Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Boreham: The Whole is Unequal to the Sum of all its Parts.

‘The whole is equal to the sum of all its parts.’ Could anything be more absurd? Take Paradise Lost or Hamlet or In Memoriam to pieces on this principle, and you will find that the great classic simply consists of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in an endless variety of juxtaposition. And would Euclid have us believe that the whole of Hamlet is only equal to the twenty-six letters of the alphabet?

It has often been pointed out that in Gray's Elegy there is scarcely a thought that rises above mediocrity, and yet the combination and sequence and rhythm of the whole are such that we have all recognized it as one of the choicest gems of our literature. The entire poem is infinitely greater than the sum of all its parts. Or think of Tennyson's brook, with its deeps and its shallows, its whirls and its eddies, its song and its chatter, its foamy flake and its silvery flash, its graceful windings among ferns and forget-me-nots, its haunts of trout and of grayling. Now, the analyst who has not been warned of the peril of dissection will take all this to pieces. And he will tell you that it consists of two parts of hydrogen to sixteen parts of oxygen If you hear the wildest statement often enough, you will come at last to believe it. And this young analyst has read Euclid's axiom so frequently that he has really come at last to fancy that it is true! The whole of the brook equal to the sum of all its parts! The whole equal to hydrogen and oxygen! Let our analyst read the poem and see!

Does a lovely tune consist merely of so many notes? We are irresistibly reminded of Balthazar, the infatuated chemist in Balzac's Quest for the Absolute. His poor wife is in an agony of apprehension on his account, and she frets and worries about his perilous experiments. She seeks with passionate entreaty to dissuade him. As he looks into her face he notices that her beautiful eyes are swimming in tears. ‘Ah!’ exclaimed the analyst, 'tears! tears! Well, I have decomposed them. They contain a little phosphate of lime, a little chloride of sodium, a little mucus, and a little water!’ Now, I happen to know for certain that neither Euclid, nor Balzac's chemist, nor all the cold-blooded philosophers in the universe, could ever persuade any husband or lover in the wide, wide world that a woman's tears contain nothing more than these constituent elements! It is another of those common cases in which the whole is greater, beyond all calculation, than the sum of all its parts.

I wonder that it never occurs to such analysts as these to ask themselves this pertinent question: If a whole contains no more than the sum of all its parts, why should either God or man take the trouble to transform the parts into a whole? It would be love’s labour lost, with a vengeance.

F W Boreham, ‘The Analyst’ Mountains in the Mist (London: Charles H Kelly, 1914), 186-188.

Image: Water