Aristotle in a Dusty Cocoon

Leonard Wool, Sowing:

Twenty-five years later, I amused myself by writing “characters” of some of my friends after the manner of La Bruyere. Here is one which was suggested to some extent by recollections of Saxon:

Aristotle* sits in a corner of a room spinning, spinning webs around himself. He has been spinning now for thirty years, so that it is rather difficult to see through the web exactly what he really is, sitting there curled up smoking his pipe in the centre of it. Originally before the webs began, if there was such a time— if indeed he did not begin spinning them in his mother’s womb he must have been charming. He might have been Shelley. He might have dreamed dreams of a queer unsubstantial beauty; the fine temper of his mind might have built a philosophy true and beautiful and unintelligible; he might have had bright and delicate affections; he might have been happy, he might have been in love.

Years ago, I suppose, all this showed more clearly than it does now. For I think that Heracleitus and Aristophanes must have seen it when they took Aristotle to their bosom. It wanted clear eyes to see through the web even then, it wants still clearer eyes now. You go into a large dirty room full of dead things and abominations and uglinesses. The most abominable thing in it are the books; even the Phaedrus becomes a degradation there. All the books are dead, and all the thoughts and words of them have become dust and ashes and desolation. You feel that the Rabelais which you had in your overcoat pocket when you came in has already turned into a skeleton of dry bones. There are books everywhere: on tables and chairs and floor and mantelpiece and bed, and scattered among the books are old bottles of medicine and horrible little boxes of tabloids and capsules and pills. You brighten up when you see a copy of the Lysistrata lying upon the table; you open it and find a bottle of laudanum between the leaves, thrust in to mark the place.

A thin layer of dust and soot lies upon everything. You sink sadly into a chair and look into the corner and there you see an immense accumulated mass of grey strands, dusty, dirty, tangled. They float about the room brushing softly against your face. You shudder? You try to rouse yourself? You talk loud, brutally, not knowing quite what you are saying? Your noise and excitement, my friend, are quite useless; you had much better sit down again and quietly watch him spinning quietly in the corner.

Do you see how the web is growing? There, that long dusty, whitish-grey strand is a list of all the writers on the Higher Mathematics whose names begin with P. A good wrap for the soul? And then there are 124 volumes of Diodorus Siculus and Duns Scotus and Hippocrates and Galen and the Montenegrin poets and the Hottentot philosophers. Fine wraps for the soul? But above all there is the past: to spin the past over the present until what was the present has become the past ready to be spun again over the present that was the future! Quick, let us cover our souls with the litter of memories and old sayings and the dead letters of the dead. And if the dead are ourselves, so much the better; let the rubbish of the past stifle our feelings, let the sap and vigour of our thoughts dry up and ooze away into the dusty accretions which we spin over ourselves.

Such is the philosophy of Aristotle. Is he happy? Is the mole or the barnacle or the spider happy? If they are, then Aristotle is too when he has not got the toothache, which is not often. In the very centre of the web, I think, there is still a gentle titillation of unsubstantial happiness whenever he finds another higher mathematician whose name begins with P. or when between 1 and 2 a.m. he explains to Aspasia that the great uncle of his mother’s cousin moved in 1882 from Brixton to Balham and that his name was Beeley Tupholme, or even when he sees in his old letters that he was young once with Heracleitus and Aristophanes. It may be that affection still moves him for Aristophanes and Heracleitus and Kyron and Lysistrata and Aspasia, but they move, I think, through the past.

The reason of all this? you ask. It may be that God made him— a eunuch; or it may be that the violence and brutality of life were too strong for the delicacy of him; he was terrified by it and by his feelings. He looks sometimes like a little schoolboy whom life has bullied into unconsciousness. Which is really true nobody will ever know, for now he will go on sitting there in his corner spinning his interminable cocoon until he dies. It will be some time before we find out that he really is dead and then we shall go to the large dirty room and push and tear our way through the enormous web which by that time will almost completely fill it, and at last when we stand choking in the centre of it we shall find just nothing at all. Then we shall bury the cocoon.

*”Aristotle” here is Woolf’s Cambridge friend, Saxon Sydney-Turner.

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