Humanity and Monstrosity in the Lecture Room

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John Hughes

A week or so ago, Arran and I discussed the Being Human blog over lunch, and I volunteered a short piece. We thought it might be interesting to begin in the most fundamental way, and consider how issues or questions that underpin the Centre manifest themselves in our work on an everyday kind of basis, rather than starting in the abstract. So the aim would be to talk about how ideas of ‘being human’ were embedded in what one uncovered in one’s teaching or research for instance. This was a relief, since I had had enough in my short tenure as one of the surpremos of the centre with pontificating about the general conceptual or disciplinary frameworks etc that orientate us within the Humanities or within this research centre. Nor did I want to attempt to offer some schematic account how my teaching or research links to ‘being human’. Nor needless to say, to start talking about how my own interests ‘aligned’ with the University’s research strategy. Something more specific, then, but also of a kind that might ideally prompt someone else to respond in their way, so as to bring out variations and connections.

So I mulled it over, and then reflected on the two lectures that I have given this week, and realised that they useful demonstrated in fairly specific but diverse ways how writers explore the bases or limits or nature of humanity. The first, for a first year course on the genre of the short story involved three short stories. The first was very short indeed. It was by Bruce Sterling, and so short that I can quote it before the next full stop: ‘It cost too much, staying human’. This pocket-size narrative provided me with a kind of motto for the lecture itself, which set out to describe some of the ways that short stories often exploit the tension between descriptions or norms of humanity, on the one hand, and irruptions of horror or monstrosity, on the other. In the process, as many of us relish, a writer will often use the transformative and experimental aspects of the genre to confront the reader with pleasurably disturbing or thought-provoking transgressions of the ways in which our history has encoded our humanity for us. So the Mr Hyde in all of us revenges himself on the Dr Jekyll.

But of course, at the same time, the best stories of a Stevenson, a Poe, a Melville, a Woolf, or a Munro are all the time asking questions about our identity, and – in some form or other – about what the meaning of the human is. (Is every writer of a short story doing this all the time? Discuss, writing only on one side of the paper.) The first of the two stories in my lecture – perhaps predictably enough – was Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, the tale of poor Gregor Samsa waking up to find himself in a world that remains quotidian and bourgeois in every respect –  aside, that is, from his own transformation into a hideous, verminous bug. The second story was Chekhov’s very short story, ‘At Sea: A Sailor’s Story’ in which a young sailor narrates the tale of a sea voyage in which the sailors draw lots to spy on the young honeymoon couple on their wedding night. Horror or monstrosity here goes far beyond the anticipated pornographic scenario though, since the young narrator comes to realise that the husband, a young clergyman, has sold his wife to a repulsive old banker for the honeymoon night. This story is only about three pages long, but it is enough, since Chekhov is able to use this situation as a kind of wrecking ball that shatters pretty much every kind of elevating human value or aspiration. At the end it is the father’s seedy father who becomes, suitably, the spokesman for the story’s revelation, commenting that human beings are lower than beasts…

Rather differently, the next day, another 9.15 lecture, and I gave an introductory lecture on the first generation of Romantic poets. After a whistle-stop preamble about Enlightenment empiricism and rationalism, and Kant’s enquiry into the various components of mind, I took as my thread the ways in which Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake each in their own way pursued their own kinds of poetic/philosophical /ethical/epistemological/political (and you could add ecological, psychological  or anything else pretty much -logical) enquiry into the human mind, and into what common humanity might mean or be.

This after all is pretty much what the authors of ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Ancient Mariner’ saw themselves as doing and asserting. To take one example, when Wordsworth writes of the remembered experience of nature, in terms of  ‘sensations sweet,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;

And passing even into my purer mind,

With tranquil restoration:

This can be seen as a kind of potted poetic equivalent of a whole library of 18th century philosophical books that might set out to describe how the most elevated experiences of mind are composed in a Heath Robinson way from bits and bobs of sensation and emotion. Of course it is more than this too, though, since as poetry Wordsworth is working on the reader to recruit his or her assent to this credo, this faith in nature and the unity of the self. Which is another way of saying that Wordsworth exemplifies how, in his secular world, the conditions of the human and what counts as redemption, do not simply pre-exist him, but have to be continually secured, projected and produced. Kant’s philosophy described itself as an ‘architectonic’, like a structure, but for Wordsworth the human mind is something that discovers and revisits itself, through its felt occasions, out on the open road, and ‘in the eye of nature’.

As a final footnote to this too (sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away now) and to revisit the idea of the limits and restrictions of the human, I alluded at the close of my lecture to  the fact that Wordsworth collaborated with Coleridge on early versions of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and reportedly based the haunted mariner figure on Wordsworth… Which can bring us full circle. Critics have often taken the poem as a quasi-Christian allegory of redemption, if not ‘tranquil restoration’, but Stanley Cavell’s has suggested that the enigmatic act of slaying the albatross was a rejection of the human world, an equivalent of the sceptic’s world-eclipsing desire for an inhuman certainty and infinity. The result of course is tragedy… So perhaps I’ll dig out some of the pages on that for the reading group.

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