Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

“John Gabriel Borkman” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

I am talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

The set-up is fairly straight-forward. John Gabriel Borkman had once been an important man – a banker. But he had been caught embezzling, and, after three years in custody awaiting trial, had been found guilty, and had served another five years in prison. The action of the play takes place eight years after his release, and those eight years Borkman has spent again imprisoned, this time voluntarily: he has shut himself up in his room upstairs, endlessly pacing up and down, “like a sick wolf” as his wife puts it, never daring even to leave the house, but obsessing over how he will yet achieve the greatness he thinks he had been close to achieving those sixteen years ago.

Under the same roof, though never seeing him, lives his wife, Gunhild. Unlike Borkman, who is a miner’s son, she is from a privileged, land-owning family; and she too, like her husband, is obsessed: she is obsessed with clearing the family name, and restoring the family honour; and she is determined that it is their son, Erhart, now a young man in his early twenties, who will achieve this. It is he who will eventually redeem them by paying back all the creditors, and thus laying the matter to rest for ever. Not that she cares for the creditors: as with her husband, but for different reasons, those who have lost their livelihoods all those years ago barely enter her mind at all: what matters to her is her family name, and, more importantly (though she doesn’t openly acknowledge this), the hurt she has received from her husband.

The hurt is not merely to her family pride: it is to her personal pride also. She had loved her husband, but that love had not been returned: John Gabriel Borkman’s mind had been elsewhere. It had been obsessed, then, as now, with power – the power that, in the secular world in which they live, can come only with industry and with commerce. It is for the sake of this power that Borkman had renounced love: he had, as a young man, loved Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister, but had married Gunhild instead, for no other reason than better to pursue his dream of power. Yet, some compunction had prevented his using Ella’s money in his fraudulent schemes: she had survived the financial turmoil that Borkman’s embezzlement had occasioned, and it is her house, unaffected by the financial collapse of Borkman’s bank, in which the Borkmans now live – under the same roof, but never setting eyes on each other, year after year.

And it was Ella who, when the scandal had broken, had looked after her nephew Erhart. And now, she knows she is dying, and she wants her nephew, whom she regards as her own son, to carry on her name. But his biological mother, endlessly brooding on her hurts, and fixated on the idea of the next generation making restitution for the sins of the past, cannot allow this. So now, the twin sisters fight each other over the son, just as they had once fought over the father.

All this brings in various familiar themes – corruption in public life and betrayal in the private, the relationships between the generations, the imposition of duty upon the spontaneous joy of life, the dreams and illusions that sustain us, the renunciation of love for power, and so on. And all this promises a realistic, drawing room bourgeois drama – admittedly a turbulent one, but, nonetheless, of the kind that Ibsen is still, rather unfairly, associated with.

But this is not the play Ibsen gives us. Not by a long shot.

But what he gives us isn’t easy to describe, as not only is it unlike any other play I know of, it is also, despite certain recurrent themes, unlike any of Ibsen’s other plays either. Over these twelve plays beginning with The Pillars of Community, Ibsen had been moving way from what may be termed “realism” – that is, depictions of characters of the kind we may expect to encounter in real life, thinking and behaving in a manner that does not stretch credulity in everyday settings. In this play, he seems to take such a drastic step further away from realism, that one wonders whether, despite the realistic trappings, we should be considering it in such terms at all. The three principal characters – Gunhild, Ella, and John Gabriel – seem poised in some mysterious region between life and death: Ella knows she is dying, and, at the end, John Gabriel actually does die, but, whether they know it or not, there is no future for any of them, and the hopes they harbour about the future are, of necessity, delusional.

And these characters are much simpler, too – just as the characters in the late Shakespeare plays are simpler than their predecessors: Leontes is not as complex a character as Othello, nor Iachimo as complex as Iago, nor Miranda as complex as Ophelia; similarly, John Gabriel is not as complex as Master Builder Solness, nor Gunhild as complex as Hedda Gabler. What you see on the surface is more or less what there is: this is not a play that looks into the depths of the characters, primarily because those depths don’t really exist.

Also noticeably absent is imagery. No place here for anything like the phantom white horses of Rosmersholm, the towers of The Master Builder, or those water lilies in Little Eyolf that germinate in the depths, and then shoot suddenly to the surface. The room in which the play opens is hot and stuffy, and there is a blizzard blowing outside, and these, I suppose, could be seen as symbols, but they are quite straight-forward, and lack the resonance to be the stuff of dramatic poetry. The hot room and the snowstorm outside are introduced not to communicate those obscure matters that cannot be communicated by other means, but merely as representations of two different states of mind. Here, the characters speak directly: what they say is precisely what they mean, and we do not need to look for symbols in their words.

The handling of time is also different. Typically, an Ibsen play gives us selected scenes, as it were, with a gap of time between successive scenes (the number of these scenes determined by the number of acts in the play). Here, although there are four acts, there is no temporal gap between them – so that Act Two begins at the very point where Act One ended, Act Three at the precise point where Act Two ended, and so on. The action of the play takes up exactly the same two hours or so it takes us to watch it. This pushes the very idea of time itself into the foreground, and injects into the play a tremendous urgency: time is running out fast for all three of these characters, and, at  the edge of the grave, perhaps already in some mysterious region between life and death, there is no scope, no time, for indirectness: these characters say what they feel, what they think, without any periphrasis, any subterfuge, and with a directness that is almost brutal.

Passions are high, right from the start. The stage directions accompanying the various speeches, especially those of Gunhild, leave us in no doubt: “animated”, “tense”, “with mounting excitement”, “flares up”, and so on. Of course, acting styles have changed since then, and modern audiences probably prefer understatement, but however the actors convey this, there is clearly much passion here, and it’s not hidden.

These three characters meet for the first time after sixteen years. Gunhild and John Gabriel live in the same house, but she sits downstairs, brooding, while he paces up and down upstairs, similarly brooding (though on different matters), and never daring to leave the house. Gunhild says that sometimes she hears him come down to the hall, put on his hat and coat, but take them off and go back upstairs again. They have never spoken to each other for sixteen years – not since his embezzlement had been discovered and he was taken into custody.

Into this environment comes Gunhild’s twin sister, Ella Rentheim. Although she owns the house in which Gunhild and John Gabriel live, she herself does not live there. We discover over the course of the play why she has decided after all this time to meet her sister again: she knows she is dying, and, terrified of leaving nothing behind her, wishes her nephew to take her name. The other two, however, don’t know they’re dying: they are too wrapped in their own obsessions, and both are obsessively planning for a future that doesn’t exist.

But Ella Rentheim is right to be terrified. The death these characters face is cold and blank: there is nothing beyond it. Despite the various religious references throughout the play – not least the middle name of the titular character, that seems to speak of a power and a glory that isn’t really visible – there is no mention, nor even a hint, of a divinity. These characters may all long for something that is greater than themselves – Gunhild for her lost reputation and her pride in her self, Ella for something of her own that she may leave behind, John Gabriel for a power and a glory that was nearly his – but in each case, what they long for is of this world,  a worldfrom which they are already in the process of departing. Any hope for a future is illusory: all they have to fall back on is the past.

And they all speak of that past openly, frankly, almost as if past caring what hurt they cause in speaking of it. Neither Gunhild nor John Gabriel care about those who have lost their livelihoods. In the first act, when we hear (but don’t see) John Gabriel pacing up and down his room upstairs, “like a sick wolf”, Gunhild and Ella don’t spare each other in their recollections of the past. And in the second act, when Ella goes up to see John Gabriel, he too speaks coldly about the past, in particular about why he had sacrificed Ella whom he, as a young man, had once loved: he had his own dreams, dreams of earthly power and earthly glory, and, to achieve this, he had needed the goodwill of the lawyer Hinkel, who had also loved Ella. And so, he sacrificed his own love: he had married Ella’s sister, and had left Ella for Hinkel. And he can say all this coldly to Ella now, without the slightest pang of remorse:

ELLA RENTHEIM: But you did have what was most precious on board. Your future life –

BORKMAN: Life isn’t always what is most precious.

Borkman had been aspiring to something that was, for him, more precious even than life itself. Traditionally, that takes us into the realms of religion, but the world presented here is godless. But how can one find something even more precious than life itself in a godless world? And what does one sacrifice to achieve this? John Gabriel Borkman had sacrificed Ella, without a thought, and now, years later, He can tell her this without any remorse. Ella’s response is deeply religious:

ELLA RENTHEIM:  … at the time, I didn’t know about your great, horrific crime.

BORKMAN: What crime? What are you talking about?

ELLA RENTHEIM: I’m talking about the crime for which there is no forgiveness.

Ella goes on to explain what she means by this:

You have killed the vital capacity for love in me.

 The word used in the original, the notes of my Penguin edition tell me, is “kærlighedslivet”, a compound word joining together the words meaning “love” and “life”. Michael Meyer (Methuen) translates that line simply as “You have killed love in me”. I’d guess the Penguin translation by Haveland and Stanton-Ife possibly gets closer to what Ibsen had intended, but it is at the expense of succinctness. The meaning, I think, is fairly clear: there is no symbol or poetic imagery here to decipher. John Gabriel Borkman has destroyed in Ella the ability to love; he has compelled her to live a loveless life; and for that crime, there is no forgiveness.

The reference here is to a somewhat enigmatic verse in the Bible:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.

– Gospel According to Matthew 12:31

Even a charge such as this, made so directly, appears to make no impact at all upon John Gabriel. He is in grip of something that is, to him, even more powerful.

When we first see him, at the start of Act Two, a young local girl, Frida, is playing the piano to him – the Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns. The exchange that follows – more monologue than exchange, really, since Frida does not really understand what he says, and nor does it matter to him whether she does or not – is, to put it mildly, strange:

BORKMAN: Can you guess where I hear notes like this, Miss Foldal?

FRIDA [ looks up at him]: No, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It was down in the mines.

FRIDA [ does not understand]: Really? In the mines?

BORKMAN: I’m a miner’s son, as you probably know. Or perhaps you didn’t?

FRIDA: No, Mr Borkman.

BORKMAN: A miner’s son. And my father sometimes took me down the mines with him – . Down where the metal ore sings.

FRIDA: Oh, does it – sing?

BORKMAN [nods]: As it’s being loosened. The hammer strokes that loosen it are the chimes of midnight; they strike, and set it free. That’s why the ore sings – it sings with joy – in its own way.

FRIDA: why does it do that, Mr Borkman?

BORKMAN: It wants to come up to the light of day, and serve people.

Borkman’s vision of the ores under the ground longing to come up to “serve people” seems almost religious in its fervour, and, in the absence of a God, somewhat demented. But, given that absence, what can that religious fervour be directed towards? Borkman speaks of “serving the people”, and yet he never once shows any feeling or understanding of people, of their needs or their desires. The people he himself has ruined with his embezzlement he is happy to dismiss as insignificant. There is a fervour there all right, but directed towards what? The play doesn’t answer this, but it’s hard to resist the obvious answer that it is power. This is the dream that animates Borkman – the power and the glory, associated with Gabriel, but of distinctly an earthly, workmanlike variety. This is what he had sacrificed Ella to, and what he later cold-bloodedly tells Ella is more precious than life itself.

This renunciation of love for power, and this desire to master the elements of the earth with the aim of obtaining this power, bring to mind what many may regard as the single most powerful work of art of the 19th century – Wagner’s mighty Ring Cycle.  Ibsen was in nearby Munich when these operas were first performed in Bayreuth, but, despite being urged by his compatriot Edvard Grieg, he did not go to see them: he was not particularly musical, and the thought of sitting so many hours through these works put him off. No doubt he would have heard about the Ring, but it seems to me unlikely that this would have had any significant influence on him: we shouldn’t, after all, be surprised when major artists living in the same era hit upon similar themes. It is more fruitful, I think, to look for connections in Ibsen’s own earlier work.

As a young man of twenty-three, Ibsen had written a poem on precisely this theme:

Deep in the mountain’s desolate night
The rich treasure beckons me.
Diamonds and precious stones
Among the red branches of gold.

And in the darkness there is peace.
Peace and rest for eternity.
Heavy hammer, break me the way
To the heart-chamber of what lies hidden there…

[From the translation by Michael Meyer]

In The Pillars of Society, written some twenty years earlier, and the first in the series of twelve plays of what may be termed a cycle, Bernick too had dreamed of mastering the elements of the earth:


Imagine what a powerful lever [the railway will] represent for our entire community. Think of the enormous tracts of forest that’ll be made accessible; think of rich seams of ore that can be worked; think of the river with one waterfall after the other. Just imagine all the industry that can be established there.

[Translated by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik]

And Bernick too had considered himself above the law to achieve his ends. But he lacked the quasi-mystical fervour of Borkman.

More recently, there was Master Builder Solness, who had also come from humble origins and had worked his way up, and who had also ruthlessly used those around him to gain his worldly success. He is in many ways a close match to Borkman. He too speaks of serving people (or, at least, of building houses “for people to live in”) but shows little concern for people in any other aspect of his life. Both Solness and Borkman have a self-regard that is at times blasphemous: both say of themselves, as the voice of God had said to Moses out of the burning bush, “I am what I am”.

But of course, this man who “is what he is” is also a man afraid to leave his own house. The dreams and visions that sustain him are merely rather pathetic comfort blankets. He is flattered in this by Frida’s father, a rather pathetic little man, Villem Foldal. Foldal too has his life-sustaining illusion: he is, both at home and outside, a downtrodden little man, but he had written once a tragic drama, and he is convinced that, one day, the greatness of this drama will be recognised. He had been one of those insignificant little men who had been ruined by Borkman’s fraud, but he comes to Borkman regularly, both to assure and to be assured: he assures Borkman that his dream of once again attaining power isn’t really dead; and Borkman, in turn, keeps alive Foldal’s own dream of some day being recognised as a poet. A comic pair, perhaps more suited for a play by Molière than one of Ibsen’s darkest tragedies. But their mutually supporting relationship cannot last: Foldal is injudicious enough to bring up the rather unpleasant truth that Borkman cannot have access to the financial world again given his conviction, and Borkman, stung by the ray of reality breaking in upon him, bluntly tells Foldal that he is no poet. After all, how can someone who does not recognise the poetic beauty of Borkman’s dreams be a poet? And this Molièresque scene of comedy ends, as Molière’ own scenes often do, on a surprisingly poignant note. But despite the break, both Foldal and Borkman cling on to their respective illusions.

There is one further element to the play: youth – those characters who, unlike the principal characters of this drama, do have a future. There Frida, the 15 year-old who comes over to play the piano for John Gabriel; there’s Fanny Wilton, a beautiful young lady (in her early 30s, we are told) who presents herself as widowed, but who is most likely divorced (divorce carried a huge social stigma in those days); and, of course, there’s Erhart himself, from whom so much is expected. Once again, compared to characters in Ibsen’s earlier works, these are simple characters: there is not much more to them than what one sees on the surface. What unites them – at least, the two older ones – is simply a desire, as Erhart puts it, to “live, live, live”. And there are no metaphysical complexities involved in what they mean by this: they mean the pleasure of the moment.

Fanny Wilton is an outgoing and assertive personality: it was her former husband, and not herself, who had been unfaithful, and in those days, it must have required a quite uncommonly self-assertive character in a woman to seek divorce and to accept the social stigma that went with it. It is she who decides to travel south, towards the sun (and there is an obvious symbolism here in the comparison between the sun she goes to, and the snowstorm she leaves behind). She takes with her the others of this league of youth – Erhart and Frida, in the sleigh-carriage with its tinkling bells.

The image of Youth simply walking away from the failures and unhealthy obsessions of their elders is an attractive one, but it’s not quite so straight-forward as it may seem. Fanny Wilton’s unashamed explanation for taking the 15-year-old Frida with them can, even now, or, perhaps, especially now, seem rather shocking:

Men are so fickle, Mrs Borkman. Women too. When Erhart has finished with me – and I with him – it would be good for both of us if, poor thing, he has someone to fall back on.

There is nothing moral about the rebellion of Youth. The duties and the responsibilities the older generation expect from Erhart are almost casually discarded, and the rebellion is not intellectual or philosophical in any sense. Erhart and Fanny Wilton are not even going off together because they love each other: they are going away with each other for no other reason than that they want sex – sex in the southern sun. It really is that simple.

But the departure of Youth for the southern sun is not where the play ends. We have one further act, in which are left behind not merely the dying, but, one suspects, those who are already dead. And the blizzard that has been raging outside till now comes now to the forefront: we now leave that over-heated house, and find ourselves right in the cold blankness of the snow. If we had suspected that the previous three acts weren’t quite taking place in the real world, we can have no doubts about it now. We are now in an imaginary world, a visionary world, not perhaps quite in the realms of death, but not quite in the land of the living either.

And the three protagonists in this drama go into death without any new understanding of themselves, without any conciliation with the past. Borkman finally leaves his house, and he and Ella, though as yet unreconciled, and the crime for which there is no forgiveness still unforgiven, tramp off together into the snow. But first, we are reminded of another corpse left behind: Villem Foldal, the downtrodden man who thinks himself a poet.

And in a sense, though not in the sense he had thought, he is a poet. He has been knocked down by a sleigh, has lost his spectacles, and has hurt his foot: he is more absurd and insignificant and downtrodden than ever. But when he hears that this carriage that has knocked him down had in it his own daughter, who is heading for the sun, far from being anguished, he is overjoyed. One cannot help feeling that this strange joy is the only pure ray of sunlight in the entire play: he is happy – happy that his daughter may find something of a joy that it has never been his privilege to have had. And this holy simpleton leaves the stage in a state of happiness that we fear none of the other characters in the play have ever known, or ever will know.

Certainly not the three remaining corpses. The one hope that Gunhild had nursed for some sixteen years now is shattered: her son Erhart was never the person to carry on his shoulders that great burden she had wanted to place on them, and she is in despair. Ella too now realises that, with Erhart’s departure, there will be nothing left of her; and she accepts this final defeat with grace. But as for Borkman, defeat is something he cannot even contemplate: this time, he finally plucks up the courage to come outside his house, though as deeply immersed as ever in his illusions.

Borkman and Ella together walk up through the snow, to a bench over a view of the world below: this was a place they used to come to in their younger days, but where we might expect this circumstance to awaken in Borkman’s mind the more tender feelings he once had for Ella, we see him enmired still in his dream of power. Dead men cannot develop, after all, and Borkman is already dead. And he intones what is in effect a hymn to the power and the glory he had dreamed of:

BORKMAN: Ella, can you see the mountain ranges there – far away? One behind the other. They rise. They tower up! There lies my vast, infinite, inexhaustible kingdom!

ELLA: Oh, but there’s an icy blast coming from that kingdom, John!

BORKMAN: That blast is like the breath of life to me. That blast comes over me like a greeting from my spirit subjects. I sense them, the trapped millions; I feel the veins of metal ore stretching out their arms to me, branching, beckoning, coaxing. That night when I stood in the bank vault holding the lantern in my hand, I saw them before me like shadows come to life. You all wanted to be liberated then. And I tried to do it. But I lacked the power. The treasure sank back into the depths. [with outstretched hands] But I will whisper to this in the still of the night: I love you, as you lie there in the deep of the darkness with the look of death! I love you, life-craving riches – I love you, and all your blazing retinue of power and glory! I love, love, love you!

It is in this state of religious ecstasy that Borkman dies. He gives his life to that which, to him, is more precious than life itself. At the very end, he feels a cold hand grasp his heart. Not a hand of ice, but a hand of iron. He sacrifices himself to the gods whom he had loved. And at the end, the two women, the twin sisters, themselves dead, hold hands over the dead man.

***

The late plays of Ibsen are notoriously obscure, and it is hard to know just how to interpret this. Given Borkman’s transcendent longing for power, he has been linked, naturally enough, to Nietzsche, and this play has been seen both as a Nietzschean play, and also as a play critical of Nietzschean ideas. I don’t know that either will do: these plays weren’t written, after all, to demonstrate any specific or even any general point. Rather, I see it as a bleak and ferocious and unforgiving winter landscape, a depiction – as Ibsen himself put it – of “the coldness of the heart”. It is a world balanced between life and death: often, especially in the final act, we feel as if we are already in the icy realms of Death, an icy and unforgiving region into which we carry, unrepentant, all the coldness and delusions that have lived with, all our crimes unatoned. And, especially, that crime for which there is no forgiveness, which, as Ibsen interprets it, is the murder of love within our beings.

Perhaps only a Holy Fool like Villem Foldal may escape.

“Against Nature” by Joris-Karl Huysmans

I doubt I’m the first to find it difficult to articulate my responses to Huysmans’ À Rebours. I found it engrossing, but I had first to overcome two major problems I have concerning fin-de-siècle decadence: aesthetically, I do not see its appeal; and morally, it has long struck me as an affectation that can only be indulged in by the sufficiently wealthy. Unless I was prepared to put away these prejudices, or, at least, suspend them while reading the book, I’d end up merely judging its protagonist des Esseintes unfavourably, and seeing in the book little more than a criticism of his character and of his thoughts. And mere unfavourable judgement cannot, I think, sustain a reader through an entire novel. But once I’d cleared my mind of my prejudices as best I could, I think I started to make more sense of it.

It’s hard to believe that this very strange novel was the product of a literary culture that, at the time (it was published in 1884), was dominated by Zola. The French title is untranslatable, and is usually rendered as Against Nature; however, this does not strike me as particularly felicitous, as it has about it a Shakespearean echo that’s a bit out of place here (“’Gainst nature still!” from Macbeth); and further, it isn’t just nature that des Esseintes is against: he is against modernity, society, everything – even humanity itself and human relationships. He is not just the leading character of the novel: he is the only character. A few others appear on the sidelines from time to time – servants, the doctor, and the like – but des Esseintes’ relationship with them is not touched upon. This refusal to engage with relationship between humans eliminates what is central to most novels, both in the nineteenth century, and also now: it eliminates the possibility also of conflict, and, hence, of drama.

But despite its strangeness, this novel has certain forebears. The classic novel of the solitary man creating his own world is, of course, Robinson Crusoe. Des Esseintes is, we are told, the last enervated remnant of a decayed aristocratic family, and we have met this character before in Poe’s Roderick Usher, and also in Stevenson’s marvellous Gothic tale “Olalla”. Des Esseintes’ disdain for bourgeois values and for popular taste (a disdain clearly shared by the author) is present in Flaubert; and we find in Flaubert also that studied ironic detachment of Huysmans’ narrative style – although, in Flaubert’s case, I can’t help but sense that this ironic detachment was a front for deeper feelings, whereas with Huysmans, I do not get that sense at all.

The immense erudition apparent in all the various learned references and allusions that the novel is packed with is also Flaubertian (it is very apparent in Bouvard et Pécuchet), and the idea of a man who detaches himself from a society he despises may even remind us of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (although, admittedly, Dostoyevsky’s fictional world is a very far cry from that of Huysmans).

The structure of Huysmans’ novel is not so much symphonic, but more, as it were, a sort of “theme and variations”: the theme is stated first, and each chapter that follows is a variation on it. This structure, too, derives from Flaubert – again from Bouchard et Pécuchet.

But despite all of this, this novel is entirely original and unique, and its ability to engage the reader (for it certainly engaged me) is something I can’t quite account for.

While des Esseintes is not Huysmans (neither at the start nor at the end is he capable of writing the book we are reading), there is, I think, a considerable degree of overlap between author and protagonist: the desire to escape from this world and create one’s own is one Huysmans seems to sympathise with. He must: he would hardly have written an entire book on this theme were it otherwise. But it would be wrong, I think, to see this book merely as a vindication, or even as a commendation, of its protagonist: we should, I think, be prepared to regard des Esseintes in a critical manner. Unlike Robinson Crusoe, he cannot make his own clothes, or grow his own food. Nor, for that matter, can he decorate his dwelling to his tastes (a detailed description of des Esseintes’ interior decoration takes up an entire chapter of the novel). And he has personal servants as well. So, really, his detachment from life, from society, really is an affectation: given his inability actually to do anything, he is entirely dependent upon that same society that he so despises.

While this is not, I think, a negligible point, to see the entire novel from this perspective is to miss its richness. For des Esseintes is no mere hypocrite, and no mere poseur: his desire to detach himself from a world that is hateful to him is real. And the alienation that urges him to do this is also real. It is precisely in order to appreciate this element of the novel that I had to suspend my usual distaste for decadent aestheticism.

And it is not merely from the world of his fellow humans that he is alienated: he is alienated from nature itself. Not for him to turn to Nature to replenish the soul, in Wordsworthian fashion. He turns instead to artifice: the further from nature, the better, for the entirety of Nature is hateful to him. This is about as violent a reaction from nature-worshipping Romanticism as I think I have encountered.

But while des Esseintes assiduously cultivates the artificial, it isn’t clear – not to me, at least – what exactly he gets out of it. Possibly he doesn’t know himself. If all this is a different means of replenishing his soul, there seems no indication of that in the narrative: indeed, the very idea of a human soul that needs to be replenished seems very far from the spirit of this novel. Are his aesthetics, perhaps, no more than a gesture to demonstrate his hatred of the world outside? Or does his particular brand of aestheticism really does have some sort of positive effect on him? Or, perhaps, does it not matter either way? I couldn’t really get to the bottom of this: des Esseintes’ mindset is so very different from my own, I’m not sure I always understand it – fascinating though it was to enter it.

But his aestheticism, whatever he gets out of it, is utterly divorced from moral considerations: indeed, it seems at times to be in opposition to moral concerns. Des Esseintes is, ethically, completely disengaged. In one chapter, he pays for a young urchin to visit brothels, and, once the lad develops a taste for this sort of thing, abruptly withdraws the funding, just as an experiment to see what happens, and hoping that it all ends in criminality, and even murder. One must be extremely disengaged from all ethical concerns even to consider such an experiment with a living human, purely, as far as I could work out, to satisfy one’s aesthetic sense. But where, in any other novel, something so striking would have been developed, here, the strand just vanishes: des Esseintes loses touch with the boy, and neither he nor we know (nor care) what happens next. This wouldn’t have been possible in a symphonically constructed novel, but in a Theme and Variations format, each variation is allowed to stand independently of the others.

There is a hilarious passage where he thinks of going to England, but, after an evening in an English-style bar in Paris, decides not to go after all, as he has in that bar experienced England far better than he possibly could in England itself. This reminded me of the film critic Leslie Halliwell’s observation that the MGM backlots of Paris were far more romantic than the real Paris could ever be. What, after all, is so great about reality?

I’m still not sure why I found this strange novel so engrossing. I’m still far from being in sympathy with the aesthetics of decadence; and since this novel does not deal with human relationships, the conflict that is necessary for drama is missing. But a conflict of sorts does perhaps emerge – between, on the one hand, a desire to detach oneself from the world, and, on the other, the impossibility of doing so. And this impossibility neither negates nor makes ridiculous the desire. But in the end, the desire is defeated: reality, loathsome as it may be, has to be accepted. The theme has been stated; the variations played out; and then, it’s an inevitable return to the life that had been rejected.

These are my somewhat confused impressions of a very strange novel. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it all. Maybe I need to give it more time to sink in.

What Shakespeare may (perhaps) have thought about

“Never trust the teller, trust the tale,” D. H. Lawrence famously said, adding, rather interestingly, that it was the critic’s job “to rescue the tale from the teller”. Given how far just about every major writer falls short of their creation – some, admittedly, more than others – I have always found this a useful thing to bear in mind: it’s the work we have to deal with, not the author, and if what we know of the author’s personal defects and shortcomings gets in the way of our appreciation of the work, it is indeed the critic’s job to focus the reader’s attention on what really matters.

But it is no more than natural curiosity to want to know something, at least, of the person who could create those works that we admire so much, and, when it comes to Shakespeare, we are for ever at a dead end. We have a few scraps of facts about his life, but nothing, really, that tells us what kind of person he was. And while part of me thinks that just as well, there’s another part that can’t help questioning what exactly was going on in that strange mind of his. And all we are reduced to on this point is, I think, conjecture.

Not that this has stopped people from making claims on this matter. I don’t think there’s a single religious or political or social orthodoxy, or, for that matter, heresy, that has not claimed Shakespeare as a fellow-traveller. Even leaving aside partisan accounts of Shakespeare’s ideologies (assuming he had any), there seems no shortage either of commentators who seem also to know for sure what Shakespeare had intended for his plays, as far as performance is concerned. He had, apparently, intended his plays to be seen and not read: that mantra is repeated with such tiresome frequency that I have now given up arguing against it: it is, in practice, simply an excuse not to read the plays. He had also, apparently, intended his texts to be no more than blueprints for performance, and had fully intended them to be adapted with more or less complete freedom. And if this means the kind of adaptation we seem to be witnessing all too frequently these days, with those long boring speeches cut out and long boring scenes cut and spliced together so as to accommodate audiences who find that sort of thing tedious, then, yes, Shakespeare had intended that also. The question “How do we know?” never seems to arise. We may, I suppose, point to historical evidence that suggests that adaptations, sometimes even radical adaptations, were common practice in the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses, but I doubt even that takes us too far: for how can we tell whether Shakespeare had approved of such practice? If, as is generally agreed, Shakespeare had an extraordinary mind, is it not one of the attributes of extraordinary minds that they could look beyond the mores of their own time?

That is not to say that we slavishly follow the texts: we couldn’t even if we wanted to, as the existing texts, where they exist in more than one version, often vary quite considerably, and are, further, bedevilled with printing errors: all of this has kept armies of scholars busy for a few centuries now. Of course the texts are to be adapted for performance; but if certain kinds of adaptation turn what is a miracle of the human imagination into something that, frankly, isn’t, then the question “why bother?” most certainly comes to mind. Shakespeare may indeed, for all I know, have approved of such adaptations; but, then again, he may not. As ever, we can never know what was going on in his mind. We have to examine the texts ourselves, and use our own judgement. And, comparing the texts I read to some of the adaptations I have seen, I can’t help wondering what judgement would step from this to this.

But none of this answers the question that continues to press upon us: what did Shakespeare actually think about? While awareness of the cultural and political background of Shakespeare’s times certainly helps, we must, I think, rely primarily on the internal evidence of the plays themselves. In short, those dreaded texts. But here too we have problems: rather inconveniently, he was a dramatist, and spoke through different people, and we have no idea whether he used any of his characters as mouthpieces for his own views. There are the sonnets, of course, with which, Wordsworth claimed, Shakespeare unlocked his heart. Perhaps. But, given the endless interpretations and speculations regarding these sonnets, they seem to complicate rather than clarify matters. I personally tend to see most of the sonnets as, as it were, dramatic monologues, spoken by specific characters who may or may not be the poet himself, and the whole sequence, rather than a set of personal confessions, as more an extended and varied meditation on love, sex, and death. Such a way of looking at these sonnets may or may not have been what Shakespeare had intended, but, as ever, we can never know. The texts are there, and we interpret them as best we can; as to what they tell us about Shakespeare as a person – well, who knows?

There are, however, some points where Shakespeare clearly speaks as a poet. We know, for instance, that Shakespeare may well have felt constrained by censorship (“And art made tongue-tied by authority”, from Sonnet 66). And also that Shakespeare knew well just how good he was. For instance:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme…

(Opening lines of Sonnet 55)

That Shakespeare knew well the value of his writing does, incidentally, make it all the more unlikely that, as is sometimes contended, he wouldn’t have cared too much about how his works were adapted. But leaving that aside, these little glimpses tell us little of what kind of person he was, of what he actually thought. And this, I don’t think we can ever know. However, in observing the themes and motifs that recur in his work, we can, I think, reasonably infer at least some of the matters that preoccupied his mind.

He seemed, for some reason, to be taken with the idea of a guiltless woman falsely accused of infidelity. This occurs most spectacularly in Othello, of course, but it had also occurred earlier in Much Ado About Nothing, where it had drawn what had appeared till then to be a sunlit and happy play into a more tragic direction. It had appeared again in two of his very late plays, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale. And it had appeared in a comic key in The Merry Wives of Windsor. That Shakespeare kept coming back to this does indicate that it was a matter of some importance to him, but when we wonder why, we, as ever, draw a blank.

Another of his favourite themes was that of brotherly hate – of brother overthrowing brother to take, or usurp, his place. We see this in Richard III, As You Like It, Hamlet, King Lear. But once again, when we ask ourselves why Shakespeare kept returning this matter, we run up into that brick wall: we simply don’t know, and there’s little point trying to conjecture.

There is a third recurring theme that I can spot, and here, enquiry is, perhaps, a bit more fruitful, and that is the theme of reconciliation, both in terms of people thought lost now restored, and, also, in terms of the healing of past breaches. One of his earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors, ends with people reconciled who had long been thought dead. Of course, reconciliation is the traditional end for a comedy, but Shakespeare, it seems to me, went much further than merely the demands of the comic form; in particular, even while depicting reconciliation, he depicted also its impossibility. What sort of reconciliation can there be when there are those who will not, cannot, be reconciled? Or when the breaches of the past are so vast that they cannot be healed? Shakespeare seemed to consider this matter so seriously that he would unbalance the harmony of comedy rather than be untruthful: the fall of Shylock in the fourth act of The Merchant of Venice is so seismic, that all else seems, to me at least, to become unsettled. For Shylock cannot be reconciled: the breaches made are too wide to be smoothed over, now or ever.

In his next comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare kept his villain, Don John, a relatively minor figure, and had him conveniently removed from the dramatic action before the end, so that his downfall is, in dramatic terms at least, off-stage, and not something that interferes greatly with the general reconciliation at the end. But this reconciliation remains problematic for different reasons. Can reconciliation really be complete given what has happened? Given how Claudio has behaved, even while under a misapprehension? Shakespeare parked this particular question for the while, but was to return to it again in The Winter’s Tale. In As You Like It, Jaques, the man who cannot be reconciled, withdraws voluntarily from the reconciliatory celebrations, thus avoiding the question; but there’s no evading the issue in Twelfth Night: Malvolio is urged to forget all that has happened, and when he refuses, Olivia sends after him to ask him to return; but the very fact that the characters on stage can’t see why a man who has been sexually humiliated in public cannot return tells us all we need to know about why the reconciliation is impossible. These characters on stage may be able to forget about Malvolio in time, but we, the audience, cannot.

This discrepancy between, on the one hand, our profound desire for reconciliation, and, on the other, the impossibility of achieving it, seems to be present just about everywhere one looks in Shakespeare. Prince Hal is reconciled with his father, but that reconciliation necessitates a breach with Hal’s other father, Falstaff: the drama ends not with reconciliation, but with the cruellest of rejections. Prince Hal’s more neurotic Danish cousin, Hamlet, is not reconciled to his father, much though he longs to be: his father had died while he had been at university in Wittenberg, and when he meets his father’s ghost, there seems to be no expression of love or of tenderness on either side. Hamlet is tormented with questioning that the meeting with his father’s spirit does nothing to allay, but he must learn to live with those questions unanswered. Even at the end, there is no answer to these questions, no resolution: once life has ebbed away, the rest is mere silence.

Othello does not even look for reconciliation by the end. Though Desdemona has miraculously forgiven him, seemingly even from beyond death, Othello cannot believe there can be any reconciliation given what he has done. His despair is not merely for this world:

… when we shall meet at compt,
This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven,
And fiends will snatch at it.

And even the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia, ineffably moving though it is, is not beyond questioning. Lear imagines spending the rest of his life happily in prison with Cordelia: this may be fine for him, but hardly the life that Cordelia, for all her forgiving nature, may want for himself. And as Lear ecstatically describes the joy of spending the rest of their lives together in prison, Cordelia remains tantalisingly silent. But even Lear’s vision of happiness in a prison does not come to fruition. Lear dies knowing that Cordelia is gone, and will never come again – “never, never, never, never, never”: no reconciliation then, either in this world, or in the next.

This theme of reconciliation unmistakably comes up to the surface in the three plays often regarded (quite reasonably, I think) as Shakespeare’s last dramatic testament – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest. Cymbeline is essentially a fairy-tale, and the ending, appropriately, is a fairy-tale like ending, with the good people united and happy, and the malefactors punished (and since these malefactors are mere fairy tale villains, their punishments don’t really cast any significant shadow over the happiness of others, as the fate of Shylock had done in the earlier play). But matters are considerably more complicated in the next two plays.

In the final scene of The WInter’s Tale, miraculous in all respects, we are given what is, essentially, a vision of the Resurrection itself. As with the reconciliation scene between brother and sister towards the end of Twelfth Night, time itself seem to stand still as those who had been thought dead are restored once again to life. I find it hard, even when reading it at home, not to feel here a sense of solemn awe. And yes, there is, indeed, forgiveness, as the play that had contained so much turbulence comes to a glowing and serene end. But what sort of reconciliation is this? It is very subdued. This is not the occasion for torchlit processions of triumph through the streets. Mamilius remains dead; the years of separation and of grieving cannot be called back; all losses aren’t restored, and neither do sorrows end. But this is the best we may hope for, even with the promised Resurrection: the breaches in nature we have made in the course of our lives cannot entirely be healed.

And in The Tempest, there is no reconciliation. Prospero “forgives” only in the sense that he decides not to punish: he has clearly not, nor cannot, forgive the man “whom to call brother would even infect my mouth”. And neither is there contrition on the other side: the evil has not been defeated, and nor can it be – it continues to exist, maybe to erupt again some later day. If this is the resolution of the tempest that had raged in Prospero’s mind, then the resolution is bleak. And if this is indeed, as is often claimed, Shakespeare’s final message for posterity, I can see nothing in that message in which we can take any kind of comfort.

So what kind of man was he? What did he think about? I’m not sure any of us is sufficiently qualified to answer such questions, not even the greatest of Shakespearean scholars. Even when we think we are familiar with his work, we find ourselves, on re-reading, taken quite unexpectedly into quite unfamiliar areas. At least, I do: I freely confess that I can’t keep pace with the workings of this man’s mind. But I do think that he pondered long and hard on the question of reconciliation, on whether the brokenness of life can ever be put right, either in this world or in the next. And, if his last plays are anything to go by, I don’t think he was too optimistic on that score. There is no assurance.

Or maybe there is, and we remain most ignorant of what we’re most assured. But if there is, such assurance is beyond even Shakespeare’s vision.

“Among School Children” by W. B. Yeats: a possible interpretation

In Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the character Settembrini at one point describes music as “politically suspect”. This is, I think, intended to be comic: Settembrini is, after all, a comic character. But he is not, by any means, purely a comic character, and neither is his opinion on music merely an absurdity. What I think he means by this is that music has the capacity to touch directly our feelings, our emotions, our passions, and, in the process, to bypass our intellect. And, in a political context, bypassing our rational faculties to touch our passions is clearly dangerous, or, at the very least, suspect.

This same argument could be applied to other arts as well, as they all have the capacity to stir our passions while bypassing our intellects. That is not to say that works of art cannot or should not be subjected to intellectual rigour, but I find it difficult to believe that any of us has ever carried out an analysis of a work before deciding whether it affects us. And when it comes to artforms less abstract than music – literature, say – then Settembrini’s stricture is perhaps not as absurdly comic as it may at first sight seem.

I couldn’t help thinking of Settembrini when reading this in a recent essay by Yeats scholar Cedric Watts:

So often, the splendour of the great poem is so dazzling that we slither over the problematic passage, perhaps offering a gloss that simplifies or makes congenial what is actually uncongenial and rebarbative.

This hit home rather uncomfortably for me, as I myself have been charged by a friend, perhaps not unjustly, of similarly congenialising (here in this post) Yeats’ poem “Lapis Lazuli”. It is a charge that I cannot dismiss, as, intoxicated as I am by Yeats’ vivid imagery, his striking turns of phrase, his irresistible verbal music, it becomes all too easy – certainly for me – to allow these wondrous works to bypass my critical faculties. The truth is, I think, that I find these poems so aesthetically satisfying, that I don’t want them to be uncongenial and rebarbative. Having bypassed my intellect, these poems have already stirred my passions; and so, when I try to bring my intellect into play, it is already biased, concerned as it is not to dampen the passions already stirred.

Professor Watts, in his essay, focuses on one of Yeats’ finest (and knottiest) poems, “Among School Children”. This poem, Watts says, is “is splendid and memorable, with cunning and subtle linkages between its parts, and a mastery of euphony in its use of alliteration, rhyme and assonance”. But there follows a significant “but”:

But … I remain convinced that the penultimate stanza, stanza VII, is simply wrong, and there’s no way round it. Commentators have done their best to rescue it, but I submit that their glosses are attempts to hide what is at fault here. Furthermore, I believe that other major poems of Yeats are similarly flawed.

There follows a summary of the poem (insofar, that is, as a summary of so complex a poem is possible), and then a rather damning critique of Stanza VII. I will not attempt to summarise here Prof Watts’ argument (especially since I have provided a link to it), and I certainly won’t attempt any kind of refutation: quite apart from the impropriety of a mere enthusiastic layman such as myself to take issue with an expert, a poem as difficult as this does not and cannot have one single correct interpretation. Of course, Professor Watts is himself at odds with other Yeatsian scholars in this matter, but it is prudent, I think, to consider carefully the arguments on all sides rather than bumptiously putting forward my own.

But … yes, I can do a few buts as well … but, having said all that, I would like, if I may, to present what has been, till now at least, my own view of the poem, and allow the reader to judge whether I have, in my enthusiasm for this work, glossed over matters that are uncongenial or rebarbative. But first, the poem itself:

I

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way — the children’s eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

II

I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy —
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

III

And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age —
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddler’s heritage —
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.

IV

Her present image floats into the mind —
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once—enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

V

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth,
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

VI

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard:
Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.

VII

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

VIII

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

He first verse, after that striking opening line, is fairly straight-forward. As in “Sailing to Byzantium”, or in the opening lines of “The Tower” (both in the collection in which this poem appears), Yeats is painfully aware of his advancing years, of his ageing mortal frame; but, instead of the passionate anguish of those poems, we have here a somewhat self-mocking tone. He presents himself as a comic figure – “a sixty-year-old smiling public man”. The children stare at him in wonder, but only momentarily: he is not so interesting to warrant a longer stare. And Yeats walks through them “questioning” – asking them questions, as a sixty-year-old public man being shown around a school is expected to do, but also posing questions to himself, and, indeed, questioning himself. The rest of this poem – which actually ends with a set of questions – focuses on Yeats’ internal questionings.

The next verse seems to start on an entirely different track: “I dream of a Ledean body…” Leda, in mythology, was seduced (“raped” might be a more appropriate word to use here) by the god Zeus. From this act of sexual violence had come twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, and twin sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra will later murder her husband Agamemnon (thus playing her part in a wider cycle of violence); and the abduction of Helen, to which, depending on the telling, she may or may not have been a willing participant, will precipitate the catastrophic Trojan War. In essence, the story of Leda is the story of a violation of a young girl, the long term consequence of which is tragedy on a cataclysmic scale. The dream of a Ledean body is a dream of the darkest forebodings.

(Annotations tell me that Yeats was referring here to Maud Gonne, whom he had loved, but who had repeatedly rejected him. That may be so, but since this biographical aspect cannot be discerned from the text unless one has prior knowledge of the poet’s life, this seems to me extrinsic to the poem itself, and there’s no need, I think, to consider this in interpretation.)

Yeats’ moving from the children in the first stanza to Leda at the start of the second is abrupt, and invites us to find a connection between the two. In the legend itself, Leda’s age is unspecified: we may decide for ourselves whether she was a young woman or merely a child when she was violated by the god Zeus. But the Leda that appears in Yeats’ dreams, as lines 3-4 of this stanza tell us, is certainly a child. And here, the connections between the different threads of this poem become particularly knotty. Line 4 ends powerfully on the word “tragedy” – a word not unexpected when referring to the tale of Leda, or when referring to the wider consequences of her violation. But these lines themselves tell not of a violation or of a rape, but of a “harsh reproof, or trivial incident” – of something that is trivial to an adult, but takes on the proportions of tragedy to a child. Line 4 – “That changed some childish day to tragedy” seems to me particularly strong. So how are we to take this? Is this some gross violation that leads to cataclysm? Or is it but a trivial event that seems tragic only to a child? I personally opt for the former: the power of Line 4, ending so strikingly on the word “tragedy”, seems to me too great to refer merely to a “trivial event”. It is not, I think, that the child is imagining something trivial to be tragic, but, quite the contrary – it is something that really is tragic, but which the adult mind, possibly inured by repeated experience to human suffering, reduces to a “trivial event”.

And is that adult mind that reduces Leda’s trauma and violation to a trivial event Yeats’ own mind? I don’t see that it is. For, in the latter half of the stanza, Yeats states directly that his sympathy is entirely, and without qualification, with the child. I had to look up the reference to Plato’s parable (it refers, apparently, to a speech given to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium), but Yeats describes the nature of the child and his own adult nature, different though they are, occupying the same sphere, like the white and the yolk of an egg.

(Even given my interpretation, we are left wondering why Yeats introduces Plato at this point: but let us keep this question for later.)

The third stanza complicates matters even further. He thinks of “that fit of grief or rage” – presumably Leda’s grief and rage – and now looks at the schoolchildren, and wonders if Leda, when she had been that age before her innocence had been violated, had been like the children he sees now. Two pictures are juxtaposed and contrasted: Leda after the god-inflicted atrocity, grief-stricken and enraged; and the children, as yet innocent of all that. But then, we get a sudden twist: considering the girls at the school, Yeats starts to think not of Leda, but of Leda’s daughters (“daughters of the swan”) – Helen and Clytemnestra, harbingers of doom. Yeats refers to them not as Leda’s daughters, but as the daughters of Zeus, “daughters of the swan”, and asserts that these two daughters, who were to bring doom upon the world, had inherited something of their father – “something of the paddler’s heritage” – though what that “something” is is as yet unclear. However, with that thought, Yeats’ “heart is driven wild”. Leda, who, violated, brings forth into the world these instruments of destruction, Yeats now imagines as she had once been: “She stands before me as a living child.”

It is impossible not to associate this poem with one that appears slightly earlier in the same collection – “Leda and the Swan”. In that sonnet, Yeats describes the union between Leda and the swan, strongly hinting (though not directly stating) that this was indeed a rape, a violation. And Yeats anticipates the destruction that will come in its wake:

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower,
And Agamemnon dead.

That is, the fall of Troy as a consequence of Helen, and the killing of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra.

And, this poem also ends with a questioning: the swan, Zeus himself is “indifferent”, but did Leda “put on his knowledge with his power”? What this means isn’t entirely clear, but I take it to mean: “Did Leda absorb something of both the knowledge and the power of her violator?” And, by implication (I think), did she use that knowledge and the power to wreak destruction?

While I do not think it is reasonable to interpret a poem in the light of the author’s biography, I do think it is reasonable to find cross-references between poems in a single collection. In “Among School Children”, childhood, once violated, even or especially by a god, becomes grief-stricken, enraged, and with the power possibly absorbed from the god (as “Leda and the Swan” suggests), wreaks its revenge on the world.

Let us take stock for a moment before we lose ourselves in further complexities. Yeats, now becoming old and aware of how absurd a figure he cuts, looks upon young schoolchildren, innocent still of the ways of the world; he then thinks then of the mythical Leda, who, violated by a god, had brought forth daughters who dealt destruction to the world; and he is perturbed by the thought that Leda, before the violation, had been just like the children he sees now: so perturbed, indeed, that he finds his “heart … driven wild”. Two pictures are presented and contrasted – innocence before the violation, and the destruction that ensues afterwards, as a consequence of that violation.

In the next stanza, we once again get the comparison between these two pictures, between childhood, so full of innocence and promise, and adulthood, when both have been betrayed. Having imagined Leda as a “living child”, the poet now pictures to himself “her present image”. Once again, we know from Yeats’ biography that it was Maud Gonne he had thought of as Leda – her involvement with what Yeats considered undesirable nationalistic politics being a symbol of, or even perhaps the cause of, her particular betrayal. But I try to resist interpretations of work that are related to the artist’s biography, unless, of course, that relationship is explicitly insisted upon in the text. Here, it isn’t. We do not, I think, need specifically to identify Leda as Maud Gonne to make sense of this poem: if anything, such identification encourages us to see as specific what should, I think, be seen as general. Yeats now imagines Leda, whoever she is, as a grown woman,

Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat

The promise of childhood is betrayed. And Yeats begins to picture himself as a young man: he, too, had “pretty plumage once”. But he stops himself before he gets too far in that direction: “Enough of that …” And we have a brief reminiscence of the opening stanza:

Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

And once again, he presents himself in a self-mocking tone. The scarecrow image we have seen before: in “Sailing to Byzantium”, the opening poem of the collection in which this poem appears, we had this:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick…

But the tone there had been sad and reflective: here, the tone is comic, but the comic self-deflation does not hide the sadness.

The next stanza, the fifth, is among the saddest I have encountered, I think, in any poem. The whole stanza is one long sentence, and ends with a question mark: it is one of the many questionings in this poem. Having considered the comical figure he now cuts, aged sixty, Yeats asks himself what mother, with a newborn baby in her lap, would think her pains and her troubles would be repaid if she could but see that same child aged sixty?

Plato now reappears in the sixth stanza, alongside Aristotle and Pythagoras. Has there, I wonder, been a more eloquent and beautiful summary of Plato’s Theory of Forms than these lines?

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;

If Plato is the philosopher of ideals, Aristotle is the philosopher of the real, of the here-and-now and the down-to-earth: Yeats presents him here as chastising his pupil, later to become the world-conquering Alexander, by leathering his arse (and I suppose you can’t get more down-to-earth than that). And there’s Pythagoras as well, studying the aesthetics of music in mathematical terms. Back in the second stanza, Yeats, even when describing his deeply felt sympathy for a violated girl, had called upon an image from Plato to help express himself. That is because this is the world he inhabits: this is what comes naturally to him. But this world of classical learning no longer satisfies: Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras – these, too, are scarecrows like himself, “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”.

In “the Tower”, the title poem of the collection in which “Among School Children” appears, Yeats, after lamenting the “decrepit age that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail”, tells himself sadly that , perhaps, he has no option but “to choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend”. Plato and Plotinus then, Plato, Artistotle and Pythagoras now: good friends, perhaps, but, scarecrows all, they do not answer his questionings.

It is now that we come to the seventh stanza, the one that Professor Watts takes issue with. Let me try, without, for the moment, reference to Professor Watts’ critique, to explain how I personally see this stanza.

Yeats continues with the image of mother and child, and compares it to a new image that of the nun worshipping an image. But he immediately concedes there are differences: the images worshipped by the nun “keep a marble or bronze repose”, that is, they are still and changeless: the child that the mother worships is a living thing, and, hence, subject to change, and, inevitably, ageing and decay. But the matter is more complex. “Both nuns and mothers worship images,” the stanza begin. Nuns, it is true, worship before sculptures or icons, which are images of eternal divinity; but what is it that nuns are actually worshipping? The images themselves, or the divinity that the images represent? And, moving to the other motif of this stanza, what precisely is the image the mother is worshipping? The child on her lap? If so, what is this child an image of?

These are difficult questions, but we mustn’t shirk the questioning. I think that, in trying to answer them, we must go back to thought that “nature [is] but a spume that plays upon a ghostly paradigm of things”. The solid reality of the child on the mother’s lap, the solid reality of the icons before which the nun’s worship, are “spumes”, behind which are the ideal forms, the “ghostly paradigm of things”. But there are differences: one of these two images is of flesh and blood, and is, hence, changeable; the other isn’t. This stark dichotomy seems to lead back again to the first poem in this collection, “Sailing to Byzantium”:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is

Once he has left his fleshly form, the poet had continued, he would not wish to return to flesh, which, by its nature, decays: rather, he would take a form “such as Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enamelling” – an artifice that lasts, rather than natural flesh that doesn’t. But of course, we do not get such a choice: here, in life, Yeats has no choice but to a scarecrow, an absurd smiling sixty-year-old man who is a betrayal of the ideal his mother had once seen in him. And it is this ideal that the mother worships, an ideal which is “but a spume that plays upon a ghostly paradigm”, an ideal of which the physical child on the mother’s lap is but an image.

But this spume cannot live up to the ideal it represents. The child becomes, eventually, a scarecrow; and the icons and holy sculptures, whatever their beauty, whatever their claim to permanence, all fall short of the divinity they represent. In both cases, they break hearts. In the case of human life, god Zeus himself violates humanity, and thus prevents it living up to the ideal it had seemed to promise: the adult is a betrayal of what the child once had been. Look on this picture, and on this: in comparing the two pictures, all one can see is betrayal, disappointment, the breaking of hearts. As Yeats put it in a later poem, “Why Should not Old Men be Mad?”, should anyone look into the varied stories of life,

No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.

These images – the child, the icon – or Presences, as Yeats calls them (with a capitalised P), may symbolise all heavenly glory, but they are “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise”. I am not entirely sure how to interpret “self-born” here: I take it to mean that these are something that do not exist as absolutes in the external world, but, rather, have their source in the human mind itself – that is, their origin is our selves (hence, “self-born”). It is we who see them as images of something greater, and it is we whose hearts are, as a consequence, broken. But I may be wrong.

Now we come to the final stanza, where, even at this late stage, even in the midst of despair, Yeats suggests a possible victory that may be salvaged from this defeat. Is that labour inevitably lost that we expend upon our hopes, upon nurturing our ideals?

The final stanza opens with a set of assertions. That labour, far from being lost, Yeats asserts, is “blossoming or dancing” where “the body is not bruised to pleasure soul”; where “beauty is [not] born out of its own despair”; and where “blear-eyes wisdom [is not born] out of midnight oil”. When these conditions hold, it is no longer a case of labour won or labour lost: it is a case of labour “blossoming or dancing”, that is, of labour being a process that cannot be reduced to single states. And this blossoming, this dance, happens when the we do not neglect our physical life to enhance our spiritual; when we refuse to find aesthetic qualities in our defeat and despair; and when we similarly refuse to look for wisdom in the musty volumes of Plato, of Aristotle, or of Pythagoras. (Those attached to classical learning may wish to add the adverb “merely” to that final condition, but that is not what Yeats says.) We may look on this picture and on this, and declare our lives a failure, a defeat; but to compare still pictures one with the other, and even perhaps to find some sort of beauty in that tragedy of failure, is not where life is: it is, rather, in the process, in the arc, or, as Yeats puts it, in the “blossoming or dancing”.

In the last four lines of the poem, Yeats is again questioning, but these are no longer agonised questions: these questionings point towards a joyous reconciliation with what we are – neither the innocent child nor the absurd smiling sixty-year-old, but something far more intangible. The two questions with which the poem ends develop the two images just introduced – the blossoming, and the dancing. Is the chestnut tree, “great-rooted blossomer”, the leaf, the blossom, or the bole? Can the tree be defined, or characterised, by any single aspect of it? And finally, the dancing.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Can the dancer be defined in any way other than by the dance? And can the dance be seen independently of the dancer? It is this unity, this unity of states, this unity of the image and that which it is the image of – the icon and the divinity, the child and the “ghostly paradigm” the child represents – that we may, if we look hard enough without giving in to despair, discover what and who we are.

***

Looking back over what I have written, I cannot help but feel that were I Professor Watts’ student, he would have given me poor marks for this long, rambling, and unfocussed essay. I can only plead that I am but a retired statistician, and, not having been taught English literature formally in class since I was sixteen, I do not know how to write about these things. But I have tried, as best I can, to explain what this poem means to me. Have I, in my enthusiasm, glossed over elements that are uncongenial, or even rebarbative? Perhaps. My view on this poem is hardly the final word, after all, even to myself.

Professor Watts’ view of the poem, a result of far more extensive study and expenditure of thought than I think I could manage, I will not attempt to summarise: that would be pointless given that his essay is freely available to read in its original form. I will need to read it a few times myself to see if I could modify my own interpretation so as to incorporate his; or whether, indeed, aspects of, or the entirety of, my interpretation needs now to be jettisoned. For, after all, understanding a poem, like living life itself, is not a matter of comparing one state with another: it is, rather, a process, a blossoming, a dance.

Puzzling over “The Four Quartets”

I have spent the first few days of this new year puzzling over T. S. Eliot’s The Four Quartets.

But when have I not puzzled over these endlessly mysterious and elusive works? And will there ever be a time when I won’t be puzzling over them? As Eliot put it himself, we shall not cease from exploration. He continued:

And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Looked at logically, this does not make sense. Having declared categorically that our explorations will not end, Eliot immediately goes on to speak of the condition that will characterise the end that he has already declared will never happen.

The four poems, the “quartets”, as Eliot calls them, are full of such contradictions:

                      Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it a fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.

And a couple of lines later:

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance

Or:

Our only health is our disease

Or:

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Similes and metaphors don’t help, as they seem as obscure and as self-contradictory as that which they are ostensibly there to explicate:

                   … as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Towards the end of The Dry Salvages, the third of the four quartets, we get another passage of self-contradictions, insisting that that which is impossible is also actual:

Here the impossible union
Of spheres of existence is actual,
Here, the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled …

All those impossibilities stated elsewhere in the poem as paradoxes, as sequences of self-contradictions, nonetheless, Eliot insists, may become actual. Indeed, will become actual, here – wherever “here” is.

When I first encountered this poem, as a mere teenager, I remember thinking that whatever merits these poems had, my pitiful Euclidean mind (I was a science student) was incapable of apprehending them. The Waste Land had also struck me in the same way at first acquaintance, but that poem, while still eluding my conscious Euclidean understanding, has, over the years, become part of my mental furniture, as it were: I may not understand it, as such – not completely, at any rate – but I think I can feel it, and passages from it often come readily to mind. The Four Quartets, on the other hand, has proved a somewhat harder nut to crack. My understanding is as small as ever, but, over the last decade or so, I am beginning – only beginning, I think – to feel it.

Firstly, the title. Or titles, since it remains uncertain whether this is a single poem, or a collection of four poems. Each of these poems is titled after a place – Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding – and it isn’t too difficult to google these names, and find out where and what they are. But what significance these places have to the poetry to which they are titles is a matter open, I think, to interpretation.

These four poems were initially published separately, but Eliot was content to gather them together under one title, implying that they formed a unity of sorts. But that one title insists that they are really four. And that each one is a quartet. What did Eliot mean by this? One analysis I have read tells me that, as in a string quartet, the themes of these poems intermingle and develop with each other; but that is true of symphonies and sonatas also, and Eliot specifically says these are quartets. I’d guess that the solution to this mystery is that in each of these poems, there are four separate voices combining with each other. Different voices combine in The Waste Land also: reading that poem can seem like turning the tuning dial of a radio, and allowing the different disembodied voices from different radio stations drift in and out of hearing. But that juxtaposition of jumbled voices in The Waste Land has about it a certain vigour, almost, at times, a kind of brashness, that imparts to the poem a tremendously powerful sense of vividness and drama. The Four Quartets, in contrast, seems much more subdued in tone, much more contemplative. And what it contemplates is couched in images of seemingly impenetrable obscurity (“Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clog the bedded axle-tree”), or in paradoxes and self-contradictions, impossibilities that Eliot nonetheless insists may become actual.

But if these poems are indeed quartets, it follows that there are four voices. I have tried to identify these four voices, but have failed: I can tell, I think, when one voice is supplanted by, or modulates into, another, but I couldn’t identify and label four voices with any certainty: the number of different voices seemed to me much greater than four. Eventually, I think I managed to convince myself that it didn’t really matter. If the title The Four Quartets remains enigmatic, it is far from the only enigma in the work.

There doesn’t really seem much in all this for the Euclidean mind to latch on to, and yet I found, to my surprise, that, after many revisits over many years, certain passages did become lodged in my consciousness; and I found myself struck by wonder and by awe, as I marvelled at the beauty and the expressive power of Eliot’s verbal music – a beauty and an expressive power that had, I think, largely eluded me on earlier readings.

But what does all this amount to? What does it all mean? It’s not really a question to be asked: the poetry of T. S. Eliot, maybe even poetry in general, would largely be a closed book to the Euclidean mind that asks such a question, as the very essence of poetry seems to me to lie in the manipulation of language in order to communicate things that, were it not for the manipulation, language is not capable of communicating. This, of course, renders exegesis virtually impossible, for how can one explain something when the poet himself, who presumably has a greater command of language than the interpreter (well, this interpreter, certainly) has already communicated that which cannot be communicated any other way?

The difficulty in making words express what one means seems itself to become one of Eliot’s themes. On a number of occasions, he comments upon this difficulty in the poem itself. In one particular prosy and conversational section (as in The Waste Land, Eliot intersperses such prosy passages among passages of high poetic expressivity), Eliot comments, with delicious self-deprecation, on this disparity between what words say, and what they strive to say:

That was one way of putting it – not very satisfactory;
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with that intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings.

Towards the end of Burnt Norton, we have this:

                               Words strain,
Crack, and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

This “intolerable wrestle with words and meanings” – with these things which crack and sometimes break, which will not stay still – is in itself one of Eliot’s themes. And yet, words are all we have. They are all that Eliot, as a poet, has. And, it seems to me, what he gives us in not so much an expression of something, but an attempt to explain, a pointing towards that which would be expressed, if only it could. It cannot be expressed as it is beyond human experience: the human mind cannot envisage the still point where the dance is, where there is neither movement from nor toward, neither ascent nor decline. Such things, such impossibilities that Eliot insists may nonetheless become actuality, can, at best, be but vaguely glimpsed, and the best that the poet can do is to point towards it, to stimulate our minds using all the linguistic resources at his command, so we may turn in that direction where we may glimpse it, and where we may hear that profound silence that can only be signified by breaking that silence.

If all this sounds very religious, mystical even, then yes, that is precisely what it is: we must leave our Euclidean minds behind us here if we want to feel this poem. Eliot was, of course, a convert to Anglicanism, but the religious vision he points towards here seems to have a variety of sources, which I am not really qualified to identify or to catalogue. For instance, the Hindu concept of detachment from earthly ties is certainly present (Krishna’s address to Arjuna, which forms the text of The Bhagavad Gita, is mentioned explicitly in The Dry Salvages). Detachment from earthly ties may seem turning one’s back on the human, but, Eliot insists, the liberation that comes from such detachment does not mean less of love:

              – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire

Not less, but expanding, transcending. For how can love without desire be possible? Is love possible at all without an object of love? And if there is an object of one’s love, how can one not desire? Even if our love is to be general and altruistic – if, say, we love all humanity – would we not desire the best for humanity? But Eliot is not speaking here of ceasing to desire, but of expanding our love beyond it, transcending it. And what this expanded, transcended love may be, we do not know, and neither can we express. Eliot himself can only point towards it, again with the use of paradox and self-contradiction:

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation

The ending of Little Gidding, the last of the quartets, strikes a note of quiet and unassertive optimism, with the lines “And all shall be well / All manner of thing shall be well” (which, I’m told, are taken from the writings of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich) ringing gently through the verse:

And all shall be well
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

When asked my religion in official forms, I state (accurately, I think) “none”. But I cannot explain why I find these obviously religious lines so profoundly moving. I do not know what it is this poem, or these four poems, are pointing towards, and I cannot account for the effect they have on me.

I have, as I said, spent the last few days puzzling over these poems. Indeed, looking back, I think I have spent the greater part of my life puzzling over these poems. And I think I shall continue do so. We shall not cease from exploration. We can not!

“Little Eyolf” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself.  

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics

 

In 1958, the London premiere of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof coincided with a revival of Ibsen’s 1894 play Little Eyolf, and critics were quick in comparing the two, much to the disadvantage of Williams’ play. In New Statesman, T. C.  Worsley wrote about Little Eyolf:

Its subject is a marriage and it takes that marriage apart as frankly and twice as truthfully as, say, Tennessee Williams … and it is (written though it was in 1894) just as modern if not more so …

John Barber in Daily Express thought it made Tennessee Williams “look like pap for infants”, while Alan Brien in The Spectator wrote “[Little Eyolf] wipes the smile off your face and puts the fear of God into your heart before you can say Tennessee Williams”.

All this is undoubtedly most unfair on Tennessee Williams – who, after all, did not set out to compete with Ibsen in the first place – but I think I can understand the critics’ reactions. Tennessee Williams, after all, had the reputation of being shocking, of pushing the envelope of what could be expressed on stage; while Ibsen’s image (one which still,  I think, persists) was that of a staid and stolid bourgeois dramatist, writing rather stuffy plays set in middle class drawing rooms. (Brecht had, rather condescendingly, said of Ibsen’s plays  that they were good for his times, and for his class.) And yet here was an Ibsen play – and not even one of his better-known ones – that shocks more deeply than what was reckoned at the time to be cutting edge drama, and which, as Alan Brien put it, “puts the fear of God into your heart”.

I can certainly vouch for the effect it has in performance. I have been to two productions, both performed (as it ideally should be, I think) in a small, intimate space; and both times, even though I knew the content, I was left shaken. My wife said to me on coming out of the first of these performances that she needed a stiff drink: I have never heard her say this before or since. She declined the suggestion that she accompany me to another performance of this play, so emotionally harrowing and draining did she find it, and it was only my own obsession with Ibsen, coupled, I guess, with a strong streak of masochism, that persuaded me to repeat the experience. And I remember taking the train back home afterwards, and thinking: “Did Ibsen really expect people to pay to spend an evening having their souls harrowed in this manner?” But I suppose that, by this stage of his artistic career, Ibsen was writing primarily for himself, and using drama, that most public of literary art forms, to express his most private of thoughts. This is not to say that he was writing autobiography: but it is to say, I think, that he was not prepared to compromise, to sweeten the pill, or to any way dilute the strength of his moral and artistic vision. Little Eyolf is a short play – much shorter than works such as, say, A Doll’s House or An Enemy of the People: but, remarkable though those earlier works were, Ibsen had now developed ways of saying much more with much less: the unyielding and almost ruthless concentration of Little Eyolf is in itself terrifying.

The play actually opens in middle class surroundings – “an elegant, lavishly appointed conservatory”, says the stage direction – with a view of the fjord through the French  windows. In the second act, we are outside, in the open air, by the shores of the fjord, and the dialogue seems to return almost obsessively to the depths of the waters, in which the child Eyolf had drowned, and from which the powerful undercurrents had carried his body out into the open sea. In the third and final act, we climb upwards: we are once again in the open air, and we look down upon the fjord below. This movement from indoors to the open air, and the vertical journeying – first downwards towards the depths, and then upwards towards the peaks – reflect the emotional temperature of the various parts of the play. The bourgeois certainties that seem implied by the “elegant, lavishly appointed conservatory” seem blown away by the end of Act 1, and in the middle act, we are forced to look into the darkest depths of the human soul. But towards the end of this act, an unforgettable image develops – of water-lilies that shoot up from the unfathomed depths of the waters and bloom suddenly and unexpectedly upon the surface. This image refers to all sorts of things. It refers to thoughts and perceptions hidden deep within our unconscious, that suddenly, and without warning, manifest themselves; and it also refers, I think, to the possibility of our rising from the depths. It is this possibility – possibility, nothing more – that the play settles upon in the beautiful but deeply uncertain final act, set high above the fjord. This final act is difficult to bring off, and many have found it disappointing. Viewed superficially, it may even seem that Ibsen is copping out – that, having presented us with the profound agony of the soul, he is merely suggesting a simplistic way out for these characters. Rita Allmers speaks of running an orphanage for homeless children, and her husband, Alfred, asks to join her. It may seem facile, perhaps even sentimental. But it is dangerous to look at anything in this play merely on the surface. When, after the first performance of the play, someone had said to Ibsen that they couldn’t imagine Rita running an orphanage, Ibsen had seemed surprised, and had asked: “Do you really think she would?” Ibsen was not depicting moral redemption in the final act; but he was depicting, I think, the possibility of these people, who, for all their flaws, are not evil, recognising the emptiness within themselves, and, at least, searching for something with which to fill that emptiness. Rita says this quite explicitly:

You’ve created an empty space inside me. And this I have to try to fill with something. Something resembling love of a sort.

Something resembling love of a sort. This is one of the most haunting lines that Ibsen ever wrote. Here are people, aware of the emptiness inside them, and knowing that, to continue to live as humans, they need to fill that emptiness with human love; but also knowing that this is precisely what they cannot do. So they try to fill that space with something – something resembling love. The means to climb higher isn’t there – not yet, anyway – but the aspirations are, and that is what matters. Brecht’s play The Life of Galileo had ended with the magnificent line “We are only at the beginning!” And at the end of Little Eyolf, that is precisely where we are: only at the beginning. As with Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment, or Levin at the end of Anna Karenina, Rita and Alfred have a long and uncertain journey still to undertake.

This final scene is difficult to bring off in performance, but I know from having experienced it that it can be done, and that when it is, the effect is unlike anything I think I have experienced in the theatre. It doesn’t wipe out the terror and the pity we had experienced earlier: one still leaves the theatre somewhat traumatised. But one does not leave in utter despair either.

But, to get to this point, where Rita and Alfred come to an understanding of the emptiness of their souls, and to an understanding of their need to fill that emptiness at least with “something resembling love”, we, like the characters, have to make a long journey. And it is this journey that forms the action of the play.

It all starts innocuously enough, in a wealthy middle class household. At the start, we see Rita, seemingly delighted that her husband Alfred had arrived home unexpectedly early the previous night from some trip he had undertaken. We see also Asta, Alfred’s half-sister: she and Rita appear to be on good terms. The only fly in the ointment appears to be Rita’s and Alfred’s ten-year son, Eyolf, who, disabled, can only hobble on his crutch. But otherwise, we appear to see a close-knit, loving family.

Eyolf, naturally, would like to be able to play with the other children, but, because of his disability, he cannot. Little Eyolf wants to be a soldier, but the other boys tell him this is impossible. “How this gnaws at my heart,” says Alfred softly to Rita. This “gnawing” becomes a sort of leitmotif in the rest of the play: we hear it often. And, soon after it is first mentioned, we have the emergence of the mysterious “Rat Maid”, a woman who rids houses of rats.  “Would your lordships have anything a-gnawing here in the house?” she asks.

The appearance of the Rat Maid at just this point, repeating the image of “gnawing”, warns us that we are not inhabiting the very strictly realist world Ibsen had presented in the earlier plays of this cycle. In a sense, all plays involve the use of co-incidence: for a satisfying arc of action to play itself out in some two hours on the stage, the various incidents that define the arc, the various comings and goings, have to be carefully co-ordinated, creating co-incidences that novelists writing in the same realist tradition would normally try to avoid. The skill of the dramatist often lies in camouflaging these co-incidences, so the audience doesn’t notice the breaches in the naturalistic surface. But Ibsen, in his late plays, seemed to go out of his way to point them out. So in The Master Builder, say, immediately after Solness had spoken about the younger generation toppling the older, and of how youth will come “knocking at the door”, we hear Hilde’s knocks. Dr Herdal even points this out. Similarly here. Soon after Eyolf hears about the Rat Maid from his aunt Asta, and finds herself fascinated by her;and soon after Alfred speaks of his son’s disability “gnawing” at his heart; the Rat Maid appears in person, and asks if there is anything “a-gnawing” in the house. We do not need to examine the text closely to pick up the reference.

The consequence of pointing out rather than trying to hide the breaches in surface realism is to move the play away from a strictly realist plane, and to focus our minds on matters more abstruse. The Rat Maid has come to rid the house of that which is gnawing: she may mean rats, but we know what is gnawing at Alfred’s heart. The Rat Maid  then proceeds to explain how she gets rid of the gnawing rats: she  walks around the house tree times, and then plays the Jew’s harp; and  when the rats hear her, they come out of the cellars, and they follow her. And she leads them to the water, sets sail in her boat, and the rats, following her, drown.

THE RAT MAID: … All those creeping, crawling creatures they follow us and follow us, out into the waters of the deep. Aye because they must, you see.

EYOLF Why must they?

THE RAT MAID: Simply because they don’t want to. Because they’re so mortal afraid of the water – so they must go out into it.

EYOLF: Do they drown then?

THE RAT MAID: Every last one.

We seem very far now from the bourgeois drawing-room realism that the opening of this play may have suggested.  The Rat Wife seems (like the Button Moulder in Peer Gynt) to be a figure out of folklore. Parallels with the Pied Piper of Hamelin seem, and are no doubt intended to seem, obvious. First, the Pied Piper had rid the town of rats; and then, he had rid the town of children. That which gnaws at the heart will soon be got rid of, rats or chikdren: they’ll go because they don’t want to.

So it comes as little surprise when, by the end of this first act, Eyolf really is drowned in the fjord: the Rat Maid had played her Jew’s harp, and Eyolf had followed, presumably because he didn’t want to. And, being disabled, he could not swim. He was doomed by his disability.

But before this happens, Ibsen, perhaps rather unexpectedly given the almost dreamlike scene with  the Rat Maid that had preceded it, plunges us into a scene between Alfred and Rita – a scene of the most utmost and violent passion. Alfred, we learn, had returned the previous night from a trek across the mountains, and he had had some sort of experience there – the true nature of which he does not spell out. But he has returned from the trip with a new resolution. Till now, he had devoted himself to what he felt would be his life’s work – a philosophical treatise, “On Human Responsibility”. But now, he feels, he knows what his own true responsibility is: not his writing, but his son, Eyolf. From now on, he will devote his time, his entire life, to the welfare of his poor, crippled boy.

But Alfred had not thought about Rita. Indeed, despite having been married for so many years, he barely knows her. But Rita knows herself – perhaps too well:

ALFRED [softly, eyeing her steadily]: Many’s the  time when I’m almost afraid of  you, Rita.

RITA [ darkly]: I’m often afraid of myself. Which is exactly why you mustn’t rouse the wickedness in me.

And then, in a scene of quite shocking frankness, it all comes out: Rita cannot keep it in. She desires Alfred – physically. And he is unable to return her passion. The previous night, when he had returned unexpectedly, she had brought out the champagne: but he had not drunk from it. It hardly needs spelling out further. Alfred has either become sexually uninterested in her, or has become impotent: either way, he is unable to respond to her still flaming sexual desire.

RITA: … And there was champagne on the table.

ALFRED: I didn’t drink any.

RITA [eyeing him bitterly]: No, that’s true. [Laughing shrilly] “You had champagne, but you touched it not,” as the poet says.

Rita says openly she wants Alfred for herself, and is not prepared to share him with anyone. She sees Asta, Alfred’s half-sister, as coming between them. And she sees her own child, Eyolf, also as a barrier.

RITA: Oh, you have no idea of all that could rise up in me, if –

ALFRED: If – ?

RITA: If I felt that you no longer cared about me. No longer loved me as you used to.

ALFRED: Oh, but Rita, my dearest – the process of human change over the years – this is bound to take place in our life too. As it does in everyone else’s.

RITA: Not in me! And I won’t hear of any change in you either. I wouldn’t be able to bear it, Alfred. I want to keep you all to myself.

And those who she feels comes between them, with whom she feels she must share her husband, are Asta, and her own son Eyolf.

Alfred is shocked – even more so, when, soon afterwards, Rita refers to “a child’s evil eye”. And it is at this point the tragedy happens – the tragedy that had been so clearly foreshadowed earlier. Ibsen, highlighting the mechanics of the drama rather than attempting to camouflage them, ends the act with a hubbub from the fjord: a boy has drowned. And yes, we know who boy is: Eyolf had slipped out unnoticed, and that which had gnawed at the heart has been taken away by the Rat Maid. Little Eyolf is dead.

The middle act of Little Eyolf is possibly the darkest, most harrowing thing Ibsen ever wrote. We are at the bank of the fjord. Alfred and Rita haven’t spoken to each other since their child’s death, and Alfred is sitting on his own, staring out at the sea, but he knows his son’s body does not lie in the depths: there is a powerful undertow, a hidden current, that has carried Little Eyolf away. Alfred tries to make sense of what has happened, but cannot find any pattern to anything: it all seems to him entirely random, utterly pointless: reason has no part to lay, for there is no reason to anything. It just happens.

Asta appears, and they find themselves reminiscing about their past together. After their father had died, they had lived together, half-brother and half-sister. It had been a hand-to-mouth existence, but it seems, in retrospect, like some prelapsarian paradise: they had been happy. They remember how Asta used to dress up in men’s clothes, and how she used to call herself Eyolf. It is clear how fond they had been of each other, and how fond they remain; it is equally clear that their feelings  for each other had been more than merely that of brother and sister – indeed, in that detail of Asta dressing up as a man, there are more than hints of a certain homo-eroticism. But their relationship, as siblings, had been chaste. And for this reason, they can look back on it as, essentially, innocent.

But suddenly, Alfred pulls up short: while they had been reminiscing, he had forgotten about Little Eyolf.

ALFRED: Here I was living in memories, and he wasn’t part of them.

ASTA: Oh yes, Alfred, Little Eyolf was there behind it all.

ALFRED: He wasn’t. He slipped out of my mind. Out of my thoughts.

Alfred is horrified at himself: how could something such as this, even momentarily, slip out of his mind? And neither is this the first time this has happened. He admits to Asta that as he had been sitting there, staring out at the fjord, he had found himself wondering what they would be having for dinner that night. Alfred vaguely senses that he may not truly have loved his son, and the very possibility horrifies him.

The main section of this act is taken up with Alfred and Rita. They had been avoiding each other, but there’s no avoiding anything now. They must face the truth – about each other, about themselves. Rita tells Alfred how, when Eyolf had first fallen into the clear water, the other boys playing there had seen him lie at the bottom, his eyes open, and Alfred responds

ALFRED [rising slowly, and regarding her with quiet menace]: Were they evil, those eyes, Rita?

RITA [blanching]: Evil – !

ALFRED [going right up to her]: Were they evil eyes, staring upwards? From down there in the depths?

RITA [backing away]: Alfred – !

ALFRED [following her]: Answer me that! Were they evil child’s eyes?

RITA [ screaming] Alfred! Alfred!

Rita seems to crumble under the weight of Alfred’s accusation. She has no answer to this: her grief is compounded by her guilt. Alfred remarks bitterly that it is now as she had wished – that little Eyolf will no longer come between them. But Rita knows better: “From now on more than ever, maybe.”

But Alfred is hardly innocent himself. Rita accuses him of never really having loved Eyolf either. He used to spend all his time writing his book on “human responsibility”, of all things, and had no time for his son. He protests that he gave the book up for little Eyolf’s sake, but she knows her husband well:

RITA: Not out of love for him.

ALFRED: Why then, do you think?

RITA: Because you were consumed by self-doubt. Because you had begun to wonder whether you had any great vocation to live for in the world.

Alfred finds he cannot deny this. It is true, and Rita had noticed. But Alfred has one further accusation to fling at Rita: Eyolf’s disability,  the reason Eyolf couldn’t save himself when he had fallen into the water, was Rita’s fault. When he had been a baby, they had left him sleeping soundly on the table, lying snugly among the pillows.

ALFRED: … But then you came, you, you – and lured me to you.

RITA [eyeing him defiantly]: Oh why don’t you just say you forgot the baby and everything else?

ALFRED [with suppressed fury]: Yes, that’s true. [More softly] I forgot the baby – in your arms!

RITA [shocked] Alfred! Alfred – that’s despicable of you!

Alfred accepts his part in his guilt too. So there may have been a pattern to it after all, he reflects grimly: Eyolf’s death may have been “retribution”. But this is merely posturing. As the scene progresses, and the two torture each other and themselves, and they strip away from each other all the lies they had surrounded themselves with, until they face their naked unadorned souls. They had, neither of them, truly loved Eyolf: he had been a stranger to them both. Alfred asks Rita if she could leave behind all that is earthly, if she could make the leap to that other world and be united with Eyolf again, would she do so? After hesitating a while, she finds that she has no option now but to be honest with herself: no, she would not. Alfred too has to be honest with himself: he would not either. They are both creatures of this earth – this world, not any other world.

And Alfred has one final terrible truth he has to acknowledge. He had married Rita not for love of her, for security – security for himself, and, more importantly, security for his beloved Asta. It is for her sake that he had married Rita, and had come into possession of her “green and gold forests”. Between him and Rita, there had been sexual attraction, yes, but not love, not really love.

Throughout this remarkable scene, Ibsen weaves various motifs and images, that all appear to mean far, far more than what they ostensibly signify: the powerful undercurrent that sweeps all away; the open eyes of the drowning child; the floating crutch; the insistent and implacable “gnawing” at their hearts; the green and gold forests; and, finally, the beautiful and mysterious image of the lilies that shoot up from  the dark and mysterious depths of the water and bloom upon the surface. For all the harrowing nature of the content, this act is also very deeply poetic, and, in a certain sense, beautiful.

There is one further revelation before the act ends. This is something Asta had been trying to tell Alfred before, but couldn’t. However, when Alfred, convinced that he and Rita could no longer carry on living with each other, proposes to Asta that the two of them depart and live together as they used to, she has to tell him: they cannot live together as they used to: Asta has recently discovered that her birth was the consequence of an affair her mother had had, and that, hence, there is no blood tie between her and Alfred. Their past days of seeming innocence had not really been so innocent after all, and those days can no longer be recaptured.

Having reached the very bottom, there is nowhere further  for Alfred and Rita to go. The last act remains for many problematic, but I find myself agreeing with translator and biographer Michael Meyer that, in this act, Ibsen achieved precisely what he had wanted.

Alfred and Rita, now frightened of being left alone together, beg Asta to stay, but she too is frightened. She had previously rejected the proposal of Borghejm, a gentle and pleasant man who is clearly besotted with her. Borghejm is an engineer, a road-builder, and, for him, life is simple: when you have obstacles in road building, you get rid of the obstacles. It’s straightforward. And so in life. Not for him the tortured doubts and mental lacerations. Now, faced with the possibility of staying on with Alfred and Rita, Asta changes her mind about Borghejm, and accepts his proposal. And she leaves behind Alfred and Rita, alone with each other, and both aware of their incapacity to love, and of the essential emptiness within themselves; and aware also of the need to fill that emptiness with something.

***

I find Little Eyolf the most terrible, and yet, in some ways, the most beautiful and poetic of Ibsen’s plays. He examines once again human lives lived on lies, on self-deceptions; he examines once again the cold emptiness within us – those “ice-churches”, as he had characterised it in Brand. He takes us through the most harrowing and traumatic of journeys. When Alfred Allmers had been trekking through the mountains, he had strayed from the path, and had become lost in the wilderness. Death, he says later, seemed to him, as it were, to be a travelling companion. He had, eventually, found the path again, but his brush with death had compelled him to re-examine himself: he would now discard his precious writing, and spend all his time with Little Eyolf. But this too was yet another lie, yet another self-deception: after Little Eyolf’s death he is forced to admit that he had been motivated not by love for the child, as he had tried to persuade himself, but by doubts about his own ability. But now, with no more illusions, he has to try to understand what his experience in the mountains had really meant. And he sees within himself the same emptiness that Rita sees within herself: in this, at least, the two are united. And he, too, sees the need, as Rita puts it, of filling that emptiness with something resembling love.

Impressions of Florence, and of Michelangelo

It is difficult to be in Florence and not have one’s head full of lofty thoughts: it’s the city of Dante and Michelangelo, after all. And it is equally difficult to be in Florence and not get fleeced, for it is also, traditionally, a banking city, a city for making money. You have paid to see the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo? Yes, of course you have. You don’t come all the way to Florence without seeing some of Michelangelo’s most astounding sculptures. But if you think that ticket entitles you to walk into the basilica, then think again. Well, I thought again, and, since I was there, I figured I might as well pay a bit more to enter the basilica. That library in the San Lorenzo is of Michelangelo’s design, and is reputed to be very beautiful, and naturally, I was keen to see that. So I bought my ticket, and headed for the library. But no – my ticket is for the basilica only: you need to get another ticket for the library, sir. And so on.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to carp about the money. Although, I do admit I couldn’t help thinking of Rome which we had visited about three years ago, and where entry to all the various churches, even the St Peter’s, was actually free. Admittedly, you paid to see the Sistine Chapel, but if you wanted to see Michelangelo’s Pietà, say, or the great Caravaggio paintings in the San Luigi dei Francesi, you just walked in. Perhaps I should be praising Roman generosity rather than moaning about Florentine commerce. For, after all, those extra euros did not inhibit the loftiness of thought to which the rightly fabled Florentine art all too easily gives rise. Well, perhaps they did a little, but only a little: I like to think, at least, that I am not as mean and as petty as my opening paragraph may perhaps have suggested.

Michelangelo-David

For how can one stand before Michelangelo’s statue of David, graceful and noble and suffused with what I can only describe as a sort of radiance, and not have Hamlet’s paean to mankind going round one’s head? What a piece of work is Man, indeed! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, and all the rest of it. In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a God. But then, afterwards, intoxicated with such lofty thoughts, I find myself in one of the many tourist tat shops (which, despite my loftiness, I love), and spy a postcard picturing a close-up of the genitals of this same noble David, with dark glasses sketched in at the base of the penis, and the upturned mouth of a smiley face drawn across the scrotum. I doubt that even as a sniggering dirty-minded schoolboy I would have found this particularly funny. All that loftiness seemed suddenly deflated, and not in a manner I found myself comfortable with – although, I suppose, those of a more cynical frame of mind than mine may perhaps differ on this point. How was it Hamlet’s speech ended again? Ah yes – Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither.

That afternoon, I was sitting outside a café, reading a book. (Yes, it was Dante, since you ask.) A middle-aged man and an elderly lady walked up to the café, and he asked her, in English, if she would like to sit outside. “No,” I heard her reply, “it smells too much of people.” I am sure I didn’t mishear her. There was no reason to think the remark was directed specifically at me: I was not the only one sitting outside, and neither was I the one nearest them, so there was no reason to take offence personally. Naturally, I tried to construct a story to go with this lady’s rather extraordinary comment. Of course, she could simply have been very eccentric and very rude. But I pictured to myself a much younger lady, with a formidable mind and a keen aesthetic sense; she had loved art, and had always promised herself a visit to Italy, to see some of the great masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance; but the years passed by, as they do, and now, in what is merely early old age – her mid-sixties, perhaps, only a few years older than I am now – she has been diagnosed with an early onset of dementia. And, in the shadow of this impending tragedy, her dutiful son is fulfilling her lifetime’s dream, showing her around Florence while her weakening mind is still capable of taking it in.

Of course, I could have got a few details wrong. Indeed, my entire story could be utter nonsense. I do not insist on it. But I was, I admit, rather moved by my own construction. And that strange line she spoke – “it smells too much of people” – kept resonating in my mind. Let me kiss that hand: let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality.

MediciMadonna

The next day, we were at the Medici Chapel. I wasn’t thinking about the expense, honestly: I was grateful just to be there. At the altar of this chapel was a Madonna and child, with the upper part of the child’s torso turned towards the Madonna – contrapposto, as I believe such twisting of the body is known – and the Madonna herself wearing an expression of infinite sadness. This Madonna seems already to be anticipating her part in the Pietà, when the twisting baby now upon her knee would become so cruelly transformed. Of course, foreknowledge of tragedy in depictions of Madonna and child is fairly commonplace, but this sculpture seems drenched in a sorrow that appears to overwhelm everything else. To my eyes, anyway. But maybe that lady I had encountered the previous day was still in my mind.

On two opposite walls of the chapel, facing each other, are the two Medici tombs, for Lorenzo and Giuliano, two relatively minor figures (historically speaking, that is) of that famous family. In niches on the wall above the two tombs are highly stylised and idealised sculptures of Lorenzo and Giuliano. But it’s the monumental figures immediately on top of the tombs that take one’s breath away. On Giuliano’s tomb, there are figures representing Night and Day; on Lorenzo’s, there are similarly two figures, this time representing Dawn and Dusk. Four times of the day, four phases of our existence: birth, life, old age, death. There is about Michelangelo’s work an intense ingrained seriousness. In his younger days, he had sculpted a Bacchus (now in the Bargello Museum in Florence), depicting a young man holding a cup of wine, with a glazed, vacant expression on his face, and, quite clearly, unsteady on his feet. It remains a quite delightful celebration of inebriation, one with which, I admit, I can readily identify. But such youthful frivolity was far behind Michelangelo now (as I fear it also is with me): his mind had now moved on to other regions – regions that ordinary mortals such as I cannot perhaps inhabit too long without feeling a bit giddy.

Michelangelo-night

Night is a sleeping woman – but whether she is sleeping serenely or uneasily, it is hard to say. On the one hand, she leans her head rather precariously upon her hand; but then again, the expression on her face appears undisturbed. Her body is not that of the fresh and young maiden: this is the body of someone who has borne children. And yet, there is also a certain beauty to the body – not the untouched beauty of youth and its vacancy of expectation, but the beauty of one who has lived, of one who has experienced life’s fitful fever.

michelangelo-day

Day is frankly terrifying. He is a giant, titanic in strength. The legs are crossed, the upper part of his torso turned away from us towards his left, and the head turned back again to his right over his shoulder – the entire form twisted in a sort of double contrapposto. (I don’t know if that is a proper term, but since I have now written it, it might as well stay.) The head is unfinished, whether deliberately or otherwise I do not know, and its rough, inchoate texture seems to heighten a sense of menace. And throughout that body, the muscles are taut, tense, stretched to the utmost, straining at the very limits of what is possible. His left arm is folded behind his back, with veins on his forearm bulging prominently. There is nothing here of the grace and the radiance of David: what we have instead is a sense of raw concentrated strength, and also, I think, a fury – a fury at having reached the limits of the physical, and of striving vainly but defiantly to transcend them.

michelangelo_dusk

All passion seems spent in Dusk. This is a man who had once been as strong and as powerful as Day, but those muscles are now sagging. As with Day, the legs are crossed, but now, there is a sense of resignation in the posture. His flaccid penis lies almost apologetically upon his thigh, and the head, also in a somewhat unfinished state, seems held up with effort. The battle has been fought and lost, and there is little dignity in defeat, except, perhaps, what dignity there is in a weary acceptance.

Michelangelo-Dawn

And there’s Dawn, a nude woman, graceful in posture, but with an expression of intense sorrow upon her hauntingly beautiful face, recalling the sorrow on the face of the Madonna with the infant Christ upon her knee. This is Dawn born with the foreknowledge of what is to come: vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose – themes of an embittered heart, or so it seems.

But I don’t know that Michelangelo’s heart was embittered, as such. Certainly the Michelangelo who sculpted these figures was a very different Michelangelo from the young man who had sculpted David, and who, in the Vatican Pietà, had found a transcendent beauty even in death and in grief. These astounding figures in the Medici Chapel seem to me the work of a deeply troubled man, a man disturbed by the smell of mortality, but not a man who turns away from that smell in disgust.

In his old age, Michelangelo turned back to the theme of his first great triumph – the Pietà. There are three late Pietàs, all unfinished, one disfigured (by himself, in a fit of divine dissatisfaction), and another of doubtful provenance. This last, known as The Palestrina Pietà, is in the Accademia in Florence, and, whoever the sculptor may have been, it is a moving work: in contrast to the youthful Pietà in the Vatican, Christ’s body here is vertical, and Mary, standing behind him, is striving  to hold up the weighty, inert mass. The very last Pietà, known as The Rondanini Pietà, is in Milan, and I have only seen it in reproduction: once again, the thrust is vertical, with Mary standing behind Christ, striving to hold up the body. But individual features are removed, and the two bodies seem almost to merge into one. Michelangelo here seems intent upon removing anything that is not essential, leaving behind only the essence, a sort of abstraction, of those themes of death and of grief that appear to have haunted him so.  Seemingly, he was working on this right up to the day of his death, aged 89.

Michelangelo Pietà Bandini

And there is a there is a third unfinished Pietà, known as The Bandini Pietà, in the Museo del Opera del Duomo in Florence. Michelangelo had worked on this for some eight years in his 70s, but, for reasons still subject to scholarly debate, in 1555, aged 80, he took a hammer to it. Much of it has been reconstructed from the broken fragments, but Christ’s left leg, presumably beyond repair, is missing. And the figure of the Magdalene, under Christ’s right arm, was finished by another hand. It shows: competent though the Magdalene is, compared to the intense expressivity of the rest of the group, it is, frankly, rather bland.

Here, once again, the figure of Christ is vertical, and Mary, here crouching, is trying desperately to hold up the inert mass of his body. Her face is close to his, and the propinquity is more than merely physical. Christ’s right leg zigzags across the lower part of the group, while his left arm, reconstructed from the broken fragments, hangs loose and twisted, its once powerful muscles now incapable. Above these two figures is the hooded figure of Nicodemus (possibly a self-portrait of the artist), leaning forward, and looking down upon this desolate scene with the utmost compassion. I do not think I have seen a visual depiction of mortality and of mourning that is quite so powerfully affecting as this.

One cannot, as I say, remain on these heights for any length of time without beginning to feel giddy. This may have been an emotional world that Michelangelo no doubt inhabited every day, but ordinary mortals like myself need to climb down after a while to the lower slopes. Maybe go into a café, and not mind that it smells too much of people.

Of course, there is much, much more to see in Florence. We were there for five days, but that’s hardly adequate. Merely looking at a painting or a sculpture for a few seconds, or even for a minute or two, and then passing on, is like listening to music in the background while doing something else: it’s not quite taking it in. One really needs a lifetime to truly absorb all the riches. But we all have our lives to get on with: one takes in what one can in the time one has, and is grateful for the opportunity of doing so. Yes, I had my head filled with lofty thoughts; and some very troubling ones too.  But then, I need that glass of Chianti. And – I won’t hide it – something a bit lighter, perhaps, than Dante.

Completing the set

“Why seems it so particular with thee?”

Poor Gertrude never could understand. Why is someone else so bothered by something when it doesn’t bother me? We are all like that, if we’re honest with ourselves. Our own hobbyhorses we take seriously, but other peoples’ are … well, they’re a bit silly, aren’t they? There’s our boy getting worked up because he has got the tiniest dent in his trombone. Look, I explain to him, the dent is so small one can hardly see it with the naked eye; and what’s more, it doesn’t affect the sound. Why seems it so particular with thee? Or there’s my wife worrying about some pot plant that, despite all the care and attention and watering it could possibly ask for, seems quite clearly to be on its last legs. It’s only a pot plant, I explain sagely; why seems it so particular with thee? Get another bloody pot plant when this one dies!

Well, actually, no – I don’t say that. I’m not quite the insensitive yob I sometimes make myself out to be. But I’d be lying if I were to say I didn’t think it. However, regardless of what I may or may not have said, my wife knows me well enough by now to know that I was thinking it. And …

But let’s not go there. The point, I think, has been amply demonstrated: if something doesn’t particularly bother us, we think it unreasonable that it should bother anyone else.

When I was a lad, I remember, we – that is, all the other boys in my class, the girls being too sensible for this sort of thing – used to collect football cards. Small packets containing a bit of bubble gum, and three pictures of footballers then playing in the league. And it was vitally important to get the whole set. I remember still the disappointment when I opened a newly purchased packet, and found that I already had the cards it contained. Of course, I could try to swap them for others I didn’t have, but it wasn’t always easy to get the ones I was missing. And my mother, I remember, was a bit nonplussed by all this. “Why seems it so particular with thee?” she asked. Or she would have done had she affected a Shakespearean diction.

Or take what happened to me recently. We were out shopping, when I happened to chance upon a reflection of myself in a shop window, and found, to my horror, that I had a few grey hairs in my moustache all congregated together right under my left nostril, and making it look for all the world as if I had forgotten to blow my nose. And I couldn’t get this thought out of my mind. Passers-by, I imagined, were all staring at me, and, I’m sure, shunning me, not wishing, understandably, to come close to some dirty bugger with semi-liquid snot dribbling all down his moustache. And it is not vanity that made me want to go home immediately and apply the scissors to the offending grey hairs. My wife told me I was being too sensitive, and that no-one was thinking what I thought they were thinking. But I could tell by the look in their eyes that they did. Once again, why seemed it so particular with me?

More recently – to return this post to a suitably literary theme – I reported on my failure to appreciate Dante. Fine, people told me. We can’t all like everything. Shrug your shoulders and move on. But once again, I can’t. Over the years, I have come into contact with many of the major pillars of the Western literary traditions. Shakespeare I guess I’m a bit obsessed with; Cervantes I love; I have a healthy respect and admiration for Homer and for Virgil; and I now need Dante to complete the set. Don’t ask why: I just do.

Well, tomorrow we go to Florence. Tickets are already booked for the Uffizi and the Pitti, the Accademia, San Marco, The Medici Chapel, the Brancacci Chapel, the Duomo museum, the Bargello … each costing a bloody fortune, I know, but it has to be done. And, given many of these places are closed in the afternoons, I think I’ll be spending quite a bit of time sitting in Florentine cafes. And what better place to try once again to get to grips with Dante?

Following some advice after putting up the last post, I have bought myself Prue Shaw’s introduction to the CommediaReading Dante; and I have bought (and thoroughly enjoyed) a witty comic strip rendition of Inferno, illustrated by Hunt Emerson, and with a text by Kevin Jackson. This latter purchase may not, perhaps, have enhanced my understanding as such, but it was a genuine pleasure to encounter erudition so lightly-worn, and such affection and respect displayed without a trace of pomposity or hushed-tone reverence. And as for the former, I have been glued to this all last weekend. Enthusiasm is such an infectious thing! I find myself happy just to see someone’s enthusiasm, even enthusiasms I may happen not to share.

Dante

With football cards, I never did get the whole lot. It is now my belief that they used deliberately to withhold a few footballers to encourage kids to spend more pennies trying to complete the set. Bastards. But this is a different matter entirely. Tomorrow morning, we fly to Florence, and damned if I don’t get Dante this time. Why seems it so particular with me? Nay, it is – I know not seems.

Boris and the Vixen

I hope I’m not disappointing anyone, but this post is going to be about opera.

More specifically, about two of my personal favourite operas – Mussorgsky’s  Boris Godunov, and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen – performances of which I had the privilege of attending over the last week.

Other than their both originating from Eastern Europe (one is Russian, the other Czech), and apart from their both being among my personal favourite works, they have little in common. Except, perhaps, that, each in its own way, they’re both quite unusual operas. Mussorgsky’s opera, based on  Pushkin’s sprawling epic play, is itself a sprawling epic opera, but seems rather strangely structured: the central character Boris appears in only four of its seven scenes (in four of its nine scenes in the later 1873 version); and there are long scenes, taking up substantial parts of the opera, that seem at best only tangentially related to the central plot, making one wonder just what they are doing there. This was perhaps inevitable given that Mussorgsky (who was librettist as well as composer) had to radically cut down the text of Pushkin’s play, reducing twenty-five scenes merely to seven: this inevitably results in some narrative discontinuities, where the audience has to fill in the gaps for themselves, and also in a few threads that don’t appear to lead anywhere. It’s a work that seems to want to expand further than what can reasonably be accommodated in a single evening’s performance.

Janáček’s opera is even stranger: it is based not on a play or even a novel, but on a comic strip in a newspaper; it is virtually plotless (a summary of the incidents that occur don’t really amount to what most of us would recognise as a plot); and it tells of the interactions between humans and animals in a woodland setting. Hardly the stuff of traditional opera.

But we shouldn’t wonder at their strangeness: all works of genius are strange to some extent or other. Boris Godunov, like Mussorgsky’s later opera Khovanschina (which was left unfinished), takes us to a turbulent period of Russian history. (Although we may wonder whether there has ever been a time in Russian history that wasn’t turbulent.) The period is the late 16th century: Boris is asked by the populace to accept the crown, to prevent further civil warfare and bloodshed. He agrees, but his very first words set the tone: “My soul is heavy”. Yes, soul: this is a very Russian opera after all.

The version I saw last week performed by the Royal Opera was the earlier, and more compact, 1869 version. It is not a version I am familiar with: the recording I have (and through which I know the piece), conducted by Claudio Abbado, appears to use the longer later version from 1873, but includes also a scene from the earlier version that Mussorgsky had taken out. The differences between the 1869 and the 1879 are fascinating, but it would take a greater Mussorgsky scholar than myself to write a proper analysis of it. As for as I can see, Mussorgsky, for his later version, stripped out a brief scene in which Boris encounters the Holy Fool (who is about as archetypal a Russian figure as may be imagined); adds two long scenes involving various political and romantic machinations in Poland, where Dmitri, the Pretender, is manipulated by the Polish Princess Marina, and who is herself manipulated by the Jesuit priest Rangoni; and added also an extra scene after Boris’ death, in which we witness an attempted lynching, and where, at the end, we see the armies of the Pretender march through the land, as the Holy Fool laments the fate of the Russian people: whoever is in power, it is the people who continue to suffer. In addition to this, Mussorgsky had significantly expanded at least two other scenes. (There are most probably further changes if one were to study the scores in detail – something I am not, alas, qualified to do.)

I did, I must confess, miss those extra scenes, and the extra passages Mussorgsky had composed for the later version; but even this more compact version seemed sprawling. I do not mean that as a criticism: I love the sprawl. Between the famous coronation scene at the opening, and perhaps the even more famous death scene at the end, we find ourselves in the gloom of a monastery cell, where the monk Pimen is chronicling the history of Russia (this scene is primarily expository, though not wholly so: we see also the young schismatic monk Grigory, who will later claim to be Dmitri, heir to the crown). Then, we have what seems to be a quite irrelevant scene set in a tavern, where we encounter the striking figure of the drunken monk Varlaam. True,  it does relate to the main action  in that we also see Grigory, now escaped from the monastery, and trying to make his way across the border into Lithuania; but the focus of this scene falls on Varlaam (sung with some gusto in this production by John Tomlinson): quite apart from anything else, he is given what must be the best “drunk” music ever composed: here was a composer who knew well what it was like to be drunk, and reproduced it unerringly in music. (In this earlier version, we do not see Varlaam again after this tavern scene: in the later version, we see him again in the final scene, attempting to lynch and hang a Catholic.)

Only after all this – some half way through the opera in its earlier version – do we encounter Boris again (after his brief appearance in the opening coronation scenes), and, perhaps to our surprise, we encounter him as a gentle and tender man, loving and solicitous of his children. But his soul is heavy: Prince Dmitri – the real prince Dmitri, not the one who later pretends to be him – had been murdered: he was a mere child. According to Pimen’s narration, it was Boris who had ordered the murder. We never quite get to know the truth of this. But in the terrifying final moments of this particular scene, we see Boris tortured with guilt, and hallucinating: he sees the murdered child appearing to him, and he cries out in terror, disclaiming his guilt. The music Mussorgsky provides for this really does make my hair stand on end: I really know nothing in any other opera to match this for sheer terror.

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Bryn Terfel as the tortured Boris Godunov. Or, perhaps, me after a rough night. Take your pick. (Picture courtesy Royal Opera)

Some day, I’d love to see the later, more expanded version, but I can’t complain: this was every bit as majestic and as imposing and as dark and terrifying as I have always imagined this opera to be. Bryn Terfel as Boris was simply extraordinary, projecting both the tender side of the character, and also the tortured and demonic side, with equal conviction. I am not really qualified to comment on the musical aspects of the performance, but Marc Albrecht’s conducting, and the orchestra’s playing – and also, in this of all operas, the singing of the chorus: it can be argued that the people are the real protagonists here – left, as far as I was concerned, at least, absolutely nothing to be desired.

(I have now seen Bryn Terfel live on three occasions – as Hans Sachs, as Falstaff, and now, as Boris Godunov. Not a bad threesome!)

With The Cunning Little Vixen, we enter a very different world. We are no longer dealing with kings and pretenders and marching armies – we are in a forest, and the first orchestral sounds we hear seem to evoke the wind rustling the leaves, and the chirping of insects. A forester takes a nap, and a frog lands on his nose. On waking, he finds a fox cub, and takes her home to be a sort of pet for the children. The forester, and all the animals – the fox, the frog, the various birds, the mosquitoes – all sing.

The music is certainly very beautiful but at this stage, one is entitled to ask – What is Janáček playing at? The English title suggests a cute, Disneyfied view of the animal world, but the English title is misleading: the original Czech title is Příhody lišky Bystroušky, which, roughly translated, means (I’m told) “The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-ears“. Somewhat less Disneyesque than the English title perhaps, but it still doesn’t help us much. A summary of the plot, such as it is, doesn’t tell us much either: the fox cub grows up into a vixen, wards off the advances of the dog and kills all the chickens (no Disneyesque cuteness here!), runs off back into the forest, drives out the badger and takes over his home, falls in love and marries a fox (to ecstatic singing from all the other woodland animals), has many fox cubs of her own, and is then, all of a sudden and quite out of the blue, shot by a poacher. And the vixen’s death isn’t even the climactic point of the opera: the orchestra is given a few bars of sad, reflective music on the vixen’s death, and then we move on. In contrast to Boris Godunov, where death seems an earth-shattering event, here, death is presented merely as something that happens every day: it’s no big deal really.

Alongside this, we get the world of the humans: we see the forester at home with his wife; later, we see him in a tavern with a priest and a schoolmaster (Janáček’s drunk music is very different from Mussorgsky’s); the schoolmaster is pining for someone named Terynka, but his love is unrequited; while the priest, returning home tipsy, reflects on the time he had been falsely accused of a sexual misdemeanour. Later, we find that Terynka (still unseen), is to marry someone called Harašta, who is also a poacher: the schoolmaster’s love is fated to remain unrequited. The priest, meanwhile, has left: we are told briefly that he is lonely and homesick. And so on. A lot of incidents, yes, but they refuse to gel into anything resembling a coherent narrative line. Everything just seems to happen – with nothing much leading up to them, and nothing much resulting from them. Even the death of the principal character, the vixen. These things just happen – and that’s all. Even death.

To get some idea what Janáček was “playing at”, we must look to the music.

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union…

It is “Nature’s social union” that Burns speaks of that Janáček here depicts in his music. On Saturday night, the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Rattle, performed all three acts without an interval, and the whole thing emerged like a vast orchestral tone poem with voices, an all-embracing paean to nature, and to its eternal cycles of self-renewal. But of course, the fact that Nature renews herself regularly is scant consolation to us poor sods who face inevitable extinction: and this is acknowledged. The climactic point of the opera comes not with the death of the vixen, but with the Forester’s rueful monologue, in which he reflects sadly, though not bitterly, on the passage of time, and, by implication, on his own inevitable extinction. The music here is almost unbearably poignant: Simon Rattle says in his programme notes that the ending of the opera leaves him in tears, and Janáček himself had asked for this music to be played at his own funeral. I myself find it very hard to listen to this monologue without thinking of Wordsworth’s line “that there hath passed away a glory from the earth”. And yet, this is not quite the last word. Once again, the forester falls asleep, as he had done at the start of the opera, and once again, a frog jumps on to his nose, but it’s not the same frog as at the beginning: it is that’s frog’s grandchild. And in the final bars, the music itself seems to expand to fill the void with sounds of what I can only describe as ecstasy.

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Lucy Crowe as the Vixen, and Gerard Finley as the forester, in “The Cunning Little Vixen”. (Picture courtesy London Symphony Orchestra)

It’s not a long opera: it’s only about 90 or so minutes – shorter than some of Wagner’s single acts. But in that 90 minutes, we find music that is, by turns, gentle, nostalgic, boisterous, exuberant, calm and nocturnal, joyous and celebratory … and even, at times, dark and tragic: the music that opens the third act, say, speaks of death as surely as does any funeral march in a Mahler symphony. This opera, for me, is Janáček’s Lied von der Erde, but how different his focus is from Mahler’s! In both works, I suppose, the sadness and the angst are, as it were, sublimated into a sort of ecstasy, but where, in Mahler, the longing fades away at the end, serenely into silence, here, we seem overwhelmed by the sheer plenitude of Life itself.

Of the performance, there is not really anything I can say other than it held me spellbound throughout. The London Symphony Orchestra produced the most extraordinary sounds and it’s hard to imagine this cast – led by Lucy Crowe as the Vixen and Gerard Finley as the forester (with a telling cameos from Hanno Muller-Brachman as the poacher Harašta, and Sophia Burgos as the Fox) – being bettered. I am not entirely sure what, if anything, Peter Sellers’ semi-staging added to the proceedings, but the way I felt on leaving the Barbican, I was in no frame of mind to complain.

Well, I suppose I’ve probably spent my entire annual opera allowance over just a few days. But it was worth it. I wouldn’t have missed these for anything.

On re-visiting late James

When one speaks merely of one’s literary preferences, of the degree to which one likes or dislikes this book or that, then – as I have often had occasion to say, with, perhaps, a somewhat greater sense of self-importance than is entirely warranted – one reports not so much on the books themselves, but upon one’s own self. Bearing this in mind, I have tried, in my earlier posts at least, and not very successfully even then, to be as objective as I could, keeping my subjective responses to what I read at what I hoped could be described as “at an arm’s length”. But over the years, this has changed, and perhaps that’s just as well. For, after all, there are any number of people who can objectively analyse literature far better than I could: that is something I am not trained in, and probably wouldn’t be too good at even if I were. But what I can do, better than anyone else, I think I can say without undue boasting, is to give an account, a subjective account, of how I, personally, view a work, and why. And if that is autobiography rather than criticism, then, frankly, so be it.

For a description of one’s own subjective viewpoint is necessarily autobiography: what I see reveals where I am, and how I interpret what I see reveals the leanings and biases of my mind. And, now approaching the age of sixty at a faster pace than I might have wished, I find myself increasingly inclined to take stock, to find out where I really am, and how I came to be there; to discover, in short, these leanings and biases of my mind.

One thing I find myself doing increasingly with age is revisiting. I know many would count it a shortcoming on my part to re-tread merely the ground already trodden rather than seek out newer worlds to conquer, but there is so much in that old ground that I know I have missed, or that I know would mean something different to me from what it had meant to me earlier, that it seems pointless not to look back. For each work of art is incomplete without the reader – or the viewer, or the listener: it is only when a work of art is read (or viewed, or heard) does it achieve completion. And since we are all uniquely different people, each completion is necessarily unique. This is not to argue in favour of relativism – to say, as some do, that no individual understanding can be deemed incorrect: the reader’s understanding is but the final component of the pattern, not the pattern itself.

I am currently in the process of re-reading, after some twenty years and more, Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove. Progress is slow, firstly because I tend to be a slow reader, and secondly because the construction of James’ sentences, especially in his later works, is not such as to allow quick comprehension. But in any case, I do not see the point of trying to race through this: I know that James isn’t everyone’s cup of afternoon tea, but his stature as a literary artist is hardly in any doubt, and from what I remember of my earlier reading of these, his last three novels – The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl – are among his most profound and heartfelt utterances. The Biblical allusions in the titles of the first and last of these three testify to, at the very least, their seriousness of intent. And I know I did no more than skim the surface in my earlier readings: I did not understand much, but I understood enough to realise that I wasn’t really understanding enough. But what little I did take in, even back them, has been resonating in my mind ever since, and now, I feel, the time is right to revisit. Reading these three books will take a long time – a very long time, I suspect – but that’s all right: I’m in no hurry. And, being a somewhat different person to the thirty-something whippersnapper I was at my first reading, those final pieces I shall now be providing to complete these works will, I think, be very different from previously. And when one is no longer in suspense to discover how the plot will develop, the mind becomes free to focus on other, more important matters,

James published these three massive novels in three successive years, and it seems likely he was working on them at the same time. Or, at least, that he was thinking about them at the same time. So inevitably, I imagine, there will be thematic connections between them. But what themes? That I am not yet sure about. I am some 200 or so pages into The Wings of the Dove, and right from the very first sentence, James warns us that he will not state anything directly:

She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.

So much is achieved in this opening sentence. There’s a sense both of time (“he kept her waiting unconscionably”) and of space (“the glass over the mantel”), and also of Kate Croy’s agitated mental state. And yet, any other writer, I think, would have written “Kate Croy waited..” rather than “She waited, Kate Croy, …” I think this is James announcing from the beginning that he will not be stating anything directly; and also, I think, by making the reader pause twice within the opening four words, he establishes a certain tempo, a certain rhythm, which impels the reader to pause frequently, examining carefully what is being said, or, more frequently, what is not being said.  For, even more perhaps than most others of James’ works, this is a novel built upon evasions – evasions both by the characters, in thought and in speech, and evasions by the narrator himself. The very fact of evasion seems to be one of the novel’s major themes. But to what end? What, in fine, is being evaded? Or is that too direct a question to ask?

I have never felt comfortable writing about a book till I have got to the end; and then, more often than not these days, I pour out just about everything I can think of to say about it in a single monstrously long post that no sane person would even want to read. But unless and until I get a sense of the overall shape of a work, I find it very hard to comment. So I had better leave it for now. To be continued, as they say. Unless I do a bit of evasion myself.

So in the meantime, I am progressing, excruciatingly slowly, perhaps, but utterly absorbed and fascinated, attempting to get to the heart of the great mysteries that James hints to us with all the artfulness at his disposal. And whatever final components I as a reader will contribute to complete these works, they are likely to be very different from what I had previously contributed.