Bohemian Shores

The day started with a visit to the small Guildhall art gallery, a modern building with walls cut from white stone and bizarre hexagonal doors. The gallery undercroft is the interesting part, containing a pre-raphaelite collection, mostly of classical subjects such as Tadema’s The Pyrrhic Dance, Moore’s Pomegranates (though the dwelling on a handful of colours were more reminiscent of Whistler) and Collier’s Clytemnestra alongside more traditional pre-raphaelite works by Rossetti and Leighton as well as Constable’s painting of Salisbury Cathedral and two Tissots. Some of the more obscure works, like Webb’s painting of Mont St Michel were also surprisingly impressive. The paintings of London elsewhere in the museum were less interesting; mostly views of London painted from Greenwich when it was outside London altogether, showing the church spires and the monument unimpeded by other buildings, or of the demolition of the old London bridge and construction of the new. There was an odd symmetry with the second world war paintings, showing St Paul’s towering over London once more as everything around it was destroyed. One especially vivid painting here was a painting by Charles Pears, showing a black Tower Bridge against a blood-red sky during an air-raid.

The basement of the gallery housed the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre, while after leaving I walked around an area that is home to a number of Wren and Hawksmoor’s churches (St Mary-Le-Bow and St Margaret Lothbury) alongside the ruins of a Mithraeum and the site of London’s Jewish ghetto. It’s the type of vision that has so moved Peter Ackroyd, particularly in an area where the modern roads and buildings still trace the outlines of a much more ancient city. Leadenhall market is surprisingly beautiful for the city (a commerical cathedral built out of industrial gothic); more like Convent Garden than Smithfield. I still wonder what London would have been like if Wren or Soane had shaped the city as Cerda and Hausmann shaped theirs. For me, London is summed up by the Monument; a great testament to what Wren might have achieved, currently trapped, surrounded and dwarfed by the ugliest buildings London’s financial district has to offer. I then crossed the Thames to Southwark Cathedral. After the grey spires north of the river, the honey coloured stone with its bleached white interior was a welcome relief. The church contains a tabernacle designed by Pugin alongside Tudor and medieval monuments (a particularly striking one for John Gower) that perfectly match Pugin’s aesthetics.

Passing by the Golden Hinde I arrived at the Tate for the Frida Kahlo expiation. It was easy to see why Breton had liked Kahlo so much; where Dali remained christian her own brand of surrealism was both Freudian and Marxist. Ex-voto conventions are used to reflect this, typically with a total absence of subtlety (as well as the peculiar trait of being one’s own muse, featuring herself in picture after picture). The mythology and symbolism of artists like Blake or even Dali cannot be reduced quite so easily to didacticism; conversely the fusion of Aztec, Christian and Eastern symbols is quite extraordinary. Even so, I still tended to think her most accomplished works were the portraits.

I’ve wondered in the past if the Globe theatre was not a rather distracting venue, that one went for the pageantry and the building as much as the performance, but of course all performances have some form of vision stamped on them and the Globe hardly seems any different in this respect to one where the sets and costumes of any other period have been imposed by a director. I was always struck by Camille Paglia’s observation that she was always struck by the hostility of Shakespeare’s prose, the bramble-like thickness of metaphor and simile, its resistance to interpretation. On the one hand, The Winter’s Tale is all pattern and symmetry, cycles of death and birth being used to subdue chaos into order. On the other, the play leaves so much unsubdued; mostly obviously, the political elements of Leontes’ unjust tyranny being brought low by a subject and that a woman, the redemption of the court through pastoral and the peculiar lacunae throughout the play; the suddenness of the king’s jealousy, the death of Antigonus (ambushed by guerilla bears in this case) and the resurrection of Hermione. The performances were quite excellent, with an especially brilliant Prospero-like Paulina. The music for the performance was also rather fine, played on a range of period instruments from pipes to hurdy-gurdys. The seats were just to the side of the stage, which did give an excellent vantage point on the performance. As I left, the dark grey-blue clouds that had overcast the sky all day were counterpointed by the lights tinting the dome of St Paul’s with the slightest blush of pink.

Travelling to Birmingham Botanical Gardens near Bournville, I was rather pleasantly surprised by how excellent the gardens are; comparable to gardens in some European capitals. The gardens included a conservatory with gardens with Mediterranean, sub-tropical and tropical houses (some interesting notes; figs are used to make a form of coffee in Austria and Bavaria, Dragon’s blood was used as resin for violins). The gardens also had an aviary, holding Quaker parrots, tragedian pheasants and zebra finches. Peacocks stalked the grounds, with one peahen found hiding quietly beneath the shrubs in the historical gardens. These covered Tudor gardens (a knot garden with quince and catnip), Medieval gardens with wormwood and a Roman garden. A Japanese garden had a beautiful set of blue slates arranged to imitate a stream, alongside a bonsai collection. Kept behind bars in the interests of public safety, the trees ranged from Chinese juniper to English Elm. Elsewhere the grounds had a pinetum, woods (filled with tree ferns), rhododendron walks and a set of gardens based on paintings. The gardens based on Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder and Degas’ Dancers were particularly noteworthy.

Nazism and romanticism are often considered as related concepts in their rejection of bourgeois society in favour of the heroic self and idealised visions of the past. In some cases, such as Lawrence and Nietzsche, notions of volk and imperialism were largely repugnant to them, effacing some of the more authoritarian elements of their work. In others such, as Wagner, Pound and Heidegger, it is considerably more difficult to effect any rehabilitation. One such case is the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun a supporter of the Quisling government who openly wrote in support of Hitler. For instance, in Pan Hamsun contrasts the authentic self of his soldier protagonist, who lives alone in the woods with his dog as his sole companion, to the bourgeois Edvarda, who lives in society and marries a Swedish count.

Central to this joining of Nazism and romanticism was the distinction of gemeinschaft and geschellschaft, with Hamsun’s novels typically depicting outcasts from a hypocritical bourgeois society; "I loathe your whole taxpayer’s existence… I feel indignation rising within me like a rushing mighty win of the Holy Spirit." Heidegger sought from Nazism "a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety… Only a spiritual world gives the people the assurance of greatness.. and the spiritual world of a people…is the power that most deeply preserves the people’s strengths, which are tied to earth and blood." Similarly, Nagel "couldn’t understand what human beings would gain by having life stripped of all symbols, of all poetry," often speaking in parables, the fairy tales of a pagan christ. Influenced by Nietzsche, Hamsun’s characters do not believe in god but continue to believe in a religious life, the same ambivalent relationship to religion that Nazism had.

But equally, his characters are deluded fantasists, inventors of falsehoods and contradictions. As one character says of Nagel in Mysteries; "I cannot figure out why you are turning yourself inside out for me." He himself speaks of his sudden jumps of thought, being a thinker who has never learned to think; "I admit I am a living contradiction." The vial of prussic acid he carries and his killing of a dog point to a dark aspect to his fantasies, parodying and mocking christ in the same way Nietzsche did. The element of romantic heroism is absent. Perhaps rather predictably, Hamsun’s novels cannot easily be diminished to a set of unambiguous propositions. It seems flawed to analyse Hamsun’s works for traces of Nazism when it was romantic culture, of which Hamsun was only one example, that acted to create Nazism. If the enlightenment is not viewed as being irredeemably tainted through its association with communism, it seems unfair not to grant romanticism the same benefit of the doubt. In practice, romanticism often acted as a necessary corrective to the extremes of other ideologies, a fact that should efface its own extremes a little.

Captain Cook’s Voyages surprised me somewhat. Where nineteenth century explorers saw the world in terms of race and, increasingly, eugenics, eighteenth century notions of racial superiority revolved more closely around manners and morals, often in unusual ways. For example, cook notes that "the inhabitants of New Zealand are as modest and reserved in their behaviour as the most polite notions in Europe," comparing their tattoos with filigree work and admiring their crafts. As with almost any period of exploration attitudes bifurcate around a Hobbesian notion of savagery unredeemed by civilisation; "few consider what a savage man is in a natural state, and even after he is in some degree civilised" (noting that the New Zealanders live in a perpetual fear of being slaughtered by one another) and the notion of noble savagery; "so little does refinement or luxury promote happiness!" The most common complaint is of theft by the natives, but this equally applies to the description of the Dutch Governor of Batavia, depicted as a malevolent slum in comparison to the other islands Cook visits. Cook even complains of Dutch governance being oppressive when he frankly admits the intent to "deprive (them of their) kingdom and their liberties." The contradictions in the notion of liberal imperialism are far from new.