The First Bohemians: Love and squalor

There was nothing affected about the lifestyle, if you can call it that, of these bohemians, many of whom were derelicts. There was no need to take your lobster for a walk, as the poet Gérard de Nerval did, or to wear a green carnation like Oscar Wilde.

The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London’s Golden Age
Vic Gatrell
Allen Lane, 512pp, £25

The “first bohemians” were the 146 painters and engravers who at some point in the 18th century had an address within a quartermile of the Covent Garden Piazza in London. These included William Blake, Paul and Thomas Sandby, Isaac Cruikshank, Thomas Rowlandson, Turner, Joshua Reynolds, Canaletto, Hogarth, Fuseli, Gainsborough and James Gillray. Together with the actors and writers who also lived there, this was, Vic Gatrell writes, “a creative community without equal in history”. From the razzledazzle of Covent Garden – a place “dearer to me”, wrote Charles Lamb, who lived above a brazier’s shop on Russell Street, “than any gardens of Alcinous” – came the flowering of Georgian culture.

Gatrell’s definition of a bohemian is pleasingly loose – it includes Sir “Sloshua” Reynolds, after all – and refers to a pleasingly louche society. There was not yet a fully formed bourgeoisie from which bohemia could distance itself. So: “If Covent Garden artists and writers loved, drank and gambled more freely than respectable people later thought seemly – well, 18th-century practice pointed that way.”

There was nothing affected about the lifestyle, if you can call it that, of these bohemians, many of whom were derelicts. There was no need to take your lobster for a walk, as the poet Gérard de Nerval did, or to wear a green carnation like Oscar Wilde. Eighteenth-century manners were eccentric anyway; libertine values were widespread and bawdry was in the bloodstream.

Gentlemen were often indistinguishable in appearance from paupers. Samuel Johnson’s biography of the dilapidated poet and murderer Richard Savage first gave the “bohemian” his feckless identity. Hogarth’s painting and print The Distressed Poet, in which he depicts a writer in his garret pulling at the hair beneath his wig while struggling with a poem called “Poverty”, provided the bohemian archetype.

Figures such as the respected Royal Academician George Dawe embodied the ideal. Known by his friends as “the Grub”, Dawe washed once a week and then, according to Charles Lamb, applied water only to the “inner oval or portrait . . . of his countenance, leaving the unwashed temples to form a natural black frame”.

The first part of this book is about Covent Garden, the streets, theatres, bordellos and back alleys, the babel of accents, the proximity of the artists to one another, the knitting together of their lives. London was small and Covent Garden was a village in which everyone knew everyone else. The second part covers the response of the resident bohemians to the vibrant culture around them, their depictions of the pimps, whores, thieves, shopkeepers, actors, musicians and rakes, plying their trade or otherwise enjoying themselves.

Pleasure, particularly through misbehaviour, is one of Gatrell’s great interests. His last book, City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in 18th-Century London, a ripe survey of satirical prints, was generally proclaimed a masterpiece, and in The First Bohemians – also destined to be loaded with prizes –he returns to the “importance”, “necessity” and “truthtelling” of satire, the 18th century’s mental health check.

The First Bohemians is generously, often ingeniously, illustrated and Gatrell’s pithy commentary on the prints and pictures can be scathing; it will be hard to look at some of these images in the same way again. Of Hogarth’s The Enraged Musician, he notes of the milk girl with the bucket on her head: “Though Hogarth never bothered himself with hygienic matters, it’s worth knowing what [she] was selling.” He then refers us to the passage in Tobias Smollett’s Expedition of Humphry Clinker in which milk is described as “frothed with bruised snails . . . spittle, snot, and tobacco quids”.

Like many of the men he describes (there are no women here), Gatrell is terrific company. He praises 18th-century writing for propelling us “niftily to the point” and his own his prose performs the same trick. Not one to pile up his sentences, he keeps his observations simple, his opinions straightforward and his narrative no-nonsense.

Reynolds’s presidential discourses to the Royal Academy, for instance, are “windy appeals to universal truths”; artists were “rough men by and large, and many had the characteristics of poor ones. Stunted growth was common.” (Among the “five-foot men or less” were Hogarth, Samuel Scott, the German-born enamellist Christian Friedrich Zincke, Gawen Hamilton, Richard Cosway and George Vertue.)

Gatrell notes, in an aside, how badly artists of the past drew cats. Rowlandson, the hero of the book, was “a path-breaker who engaged with human subjects and said new things”, who allowed “humble people as much visibility as rich people – even a greater entitlement to happiness”. The author succeeds in his attempt to raise the carnivalesque Rowlandson above the moralising Hogarth, yet he concedes that “at times Rowlandson’s cheeriness is so unremitting that one yearns for other registers”.

The “Gordon riots” in 1780 brought an end to this bohemia; artists now followed the money. The exodus concluded in 1799, when the 24-year-old Turner left the lane where his father worked as a wig-maker for a house at 64 Harley Street, on the other side of the cordon sanitaire between London’s high and low life. By 1816, only ten out of the city’s 480 painters (by Gatrell’s estimation) had an address that referred to Covent Garden – it was now Soho that was boho.

Frances Wilson’s “The Courtesan’s Revenge”, a biography of Harriette Wilson, is published by Faber & Faber (£9.99)

Wages of sin: The Rake at the Rose Tavern (1734) by William Hogarth, from his Rake's Progress series. Image: Bridgeman Art Library

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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How nature created consciousness – and our brains became minds

In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Daniel C Dennett investigates the evolution of consciousness.

In the preface to his new book, the ­philosopher Daniel Dennett announces proudly that what we are about to read is “the sketch, the backbone, of the best scientific theory to date of how our minds came into existence”. By the end, the reader may consider it more scribble than spine – at least as far as an account of the origins of human consciousness goes. But this is still a superb book about evolution, engineering, information and design. It ranges from neuroscience to nesting birds, from computing theory to jazz, and there is something fascinating on every page.

The term “design” has a bad reputation in biology because it has been co-opted by creationists disguised as theorists of “intelligent design”. Nature is the blind watchmaker (in Richard Dawkins’s phrase), dumbly building remarkable structures through a process of random accretion and winnowing over vast spans of time. Nonetheless, Dennett argues stylishly, asking “design” questions about evolution shouldn’t be ­taboo, because “biology is reverse engin­eering”: asking what some phenomenon or structure is for is an excellent way to understand how it might have arisen.

Just as in nature there is design without a designer, so in many natural phenomena we can observe what Dennett calls “competence without comprehension”. Evolution does not understand nightingales, but it builds them; your immune system does not understand disease. Termites do not build their mounds according to blueprints, and yet the results are remarkably complex: reminiscent in one case, as Dennett notes, of Gaudí’s church the Sagrada Família. In general, evolution and its living products are saturated with competence without comprehension, with “unintelligent design”.

The question, therefore, is twofold. Why did “intelligent design” of the kind human beings exhibit – by building robotic cars or writing books – come about at all, if unintelligent design yields such impressive results? And how did the unintelligent-design process of evolution ever build intelligent designers like us in the first place? In sum, how did nature get from bacteria to Bach?

Dennett’s answer depends on memes – self-replicating units of cultural evolution, metaphorical viruses of the mind. Today we mostly use “meme” to mean something that is shared on social media, but in Richard Dawkins’s original formulation of the idea, a meme can be anything that is culturally transmitted and undergoes change: melodies, ideas, clothing fashions, ways of building pots, and so forth. Some might say that the only good example of a meme is the very idea of a meme, given that it has replicated efficiently over the years despite being of no use whatsoever to its hosts. (The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, for one, didn’t believe in memes.) But Dennett thinks that memes add something important to discussions of “cultural evolution” (a contested idea in its own right) that is not captured by established disciplines such as history or sociology.

The memes Dennett has in mind here are words: after all, they reproduce, with variation, in a changing environment (the mind of a host). Somehow, early vocalisations in our species became standardised as words. They acquired usefulness and meaning, and so, gradually, their use spread. Eventually, words became the tools that enabled our brains to reflect on what they were ­doing, thus bootstrapping themselves into full consciousness. The “meme invasion”, as Dennett puts it, “turned our brains into minds”. The idea that language had a critical role to play in the development of human consciousness is very plausible and not, in broad outline, new. The question is how much Dennett’s version leaves to explain.

Before the reader arrives at that crux, there are many useful philosophical interludes: on different senses of “why” (why as in “how come?” against why as in “what for?”), or in the “strange inversions of reasoning” offered by Darwin (the notion that competence does not require comprehension), Alan Turing (that a perfect computing machine need not know what arithmetic is) and David Hume (that causation is a projection of our minds and not something we perceive directly). Dennett suggests that the era of intelligent design may be coming to an end; after all, our best AIs, such as the ­AlphaGo program (which beat the human European champion of the boardgame Go 5-0 in a 2015 match), are these days created as learning systems that will teach themselves what to do. But our sunny and convivial host is not as worried as some about an imminent takeover by intelligent machines; the more pressing problem, he argues persuasively, is that we usually trust computerised systems to an extent they don’t deserve. His final call for critical thinking tools to be made widely available is timely and admirable. What remains puzzlingly vague to the end, however, is whether Dennett actually thinks human consciousness – the entire book’s explanandum – is real; and even what exactly he means by the term.

Dennett’s 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, seemed to some people to deny the existence of consciousness at all, so waggish critics retitled it Consciousness Explained Away. Yet it was never quite clear just what Dennett was claiming didn’t exist. In this new book, confusion persists, owing to his reluctance to define his terms. When he says “consciousness” he appears to mean reflective self-consciousness (I am aware that I am aware), whereas many other philosophers use “consciousness” to mean ordinary awareness, or experience. There ensues much sparring with straw men, as when he ridicules thinkers who assume that gorillas, say, have consciousness. They almost certainly don’t in his sense, and they almost certainly do in his opponents’ sense. (A gorilla, we may be pretty confident, has experience in the way that a volcano or a cloud does not.)

More unnecessary confusion, in which one begins to suspect Dennett takes a polemical delight, arises from his continued use of the term “illusion”. Consciousness, he has long said, is an illusion: we think we have it, but we don’t. But what is it that we are fooled into believing in? It can’t be experience itself: as the philosopher Galen Strawson has pointed out, the claim that I only seem to have experience presupposes that I really am having experience – the experience of there seeming to be something. And throughout this book, Dennett’s language implies that he thinks consciousness is real: he refers to “conscious thinking in H[omo] sapiens”, to people’s “private thoughts and experiences”, to our “proper minds, enculturated minds full of thinking tools”, and to “a ‘rich mental life’ in the sense of a conscious life like ours”.

The way in which this conscious life is allegedly illusory is finally explained in terms of a “user illusion”, such as the desktop on a computer operating system. We move files around on our screen desktop, but the way the computer works under the hood bears no relation to these pictorial metaphors. Similarly, Dennett writes, we think we are consistent “selves”, able to perceive the world as it is directly, and acting for rational reasons. But by far the bulk of what is going on in the brain is unconscious, ­low-level processing by neurons, to which we have no access. Therefore we are stuck at an ­“illusory” level, incapable of experiencing how our brains work.

This picture of our conscious mind is rather like Freud’s ego, precariously balan­ced atop a seething unconscious with an entirely different agenda. Dennett explains wonderfully what we now know, or at least compellingly theorise, about how much unconscious guessing, prediction and logical inference is done by our brains to produce even a very simple experience such as seeing a table. Still, to call our normal experience of things an “illusion” is, arguably, to privilege one level of explanation arbitrarily over another. If you ask me what is happening on my computer at the moment, I shall reply that I am writing a book review on a word processor. If I embarked instead on a description of electrical impulses running through the CPU, you would think I was being sarcastically obtuse. The normal answer is perfectly true. It’s also true that I am currently seeing my laptop screen even as this experience depends on innumerable neural processes of guessing and reconstruction.

The upshot is that, by the end of this brilliant book, the one thing that hasn’t been explained is consciousness. How does first-person experience – the experience you are having now, reading these words – arise from the electrochemical interactions of neurons? No one has even the beginnings of a plausible theory, which is why the question has been called the “Hard Problem”. Dennett’s story is that human consciousness arose because our brains were colonised by word-memes; but how did that do the trick? No explanation is forthcoming. Dennett likes to say the Hard Problem just doesn’t exist, but ignoring it won’t make it go away – even if, as his own book demonstrates, you can ignore it and still do a lot of deep and fascinating thinking about human beings and our place in nature.

Steven Poole’s books include “Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas” (Random House Books)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times