Monday, 22 August 2016

The Sleep of Reason

The novel entitled The Sleep of Reason is the penultimate novel in C P Snow's sequence Strangers and Brothers. It is set around the trial of two young women, living in what we would now call a same-sex relationship, who had kidnapped a young boy from a city play area to a country cottage one weekend and subjected him ill treatment before killing him. The crime appears clinically planned, and the two women are duly found guilty of murder. The central point at issue in the trial is not the events of the crime themselves, but the question of the responsibility of the two women for their actions, as their defence lawyers argue for a diminished responsibility that would mean they were guilty of manslaughter rather than murder.

The question of responsibility for actions, and particularly responsibility for actions of a most evil kind, is therefore a theme of the novel. It particularly reflects back to an earlier novel in C P Snow's sequence, George Passant. I have yet to read that novel, but George would appear to have been the centre of group of young people encouraged to reject all societal limitations and live in a complete freedom from any constraints whatsoever. The two women on trial in The Sleep of Reason were around the edges of a later generation in this group, a group with which Snow's narrator, Lewis Eliot, was associated in his younger days. The narrative of The Sleep of Reason speculates as to whether or not Cora and Kitty would have behaved differently if they had not had the association with George Passant's group, whether that association with a lifestyle lacking in any constraint could have any causal link to their actions against the boy they kidnapped. The insistent answer given is that one could never know one way or the other, though Lewis asks himself whether one of the two might have been the leader of the other.

The novel gains its title from the following passage, towards the end, when the protagonists are reflecting back on the outcome of the trial:
Reason. Why had so much of our time reneged on it? Wasn't that our characteristic folly, treachery or crime?
Reason was very weak as compared with instinct. Instinct was closer to the aboriginal sea out of which we had all climbed. Reason was a precarious structure. But, if we didn't use it to understand instinct, then there was no health in us at all.
Margaret said, she had been brought up among people who believed it was easy to be civilised and rational. She had hated it. It made life too hygienic and too thin. But still, she had come to think even that was better than glorifying unreason.
Put reason to sleep, and all the stronger forces were let loose. We had seen that happen in our own lifetimes. In the world: and close to us. We couldn't get out of knowing, that it meant a chance of hell. [Both at the time of C P Snow's writing and in the setting of the novel, this reference includes the events of World War II.]
Glorifying unreason. Wanting to let the instinctual forces loose. Martin said - anyone who did that, either hadn't much of those forces within himself, or else wanted to use others' for his own purpose. And that was true of private leaders like George as much as public ones.
(Were others thinking, as I did, of those two women? Was it true of one of them?)
To move to a different context, one wonders whether, since the legalisation of marriage between people of the same sex, those who have praised the consequent freedom to "marry the person they love" have really considered the relationship of reason to the life of passions and emotions. How does the readiness of the great and good to use the word "love" in a way that lacks substantial definition compare to a reasoned study of the affective life such as that proposed by the recently produced programme of the Pontifical Council for the Family, for example? Have we, in this context, also put reason to sleep?

No comments: