The Makropoulos Thingummy

The title of Leoš Janáček’s penultimate opera, Věc Makropulos, has proved a bit difficult to translate. It literally means The Makropulos Thing, but, rather understandably, that hasn’t quite caught on, while alternatives such as The Makropulos Affair or The Makropulos Case aren’t entirely satisfactory either. Perhaps it’s best just to retain the original Czech title: those who are interested will soon figure out what it means, and for those who aren’t particularly interested, I guess it doesn’t matter. But, whatever one chooses to call it, it’s a wonderful work, albeit not quite as well-known as it should be:  it is rarely performed, and, of the major operas by Janáček, this is the one I am least acquainted with. So when I saw a concert performance scheduled in the current BBC Proms season, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jiří Bělohlávek, and featuring Karita Mattila, one of the great singers of our time, in the central role, it was hard to resist.

The trajectory of Janáček’s artistic career is a strange one. Had he died around 1920, say, when in his mid-60s, I suspect he’d have been remembered as a one-hit wonder – that one hit being Jenůfa, one of the most gut-wrenching of all stage works, and a towering masterpiece. He had composed as well some other works of note – some lovely piano pieces, and a couple more operas that are well worth hearing (Osud and The Excursions of Mr Broucek) – but nothing approaching the quality of Jenůfa. And then, in the last seven or eight years of his life, in his late sixties and early seventies, when most artists’ creativity tend to wind down, something strange happened: he produced a string of masterpieces – two string quartets of startling originality, the Sinfonietta, the mind-blowing Glagolitic Mass, and four operas that rank with the finest – Káťa Kabanová, Příhody lišky Bystroušky  (rather unfortunately – and inaccurately – rendered in English as The Cunning Little Vixen), Věc Makropulos, and, finally, The House of the Dead, based on Dostoyevsky’s autobiographical novel set in Siberian labour camps.

What strikes one about these works – quite apart, of course, from their obvious quality – is their dissimilarity from each other in terms of theme; and, Káťa Kabanová apart, their seemingly unoperatic subject matter. Káťa Kabanová, based on the play The Storm by Russian dramatist Alexandr Ostrovsky, has a plotline that virtually cries out for operatic treatment; but the Vixen opera is based on a cartoon strip in a newspaper, is virtually plotless, and features as its characters both humans and forest animals; while his last opera, based on Dostoyevsky, depicts day-to-day life in a labour camp, and is punctuated by long monologues in which various convicts relate the events that had brought them to the dead-house. And the subject of Věc Makropulos, based on a play by Karel Čapek, seems the least operatic of them all. The libretto – adapted by Janáček himself from Čapek’s play – does not read like something intended for an opera house: it is all dialogue, in prose, with little scope for arias or for monologues, or for ensembles: it seems like a conversation piece more than anything else. And the subject appears to be a complex legal case, concerning a disputed inheritance, that has been dragging on for some hundred years – a sort of Czech version of Dedlock vs Dedlock. There is indeed quite a long scene in the first act where the details of this case are spelled out. It’s hard to imagine material less likely for operatic treatment.

Janáček had, no doubt, condensed Čapek’s play – since singing a line takes longer than speaking it, opera libretti must necessarily be shorter than plays – but even after the condensing, it reads like a play rather than as a libretto. And it’s all in prose: no rhymes, no regular pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables – merely spoken dialogue.  Janáček was, apparently, fascinated by speech rhythms and intonations, had developed his own notation of recording them, and had incorporated his expertise in these matters into his music; but I fear this aspect of his work is lost on a non-Czech speaker such as myself: what emerges, for me, at least, is something decidedly prosaic. For much of the opera, what we hear are very brief musical motifs that refuse to combine – either in the vocal lines or in the orchestral parts – to create melody, or even recognisable melodic fragments. It makes Strauss’ Elektra – that uncompromisingly jagged piece of modernism I heard at the same venue a couple of years ago – seem almost like a feast of melody.

I mean this as an observation rather than as a criticism: I do not necessarily look for melody, and am not disappointed when I don’t find it. And in any case, Janáček was at the top of his game at the time of writing this, and what he produced was, quite clearly, what he intended to produce, no matter how much it may puzzle. For there’s no denying that by the time we reach the final act, it is mesmeric. And this final act is not merely stuck on to the first two: it is an integral part of the dramatic arc. In other words, no matter how much the earlier parts of the opera may puzzle with its seemingly un-operatic material, and, some might say, its equally un-operatic musical style (in the sense that there are no long musical lines that both singers and listeners so often delight in), it leads inexorably to a finale that is like no other I have experienced.

I do not know how this is achieved: I am not qualified to comment on the musical side of it. Dramatically, the libretto is not without its faults. In the first scene, Vitek, a lawyer’s clerk and a political radical, recites from a speech by Danton to himself when he thinks no-one is hearing. Presumably, this is taken from Čapek’s play, and leads to something there, but in the opera, it seems utterly gratuitous: indeed, Vitek himself, a minor character, virtually disappears from the action soon afterwards. If Janáček had indeed condensed the play, a bit more condensation may perhaps have not gone amiss.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down a translation of Čapek’s play, and am not even sure that a translation exists. In the notes in the booklet accompanying the recording conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, Janáček expert and biographer John Tyrrell quotes Čapek biographer William Harkins:

… the intensity of Čapek ‘s ideas is never matched by a corresponding intensity of language.

and goes on to say that, in effect, Janáček had improved on the original material, providing a solemn tragic dimension to a comedy that, if not entirely light-hearted, was not too substantial either. That may be so, but I would love to read the play for myself, and would be grateful if anyone could point me in the direction of a good translation. Certainly the ideas that animate the drama, whether or not they are matched by a corresponding intensity of language, are immensely striking.

For what emerges through all the ordinary, prosaic stuff about legal cases and disputed wills is a quite extraordinary and, indeed, poetic story. It concerns Emilia Marty, a beautiful and gifted opera singer, who, for reasons not immediately divulged, takes an interest in this seemingly dull legal case, and appears, mysteriously, to know about the private affairs of various people who had been alive a hundred years ago. She refuses to answer any questions on how she came to know such things, and treats everyone and everything with a cold, undisguised contempt. What she is interested in is a certain document that, she knows, is in the same place as a will that is as yet unseen. It is this document that is, specifically, the “Makropulos Thing” of the title. To get her hands on this document, she agrees, with seeming indifference, without either desire or distaste, to spend a night with Baron Prus; but when they emerge from the hotel bedroom in the third act, the Baron describes the encounter as like “making love to a corpse”.

The secret finally emerges: Emilia Marty is 337 years old: her real name – that is, the name she had been born with – is Elina Makropulos. Her father, an alchemist of the sixteenth century, and created an elixir for eternal life, and had been ordered to test it first on his own daughter. She, having taken it, had fallen into a coma, and her father was imprisoned as a fraud. But he was no fraud: the daughter had emerged from the coma free from the shadow of death: she had, indeed, eternal life. And over the centuries, she had perfected her art as a singer, and had emerged under different names in different eras. Now, she needs her father’s formula – contained in the “Makropulos Thing” she so desperately wants to get her hands on – to renew her eternal youth.

But there is a price to be extracted for eternity:  life, for her, is empty. She had loved, but those she had loved – such as the man who had written the disputed will, and to whom she bore an illegitimate child – are now long dead; and now, even love has come to seem a pointless rigmarole.

In the prelude that opens the opera, the music turns and churns: brass motifs heard offstage seem to echo down from somewhere far distant in time itself. Once the action begins, we seem to be in a very ordinary world of lawyers’ offices, hotel rooms, backstage after performance; but through this ordinariness emerges the extraordinary. And by the end, without my realising quite how I got there, I found myself in the grips of one of the most mesmerising of all operatic tragedies, as Elina Makropulos concedes the sheer pointlessness of eternity.

I am not qualified to comment on the musical performance, except to say that, to my ears at least, it was magnificent. The BBC Symphony Orchestra played like the world class orchestra it is, and Karita Mattila projected not merely her undoubted vocal prowess, but all the charisma and personality such a role requires. To see so great a singer and actress, still in her artistic prime despite having been at the top of her career now for several decades, is in itself a privilege.

As for the opera itself, I came out of the Royal Albert Hall as shaken as I had been (albeit for different reasons) when I had come out having seen Strauss’ Elektra there some two years ago. The two operas, despite both being tragedies, are very different: with Elektra, one has no doubt from the very opening chords that one is in a mythic world darkened by blood and by a violence that is both mental and physical; but here, despite the foreboding music of the prelude, one seems very much in a world of the mundane, the ordinary. What is striking here is the emergence of the extraordinary from the ordinary, of the tragic from the mundane.

In many ways, I couldn’t help thinking, this opera is the diametric opposite of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Wagner liked his operas long, and constructed them so that, when listening, we lose the sense of time passing, while Janáček preferred his operas short (between 90 and 120 minutes, at most), and here, made the passage of time his very theme; Wagner’s opera virtually strips out all external action, so that what we experience seems to be taking place somewhere deep within our unconscious, whereas Janáček sets his work with an almost dogged determination in a very real world; Wagner shows us a world in which human love is given meaning and significance by the presence of death, whereas Janáček shows us a world in which everything that is of value, even love itself, is rendered pointless by the absence of death. For, as Wagner and Janáček both knew – and, I’d imagine, Karel Čapek too – love is only possible between dying things. Eternity is not for the likes of us.

I tried to write a novel once…

I tried to write a novel once

No, really, I did. My excuse is that I was young then, and, with the arrogance of youth that I sometimes wish I’d retained, I really thought I was up to it. Good heavens, how I slaved at it! How many hours did I spend scribbling away with my biro pen (these were before the days of laptops)! How determined I was to deliver something to the publishers that would knock ’em flat!

Of course, I needn’t tell you that it was pretty shite.  And I suppose that it is to the credit of my younger self that, after a few months, I realised for myself just how shite it was. After all, I had read Henry James, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy … I knew what a good novel read like. And mine … well, mine didn’t. It was so depressingly obvious that I didn’t have whatever it takes even to make a middling novelist, let alone a good one. I figured out that if I really worked hard at it, I might be able to produce something that was mediocre; and even then I knew that the world was not crying out for yet another mediocre novel.

What I find puzzling these days is why so many people seem unable to reach the rather obvious conclusion that writing novels requires skill, which is rare, and talent, which is rarer. On no less than two occasions, I have had to read friends’ “novels” – I use scare quotes advisedly – that were frankly even worse than my aborted effort. Dear God in Heaven …

No, let’s leave it there. Some experiences, even after the passage of years, are too painful, too raw, to talk about.

And yet, that sentiment that “everyone has a novel in them” seems not to go away. It sounds agreeably democratic, after all. It has been noted recently that while the term “elite” denotes something to be admired when it comes to sports, in the arts, it is almost invariably used as a pejorative. There are a few differences, of course: when used in the context of sport, it usually refers to the athletes, whereas, in the arts, it tends to refer to audiences. It’s still lazy thinking, right enough, as whatever is packing out the sports stadia and keeping the theatres and concert halls empty, it ain’t the price: a ticket to a Premiership football match would cost me far, far more than a ticket to the Royal Festival Hall, say, to hear the London Philharmonic. But when a belief is deeply rooted, mere facts don’t really matter too much: the term “elite” certainly has very different resonances in different contexts. But be that as it may, in the arts, the resentment against elitism isn’t, in general, directed at artists. Except, perhaps, when it comes to novelists. For, after all, everyone has a novel in them! What makes professional novelists so bloody special?

Actually, in a certain sense, the sentiment that we all have a novel in us is probably true. Everyone, beyond a certain age, has had experiences that could form the raw materials of a novel. Of course, it takes skill to organise those experiences into a coherent form, present them in a manner sufficiently interesting to engage the reader, and so on, and so forth. And if the author has talent as well as skill, the narrative may be imbued with what we may call an artistic vision – a way of looking at life that is sufficiently interesting, or sufficiently original, or even, perhaps, sufficiently visionary, to not only engage, but maybe even to enrich the reader. On rare occasions, the finished work may even take the reader into realms of such rarefied experience that it could be deemed worthy of reverence.

But I doubt any of these things matter to those who hold that there is, indeed, a novel in all of us. After all, we live in times when one may seriously consider the question “At what point does a novel become literature?” without ever referring to literary quality. The concept itself seems almost embarrassing. Novels are for recording one’s raw experiences. They’re about finding oneself. They’re about discovering one’s identity. Asserting one’s identity.  Determining what labels best attach to one’s self. And once literature can do that, its task is accomplished.

Maybe I shouldn’t have thrown my manuscript away all those years ago. After all, no-one really cares about literary quality, as such: I could, in my own uncouth way, have “given voice” – as I believe the expression is – to the Immigrant Experience. More particularly, the Bengali Immigrant Experience. Or the Indian-Bengali Immigrant Experience. I’m sure there are a few other labels one could add. There would not have been much artistry involved, of course, but that’s all to the good, as the very lack of artistry would have evidenced authenticity. I’d have “given voice”, and that’s what counts.

Flannery O’Connor famously had this to say about the democracy of creativity:

Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.

She had a few other choice remarks to make about writing classes:

In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.

I find it hard to disagree with the sentiment. Indeed, I applaud it. I am pleased to see also that she used the word “vision”: it makes me feel a bit less embarrassed about having used it myself. But I can’t help reflecting that if Ms O’Connor were to read that manuscript I threw away so many years ago, she would not have declared with such confidence that “any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge … able to write a competent story”. For this idiot certainly couldn’t. But perhaps she didn’t foresee a time when competence wouldn’t really matter so much – when all that really matters is giving voice to your identity.

On reverence

Many people have a very strict definition of reality: only that which exists as a physical entity in the real world may be considered real. Turgenev’s Bazarov may have agreed: twice two is four, and everything else is nonsense, he gleefully proclaimed, though it may be worth asking the Bazarovs of this world (and there are many) if, given that definition, “two” and “four” can themselves be considered real, given that, when not attached to objects – e.g. “two trees” or “four cars” – numbers do not have a physical presence either. But if this is indeed an adequate definition of reality, what are we to make of our emotions – those things we all feel, such as fear, anger, joy, contentment, anxiety, apprehension, delight, and so on? I’m sure that the definition of reality is a complex philosophical issue, and one that I, as a layman, am not qualified to comment upon, but if our definition of reality does not accommodate our emotions, then, it seems to me, such a definition doesn’t come close to describing our real lives as we live them.

So let us grant that, however we choose to define reality, our emotions are “real”. Let us, for convenience if nothing else, cut through the various philosophical subtleties and complexities, and proclaim that what we feel must be real. For, without such an assumption, our thoughts, our actions, our very lives, would be based merely upon illusions.

We may describe most of our emotions by ascribing to them labels: we may label certain emotions as “anger”, or as “fear”, or as “contentment”, and be confident of being understood when we use these terms, since these emotions have been felt, we can be fairly certain, by most, if not all, other humans. There’s no point trying to formulate definitions when a general understanding already exists.

But what about those emotions that one has felt for which there is no handy label, no descriptive term or word? And which we cannot even be sure have been universally experienced? I mean those experiences that, for want of universally understood terms, we tend to refer to as “spiritual”, or as “transcendental”, or something similarly vague. Those experiences that, in Wordsworth’s words, give us a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Such emotions may be straying too close for comfort to religious experience, but even diehard atheists often admit to having felt this kind of thing. We may feel these things in the presence of a resplendent sunset, say; or on viewing some majestic vista from atop a mountain; or on viewing the glory of a star-emblazoned sky on a clear and cloudless night.

We may, indeed, describe the experience of these emotions as “sacred”, but here we run into difficulties: the sacred is usually defined as that which is related to divinity; however, though belief in divinity has declined sharply over the last few decades (at least, in the western world), our capacity to experience those feelings that we may describe as “sacred” hasn’t. And neither, I’d argue, has our need to experience them. So, if the concept of the “sacred” continues to hold meaning for us even if we have stopped believing in God, or even if, like myself, we’re agnostic, we must question whether the “sacred” need necessarily be tied to religion. But how can we define “sacred” otherwise? If we decouple the “sacred” from religious experience, and describe it in more secular terms as anything to which we feel we owe reverence, then the concept of the “sacred” loses all objectivity, and, can, indeed, be anything. To Félicité in Flaubert’s story “Un Coeur Simple”, even a stuffed parrot becomes “sacred”.

However, if what may be deemed “sacred” is not purely objective, it is not, I think, purely subjective either. For what gives rise to these feelings are generally not stuffed parrots, but, rather, resplendent sunsets and mountain-top vistas and the like. And, also, certain works of art. This last I know for a fact, because I have felt this emotion myself when I have come into contact with certain music, certain poems, certain paintings. And, if we deem emotions to be real, then this emotion, too, must be real.

And these emotions are, I’d argue, very precious emotions, whether we feel them in the presence of starry skies, of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or even, for that matter, of stuffed parrots. Towards the end of Flaubert’s story, Félicité, her mind never too strong to begin with and now further weakened by age, as she breathes her last, has a resplendent vision of a gigantic parrot hovering above her. It is utterly absurd, yes, but at the same time, this passage has about it a sense of gravity, of solemnity, that, given the ludicrous nature of the image, is hard to account for. I find it hard to tell whether Flaubert intended to debunk the very idea of religious experience, or to elevate Félicité’s absurd vision into something significant, something that gives a meaning to her otherwise meaningless life. Perhaps there are elements of both: literature can signify many things, even contradictory things, simultaneously. But either way, the sense of rapture Félicité feels is real, even if the gigantic parrot hovering above her isn’t. That sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused exists even here, and is precious, even though there is nothing here interfused, far more deeply or otherwise.

I think this accounts for the often quasi-religious zeal many of us feel for the arts: the arts provide, or, at least, are capable of providing, experiences generally considered to belong to the realms of religion. The idea that art can, or should, give rise to such feelings remains, however, hotly disputed. There are those who insist, often quite aggressively, that the arts exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to give pleasure. The arts, we are told, traditionally existed for no other reason, and that we only started to become precious about it in more recent times. For instance, Alan Bissett, in the article linked to above, solemnly tells us:

Stretching back to oral folk culture, stories were democratic in their nature, bonding communities in a shared experience. Everyone had a tale to tell around the fire; the audience could decide for themselves if it was good or not.

Tempting though it may be to picture our distant forefathers seated around a communal fire and entertaining themselves, purely for pleasure, with recitations from The Book of Job, it doesn’t seem to me an image that rings particularly true. From even the earliest of our surviving literature, it is obvious that the creators, even when they set out to entertain, had set out also to achieve more.

Bissett starts his piece by telling us that there is “art appreciation” and “art worship”, and while he allows the former to be acceptable, the latter he doesn’t. Which would be fine if he could at least explain to us what the difference is between the two, but he doesn’t. And since he doesn’t, I can only guess at what he means: I’d guess that what Bissett refers to as “art worship” is the reverence that some of us may feel for a work of art. And that, according to Bissett, is a Bad Thing. For the purpose of art, he solemnly informs us with all the earnestness of a conscientious hedonist, is to provide pleasure. Nothing more.

The claim that there can be no other point to art than to entertain and to provide pleasure, and that, by implication, anyone who claims to have obtained from art anything other than that must either be fooling themselves or are lying, strikes me as, frankly, gratuitously insulting. Even if one does not feel certain things in the presence of art, the contention that no-one else can or should feel these things either, is presumptuous, to say the least. It also strikes me as boorish and ill-mannered.

The idea that the arts can give rise to certain feelings that are close to religious emotions has long, I think, been acknowledged. Religion itself has recognised this: various religious institutions have either outlawed the arts from the act of worship, considering the quasi-religious feelings derived from art as unwanted rivals to true religious feelings; others have done the opposite, and have incorporated the arts into the act of worship, welcoming the quasi-religious as a legitimate means of approaching the religious. And in recent times, with religious beliefs receding in the West, the arts have in many cases become a sort of secular religion in themselves – a replacement for religion, providing experiences that we can no longer obtain from religion, but which we nonetheless require to prevent our lives from sinking into triviality. For a mortality in which there is nothing serious, in which all is but toys, is, we instinctively realise, a sort of hell.

Yet this hell of triviality is what many seem to recommend to us. Here, for instance, is pianist Charlie Albright, who tells us in a well-meaning article that to bring audiences back to classical concerts again, we must make it fun, and take the seriousness out of it.

Breaking down such “classical” rules will kill “classical” music — and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting … It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert.

But could it not be the case, I wonder, that the “seriousness” of classical music may well be the very reason why so many of us are drawn to it in the first place? Albright is not gratuitously offensive, as Bissett is, but interestingly, he too conjures up a picture of music once being fun, until we unnecessarily burdened it with all our deplorable seriousness. But once again, this does not ring true. The oldest music I know of are the choral music of medieval composers such as Josquin des Prez, or Hildegard of Bingen, and I can’t say it is music that makes me want to get up and boogie. Beethoven wrote above the score of Missa Solemnis “From the heart – may it go to the heart”; the piece itself is eighty minutes of very knotty and immensely demanding music. Some may disagree, but I do not get the impression from this that Ludwig had set out to give his audience a bit of fun. What the music does give us, however, is something I do not have the words to describe, and for which I need once again to borrow from Wordsworth – that “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. I feel, indeed, a reverence. And if anyone tells me that I am but fooling myself, and only imagining that I feel this; or even that I shouldn’t feel this; then, frankly,I don’t know that we need take them too seriously.

I do not know how to describe these emotions, but since I can feel them, they are real. If these emotions I feel aren’t real, then no emotion I feel can be real either. And yes, the music – or the painting, or the poem – that can give rise to such emotions is indeed something to which we owe reverence. And if that is a definition of the sacred, then yes, it is sacred, and will continue being so no matter how many Bazarovs there may be in our world telling us that twice two is four, and all else merely nonsense.

Farting around with literature

It may seem a bit odd to provide a link in the first sentence to an article I do not intend to comment upon (other than to say that I agree with the author’s position, and am glad he has articulated it); but nonetheless, I would like to draw the reader’s attention to this piece in The Spectator by Scottish composer James McMillan. It is well worth reading.

What this piece lacks is a good sub-editor. When McMillan writes “[Andrew O’Hagan] was subjected to a tirade of abuse that inferred he was a disgrace to Scotland”, he had presumably meant “implied” rather than “inferred”. I do not want to make much of this: it’s an easy slip to make, and, God knows, I’ve done far worse myself. But one might have hoped that the Spectator’s sub-editor would have picked this up. More seriously, the sub-editor should have provided links to the various bits of evidence McMillan gives in support of his argument. Of course, a bit of Googling can satisfy the reader that the evidence McMillan cites is depressingly real (although I do confess I haven’t checked all of it), but the absence of references, which could so easily have been provided, does seem a bit odd in so prestigious a publication as The Spectator.

It is one of the pieces that should have been linked to, and which I found on googling, that I felt deserved some comment here. In his piece, James McMillan quotes Alan Bissett, whom he describes as “one of the emerging court jesters of the new political establishment”, opining as follows on James Joyce:

… lucky enough to write baffling, unreadable prose during a period in which it was the vogue to elevate baffling, unreadable prose.

The quote comes from this article published in the Guardian (where else?) some nine years ago. I had missed the article at the time, but, so egregious are its arguments – where they exist – that I find it difficult to let it pass without comment. Reading the full quote in context enhances rather than mitigates its contentious nature:

I have a first-class degree and a masters in English Literature, and I’ve read plenty of difficult books, so if I can’t enjoy Finnegan’s Wake, or large parts of Ulysses, where does the fault lie? With me? Or with an author who was lucky enough to write baffling, unreadable prose during a period in which it was the vogue to elevate baffling, unreadable prose? Ditto various other modernist works designed principally to exclude the masses.

Let us ignore the errant apostrophe in Finnegans Wake: that may, once again, be the sub-editor’s fault rather than the author’s. Let us focus instead on the idea that many modernist writers deliberately wrote “baffling and unreadable” prose in order to exclude the masses. This contention was made at some length by John Carey in two books, The Intellectuals and the Masses, and What Good are the Arts?

That much modernist literature is difficult is clearly true. So, for that matter, is much pre-modernist literature. Many find Milton, for instance, rather difficult: some, I know, even find him “baffling and unreadable”. If difficulty is a good reason for rejection, then Carey should certainly be rejecting Milton: instead, he is a world authority. Given that he is a noted scholar of some very difficult literature; and given further that, presumably, he personally likes those areas of literature in which he is so noted a scholar; one may conjecture to what extent his derision of difficult literature may be a form of self-hatred. Not that I am saying that Carey is a self-hater: it would be absurd, after all, to state as well-established fact what is but an idle and frankly insulting conjecture. But that make me wonder why Carey, and, in his footsteps, Bissett, should declare with such confidence, as if it were a well-established fact rather than mere idle and frankly insulting conjecture, that “various … modernist works [were] designed principally to exclude the masses”.

(My own take on Ulysses, incidentally, maybe found here. In summary, I argue at some length that it is not in the mere fact of its difficulty that its greatness lies.)

The basis of Bissett’s argument is the following contention, unsupported by any evidence or argument:

Art exists for one reason: to bring pleasure.

It is easy enough to think of various works that are indisputably works of art, but which provide little if any pleasure – Goya’s Black Paintings, Wilfred Owen’s war poems, Richard Strauss’ Elektra, and so on. It may, I suppose, be argued that even these works, harrowing though they all are, provide a “pleasure” of sorts – an aesthetic pleasure; but if “pleasure” is deemed to be an underlying principle in all works of art, from Pickwick Papers to Crime and Punishment, from Strauss’ waltzes to Mahler’s 6th symphony, then, it seems to me, we are stretching the meaning of the word “pleasure” to cover far too much: we are taking it to the point where it is no longer capable of distinguishing; and, hence, it ceases to be useful.

But there is a more fundamental objection to Bissett’s contention: he has at no point argued that there needs to be a reason in the first place. Why should art need to justify itself? Why can it not be seen as an end in itself? To argue either side of this issue requires argument: Bissett does not think it worthwhile to offer any, taking it as a given – as, indeed, did John Carey in the very title of his book What Good are the Arts? – that art is a means to some end rather than an end in itself. That may or may not be the case: I do not presume to judge on this particular point. But what I do know is that this point isn’t axiomatic: if one is to insist on this point, on either side, supporting arguments need, at the very least, to be advanced.

But logical argument does not seem to be Bissett’s strong point. He starts by comparing love of art to religious belief, declaring confidently at one point that “faith means nothing until you can prove it”, seemingly failing to realise that once something is proven it ceases to be faith, and becomes fact. Then he asks:

So what does art prove?

The question is meant rhetorically, but I think I can answer that:

Nothing, nothing at all.

Did any artist worth his or her salt ever set out to prove anything in a work of art? What a question to ask!

Then, this follows:

We talk about the soul, the truth, the spirituality, the uplifting or transcendental qualities of great works. But these only exist in so far as we supply them ourselves. Thom Yorke once sang, “Just ‘cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.” Our atheist would argue that the spirituality that we sense in a cathedral is a combination of spectacle, belief and atmosphere. They’re designed that way. There is a performance, but not the essence, of spirituality.

Yes, it takes the reaction of a reader, or of a listener, or of a viewer, to complete the work of art: truth, spirituality, transcendental qualities, etc., may all lie latent in a work of art, and are only realised once we respond to them, and feel,these things. But then Bissett quotes a line from a song that says quite the opposite – that even if we feel such things, they do not necessarily exist. So what side is Bissett taking here? That these things exist if we feel them? Or that, even if we feel them, they don’t? He seems to be saying both as far as I can see, and it doesn’t make sense.

The two sentences that complete the paragraph are utter gobbledegook. What the bleeding hell is “performance … of spirituality” as opposed to the “essence … of spirituality”? And this is a man complaining of other writers being “baffling and unreadable”! The whole passage is so confused, both in its thinking and in its articulation, that once one has taken the trouble to unpick it, one realises it wasn’t worth unpicking in the first place.

It would take far too long to unpick the whole wretched piece, enjoyable though it may be to do so. But one more point, and this the last – I promise! It’s about this bit:

I remember a lecturer at university who banned us from saying that we had enjoyed a novel, since enjoyment was not what literary study was about.

Bissett says this assuming, I think, that we’d all sympathise with him on this point, and take sides against the lecturer. However, the lecturer is perfectly correct. As a reader, one may nor may not enjoy a book – however one defines “enjoy”; one may or may not take pleasure in it – however one defines “pleasure”. One may then take the trouble of going to the review section of Goodreads or of Amazon, say how much one did or didn’t enjoy the book, and give it mark out of ten, or out of five stars. One may say it was awesome, or, conversely, that is sucked. One may go on discussion board to impart one’s opinion that it was awesome, or that it sucked. That is fine. But when you are at an institute of further education, where you have chosen to study literature rather than merely pass your opinion on it, then, whether you enjoyed it or not, whether you took pleasure from it or not, you are compelled to examine the work in a systematic manner. You are compelled to learn how to do so.

In short, there is more, far more, to the study of literature than merely farting around. This should be inscribed on the walls of all literature faculties: “The study of literature is more, far more, than merely farting around.” And if you are studying literature at an advanced level, you should try at least to understand what this “more” consists of.

And if you can’t, or won’t, then I guess there’s always a future writing about literature in the arts pages of respected newspapers.

The ecstasies of Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Rome can sometimes seem – to the tourist, at least – as a vast museum and art gallery. Look over there – there’s a Raphael. And a few Caravaggios over here. There goes Michelangelo. And if you blink, you’ll miss that church designed by Bramante. Even on the way to the hotel, in the Piazza Barberini, on a traffic island, with all the cars and buses driving indifferently past it, there was a fabulous fountain sculpted by Bernini – a Triton, his head flamboyantly thrown back as he blows into his conch shell.

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“Triton” by Bernini at Piazza Barberini, Rome

I spent a few days in Rome recently. And yes, I took in as much as I could of the Bramantes and the Borrominis, the Michelangelos and the Raphaels, and the various Caravaggios that are dotted around the city. And yes, they are all every bit as wonderful as I had expected them to be. Even with the vast sea of people teeming inside the Sistine Chapel, I was enthralled: it was magnificent. Some complain about all those people ruining their view, but, as one of those people myself, no doubt ruining someone else’s view, I didn’t feel in a position to make such a complaint: I was grateful simply to be there.

I had expected Michelangelo, Raphael and Caravaggio to make a big impression: and they did – no doubt about that. Less expected, perhaps, was the impression made by Bernini, who seems omnipresent in Rome. From that very first glimpse of the Triton on the way to the hotel, his works impressed themselves upon my imagination. As he had no doubt intended: all that Baroque flamboyance – some may say “exhibitionism” – is designed, after all, to impress. There may or may not be depth in these works, but it hardly matters when one is so blown away by the surface brilliance.

There is a tremendous sensuality to these sculptures, and it is difficult not to respond to it. In a small, unassuming church near my hotel, is the very famous sculpture of “St Teresa in Ecstasy”. The ecstasy is presumably religious in nature, but, in St Teresa’s own description of her vision, in which an angel stabs an arrow repeatedly into her heart, the sexual imagery can hardly be missed:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

(This excerpt is taken from an article in Wikipedia, and the translator is not identified.)

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“St Teresa in Ecstasy” by Bernini, courtesy of Santa Maria delle Vittoria, Rome

And the sexual ecstasy seems to me very obvious also in Bernini’s interpretation – the eyes closed, the head thrown back, the disordered creases of St Teresa’s gown more than suggesting a wild and uncontrolled sexual delirium. I do not know what those of a more religious temperament than mine would make of this blurring of the religious and the sexual: I wouldn’t be surprised if some were to find it disturbing.

What I find more disturbing is the sensuality of two sculptures in the Galleria Borghese, both based on episodes from classical mythology. The first concerns Apollo’s attempted rape of Daphne. In this story, the god Apollo takes rather a fancy to Daphne, and, as gods do, attempts to rape her. And, to save her from this fate, she is metamorphosed into a laurel tree. Thus, Apollo is thwarted, but at a not inconsiderable cost, one imagines, to his intended victim. In Metamorphoses, Ovid narrates this story, as he does all others, without taking a moral stance on the matter, and Bernini does the same. And he goes further: he renders the scene as a moment of great beauty, and of wonder. And I can’t help asking myself whether either is appropriate in a depiction of what is, after all, a scene of attempted rape.

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“Daphne and Apollo” by Bernini, Courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome

Even more disturbing is his sculpture of the Rape of Prosperine. This time, it’s the god Pluto who takes a fancy to Prosperine, and this time, the rape is successful. Bernini depicts the violence of the act, with Prosperine desperately trying to push away the divine rapist. But there’s also a sensuality about the painting that I can’t help but find disturbing. It could be claimed that Bernini was doing no more than depicting: Prosperine is undoubtedly beautiful, and, indeed, desirable, so why should Bernini not depict her as such? It is hard, indeed, not to respond to her beauty and her desirability. The detail of Pluto’s fingers pressing into the soft flesh of Prosperine’s thigh seems little short of miraculous: never has marble seemed more like a living being of flesh and blood. In art, one tends often to take the artist’s technique for granted, and to focus on the artistic end to which the technique is deployed; but Bernini is asking us here to admire the technique for its own sake, and it is well nigh impossible not to do so. But when I consider the ends to which this technique is deployed, I can’t help but feel somewhat disturbed: can it be morally acceptable to depict such grotesque violation of a human being with such loving sensuality? I do not know. But it just feels wrong.

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Detail from “The Rape of Prosperine” by Bernini, courtesy Galleria Borghese, Rome

On my last day in Rome, I went to the Trastavere, on the west side of the Tiber, south of the Vatican. There were those wonderful frescoes by Raphael in the Villa Farnesina, and, further south, a delightful complex of piazzas, restaurants, and churches: even at the height of the tourist season, there was about the place a sense of stillness and quiet. My aim was the church of San Francesco a Ripa, which contained, so my guide book informed me, a late Bernini, created when he was in his seventies – a funerary sculpture of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. Although not far – certainly within walking distance – from the crowded centre of Rome, the church was deserted: I was the only one there. The atmosphere was still and solemn, and, one might reasonably expect, a funerary sculpture, created when the sculptor was himself in his old age, and, no doubt, contemplating the stillness and the silence of eternity, would share something of the sombre and pensive qualities of the surroundings. What I saw was rather different.

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“Beata Ludovico Albertoni” by Bernini, cortesy San Francesco a Ripa, Rome

Once again, Bernini seems to see no division between religious ecstasy and sexual ecstasy. While this may well have been justified in the case of St Teresa, there seems little justification of it here: it is almost as if Bernini is incapable of seeing anything, no matter how profane or sacred, in anything other than purely sensual terms. The Blessed Ludovica, like St Teresa, has her head thrown back; her right hand is pressed close to her soft breast, while her left hand clutches frantically at her midriff; her thigh is at an angle to her torso, her knees bent, her entire body electrified in an orgasmic moment of sheer sensual ecstasy. I, certainly, have never seen a funerary sculpture anything like this.

What do those of a more religious temperament than mine make of this, I wonder? Are they as disturbed by this as I am by the Rape of Prosperine? Are some, perhaps, shocked? And if so, did Bernini intend to shock? Perhaps not. I know little of Bernini the man, but, observing his works, I get the impression of someone who saw everything – the sacred and the profane, this world, the other world, all that is, and all that could be – in the most unashamedly sensual and erotic of terms. And even in old age, when the heyday in the blood is tame, humble, and waits on judgement, Bernini’s throbbed as voluptuously as it ever had done. And if this disturbs puritans such as myself, well, perhaps we deserve sometimes to be disturbed.

Translating poetry

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

 

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

 

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.

Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.

In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom’s chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.

Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

 

The passages quoted above have one thing in common: they are all poetry in translation. The first, is, of course, from the Song of Solomon in the King James Bible, and, though formally set out in prose, is, effectively, poetry: few, I imagine, will deny its poetic qualities. For the second excerpt, I have chosen two of the most famous stanzas of all English poetry – except, of course, it’s Persian poetry: the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward Fitzgerald. My third choice, a magnificent poem in any language, is Yeats’ rendition of a chorus from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. I think it fair to say that English literature – by which I mean literature in the English language, rather than literature originating from England – would have been immeasurably poorer without any of the above.

In my last post here on translations, I focussed on certain aspects of poetry that resist translation, and may have given the impression that translation of poetry is not possible, and should not even be attempted. If that is indeed the impression I have given, it was entirely inadvertent on my part, and I apologise. The quote attributed to Robert Frost – that poetry is “what gets lost in translation” – is, Tom from the Amateur Reader blog tells me, a misquote; but, misquote or not, it does, I think, articulate part of the truth: there certainly are aspects of poetry that, for various reasons, resist translation. This is, possibly, particularly true of lyric poetry, where, to a great extent, much of the meaning is rooted in the actual sounds of the words, i.e. the very thing that is specific to a particular language. But while this misquote of Frost’s may articulate part of the truth, it is very far from articulating the whole truth; for it is demonstrable that poetry in translation can be of a very high quality, and can, as the above excerpts illustrate, become great poetry in its own right.

In short, the statement attributed to Robert Frost should not deter us from reading poetry in translation. If one wishes to have a grasp of 19th century French literature, say, one needs as much acquaintance with Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud as one does with Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert; Pushkin’s verse is every bit as important as Tolstoy’s novels, and Rilke every bit as important as Mann. To miss out on such great pillars of Western literature as Homer, the Greek tragedians, Virgil, Horace, Dante, Goethe, etc. is to leave massive holes (assuming holes can have mass, which, I realise even as I am writing, they cannot) in one’s grasp of what literature is; and the innumerable lesser pillars are also worth pursuing, and getting to know.

Having dabbled a bit at translating poetry myself, I have come across a few conclusions about the nature of the English language, and what it can, and cannot, convey. For the purpose of translating poetry is, after all, to create poetry in the target language: if a translation of a poem into English does not read like a poem in English, then no-one will read it, and the translator will have fallen at the first hurdle. But I do sometimes wonder whether my conclusions are correct. For instance, I had decided quite early that English cannot take too much alliteration – that if one overdoes the alliteration, one simply sounds contrived, and a bit silly. Shakespeare himself, after all, had taken the piss out of excessive alliteration in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Whereat, with blade, with bloody blameful blade,
He bravely broached his boiling bloody breast.

But if it is indeed true that the English language cannot take too much alliteration, it is hard to explain why lines such as the following, from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wreck of the “Deutschland”, should be so powerful and affecting, and so self-evidently great poetry:

I whirled out wings that spell
And fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host.
My heart, but you were dovewinged, I can tell,
Carrier-witted, I am bold to boast,
To flash from the flame to the flame then, tower from the grace to the grace.

 

Of course, Shakespeare’s lines are, intentionally, bad poetry, whereas Hopkins’ lines clearly aren’t, but since insistent alliteration is common to both, it cannot be that alliteration in itself determines the quality of the verse. There’s something else there – but damned if I can see what it is. Perhaps what makes poetry great is a mystery that ultimately defies analysis, but there is no reason why a good translator should not be capable of creating a mystery in the target language that is equivalent to the mystery created by the poet in the original. At the very least, Edward Fitzgerald, William Butler Yeats, and the anonymous translators of the King James Bible, demonstrate that it is, at least, possible.

“A rose by any other name…”: a few thoughts on translation

Here’s a challenge:

Take a book written by Wodehouse, or by some other comic writer who appeals to your sense of humour; pick a passage that makes you laugh; and, neither adding nor subtracting anything in terms of content, rewrite that passage in your own words, and in your own sentences. Chances are, your re-write is not funny. Or, at least, nowhere near as funny as the original.

This is the problem with translation – especially translation of comic writing, or of poetry: the literal meaning of the words is so often the least of it.

Not that I don’t think that literal translations have their place: nowadays, when there are so many different translations of the acknowledged classics of Western literature, there is room for all sorts of approaches. And it is certainly interesting to know precisely what the original text says. But a translation that is slavishly literal is unlikely to be very readable, as Nabokov proved with his ultra-literal translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin: that translation tells us very accurately what Pushkin had written, but the result cannot be read as a poem in English.

Translators vary from the literalist to the interventionist, and, if one is sufficiently interested to follow such matters, one may find a great deal of heated controversy. Recently, Janet Malcolm created a bit of a storm with an article in New York Review of Books, laying into, amongst others, the very popular translations of classic Russian literature by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky. Malcolm rather destroys her own credibility, however, by admitting that she cannot read these works in Russian: if the critic cannot compare a translation with the original, then, I’d have thought, the critic is completely disqualified from passing judgement. At best, such a critic may say how the translation reads in English; but its fidelity, either to the letter or to the spirit, is beyond this critic’s scope.

There’s a very interesting response by Erik McDonald to Janet Malcolm’s piece in which he argues that Tolstoy is, effectively, “unruinable”. I know no Russian myself, but I can readily believe that: I have now read Anna Karenina in four different translations – by Rosemary Edmonds, by Louise and Aylmer Maude, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky, and, most recently, by Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes, and, despite the translators’ very different approaches to their art (for art it surely is), they all made on me impacts of comparable magnitude. If I reacted differently to these translations, that is only because I read them in different times of my life. Perhaps we can make too much of these differences in translations. Pevear and Volkhonsy’s literalism is, I think, most certainly a valid approach, though not, of course, the only valid approach.

It’s when it comes to comic writing, and to poetry, that I am not certain that the literal approach is the best one to take. Certainly, the Pevear & Volkhonsky versions of Gogol’s short stories are the only ones I have encountered that did not make me laugh, and I would hazard a guess that this is due to their literalist approach: to convey the humour of a piece of comic writing by sticking literally to what is being said is a bit like trying to paraphrase Wodehouse: when the humour is not so much in the contents of what is said, but, rather, in the author’s choice of words, in the rhythms and cadences of the prose, and, indeed, in what I would call the authorial “tone of voice”, the literalist approach seems to me to miss out on much that is essential. And, it seems to me, the translator of such works is perfectly entitled to diverge from the literal meaning in order to capture some of these other things that can be at least as important, if not more. In John Rutherford’s translation of Don Quixote, for instance, he describes Don Quixote’s niece as being “on the right side of twenty” and his housekeeper “on the wrong side of forty”: the “right side” and the “wrong side” are both, I am told, Rutherford’s invention, but if this helps establish a certain tone of voice, a certain narrative rhythm, then I, for one, welcome it, and think it much to be preferred to a more literal reading in which the authorial voice remains relatively bland.

This is particularly the case with poetry. Of course, there are many who would say that poetry cannot be translated at all, and they may well be right: literal meaning often counts for very little in a poem, and much depends on the actual sound of the thing – that one thing that cannot be replicated in languages other than that in which the poem was originally written. But good translations of poetry do nonetheless exist: if the sounds of the original are not available in the target language, then the translator has to find sounds in the target language itself – different sounds, inevitably – that convey at least something of what the original conveys. But, of course, it’s not easy. Perhaps it’s best demonstrated with an example.

There is a very well-known poem by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore which, in its original Bengali, is very romantic – so much so that it has, through excessive repetition, become something of a cliché, like the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. But if one can look at the lyric with fresh eyes – or with fresh ears, sinceTagore had also set this poem to music – it really is very lovely. But to convey that loveliness in English seems to me well-nigh impossible. Let us focus on the first line. A completely literal translation would read as follows:

That day, the two of us had swung together in the forest

Well, that clearly won’t do. Let’s see if we can brush it up a little, so it makes more sense in English:

That day, the two of us had sat together upon a swing in the forest

The idea of two people sitting together upon a swing may strike the Western reader as a bit odd, but, at least, it makes a bit more sense than what we previously had. However, it is still a bit wordy. Perhaps “the two of us” and “together” may be removed, as they are implied by the context:

That day, we had sat upon a swing in the forest

The rhythm still isn’t right. Let’s jig it about a bit, and remove the “had”:

That day in the forest, we’d sat upon a swing

That’s certainly much better, but hardly ideal. The original sounds mellifluous: this doesn’t. The word “sat” especially is squat and ugly, and needs to go, although I can’t honestly think what to replace it with.

Also, there’s the matter of connotations. The forest has suggestions of the dark and mysterious – and that is the case in Western culture also (e.g. the forest in which Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in The Grimm brothers’ fairy tale). But the swing, in Indian iconography, often represents the amorous, or even the erotic. So, from this very opening line, a Bengali reader or listener would have no difficulty in recognising a meltingly romantic love song.

Sadly, in English, swinging in the forest suggests merely Tarzan. It is at this point that one has to concede defeat.