Monkey glands and sickbed reading

I’ve been reflecting all this week about the way being ill affects what we want to read. Before I developed the cough and cold which has made me feel so @&$%^! since Saturday, I was really enjoying Malcolm Guite’s new study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mariner. Since then I haven’t felt like opening it; in fact, I’ve mostly moped around not wanting to do anything, including live.

The one thing I turned to was Sherlock Holmes. Yes, it’s a kind of comfort reading: familiar, safe, bite-sized, unchallenging, but engaging enough. But familiar and safe are not always right. It’s nearly a year since I was so ill with shingles, and back then, when I was being kept awake most of each night by unremitting hiccoughs, I thought that what I needed was to pay a visit to Trollope’s Barchester. I picked up The Warden, which I’ve always enjoyed before, and was horrified to discover I was hating it. The good, holy, gentle, lovable, music-loving Septimus Harding… I totally sided with the residents of Hiram’s Hospital in their growing conviction that he was a blood-sucking oppressor and exploiter of the poor. I had to stop reading it, long before there was any healing of the shingles. I’m still nervous about trying to return to Barchester, even though good health might help me be a little more sympathetic towards the innocent (?) foibles of our Victorian ecclesiastical forebears. (In which time, by the way, I would have been far more likely to be one of the bedesmen of Hiram’s Hospital, than a member of the clergy chapter.)

Sherlock Holmes is interesting because closer to us in time, and some its ‘prophetic’ passages come out near the mark. This morning I read The Adventure of the Creeping Man, in which a respected elderly academic (aged 61, mark you!) falls in love with a much younger woman and is afraid that he lacks the youthful strength and vitality to satisfy her. (Some of this is not quite spelled out, you understand.) So he resorts to injecting himself with monkey gland extract… with alarming results.

There’s a good satire here about the vanity and folly that even the highly intelligent can be prone to. But the bit I highlighted was Conan Doyle’s warning about the dangers that this neurotic desire for perpetual youth represents for humanity.

Holmes says, “Others may find a better way [than using monkey glands, to restore youthfulness]. There is danger there - a very real danger to humanity. Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?”

At a time of my life when The Work before me involves the contemplation and experience of Ageing, and extracting its fullest meaning, value and purpose, I also find myself lamenting this cesspool the world has become, with its mad lust for celebrity, youth, beauty, material wealth and success. Monkey glands seem so coarse. We do things differently now, as almost any TV commercial or reality programme will show you.

Written on February 16, 2017