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.’

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.]

11

DON QUIXOTE

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1605)

Random House, 1941; translated by Peter Motteux; illustrated with wood engravings by Hans Mueller; rebound in half-calf buttercup yellow, with cloth boards, and purple label in leather embossed in gold.

Here I am with my name in the history books…..

Don Quixote took it upon himself to free galley-slaves.  Some utterly presumptuous – no, more like it, completely mad – officers of the King took it upon themselves to execute an arrest warrant against the Don for this act of madness.  They tell the Don that he is the King’s prisoner and they call on all present to ‘aid and assist the Holy Brotherhood’.  For their pains, they stop a full fusillade from this manic Castilian knight.  The Don erupts in vituperation at the forces of the law in a manner that all of us have felt at least in part when given a speeding ticket.

Don Quixote smiled at the supposed simplicity of the fellows.  At last, with solemn gravity, ‘Come hither’ said he, ‘you offspring of filth and extraction of dunghills, dare you call loosing the fetters, freeing the captives, helping the miserable, raising the fallen, and supplying the indigent; dare you, I say, base-spirited rascals call these actions robbery?    You are a band of officers; you are a pack of rogues indeed, and robbers on the highway by authority.  What blockhead of a magistrate durst issue out a warrant to apprehend a knight-errant like me?  Could not his ignorance find out that we are exempt from all courts of judicature?  That our valour is the bench, our will the common law, and our sword the executioner of justice?

You are now in the world of what the title page of the book refers to as that Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. He is probably the most loved character in the literature of the world.

Don Quixote was a Spanish gentleman under another name, of middle age.  He read so much about knight-errantry that he became captivated by its mythology.  He went out of his mind and then he went out into the world as a knight errant.  His madness was transparent to all who encountered him, even to his proverbial squire, Sancho Panza.  His most famous exploits were his mounted charges at windmills that his madness led him to see as giants.  As a result, the word quixotic is often translated as ‘tilting at windmills’.

His bizarre and hilarious adventures filled two volumes.  The second contains comments on the first.  He recovers his sanity just before he dies.  The novel was instantly successful and is widely regarded as the first and most popular of the modern novels.  It is frequently voted the best by writers.  William Faulkner read it once a year.

We cannot define the Don.  He comes down to us as a kind of hero, as a kind of clown, and as a kind of saint.  He has his own innocence, like a dog does.  He stands up for the oppressed.  He believes in the Sermon on the Mount, especially that part that says the meek shall inherit the earth.  But he can be philosophical about his mission.  After being trampled by a herd of bulls, he says;

Here I am with my name in the history books, a famous man of arms, courteous in my conduct, respected by princes, sought after by damsels, and just when I was expecting palms, triumphs, and crowns, I find myself this morning, as a climax to it all, trodden under foot, battered and kicked by a herd of filthy animals.

The only comparable character in literature is Falstaff.  Sir John Falstaff was one of the low company kept in the east end of London by the Prince who went on to become king in Henry V.  He stars in Henry IV, Parts I and II.

Don Quixote was nearly fifty when he went mad.  Falstaff was in his seventies when he died.  He was egregiously fat.  This was one of the principal items of abuse against him.  So far as we can see neither man ever married, although at least one woman claimed to have been on the end of a promise from Falstaff.

Falstaff was loud, boorish and rude.  Don Quixote was quiet, courtly and chivalrous – except when issuing a challenge to a discourteous knight or to the unwashed.  Falstaff was usually drunk – at any time of the day.  Don Quixote hardly touched the stuff.  Falstaff was completely dishonest and unreliable and unable to follow the rules unless it suited him.  It is hard to find anyone saying anything good about Falstaff – except a drunken slut or her importuned madam – even when they think he is dead.  Don Quixote was a man of honour, punctilious, guided by forms and precedents.  He professed to be guided by the behaviour of knights-errant of the past and he thought that he knew the lives of all of them.

Falstaff was a person of gross appetite who would now be diagnosed as someone prone to substance abuse.  Don Quixote was almost ascetic, to the chagrin of the relatively normal Sancho Panza, and felt drawn by the precedents of knights-errant to sleep outside.

Falstaff was an utter coward.  (Some quixotic critics dream the contrary, but they are away with the birds.)  Don Quixote may not have been too brave – because of his madness he hardly knew fear, and to the extent that he contemplated death as a possible outcome, he may have even relished it.  He was a man of faith.  Falstaff could have had none, except perhaps when scared, which was often.  They were both nothing if not resilient and the one vice they shared was excessive pride in what they saw as their virtues.  Falstaff could see things differently because he was bad; Don Quixote had to see things differently because he was mad.

Sir Anthony Quayle described Falstaff as a man who was ‘frankly vicious’.  We do not have the same problem with Don Quixote.  Whether or not he is out of his mind, we do not see him as a threat to others.  He is entitled to be the patron saint of those who are off-centre, in a way that Falstaff could never be.  It is not just that we have to get over our fear of madness – it is just as important that we get over our distaste for the odd.  A brush with the off-centre can be liberating for people of all sorts.

Shakespeare launched Falstaff as an attack on the establishment.  Our modern sensibility cannot now accept that the English caste system could treat other humans as cannon fodder in the way that Falstaff did – a trait that the English maintained until 1918 – but we find no negative forces like that in Don Quixote.  He represents a surer celebration of humanity.  The Asian Wall Street Journal on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote concluded its editorial by saying that the book –

… will continue to have important things to teach us about the impulses that animate mankind.

Writing in The Times on the same anniversary, Simon Jenkins said that 1605 also saw the first publication of the full text of Hamlet.  He said that both figures lead from the Middle Ages to introspection and the modern era.

But Quixote is the more inventive, funnier, sadder, the loftier mind and the better conversationalist.  His dialogues with Sancho, the knightly believer and the doubting servant, are among the most enchanting in literature.

Mr Jenkins expresses the view that if Einstein had not existed physics would have invented him, but if Cervantes had not existed there would be a hole in the tapestry of Europe.  It is hard not to agree.

Of course, people of all sorts have gone overboard over Don Quixote (as they have over Falstaff).  The first published work of Ortega y Gasset was a series of Meditations on Don Quixote which appeared in 1914.  Its temper is apparent from the following, which is anything but silly; it is, among other things, Latin, informed, graceful and spiritual.

In a certain way, Don Quixote is the sad parody of a more divine and serene Christ: he is a Gothic Christ, torn by modern anguish; a ridiculous Christ of our own neighbourhood, created by a sorrowful imagination which lost its innocence and its will and is striving to replace them.  Whenever a few Spaniards who have been sensitised by the idealised poverty of their past, the sordidness of their present, and the bitter hostility of their future gather together, Don Quixote descends among them and the burning ardour of his crazed countenance harmonises those discordant hearts, strings them together like a spiritual thread, nationalises them, putting a common racial sorrow above their personal bitterness.  ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name’, said Jesus, ‘there am I in the midst of them.’

The two characters reflect the simple proposition that the impulses that animate mankind are the same for a mad knight and his squire as they are for an old-fashioned gentleman, or a waggoner bearing lions to the King of Spain, and they are the same for a drunken knight and his drunken slut as they are for a guilty king and his calculating son, the Prince of Wales.  Since it is the function of art to offer a lyrical reflection on the human condition, the persistence of these two reflections is a testament to their creators.  Between them, our two heroes, we have our protest against Bible-bashers, bully-boys, ego-trippers, footnote-fetishists, God-botherers, hair-splitters, hangers-on, killjoys, logic-choppers, nail-biters, name-droppers, place-fillers, possum-stirrers, shadow-boxers, shilly-shallyers, smart-alecs, tax-dodgers, time-stretchers and title-claimants – bull-artists one and all.

Don Quixote saw his mission simply. It was to relieve the losers.  As it happens, that mission was defined for an English court at that time in these terms: ‘…the refuge of the poor and afflicted; it is the altar and sanctuary for such as against the right of rich men, and the countenance of great men, cannot maintain the goodness of their cause.’

There is a consensus that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on about the same day, 22 or 23 April 1616.  If that is so and there is a Heaven, and these guys made it, some would be entertained by the prospect of calculating the possible accretion to a literary Paradise.

Like Falstaff, Don Quixote is a self-portrait of our own absurdity, and unless we can laugh at ourselves, we may as well turn our toes up – as well as our noses.  Above all, when you put this book down, you will do so with a feeling of loss of innocence that you have not felt since you put down The Famous Five or Biggles, The Secret Seven or The Saint.  This is Spain’s great gift to the world.

 

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.]

8

A BOOK OF MEDITERRANEAN FOOD

Elizabeth David (2005)

Folio Society; green cloth with gilt lettering in green slipcase; decorations by John Minton; watercolours by Sophie MacCarthy; preface by Julian Barnes

For some reason, we do not often use that good and complimentary word ‘urbane’ to describe a woman.  Well, Elizabeth David was nothing if not urbane.  She came from a very wealthy and elevated family, and it showed in manner that could be woundingly waspish.  She had a flaky way about her that showed in failed romances and difficult business arrangements.  She could just be difficult.  But she changed the way that the English and others thought about food cooking and wine.  The liberation was felt as far away as Australia.

Elizabeth David lived with a French family while studying French history and literature at the Sorbonne.  Having seen out World War II in comfort and style in Egypt, she was appalled at the hardship and dourness that she found on her return to England.  She set out to master the fundamentals of cooking and to study it on site in France, Italy, and Greece, and around the Mediterranean.  She published many books and was a journalist writing on food for the best journals in England.  This book contains one of the cooking books and some extracts from her journalism published under the title An Omelette and a Glass of Wine. 

Auberon Waugh said of her ‘if I had to choose one woman this century who had brought about the greatest improvement in English life, my vote would go to Elizabeth David’.  She may or may not have been a natural cook, but she was certainly a natural writer.  Vogue, to which she contributed, said: ‘Her pieces are so entertaining, so original, often witty, critical yet lavish with their praise, that they succeed in enthusing even the most jaded palette.’  She did, in fine, make a real contribution to our civilisation.

Here she is on an Edwardian gourmet, Colonel Newnham-Davis, at the time that gave rise to great hotels – the Savoy, the Ritz, the Carlton, and Claridges.  (Do you recall the supper scene in Chariots of Fire?)

Mrs Tota and her husband George were friends from the Colonel’s Indian Army days.  George, it has to be faced, was a bore; he grunted and grumbled and refused to take his wife out to dinner on the grounds that the night air would bring on his fever.  So the Colonel gallantly invited Mrs Tota, a maddeningly vivacious young woman, to a select little dinner for two.  She was homesick for the gaieties of Simla, the dainty dinners and masked balls of that remarkable hill station.  ‘We’ll have a regular Simla evening’, declared the colonel, and for this nostalgic excursion, he chose to dine in a private room in Kettner’s, which still exists today [1952], in Romilly Street, Soho; after dinner they were to proceed to a box at the Palace Theatre, return to Kettner’s, where they arranged to leave their dominoes, and thence to a masked ball at Covent Garden.  The meal, for a change, began with caviare, continued with consommé, fillets de sole a la Joinville, langue de boeuf aux champignons with spinach and pommes Anna (how agreeable it would be to find these delicious potatoes on an English restaurant menu to-day) followed by chicken and salad, asparagus with sauce mousseline, and the inevitable ice.  They drank a bottle of champagne (15 s. seems to have been the standard charge at that period, 1 s. for liqueurs).  Mrs Tota was duly coy about the private room decorated with a gold brown and green paper, oil paintings of Italian scenery, and gilt candelabra (‘very snug’, pronounced the colonel); she enjoyed her dinner, chatted nineteen to the dozen, and decided that Room A at Kettner’s was almost as glamorous as the dear old Chalet at Simla.

Well, those times have all gone, and they will not come back.

Here is a vignette from The Spectator in 1961.

A military gentleman I know who used to run a club once told me that one of his clients was asking for the kind of dishes ‘which are practically burnt, you know.’  After some investigation, I tumbled to what was wanted and it seemed it wasn’t so much a question of the breakfast toast as of that method of cooking which is so typically French, the method whereby gelatinous food such as pigs’ trotters and breast of lamb is coated with breadcrumbs and grilled to a delicious, sizzling, crackling crispness, deep golden brown and here and there slightly blackened and scorched.  At the same time the meat itself, usually pre-cooked, remains moist and tender…..To achieve the characteristic stage of doneness in this kind of dish needs a bit of practice and a certain amount of dash.

The words ‘doneness’ and ‘dash’ are very much Elizabeth David.

Many of her recipes assume that the recipient is at home in the kitchen.  They are not for beginners, or boys.  Beginners of either sex require much more detailed and structured tuition – of the kind that Jamie Oliver gives.  If you go to some of the classics in French Provincial Cooking, the book that made Elizabeth David’s name in 1960, you will find a lot that gives you so many options to get it wrong.  If you go to her recipes for the famous cassoulet, you will find a very detailed version from the French and another shorter version, neither of which would be good for amateurs.  Neither uses duck, but the French one gives a useful tip for the water used to cook the beans the purpose of which cooking ‘is to make them more digestible and less flatulent’:

Throw away the water out of doors, not down the sink; its smell infects the kitchen for twenty-four hours.  In the Languedoc the housewives keep this liquid in well-corked bottles and use it for removing obstinate stains on white and coloured linen.

Again, those days are gone.  Here is a Swiss recipe for Tranches au fromage by Docteur Edouard de Pomiane which David says ‘is the best kind of cookery writing.’

Black bread – a huge slice weighing 5 to 7 ounces, French mustard, 8 oz. gruyere.  The slice of bread should be as big as a dessert plate and nearly I inch thick.  Spread it with a layer of French mustard and cover the whole surface of the bread with strips of cheese about ½ an inch thick.  Put the slice of bread on a fireproof dish and under the grill.  Just before it begins to run, remove the dish and carry it to the table.  Sprinkle it with salt and pepper.  Cut the slice in four and put it on to four hot plates.  Pour out the white wine and taste your cheese slice.  In the mountains this would seem delicious.  Here it is all wrong.  But you can put it right.  Over each slice, pour some melted butter.  A mountaineer from the Valais would be shocked, but my friends are enthusiastic, and that is good enough for me.

As David remarked, ‘enthusiastic beginners’ might add olives, parsley or red peppers, and the ‘school-trained professional might be tempted to super-impose cream, wine, mushrooms upon this rough and rustic dish.  That is not de Pomiane’s way.  His way is the way of the artist; of the man who could add one sure touch, one only, and thereby create an effect of the pre-ordained, the inevitable, the entirely right and proper.’  It is in truth the case of a professional having the nerve to back his own judgment – and forget about white wine in the Alps, the dish looks just right to me to have with red wine in front of a fire and the rugby on a Friday or Sunday night.

A restaurant on Mont-St- Michel was famous through all France for its single menu – an omelette, ham, fried sole, lamb cutlets, roast chicken and salad, and dessert.  The omelettes were the talk of all France.  What was the secret of the cook’s magic?  She revealed it in 1932 in a letter to La Table:

Monsieur Viel,

Here is the recipe for the omelette; I break some good eggs in a bowl, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I throw the eggs into it, and I shake it constantly.  I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you.

Annette Poulard

Let’s face it – the French have style.  But David lamented the decline in French provincial cooking in her time.  She looked back on a lunch at a pension de famille run by three ladies in the Vosges in 1968, two thin and spinsterish, the third a young and graceful niece.  First came a quiche Lorraine (which had no cheese in the filling and was baked in a tart tin).  It was served with a salad of crisp green leaves.  Then came coarse country sausage poached with vegetables.  One of the thin ladies apologised that they did not have the trout that day – so they went straight to the roast – braised pigeons with whole apples cooked in their skins which by some trick were still rosy red.  Then came the local cheese with caraway seeds.  Then came another cartwheel of pastry.

It was the normal meal expected by the factory owners when they invited guests to eat with them.  The food was good honest food, honestly cooked.  There was no pretension and not the least ostentation about it.  All the same what a misguided meal.  The quiche and the salad, both of them delicious and combining perfectly, would alone have been enough.

You can understand why some people keep this as bedside reading.  It conduces to peace and well-being.  But as someone remarked in The Guardian on the centenary of her birth:

But someone once told me Jamie Oliver had sold more copies of just one of his books than have been sold of Elizabeth’s entire oeuvre, and what can you say about that? 

Good luck to Mr Oliver – but what about civilisation as we know it?

This Folio edition does not have enough from An Omelette and a Glass of Wine.  It does however display the style of the author across the Med, and it deals with meals we take for granted like souvlaki or kebabs.  Julian Barnes gives a good example of how a short and apparently simple recipe left him bamboozled.  He was better off than the guy who responded to an instruction ‘Separate the eggs’ by moving them further apart on the bench!  Barnes also tells us that when E D collected her OBE, the Queen asked her what she did.  ‘Write cookery books, Ma’am.’  The Queen replied: ‘How useful.’

Elizabeth David left her own testament to grace, style, and food.  If I were to ask God whether, say, Kant or El Greco have had more influence on me than Elizabeth David, the result might be a close run thing.  But while I do not have to do logic or like art, I do have to eat.

MY TOP SHELF : 7

 

[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.]

7

SONNETS

William Shakespeare (1609)

The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Ed A Douglas, Martin Secker 1933; rebound in half red Morocco and cloth, with gilt label and humped spine.

Love is too young to know what conscience is;

Yet who knows not, conscience is born of love?

This volume stands on this shelf for all the work of Shakespeare, but in particular the plays.  They have had more effect on me than any other source of literature.  I have written about them separately.  This note can then be brief.

This very handsome book was presented to me by an English friend and colleague after we had finished a long hard case.  My friend has a dry sense of humour.  He was aware of my infatuation with the playwright, and he thought that this edition was just right for me.  It was compiled by Lord Alfred Douglas – Bosie to Oscar Wilde.  His Lordship was moved to effect the compilation for this purpose:

The present writer, while accepting it as perfectly obvious and indisputable that the great majority of Shakespeare’s incomparable Sonnets (which comprise among them the finest poetry that has ever been written in this or any language) were written to, or about, a boy whom Shakespeare adored, utterly rejects the notion that Shakespeare was a homosexualist.

Now, some Loony Tunes think that Shakespeare was a spook, or a fairy at the bottom of the garden; here he is defended by Bosie against charges that he was queer.  I wonder whether the playwright shared these views of Bosie:

Any honest man who has been at public school or university must know perfectly well that young men and boys are liable to fall in love with other young men and boys, and they must also know equally well that some of these relationships are innocent and some are not…..If Shakespeare is to be convicted of homosexuality on the evidence of his sonnets to Mr W H, then David, the Psalmist, who is venerated by Catholics as a Saint and one of the precursors of Christ, must be equally convicted on the strength of his lament for Jonathon.  Would anyone in his senses make such a contention, unless he were an ‘eminent counsel’ speaking for his brief.

Well, whatever else it was that lured Wilde to Bosie, it was not the refinement of his intellect.

Here are some typical lines.

When to sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

And with old woes new wail my dear times’ waste:

Then can I drown an eye unus’d to flow,

For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

And weep afresh love’s long-since cancell’d woe,

And moan the expense of many a banish’d sight.

It was the mission of this poet to put us at ease with our humanity.  There is not much else to say, except that my favourite remark about Shakespeare was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’

 

My Top Shelf – Chapter 2

 

[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.]

2

THE FRENCH REVOLUTION

Thomas Carlyle (1837)

J M Dent & Co (Everyman), 1906; 2 volumes; burgundy cloth with gilt lettering; subsequently placed in split slip-case with marbled exteriors, and burgundy silk ribbon extractors.

The Art of Insurrection.  It was an art needed in these last singular times: an art for which the French nature, so full of vehemence, so free from depth, was perhaps of all other the fittest.

How would a French provincial official back then have gone about making an observation about King Louis XV in a ‘sleek official way’?  At the very start of this book, Carlyle tells us that a man called President Henault took occasion ‘in his sleek official way to make a philosophical reflection’ about Louis XV.  If you look up President Henault, you will find that he seems to have been just the sort of French official who might have acted that way.  So, here we have a writer who arrests us in his first line.  We know at once that he is writing this book as literature, or, as we might now say, journalism.  But the book is much more than journalism or literature – it is theatre, and very high theatre at that.

As you get into this book, you will get used to being affronted in both your prejudices and your senses.  It is like being on the Big Dipper, and you are frequently tempted to ask – just what was this guy on when he was getting off on all this stuff?

The writing is surging, vivacious, and elemental.  The author likes to see the world from on high, and to put us all on a little stage.  When poor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette quit the Louvre under cover of night in a bid to escape from France, we get a costume drama.  ‘But where is the Lady that stood aside in gypsy hat, and touched the wheel-spoke with her badine?  O Reader, that Lady…was the Queen of France!…Flurried by the rattle and rencounter, she took the right hand, not the left; neither she nor her Courier knows Paris…They are off, quite wrong, over the Pont Royal and River; roaming disconsolate in the Rue du Bac; far from the Glass-coachman, who still waits.’

You too can ‘roam disconsolate’ in Paris.  It is simple to retrace those steps, and it must have been quite a stroll for the Queen of France.  Instead of heading up the Rue de L’Echelle, they went up Rue Saint Honoré, and then ended up on the left Bank.  What turn might the Revolution have taken if the Queen had turned the other way?  Or if the Austrian Marie Antoinette had known as least something of the lay-out of Paris?  That the Louvre was then as it is now on the Right Bank?

The coach driven by the Swedish Count Fersen gets the royal family out of Paris ‘through the ambrosial night.  Sleeping Paris is now all on the right-hand side of him; silent except for some snoring hum…’  There is a change of carriage and then a German coachman thunders toward the East and the dawn.  ‘The Universe, O my brothers, is flinging wide its portals for the Levee of the GREAT HIGH KING.  Thou, poor King Louis, fares nevertheless, as mortals do, toward Orient lands of Hope; and the Tuileries with its Levées, and France and the Earth itself, is but a larger kind of doghutch, -occasionally going rabid.’  This is very typical – a surge of Old Testament, Shakespeare and Romantic poetry that invokes the heavens, and then falls calmly but flat in the gutter.

Louis is spotted by a tough old patriot called Drouet who recognized the nameless traveller from the portrait on the currency.  They are brought back from Varennes to the City of Light.  At Saint Antoine, the workers and the poor have a placard; ‘Whosoever insults Louis shall be caned; whosoever applauds him shall be hanged.’  This was the second time that the family was returned to Paris.  The first was when the fishwives brought them in from Versailles.  Carlyle had then said: ‘Poor Louis has two other Paris Processions to make; one ludicrous ignominious like this: the other not ludicrous nor ignominious, but serious, nay sublime.’

Carlyle would later become infatuated with heroes and the idea of the strong man, but even French historians struggle to find heroes in their Revolution.  Carlyle does his best for Mirabeau and Danton, but they were both on the take.  The bad guys are easy for him – Marat and Robespierre.  (Both Danton and Robespierre used the ‘de’ before it became lethally unfashionable.)  When someone moots a Republic after the flight to Varennes, we get: ‘“A Republic?” said the Seagreen, with one of his dry husky unsportful laughs, “what is that?”  O seagreen Incorruptible, thou shalt see!’  After Robespierre lies low in the general unrest, we get: ‘Understand this, however: that incorruptible Robespierre is not wanting, now when the brunt of battle is past; in a stealthy way the seagreen man sits there, his feline eyes excellent in the twilight…..How changed for Marat; lifted from his dark cellar into this luminous” peculiar tribune!”  All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’

The two references to rabid dogs are characteristic.  The son of a Calvinist stonemason in the lowlands understood and loathed the lynch mob, which France had descended into.  At the beginning of the chapter headed The Gods Are Athirst, Carlyle said that La Revolution was ‘the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.’

And this Scots Calvinist rails against the weakness of mankind like a Hebrew prophet.  He knew, with Isaiah, that all nations before God are as nothing, and are counted before God as less than nothing, and as vanity; and that God brings the princes to nothing, and makes the judges of the earth vanity.  And he knew, with the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity, and that when it comes to evil, there is nothing new under the sun.

The lynch mob was at its peak in the Terror.  In some of the strongest passages in the book, Carlyle tells us how they made wigs (perrukes) taken from the heads of .guillotined women and breeches from human skins at the tannery at Meudon.  (The skin of men was superior and as good as chamois, but women’s skin was too soft to be of much use).  There is, we know, nothing new under the sun.

Hilaire Belloc thought that this writing was ‘bad’ and ‘all forced.’  That moral evasion may have been possible in 1906, when Belloc wrote it, but not after Gallipoli, Armenia, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.  We have now seen other nations, European nations, forfeit their right to be part of the family of man.  Carlyle is merely documenting one such case in one of the most civilized nations on earth.  Does history hold a more important lesson for us?  Has the story been told this well elsewhere?

So, we can put to one side all the later stuff about heroes.  (It is just as well that the book ends with the non-existing ‘whiff of grapeshot’ – Carlyle had a view of Napoleon that is not now widely shared on either side of the Channel.)  If nothing else, Carlyle believed that people make history.  The alternative, that history makes people, has to face the challenges that it is dogmatic, boring, dangerous, and bullshit.  You will see that problem in spades when we get to Tolstoy.

Carlyle wanted to tell a story and to make the dead come alive.  In his own terms, he wanted to ‘blow his living breath between dead lips’ and he believed that history ‘is the essence of innumerable biographies.’  He has done that for me six times, and I am about ready for my next fix.  The graph-makers can stick with their graphs.  The French Revolution is history writ very large, and it has never been writ more largely than here.

When Winston Churchill came to describe the heroism of the Finns in resisting Soviet Russia, he finished with a figure of speech that concluded with the words nay, sublime.  When a journalist on The Wall Street Journal came to describe how French bankers recently went long on Italian debt, she said that they had done do in their sleek official way.  There was no attribution in either case, and none was needed – it is a comfort for some that there may be a community of letters out there.

And look out for the one who gives you a dry unsportful laugh, whether or not his feline eyes glitter in the twilight.