Glyptotek

I had hoped to see the exhibits of the Carlsberg Glyptotek in the Copenhagen gallery that normally houses them (if nothing else because the prospect of a gallery and museum that has its own heated palmhouse seems more than a little striking), but since that is shut for renovation for several years, the current exhibition at the Royal Academy makes a reasonable substitute. The exhibition certainly makes clear that it is the product of the vagaries of a family of private collectors, consisting of Danish and French painting and ancient sculpture. The Egyptian exhibits are rather fine, including an impressive seated statue of Anubis and a bust of Pharoah Amenemhat the third. Rather memorably, it eschews the typically stylised nature of Egyptian art in favour of a more naturalistic style, emphasising the Pharoah’s rather sharply defined cheekbones. The Roman exhibits covered a variety of periods and geographies, the most unusual being the Palmyran exhibits, showing many of the conventional aspects of Roman sculpture (e.g. couples with linked hands) are combined with Asiatic dresses and even camels. Of the native Roman exhibits, I was especially struck by a sarcophagus showing ships at sail; the waves are filled with dolphins and one man is drowning; very Musee des Beaux Arts. Other impressive exhibits here included a rather adorable red marble hippo from the Gardens of Sallust, and some statues of three of the Muses from the Sabine hills.

Nineteenth century Danish painting proves to have had a rather agreeable penchant for landscape and ruins. Much of this can be accounted for with paintings within Denmark, like Lundbye’s painting of Zealand (a somewhat Constableseque affair, enlivened by a burial tumulus on the hill and what looks like a stone circle in the foreground) and Lake Arre or Kobke and Skovgaard’s paintings of Frederiksberg Castle. But like many other European painters of the same period, the ancient world looms large, as with Rorbye’s painting of the Tower of the Winds and Cypresses by the Baths of Diocletian, Hansen’s painting of Rome, Naples and Vesuvius. By contrast, the French painting tends to be impressionist, heavily weighted towards Degas, Cezanne, Lautrec, Courbet and Manet (whose The Absinthe drinker, I especially liked). Most interesting here were paintings by Monet (a dark and unusually realist piece showing smoke stacks along a Dutch canal, counterpointing a more turquoise typical seascape) and Sisley. However, the highlight was clearly Gauguin, with paintings of Frederiksberg woods and Ostvald windmill showing his early realist style, and his later riotously colourful paintings of Tahiti. Of especial interest was a wood carving, recasting the narrative of the fall in Tahiti.

I then went for a walk, past Fortnum & Mason’s clock with its automata appearing on the hour (a rather odd contrast to the Horologe in Prague), a market at St James Church, the Athenaeum and the Haymarket theatre, before emerging in Trafalgar where a group of pigeons were holding a sit-in against the London Mayor. Finally, I went to the National Portrait Gallery to looks around the Victorian and Modern wing. It’s interesting to note that the museum inadvertently traces the decline of the court painter, so that the likes of Holbein are gradually replaced with Millais painting Gladstone and Disraeli or Singer Sergeant painting Balfour. In the modern area, it was especially good to see Brigid Marlin‘s portrait of JG Ballard alongside Graham Greene and Phillip’s painting of Iris Murdoch.

Run Lola Run has a peculiar mix of chaos theory and free will; the slightest change in events has wildly different repercussions (along the lines of the flapping of the butterfly’s wings), but the action is rerun until it produces an outcome satisfactory to Lola. The changes each time seem essentially unpredictable, but there is an order in how the lives of each of the characters proves to overlap, as well as in how Lola seems to retain a distant memory of how the events had previously been played out. In contrast to the wasted and conventional lives of her parents (The film shares Goodbye Lenin!‘s anti-materialism; Lola’s mother is the only point in the film never to change, more wrapped up in television than in events around her), Lola’s actions reinvent reality, as much as her travels take her through an impossible Berlin that barely corresponds to the actual geography of the city and stitches together East and West, crossing the formerly restricted Oberbaumbrucke.

The Motorcycle Diaries seem an oddly empty film, just as after his death Che Guevara became an oddly empty symbol of rebellion. Much of the film is taken up simply with the cinematography of the South American landscape and lacks any specific ideology other than a broad protest against social injustice and some more specific sympathy for indigenist causes. With the actor playing Guevara’s Hollywood looks, the motorbike (more Brando than Lenin), the rock & roll soundtrack (more Jagger than Castro) and incongruously American metaphor of the road (more Kerouac than Marx), Guevara becomes the perfect rebel without a cause. Ironically, given the criticism of how a sisterhood of nuns run a leper colony in the film, one of the most powerful images in the film, that of Che’s body wracked by his asthma, is arguably an icon of Catholic martyrdom (communism may have officially been atheist, but it hardly seems unreasonable to characterise it as a religious movement in its own right). It is, in short, the perfect film was a post-ideological age that believes that everything communism said about capitalism, as was everything capitalism said about communism.

On the other hand, it’s difficult not to suspect that the film represents something noted by the likes of Martin Amis, Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum; a tendency to excuse the horrors of communism where one would do nothing of the kind for other ideologies (It’s somewhat difficult to imagine a film that lovingly depicted the coming of age of an idealistic Hitler or Franco.). I am reminded of a quote Lessing attributes to Koestler in the Golden Notebook, that it was only possible to continue to cleave to the idea of communism out of a personal mythology, as a form of denial. Having read Arenas’s Before Night Falls, and his descriptions of Che’s labour camps I find it difficult to witness the mythologisation of Che. Certainly, the sole indication of the later Che (the Commandante of the Cuban labour camps) in the film is a scene at Machu Picchu where he dismisses democratic change in favour of armed insurrection. Nonetheless, I have to admit that it’s difficult not to respond to the sense of injustice in the film, to the idealism, to the beautiful South American landscape. By contrast, Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education (also starring Gael Garcia Bernal) is oddly reminiscent of what Hitchcock might have made of Death in Venice; the same confused identities feature for both Directors, with the glacial blondes being replaced with dark latin men.

Meteorology, it seems to me, can be considered as a form of aesthetics (nature as a form of art; typical romanticism). During fog the most familiar of objects become rich and strange. Most obviously, the brick church steeple I can see from my window, rising through the trees. Reduced to a faint sliver of darkness ("Annihilating all that’s made / To a grey thought in a grey shade. "), the denial of the usual detail grants it an otherwise unknown air of the unheimlich. Equally, the loss of colour in the trees as they become simply shades of grey, between which the difference is in degrees of colour rather than kind, seems to change the depth perception. Later, the sky grew more and more overcast until it rained, and it rained more and more until the rain became almost a solid wall of water. The level ground all around turned into a fast flowing river that had to be waded through and the thunder was deafening. One especially striking morning saw rime frost covering the ground all around, a light mist in the air and a grey sky; but a ferocious crimson sun staining the sky pink, like Homer’s metaphor of dawn’s rosy fingers.

As ever, Autumn is my favourite time of year and the golds, burgundies and crimson of the leaves at this time are something I can never tire of. There are few things as wonderful as walking through piles of crisp leaves as the wind causes others to swirl in the air around you. Accordingly, Wayland’s Smithy is rather fine at this time of year; the funeral barrow is at the centre of a copse of beech trees that have turned to a yellowed shade of brown. Whereas the Kennet barrow can be seen for miles around, one simply happens across Wayland’s Smithy. I noticed that someone had left some flowers and a note for a lost son on a tree stump amidst the beech mast. Uffington is more austere at the best of times and today (with the wind howling and walls of rain descending) the landscape in the distance seemed to dissolve into the bleached white sky, leaving the hill with its bare scalloped slopes (cut during the last ice age) against the tide of nothingness. Since the Uffington white horse can only be seen properly from the sky the most striking thing is Dragon Hill. Like Silbury Hill, this can be easily recognised as an artificial structure; like the stuffed animals in Bernhard’s Correction these things impress because they are neither nature nor art.

Nearby is Ashdown Manor. This tall building is designed in a pure Dutch style, with hipped roof, dormer windows and a peculiar round glasshouse surmounted with a cupola and finial. Lacking any attached wings, the building towers over the surrounding landscape; in the seventeenth century lanes would have radiated from it at each of the four points of the compass, cutting across a square of domesticated parkland. The geometrical precision with which nature is subordinated, especially in the elegant curves of the parterre garden, has something to it that is at least as ritualistic to it as the Uffington horse. Today, the landscape is sparse downland, with sarsen stones embedded throughout the fields in front of the house and inkcap mushrooms growing between them.

I felt that Alan Hollinghust should have won the Booker Prize with The Folding Star ten years ago, so I was pleased to see that The Line of Beauty has won it this year. Firstly, on account of the sexual politics involved and secondly, because it is a social novel. Possibly, I’m becoming a new puritan ("In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing… We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day."), but the recent vogue for postmodernist, historical and speculative fiction (typically revolving around a somewhat superficial attempt to instantiate a rather limited set of metaphysical ideas) has become more than a little tiresome. Meals cooked recently: Javanese curry and Nasi Goreng (a form of spiced Indonesian paella), Mexican chicken with pineapple rice.

Marco Polo’s Travels are rather more odd than their later English counterpart, Hakluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries. Whether Hakluyt’s compilation divides the world between noble savages and barbarians, Polo is more nuanced, typically cataloguing the wealth of other states in true mercantile fashion. The wealth and technology of the nations visited by Polo is typically more advanced than Europe (as with the Yuan dynasty postal system, paper money or the great canal; oddly enough, coal and stone bridges seem to fall into the same category while Polo neglected to observe either the Great Wall or printing). Polo is especially impressed with the city of Kinsai (City of Heaven), seeing its lakes, lagoons and bridges as being like Venice; it is easy to see where Calvino got the ideas for Invisible Cities. However, the narrative is far from lacking in ethnocentricism (for instance in the description of Christian Abyssinia’s attack on Islamic Aden), often recounting miracles by which Eastern christians were preserved against the Saracen. However, the narrative is also a romance, and the sensationalisation of the east often interferes with this, as with the descriptions of the magical powers of the Brahmins and Buddhist monks, leading to the Khan’s comments; "You see that the Christians who live in these parts are so ignorant that they accomplish nothing and are powerless. And you see that these idolaters (Buddhists) so whatever they will" Polo attributes such magical powers as refilling cups without touching them to the devil (certainly such things remind one of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus), but his descriptions of Buddhism and Hinduism are remarkably sympathetic, seeing Buddha as the equal of a christian saint.

Tanizaki’s The Key presents the text that has no more connection with naturalism than the Bunraku theatre of Some Prefer Nettles, being composed of a dual narrative taken from two diaries, the authors of which frequently elide information or include misleading detail. But it is more interesting than either Some Prefer Nettles or In Praise of Shadows in that it breaks down the binary division they established between oriental and occidental social norms; "In the old days a woman simply obeyed her husband’s wishes, not matter how indecent or disgusting.. I’d begun to understand that making him jealous was the way to make him happy – that was the duty of a model wife."

Maupassant’s Bel-Ami is largely cast in the form of critique of a nouveau riche overreacher, criticising Duroy’s both racism and chauvinism, his sense of emasculation stemming from the women he uses to progress his career. However, this moral fable is one that exists in spite of the death of god, "there are some people who really do suffer. And he felt a sudden anger against the cruelty of nature… these people at least thought that someone cared about them in heaven.. In heaven? Where’s that?"Norbert de Varenne’s complaint of the futility of things substitutes a form of hedonism for morality in much the same way as that of Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray; "no doubt the truth is that we were born to live more materialistically and less spiritually; but through too much thought we’ve created a discrepancy between our overdeveloped intelligence and the unchanging conditions of our life.".

Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is set in a period where Jacobinism threatens to overturn the established aristocratic order, and his novel correspondingly pulled between romance, picaresque and the more modern novels that followed. The romance elements of melodrama, the heroic quest romance for self discovery, aristocratic dramatis personae ("That commonplace does not rise to the height of ours") and almost courtly love are certainly present, so too are the more novelistic elements of character development and the depiction of characters in terms of their social interrelation, as with Eliot and Dickens. In terms of the picaresque, events frequently occur by accident (Fabrizio’s exploits at Waterloo or the death of Giletti) or through a fortune beyond the control of the protagonists. Equally, causality pertains as much as in Dickens or Balzac, with the difference that the characters rarely seem aware of the implications of the actions. The resulting combination of accident with the crossed wills of the characters tends to recall Hardy as much as Defoe.

Astrology is a particularly difficult area for the novel; "inoculated him with unlimited confidence in the signs by which the future may be foretold… my imagination took upon itself to give them meaning and the most romantic one possible." As such. events frequently occur as if predestined by the heavens (as with Father Blanes’s predictions or Clelia’s prediction of her son’s divinely ordained death), but the narration is distanced from the events it depicts and is consistently counterpointed to them; "she did not make that moral reflection that which could not have escaped a woman brought up in one of the Northern religions which allow self examination… That religion deprives men of the ability to reflect on unusual matters and particularly forbids self examination as the most heinous of sins;" Parma is persistently seen as a land governed by an arbitrary and unpredictable despotism (and therefore lacking the social stability that is a precondition for the realist novel) and whose inhabitants are governed by uncontrolled emotions ("Fabrizio was one of those unfortunate people who are tormented by their own imagination; this is a fairly common fault of men of intelligence in Italy") that they are unable to reflect upon. Much of religion is satirised throughout the novel, as with Fabrizio’s use of the preaching as a means to see Clelia.

In Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist Italy emerges in the similar terms for Stendhal as it later figured for Forster and Lawrence. Describing himself as a liberal who despised other liberals, Stendhal’s loathing of aristocratic privilege was only matched by his loathing of the crass mercantilism that was replacing it, something he saw prefigured in England, where all society has been subordinated to the cash nexus. By contrast; "How ridiculous it is for the English worker to have to labour for eighteen hours. The poor Italian in his ragged clothes is much closer to happiness."

Reading Twain’s contemporaneous The Gilded Age alongside Maupassant was especially interesting. Twain departs to a large extent from the individualist conventions of American fiction in favour of something that does resemble a European social novel, examining each social strata through a broad cast of characters. However, there are differences. For example, Twain notes that a conventional novel would resolve the question of Laura’s parentage, using it as means of demonstrating the interconnection of all parts of the social fabric (as with Esther in Bleak House), equally failing to provide a moral fable in the verdict of Laura’s trial (often interrupting the narrative to make these gaps between artifice and nature clear in a surprisingly postmodern way). Maupassant depicts a society where social advancement is predicated on exploitation, counterpointed to the simple life of the peasantry. To some extent, Twain shares this, describing that "they were honest and straightforward, and their virtuous ways command respect" but also tends to see poverty as a form of injury to a greater extent, as with Colonel Sellers’ turnip feast. Conversely, although elites are characterised as utterly corrupt, social advancement is seen in the gentler guise of a series of impractical visionaries (more like Skimpole in Bleak House).

Like Twain, Howells creates a social novel in The Rise of Silas Lapham, but the form seems hollow in comparison to its European counterparts. When Bromfield Corey notes that workers will in time dwell more and more on their poverty and become increasingly discontented, Lapham’s reaction is that a poor man is satisfied if he can make ends meet. Lapham’s fall is not attributable to anything that is deserving of censure, but instead to his unnecessary guilt over ousting Rogers from his partnership and "(if) he had looked after the insurance of his property as carefully as he had looked after a couple of worthless women that had no earthly claim on him, they should not be where they were now." Throughout the novel’s moral scheme is an essentially utilitarian one, where Pen’s self-sacrifice is seen as a form of "shallow sentimentality" that punishes three instead of one. In consequence, the moral fable of the novel deliberately undoes itself, with the fall into poverty having little more redemptive power than wealth had a corrupting one.

Darwin’s The Origin of Species had always struck me as typifying the Victorian emphasis on the systematic, seeing all things as interconnected as much as Dickens or Eliot. The Voyage of the Beagle shares these traits, interweaving geology, paleontology and biology, but equally presents a more problematic picture. Darwin’s observations here are equally amenable with a view based on Gould’s punctuated equilibrium model (describing both natural disasters, such as the extinction of a land snail in St Helena when its habitat was destroyed and human disasters, such as the various South American dictatorships and revolutions as well as noting how South America would once have been populated with monsters, whose extinction left only pygmies in their place) as on natural selection (as with observations on the acquired blindness of a mole). His views on the introduction of alien species are without sentiment; modern environmentalism is anachronistic here, instead he comments on the historical ironies of the reintroduction of the horse into South America after its earlier extinction, these discussion of earlier mass extinctions sitting alongside extinctions caused by the introduction of European species, with the pig replacing the peccary; "according to the principles so well laid down by Mr Lyell, few countries have undergone more dramatic changes."

Although Darwin admires the tattoos of the Tahitians and vehemently opposes slavery ("I shall never again visit a slave-country… I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of"), his views are nonetheless imperialist; it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a great power of improvement." Comparisons between native races and animals, even in the context of arguing against slavery are commonplace; "one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals could enjoy; how much more reasonably the same question could be asked with regard to these barbarians!… persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal." Darwin’s imperialism lies in his belief in the ability of colonial administration to effect an improvement in the character of the natives ("at the present day, from the progress of civilisation, there is much less warfare"), invoking Lamarckian terminology where he would have been contemptuous of it anywhere else. But elsewhere, Darwin appears to see the process in terms of natural selection. Just as he had written of how English vegetation was introduced into St Helena or how the Norway rat annihilated much of New Zealand’s fauna, he writes of how the eventual extinction of the Australian aborigines and Tahitian natives ("it was melancholy at New Zealand to hear the fine, energetic natives saying that the land was doomed to pass from their children") due in part to European diseases to which there is no immunity and in part of the extinction of the wildlife seems inevitable to him. On one particular occasion, Darwin explicitly applies the idea of natural selection to the natives in a way he is rather unlikely to have done to Europeans; "nature, by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and productions of his miserable country."

Pliny’s Letters seem rather odd, recalling some of the reservations I had about medieval literature. In that context, all ideas of character and personality were related to moral and social schemes, without the modern idea of any form of interior life. It seems much the same as Chaucer’s descriptions of his pilgrims, which almost exclusively relate them to essentially social ideas of morality. Much the same applies to Pliny, with the additional complication that (as a politician) much of the letters are a studied description of the author’s public aspect, his pietas, that of his patrons and those that received his patronage. The Letters are an attempt to display his own suitability to be a member of the ruling class and for manipulating other members of that elite to subscribe to the same moral values and patterns of behaviour which he felt to be important. More interesting perhaps are the descriptions of the other sides of Roman society, opposed to this public aspect; the slaves that killed their Master, the husband who had a centurion convicted of adultery and exiled him, but refused to banish his wife.

Much of this relates to an attempt to gain immortality through his writings, as when he writes to Tacitus saying "I believe that your histories will prove immortal: a prophecy which will surely prove correct. That is why (I frankly admit) I am anxious to appear in them" and is later unafraid of appearing boastful when his own name is recognised and set along that of Tacitus. However, this is far from problematic, as when he notes that "my idea of the truly happy man is one of who enjoys the anticipation of a good and lasting reputation… lives in the knowledge of the fame to come. Were my eyes not fixed on the reward of immortality I could be happy in an easy life." Others, such as Regulus and Pallas whose monuments are without proportion to their objects are derided as immodest, and Pliny records how "people have criticised me in your hearing for taking any opportunity for the exaggerated praise of my friends.". The negotiation on this subject, between fame and hubris, are delicate, especially when Pliny defends his friend Verginus Rufus for ordering an inscription on his tomb, instead of forbidding such things; "do you really think it shows more reticence to publish throughout the world that your memory will live on, than to record your achievement in a single place in a couple of lines?" Tacitus’s own Agricola and Germania is an equally odd text, lauding what he sees as the barbarians of Germany for their sexual morality (in contrast to Roman decadence) and both the Germans and Britons for their struggles for freedom (to some extent in contrast to Rome under Domitian). On the other hand, he derides their indolence and the primitive nature of their societies; seemingly he endorses a mid-point between barbarism and civilisation that can never be wholly satisfied by either.

Some of the most vivid aspects of Pliny’s writing are the descriptions of his villas, where each of the elements are harnessed. Water falls by each seat, while each room catches the sun at different times. Quite a different conception is at work with Derek Jarman’s Garden. Influenced by Gertrude Jekyll, it lacks any fences or hedges and is filled with the same wild flowers that grow in the shingle elsewhere at Dungeness. Stones are arranged in intricate patterns according to colour, in an imitation of Avebury. Gorse grows in a circle around a pole, which has patterns raked in the centre around it. It seems more reminiscent of the Japanese notion of shakkei, borrowed scenery, and the practice of raking gravel as a meditation exercise. But, as with the stone circles, Jarman does not fully subscribe to any notion of oneness with nature, setting rusted pieces of metals as found sculptures in his garden. Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North encapsulates this idea of oneness with nature, being distanced from an idea of a distinction between subjective and objective; "whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams is the moon. It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than the flower." The results of this are variable, with the poems often being rather abrupt.

As with Pliny, Suetonius is not especially interested in the psychology of imperial rule, tending not to speculate on the character development of the twelve caesars. However, he does shun a chronological narrative in favour of a more thematic approach (combining both of what we would see as the public and private), a technique that allows him to finely balance the vices and virtues of each Emperor. This doesn’t seem especially surprising, since Suetonius presumably had to approach his subjects with considerable diplomacy. On the one hand, it would have been expedient for someone at the court of Hadrian to diminish former emperors by describing the arbitrary and cruel nature of their rule. On the other, his descriptions of attempts made to restore the Republic make it equally important to describe the need for Imperial authority against instability (including that of the Emperors themselves, especially Claudius). One of the more awkward aspects of The Twelve Caesars is the role assigned to augury. Although many of the defeats and downfalls chronicled throughout are foreshadowed by various omens, there is something often rather mechanical about such things with either generals or priests offering the most convenient interpretations of decidedly ambiguous events. Equally, Tacitus seemed to view such things as barbarian superstition in the Germania, while Plutarch noted how strange it was that Marius succeeded by heeding prophecies while Octavious was destroyed through them. It all rather reminds me of a story in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, where a woman buries her son to his neck in the sand and sits nearby, wailing and lamenting in the hope that their particularly gullible rain god would take pity and cry (rain).

An interesting comparison is offered by Sei Shonagaon’s account of her life at the Imperial Court of Heian Japan, where the sense of the noumenal is very strong throughout (and as manifest as her descriptions of the phenomenal world of her nature descriptions), with Shonagon often shunning rooms and paths proclaimed to be plagued by demons and spirits and fearing the return of ghosts at festivals. Her descriptions show a court that was heavily dominated by a ritual and etiquette that barely manages to conceal her own playfulness. However, as with Pliny, there is the sense of something repressed; given her distaste of the menial and common, to the point where it breaches etiquette even to mention such things, it’s difficult not to wonder about what took place outside of the rather mannered court.

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