Saturday, 22 September 2007

Was There A Real Victorian Diogenes Club?

The idea the Diogenes Club was a Whitehall front organization was first expressed explicitly in the 1970 film The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes. It is otherwise a reader’s inference from its odd description in the original Holmes stories. There, the Club is supposedly just a refuge for unsociable gentlemen to come and read the latest newspapers and magazines (which no doubt were carefully ironed to remove creases from previous handling). This at once seems rather a thin premise for a club - other clubs had reading rooms with similar no-talking rules. And how would you order drinks, or the meals of which Sherlock’s sybaritic brother Mycroft was so fond? (In one of the Granada TV adaptations, he tells Sherlock and Watson the Club does oysters rather well.)

Victorian gentlemen’s clubs were famous for being a “home away from home” where men could dine, play whist, socialise with other men (no women allowed) and even stay overnight. This led to them being popular with travellers who could actually use it as a private hotel between trips. In the Victorian era, such institutions became important as it became common for gentlemen to have business or other reasons to travel to distant parts of empire, or explore beyond known frontiers. The Royal Geographical Society began life in 1819 as a dining club where world travels could be discussed over coffee, port and snuff. It soon received its royal charter from Victoria, and backed a lengthy, high-profile, and contentious series of expeditions to discover the source of the Nile as recorded on Ptolemy’s maps.
Nile explorers Burton and Speke, from the film Mountains Of The Moon
The maps were based on the account of Diogenes the 1st-C Greek trader who explored this part of Africa - see earlier entry here. The source was supposedly amidst the ‘Mountains Of The Moon’ which got their name from their pale colour. (“Snow-capped mountains and glaciers on the Equator! By gad, sir!”) The expeditions excited public interest in far-off places, and made its most-travelled members, explorers like Burton and Speke [pictured], into popular romantic heroes, and launched the Victorian ‘scramble for Africa’.

By this time clubs specifically catering to world travellers had been formed. The Reform Club, set up for Liberal politicians and later (when the Liberals declined), dominated by senior civil servants, was the first to offer members bedrooms. The Reform Club is best-known to the public for its role in Around The World In 80 Days. The 1956 film was scripted by SJ Perelman, a distinguished American humorist who had been paid by a magazine in 1947 to follow Fogg’s round-the-world route. It actually satirises the stuffy, no-talking atmosphere of such clubs. To set the scene at the Club, we see a ginger cat flitting silently by along a far wall. A member points and complains (I’m quoting from memory here) “Must we have that infernal creature thundering about the place stamping its paws?” For the rest of the film, club members follow Fogg’s travels by comparing accounts in The Times versus the Daily Telegraph.

Like the Reform Club, the Travellers’ Club was a palatial building designed by Sir Charles Barry, the man who had designed the new House of Commons in 1834, and classical trimmings were used for prestige. Though it did not take on a ‘Classical’ name like the Athenaeum (and of course the fictional Diogenes Club), its heraldic ‘device’ was Ulysses, whose head adorned the building’s facades. The Travellers’ Club Library (original home of the London Library) was decorated with marble trimmings taken from a Greek island Temple of Apollo by a founder-member. Travellers’ Club membership numbers were limited, and only those who had travelled at least 500 miles (on the map) from London were eligible to join, those having the most ‘club miles’ being explorers and other regular travellers to Britain’s far-flung Colonial frontiers, namely officials from the Colonial Office. The Travellers’ Club was also used for international meetings of diplomats and politicians.

Thus was set the scene for the use of these clubs for purposes other than reading and eating oysters. Conan Doyle would know this world, being a member of the prestigious Reform Club, while the Travellers’ Club stood next door to it on Pall Mall, between it and the Athenaeum. Conan Doyle also became a member of a more adventurous organisation whose members explored, mapped, patrolled, intrigued and fought for the interests of Empire, on its remoter frontiers. (More on this next time.)
Sir Richard Francis Burton spies out the land, in a still from the film Mountains Of The Moon

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Diogenes with a first aid kit?

We are told Diogenes' name has been used to best describe elderly men who can no longer care for themselves and need to be taken into care.

Also of course his customary conduct would likely attract an Anti Social Behaviour Order these days, or a sectioning under the Mental Health Acts, or a kindly policeman taking him to a place of safety or perhaps even being investigated by the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre of our Metropolitan Police force.

Worse Diogenes might be provoked into using his big stick for more than to disperse a few dogs competing with him for scraps. Maybe there were hit squads of the time he had to be wary of?

It has always been likely that a Diogenarian might start getting some form of "treatment" but historically this has always been proportional to the threat he presents to himself or others.

I have just contacted a person battling against the system to point out that as she begins to get "the treatment" (legal battles, financial ruin, reputational attacks and medical aspersions) she should realise this is in direct proportion to the "threat" she represents. The treatment meted out to people who threaten the status quo is not necessarily medical. It can be dismissive and punitive instead. I wish this were not so.

A few decades ago the "mental hygiene" movement was started in the USA. It has an interesting history, bordering on the secret state work of Edward Bernays who was tasked by the American Government after World War Two to try to do something about hte robustness of civilians when exposed to military tasks and discipline. A large proportion of soldiers had been unreliable in battle. Subsequently it has been concluded that only 5% of a population are really suited to combat, the rest are better led in other directions. Edward Bernays was tasked with finding a palliative for the rest of us.

Then we had the psychotherapeutic movement (Edward Bernays was a nephew of Sigmund Freud) which I would like to dismiss with this sentence. Suffice it to say hot on the heels of that little industry we have had the introduction of the pharmaceutical industry which is finding ever more conditions and cases worthy of its ministrations. And behaviour modification drugs are being found for patients who are getting younger and younger, and, according to English comical actor Stephen Fry, children who only present a likelyhood of inheriting a condition.

Diogenes would have been appalled. But he in fact would have been a prime candidate for intervention. Taking into accounts of his reputation.

I have just been reading a book about American heroes and entrepreneurs claiming most of them have a condition affecting perhaps 5% of any given population. The author, John D Gartner, claims that the population in the USA is even more prone to this condition by virtue of the history of immigration to America. He argues risk taking and acting outside the box (everyone else stays within) is endemic of refugees and emigrants who have seen fit to flee other cultures.

The title is "The Hypomanic Edge: the link between a little craziness and success in America". Here are a few of the symptoms he cites for hypomania that might well apply to Diogenes:

He is flooded with ideas.
He is driven.
He becomes easily irritated by minor obstacles.
He is a risk taker.
He is unconcerned with money per se.
He acts out sexually.
He is witty.
He can be charismatic and persuasive.
He may well make enemies.

Gartner (2005) applies this label (as best he can prove) to many American leaders and success stories , starting with Christopher Columbus. Yet his case stands up to a first cursory reading.

My guess is that Diogenes was probably hypomanic, but in the spirit of good science I would reserve judgement untill the classification of mental illnesses is itself more robust. At the moment it is only a typology a hundred years old and we are dealing with Diogenes, for heaven's sake, who can no longer add his ascerbic view to the appellation. ( Not that, as a hypomanic, he could be trusted, of course).

It may be that today with medical interventions the marketplace will be cleared of anyone who challenges the status quo , but the danger is that the marketplace for ideas will be stripped bare in the process. And then all we will have will be normal conventional people who are not prepared to take risks to achieve their goals, or make a point, or invent something we didn't know we needed. Diogenes at least made his mark on the world and is remembered for it.

Gartners principal "patients" who might never have done what they did are the following: Christopher Columbus, American founders Winthrop, Williams and Penn, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, The Selznicks, The Mayers and Craig Venter.
OK this is an American book but these characters are seminal in the birth and dominance of a nation. Not a few others are spotted along the way, and word is that there is plenty of material for another book.

Sadly, Diogenes has left too little a paper trail to satisfy sceptics he was truly hypomanic. I am not trying to deconstruct him. I am trying to recover something of what he might have been. And there is a lesson here.

Let me offer another example of reconstructing someone living on the edge which you may discover for yourself as it is superbly documented on the web. Just type in fjl in the google search engine. You will be able to read the case of fjl and her battle on the web and through the courts which is central to free speech, ethics, punishment of a wrong and the pursuit of truth. Type in fjl and npd and you will see the immense difficulty of getting a handle on this case despite almost every utterance having been in public and recorded for anyone with the time to ponder it on the web.

An immense difficulty obtains when trying to decypher what is really going on. People may act anonymously, people may pretend to be someone else, people (police officers at times) may revel in being cruel and people may take sides based on appearances, instinct or partial knowledge. Also from what I can see the medical explanation, even if it is accurate, is not helping any and no-one wants to entertain it it seems in any case

One principle for me in the past few years has been to make sure I ask the question, What if?

What if the underdog is right?: What if the system is closing ranks on someone? What if neither party can see what is really going on and get locked into a spiral of negativity. What if it is a simple matter like a diagnosis has never been made and people are acting out a blueprint that should never have been theirs? And why, why why are people so reluctant to say "What if I am wrong".

In a cruel world sometimes the underdog should be protected, not persecuted. Prosecution can bring some satisfaction, but it is a hollow victory if there is no restitution. My personal solution usually when confrionted by the system is to withdraw from the fray, lick ones wounds and try and avoid the pack that likes to hunt in numbers. And always ask the question," What if..." After all, if you do not then you may not choose to live like Diogenes.

I reiterate my point earlier, people who act outside the box will get "the treatment" in direct proportion to how much of a "threat" they present to others and only last themselves. Diogenes was careful perhaps to be a threat to no-one. Mainly by being "no-one".

I will wind up this diatribe by saying that according to "Wikipedia" hypomania often is noticeable for four behaviours, :-
(1) having little social inhibition, (2) talking to strangers easily (3) offering solutions to strangers problems and (4) finding pleasure in small activities. These are seen as symptoms.

At the risk of admitting that I am the "nutter" on the bus, those four behaviours are such as I enjoy and use every working day. Where do I work? In a library for nearly the last 30 years.

I think it would be a great pity if we were to legislate or medicate people who are not a danger to themselves or others.

The difficulty is, who has the power to decide where the boundaries are, and that on the other hand, behaviour that is abnormal is never abnormal to the person expressing it.

Few hypomanics ever feel they need treatment, indeed they may well be successful in their chosen field. But very likely in more serious conditions (NPD?) a cycle of deceit, damage and a wasted life slowly and surely obtains.

The greatest good we can do for others is not to share our riches but to reveal theirs. If people have a dark side look for the light in them? And seek intervention with only that in mind.

Whilst I often wonder what happened to Diogenes, we can at least try to pull others out from a downward spiral of negativity
when they are up against the system. If not, they might have to live with the dogs as they will garner little support otherwise.

Diogenes with a first aid kit.

The Other Diogenes

Last time, I suggested the name Diogenes had become by Victorian times a coded method of criticising the industrial-age nouveau riche, and I concluded that Conan Doyle’s ‘Diogenes Club’ was intended as discreetly satiric. However, although Diogenes lived in the classical equivalent of a cardboard box under Waterloo Bridge (a wine cask in the marketplace), he was distinguished by his ability to think “outside the box”, to use the modern metaphor, and we here in our modern-day Diogenes Club try to do the same.
So: returning to the puzzle of the paradoxical name ‘Diogenes Club’, perhaps we ought to take a step back and just reconsider the allusion to Diogenes. For a glance at the classical dictionary shows there was more than one well-known figure of that name. It’s true the best-known classical figure of this name was indeed Diogenes The Cynic. But he is usually referred to as Diogenes Of Sinope, the geographical epithet being needed as there were other famous men of that name in antiquity. Discussing Greek philosophy on his Radio 4 history-of-ideas series In Our Time last year, Melvyn Bragg noted: “… the name Diogenes was much in evidence in the ancient world. .. There was Diogenes of Babylon, who was in the stoic tradition and brought us much of Zeno. Diogenes Apollonia, who was a pre-Socratic philosopher. Diogenes of Sinope, who was a Cynic philosopher who rejected social conventions and advocated self sufficiency and simplicity of life, is also known as Diogenes the Dog and supposedly lived in a barrel and urged his followers to go naked to the market place and behave shamelessly in order to relinquish pride. There was Diogenes of Oenoanda, who was a minor Epicurean philosopher and Diogenes Laertius, who was a biographer of important philosophical figures, including Chrysippus the Stoic which takes us back to Zeno whose pupil he was.” To this list we can add the brutal 2nd-C. BC military advisor Diogenes of Judea, the 1st-C. Greek trader Diogenes who explored the Nile’s sources, another 'philosopher' called Diogenes who accompanied Alexander The Great to Asia as scout and mapmaker, and Antonius Diogenes, 2nd-C. author of the Greek travel-romance, The Incredible Wonders Beyond Thule.
We could ask: which one was the Diogenes Club named after? But why an either/or choice? I would suggest Conan Doyle was aware there was more than one such classical figure, and was quite content with this ambiguity, which helped mitigate the incongruity of Diogenes The Dog as founding inspiration for a gentleman’s club. In other words, it’s quite possible Conan Doyle used the name Diogenes as it was (unlike other ancient names such Socrates) not unique, but shared by other noteworthy classical figures. The question thus becomes, would any of the other men of that name also fit as part-inspiration for the name of a gentlemen’s club?
On our list, the Epicureans Diogenes of Oenoanda and Diogenes LaĆ«rtius sound tempting, as Epicurean came to mean a love of good food and fine living – though its original meaning, like that of Cynicism, differed, focussing ironically more on the simple life. Besides the Epicureans and other philosophers, we also have several Diogenes who have associations with early exploration, and I suggest this is itself worth exploring here. Many fans seem to have accepted this aspect may be a clue to the real answer, particularly since the dialogue exchange in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, scripted by Billy Wilder’s writer-producer partner I. A. L. Diamond (who claimed his initials stood for "Interscholastic Algebra League"). In the Diogenes Club scene with Mycroft, Sherlock makes explicit a heretofore vague suspicion:
Sherlock: I’ve always suspected there was some kind of underground connection between this stodgy and seemingly calcified establishment and the Foreign Office in Whitehall.
MYCROFT: That is neither here nor there.
SHERLOCK: It seems to me the Diogenes Club is here, there and everywhere! When there are rumblings of revolt in the Sudan, an expedition subsidized by your Club conveniently shows up to study the source of the Nile. When there’s trouble along the Indian Frontier, some of your fellow members pop up in the Himalayas, allegedly looking for the Abominable Snowman!

The early Greek World-view - the 'Oikemene'Diogenes Club would be an apt name for such a setup. As well as our Diogenes the Cynic, who was like explorers of all ages prepared to sleep rough, we have others writing or telling of expeditions here and there. If not everywhere, these reach out to the far corners of the Oikemene - the known world of antiquity. We have one who wrote of a journey west and north to the farthest known northerly point, legendary Thule. Another Diogenes went east with Alexander on his incredible trek to India. A third Diogenes went south: blown southward for 25 days by a monsoon down Africa’s east coast, he travelled overland to the west, and reported seeing on the Equator great snow-capped peaks called the ‘Mountains of the Moon’, whose glaciers fed two great lakes near the head of the Nile.

Modern writers like Rhys Carpenter accept this Diogenes’s description, which Ptolemy included in his Geography, as too accurate to be made up. In the Victorian Age, rival expeditions under Burton, Speke, Livingston, Stanley and others went out and eventually found the 2 great lakes, which they called Victoria and Albert, and the Equatorial snow-capped peaks they named Mts Meru and Kilimanjaro. This lengthy saga took place in the first half of Conan Doyle’s lifetime, and was the subject of considerable debate in London circles and the press. Doyle later wrote a series of ‘scientific romances’ on controversial expeditions in his The Lost World and followups featuring Professor Challenger, with scenes reminiscent of the Nile-source debates held by the Royal Geographic Society. Of course Conan Doyle himself was involved in a real-life organisation of explorers, outdoorsmen, and assorted adventurers - on which more soon.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

The Diogenes Code?

One of the mysteries of the Sherlock Holmes stories which engages aficionados is the life of the man himself. And one of the unanswered mysteries here is the origin or nature of the Diogenes Club co-founded by Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. The question here is: why call a gentleman’s club after a man who lived like a dog, sleeping in a tub or barrel in the street? Is there some sort of code involved in the name?
Conan Doyle says the Club is for men who are ‘unclubable’, but who ‘are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals.’ Diogenes the Cynic might fit as inspiration for the idea of being unsociable or anti-social, but not with the orientation towards comfort. Mycroft of course is a sedentary figure, more or less living at the Club, and only calls Sherlock in to help with cases which involve legwork, to which he remains averse even in matters of national importance. The idea of him admiring someone who preferred to live in a barrel and eat and drink with his fingers and hands is out of character, to put it mildly.
Perhaps the choice merely reflected the way Diogenes was taken up in posterity as a symbol - of simple outdoors abstemious living. In this interpretation, the less savoury aspects of his behaviour are ignored, perhaps only alluded to by euphemisms in approved biography, so that they were unknown to the hoi polloi. The Victorians were always willing to embrace things Classical, provided they could be made to symbolise espoused Victorian values such as thrift and self-reliance, my old school offering a coded reminder of this.
It occupied a hill where once had stood a Roman fortress. Atop this, in the Victorian era, was built a sort of mini St Paul’s, a building in the shape of a Greek Cross topped by a lofty cupola. Inside, in the octagonal central hall underneath this dome, where school assemblies and religious services were once held, stands a life-size statue of Diogenes. Although the school was turned into executive flats in the 1990s, it is a Listed Building refurbished with public money and the public can view the statue on Heritage Open Days. As the photo shows, it depicts a rather unkempt figure, nude except for a robe draped over one shoulder and carrying a stick and a bowl. This is our Diogenes, whose only possession was a wooden bowl (which he later threw away as unnecessary). statue of Diogenes by Alexander StoddartThe bowl is actually an upturned model of the school dome, a discreet tribute to its Victorian architect, as well as a pun on its local nickname - the Pudding or Porridge Bowl. (The stick was presumably to beat off dogs, with whom Diogenes supposedly competed when locals threw bones for him to gnaw on.)
A man nicknamed The Dog after his lifestyle and repudiation of civilisation may seem an incongruous choice for such a setting, with its walls painted in Regency pastels and high dome symbolising Victorian self-improving aspirations. (The modern term Diogenes Syndrome refers to a self-neglecting condition seen in elderly men that usually gets them taken into care.) But by the Victorian era, Cynicism had evolved as a school of philosophy beyond Diogenes’s extreme personal example, pursuing ideals of self-sufficiency, perhaps even (to the more religious or austere-minded), self-denial. He thus could be seen as the slightly eccentric pioneer of a respectable school of thought. Cynicism had by then evolved away from its let’s-all-live-like-dogs crude beginnings, more towards the sort of self-reliance preached by Baden-Powell.
The official Open Day leaflet says Diogenes was chosen for his “austere life style, intended to contrast with that of the modern day residents” – hinting at the possibility of a discreet censure of the materialist ethic. In his landmark cultural-history TV series Civilisation, Sir Kenneth Clark called his final episode, on the Victorian builders, “Heroic Materialism.” Cynicism in its modern meaning rejects this, and it seems Diogenes served as a stick with which to beat this Victorian ethic about the head.
In the 19th Century, there was a tendency to give gentlemen’s clubs classical names (‘The Athenaeum’ was much used), a pretentious trend soon satirised by writers. Conan Doyle may have been joining in on this with his ‘Diogenes Club,’ an allusion that would not be lost on the better-educated reader versed in the Classics. For the term is really an oxymoron - a phrase which seems self-contradictory (the usual example given is “Military Intelligence”). It was thus perhaps meant to serve as a discreetly ironic name, given its focus on comfortable armchairs and subscriptions to the latest periodicals – a tradition maintained by our own present-day Diogenes Club.