personally (if you follow) at some point I would like to blog about this fascinating meeting more, especially from my perspective as an interested party but not part of a specific sleep/consciousness/philosophy of mind group.
One of the most memorable presentations was the last, from Jarod Gott, a neuroscientist from Melbourne with the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour . He gave a bracing and no-sacred-cows-untouched talk entitled “Neural correlates of “synthetic” perception: Towards a common statespace model for dreams, hallucination and imagination”
I may not have entirely expected, reading through the various papers by conference speakers I could find online on the way to the airport, that Gott has written a piece for Quilette on dating in the age of Tinder. It made me quite glad to be too old and too married to have any familiarity with Tinder itself. One of Gott’s asides (which I have highlighted in bold below) made me wonder something about writing in the world today:
Now you are cooking with gas! Expect several days of intimate, evocative and tantalising back-and-forth, conversations running into the early hours of the morning, a reliable hit of dopamine at the peering at of one’s lock screen. You organise a face to face, a real live date—and the anxiety hits infinity, as this person who you have finally clicked with, will suddenly become real. So you meet up, and you can’t even recognise them. To make matters worse, you never actually do. Their digital persona is more familiar than anything physical existence can do justice to, and you fade out of each other’s lives, wondering who that imposter actually was, and how they got that other person—the one who you really felt something for—to type all those sweet and lovely messages. The hollow feeling grows profound, as you slowly realise, that you never will get to find out and that maybe, just maybe, you have actually lost your mind.It took some serious contemplation, to untangle why I was repeating this cycle. In part, I can attribute my recently improved skills as a writer, in building an entertaining and beguiling narrative, and pulling somebody haplessly into it. Maybe I am just too good at this? No. It’s something else entirely. I revisited my best encounters, ones that became lasting and rewarding friendships, relationships or anything in between. What pattern did these follow? I can say for certain—these addictive, high-frequency textual exchanges, giving one’s phone a poker-machine like quality—came at the tail end of months of physical intimacy, if they came at all. We existed, perhaps, in a much more tribal state. Every waking moment together, where it was at all practicable; no zero-sum playing of games, no existential desire to weed out deal-breaking traits and experiences, like landmines in a Cambodian rice field, lest they blow up under your tread, leaving you gamed by some malevolent sentient other. When you fall in love the way that you do when you travel, the world has a way of contracting and such details fade into irrelevancy. When you scour the Internet for mates using Tinder, the world has a way of expanding—and nobody is ever good enough, and nobody, ever, can be trusted: to be all they appear to be; to be who they say.
In the context of his piece, Gott dismisses the impact of his “recently improved skills as a writer”, but these two sentences got me thinking about how writing has become more and more about presentation of a kind of self. It is sometimes claimed we live in a golden age of writing, that the net result of email/social media/SMS is an explosion in the written word, albeit writ on the water that is the Internet.
Whatever the truth of that, the impulse of much more of the writing we do is to present a certain sense of the selfl and . The internet is a powerful agent of Girardian mimeticism, and one wonders if “improved writing skills” are a powerful agent of imposing conformity.
And one wonders if writing-as-presentation-of-a-self makes Literature (deliberate big L) more inclined to solipsism, more virtue-signally, less interested in the world and others and more focused on Thinly Disguised Autobiography (or Thinly Disguised What I Wish Was Autobiography)
Gizella Bodnár has died. No, I hadn’t heard of her either until I came across her via Wikipedia’s Recent Deaths page. Hungary’s “Queen of Thieves”, she also earned the name “Airplane Gizi’ due to her M.O. of making hadty getaways using domestic flights.
More on Gizella and the rather tragic backstory to her kleptomania :
There’s an enthralling piece in the Feb 11th New Yorker on the suspense novelist Dan Mallory who has published as A J Finn. Turns out he chose a pseudonym for a reason:
In 2016, midway through the auction for “The Woman in the Window,” the author’s real name was revealed to bidders. At that point, most publishing houses dropped out. This move reflected an industry-wide unease with Mallory that never became public, and that did not stand in the way of his enrichment: William Morrow, Mallory’s employer at the time, kept bidding, and bought his book
The whole article is worth reading. There is something highly disturbing about Mallory’s repeated claims to either have cancer himself or that his mother died of it. Parker quotes various nauseatingly jokey emails and self-dramatising articles. For instance:
While there, he published a dispatch, in the Duke student publication TowerView, describing an encounter with a would-be mugger, who asked him, “Want me to shoot your motherfucking mouth off?” Mallory responded with witty aplomb, and the mugger, cowed, scuttled “down some anonymous alley to reflect on why it is Bad To Threaten Other People, especially pushy Americans who doubt he has a gun.”
I get a strong whiff of Never Happened from this. Mallory’s evident tendency to never let the truth get in the way of a good story has nearly been caught out before:
In an interview last January, on “Thrill Seekers,” an online radio show, the writer Alex Dolan asked Mallory about the novel’s Harlem setting. Mallory said that, when describing Anna’s house, he had kept in mind the uptown home of a family friend, with whom he had stayed when he interned in New York. After a rare hesitation, Mallory shared an anecdote: he said that he’d once accidentally locked himself in the house’s ground-floor bathroom. When he was eventually rescued, by his host, he had been trapped “for twenty-two hours and ten minutes.”
“Wow!” Dolan said.
Mallory said, “So perhaps that contributed to my fascination with agoraphobia.”
Dolan asked, “You had the discipline to, say, not kick the door down?”
Mallory, committed to twenty-two hours and ten minutes, said that he had torn a brass towel ring off the wall, straightened it into a pipe, “and sort of hacked away at the area right above the doorknob.” He continued, “I did eventually bore my way through it, but by that point my fingers were bloody, I was screaming obscenities. This is the point—of course—at which the father of the house walked in!” After Dolan asked him if he’d resorted to eating toothpaste, Mallory steered the conversation to Hitchcock.
Parker considers how Mallory’s lying and exaggerations became notorious:
In subsequent interviews, Mallory does not seem to have brought up this bathroom again. But the exchange gives a glimpse of the temptations and risks of hyperbole: how, under even slight pressure, an exaggeration can become further exaggerated. For a speaker more invested in advantage than in accuracy, such fabulation could be exhilarating—and might even lead to the dispatch, by disease, of a family member. I was recently told about two former publishing colleagues of Mallory’s who called him after he didn’t show up for a meeting. Mallory said that he was at home, taking care of someone’s dog. The meeting continued, as a conference call. Mallory now and then shouted, “No! Get down!” After hanging up, the two colleagues looked at each other. “There’s no dog, right?” “No.”
The examples I’ve quoted are relatively benign. Other of his self dramatics have a sinister air.
As Parker points out, Mallory’s use of cancer and mental illness as self justifying rhetorical props misrepresents the reality of these conditions:
What is most objectionable about Mallory is his use of suffering and reported suffering for instrumental purposes. Culturally we increasingly valorise and glorify victimhood, giving certain approved classes of victim a moral authority. It should be no surprise this provides an incentive for bad faith manipulation.
I had never heard of Geoffrey Langlands, who has died in Lahore aged 101, until coming across his death on Wikipedia’s Recent Deaths page. His Wikipedia page has been subjected to a fair bit of editing since I first read it, with some of the more colourful phrasing being removed.
Like many long-lived folk, Langlands lived a full life. Aged one, his father died in the flu pandemic of 1918, like a son of Drangan (who also lost his mother) HIs mother died of cancer ten years later. Ultimately he became a teacher, and on the outbreak of World War II joined the army, surviving the disastrous Dieppe Raid (one wonders how many other survivors are left) and receiving an emergency commission in the then British Indian Army. Electing to remain in Pakistan on Independence (and Partition) as a military trainer, he began a storied educational career at firstly the “Eton of Pakistan”, Aitchison College, and later started his own school. Current Prime Minister, cricket legend and reformed playboy Imran Khan, is among the many elite pupils of Langlands over the years.
This story in the Daily Telegraph (where else?) marked his retirement at 95:
Five years separate Major Geoffrey Langlands from his centenary, so it was to be expected that he would remain in his chair during the show marking his retirement from the school high in the Hindu Kush that bears his name. Yet, even at the age of 95, the old boy is far too wily to let a photo opportunity slip by. When pupils of Langlands School and College broke into a folk dance from their native Chitral, he was up, walking stick discarded, twirling around, hands raised above his head. The boys and girls of the school whooped with delight as their old principal temporarily abolished the passing years, mobbing him as he danced. Langlands, last survivor of the Raj, certainly knows how to work a crowd. “How do you follow that?” asks Carey Schofield, the woman who arranged the surprise party in Langlands’ honour on Tuesday. “It is very hard to take over from the Major. He is quite literally irreplaceable.”
Carey Schofield was to discover just how literally irreplaceable he was. In 2013 however it was all going so well:
In post for only a few weeks, Miss Schofield has forsaken her home near London’s fashionable Sloane Square for a mountain fastness. So why, at the age of 59, has she abandoned an enviable lifestyle in Britain to come here?
“Because it would be nice to make a difference,” she says, speaking for the first time about her new job. “It is good in middle age to be able to do something useful. The College and its associated primary schools educate a thousand pupils. If we can turn them around it will improve a thousand young lives. The job is daunting but worth doing.”
And the Taliban? “Chitral is safer than Chelsea. There have been a few incidents but most of them involve goat rustling, not terrorism. There was a bad incident in 2011 when members of the Chitral Scouts were killed during an attack from Afghanistan but that was further south. Chitral is unlike the rest of the North-West Frontier, more tranquil. The risk is very slight.”
The risk from the Taliban might have been very slight, but from another source the risk was more substantial. Fast forward to another Telegraph article two years later:
Pakistan is rather used to military coups, but even by its standards the attempted putsch at one of its leading schools is somewhat unusual.
The protagonists are Major Geoffrey Langlands, who stepped down from his post as the school’s principal in 2013 and his anointed successor, Carey Schofield.
Whether he was unhappy in retirement or displeased at how the school was being run, Major Langlands, 97, decided he should resume control of the institution which bears his name and numbers a number of the country’s leading pupils among its alumni.
The old boys include Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister, who was enlisted by the major in his attempt to oust Miss Schofield.
With Miss Schofield, 61, in London, Mr Khan was persuaded to revoke her visa, effectively preventing her from resuming her post.
Believing he had ousted his rival Major Langlands returned to the school at Chitral in the North West Province to resume control.
In case you are feeling Torygraphed-out, we can turn to The Grauniad for the resolution of this episode:
Carey Schofield was greeted by crowds of parents and teachers when she finally flew into the former princely state of Chitral last week after a spectacular falling out with Geoffrey Langlands, a celebrated Raj-era army officer who taught a generation of Pakistan’s political leaders.
Her return was made possible by the decision of the school’s entire staff to travel more than a thousand miles on a rickety school bus to lobby Langlands to drop his opposition to Schofield, whom he accused of mismanagement and overspending.
I am glad to report that Carey Schofield is evidently of a forgiving disposition, if her contribution to Langland’s subsequent 100th Birthday party is any guide:
Principal Langlands School Ms. Carey Scholfield spoke of Langlands’ services to the country.
A few years ago I came across this obituary in the Daily Telegraph. It seems a little parochial to wonder if, in the midst of a busy and incident-packed life, one of Charles Hughesdon’s achievements was to be the last surviving eyewitness of Michael Collins’ funeral:
During the First World War the family moved to a flat above the Johnny Walker offices, and Hughesdon was educated at the nearby Raine’s Foundation Grammar School. A notion (soon abandoned) that he might be suited to the priesthood allowed for a short spell in 1922 at a seminary near Dublin, where he attended the funeral of Michael Collins.
Surely he was the only attendee at Collins’ funeral to have an affair with Shirley Bassey (amongst others):
[His] marriage, however, was informed by a flexible attitude to fidelity: extramarital liaisons were considered “medicinal”. Hughesdon had flings with both the first and second wife of his friend Tyrone Power. In 1955 he was introduced to Shirley Bassey, then in her late teens, who was at the time lighting up the West End. The pair conducted an affair for several years, meeting up in Britain, America and Australia. The singer even joined Hughesdon and his family for a Boxing Day party at which she and Florence Desmond duetted. “It was riotous,” recalled Hughesdon. “Finally after much laughter and Shirley dancing barefoot on the billiards table a few of us finished in the sauna bath.”
Charles Hughesdon, who has died aged 104, was a daredevil aviator, champion ballroom dancer, insurance broker and airline executive who married the film star Florence Desmond and boasted of affairs with Shirley Bassey and Margot Fonteyn.
Hughesdon was 13 or so at Collins’ funeral, and presumably there were younger children present at what was a vast occasion. But how many retained some memory of the event in later life? When he died in 2014 even a day old infant at Collins’ funeral would be 92. At the very least, Charles Hughesdon was among the last.
Messing around with WordPress’s “Pages” feature, I have created a page devoted to my posts on “rogues” (broadly defined … probably I should just say “eccentrics”)
Anyway, here it is