DEL Island Discs Episode Five: Edward Casaubon

Hot on the heels of Episode 4 comes our next castaway: the Reverend Edward Casaubon, also from Middlemarch, and our presenter is Kathy Williams, formerly of the Centre for Caribbean Studies and the Centre for Lifelong Learning at the University of Warwick. Anyone on Team Dorothea will be happy to hear that we are sending Casaubon to an island far distant from hers.

 There is no one who better deserves to be cast away onto a desert island than the Rev Edward Casaubon, who marries beautiful, idealistic, principled Dorothea Brooke. Casaubon dies just over a third of the any through the novel, which is a relief but also allows her to go on to marry his cousin Will Ladislaw, and effect a happy ending for that part of the novel.

Casaubon is old, but has never been young.  With deep eye sockets, a spare form, a labyrinthine mind, a soul like an ancient ghost, and a sing song voice, he is an arid pedant. He also has two hairy moles on his face, and is venomous when crossed, and malicious customarily.

Casaubon doesn’t want a wife, but needs a compliant amanuensis, while he fails to produce anything from his lifetime work on The Key to all Mythologies.  Ironically he is unaware that Sir James Frazer will soon publish such a book, The Golden Bough: A Study of Comparative Religious Belief, and Scientific Thought. His objective was viable.

 It has been impossible, given his insensitivity to music, for Casaubon to choose eight conventional discs.  These choices therefore reflect aspects of his personality — or maybe how he would liked to have been remembered.

Disc 1. Tom Lehrer, ‘The Elements:  The Periodic Table’, here as a duet with Daniel Radcliffe

Here are the elements of knowledge that Casaubon is researching.  He would not approve of the wit and satire of Tom Lehrer, but might approve the geekdom of Daniel Radcliffe.

Disc 2. Horatio Bates Spoffard, ‘It is Well Within My Soul’, sung here by Brigham Young University Vocal Point

Spoffard had a vastly tragic life but still produced many hymns of great power.  Maybe Casaubon might find some solace, and if not, the thought of The Church of the Latter Day Saints might be an interesting footnote for him in his great work.

 Disc 3, Bach, ‘Toccata and Fugue in d minor, the Dorian’, performed by the Academy of St Christopher Orchestra

Might appeal to Casaubon’s tortuous mind.  In a minor key, it has elaborate effects, and very detailed notation for organ changes.  The Fugue is very long, and archaic sounding.  A series of questions and answers.

Disc 4. Esbjorn Swenson Trio, ‘Leucocyte 11 Ad Interim’

This should suit Casaubon.  The Trio move to more electronic experimentation than earlier versions, erasing melody, leaving just the warp and weft of the instrumental texture.

Sounds suitably dense and inaccessible.

Disc 5. Alphonse Allias, ‘March for the Funeral Obsequies of a Deaf Man’

This early example of playing with silence rather than sound might appeal and aid concentration.  It contains more long silences than sound and has intriguing and eccentric notation which might provide an interesting exercise, while not making challenging listening.

Disc 6. Handel, ‘Saul: the Dead March’, performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

This comes with a long and detailed academic commentary. Pays tribute to Casaubon’s deluded notion of his significance.  Acknowledges his sombre and arid character in its grandiose effects, while he accepts his mortality.  This music has been a motif throughout his life, the death of his relationship with Ladislaw, the aridity of his marriage to Dorothea, and the failure of his life’s work.


Disc 7. Florence Foster Jenkins, ‘Salut, Demeure, Chaste et Pure’

Florence Foster Jenkins’s life was tragic.  Drawn to sing opera, and having the funds to underwrite her passion, she became notorious for her wildly out of tune performances and the delusion that she was a diva.  This delusion parallels Casaubon and his research.  Both musically deaf they could afford to indulge themselves. In addition, the theme of ‘emotions strange’ might allow Casaubon to discover emotions that he had not previously experienced, and how to express them.

Disc 8. John Cage, ‘4.33’

This is Casaubon’s perfect disc: four minutes and thirty three seconds of absolute silence with a full symphony orchestra. In three movements.

At once immensely serious and very funny, this disc admirably sums up Casaubon’s life and experience, the paradox of totally silent music, and of unrealised ideas.  And peace after the unforgivable attempt to destroy his wife after his death through his coercion.

Casaubon’s Book

It was decided that Casaubon could take his multiple notebooks with him, since they had not been framed into a book.  His mental state could not have survived the separation, which meant that the choice is Descartes, Pensées(1637):‘Cogito, ergo sum: Je pense, donc je suis.’


Casaubon’s Luxury

After long thought — bisadol, a now defunct indigestion remedy, for instance, or maybe a night cap and gown —the decision was made to choose a mirror.  Whatever the reality, he will see, as he gazes into it, the head of St Thomas Aquinas.

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