Keen fans and casual readers alike may have noticed that instead of dedicating the three volumes of the Factory Girl trilogy to loved ones or good friends, I’ve chosen three “public figures” – Nicholas Humphrey, Dorothy Rowe and Erich Fromm, with the latter in memoriam (Fromm died in 1980). I thought I’d write a few words about why I chose these three people.
Although the narrative of the Factory Girl trilogy is one of adventure, tragedy, and quite a few nail-biting cliff-hangers and set pieces, the theme of the work is deeper – the nature of the human condition. I did have Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials at the very back of my mind when I was pondering how to judge this aspect of the books – I love that paradoxical mix of youthful outlook and human profundity (and I’ll very likely attempt it again). Set inside the narrative is a second book, Amy’s Garden by Rev. Carolus Dodgson, which the main character Kora uses as a kind of emblem of her inner humanity.
Since my early twenties I’ve been reading books on these deeper topics. I think initially this was because, as a retiring kind of person growing up in the middle of deepest, darkest Shropshire, I fell far behind when it came to such things. Most people find out about human strengths and foibles through general life experience, and I did also, albeit later than most – but the evolutionary and psychological aspects soon began to fascinate me.
I think the pebble that began the landslide was the broadcasting in 1986 of Nicholas Humphrey’s The Inner Eye, a six part series on Channel 4 which asked the question: why are human beings conscious? Humphrey – a gifted researcher of animal and human behaviour, and a profound thinker – asked questions that I would have asked myself had I had the wit and insight to. Yet I knew what I wanted to know, and I knew the vast amount that I didn’t know; and suddenly there was a compelling series of programmes to follow.
I bought the book as soon as it was published, and since then have bought everything the man has published. An exceptional volume followed – The History Of The Mind – in which Humphrey brought in matters of evolution, arguing that consciousness is ultimately rooted in raw sensation via our physical senses. His other work is equally as insightful, not least Soul Searching, which deals with matters of the soul and other mystical beliefs. A recent work, Soul Dust: The Magic Of Consciousness, describes how consciousness is a kind of show that we all stage inside our heads.
I rate Nicholas Humphrey as one the absolute pinnacles of thinking and writing on the nature of human consciousness. His ‘social intelligence’ theory is one of the foundations for my own thought on matters of the human condition.
It wasn’t long after The Inner Eye television series that I discovered Erich Fromm. Fromm is regarded by many as one of the outstanding thinkers in matters of human nature and the human condition, and his reputation will be secure for centuries to come. Originally a sociologist and a psychotherapist who worked in the Freudian tradition, and also by inclination a Marxist, Fromm began in the 1940s and 1950s to produce a series of remarkable books on the human condition: The Fear Of Freedom, Man For Himself, The Art Of Loving, The Sane Society, The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness, and in 1976 his last great work, To Have Or To Be? I devoured these books, and many of the other, more specialised works that he wrote in the latter decades of his life.
For me, Fromm’s greatness derives from his book The Sane Society, although there was much else that was great about him, not least his grasp of the importance of narcissism in a full description of the human condition. In The Sane Society Fromm offered an analysis of the human condition (what I call a scientific description). It completely blew my mind that this could even be attempted, let alone achieved. I don’t think Fromm was completely correct, and, later in life, he confessed that he had missed some obvious points, such as his automatic ignoring of women as full members of society. But Fromm was a brilliant man, and we all owe him a huge debt. Many of his ideas have made it into the mainstream of Western thinking, where they will persist, not least in the struggle against irrational, faith-based thought.
The third main influence at this time of my life was Dorothy Rowe. An Australian by birth, Rowe arrived in Britain in the 1960s, where she went into psychotherapy and general mental health/counselling practice. Her early area of interest and expertise was depression, but soon her thought and reach expanded, and she began writing a remarkable series of books.
Of these books, the first one I read, and perhaps one of the most important in a long and marvellous career, was Beyond Fear. An exploration of how individuals respond to fear, and how they turn it into afflictions of the body and into painful, self-limiting or dangerous behaviour, its sheer common sense, expanse and clarity of thought, and its profundity marked it out as something important. Later books looked at human responses to the nuclear arms race, to success, to money, and to religion. Much of Rowe’s best work revolves around the methods we use and the mistakes we make in constructing meaning throughout our lives, with The Construction Of Life & Death being a particularly good example. Rowe, formerly a Christian, is religious no longer.
As Fay Weldon observed in a front-jacket comment, “She sets us on the road to personal and political utopia – if only we would take it.”
These three people, alongside many other writers and thinkers including Daniel Dennett, David Lewis-Williams, Robin Dunbar and Douglas Hofstadter, have set me on my own particular paths of thought. I am thankful for that.