Archive for January, 2018

Goya and Dr Arrieta

It is hardly indicative of any great insight or perspicacity to describe Goya’s paintings as “disturbing”. It is hard to think of any other artist with a darker, more harrowing vision.

Sadly, I have not yet visited Madrid, and have yet to see most of Goya’s output, but what I have seen in reproduction is striking enough. And, about two years ago, I saw an exhibition in the National Gallery, London, of Goya’s portraits. And in that exhibition there was this quite extraordinary self-portrait, loaned from the Minneapolis Institute of Art where it normally hangs.

Francisco_Goya_Self-Portrait_with_Dr_Arrieta_MIA_5214

Self-portrait with Dr Arrieta by Francisco Goya, courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Art

Goya presents himself here as severely ill, somewhere close to that vague borderline between this world and the next, his head rolled back, clutching on to his bedsheets as if for his very life. By his side is Dr Arietta, to whom Goya presented this painting in gratitude. Dr Arrieta is shown here as a reassuring presence, holding up his patient gently but firmly, and urging him to drink from his glass of medicine – urging him, indeed, to return, as it were, to life itself.

It is a striking image, but what fascinates me most are the other faces on the canvas – shadowy faces, as if vaguely glimpsed, behind the dominating figures of the doctor and his patient. Who are they? The Wikipedia article on this painting suggests they are “perhaps [Goya’s] servants and a priest”. Well, yes: perhaps. The article goes on to further suggest, I think plausibly, that they may be “portents of doom”. I remember standing in front of this canvas, looking at those faces looming menacingly in the murk, and experiencing a certain frisson, a vague sense of something fearful. These figures, lurking in the dark, the level of their heads considerably lower than that either of the doctor or of Goya, may indeed be real people – servants and a priest, as the Wikipedia article suggests. But – and maybe this reflects only on my own cast of mind, and nothing else – I could not help sensing something demonic about them. Like some horrific spirits glimpsed in the throes of a vivid nightmare – or, perhaps, sensed in the delirious wanderings of a sick mind dangerously close to death.

If we do indeed accept these faces as demons, we could certainly interpret them as but demons of the mind, of Goya’s sick mind, false creations proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain; and that Dr Arrieta, a man of science, as the representative of Enlightenment rationality, banishing these creatures of the dark.

But there is, it seems to me, another possible explanation: it could be that though our rationality refuses to admit their reality, these demons are real enough, and that not all our science and reason could ever drive these monsters out from our minds.

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Losing the plot

There are certain words we use frequently, quite sure that we know what they mean, but then tie ourselves up in knots when asked to define them. “Tune” for instance. We all know what a “tune” is. Which of us has not hummed along to one? And yet, when we come to define it, we flounder. The best I can think of is something along the lines of:

“A sequence of pitches, with each element of that sequence lasting for a specified duration, and with a different level of stress applied to each.”

Not very elegantly phrased, I agree, but I think that should cover just about everything we may recognise as a tune. Problem is that it applies to a whole lot of things also that we wouldn’t recognise as a tune. If I were to, say, play a random sequence of notes on a piano, that too, according to my definition, must be counted a tune, but I doubt anyone would recognise it as such. No doubt musicologists have very refined and sophisticated definitions of what constitutes “melody”, but, speaking as a layman, although I am sure I know what the word means, I cannot even begin to articulate what it is.

I have the same difficulty when it comes to fiction: what is “plot”? Once again, I think I know what the word means. Tom Jones has a plot, and Tristram Shandy doesn’t; The Age of Innocence has a plot, but To the Lighthouse doesn’t. But once again, I don’t know how to define it. The best I can think of is “a sequence of incidents, each related to the others”. But of course, that would cover Tristram Shandy and To the Lighthouse as well as it does Tom Jones or The Age of Innocence. I’d hazard a guess that it might even cover Finnegans Wake. Indeed, I am not at all sure it’s possible to write fiction without incidents of some form or other. But as with “tune” or “melody”, this definition does not cover what we mean when we speak of “plot”. We do use the term merely to describe a sequence of related incidents. But what we actually mean by it, I really don’t think I can articulate.

All this makes it difficult to write about such matters. Possibly it’s my scientific background that makes me feel very uneasy when terms are discussed and debated that have not been defined. When we talk about fiction, we speak all the time of “plot”. But what do we mean?

This lack of definition of “plot” is the first thing – though by no means the only thing – that worried me about this recent article by Tim Lott. For those unwilling to click on links, let me summarise as best I can what I think it says. Mr Lott first refers to a recent report by the Arts Council that tells us sales of literary fiction have declined sharply in Britain; he then rejects the idea that literary authors ought to be subsidised, and proposes instead that they write “better books”. By which he means that they should focus more on plot. For to neglect plot is, he thinks, poor craftsmanship.

(I may have misinterpreted Mr Lott, or I may be caricaturing what he is saying. If so, both misinterpretation and caricature are unintentional. But I have at least provided a link to the article, so curious readers may easily satisfy themselves on this point.)

Quite apart from the lack of definition of “plot”, there is also another term that Mr Lott uses quite freely, and which, I believe, the Arts Council report to which he refers also uses quite freely; but which, too, is undefined: “literary fiction”. While I think I know what “plot” is, even without a working definition, I honestly have no idea what “literary fiction” means. Presumably it is some category of fiction – a genre; but genres are defined by content: horror, thriller, romance, western, science fiction, fantasy, erotica – all of these and more are defined by the nature of the content. But is there any element of the content of a work of fiction that defines it as “literary”?

The only reasonable definition of “literary fiction” I can think of is “fiction that has, or aspires to have, literary qualities”. This is not, I agree, a very good definition, as it raises, but leaves unanswered, the question of what we mean by “literary quality”, but I don’t think I can be taken to task for not providing a good watertight definition of a term when the term itself is not mine, and not one I would ever think of using. But if “literary fiction” is indeed fiction that has, or aspires to having, literary qualities (however we define them), then “literary fiction” seems to me to be about as meaningful as “artistic art”, or “musical music”.

And then, “better books”. By which Mr Lott means “books with more plot”. And his implication that the stronger the element of plot, the greater the craftsmanship. I was going to write a refutation of these assertions, but now I come to it, I really don’t think it’s worthwhile: it’s hardly difficult to find a great many very prominent counter-examples in literary history.

Now, we are not talking here about the opinions of some bloke from down the pub: Tim Lott is an eminent author, and teaches postgraduate students in possibly the most prestigious creative writing course in Britain. And I find it profoundly depressing to see someone in so eminent a position saying such things.

It is not to denigrate plot (and let us not get too worried here about the definition) to say that fiction lacking plot can be of an extremely high quality, and require a very high degree of craftsmanship. For instance, The Count of Monte Cristo, say, has, I think, an extremely good plot. Actually, it has very many good plots, all intertwined together with a breathtaking skill and panache; and it maintains our interest over a thousand and more pages almost entirely by maintaining narrative tension – by keeping the reader in suspense over the questions of what happens next, or what has happened in the past that is yet to be revealed. It is a magnificent achievement. On the other hand, Ulysses, though not lacking in incident (as I said earlier, I don’t think it is possible to conceive of fiction that lacks incident), is lacking in what we normally think of as plot. Going by Mr Lott’s equating of plot with craftsmanship, it should follow that Ulysses, compared to The Count of Monte Cristo, say, is lacking in craftsmanship – a sentiment so self-evidently absurd that Mr Lott himself would, I am sure, be happy to distance himself from it.

Even when plot exists, I am not too sure that it is necessarily of primary importance. Middlemarch, say, is not short of plot: there are two main, intertwining plotlines, with many subsidiary plots hanging off them. One of these plotlines involves hidden crimes in the past, blackmail, manslaughter (possibly even murder!), public scandal … in short, incidents often sensational in nature. But does anyone actually read Middlemarch for the plot? Is “What happens next?” the main concern that keeps the reader turning the pages?

In novels such as, say, Conrad’s Nostromo, we actually do have a good plot. If all the events were arranged in chronological order, then we would have a thrilling tale of hidden silver, torture, revolution, etc. But Conrad takes this plot, turns it inside out, fragments it, displays only some of the fragments to us (out of chronological order) – indeed, does everything he can think of to take the reader’s attention away from the plot. Faulkner does something similar: Absalom, Absalom!, if written in a conventional manner, would be a vast family saga encompassing the American Civil War, and would no doubt have been the basis of a Hollywood epic to rival Gone With the Wind. But, as with Conrad, Faulkner fragments the plot and gives us some of those fragments (often narrated by unreliable sources) out of sequence; he also writes it in a prose so idiosyncratically convoluted that it’s only the most determined of readers who can last for more than a few pages. So apparently uninterested were Conrad and Faulkner in the plot that even when they had good ones, they effectively smashed it to bits.

And there’s Chandler, whom I find a particularly interesting case. He was definitely writing “genre fiction” – the detective story; and the genre he wrote in is one that generally demands good plotting. Yet, it seems to me that Chandler relegates the plot to the background – not by not having enough of it, but by having too much of it. There are so many plot elements, and they are so very intricate, that, after a while, the reader – well, this reader at least – finds it impossible to keep track of it all. And the strange thing is that it doesn’t matter. Even when I can follow no more than a very rough outline of the plot, I find it all enthralling. Once again, the plot is there, but relegated away from the principal focus of interest.

None of this is to denigrate the plot. However one defines it, it is a tremendous skill to plot well. But to assert that plotting makes for “better books”; or that plotting is indicative of superior craftsmanship; strikes me as so self-evidently absurd, that I wonder whether Mr Lott himself would care to stand by the conclusions they lead us to.

Aida on the M6

We hadn’t been looking forward to the long drive south down the M6 motorway on New Year’s Day. To relieve the tedium, we decided to put Verdi’s Aida – a favourite opera of us both – on the car stereo, but it wasn’t a good idea. I’m not really sure how people manage to listen to music in the car: the quieter passages are all but inaudible, and the lower register is inevitably drowned out by the rumble of the engine. The soft opening strains of Aida were virtually inaudible, but we kept it on anyway, listening to what we could, our musical memory filling in what we couldn’t. We had heard it often enough, after all, over the years.

I remember that when I first encountered it – many decades ago now – I was a bit puzzled. I was puzzled why Verdi, having created dramas of great complexity, should choose for a subject so simple – one may even say “simple-minded” – and so conventional a story. I was puzzled why, having created in his previous operas characters of such intricacy and detailed nuance, he should now settle for characters that were, once again, simple and straightforward. Verdi had, I knew, intended this to be his last opera, so I put it all down at the time to his wanting to bow out with a big popular hit; the simple-minded nature of the drama was something that had to be put up with, I felt, for the sake of the beauties of the score. But really, that won’t do. First of all, whatever one may think of the quality of Verdi’s art (and he has many detractors, I know), the seriousness of his artistic intent is surely not in any doubt. And Verdi had searched far and wide for a plot for his opera before settling on this one; he had also given extremely detailed and precise instructions to his librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, so there can be little doubt that the final libretto is precisely what he had wanted. And in any case, given his stature at the time – no-one had greater claims than he of being a living legend – anything he cared to compose would have been a box office hit. If Aida does not present us with a complex drama or with complex characters, it is not because such things were beyond Verdi, or because he made do with whatever was available, or because he had lowered his artistic standards: it is because dramatic complexity was not what he wanted here. To point to all the conventional elements of this piece as evidence of Verdi’s lack of artistic ambition is fail to address what Verdi actually did achieve.

And yesterday, despite the inadequacy of listening in the car, it struck me – somewhere around M6-M5 interchange north of Birmingham, I think – just how profoundly anti-nationalist the work is. This in itself is surprising. For, while I am sure that Aida cannot be the only major work of nineteenth century art that is anti-nationalist, I found it difficult to think of others. Amongst composers, Chopin was a fervent Polish nationalist; Smetana and Dvořák were Czech nationalists; Mussorgsky, Balakirev and co. (the group known as “The Five”) looked to create a specifically Russian music; Wagner’s strident Germanic nationalism is notorious; Brahms kept a portrait of Bismarck above his desk. In literature, things were hardly any better: Dostoyevsky was extremely nationalist, and even Tolstoy in War and Peace could barely restrain his pride that it was the Russians who gave Napoleon his come-uppance. Of course, there are exceptions – Turgenev is an obvious one – and it’s best not to make any hasty generalisations (as I fear I am prone to do): but it’s safe to say, I think, that nationalism was a fairly widespread phenomenon in nineteenth century Europe. And it is fair to say also, I think, that it would have been no surprise had Verdi been a fervent Italian nationalist, especially given that by the time he composed Aida, he was, in effect, the living representative of the entire nation’s culture. The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from his early opera Nabucco, had been enthusiastically taken up as an anthem of Italian patriotism; Verdi himself had fully supported Garibaldi’s campaign, and had celebrated joyously the emergence of Italy as a new, unified nation (in 1848, when the occupying Austrians had temporarily been forced to retreat from Milan, Verdi had actually written in a letter “Italy will yet become the first nation of the world … I am drunk with joy! Imagine that there are no more Germans here!!”); after unification, Verdi had supported Cavour; had been elected to the Parliament, and later, appointed to the Senate (although, despite his patriotic fervour, he preferred to keep a distance from political activity); and so on. In short, Verdi was a very unlikely candidate for the composer of an anti-nationalist work. And yet, that is what Aida seems to me to be. It seemed to me so obvious yesterday, driving through the rain and the winter murk, that I wondered why this had not struck me before.

The story is of lovers from across a divide, and thus, looks back very obviously to Romeo and Juliet. Which, in turn, looks back to the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and, no doubt, that too looks back on something from even earlier. It’s a time-honoured story. But here, the divide is not between feuding families, but, quite explicitly, between nations – nations furiously raging together. Aida is an Ethiopian slave girl in Egypt, captured in war; but what the Egyptians do not know is that she is actually the Ethiopian royal princess. She is in love with the young Egyptian soldier Radames, and he loves her too. But Radames is also loved by the Egyptian princess, Amneris, and so, the two princesses (one still a slave girl) find themselves unequal rivals. Things get really complicated when Radames is chosen to lead the Egyptian army against their old enemies, the Ethiopians – against Aida’s people. And so on. It’s all fairly standard stuff, unlikely to be of any interest to anyone nowadays were it not accompanied by Verdi’s music. Even at the time of writing (in the 1870s), it was probably already old hat.

But this tired old plot nonetheless encapsulated Verdi’s theme – individual human love set against the hatred of nation unto nation. Of course, individual love doesn’t stand a chance, and is crushed. But in that ineffably beautiful final scene, we do not hear the tread of doom: we hear, instead, the most ecstatic outpourings of the human soul, as Aida and Radames expire in each other’s arms as only characters in opera can do, discovering in their defeat a nobility and an exaltation that the irrational armies clashing my night could never even envisage. And as these two sing of waking into Eternal Day, they are joined by the grieving voice of Amneris, nominally the villain of the piece, but who too had loved, and had lost: Verdi’s generosity of spirit does not leave her out.

And how far all this is from the crude and violent shouts of war (“Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!”) we had heard in the opening scene. The soldiers are ultimately the victors, of course. That is inevitable. And they will go on fighting. In Romeo and Juliet, the warring factions are reconciled by the deaths of the lovers, but things had moved on from Shakespeare’s time: in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (written only a few years after Aida), there’s a parody of Romeo and Juliet, but here, the lovers from two feuding families do not bring the warring factions together: once they elope, their respective families, far from being reconciled, merely slaughter each other. In Aida, too, there is no hope of reconciliation: the ignorant armies will continue to clash by night, urged on by equally ignorant cries of “Guerra! Guerra! Guerra!” But in the defeat of Aida and of Radames, a defeat they both willingly accept in preference to anything the outside world may consider victory, Verdi gives us a different music. Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, they make Death proud to take them.

The villain of this opera turns out not really to be Amneris, although she may seem, superficially at least, to fit that role: for she too is driven by love. The villains here are collective. They are the theocrats – the priests who urge the war; they are the Egyptian empire, the war machine. And among the villains is also the defeated Ethiopian king, Amonasro, Aida’s father. For he too is a man of War. It is he who insists that his daughter must betray her personal loyalty and embrace instead the collective identity that has been pre-determined for her: she is, above all, an Ethiopian. In our modern world, with people from very different cultural backgrounds living cheek by jowl with each other to a far greater extent than ever before, the Amonasros have not disappeared: quite the contrary, they have multiplied. But their clamour and their stridence must not be allowed to drown out the very different music that Verdi gives us – a music that is both fragile, and also of a surpassing radiance.

This opera no doubt lacks the complexity of character and the intricacy of drama that we may find in various other operas by Verdi, but it gives us, I think, a vision of something else – something that is important for us to hold on to. We may take the easy way out and dismiss it all as merely “sentimental” or “naïve”, but I think we would be wrong to do so. Verdi, too, in his time, had been a patriot, a nationalist: possibly, he remained so even to his death. But he knew there is also that within us that can surpass and transcend such matters, and in Aida, he gives this its fullest artistic expression. And not even the rumble of the engine and the roar of the motorway could quite drown that out.