“The White Devil” by John Webster

Before engaging with the play itself, the reader of The White Devil would be well advised to read Webster’s preface to the first printed edition, especially if the reader likes, as I do, to get some impression of the authorial persona.  Here, Webster, still a relative novice in the craft of playwrighting – having at the time written plays only in collaboration – and following, as he himself acknowledges, in the immediate footsteps of some of the very finest practioners of the art of drama (including Shakespeare), lays the blame of the failure of the production of The White Devil fairly and squarely on the audience, and the audience alone:

…since it was acted, in so dull a time of winter, that it wanted a full and understanding auditory: and since that time I have noted, most of the people that came to that playhouse, resemble those ignorant asses (who visiting stationers’ shops, their use is not to enquire for good books, but for new books) I present it to the general view…

It must surely have crossed Webster’s mind that the play he is now presenting to the reader is also a “new book”, but he seems to harbour not the slightest doubt that this new book of his is several cuts above those other new books that those “ignorant asses” so hanker after. For he is not finished with those “ignorant asses” yet, who dared dislike his work. He goes on to list the various qualities that pertains to a great tragic work, and then continues:

…yet after all this divine rapture … the breath that comes after the uncapable multitude is able to poison it …

I don’t think I have ever come across such unmitigated disdain on the part of an author for his public – or, at least, for a sizable section of his public; and neither have I come across a self-belief so extraordinary as to be virtually indistinguishable from megalomania. For which other author speaks of “divine rapture” in reference to his own work? Even Shaw at his most provocative never quite attained this level of self-regard. I can’t help wondering whether Webster actually meant this, or whether he was being tongue-in-cheek: either way, one gets the impression of an authorial presence that is colourful and tremendously flamboyant. And one starts the play hoping that after such a striking preface, the drama itself does not prove anti-climactic.

To anticipate my conclusion, it isn’t. It may not quite justify the epithet “divine rapture”, but it is nonetheless magnificent.

We are, from the start, in familiar territory – a Mediterranean court (Italian in this case: in a revenge tragedy, if it isn’t Spanish, it’s Italian), peopled with powerful and corrupt rulers and cardinals and, in this instance, even a Pope; there are political factions, lust in action, jealousy, Machiavellian unscrupulousness, amorality – all the necessary ingredients for a successful revenge tragedy are here, all present and correct. There is also, inevitably, murder in the air; indeed, it comes as a bit of a surprise that we are well into Act Two before the murders actually take place. But in these first two acts, it isn’t just a case of waiting for the killings: a very large cast of extremely colourful characters is presented with the utmost dramatic skill; even when reading rather than seeing the play, each of these characters is distinctly characterised, with no two in danger of being confused with each other; and the relationships between the characters too are presented with perfect clarity. I cannot frankly think of any other play in which so complex an exposition, both in terms of situation and of character, is achieved with such clarity and with such regard for dramatic flow. There is no long narrative speech explaining the necessary background facts for the benefit of the audience (Shakespeare was doing this even as late as The Tempest); there is no stock device such as a newcomer who needs things explained to him. This may have been Webster’s first play without a collaborator, but the stagecraft is as assured as I have encountered from anyone.

This level of technical skill is maintained throughout. One danger of introducing so large a cast of characters is that it becomes difficult to keep them all simultaneously at the centre of the action, and that, as a consequence, some who had been introduced as major characters end up falling, as it were, by the wayside, while others splinter off from the central action into subsidiary plotlines, which then need to be resolved separately from the principal action. But once again, such is the quality of Webster’s stagecraft, there is no danger of any of that happening here. The seamless incorporation of each of these characters into the central plot is achieved so unobtrusively, that playwrighting is made to appear quite easy, and one wonders why other dramatists seem to make such heavy weather of it all.

But of course, technical skill, even of this order, is not enough to create a work of art: there needs to be what I call, for want of a better term, an “artistic vision”, a view of human life that penetrates beyond the mere surface. The vision that Webster presents here is one of unmitigated human evil. The evil that men do – and women do as well, for that matter – is presented not merely to titillate, or to make our flesh crawl: the horrors are not piled on merely for effect. They are presented quickly, and then we move on: there is no extended dwelling on the horrors, because, despite Webster’s reputation as a purveyor merely of sensationalist and grisly effects (“Tussaud laureate”, Bernard Shaw called him), he seems uninterested in depicting horror for its own sake: his interest seems to be the murky human soul from which such evil arises.

All the traditional set-pieces of revenge tragedy are there, but, rather than being there for their own sake, they are integrated into the whole. Thus, for instance, when characters express loss and grief, and their determination to be revenged, they do not do so in long, extravagant rants: instead of the action pausing to accommodate, as it were, solo arias, were, each voice, whatever it expresses, is invariably integrated into a larger ensemble that is constantly moving forward in dramatic terms. Even when Cornelia is given her mad scene after one of her sons gratuitously murders the other, the scene is dealt with swiftly: Cornelia’s madness is but one of several other things happening at almost the same time. Throughout, there is a refusal to dwell, to linger, on scenes that, given the tastes of the time, were potential showstoppers.

Not that the plot is without sensation. Indeed, it is the very presence of sensational elements that makes Webster’s reluctance to milk them so remarkable. At the centre is an adulterous affair between the Duke of Brachaino, and Vittoria, originally from a somewhat lower rank of nobility, but now married to the foolish Camillo, nephew of a cardinal. And for this adulterous couple to come together, two murders need to be committed – that of Brachiano’s wife, and of Vittoria’s husband. Camillo’s murder is the more straight-forward of the two: while exercising on his vaulting horse, his neck is broken, and the killing made to appear an accident; but the murder of Brachiano’s wife, Isabella, is altogether more intricate, and – it has to be admitted – delightfully sensational: the painting of her husband that she kisses every night – the very husband who murders her – is coated with a deadly poison. The two murders are presented in a single scene in a superb coup de theatre, as a conjurer allows Brachiano, not present at the scene of either murder, to see both in a vision.

Of course, it would have been easy to have enlisted audience sympathy on behalf of the murdered pair, but Webster is careful not to do that – at least, not in the case of Camillo, who is presented as something of a fool: one can even, up to an extent, at least, sympathise with Vittoria for being married to him. As for the grievously wronged Isabella, Brachiano’s wife, it would once again have been very easy to have presented her merely as a passive victim, but Webster is having none of that: he endows her with an intense a passion as that of the guilty lovers. Her fury on discovering her husband’s adutery is quite magnificent:

Isabella: O that I were a man, or that I had power
To execute my apprehended wishes!
I would whip some with scorpions.

Francisco: What! turn’d fury!

Isabella: To dig that strumpet’s eyes out; let her lie
Some twenty months a-dying; to cut off
Her nose and lips, pull out her rotten teeth;
Preserve her flesh like mummia, for trophies
Of my just anger! Hell, to my affliction,
Is mere snow-water. By your favour, sir;—
Brother, draw near, and my lord cardinal;—
Sir, let me borrow of you but one kiss;
Henceforth I ‘ll never lie with you, by this,
This wedding-ring.

It is indeed a shame that so magnificently spirited a character plays no further part in the drama, but one feels the loss of this character to a greater extent than one would, I think, have done had she been depicted but as a stock pallid sufferer and passive victim.

The movement to the double murder takes up the first two acts; the elaborate revenge, the last two. In the third act, bridging these two dramatic movements, is a magnificent court scene, in which Vittoria is put on trial for having instigated the murder of her husband.  Once again, Webster refuses to guide the reader’s (or the audience’s sympathy): her accusers and judges are themselves corrupt, and, despite any evidence against her, she is found guilty and sentenced:

Monticelso: … Hear your sentence: you are confin’d
Unto a house of convertites, and your bawd——

Vittoria: A house of convertites! what ‘s that?

Monticelso: A house of penitent whores.

Vittoria’s defiance is splendid:

Vittoria: Die with those pills in your most cursed maw,
Should bring you health! or while you sit o’ th’ bench,
Let your own spittle choke you!

Monticelso: She ‘s turned fury.

Vittoria: That the last day of judgment may so find you,
And leave you the same devil you were before!

Vittoria is soon out of the “house of penitent whores”, and lodged in Brachiano’s court; and then, starts the second arc of dramatic action – the Revenge. Except that, in Webster’s vision, the revengers are as morally corrupt and as evil as those they seek to destroy. The evil in this play seems all-encompassing.

Over the course of this long play, a picture emerges of passions that are neither controllable nor sought to be controlled; of remorse disjoined from power; of humanity ruled merely by lust and depravity and cruelty. This picture is painted on a large and immensely colourful but poison-coated canvas; and so oppressive is this image of evil, that the effect, despite the largeness of the canvas, is claustrophobic: it is a human inferno with no hint in sight even of a purgatory in which sins may be suffered away. Were it not for the tremendous theatrical vigour and exuberant energy with which this vision is presented, the whole thing would be a deadeningly depressing affair – a picture of life enmeshed in darkness only. Nihilism is not a way of looking at the world that I find myself attracted to, but I do find it hard, at least while experiencing the work, not to be drawn into Webster’s nihilistic vision.

One cannot help feeling, perhaps, that Shakespeare’s vision of evil, at least in his greatest plays, was even deeper, and even more terrifying. In Webster’s play, evil is something done by evil people, and this leads to a circular logic: why do people do such evil things? because they are evil; and why are they evil? because they do evil things. In Macbeth, the evil is not a monster that is out there, but, rather, a monster that lies latent within ourselves. But Webster’s vision of the monster out there is terrifying enough. From the preface, it is obvious that Webster knew full well he had written a masterpiece: he was not wrong. It is a tremendous achievement.

Blessed if I understand

For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
– From “The Wreck of the Deutschland” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

My travails with Donne as recorded in my previous post, and, more especially, a Facebook conversation I subsequently had regarding that post, raise some wider interesting questions on how we understand poetry, and, indeed, art in general.

My own academic background is in science and mathematics, and, at least to the levels I attained, understanding in those areas is a very precise thing: each symbol in each equation or formula is precisely defined, and the relationship between these precisely defined symbols is itself precisely defined, and the scientific mind is trained to understand each of these things precisely, so as to leave no room for ambiguity or uncertainty. Even where the formula denotes uncertainty – the famous Uncertainty Principle of Heisenberg, say – there is a precisely defined limit on the product of the uncertainties involved. When trying to absorb anything of a mathematical nature, to come to an understanding, one has to understand precisely what each of the elements means, and then understand, again precisely, how they come together, and relate to each other. Now, clearly, this is not the way we take in poetry, which, as T. S. Eliot once said, is something that can be appreciated even before it is understood. There are a great many poems that I love greatly, that haunt my mind, but which I would be at a loss to explain in clear terms: like this poem by Yeats, for instance. Unlike Heisenberg’s formula that puts limits on the product of the standard deviations of the momentum and position of a particle, there seems no limit here even to the myriad uncertainties. Could I explain what is meant by the “gong-tormented sea”? No, not really. It seems to make its impact not at the level of consciousness, exposed to light and to precision, but rather at some mysterious subterranean level of the mind.

All of this makes it difficult to talk about poetry. To define precisely each term, and explain how everything fits together to cohere into a whole, seems to be missing the point. And yet, merely to say how wonderful it is without expanding on what it is that makes it wonderful seems mere pointless burbling.

It is at this point that a scientifically trained mind unsympathetic to the claims of poetry is likely to ask how, if understanding at a conscious level is not the point, one may distinguish between poetry and gibberish. The cynic may say there is no difference, but that won’t do: Yeats’ “Byzantium”, no matter how obscure, is a work of art, and a very great one at that, whereas a few random words and phrases that I may put together is unlikely to be, and there must be some reason for this. Nonetheless, a poem is not a mathematical formula, or a crossword puzzle awaiting a solution: obscurities in a poem are to be absorbed, not explained away, as any explanation is likely to be facile and reductive. Some years ago, I confessed on this blog that I was still “puzzled” by Moby-Dick, but even as I was writing this, I knew I was meant to be puzzled – that, paradoxically, if I wasn’t puzzled, that could only mean that I hadn’t taken it in at all adequately.

Bearing all this in mind, I have to ask myself whether my confessed befuddlement with Donne’s poetry is but an indication that I have been approaching it wrongly – whether, indeed, my desire to “understand” is itself misplaced, and an unfortunate by-product of my scientific background. Although I am not entirely sure on the matter, I am inclined to think not, as my puzzlement relates not to that which lies hidden deep below the surface, but to the surface itself. My puzzlement is not akin to my wondering what the White Whale represents, but, rather, to my not even getting in the first place that Ahab is hunting the White Whale. In short, my lack of understanding, so far, is on a very basic level – too basic, indeed, even to be recorded in a blog that, I like to flatter myself, is sophisticated and cultured. Or something like that.

But I trust that it won’t take me too long to get to a level where I can, at least, grasp the surface. And then will come the really difficult bit.

Trying to read Donne

Monarchs aren’t often renowned for their wit, but if James I really did speak the line attributed him, that “Dr Donne’s verses are like the peace of God: they pass all understanding”, then he was spot on.

I have been acquainted – though no more than acquainted – with some of Donne’s more famous verses. Over the last two weeks or so, I have tried to come to a better understanding, and come closer to these works than a mere casual acquaintance can allow. Donne is, after all, indisputably among the major poets in the English language, and it is absurd that anyone with any interest at all in English literature should be so ignorant of his verse as I am. The project to become better acquainted with this body of work has not, at least in the early stages, gone too well: his sensibilities seem very alien to my own (which is perhaps why it has taken me so long to get round to a serious study of his works), and I find it difficult, often impossible, to follow his train of thought. His mind seems to make leaps that leave my mind bewildered; he finds relationships between object and thought and between thought and image that seem to me to make little sense. I feel like a dull-brained Polonius as a sharp-witted Hamlet is running rings around me: if only I can come to some understanding of those damn rings he is making – and why he is making them in the first place!

Not that I am giving up: these are but early days. But I don’t think I have come across any other major poet whose works have eluded me so – not even T. S. Eliot in his most inscrutable Four Quartets mode. In poem after poem, Donne puzzles me, and seems to laugh at my befuddlement. There are many examples I could give, but let me focus on the elegy titled “The Bracelet”, which strikes me as particularly opaque. The opening eight lines run thus:

NOT that in colour it was like thy hair,
For armlets of that thou mayst let me wear;
Nor that thy hand it oft embraced and kiss’d,
For so it had that good, which oft I miss’d;
Nor for that silly old morality,
That, as these links were knit, our love should be,
Mourn I that I thy sevenfold chain have lost;
Nor for the luck sake; but the bitter cost.

The first two lines refer to a motif that recurs quite frequently in Donne’s – the bracelet he wore around his arm of his lover’s hair. But the syntax of the sentence, that spans the first eight lines, is such that we do not know what the “it” is that he refers to in the first line until we get to the seventh: this “it” is, we then find, a “sevenfold chain”, the colour of his love’s hair (which, we may infer from the context, is the colour of gold). And it is only at this point that are we told that the poet has lost this chain, and is mourning this loss. Once we read these lines over again, they certainly make sense; but what should pass through the reader’s mind when reading these opening lines for the first time? What should the reader be thinking, or feeling, or sensing, or intuiting, as Donne spends six lines listing the various reasons he is not mourning something, even before the object of his mourning, or even before the very theme of mourning itself, is so much as mentioned? Speaking for myself, I was bewildered. Only when I read the seventh line did the first six lines fall into place, and I had, of course, to go back and read them over. But by this stage, the spontaneity of response – which has always seemed to me an important element in reading poetry – was no longer there.

But as soon as this is clarified, Donne introduces an ambivalence: the cost. This could be the cost of the chain that he has lost; or it could be the cost that is a consequence of the loss. It could be a straight-forward monetary cost, or, more likely, an emotional, or even perhaps a spiritual cost. All possibilities are tantalisingly present. And there is, I think, a further ambivalence: the object that he has lost is referred to not as a “bracelet”, but as a “chain”; so is this the bracelet of the title? Or could the bracelet of the title be the strands of his lover’s hair tied around his arm that he mentions in the first line? For, after all, why mention so striking a detail at the very outset if it is to play no further part in the poem?

Fine, let us move on. In the next two lines, we get this:

O, shall twelve righteous angels, which as yet
No leaven of vile solder did admit;

This sudden leap – for I can only see it as such – is very characteristic of Donne. Who are these twelve righteous angels? The footnotes refer to the twelve righteous angels guarding Jerusalem, as mentioned in the Book of Revelations, 21.12. I have actually read the Book of Revelations, but I am not so great a Bible scholar that I could instantly relate this line of Donne’s to this reference: I am grateful indeed for the footnotes for directing me. But I am still at a loss on how these righteous angels, Book of Revelations or no, relate to the first eight lines. The footnotes also tell me that gold coins worth ten shillings had depicted on one side the angel Michael slaying the dragon. Fair enough – but how do I knit all of this together? Are we to assume that the chain he has lost consisted of twelve of these coins linked together? I can’t see any other way of linking this ninth line to the eight previous ones. And even if I were to make this connection – which may or may not be what Donne had intended – the significance of reference to the guardian angels of is not obvious: maybe the angels on the coins making up this chain are to be seen as guarding the poet from harm, much as the angels from the Book of Revelations had guarded Jerusalem from harm. A great many conjectures and wild guesses in all this, but let us go on:

No leaven of vile solder did admit;

I think that’s clear enough – the gold of this chain, or of the coins possibly making up this chain, was pure, and has not been debased by “vile solder”. But “leaven” is a curious word to choose here; it is clearly a Biblical word, and the footnotes guide me to various verses in the Bible where the word is used. I look them up, but I can’t say they help me come closer to Donne’s intent. And nor do the lines that follow:

Nor yet by any way have stray’d or gone
From the first state of their creation;
Angels, which heaven commanded to provide
All things to me, and be my faithful guide;
To gain new friends, to appease great enemies;
To comfort my soul, when I lie or rise;
Shall these twelve innocents, by thy severe
Sentence, dread judge, my sin’s great burden bear?
Shall they be damn’d, and in the furnace thrown,
And punish’d for offences not their own?
They save not me, they do not ease my pains,
When in that hell they’re burnt and tied in chains.

So I was right in thinking that those twelve angels are seen, figuratively at least, as the poet’s own guardian angels. But why the loss of this chain should condemn these innocent angels to eternal damnation I cannot imagine. And I don’t think Donne is joking here: he would surely have taken matters of the soul and of eternal damnation rather seriously. I am obviously missing much here, and it bothers me that I have not the faintest idea of what it is I am missing.

And so the poem continues, over 100 lines, making leaps from one thing to the next while leaving behind no traceable connection, forcing together recondite thoughts, spraying out Biblical references at every opportunity. It is, I admit, tempting to say at this point that Donne is not for me – that his sensitivity, his perspective on life and on the world, are too far removed from mine; but I am not giving up so easily. Familiarity breeds understanding, after all, and I am determined to carry on familiarising myself with this poetry so that, even if I myself never become an aficionado, I can at least understand why others are.

The Peace of God may well pass all understanding, but it’s worth making the effort to have a bit of it nonetheless.

Winter’s journeys

I would I had bestowed that time in the tongues that I have in fencing, dancing and bear-baiting: O, had I but followed the arts!

– From “Twelfth Night”, Act 1, Scene 3

Lacking both linguistic skills, and any real knowledge or understanding of how music works, I really am not the right person to write about lieder – the form where, more than any other, words and music merge.

For someone who writes a blog devoted mainly to literary matters, I am frequently shamed by my lack of linguistic skills. Even my mother tongue, Bengali, I can read with confidence only with a Bengali-English dictionary within easy reach. French I can read up to a point, but that point is well short of the stage where I can enjoy its literature; and I am easily lost when the language is spoken at conversational speed. The other European languages which I wish I knew in order to read their literatures – German, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian (there’s Ibsen), and, perhaps above all, Russian, I am ignorant of. And as for the classical languages, I once again draw a blank. The remedy to all this is obviously in my hands: learn those languages, dammit! Well, maybe that is something I can do once I am retired: it is, for various reasons, not for now.

On top of my lack of linguistic skills, there’s my lack of understanding of matters musical. Oh, I can pen easily enough descriptions of what certain works of music make me feel, but as soon as we turn to anything resembling analysis – you know, all that stuff about harmony or counterpoint or whatever – I find it impossible even to feign some understanding. So, these two great shortcomings on my part – my lack of linguistic skills, and my lack of understanding of how music works – should really mean that I am doubly unqualified to write anything on lieder, German art songs, where so much of the artistry resides in the conjunction of the language and the music – in the way the two come together. But I am nonetheless determined, on the grounds that this is after all my blog and I can therefore write about what I want, to rush in where I really should fear to tread: for this blog was intended to give me a platform to sound off about matters on which I feel passionately, and there is little I feel more passionately than Schubert’s Winterreise, the Winter’s Journey. This cycle of twenty-four songs has haunted my mind for a great many years now, and even though I do not know German, I have followed it so many times with both the original German text and with the translation, the linguistic barrier really does not seem that great. No doubt the work would make an even greater impact on me if I did know German, but I really cannot imagine any impact greater than the one it makes on me even without that knowledge.

The original poems are by Wilhelm Müller. Not a name as well-known as, say, Goethe or Heine or Schiller, but, I am reliably informed, a poet more than merely competent. I am obviously not qualified to judge these works as poems; however, given how inextricably these poems are now linked with Schubert’s music, I’d imagine that even those who know the German language well may find it difficult to judge the quality of these works purely as literary works. But these considerations need not detain us here: whatever the relative contributions of Müller and of Schubert to the finished song cycle, we may acknowledge the searing impact the cycle never fails to make. I have heard it live a few times – the most recent hearing last year at the Wigmore Hall, where we made the unlikeliest of family outings to hear baritone Gerald Finley and pianist Julius Drake give a quite stunning performance – and I have more recordings of the piece than may seem reasonable to any sane mind. But Winterreise is not about sanity: it is about obsession, and it generates amongst its admirers an obsession perhaps comparable to the one it depicts. There are as many ways of interpreting these songs as there are musicians capable of performing them, and each new performance, each new recording, is a new venture into these still obscure and mysterious reaches of the mind.

Schubert re-arranged the order of the songs. Thus, we get from the beginning a picture of deep winter– the very first song tells of “road shrouded in snow”, and subsequent songs tell us of the ice, the frozen river and so on – while, as late as the sixteenth song in the cycle, we are given an autumnal picture of leaves falling from the not-yet-bare branches. But this is a minor consideration: what matters is the emotional continuity of the work – a work which opens in darkness, and moves on steadily, step by trudging step, into a darkness even more profound and all-encompassing, and, possibly, greater even than the darkness that Müller had envisaged. The story, such as it is, is much the same as that of Schubert’s earlier song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (also set to poems by Wilhelm Müller): boy, rejected by girl, loses the will to live and succumbs to thoughts of death. This is not in itself, perhaps, a particularly interesting story; indeed, in its outlines, the story may even seem clichéd and hackneyed: the sorrows of a jilted lover possibly form the most common theme of songs of all ages and in all cultures. But in both these cycles, this old, old story is mysteriously transformed. And, despite apparent similarities, the two cycles are markedly different. In Die Schöne Müllerin, we witness joy transformed into despair, but Winterreise is even darker: here, we have no direct depiction of joy: despair is there from the beginning – the repeated piano chords opening the first song anticipating the weary trudge the protagonist later makes, longing no longer for his lost love, but only for death. Whatever joy there is in Winterreise is but joy remembered – remembered with pain, and with bitterness. And unlike Die Schöne Müllerin, Winterreise does not end with death: that, indeed, is part of the tragedy. Even death, so devoutly wished for, is denied the protagonist. Instead of death, we find at the end something even more strange, even more enigmatic. And the whole thing seems somehow to transcend the mere sorrows of the jilted lover: lovers, after all, are frequently jilted, but few, one imagines, alienate themselves so utterly from the rest of mankind, and wander through the unpeopled bleakness of the winter landscape, without rest and seeking rest, seeking only extinction.

Schubert’s music takes us into very extreme states of mind. We begin to wonder after a while if the protagonist of this cycle, the singer of these songs, is entirely sane. To begin with, he longs for those earthly delights that he feels can never be his – not merely his lost love, but human companionship, the warmth and comfort of the sleeping villagers who will never know his despair. He dreams of spring, but the only flowers he can see are those painted on window panes by the frost and ice. This may all seem like the self-dramatising of adolescence, but Schubert’s music tells us otherwise: whatever we may feel on reading the words alone, any knowing smile is wiped off our faces by the almost unbearable intensity of the music, depicting a seemingly endless, steady trudge through the snow and ice. The singer sees a crow following him, and imagines the crow waiting for him to die so it can then pick at his body: “let me at last see constancy even to the grave,” he reflects. He begins to hallucinate: a “friendly light” seems to dance before him, and he is eager to follow, even though he knows this is but an illusion.

In the last five songs, we enter into even deeper realms of darkness. He sees signposts, pointing to various towns and villages; he describes himself as “ohne Ruh’ and suche ‘Ruh” – without rest, and seeking rest (Schubert sets this line to the most passionate of musical lines); but then, for the last stanza, the passion subsides into a deeply sinister monotone: he can see but a single signpost now, possibly a signpost of the mind, which points him to a road he must travel, and from which none has returned.

“Der Wegweiser”, sung by Christoph Prégardien (tenor), with Andreas Staier (fortepiano)

The next song is called “Das Wirthaus” – The Inn – but this inn is a graveyard. Here, he lies down, hoping never to wake; but even here death is denied him: even this inn turns him away. The next song is manic – a furious, hysterical outburst that ends with the lines “If there is no God on earth, we ourselves are gods!” And in the penultimate song, he sees three suns in the sky: he wishes for all three suns to set, as “I would feel better in the darkness”. And now, having taken us into the heart of madness and of hysteria, we have the enigmatic final song, where the singer sees an old organ-grinder, who, starving, frozen, barefoot on the ice, ignored by all and seemingly oblivious to the dogs snarling at him, plays as best he can:

And he lets it all go by, everything as it will…

And the protagonist finishes this mighty piece with lines of the utmost tenderness and humility:

Strange old man, should I go with you?
Will you turn your organ to my songs?

What can this mean? What does this strange old man symbolise? To say that he symbolises Death seems to me too pat an answer: to see the protagonist finally seeing Death in the form of an old man seems too simplistic a solution to the complex of feelings and emotions Schubert’s music inspires in us at this point. Could this old man be, perhaps, a projection of the protagonist himself into the future? After all the anger, the bitterness, the madness and the hallucinating, can he be finally resigned merely to dumb, uncomplaining endurance? Perhaps. I personally prefer to see the old hurdy-gurdy man not as a symbol at all, but simply as no more than what he is – an old man, starving and frozen, inured almost to pain and to suffering. And for the first time in the entire cycle, right at the very end, the singer feels kinship with a fellow human being, and compassion for someone other than himself. I find it hard not to be reminded of that scene in King Lear:

Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold? I am cold myself.

I don’t know whether Müller’s poetry on its own can take us into the realms of King Lear, but combined with Schubert’s music, it does. And whatever perverse element in me urges me to return repeatedly to Shakespeare’s most terrible play urges me to return also to this most visionary of works. I have made countless winter’s journeys over the years.

[The English translations of these songs are taken from the translations by Mari Pračkauskas, which appear in the liner notes of the recording of Winterreise by Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel, on the Decca label.]

The birthplace of modern democracy

Runnymede1

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[Thanks to HorseyTalk.net for permission to post this picture from their blog.]

Trigger-happy readers

I try not to be too censorious on this blog. When I find myself disagreeing vehemently with any stated position, I do try – on the grounds that nothing in all this unintelligible world can ever be so clear cut as to preclude some trace at least of ambivalence – to see if there is anything, anything at all, that may be said for the other side. But it’s not always easy. When I read, for instance, that students of literature, people who have actually chosen to study the subject at university, and who, one might reasonably assume, had some idea of what they were letting themselves in for, request that works with potentially distressing themes be marked with a “trigger warning” to protect their delicate sensitivities, I find myself thinking hard whether there is anything at all that can be said for their viewpoint.

I tell myself that, after all, sensitivities are indeed fragile things, and I would not care to have them belittled. Those who have been on the receiving end of, say, racist abuse (or worse), may indeed find it mortifying to read the depiction of racism in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Those who have had suicidal tendencies may indeed find it traumatic to enter the suicidal mind of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs Dalloway. Some may counter that what you may read of made-up characters isn’t really that big a deal, as it’s all “made up”, but we who value literature know better: we acknowledge, as these students do, that it is a big deal, that literature does have the power not only to affect us, but to affect us deeply, to our very core – in some cases, indeed, to traumatise us. So let us grant the students this: in our age, when anything of cultural worth appears systematically to be sidelined away from the mainstream under the pretence that it’s not really that important, it is good to have some acknowledgement at least of the often overwhelming power that books may exert upon the reader’s mind. Better surely to acknowledge the potentially traumatic impact of Mrs Dalloway than to pretend it is but a trifle, a bauble, to while away a few lazy hours when we have nothing more important to do.

So far, I think we’re agreed, and on the same side. It’s the next bit that I have problems with. For the students in question are requesting that books that have the potential to cause distress be marked with what is known as a “trigger warning” – something to let potential readers know that the book may cause distress, so these potential readers may then, should they choose, avoid the book. It is when we come to the word “avoid” that I have a problem. Of course, as a general principle, one is under no obligation to put oneself through something that one finds uncomfortable, let alone distressing or traumatic. But should this general principle extend also to those who have, of their own free will, chosen to study literature? Did they really not understand what they were letting themselves in for?

For literature is the least abstract of all the arts. It is unambiguously about life. Life isn’t, admittedly, all distressing and traumatic, but much of it is, and so, literature has no option but to depict those things that may distress or cause trauma. Literature may also present ways of looking at the world that are disturbing, ideas that may challenge, provoke, and, indeed, traumatise. Perhaps the requested trigger warning should apply to the entire range of literature rather than to just a few books; perhaps all literature faculties in all universities should have engraved over the gate: “Abandon all comfort ye who enter here.” Comfort is for the heritage-style costume-drama adaptations of the classics, not the classics themselves.

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – which, I guess, has been around long enough now to be regarded as a “classic” – may, we are told, “trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more”. I am a bit unsure from the phrasing what exactly the book may “trigger”: thoughts? feelings? emotions? new ways of perceiving things? new perspectives? If so, are not these triggerings to be welcomed rather than avoided? Some of these triggerings may indeed be distressing, but in literature, as in life, distress is all too often the price one has to pay to experience the wonders on offer.

I also can’t help wondering: is Things Fall Apart likely to “trigger” only those who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide? (And more?) Can the rest of us not be triggered also by this book? Were we to be triggered only by what we have personally experienced, any individual book is unlikely to trigger much at all in any individual, given how minuscule any individual’s personal experience must be in comparison to the sum total of human experiences that literature encompasses. And I don’t know that it’s a good idea – at least for those who have voluntarily chosen to study literature – to avoid those books that trigger our mind into absorbing into our own perspectives the perspectives of others, distressing or even traumatic though they may be. The alternative is to close discourse, to close debate, to close, indeed, our very minds. We have the freedom as private citizens to close our minds, if that is what we really want to do, but perhaps that option should not be made available in institutions of learning.

So, while I am, up to a point, sympathetic with these students, I cannot say I am wholeheartedly in agreement. It’s not that I am asking them to “toughen up”: far from it: to experience literature, you have to hold on to your unhardened sensitivities. And I most certainly am not saying that the distress that literature can cause is but an affectation: it is very real indeed, far more so than is, perhaps, commonly recognised. What I am saying, I think, is that unless you are prepared to have your sensitivities battered, unless you are prepared to accept the distress and the trauma as a price to be paid for seeing the world in new and wondrous ways, then it’s best simply to steer clear of literature altogether. It makes as little sense for those who seek mere comfort to study literature as it does for those who are squeamish about handling animals to study veterinary science.

Some bleak thoughts on “Bleak House”

The barbarians are at the gates. They may well be inside already.

Yes, I know, this has been thought and said by just about every generation. People were thinking such things at least as far back as the classical age; indeed, it is from the classical age that this expression originates. But just because previous generations have also entertained this thought does not make the thought wrong: quite the contrary. The antiquity of this thought renders it respectable, and the frequency with which it has occurred across so great a span of time enhances the probability that it is, perhaps, true.

This thought, gloomy though it is, struck me quite forcefully this last Friday evening, when, ironically, I was enjoying a quite wonderful night out. I had gone to the Arts Centre in Hounslow to see a dramatisation of Dickens’ Bleak House, performed by a touring theatrical group called The Pantaloons, of whom I had not previously heard. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. But what I saw was utterly joyous: I’d have been delighted to have seen a show as good as this even in London’s West End. A cast of only five actors brought to teeming life virtually the entire cast of Dickens’ vast novel: a few basic props to indicate character – a scarf for Mr Jarndyce, spectacles for Mr Tulkinghorn, and so on – a change of voice and diction, and of body language and facial expression – and, miraculously, in front of our very eyes, characters transform one into another at breathtaking pace. The innocent and naïve Ada Clare turns into the dignified and tragic Lady Dedlock; and then, the very next moment, into the glaring, small-minded and mean-spirited Judy Smallweed. The same actor convinces as the unworthy suitor Guppy one minute, and as the worthy suitor Allan Woodcourt the next. And so on. It would be invidious to single out any one of the five when all five were so spectacularly good.

It was, of course, a whistle-stop tour of this huge novel, and inevitably much of the material was thinned out (no Mr Skimpole, for example, or the Jellybys, or Chadband); but what surprised me was how much managed to survive. The whole evening fizzed with verve and wit and sparkle, and these mere five actors communicated the feel and the zest of a gloriously overcrowded Dickensian canvas, with not a single square inch of that canvas left untouched by the sheer fecundity of the man’s prodigious imagination. There was much audience interaction, as in pantomime, and a great many jokes reminding the audience that what they were seeing was indeed a modern production featuring modern actors, re-enacting a novel written some 160 years ago. The actor playing the odious blackmailer Smallweed particularly enjoyed himself with the audience, asking (in character) one member what he did for a living (I’m so glad I wasn’t asked that; “operational research analyst” wouldn’t have sounded right at all in the context!), and telling us all that we had all been “ripped off” for our theatre seats. I, too, I admit, played a small part in all this: before the show had started, the cast were personally greeting the audience as they were coming in, and speaking to them; and at one point, they asked if anyone had read the novel. As usual on these occasions, I tried to keep my head down, but as the actress playing Esther Summerson was looking straight at me at this point, and I had no option but to nod and say “yes”. Later in the show, they improvised some lines about not diverging too widely from the script, as “there is at least one person here who has read the book”. Well, I guess it was good to be part of the show, even in so small a way! (Just as well they hadn’t asked me if I have written a blog post about this book!)

The danger of this kind of thing is that the more serious aspects of the work could become drowned out by all the jokeyness, but that danger was well avoided here. It is one of the most marvellous thing about theatre that we, the audience, can be aware that what we are witnessing are but actors speaking their lines; that we may even be able to identify these actors as living in real life, outside the stage action; that we may admire the costume design, sets, and lighting; and yet, even while fully aware of the artifice of it all, we can find our heart-strings tugged at, and our minds entering the most rarefied realms of fancy and of imagination. So here, even as Dickens himself is wheeled on stage to be charged with engineering the absurd plot device of spontaneous combustion, we can find ourselves in awe of the spontaneous combustion itself, recognising it not merely as a theatrical plot device, but also as a metaphor hinting at realities too vaguely glimpsed to be explicitly stated. We recognise also the immense tragedy of Lady Dedlock, and the heart-rending, unmediated pathos of Little Jo, who, raging with fever, is “moved on” until he drops dead; we recognise the horror behind the grotesque – the terror underlying Miss Flite’s naming of the birds, the inadequacies of human laws indicating the inadequacy, should it exist, of a Higher Law. Through all the pantomime jokeyness and the sheer exuberant fun of it all, we are given a glimpse into the dark, elusive heart of this very great novel.

So why, despite a show that reminded me why I loved the novel so much, and which entertained me so royally all evening, was I visited with such gloomy thoughts of barbarians at the gates? The reason, I am sorry to say, is this: there were only twelve people in the audience. Yes, that’s right. Twelve. Including us. And it was hard not to imagine how dispiriting this must have been for the cast, giving so much to a virtually empty auditorium. Admittedly, if the small size of the audience bothered them, they didn’t show it: they gave a fully committed performance with a professionalism that, under the circumstances, bordered on the heroic. But it’s hard not to feel that something is not right. That something, indeed, is very, very wrong. After the show, as I waited for the bus back home from Hounslow town centre, I saw no shortage of people out that Friday night, in bars, in clubs – anywhere, indeed, but in the theatre; and the money they were spending was far, far more than what I had spent for my seat. The show itself, though by no means slight, made no great intellectual demand: it was joyous and exuberant throughout, and thoroughly entertaining. But the fact remained: twelve people – just twelve people. And it is hard to resist the conclusion that there is in our society an indifference bordering on hostility for anything perceived even remotely to be of cultural worth. We don’t need no educashun, and we certainly don’t need no kulcher either.

How all occasions do inform against our culture – against that which is of the greatest value. I have, for some years now, been chairman of a local music society, which has been going now for over sixty years. Each year, we organise nine concerts, mainly classical, bringing some wonderful musical talent right to our very doorsteps. Last month, we hosted pianist Jayson Gillham, who had been finalist in the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2012, and was last year was outright winner of Montreal International Music Competition. He has already performed with some of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, and in some of the most prestigious halls, and, given this background, one might have thought the good people of our locality would be fighting for tickets. We certainly did our best to publicise the concert – with mentions on various social media platforms, announcements on local radio, fliers, banners, and the like. And yet, we couldn’t even fill our modest church hall: to see this rising star of the world of classical music, only fifty or so turned up in a hall that could hold about eighty. Of course, that was a much larger audience than the one that turned up to see Bleak House, but I, as chairman, felt frankly embarrassed. Not, admittedly, that the small audience size seemed to bother Jayson Gillham any more than it had bothered the cast of Bleak House: he gave a superb recital, finishing with a quite electric performance of Chopin’s B minor sonata. But once again, I couldn’t help feeling that something isn’t right. One can bring a horse to water, as they say, but we were doing far more than that: we were bringing water to the horse. And still the horse seems reluctant to drink.

It’s the same story everywhere. Many similar music societies in the neighbourhood have already folded. There is absolutely no shortage of musical talent: merely a shortage of people prepared to appreciate it.

And no, I don’t buy the contention that ’twas ever thus. Our music club has been going for some sixty-five years now, and that would not have been possible if ’twas ever thus. That membership numbers and attendances are declining year on year is hardly, after all, a figment of my imagination. Neither is it a figment of my imagination that not so long ago, mainstream television channels would broadcast regularly, at peak viewing times, the London Symphony Orchestra playing classical music (Andre Previn’s Music Night); and that Andre Previn himself, then Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, could appear as guest on the hugely popular Morecambe and Wise Show without requiring any special introduction. Can anyone imagine the Principal Conductor of a major symphony orchestra even being invited on to a popular television show these days? It seems that what is referred to – usually sneeringly these days – as “high culture” is increasingly sidelined away from the mainstream, so that only those who have made the special effort to look out for it will ever find it.

I could go on with my jeremiad, citing further examples, but jeremiads, no matter how deeply felt, tend to get a bit boring: so let’s skip all that. But I am not prepared merely to sit back and let it all happen. I may not be able to turn back the tide, but I can have a damn good try at the very least! So, wherever you are, may I please encourage you to support your local arts events: once we lose these things, they’re gone for ever. And if you’re in the UK, may I recommend a look through The Pantaloons’ forthcoming shows: I’ll certainly be looking out for them in future. And finally, if you live anywhere within travelling distance of Egham, please do have a look at our list of concerts for the 2015-16 season, and do come along to a few of them. Tell you what – mention this blog to me at the concert, and I’ll get you a coffee during the interval. Now, I can’t say fairer than that!

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