“Human beings,” wrote Lytton Strachey in the preface to Eminent Victorians (1918), “are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past” (5). And he was as good as his word. Eminent Victorians is indeed a remarkable composite portrait of the preoccupations, glories, failings, and ideals of the Victorian Era, but it is also a magnificent act of literary necromancy. Each of Strachey’s four Victorians—the Roman Catholic dignitary Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, the pioneering nurse and public health activist Florence Nightingale, the reforming educationist Thomas Arnold, and the globetrotting soldier Major-General Charles George Gordon—appears in the full splendor of their personalities, not as the sum of a timeline of accomplishments and setbacks. The reader feels the human reality of each figure, as Manning conducts the quiet campaign for Papal Infallibility, as Nightingale forces reforms upon the British government by force of will, as Arnold inspires a generation of Rugby students with his ideals, as Gordon wanders the world, Bible in hand, seeking to do God’s will.
Yet, vivid as these characters are, the true joy of Eminent Victorians is in Strachey’s exquisite prose, gently satirizing his subjects’ foibles, while keenly and evocatively attuned to their passionate sincerity. Here is his description of the efforts by Sidney Herbert, an ally of Nightingale’s, to reform the War Office: “He had sallied forth into that tropical jungle of festooned obstructiveness, of inter twisted irresponsibilities, of crouching prejudices, of abuses grown stiff and rigid with antiquity, which for so many years to come was defined to lure reforming Ministers to their doom” (130). Or his characterization of Manning’s foil and fellow convert to Roman Catholicism, Cardinal John Henry Newman: “He was a child of the Romantic Revival, a creature of emotion and of memory, a dreamer whose secret spirit dwelt apart in delectable mountains, an artist whose subtle senses caught, like a shower in the sunshine, the impalpable rainbow of the immaterial world. In other times, under other skies, his days would have been more fortunate. He might have helped to weave the garland of Meleager, or to mix the lapis lazuli of Fra Angelico, or to chase the delicate truth in the shade of an Athenian palæstra, or his hands might have fashioned those ethereal faces that smile in the niches of Chartres” (17). If Eminent Victorians is a miracle of breathing life into the shades of the past, no small part of the magic rests in Strachey’s verbal sorcery.
Last November, a friend gifted me a copy of the novel Trieste by the Croatian author Daša Drndić who, I learned recently, passed away last year at the age of 71. After the semester ended, I finally sat down with the novel and, without much exaggeration, found it to be one of the most moving books that I have read in a long time.
Though the cover announces Trieste as a novel, it is, in fact, a blend of fact and fiction that renders it uniquely suitable to deal with its grim subject matter: the innumerable crimes of the Nazis, with a focus on Italy where much of the book is set. It begins in 2006 with the semi-fictional story of Haya Tedeschi, an 83 year old Jewish woman, who is waiting for her son Antonio who was stolen from her 62 years ago (Drndić draws upon Frank Gent’s account of the life of Fulvia Schiff and her family). The son, conceived through a relationship with a Nazi officer, lives a separate life until the woman who adopted him unsettles him on her deathbed by telling him that he is not who he thinks he is. Thus begins a frantic and painful search for his origins that lasts for many years.
Drndić uses Haya Tedeschi’s search for her stolen son to produce a harrowing catalogue of the Nazis’s crimes in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. After setting the scene for Tedeschi’s story, the novel proceeds to recount the testimonies of numerous former Nazis and their victims. Based on deep archival research and wide reading into the massive historical literature on the Nazis and the Second World War, these sometimes take the form of long excerpts that often run uninterrupted for multiple pages or of short snippets that still produce the same chilling effect. As one reads through the novel, one learns of the Nazi occupation in Italy, their efforts at racial engineering, the acts of particularly sadistic Nazi officers and much else.
The narrative often falters and veers in unexpected directions. At times, it is hard to tell whether Drndić is still recounting real testimonies or whether she has hurled the reader back into the realm of fiction. Yet, the cumulative effect is to make the reader ponder the tragic fate of every single victim of Nazi crimes. After repeatedly asserting that “Behind Every Name Is a Story,” Drndić confronts the reader with “the names of about 9,000 Jews who were deported from Italy, or killed in Italy or in the countries that Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945,” a compilation that runs for 43 pages in the middle of the novel. Needless to say, reading each name on the list is a painful exercise. But it is also a necessary one. It is perhaps one of the few ways in which tragedies that often dissolve into abstractions in our imagination acquire a human dimension.
The novel, however, is not simply an exercise in historical reconstruction. It also shows just how easily the Nazi past can impinge upon the present. Drndić does so by describing how a random search through the attic can often uncover painful family secrets, locked away for decades and kept hidden from younger generations. Once again, her preferred device is long testimonies, including a deeply tragic one from the ABBA singer Anni-Frid Lyngstad who learned in 1977 that her father, a sergeant in the Wehrmacht, was still alive and had not, as she had assumed, died soon after her birth. These testimonies, in addition to the deftly sketched fictional tale of Haya Tedeschi and her son Antonio, serve to remind the reader of the many wounds that are still raw from the 1930s and 40s and continue to cause great pain.
A couple of years ago it seemed like a raft of online quizzes and listicles appeared promising to sort curious readers between “introverts” and “extraverts.” The most famous and well-established test to sort individuals between that binary alongside three others, the Myers-Briggs, claims that it isn’t even a test at all, since no one can fail. A handful of popular websites embrace this attitude and offer free and fast assessments that use the same acronyms pioneered in Myers-Briggs (INTJ, ESFP, etc.) to visitors eager to compare their “types” with friends and celebrities. These tests aren’t just sought for personal discovery and fun curiosity, however. Fortune 500 firms use the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator to evaluate potential employees. So how did those 16 acronyms become so compelling that we willingly subject ourselves to an exam for self-discovery which employers use to screen us for work? In her book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing published this fall, Merve Emre, a critic and professor at Oxford, answers that question through a vivid reconstruction of the lives and work of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, the mother and daughter who devised the test. She traces their relationship and their overlapping intellectual developments through the world of scientific motherhood manuals, intelligence testing, Jungian psychology and the budding industry of personality evaluations from the turn of the twentieth century to help us understand those two sides of “personality”: what we want to understand about ourselves, and what institutions want to know about us.
Emre traces the trajectory of the Myers-Briggs as a “Technology of the Self,” that is, “a system of personal interrogation that is as committed to self-discovery as it is to self-care,” following Michel Foucault. This helps Emre account for the expansive possibilities of a test that began as a way for Katherine Briggs to understand how people like her might find fulfillment by fitting their aspirations to their true personality. Briggs embraced Carl Jung’s archetypal distinctions between Introvert and Extravert, Sensing and Intuiting and Thinking and Feeling (she added Judging and Perceiving) as the practical divinity of her “personal religion” of personality in the early twentieth century, and added her own. Briggs deepened her faith in type in the interwar years after her daughter left home and at the same time, as it happens, that the concept of personality had become the basis for a new theologically-inflected political ideology in “personalism” in Europe.
It was up to Briggs’s daughter, Isabel Myers, to formulate the test and introduce it in 1943.The test fit well in the post-war landscape of testing institutions which promised to sort students based on merit and workers based on aptitude for the highly specialized jobs of the “Knowledge Economy.” After Isabel died in 1980, the test took off in popularity with private companies, universities and anyone curious about their type. A test designed to help individuals — particularly educated, professional individuals — find fulfillment by learning how they could best contribute to society had also become a way for firms to determine how those individuals could best contribute to them. Emre’s genius in constructing the account is to eschew the assumption that the test somehow shed its appeal to individuals seeking self-discovery as it entered government agencies and private companies. Briggs’s commitment to finding oneself in primordial archetypes is not some relic of a bygone era, as the popular resurgence of a mystical kind of Jungian self-analysis and social sorting in the recent appeal of Jordan Peterson’s work reminds us.
Emre helps us understand the significance of a concept like “personality” through a story of a mother and daughter’s related but distinct attempts to answer their own questions about identity and vocation. Throughout her account Emre embeds their attempts to answer their questions in a long history of efforts to reframe the imperative of “Nosce Te Ipsum” — Know Thyself — extending to Pope, Emerson and Adorno. There’s good reason The Personality Brokers has taken its place on critics’ “best books of 2018” lists, and that’s particularly encouraging for intellectual historians.
This past month, before travelling to Mumbai with a group of students from the University Pennsylvania, the trip leaders suggested that we read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity. Based on years of research and reporting, the book describes a few years in the life of Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport, through the stories of its many residents. Adopting what she calls the “vagrant-sociology approach” (251), Boo documented the experiences of the slum dwellers from November 2007 to March 2011, collecting written notes, video recordings, audiotapes, and photographs, while gathering more than 3,000 public records, many obtained using India’s right-to-information law. Through this double research process and drawing on a method that is both anthropological and historical in nature, the author aimed to show “how ordinary low-income people – particularly women and children – are negotiating the age of global markets” while tapping into the shortages of public data production and conservation.
Although it might be obvious that class and status play a role in the documents we receive from the past, this work of non-fiction visualizes the means by which the experiences of poor citizens are erased from the public record in contemporary India, even at a time when processes for such recording are outlined and prescribed by governance and policy. One of the aspects that Boo’s narrative captures is the determination that characterizes the low-income voices inscribed in the book. In spite of the fact that the world of “New India” shies away from Annawadi, the author admits her amazement at realizing that not only were the slum dwellers “neither mythic, nor pathetic” but also that “they were certainly not passive” (249). Boo’s work calls attention not only to the untold stories that escape statistics and official narratives but also to those representational methods that contribute to the making of such invisibility while supposedly devised to visualize the invisible.
Although a lot could be said about this book, particularly in regards to cultural appropriation and extraction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers gave me a more concrete idea of what it might mean to use storytelling as a research method. Her decision to start reporting in media res, for example, through the perspective of Abdul’s attempt to grapple with Fatima’s burning while being accused of it, represents a powerful narrative strategy that pulls the readers inside the slum before unfolding its (hi)stories for them. While unusual in anthropological and historiographical accounts, Boo largely draws on this and other rhetorical devices – including stream of consciousness and free indirect speech – to convey the thoughts that were retrospectively conveyed to her by the individuals involved in the events she is reconstructing. The implicit claim seems to be that telling the history of the slum through events that happened and that can be cross-checked would once again erase the stories of low-income dwellers from the picture.
Being used to hard history or sound anthropology more than ‘non-fictional narrative reporting’, I felt myself weirdly unequipped for this reading experience. I liked Boo’s intentions and style but I am still very skeptical of the methods and structures the work implies. Certainly, the word slum had little or no meaning for me before this book. Fragments of Abdul’s sentences resonated with me while I walked through the slums with the other students. For the moment, I must agree with Boo that although stories of individuals are not arguments themselves, “better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.”
In keeping with the cold weather that has settled in here in London, I’ve just finished Winter by British Novelist Ali Smith. It has been a long time since I’ve read such a poignant and profound work of art. As reviews suggest, it bears aspects of a postmodern version of Dickens A Christmas Carol, but it equally draws on Shakespeare and Chaucer. Through a series of memories and flashbacks, Winter relays the history of two sisters with bitterly entrenched, opposing views of the world that, nevertheless, must spend Christmas together at an isolated house in the English countryside. In the midst ghostly visitations, surrealist episodes, and an eclectic cast of characters, Winter is a deeply intellectual novel in relaying possible histories of modern-day Britain’s current political deadlock. But what sets it apart for me is that it also manages to be a deeply human and deeply wise novel, in telling the story of how two sisters who hate each other must find a way to live together that transcends their ideological clash. I think the Smith gets the balance between intelligence and wisdom right, because she doesn’t take herself or the novel too seriously. This renders her subject matter all the more poignant. A highly recommended winter read for those that want an enjoyable and cultured break from the textbooks.