Gormenghast

I‘ve just been to the latest pre-raphaelite exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, this being the third such exhibition I’ve been to and, if not having the most impressive exhibits (as with the Ruskin and Turner exhibition at the Tate) then certainly being one of the most impressively varied. My own liking for pre-raphaelite art stems from its rediscovery of the colours of medieval and early renaissance but tending to substitute sensuality for the religiosity of that period (excepting the rather crude symbolism of Holman Hunt, though the exhibition made clear that Hunt is a reasonable landscape painter). The first rooms consisted of paintings from Millais, Rossetti and Burne Jones. I’ve never truly appreciated Burne Jones; this paintings seem too listless and enervated to me. On the other hand, Millais and Rossetti are quite a different matter. In the latter case, such paintings as A Vision of Fiammetta, in the former case such paintings as A Huguenot and The Proscribed Royalist, as well as an early version of his painting of Ophelia. Millais also proves to have been a rather good landscape painter as well, not something I had been aware of (there was also a painting showing a map wearing a deerstalker proposing to his beloved. I couldn’t help but mentally caption it ‘Holmes Proposes to Mrs Adler’).

However, the highlights for me were the paintings of Atkinson Grimshaw and John Waterhouse. In the case of the latter there were a series of excellent works; two of Ophelia, Pandora and St Cecilia. It’s particularly interesting to observe how more striking the impressionist influences on Waterhouse are when his work is set alongside his earlier contemporaries. In the case of Grimshaw, it was interesting to see pre-raphaelite influenced compositions such as The Lady of Shalott and landscape paintings alongside his more familiar urban paintings such as that of Cornhill or Liverpool.

The collection also encompassed a number of other painters such as Arthur Hughes (not especially talented though his paintings of Ophelia and April Love are fine enough), Lord Leighton (not in truth the best selection), Poynter (the same cave of the storm nymphs painting I saw at the Tate’s Victorian nude exhibition) and Alma Tadema (a variety of Roman scenes; not his best work either but interesting all the same). A very pleasant surprise was the presence of a large amount of De Morgan pottery (one especially fine Iznik design with snakes as handles and dragons on the side of the vase), Pugin tables, Morris carpets, Kelmscott press books and an interesting cabinet by William Burges (I’d never seen a wardrobe with crenellations before).

I also went to the Enlightenment Exhibition at the British Museum‘s renovated King’s Library, a meta-collection dedicated to collections from the enlightenment. While I suspect the Pitt Rivers Museum to be a more accurate representation of the transition from the cabinet of curiosities to modern museums, it was nonetheless interesting to see an exhibition covering the development of modern classifications and disciplines such as Linnaean taxonomy. Like much of the British Museum the interest is largely in the beauty of the objects (art rather than history), whether large ammonites, nautilus shell, Wedgewood jasperware pottery, Islamic tiles, Chinese pottery, Japanese porcelain or Egyptian sarcophagi (or indeed John Dee’s crystal ball, orreries or astrolabes). If I had a criticism it would be that the exhibition seemed to be at pains to deny any idea of development in art, which seems an odd notion give the theme of the exhibition. Much the same applied to the rest of the Museum; the basalt Egyptian statues, the head of Ramses, an Erechthean Caryatid, Easter Island Moai, black and red Athenian pottery, or the Assyrian winged bulls guarding the gates of Nimrud. The Great Court is, it has to be said, very impressive; mostly in terms of its sheer scale (since to be blunt, the Museum’s original neo-classical architecture, like that of the National Gallery, is rather too austere for my tastes).

One source of irritation with the exhibition was the somewhat condescending account of how artworks were originally arranged according to a nation of progress, where works were measured against a Greco-Roman ideal. While such ethnocentricism can certainly be mistaken, it seems our loss to discard the notion of development entirely; the number of artefacts within the exhibition demonstrate clear variations of artistic sophistication between cultures. That said, the choice between presenting the interesting aesthetic possibilities of conjoining such different objects and demonstrating the development of different scientific disciplines is not an easy one.

Returning, I had become tired of the notion of a traditional Christmas (in so far as the traditional British Christmas is better described as a traditional American thanksgiving) and it was decided to try a goose instead (this being the traditional German Christmas, though it proved that the recipe in the end was than of a traditional Christmas in the Veneto). The recipe was cooked with quince; more so than the goose it seemed difficult to account for changing culinary tastes; the flesh was sweeter than apple and with a better texture than pear. Cooking Moroccan roast chicken this weekend was quite odd; I’m far from being used to using apricots and raisins for what would be a savoury dish in European cooking (though perhaps it’s not so unusual; mince meat pies did originally contain meat after all).

Over Christmas, I went on a number of long walks, typically in the grounds of places like Chatsworth (always a little too manicured a landscape for my tastes and the rather squat and dark house does little to improve matters and the grounds of Calke Abbey (its rather more romantic grounds being strewn with aged oak trees, the ground covered in bracken and roamed by stags). The only house that was open was Little Moreton Hall, a Tudor house where the National Trust had set out some period celebrations (the idea of Christmas dinner involving Boar’s head seems quite sensible to me) such as a musician with a hurdy gurdy (which I hadn’t heard before, at least in person). Elsewhere, Hereford Cathedral seems very odd to me; most of the structure is Norman, with the characteristic architecture of the period; next to the later French gothic that had been built onto it, it looked rather strange, as alien as Moorish architecture in Spain must look.

I’ve recently been reading the Gormenghast Trilogy. On the one hand, to the Machiavellian Steerpike "Equality is the thing… Absolute equality of status. Equality of wealth. Equality of power." On the other, the defence of ritual by the likes of Flay and Barquentine is not reciprocated by Titus or Fuchsia themselves, where aristocracy is envisaged as a stultifying force. It is difficult to determine the extent to which Peake was of Steerpike’s party or not. On a similar note, I’ve finished reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Generally speaking,it seems to me that our culture has become progressively more infantilism on a number of fronts, and I was loathe to add to the fashion for adults to read children’s books. However, the trilogy does remind me of the kind of work William Blake might have produced had he been favourably disposed to Newton’s ideas (though a reworking of the Chronicles of Narnia is probably more apt as a comparison than Paradise Lost; the work of Michael Moorcock might be an even closer comparison). One interesting point though is that the Alethiometer and the subtle knife are both based in heuristic reasoning, while the weakest sections of the trilogy, those with Mary Malone, are where rationality is most important. The fantasy form seems to oppose certain themes. Incidentally, reading Lyra’s Oxford I was left wishing that Oxford had a Zeppelin station. Incidentally, a friend wondered what Jesus’ daemon would have been; I thought a snake might be an interesting choice.

Niall Ferguson’s Empire is a revisionist account of the British Empire, which while acknowledging the frequently illiberal and draconian character of the Empire, suggests that in terms of disseminating and enforcing such Anglosphere notions as free markets and trade, democratic governance and individual liberty (Ferguson adds Anglicanism to this list, which seems somewhat odd given that one of Britain’s clearest Imperial legacies was secular administration in countries like India), the Empire can be regarded as having fulfilled a civilising role. Ferguson’s book is essentially polemical in tone and more scholarly detail would have been appreciated on several points. In particular, one of the problems with this hypothesis is that it lends itself as well to the strictures of the counter-factual genre as well as it does to that of conventional history. At one point Ferguson suggests that less developed countries, such as Britain’s African territories, benefited from the Empire in terms of investment and infrastructure while the progress of more sophisticated nations, such as India, was more likely to have been retarded. Elsewhere, he observes that repatriation of finance from India to Britain in the nineteenth century amounted to no more than one percent of GDP and was most likely outweighed by the intensive investment in infrastructure.

To a large extent this depends on a judgement of how India would have developed without colonial rule, with Ferguson observing that Chinese independence during the nineteenth century had done little to ensure its prosperity. However, although weak government due to dynastic decline (by the same token declining Mughal rule may have been unlikely to produce Indian economic growth in the nineteenth century) played a part in this, foreign intervention and the ensuing Boxer Rebellion were surely not incidental to it either (though it may be more relevant to compare the failure of democracy in China with its entrenchment in India), particularly if Angus Maddison’s view that India was the world’s largest economy at the start of the eighteenth century and was overtaken by China over the course of the following hundred years (certainly Indian GDP declined as British GDP grew, while China remained the largest economy until either 1830 when it was overtaken by Britain or 1890 when it was overtaken by the United States).

I’ve also been reading G K Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, which has rather reminded me of Umberto Eco’s essay on Casablanca; "one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it, so that one can only remember parts of it, irrespective of the relationship with the whole." As Tzvetan Todorov observed, detective fiction has two components; the narrative of the crime and the narrative of the detection. One of the features of the detection narrative (or at least the English variety) is its conservatism; unrest in the social order is typically resolved by civil society itself (i.e. a private detective or citizen rather than the state, whose representatives can be reassured of a dismissive portrayal), a conditions exemplified by Agatha Christie. On the other hand, such a conception can be subverted, as with Wilkie Collins or even Conan Doyle. In the case of Chesterton, the notion of Valentin’s scientific nature and atheism are well suited for murder. For much of Chesterton, the narrative is a moral one; Father Brown solves crimes through moments of epiphany rather than a process of ratiocination, and the criminal is often engaged in confession rather than punishment (as with Flambeau). But equally, in the case of the solution narrative (Doyle and Poe favoured this, casting the genre as a form of literary puzzle) Chesterton, like Christie (in The 4.50 From Paddington, for example.) is liable to introduce dissolute characters specifically as red herrings, for instance in stories where there is no crime, bringing the two narratives into conflict.

On a rather more elevated note, I’ve read Therese by Francois Mauriac, a book condemned by Simone Weill as giving sin the monotony of duty. On the whole, that seems somewhat unfair, as the book oscillates between a similar pattern to that of Madame Bovary (i.e. a sin committed in a stifling social context with later contrition through suffering; "they were right to imagine her as a monster, but in her eyes they too were monstrous") and that of L’Etranger (where the sin is that of refusing to acknowledge social norms and the sinner becomes a rebel. As Mauriac puts it "that power, granted to all human beings, no matter how much they may seem to be the slaves of a hostile fate – of saying not to the law that beats them down"). To some extent, this is attributable to the absence of a notion of identity in the novel; "never, for a single moment, to be sure of one’s own identity… I am aware, all the time, of this mental disintegration." Accordingly, the absence of volition that characterises stifles any repentance.

John Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is an odd novel. On the one hand, the historical setting and theme are rather reminiscent of Hardy, but the content is more reminiscent of Marx than Schopenhauer; "they knew full well the terror of the unyielding law the historic memory of unfairness were in their blood," being a accretion of episodes that determine the characters (though there is little sense of history within the novel). More interesting was Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, a novel that reprises the theme of the idiot from Dostoevsky and Cervantes. The obvious influence though, as indicated by the title, is Kafka, reminding me of some of Zadie Smith’s recent comments; "His influence seems to cause a mutation in the recipient, metamorphosing the novel into something closer to a meditation, a fantastical historiography, an essay, a parable… Novelists simply do not resist life in this fashion. Life, in its shared social form, is, for lack of a less vulgar term, their material. They cannot say, as Kafka did, “Never again psychology!" Or, as Walter Benjamin put it Kafka used the traditional forms of representation without the associated truth value. Like Kafka, Coetzee inverts the normal function of the novel, serving to obfuscate rather than elucidate social relations (hence the lack of a definite setting); "barely aware of its surroundings, enveloped in itself". The novel is therefore polyphonic, offering a narrative of resistance to social norms (even to civilisation, since Michael is described "as if he had once been an animal") or of emotional dependency to matriarchal domination. Experience cannot be reduced to the neat patterns of literary convention.

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