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Putting the plebs back in their place

Imagine that you have a profound artistic vision. And imagine also that you have the ability to communicate this vision. Imagine you have an extraordinary mastery of language, and that there is nothing – no nuance, no shade of thought or feeling – that you cannot communicate with words.

Now, if you are so gifted, what would you do with these gifts? What would you devote your life to? What would you work on assiduously through all hours of day and night?

Keeping the working classes at bay, obviously. I mean, it stands to reason, doesn’t it?

I am afraid this is precisely the contention that is made by many. It’s not new, of course, but I had rather hoped that this kind of nonsense would have run its course by now. So it’s sad to see that it is still very much alive and kicking.

I am not sure when these ideas started, but I first heard them articulated by John Carey, no less. I must confess that I haven’t read the book he wrote on this matter – The Intellectuals and the Masses; but I did see a television documentary he fronted at around the time this book was published, in which he expressed his view that modernists had deliberately made their work difficult to keep the “masses” out. I must admit that what I heard on that programme did surprise me considerably. But I am reluctant to attack Carey, as he is someone whom I admire greatly: had it not been for his brilliant edition of Milton, with its superbly detailed and erudite notes and annotations, I am not sure I could have negotiated my way around these immensely difficult poems.

There are, sadly, a great many other very difficult works of literature that I haven’t, as yet, been able to get my head around – not even with all the critical commentaries available. Yes, I made a few inroads into Milton (thanks to John Carey and a number of other Milton scholars); but the works of Spenser, say, or of the much-loved Donne, refuse resolutely to penetrate through my thick skull. There are other difficult works where, I can see quite clearly for myself without having to be told, my understanding is at best partial: the late novels of Henry James, say (The Golden Bowl especially). Even my beloved Shakespeare loses me with The Phoenix and the Turtle. All these works, it may be noted, are pre-modernist. In short, difficulty is hardly a modernist invention. So it genuinely puzzles me to read something like this:

If more and more working people were reading the classics, if they were closing the cultural gap between themselves and the middle classes, how could intellectuals preserve their elite status as arbiters of taste and custodians of rare knowledge? They had to create a new body of modernist literature which was deliberately made so difficult and obscure that the average reader did not understand it.

This is written by scholar Jonathan Rose, and is approvingly quoted by Matthew Wills in the article I linked to above.

The contention that certain writers, of a certain era, had deliberately introduced difficulty (a quality that, presumably, had not existed earlier) specifically in order to exclude the “working people” seems, in view of the extreme difficulty I encounter in so many pre-modernist works, frankly absurd. It gives me a mental picture of the likes of Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, etc. all getting together & rubbing their hands with glee – “These plebs are getting a bit above themselves, aren’t they? Right, no more easy stuff like Spenser or Milton or Henry James from now on … we’ll soon put the bastards back in their place!”

And so they put all their time and effort putting us bastards back in our place. Because, obviously, it’s such a worthy cause for gifted people to dedicate their lives to.

In my experience, virtually every contention relating to cultural matters that claims to be egalitarian has at its root a barely disguised contempt for the very people it pretends to champion. Behind the contention that the difficulty of modernism is intended to ward off the “working people” is the insulting belief that the “working people”, the “masses”, are less capable than others of negotiating difficulty. The very title The Intellectuals and the Masses assumes that the two are distinct groups – that the “masses” are incapable of being intellectuals; or that, those who do become intellectuals are, by definition, no longer authentically one of the “masses”. In which case the distinction between the two seems to me to become rather inconsequential: what point would such a distinction serve?

Yet, it seems, this continues to do the rounds. The net result is further denigration and belittlement of anything that smacks of the intellectual. Which, I can’t help thinking, has been the aim all along. But since it is impertinent to speculate on what anyone’s unstated motives may be, let us not go there. Let me just restrict myself to saying that I, who am most definitely among the “masses” (since I am still waiting for my invitation to join this shady elite of intellectuals), continue to find the whole thing frankly bizarre.


“The Lady from the Sea” 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, it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself. 

All quoted passages from “The Lady from the Sea” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen

Looking through the mature plays of Ibsen, I am frequently left with an impression of terror, but it is not always easy to pinpoint where this terror comes from. If pressed, I would say it comes from his various depictions of what I, at any rate, would term fanaticism – a single-mindedness that refuses to be deflected, that rejects any form of compromise. Often, perhaps always, this fanaticism is in a good cause: it is on the side of Truth; it looks with fresh eyes at all that custom has dictated, and re-examines without fear or favour; it refuses to live a life based upon a Lie. And it is perhaps for this very reason that I find myself all the more terrified by where such single-mindedness leads us. For it is easy to identify the flaw of that which is based upon a lie, and reject it for that very reason; but when one cannot accept the logical consequences of something based upon Truth, the earth itself seems to open at our feet.

And Ibsen’s plays offer us no respite, no consolation: they are deeply uncomfortable works, and, I think, less overtly didactic than is often thought. For while the Lie is rejected, the Truth is often seen as something that most humans cannot live with. And Ibsen populates his plays with characters who make us uncomfortable, who, indeed, terrify us, with their unflinching adherence to what they know, or believe, to be true. Take Nora in A Doll’s House, for instance: at the end, she famously walks out on her husband and children, and the last sound we hear before the final curtain is the slamming of the front door. This slam, predictably, outraged Ibsen’s audiences. We moderns, on the other hand, are more likely to cheer, and pat ourselves on the back for being so much more enlightened than our predecessors. Both reactions seem to me to underestimate the complexity of what Ibsen presents. For while it is true that Nora’s logic is impeccable; and while it is true that her refusing to live a Lie is admirable; it is also true that deserting her beloved children will cause her immense pain, and that the children themselves, deprived so suddenly of a loving mother, will be traumatised. Pursuing the Truth at all costs may indeed be admirable, but there is also about it something that is inhuman, something not consistent with what we generally think of as human values. It is like the “ice church” in which Brand meets his end – holy and beautiful and pristine, but cold, bloodless, and remote from the warmth of humanity.

We may see this pattern repeated throughout Ibsen’s plays. Dr Stockmann stands up for an important truth, but does not stop to think what this will mean for the townspeople. Of course, he could have argued against the townspeople on purely utilitarian terms – by pointing out, for instance, that failing to address immediately the issue of the polluted waters will mean storing up even greater problems for the future; but he does not make this argument. Instead, he reviles the people for failing to accept the Truth, which, for him, is by definition absolute, and sacred. In The Wild Duck, the truth-seeker is Gregers Werle, who, with the best of moral intentions, effectively plays the part of Iago, destroying what had till then been a contented marriage, and creating an environment that drives the innocent Hedwig to despair and to death. And, so certain is he of his moral righteousness, that even at the height of the tragedy he does not stop even to question his actions. Is this really the price we need to pay for Truth? – depriving small children of their mother, driving teenage girls to suicide? Ibsen’s plays are populated by characters who would insist that it is – that the price for Truth, however high, is worth paying. And since this blog claims to be no more than a record of my own subjective impressions, I must admit that this terrifies me.

So what is the alternative? I think we may dismiss Dr Relling’s view that we might as well live by lies, since that is the only way we may lead lives that can at least be contented. Whatever we may think of Gregers Werle, I find it hard not to agree with him when he says that if Relling’s view were true, life really would not be worth living. But what about a middle way? What about compromise? What about accepting the importance of Truth, but stopping before we exceed the point where we harm ourselves by pursuing it? Ibsen had touched upon this theme of compromise before: in Ghosts, Mrs Alving, long before the dramatic action we see on stage, had been persuaded to return to her dissolute husband, and live a Lie: that is, she had been persuaded to do that which Nora (despite having been in a very different kind of marriage) had refused to do. And the results were catastrophic. In The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen returns again to the possibility of compromise, and, while the dark clouds are by no means completely banished, he finds in this a possibility, at least, of redemption: at the end of this play, very unusually for this author of deeply troubled dramatic visions, the stage fills with hope, with sunlight. But, just as the heroic and seemingly admirable refusal to stray from the Truth is fraught with immense and possibly insuperable difficulties, compromise is no easy path either: nothing can be straight-forward given our infinitely complex natures.

In the series of twelve plays stretching from The Pillars of the Community to Ibsen’s last play, When We Dead Awaken – which we may think of as a cycle – The Lady from the Sea seems to me to mark something of a turning point. Although set, realistically enough, in a small town by the fjord, we seem far from the hurly-burly of public affairs, which, even in the previous play Rosmersholm, was present, albeit off-stage. We may even question to what extent the action presented may be seen as entirely realistic: elements of folklore, and of the supernatural, never seem too far away. On top of that, this is the first play in this series of plays where we find scenes outdoors. This may seem a trivial consideration, but it isn’t: the setting of the scenes is always important in Ibsen, and it contributes to the feel of this play – its atmosphere, its texture, as it were – that four of its five acts are set outdoors. No longer do we feel the claustrophobia of those stuffy bourgeois drawing rooms: we are out by the fjord, in the fresh air, in the natural light of a northern summer.

In the first act, the young consumptive Lyngstrand tells of an event that had taken place some three years earlier, involving a man who, unknown to him, had played an important part in the life of the one of his listeners. Such outrageous coincidence to help the plot along had long been staple stuff of the creaky old dramaturgy that Ibsen, in the previous plays in this series, had been trying to move away from: that he is happy to include this here should really warn us that the world we are now in is not quite realistic.

In the opening scene, Ballested, a sort of Jack-of-all-Trades in the town, speaks of a picture he is painting. “The Dead Mermaid”, he calls it. It depicts a mermaid who haa become stranded on land, and has died. Ibsen here is alluding to the same folk take that had inspired Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”: a creature from the sea comes to land, and, unable to acclimatise, perishes. Ballested himself speaks of how he had acclimatised after the theatrical company he had been working for had broken up. He stutters on the word “acclimatise”, thus drawing attention to it: it is an important concept in this play. This ability we have to adapt ourselves, to change in order to accommodate ourselves to our circumstances, allows us to live, and not perish like the mermaid: it may even be our saving grace. But this capacity to adapt – more importantly, perhaps, this willingness to adapt – is a quality generally in short supply in Ibsen’s plays, populated as they are with unbending fanatics.

The identity of the mermaid in this play is obvious – Ellida Wangel, the Lady From the Sea herself. Like Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, she is an outsider: and, again like Rebecca, she is originally from the far north – not from the banks of a narrow fjord, as here, but from the shores of the vast, open sea. She cannot keep away from the sea: even here in the fjord, she bathes regularly, and has come to be known locally as “The lady From the Sea”. But how she longs for that open sea from her younger days!

ELLIDA: Fresh? Dear God, the water here is never fresh. It’s lifeless and stale. Ugh! The water is sick here in the fjord.


ELLIDA: Yes – sick. I mean, I think it makes one sick. Poisonous too.

Of course, by this stage, we all know a symbol when we see one. Ellida’s current environment is as poison to her, and she longs for the open sea of her childhood. But what exactly does that open sea represent? This is a question not even to be asked. Seeing Ellida so obviously unhappy, her husband, the kindly Dr Wangel, offers for her sake to move north, away from the environment in which he had lived all his life; but he mistakes the symbol for that which it symbolises. The narrow fjord, the open sea – these are but symbols: the underlying malaise lies deeper.

Ellida is the second wife of Dr Wangel, a man much older than her. He had been a widower when he had first met her, and when he had proposed to her, she had agreed, because, as she later explains, for no better reason than that she had not been in a position to refuse. But Ellida has never settled into life in her new home, with her husband, and with his daughters from his first marriage: she has remained detached from them all, and, while her husband is pained and concerned by her detachment, the two daughters are resentful: the elder, Bolette, not much younger than Ellida herself, generally tries to keep her dislike hidden under her polite exterior, while the younger daughter, Hilde – who, as her sister correctly intuits, secretly longs to be close to her stepmother – frequently comes close to expressing her dislike openly. Dr Wangel’s first marriage had been happy, and Ellida has never come close to replacing the first Mrs Wangel in the family’s affection. Nor, frankly, has she tried to: she has throughout remained remote and distant. As with Rebecca West in Rosmersholm, her new surroundings have changed her up to a point; she has, as Ballasted might put it, “acclimatised”; but it is precisely this acclimatisation that troubles her:

ELLIDA: … I’ve grown so very fond of him. That’s what makes it so dreadful.

When she speaks these enigmatic words in the first act, it is hard to see why she should find this acclimatisation “dreadful”, why she should keep herself aloof so as not to acclimatise herself further. But before the reason unravels, we find ourselves in a strange world where the real and the unreal seem to mingle. For Ellida is, quite literally, haunted.

Back in the north, where she had grown up, she had once promised herself to an American sailor. He was a mysterious figure, and, most likely, a dangerous man: he had disappeared after the captain of his ship had been found murdered, and it had been generally assumed that it was he who had been the murderer. Indeed, as Ellida reveals later, he had admitted to her that he had killed the captain, and, although he did not go into the details of the matter, gave her to understand that he had not been at fault. But he had to leave. And before he left, he promised Ellida that he would come back for her. They were, in a sense, already married: they had put their rings together on a keychain, and had thrown it far into the sea. They were married themselves to the vast, mysterious sea itself.

And he seemed to exert a strange power over her. His eyes, she claimed, changed colour with the sea itself. And this strange, dangerous man, with eyes the colour of the sea, continued to haunt her.

Three years earlier, this American sailor had, most likely, died in a shipwreck. Lyngstrand, the young consumptive who visits the Wangels, had been a sailor, and had nearly died as well in that same shipwreck. Not knowing of Ellida’s connection with this man, he tells her about this American sailor they had taken on, who used to read through Norwegian newspapers, because, he said, he wanted to learn the language. But one day, he found in the papers a wedding announcement: the woman he loved has married another man. Lyngstrand had heard his howl of despair. But later, the American sailor had told him in a calm voice:

“But mine she is, and mine she will always be. And she will come to join me, even if I go as a drowned man to claim her.”

And Lyngstrand, who fancies himself a sculptor, imagines a work he will create, with the deceiving woman lying asleep in bed, dreaming, while standing over her was a ghostly drowned man, still wet from the sea, returning to keep his promise.

This story naturally resonates with Ellida. For, we find out later, three years ago, when the shipwreck had happened, and while she had been pregnant with her husband’s child (the child had not lived long), this ghostly drowned man did indeed come to her. And he has been visiting her ever since. And he terrifies her.

WANGEL: To think that for three years you have been in love with another man! Not with me.

ELLIDA: I don’t love anyone else. Only you.

WANGEL (in a subdued voice): Then why have you refused to live with me as my wife all these years?

ELLIDA: Because I am afraid. Afraid of the stranger.

WANGEL: Afraid?

ELLIDA: Yes, afraid. The sort of fear that only the sea can give you.

We are very far now from the very realistic dramatic world Ibsen had been presenting till now. We are far even from the world of Rosmersholm, with its mythical white horses that presage doom. The setting here is realistic enough, but we have entered the realm of ghost stories, of folklore. And suddenly, all possibilities, possibilities that don’t exist in strictly realistic drama, become available. As with perhaps the most famous ghost story of all, The Turn of the Screw, we must ask ourselves whether this ghost is real, or whether it is not, perhaps, an emanation of Ellida’s own troubled psyche, a resurgence of her repressed desire. Of course, others too see the ghost (if ghost he is): but the creation of the mind taking on real, physical form should not surprise us from the author of Peer Gynt, a play in which reality and unreality prove infinitely malleable.

The Ghosts of Ibsen’s earlier play, Gengangere – literally, “those who walk again” – had been no more than metaphorical; but here, the past takes on a palpable physical form, and the ghost literally walks again. The past cannot remain repressed: it will out. Here, that stranger with eyes like the sea does not merely haunt Ellida at nights: he keeps his promise, and comes to the town claim her. He may be a ghost; or he may be a physical manifestation of a creation of Ellida’s mind. Or, more prosaically than either, he may be a living man who had, against expectations, escaped the shipwreck. In a play such as this, in which reality and unreality meld into each other, it hardly seems to matter.

Ellida is not the only one who sees the stranger. Her husband, to whom she confides, also sees her. Lyngstrand and the others see him too. Wangel’s reaction is to protect her: he is her husband, after all, and, whatever the state of the marriage, it is the husband’s duty to protect the wife. But things are more complicated. In the fourth of the five acts, husband and wife speak openly to each other, much as Nora and Torvald speak openly to each other in the final scene of A Doll’s House. And, as in the earlier play, the wife cannot continue to live a lie, and has some serious things to say to her husband that are painful.

ELLIDA: Wangel, it’s no use us going on lying to ourselves.

WANGEL: Lying?

ELLIDA: Yes. Or hiding the truth. The real truth of the matter is that you came out there and bought me.

WANGEL: Bought! Did you say bought?

ELLIDA: Oh, I wasn’t any better than you. I agreed to the bargain. Left home and sold myself to you.

WANGEL: Ellida!

ELLIDA: Is there any other word for it?

And we begin to understand why Ellida had considered her acclimatising herself to become fond of her husband so “dreadful”, for it was acclimatising herself to living a lie. We begin to understand also why she had remained so aloof, so detached: Ellida is at heart another of those terrifying Ibsen characters who cannot bear to live a life based on a lie. And the truth that must be acknowledged is that she had been bought, that her decision to accept Dr Wangel had not been a free decision.

WANGEL: Then have these five or six years we have lived together meant nothing to you at all?

ELLIDA: Oh no, Wangel, no! I have had everything here that anyone could wish for. But I didn’t come to your home of my own free will.

The man she had promised herself to, of her own free will, is a ghost. Or maybe not. He has come to claim her. She knows nothing about him – not even, perhaps, whether he is alive. And he is most likely a murderer. It is utterly irrational for Ellida to choose such a man over a kind, loving husband like Dr Wangel. But, as with Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Ellida would rather choose the irrational, the demonic, if only to assert her freedom to do so.

WANGEL: What do you know about him? Nothing. Not even who he is – or what he is.

ELLIDA (to herself): I know. It’s just that that is so – demonic.

WANGEL It certainly is.

ELLIDA: That’s why I think I must go to meet it.

WANGEL (looking at her): Because it is demonic?


WANGEL (comes closer to her): Ellida, what exactly do you mean by demonic?

ELLIDA (pauses): The demonic – is something that appals – and attracts.

Or, as she had said earlier, it inspires “the sort of fear that only the sea can give you”.

And as they wait for the stranger to come again to claim his bride, Wangel’s elder daughter Bolette too is being “bought”. Arnholm, Bolette’s former tutor and some twenty or so years older than her, proposes to her – but it is a strange sort of proposal. Throughout the play, he had been viewing her almost as if their future marriage was a given, and when Bolette speaks despairingly of being such forever in the dreary backwater, he tells her that he would be happy to prevent that happening. Bolette misunderstands him at first: she could never accept such generosity, she says. But then she realises: he is actually proposing to her. She is taken aback, and is, indeed, quite horrified by the suggestion. But he calmly goes on to explain: if she does not accept him, what future would she have to look forward to? What prospect does she have but to remain for ever in this provincial backwater, merely becoming older and lonelier? So she agrees. As with Ellida and Wangel, Arnholm buys her, and she agrees to the bargain. And we may ask ourselves, what price compromise now?

In an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Ibsen, Janet Garton speaks of a production in which Arnholm, having been accepted, strips Bolette to see what he has bought. I haven’t seen this production, but this strikes me as utterly misconceived. For what Arnholm tells her is nothing but the truth. Bolette is coerced not by male brutality, but by reason – the very reason that Ellida cannot reconcile herself to. To put it bluntly, how can we claim to be truly free if our freedom must submit constantly to reason? – to that tyrant reason that brooks no dissent? Maybe, in time, Bolette too will learn to compromise; she too may acclimatise. But a union on terms so unequal that only one party needs to acclimatise is not really a proper marriage at all.

Meanwhile, the younger sister, Hilde, is fascinated with the consumptive Lyngstrand. Lyngstrand is dying, though he doesn’t know it. Bolette, aware of his condition, does her best to be kind to him, even despite his comical foolishness and self-regard, and his unshakable belief that he has it in him to become a great sculptor. He tells Bolette at one point that it is a wife’s duty to accommodate herself to her husband, but that the husband has no reason to reciprocate: it is the husband’s part to develop his talent, and the wife’s part to help him do so. (Bolette is not to know that she herself would shortly agree to just such a bargain.) But Hilde shows no such compunction with Lyngstrand. There is in Hilde a strong streak of cruelty: she is fascinated by the fact that Lyngstrand is dying, and teases him mercilessly. We haven’t seen here the last of Hilde: she reappears as a major character in The Master Builder, written in 1892, just four years after The Lady from the Sea.

Marriage, Lyngstrand declares somewhat smugly, is a “miracle”. Perhaps even he is not quite sure what he means by that word, but this is the very word used in the final scene of A Doll’s House: in that play, Nora had said that only a “miracle” could save their marriage; and, as Torvald muses on what that word may mean, we hear the famous slam of the front door as Nora walks out. What the miracle might be, we do not know, any more than Torvald does. But in this play, a miracle does occur. The ghostly stranger re-appears, as he had said he would. Dr Wangel tries at first to protect his wife, but he knows it is no use; and, in one of the most moving moments in all dramatic literature, he gives his wife the freedom she had so long yearned for – complete freedom, to choose, as she wills. “With all your heart?” she asks him, astonished. “Yes, I mean it,” he replies, “with all my heart.” With all his suffering heart. “Who chooseth me shall give and hazard all he hath,” said the leaden casket in The Merchant of Venice, and Dr Wangel, the stolid, respectable, bourgeois doctor, becomes the most unlikely of dramatic heroes: he gives and hazards all he has, and it is indeed heroic. And this is the miracle that Nora did not find, and Ellida did not expect. But once she has the freedom, she knows what her choice is. The ghostly stranger now loses his power over her: no longer can he terrify. It is as if a weight from Ellida’s troubled psyche has been lifted, and she is troubled no more. The ghost’s exit is almost an anti-climax. And, in the closing moments, the play fills with light. Wangel has given her freedom; he has offered not merely to compromise, but to give up everything he has, everything, for her sake. So now, she can reconcile herself to “acclimatising”: it is no longer a “dreadful” thing. Ibsen is not an author we normally associate with joy, but here is little in all dramatic literature to match the what we find at the end of this play.

But this is not, of course, by any means Ibsen’s last word. In the course of the journey to this ending, some very dark clouds have been seen, and they aren’t going to go away. There is a long way to go yet. Only two years after The Lady from the Sea, Ibsen brought us back down to earth with the uncompromisingly grim and claustrophobic Hedda Gabler. But let’s keep that one till later.


I wonder if anyone remembers the game of “slaps”. Or indeed, if anyone has encountered it at all. I’m sure mine wasn’t the only school in which boys – and it was only boys, girls being presumably too sensible – who played this game. But when I was about 11 or 12, and possibly even older, this game was all the rage. Let me explain.

Two boys would stand facing each other, their hands held out, palms joined as if in prayer. One boy is nominated the slapper, and the other – I suppose – the slappee. That is, one does the slapping, and the other gets slapped. The slapper then gets to slap the hands of the slappee as often as he likes, and as hard as he likes. However, if the slappee moves his hands away I n time, and the slapper misses, then roles change: the slappee becomes the slapper, and the boy who had been the slapper now has to take the slaps.

There are further complications. The slapper can make false moves, that is, make out he is going to slap, but keep his palms in contact with each other. And if the slappee moves his hands away while the slapper still has his palms together, then the slapper gets a “free slap” – that is, the slapper gets to slap the slappee’s hands, and this time, the slappee does not have the option of moving his hands away: he has to stand there and take it.

And so the game continued, indefinitely, free slaps and all, roles changing with every missed slap.

I’m not sure what the attraction was of this game, but we played it anyway, despite strict instructions from our teachers not to. And after the breaks, we would return to class, our hands red and raw with being slapped, but determined nonetheless to continue as soon as class finished.

Presumably, you are probably thinking, I am leading up to finding some sort of parallel with this game that will throw some light on some aspect of our lives. Sadly, no. I did think long and hard to find some way to metaphorise this – that is, to find something for which the game of slaps could serve as a metaphor – but I couldn’t really come across anything too convincing. The only reason I mention this game of slaps at all is because, reminiscing on the past (as one tends to do at New Year), memories of this long-forgotten game suddenly emerged out of nowhere and flooded my mind, and made me laugh quite immoderately.

So, a pointless post, I suppose. As pointless as the game itself. Possibly, as I slip into old age, there will be many more such pointless posts. Well, why not? It gets so tiresome trying to make points all the time.

So here’s to another new year, where, hopefully, I may try, at least, to mingle at least a few pointful posts with all the pointless. Happy New Year, everyone!

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Goodness! – it’s that time of the year again!

As usual, this blog will be closing down for some time. May I wish you all a very Happy Christmas, and I’ll see you all, I hope, on the other side of the New Year.

Adoration of the Shepherds, from the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes, courtesy of Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

There’s something about this time of year that makes me hanker for the rich, extravagant, plum-pudding prose of Dickens. A Christmas Carol is a bit too obvious, perhaps, and the long novels are a bit too … well, a bit too long, I guess – at least for a quick pre-Christmas read. There are those marvellous Sketches by Boz, of course, and the various little bits and pieces in various other collections. But I had been meaning to read Oliver Twist for some time now: I think the last time I read it, I was all of twelve years old, and I am sure that just about all I think I know about the novel is derived from David Lean’s film, or from Carol Reed’s film of the Lionel Bart musical, rather than from the novel itself.

It’s hard to know how to appraise a novel such as this. By the standards of, say, Austen or Eliot or James, or of just about any other major novelist of the nineteenth century, Oliver Twist is crude, lacking in nuance, in sophistication, in refinement. And it is lacking also in profundity, either in theme or in characterisation. The plotting also seems weak. For a street urchin known to be associated with a gang of crooks to be taken in by wealthy people and treated as one of their own is unlikely enough as it is, but when this happens not once but twice, one does get the impression that the author is struggling a bit with the plotline. And when all the various intrigues and past secrets are revealed near the end, they are done so in so perfunctory a manner that Dickens himself seemed as bored by them as most readers, I imagine, have been since.

So what is there in this novel to attract the reader? It has certainly become an icon: I doubt there is any other novel that contains so many iconic scenes and characters. But when one tries to identify its qualities – applying criteria of novelistic merit as derived from the likes of  Austen, Eliot, James, etc. – one struggles. Perhaps it is as well to forget these criteria: the novel, as a form, may achieve greatness by exhibiting other qualities too. And in this instance, they aren’t hard to identify: vividness, vigour, vivacity, vitality … and, no doubt, a great many other qualities beginning with “v”. The problem is, of course, that each of these qualities is more easily felt than described. Why is the image of a workhouse boy asking for more so very vivid? Why is the picture of Fagin and his gang of pickpocket boys so vivacious, so brimming with vitality? What is there so utterly compelling about the brutal violence of Sikes and the genuine decency of Nancy?

It is easy, too easy, to describe the novel’s deficiencies rather than its qualities, simply because the deficiencies are easily described, and the qualities aren’t. And these qualities, furthermore, are unique to Dickens: no other author could create what are essentially caricatures, and endow them with such richness and vitality that they seem to exist even outside the confines of the novel. And that, I think, is the point: these characters seem to exist outside the novel, as well as in them. It doesn’t really matter what bits of intrigue Fagin gets involved in to drive the plot forward: what we retain in our mind are the static pictures of Fagin in  his den, or of Fagin in  his condemned cell – pictures which do not advance the  novel in any way, but which resonate even outside the context of the plot. In contrast, the villain Monks is not memorable at all because he had been invented not for his own sake, but purely to move the plot on.

I remember when I first read the book as a child, I found it difficult to see Fagin as a villain, despite the often villainous things he does. I suppose it’s because it was obvious to me, even then, that had it not been for Fagin, Oliver would have starved to death on the streets. Yes, Fagin exploits the boys; but is what he does worse than what the authorities do to the children? Reading it as a child, I remember thinking that I’d much rather being Fagin’s gang than under the tender mercies of Mr Bumble and the parochial board at the workhouse. And I think I was right. If anything, the abuse meted out to the children by the authorities is far worse than anything Fagin does, as that abuse is, among other things, a wanton cruelty, a betrayal of trust. In Lionel Bart’s musical, Fagin (winningly played by Ron Moody in the film) becomes a lovable rogue, and the transformation isn’t too difficult. It would have been a far harder task to have presented Mr Bumble as likable.

But of course, there’s the antisemitism. That Fagin is a grossly anti-Semitic character can hardly be disputed: his Jewish characteristics are accentuated, and he is referred to throughout as “the Jew”. Dickens himself was shocked that his portrayal of Fagin had caused offence, and he wrote to a Jewish journal disclaiming any bigotry; but I suppose the fact that Dickens could create such a character and not even be aware of any bigotry on his part merely shows how deeply rooted the bigotry was. Of course, in a much later novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens gave us Mr Riah, and gentle, kind-hearted Jew who is derided for his Jewishness, and who is made to carry the blame for acts committed by Christians. Some have seen this as Dickens trying to make amends for Fagin, but I think that’s unlikely: had he wanted to make amends, he wouldn’t have waited some thirty years to do so. No – it’s more likely, I think, that the antisemitism in Oliver Twist was involuntary, and unconscious. But however that may be, it still sticks in the throat; and that he is perhaps the most vivid and living character in the entire novel, and further, that it is very easy, despite his villainy, to feel sympathy for him (especially in that very grim chapter towards the end where, completely isolated at this stage from the rest of humanity, he is sentenced to death), don’t go too far in mitigation.

It is easy to feel more than a touch of sympathy for the child pickpockets also. Only two are presented as characters – Charley Bates, a young man who obviously enjoys his calling (although Dickens does let him reform at the end), and the unforgettable Artful Dodger. Dodger’s appearance in the dock is among the greatest comic scenes in all literature: never has authority been quite so effectively put down as it is here. And, whatever moralising there may be in the rest of the novel, we are here entirely on the Dodger’s side – as, I think, Dickens had intended. The authorities have him transported for being a thief; but had he not been a thief, they would have brutalised him, and starved him, and beaten him. And probably killed him, as they killed so many others. These are the authorities whose representatives and functionaries include the likes of the pompous and unfeeling beadle Mr Bumble, and the cruel and nasty magistrate Mr Fang. What moral right do these authorities have to pass judgement on the Dodger? Or on anyone else? Dickens does not pose this question in so many words, but it is certainly more than merely implicit here.

Oliver himself, though, seems strangely uncharacterised. We know from the early chapters of David Copperfield how well Dickens remembered and how vividly he could portray the workings of a child’s mind, but we see none of that here. For Oliver, despite having been born in a workhouse and raised in an environment of neglect and wanton cruelty, acts and thinks like a child with a secure, middle-class background. For instance, he can read, although it is at no point described where he learnt to do so. He is horrified when he sees the Artful Dodger and Charley Bates picking pockets, when really, given his background, there is no reason why he should be. Later, he is similarly horrified by the burglary in which he is unwittingly involved, and resolves to raise the alarm rather than let Sikes and the others make off with middle class property. He is, throughout, well-behaved and well-spoken, both highly unlikely given his toxic upbringing. One can but wonder why Dickens, with his prodigious imagination, refused to enter into the mind of a child who had been brutalised, who had not, throughout his entire childhood, ever heard a kind word or witnessed a generous act. Would a more realistic picture of Oliver have alienated the sympathies of his readership? I am not sure. But, given his background, I would have expected Oliver to have been a far more troubled child than he appears here.

However, let’s not dwell on this. Let us not dwell either on the cloying sentimentality with which the Maylies – especially Rose Maylie – are presented. Anyone could pick out such things. It is more difficult to pinpoint what it is that makes this seemingly naïve and unsophisticated little tale so compelling some two hundred years later; what it is that makes it come alive so vividly on the page; what it is precisely that imprints itself so indelibly on the reader’s mind.

Oliver Twist was a very early novel: Dickens was still only in his mid-twenties when he wrote this, and he was writing it at the same time as he was writing the later episodes of Pickwick Papers. What seems notable is that, having given us an essentially sunny and comic novel, Dickens seemed, very deliberately, to go to the other extreme, and present us with vivid pictures of darkness. And, whatever the weaknesses, the dark pictures presented in this novel are likely to remain in our collective consciousness for some time yet.

“A Christmas Carol”, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. And a bit of Henry James.

In a recent post, I pointed out what seems to me a striking similarity between a passage in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and a passage in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich. In both instances, we see a group of men speaking in indifferent terms about the recent death of a colleague. Of course, this similarity could be a coincidence, but I think not: first of all, Tolstoy openly loved and admired Dickens; and secondly, Dickens was here addressing a theme that was obviously very close to Tolstoy’s heart – What meaning, what significance, can we find in a human life in the context of its inevitable end? This is a question that Tolstoy had returned to throughout his life, and nowhere with greater insistence than in The Death of Ivan Illyich. And Tolstoy is not the only artist to have addressed this question, and echoed A Christmas Carol in the process: Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries also addresses this question, and here too, we see an elderly misanthrope reliving his past, and becoming reformed in the process.

The echoes of Dickens in Bergman’s film are, most likely, accidental; but there was another great artist who, quite consciously, I think, had echoed A Christmas Carol. Consider Bob Cratchit’s speech to his gathered family in the Christmas-Yet-to-Come episode:

“…But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim—shall we—or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

Now let us consider Alyosha’s speech to the boys (also while mourning the death of a child) at the end of The Brothers Karamazov:

“Boys, my dear boys, let us all be generous and brave like Ilusha, clever, brave and generous like Kolya (though he will be ever so much cleverer when he is grown up), and let us all be as modest, as clever and sweet as Kartashov. But why am I talking about those two? You are all dear to me, boys, from this day forth, I have a place in my heart for you all, and I beg you to keep a place in your hearts for me! Well, and who has united us in this kind, good feeling which we shall remember and intend to remember all our lives? Who, if not Ilusha, the good boy, the dear boy, precious to us for ever! Let us never forget him. May his memory live for ever in our hearts from this time forth!”

(from the translation by Constance Garnett)

In both cases, the speaker is urging other children to remember a departed child, and, whatever happens in life, be inspired to be good by the memory of that dead child’s goodness.

It’s all too easy to dismiss Dickens for being sentimental (especially in something like A Christmas Carol, which is generally regarded as no more than a feelgood piece of whimsy, and not, perhaps, the deepest expression of an artistic and moral vision); but when Dostoyevsky places a passage that is almost identical in sense and feeling at the very end of what is generally taken to be the most comprehensive statement of his own artistic and moral vision, we should, I think, take it a bit more seriously.

For I don’t think the passage in Dickens is “sentimental” at all. Quite the contrary.  It comes in a scene that is, I think, at the very heart of A Christmas Carol. It depicts, to my mind very convincingly, a loving and close-knit family grieving for a dead child. It’s only a few pages long: Dickens, contrary perhaps to expectations, doesn’t milk it. But the context in which he places it is remarkable. For, earlier, Scrooge had been made to see a world utterly devoid of any human feeling: some cleaning women have robbed a dead man of everything, including the very blankets the corpse had been wrapped in, and are now trying to sell these stolen goods for as much as they can get. A world so devoid of feeling – and not too far removed, incidentally, from the indifference of the men Scrooge had seen earlier discussing the dead man in indifferent terms – is indeed Hell. And Scrooge, by this stage, knows it: he refers to it as “a fearful place”. And he knows why it is such a fearful place: there is no room here for human feeling. He asks to be shown some feeling in relation to the dead man, and he is shown a young couple who are merely relieved, because the death of their creditor has given them an unexpected respite. But this is not what Scrooge wants to see: and he finally articulates what it is that he wants to see – tenderness. He wants to see that which makes of our lives something other than the Hell he has just witnessed. And this is when we are shown the grieving Cratchits.

The mother tries not to show her grief:

The mother laid her work upon the table, and put her hand up to her face.

“The colour hurts my eyes,” she said.

The colour? Ah, poor Tiny Tim!

The father is less successful, and at one point, spontaneously bursts into tears. Dickens tells us, in a narrative intrusion of a kind very unfashionable these days:

He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart perhaps than they were.

Far from being sentimental or mawkish, as is often alleged, this seems to me to get to the very heart of the matter. For whatever pain the mother and the father may feel, the very fact that they can feel this pain is what makes them human. This is the tenderness that Scrooge had longed to see, and without which our lives are very literally Hell.

At the end of Bob Cratchit’s speech, he says something very unexpected:

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

I think Dickens is challenging us here: he is challenging us to understand how a man can profess himself “very happy” even when undergoing the greatest mental anguish. And I think the answer lies in what had come earlier: were it not for the pain that the Cratchits feel, they would be even further from their dead child than they already were. It is this ability to feel that makes us human, that makes of this terrible world something other than merely Hell.

A few years ago, I read The Portrait of a Lady, and was struck by a passage at the climactic point of the novel, where, as Ralph is dying, and as his beloved Isabel tells him how unhappy she is in her marriage, he says:

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” 

And I remember trying to figure out where else I had come across a character in the depths of sorrow claiming to be happy. And it took me a while to figure out it that the other book I was thinking of is A Christmas Carol.  Perhaps it’s not surprising that it took me a while: after all, Dickens and James are about as radically different as writers as it is possible to imagine. Indeed, James deeply disliked Dickens, and attempted to make his own novels as different from those of Dickens as possible. And many readers still, I think, tend to think of James as the serious novelist, and of Dickens as a mere entertainer – good fun, perhaps, but not really possessing much depth. Well, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky certainly didn’t think so: both were happy to pay their tribute to Dickens in their most deeply felt work. And James – entirely unwittingly, I am sure – at the most grave and most solemn moment in one of his very finest works, seems to make contact with a sort Christmas novel still thought of in many quarters as no more than piece of feelgood seasonal whimsy.

I really do think we should take A Christmas Carol as a serious and very deeply felt work of literature.

A revised definition of “cultural appropriation”

Generally, as we approach Christmas, I try to keep off controversy. It is the season of goodwill, after all. But …

Yes, of course there is a “but”. I’ll try to keep this one short, though.

I have, on numerous occasions on this blog, been scathing about the concept of “cultural appropriation”, arguing that adopting elements of other cultures, far from being reprehensible, is desirable, as the alternative is to create cultural ghettoes. (I won’t link to the various posts in which I argue this case: a quick search reveals them quite easily.) But recently, I’ve been hearing that “cultural appropriation” is not at all about taking things from other cultures: it is about wilfully disrespecting elements of other cultures.

Now, this seems to me revisionism. If “cultural appropriation” is about disrespecting other cultures, then it would have been termed “cultural disrespect”, or something similar. “Appropriation” means taking something that does not belong to oneself, usually without permission from the owner. (I think any dictionary would confirm that.) So when anyone speaks of “cultural appropriation”, I naturally take it to mean appropriation in the context of culture: that does seem to me a reasonable interpretation. And, indeed, all the various manufactured controversies relating to “cultural appropriation” seem to assume this interpretation also: visitors to an art gallery invited to try on a kimono, pop stars wearing sari and bindi, etc. – none of them involving any disrespect at all, and yet all resulting in large numbers of people quite apoplectic with rage. All very comical, frankly, were its implications not so sinister.

However, let us, for the sake of argument, accept this revisionist definition: “cultural appropriation” is not really about appropriation of culture (that would be too simple, apparently), but about disrespect of culture. About disrespect of elements of a culture that have symbolic value for adherents of that culture.

Well, I slept on that for a bit, and it still doesn’t make much sense to me. The most obvious point is that not all elements of all cultures are worthy of respect. Many, clearly, aren’t. The culture I was born into, for instance, has many fine things in it, but it also has this thing called “caste system”, which is culturally very significant. And Brahmin men are supposed to wear around their necks a sacred thread, as a mark of their high caste: it is a significant cultural symbol. Some sixty or so years ago now, my father respected this significant cultural symbol by chucking away his own sacred thread. He did not deem it worthy of respect any more than I do. But that it is a cultural symbol of deep significance is beyond doubt, and the injunction that we must not disrespect it, especially if we weren’t born into the Hindu religion, seems to me arbitrary at best, and, at worst, completely bonkers.

No, I’ll revise that. At worst, sinister and dangerous. For how is much-needed reform to come if that which needs reform is mandated as worthy of respect? How, indeed, can we prevent that which should be reformed from becoming even further entrenched, if it is mandated to be exempt from criticism and disrespect?

And who does the mandating anyway? Who decides what is worthy of respect, and what isn’t? Who are the gatekeepers here, and on what authority?

So really, as far as I’m concerned, if anyone wants to disrespect any aspect of any culture, then that’s fine – disrespect away! Yes, in the course of all this, I am sure that certain things that I myself revere may also end up being disrespected. But don’t worry about that – I can take it! Honestly, I can! And if I can’t, that’s my problem, and not anyone else’s. All this talk about “respect” merely puts me in mind of The Godfather films, I’m afraid.

For consider the implications of even this revised definition of “cultural appropriation”: the worst elements of our cultures become entrenched, thus rendering reform even more difficult; rigid boundaries are set between cultures, with self-appointed gatekeepers; all humanity itself becomes fragmented beyond repair. This is what, it seems to me, many people really want. I, personally, don’t.

Now, I did say at the start of this piece that I will keep this rant short, and I hope I have kept my word. All my posts between now and the New Year will be full of brightness and joy and festive cheer – I promise!