Archive for December, 2011

Merry Christmas, Everyone

The Argumentative Old Git will be taking a seasonal break now. Between now and the New Year, I shall be celebrating the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ either by being drunk, or recovering from hangovers. And in between, I may be doing some Christmas reading also: Dickens’ Christmas Books are great favourites, of course, as are creepy old ghost stories.

And also the early chapters of the Gospel According to Luke: I believe there’s a Christmas theme there somewhere…

 

So, until the New Year, may I wish you all a peaceful Christmas, and a very happy New Year.

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Group Read of “Our Mutual Friend” in the New Year

It occurs to me that the group read of Our Mutual Friend that I’d suggested some time ago isn’t too far away now.

I don’t know that I want to make this a formal thing. I’ll certainly be reading it in the New Year, and will be posting about it while I’m reading. If anyone wants to join in, please do feel welcome.

It’s probably best if we all read at our own pace, rather than set some schedule for so many chapters per week or whatever. And if anyone wants to discuss some aspect of it, you can either add a comment to one of my posts, or put up a post on your own blog and put up a link to it from here, or whatever. Or, if you don’t have your own blog, you could e-mail me whatever it is you want to post, and I could put it up here as a guest post. Whatever – as long as some discussion occurs.

The last time I read this book was about 20 years ago, so I am greatly looking forward to this, and I do hope you’ll join me.

“The Haunted Man” by Charles Dickens

None of Dickens’ five Christmas Books quite lived up to the first, A Christmas Carol. Dickens himself came to regard writing a Christmas-themed novella each year a bit of a chore, and, after the turkey that was The Battle of Life in 1846, it appeared that Dickens had given up on it: no Christmas novella appeared in 1847. But Christmas 1848 (a significant year for other historic reasons) saw the fifth and last of the Christmas Books, The Haunted Man; and even if, once again, it is not up to the standards of A Christmas Carol, it is certainly a vast improvement on The Battle of Life, and can easily stand comparison with earlier successes such as The Chimes or The Cricket on the Hearth.

But interestingly, it falls down on precisely the area where one might have expected Dickens to have excelled: when the story calls on Dickens to express joy – and this being a Christmas story, that’s the tone on which it ends – it seems as if Dickens could no longer summon up the enthusiasm, or even the belief that joy was possible. The writer who had previously depicted the warmest and most convivial of Christmases in the Dingley Dell chapters of Pickwick Papers; who had conveyed – though admittedly in his own idiosyncratic and whimsical manner – so convincing a sense of joy in A Cricket on the Hearth, or in the closing pages of A Christmas Carol; seems here unable see much to feel particularly cheerful about. In hindsight, we can see that this was the man who would soon go on to write such dark works as Bleak House and Little Dorrit.

Despite being a Christmas story, the overriding impression this book leaves on the mind is one of gloom. Of course, Christmas itself is set in the gloomiest time of the year, and near the start of this story, there is a bravura passage, some ten pages long, depicting the gloom of mid-winter. This seems to me clearly a fore-runner of the famous opening chapter of Bleak House, depicting the London fog. In both instances, Dickens does not describe anything concrete: he relies instead on what we may call a sort of impressionism, juxtaposing apparently disparate but carefully chosen impressions and details; and he relies also on the sounds and sonorities of the language. Has there ever been, I wonder, another writer with a finer year for the rhythms and cadences of English prose?

The plotline, such as it is, is meagre, but it’s the incidentals that really matter. That, and Dickens’ prose. This being a Christmas Book, the tone is a bit more whimsical than usual, and the action more stagey (Dickens loved the theatre of his day), but speaking personally, I find both these elements attractive. Above all, Dickens relished language, in words. Those who speak of him as being “long-winded” seem to me to be missing the point: the words are the point, and Dickens delighted in finding out new ways of combining them for expressive ends. Dickens’ prose style is as far removed from minimalism as can be imagined: the texture of his writing has about it a linguistic opulence, a Christmas-pudding richness, that we, over the last century or more, appear to have fallen out of love with. And, speaking as someone who loves exuberance and tends to find plainness a bit boring, I can’t help thinking that’s a bit of a shame.

The story, such as it is, concerns a kindly man who is tortured by painful memories of the past, and who is granted a supernatural gift: he will forget all past sorrows. Also, those he comes into touch with will also forget their past sorrows. He agrees to this, but realises something is wrong: with the removal of his memory of past sorrow and grief, his natural human compassion and fellow-feeling also disappear. When he goes on a charitable mission, it is only out of a cold sense of duty, not out of love. And worse, he infects all he meets with the same.

The one person he cannot touch is a street boy who has been neglected and brutalised since birth: this boy cannot be touched as the feelings of fellowship and of the compassion that springs from our sense of a shared humanity have not had a chance to develop in his breast.

A bundle of tatters, held together by a hand, in size and form almost an infant’s, but in its greedy, desperate little clutch, a bad old man’s.  A face rounded and smoothed by some half-dozen years, but pinched and twisted by the experiences of a life.  Bright eyes, but not youthful.  Naked feet, beautiful in their childish delicacy, – ugly in the blood and dirt that cracked upon them.  A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast.

This figure harks back, of course, to that still horrifying scene in A Christmas Carol in which the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge two children, Ignorance and Want, who have been made ugly by their miserable earthly experience. Dickens here repeats his apocalyptic warning: on the brows of such children is written the doom of mankind. (Bleak House, which he wrote soon after this, is full of brutalised children: indeed, the brutalisation of children, of children forced to be adults, is one of his major themes. And, as a stroke of genius, he added another character who is an adult, but who pretends to be a child.)

As the story progresses, it’s the incidental details that often make the greatest impression. Here, for instance, is another figure who clearly fascinated Dickens – the young woman forced by material circumstances into prostitution:

There was a woman sitting on the stairs, either asleep or forlorn, whose head was bent down on her hands and knees.  As it was not easy to pass without treading on her, and as she was perfectly regardless of his near approach, he stopped, and touched her on the shoulder.  Looking up, she showed him quite a young face, but one whose bloom and promise were all swept away, as if the haggard winter should unnaturally kill the spring.

With little or no show of concern on his account, she moved nearer to the wall to leave him a wider passage.

“What are you?” said Redlaw, pausing, with his hand upon the broken stair-rail.

“What do you think I am?” she answered, showing him her face again.

He looked upon the ruined Temple of God, so lately made, so soon disfigured; and something, which was not compassion – for the springs in which a true compassion for such miseries has its rise, were dried up in his breast – but which was nearer to it, for the moment, than any feeling that had lately struggled into the darkening, but not yet wholly darkened, night of his mind – mingled a touch of softness with his next words.

“I am come here to give relief, if I can,” he said.  “Are you thinking of any wrong?”

She frowned at him, and then laughed; and then her laugh prolonged itself into a shivering sigh, as she dropped her head again, and hid her fingers in her hair.

“Are you thinking of a wrong?” he asked once more.

“I am thinking of my life,” she said, with a monetary look at him.

He had a perception that she was one of many, and that he saw the type of thousands, when he saw her, drooping at his feet.

“What are your parents?” he demanded.

“I had a good home once.  My father was a gardener, far away, in the country.”

“Is he dead?”

“He’s dead to me.  All such things are dead to me.  You a gentleman, and not know that!”  She raised her eyes again, and laughed at him.

“Girl!” said Redlaw, sternly, “before this death, of all such things, was brought about, was there no wrong done to you?  In spite of all that you can do, does no remembrance of wrong cleave to you?  Are there not times upon times when it is misery to you?”

So little of what was womanly was left in her appearance, that now, when she burst into tears, he stood amazed.  But he was more amazed, and much disquieted, to note that in her awakened recollection of this wrong, the first trace of her old humanity and frozen tenderness appeared to show itself.

He drew a little off, and in doing so, observed that her arms were black, her face cut, and her bosom bruised.

This abused, badly beaten woman does not appear again in the story, but one suspects that it was figures such as she, or the feral child, who now occupied the greater part if not the whole of Dickens’ imagination, leaving no space for the delight in life and the joy that he expressed so convincingly only a few years earlier. The ending here seems forced.

So what went wrong? It’s easy to come up with pat formulae – e.g. “it is too stagey”, or “it is too sentimental”, but that won’t do. The ending of A Christmas Carol is also stagey, but it works fine. As for sentimentality … well, it’s virtually impossible to define criteria that determine what is sentimental, and what isn’t. (I have previously written on this topic here.) But when an author attempts to communicate profound emotion, and falls short, then the result almost invariably appears sentimental, and giving Dickens the benefit of the doubt, this is what I think happens here. Dickens never shied away from attempting to depict emotion: indeed, that is one of the reasons I value him so highly. When he succeeds, the results are superb; but when he falls short – well, we have this.

Nonetheless, the weakness of the endings should not detract from the gloomy power of the rest of the story, or from the flashes of Dickens’ idiosyncratic humour – as are apparent in the pages depicting the marvellously eccentric Tetterby family. The impression the story leaves behind, however, is that it is the work of a man who is optimistic by nature, but who can no longer see much to feel optimistic about.

My favourite films

Some time ago, I posted a list of my favourite novels. And, ever since, I know that many of you have been waiting with bated breath to find out my favourite ten films. I have, indeed, been inundated – inundated – with e-mails to that effect: “Now that you have let us know your favourite novels, please, please,” they plead, “please let us know your favourite films.”

Well, actually, no. I lie. But since it is Christmas, let us indulge ourselves.  Here they are, the Argumentative Old Git’s top ten favourite films:

City Lights (1931):

People keep telling me that Chaplin wasn’t funny. If that is so, I don’t know what the audience was laughing at when I saw this film in the cinema: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cinema audience laugh so much.

The film itself is pure alchemy. Chaplin takes a hackneyed tale, and, by some magic beyond analysis, turns it into pure gold. That ending shouldn’t work, but it does. Like Dickens (with whom he shares much in terms of moral and artistic values), Chaplin is often accused of sentimentality; but, again like Dickens, if he hadn’t risked being sentimental , he wouldn’t have been able to create scenes as ineffably beautiful and moving as the finale of City Lights.

Sons of the Desert  (1933):

It’s hard to believe that entire generations have grown up now without having seen a single Laurel & Hardy film. There has been no end of analysis into just what it is about these characters that makeS them so funny, and so appealing, but as with all things wonderful, there are aspects that are beyond any analysis. Ollie is so very pompous and self-important, and yet we love him. Why? Who knows! Stan is completely and utterly vacant, and yet we don’t look down upon him, or regard him in a patronising manner, or feel ourselves superior in any way. Why? Again – who knows!

The boys were generally at their best in the short films, but occasionally, as in Way Out West and in this, their magic remained intact for feature films also. The story is simple, but what they make out of it is, for me, a lasting joy. No matter how down I may happen to feel, Stan and Ollie cheer me up. I don’t think I feel such deep affection for any other fictional character, either in cinema or in any other medium.

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Alongside Chaplin and Stan & Ollie, the Marx Brothers form the third of that select group that, for me, defineS the gold standard in comedy.

The general consensus of opinion amongst Marxists is that the boys were at their undiluted best in the Paramount films, and that after they moved to MGM, their anarchic comedy was watered down by romantic subplots, musical interludes, etc. There is certainly a great deal of truth in this, but it is also true that the first two films they made for MGM, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races,  not only have better production values than the Paramount films, but also contain much of their finest material.

Yes, the romantic and musical interludes do slow things down a bit, but speaking personally, I do find a certain period charm to them. Most importantly, they do not get in the way of the comedy. Right from the opening scene in the restaurant, to the evergreen contract-signing scene and the equally evergreen cabin scene, right up to the finale  – one of the very best, involving the sabotage of Il Trovatore – just thinking back on this makes me break out into a broad grin.

Citizen Kane(1941)

Sometimes, something can be very great even though everyone says so. Except, perhaps, no-one says so any more about Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane: that’s one of those pieces of received wisdom that we, eager to be thought of as independent in our thought, steer away from.

This film is sometimes criticised for being merely a bag of tricks. But the word “merely” is misapplied. It is a bag of tricks, certainly, but the tricks are almost invariably there to serve a purpose: frequently, they aid the narrative flow rather than otherwise. Take, for instance, that passage where Kane signs up all the top journalists from a rival newspaper: we close in on a group photograph, see a flash on the screen, and then, with one of the most daring cuts I have seen, we pull back out of the picture as the picture comes to life – that cut covering two whole years. Flashy? Yes. But could the story have been told more economically, and with such clarity?

And it’s like this throughout – the tricks serving the narrative and the drama rather than getting in their way. And the drama is engrossing: it is about the betrayal of promise; of youthful idealism and dynamism overtaken by a profound sense of futility; and of the loneliness of old age, and a yearning for something that has been lost. Citizen Kane has all the complexity of a great novel.

Double Indemnity (1944)

I often think of Billy Wilder’s Double indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard as a sort of unofficial trilogy – three extremely dark films, each featuring at the centre a self-destructive protagonist. How did the Factory of Dreams ever produce films such as these? Double Indemnity, in particular, is a great favourite: it’s the archetypal film noir, and virtually defines that genre all by itself. There’s nothing I can say about this film that hasn’t been said a million times before: the script, the performances, the direction, the lighting – it is all absolute perfection, and even though I know virtually every shot and every line by heart, I still get a kick watching it, just to enter that world again. So let us just move on.

They Were Expendable(1945)

Lyricism isn’t often associated with action films. And yet, John Ford, known for action films – especially Westerns – was a poet of the cinema. Only he could make a film about the gunfight at the OK Corral and call it My Darling Clementine.

They Were Expendable was intended as a wartime flag-waver, and depicts thus marines in the early stages of the war against Japan. How typical of Ford that even when making a flag-waver, it is a defeat he focuses on. Among the stars of the film is John Wayne (although he essentially plays second fiddle here to Robert Montgomery). But there are no gung-ho heroics, or boys’ own adventure. Indeed, the focus isn’t even on the plotline as such: often, Ford is happy not to explain all the details of the plot. The focus is on people, all people, even those who appear fleetingly: the camera still lingers on their faces, on their expressions. When the radio announces that US are at war with Japan, Ford’s camera focuses not on the men, but on the faces of the female Japanese singers at the bar. Later, a young marine is shivering with fear, and when asked by his officer if he is cold, lets slip out that he is afraid: the commanding officer, Robert Montgomery, pauses for a while and tells the lad that he has no monopoly on fear before moving on. The boy never re-appears, but once again, the camera focuses on his face, and lingers.

What Ford depicts is heroism – not the sort of macho heroism we tend to associate with John Wayne films, but the everyday heroism of ordinary everyday people, people who know that they are expendable and who yet sacrifice themselves in the name of duty, of service. Time after time the camera captures haunting images that only a true poet can conjure up – an old man refuses to leave his house in the face of invasion, and sits quietly on his own on his front steps; a troop of ragged soldiers march into no destination in particular amidst the swirling dust. And, as surely as Renoir did in La Grande Illusion (which I may well have picked in my Top Ten on another day), Ford depicts the essential nobility and dignity of the human race, even in the face of the unthinkable. It is easy to be cynical of such a vision, but it is a vision we need to hold on to.

Seven Samurai (1954)

This is a heroic, tragic tale of epic dimensions – perhaps the closest cinema has come to the Homeric. The individual actions scenes, especially that final battle in the rain and the mud, are rightly legendary: they have been much imitated, but never equalled. The pacing of the narrative over three and a half hours is immaculate: Kurasawa knows exactly when and how and to what extent to raise or lower the tempo. Each individual scene is engrossing, and the shape of the broad narrative arc is nothing short of breathtaking.

Apu Trilogy (1955-59)

Three films, I know, but should be counted as one. This trilogy, directed by Satyajit Ray, are works of profound humanity, and I never fail to find them moving. I’ve written about these films quite recently on this blog, so let’s move on.

The Innocents(1961)

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw can claim to be the finest example of the genre of the ghost story, and it has inspired not one, but two masterpieces – Benjamin Britten’s opera, and this film, directed by Jack Clayton. Once again, I have written about this recently on this blog, so let us move on to my final choice.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Ingmar Bergman had already announced that this was to be his last film, and he was determined to go out on a high – to put into a single work the best of himself, to create, as it were, a summary of all past achievements. The result could have been a hodge-podge, but it isn’t: it is magical, right from that hushed opening as the boy Alexander plays with his toy theatre, right through to that deeply enigmatic ending some five hours or so later. (And incidentally, I would recommend anyone watching this to get hold of the full television film – this film was intended specifically for television – rather than the abridged version released for cinema). The warmth of the Christmas party scenes, the sheer terror evoked at the death of the father, the austerity and bleaknesss of the scenes at the bishop’s house, the magic and fantasy that invades the film towards the end … all the disparate elements is handled with the skill and artistry of an absolute master. A worthy finale to one of the most brilliant of cinematic careers.

“In the Cage” by Henry James

“But what do you read for enjoyment?” people sometimes ask me. I re-phrase the question to myself: What do I read when I am not inclined to – or, at the end of as hard day, am in no state to – rise to an intellectual challenge? The answer varies. Sometimes, it’s a good ghost story; at other times, something by Wodehouse, perhaps; or maybe a Flashman novel, or one of those boys’ own adventure stories I so used to love; much of the time, it’s my beloved Sherlock Holmes stories, which I never seem to tire of. But there’s something about that original question I find a bit uncomfortable: it seems to imply that books that do require an effort, books that can only be taken in after something of a struggle, cannot be enjoyed.

It is a curious notion. No-one doubts that the chess player who expends immense effort thinking out complex chequered strategies is actually enjoying that expenditure of effort; no-one denies that the keen mountaineer who struggles to reach a difficult peak enjoys the struggle of ascent; and yet, behind that question “But what do you read for enjoyment?” seems to lurk a certain incredulity, a refusal even to contemplate the possibility that a reader may actually enjoy surmounting the difficulties of a difficult book.

At this point, however, analogies break down. Chess players or mountaineers may enjoy surmounting difficulties for their own sake, but there is little that can be said for a book that is difficult merely for the sake of being difficult.  So how can one justify the difficulties of the late Henry James? I do not merely mean the difficulty that is a feature of all works that may be termed “profound”: to look beyond the surface into profundities that lie beyond is always difficult, and, unless one is satisfied with no more than what may be seen on the surface, this difficulty cannot be avoided. I mean the difficulty of that prose style he developed in his later years – that maddening style comprising of endlessly long sentences with such contorted syntax that even experienced readers find themselves re-reading each one several times over merely to discover what some pronoun may be referring to, or even, at times, what the subject of the sentence may be. Is all that really necessary?

It’s hard to say. If one may imagine James’ re-written in a simpler style, I suspect something important would be lost in the process, and what would be lost, I think, is that extraordinary ability of his to hint at everything, and yet, at the same time, to confirm nothing. Nothing is ever explicit in Henry James – especially in late Henry James: the very precision of his prose suggests a vagueness, the very fastidiousness an uncertainty. This allows James to explore in meticulous detail the slightest perceptions, the finest nuances of his characters’ minds, while leaving us to guess at their exact relationship with the reality that lies outside. How exactly he achieves this is beyond my limited powers of analysis, but I do suspect that it would not have been possible were it not for that curious and instantly recognizable prose style he came to develop.

“In the Cage”, a late novella – or long short story, or short novel, or whatever one wants to call it; James himself simply called it a “tale” – is a case in point. James rarely tells what really happens: indeed, looking back on the tale, very little seems to happen at all. What James tells us what the principal character thinks happens. The focal point is not the events themselves, such as they are, but the principal character’s interpretation of the events.

As in “The Turn of the Screw”, the protagonist is unnamed. And once again, she is an emotionally repressed young lady. But where “The Turn of the Screw” was a supernatural chiller, this is a social comedy. The protagonist here is from a middle class background, but, being impoverished, has to work for a living at a post-office counter. It is a dull job: the grill at the counter at which she works is the “cage” of the title, and clearly, the cage is metaphorical as well as real: every aspect of her life is severely circumscribed by social and economic realities. She is engaged also, to a marvellously named Mr Mudge, a grocer who, through diligence and through thrift, is already on his way to becoming successful in life. She is fortunate: as her friend Mrs Jordan reminds us towards the end, women may accept proposals of marriage simply to avoid starvation. Mr Mudge, for all his absurdity, is at least a decent man. But “her imaginative life,” James tells us, “was the life in which she spent most of her time”.

Inside this cage, both real and metaphorical, the protagonist, as part of her job, has to send off telegrams from various customers, many of whom are aristocratic. And, while she doesn’t admit this to herself, she clearly falls in love with a young aristocrat; and, from the messages of the telegrams he sends, she deduces that he is having an illicit affair. The parallels with the governess in “The Turn of the Screw” are quite clear: in both cases, they construct in their minds stories which may or may not be true, but the truth or otherwise is not the point.

The parallels between this tale and “The Turn of the Screw” soon break down. The governess in “The Turn of the Screw” is hysterical: her imagination – if, indeed, the ghosts are imaginary: we can never be sure – is diseased; but for the telegraphist here, imagination plays a somewhat different role. It would have been all too easy to have presented her imagination as harmful, and the telegraphist herself as a pitiable, self-deluded character whose refusal to accept reality can only end in tears. That would have been how most other authors would, I think, have presented it. But James, with infinite skill, shows us something very different: he shows his protagonist’s life enriched by her imagination. The world she lives in is mundane and dull; the world she imagines is also, in reality, mundane and dull, though she only discovers this later; but in the midst of all this, her imagination creates something that is more splendid and more noble by far than anything reality can offer her in her cage, or even, perhaps, out of it. She is presented as an artist, taking from reality its various scraps and pieces, and re-forming them, and re-arranging them into something that is more beautiful. And when, eventually, reality has to be faced, she faces it: she has, after all, already had her triumph.

Has there ever been any other novelist who has charted the uncertain motivations of changing perceptions of the human mind with such subtlety and such detailed nuance? Each sentence, expressing so very much with such natural elegance, is masterly: many of these sentences I find myself reading and re-reading over, partly to understand them, but also partly just for the sheer joy of it. Difficult? Sure – but difficulty be damned! As for those who think of difficult writing as something not to be enjoyed, I can only ask: What can there be more enjoyable than this?

“Danton’s Death” by Georg Büchner

The play Danton’s Death was written by Georg Büchner (1813-1837) at the improbably young age of 22 (he was only 23 when he died). One can’t help wondering what course drama would have taken had Büchner lived longer; or if his few existing works (two complete plays, and the incomplete but quite extraordinary final work Woyzeck) had been better known after his death: they were virtually unknown till the early 20th century, by which time Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekhov had already transformed drama. Certainly, Danton’s Death makes even Ibsen’s most mature historic dramas (The Pretenders and Emperor and Galilean) seem stiff and awkward in comparison.

The drama is on an epic scale, with huge crowd scenes intercut with more intimate, personal drama. The model appears to be Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, but already, I think, we are looking forward to Brecht’s “epic theatre”.

The play presents us with the last few days of the French revolutionary leader, Danton. There is no development of character within the play itself, but a development of Danton’s character in the past is implied: the Danton we see in the play has developed and changed from what he used to be. Previously, he had been one of the architects of Terror; but as we see him in the play, he is tired of it all, and is surprisingly inactive. The easy reason for this is that he is sick of bloodshed, but the play is considerably more complex than such a simplistic interpretation will allow: Danton’s actions, his personality, are moulded to a great extent by his political and philosophical views, and those views now are fatalistic: he now feels that mankind cannot be changed, that there is no further potential in humanity; and if that is so, if there is nothing further to humanity than what may be seen on the surface, then why bother ripping it up to see what’s inside?

Something went wrong with us at creation. Something is missing – I can’t put a name to it but we won’t find it in each other’s guts. So why hack our bodies open looking for it?
[From the translation by Victor Price]

Danton is overcome by a sense of futility, and is paralysed by it. He craves at times for death:

But time will kill us. What a bore to put on a shirt every day. Then the breeches over it. To crawl into bed at night and out again in the morning. To keep setting one’ foot in fromt of the other, with no prospect of it ever changing. It’s very sad. And to think that millions have done it before us, and millions will do it again…

The grave’s a surer  place for me – at least it brings oblivion. It would kill my  memory. But here my memory lives and kills me.
[From the translation by Victor Price]

But at other times, he cannot see an escape even in death: what is created cannot, he feels, be “uncreated”: the futility of existence – of all existence – will go on, whether he wants it or not:

Plunge yourself in a greater peace than nothingness; and if the greatest peace of all is God, doesn’t it follow that nothingness is God? But I’m an atheist. That damned argument: something cannot become nothing, there’s the misery.

Creation has become so broad, there’s no emptiness. Everything is packed and swarming. The void has destroyed itself; creation is its wound.
[From the translation by Victor Price]

This seems to me a vision of life even more pessimistic than anything Beckett has to offer: life is painful, tedious, and meaningless, and we do not even have the comfort of ultimate nothingness – all the meaningless activity is to continue for ever.

This being a play in which the author’s voice is absent, we do not know where Büchner himself stands on this point. But the dramatic sweep with which this is presented is striking.

But I can’t help feeling perhaps that this play might work better read in one’s study than performed in the theatre. Translator Victor Price tells in the introduction to his edition that “Büchner never heard a word of his spoken on stage”. That someone with no experience of the theatre should even be able even to conceive of a work such as this, and at so young an age, is miraculous, but, given these circumstances, the presence of dramatic flaws should not surprise us: stagecraft is a very difficult business, after all, and it took even such acknowledged giants as Ibsen and Chekhov many years to master it fully. And the major flaw in this play is, it seems to me, lack of conflict, either external or internal. Danton is a wonderful creation, true, but is he a dramatic creation? He is a troubled man, certainly, but not a man in conflict with himself. The major conflict is with Robespierre, but, despite having a few wonderful speeches, Robespierre remains throughout a cold and inscrutable character, and never quite comes to life. Significantly, there is no confrontation in the play between Danton and Robespierre: although they embody in their sharply contrasted outlooks the dichotomy at the heart of the play, their perspectives are never allowed to interact with each other. The character of Robespierre is such as to make dramatic presentation extremely difficult, and, while we can imagine a more artistically mature Büchner solving this problem, his younger self – which, alas, is all we have – couldn’t.

Robespierre, unlike Danton, is full of revolutionary zeal, and, indeed, with revolutionary idealism. To him, humanity can and should be made perfect. He himself is the “Incorruptible”, free from all human weakness – free from venality, from lust, and even from pity. For Robespierre, human beings must be forced to be virtuous, even if it is by terror.

A figure who embodies such a view of humanity is a terrifying figure. This figure has haunted human history for centuries, possibly since the earliest times, and hasn’t gone away. All theocracies, past and present, all communistic, totalitarian  regimes, have as their basis the aim of perfecting humanity, through force, through terror. Of course, we may (and should) strongly contest their definition of “perfection”, of “virtue”, but however misguided their ideas may be, the principle of forcing humanity to be what it isn’t has always been with us, and is with us still in various different guises. But fascinating though Robespierre may be as a character, Büchner cannot bring him to life dramatically, and neither could he clothe in dramatic costume the essential conflict between the world-views of Robespierre and of Danton that lies at the heart of this work. This must be counted a flaw.

Nonetheless, while we may regret the opportunities not taken, we can but celebrate what has been achieved. The portrait of Danton, especially, is tremendously powerful, and I would love to see this play in a good production on stage.

The universe, and all that surrounds it

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

–       Alexander Pope

It did not last: the Devil howling Ho!
Let Einstein be! restored the status quo.

–       Sir John Collins Squire

There was a time when our concept of the universe was understandable. There’s the sun, there are these planets ellipsing around the sun with the sun as a focal point of that ellipse, and with the imaginary line between any planet and the sun sweeping out equal areas in equal time intervals, etc. etc. Yes, there was a bit of mathematics describing all that, but one could visualise it, and even take a bit of pride in being able to understand it. Or, at least, understand some of it.

But then, just over a hundred years ago, it all changed. Space isn’t just space, apparently: space has a shape, and it is curved. And objects in space distort the shape of the space. And somehow, this explains gravity, which is actually nothing to do with bodies exerting attractive forces on each other, but simply a consequence of the distorted space. Right. That’s that one sorted.

And time is not just time either, by the way. It can flow at different rates in different frames of reference.

And this is just the beginning. Then, we get things like particles being wave forms as well as particles; and about uncertainty in measuring simultaneously position and momentum of a particle – uncertainty not caused by our inability to measure, but by the very nature of things itself; and, next thing you know, we’re on to anti-matter and dark energy and multiple universes and what not, all stuff that we like to nod away at, pretending we know what the bleeding hell any of it is about.

And we tell ourselves that, as intelligent people, we should know. We should know at least something of all this. Our increased understanding of physics – from the smallest possible subatomic scale, to the largest possible, taking in, as the late Peter Cook used to say, not just the universe but all that surrounds it – is possibly mankind’s greatest achievement of the last hundred or so years. But I use the word “our” loosely there. And I use the word “mankind” loosely as well. For only a minuscule proportion of mankind is capable of even conceiving of such matters, let alone thinking about them. And it’s hard to know to what extent, if at all, our pride in belonging to the same species as those capable of such extraordinary intellectual activity is undermined by our shame in understanding not a word of what they are on about.

It is particularly shameful for me, as I had actually studied physics as an undergraduate at university. Goddammit, I should be able to understand at least some of this! Oh, the Newtonian stuff was no problem at all; and even some of the stuff that came later, I absorbed well enough to answer my examination questions: I even remember my final year project solving Schrödinger’s equation numerically on those primitive computers we used to have in those primitive days (this was over 30 years ago now). Now, when I see that same Schrödinger’s equation, it does ring a bell, but the sound the bell produces is merely a fragile tinkle rather than a sonorous peal. All those wonderful ideas that the academic staff had worked so hard in implanting into my mind has somehow drifted away over the years, so when I now hear of anti-matter and string theory and multiverses and such-like, I find myself standing in wide-eyed incomprehension, same as everyone else.

To try to remedy at least some of this, I do try reading some popular science books – the very adjective “popular” rubbing it in that I remain, despite my education in these matters, very much a layman. The latest is The Book of Universes, written by eminent physicist John D Barrow, whose past achievements include the formulation of what he calls the Groucho Marx Effect – i.e. “A universe simple enough to be understood is too simple to produce a mind capable of understanding it.”

Prof. Barrow starts off with early concepts of the universe, moves on quickly to the Copernican system and Newtonian mechanics (which, he is at some pains to explain, have not been superseded by modern physics, but have merely shown to be reasonable approximations of more general laws), until, at Page 47 of this 300-or-so-page book, he comes to the real starting point of the story, that one inescapable figure in the history of modern thought: Einstein.

Curiously enough, Einstein’s ideas, which continue to elude the vast proportion of us, have quite democratic origins: if a body is rotating, then, from the perspective of this rotating body, the bodies around it are in circular motion; and yet, there does not need to be any force acting upon those bodies, thus breaking Newton’s First Law of Motion. It was well-known that Newton’s laws do not apply in every possible frame of reference, but Einstein sought laws of physics that were more democratic, that would hold true, be absolute, regardless of one’s frame of reference. And out of this democratic principle came curved space and time flowing at different rates and all that stuff that seem so mind-bogglingly modern even after a hundred years and more.

So what sort of story is this where even the starting point is so incomprehensible? Prof Barrow is a companionable guide. He writes lucidly – or, at least, as lucidly as the subject will allow – and often with wit. There were certainly points where, I must admit, he did lose me: there were certain sentences in which, although I understood each individual word and found the whole thing made perfect syntactical sense, the idea expressed was such that my mind was simply incapable of taking it in. But on the whole, I think I managed to follow the trajectory of the story, and grasped at least the vague outline of thought on these matters.

It would be presumptuous of me to try to summarise the ideas expounded, let alone set myself to “review” them. I think I’d best just say it was an enthralling read, and leave it there. Barrow considers not merely Einstein’s ideas, but also what led on from there, right down to our own times. At each step, he allows us to see how very strange the universe is – stranger than can even be imagined. And at each step we are reminded of the extraordinary achievement of humanity – yes, I am quite happy to share in the reflected glory of those achievements, despite understanding so little – and also how very far even the greatest of intellects can ever be from understanding enough.

In short, a fine book, and very strongly recommended. It is certainly true that, having read the book, I am none the wiser; but I am, at least, much better informed, and even for that I am grateful.