George Calderon’s ‘magnum opus’

27 April 1915 was a Tuesday, so George was presumably back at Fort Brockhurst, having returned from weekend leave yesterday.

The only other literary work that he may have tinkered with when he was home at weekends was a book about Slavonic paganism and folklore which he had been researching and writing since he was in Russia in 1896.

In George Calderon: A Sketch from Memory, Percy Lubbock devotes several invaluable pages to this work. They are invaluable for the facts that they contain, but I profoundly disagree with his conclusions about the work.

Percy describes how the book ‘grew and spread’ after George returned to Britain in 1897 and continued researching the subject at the British Museum, he says that it did not ‘grow beyond his control’, but he strongly implies that George fell prey to what I would call ‘magnum opus syndrome’, i.e. the impulse to continue indefinitely. Percy regrets that this essentially anthropological work diverted George from ‘creative’ writing:

I confess that when I turn over the stacks of papers which represent the labour he bestowed on six thousand years of Indo-Europeans; sheets of references, extracts, finished pieces, lists of strange words, philological roots, liturgical forms, primordial symbols; all his multifarious matter assorted and arranged as on the day when he last touched it, immediately ready for his hand whenever he should decide to take it  up again: I confess I could wish he had happened to overlook that very astonishing Bulgarian folk-lore. His imagination might have been creating and producing all that time nearer home […]; his life, with its perpetual assimilation of the life around him, might have been recorded in substance and form.

But with his own strictly aesthetic focus, Lubbock was unlikely to find George’s scholarly activity sympathetic; nor do I believe he made any effort to read what George had actually published on folklore and religion and understand where this ‘magnum opus’ was going.

Demon Feasts, as it was originally called, was not just a congeries of notes and references. Percy himself says that parts of it were ‘finished’ and that ‘on the eve of the war’ George was close to putting ‘the leading ideas it embodied […] into final shape’. George’s reviews of anthropological works in the TLS, some letters, and his 1913 article in the Classical Review, ‘Slavonic Elements in Greek Religion’, give us, I believe, a very good idea of the book’s nature. I doubt very much whether Percy Lubbock read these.

The inspiration of George’s book was probably James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), which personally I find unreadable. George was knitting together a vast skein of Slavonic, Greek, and Indo-European religious practices on the basis of homology, analogy, and in particular philology. It was the latter that George’s friend the French Slavist Paul Boyer objected to; in fact rejected. Moreover, George’s reviews of other anthropologists’ work suggest that (a) he could not decide whether religious practices had spread geographically or were the result of polygenesis, (b) his approach was diachronic, but he had little historical evidence to hang it on. Altogether, one could not today describe his methodology as scientific. He substantiates, ‘verifies’, the connections he makes, but they are hardly ‘falsifiable’ in the first place. Ultimately, I feel, the picture he was weaving in his ‘magnum opus’ was probably more like the poetic systems of William Blake, say, or the late Ted Hughes, rather than the empirical structuralism of modern anthropology.

However, if there was one thing George Calderon the ex-barrister could do it was argue a case. I showed his 1913 article to the present Professor of Slavonic Studies at Cambridge University, Dr Simon Franklin, and he felt that it was ‘very cleverly and impressively written’ and certainly offered ‘a way into the history of mankind’, even if it would not be rigorous by today’s academic standards. This seems praise indeed.

After George’s death, Kittie sought a Slavist who could either create the book George intended from the materials he had left, or use the materials for his/her own scholarly ends. It seems no such Slavist could be found in Britain. One possibility was for the materials to go to a former colleague of George’s, a Professor Rose in Leipzig, but nothing further is known of that. A 1938 letter in Kittie’s archive from the American Slavist Fritz Epstein suggests that Kittie’s friend, the educationist Isabel Fry, was instrumental in getting the materials to Epstein, who was extremely keen to have them and work on them with other Harvard specialists in ‘Slavonic philology’. However, I have failed to find any sign of the papers in U.S. archives.

As usual, George was too far ahead of his time for Slavonic Studies in Britain to appreciate what he was doing. In the 1930s, let alone today, his research/writing on Slavonic folklore and religious cults would have been extremely useful to British specialists in those fields. But it seems to have disappeared without trace.

Next entry: 28 April 1915: The First Battle of Krithia


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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