Impressions of Florence, and of Michelangelo

It is difficult to be in Florence and not have one’s head full of lofty thoughts: it’s the city of Dante and Michelangelo, after all. And it is equally difficult to be in Florence and not get fleeced, for it is also, traditionally, a banking city, a city for making money. You have paid to see the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo? Yes, of course you have. You don’t come all the way to Florence without seeing some of Michelangelo’s most astounding sculptures. But if you think that ticket entitles you to walk into the basilica, then think again. Well, I thought again, and, since I was there, I figured I might as well pay a bit more to enter the basilica. That library in the San Lorenzo is of Michelangelo’s design, and is reputed to be very beautiful, and naturally, I was keen to see that. So I bought my ticket, and headed for the library. But no – my ticket is for the basilica only: you need to get another ticket for the library, sir. And so on.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to carp about the money. Although, I do admit I couldn’t help thinking of Rome which we had visited about three years ago, and where entry to all the various churches, even the St Peter’s, was actually free. Admittedly, you paid to see the Sistine Chapel, but if you wanted to see Michelangelo’s Pietà, say, or the great Caravaggio paintings in the San Luigi dei Francesi, you just walked in. Perhaps I should be praising Roman generosity rather than moaning about Florentine commerce. For, after all, those extra euros did not inhibit the loftiness of thought to which the rightly fabled Florentine art all too easily gives rise. Well, perhaps they did a little, but only a little: I like to think, at least, that I am not as mean and as petty as my opening paragraph may perhaps have suggested.

Michelangelo-David

For how can one stand before Michelangelo’s statue of David, graceful and noble and suffused with what I can only describe as a sort of radiance, and not have Hamlet’s paean to mankind going round one’s head? What a piece of work is Man, indeed! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, and all the rest of it. In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a God. But then, afterwards, intoxicated with such lofty thoughts, I find myself in one of the many tourist tat shops (which, despite my loftiness, I love), and spy a postcard picturing a close-up of the genitals of this same noble David, with dark glasses sketched in at the base of the penis, and the upturned mouth of a smiley face drawn across the scrotum. I doubt that even as a sniggering dirty-minded schoolboy I would have found this particularly funny. All that loftiness seemed suddenly deflated, and not in a manner I found myself comfortable with – although, I suppose, those of a more cynical frame of mind than mine may perhaps differ on this point. How was it Hamlet’s speech ended again? Ah yes – Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.

That afternoon, I was sitting outside a café, reading a book. (Yes, it was Dante, since you ask.) A middle-aged man and an elderly lady walked up to the café, and he asked her, in English, if she would like to sit outside. “No,” I heard her reply, “it smells too much of people.” I am sure I didn’t mishear her. There was no reason to think the remark was directed specifically at me: I was not the only one sitting outside, and neither was I the one nearest them, so there was no reason to take offence personally. Naturally, I tried to construct a story to go with this lady’s rather extraordinary comment. Of course, she could simply have been very eccentric and very rude. But I pictured to myself a much younger lady, with a formidable mind and a keen aesthetic sense; she had loved art, and had always promised herself a visit to Italy, to see some of the great masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance; but the years passed by, as they do, and now, in what is merely early old age – her mid-sixties, perhaps, only a few years older than I am now – she has been diagnosed with an early onset of dementia. And, in the shadow of this impending tragedy, her dutiful son is fulfilling her lifetime’s dream, showing her around Florence while her weakening mind is still capable of taking it in.

Of course, I could have got a few details wrong. Indeed, my entire story could be utter nonsense. I do not insist on it. But I was, I admit, rather moved by my own construction. And that strange line she spoke – “it smells too much of people” – kept resonating in my mind. Let me kiss that hand: let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality.

MediciMadonna

The next day, we were at the Medici Chapel. I wasn’t thinking about the expense, honestly: I was grateful just to be there. At the altar of this chapel was a Madonna and child, with the upper part of the child’s torso turned towards the Madonna – contrapposto, as I believe such twisting of the body is known – and the Madonna herself wearing an expression of infinite sadness. This Madonna seems already to be anticipating her part in the Pietà, when the twisting baby now upon her knee would become so cruelly transformed. Of course, foreknowledge of tragedy in depictions of Madonna and child is fairly commonplace, but this sculpture seems drenched in a sorrow that appears to overwhelm everything else. To my eyes, anyway. But maybe that lady I had encountered the previous day was still in my mind.

On two opposite walls of the chapel, facing each other, are the two Medici tombs, for Lorenzo and Giuliano, two relatively minor figures (historically speaking, that is) of that famous family. In niches on the wall above the two tombs are highly stylised and idealised sculptures of Lorenzo and Giuliano. But it’s the monumental figures immediately on top of the tombs that take one’s breath away. On Giuliano’s tomb, there are figures representing Night and Day; on Lorenzo’s, there are similarly two figures, this time representing Dawn and Dusk. Four times of the day, four phases of our existence: birth, life, old age, death. There is about Michelangelo’s work an intense ingrained seriousness. In his younger days, he had sculpted a Bacchus (now in the Bargello Museum in Florence), depicting a young man holding a cup of wine, with a glazed, vacant expression on his face, and, quite clearly, unsteady on his feet. It remains a quite delightful celebration of inebriation, one with which, I admit, I can readily identify. But such youthful frivolity was far behind Michelangelo now (as I fear it also is with me): his mind had now moved on to other regions – regions that ordinary mortals such as I cannot perhaps inhabit too long without feeling a bit giddy.

Michelangelo-night

Night is a sleeping woman – but whether she is sleeping serenely or uneasily, it is hard to say. On the one hand, she leans her head rather precariously upon her hand; but then again, the expression on her face appears undisturbed. Her body is not that of the fresh and young maiden: this is the body of someone who has borne children. And yet, there is also a certain beauty to the body – not the untouched beauty of youth and its vacancy of expectation, but the beauty of one who has lived, of one who has experienced life’s fitful fever.

michelangelo-day

Day is frankly terrifying. He is a giant, titanic in strength. The legs are crossed, the upper part of his torso turned away from us towards his left, and the head turned back again to his right over his shoulder – the entire form twisted in a sort of double contrapposto. (I don’t know if that is a proper term, but since I have now written it, it might as well stay.) The head is unfinished, whether deliberately or otherwise I do not know, and its rough, inchoate texture seems to heighten a sense of menace. And throughout that body, the muscles are taut, tense, stretched to the utmost, straining at the very limits of what is possible. His left arm is folded behind his back, with veins on his forearm bulging prominently. There is nothing here of the grace and the radiance of David: what we have instead is a sense of raw concentrated strength, and also, I think, a fury – a fury at having reached the limits of the physical, and of striving vainly but defiantly to transcend them.

michelangelo_dusk

All passion seems spent in Dusk. This is a man who had once been as strong and as powerful as Day, but those muscles are now sagging. As with Day, the legs are crossed, but now, there is a sense of resignation in the posture. His flaccid penis lies almost apologetically upon his thigh, and the head, also in a somewhat unfinished state, seems held up with effort. The battle has been fought and lost, and there is little dignity in defeat, except, perhaps, what dignity there is in a weary acceptance.

Michelangelo-Dawn

And there’s Dawn, a nude woman, graceful in posture, but with an expression of intense sorrow upon her hauntingly beautiful face, recalling the sorrow on the face of the Madonna with the infant Christ upon her knee. This is Dawn born with the foreknowledge of what is to come: vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose – themes of an embittered heart, or so it seems.

But I don’t know that Michelangelo’s heart was embittered, as such. Certainly the Michelangelo who sculpted these figures was a very different Michelangelo from the young man who had sculpted David, and who, in the Vatican Pietà, had found a transcendent beauty even in death and in grief. These astounding figures in the Medici Chapel seem to me the work of a deeply troubled man, a man disturbed by the smell of mortality, but not a man who turns away from that smell in disgust.

In his old age, Michelangelo turned back to the theme of his first great triumph – the Pietà. There are three late Pietàs, all unfinished, one disfigured (by himself, in a fit of divine dissatisfaction), and another of doubtful provenance. This last, known as The Palestrina Pietà, is in the Accademia in Florence, and, whoever the sculptor may have been, it is a moving work: in contrast to the youthful Pietà in the Vatican, Christ’s body here is vertical, and Mary, standing behind him, is striving  to hold up the weighty, inert mass. The very last Pietà, known as The Rondanini Pietà, is in Milan, and I have only seen it in reproduction: once again, the thrust is vertical, with Mary standing behind Christ, striving to hold up the body. But individual features are removed, and the two bodies seem almost to merge into one. Michelangelo here seems intent upon removing anything that is not essential, leaving behind only the essence, a sort of abstraction, of those themes of death and of grief that appear to have haunted him so.  Seemingly, he was working on this right up to the day of his death, aged 89.

Michelangelo Pietà Bandini

And there is a there is a third unfinished Pietà, known as The Bandini Pietà, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo in Florence. Michelangelo had worked on this for some eight years in his 70s, but, for reasons still subject to scholarly debate, in 1555, aged 80, he took a hammer to it. Much of it has been reconstructed from the broken fragments, but Christ’s left leg, presumably beyond repair, is missing. And the figure of the Magdalene, under Christ’s right arm, was finished by another hand. It shows: competent though the Magdalene is, compared to the intense expressivity of the rest of the group, it is, frankly, rather bland.

Here, once again, the figure of Christ is vertical, and Mary, here crouching, is trying desperately to hold up the inert mass of his body. Her face is close to his, and the propinquity is more than merely physical. Christ’s right leg zigzags across the lower part of the group, while his left arm, reconstructed from the broken fragments, hangs loose and twisted, its once powerful muscles now incapable. Above these two figures is the hooded figure of Nicodemus (possibly a self-portrait of the artist), leaning forward, and looking down upon this desolate scene with the utmost compassion. I do not think I have seen a visual depiction of mortality and of mourning that is quite so powerfully affecting as this.

One cannot, as I say, remain on these heights for any length of time without beginning to feel giddy. This may have been an emotional world that Michelangelo no doubt inhabited every day, but ordinary mortals like myself need to climb down after a while to the lower slopes. Maybe go into a café, and not mind that it smells too much of people.

Of course, there is much, much more to see in Florence. We were there for five days, but that’s hardly adequate. Merely looking at a painting or a sculpture for a few seconds, or even for a minute or two, and then passing on, is like listening to music in the background while doing something else: it’s not quite taking it in. One really needs a lifetime to truly absorb all the riches. But we all have our lives to get on with: one takes in what one can in the time one has, and is grateful for the opportunity of doing so. Yes, I had my head filled with lofty thoughts; and some very troubling ones too.  But then, I need that glass of Chianti. And – I won’t hide it – something a bit lighter, perhaps, than Dante.

Colons and semi-colons

Apparently, there’s debate raging right now on whether we should use colons and semi-colons in writing.

Of course we should use them! When you want the reader to pause longer than they would for a comma, but shorter than they would for a full-stop, you use a colon or a semi-colon. And that’s all there is to it. Bugger the rules of grammar!

And when you want the authorial voice to fade away into silence …

Completing the set

“Why seems it so particular with thee?”

Poor Gertrude never could understand. Why is someone else so bothered by something when it doesn’t bother me? We are all like that, if we’re honest with ourselves. Our own hobbyhorses we take seriously, but other peoples’ are … well, they’re a bit silly, aren’t they? There’s our boy getting worked up because he has got the tiniest dent in his trombone. Look, I explain to him, the dent is so small one can hardly see it with the naked eye; and what’s more, it doesn’t affect the sound. Why seems it so particular with thee? Or there’s my wife worrying about some pot plant that, despite all the care and attention and watering it could possibly ask for, seems quite clearly to be on its last legs. It’s only a pot plant, I explain sagely; why seems it so particular with thee? Get another bloody pot plant when this one dies!

Well, actually, no – I don’t say that. I’m not quite the insensitive yob I sometimes make myself out to be. But I’d be lying if I were to say I didn’t think it. However, regardless of what I may or may not have said, my wife knows me well enough by now to know that I was thinking it. And …

But let’s not go there. The point, I think, has been amply demonstrated: if something doesn’t particularly bother us, we think it unreasonable that it should bother anyone else.

When I was a lad, I remember, we – that is, all the other boys in my class, the girls being too sensible for this sort of thing – used to collect football cards. Small packets containing a bit of bubble gum, and three pictures of footballers then playing in the league. And it was vitally important to get the whole set. I remember still the disappointment when I opened a newly purchased packet, and found that I already had the cards it contained. Of course, I could try to swap them for others I didn’t have, but it wasn’t always easy to get the ones I was missing. And my mother, I remember, was a bit nonplussed by all this. “Why seems it so particular with thee?” she asked. Or she would have done had she affected a Shakespearean diction.

Or take what happened to me recently. We were out shopping, when I happened to chance upon a reflection of myself in a shop window, and found, to my horror, that I had a few grey hairs in my moustache all congregated together right under my left nostril, and making it look for all the world as if I had forgotten to blow my nose. And I couldn’t get this thought out of my mind. Passers-by, I imagined, were all staring at me, and, I’m sure, shunning me, not wishing, understandably, to come close to some dirty bugger with semi-liquid snot dribbling all down his moustache. And it is not vanity that made me want to go home immediately and apply the scissors to the offending grey hairs. My wife told me I was being too sensitive, and that no-one was thinking what I thought they were thinking. But I could tell by the look in their eyes that they did. Once again, why seemed it so particular with me?

More recently – to return this post to a suitably literary theme – I reported on my failure to appreciate Dante. Fine, people told me. We can’t all like everything. Shrug your shoulders and move on. But once again, I can’t. Over the years, I have come into contact with many of the major pillars of the Western literary traditions. Shakespeare I guess I’m a bit obsessed with; Cervantes I love; I have a healthy respect and admiration for Homer and for Virgil; and I now need Dante to complete the set. Don’t ask why: I just do.

Well, tomorrow we go to Florence. Tickets are already booked for the Uffizi and the Pitti, the Accademia, San Marco, The Medici Chapel, the Brancacci Chapel, the Duomo museum, the Bargello … each costing a bloody fortune, I know, but it has to be done. And, given many of these places are closed in the afternoons, I think I’ll be spending quite a bit of time sitting in Florentine cafes. And what better place to try once again to get to grips with Dante?

Following some advice after putting up the last post, I have bought myself Prue Shaw’s introduction to the CommediaReading Dante; and I have bought (and thoroughly enjoyed) a witty comic strip rendition of Inferno, illustrated by Hunt Emerson, and with a text by Kevin Jackson. This latter purchase may not, perhaps, have enhanced my understanding as such, but it was a genuine pleasure to encounter erudition so lightly-worn, and such affection and respect displayed without a trace of pomposity or hushed-tone reverence. And as for the former, I have been glued to this all last weekend. Enthusiasm is such an infectious thing! I find myself happy just to see someone’s enthusiasm, even enthusiasms I may happen not to share.

Dante

With football cards, I never did get the whole lot. It is now my belief that they used deliberately to withhold a few footballers to encourage kids to spend more pennies trying to complete the set. Bastards. But this is a different matter entirely. Tomorrow morning, we fly to Florence, and damned if I don’t get Dante this time. Why seems it so particular with me? Nay, it is – I know not seems.

Notes on a failure

If one is given to speaking in clichés, I suppose one could say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s even worse than that with me: I love my old tricks so much that I see little reason these days to put myself to the trouble of learning new ones. But I do keep trying, really I do.

Until a few years ago, I had not read anything by Dante. Then, feeling (quite rightly) that someone claiming to be interested in literary culture – especially the literary culture of the Western world, in which I live and in which I have grown up – really should have some acquaintance at least with one of the major pillars of that culture, I bought myself Robin Kirkpatrick’s very highly rated translation of the Commedia. It came with copious and scholarly notes (which I read avidly); and it was a dual language edition, so I could look across to the other page and discover for myself at least something of Dante’s verbal music.

First of all, I read the Inferno. Naturally. And I even wrote a post about it here on this blog, pretending – or, maybe, trying to convince myself – that I got something out of it. Reading that post over, it was a fine attempt: I think I really did manage to convince myself, at least up to a point, that I was getting something of that literary exaltation that I never doubted the Commedia could inspire in its readers. However, that was eight years ago, and only recently have I returned to fulfil that promise I had then made to myself to read the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. And I did so in the hope that in those eight years, I may have matured sufficiently to respond to this work. So once again I picked Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation, once again I pored over those splendid introductory essays and long and detailed notes; once again I glanced across to the Italian text to hear some of Dante’s verbal music. And once again, I am sorry to report, I failed.

Let me make it clear right away that I am not commenting here on Dante, but on myself. I had hoped to raise the intellectual profile of this blog by writing a few posts on the Commedia, but there is little point in pretending I have anything to say about the work that could possibly be of interest to anyone: so I find myself reporting instead on my own failure. I am sure that, even in translation, the Commedia can strike rich, powerful, and resonant chords in the minds of readers. The problem is that I seem to be lacking many of the notes that make up these chords. And I really am curious to know what those notes may be that I am missing. Such knowledge probably won’t, it is true, enhance my appreciation of Dante, but it may perhaps enhance my understanding of myself.

In the meantime, I am wondering how best to spend my reading time. Should I go back to those immense masterworks that are already permanent fixtures in my mind – King Lear, Don Quixote, Anna Karenina, and the like – but where I know there are even greater depths to plumb? Or should I force this old dog to learn a few new tricks, and immerse myself in Dante in the hope that it may eventually penetrate through my thick skull? Or, maybe, I should just say “to hell with it all”, and settle back in my armchair with a warming dram of whisky in one hand, and a volume of the kind of good, creepy ghost stories that I so love in the other. I’d like to do all three, to be honest. The problem is not really finding the time, as such: the problem is striking a reasonable balance.

In the meantime, if there is anyone out there who dearly loves the Commedia, and can give me, not necessarily a scholarly exegesis (there is no shortage on that score), but, better, a personal account of what this great poem means to them, and why, then I shall be extremely grateful. I do know there are, and have been across the ages, a great many extremely intelligent and discerning people for whom Dante’s Commedia is, and has been, life-enhancing. In one of the most moving and unforgettable passages of If This is a Man, Primo Levi tells us how, even in the death camp of Auschwitz, a few lines of Dante suddenly seemed to him to be of inestimable value. And I find myself thinking: whatever it is that admirers get from the Commedia, I want some of it.

“The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” by M. R. James

Although dreams can terrify even the most rational and down-to-earth people, they haven’t really featured in ghost stories as much as might have been expected; and when they do feature, the effect, to my mind at least, is often less than satisfactory. This is perhaps because we feel reassured if the author tells us beforehand that what we are reading is but a dream; and if the author only reveals that fact to us afterwards, we feel cheated. The trick, of course, is to blur the distinction between dream and reality, but this is a difficult trick to pull off. And I cannot think of a better instance of an author “pulling it off” than one of M. R. James’ lesser-known stories, the rather prosaically, and, indeed, some may argue, clumsily titled “A Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”.

James made a virtue of the prosaic. The narrative voice is solid and low key, matter-of-fact, eschewing any sense of fantasy or flight of fancy, linguistic or otherwise. A voice belonging to a man whose feet are so firmly planted on the ground that it is inconceivable that he could be taken in by that which is not. Such a narrator may not inspire much affection, but he inspires trust. And he presents a world that is solid, that is very recognisable – perhaps drearily recognisable – as the world that we, the readers, inhabit. Edgar Allan Poe famously started one of his stories with “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief”. But James promises us no wildness, and certainly both expects and solicits belief. For some readers, this makes James’ stories somewhat dry; but for aficionados (such as myself), it lures us into a world so solid that when the cracks in reality do appear, they shock. Our sense of equilibrium is all the more disturbed because James has gone to such lengths to establish that sense of equilibrium in the first place.

Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of this particular story:

The letters which I now publish were sent to me recently by a person who knows me to be interested in ghost stories. There is no doubt about their authenticity. The paper on which they are written, the ink, and the whole external aspect put their date beyond the reach of question.

The only point which they do not make clear is the identity of the writer. He signs with initials only, and as none of the envelopes of the letters are preserved, the surname of his correspondent—obviously a married brother—is as obscure as his own. No further preliminary explanation is needed, I think. Luckily the first letter supplies all that could be expected.

Yes, a ghost story is promised, but that’s a minor concession since readers are expecting one anyway. As for the rest, it reads like a professional note that might have been written by an accountant or a solicitor.

But if James does not promise us wildness, he promises no homeliness either. Of course, that is in part due to expectations: we all come to an M. R. James story expecting the supernatural, and one can’t unexpect that. Indeed, much of the pleasure lies in noting how insidiously the supernatural makes its presence felt, first glimpsed, in James’ own words, in “the corner of the retina”, but then, increasingly more insistently to the fore. True, he never quite takes us all the way, but then again, he doesn’t need to. For instance, at the climactic point of this story (without giving too much away), a corpse is discovered, and James gives us the following:

[The] body was found, with a sack over the head, the throat horribly mangled. It was a peaked corner of the sack sticking out of the soil that attracted attention. I cannot bring myself to write in greater detail.

I can, of course, speak only for myself, but I cannot imagine even the most explicit description being more unsettling than James’ finely judged reticence.

In any case, it is the journey, not the end, that most menaces the mind. And, to make its full effect, this journey needs to be immaculately paced. And it is in the pacing that James, for me, was in a class of his own. Others may have equalled or even surpassed him in ingenuity of plotting, or intensity of imagination; others have certainly written more memorable prose. But when it comes to pacing out the material for maximum effect, for knowing when precisely to drop hints and when, as it were, to open the gates, James seems to me unsurpassed.

This story, after its terse introductory paragraphs, consists of four letters written by an unnamed writer, and dated from December 22nd to December 26th, 1837. The first letter is almost as terse and as matter-of-fact as the opening paragraphs: it lays out the expository facts as clearly and as succinctly as possible. The writer, unnamed, has come to an unnamed town or village, after his uncle, the rector of the local church, has mysteriously disappeared. The second letter is somewhat longer, and, as well as giving us a bit more expository information, unobtrusively conveys the atmosphere of the grey winter countryside, and of the provincial inn in which the narrator stays, deserted (we assume, since no other guest is mentioned) over Christmas.

It is in the third and fourth letters that the elements of supernatural terror, only hinted at earlier, start making their presence felt ever more insistently. The third letter is mostly taken up with the description of a nightmare the narrator has on Christmas Eve, and I can think of nothing I have read, wither within or without genre literature, that more vividly captures the unreal and disembodied ambience of a dream. The narrator finds himself watching a traditional Punch and Judy Show, but the setting isn’t described – not because the narrator hasn’t noticed it, but because it isn’t there: there is no setting.

It began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether in doors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness…

As the puppet show proceeds, it becomes increasingly violent. Of course, Punch and Judy Shows were (as far as I am aware) violent anyway, but the violence here, far from being slapstick, or in the mode of black comedy, begins to seem all too real:

The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

Once again, I can speak only for myself, but I find these lines as unsettling as anything I have read in supernatural literature. That detail of the victims “quivering and kicking” seems all the more horrible given the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone. Whatever else this may be, this is no mere puppet show, and nor is this merely a dream.

Soon, we seem not to be in a dream at all, but in real life. The partition between the oneiric and the real, never too solid to begin with, seems all of a sudden to disappear. Once again, I cannot claim to speak for any other reader: all I can say is that I, as a reader, find this whole passage uniquely disturbing.

If the dream sequence in the third letter tells of a dream that seems to slip into the real, in the fourth and final letter, the narrator witnesses a real puppet show that seems to slip into the regions of dream. Or, more accurately, into nightmare. But it would be unfair to reveal more: I fear I have revealed too much as it is.

There is much in this story that, in terms of plot, isn’t clear. But it doesn’t need to be. The interest is not in the mechanics of plot: James was little concerned with that. It is not a story that yields much to the reasoning mind: it is, quite deliberately, enigmatic to a degree that is unusual even in James’ output. But what I think it does convey is a sense of creeping dread, a sense of the presence of something too hideous to be apprehended, too horrific to be articulated, that is just beyond our field of vision.

This is not one of James’ better-known stories, but it is one that perhaps haunts my mind more than most others. While others convey what James himself termed a “pleasing terror” – and I am not averse to pleasing terrors at all: far from it – this one, in particular, seems to convey something else, something that I find genuinely unsettling.

Or maybe it’s just me.

A challenge

I have picked out two passages from an article which appeared in today’s edition of The Guardian. And I would like to set a challenge for readers of this blog:

Could you pack more patronising nonsense into fewer words?

A virtual pint for anyone who can.

For others, such as early years writer Juliet Mickelburgh, there is a worry that more “middle-class” art forms, such as classical music, could be over-emphasised at the expense of, say, rap music. “Is there a danger that working-class culture could be seen as inferior to middle-class culture?” Mickelburgh asks.

 

The teacher blogger Jen Beaton has written that “cultural capital” suggests “white, middle-class paternalism” and an older generation looking down its nose at Stormzy in favour of Mozart. The reality is that students bring their own cultural capital to lessons and that teachers can learn from them, too, she says.

“Macbeth” in performance

Macbeth seems to me particularly difficult to bring off in performance. At least, I have never seen a version on stage that I have found satisfactory – even productions featuring renowned Shakespeareans in the principal roles have disappointed. Of course, I haven’t seen them all, and I am sure there have been many fine productions that I have missed, but limiting myself (as I must) to what I have seen, far from being overwhelmed, as I should be on seeing a great Shakespeare tragedy, I have all too frequently found myself barely whelmed at all. The film versions I have seen haven’t frankly been much better; and the BBC Shakespeare version (from the early 1980s), despite starring eminent actors Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire in the principal roles, was distinctly disappointing.

I have often wondered why this is. After all, it is dramatically very compact (it’s one of Sheakespeare’s shortest plays), and is crammed full of murders and battles and witches and ghosts and all the rest of it. Part of it, I think, is to do with the pacing. The tension builds powerfully and unremittingly over the first two acts, but after that, although we get a series of extremely memorable scenes (the banquet scene, the sleepwalking scene, etc.), the tension can sag quite alarmingly in the scenes in between. (This is particularly true of the long scene in Act 4 set in England.) Of course, Shakespeare was, certainly by this stage of his career, a master of pacing, and the rather awkward pacing of this play rather inclines me to think that what we have is an edited version of a text that had initially been longer. Be that as it may, it does present some problems in performance.

Another problem, I think, lies in the dramatic content being too exciting. This may seem a rather perverse thing to say, but the “greatness” of any drama we think of as “great” (whatever we may mean by that) lies not so much in the plot – i.e. the sequence of events – but in matters that go deeper; but, with this play, the plot itself is so very exciting on the surface, it becomes difficult for a production to peer beneath that surface: all too often, we find ourselves horrified by what the Macbeths do to others, whereas the heart of the tragedy lies, I think, in what they do to themselves. And if a production fails to bring to the fore this particular horror, this terrible damnation of their souls that they inflict upon themselves, then, no matter how exciting the plot may be, I don’t know that the production can count as a total success. But piercing through the excitement of the plot to see the dark horror at the heart of things is not an easy thing to do. And this, I think, is why so many productions of this play have left me unmoved: the horror of what we see on the surface seems all too often to obscure the even greater horror beneath.

Of course, I am sure there have been many very fine productions of Macbeth: it’s just that stagings of this particular play have disappointed me more often than that of any other major work by Shakespeare. It may, of course, be that I have been unlucky in the productions I have seen. But there is one production I have seen (sadly, not on stage) that seems to be one of the finest of any production I have seen, of any play. And this is the 1978 Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn, and featuring Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench in the principal roles. Fortunately, we have a record of this: the production was filmed for television, and broadcast in 1979. And it is available nowadays on DVD. I saw it again a few days ago: and yes, it was every bit as powerful as I had remembered. Suddenly, all the reservations I have had about the pacing of this play seemed to vanish.

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Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

And this was done not through butchering the text: apart from the scene involving Hecate (which is almost certainly a later addition, and not written by Shakespeare), the text presented, a few minor cuts apart, was virtually complete. Even the scene featuring the witches speaking to each other about the latest spells they have cast – a scene all too often excised these days, as modern audiences aren’t taken in by all that superstition – was retained. But what impressed was the way the entire play was conceived.

Although it features battles, witches, murder, a state banquet, and all the rest of it, it eschews spectacle completely. It is staged throughout in a profound darkness, from which the characters emerge at times into a murky kind of light, and into which, their parts done, they vanish again. The lighting is extraordinary. I can but guess at what the effect must have been like live in performance, but, watching it on my television screen, it seemed like a production designed specifically with the screen in mind, rather than a straight filming of a stage production.

Most of the shots are in close-up: some in extreme close-up. The characters, brightly spotlit against a blanket of the dark, are all we can see on screen. Props are kept to a minimum: even in the banquet scene, they appear to be sitting on crates. All this creates a tremendous sense of claustrophobia. (The production was staged in a small theatre, rather in in the main RSC theatre in Stratford, thus ensuring the audience was close to the actors.) After a while, it starts to feel genuinely oppressive, as, indeed, it should.

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Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

None of this would have mattered, of course, if the cast weren’t up to it, but there’s no danger of that. The supporting cast (featuring two actors who were themselves notable Macbeths later in their careers – Bob Peck and Greg Hicks) is uniformly excellent; but in this play, it is the two principals who dominate. And here, Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench give performances that, even on repeated viewings, freeze the soul with terror. We see the most terrible things on stage, of course: at one point, a child is murdered before our very eyes. But at the heart of the tragedy is what these two people do to themselves. In the great banquet scene, Ian MacKellen presents Macbeth as a man who is already mentally unhinged: the sight of him literally foaming at the mouth in sheer terror is not something I’ll forget in a hurry. And in the sleepwalking scene, Judi Dench presents a Lady Macbeth who, while still on this bank and shoal of time, is already a damned soul suffering the torments of Hell. And we can’t but ask ourselves “What have these people done to their immortal souls?”

Ian Mckellen - Macbeth

Ian Mackellen as Macbeth

I saw this production again last weekend, and it remains a nerve-racking experience. Somehow, not even the most frightening of horror films can quite match the intensity of horror projected here.