The Things about Bayley

Nicholas Spice

  • The Order of Battle at Trafalgar, and other essays by John Bayley
    Collins Harvill, 224 pp, £12.00, April 1987, ISBN 0 00 272848 6

There is a certain kind of knowledge – perhaps the most important – that cannot be explicitly taught or diligently learnt. For example, a tribe of Indians on the river Xingu lives on the water. Their houses are built on stilts in the swamps and the inhabitants move from place to place by boat. The survival of the tribe depends on good boats, and the chief task of the men is to make them. The art is handed down from father to son, but without any direct instruction. The boys learn it from the men by watching them, by being around when the boats are being built.

This illustration is the only thing I can remember from a lecture by Bruno Bettelheim which I heard in 1975. It struck me at the time because I had just finished a year at an American university, where I had sometimes had the impression that knowledge was understood to be palpable stuff which it was the duty of learning to shift methodically from one location (a database, a book, the brain of a teacher) to another. Reading English at Oxford with John Bayley had been more like learning to build boats on the river Xingu.

There was no obvious method in the way John Bayley taught, and no manipulation. I suspect that being a teacher did not interest him. Talking to people about books, however, did, and if those people happened to be students, then that was well enough. A tutorial with John Bayley was a conversation: about what you had been reading, or, if you had read nothing, about something else. The conversation was not competitive. You were encouraged to go further down a line of thought, or you were not encouraged to. Like evil in the Augustinian universe, discouragement was merely the absence of its opposite. If Bayley thought you were barking up the wrong tree, he would typically say, ‘Quite probably you’re right,’ but in such a way that you knew that quite probably you were wrong.

Bayley treated books with the same searching deference with which he treated the views of his pupils. His approach to a work was like that of someone tapping a wall to find out where it is unsound, or like the bell-makers at the end of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev who test the integrity of the newly-fired bell by tapping the cast with hammers and listening. What Bayley was listening for was the note of personality, and the imperfections – the hollow places and cracks – in the works he examined were often where he could hear it most plainly. The art of criticism lay in knowing what to listen out for, and having heard it, to identify and characterise it. ‘I suppose the thing about Hardy is,’ Bayley would typically begin, as though together we were to try and get to the bottom of a fascinating, but contradictory, mutual acquaintance.

The presiding genius of these discussions was humour. The contingencies and incongruities of life, the comicality of authors, the portentousness of critics – these were a source of constant delight to Bayley, whose sense of the ridiculous irradiated even the most sombre subject-matter with a mildly facetious gaiety. His wit was chiefly directed at people, situations and points of view that took themselves too seriously, and he delivered his one-liners with an inimitable conspiratorial intensity which imbued them with a mock-gravity bordering on the hilarious. At the foot of an immensely long undergraduate essay on George Eliot, written by a friend of mine, he wrote, ‘Some good things here, I expect,’ a comment that was both a reproof and a vote of confidence, while at the same time managing to say everything about the sort of essays one should write on George Eliot. When the same friend did well in his final exams, Bayley sent him a postcard of Napoleon. On the back he wrote: ‘The world lies at your feet. I should leave it there for a while, if I were you.’ An extensive apocrypha of Bayley anecdotes and sayings grew up around him, and his pupils competed in the art of caricaturing him. These stories were the concise embodiment for us of everything that Bayley stood for, and we repeated them as a reflex, a part of the process of modelling ourselves after him. As his pupils we did not learn facts or techniques. Like the Indian boys on the river Xingu, we attended to the practice of a traditional art, and to the extent that we learnt to practise it ourselves, we did so mainly, not by studying it, but by identifying ourselves with a master. As the psychoanalysts say, we introjected him.

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