Archive for April, 2018

“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?


“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.


Posted without comment

“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.

Like a movie in your mind

On the few occasions I have been on guided tours of Gothic cathedrals – I generally prefer wandering around these cathedrals on my own – I have been told that most people in medieval times were illiterate, and that, as a consequence, the stained glasses telling the Biblical stories were particularly important. Some guides have added that people from medieval days were “more visual” than we are now.

I don’t know how true this is, or even whether such a hypothesis may be ascertained. That most people then were illiterate I accept, although, as that quote spuriously attributed to Mark Twain reminds us, those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t. But leaving that aside, is it really the case that mass illiteracy leads necessarily to a greater emphasis on the visual? Seems a bit of a non sequitur to me, frankly. Quite apart from anything else, this seems to ignore the importance of oral traditions: the spoken word can be at least as potent as the written word.

In short, the assertion that more widespread literacy has led to us responding less strongly to what we see seems to me highly spurious. But if – and, I emphasise, if – this is indeed the case, I can’t at times help feeling that we seem to be returning to the state where, once again, we are – as the tour guides would have it – “more visual”.

I cannot insist on this as my evidence is only anecdotal. But let us rehearse a few of these anecdotes anyway.

Take films, for instance. Speak to any graduate of film studies, or any cineaste, or even to any aspiring cineaste, and they will invariably tell you that cinema is, primarily, a “visual medium”. This is not an assertion based on any argument: it is axiomatic. When pressed, they will offer examples: look at 2001- A Space Odyssey, they’ll say; look at Tarkovsky’s Mirror, at Solaris, at the various films of Ingmar Bergman; and so on. In such acknowledged cinematic masterpieces, the dialogue is often sparse, and what little there is of it is of little importance: it is what we see that tells the story, and creates the drama, that communicates everything the film is about. I agree with this, but I offer some counter-examples as well: look at The Maltese Falcon, I say, look at The Apartment, at Twelve Angry Men – and various other films that are still highly regarded, in which it is the dialogue and how it is delivered that tell the story and drive the drama. I am not, I clarify at this point, arguing that cinema isn’t a visual medium: I am arguing against the contention that it is primarily a visual medium. Just as one can think of a great many films in which the visual aspect takes precedence over all others, one can equally point to many other films, as firmly established in the canon, in which it is the spoken word that is central, and where the visual elements act at best but to supplement the story the dialogue is telling us, and, maybe, to provide atmosphere.

I don’t think I have convinced anyone yet, but I argue my case anyway. An argument is always worth engaging in, I feel, even if you don’t convince anyone except yourself. (Or even, for that matter, if you don’t convince yourself either.)

Now let us consider books. My attention was drawn lately to a meme that Goodreads posted recently on social media. Since the meme is now in the public sphere – and has been reposted a great number of times – I think it is OK to reproduce it here:


“Do you ever get so engulfed into a book it plays like a movie in your mind?”

This has received a large number of positive responses. The answer to the question posed is, almost invariably, “yes”: books can, indeed, be so very good, that they are just like movies.

Now, I am not such a pedant that I am bothered by grammatical incorrectness, but I do find myself, I admit, vexed by inelegance; and when that inelegance comes from an organisation that aims to encourage reading, and should therefore have, one might at least have hoped, some concern about how words are put together, I find myself quite considerably vexed. Such propensity for being vexed at trifles light as air is, I own, but an eccentricity on my part, but there it is. “Engulfed into a book” may be perfectly correct – I am no expert on grammatical matters – but “engulfed by a book” sounds far better to my ears.

And the latter part of that sentence – “…it plays like a movie in your mind”: once again, this may well be, for all I know or, frankly, care, perfectly correct grammatically, but it sounds to my ears clumsy and cumbersome. If you want to encourage reading, I feel, you should take some care over the words you use, and how you put them together: otherwise you’re missing the point.

But a little more thought into the matter perhaps indicates that it is I who have been missing the point. I had assumed above that those who aim to promote reading should have some concern about “how words are put together”. But let us consider what this meme is actually saying. It seems to me to be saying “Has your experience with a book been so good that you can visualise it as if it were a film?” That is the criterion of literary merit that is put forward – not whether the prose is elegant; not whether it is expressive, or whether it is capable of communicating thoughts that are subtle and profound, or feelings that are elusive and intangible; not whether the pacing and structure satisfy aesthetically; not whether diversity of content is accommodated within the unity of form … No, the criterion is “Could you visualise it, as if it were a film?” And when that is your criterion of literary excellence – “does it aspire towards the condition of a movie?” – who cares about how you put your words together?

I suppose I could bemoan this trend towards the visual, as I bemoan everything else. I suppose it could reasonably be argued that since my evidence is all entirely anecdotal, there is no reason to bemoan any trend at all, since there is no trend, except in my increasingly saturnine imagination. And if we are indeed moving towards becoming “more visual”, as the tour guides insist our medieval forebears had been, then building a few more magnificent Gothic cathedrals would be no bad thing, would it?

Cities with no ‘a’

This came up on my Facebook timeline:

“Name a city that doesn’t have the letter ‘a’ in it. Bet you can’t!”

Of course, I instantly thought “Amsterdam”. But – would you believe it? – that had the letter A in it. Damn!

My next attempt was even worse – Aachen.

I’ve been trying to solve this conundrum for some time now, but without success. Athens, Aberdeen, Adelaide, Atlanta, Addis Ababa, Asunción … Mumbai, Kinshasa, Vancouver …

There must be some city somewhere that doesn’t have the letter ‘a’ in it. Could someone help me out, please?

The “Ibsen Cycle”, and the search for an -ism

It’s not easy to pinpoint the exact date when artists, writers and composers all decided they’d had enough of being Renaissance, and it was high time they changed to being Baroque. Although, it’s fair to say, the change wasn’t quite so clear cut: some took a detour through Mannerism, but that didn’t really last too long.

Fair enough, my sarcasm above is a bit heavy-handed, but I really do not decry labelling. However different, say, Bach, Handel and Telemann are from each other, it is clear that they are closer to each other than any of them is to, say, Tallis or Palestrina, and labels can be useful in signposting such matters – as long as we take the labelling to be no more than rough guides, and do not insist upon them dogmatically. (I say this rather ruefully, as I am rather given myself to crude generalisations, and have, quite rightly, been picked up before on the matter.)

But even overviews come a cropper when it comes to western literature of the 19th century. Or, more precisely perhaps, of the mid- to late- 19th century. When it comes to composers of that era, we may safely say that Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, etc., different though they all are from each other, are Romantics. In art, we have a useful catch-all term – “impressionism” – to cover most of the major artists of that era. (And for a slightly later generation of artists who don’t quite fit the term – Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat – we have ingeniously thought up the term “post-impressionist”.) So that’s the artists covered. But what do we make of the major writers of that era? – of Tolstoy, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Flaubert, Dickens (the later Dickens at least), Baudelaire, Ibsen, and the like? Caught between Romanticism before them and Modernism after, there seems to be no -ism into which they seem comfortably to fit.

At this point, we tell ourselves that labels don’t matter, shrug our shoulders, and move on. But I never was one for moving on. Not that I necessarily want to find a handy label: I do recognise that such labelling is pretty pointless. But I recognise also that, by the end of the century, something had changed from the heady days of Romanticism – that it would not have been possible to have produced the novels of Zola or of Hardy in the same age that had produced the odes of Keats or the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley. But what precisely had changed is not so easy to put one’s finger on – at least, not without making the kind of crude generalisations that I had promised myself not to make again.

But let’s make a few anyway, and see if they hold.

The first crude generalisation is that the mid- to late- 19th century was an era of “realism” in fiction – that is, writers of fiction aimed for verisimilitude, and attempted to produce narratives that the reader could believe might have taken place in the real world. But almost instantly we run into problems. Are not the plot and the characters of an 18th century novel such as Richardson’s Clarissa, say, also believable? And conversely, is there anyone who could believe that the characters populating novels so heavily stylised as Dead Souls, Little Dorrit or The Idiot could conceivably have existed as described? Or that the events that take place in those novels might conceivably have happened in reality? All right, let us take these instances as exceptions rather than the rule (although, it must be conceded, these are pretty big exceptions). But it still won’t do: the more one thinks about it, the more such exceptions crowd the mind – novels preceding the mid-19th century that are very realistic in nature (“realistic” as described above, that is), and novels of the mid 19th century that don’t even aim for surface realism. So no, I really don’t think that appealing to “realism” will do.

Neither would it do, I think, to claim that writers of the mid-to-late 19th century were more aware of social and economic pressures. There is no shortage of social and economic awareness in the works of Austen (who wrote when most of the poets we class as “Romantic” were active); or in the works of Fielding or Richardson. Or, going back even further, in the novels of Defoe (see Moll Flanders, for instance, or Roxana). Conversely, Henry James, who was very active towards the end of the 19th century, often made his characters so wealthy that they did not have to worry about economic pressures. So no, that one won’t do either.

But one thing that may, possibly, be said – though I say it rather gingerly – is that it became more difficult to create big characters – heaven-storming characters, characters who aspire to the level of gods; characters who fill the page (or the stage), who fill our imaginations with their bigness. Such characters are familiar in epic poems and plays of the classic age, and beyond – godlike Achilles; Odysseus, the man of twists and turns; Electra and Medea, Othello and Macbeth, Milton’s Satan. And Romanticism allowed for this bigness as well: indeed, with its emphasis on the individual self, it positively invited it – Goethe’s Faust, Shelley’s Prometheus, Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. But in the mid-to-late 19th century, this became more difficult. When the Phaedra of Euripides or the Phèdre of Racine lusts guiltily for a younger man, their passions are huge, they shake the very earth: when Natalya Petrovna similarly lusts guiltily for a younger man (in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country), she is simply an insignificant wife of an insignificant provincial landowner – a sympathetic figure, certainly, but rather small and pathetic in a way the creations of Euripides or of Racine aren’t. When authors of the post-Romantic era do produce big figures, they have to be removed from everyday life and its quotidian concerns (Captain Ahab); or these quotidian concerns are simply ignored (Heathcliff and Cathy). We cannot, after all, have Milton’s Satan or Shelley’s Prometheus worrying about paying their bills.

And, just as it became more difficult to present these big characters, it became easier to present humans as mere ants teeming in an anthill – whether they be the slum-dwellers of Zola’s L’Assommoir, the rotten bourgeoisie of Zola’s Pot Bouille, or the brutal peasantry of Zola’s La Terre. Of course, these novels could not have been written in the Romantic age as the social and economic environments presented by Zola were very much of their own time; but putting that aside, this view of humanity itself as something that is small, of individuality as something that is paltry, submerged in some wider, impersonal collective, seems to me very alien to the Romantic sensibility. Where the Romantics enjoined us to strive, now, the very idea of striving seems absurd. Even those who are dissatisfied with their present do not know what to strive for, or how: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as petty and as stupid as that that she is rebelling against.

Now, before you all regale me with notable exceptions to all this, let me suggest a couple myself: Brand, and Peer Gynt. Ibsen created these huge characters in the mid-1860s, in two verse dramas, epic in conception, and vast in scope. But then, his art took a strange turn, and I am still not sure why he felt this turn had to be taken. Having written Emperor and Galilean (which I won’t be posting about here, as I don’t think I understand it very well), and The League of Youth (which I won’t be posting about either, as it seems to me rather slight), he turned, quite deliberately, away from all that bigness, all that grandeur, and fixed his gaze upon those little ants teeming in the anthills. No, not quite Zola-esque, perhaps, but certainly little figures – smug bourgeoisie, small-time businessmen, bank managers, bored housewives, and the like. It’s like stepping deliberately from Racine’s Phèdre to Turgenev’s Natalya Petrovna.

Why did he do it? Could he on this fair mountain leave to feed and batten on this moor?

The first of these plays is The Pillars of Society (which I hope to be blogging about shortly). Without wishing to anticipate, it does seem a bit of a come-down from the granitic magnificence of Brand, or the riotous exuberance of Peer Gynt. But this is what Ibsen wanted. Towards the end of his life, some twenty-five years later, Ibsen himself described the twelve plays from The Pillars of Society to When We Dead Awaken as a “cycle”; and the eminent Ibsenian critic, Brian Johnston, takes Ibsen at his word. But did Ibsen know from the start what this cycle would develop into? Did he, indeed, envisage it as a cycle at all? To judge from Michael Meyer’s biography, I think the answer appears to be “no”. At least, there exists no evidence that he did.

But had he indeed looked forward to the plays towards the end of this cycle, he would have known that even restricting himself to prose (and to everyday prose at that), even confining himself to milieux that are, on the surface at least, “realistic”, he would, by the end, create characters every bit as big as anything achieved by writers of the past. Bernard Shaw, a man not given to flights of fancy, said of the protagonists of Ibsen’s late plays that there’s not one of them who is not touched by the Holy Ghost. And by the end of his last play, When We Dead Awaken, we seem back once again to the poetic and imaginative world of Brand. Ibsen had come full cycle. But that journey back to where he had started is long, and tortuous; and also utterly fascinating.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

When I had decided to blog about the major Ibsen plays, I thought I would do it one play at a time, and not anticipate what lies ahead. But reading The Pillars of Society, I think that would not be very advisable.  The connections not only with plays already written, but with plays yet to be written, are too important to ignore.