As I liked it

I’ve long had something of an uneasy relationship with As You Like It. While I recognise it to be a charming pastoral idyll, I don’t really see enough in the play to account for the reverence many feel for it. For instance, in his book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, eminent Shakespearean James Shapiro refers to As You Like It as Shakespeare’s finest comedy, while, at the same time, he characterises Twelfth Night as relatively safe and conventional, a step backwards from the glories of the earlier work. As someone who reveres Twelfth Night, and who, admittedly to his embarrassment, has never seen much more to As You Like It than a certain charm, I found Shapiro’s evaluations of these works somewhat startling. And, since I read a Shakespeare play each month anyway – these works are, after all, to be lived with, not just read once and put away – I decided it was high time to revisit As You Like It.

Having now read it again, I must say that it seems to me still a sunlit pastoral idyll, a work of tremendous charm and delight, but with little or none of the profound darkness and melancholy that seems to me to push Twelfth Night towards the realms of the tragic. But that does not necessarily make As You Like It a lesser work – unless one were to imagine, as, I must admit, I sometimes tend to do, that the tragic gives us a more profound vision of life than the comic can.

However, all authors of sunlit idylls need to decide how much if any of the world’s darkness to depict, or even to acknowledge; and darkness is not entirely absent from As You Like It. Indeed, the opening act of the play, like the opening of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most definitely contains at least the seeds of tragedy. But as we move from the court to the enchantment of the wilds, these seeds fail to bear fruit: the dark shadows seem, in both plays, to dissolve, and give way to something wondrous.

In order to achieve this, realism has to be suspended. Oliver, for instance, whom we see at the start of the play mistreating his brother Orlando, and who later follows Orlando into the Forest of Arden meaning to hunt him down, is transformed when this same Orlando, returning love for hate, risks his own life to save that of his murderous brother. And once this murderous brother is converted to good, there remains not the slightest taint of the evil that had previously consumed him: there remains not even an awareness of the misery that his past evil had brought on others, or any hint of remorse that would normally accompany such an awareness. Even more oddly, perhaps, this lack of remorse is not noticed: no-one, not even Orlando, holds his past against him. This evil, which had been utterly unmotivated from the start, vanishes completely, leaving not a rack behind.

Something similar happens to the usurping Duke, Celia’s father. Although he is, we are told, a usurper, he has allowed his niece, Rosalind, daughter of his exiled brother, to grow up in court with his own daughter. But suddenly, for no apparent reason, and without any motivation, a madness seems to take hold of him: he banishes Rosalind from the court on pain of death; and goes even so far as to threaten Oliver with banishment and with seizure of possessions should Oliver fail to bring back his brother Orlando, dead or alive. But by the end, this same usurping Duke is also miraculously converted to good: marching into the forest to finish off his banished brother, he is met by a hermit, and, as with Oliver, all the evil in him miraculously vanishes, as if it had never been.

Since this play is an idyll, Shakespeare does not, after the first act, focus on the evil. Indeed, he keeps it as far from the action as possible. Once we are in the Forest of Arden, we see Oliver only after he is already converted, and the danger of his evil has passed. Similarly, we hear of the Duke’s incursion into the forest at the same time as we hear of his conversion: the encroaching evil has vanished even before we get to hear of it.

It is not surprising that Shakespeare should keep the dark shadows of evil so firmly in the background in this the sunniest of all his plays; but such a vision of evil is very different from the one presented in his tragedies – in Macbeth, say. In As You Like It, evil is an external force, almost an illness, which may infect a person, but which is not an integral part of that person. In a work such as Macbeth, however, evil is not the monster out there, but, rather, the monster that resides within. In all these tragic masterpieces, the capacity for evil is presented as an innate aspect of our human condition: our ability to be evil is, in short, one of the features that make us human.

However, in his very late play, The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare seemed to return to the way he had viewed evil in As You Like It: once again, it is seen as an external force, a sort of illness that infects us, and from which it is possible to be cured. Macbeth or Lady Macbeth cannot be cured of their evil: what’s done cannot be undone; but Leontes’ case is different – his evil departs as mysteriously as it had appeared. And there seems to me in As You Like It something very Leontes-like both in the usurping duke and in Oliver: they are evil for reasons not apparent; but then they are “cured”, and the evil disappears completely. Indeed, it is hard not to see the usurping duke very much as a prototype of Leontes when we see him banishing Rosalind on the pain of death, or when he threatens Oliver: mere anarchy seems loosed upon the world.

At the end of the The Winter’s Tale, the vision is darker than in As You Like It, and the joy is subdued. Perdita, she who had been lost, is restored, and Hermione, in a prefiguring of the Resurrection itself, returns from the dead. But Mamilius remains dead; and there can be no recompense for the lost years, for all the immense suffering that the illness of evil has brought into the world, both to those it had infected, and to those it hadn’t.

All this is very far from the world of As You Like It. Here, evil is kept on the sidelines of the action, very much out of view, and when it vanishes, it does so without leaving a mark behind. And if such a vision of life does not give us quite the richness of Twelfth Night (which, I must admit, still seems to me the greater work), it communicates nonetheless a formidable charm, and, perhaps, teaches us that our life, such as it is, is more to be valued than to be lamented. All in the end are here reconciled – except Jaques, who scorns the very idea.

What is the poem Miles recites in “The Innocents”?

WordPress kindly provides me with the various terms people have searched on to get to this blog. Many of these search terms are very obviously essay assignments. As I have said before, those students who really can’t be arsed to do their own work and who aren’t above plagiarism are welcome to steal whatever they can from this blog, as long as they bear in mind that this blog is not written to exacting scholarly standards; and that if they can find this blog from a search engine, so can examiners.

But be that as it may. One search item that ferquently finds this blog is the question “What is the poem Miles recites in The Innocents“? Search engines then provide a link to a post I had written some time ago on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, and the film The Innocents, that was based on it. However, that post does not answer the question. So, as this blog is ever ready to be as helpful as possible, the answer is:

The poem was written by scripwriter Truman Capote specially for the film.

No charge – all part of the service.

(And I’d be grateful if students who have nicked some part of this blog for their essay assignment could let me know what grade they got for it.)

“Rudin” by Ivan Turgenev

“Rudin” by Ivan Turgenev. Translated by Richard Freeborn, Penguin Classics

 

The “superfluous man” is a recurrent figure in Russian literature, especially in the writings of Turgenev, and the eponymous hero (if “hero” is the right word here, which it probably isn’t) of Turgenev’s first full-length novel is often considered the epitome of this curious character. He is a specifically Russian figure, so much so that Dostoyevsky once remarked that it is not possible for a non-Russian reader to understand Rudin. As a non-Russian who cannot even speak the language, I cannot tell whether or not I have adequately understood Rudin: I can only report on what I perceive, and trust those with a better understanding to correct me if I am wrong. But, for what it’s worth, my understanding of the character of the “superfluous man” is that he is intelligent, idealistic, and even passionate about his beliefs; he may, indeed, throw himself into various activities with the greatest of enthusiasm; but, for all that, he remains curiously detached from reality, and is, as a consequence, ineffectual. He is incapable of leaving behind any distinguishing mark, anything substantial. And he is intelligent enough to be aware of his ineffectuality, although unable to understand it.

Rudin himself was described by Turgenev as a mixture of Hamlet and Don Quixote. It is a curious mixture, and a paradoxical one: Hamlet and Don Quixote are – at least in simplified form – epitomes of, respectively, reflective inaction on the one hand, and unreflecting action on the other. And this apparent contradiction informs the figure of the superfluous man.

Turgenev had depicted the “superfluous man” before, most notably in the story “Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District” from Sketches from a Hunter’s Album. But here, in a full-length novel, the treatment is more extensive; and the greater space allows Turgenev also to depict more fully the context of the drama – the supporting cast, as it were. We are in a country estate, with a collection of various landowners, relatives, and hangers-on that we are all familiar with from the plays of Chekhov. Or, indeed, from Turgenev’s own A Month in the Country, the play he had written only a few years before this novel. Rudin seems very much conceived as a play, with a sequence of individual scenes depicting the characters interacting with each other, and both the characterisation and the action presented almost entirely through dialogue. Even when, having introduced Rudin as a character, Turgenev wants to tell us something of his past, instead of giving us a flashback, as might have been expected, he gives us a long narrative speech from someone who had known him earlier – exactly as he would have done had he been writing a play, Were it not for the occasional descriptive passage of luminous lyricism (I doubt there has been any other author who could match Turgenev when it comes to communicating of the beauties of nature), the reader may well be left wondering why this story hadn’t been written as a play in the first place, rather than as a novel.

The plot, such as it is, is very simple. Into a provincial country estate comes Rudin, who impresses everyone by his idealism, his eloquence and his intelligence; the young and impressionable daughter of the house predictably falls in love with him (inevitable echoes here of Pushkin’s Tatyana: it’s hard to come across any Russian novel that doesn’t have somewhere the ghosts of Pushkin or of Gogol); but, as time progresses, Rudin appears not quite so admirable as he previously had done, and by the time he leaves, under something of a cloud, general opinion has turned against him. As an epilogue, we see him again many years later – still idealistic, still eloquent, and still ineffectual; but now, he is sadly aware of his own failure, though unable to account for it.

And the question is left open for us also: why is Rudin such a failure? What can account for this paradoxical mixture of ardency and detachment? Is it, as Dostoyevsky thought, so specifically Russian a characteristic as to be inaccessible to the rest of us? Suspicious as I am of the very concept of unique national characteristics, I find myself unwilling to accept this. At some deeper level, I can sense that the seemingly contradictory aspects of Rudin to merge to form a unity, and yet, I am not sure how this happens: he remains to me an enigma. Unlike Oblomov in Goncharov’s novel, he is not lazy, either intellectually or physically; neither is he cowardly; and he certainly isn’t foolish. However, under certain circumstances, he can give the impression of being all three. I’d genuinely be interested to know if Russian readers find the character of Rudin as elusive as I do. I suspect he is an enigma regardless of the reader’s background: after all, he remains an enigma even to himself.

In other respects, the writing is masterly. Arguably, Turgenev introduces too many characters in the first chapter: this would not have been a problem in a play where the audience can distinguish the characters by sight, but in a prose narrative it’s a different matter, even when, as here, each character’s appearance is carefully described. However, I suppose allowances may be made for a first novel; and in any case, it isn’t long before one stops referring to the list of characters – the dramatis personae, in effect – that translator Richard Freeborn thoughtfully provides for us. The characters, once introduced, are all delineated and brought to life with the most economical of touches: there’s the impressionable young tutor, who has to keep to himself his dissatisfaction with the family he serves, and who becomes devoted to the idealist Rudin; there’s an ageing aristocratic widow, who is happy to have Rudin as a house guest and is a gracious hostess, but who knows where to draw the line; there’s a local landowner who is happy to live up to his reputation as an engaging eccentric, but who is in reality a boor and a bigot; and, perhaps most importantly, there’s a neighbouring landowner, Lezhnev, who comes closest to representing the authorial voice: he had known Rudin previously, and, initially unsympathetic to his former acquaintance, tries to distance himself; but when Rudin’s failure becomes apparent, his estimation of Rudin becomes more generous: a human cannot be judged, after all, purely on the basis of how effective they are. If Hamlet’s inaction is reprehensible, the depth of his thinking isn’t; if we regard as absurd Don Quixote’s inability to see reality for what it is, we may at least admire his nobility of spirit. Rudin, by the end, is a failure; but the failure, as far as Lezhnev (and, most likely, Turgenev) is concerned, is not contemptible.

The novel is short – it may even be described as a novella – and, rather like its protagonist, it remains a puzzle. But a most intriguing puzzle, all the same.

“The Little Demon” by Fyodor Sologub

The Little Demon by Fyodor Sologub, translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin Classics  

 

In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Little Demon, Pamela Davidson writes:

Neither in Russian Orthodox demonology nor in folk tradition was there much emphasis on the towering figure of Satan in splendour.

Rather, she continues, Russian devils tend to be small, petty creatures, “little demons”, proliferating in a multiple of guises.

One gets this sense of the pettiness of the demonic on Russian literature also. Not for the Russians the magnificence and tragic grandeur of Milton’s Satan, nor the spectacle that is Dante’s Inferno: when Gogol set out to depict inferno, he depicted a dull, provincial town, dirty and petty and corrupt and stagnant, peopled only by souls that were morally dead. This provincial town has haunted Russian literature ever since. It is the town from which Chekhov’s three sisters long to escape to Moscow; it is the town the microcosm of which is the horrendous “Ward 6” of Chekhov’s story; it is the setting of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and also Demons (another work featuring petty little demons); it is the town that forms the setting of Saltykov-Schedrin’s Golovlyov Family, where, once again, it stands for Hell itself. And Russian demons are, as Pamela Davidson says, always small and petty, like the Devil who appears to Ivan Karamazov in the guise of a shabbily dressed gentleman, or the little demons Father Ferapont sees elsewhere in the same novel. And evil, too, is mean and petty and nasty: Raskolnikov imagines he is another Napoleon, when, in reality, he is simply a sordid axe-murderer in a sordid tenement. There is nothing grand or magnificent or charismatic about the Russian concept of evil: it is just mean and nasty and petty – though none the less destructive for being so.

Sologub’s The Little Demon (I believe the title may also be translated as The Petty Demon), written in the 1890s, presents a vision of evil that is very much in this tradition. The setting is once again that Gogolian provincial backwater from Dead Souls, and, once again, it is a hellish place. The principal character, the schoolmaster Perodonov, is obviously mad, and, indeed, is often recognised as such; but the rest of the town is only slightly less mad than he. Despite being, by any reasonable standard, stark raving bonkers, he is judged an eligible bachelor, and there’s an entire line of women desperate to trap him into marriage. His live-in mistress even commissions her friend to forge letters as part of an elaborate plan to marry him.

The lunacy deepens as the novel progresses. Peredonov, convinced that there is a concerted campaign to slander him, goes round the houses of various officials to convince them of his probity, and of his patriotism. He also goes round the houses of various students in his class, insisting that they had behaved badly, and encouraging the parents to have their child flogged. In one particularly grotesque sequence, the mother is ready to flog her child, but the father, much to the mother’s frustration, refuses; she then tells Peredenov that she will call him when her husband – the “tyrant”, as she calls him – is out, and that they could then flog the child together. The scene where they actually do this was cut by the author in the final published version, but is printed here as an appendix: it is among the most disgusting things I have read. After the two of them flog the boy together in turn – Peredonov taking over from the other once she has become too tired flogging him – they collapse in each other’s arms in sexual ecstasy.

Peredonov also sees a strange demonic being materialising. This is referred to by Sologub as a nedotykomka,  which, Pamela Davidson informs us in the introduction, is an obscure dialect word that “has the same meaning as nedotroga, a ‘touch-me-not’: an object that cannot be touched or a person of touchy and irritable disposition (like Peredonov)”. This creature is clearly an emanation from Peredonov’s fevered mind, and is hence an aspect of his psyche, and Ronald Wilks, perhaps rather confusingly, underlines this by translating nedotykomka as “the little demon” of the title. This nedotykomka starts appearing frequently to Peredonov, whose mind, never too stable to begin with, seems to collapse entirely. The aristocratic princess who he imagines is his benefactor he soon starts picturing as a grotesque and withered crone, but has erotic fantasies about her anyway. Then, imagining that the pack of cards is spying on him, he cuts out the eyes of the Jacks, the Kings, and the Queens. He then identifies the Princess with the Queen of Spades, and finds himself forced to burn the entire pack.

There develops also a very strange sub-pot, concerning the lad Sasha, aged about 14 or so, who has girlish good looks. Peredonov, presumably attracted to him sexually, insists that he is a girl, and tries to have him expelled from the boys’ school. Later, a young lady, Lyudmilla, develops a fixation on him – a fixation that is described with imagery of lurid eroticism – and, although they never consummate her passion, she delights in having him close to her, undressing him, getting him to put on women’s clothes. And Sasha himself, so apparently pure and innocent, finds himself strangely affected:

He wanted to do something to her, be it pleasant or painful, tender or shameful – but what? Should he kiss her feet or beat her long and hard with supple birch twigs?

It is all strikingly grotesque, but I must admit that I couldn’t help wondering what all this was leading towards. This depiction of the banality of evil – to use Hannah Arendt’s famous expression – remains, for all its strangeness, earthbound: there is none the poetic flights of fancy of Gogol, nor the humanity and melancholy of Chekhov, nor the visionary intensity of Dostoyevsky. Nor is there any trace of tragic despair that we find in Saltykov-Schedrin’s Golovlyov Family. At the end of Gogol’s Government Inspector, the mayor turns to the audience to tell them they are laughing at themselves; in a similar vein, Sologub tells us in the preface to the second edition:

It is true that people love to be loved. They are pleased if the loftier, nobler aspects of their souls are portrayed. Even in villains they wish to see some signs of goodness, the so-called “divine spark” as it was called in days of old. That is why they cannot believe it when confronted with a picture that is true, accurate, gloomy and evil. They want to say, “He’s writing about himself.”

No, my dear contemporaries, it is of you that I have written my novel…

For this is how Sologub sees humanity. Madness, sordidness, stupidity, paranoia, sadism – that’s all there is. Gogol’s dead souls were in need of redemption, and he even tried- albeit unsuccessfully – to depict that redemption; but here, redemption is not even to be thought of: the very concept is meaningless. And there isn’t even a sense of sadness that this should be so.

Much though I admired and wondered at the strangeness of Sologub’s imagination, I cannot say I was satisfied with this vision. I appreciate that in saying this, I am introducing a very personal note that has no place in objective criticism, but sometimes, a personal reaction is so strong that it becomes impossible to keep it hidden. If this is all humanity is, it isn’t worth anything; it’s certainly not worth writing novels about. If I want to see how cruel and gratuitously sadistic humans are, I need only read the news: there is evidence enough these days for cruelty and gratuitous sadism wherever one looks, and, even for eternal optimists such as myself, the temptation to believe only the worst of humanity becomes powerful indeed. This temptation needs, I think, to be resisted: the view of mankind as irredeemably wicked and debased and worthless leads but to the genocidal fury of Gulliver, and to “Exterminate all the brutes” of Colonel Kurtz.

Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind for this book. I might, perhaps, on another day, have found myself engaged by the black humour, and capable of entertaining, if not necessarily accepting, Sologub’s unrelieved pessimism. This time, for whatever reason, I couldn’t: the novel cut a bit too close to the bone, and, by the end, I felt that the vision it presented was merely reductive. Perhaps other readers will fare better with this novel than I did.

Post-apocalyptic

As a young lad, I used to enjoy a film often shown those days on television – an adaptation from the early 60s of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. It’s been a long time since I last saw that film, but one scene in particular stays in the mind. The protagonist, played by Rod Taylor, has, with his time machine, travelled into some far distant post-apocalyptic future, and the people he encounters there appear uncommunicative. Eventually, he asks if they have some books that would help him understand their culture. “Books?” says one. “Yes, we have books.” And the protagonist is led into a long-disused library in which vast shelves of books are crumbling into dust. Yes, he reflects bitterly to himself, that tells him all he needs to know about their culture.

Back in the present, our local library appears to have a policy of selling off books that have not been taken out  over a long period, and I have, over the years, bought from these sales some very fine hardback volumes, in often pristine condition. I have bought for the princely sum of two pounds each the Everyman editions of the Complete Essays of Montaigne (translated by Donald Frame) and George Thomson’s translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, the Collected Fictions of Borges (Andrew Hurley’s translation), and many others. These books had never been taken out of the library, the shelves of which are now are groaning with celebrity cookbooks, misery memoirs, and the like.

I wonder what this tells us about our culture.

“Caravaggio: A Life” by Helen Langdon

Many use the adjective “theatrical” as a pejorative, but as someone who loves the theatre, I can’t say I do. As I understand it, the word refers to a heightening of the audience’s response not merely in an artificial manner – all art is artificial, after all – but in a knowingly artificial manner: we are aware as we experience it of the artifice of the creation – of the artist (or the author, or the composer, or whoever) pulling the strings in order to intensify our response. Indeed, our awareness of the artist pulling the strings is part of the intended effect. This can, I accept, lead merely to the meretricious, especially when the material is slight, or is treated in a superficial manner. But when it isn’t, when the material itself is substantial in its own right and the treatment is more than superficial, then the artist’s presence, if sufficiently striking, can enhance the work.

Some seven or so years ago now, the National Gallery in London had hosted an exhibition of some late paintings of Caravaggio, and I remember vividly the effect of walking into that first room. No reproduction could have prepared me for something such as this. There, looming out of the darkness, was a vast canvas, almost three metres in height, of the Flagellation of Christ. At the centre was Christ’s almost naked body, lit as if by a fierce spotlight, his hands tied behind him, and his head, crowned with thorns, hanging limp; to the right of the picture, one of the executioners presses on Christ’s calf with his foot as he tightens the bonds; while to the left, another executioner, a man who, to judge from the vicious sneer on his face, enjoys his job, grabs Christ by the hair with one hand, while holding the scourge in a clenched fist in another; and a third executioner, in the forefront at the bottom left, is tying the rods together in preparation for the beating. These are working men doing a job: their job just happens to be inflicting pain. But it is that lighting that is so theatrical – that relentless spotlight picking out these figures from the profound dark that surrounds them, and covering them in a light of the most dazzling brilliance.

"The Flagellation of Christ", courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

“The Flagellation of Christ”, courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

I remember going from room to room, amazed. Nowadays, the adjective “amazing” merely signifies “very good”, but I actually was amazed: never, on seeing these paintings in reproduction, had I imagined that their real presence could make so visceral an impact. These were all late works, painted in Naples, Malta, and Sicily, while Caravaggio was on the run: in Rome, he was wanted for murder, and there was a price on his head. Of course, any work of art should be judged purely on its own terms, but once something such as this is known,  it is not possible to un-know it: like it or not, it is not possible to look on these highly charged tragic works, these meditations on violence and mortality and terror, and, sometimes, even of tenderness, without having in the back of one’s mind the thought that these were the creations of a man who had himself killed, and who feared for his own life every day. In one picture, David holds the severed head of Goliath. David is but a boy, and his face, though expressive more of sorrow than of triumph, is relatively bland. It is the dead head that seems a living thing. The strength of character is all in that dead and battered head of Goliath, and here, Caravaggio had painted himself. How is it possible to see this painting and keep from one’s mind the circumstances in which it had been painted?

It was that last room of that exhibition that particularly affected me. Here were three paintings rarely seen – two from the Museo Nazionale in Messina in Sicily, and the other from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nancy in France. The Sicilian paintings depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Raising of Lazarus, while the painting from Nancy depicted the Annunciation – all familiar subjects in Western art. But never had they been treated like this. In the Annunciation, the angel seems to be entering the space of the painting from our own space, and, his back to us, his shoulder and arm are brightly lit by a white light supernatural in its radiance. Before the angel, Mary, dressed in a deep blue, bows in deep submission, at once accepting and weighed down by the burden placed upon her. Mary appears again, of course, in the adoration of the Shepherds, this time in red. Here, she is not, as in most paintings of this subject, joyfully showing her divine child to the adorers: she is, instead, clutching the newborn baby in her arms, and is collapsed on the dirty floor of the stable in utter exhaustion, as if unaware of the shepherds who have come to pay homage. The shepherds themselves are ragged working men; the stable is dark and dingy and filthy. These figures take up less than half the space of the canvas; the rest – especially the vast space above the figures – is in almost complete darkness. And similarly with the raising of Lazarus: the top of the figures’ heads come up to just above the half-way mark of the height of the canvas, and all above is a cavernous, dark emptiness. These figures are seen in an unearthly, ghostly half-light, as if inhabiting some vague region between life and death. Christ’s face is in darkness: the light, from behind Christ and outside the frame of the picture, catches the back of his shoulder, and the top of his sleeve as he points towards the resurrecting Lazarus. Around Christ’s head is a complex of several other heads: Christ’s head stands out from theirs not by being in the light, but by being in the dark. One of the heads behind Christ strains forward to see what is happening; two workmen in front of Christ, holding the stone which is to cover the grave of Lazarus, seem to be looking over their shoulders to somewhere behind Christ, towards the source of this mysterious light that illumines the scene. The body of Lazarus is stiff with rigor mortis; the flesh is greenish, and the arms outstretched, as if crucified. Only the right hand has begun to move: it is at an angle from the wrist, and is receiving divine light. Pressed close to his face is the face of his sister, loving and tender even in the face of Death itself.

"The annunciation", courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

“The annunciation”, courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

These three paintings in the last room seemed to contain an entire world. It was a sensibility that was entirely new to me. It presented a world that is profoundly dark, where pain is as intense as it is inevitable, and where divine power, whatever power there is that is greater than our own, fills us with awe and wonder, but not with joy. And yet there is in all this human tenderness. There is the tenderness with which the rough and ragged shepherds view the newborn child, the tenderness of Mary who, even in the utter exhaustion of childbirth, holds the beloved child close to her heart; and there is that unforgettable image of the sister of Lazarus (who is either Mary of Bethany or Martha), pressing her living face close to the face of her dead brother, her love persisting even beyond this greatest of all mysteries. These are visionary works. And yet, how could such a vision belong to a man who was a common brawler and murderer?

"The Adoration of the Shepherds", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

 

I came out of that exhibition barely able to think, but when I did recover my faculties, I found myself thinking that I must get to know more about this artist. So why it took me a full seven years to come round to reading Helen Langdon’s acclaimed biography I don’t know. I suppose it’s because I’m not really a great reader of biographies: I am interested in the work, not the man. But Caravaggio is so fascinating a person; and it is so hard to think of the works without thinking also of the man behind them; that I was prepared to make an exception: what kind of man was this Caravaggio?

"The Raising of Lazarus", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Raising of Lazarus”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

Well, as far as can be judged, he was a thug, a brawler, a bully, and a great quarreller; he was a man quick to take offence, and  given to almost gratuitous acts of violence; and he was, possibly, a neurotic. As with his almost exact contemporary Shakespeare (Shakespeare was only seven years older), we don’t really know that much about Caravaggio’s life; we know that, like Shakespeare he was born in the provinces – in Caravaggio’s case, in a small town near Milan; that, again like Shakespeare, he came to the capital city to make a career for himself; and, once again like Shakespeare, his art developed from gentle and sensuous lyricism of his early works to a visionary tragic intensity that has not since been surpassed, or possibly even equalled. But that’s where the similarities seem to end. Shakespeare, to the great dismay of his biographers, seemed to have kept a low profile while in London, and was sufficiently level-headed and business-like to make a fortune and retire back to his home town; Caravaggio, on the other hand, seemed to spend his time whoring and brawling, and, while Shakespeare was buying himself the biggest house in Stratford, Caravaggio was fleeing from place to place, armed even in bed at night, constantly in fear of his very life.

Helen Langdon’s biography of this spectacularly unbalanced man is very level-headed and sober, almost to a fault. She gives wonderfully vivid depictions of the milieux which Caravaggio inhabited – from the plague-ravaged Milan of his youth to the violent and sexually licentious streets of Rome – but generally, she is not prepared either to speculate, or even to consider certain possibilities. She is not interested, for instance, in whether Caravaggio was gay: she reminds us that homosexuality was a capital crime in those days, that the awful punishment for sodomy – burning at the stake – was enforced, and that, under such circumstances, even if Caravaggio had been gay, he would hardly have advertised the fact. And indeed, there is no evidence except in his paintings – from the sensually painted young men in his early works with their delicate, androgynous beauty, to two rather explicit paintings of male nudes –  the Victorious Cupid in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and St John the Baptist in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. The male nude is of course hardly a new subject in art, and in both these paintings, the pose is very obviously taken from Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel; but the sexually enticing and blatantly provocative nature of these Caravaggio’s nudes can hardly be mistaken. Of course, we live, thankfully, in more tolerant times, in which gay culture is not just tolerated but celebrated; but these paintings of Caravaggio remain disturbing because they indicate not homosexuality, which does not trouble us, but pederasty, which does. If any photographer nowadays were to exhibit such sensual images of naked boys, far from celebrating them as art, we would, I fancy, have the exhibition closed down. And yet, disturbingly, these paintings are undeniably masterpieces.

We have other reasons also to find Caravaggio a disturbing figure. Rome in those days was a dangerous and violent city, and, from the surviving evidence, Caravaggio seemed to revel in it. Even as a successful and much sought-after artist, he seemed to delight in low-life, moving from tennis court to tavern to brothel, often deliberately quarrelling and provoking fights. Reading through the pages of Langdon’s biography, the wonder is not that he eventually killed someone in a brawl, but that it took him so long to get round to doing it.

And yet, all the while, he was producing masterpiece after masterpiece. The turning point came in around 1599-1600 – at around the same time as Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar and As You Like It and Henry V and Hamlet – when he painted for the Contarelli chapel three extraordinary paintings relating to St Matthew, and, for the Cerasi Chapel two paintings – the Crucifixion of St Peter, and the Conversion of Paul – which flank and overwhelm by their extraordinary intensity the central painting by Annibale Caracci.

Just about everything he painted after that was a masterpiece: The Supper at Emmaus (currently at the National Gallery London); the Deposition (currently at the Vatican Pinacoteca), and the almost unbearably moving Death of the Virgin (currently at the Louvre in Paris); possibly the most poignant depiction I think I have come across in painting of the sheer pain of loss; and many, many others.

And then, of course, those last few years of his desperate life. Little is known. Why, for instance, did he leave Naples in such a rush? Why, after his welcome in Malta and his success there (he was made a Knight of the Order of St John), did he end up in prison? How did he get out of prison? (The story goes that he made a daring solo escape, but Helen Langdon is sceptical: it is more likely, she suggests, that he had powerful friends who helped him get away.) Why, in Sicily, did he sleep armed with a sword? Why did he hurriedly leave Syracuse immediately after completing the Burial of St Lucy? Was he, perhaps, being trailled by his enemies from Malta? (Certainly, he had good reason to fear: he was savagely attacked and almost killed in Naples only a few months later. Who attacked him, and why, remain unknown.) And, perhaps the greatest mystery of all, how is it possible that such a thuggish and violent brute could have painted – especially given the state of mind he must have been in – works of such visionary intensity?

Caravaggio’s death in 1610, aged only 39, is part tragedy, part farce. A pardon had been arranged for him in Rome, and he was on his way back. But when his ship stopped at the town of Port ‘Ercole, the governor of the town, either not aware of the pardon or not knowing who Caravaggio was, had him imprisoned. And by the time Caravaggio could buy his way out of imprisonment, his ship, containing paintings he was intending for Rome (and now lost), had vanished. Desperate to recover his precious paintings, Caravaggio trekked overland, through disease-ridden marsh-land, to catch up with the departed  ship; and in the process, he caught fever and died. While his contemporary Shakespeare was no doubt in the process of buying with his carefully accumulated wealth the largest house in Stratford in which to spend his well-earned retirement, the violent and unstable Caravaggio was feverishly shivering to death somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The enigma remains. I look at the face of the dead St Lucy in the painting now in Syracuse: she is lying on the bare earth with her face turned towards us, filling our hearts with infinite pity; and I ask myself how a man who habitually and gratuitously inflicted violence upon others could ever sympathise so entirely, at least in his art, with this innocent victim of that same violence.

There is no answer to these questions. If we consider what little we know of Shakespeare’s life, all we see is a provincial who comes to the big city and becomes a success, carefully accumulates wealth and invests shrewdly, and then returns to his home town to spend his retirement in a big house. In short, we encounter a middle class bourgeois with middling aspirations. And yet, this seeming mediocrity created Falstaff, Hamlet, Cleopatra, plumbing the very depths of the human soul. And meanwhile, the brutish and neurotic Caravaggio, thug and murderer and possibly pederast, conveys the most intense and dark visions of awe and terror and pity.

Perhaps it is a mistake to expect geniuses to be different from the rest of us. They come in all shapes and forms, much as the rest of us do. Some of them may indeed be noble and generous; some may even correspond to the popular image of the genius as a misunderstood and tortured soul; while others may indeed be as mediocre and as unremarkable, or as nasty and as violent, as their less gifted fellow humans. Perhaps there is no real difference between geniuses and the rest of us. Except, of course, for their genius.

Are you experienced?

A few minutes ago, I put up a new blog post (see below), and was encouraged by WordPress to “switch to the improved posting experience”.

Goddammit, does no-one speak in English any more?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 372 other followers