Tough and Tender

While David Lodge’s earlier novel Author, Author takes as its anchor the friendship between Henry James and George Du Maurier (better known as Rebecca’s grandfather), in A Man of Parts, Lodge imagines H.G. Wells deeply engaged in a series of dialogues – with himself as well as the many, many women who passed through his life and between his sheets.

H.G. Wells’s open devotion to free love made him popular with some young women who found him a desirable mentor. The most important of these relationships were intellectual as well as emotional.

The world, H.G. believed, could be made better, and the women with whom he fell in love generally subscribed to the same creed. In an imagined 1908 conversation with Amber Reeves, soon to become his mistress, Wells tells her about William James’s then-latest published work, Pragmatism:

She listened attentively as he outlined James’s distinction between two basic types of mental make-up. The Tender-minded was rationalistic, idealistic, optimistic, religious, monistic, dogmatic. The Tough-minded was empiricist, materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, pluralistic, skeptical. Idealist philosophers and Christian apologists were typically tender-minded. Scientists and engineers were tough-minded. ‘You might find you can classify people in the social services that way,’ he concluded.

‘Yes, I can see that might work,’ she said, thoughtfully. ‘Thank you. But which type are you?’

‘Well, basically tough-minded. Most people who’ve had a scientific education are. But the point is that both are unsatisfactory on their own. As James says, quite rightly, the tender-minded are on the back foot these days, mainly because of Darwinism and advances in the physical sciences. But tough-mindedness alone leads eventually to pure materialism, which doesn’t satisfy the human spirit, because it leads only to death – death of the individual and in the long run the death of the planet. So no hope. The tender-minded offer transcendence in one form or another – God, the Absolute Mind, personal immortality…’

‘But those ideas have no logical foundations,’ Amber objected.

‘Exactly. But we can’t just dismiss them. There must be some non-materialistic principle to make life meaningful, purposeful, hopeful. Pragmatism, James says, values an idea not in the abstract but for what its practical consequences are. For instance, does it or does it not contribute to the betterment of human life? Socialism triumphantly passes the pragmatic test.’

‘It’s both tough-minded and tender-minded?’

‘Exactly.’

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