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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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark on June 29, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    Good post, Himadri. Actually, it has small honour of being the first piece of writing that isn’t straightforwardly about current affairs that I have actually managed to read for many days, though obviously it’s not divorced from those affairs either.

    Things are bad when you can’t get Yeats’ “The Second Coming” out of your head. It’s a good job my mind is relatively well-stocked with memorised poems and prose passages because for the first time in my adult life I find myself with “reader’s block”. I haven’t picked up a book for over a week, and for weeks before that my reading has been desultory at best: I can’t remember the last book I actually finished.

    Whether it’s warranted or not, the country seems to be having a collective nervous breakdown. “Current affairs is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” certainly isn’t nearly so good as the original line about history from Ulysses, but it’s where I am at the moment.

    Reply

    • Hello Mark,
      I certainly have not known times like these. Gawd only knows where it’ll all end. Following what’s happening seems to be a full time job, and, since I already have a day job, I think I’ve lost the threads. So has just about everyone else, it seems.

      I seem to have both readers’ block, and also writers’ block. I have finished the second part of Don Quixote, and really should have written up a post about it a couple of months ago, but I am delaying it, still trying to get all that i want to say into some kind of order. In the meantime, I have read the first of the two parts of “La Regenta” by Leopoldo Alas, and, as it is available only in an edition with ridiculously small print, am giving my eyes a rest before proceeding with the next part. It’s all very good stuff, but not a novel to e recommended to any reader who demands a bit of narrative momentum. Not that i mind a novel without narrative momentum – there are many other things in this novel to engage the reader – but it’s not just my eyes, I think, that need a bit of a break. So I am currently reading Tony Harrison’s translation of Aeschylus’ Oresteia as a bit of light relief. Harrison’s dramatic verse is startling, and this version is very different from the other versions of this work that i have encountered. I suppose I should write a post on this as well some time…

      Oh well, there’s always the football to take things off my mind! 🙂

      All the best for now, Himadri

      Reply

  2. Posted by Staveley Ferguson on June 29, 2016 at 4:21 pm

    Himadri, I enjoyed your post.

    I worry about the “dogs of war” that have been slipped. Antony’s words just before mention “domestic fury and fierce civil strife shall cumber all the parts of …”.

    Unfortunately, among the conspirators I cannot think of a single “noblest Roman of them all” that would compare with Brutus.

    Reply

    • Hello Staveley – yes, you’re quite right, the parallel between Shakespeare’s play the current reality really cannot be pushed very far. At least, I hope they can’t: by the end of Act 3 in the play, there’s mob violence and lynching in the streets; and in the next act, the dogs of war really have been loosed. But without pushing the parallels further than I did in my post, I must admit that i have never known times quite like this.

      Reply

  3. Posted by Chris Jennings on June 29, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    There is, of course, another Yeats poem, germane to the topic:

    Politics

    ‘In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.’ – Thomas Mann

                                                                                                   
    How can I, that girl standing there,
    My attention fix
    On Roman or on Russian
    Or on Spanish politics,
    Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
    What he talks about,
    And there’s a politician
    That has both read and thought,
    And maybe what they say is true
    Of war and war’s alarms,
    But O that I were young again
    And held her in my arms!

    Though it can be read more than one way – as a portrait of common complacency as much as a reassertion of what supposedly really matters in life.

    Personally I think the current situation is still all to do with the effects of the winding down of Empire. One of the few things I remember from reading my way through Toynbee’s A Study of History is his comment that after a country loses an empire there inevitably follows a crisis of identity. I like to combine this with my favourite quote from Geoffrey Hill – ‘There has been an elegaic tinge to the air of this country since the end of the Great War”. All sublime enough to help me avoid all these difficult particulars…

    Reply

    • Hello Chris, I had not known of that line of Geoffrey Hill’s. It’s particularly poignant now: i have just heard that Geoffrey Hill has died.

      That elegiac tinge seems to be present in much of the arts produced in Britain even before WW1. It’s there in “A Shropshire lad”; it’s there unmistakably, I think, in the words of Edward Elgar, and of Thomas Hardy. It’s almost as if there was a vague premonition of what was to come.

      Yeats is among my favourite poets, bit, while I don’t go as far as did Orwell, I don’t know that too many of his political views would stand much scrutiny. I do like the poem you quote, though: to borrow from a film that came a few years later, personal desires and aspirations may not amount to “a hill of beans” in the context of the world’s great upheavals, but, quite irrationally, they continue to torment us, even as we are aware of their relative insignificance. Yeats is often obscure, but he is wonderfully direct here!

      Reply

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