Cover Photo: "My Insufferable Nemesis" by Rob Burton

"My Insufferable Nemesis"

In London's Highgate Cemetery, a restless spirit guides the reader to a well-visited corner where a troubling secret is revealed

If you happen to find yourself on top of Parliament Hill, be sure to stop and admire the view of London’s famous landmarks laid out before you. On a clear day, you might see as far as Canary Wharf or possibly the Houses of Parliament shimmering in the distance. As you stand there taking in the sights, you’ll no doubt feel a powerful breeze tug at your overcoat and hear the rustling of leaves from a cluster of oak trees half way down the hill. You’ll turn to look and your attention will be drawn to a prominent green dome on the opposite side of the hill. Adjacent to this dome, out of view, is Highgate Cemetery East.

Here, in plot fifty-four, is where my remains are to be found.

I see that I have commanded your attention.Perhaps, therefore, you will allow me to guide you towards my resting-place and share the story of my insufferable nemesis along the way?

First, let us descend the hill, keeping to the main pathway. Notice this wooden bench with the inscribed dedication, “Phillip Brainwhite (1832-1888): a Kindly Man and Noble Citizen.” Yes, Brainwhite was a loyal friend, a fellow sociologist who embodied the best of British intellectual traditions. He and I both resented the continental philosophers of the day whose flowery idealism had become too fashionable for our more prosaic tastes.For twenty-seven years, Brainwhite unfailingly walked his whippets on Hampstead Heath before breakfast. After he died from tuberculosis, I commissioned the bench to be erected in his honor. It was the honorable thing to do for a man who derived so much pleasure from the heath. Altruism, he and I agreed, was the highest form of human behavior and a source of intense personal happiness. Indeed, we both believed that self-sacrifice for the common good was the key to human survival and prosperity. Alas, you won’t find such noble sentiments in the work of my nemesis.

But I am jumping ahead of myself. Please excuse my excessive fervor.

We must now fork left and follow the footpath away from the Heath, past Kathy’s Tea-room, and into Highgate Village. Let us exit here into Swains Lane. Notice the flurry of middle-class establishments—a floral shop, a newsagent, a computer store, a hairdresser, even a continental café. Spurred on by keen economic competition, these shops seem to change hands every two or three years, a trend which might disgruntle those with nostalgic leanings but is, I believe, in conformity with the simplest law of human nature: the survival of the fittest. Indeed, as I argued in my ground-breaking book, First Principles, there is unmistakable proof that throughout time, the weak have always been devoured by the strong. This theory I held to be as true for the market-place as it was for the school playground or the rugby pitch.

The condition of the houses further along Swains Lane proves my point perfectly. Note well this row of modern semi-detached homes with ornate front gardens bordered by neatly-trimmed privet hedges. I believe that the immaculate order of these homesteads helps to explain the political and economic success of the middle-classes. “Hats off to them,” that’s what I say.

Now, see there, on the opposite side of the road, a collection of Victorian gothic buildings topped with stacked chimneys and slanting rooflines. Notice the cracked stucco and missing slate shingles on many of the houses. It saddens me to observe how their grandeur has declined over the years. Nevertheless, regrettable as it may be, the process is inevitable and there’s nothing one can do to stem natural decay.

The Lane takes a turn at this juncture as we begin our gradual ascent to Highgate Cemetery. On our left is Holly Lodge Housing Estate, a curious mixture of modern council flats and neo-Tudor maisonettes. Frankly, I abhor this hodgepodge of contrasting styles.It reminds me of King’s Cross railway station, built to great acclaim in the middling years of my life, and ceremonially opened by Queen Victoria in 1851. Of course, the popular press perceived it as an historic bridge between high and low culture. However, in my opinion, it was nothing more than an overindulgent façade disguising an inner mediocrity. If civilization is to strive towards a higher unity of truth and principle, I argued at the time, one comes to expect a certain consistency of tastes and values. Otherwise, where is the common consensus? Where is our vision of a shared culture?

I hear my nemesis mock these sentiments. I can hear him laughing now.

“Ah, my good fellow,” he sneers in pronounced Teutonic tones. “Your faith in human progress is much overvalued. Why do you waste your time examining the stucco that covers the bricks of our social institutions? Look instead at the cracks beneath the surface, my friend, for it is the cracks that reveal more about the weak foundation of a building. Diagnose the strains and tensions of society, not the surface appearance.”

Then his voice is gone, spirited away.

Yet be aware of his mocking tones as I guide you closer to my resting-place. And try not to be swayed, as so many others were, by his mesmerizing charm and seductive continental accent.

*****

Oh yes, I knew him in my day. It was impossible to ignore his meteoric rise to fame, especially after his much-heralded move to London in 1848. He gained a reputation for his ritual visits to the Reading Room of the British Museum where he developed his infamous theory about the law of surplus value. It was, he boasted, a revolutionary theory grounded equally in idealism and hard empiricism. To be stuck exclusively in either one was to ignore the dynamic of the dialectic, he claimed. By inference, I was typecast as a reactionary apologist for unfettered capitalism.

His adversarial stance towards my theories of natural selection became progressively uncharitable. It started with the publication of a letter he wrote to The Economist, translated from German by his associate, Mr. Engels. The letter assailed the philosophical basis of my life’s work. The year was 1853. I was, at the time, sub-editor of that leading journal and had commissioned a series of articles by like-minded colleagues on the value of laissez-faire economic theory. We propounded that society was evolving from a state of immaturity to a state of perfection and happiness, governed principally by the fundamental quality of altruism. The agents of this radical transformation were the middling ranks of society, who were suitably educated and responsible to do the bidding on behalf of human civilization.

In his reproving letter, he wrote: “I share with my esteemed colleague his profound hopes and ideals for the future of humanity. But, it appears that I am destined to play the role of his nemesis. I look to the day when all men, irrespective of class or caste, will be able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and criticize after dinner without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, or critic by trade. However, in order to attain such a classless society, a supreme sacrifice is required from those classes in whose interest it is to maintain the status quo. The belief that our society is progressing organically towards a state of perfection is nothing more than the abstract theory of a seriously flawed mind.”

Initially, I was perturbed by the vigor of his attack. I felt somewhat like a pugilist who had been knocked to the canvas. Yet, I knew I possessed the strength and inner belief to regain my footing and continue with the contest. I was convinced, after all, that his brand of continental philosophy would never adapt successfully to the soils of England fertilized by the virtues of decency, honor, and tradition.

Indeed, it dawned on me that I had made a sworn enemy for life. I remember the exact time and place when the full impact of this realization struck home. It was during a meeting of the Athenaeum Club’s Great Ideas Committee on January 16th, 1860. I feel compelled to recall the event now as we conclude our walk together.

Several Fellows of the Royal Society and their guests, including Charles Darwin, had been invited to discuss the merits of the Welfare State in response to Darwin’s recent postulations in his controversial volume, On the Origin of Species. Thomas Huxley was the first to address the assembly and wasted no time in condemning “the cult of fanatical individualism” that, he attributed to Darwin and me.

“Let me appeal to all that is ethically best in human nature,” Huxley reasoned from the podium. “Instead of ruthless self-assertion, a society demands self-restraint. Laws and moral precepts should remind us of our duty to the community so that we elevate ourselves beyond that of a brute savage.”

Huxley, as usual, sounded reasonable and convincing. But I was swift to counter his argument by insisting that the welfare state threatened the evolutionary process. Natural selection, I pointed out, was a method for weeding out the wasteful elements, the chaff, of our society.

I continued: “There must exist in our midst a certain amount of misery. This is the normal result of misconduct and ought not to be dissociated from it. Welfare legislation, I submit, merely prevents evolution by removing the incentive for each individual to adapt himself to the social state.”

I felt that my comments had been suitably forceful and persuasive. Huxley seemed strangely quiet as if defeated by the brilliant logic of my argument. I noticed Darwin in the far corner of the smoking-room talking animatedly with a gentleman in an armchair whose back was turned away from me. I could only see the thick cigar smoke billowing from the chair and the top of the gentleman’s thick grey hair. I have to admit, I felt a deep sense of triumph at that moment. I had, after all, engaged in a vigorous debate with the finest minds of our land on an issue of current and vital importance. And not only had I held my own; I was convinced I had won the day.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when a few minutes later, upon settling into my favorite settee, and striking up a conversation with a prominent barrister, a private note was delivered to me on a silver tray. It was on a plain card. Scrawled in bold capital letters were the words: “BOSH AND POPPYCOCK! YOUR MIND IS AS FLAWED AS EVER.”It was signed, “Your Nemesis.”

I cannot begin to explain the sheer effrontery of the man.

Sadly, it was typical of the cavalier behavior I came to expect from him. It became part of his ongoing campaign to deride my life’s work. In response, I attempted to retain the dignified demeanor befitting a person of my pedigree. Consequently, upon his death in 1883, I decided to suspend our hostilities and pay homage to his career in a letter to The Times. I praised his robust intellect yet pointed out that, in the final analysis, it was not suited to an English temperament weathered by soft drizzle and gentle mists.

Twenty years later, as I lay on my deathbed, I felt confident that my legacy would endure for years to come and that the works of my nemesis would diminish in importance as a matter of course.

Why, then, am I to be found wide awake in the after-life,pacing back and forth along these streets, pulling bystanders like yourself along the way?

We are drawing closer to the source of my unease.

*****

Here, at the entrance to Highgate Cemetery East, you pay a small contribution to the lady at the gate. For this fee, you enter a world of spirits and ghosts, most sleeping peacefully in perennial slumber while others, like me, remain desperately awake. Let us proceed past the Dalziel Mausoleum and the Polish corner, noticing the broken columns and Celtic crosses along the way. At the first junction, we fork left and walk fifty paces before arriving at plot number fifty-four. It is a simple tomb made of dark granite. On it is the inscription: “Herbert Spencer (1820-1903): Philosopher and Pioneer of Sociology in Britain.”

This is my resting-place.

You’ll notice the area around the tomb has been left to ruin in a state of natural decay.

After all, who has the inclination to look after it or offer a helping hand these days? Who even knows that I inhabit this place now that holly and creeping ivy have almost entirely covered my epitaph?

As you stand there absorbing such questions, you will soon register the reason for my agony and lasting spiritual torment. Directly opposite, there stands a monolithic slab of stone, famous the world over as the bust of my sworn enemy, Karl Marx. Notice the way he looks at my tomb with scorn and mockery. Notice, in particular, the confident smirk.

For half a century, I inhabited this corner of the cemetery in peace, surrounded by cultured souls of gentle persuasion. But then, in the mid-1950s, cemetery wardens decided to relocate the body of my nemesis here, along with his wife and progeny. They proceeded to erect this larger-than-life bronze monument of the bearded revolutionary, giving it that distinctive smirk fraught with aggressive self-confidence.

Underneath his bust are words that prick my soul: “The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point however is to change it.”

Am I to take this personally? Am I to consider that my life-long quest to explain the workings of human civilization was simply a futile exercise in interpretation? A waste of time? Is this why my endeavors have been overlooked in the modern age while my nemesis has attained cult status?

Once again, please forgive my fervor. I did not bring you here to listen to the ranting of a disillusioned man. Yet, I have borne sad witness to the horrible human destruction committed in the name of Marxist class struggles throughout the twentieth century. The ideology has spawned monsters like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. The combined legacies of such charlatans must surely repel any free-thinker worth their salt. And in recognition of such an unassailable fact, isn’t this why the Berlin Wall crumbled? Isn’t this why the Cold War came to its inevitable conclusion with the collapse of the Soviet empire? And isn’t this why capitalism, in its benevolent form, has finally prevailed across the globe?

Why, then, must I endure such shameful neglect in the shadow of my nemesis?

Daily, I am reminded that my work and reputation have frittered away. Every rose that is laid at his headstone, every photograph that is taken of his grave-site, every group of tourists that hovers excitedly around his statue, compound my eternal agony. I hear his spirit shout out in mocking tones, “Ah, Spencer, my dear fellow! Wie gehts, eh?” And then I imagine one of his eyes winking at me in a gesture of brazen impudence.

No wonder you find me today, a restless spirit, calling out for comfort and support from sympathetic passers-by like yourself.

Yet I refuse to become an extinct species. Indeed, I am convinced that my period of intellectual exile will soon end, and that Marx’s reputation as a social prophet shall be smashed to pieces. It’s a question of matter and motion. The belief in pure evolution spearheaded by me, along with Charles Darwin and others, shall return to favor, and the Marxist curse of class warfare will be cast off forever.

And on that day, you will return to Parliament Hill and you will discover that the usual collection of kite-flyers, joggers, and dog owners are fraternizing freely. A profound sense of harmony and well-being will sweep over you. For you’ll recognize that this glorious vision is the consequence of ideals that I, Herbert Spencer, propagated in a lifetime devoted to the free market economy. At last, my faith in unfettered capitalism and the survival of the fittest shall have won the day.

To achieve this vision and bring about the downfall of my nemesis along with everything he stands for, may I count on your help and intervention? Perhaps, even, a smattering of altruism?

Rob Burton is the author of three books [Around the World in 52 Words: Ritual Writing for the New Millennium (2002), Artists of the Floating World: Contemporary Writers Between Cultures (2007), and Hops and Dreams: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. (2010)], as well as several journal articles on World and Multicultural Literature. He is Professor of English at California State University, Chico.