Essay 31: Learning to Use Movies & Books or Songs As Off-Campus Universities

Howards End is a 1910 novelistic masterpiece by the great British writer E.M. Forster. It became an excellent Merchant-Ivory movie. The story is set in Edwardian England (1901-1910) and shows the interaction of three families, each representing a section of British society:

  1. The Wilcoxes (Anthony Hopkins is Henry Wilcox) who represent cut-throat new money, with “Thatcherite” views.
  2. The Schlegels (Emma Thompson is Margaret Schlegel) represent the “culture vultures” who are always talking about music, literature, poetry, high-toned pursuits.
  3. The Basts (Leonard Bast is played by Samuel West) who is a lowly clerk in the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company and part of what one writer (Jack London) called “people of the abyss.” (their job and wage insecurity is all-consuming).

The story involves the storm created by the interaction of these families and the destruction of the marginal clerk Leonard Bast. Surprisingly, the character Margaret Schlegel of the “artiste” family, talks about the centrality of money in their lives:

“You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It’s only when we see someone near us tottering that we realize all that an independent income means. Last night, when we were talking up here round the fire, I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.”

“…we ought to remember, when we are tempted to criticize others, that we are standing on these islands, and that most of the others are down below the surface of the sea.”

“I stand each year upon six hundred pounds, and Helen [her sister] upon the same, and Tibby [their brother] will stand upon eight, and as fast as our pounds crumble away into the sea they are renewed—from the sea, yes, from the sea.

“And all our thoughts are the thoughts of the six-hundred-pounders, and all our speeches; and because we don’t want to steal umbrellas ourselves, we forget that below the sea people do want to steal them, and do steal them sometimes, and that what’s a joke up here is a down there reality.”

There are not only these terrifying lines of cleavage between rich and poor but these cleavages extend to sex and romance as well.

Leonard Bast is seduced by Helen Schlegel (Margaret’s bohemian rebellious sister) who becomes pregnant by him. Paul Wilcox (Henry’s explosive son) beats Bast to death which then brings the social “storm” of the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts, to a climax or denouement.

A close reader of English literature will perhaps have noticed that already in Jane Austen novels, set in a time one hundred years prior to Howards End there is constant talk of annuities

Already in Jane Austen “the name of the game” is Caribbean sugar while in Howards End the “game” is African rubber (and invested in English real estate), where the Wilcox fortune comes from (think of the Firestone company in Liberia as a classic example of the rise of the rubber business, with the need for rubber for tires.)

Thus we have in these novels an intermingling of families, overseas sources of wealth (West/non-West economic relations), rigid social rituals. (a romance between Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast, the marginal clerk, is a no-no punished by death.)

Decades before E.M. Forster, there was the novel by Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son which “orbits” money.

Someone once made the comment that Marx and Freud destroyed the Victorian taboos on money and sex and that comment is confirmed largely by such novels as Howards End with the very surprising utterances of Margaret Schlegel (from the family of “culture vultures”), on money and its centrality in their lives and mentalities.

Think of such novels as an “intuitive kind of open university.”

Essay 26: Extracting Educational “Signals” from the “Noise” Around You

A student should train him or herself to extract “signals from noise” in the world all around oneself.

For example:

You see the British movie Carrington with Emma Thompson concerning the British painter Dora Carrington. In her “circle,” which overlaps the Bloomsbury Group of such luminaries as Keynes and Bertrand Russell, there’s a scholarly member called Gerald Brenan, who became a world-famous analyst of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939):

“Edward FitzGerald ‘Gerald’ Brenan, CBE, MC was a British writer and Hispanist who spent much of his life in Spain. Brenan is best known for The Spanish Labyrinth, a historical work on the background to the Spanish Civil War, and for South from Granada: Seven Years in an Andalusian Village.”

His basic information is:

Born: April 7, 1894, Sliema, Malta
Died: January 19, 1987, Alhaurín el Grande, Spain
Spouse: Gamel Woolsey (m. 1931–1968)
Movies: South from Granada

Think of Brenan’s book title, The Spanish Labyrinth. Ask yourself if the concept of a national labyrinth is not exceedingly eye-opening. Would it not be very educational to study the features and characteristics of the American, Chinese, or Russian “labyrinths?” Would not any country’s political economy overlaid with its labyrinthian realities be very instructive?

Think of the Trump labyrinth in October 2019, all the players, deceptions, overlapping functions, pressures. paymasters both hidden and overt and obviously it’s all a kind of “deception machine” which is its own labyrinth. Thus, without even having read the Gerald Brenan masterpiece on Spain, the very name of the book is eye-opening and informative in a “meta-intelligent” way (i.e., it tweaks your sense of overview right away).

Another example: you look at a syllabus for a history course on English history and notice a title: The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime by Prof. Wallace T. MacCaffrey (1968/1971). The very title alerts you to the fact that the evening news right now is about “the shaping of the Trump regime.”

The word “regime” supplants the usual “the administration” and the power politics and musical chairs are constant. The Elizabethan regime had similar features on a smaller scale. The basic phenomena are comparable and apply to all regimes. Your sense of overview becomes stronger by ranging between then (Elizabethan times, Tudor England) and now (Trump regime juggling.)

Take an example from TV: PBS had a Nature program entitled The Queen of Trees which takes one single tree in Africa and shows you the complexity of the micro-ecosystem it lives by:

Nature reveals the importance of an unlikely partnership between a regal tree and a tiny wasp in The Queen of Trees.

“It may be one of nature’s oddest couples: a tiny wasp that can barely be seen, and a giant fig tree, the sycamore, which shelters a remarkable menagerie of wildlife among its limbs. The wasp and the fig depend on each other for survival. Without the wasp, the tree could not pollinate its flowers and produce seeds. Without the fig, the wasp would have nowhere to lay its eggs.

The Queen of Trees shows this delicate dance of survival in exquisite detail, including spectacular close-ups of the wasp’s remarkable life inside a ripening fig. To capture such incredible images, filmmakers Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble spent two years camped out near a giant sycamore fig in Kenya’s outback, documenting the tree’s pivotal role as a source of food and shelter for everything from gray hornbills, Africa’s largest bird, to swarms of invading insects searching for food. In a surprising turn, some insects come to the tree’s aid—sparking a battle.”

The intricacies of the tree give you a sense of the limits of knowledge: if we can hardly really understand the “life and times” of one tree in Africa, does the pretense of science that we will one day know everything about everything expressed in rigorous equations, no less (à la Stephen Hawking’s visions) seem suddenly very unlikely and quixotic? The tactics and alliances and “politics” of the tree are “infinitely” complicated by themselves and thus getting an overview of the multiverse seems supremely hubristic.

These three examples show you the process of extracting “signals” from the “university” all around you.