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Reading symbols

It may be mere idle speculation, but I can’t help wondering why it is we so clearly recognise Ibsen’s Wild Duck to be a symbol, and, equally clearly, recognise Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles not to be a symbol. Is it simply that we go to these works with different expectations, and that these expectations colour our responses? That’s certainly part of it, I think. It is also, perhaps, that The Hound of the Baskervilles makes perfect sense without the symbolism, but The Wild Duck doesn’t.

But this may be disputed. Why shouldn’t The Wild Duck make perfect sense if we see the wild duck as no more than the physical entity that it is? I think I’d argue that to see it as such wouldn’t be a particularly satisfactory way of looking at the work. The wild duck itself is not central to the plot, in the way the Baskerville hound is: if we were to see the wild duck but as a wild duck, we would be left wondering why so much attention is paid to something that the mere mechanics of the plot don’t really need. The introduction of the wild duck; the attention given to what is, merely in terms of plot, no more than an incidental detail; and also, in this case, the title itself indicating its importance; are all sufficient to convince us of an importance attached to this duck that quite transcends the plot.

Of course, it may be maintained that the Hound, too, is symbolic of something or other. But this would, I guess, strike most readers as foolish. Seeing the Hound purely for what it is, without any symbolic overtones, does not in any way diminish the impact of the novel; indeed, it may be argued that seeing the Hound as possessing more significance than the plot allows is to detract from the thing. I’m sure that hasn’t prevented over-zealous interpreters: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were to exist learned papers and theses pontificating on the symbolical significance of the Hound from Hell. But be that as it may, I think I’m on fairly safe ground when I say the Wild Duck is a symbol, and the Hound of the Baskervilles isn’t.

But now comes the tricky bit: if the Wild Duck is indeed symbolic, what is it a symbol of? This question is tricky not because it is difficult to think of plausible symbolic interpretations of the Wild Duck, but because identifying the symbol, or symbols, seems to diminish the richness of the work. It appears to insist on a single meaning, or a single set of meanings, when, before interpretation, a far greater wealth of possibilities seemed available. And even when we may come up with multiple interpretations of a symbol, the sum of the various interpretations seems less than the symbol’s potential. Ibsen’s Wild Duck seems a prime example of this. There are other examples too. As soon as you pin a meaning on the White Whale, on the Scarlet Letter worn by Hester Prynne, on Krook’s spontaneous combustion or on Kafka’s Castle, the potential of what these things may mean seems diminished.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes, symbols can mean one thing and one thing only, and that meaning is fairly obvious. Bunyan, for instance, used to spelled it out: Giant Despair symbolised despair, the Slough of despond symbolised despond, Vanity Fair symbolised … Well, you get the idea. These symbols are intended not so much to suggest what isn’t explicitly stated, but to underline, and clarify, the author’s ideas. I suppose we may class these as “allegory”. But leaving aside such allegories, we are left with a problem: how should we, as readers, respond to symbols and to symbolism? Treating a symbol as something that signifies no more than what it physically is seems inadequate; and yet, various interpretations of what the symbol may mean seem reductive.

Perhaps – and I use the adverb advisedly, as I am not at all sure of what now follows – perhaps, I think, it might help if we were to think of symbols themselves in a different way. Perhaps we should accept that a symbol may carry various resonances, but at the same time, refrain from pinning the symbol down to anything, or any group of things, specific. Perhaps we should allow a symbol to gather different associations as the work proceeds, and try to see the connections and relationships between these various things that have been gathered upon this single symbol, but not insist upon any specific meaning for the symbol itself. Is that possible? Is it possible to see Kafka’s Castle as an obscure and distant presence; as an authoritarian and bureaucratic institution that may contain some great wisdom at its heart, but to which we are denied access; as a seemingly sinister and oppressive power; and so on, and so forth; but not think of this Castle as a symbol for God?

At this point, it seems reasonable to ask why writers employ symbols in the first place. That is not an easy question to answer, but I think we can answer the question of what writers don’t set out to do: they don’t set out to create a puzzle for the reader to solve. That is the realm merely of the whodunit. If symbols serve any purpose at all, it is to help the author communicate matters that language, by itself, cannot communicate.

At least, this is how it seems to me, immersed as I currently am in the late, symbol-rich plays of Ibsen. Much of literature, it seems to me, is an expression of that which words are not designed to express. For there are limits on what we may communicate with words: Sibelius had famously said that “Music begins where the possibilities of language end”. But that seems to imply that, as a mode of expression, music is superior to literature – that literature can only get us so far, but that beyond that point, it is to music that we must turn. But things are not, I think, so simple. The best authors are capable of communicating far more than words, unaided, can: they can force words to convey far more than merely their dictionary meanings. If Kafka had merely intended his Castle to represent God, he could simply have told us; that he didn’t tell us doesn’t mean he was playing games with us, but, rather, that what the Castle means is not something that can be put into words. It goes beyond “where the possibilities of language ends”.

And it is in this spirit I am trying currently to read Ibsen. The last twelve plays of his, the “Ibsen Cycle” as they are sometimes known, are often considered the epitome of dramatic realism, but that hardly begins to do them justice. For Ibsen was always a poet, even when writing in everyday prose, about everyday people, in everyday walks of life. Increasingly, as we go through the cycle, poetic images abound – symbols, pointing to that which cannot be expressed directly in words. And the symbols, after a while, become real, concrete. In The Master Builder, say, we find that Master Builder Solness is afraid of heights, and cannot climb as high as he builds. This is an everyday matter (fear of heights), but is treated symbolically: in some way that Ibsen doesn’t make clear, Master Builder Solness cannot live up to what he professes. But Hilde seems almost distraught by this. What she is presumably distraught at is Master Builder Solness’ moral pusillanimity, but she expresses her anger in more concrete terms: is the Master Builder afraid to climb up the ladder? Is he afraid to climb as high as he builds? And the symbol becomes a reality: Master Builder Solness, to prove himself to her, must physically climb up a physical ladder to the top of a physical tower. Is this “realism”? If so, one would need to stretch the definition of “realism” considerably, I think, to accommodate it.

And this is the world which the later plays of Ibsen seem to inhabit – a strange world in which metaphor and concrete reality seem to merge, and become one. We are invited to feel the resonance of the images, of the symbols, but as soon as we try to tie these images and symbols down to any specific meaning, they seem to fall apart. These plays are rooted in reality: Solness owns and runs a building firm, is unhappily married, and finds himself attracted to a young girl; and he is afraid of competition from the younger generation. All this is real enough, and could easily provide the basis for a television soap opera. But Ibsen’s vision seemed fixed elsewhere, and he could only express these visions through the use of poetic imagery, and of symbols. And when we read these plays, what we make of this vast array of symbols is crucial. I am still not sure how best to read these symbols: perhaps it varies for each different reader. But what we mustn’t do, I think, is to tie them down to anything specific: if Ibsen could have said in a few words what these symbols symbolise, he would, I think, have done so.


“The Adolescent” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sometimes it’s worth writing about a book one doesn’t understand simply to register one’s lack of understanding. Since those who may wish to know something about this work could no doubt easily find those who understand it far better than I do, I’ll try not to detain you long: I’ll keep this as short as I can.

The Adolescent (translated by Constance Garnett as A Raw Youth) should have been a great novel. It is, in terms of length at least, clearly a work of substance; and it was published just a few years after the towering masterpiece Demons, and a few years before what many would say is the even more towering masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Just one year after the publication of this novel, Dostoyevsky wrote The Meek One, one of the finest of all novellas. Admittedly, The Adolescent has something of a reputation of being “disappointing” – that is, in less euphemistic terms, “poor” – but it is not unreasonable to expect so great a novelist, neither serving his literary apprenticeship nor declined into the twilight years of creativity, to produce something that is, at the very least, of some merit. And maybe this is. Maybe it is working on some plane to which I, with my limited perceptions, did not have the key. But whatever merit the novel possesses, I regret to say it escaped me.

I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and in the preface, Richard Pevear makes the case that Dostoyevsky wrote not four major novels, as is generally acknowledged, but five, The Adolescent being worthy to be ranked alongside Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. Pevear’s defence of this novel is certainly a brave attempt, but I can’t frankly say I’m convinced.

I do take Pevear’s point, though, that Dostoyevsky is very successful in maintaining throughout the long narrative the voice of the adolescent narrator. But possibly, this is where the problem arises. Dostoyevsky had used the first person narrator successfully in shorter works such as Notes from Underground and The Meek One, but had avoided it in his other longer novels. There, he had developed a technique whereby different narrative voices weave in and out, some knowing more than others, some knowing virtually nothing at all and relying on stories heard at second hand; and we get, as a consequence, a composite picture, not always entirely coherent, and frequently enigmatic. And, yes, his finding the right tone of voice for his adolescent narrator, and maintaining it across so long a stretch, is indeed, as Pevear says, impressive; but I wonder if this single narrative viewpoint restricted him.

The adolescent narrator is Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky. Despite his patronymic, his father isn’t Makar Ivanovich: Makar Ivanovich is but the peasant husband of Arkady’s mother. Arkady’s real father is Versilov, who, over the course of Arkady’s narrative, is presented sometimes as a demon, sometimes as a saint. I suppose that at the centre of this novel – insofar as it can be said to have a centre at all – is Arkady’s desire to know his real father, and to be acknowledged by him. But whatever that centre may be, even if it exists, it is obscured by a plot of whirling extravagance. Illegitimacy, disputed fortunes, incriminating letters, a blackmailing ring, suicides, sexual exploitation, eavesdroppings … there’s something happening on every page, and it becomes hard keeping track of it all. One often sees complaints about certain books that “nothing happens”: here, there is so much happening all the time that one wishes at times for things to stop happening for a while. And never did I have to consult so frequently the list of principal characters the translators so thoughtfully provide: none has the vividness of the characters in Dostoyevsky’s other novels, and quite often, they seemed to me interchangeable.

In short, I found it difficult to keep up with the intricacies of the plot. But worse, after a while, I found I’d stopped caring. I found I’d stopped caring about who was eavesdropping on whom, or why, or how, or what information was revealed. I persevered, though: a writer who has given me so much surely could not produce a book utterly devoid of interest. I started wondering whether I was simply looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps it made sense to think of it as a sort of “satyr play”. In Athenian drama, a trilogy of tragedies – such as The Oresteia – was often followed by a “satyr play”, in which the themes that had been addressed in the tragedies were now addressed from a comic angle. Maybe, I told myself, that, after the immense tragic dramas of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons, Dostoyevsky was following them up with a “satyr novel”. He most likely hadn’t intended any such thing, I told myself, but if that gives me a key to the work, it might be an idea worth holding on to. And at times, such a approach seemed to make sense. Arkady, for instance, tells us at one point that he has a great “idea”, an overriding thought that rules his life. We have seen in Dostoyevsky’s other novels characters ruled by these Great Ideas. But Arkady’s Great Idea was not about God, or about human suffering, or about sin and redemption, or about atonement, or about any of these things: it is merely that he wanted to make a great deal of money, and hence, gain power and respect. That’s it. The only way to take this, I felt, was to see it as a sort of self-conscious parody of Dostoyevsky’s earlier novels.

Sadly, seeing this work as a sort of “satyr novel” didn’t work for long: for if the intention had indeed been to give a comic perspective on tragic themes, then some humour wouldn’t have been out of place. Now, despite his reputation for deadly seriousness, Dostoyevsky was often a very funny writer: sadly, though, he wasn’t here. Even for laughs, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons give us far more.

Towards the end of the novel, Makar Ivanovich, Arkady’s legal father, suddenly arrives on the scene, and he turns out to be a Tolstoyan peasant-saint, full of great wisdom. And he tells a story, which is reproduced in full. It starts off like one of those Tolstoyan fables. But fables are supposed to be simple stories: this one gets so intricate and involved, that it became almost as hard keeping up with it as it was keeping up with the rest of the novel. Did Dostoyevsky mean this as a joke? It couldn’t be a parody of Tolstoyan fables, as Tolstoy hadn’t written his fables when Dostoyevsky was writing this. And if it was indeed meant as a joke, then, once again, a few laughs wouldn’t have gone amiss.

You get the picture. I am afraid I got nothing at all out of this novel. The fault is entirely mine, I’m sure, but it remains for me a huge enigma: it’s not that Dostoyevsky doesn’t succeed in what he is trying to do, it is more that I can’t figure out what he is trying to do in the first place. Dostoyevsky’s was indeed a very strange mind.

In the meantime, if you’re an admirer of Dostoyevsky but haven’t yet read this, don’t let me put you off: this post is intended purely as a record of my personal impressions, nothing more. I don’t insist on anything.

Dostoyevsky’s great novels are to a great extent improvised: even when at advanced stages in his writing, it’s clear from his notes that he is still experimenting with different possibilities. This may not seem the most promising way of writing novels, but in his case, it worked superbly. But not, I think, here. Where we speak of him “improvising” in his other novels, here, he seems merely to be making it up as he goes along.

“Rosmersholm” 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 “Rosmersholm” are taken from the translation by Michael Meyer, published by Methuen


Rosmersholm was not the title Ibsen initially had in mind. He had considered calling it White Horses, referring to a recurrent image in the play of the mythical white horses that are said to be seen on the Rosmer estate before disaster strikes, but he eventually decided against it, possibly to avoid giving this admittedly striking piece of imagery too central a prominence in the work. Ghosts would have been a good title  as well – or, rather, the more evocative  Norwegian  title, Gengangere “something that or someone who walks again” – but that title had already been used in a previous play. Central to this play too is the burden of the past, the past that will not let us be, even when we have left it behind, even when we have outgrown it.

Ibsen eventually titled the play Rosmersholm – the House of Rosmer. For the great House of Rosmer, with its immense history, with the traditions and values it continues to represent (irrespective of Rosmer’s  own apostasy), plays in this drama a central  role. It is an austere, and gloomy house: there is not much room  here for human feelings. As Mrs Helseth, the old housekeeper of the House of Rosmer tells Rebecca:

Little children don’t cry in this house, not as long as anyone can remember … But it’s part of the  Rosmers. And  there’s another strange thing. When they grow up, they never laugh. Never laugh until the day they die.

Tears and laughter, those feelings and emotions that seem almost to represent what it means to be alive, to be human, have no part in the bleak House of Rosmer. But it is nonetheless a noble house. Rebecca West, who had initially entered the house as an outsider, can testify to its ability to ennoble:

REBECCA: It’s the Rosmer view of life – or yours, anyway. It has infected my will.

ROSMER: Infected – ?

REBECCA: And poisoned it. Enslaved it to a law which I had not previously recognised. You – being with you – has ennobled my soul –

ROSMER: Oh, if only I could believe that!

REBECCA: You can believe it all right. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. But – (Shakes her head) – but – but –

ROSMER: But – ? Well?

REBECCA: But it kills happiness, John.

Presumably translator Michael Meyer has translated whatever was in the original text as “happiness” rather than joy so as to avoid unwanted echoes of the English word “killjoy”, but this theme of the destruction of joy,  or of happiness, has appeared before: in Ghosts, the destruction of livsglad, a compound word meaning Joy in Life, is a major theme. Osvald speaks of it often, and his father, the deceased Captain Alving, was possessed with this livsglad. But, as his widow, Mrs Alving, who has no reason to feel sympathetic towards her dead husband, acknowledges, this livsglad had been killed in him. She had not shared in this Joy: her insistence had been merely on a cold, loveless sense of duty. Her husband had no outlet for this Joy, and over time, this Joy had become corrupted merely into empty hedonism. In that same play, Pastor Manders had asked:

What right do we mortals have to happiness? No, we must do our duty, madam!

( from the translation by Deborah Dawkin and Erik Skuggevik)

Osvald too, returning home from Paris, comments that he never sensed back home that Joy he had found elsewhere. The cold insistence on moral duty had killed it all. And here too, in the House of Rosmer, Joy has been killed. But we are given a further twist: what has killed Joy is not a cold and  loveless sense of duty: rather,  it is something that even Rebecca West admits is ennobling. But whatever it is, no matter how ennobling it is, it kills happiness.

The concept of nobility is explicitly placed here as something that is the opposite of happiness. Earlier in the play, John Rosmer had spoken of “ennobling” the people, although what precisely he had meant by this, and how precisely he is to achieve this, he does not say. Brand, too, had sought to ennoble humanity: he had enjoined humanity to take the Truth into their hearts, and to sacrifice all, their own selves if necessary, in  pursuit of this Truth, without even thinking of earthly happiness. And Pastor Manders in Ghosts, though a very different person from Brand in every way imaginable, was also a man of God, and he too had insisted that people do their duty, regardless of human happiness; for mortals, he insisted, had no right to expect “happiness”. This insistence of Truth, this desire to “ennoble” humanity, we had seen also in Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, and in Gregers Werle in The Wild Duck, but, unlike Brand or Pastor Manders, neither Stockmann nor Werle are religious: they do not even mention God. Brand and Pastor Manders had insisted that humans ennoble themselves by doing their duty, because this is God’s will; but Stockmann and Werle pursue Truth for its own sake. When the people turn against Stockmann, he could have argued against them in purely empirical terms: he could have denounced them for short-sightedness, for failing to see that seeing to their immediate welfare is to bring upon themselves far greater problems in the longer run. But he does not make that argument: he turns against the people because they do not have any sort of commitment to the Truth. And Gregers Werle too believes in Truth for its own sake; he believes that humans already are essentially noble, and that they must accept the Truth for its own sake because that, and that alone, could make such noble creatures happy. He believes this because he has to believe this: if it were not true, then, as he says at the end, life itself wouldn’t be worth living. Stockmann and Werle may not be religious – at least, neither mentions God – but their morality is not really too far from Brand’s: for them, Truth must be pursued, though not necessarily because God wills it (as Brand had believed) – but rather,  for its own sake.

When Rosmersholm was written (it was published in 1886), the intellectual temperature was changing. In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, religious belief was no longer a default position. That is not to say that religious belief was not possible, but, rather, it could not be taken as a given: whatever grounds there may be still to believe, belief was no longer something that was dictated by reason. Only four years before the publication of Rosmersholm, Nietzsche had famously declared (in The Gay Science) that “God was dead”. And in this state, one could no longer justify anything, not even life, by invoking an overriding divine purpose. Whatever values we choose to live by, whatever we choose to pursue, we cannot ascribe to any divine purpose, since the existence of God himself was no longer a given. So what, then, forms nobility? How then do we ennoble humanity, ennoble ourselves?

John Rosmer is, very explicitly, a man who had once believed, who had once, indeed, been a Man of God, a pastor, but who has now lost his faith. He is the last in the line of the House of Rosmer, and the immense burden of the past weighs heavily on him. The Rosmer view of life ennobles. Rosmer himself may have lost his faith in God, but retains still his faith in that which ennobles: duty, integrity – the  Truth. As with Stockmann and Werle, he believes in Truth for its own sake, and he believes, as Brand had done, that humans can be ennobled if they could but grasp the Truth, and hold it dear. But unlike Brand, he cannot justify Truth with an overriding divine purpose: he no longer believes. It is merely an abstract concept, existing for its own sake. But he is nonetheless a Rosmer, of the House of Rosmer, and though he has rejected religion, he cannot reject the concept of Truth as something that ennobles.

But when it comes to human happiness, Truth is neutral: Truth may “ennoble” – whatever we may mean by that – but it does not care one way or the other for human happiness. We may still hold on to it as a concept, and value it for what it is, but it is possible that what we value is no more than a ghost of the past, one of those Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”. For if there is no divine will we may appeal to, if there is no God himself, then it is hard to see what there can be more valuable than human happiness here on earth; and if Truth itself is indifferent to the very concept of human happiness, why then why should we value it?

Now, Ibsen is not saying that we shouldn’t value Truth: Dr Relling, in The Wild Duck, says this, but Dr Relling is not Ibsen. Ibsen does, however, pose some very uncomfortable questions. If we no longer believe, if we can no longer appeal to an overriding divine purpose or to an overriding divine will, then we can take nothing for granted; then we must create our own values, and they must be human values, justified in human terms. Possibly this is what Ivan Karamazov meant when he spoke those enigmatic words “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted”. This does not necessarily mean that the non-existence of God obviates moral values, although that is certainly a possible interpretation: more interestingly, it can mean that if God does not exist, we have nothing to guide us in creating our own values, and that we must, therefore, start from scratch. And if we do, we must question everything, even the value of Truth itself. If there can be no aim greater than that of earthly human welfare, and if Truth is indifferent to such an end, why then should we value Truth? Is it merely an emotional attachment on our part and nothing more? And here, when Rebecca West presents the Rosmer view of life as something that ennobles, but also as something that is opposed to human happiness, a deeply uncomfortable question seems to me implicit: what price nobility, what price Truth, if it makes us unhappy?

On top of this questioning of the value of Truth, in Rosmersholm, the very nature of Truth itself is questioned. Not whether there exists such a thing as objective Truth, but whether we are capable, even with the best of wills, of grasping what it is.

Such are the psychological complexities in which the principal characters of this drama are bound, the mind reels. Rebecca West and John Rosmer try to understand their past, try to understand what it has made of them, but little seems clear, and their behaviour, conditioned as it is by their psychological states, seems at times perverse. Ibsen here delves further into the inner complexities of the human mind than he had done in any of his earlier plays. Only four years earlier, in An Enemy of the People, he had presented a very public drama, with very public conflicts; in The Wild Duck, which followed, he moved towards the private sphere, presenting the depths of the mind, of the imagination, as the depth of the sea itself. Now, he moves further into the close intricacies of the human mind. Of course, there is a public life as well: the drama depicted here is very firmly set in the real world, and there is, we gather, much public conflict outside; but this conflict is, essentially, presented as noises off. We see a representative of the conservative camp – the overbearing and bullying Kroll; and we see a representative of the liberal camp, the sly and manipulative Mortensgaard, neither caring for the  Truth, and neither bearing any mark of nobility. But the action of the play never leaves the House of Rosmer, and the focus is turned inward.

Sigmund Freud, famously, wrote at length on the character of Rebecca West in his 1914 essay “Character Types”. (The essay is quoted at length by Michael Meyer in the introduction to his translation, and Meyer refers to it as “by far the most penetrating analysis of the play”.) Among other things, Freud probes the question of why, precisely, Rebecca West refuses Rosmer’s proposal of marriage towards the end of Act Two. This, after all, is what she had been working towards; why, when it is within her grasp, does she turn away from it so fiercely? Whatever we may think of Freud’s answer to this question, it cannot be denied that it is a fundamental question to ask. Ibsen has placed it at exactly the half-way point of the play; the refusal, though obscure in terms of “why?”, is tremendously powerful and dramatic, and it brings down the curtain on the second act with the utmost force. Freud’s view was that Rebecca West was haunted by her fear of incest. As a younger woman, after her mother had died, she had become the mistress of step-father, Dr West. However, Dr West had most likely been, in reality, her biological father also: Rebecca’s mother had been his lover while her husband had still been alive. And when Rebecca later enters the Rosmer household, she comes into a parallel situation: she ends up displacing John Rosmer’s wife, Beata, to win John, in the same way that she had previously displaced her mother to win Dr West. But the guilt she feels for her previous incestuous relationship Dr West prevents her from taking the final step of this act of displacement.

This may or may not be so: I am no expert of Freudian psychology. It may be argued that when Rebecca refuses Rosmer, she does not know that Dr West was her biological father: she had no idea that Dr West and her mother had previously been lovers. However, against this, it may be argued that she may, at least, have had suspicions; and that, afterwards, Dr West had certainly been her step-father, and, hence, a father figure, if not necessarily a biological father. All this may be so. It is certainly true that the situation Rebecca found herself in on entering Rosmersholm parallels the situation she had been in before. But there does seem to me a much simpler explanation: Rebecca feels guilt not because of incest, but because of Beata, the wife of John Rosmer, and the part she had played in Beata’s death.

As a liberated woman, Rebecca had not, at first, cared much about the niceties of convention, about the sanctity of marriage; but over time, as she says herself, the “Rosmer view of life” had “infected” her will. The words she uses here are significant: infected, poisoned, enslaved. She expresses exclusively in negative terms that which, by her own admission, had ennobled her. The nobility that is so defining a feature of the House of Rosmer had made her ill, had taken away her very freedom: no longer was she the liberated person she once had been. But it had ennobled. It had allowed her to see clearly her own guilt. For, even when we reject religion, reject God, the consciousness of our guilt, and the awareness of our sinfulness, are less easy to throw off: these are Gengangere, “something that or someone who walks again”.

But what really did happen with Beata? The truth is difficult even to uncover, let alone embrace. To what extent is Rebecca responsible for Beata’s suicide, for Beata’s throwing herself into the millrace? Rebecca herself is not entirely sure. But the dead continue to live with us: in performance, we hear throughout the sound of the millrace from outside the house. Beata herself may be dead, but she remains throughout a powerful presence. And it strikes me as likely that it is Beata’s unseen presence, and Rebecca’s growing awareness of her own guilt and her willingness to accept moral responsibility, that is behind Rebecca’s refusal. At the very end of the play, Mrs Helseth sees John Rosmer and Rebecca West follow Beata, and throw themselves into the millrace – a sentence they pass upon themselves in  the absence of a God they can no longer believe in – and she says: “The dead mistress has taken them”. Amongst other things, Rosmersholm may be seen, I think, as a Gothic ghost story: the ghost of Beata is rarely too far away.

But what really had happened between John Rosmer, Beata Rosmer, and Rebecca West? One thing we can definitely rule out is that Rosmer and Rebecca had been having an affair. They both make quite clear, even when alone together, that their relationship had been entirely chaste. Indeed, John Rosmer appears throughout a sort of sexless being, or, at least, as an asexual being. That he can be living under the same roof as the young and attractive Rebecca, and never even be tempted by desire, seems to indicate a man with a very low, virtually non-existent, sexual drive. (Neither is there any indication, incidentally, of homosexuality on Rosmer’s part, latent or otherwise.)  Perhaps this is in keeping with the cold, passionless ethos of the House of Rosmer, where children do not cry and adults do not laugh. If this is so, we may ask ourselves what had attracted Rebecca to Rosmer in  the first place, and here, I must confess that I am not at all sure: the fact that Rosmer was a man from a noble family (on all senses of  the word noble), and belonging to an old and respected family, and owner of the great Rosmersholm, the House of Rosmer, may in itself had been a sort of aphrodisiac. But more important, I think, is that Rosmer is a genuinely good man. He is, as Edmund says of Edgar in King Lear, a man “whose nature is so far from doing harms, that he suspects none”: he cannot see how pompous and malicious Kroll is, or how untrustworthy and conniving Mortensgaard is; and it never even occurs to him that living under the same roof as Rebecca West may give rise to gossip. He has rejected his faith, but his moral integrity, his determination to do right, to value Truth, are important aspects of his character: these, after all, are the values of Rosmersholm iitself. Rebecca herself would possibly be at a loss to explain what it was that had attracted her to Rosmer, but the fact that he was in all respects a good man is, I think, far from a minor consideration.

And then, there is the question of John’s marriage with Beata: what exactly had that been like? We can only piece it together from the very unreliable memories the participants of this drama have about her. He are given to understand that she had been mentally ill, especially towards the end: it seems likely she had been suffering from what we would now call depression. And that the depression had been brought on by, or, perhaps, exacerbated by, the knowledge that she couldn’t have children – although whether this was due to her own medical condition or to her husband’s lack of sexual interest in her remains unclear. At any rate, she had been a deeply unhappy person, imbued with a profound sense of her own inadequacy, and  her unworthiness to be the wife of John  Rosmer. And Rebecca had played upon this. She had given Beata to understand that she and Rosmer were indeed lovers, and that it was she, Rebecca, and not Beata, who should rightfully be Rosmer’s wife. Not that she had done this openly, or even deliberately: it was not something calculated, and, as she looks back, she cannot quite understand to what extent she really had been  responsible:

REBECCA (vehemently): But do you think I did all  this calculatedly, and in cold blood? No – I was different then from what I am now – standing here and talking about it. And besides – I think a person can have two wills. I wanted to be rid of Beata. Somehow or other. But I never thought it would happen. Every step that I ventured forward, I felt as though a voice cried within me: “No further! Not an inch further!” But I couldn’t stop! I had to venture another inch. Just one. And then another – just one more. And then it happened. That’s how such things do happen.

And, as Rosmer realises, if Rebecca is guilty, he is guilty too. At two strategic points in the play, in the first and final acts, the reprehensible old layabout, Ulrik Brendel, enters the scene. He had previously been John Rosmer’s tutor, and  Rosmer possibly realises that this faded old idealist, now taking refuge in bluster and in alcohol, is a sort of grotesque mirror image of himself. He too, like Rosmer, had set out to “ennoble” humanity; but whatever nobility he himself once may have had has long since disappeared. And he knows it. How can he, pathetic and absurd as he is, have anything to offer?

BRENDEL: Faewell,  Johannes! Forward to victory!

ROSMER: Are you going now? It’s a dark night.

BRENDEL: Night and darkness are best. Peace be with you. [He leaves]

                [There is a moment’s silence in the room.]

REBECCA (takes a deep breath): Oh, how close and suffocating it is here!

Rebecca and John can both seen Brendel an image of John Rosmer himself, and idealist who, being honest, must face up to what he really is, to the guilt in which he is embroiled. He can no longer believe in a God to punish him, but he still believes in sin and in atonement: he must punish himself.  Night and darkness are best, after all.

I, who was to carry my cause to victory – ! And now I have fled the field, before the battle has even begun.

And as for Rebecca, she is suffocating. The only way out for both of them is to go the way Beata had done.

But it is not the case – as I have seen in some analyses of this play –  that John Rosmer decides to atone for his guilt by committing suicide, and Rebecca decides to join him. It is, if anything, the other way round. It is John Rosmer, with the monstrous egotism typical of idealists who expects others to share their ideals, who asks whether Rebecca will have the courage:

ROSMER: Have you the courage – and the will – with a glad heart, as Ulrik Brendel said – for my sake,  now, tonight – freely and willingly – to go the  way that Beata went? … Yes, Rebecca. This is the question I shall never be able to escape from – after you are gone. Every hour of the day it will haunt me.

Rosmer means that this question will haunt him after Rebecca has left Rosmersholm: would she, who is guilty of so much for his sake, and in whose guilt he bears a great part, prove to him the depths not only of her love, but also of her awareness of her guilt? It is a monstrously egotistical thing to ask for. But Rebecca agrees. And only then does Rosmer decide to accompany her.

For now, we two are one.

And there follows the double suicide, the ultimate union in death, the liebestod – but a liebestod entirely chaste, and free of sexuality. The liberated woman who had sought to subdue the world itself to her will, but whose will now has dissipated; and the man of integrity who had sought to ennoble humanity, but who find himself embroiled in such guilt that, in absence of a God, he must himself punish, perish together. Night and darkness are best.


I have long delayed writing this post because, despite many years’ acquaintance with this play, I am not sure I understand it, or that I will ever understand it. Reading over what I have written, I fear much of it may appear pretentious: I have touched on elements of philosophy and psychology that I am distinctly unqualified to comment upon. However, this is a work that continues to fascinate me, and I don’t think it is possible to describe how I react to this without touching on these matters. For this is all this is: not an analysis, by any means, but simply a record of how I, personally, react to this play – of what it means to me.  I think it is among the most hypnotically captivating of all works of literature that I have encountered. The dramatist still reckoned essentially to be a social critic, a dramatist of social change, peers here into some of the most obscure and secret compartments of the human mind, into some of the deepest of human concerns, and, inevitably, the play that emerges is difficult, and endlessly intricate. I doubt I will ever come to a definitive view of a work so complex and so profound. Great though Ibsen’s previous plays in this cycle had been, it does seem to me that with Rosmersholm, he moves on to a new level entirely.

Digressing with Sterne

My intentions were good, that’s for sure. All those times I have bought books with impressive titles, impressive blurbs on the back covers, and, I am sure, even more impressive contents, I had every intention of reading them. And this despite already having scores of unread books on my shelves, and my normally slow reading rate having become even slower of late.

Right now, I should be reading Nietzsche. He is, after all, one of the most important and most influential thinkers of the era that, in literary terms, possibly interests me most – the latter half of the nineteenth century. How could I hope to get a handle on the intellectual currents of the time without knowing Nietzsche?

A great many writers and thinkers one could become acquainted with at second hand, through a process of osmosis, as it were. Of course, if you want to study these writers and thinkers properly, you will have to read their works: there is no royal path to understanding. But one can, nonetheless, get a very rough idea with secondary material. But with Nietzsche, it becomes very difficult: he has been interpreted in so many different ways, and with so many of these interpretations deemed dangerous misinterpretations, that one really has no option but to dive in and see for oneself. Which, given my lack of a background in philosophy, is not easy. So I bought myself the Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, and read the various excellent essays in there, as a way of easing myself in. What’s more, I think I even understood these essays. Well, some of them, at least. And I was just about to dive into Beyond Good and Evil – when I got distracted.

It was Laurence Sterne who distracted me. And that is curiously appropriate, as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (as well as his lesser known Sentimental Journey) are masterpieces of distraction. Here was a writer who, try as hard as he could, just could not keep to the subject at hand. Tristram Shandy is a sort of paean to the Art of Digression: the entire novel is but a series of digressions – though digression exactly from what is not very easy to figure out. But Sterne is so engaging a narrator, so genial, so personable, so delightfully dotty, and so scrupulously polite despite all the bawdiness that will insist on intruding, that it doesn’t seem to matter. And, one soon realises – the digressions are the point.

I won’t try to describe Tristram Shandy here. I’ll keep that for a later blog post – to be written once I’ve finished reading this. This is not my first reading: it is, if I remember correctly, my third. But it is strange how one’s receptivities alter over time. Not that I didn’t enjoy my earlier readings – I most certainly did – but I don’t think I enjoyed them to quite the same extent I am enjoying it this time round. I think, more than anything else, it is Sterne’s personality I am enjoying. In talking about books, we often undervalue the companionship afforded by the author: and what better company could anyone ask for on the commuter train?

It makes quite a change from the last book I read. (Apart from those essays on Nietzsche, that is.) I recently finished reading The Adolescent by Dostoyevsky, which I had started as I was a great admirer of that writer, and, given this novel’s reputation as one of his lesser works, had not read before. And I remain a great admirer still, despite my experience of having now read this novel. But either his remarkable powers deserted him when writing this, or he was working at some level beyond my comprehension. I do not know. I am currently debating with myself whether or not I should write a blog post on this novel: what’s the point, given that I couldn’t make any sense of it? Just a short post to register my incomprehension, perhaps. But be that as it may, whether the problem was with the book itself or with my shortcomings as a reader, it wasn’t a satisfying reading experience.

I have also been reading – and blogging on – the major plays of Ibsen. Now Ibsen, unlike Nietzsche, is a writer I have been acquainted with for a long time, and he is very close to my heart, for reasons I haven’t yet worked out. So I thought that reading those plays, and writing about them – not pronouncing upon them, as such, but, rather, recording my own thoughts and impressions, such as they are – would help me come to a closer understanding of what it is about these plays that affect me so. I have been reading these plays this time round in chronological order, and am now approaching his last plays; and, frankly, I feel intimidated. The next play I would like to write about is Rosmersholm, and that is so very difficult and complex that I really don’t think I am qualified even to try to untangle its psychological and moral depths. And, for this very reason, I have been delaying writing something on it: I am finding it difficult to grasp and to pin down something that I can sense is in there, and which is, I can tell, immense. I’m sure I’ll get down to it eventually. And, although it is unlikely that Ibsen ever read Nietzsche, the essays on Nietzsche I have recently been reading did seem to me to shed some light on these Ibsen plays. It is not, after all, any great surprise that major creative writers and thinkers, writing at the same time, should have similar concerns.

But, for the moment, let’s leave Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen aside for a while – all mere complexities. I’ll return to them later when I am so minded. Not that there aren’t complexities in Tristram Shandy also, but whatever complexities there are in it are so camouflaged with Sterne’s warmth and ludic dexterity that I find myself reading with a broad grin on my face rather than a with a furrowed brow. And that, for the moment at least, is how I like it.

Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Ibsen can all wait. I am now digressing with the greatest digresser of them all, and thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

“For love of unforgotten times”: “A Child’s Garden of Verses” by Robert Louis Stevenson

I think I must have been seven or eight, no more – a child who had been acquainted with the English language for not more than three years – when I first encountered Stevenson’s  A Child’s Garden of Verses. Our teacher at our primary school in Kirkcaldy used each week to write a poem in chalk on the blackboard, and we used to copy them into our jotters; and our homework would be to memorise that poem. And if modern sensibilities think of that as quaintly old-fashioned, or even as an imposition, then so much the worse for modern sensibilities. Memories are vague, of course, but from what I remember, I did enjoy those poems, and I cannot remember any complaints from any of the other children. And those poems have stuck in my mind ever since, for the general betterment, I think, of that mind. I look through the poems in this collection now, and there are so many I remember memorising at home and reciting in class … That one about the speeding train, for instance:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches…

And I remember our teacher telling us how, when you read it out loud, it sounds like a train rattling along. I think that was possibly the first indication I had of poetry communicating through sound as much as through anything else. I remember my imagination being stirred on windy nights by the idea of a horseman galloping by:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

I was only going to give the first verse here, but now that I have done that, I can’t help giving the other verse too:

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then,
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Yes, reading these poems at my age is tremendously nostalgic, but it seems to me that there was as at least as much nostalgia in Stevenson’s writing of these poems as there is in my reading. For, although I enjoyed these poems as a child, I am not sure that they strike me, reading them now, as poems written specifically for children. Rather, they are very much, and, I think, very consciously, poems about an adult looking back: nostalgia is not merely what these poems evoke – it is the central theme of this collection; and, inevitably, since nostalgia literally means “the ache for home”, there is, under the charm and the whimsicality, an ache, a sorrow.

The sorrow is partly for the lonely, sickly child Stevenson remembered himself to have been. There is the famous poem in which he, lying sick in bed, imagines in the patches of his bedquilt a new land on which his toy soldiers may manoeuvre; or the one where he remembers his imaginary friend; or the one where he remembers sitting on his own at the window every evening, waiting for Leerie the lamplighter stopping to light the streetlamp in front of his house; and how he wished to become a lamplighter himself once he grows up, and do the rounds each night with Leerie. Occasionally, Stevenson mentions playing with other children, but only occasionally: in most of the poems, he is on his own, imagining friends, imagining new, exotic worlds.

But these poems are not self-pitying: Stevenson grew up in a comfortable family, and he knew his background was privileged. The greater part of the sadness in these poems comes from that sense of loss we all feel when we look back on our childhoods, even though that sense of loss is for something that, for the most part, exists only in our imaginations. For our imaginations harden too, along with our arteries, and the new lands we used to conjure out of the patches in our counterpane are, in our adult years, well beyond our reach.

In the last poem in the collection, Stevenson drops the pretence that he is writing for children. This last poem is called “To Any Reader”, but actually, it is addressed to the adult reader. Here, he bids his adult reader picture “another child, far, far away”, playing in “another garden”.

But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you…

And Stevenson knows the loss is not his alone. In one poignant verse, addressed to his mother, he writes:

You too, my mother, read my rhymes
For love of unforgotten times,
And you may chance to hear once more
The little feet along the floor.

This is a loss, and a sorrow, the expression of which we rarely encounter – the sorrow of losing a child not through anything so dramatic as death, but simply by the fact that the child grows up. I imagine we rarely hear of it because such a grief seems self-centred: if the parent and the grown-up child are on good terms, it seems like an unjust rebuke to the grown up child; and if not, it is, inevitably, more than tinged with bitterness. But it remains a potent grief nonetheless: the child that had delighted us so by the very fact of being a child may well have become the most splendid of adults, but some sadness inevitably remains that that delight is no more.

Another writer who captured this particular sense of loss is Bibhutibhushan Banerji, in the novel Aparajito (a follow-up to the better known Pather Panchali, and equally wondrous and moving). In this novel, Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya, dies on her own in her remote village, while the last remaining member of her family, Apu, now an adolescent, and unaware of the state of his mother’s health, is in far distant Kolkata. In Satyajit Ray’s famous film, Sarbojaya, as she approaches her end, imagines she hears her son’s voice, and she hobbles to the door and opens it; and outside, there is only emptiness: all she can see are fireflies glowing in the dark. As with so many images in this trilogy of films, that image of the glowing fireflies affects the viewer – well, this viewer at least – with an intensity that no amount of analysis can quite account for. But, marvellous though this sequence is, Bibhutibhushan, in his novel treats the scene differently. Here, Sarbojaya, at the point of death, hallucinates her son Apu has come to see her; but it is not Apu the young man as he is now: it is Apu as he had been as a ten year-old.

I remember when I first read that, I was so moved, I had to put the book down for a while to collect myself. For this is the Apu his mother had lost. Her daughter she had lost to the brute fact that all that lives must die; but her son she had lost to the equally brute fact that all that lives must change. Worldly wisdom tells us not to look back, and to keep up with the changes; but our worldly minds often cannot. And the grown-up Stevenson understands the sorrow felt by all those who share that “love of unforgotten times”.

There is nothing in these poems quite as heart-tugging as that scene in Aparajito, but neither did Stevenson intend there to be. Instead, there is charm, there is delight; and there is, it seems to me, a lingering sadness underpinning it all, a sadness that seems to me more than the consequence of my own nostalgia for those far-off days at North Primary School, Kirkcaldy.

I have never sat at my window to see Leerie the lamplighter pass by. Indeed, I have never even seen a lamplighter. But reading Stevenson’s evocation, it seems as if I have. Leerie the lamplighter has become part of my own nostalgia as well.

Some utter nonsense

The first book I remember reading was a book of Bengali nonsense rhymes, Abol Tabol (which means “gibberish”) by Sukumar Ray (Satyajit’s dad). When I was 5, I knew many of those poems by heart. Recently, in an idle hour, I wondered if I could translate one of them. This is the result. I am not very pleased with the ending (which seems to me rather anticlimactic in English) – but what the hell! – I’m not a professional translator, and this is the best I could do. Since I’ve now done it, and don’t know what to do with it, I thought I might as well stick it up here.

Our office head, a lovely chap,
Forever calm and gentle,
Who’d have thought he’d be the sort
To go completely mental?

There he dozed upon his chair
Contented as a child,
But then his nap broke with a snap –
He was raving! He was wild!

He gave a shout and rolled about,
His arms and legs went flying,
“Help, help!” he cried, “Come to my side,
“Come hold me up! I’m dying!”

“Doctor! Nurse!” some people called,
“Police! There’ll be a fight!”
Others there were more circumspect,
“Careful now! He’ll bite!”

Here and there and everywhere
Was bedlam, bash and crash,
As tumult spread, the office head
Cried: “Someone’s nicked me tache!”

Moustache stolen? What a thought!
Well, that’s not very clever!
They stood and stared: his facial hair
Seemed sprouting strong as ever.

They gathered round, and said to him,
“Look in the mirror, sir!
“Your tache has not been nicked or pinched –
“Such things do not occur.”

He raged like fire, like chips in frier,
“How dare you have the gall!
“How dare you lie! How dare deny!
“You’re traitors, villains all!

“This filthy rag upon my lip,
“This fetid, threadbare broom,
“You think I’d place this on my face?
“You think I’d give this room?

“I’ll soon teach you a thing or two –
“Come here and take a gander!
“If you opine this eyesore’s mine
“I’ll sue you all for slander!”

He moped and muttered, spat and spluttered,
And in his diary wrote:
“Never cut anyone any slack –
“They’ll all be at your throat!

“Those dunces, neds, those dung-filled heads,
“They can’t see! No-one knows!
“My tache is swiped in broad daylight
“From under my very nose!

“If I’d my way I’d dance all day
“While pulling at their taches,
“And scrape their heads with massive spades –
“Those birdbrained loons! Those asses!

“Moustaches can’t be bought or sold –
“Who mocks my tache maligns me!
“I am my tache! The rest is trash!
“What’s on my lip defines me!”



Bypassing thought

“I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it” Robert Bresson once said in an interview. T. S. Eliot had said something similar: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Art can, in other word, bypass thought, and still affect us.

In one way, I rather like this. After all, I’m damned if I can understand Bresson’s Pickpocket, say, or Eliot’s “Little Gidding” – at least, I’m damned if I understand these works well enough to account for the effect they have on me. And yet, they do have an effect on me: I can’t deny it.

But in another way, it bothers me. If one can respond, even respond powerfully, to something before one understands it; or even, perhaps, without ever understanding; can one then not respond to any old thing? What then of our powers of discrimination that we so pride ourselves with?

Of course, I tell myself, there is much one can love deeply without understanding. If, after all, one had to understand the principles of counterpoint to enjoy listening to a Bach fugue, poor old Johann Sebastian wouldn’t be left with too many admirers. And similarly with visual arts. Earlier this year, as I stood in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, in those great oval rooms, surrounded on all sides by those vast water-lilies of Monet, by those dazzling, resplendent splashes of colours, I felt quite transported. But were I imprudent enough to try to write a blog post about them, I don’t know that I could say anything more interesting or more meaningful than “I like them, and think they are very good”.

Indeed, now I think about it, much of writing on arts, perhaps most, could be reduced to that. “I like it. I think it is very good.” Or maybe “It rocks”. Or, conversely, “It sucks”. For who needs articulacy when you don’t have much to say in the first place?

And this, I admit, bothers me, because, while I do accept the truth of Bresson’s dictum (and of Eliot’s), the logical end of their pronouncements seems to be the death of dialogue. If understanding is not the point, then why go beyond “It rocks” and “It sucks”?

I pose these questions rhetorically, of course, but if I cannot at least attempt an answer, much of what I write on this blog would be quite meaningless (if, indeed, it isn’t pretty meaningless as it is). And I think my answer may be along the following lines:

While gaining an understanding may not be essential to appreciation, it surely helps.

Recently, I watched Robert Bresson’s last film, L’Argent, made when he was an old man in his 80s. It is a challenging film, as I think the expression is; which, in other words, means it’s hard to figure out what the hell it’s about. Bresson seems, towards the end both of his career and indeed of his life, to take his trademark austere style to its very extremes. The narrative line is elliptical, with the causes of the various effects we see never quite made clear; the actors have clearly been instructed merely to speak their lines clearly, without the slightest hint of expression; and it is left entirely to the viewer to figure out what these characters’ motivations are, or, indeed, what it all signifies. For, presumably, it all does signify something: it is clearly not a set of random events strung together arbitrarily. But how do I know this? I mean, how do I know that this is not merely a set of random events strung together arbitrarily, when, to tell the truth, I can’t make too much sense of it all? I’d answer that the film affected me. Rather strongly. But is this enough? Is a mere subjective response on my part, a response I cannot account for in any objective terms, a sufficient criterion of artistic merit?

Well, yes, it is, if one believes that the very concept of artistic merit is merely subjective. But I don’t believe that. And there’s my problem.

For whatever reason, I cannot leave it there. I cannot just say “I like it” (“It rocks”) and leave it at that.  I had to think about the film as best I can, allow it to enter into my consciousness. The plot is based on a late novella by Tolstoy, The Forged Coupon. In that story, the simple act of passing on a forged coupon has all sorts of unexpected knock-on effects, and Tolstoy shows us a small act of evil – so small, indeed, that “evil” may seem too strong a word for it – escalating into something enormous. And then, in the second part of the story, Tolstoy shows the opposite effect: a single small act of human kindness similarly escalates, and has knock-on effects, but in a different direction. Tolstoy’s work is, of course, a moral fable, and while some, I know, think of it as evidence of the decline of a once great artist, I personally think of this novella as amongst the world’s greatest literature. But be that as it may, Tolstoy’s purpose, unlike Bresson’s, could not be clearer.

Bresson takes this story, and shows us only the first part. Two boys pass a forged banknote, and the cumulative effect of this thoughtless action grows, until it seems to engulf humanity itself. But the counter-action – the spreading of Good – Bresson does not show. He takes the spread of evil to its end – omitting quite deliberately many of the links in the process – and then leaves us there. So yes, Bresson’s film, unlike Tolstoy’s story, is a deeply pessimistic work: it sees evil as triumphant, and humanity helpless. But if this were all, it would not have affected me so very powerfully. “Evil is all-powerful and we are helpless” seems too trite an observation to be the basis of a great work of art.

So what else is there to this film that affected me so? To get a better grasp of the film, I needed not merely to feel, but to understand – to understand why the characters act as they do. And yet, those are the very aspects of the film that Bresson chose to leave out. So, naturally, it was up to me to try to fill in those gaps. I have felt the film, as Bresson had wanted me to: but I found it deeply unsatisfactory to leave it there. I needed also to understand. And maybe, if I did, I could feel even more intensely.

It isn’t easy: Bresson was not merely a devout Catholic, he was also a Jansenist, and the modes of thinking this implies are very alien to my sensibilities. But it does seem to me that the principal character, having already attempted to kill himself, becomes so filled with hatred of his own self that he wants to damn his own soul. Mere physical destruction isn’t enough: through some strange workings of his mind that are outside the normal orbit of my own, he has to destroy himself spiritually too.

Now, there is no point in wondering whether or not this is the correct interpretation: since Bresson himself refuses to explain, any explanation that is not inconsistent with what is in the film is valid. A work of art isn’t, after all, a crossword puzzle – a code one has to solve to arrive at a correct answer. However, having reached at least some sort of understanding, however inadequate and superficial, I needed desperately to know what others have made of it. For the perspectives of others can but deepen my own.

I searched on Google, but I must admit I didn’t really find anything that was particularly valuable. Maybe I was looking at the wrong places. But I am not looking for a solution: there aren’t solutions to these things. What I am looking for is dialogue – something a bit more substantial than “it rocks” or “it sucks”. For the more one can understand, the better one can feel.

Ultimately, all works of art, of any substance at all, ultimately lies beyond our understanding. Even works we are well acquainted with. I have known King Lear, say, since I was eleven: I have seen many performances, both on stage and on screen; I have read it and re-read it for nearly 50 years now; I have even read books and essays about it. But do I really understand it fully? Could I account for all this play makes me feel? No. Ultimately, these things remain a mystery. But without making the effort at least to understand what I can, I would not have been able even to approach this mystery.

Looking back at the quotes with which I started this piece, I notice there is one word they both use. “I’d rather people feel a film before understanding it.” “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” (My italics.) Feeling may indeed come before understanding, but that is not to say it replaces it. And nor does analysis (which is no more than structured thought) destroy feeling, as so many seem to think. Quite the opposite. True, we may never pluck out the heart of the mystery that any work of art of any substance, I think, possesses; but not even to make the effort reduces us merely to passive spectators. And to engage adequately with a work of art, we need to be far more than that.