Archive for June, 2016

On dancing elephants, flatulent horses, and a scene from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

Whenever I start a post protesting that this isn’t a political blog, the word “but” inevitably appears, and I make a political point. And then I retreat decorously. This blog is really about literature,  I say. About cultural matters. A bit of art, a bit of music, and the like. Politics? Nah – not here, mate. We’re above all that here.

But it’s hard avoiding politics these days. It’s always hard avoiding politics, but it’s especially hard these days. For those who don’t know, Britain has voted to leave the EU; after campaigns that have focussed almost unremittingly on the issue of immigration, and have, in the process, prodigally sent out coded and not-so-coded racist and foreigner-hating messages, racist and foreigner-hating incidents are now, unsurprisingly, dramatically on the rise; the country has a huge deficit and, now, a negative credit-rating; the pound is in freefall; the Prime Minister has resigned; one of the favourites to become the next Prime Minister is an unprincipled scoundrel – and the other contenders are not too inspiring either; the major opposition party has just entered the latest stage in the process of tearing itself apart; UK may well break up, as “England expects that the rest of you will go along with whatever we bloody well decide” is not likely to go down too well in Wales, in Northern Ireland, or in Scotland; and so on, and so forth. In short, it’s not looking good. We are floating on a wild and violent sea, each way and none. Duncan’s horses may not yet have eaten each other, but they’re eyeing each other threateningly, and licking their lips in anticipation. And frankly, in times such as these, it becomes hard to focus one’s mind on the structural intricacies of Henry James’ novels.

But I really don’t want to talk about political matters. There is too much noise being made already, and no-one is listening to what anyone else is saying. So I’ll stick to commenting on what I usually comment on – literature, language, music, art – all that kind of thing that, surely, no-one can object to. So, in this post – the first, I realise, after a fairly long hiatus – I shall focus on a Bengali expression that, robbed as it is in translation of its rhythm and rhyme, loses its impact when put into English; and I shall be drawing attention to a scene from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

The Bengali expression I have in mind is hathi nachbé, ghora padbé. It is a somewhat crude expression, and not one spoken by people of refined sensibilities: it is used to pour scorn on excessively high expectations. When someone is excited about how wonderful things will be, and you are somewhat sceptical about it all, you say hathi nachbé, ghora padbé. Literally translated, it means “Elephants will dance, horses will fart”, but, as I said, shorn of its rhythm and its rhyme, the literal translation does not communicate the epigrammatic force of the original.

The scene in Julius Caesar to which I would like to draw attention is Act 3, Scene 1, the scene of Caesar’s assassination. There were some good arguments on the conspirators’ side: Caesar’s ambition was certainly a danger to freedom, it was highly likely that he would make himself dictator, and so on. Some of the conspirators, admittedly, had less noble reasons also, but at their best, they did have the welfare of Rome at heart; Brutus certainly did. But whatever their motives, their focus had been on the act of assassination itself: they had not given proper consideration to what would happen in the immediate aftermath:

CINNA
Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.

CASSIUS
Some to the common pulpits, and cry out
‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’ 

BRUTUS
People and senators, be not affrighted;
Fly not; stand stiff: ambition’s debt is paid. 

CASCA
Go to the pulpit, Brutus. 

DECIUS BRUTUS
And Cassius too. 

BRUTUS
Where’s Publius? 

CINNA
Here, quite confounded with this mutiny. 

METELLUS CIMBER
Stand fast together, lest some friend of Caesar’s
Should chance– 

BRUTUS
Talk not of standing. Publius, good cheer;
There is no harm intended to your person,
Nor to no Roman else: so tell them, Publius. 

CASSIUS
And leave us, Publius; lest that the people,
Rushing on us, should do your age some mischief. 

BRUTUS
Do so: and let no man abide this deed,
But we the doers.

In the absence of a coherent strategy, they all speak on top of each other, and can do little more than repeat slogans such asLiberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!” while everything seems to collapse around them.

For rhetoric is all these people have, Soon, they are reduced to acts that, far from addressing a chaotic situation of their own making, are merely symbolic, and, frankly, rather grotesque:

                        Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords:
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And, waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry ‘Peace, freedom and liberty!’

Why do I keep thinking of this scene, I wonder? Well, who knows. It may or may not have some relevance to what is happening now. I certainly hope not: I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, and to eat humble pie if I am. But I think that’s about as much as I want to say here on political matters. This is not a political blog, after all! And nothing I say is likely to count for much – not with all those elephants dancing and horses farting all over the place with such gleeful abandon.

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This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

On George Chapman, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and uncalled-for obscenities

As I see this blog as a safe space from the various vulgarities and obscenities that sadly pollute our world, I generally try to ensure that all posts here are suitable for family viewing. There is, admittedly, the odd exception, but, like Mr Podsnap, I disapprove of anything that may bring a blush to the cheek of a young person. On the rare occasion I break this rule, I feel it best to provide a trigger warning. And I do so here. If you are offended by rude words, by uncalled-for obscenity, please stop reading here. For those who wish to read on, I would like to make it clear that I cannot be held responsible for any offence caused, or for any trauma incurred.

Windfucker. It is not, I’m happy to say, a word in common usage.  It was thrust upon my attention recently when I mistyped the word “wonderful” on my iPad, typing an “i” instead of an “o” (the two vowels being next to each other on the keypad), and, possibly, omitting the “er”. The auto-correct facility on my iPad assumed that the word I was trying to type in was “windfucker”.

I confess to being at the time deeply traumatised and mildly amused, but then remembered that I had indeed used the word before. But my usage had been, I hasten to add, entirely respectable, referring as it did to George Chapman, the first translator of Homer, who, in the preface to the 1611 edition of his translation of The Iliad, referred to a detractor as an “envious windfucker”. The word, it seems, referred then to a kestrel, and was an alternative – and, in those days, not too obscene an alternative – to the windhover. But now that we no longer use this term to refer to the windhover, we could do worse, I think, than follow the example of that great wordsmith George Chapman, and use the word as a suitably disdainful term of opprobrium.

I can’t help thinking also that Gerard Manley Hopkins missed a trick here. “The Windhover” is certainly among the greatest of all English poems, and any anthology of English verse would be incomplete without it. But isn’t it a shame that, given the choice between “windhover” and “windfucker”, Hopkins went for the more respectable option? For perhaps the one and only time, one can’t help thinking, Hopkins chose the wrong word.