“Notes on the Bologna Congress”, T. E. Hulme (1909)

Bologna, 7 April

One may hold two very different views as to the value of congresses in general. One of these views is always associated in my mind with a simple-minded Scotch undergraduate I knew at Cambridge, whose constant topic of conversation at dinner in hall was the extraordinary progress that would take place in science if only the leading people in mathematics and physics could be got together in conference. If only Larmor, Poincaré, J. J. Thomson, Kelvin,  and the rest of them could be put together in one room for a month, the exchange of views would solve the problem. It was a real trouble to the poor fellow that the attempt had never been made. I believe that at night, turning over on his pillow for the last time before sleep overcame him, he was lost in amazed wonder that the scandal of the ether’s dubious position had been allowed to go on, year by year, when such a simple thing would have finished the matter once and for all.

To show that this congressomania is by no means confined to youth, I can give another example of its ravages. At the first annual meeting of the Aristotelian Society, a member raised an objection to the variety of the subjects proposed for discussion in the following year. Let the society take some pressing subject like that of Neo-Realism and discuss it time after time, until the truth had actually been discovered. I make no comment on the fact that a “pressing” subject can easily become “oppressing.” What concerns me here is the attitude represented by this request. I was petrified when I first heard it, but after a time, as I looked at the stolid countenance of the reformer, I began to see a kind of halo round him, a coloured landscape of the inside of his mind. His attitude then became less amazing for me. The vision, the sympathetic intuition I formed of his mental make-up, his weltanschauung was this: Somewhere at a great distance, Truth is hidden. She is always waiting to be discovered, and the reason that during the centuries she has not been found, lies in the perpetual anaemia of the human mind. We cannot keep in one direct path long enough to succeed—or perhaps we keep on dying too often—and so change the line of search. You have, then, a vision of the tragic history of metaphysical thought from Plato to the present time. At many crucial moments in that long and complicated search they were within a foot of Truth, trembling and shrinking in her hiding place, but always at this moment, this fatal anaemia, the desire for variety, turned the hunters off in a new and false direction. Now you see the masterpiece of organised strategy which would infallibly succeed where the ages had failed. Let the Aristotelian Society tie itself down beforehand to keep in one direction. I hasten to say that the society did not set off on this heroic adventure. So what would have happened must for ever remain a subject of pathetic speculation: one of those dreadful “It might have beens” which torment the human mind. “If only Shackleton had not eaten the Manchurian pony, and fallen ill, only 80 miles from the Pole.”

However, I have not quite lost hope. Some day a wealthy American lady may endow us, for the precise purpose of taking up the great adventure.

That is one attitude towards congresses. The other is, I think, best explained by a conversation I had with Bergson last July. I told him I was going to Bologna. “I don’t know,” he said, “whether these meetings actually do any good, but sometimes when you have been puzzled by a man’s philosophy, when you have been a little uncertain as to his meaning, then the actual physical presence of the man makes it all clear. And sometimes, as William James used to say, one look at a man is enough to convince you that there you need trouble no further.” I went to Bologna in this frame of mind. I wondered how my views on certain people would be affected. I was curious to test the James theory. I wondered how it would work out.

 

I had not long to wait for the first conclusive test. On the way to Italy I stopped two days at Dieppe with Jules De Gaultier, about whom I have already written a little in this Review. It was a test under most favourable circumstances. Generally in discussing metaphysic one is, apropos of the other man’s point, immediately “reminded” of something of one’s own which one wants to drag out, and so one never passes outside the limits of one’s first concept. But in this case fate made me a perfect listener, for while I understood him perfectly, I had not spoken French for so long that all my uprisings of interruption were stifled automatically before utterance. The result was that I was extremely impressed. Previously, while I enjoyed reading him, yet I always thought “Bovarysme” to be a paradoxical though interesting position. While I admired the dialectic by which it was supported, I had not found it at all “inevitable.” But since meeting him I have formed a much clearer and more definite conception of his philosophy.

This different view I now take of De Gaultier. I can only explain when I have first indicated my rather sceptical opinion of philosophy. Metaphysics for me is not a science but an art—the art of completely expressing certain attitudes which one may take up towards the cosmos. What attitude you do take up is not decided for you by metaphysics itself, but by other things. The number of such attitudes is, of course, necessarily limited—like the four points of the compass; the variety of metaphysic can only come in the different ways in which you can manage to indicate your preference for the North or South, as the case may be. But De Gaultier has convinced me that there is another attitude beyond the four traditional ones. It is not an attitude which many people can take up, but for those who take it De Gaultier has written the complete metaphysic. I cannot express how intensely I admire the logical consistency with which it is all worked out.

In so far as philosophers are still peripatetic and like to walk the road gesticulating, Bologna seems to be the ideal place for them to meet in.

Walking about its streets for the first time, this evening, I would go further and say that it is one of the few real towns still left on this earth. There is a great misconception as to what really constitutes a town. The usual idea is that city and country are a pair of opposites, and that the progress of events tends to spread the one and destroy the other. Nothing of the kind. The country is not the raw material out of which the town has been evolved. In the beginning was something I can vaguely call desert. Out of this matrix at one period of history civilisation had evolved two perfect correlatives of artificial and deliberate construction: the compact walled town, and the country. That was the ideal State. Now the period of decadence has set in, as you get it, for example, in South Kensington, is fully back to the state of desert again. Well, in so far as a street is to be a street, i.e., a place for strolling and talking in, and not a railway, Bologna seems to me to be the perfect town. It is all compact of little piazzas flanked by arcades, and never a broad straight street or an open vista in the whole place. You feel always, though you may never see it, the bracing feeling of a disciplinary wall keeping it up to the ideal pitch of town I require, and never allowing it to sprawl into desert. It is a quadrangle and cloister raised to the highest power, the only modern substitute for the groves of Academe.

I have now to chronicle what is perhaps the most important event that has yet happened to a philosopher. I was sitting in the hotel this morning, writing letters, and was vaguely conscious of the noise of bands in the distance, and various tones of shouting. Then after a time, troop after troop of soldiers began to march past the window at which I was sitting. I began to be interested. Surely something important must be happening. I hurriedly left the hotel and rushed to the centre of the town. There were enormous crowds in the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. Great red banners hung from the brick Renaissance palaces which surround the square. Lining certain streets were troops with their red pistacchios flicked about by the wind, and behind them a mass of people ten deep, all in their characteristic toga cloaks, with one end thrown over the shoulder. When I say mass of people I ought to correct myself. It was not a crowd in the ordinary meaning of the term, but rather a garden city kind of crowd, for surrounding each man was the large space occupied by his cloak. The more I think of that crowd, the more I admire it. It had a peculiar kind of quality I had never seen before. It had achieved the impossible. It was simply an aggregation of people who managed the extraordinary feat of coming together without becoming that very low class multicellular organism—the mob. If anyone could invent a kind of democracy which includes, as an essential feature, the possession of large and sweeping brown cloaks, then I will be a democrat. To find out what it was all about I bought a paper, L’Avvenire d’Italia.  With amazement, I saw in enormous letters across the front page, “Filosofia.” All this was actually on account of philosophy! Really a world become so self-conscious as to care so much for the great question of the “Why” is rapidly leaving the admirable plane of instincts and is nearing its end. This most important event really heralds the rapid approach of the final conflagration.

To descend, however, to detail, this was the welcome for the Duke of the Abruzzi, who had come from Rome to open the Congress on behalf of his cousin the King. I may as well say at once that I have not yet been introduced to him; so that any curiosity the reader of this article may feel about Miss Elkins will have to go unsatisfied.

At this moment circumstance forced on me a frightful dilemma. It was ten o’clock, the time of the official opening of the Congress. I ought at once to go to the “Arch-Gymnasium” and hear the opening ceremony and Professor Enrique’s paper on “Reality.” But if I did this, I should miss the street scene. I shouldn’t hear the bands. I should not solve the question whether the garden city crowd could also cheer with dignity. I had to choose between the two, I could not do both. It was either the street, or the Congress; truly a terrible dilemma for me, for I regard processions as the highest form of art. I cannot resist even the lowest form of them. [I must march even with the Salvation Army bands I meet accidentally in Oxford Street on Sunday night, and here was a procession among processions—and then the problem of the behaviour of the crowd. The dilemma was a perplexing one.]

Inside, I knew from the programme that Professor Enriques would speak of Reality. But, alas! Reality for me is so old a lady, that no information about her, however new, however surprising, could attain the plane of interest legitimately described by the word gossip. Outside, officers in wonderful sweeping blue caps were galloping past as the time came for the procession to arrive. The inside seemed to suffer by comparison. My conduct was entirely my own concern, but if Pallas Athene, or the indignant secretary of the Congress had taken it as a piece of lèse majesté and called on me to justify it before a jury of my peers, I could have done so. I would first have appealed to the school which considers that an immediate sensation has reality, and that conceptual notions diminish it. I could have taken the attitude of the aesthetes in the exaltation of the sensation, and said, “Mieux vaut un peu du pain bien cuit, que tout Shakespeare.” I could have gone further than that and justified my preference for the particular aspect of sensation represented by soldiers. In the first place, they would be certain to talk inside of progress, while the only progress I can stand is the progress of princes and troops, for they, though they move, make no pretence of moving “upward.” They progress in the only way which does not violate the classical ideal of the fixed and constant nature of man.

Then again, there would be much talk inside of the “all” and the “whole,” and of the harmony of the concert of the cosmos, and I do not believe in the existence of these things. I am a pluralist, and to see soldiers for a pluralist should be a symbolic philosophic drama. There is no Unity, no Truth, but forces which have different aims, and whose whole reality consists in those differences. To the rationalist this is an absolutely horrible position.

There is one Truth, one Good. It is for this reason that the conception of nationality and everything connected with it appears so extraordinarily irrational to the intellectual. He simply cannot conceive that these are not one truth, but different truths which win or lose. But however symbolic my remaining outside in the street might have been as an assertion of my belief, yet the stage was hardly large enough, the limelight was lamentably absent. Time passed and here was I presenting this spectacle of indecision on the pavement. Finally inward ridicule decided the thing. To cross Europe with the sole purpose of attending a congress, and then to watch a procession instead, would be too much of a comic spectacle. To my lasting regret I went in. I missed a spectacle I shall never see again. I heard words I shall often hear again—I left the real world and entered that of Reality.

At least, I thought I had, but I was mistaken in thinking of myself as a reversed Faust. There was plenty of the world inside. I passed along long corridors, under many arches, and supporting each arch were several police, and soldiers of the heavy cavalry type, and firemen. I shall return to the subject of the enormous number of firemen which guarded us later. I finally reached the Salla di seduti generale. My general impression is of a broad red line at the end, forming the drapery of the platform, and a regular garden of extraordinary hats; great numbers of pretty women—surely this cannot be the world of “Reality”—I do hope they are not philosophers; and then, vaguely, some drums heard outside.

 

Note

Hulme alludes to the scientists Sir Joseph Larmor, Sir Joseph John Thomson, and William Thomson, Baron Kelvin; Prince Luigi Amedeo, Duke of the Abruzzi and his mistress Kitty Elkins, the daughter of Republican Sen. S. B. Elkins of W. Virginia; and the mathematicians Henri Poincaré and Federigo Enriques.

Originally published in The New Age, Vol. VIII, No. 26, 27 April, 1911, pp. 607-8. Proofread and annotated by Fergus Cullen (2017).

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