I’d never heard of novelist Iain Pears until I stumbled across An Instance of the Fingerpost last week at a 50 cent stall. Turns out he’s a British author with a substantial reputation as a historian and detective writer. I really liked An Instance of the Fingerpost, which is a collection of four short novels, each telling substantially the same story from the perspectives of four different characters.
Telling a story from different points of view is a trope of post-modernism, and allows an author to reflect the limitations and biases of subjectivity. We can never know the truth, if there is such a thing, because we are all trapped within our own social constructions.
But this is not Pears’ objective, particularly. The first story, we find out later, is a collection of blatant lies, told to steer people away from a dangerous truth. The second story, we find out later, is told by a delusional man who suffers from hallucinations and is incarcerated in an insane asylum. We have no way of knowing these two stories are false versions of events until we are told by the third and fourth authors. The third story is told by a man who is both covering up a truth and so biased toward suspicion that he’s incapable of seeing anything for what it is. That leaves the fourth author, who claims the status of a “fingerpost”, an unbiased witness with nothing to gain or lose.
The stories of all four are focused on a woman. She figures in the plot in a straightforward way, but I wonder what Pears might be attempting to do metaphorically with her. Three of the men believe she holds papers, given by her dead father, with dangerous information. The last comes to believe that she is wisdom and compassion – in other words, the divine — embodied in human form. There’s a vast difference between knowledge and wisdom. The first three men fear the woman for her knowledge. Could Pears be saying something about the fear that men have of women? Do men fear being unmasked by women?
Historians don’t generally paint the mind-set of a given historical period. They tell us certain facts, and idealize certain men either for their actions or their discoveries or their philosophies. When it comes to the men of history, I think historians do what men in general do – look for heroes. I like what Mr. Wood, the teller of the fourth version, says about that. He is a historian and he comments on what philosophers say is the purpose of history, “to illustrate the noblest deeds of the greatest men.” He replies that few such men stand up to close examination. And when other philosophers say it is the job of historians to record the wonderful deeds performed by human instruments of the divine, he says “can we easily believe that such liars, brutes and hypocrites are His chosen instruments?”
So we, standing at the end of history, look back through a perspective constructed for us by men who not only want, but apparently need, to set up certain men as idols, as ideal men, who reassure men that to be a man is a good, important and significant thing. Anything that reveals their mere humanity, their flaws and failures, even their immorality is excised. And the context in which they lived and which created their motivations and innovations is removed, so that they stand as islands in an oceanic wasteland.
Their efforts make women invisible, and one has to wonder if what they’re really trying to erase is their fearful attachment to women. All this hero-construction and hero-worship seems like over-compensation. It’s also kind of looking like a heroic effort to fool women.
Fingerpost is peopled with many real figures of history and Pears plants them firmly in the mud of their time. One such figure is the philosopher John Locke, revered by male historians as one of the greatest philosophers in the English language. He’s portrayed in this novel as a more or less loutish sap who takes the word of a friend over that of a foreigner simply because that was the prejudice of the time. His empiricism doesn’t extend to the world of humans. He is also described by Wood as a man so used to living on the patronage of the wealthy, whom he despises, that he couldn’t give it up.
This strikes me as the kind of man who would patch together some of the enlightenment ideas already circulating in Europe together with some safe, conventional ideas to create a porridge so non-threatening to the established order that it could become the idea of the age. That, of course, is not how he was presented to me when I was studying English literature. It was expected that I would obediently regard him as one more male genius in a long line of men who created the best culture in the world.
The setting of the novel is a culture bagged and packaged in assumptions and in prejudice against the poor, the foreign and the feminine. Pears presents them so blandly that we can see how much they were simply “given” at the time. All four storytellers sneer at the lowly serving girl and accuse her of being a whore. Even Wood, after loving her for three years and being loved by her, almost immediately believes she is a whore simply because one man told him so, and because she had given herself to him. His friend tells him “such people as she are corrosive to any society, and must be known.” The attitude that men are not responsible for their lust is just part of the mud that the men and women of the novel live within.
All the male characters show their expectation that she, as a poor woman, know her place as inferior, dependent and necessarily obliging and obedient. Her refusal to acknowledge her subservience is shocking to them. She acts like an equal to the rich and the male and all the men in the novel are continual thrown off-balance, if not outraged, by it.
And yet, they are obsessed by her, as men often are by women. And isn’t it because men know, deep down, that they are peripheral to the species? Women are humanity. Women are central to humanity. If a single man visited a town of women once a year, the species would survive just fine. A man has just one act to perform; beyond that act, he faces the abyss. What meaning is there to his life? To avoid facing that abysmal existential meaninglessness, he creates interlocking ladders of male status and priviledge and pretends that the activities of men – the politics of position – is of vital importance. No wonder he fears being unmasked by women.
No wonder he wants to keep women imprisoned within walls, uneducated and ignorant, in no position to watch his posturing, and in no position to criticize. How threatening it must be to men to see women enter their world, to see them hold their heads up as if it’s perfectly fine not to have been placed appropriately on the masculine ladder. As if they have a right to claim a position themselves. As if, with a wave of their hand, they can send the entire masculine edifice flying.
And yes, women can do that.
It’s happening every day actually. When a man meets a woman and is capable of loving her, he finds he can lay down all this posturing and rest. A woman invites him to be real.