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Killing time with cauliflowers

I have been reading essays by the nineteenth-century writer Vernon Lee. In some of these essays, the reader gets the uncanny sensation that Vernon Lee, despite dying back in 1935, knew all about TV shows and Instagram.

Nicolas Raymond, Green cauliflower, CC-BY-3.0.

I am standing on a railway platform. Waiting for the train to arrive, I look around me and see people absorbed in their screens. This image, so familiar to many now, helps us understand what Lee was on about when she wrote:

The fear of boredom […] encumbers the world with rubbish, and exhibitions of pictures, publishers’ announcements, lecture syllabuses, schemes of charitable societies, are pattern books of such litter. The world, for many people […] is like a painter’s garret, where some half-daubed canvas, eleven feet by five, hides […] the Venus in the corner, and blocks the charming tree-tops, gables, and distant meadows through the window.

Art, literature, and philanthropy are notoriously expressions no longer of men’s and women’s thoughts and feelings, but of their dread of finding themselves without thoughts to think or feelings to feel.

That’s easy: the daubing artists and performers of Lee’s day are the celebrities of today – we want to know what they get up to – and her publishers’ announcements and lecture syllabuses are our click-bait – we like to be distracted, and hate to miss the talk of the day.

There’s much more to Lee’s essay, however. It is not just a critique of mindless consumption. It is also a critique of mindless production: of plodding on unthinkingly, or under the powerful bane of status anxiety. She continues:

So-called practical persons know this, and despise such employments [bored art – or bored web browsing] as frivolous […]. But are they not also, to a great extent, frightened of themselves and running away from boredom? See your well-to-do weighty man of forty-five or fifty, merchant, or soldier, or civil servant; the same who thanks God he is no idler. Does he really require more money? Is he more really useful as a colonel than as a major, in a wig or cocked hat than out of it? Is he not shuffling money from one heap into another, making rules and regulations for others to unmake, preparing for future restless idlers the only useful work which restless idleness can do, the carting away of their predecessor’s litter?

Stevepb, Coins, CC-0.

In short, this work, too, though ‘practical’ and ‘productive’, is undertaken ‘to kill time, at best to safeguard one’s dignity’.

So what’s with the rush, the frenzied activity?

The quick methods, the rapid worker, the cheap object quickly replaced by a cheaper – these we honour; we want the last new thing, and have no time to get to love our properties, bodily and spiritual.

According to Vernon Lee, still writing in the 1890s, this emphasis on churning out cheap products fast creates self-asserting and aggressive people. And this is where the cauliflowers enter her essay:

Such persons cultivate themselves, indeed, but as fruit and vegetables for the market, and, with good luck and trouble, possibly primeurs: concentrate every means, chemical manure and sunshine, and quick! each still hard pear or greenish cauliflower into the packing-case, the shavings and sawdust, for export!

All effort revolves around tangible products, concrete deliverables:

So long as this be placed on the stall where it courts inspection, what matter how empty and exhausted the soul which has grown it?

Vernon Lee’s critique sounds familiar. Stripped of its uplifting elegance, it is printed in our newspapers. It is murmured at birthday parties. And do we not often think it ourselves?

Every period in history, it seems, has its critics of mindless production and consumption. Each epoch, complaints about the social rat race are renewed, and the boredom is deplored that masquerades as meaningful activity.

By quoting Lee’s essay, however, I do not want to say that we got it really bad this time round. Nor that the issues raised by Lee are of all times and therefore inconsequential, and we should stop sulking.

Rather, I want to say that she gives funny and subtle expression to a set of structural issues that almost all of us grapple with in our lives, to do with stress, status and self-worth, with an information overload and with the imperative to work. She also offers us the foundations of a solution. But for that, you will need to find the leisure to read the entire essay ‘About Leisure’.

Or study this painting:

Vincenzo Catena, Saint Hieronymus (early 16th century). Now in the National Gallery, London, no. NG694. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

The quotes are from Vernon Lee’s essay ‘About Leisure’, published first in 1897, in Limbo and Other Essays.

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Crying men are here again

Let’s start the new year with something positive. Crying. (I am not being sarcastic.)

A young man weeps in grief by the death bed of a young woman. Engraving by Joseph Brown after James Baker (1846). Held by the Wellcome Library, no. 17312i.

Over the past years, TV shows seem to have shown an increasing number of crying men. The Great British Bake Off; interviews with ex-servicemen; sitcoms like Big Bang Theory; the hugely popular Farmer Wants a Wife programmes across the world: they regularly feature men who let it all out.

This development is not to everyone’s liking, as this interview with Mary Berry suggests, but it remains a fact: crying on TV is pretty acceptable nowadays – yes, desirable in some shows – even for men.

Over the past century or so, however, such public show of emotion has hardly been possible for people of the male gender. North-western Europeans, at least, were living under a strict emotional macho regime under which men were not supposed to show their weaknesses: stiff upper lip and all that.

This has not always been the case. In earlier centuries, crying was much more acceptable for men.

Plate 2 from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Chapter VII: ‘Low Spirits, Anxiety, Grief, Dejection, Despair’ (London, 1872). Photos by Duchenne and Rejlander. Held by the Wellcome Library.

Take for instance the 1782 novel Sara Burgerhart, famous for being the first literary novel in the Dutch language. It was written by Elizabeth Wolff and Agatha Deken in response to Samuel Richardson’s novels in letter form (Pamela, Clarissa). Sara Burgerhart was popular straight away and went through three editions within five years. Even though Wolff and Deken professed to resist the sentimental fashion of their days, their novel carries the traces of it.

Rhijnvis Feith’s novel Julia (1783) was ‘even’ more sentimental than Sara Burgerhart.

One of the most sympathetic characters in the novel, Sara Burgerhart’s guardian, the middle-aged bachelor Abraham Blankaart, shows himself to be a sensitive man from the very beginning. Returning a letter to Sara Burgerhart’s landlady, a widow who has told him the tragic story of her life, he writes:

Would you believe, Madam, that your letter cost me perhaps as many as four tears? Yet it’s the truth. [Again, no sarcasm involved here!]

Sara Burgerhart’s noble love interest, writing to his own brother, also calls himself ‘a sensitive man’. And the third valiant man in the novel (which really is all about a Lovelace-type deceiver) is described by his sister as someone who would ‘dissolve in happy tears’ just from hearing about his sister’s engagement.

The same public approval of male sobs can be gathered from the even greater popularity of Nicolaas Beets’s Camera Obscura, which has gone through countless editions since first appearing in the Netherlands in 1839. For the seventh edition, of 1871, Beets wrote a new preface. It was directed at one of his best friends, the friend to which the book had been dedicated from the start. Just before the new edition came out, this friend had passed away. In his preface, Beets sketches the scene of the funeral. His own ‘lonely heart’ filled with sentiment, Beets recounts how even his friend’s trusty carriage driver had

thick tears rolling into [his] sideburns.

Vincent van Gogh, ‘At Eternity’s Gate’, lithography (1882). Image from the Vincent van Gogh Gallery.

So we are talking actual tears, streaming down bearded cheeks. In these popular texts, crying was a sign of civilisation; sentiment the mark of a good man. A decent man showed that he was capable of feeling for his fellow creatures.

In the later nineteenth and particularly the twentieth century, ideals of masculinity shifted. In that age of nationalism and militarism, each man instead had to demonstrate he was up to the task of defending his nation. If you were a good soldier, you were a good man.

Although I am necessarily simplifying things here, it looks like there has been a genuine going back and forth in this region’s history of emotions: from an approval of a sentimental masculinity around 1800, to emotional rigidity around 1900, and perhaps, now, back to an appreciation of the more vulnerable emotions of men. Crying is permitted again.


N.B. Nicolaas Beets himself felt that his century saw the dawn of a new emotional regime for men. In his essay on grave memorials he deplores the ‘cold’ macho rhetoric of forerunners like Byron, quoting from his ‘Euthanasia’:

WHEN Time, or soon or late, shall bring
The dreamless sleep that lulls the dead,
Oblivion! may thy languid wing
Wave gently o’er my dying bed!

No band of friends or heirs be there,
To weep, or wish, the coming blow:
No maiden, with dishevell’d hair,
To feel, or feign, decorous woe.

But silent let me sink to earth,
With no officious mourners near:
I would not mar one hour of mirth,
Nor startle friendship with a fear.

[…]

But vain the wish—for Beauty still
Will shrink, as shrinks the ebbing breath;
And woman’s tears, produced at will,
Deceive in life, unman in death.

References:

  • Wolff and Deken, History van mejuffrouw Sara Burgerhart, with an introduction by L. Knappert (Amsterdam, 1919), pages 60, 63, 135.
  • Hildebrand/Beets, Camera Obscura (Utrecht, Antwerp, 1982), pages 297, 313.
  • Poetry of Byron, ed. Matthew Arnold (London, 1881).
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Happy to share?

If you read the newspapers, you might get the idea that ‘sharing’ consumption goods – houses, cars, tools… – is a new phenomenon.

They call it the ‘sharing economy’, or ‘collaborative consumption’, and it is apparently all the rage.

The collaborative consumption that takes the limelight, however, is that part which is mediated by commercial services brokering taxi fares, for instance, or holiday homes: companies for whom sharing is just the next business model, with the profits coming from skimming the turn-over of the providers of the goods.

Yet of course, a lot of informal sharing goes on as well, both paid and unpaid. It is hard to measure, but it seems fair to assume that, with the Crisis, this has taken on large proportions since 2008. Only think of all the families who have lost their houses and had to move back in with their (grand)parents.

For the people actually involved in sharing their resources, this is not another business model. For many, it is an economic necessity. Living in someone else’s house, driving their car, wearing second-hand clothes, washing them in the launderette: they are all different ways of saving money by sharing.

Yet sharing does not just happen. People have to do it: it is a capacity, a skill.

A shared laundry basin on the Mediterranean coast, c. 1900. Carlo Brogi, 'Sanremo.  Popolane al lavatojo', cat. no. 12182.

A shared laundry basin near the Mediterranean, c. 1900. Studio Carlo Brogi.

We all know that in order to do some successful sharing, we need the right mindset. We have to trust the people we are sharing with and not be too attached to the things we are sharing. Pleasant sharing is the result of a certain mentality: a mentality that makes it normal, even enjoyable to share things. If you do not own this mentality, to share is hardship. If you do own it, you may in fact prefer to share a lot of things in your life, not (just) from a financial need, but out of conviction, idealism, or simply because that is how you were brought up.

With the world’s cities growing ever more crowded, we have good reasons for increasing the amount of skillful and glad sharing that we do.

You may think this a very hard task; since some people are simply better at sharing than others –

– or because some cultures are simply better at it than other cultures. It is true that the degree to which people are happy to share their homes, their food, their clothes or their cars, varies dramatically between cultures. Those living around the European North Sea, for example, have historically been relatively bad at sharing – or relatively good at doing things on their own, if you want to put it that way (a lot of people do: they see history as a Robinson Crusoe epos). These Europeans organised their lives in nuclear families, each inhabiting a separate home rather than the extended-family farm or homestead common in many other parts of the world. This was related to the fact that many did not work for a family business, but earned an independent wage as employee elsewhere for much of their life.

The good news that historians can bring, however, is that people have a huge capacity to change their attitudes.

We may at this very moment be entering an era when sharing becomes more appreciated again. In western Europe and the USA, car ownership for example has been going down for a while now. (Second-hand furniture has also become more desirable, but that may have a purely economic cause.) Most Europeans are yet far removed from wanting to share everything they own, but the point is that the desirability of sharing can change over time. A culture can rapidly alternate between embracing the sharing of certain goods and rejecting it. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, similar shifts in preferences for sharing have taken place. Together with current developments, they form a long-term wave movement. (This is what I will be arguing at a conference of the Royal Geographic Society in Exeter this September.)

But in your own lifetime, too, you have probably experienced fluctuations in how used you are to sharing. You may have worked happily in a noisy classroom as a kid, but perhaps prefer to work in a quiet office of your own nowadays. You may also have grown more averse to sharing a bed, a dressing-room, or a coffee mug than when you were little.

Yet because the historical evidence also shows developments that have moved in the opposite direction, towards more ‘collaborative consumption’, we may be optimistic about our potential for these changes, too.

Now let’s think of ways to turn this potential into reality. How can we make sharing easier for the many of us for whom it is not?