The first of March, 2011: a magnificent hairy fellow

The entomologist Bruce Cummings (1889-1919) chose the pseudonym WNP Barbellion because the initials were those of ‘the world’s three greatest failures’: [Kaiser] Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate. His The Journal Of A Disappointed Man is an extraordinary book – Barbellion’s self-edited diary of his short, frustrating life and his drawn-out death from multiple sclerosis at the age of thirty.

I’ll write more about it when, um, I’ve finished it. But here’s his entry from the first of March, 1907 (he wasn’t diagnosed with MS until 1915):

As long as he has good health, a man need never despair. Without good health, I might keep a long while in the race, yet as the goal of my ambition grew more and more unattainable I should surely remember the words of Keats and give up: ‘There is no fiercer Hell than the failure of a great ambition.’

Actually Barbellion mis-quoted. What Keats (dead from TB at the age of twenty-five, by the way) wrote, in his preface to Endymion (1818), was: ‘There is not a fiercer hell than the failure in a great object.’

In November 1911, Barbellion opined: ‘The three most fascinating books in Science that I have so far read are (easily): 1. Darwin‘s Expression Of The Emotions [The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)]. 2. Gaskell’s Origin Of Vertebrates [1908]. 3. Bergson‘s La Rire [Laughter: An Essay On The Meaning of the Comic (1900)].’

So here’s a bit from Darwin’s Expression Of The Emotions:

When our minds are much affected, so are the movements of our bodies; but here another principle besides habit, namely the undirected overflow of nerve-force, partially comes into play.

A vulgar man often scratches his head when perplexed in mind; and I believe that he acts thus from habit, as if he experienced a slightly uncomfortable bodily sensation, namely, the itching of his head, to which he is particularly liable, and which he thus relieves. Another man rubs his eyes when perplexed, or gives a little cough when embarrassed, acting in eithar case as if he felt a slightly uncomfortable sensation in in his eyes or windpipe.

From A Darwin Selection, Mark Ridley ed. (Fontana Press, 1994). The elision I’ve inserted marks where Darwin quotes a description of Cardinal Wolsey’s physical quirks from Henry VIII (Act 3, scene 2).

Barbellion was brilliantly inspired by Darwinian theory:

July 22, 1910

I am proud of my close kinship with animals. I take a jealous pride in my Simian ancestry. I like to think that I was once a magnificent hairy fellow living in the trees and that my frame has come down through geological time via sea jelly and worms and Amphioxus, Fish, Dinosaurs, and Apes. Who would exchange these for the pallid couple in the Garden of Eden?

And, finally, here’s my favourite Barbellion quote: his reaction in Febuary 1913 to learning of the deaths of Captain Scott’s polar party a year previously in the Antarctic.

What splendid people we humans are! If there be no loving God to watch us, it’s a pity for His sake as much as for our own.

All from The Journal Of A Disappointed Man (Little Toller Books, 2010).


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