The Poetics of Decay

There can be something rather disturbing about visited restored buildings. The act of restoring an old building frequently does so by destroying layer after layer of history to reveal the desired outcome, just as Schliemann did with all of the cities he found at Hissarlik until he was satisfied he had found the Troy he wanted, or as Evans did at Knossos. In other words, it can be an extremely destructive and arbitrary process. Equally, there is something rather awkward about the hyper-real recreations of buildings, which seems as lacking in authenticity as the faked ruins favoured in the eighteenth century. Not to mention that the very idea of conservation has the unwelcome tinge of conservatism to it, which sits uncomfortably for someone ill at ease with the idea of tradition for tradition’s sake. After all, most of the buildings prized as part of our heritage were built by either discarding the styles of the past or through the more literal means of destroying the buildings of the past.

So, I wanted to visit an unrestored building instead, of which there can be few better examples than the Midland Grand Hotel, now known as St Pancras Chambers. If there was ever a case study in architectural hubris it was this; built in luxuriant gothic style (it was not unknown for visitors to mistake it for a cathedral and ask when services began), its lack of either central heating or bathrooms ensured its downfall; perhaps rather incongruously so, since its ‘ascending rooms’ were state of the art at the time. Entering inside, elaborate columns coated in gold leaf sit alongside walls where the paint has flaked away and floors where the boards have rotted away. Pre-raphaelite murals of Chaucerian scenes and wyvern gargoyles rest in the darkness. In spite of my above comments it’s difficult not to feel disconsolate at the Fifties beige or Edwardian burgundy paint covering the gold and crimson Victorian wall patterns. This is particularly so when one ascends the best preserved part of the building; the grand staircase. This imposing lined with gothic arches, through which light seeps into the gloom, leads up to a ceiling vaulted around a central boss, and incongruously painted with a blue sky and gold stars. Even in the dark the blazing colours shine out.

I’d certainly hate to think that such a building would fall further into decay and would love to see what these rooms look like once the paint has been scraped away to reveal the original frescos. But equally, much of why it is so striking is simply because it is a modern ruin; brightly lit and immaculate rooms as opposed to the current dark and cavernous interior would in many ways be a poor replacement. Apparently, now that St Pancras is set to become the main terminal for the Eurostar its restoration in some form is more likely than at any point for decades; I can only wonder what it will become. Later excursions proved rather more diverting. I went for a walk in the sunshine; past Lincoln’s Inn Fields, St Clement’s Church, The Royal Courts of Justice and then (avoiding the offices of the Daily Telegraph) to Smithfield Market and the sinuous Florin Court.

Elsewhere, in the country lies the awkward red-gritted bulk of Powis Castle, a building which nature seems to conspire to hide. Its rather impressive interior courtyard (flanked by a pair of Indian cannons whose barrel apertures are shaped as a tiger’s jaw) is increasingly shrouded by wisteria and evergreen magnolia, while the yew trees are no longer shaped as topiary but have grown into a strange inchoate masses. The castle gives way to a set of seventeenth century terraces, originally progressing from aviary to orangery to a wild area planted with Acer and Stag’s Horn, swallows flying low over the lawn at the base. Now the planting is more Edwardian than baroque and leads to a wild area where Acer and Chinese dogwood grows. Each border is lined with purple dahlias, blue salvias, acanthus, blue agapanthus, hostas, phormiums and aeoniums. Since only southern winds blow on the terraces a micro-climate has formed and bananas share the borders with fuchsias. The house combines baroque trompe l’oeil linenfold panelling and tudor plasterwork. Interesting exhibits included a beautifully intricate roman sculpture of a cat, imari vases, a View of Verona painted by Bellotto (slightly more down at heel than Canaletto) and an Elizabethan miniature of Herbert of Chirbury as a melancholy knight (I always wonder what went wrong with English portraiture between the Elizabethan and Victorian eras). The castle also has a clive of India collection, including a palanquin and a finial from Tipu Sultan’s throne.

Elsewhere, Packwood house proved quite extraordinary. The exterior is a confusion of styles; stone, resembling Kelmscott to the Victorian redbrick. An enclosed garden with gazebos at each corner combines wilderness, a sunken garden, a terrace filled with foliage and flowering plants (easily rivalling Powis) and a symbolic yew garden, where the numbering of the yews along a long walk represents the apostles, with a spiral hedge leading a conical apex represents the sermon on the mount. The choice of the pagan yew invested a peculiar symbolism in this scene that seemed to resemble Avebury as much as the country churchyard. The interior is a product of the arts & crafts movement, an obsessive, even spartan, recreation of the medieval (even down to turning a barn into a great hall) and tudor at odds with the exterior of the house. Flemish tapestries and stained glass roundels abound alongside English flame-stitch textiles on the chairs. The only interruption is the red lacquer chinoiserie long clocks. Nearby, Baddesley Clinton seems to offer something similar, being a medieval and tudor manorhouse surrounded by a moat (occupied by predatory ducks) with a sunlit courtyard within. Although the house has beautiful wooden carving, offset with ivory and mother of pearl inlay, the effect is one of shabby decline, relieved by occasional odd items liked a narwhale tusk propped by in the corner.

Richard Haykluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries is an Elizabethan compilation of travel narratives, written as a source of information on commerce, politics and geography that superceded the inaccuracies of Ptolemy and Mandeville. It regards natives (in this context the term can be applied to Russians and Tartars as much as the inhabitants of Africa or America) as either noble savages (docile and uninhibited by christian morals) or as Hobbesian barbarians existing in the brutish state of nature. These two postures prove to be far from incompatible. More interesting are the more ethnographic recordings; of an Indian Rajah’s collection of white elephants or the ritual suicide of bereaved Javanese wives with a kris dagger (an odd combination of Indian sati and hari-kiri) which sit alongside wonder at the never-setting sun above Scandinavia, skirmishes with Tartars, capture by Moors and Spaniards, encounters with whales and sea-unicorns, and Raleigh’s credulous belief in El-Dorado and of tribes without heads, whose faces appear in their chest.

Through Daniel Defoe’s fractured and episodic narratives there is an inconsistent attitude towards the moral status of the protagonist as the genres of criminal biography and confession are combined, something enabled by the gap between the events and their narration. Accordingly, at the start of Daniel Defoe’s The King of Pirates Avery protests of "the scandalous and unjust manner in which others have already treated me." Instead he describes his adventures as "unhappy though successful." Divorced from the social context of Moll Flanders the travel narrative represents a form of liberation from moral codes, with the piracy being depicted as offering both greater equality and opportunity than convention. Avery affirms that they had regretted "heavily they had not practised the same moderation before" and that "the men would be ruined by lying with the women in the other ships, where all sorts of liberty was both given and taken." From one aspect Avery is a sound entrepreneur as much as any government privateer, from another a criminal.

I also went to the National Gallery’s Russian Landscape in the age of Tolstoy. The initial pictures by the likes of Shiskin are quite odd, painted in a similar style to Constable (later broadening to a more realist vein similar to pre-raphaelite landscape painting) and with the same idealised vision of pastoral. The serfs are typically shown in the fields but never labouring and with little suggestion of hardship. Tolstoy’s outraged reaction to Chekhov’s depiction of the serfs as living lives that were nasty, brutish and short (and sharing these characteristics accordingly) comes to mind. Though all of the pieces were pre-revolution it is doubtful that communist propaganda could have produced a worse historical distortion than the idealised illusions of these paintings.

Fortunately, genre painting later gave way to landscape paintings. Of some note here were Isaak Levitan, whose Above Eternal Peace shows a hilltop graveyard with a similar sense of symbolism to Holman Hunt, and Sarasov’s feverish Sunset Over a Marsh. Of these, the most talented appears to have been the expressionist Arkhip Kuindhzi with his penchant for vast, depopulated landscapes (perhaps oddly so; I normally only care for landscapes as a setting in painting). The use of light in some of paintings, like Evening in the Ukraine, where everything is bathed in a crimson glow and the vertiginous perspectives, like The Steppe, a stark piece where a featureless green plain and white mist sky stretch off into a hazy distance, make him stand out from his contemporaries. The most striking painting was his Moonlit Night on the Dnieper, a panoramic piece where the iridescent reflection of the moonlight on the river recalled some of Atkinson Grimshaw’s works. It reminded me of the night sky a few days ago where the moon’s fitful light had emerged from two inky clouds both above and below it; although the moon was just short of being full, it strongly resembled scenes from many a horror film. I then walked past St Martins and the Coliseum Theatre to the National Portrait Gallery. I was pleasantly surprised by this; I’ve always loved the rich colours and finery of Tudor portraiture but been wary of later developments. Here at least, the flashes of recognition overruled the distaste for the muddy palettes and pedestrian themes of eighteenth century portraiture.

Huysmans’s Parisian Sketches is an interesting dialectic of naturalism and aestheticism. Although the narrative describes events in precise detail these events are nonetheless recorded as subjective impressions or even sensations. On the one hand, the content is explicitly political; "have they never been moved by the desolate inertia of the poor… do they only admire nature when it’s haughty and in its finery." But the aesthetic overtones cast the oppressed as romantic outcasts; "an obscure hideaway dreamt of by those in solitude… those disinherited by fate or crushed by life." Huysmans, like Baudelaire, aestheticises urban decay and squallor, writing that "nature is interesting only when sickly and distressed," there is a marked element of romantic pastoral throughout; "the joyous appearance of a country lane, enlivened by bothies and little gardens," something which easily shades into invective against industrialisation. Equally, much of the sketches are dedicated to the worship of the feminine but the tone is frequently one of revulsion, with smell being something Huysmans appears to find especially offensive.

Kleist’s The Marquise of O and Other Stories presents rather bizarre combination of ontological ideas. Kleist developed a pre-Nietzchean form of pessimism surrounding Kant’s distinction of the unknowability of things as noumena and as phenomena, so that his work is replete with ironic misprisions, with tragic consequences in The Betrothal in Santo Domingo, The Foundling and The Earthquake in Chile. However, this also leads to an emphasis on supernaturalism as inThe Beggarwoman of Locarno and St Cecilia or The Power of Music, implying a divine ordering in the sense that Kant had originally intended rather than Kleist’s pessimistic interpretation.

Bernhard’s Correction is in many respects a meditation on the division of nature and civilisation, reminding me of Paglia’s observation that civilisation is a defence against nature. The character of Roithammer is a natural scientist studying genetics, with a preference for walks in the wilderness and admiring Hoelle’s stuffed animals for precisely the reason that they were only barely the product of art rather than nature; "these products of nature always provided an occasion for reflection on art and nature… nature is that incomprehensible force that… forcibly pushes people together so that these people will destroy themselves." However, science raises the question of what Wordsworth referred to as how we murder to dissect, to divide the totality of existence (as with Roithammer’s order discipline, his concentration chamber being a stand against the untidiness and clamour of existence, and conversely with the narrator’s ordering of Roithammer’s papers being seen in the terms of an act of violence) and the theme of building sets man against nature throughout. Roithammer’s cone is at the exact centre of a forest, while Hoeller’s house stands fast against the flooding of the river at the gorge, which has swept away all other buildings there. Nature is frequently seen as an entropic force, from the woodworm destroying Altensam to the decay of the derelict cone, to the flooding of Aurach; "nature hadn’t changed so the people in their natural setting were still the same, with all their malevolence and frightful fecunity.". However, it is the aspect of gender that gives this theme its sharpest focus. The feminine is throughout identified with nature as being emotive and volatile ("people like my mother aren’t rational beings… unconscious falsifications of nature"), the masculine is identified with rationality and intellect. This theme closely relate to the other central concept of the novel; the status of correction as refinement, as progress, or a form of destruction; "his utterly ruthless, hence utterly perfect corrections" By extension, this questions whether Roithammer is an isolated genius, struggling to create existential meaning in a void ("a man’s lack of ideas is his death"), or a neurotic obsessive ("all those experts thought they were dealing with a madman.");.

The novel functions through the accretion (the text being almost cast in a constant stream of consciousness with few pauses) and revision of detail, viewing character as a palimpsest where excavation of history is intrinsic to an understanding of how inheritance has determined its course; "we still had the same conditions and therefore the same relationships as existed two hundred years ago… things that would determine our lives.. Altensam as the making of Roithammer, the source of all he ever was and still is". The novel casts into doubt our ability to live in our own world rather than that of our parents and educators. In the course of this, a rich set of polyponic perspectives become apparent. One particular aspect of this is the conflict between the perspectives of the narrator and those offered by Roithammer’s own papers, and the question of reading-as-nature; "at certain points in our existence we break off the nature of our existence and proceed to exist only in books, until we again have the opportunity to exist in nature." Reading and art become substitutes for the intolerable freedom of nature, but is also an equally intolerable imposition on that nature. The result of that substitution is a blurring of the space between subject and object, part of the palimpsest’s overlayering; "we become absorbed in the subject and can no longer think it through." As DeLillo put it "In the novels of Thomas Bernhard, the human mind in isolation is the final spiraling subject… a man so compulsively preoccupied with his art that this quality must inevitably destroy him. It has to be understood that Bernhard himself writes a prose so unrelenting in its intensity toward a fixed idea that it sometimes approaches a level of self-destructive delirium… Bernhard’s fiction is anti-cinematic. There is almost nothing to see in his work. It is all personal history and tossing emotion, all voice–no faces, rooms, rainy days. There are references to streets and cities but no sense of place, and the novels I’ve read have no paragraphing, no divisions of text or accommodating space breaks. Bernhard’s prose has a rapid and clamorous pulse rate. The narrator delivers eloquent chronicles of misery, illness, madness, isolation, and death. There are points at which the narration amasses such compressed layerings of loathing and self-loathing that it becomes rackingly comic. And weaving bleakly through it all is a sense of themes and patterns that ride recurringly in the mind." Bernhard’s work generally works through the creation of a number of doubles; in The Loser the narrator is paired by two chiastic doppelgangers, one an ironic caricature of Wittgenstein as a failure, the other a model of Glenn Gould as the antithesis of all that is Austrian. Nonetheless, the potential different perspectives seem undermined by the monologic narration. Equally, while Bernhard advanced an idea of tragic comedy in which the accretion of tragic detail reached a point of comic release (certainly neither novel leaves much that isn’t worse in Austria than anywhere else). Again the problem is that irony implies distance, and the first person narration leaves no room for this.

For most of The Village I was breathless at the combination of a Wicker Man style sparse and naturalistic cinematography with a rich sense of symbolism (especially with the way colours are presented, so that red is feared as enraging the animals that inhabit the woods leading the villagers to wear yellow cloaks). The result is something that intimately depicts the village but has a myth or fairytale’s lack of exactitude (again, with the way the outside world was rejected by the villagers as sinful but where original sin recurs in their own eirenic valley with its autumnal beauty), so that in spite of the veneer of nineteenth century puritanism the villagers are never seen at church or praying. All of which is all well and good. I had realised during the course of the film what the ending would probably be and began hoping that I was wrong; I wasn’t. Perhaps the difficulty is that, much like the villagers of the film, I find romantic myth rather too entrancing to be discarded, even if it does happen to be an illusion. Even a rationalist like myself would prefer Sleepy Hollow or the more nuanced dialectic of reason and unreason in Brotherhood of the Wolf.

The latest Prom was rather odd; the first half being dominated by Saint-Saens’s Organ Symphony, the second being a selection from the nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian hit-parade. Saint-Saens is rarely capable of restraining his eclecticism and the Organ Symphony demonstrates playful flourishes, lyrical passages and gothic romanticism alongside one another. That said, I have always preferred the darker aspects of Saint-Saens and although his work shares a baroque quality with that of Johan Strauss feuilletonist waltzes and polkas, the combination seems rather odd to me (Poulenc or Bach might have been a more obvious combination from my point of view). Gillian Weir played the Albert Hall organ and as with Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass, the orchestra and organ competed through the fortissimo passages. Weir then proceeded to perform a Messiaen piece, which fully displayed his mad organist tendencies.

The second half proceed immediately in a more frivolous vein, as the cymbals proclaimed the beginning of the Radetzky March before the conductor had come on stage, followed by other works from Strauss the elder and Strauss the younger; Voices of Spring, Frederica Polka, Cachucha Galop, The Blue Danube and The Gypsy Baron. I’m very much reminded of a Joseph Roth novel called The Radetzky March; an elegy for the Austro-Hungarian Empire which dwells on the surface of its characters, recording them almost as a set of clothes and dress uniforms more than people. The same superficial pomp and circumstance is at work in the music, which is diverting but inconsequential. More interesting were the other Austro-Hungarian operetta composers. The Hungarian Emmerich Kalman’s Gyspy Princess in particular, strayed into gypsy music and away from Viennese ballrooms.

Considering that Wagner has long been my favourite composer (rivaled by Handel and Tchaikovsky) it is a rather unfortunate fact that I have never had the opportunity to see any of the Ring cycle being performed, only Parsifal and the Tannhauser overture. As such, last night’s Prom concert of Das Rheingold, performed by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and conducted by Simon Rattle (who had also conducted the performance of Parsifal I saw, something I’d quite forgotten about), was a rather special happening. Wagner saw himself as being both the Shakespeare and Beethoven of his day and this idea of the kunstwerk informs all of his music; I tend to think the ninth symphony’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy is the most ‘Wagnerian’ of Beethoven’s works. But like seeing Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit in both guises simultaneously it is never possible to attend fully to both at the same time. Previously, I had always listened to the voices in Wagner almost as another instrument and certainly the music throughout the concert soared through the Albert Hall. But in Das Rheingold Wagner allows the narrative to dominate in a way that recedes in the rest of the cycle and the discipline of standing through the entire concert with translated text meant that I paid more attention to the lyrics, with little impression of difference being made by the use of period instruments. The moral concerning the corrupting effects of wealth is at best trite and not one Wagner ever paid much attention to; perhaps as well since a music of excess is poorly matched to an ethics of chivalric renunciation. More unusually the cycle, initially suggests that greed exists in the absence of love, but the tauntings of the Rhine maidens and Fricka’s jealously undercut this; the ethics of the ring are a peculiar mix of the romanticised Christian and the Schopenhauerian; hence the disenchantment of the Nietzsche who had seen the Dionysian in Wagner’s music and rejected Schopenhauer).

Perhaps surprisingly, the text proves to be rather comic, with the Norse gods imagined in the same petty and impotent fashion that Homer created his in The Iliad (though as mentioned above the explicit moralism is very similar to the Brother’s Grimm and much of the proceedings seem more drawn from fairytale). It’s easy to sympathise with Nietzsche’s view in The Case of Wagner that one must translate Wagner’s gods "into reality, into the modern – let us be even crueller – into the bourgeois!" The excellent cast brought this out fully (for instance, with Fafner resembling nothing so much as an East-end gangster) and although there was no stage the opera was nonetheless acted to the full, with Kim Begley’s outstanding Loki (Loge) easily outshining the rest (including Willard White’s Wotan, I have to say); the most honest character present is the most amoral and therefore the least hypocritical. More than a few times as I stood in the arena I thought how unlucky all the people with seats were, since they missed so many of the small gestures and expressions that brought the characters to life. Finally, feeling blissfully happy I left the Albert Hall, seeing the golden statue of Prince Albert shining in the darkness. I walked down the stone steps, glanced briefly back at the Hall, with its iridescent new portico frieze glimmering in the light emitted from the Victorian street lamps, turned and headed to the tube station.

During the performance of Britten’s Prince of the Pagodas the sound of something falling over filled the hall just at the point where the music was fortuitously reaching a fortissimo peak. It rather reminded me of the anecdote of Joyce and a ‘Come In’ to a visitor that had been accidentally transcribed while he was dictating the text of Finnegan’s Wake; he decided to leave it in. Where Britten is normally dissonant and sparse, the Balinese gamelan influences on this added a more lush orchestration. Finally, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition appeared. Since Mussorgsky only wrote a piano arrangement for this its most famous arrangement was actually created by Ravel. This performance instead saw the piece as a blank slate, and each picture had arrangements by differing orchestrators (being quite a varied piece from the outset this did make it seem oddly like Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals). Emile Naoumoff’s delicate arrangement of Il Vechio Castello stood out for its replacement of Ravel’s horns with piano (it did rather resemble a jazz version of the aquarium section of the Carnival of the Animals as a consequence) while Walter Goehr replaced the brass arrangement of the Promenade theme with a version strings and woodwind. On the other hand, Ashkenazy and Stokowski’s more muscular arrangements (of Bydlo and the ride of Baba-Yaga respectively) were well counterpointed to these gentler arrangements. I’ve also listened to a different arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition; James Crabb’s dual accordion version, which brilliantly captures the more lyrical pictures but is less successful with the more powerful pictures, like the ride of Baba-Yaga.

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