Here and there – Iago and the dog whistle

 

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

(Hebrews 11.1)

Mislike me no for my complexion

(The Merchant of Venice, 2.1.1)

My dog the Wolf might hear a whistle that I cannot hear.  The phrase ‘dog whistling’ is used in some quarters to denote a kind of coded message.  On its face, the message might seem harmless enough, but it may convey a different and more sinister meaning to a target group.  An extreme example is the use by those on the far edge of the Right of numbers or signals that represent their respect for Adolf Hitler.

In Othello, the villain employed a similar method in pursuit of three targets.  He convinced the Moor, Othello, that his wife, Desdemona, had been unfaithful with Cassio.  What techniques did Iago deploy?

Select your target

Ideally, the target will be both suggestible and vulnerable.  Just think of people chanting ‘Lock her up’ at a Trump rally.  Only real losers could be that unlovely – or trust someone as obviously devious as Trump.  Iago knew that Othello trusted him.

…..He holds me well

The better shall my purpose work on him.  (1.3.381-2)

When you have secured the trust of the target, you can exploit it – ruthlessly.  There is a whole body of law on how we might deal with those who exert ‘undue influence’ on others in breach of trust – such as lawyers, doctors or priests extracting large gifts from the dying.

Othello is suggestible because he is utterly vulnerable.  He is from out of town, and of the wrong colour and religion.  Grounds for anxiety are baked in.  Iago senses his leader’s fatal weakness.  It is a complete lack of what Keats called ‘negative capability.’

…….And when I love thee not

Chaos is come again.  (3.3.91-2)

…….to be once in doubt

Is to be resolved.  (3.3.179-180)

Othello is tip toeing around a nervous breakdown, or worse.  In Verdi’s Otello, he is often shown descending into madness.  People who cannot tolerate doubt or uncertainty are ripe for the peddlers of the fake certainty provided by fatuous slogans or catch-cries.  Trump is just the latest and most gruesome example of these snake-oil salesmen.  His ends are not as gruesome as those of Mussolini or Hitler, but the basic premise is the same – deliver relief to the people and they will hail you.  A lot of priests have worked on the same principle.

Iago senses that the brash openness of Cassio will make him an easy mark – and he knows too of Cassio’s weakness for the bottle – and skirt.  Roderigo (‘a gulled gentleman’) is a weak gutless punk, part of the flotsam and jetsam that people called ‘populists’ live off.

And if you think that Othello was a weak and suggestible fool, and therefore very dangerous because he was in a position of great power – whom does that call to mind?

At first just insinuate – do not lie outright.

Iago begins his campaign in the classic mode – as if by chance, or accident.

IAGO.  Ha!  I like not that.

OTHELLO.  What dost thou say?

IAGO.  Nothing my lord; or if – I know not what.

OTHELLO.  Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO.  Cassio, my lord?  No.  Sure I cannot think it

That he would steal away so guilty-like

Seeing us coming.

OTHELLO.  I believe ‘twas he.

There is no outright untruth – but the victim takes up the running.  This is fundamental.  The target must think that they are the prime mover.  Once the poison has taken effect, the villain is free to scheme, lie and manufacture evidence – and create a snowball effect.

Take your time – the effect is cumulative

How poor are they that have not patience?  (2.3.370)

Maintain deniability and a false front

The whole of the critical seduction in Act 3, Scene 3 is an example of deniability.  It is why the President has someone fronting him with the press – in a system where he does not have to answer to parliament.

But I will wear my heart upon a sleeve

For daws to peck at; I am not what I am. (1.1.61-2)

Unnerve the target with ambiguous evidence or warnings about ‘evidence’

……I speak not yet of proof

Look to your wife.  (3.3.196-7)

Othello wants ‘ocular proof.’  That may sound silly, but some demanded evidence against a cardinal other than that of the victim.

Make me to see’t or at least so prove it

That the probation bear no hinge or loop

To hang a doubt on – or woe upon thy life. (361-3)

Remember always that we are talking about the unseen

…….How satisfied my lord?

Would you, the supervisor, grossly gape on?

Behold her topped?  (3.3.391-3)

Notice the descent to the gutter to drive the point home – and show that we are not just blokes, but mates.  And we are dealing with people who are notoriously devious.

In Venice they do let heaven see the pranks

They do not show their husbands…..…(3.3.202-3)

And when the target is rising to the fly, you can really tantalize him.

Or to be naked with her friend in bed

An hour or more not meaning any harm?  (4.4.3-4)

The ultimate conspiracy theory is that the less evidence there is, the deeper must go the conspiracy.  How could anyone get ocular proof of the ‘Deep State’?  And credulous people see what they want to see.

……Trifles light as air

Are to the jealous confirmations strong

As proofs of Holy Writ (3.3.319-210)

Be prepared to play the fool – or the innocent

To hide his malice, Iago tries banter with his wife in front of Desdemona (2.1.100ff) Andrew Bolt has trouble with this ploy – humour is not his strong suit –but he gives it a run occasionally.  A similar ploy underlies a lot of what Iago says to his target – ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’

Embroil others in your schemes

Born stirrers weave webs like spiders.  Iago spins webs around Cassio and Desdemona to assist him in his central scheme to unhinge Othello and so take revenge for a lifetime of slights.

Your ultimate aim is to reduce your target to your level

Whether acknowledged or not, this was the mode of operation of terrorists like Robespierre, Stalin or Hitler.  Their idea was to work on their victims so that the victims became complicit in their crimes and locked into their schemes.  Iago does this with Othello who looks to Iago for advice and confirmation.  His mind is so utterly splintered that even after the guilt of Iago has been shown, Othello is left to utter a lie that is as pathetic as it is outrageous.

Why anything.

An honourable murder, if you will

For naught I did in hate but all in honor.  (5.2.294-6)

Othello killed his wife because he hated her because she had dinted his sliding pride.  He simply compounds his guilt by saying that had the allegations against her been true – and he believed they were – he would have been entitled to kill her as a matter of honor.  For such men then, being cuckolded, as the saying went, was like being castrated.  Well, we don’t need Falstaff to remind us what a gaudy swine of a word ‘honor’ is.  It may be the shiftiest word in our language.

It is a matter for you to see which of these techniques are used by politicians or media – especially Fox News or Sky News after dark – in the process known as ‘dog whistling’.  One thing does seem clear.  What dog whistlers do have in common with Iago is that they give the impression that for the most part they do not believe a word they say.  Truth and loyalty are not on their agendas.  They just want to stir people up for the sake of it.  They belong to the Kingdom of Nothingness.

And if Iago was just another sour loser taking his wicked revenge for his failures in life on a creature of a different colour and faith – then we can we can see plenty of that around us here right now.  One Nation is full of them.

Is there another example of a slighted petty office holder from the ranks?  I said elsewhere:

The modern who might best stand for Iago was Adolf Hitler. He was a mean little man like Iago who never, on merit, got beyond NCO, but who aspired to more, and in his evil determination brought people down to hell and brought hell up to people.  Iago and Hitler seduced people by playing on their fears and by working in a twilight of twisted appearance and rejected reality.  Each was born a moral coward, but each was ready to accuse anyone else of being worse.  Above all, neither could be happy in the presence of anyone who could be seen to be their better.  It is a kind of small man syndrome written appalling largely.

There is a lot of that about, too.

In Billy Budd, Herman Melville looked at pure evil.  Shakespeare did not give Iago an express Credo, but Boito and Verdi did.  In part, it runs:

I believe in a cruel God

Who created me in his image

And whom I in fury name.

From the very vileness of a germ

Or an atom vile was I born.

I am a wretch because I am a man,

And I feel within me the primeval slime.

Yes!  This is my creed.

I believe with a heart as steadfast

As that of a widow in church,

And the evil I think

And that which I perform

I think and do by destiny’s decree.

There is what they called the Anti-Christ.

Coleridge caused quite a stir when he referred to ‘motiveless malignity.’  I used the word ‘malice’ above.  In The Common Law, Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

……when we call an act malicious in common speech, we mean that harm to another person was intended to come of it, and that such harm was desired for its own sake as an end in itself.

The last phrase savours of Kant, but in my view that exposition of ‘malice’ is apt for both Iago and the dog whistlers.

Here and there – Emma Smith – This Is Shakespeare

 

Pelican is cool about its intellectual books, and it wants to be seen to be cool about This is Shakespeare.  Emma Smith, we are told, is a Yorkshire girl who is into silent films, birdwatching and fast cars.  She is also Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Oxford.  But the target readers are not wowed by that honour, and the book does not read as one that could only have been written by a professor.  In and of itself, that is no bad thing, and those snooty enough to think that the author trails her gown too far might be reminded that Shakespeare was in the entertainment industry to make a living writing, producing and acting in plays.  In the immortal words of a mature American student of Chaucer at Oxford, Shakespeare ‘did it for the mortgage’.

The book consists of twenty short essays on the plays – about half the total.  The order looks to be broadly chronological.  The really boring or odd ones don’t make it.

We begin with Taming of the Shrew, in the Zeffirelli movie ‘a passionate relationship in which pots and pans, but also underwear, would fly.’  Goodnight Oxbridge – even if some of us have trouble seeing the knickers of Ms Taylor dangling from the ceiling fan.

The hero of Richard II ‘is a consummate actor, so much so that we wonder if there is anything underneath.’  (That savours a bit of R D Laing.  The lady does not mind citing Freud – which in this context can make me, and I think, her, a little nervous.)

There’s so much to dislike about Richard, and yet – or so – he is beguiling, seductive, ravishing, within the play and outside… as we have entered into a masochistic compact with this alluring protagonist.

‘History is full of examples of tyrants who looked like liberators’.  (It’s just that Blair and Bush did not realise that they were trying to get into that club by the back door.)  That is a valuable insight.  But we don’t get much discussion of what a great night out this play, or many others, can offer.  The McKellen film showed just how gripping this show can be.  But for modern audiences, some pruning is required.  I sat through the whole slog at the Barbican once, and it felt almost Wagnerian (and I have no qualms at all about taking the shears to Waggers), but the problem is that one of the first parts cut is that of the ageing queenly victims, dissecting the villain like black crows descending on witchetty grubs from a barbed wire fence.  And the English stage cannot offer too much better than that, particularly if you have the growling, mordant Peggy Ashcroft version.  (It adds a whole new terror to the notion of ‘in-laws’.)  But the essay does contain the remark that being the last alive in one of the tragedies is ‘the hallmark of the nonentity.’

A Comedy of Errors gets a run, and I am glad. Well done, it is hilarious – Marx Brothers hilarious.  And two citations show that we can trip over gems in unlikely places that others would die for.

I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself:
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.  (1.2)

For know, my love, as easy mayest thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled that same drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.  (2.2)

For Richard II – which I often think should have been sung by Jussi Bjorling – we are helpfully reminded that an Elizabethan sermon (and Luther) inveighed against rebellion saying that Lucifer was the ‘founder of rebellion’.  And the author goes on to quote the old Hollywood saying that ‘If you want to send a message, use Western Union.’  Spot on.  Asking what Hamlet means is as helpful as asking what the Pieta or Eroica means.  The trouble is that when you grasp that simple truth, there may not be all that much that is beyond disruption in the professor’s job description.  But she does offer the good advice that the role of Bolingbroke on stage is a master class of what is unspoken.  And that truth coincides with her insistence that Shakespeare was into questions, not answers.  Richard II may be my favourite.  Especially with Gielgud, it has an effortlessly silvery timbre that reminds us of Verdi.  The problem is that it has no hero.

‘Rediscovering an X-rated A Midsummer Night’s Dream means engaging with its dark, adult depictions of dangerous desire.’  Including, apparently, inviting ‘unseemly speculations about a lover hung like a donkey.’  Now that is a phrase that would have caught the eye of one of our Senators – a lady, ex-army – for which Ezekiel is cited as authority.  Freud again gets a run, and there is even a reference to a ‘vanilla framing device.’  Well, some might go to ground with an ‘Hmmm….’, but Shakespeare and the Old Testament can be as raunchy as they are violent.

The author appears to share at least part of my aversion to Portia – an iron-clad divorce lawyer in a power suit who could thread your jellies through a garlic crusher for the mildest faux pas – but her discussion of race is very sane.  The same goes for money.

The Merchant of Venice emerges as a strikingly contemporary play about commodified relationships, romantic and business entrepreneurialism, and the obscure transactional networks of credit finance.

Unsurprisingly, there is nothing new about Falstaff, but I cannot recall seeing before ‘the withering moral judgment’ of Dr Johnson that the ‘fat knight never uttered one sentiment of generosity.’  Falstaff is like those people who you talk to and who become a cold, brick, distracted wall if you are not talking about them – which may come to be called the Donald Trump Syndrome.

It is not surprising that the preoccupation with erotica continues with Measure for Measure, another close runner for my prize play.  Your attitude to Isabella might depend on your age as much as your sex.  To the extent that I can see her as real – as played by Kate Nelligan, the minds of very few blokes would turn to sex – I find her repellent.  Not so the author.

But Shakespeare has deliberately made Isabella into more than a woman of upright moral character; rather, she is one about to devote herself to strict religious principles (this slightly obscures the ethical point for modern viewers: whether she is a sex worker or a nun, Isabella surely has our support when she refuses unwanted sex?

Let us put to one side the uncharacteristic question mark, and abstain from Lenin’s question – ‘Who are we?’- the author does not here fairly state the question.  Isabella doesn’t want to be defiled.  Nor does Claudio want to be killed.  In the scheme of things, what is worth more – her hymen or his neck?  As I said, the answer may differ between boys and girls.  Boys would tend to refer to the relative convalescence times, and since Osama got lucky at the Twin Towers on 9 November 2001, fanatical subscription to alleged imperatives of dogma have lost a lot of their calling power.  The notion that a man should die for another person’s ideal is as repellent as you can get.

While discussing Isabella, the author says that ‘As You Like It is the only Shakespeare play where the largest role is female.’  She has said that ‘Antony out-talks Cleopatra’.  That is a curious notion.  She later says these two are ‘celebrities’, which is fair enough, but there is a preoccupation with the number of lines allotted, which may be less helpful than stats at footy.  Saying one bloke got forty kicks and another got six, means little if the bloke with six won the game with six goals.  (And we are later reminded that ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.’)

And Cleopatra is the star turn of that play; Lady Macbeth might fall over before her husband, but it was her injection of steel that put him up to it – on her day, she could make witches blanch; and Queen Margaret rules over so much of the three parts of Henry VI.  More, she is one of the most captivating and sustained characters ever on our stages.  She is the nemesis of four plays.  I cannot forbear citing my favourite lines of this playwright.  They come in her appalling travesty of the Passion of Christ where she mocks Richard III:

And where’s that valiant crookback prodigy,

Dicky, your boy, that with his grumbling voice

Was wont to cheer his dad in mutinies?  (1.4.70-77)

It’s like an Essendon supporter saying to a Collingwood supporter the day after the Grand Final: ‘I suppose your lot just folded their tents – as usual.’

About thirty years ago, I went to a pre-show talk about Othello at the Melbourne Theatre Company with my daughters.  The lead was played by a Maori.  A lady said she thought the hero was coloured.  The bemused actor said that his director obviously thought that he was coloured enough.  Race and colour are huge in this play.  The author tells us of an incident in South Africa in 1987 when the police said that the public ‘were disgusted by all the love and kissing scenes’ – in alleged breach of the Immorality Act.  (About twenty years later, I saw Hamlet in Chicago.  Gertrude was as white as snow.  There was a palpable frisson in the audience when the King came out – as black as the Ace of Spades.)  ‘…some critics have even wanted to wonder whether or not Othello and Desdemona ever consummate their relationship – perhaps with the underlying racist feeling that it would have been preferable if they hadn’t.’  To quote Jane Fonda, ‘you don’t want to go there’.  (Has she tried that line out yet on the arresting officer?)  Thankfully, the author does not go there.  C S Lewis nearly had kittens facing the same question with Adam and Eve.  (How else were we bloody-well supposed to get here – by the Stork?)  The short answer is that none of them existed.  They are creatures of the page.  You may as well ask whether Batman had it off with Robin – and if so, whether they took their masks off while they were at it.

When you are dealing with an expert, you may need to remember that they come from a different space.  There is a fascinating discussion of how the tragedy Othello is built on comic frameworks.  This is not to suggest that there is anything comic about the play, least of all about Iago.  He for me is evil made flesh.  He has none of the allure of either of the Bastards or Richard III.  The phrase ‘motiveless malignity’ has, in my view, been unfairly trashed.  Rather, we are I think looking at one aspect of the ‘banality of evil.’

Iago gives new meaning to the word ‘insinuate.’  Some of the plays bore me; some like Troilus and Cressida repel me; but after enduring Cyril Cusack’s ruthless whining insinuation so often, I could no more sit through Othello – either here or in Verdi – than endure half an hour of a shock jock like Andrew Bolt.  (Pray do not be dismayed.  I am the same about Tristan und Isolde, and the mere mention of Parsifal is enough to generate severe depression.)

In Antony and Cleopatra, we are reminded that ‘Women in tragedies tend to be ancillary victims of the male hero’s egotistic downfall.’  The primacy of Cleopatra is acknowledged, but the play presents at least two problems for some of us.  As in the French Revolution, it is hard to find a hero.  And the play is punishingly long – especially in a theatre that is not air conditioned in summer – even in England.  (The reference to a ballet of Romeo and Juliet by Tchaikovsky is, I think, an error; and ‘Gender is, or at least contributes towards genre’ is a statement that at best goes nowhere.)

What we know about Shakespeare can be set out on a post card.  Some knowledge of his education may help understand the wordiness of some plays, but otherwise history tells us very little about them.  It is therefore best to just pass over stuff like:

Bond’s Shakespeare emerges from the archives as a capitalist more likely to be identified with the patrician grain hoarders in Coriolanus than with the hungry citizenry.

Lawyers are used to this kind of bull.  We don’t look for the actual intention of the legislator; we look for the inferred purpose of the legislation.  Biography may help to explain the conduct and pronouncements of Luther or Hitler; it is as good as useless with following the plays of Shakespeare, or trying to divine what they may reveal about what was going through his mind.  And it is an insult to his genius to pretend otherwise.  The bush lawyers should keep to the bush.

The book peters out.  From the peak of the Everest of King Lear, there had to be a form of descent, and for me at least plays like A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest are better heard and not seen.  Prospero is a bit of ‘a distinctly unlikeable, manipulative control freak,’ and but for the stuff that dreams are made of we may not hear that much about a play that does bear marks of condescension that could have put Mr Collins into quite a tizz.

But there is more than enough in this book to ensure that fans of our greatest playwright – our greatest author – will not put it down either unimpressed or unimproved.  It is an island of coral sense in a sea of colourless ink.

MY TOP SHELF – 39 – CHEKHOV

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

39

THREE PLAYS

Anton Chekhov (1904)

Limited Editions Club, New York, 1966.  Translated by Constance Garnett; illustrated by Lajos Szalay; introduction by John Gielgud.  Blue capeskin spine with gold embossing; boards covered in intricately worked scarlet and black silk; signed by the illustrator.

A play ought to be written in which the people should come and go, dine, talk of the weather, or play cards, not because the author wants it, but because that is what happens in real life.  Life on the stage should be as it really is, and the people, too, should be as they are, and not stilted.

Chekhov has for some a kind of spare astringency that makes him something of an acquired taste – rather like oysters.  But, as with Ibsen, you can for a nominal sum get the BBC collection of all his plays delivered in your home by theatre royalty.  For example, there are two versions of The Cherry Orchard.  The first comes from 1962, by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Peter Hall’s first season with the company.  The cast included Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Dorothy Tutin, Judi Dench and Ian Holm.  Beat that for a cast – any time, any purpose.  The second comes from 1981, when Judi Dench then played the part played by Peggy Ashcroft in the first – and won the BAFTA.

Chekhov graduated as a doctor, but worked as a writer, writing short stories of the first rank, and plays.  The citation above shows his innovation that is essential to our modern theatre.  His fame now as a playwright rests on four plays.

The Sea Gull, like The Master Builder of Ibsen, reflects the struggle between the older and younger generations.  It was booed on its first outing in St Petersburg in 1896.  It would take the profession a long time to come to terms with the understated subtlety required of the actors   Uncle Vanya depicts the rights of passage from youth to old age.  (The BBC set has versions by David Warner (with Ian Holm) and Anthony Hopkins.)  The Three Sisters shows intelligent and educated members of provincial gentry losing hope.  The Cherry Orchard is an elegiac treatment of the passing of the old order.  It is like The Leopard of Lampedusa, especially in the version in the Visconti film.

The literary career of Chekhov lasted less than twenty-five years and was cut tragically short by his death from tuberculosis in 1904.  Unlike Tolstoy, Chekhov steered away from politics in his work, and Tolstoy correctly perceived, for one who had dreadful ideas about theatre, that the gift of Chekhov was universal: ‘Chekhov is an incomparable artist, an artist of life.  And the worth of his creation consists in his – he is understood and accepted not only by every Russian, but by all humanity.’  People say the same of Tolstoy – somehow his very Russianness is what makes him so indelibly human.

In the Introduction to this beautifully produced volume, Sir John Gielgud says:

In his plays, he uses a variety of natural sound effects, while his naturalistic dialogue alternates between long silences, sudden bursts of chatter, pause, and gaps in conversation.  He takes care to emphasize the exact time of day or night, the season of the year, filling in every detail with the accuracy and passion of one of the great Dutch painters, and evolving with exquisite delicacy, in both atmosphere and dialogue, the tone and mood of the situation he is contriving, the exact moment of truth that he looks for in every scene…..His genius for orchestration is unsurpassed…..

The extraordinary compassion of Chekhov, his musical sense of balance and rhythm, his feeling for nature, the capacity of his characters for acute loneliness or gaiety of fellowship, his passion for selective detail – these qualities seem to bring out in a company of players the very best, most generous side of their art and skill.

In The Cherry Orchard, Madame Ranevsky (Peggy Ashcroft) and her brother Gaev (Gielgud) are landed gentry whose country estate has to be sold because they cannot pay their debts.  Anya is Madame’s natural daughter (Judi Dench) and Varya (Dorothy Tutin) is an adopted daughter.  Lopahin comes from a serf background but is the ultimate in nouveau riche trying to get the owners to subdivide to solve their problems.  Trofimov (Ian Holm) is the eternal student with an eye for Anya and similar optimism for the future.  Firs (Roy Dotrice) is a butler old enough to be part of the furniture.  Yasha is a young student, and the dark side of the future, a taker.  Other characters supply light relief, but it is a mystery how to see or play this piece as a comedy – at least as that word is generally understood.  The whole house is like a commune, but the owners just drift about in their own bubbles immunized from the reality that we call the world.  They leave the orchard for the last time forgetting the old servant as the world will forget them.  The final text before the curtain is: All is still again, and there is heard nothing but the strokes of the axe far away in the orchard.

Sir Lewis Namier was fond of saying that the English aristocracy could live with money – the French and Russian could not, and they went under.  This régime was not just ancien, but defunct.  This play is as close to the Russian as the French, but before it.  Trofimov prefigures the Russian, but Chekhov could not have foreseen the horror that would be brought to Russia by an arrogant intellectual who had never been one of the people.

The Three Sisters can be hard work.  Olga knows she is doomed to spinsterhood.  Masha made a big mistake in marrying Kulygin, a thick teacher and crashing bore, and is ready to have an affair with Vershinin, a weak, unattractive, boring colonel who is married.  Irina, the youngest, dreams of getting out of the provinces to go back to Moscow, as do they all.  A young baron who has no brains at all is pursuing her but he runs foul of a psychopathic snob called Soleni who makes clucking sounds to annoy others, including the audience.  The brother is a failed academic who becomes a drunk and a gambler, and loses the house.  He marries a rolled gold five star bitch who alienates everyone.  All this is the subject of a commentary from an old doctor who is mad, and who giggles compulsively, and breaks into ditties (as does Masha).  A lot of them speak of work; none of them knows what the word means.  No character is level or pleasant; most operate on you like a nail on a blackboard; you do not get relief from irony or humour as in the other plays; it can therefore be a hard night out.

Let us conclude where we began.  When Chekhov’s body was returned from Germany to Moscow for burial, the mourners found that they were following the wrong casket.  They finally found the remains in a dirty green freight truck marked ‘For Oysters.’  Maxim Gorki wrote: ‘Vulgarity was Chekhov’s enemy.  All his life he had contended with it.  It was vulgarity he had mocked and depicted with a dispassionate sharp-pointed pen…And vulgarity avenged itself upon him with a most abominable little prank…the dirty green blotch of that freight car seems to me nothing else than that huge grin of vulgarity, triumphant over its wearied foe.’  Like Chekhov himself, the incident was nothing if not Russian.

Here and there – The Grace of Macaulay

 

Language didn’t just pour out of Gibbon or Macaulay like music did from Mozart or Schubert.  They worked on it, polished it, and read it loud.  They left us enduring works of art.

This simple proposition came back to me on re-reading the last volume of Macaulay’s History of England. The politics of England in the 18th century were deliciously corrupt, personal, and English.  They offer a glorious mine for Macaulay to exploit for seams of gold.

He did not think much of a courtier called Sunderland.

In truth, his countrymen were unjust to him. For they thought he was not only an unprincipled and faithless politician, which he was, but a deadly enemy of the liberties of the nation, which he was not.  What he wanted simply was to be safe, rich, and great.  To these objects he had been faithful through all the vicissitudes of his life. For these objects he had passed from Church to Church and from faction to faction, had joined the most turbulent of oppositions without any zeal for freedom, and had served the most arbitrary of monarchs without any zeal for monarchy; had voted for the Exclusion Bill without being a Protestant, and had adored the Host without being a Papist; had sold his country at once to both the great parties which divided the Continent, had taken money from France, and had sent intelligence to Holland.  As far however as he could be said to have any opinions, his opinions were Whiggish.

As with any of these great portraits by Gibbon or Macaulay, they immediately call to mind contemporary parallels.  Was the son of the Earl any better?

His knowledge of ancient literature, and his skill in imitating the styles of the masters of Roman eloquence, were applauded by veteran scholars.  The sedateness of his deportment and the apparent regularity of his life delighted austere moralists.  He was known indeed to have one expensive taste, but it was a taste of the most respectable kind.  He loved books and was bent on forming the most magnificent private library in England.  While other heirs of noble houses were inspecting patterns of steinkirks and sword knots, dangling after actresses, or betting on fighting cocks, he was in pursuit of the Mentz editions of Tully’s Offices, of the Parmesan Statius, and of the inestimable Virgil of Zarottus.

A footnote shows that his lordship paid the massive amount of £46 for the Virgil of Zarottus.  That sum could have got him a lot of attention from some unseemly houses in Covent Garden.

The ministers found that, on this occasion, neither their honest nor their dishonest supporters could be trusted.

The stiletto can go in fast.

Another was the late Speaker, Trevor, who had from the chair put the question whether he was or was not a rogue, and had been forced to pronounce that the Ayes had it.

Then back comes the Earl.

The whole enigma of his life, an enigma of which many unsatisfactory and some absurd explanations have been propounded, is at once solved if we consider him as a man insatiably greedy of wealth and power, and yet nervously apprehensive of danger.  He rushed with ravenous eagerness at every bait which was offered to his cupidity. But any ominous shadow, any threatening murmur, sufficed to stop him in his full career and to make him change his course or bury himself in a hiding place…But his ambition and avarice would not suffer him to rest till he held a high and lucrative office, till he was regent of the kingdom.  The consequence was, as might have been expected, a violent clamour; and that clamour he had not the spirit to face.

The gentry resented taxes.

Was it reasonable – such was the language of some scribblers – that an honest gentleman should pay a heavy land tax to support in idleness and luxury a set of fellows who requited him by seducing his dairy maids and shooting his partridges?

It’s hard to be more Tory than that.  At another point, our author speaks of someone trying to make ‘what is, in the jargon of our time, called political capital.’  Then there was a First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

With all his ability, he had not the wisdom to avert, by suavity and moderation, that curse, the inseparable concomitant of prosperity and glory, which the ancients personified under the name of Nemesis.  His head, strong for all the purposes of debate and arithmetical calculation, was weak against the intoxicating influence of success and fame.  He became proud, even to insolence…..Great wealth, suddenly acquired, is not often enjoyed with moderation, dignity and good taste…He contrived, it was said, to be at once as rich as Crassus and as riotous as Mark Antony.  His stud and his cellar were beyond all price.  His very lacqueys turned up their noses at claret.  He and his confederates were described as spending the immense sums of which they had plundered the public in banquets of four courses, such as Lucullus might have eaten in the hall of Apollo.  A supper for twelve Whigs, enriched by jobs, grants, bribes, lucky  purchases and lucky sales of stock, was cheap at eighty pounds.

Here is Paterson, a Scot who conned the Scots into investing in a hell hole at Panama called Darien.

To be seen walking with him in the High Street, to be honoured by him with a private interview of a quarter of an hour were enviable distinctions.  He, after the fashion of all of the false prophets who have deluded themselves and others, drew new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples.  His countenance, his voice, his gestures, indicated boundless self-importance.  When he appeared in public he looked…like Atlas conscious that a world was on his shoulders.  But the airs which he gave himself only heightened the respect and admiration which he inspired….In truth, of all the ten thousand bubbles of which history has preserved the memory, none was ever more skilfully puffed into existence; none ever soared higher, or glittered more brilliantly; and none ever burst with a more lamentable explosion.

And since we speak of Trump and Johnson, someone objected that Parliament was flying in the King’s face.

To fly in the King’s face!  Our business is to fly in the King’s face.  We were sent here to fly in the King’s face.

We know all about the kind of mountebank who draws ‘new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples’.

This is history as high theatre.  The French have Michelet and Taine.  The Germans have Ranke and Mommsen.  But history as theatre is to England what opera is to Italy.  They are all treasures of the world.

The Cordelia Syndrome – Unaccommodated Man and the High Price of Rigidity

The mad scenes in King Lear may be the most elemental in our literature after Prometheus Bound.  (They frightened Verdi off any opera based on the play.)  The king loses his mind as one by one all the props of civilisation are taken from him and he is left looking up to a gibbering, naked beggar.  He is left alone – like the Marshal in High Noon, to the power of ten.  (There is a similarly affecting moment in Titus Andronicus – another hero left alone on a rock.)  The storm outside in the heath matches that inside Lear’s head.  We get this elemental question: ‘Is man no more than this?….Thou art the thing itself, unaccommodated man…’(3.6.105-109).

Meanwhile, two of his daughters are completing their descent into evil.  The descent is so complete and so mutually annihilating that it represents a different kind of denial of humanity.  How far removed are we from the primeval slime from which we emerged at the beginning?  The question posed by the daughters is this: ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (3.6.75-77).

The two questions are simple enough.  What is it to be human?  What is it to be evil?  If you put to one side magic and the supernatural, it is hard to think of a more basic question.

How did this come about?   Cordelia was too inflexible – too rigid – to accommodate (that word again) her father’s wishes.  This was one of those ticklish family crises where you just needed some sense and sensibility to navigate your way through.  It happens in most families at Christmas lunch.  (In the U S, Thanksgiving poses similar threats – who could forget Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman going after the rest of the family like a blind, gored bull?)  These are moments of truth that call for anything but the truth.  Most of us wriggle through with the blank insincerity that inevitably underlies any statement beginning ‘I am delighted…’But even that was too much for the good Cordelia.

I remarked elsewhere:

Cordelia has come out of this exercise with a remarkably good press.  For the want of just a touch of politesse, a kingdom was lost, and she and her father are both lost in the maelstrom.  But Cordelia is ‘ensainted’.  This process may reflect the prejudices of Victorian and Edwardian English dons.  Nowadays, Isabella (Measure for Measure) gets a dreadful press, at least from some quarters, for preferring her name and virtue to her brother’s life.  People who are prepared to sacrifice – that is the word, ‘sacrifice’ – real people for abstract ideas make us very nervous.

We know that sparks can fly between a father and daughter infected with the same pride, prejudice, or narrowness, but what we here see is that the uncalculating moral purity of a daughter may be just as wounding to an aging volatile proud father as the calculated immoral conduct of his older daughters.

The certainty of youth has an inherently incendiary character.  It is a certainty that is unimpressed by doubt and uninfected with defeat, and it is commonly dead wrong.  Here, the father is all or nothing, black and white; the daughter is incapable of the compromise that communal life depends on; conflict is therefore inevitable, and disaster is probable.  In truth, the conflict of this father and daughter may remind you of a remark made by Kant before the white people settled here: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’

The Edwardian sensibility I had in mind may have been that of A C Bradley.  Bradley ‘refuses to admit…..any kind of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father’s sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene.’  I don’t know whether the professor survived bringing up two or more daughters – it is, among other things, instructive – but the great man faltered when he sought to justify his suggestion that Cordelia could not ‘have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved.  Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia’.  That circular proposition is about as helpful as saying that had she pacified her father, we would not have had the play.

Well, we all make mistakes – and on the previous page, Bradley had given us my favourite bell-ringer in all criticism.  ‘She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters.’  That is a very sobering statement that entitles Cordelia to be cut some slack – as they say Stateside.  (And that is the kind of thing Bradley is criticised for by some who have come later and are not so learned – he treats the characters as if they were real people.  No one has ever been able to make the alternative clear to me.)

This inability of Cordelia to adjust herself to accommodate others is the kind personal failing that underlies so much failure and friction in our public life.  There is a lack of tolerance and restraint that goes beyond a mere want of courtesy.  We see a ruthless assertion or promotion of self that takes its stand on the standard of our time – the selfy.  It is the denial of community and assertion of self you see when two tradies go to a café for a pie and immediately retire into their own pones and zones.  The ceremony of courtesy is drowned.  Is it little more than pure selfishness that reaches its apotheosis in people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson?  Do you notice that some people get ill at ease if you turn the discussion away from them?  It’s as if you are talking to a brick wall.  They have no interest in any world without them.  When we see that syndrome in action, we may reflect on the observation of Blaise Pascal that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

Language itself becomes unaccommodated at the end of this play.  It is pared down to the elements, strangled monosyllabic utterances.  The speech in 5.3 beginning ‘And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life’ led Bradley to say:

The imagination that produced Lear’s curse or his defiance of the storm may be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination that would venture to that cry of ‘Never’ with such a phrase as ‘undo this button’, and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of poetry.

That is why King Lear is our Everest.  Did this author, or any other, ever get a better fusion of drama and poetry than in these lines?

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Lear and Cordelia share a problem of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  They lack discretion.  They are low on judgement.  (The quality you look for in a trustee is prudence and the want of that quality in people like Trump or Johnson shows how unfit they are for public office.)

Prometheus had the same problem – big time.  I remarked elsewhere:

They do not get more elemental than this.  Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the Old Testament God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus. 

Lear loses all the props of mankind.  Prometheus had sought to restore them.  The last epithet you would apply to stealing fire from heaven is discretion.  It’s not surprising then that Hermes lays into him.  ‘But you have not yet learned a wise discretion.’  ‘Bring your proud heart to know a true discretion.’  Hermes then gives Prometheus a real spray:

You are a colt new broken, with the bit

Clenched in its teeth, fighting against the reins,

And bolting.  You are far too strong and confident

In your weak cleverness.  For obstinacy

Standing alone is the weakest of all things

In one whose mind is not possessed by wisdom.

‘Weak cleverness is a massive put-down, that bears upon others referred to here, and might sum up politics now in general, but in fairness to Prometheus, he had learned enough to pass on advice to others who might also be after sole power.

This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with

Dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.

Put differently, loyalty is a one-way affair for those who lust after and are corrupted by power.  (That translation is by Rex Warner in Limited Editions, 1965 from Bodley Head; the other citations were translated by David Grene for Folio, 2011).

Prometheus was chained upon a rock.  King Lear was bound upon a wheel of fire.  One took on God.  The other tried to convert a crown to the trinity – something beyond even Newton.  Each came to see the writing on the wall – which was just as well, because each had done most of the writing.

These plays are part of the title deeds of our civilisation.  It is therefore not surprising that in his introduction to his translation of Prometheus, Rex Warner referred to a Harvard scholar who ‘well compares the Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear, all works which have the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’  Here, then, we are truly among the very big hitters.

Here and there – Alan Bennett

A LIFE LIKE OTHER PEOPLE’S

Alan Bennett

Faber and Faber, 2009; bound in cloth, with dust jacket featuring photo of the author’s family; copy signed by the author; slip case added.

About thirty years ago, I went to the theatre in the West End to see two one act plays.  Each play featured just one actress.  The first had Margaret Tyzack, and the second featured Maggie Smith – the cream of the English stage.  I can recall standing in a queue to collect my tickets, and hearing the lady behind me say ‘I could listen all day to Maggie Smith reading the phone book.’  In my experience, the English do appreciate that they are fortunate to have the best actors in the world.

I cannot recall the name of the first play, but it was about a woman whose husband, I think a banker, had been convicted of embezzlement.  She had had to live with the degradation.  The mood varied from wistful to wrenching.  But at the end, Margaret Tyzack from a spotlight looked straight at us in the audience and said something like ‘But don’t you dare feel sorry for us – we are not that kind.’  This was the perfect way to evoke the very strong reaction of the audience that the play and performance warranted.  The whole thing was so very English.

The second play was Bed Among the Lentils.  We knew from the program notes that it was about the wife of a vicar who has it off with a Pakistani greengrocer.  Well, that should give a decent playwright something to work with.  As the curtain went up, Maggie Smith was standing centre stage under a narrow spot.  Dressed in grey, white and black, she was drabness and fatigue personified – ennui.  After a considered pause, she looked up at us and said words to the effect: ‘Being married to Geoffrey is bad enough, but I’m glad I’m not married to Jesus.’  Well, the whole theatre just erupted, and it remained cocked on Vesuvial for the rest of the play.  I feared that the lady beside me may not have survived the show – she would wail in anticipation in the same way that some American ladies did in the 60’s when listening to Shelley Berman.

This was a great night out at the theatre.  Great entertainment, and a lyrical reflection not just of the English, but of what is human in each of us.  The playwright was Alan Bennett.  The plays reminded me of David Williamson – with that gift of putting on the stage characters that immediately call to mind members of your family or friends or neighbours.  Some may wish to put the comparison at a higher level.  Ibsen and Chekhov were not minded to write for laughs like that, but the greatest playwright of the lot certainly was – just think of the hilarity with which we greet the outrages of Falstaff.

A Life Like Other People’s is a memoire of the early life of Alan Bennett.  It is obviously the work of a naturally gifted writer.  It comes to us clean and simple – pure, even.  You wonder if the writer ever bothered to change a word.  Partly for that reason, the book comes to us as being candid.  It reeks of truth.  (In this, it reminded me of the memoire of Joseph Heller – another natural.)  The book starts this way:

There is a wood, the canal, the river, and above the river the railway and the road.  It’s the first proper country that you get to as you come north out of Leeds, and going home on the train I pass the place quite often.  Only these days I look.  I’ve been passing the place for years without looking because I didn’t know it was a place; that anything had happened there to make it a place, let alone a place that had something to do with me.  Below the wood the water is deep and dark and sometimes there’s a boy fishing or a couple walking a dog.  I suppose it’s a beauty spot now.  It probably was then.

For some people – not many – it’s just like turning on a tap and watching the water flow out.

The photo on the front of the book is of an English family of the time – probably during the war.  Dad is in a suit with a shirt and tie, a buttoned up overcoat, a trilby, a cigarette and a deferential smile.  He looks very like Stan Laurel.  Mum has a buttoned up coat and a beret for a hat.  (Her struggle with mental health is a large part of the book.)  She has her hands on Alan who has a shirt and tie, a home knitted sleeveless jumper and school cap.  The daughter is much younger, but she too sports a hat.

Alan got a scholarship to Oxford and for some time thought of teaching history.  But his involvement with the Oxford Review and people like Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller led him to the stage, cinema and television.  He has been prolific and hugely popular in all fields, especially in his autobiographical writing.  His personal life looks to have had its Byzantine moments.  People like Groucho Marx, Spike Milligan and Alan Bennett, who offer slashing and potentially lethal insights, tip-toe closer to the volcano than the rest of us.  Patrick White conveys the same feeling for me.  (Ibsen and Joyce terrified people – but for different reasons.)

The book fairly ripples with anecdote.  The ultimate threat to his family was to be described as ‘common.’  His Mum and Dad were very shy.  They wanted a quiet wedding – before work.  Dad’s boss would not give him time off to get married.  The vicar agreed to start the ceremony before 8 am but finish it on the knocker so that Dad could be at work by 8.15.  In lieu of a honeymoon they got tickets for The Desert Song at the Theatre Royal.  He once asked Dad an awkward question about whether he ‘touched’ Mum enough.  Dad told him to mind his own business, but years later Mum made a surprising disclosure that ‘Dad does very well you know’ – at seventy-one.  Bennett talks about hugging ‘and that other loveless construct, caring.’  And the aunties were like my Mum – infatuated with Now Voyager.  The attraction of that film, and Bette Davis, to ladies of that generation was fabulous.  ‘Oh, Jerry.  Don’t let’s ask for the moon.  We have the stars.’

This is raw diamond of a book.  It is included here to celebrate the life and work of the author.  It ends this way.

Sometimes as I’m standing by their grave I try and get a picture of my parents, Dad in his waist coat and shirtsleeves, Mum in her blue coat and shiny straw hat.  I even try and say a word or two in prayer, though what and to what I’d find it hard to say.

‘Now then’ is about all it amounts to.  Or ‘Very good, very good’, which is what old men say when a transaction is completed.

Here, then, is someone who tells it as it is – and he didn’t learn how to write like that at Oxford.

MY TOP SHELF – 16

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

16

ULYSSES

James Joyce (1921)

Folio Society, 1998; etchings by Nimmo Paladino; blue cloth, in blue slip-case.

….and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921.

The great Irish writer James Joyce admired Ulysses, the main character of the epic poem of that name by Homer.  The poem describes the voyage of the wily Ulysses back home to Ithaca in Greece and the reunion with his son Telemachus and his wife Penelope after the fall of Troy.  Joyce fancied Ulysses more than Hamlet, Don Quixote and Faust.  He thought that Ulysses did not seek bloodshed, but saw that war was merely a promotion by entrepreneurs.  Like Ulysses, and a lot of Irish, Joyce wandered.  He wrote his masterpiece as an expatriate over seven years at Trieste, Zurich and finally Paris.  Throughout that time he pestered friends for information on the Dublin that he grew up in for what is probably the most Irish book ever written.  The book aims to document in detail Dublin as it then was, and humanity as it always has been.  The author did not lack ambition.

The story of the Ulysses of Joyce takes place in one day or, perhaps more correctly, twenty four hours, the 16th June 1904, in Dublin.  The three main characters are Leopold Bloom (who has some resemblance to Ulysses), his wife Molly Bloom (who probably has little or no resemblance to Penelope) and Stephen Dedalus (who stands in for Telemachus).  There are eighteen chapters, or titles.  The first three centre on young Stephen and the last title is the famous soliloquy of Molly Bloom.  The central fourteen chapters are a journey around Dublin and his own mind by Leopold Bloom on the day that is now celebrated in many parts of the world as Bloomsday.  We will briefly sample some chapters.

The opening chapter is set at 8.00 a.m. on Martello Tower, Sandycove.  It features young students or teachers, including Stephen.  There is a notion of a family without a father – like occupied Ireland without its leaders.  The novel is littered with allusions to Catholicism, Shakespeare (especially Hamlet) and Wagner.

In chapter 4, the time is again 8.00 a.m. at 7 Eccles Street, the home of the Blooms.  Molly starts where she finishes – in bed.  Bloom gets her breakfast in bed.  He is under the thumb a bit.  He cooks himself a kidney while he prepares for the funeral of Paddy Dignam.

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls ….  Kidneys were in his mind as he moved about the kitchen softly, righting her breakfast things on the humpy tray.  Gelid light and air were in the kitchen but out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere.  Made him feel a bit peckish. 

Bloom takes the mail up to Molly.  It includes a letter from her manager, Blazes Boylan.  Poldy and Molly do not like dressing together but we get a full rendition of Bloom on the jakes.  The chapter resonates with betrayal at home.

In the Penguin’s Student Edition, Declan Kiberd (who was born in Eccles Street, Dublin) finely observes that ‘the reader has the uncanny feeling of knowing more about Bloom than he knows about himself’.  The same goes for Molly – unless, perhaps, you are not a woman.

By Brady’s cottages a boy for the skins lolled, his bucket of offal linked, smoking a chewed fagbutt.  A smaller girl with scars of eczema on her forehead eyed him, listlessly holding her battered cask hoop.  Tell him if he smokes he won’t grow.  O let him!  His life isn’t such a bed or roses!  Waiting outside pubs to bring da home.

Looking for lunch, bloom goes into the Burton restaurant.  They are eating roast beef or corned beef and cabbage or stew.

Smells of men.  His gorge rose.  Spat on sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men’s beery piss, the stale of ferment.  Couldn’t eat a morsel here.

That is just what those slophouses smelt like.  Bloom is too genteel if not womanly for that kind of place.  He goes to Davey Byrne’s, a ‘moral pub’.  While Nosey Flynn sips his grog, Bloom has a gorgonzola sandwich with English mustard for 7 pence and he has a burgundy with it: very, very cosmopolitan, and not obviously Irish.

Chapter 12 is set in Barney Kiernan’s pub at 5.00 p.m.  It is another that is so funny that it may cause trouble when you are driving, but it has a heavy dark side.  The English and Irish establishments get a serve but ‘the Citizen’ represents the one-eyed Irishman – this is the chapter that comes in the place of Cyclops in the case of Homer and he goes after the Jewish Bloom.  The drinkers are against Bloom because they believe he held back on a tip for the races.  Bloom tells them of the great Jews of history and says that ‘the Saviour was a jew and his father was a jew.  Your God.’  The answer is that he had no father.  The humour here can be both dark and black.

If you are not convinced that you are in the presence of a genius, this may be the last occasion on which it might happen.  Chapter 13 is 8.00 p.m. near the beach at Sandymount Strand.  Bloom becomes carried away watching a young girl as the sacraments are celebrated in the nearby cathedral.  A wordless communication that Freud could have written goes on against the backing of the sacrament and then fireworks going up:

Then they sang the second verse of the Tantum Ergo and Canon O’Hanlon got up again and censed the Blessed Sacrament and knelt down and he told Father Conroy that one of the candles was just going to set fire to the flowers and Father Conroy got up and settled it all right and she could see the gentleman winding his watch and listening to the works and she swung her leg more in and out in time.  It was getting darker but she could see and he was looking all the time that he was winding the watch or whatever he was doing to it and then he put it back and put his hands back into his pockets.  She felt a kind of a sensation rushing too was when she clipped her hair on account of the moon.  His dark eyes fixed themselves on her again drinking in her every contour, literally worshipping at her shrine.  If ever there was undisguised admiration in a man’s passionate gaze it was there plain to be seen on that man’s face.  It is for you, Gertrude MacDowell, and you know it.

The scene gets more graphic as it goes.  This is a chapter of overwhelming power whether read on the printed page or heard on the riveting Naxos recording.  The conclusion is high drama.

In chapter 15, it is midnight in the redlight area mostly inside or out of the brothel of Bella Cohen.  A lot of Ulysses is very funny – most of this chapter is downright hilarious.  It is a kind of dream sequence like The Goons and the Marx Brothers, but most of it makes Spike Milligan or Groucho Marx look pedestrian if not predictable.

Stephen falls into the company of two sluts, Biddy the Clap and a young woman whose second name is Kate.  Unfortunately, Stephen makes a remark about the King – it was probably a reference to Hamlet – that does not seem right to two drunken cockney redcoats.  (‘I’ll wring the neck of any bugger says a word against my fucking King.’)  Although the humour is broader than slapstick, the author describes the way in which the two cockney redcoats propel themselves into a fight over nothing with deadly accuracy.

There is no specified time for the last chapter, and the place is the marriage bed at Eccles Street.  The whole chapter is one sustained monologue of Molly with hardly any punctuation at all.  This is how it starts.

Yes because he never did a thing like that before as asked to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs

Molly reflects on her tryst with Blazes Boylan – they had to move out of the bed for fear of annoying the neighbours.  She is at first dismissive of Blazes but warms to him in the course of her reflection and is looking forward to the next session until she feels the curse coming upon her.  Such, Ned Kelly said, is life.

The soliloquy and the book end in the manner set out at the top of this note.

Those who fear this book, or who are merely neurotic about it, should remember that it ends on this note of affirmation – ‘Yes’, in recitative.  It may not be as serene as the end of Don Quixote, and it may not share the apparent domestic bliss of War and Peace, but this is a book that affirms human life.

This novel is also, with Don Quixote, one of the funniest books ever written. If you are listening to the spoken word, three writers may have you exclaiming out loud at their brilliance – two are English poets (Shakespeare and Milton) and the third is this Irish novelist, James Joyce.

Here are some ways to break down the fear or prejudice about Ulysses.  First, get hold of a print of Duck Soup, and remember what it is like to laugh out loud at pure madness.

Next, get the Naxos 4 CD set of extracts.  (They also have the whole book on 22 CDs).  The parts are most beautifully read by Jim Norton – who sounds as versatile as Peter Sellers in the brothel sequence – and Marcella Riordan.  Almost a quarter of the book is there, including Chapter 1, the Gertie MacDowell sequence, the brothel scene, and Molly’s soliloquy.  This will introduce you to the rhythms of the language and to the humour of the author.

Then, get a text of large type that you are comfortable with – either electronic, or the Penguin’s Student Edition, which has full notes at the back.

Finally, if you want to get to the marrow – or if you would rather have some than none – try concentrating on the Bloom parts and read Chapters 4-8, 10-13 and 15, 16 and 18, and then read Chapters 1-3, 9, 14 and 17 at your leisure.  An alternative tactic – one that works well with Ring Cycle novices – is to start with items that you are confident that you will be at home with – Gertie and the brothel scene, perhaps– and then read the rest.

If all else fails there is the 22 CD full set, and you will be selling yourself very short if you quit this world without at least listening to the 4 CDs of excerpts.

Someone made a remark about Milton to the effect that it was a wonder that his erudition did not crush his poetic genius.  We might say much the same for Joyce.  It is obvious that we are in the presence of a mind of extraordinary power, and in his seven years of cataloguing one day in the life of an ordinary man, Joyce has left us as enduring a testament to our humanity as we have known.

In her fine short life of Joyce, Edna O’Brien recalled the remark that as Joyce got older, he looked like Dante who had lost the keys to his own inferno.  There is little wonder.  The effort of bringing forth monuments like this book must be man-killing.  In his series Civilization, Kenneth Clark was lost in wonder at Michelangelo, and he saw the hero as artist.  We might be lost in wonder at Ulysses, and we might see the artist James Joyce as hero.  We would not be denigrating the Renaissance Italian man to say that the modern Irish man is entitled to stand as hero on the same plane.

 

Here and there – The vendetta before Hamlet

 

We can see the dawn of our laws not in Eden but in our felt need to control the vendetta – unless the law intervenes, a blood feud may have no end.  If the law helped to contain the vendetta, then a failure of the law to deliver justice to the family of the victim may well see a revival of self-help.  We can see that word for word in the beginning of The Godfather.

Homer saw the vicious the cycle.  Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, elopes to Troy.  The Greeks, led by King Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, want to go after her.  This is the Trojan War, the subject of the Iliad.  The gods hold them up.  Agamemnon is persuaded to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia so that his boats can sail for Troy.  After the war, his wife, Clytemnestra, who has taken Aegisthus as a lover, kills Agamemnon to avenge the death of a daughter.  Then her son, Orestes, with another daughter, Electra, kills Clytemnestra to avenge his father.  And so the vendetta goes on.  This theme is treated by the three great tragedians of ancient Greece – Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

Beowulf is replete with the blood feud – that is one reason we refer to that time as the Dark Age.

In Hamlet, the king is murdered by his brother who then speedily marries the widow.  The child of the marriage, Hamlet, is revolted by the conduct of both his uncle and his mother.  Her descent into those ‘incestuous sheets’ makes him ill.  Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells the young prince that his brother killed him and that Hamlet must avenge his death.

Was Hamlet morally obliged or entitled to kill the king to avenge his father? A C Bradley apparently thought so.  A Mafia don may feel it now.  But this was not the Dark Ages.  There are exchanges of students to fine German universities.  The royal family is firmly Christian.  Would they still be wedded to the vendetta?

Surely, no.  The answer is given by Tony Tanner.  (I know I have referred often to this before, but the point is worth it.)  Tanner described how western tragedy began two thousand five hundred years ago.  A play, the first in a trilogy, begins with a troubled guard on a battlement on a castle where the people live in disquiet.  A member of a ruling family has to avenge a murder.  Shortly before he executes his mother, Orestes pauses.  But not for long.

The play Hamlet is at the birth of modern drama nearly two thousand years later. It opens in the same way with a guard on a battlement over an unquiet people.  The hero again pauses before taking revenge.  But this time the pause lasts for nearly the whole play. Why?  ‘Because between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, something has taken place which permanently changed the western mind – namely, Christianity and, more particularly for the Elizabethans, the Reformation.’

Tanner went on to say out that although the Greeks dwelt on guilt, they had no word for conscience (a word that occurs seven times in Hamlet).

How, then, did the Greeks handle the vendetta?

The first in time is the trilogy of Aeschylus called The Oresteia.  Agamemnon deals with the murder of the husband; The Libation Bearers deals with the murder of the father; and The Eumenidies seeks to offer a solution – a court of law.  The difference to Hamlet is almost absurd here.  Having butchered the lover, Aegisthus, Orestes turns to his mother, Clytemnestra.  She reminds Orestes that she suckled him as a child.  Orestes pauses and asks his friend what he should so.  Should he be ‘shamed to kill his mother’?  His friend reminds Orestes of the oracles and their oaths in three lines.  Orestes then says:

I judge that you win.  Your advice is good.

Orestes tells his mother:

You killed and it was wrong.  Now suffer wrong.

Now madness is at hand.  Orestes is pursued by the furies of his mother – ‘the bloodhounds of his mother’s hate.’  The play ends:

Where is the end?  Where shall the fury of fate

Be stilled to sleep, be done with?

The Orestes of Aeschylus was, then, a different cup of tea to Hamlet

It is not quite so with Euripides.  His Orestes opens after the murder.  Electra tells Helen that Orestes killed himself when he killed his mother.  Orestes explains his sickness:

I call it conscience.  The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime..I mean remorse.  I am sick with remorse.

(I am not qualified to warrant the validity of the word ‘conscience’ there in light of the remark of Tony Tanner, but we are reminded that in all translations we are asked to take a lot on trust.)  Orestes had already prefigured the injunction given to Hamlet when he told Electra:

I think now

If I had asked my dead father at the time

If I should kill her, he would have begged me,

Gone down on his knees before me and pleaded,

Implored me not to take my mothers life.

What had we to gain by murdering her?

Later he says he was ordered by a god, Apollo, to commit the murder.  This leads him to this question.  ‘Was he [the god] competent to command a murder, but now incompetent to purge the guilt?’  That is a very fair question for that god.

The father of Clytemnestra can recall when they did things better:

Where I want to know, can this chain

Of murder end?  Can it ever end in fact

Since the last to kill is doomed to stand

Under permanent sentence of death by revenge?

Their ancestors banished the murderers and bound them to silence.  ‘They purged their guilt by banishment, not death.  And by so doing, they stopped that endless vicious cycle of murder and revenge.’  After that, the play takes a dive in tone.  Orestes says ‘I can never have my fill of killing whores’, and in trying to escape judgment for their crime, they plot to murder Helen and take her daughter Hermione hostage,

Euripides also had an Electra , but you get the Full Monty of the vendetta with Sophocles.  Electra is waiting for the return of Orestes to avenge her father’s death.

Come, how when the dead are in question,

Can it ever be honourable to forget?….

What sort of days do you imagine

I spend, watching Aegisthus sitting

On my father’s throne, watching him wear

My father’s self-same robes, watching him

At the hearth where he killed him, pouring libations?….

She [Clytemnestra] is so daring that she paramours

This foul polluted creature and fears no fury…..

But I am waiting for Orestes’ coming,

Waiting forever for the one who will stop

All our wrongs.  I wait and wait and die.

For his eternal going-to-do-something

Destroys my hopes, possible and impossible.

Now, there is a whole lot of Hamlet there – not least the sexual jealousy.  And while Hamlet feigned madness to give himself cover, Orestes put it out that he was dead – and sent an urn with his remains to his sister.  So, our heroes were cruel to those they loved – they were cruelled by their mission.  (The other phrase you see is pathei pathos or ‘suffering brutalises’.)

When Electra realises that she is in truth talking to a very much alive brother, we have one of the great set pieces of our stage.  It is wonderfully handled here by this great playwright.  Electra then taunts her mother before her death with the deadly steel that Queen Margaret applied to the Duke of York.  The Chorus says:

The courses are being fulfilled

Those under the earth are alive;

Men long dead draw from their killers

Blood to answer blood.

Electra asks Orestes ‘Is the wretch dead?’  There is then more icy dramatic irony – or the blackest humour – when Orestes leads Aegisthus, who is next to die, to believe that the corpse in the shroud is that of himself rather than that of Clytemnestra.  Orestes endorses justice on all who act above the law – ‘justice by killing.’

In Euripides’ version, Orestes does pause before the horror of killing his own mother.  Then he said he covered his eyes before sinking the steel in her neck.  Electra also put her hand to the sword.  Then Orestes is horrified by his deed.  ‘My god, how, how she bent to earth the legs which I was born through?’  But Orestes has a line that is straight Hamlet: ‘What must I do to punish the murderer and purify my mother from adultery?’  (And, yes, when there is adultery, it is always Mum who needs purifying; a quiet word is usually enough for Dad.)

When first rereading the two relevant plays of Euripides for this note, I thought that he had got too close to Neighbours and The Untouchables.  If sympathy for the hero is essential in tragedy, these plays have problems.  But two translators in the Folio edition have changed my mind.  As we saw, these plays are set after the law had provided a remedy.  Orestes and Electra now look petty or vicious – Germaine Greer saw ‘a shared craziness.’

This Orestes is aptly compared with another difficult play, Troilus and Cressida –‘tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched, disfigured and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.’  That is spot on for Troilus. Unloveliness pervades both plays, but when Orestes is set in what we would call modern times, we can see the characters for what they are.  Both children look more worried about lifestyle than morality.  Orestes, like Hamlet, has a grudge that his dynastic leanings have been crushed, and the plays raise an alternative motive – if the children don’t get Aegisthus, he will get them.  (And Claudius did go after Hamlet.)

But you get this sense of bourgeois tawdriness that roused one critic to say ‘Electra is a self-pitying slattern, Orestes a timid ruffian, Clytemnestra a suburban clubwoman, Aegisthus a courteous and popular ruler, the murders as dastardly as conceivable.’  The neighbours at Elsinore don’t look so bad now.

That, then, is in part how the Greek tragedians looked at the vendetta.  Two things.  First, none of these three great playwrights seeks to excuse the vendetta – Electra does not see that she is committing precisely the crime for which she seeks to punish her mother, and Orestes is at best cloudy on that point.  Secondly, we will never know if Hamlet would ever have obeyed the ghost.  When he returns to Denmark, he has enough evidence to slot the king, but Hamlet kills him because in seeking to kill Hamlet, the king had just killed Hamlet’s mother.

The two worlds were very different.  The Sophocles Electra is very high theatre; it is great theatre.  Little wonder that Strauss built an opera on it.  We hardly see either version.  One reason may be that this Electra at times makes The Godfather look like Snow White.  Sometimes we may just want to steer clear of those dark lakes lying in all of us.  And we must recall that the Greeks got into trouble with a human sacrifice to start a pointless war when they got the vapours about the fall of a Greek wife to a man of an inferior race.

The heroic code and chivalric ideal take heavy hits in these Greek plays and Troilus.  They may then be plays for our times when truth has gone clean out the window and people smirk at plain human kindness.  In his note on Troilus, Tony Tanner spoke of the ‘great meltdown of distinctions and values.’  It was chivalry versus barbarism.  Troilus is a ‘sour and abrasive’ play in which ‘rampant appetite is allowed free rein’.  That goes for these Greek plays.  And in Troilus, it is the Greeks in the black hats.  How stands it with us?

MY TOP SHELF

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

12

FAUST

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808)

Easton Press, Connecticut, 1980, Collector’s Edition; fully bound in burgundy leather, with gold embossing and gold leaf and satin end-papers with gold silk sash; lithographs by Eugene Delacroix.

I am too young to be without desire,

Too old, too old merely to play.

It is healthy to suggest that people get punished if they get ideas above their station.  The greatest pests in history, from Caesar to Napoleon, were those who had to learn the lesson the hard way.  So did Adam and Eve.  So did Icarus.  The Greeks said that hubris would be met by nemesis.  In each case, people are trying to rise above the limits of their own humanity, and in each case the supernatural is involved.  Even in the tragedy of ambition of our greatest author, Macbeth, the fatal aspiration is planted by witches.

The German myth of Faust starts with a wager between God and the Devil (Mephistopheles).  (The great Indian epic Mahabharata starts with a dice game that was loaded.)  Mephistopheles bets that he can lead Doctor Faust astray.  Faust has climbed every intellectual mountain and is bored.  Mephistopheles offers to lend him all his powers if Faust agrees that if he allows himself to say that he is satisfied he will be at the disposal of Devil.  The pact is sealed in blood.  The Devil does his part and Faust is able to seduce and ruin Gretchen (or Margarete), but in doing so he enables Mephistopheles to call in the debt.  In American terms, that is one hell of a price to pay to get laid.

That is Part I of the verse drama of Goethe.  Part II is much longer and more esoteric.  Part I shows almost every style of theatre including commedia dell’arte.  People in Germany and intellectuals outside Germany put Goethe on the same level as Shakespeare.  But that, sadly, is about as far as it goes.  Goethe suffers the same fate as Pushkin – they are writers who are revered and adored at home but who somehow lose it in translation.  People are familiar with the Faust of Gounod, and the Boris Godunov of Mussorgsky, but very few outside Germany or Russia have seen the original.

Two passages will show the problem.  This is Mephistopheles:

I am not of the very great

But if you’ll take me as a mate

And go your way through life with me,

I shall willingly agree to be yours on the spot.

I’ll be your comrade to the grave

And if I suit –

I’ll be your servant, be your slave.

This is Gretchen:

I stand before him blushing red

And just say ‘Yes’ to all he’s said.

What a child I am! I cannot see

What he ever finds in me!

In English, that is bad poetry and worse theatre.  Compare these passages from the Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe.

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

………………..

Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,

And then return to Helen for a kiss.

Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air

Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;

Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter

When he appeared to hapless Semele:

More lovely than the monarch of the sky

In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;

And none but thou shall be my paramour!

This Faustus does not go to the flames like Don Giovanni:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,

The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.

O, I’ll leap up to my God!  Who pulls me down?

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

One drop would save my soul – half a drop: ah, my Christ!

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

Yet will I call on him.  O spare me, Lucifer!-

Why then is this book there?  Apart from courtesy to the Germans, there are three things.  This is a very handsome volume that it is a pleasure to hold and read.  The story has a resolutive charm, even if it is the diametric opposite of the resurrection story.  Finally, about 25 years ago, I saw a production of Part I by the Melbourne Theatre Company directed by Barry Kosky and starring Barry Otto.  It was long but it held the attention of my two quite young daughters.  At the start, the lights were completely killed; two spotlights shot along each of the three aisles, gorillas galloped up and down the aisles to ultra-loud music; they were stopped by a burst of even louder machine-gun fire; the spots went out and down came a single spot on a gorilla out of which emerged Barry Otto as Faust.  It was like 2001, but by a factor of ten, and it never relented or looked back.  It takes balls, but Faust can be riveting on the stage.

Here and there – Lowlights of western civilisation

 

Without seeing an outline of studies for the Ramsay proposal, it is difficult to comment on its educational utility.  I am currently writing my second version of the top fifty books.  If the proposal envisages offering a smattering of those, it will be a bit like a finishing school for English gels before they offer themselves up to the meat market with a sombre photo of a twin-set in Country Life.  If it is a matter of offering a dabble in history, literature and philosophy, it would be like offering a shallow B A before something useful or sensible.  I wonder how ‘Western’ adds to or subtracts from ‘Civilisation’, and how the course would treat the lowlights set out below.

 

The barbarism of ancient Greece and Rome – whose citizens called everyone else barbarians

The failure of our education systems to identify that barbarism – especially at Cambridge and Oxford

The Dark Ages

The Crusades

Feudalism (a Mafia protection racket)

Apartheid by England in Ireland for six centuries

Anti-Semitism throughout and from time immemorial

The inherent conviction of Kant and Hume, and other leaders of the Enlightenment, that people of colour were seriously inferior to white people

A growing hostility to Islam masked as concern about migrants or refugees

The hardening of attitudes to refugees – including people made refugees by failed policies of the West

The Thirty Years War, the religious wars on the Dutch, and the French religious wars.  (Has anything inflicted more loss and misery upon Europe than Christianity?)

The Inquisition

The Spanish Armada, and its motives

The perpetuation of the lie about Original Sin in order to hold women down

Holding women down

Persecuting Galileo and retarding Darwin

The intolerance of both Catholics and Protestants after the schism

Civil wars in England and America

The toleration of slavery – in some places until now

The spoliation and ruination of all of Latin America

The looting of India

The rape of Africa

The attempted rape of China and Japan

The actual dismemberment of the Middle East

The failures of European imperialism generally and in particular the cruelty of imperial powers and colonising peoples to indigenous peoples

Napoleon, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.  (Russia is not part of the West.)

The role of Christianity in each of the above regimes

The perfection of terrorism in the French Revolution and by other oppressive regimes – all but the French claiming collaboration with Christianity

The intellectual failure of Marxism and the moral and political failure of Communism

The failure or degradation at one time or other of all the Great Powers of Europe and their Empires

Two world wars

The Holocaust

The Depression and the Great Financial Crisis

The failed interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East

The impending failure of the European experiment

The failure to civilise Russia

The failure of the rule of law to consolidate elsewhere than in common law countries and Western Europe

The involvement of so many religious bodies in abuse and covering up that abuse

The brutal ineptitude of American evangelicals

The present decline of Christianity and the failure to find something to put in its place

The sterility and uselessness of modern philosophy

The failure to confront inequality of opportunity and other lesions of what we call capitalism

The growing threat to the party system and democratic government

The consequent onset of the aberration called populism – the populists and those they follow are the antithesis of whatever western civilisation may be, and they evidence its failure

The sterility of popular entertainment and the popular press

The lingering death of classical music, opera, and modern jazz

The moral and intellectual collapse currently being experienced by the nation that once led the west

The present decline in literacy, numeracy, and courtesy

The failure to provide any sense of vision about where we are headed

The failure to come to grips with the notion that all the pillars of what is called western civilisation – religion, philosophy, the rule of law, courtesy (civility) and a sense of refinement – have failed or look likely to fail with the result that many now see the whole notion as having failed

A felt sense of superiority – notwithstanding all these manifest failures – and a need felt by some to engage in propaganda about the virtues and values of Western civilisation

Which will appear from the response – express or implied – of the zealots of western civilisation to this sad catalogue: ‘Well, yes, we have made mistakes – but we are much better than any other bastards – so stay with us for all of your answers to all of the big questions.’