Most ignorant of what we’re most assured

As is well-known, during the apartheid days, in the prison on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela, among others, was incarcerated, a Complete Works of Shakespeare was passed around, and many of the inmates signed their names next to lines they found particularly poignant. I find this story itself particularly poignant.

Nelson Mandela put his own name next to some lines spoken by Julius Caesar:

Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.

Not that I am myself particularly valiant, and neither have I undergone anything like what the prisoners of Robben Island had to go through, but I have often wondered: of all those passages in that volume (which, over the years, has meant to me more than any other book I can think of), which passage would I put my own name against?

Far too many to choose from, obviously, but I think my own name would go next to this passage from Measure for Measure, in which Isabella, pleading for her brother’s life, flames out into the most visionary of lines depicting our common human lot:

… but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep …

In performance, the drama has, of course, to move on. But when I am reading, I have to put the book down for a while when I come to these lines. I think I’d need to be about as articulate as Shakespeare himself if I were to explain why.

(Please feel free to add a comment below on any passage from Shakespeare that you find particularly affecting.)

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Summer lovin’ had me a blast

Now that the nights are hot and sultry, I find I’m in the mood for a bit of lust and murder.

I have loved film noir, and whatever its literary equivalent is, for many years now. Ever since I have been old enough to love it. And possibly since when I was even younger. Oh, how I would long for some torrid femme fatale lead me into desperate mazes of lust, depravity, and murder! OK, maybe not the murder bit, but you get the idea. At an age when I should have been dreaming of a Mary Poppins leading me into a magical land of gentle fantasy, I was fantasising instead of Barbara Stanwyck or Jane Greer or Ava Gardner leading me astray. I still am.

Wife and lover murder husband, and are then tied together by bonds of guilt. This seems to me the archetypal film noir plot, but, as far as I can think, this plot appears only in two film noirsDouble Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Well, a few more than two if we count remakes. The Postman Always Rings Twice has been filmed a number of times: it was given an Italian setting by Visconti in the film L’Ossessione; and was later filmed in its American setting, first in a somewhat flat adaptation starring John Garfield and Lana Turner, and, later, in what seems to me a much finer effort, by Bob Rafelson, with Jessica Lange and Jack Nicholson. The Visconti and Rafelson versions are both, I think, rather fine, but it’s Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity that, more than any other film, epitomises film noir for me. And it is for this reason that this particular plotline strikes me as archetypal noir.

Both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice are, of course, based on novels by James M. Cain. I am by no means well read in thrillers, but, as far as I have read, I’d unhesitatingly nominate these two as my favourites. Desire, lust, murder, sex, guilt … what more could one want? There seems to me something particularly disturbing, something uniquely horrifying, about two people committing this greatest of all sins, the taking of a human life, for the sake of gratifying their desires; there seems something particularly appalling about the coils of guilt and shame they find themselves enmeshed in, and their despair as they discover, after all they have done, that their desire is had without content. They do not need to wait for the afterlife for punishment: their damnation is right here on earth, even before the law gets to them

Without taking anything away from Cain, such a story must have had forebears. I can only think of two: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov, and Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola, both published within a couple of years of each other in the 1860s. There’s Clytemnestra as well, of course, but she murders her husband on her own, without her lover’s help (although with her lover’s knowledge and approval). If we widen the net a bit to cover murders committed by any couple (not necessarily wife and lover), and of any victim (not necessarily the husband), we can find a few more examples of this plotline: very obviously, there’s Shakespeare’s Macbeth; and there’s that strange, savage story, depicted by all three Athenian tragedians, of brother and sister, Orestes and Electra, coming together to murder their mother (although the murder in this case is not motivated by desire). I am sure there are many more examples I can’t right now think of. But restricting ourselves specifically to wife and lover murdering husband, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District, Thérèse Raquin and the two Cain novels are the only ones I can think of.

And, given that I am now in the mood for this sort of thing, I was thinking of re-reading all four of these books. They’re all quite short works, after all, and even at my snail’s pace, they shouldn’t take too long. And I am sure there are other stories with this plotline I can’t think of right now.

And so, over to you. Wife and lover murder husband. Or maybe, for a bit of variety, husband and lover murder wife. For desire. And they go on to suffer all the torments of Hell, even here, on this bank and shoal of time. Any other title I should include in my reading plans?

Thanks in advance.

The tingle in the spine

I should stop trying to do irony on this blog. I just can’t do it very well. It could be that my flights of ironic fancy are often taken at face value because readers can’t see my body language, or the expression on my face; or that they can’t hear my tone of voice; and so on. But it’s no good: I might as well accept that my attempts at irony fall down because I am not a terribly good writer. And even if I was, it would make little difference: after all, the irony of even so great a writer as Jane Austen is often misunderstood, so what chance do I have?

(And may I say, incidentally, that there is nothing in the above paragraph that is intended ironically. And, indeed, nothing in that last sentence either. This could go on for ever, couldn’t it?)

Most definitions of irony (and a quick Google search indicates that definitions vary) talk about intentionally saying the opposite of what one really means; but I think irony can be considerably more subtle than that. Irony can also, I think, encompass saying things that one only partially means. The world is, after all, endlessly intricate and complex, and quite frequently, certain things can be merely partially true: certain things one may find oneself agreeing and disagreeing with at the same time. For instance, in my previous post, I had said that great literature should address great themes. I think I stand by this up to a point, but only up to a point. I think, for instance, that the Sherlock Holmes stories are great literature. I think Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories are great literature. I think The Three Musketeers is great literature. Not only do these works not address great themes, they sometimes go out of their way not to address them. But whatever we may mean by “greatness”, I think these books are “great”. And if they’re disqualified because they do not measure up to some pre-defined criterion, then I don’t know that I need worry about it too much.

This does not mean I am willing to jettison my contention: great themes I continue to associate with great literature, and I refuse to accept there is no connection between them. But appreciation and appraisal of literature are far from exact sciences, and rigidly applying pre-determined principles to assess literary value is a pretty fruitless exercise. I think, on the whole, that great literature should address great themes. Except when they don’t.

Perhaps it is best to see thematic seriousness as a criterion of literary merit that is neither necessary, nor sufficient, but which remains all the same an important criterion. And that all other criteria of literary merit one may think of are, similarly, neither necessary, nor sufficient. The entire range of literature is too vast, too unwieldy, too messy, to be bound by any pre-determined criteria.

And in any case, the greatness comes first. If we insist on trying to formulate criteria that determine literary greatness, we do this by examining those works that we already know to be great, and then, and only then, trying to identify what it is about these works that makes them so.

And how do we know without applying pre-determined criteria that a work is great? As that fastidious critic Vladimir Nabokov put it, we know it by that unmistakable tingle in the spine.

This is not the end of the matter, of course. Nothing is ever the end of the matter when it comes to literature: this is why there is always so much to discuss, so much to talk about. What about those works that I strongly sense to be great, but which give me, personally, no spinal tingle at all? Something such as, for me, Middlemarch? Well, let’s leave that for a later post. I have waffled on too long here as it is.

(That last sentence is intended as ironic, by the way: just thought I’d point that out.)

The thriller as literature: “Devices and Desires” by P. D. James

There is no universally agreed set of criteria to determine literary greatness, but I think I would advance, albeit tentatively, the principle that great literature must address great themes.  This does, I appreciate, rule out many a work that I value – Wodehouse novels, Sherlock Homes stories, and the like: these are works I value as much as I do any literature we may term “great”. But principle is principle, and once they’re formed, we shouldn’t really be messing around with them, making exceptions merely to include stuff we happen personally to like.

And if great literature must address great themes, it is easy to see why the thriller genre should so readily produce works that, even by the standards of those who are regularly berated in book blogs as “stuffy”, may be considered “great literature”. The themes of guilt, of sin, of social and moral corruption; of evil, of conscience, and even, perhaps, of redemption; all those big themes that all serious writers and thinkers have been wrestling with now for centuries; are all present, and accessible, to the writer of thrillers. Crime and Punishment, as we all know, is a thriller; so is Nostromo. Recently, Ian Rankin chose Bleak House as a favourite thriller, which seemed to me fair enough, since it is both indisputably great, and indisputably a thriller. And, by any reasonable definition of the genre, works as indisputably possessed of literary greatness as Macbeth or Electra (either the Sophocles or the Euripides version) can all claim to be thrillers. This is not to say that all thrillers are “great literature”: addressing serious themes is a necessary rather than a sufficient criterion; but it does mean, I think, that, keeping out for the moment the contentious idea of great literature, the thriller genre, by its very nature, can lend itself to serious contemplation of humanity.

That it is P.  D. James’ intention to use the thriller genre to address serious themes can hardly be in any doubt. She says so quite clearly in her preface to the novel Devices and Desires, where she describes the early stages of her literary career:

The classical detective story with its formal constraints and internal tensions, its need to balance plot, setting and character, presents a formidable challenge to an aspiring novelist. Tackling its technical problems would, I thought, be an excellent apprenticeship to someone setting out to be eventually regarded as a serious writer. Then, as I advanced in my craft, I came to believe that it was possible to remain within the conventions of the traditional mystery and yet say something true and important about men and women and the society in which we live and die.

Indeed. To be a serious writer, one needs to address serious themes, to say something “true and important”. True, the thriller is not obliged to accommodate such things: but the point is, it can.

But Devices and Desires, a hefty novel of nearly 600 pages, is a particular kind of thriller: it is a whodunit. And I must confess that when I started the novel, I had my doubts about the suitability of this sub-genre to say “something true and important”. For the idea of the “whodunit” is to hold back an important element of the plot – that is, who the criminal is; to tease the reader into forming various different hypotheses on what that missing element of the plot may be; and to surprise the reader at the end by imparting that missing piece of information. All of this throws a great emphasis upon the plot – upon the mere sequence of events. And, further, it means that, far from addressing the “true and important” openly, the author must deliberately hold back certain elements of it until the end, so as not to spoil that surprise, which, in every whodunit, constitutes the pay-off. None of this a problem when the plot is of the essence, as it is in Agatha Christie novels; but where there are other elements important to the whole – where there are “true and important” matters to be addressed – such a leaning towards he plot makes it very difficult to achieve a satisfactory balance. In addition, when the minds of the various characters are explored in detail – as is the case here – the identity of the murderer must be credible not merely in terms of plot (i.e. all the circumstantial details of the plot must fit together to form a credible and coherent whole), but, unless we are to believe that any person, regardless of personality, is capable of committing murder, the psychology must be credible also. In other words, not only must we believe that the murderer had the opportunity and the means and the motive to commit murder, we must also believe that their act is consistent with their psychology. This means that either the author presents a range of suspects each psychologically capable of committing murder; or, alternatively, that a number of possible subjects can be ruled out entirely, thus lessening the sense of surprise when the eventual revelation comes.

All of this P.  D. James is aware of, and, in a long and distinguished career as practioner of the genre, has obviously given it far deeper consideration that I, mere casual reader, can have done. And I must say, she steers the various obstacles with admirable skill. The setting is the Norfolk coast, fairly sparsely populated (most of the principal characters seem to live in remote cottages); it is haunted both by history (Agnes Poley, a former inhabitant, had been burnt at the stake), and by modernity (looming above the landscape is a nuclear power station). Both the past and the present are held together in a precarious balance. There is a serial killer at loose, but this soon  turns out not to be a serial-killer-thriller: a murder, very much in the manner of the serial killer, is committed, but the serial killer himself had committed suicide hours earlier: the latest murder is a “copycat” killing – someone killing for their own reasons, for their own motives.

Among those present in the locality is Adam Dalgleish, a senior detective inspector; but this is not his beat, and he is not officially on the case. As such, he becomes almost a peripheral character in the proceedings. James takes adopts the voice of an omniscient narrator: this is surprising, since the very nature of a whodunit demands that the author holds back from the reader certain pieces of information, and one can but wonder why an omniscient writer should hold anything back at all. But once one accepts this conceit, it becomes a minor consideration. James moves the narrative at will from one character to another, establishing various links between them, giving us glimpses of their past, bringing to life their mental traumas, their unhealed wounds, that these lacerated souls carry around with them. And she gives is glimpses also of the various devices and desires (the title is taken from the Book of Common Prayer) of their hearts.

The pace is stately.  I have seen it described by some online as “plodding”, but I don’t accept that: there is no reason why a thriller shouldn’t be paced slowly. In tracing the interconnected lives of these people inhabiting the same locality, James seems at times to evoke some of the great English novelists of the previous century whom she knew and loved so well – Jane Austen, perhaps, or George Eliot. But the mood here is, naturally, given the genre, much darker.  It is true that this thriller doesn’t, perhaps, thrill, but there is, nonetheless, a tension present – a tension that comes not from any sense of imminent danger, but from the interaction between the various characters.

By the end, I was very impressed, though not, perhaps, entirely convinced. Despite all the undoubted skill apparent – not least a very polished prose style, and a quite superb evocation of place – a whodunit still stands or falls by the ingenuity of the plotting, and any element other than the plot is, inevitably, additional to it, rather than integral. And then, there is the sense of closure: the themes broached in this novel – the unhealed psychological wounds we carry around with us, the questions of personal morality, and so on – can never have closure: these are things that we, as humans, must continue to live with. But the whodunit genre is such, that the revelation of the murderer imparts to the reader a sense of finality: we’ve been presented with a mystery, and now it’s solved. Once again, James is clearly aware of this problem, but I remain unconvinced that she has solved it here. The final chapters convey – inevitably, I think, given the nature of the whodunit genre – a sense of finality; and, given the themes broached, this should not really have been the case.

I am not really a great reader of whodunits, and I am not sure how this novel will settle into my mind. For novels have a way of settling into one’s mind over time:  as one reflects upon what one as read, it can, over time, acquire new resonance, new shades of meanings. Or, conversely, its impact may simply fade. Right now, a full week after having finished it, Devices and Desires seems to me an extremely impressive work, written by a master craftsman. But whether the whodunit genre itself is a suitable vehicle for conveying matters “true and important”, I must say I continue to have my doubts.

Ode to Joy

When, towards the end of Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, the fictional composer Adrian Leverkühn, staring full into the abyss, declares he will take back the 9th symphony, we don’t need to ask whose 9th symphony he is referring to – Schubert’s, Dvořák’s, Bruckner’s, or Mahler’s. And neither do we need to ask what Leverkühn means by saying that he wants to take it back. Beethoven’s 9th symphony stood then, as it stands now, for all those ideals and values that, for all the lessons of history, still stir the blood – freedom, liberty, love, brotherhood, comradeship, joy.

Ibsen had warned us, in Brand and in The Wild Duck, against the Claims of the Ideal. No matter how noble the ideal, no matter how heroic and self-sacrificing the idealist, “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”. (That quote, a quick Google search tells me, is from Kant. It was a favourite of Isaiah Berlin’s, who titled one of his collections of essays The Crooked Timber of Humanity: the undesirability of even trying to attain Utopia here on earth was a theme that much exercised him.) Dostoyevsky too had known that straightening crooked humanity to make it fit for a utopia can only be achieved through violence: the Grand Inquisitor may indeed be correcting Christ’s work for the greater happiness of mankind, but burning heretics in an autoda is, presumably, a price that needs to be paid for that universal utopian happiness.

All this the history of the last centuries has taught us, all this we know. Or, at least, should know. And yet, even knowing this, Beethoven’s 9th symphony continues to thrill. And it thrills not merely by the power of the music, but also by the message it explicitly gives us – that of universal love and brotherhood, of ideals, out of which, some still believe, a Utopia may still be built, right here on earth. How can we remain still in thrall to this message? Could it be that even with the knowledge of the dangers of Utopia, even with all the bitter experience of history, we cannot still inside us that longing for a heaven here on earth? And could the message of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and the great, noble feelings it still arouses in us, actually be dangerous?

At this point, it’s as well to pause a while to reflect. Did Beethoven, whom we often tend to refer to as a “visionary”, really lack the vision to perceive what is now so obvious to us all? Lewis Lockwood, in his splendid book on Beethoven, reminds us that when he was composing the 9th symphony, these ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity had already failed, and were in retreat: Beethoven had lived through the times when these lofty ideals had given way to the Terror; he had seen Napoleon (whom he had initially admired, and about whom he continued to harbour conflicting and ambivalent feelings) unleash the most horrific warfare across Europe; and, most recently, he had seen the settlements reached in the Congress of Vienna plunge Europe back again to the most ruthless reactionary despotisms. Beethoven’s assertion of the ideals of freedom and of brotherly love, far from being triumphalist, is better seen as a sort of rearguard action.

So, maybe, he wasn’t advocating a utopia; maybe he wasn’t advocating building Jerusalem on England’s or anyone else’s green and pleasant land. The lines he set of Schiller nowhere imply – as Blake’s famous lines do – striving to build anything at all: it is an assertion, a celebration, of human love for its own sake. And I think it is right that this very idea is something that should thrill us, fill us with joy. I can speak from personal experience on this: it’s over a decade now that I came out of the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, having heard Sir Charles Mackerras conduct this symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra (a recording of this remarkable live performance is, happily, still available), my head spinning with … well, spinning with joy, I suppose. To this day I have never heard anything quite so joyful, quite so thrilling. This symphony does what it says on the label.

Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Your magic binds again
What convention strictly divides;
All people become brothers,
Where your gentle wing abides.

(Anonymous translation copied & pasted from Wikipedia.)

“What conventions strictly divides” – all those divisions of wealth and of social status, and also of ethnicity and of gender and of sexuality, all those divisions that so many modern strands of thought passing themselves off as “liberal” seek to reinforce rather than overcome… Beethoven’s symphony is, amongst other things, an ecstatic rejection of such pettiness: it urges us all to look higher.

In a conversation book of 1820, Beethoven had written: “The moral law within us, the starry skies above us.” This is a simplified version of a passage from Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.

(Translated by Lewis White Beck)

Both the moral law and the starry skies seem to find their place in the great finale of the 9th symphony. This finale opens with a depiction of chaos, with a wild and discordant cascade of notes. This is followed by a sort of orchestral recitative, which appears to be searching for something. Each of the previous three movements is briefly reprised, and each rejected: no, this is not what we are searching for. Only when the now well-known “Ode to Joy” theme emerges does the recitative seem to express approval. And then the orchestra plays it, first low in the bass, then in a higher register, and finally, triumphantly, with the full orchestra. So when the initial music of chaos re-enters, it can be rejected once and  for all. This is where the human voice enters: “No more of these sounds!” it declares. And we move into what we all know now as the Ode to Joy – three verses from Schiller’s poem, sung by the soloists. It may be argued that the tune itself is rather banal, and the truth is, yes, it is [but see addendum below]: the point is to create an anthem that may be sung by all. After the third verse, the music becomes, possibly, more banal still, with a tenor solo above a “Turkish march”. But, even as the music is in danger of sinking into triviality, Beethoven introduces a quite fabulous fugal passage, followed by an ecstatic choral restatement, supported  by the full orchestra, of the Ode to Joy theme. What Beethoven could achieve with a merely banal theme still defies belief.

This is where the symphony may well have ended. The noise of chaos is banished, and human voices have declared that joy has bound all that custom had separated. What more can there be to say? But what follows is, for me, perhaps the most extraordinary thing in the symphony: we may have heard the joyful expression of the moral law within us, but Beethoven wants us also to wonder at the starry skies above. And if the Ode to Joy we had heard was intended to be so simple that anyone could sing it, what follows taxes even the finest of solo singers and choirs. No music I know fills me with such a sense of wonder, of awe. Even after all these years of familiarity, a good performance, like the one I heard in Edinburgh all those years ago, can still leave me enraptured. And towards the end of this symphony, a variation of the Ode to Joy theme returns, and combines with the music that expresses this sense of wonder.  For, in Beethoven’s vision, the moral law within and the starry skies above are not two separate entities, divorced from each other: our place in the vast, incomprehensible universe does not render us insignificant, for what is within us is as glorious and as mysterious as what is without.

This, at least, is what this symphony means to me; and that we are still capable of responding to such a vision fills me, despite everything, with hope. For Adrian Leverkühn didn’t really need to take back the 9th: Gustav Mahler had done that already with his 6th, symphony, which is the antithesis of everything that Beethoven’s 9th expresses. (And I have heard also a very great performance of Mahler’s 6th symphony at the Edinburgh Festival once, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez – but that’s another story.) But even with the knowledge of something so implacably nihilistic as Mahler’s 6th, somehow, beyond anything that could be reasonably expressed, we continue to respond to Beethoven’s 9th. And that in itself is something of a wonder.

 

ADDENDUM (added 16th May, 2018)
The perils of writing about things one knows nothing about is that one is likely to get pulled up by someone who is, shall we say, a bit more knowledgeable.

I had described the “Ode to Joy” theme as “banal”. A good friend of mine, who, unlike me, actually has a good understanding of music, kindly wrote to disabuse me. I quote from his e-mail, with permission:

The theme is certainly deceptively simple, but that, to coin a phrase, is simply deceptive. Over 24 bars it makes do with just five notes, encompassing a fifth, (as does the mysterious opening of the first movement, which is a bare fifth).  Be that as it may, the theme, ostensibly in D Major, starts on the third note of the triad, F sharp, and that note (and not the tonic D) remains the centre of the theme, constantly and immensely subtly repeated and reaffirmed. Indeed, around a quarter of the theme is nothing but the note F sharp. If you sing the theme through, you will easily hear how it revolves around that opening F sharp, and not the tonic D.

Now the effect that Beethoven achieves comes about because the F sharp is treated as a leading note, leading to the G a semitone higher, followed in turn by the A. In other words, the opening of the theme could easily be in the Phrygian mode (there is no tonal certainty as the theme is unisono and so initially has no harmonic foundation), and the D, when it eventually arrives in bar 3, sounds less like the tonic and more like the sixth note of the Phrygian mode. Even when in bar 8 the tonic D is more firmly sounded, it then acts as a kind of elastic buffer, pushing on the flow of the music, rather than acting as a caesura, as the tonic is mostly expected to.

The entire theme is 24 (3 x 8) bars long, not the 32 one might expect, two lots of 2 x 8, and thus, as it were, dispenses with eight bars by cleverly nesting the ‘missing’ bars in the central section of the theme. And all this using precisely and merely five consecutive notes, mostly in scalar form, plus an octave A, over said 24 bars.

The effect of this ‘leading note as quasi-tonic’ F sharp which is resolved upwards, as one would expect of a leading note, but then continuing to the dominant A (not stopping at the tonic) and then back again, gives the theme a sense of, as Everton football club claims, onwards and upwards. The theme is restless, constantly moving forwards, while yet revolving around itself, and it is the working out of these thematic characteristics (there are plenty more, but more technical) which makes up the tremendous variations which are the rest of the movement. The Turkish march, far from being banal, is of a visceral excitement.

I could actually follow that analysis since I can still give a mean performance of that tune on a descant recorder.

I have made, as Bertie Wooster would say, a “bloomer”. But if after each bloomer comes such enlightenment, may I carry on making yet more such bloomers!

 

“Spontaneous overflow”

About a year or so ago, after visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris – a gallery crammed to the brim with masterpieces – I found myself writing, despite my lack of anything resembling qualification or expertise on the matter, on Manet’s L’Olympia. The post turned out to be quite a jokey one. There was another post I wanted to write on another of the masterpieces in that gallery, but, after the first few drafts, I gave up on it: the nature of this painting is such that it demands from the viewer, and from the commentator, a serious engagement with the deepest and the most unvarnished of human emotions, and I felt I wasn’t up to it. Jokey posts are fairly easy to write, but serious writing on intense, naked emotions I find far more difficult: when I read over my early drafts, they appeared to me merely mawkish, and insincere. However, a year later, I thought it was time for another attempt. So if this post too, dear reader, appears mawkish or insincere, do please put it down to my lack of skill as a writer, and to nothing else.

The painting in question is Monet’s painting of his wife, Camille, on her deathbed. It was painted in 1879, when he was 39, and his dying wife merely 32. Monet painted it even as his beloved wife lay there, breathing her last. Many years later, Monet himself had wondered how he could have done it. How could he have been so callous? How could he have focussed on colours, on light, on composition, on brush-strokes, on all those things that artists concern themselves with, when his beloved wife was dying right in front of him?

monet

“Camille Monet on her deathbed”, by Claude Monet, 1879, courtesy Musée d’Orsay in Paris

And yet he wasn’t callous. For people like me, lacking all artistic talent, it is impossible to know just what goes on in those minds possessed not merely of talent, but of genius. But I would hazard a guess that Monet painted his dying wife because he had to. It is merely the dilettante who first feels, and then sets out to give expression to what they had felt: for someone like Monet, I’d conjecture that the distance between the feeling and the expression of that feeling is much shorter: possibly, it doesn’t exist at all.

There are other examples of this sort of thing – the sort of thing that to the rest of us may well appear callous and unfeeling. Bach, I gather, composed the aria “Schlummert Ein” (from the cantata Ich Habe Genug) while the corpse of his son was lying cold in the next room. Janáček, who has claims to being the finest composer of operas of the 20th century, was fascinated by speech patterns and intonations, and had developed his own means of notating these; and, when his beloved daughter was dying, he found himself at her bedside, notating her groans and her cries of pain. All these examples sound callous, but I wonder whether they are. I have heard it said, for instance, that Tchaikovsky couldn’t have been tearing his hair out when he composed his emotionally distraught 6th symphony, as he wouldn’t be able to work out the harmonies and the counterpoint while tearing his hair out; but maybe, just maybe, working out these harmonies and counterpoint was his way of tearing his hair out. And so, Bach’s aria, Janáček’s notations, Monet’s painting, are not, for these artists, expressions of their grief so much as the thing itself: this is how these people tore their hair out.

All this is, I appreciate, conjecture. I will never be privileged enough to know what it is exactly that goes on in the mind of a genius.

Monet’s painting of his dying wife, even if we did not know the circumstances in which it was painted, is heart-rending. It is a painting of a parting, a final parting. The face, now seemingly unaware even of the presence of the viewer, seems already beyond human reach, disappearing fast into an ever-thickening, impenetrable mist. “Il y a un moment, dans les séparations, où la personne aimée n’est déjà plus avec nous,” Flaubert had written in L’Education Sentimentale (“There comes a moment in parting when the person we love is no longer with us”). Monet has captured here this very moment. The face is becoming at this moment a mere lifeless object, like the pillow upon which her head rests, and which Monet has painted as if it were a snow-covered hill.

This is certainly not the “emotion recollected in tranquillity” of Wordsworth’s formulation. It is, however, worth considering these well-known words in their proper context:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on…

  • William Wordsworth, from the preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads

Wordsworth is clearly not suggesting that poetry should be created while in a state of tranquillity: quite the contrary – he says that it should be created when the poet in an emotional state similar to (“kindred to”) the emotions being depicted. The point of recollecting “in tranquillity” is to produce again in the poet’s mind emotions similar to those the poet is setting out to depict.  For only then can the overflow of powerful feelings, which Wordsworth contends is the very essence of poetry, be spontaneous. So if Tchaikovsky, say, is depicting emotional states of mind that are tormented and turbulent, he must, even while composing it, even while working out the harmonies and the counterpoint, be feeling something that is at least kindred to that torment and that turbulence. Otherwise, how can that overflow of powerful feelings be spontaneous?

Wordsworth does, however, qualify his formulation with the word “generally”: “In this mood successful composition generally begins…” (my italics). And I wonder, in view of Bach’s aria, in view of Monet’s painting, whether, in some cases, that spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings can occur not as a consequence of recollecting afterwards in tranquillity emotions previously felt, but even at the very moment the artist is feeling these emotions for the first time.

I don’t know. These are merely conjectures on my part, as the workings of creative minds remain a mystery to me. But, given that Monet himself had wondered how he could have painted his dying wife even as she lay dying, it could be that these things are mysteries to artists also.

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“If we’re asking our children to read filth such as Shakespeare in school, and turning a blind eye to the content because it has been deemed by the gatekeepers of literary imperialism, known as ‘the canon’, as beyond moral reproach and contemporary social responsibility, then we cannot blame Eminem for corrupting the minds of our youths.”

You can, if you must, read the full article here.