Thursday, 7 July 2016

Hounded to death: the last years of T. E. Shaw. 19. Melancholy

Albrecht Dürer, Melancholia, engraving, 1514
"My life? Not too good. The Press were besetting this cottage when I reached it. I went to London for a while: they desisted. I returned: they did. The most exigent of them I banged in the eye, and while he sought a doctor I went off again on my wanderings, seeing the Newspaper Society, and the Photographic Agencies, and Esmond Harmsworth (for the Newspaper Proprietors Assn.) with the plea to leave me alone. They agree, more or less, so long as I do nothing that earns a new paragraph: and on that rather unholy compact I am back here again in precarious peace, and liking a life that has no fixed point, no duty and no time to keep."

From a letter to John Buchan, April 1st, 1935

"'You wonder what I am doing'? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle me and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That's the feeling."

From a letter to Eric Kennington, May 6th, 1935

"Money is very short, and this is the only spot, apparently, where I can afford to live: but it is too soon to judge of that. In a few months' time I will know for sure if my savings are enough, or not. Meanwhile I am practising a not un-amusing penury - or parsimony, rather. Also I work enough at wood-cutting and gathering pipe-laying and building to tire me out thoroughly by each early afternoon... and then follows a heavenly laze, in the sun, if available, or by my fires if not. But on the whole I think I prefer engrossment to comfort. Perhaps comfort is an acquired taste which grows with indulgence?"

From a letter to Bruce Rogers, May 6th, 1935

The last two letters were penned a week before he thought his last thought. They do not express the anguish witnessed by his friend and neighbour Pat Knowles as reported by Malcolm Brown and Julia Cave, in A Touch of Genius: The Life of T. E. Lawrence, p. 211 f. In this excerpt from the 1962 Interview with Pat Knowles, I have omitted much of the details of the incident about the physical confrontation that Shaw and Knowles had with two reporters at the cottage after the promises made by the press that he would be left alone. Incidents happen and are reported, and when they are sensational they can often mask the more important psychological effects. If you prefer sensationalism you will have to read the full passage in the book:

"... I went in and told Shaw that these men were here. He didn't seem unduly worried... Well, later on in the morning I came in, and his mood had changed completely. His face was red and he wouldn't look at me, and his eyes were blazing. He couldn't sit still. First of all he sat on the fender, and he got on to the settee, then he went to the chair, then he came back again. I've never been in the presence of anyone before or since in whom I felt such distress and anger and frustration. If it were possible for a human being to evanesce, to just disappear like smoke,he would have done it that morning. It was almost like an aura about him, almost something solid, and I just couldn't stay there in the same room. ... When they went away from the door, I went upstairs and Shaw was sitting on the fender, and he was shaking, and he was chewing his knuckles. And he turned to me and said, 'It's been years since I struck a man'" 
The palpability of Shaw's emotion is slighter than that which has been reported with poltergeist phenomenon, but it is of the same character; an emotional outburst so intense that its energy can almost coalesce into matter. I experienced something similar when I was young: at the height of anger, I entered my bedroom and the first thing I saw was a record cover lying flat  on a table. It immediately flew across the room and bounced off the far wall. The anger was thus dissipated at once.

I chose  the lead graphic partly because of its subject matter but also because of something in its interpretive caption in the Wikimedia file:
"Renaissance philosophers had suggested a new interpretation for melancholy, as the temperament of genius (in the modern sense). Melancholy was possessed by artists, in whom 'Imagination' predominates; 'Reason' dominates scholars; while the final stage of 'Spirit' was the preserve of theologians. If this interpretation is correct, Dürer has presented us with a portrait of his own temperament as an artist."
Tomorrow, the death of T. E. Shaw.

John's Coydog Community page


  1. Hello John:

    "...In a few months' time I will know for sure if my savings are enough, or not."

    Are enough for what I wonder? A job offer perhaps?

    Fascinating stuff.


    John Howland

    1. Hi John,

      I think he was worried about his rent and expenditures against his small investment income with regard to the 1935 General Election and Budget.