Unbefangenheit

Autumn is my favourite time of year. The weather is hesitant and uncertain, with blackened clouds and rain interrupted with bright sunshine and deep blue skies. Silver birch remains green, Stag’s Horn (Sumac) turns bronze while Ivy turns crimson red. I’d recently seen an old tree stump with lavender growing around it and bracket fungi growing out of it. Tonight, I noticed something odd growing in the nearby borders. Parting the foliage I found an odd looking toadstool, red with white blotches. As far as I can tell it’s fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), a type of mushroom noted for its hallucigenic properties amongst the Siberians, American Indians and the Japanese. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before.

Arriving at the Watt’s Gallery in Surrey, I noticed an odd looking red church on a nearby hillside and decided to walk back to have a look. Initially obscured from view by the churchyard’s Irish Yew trees, the building proved to be the Watts Chapel, designed by Mary Watts in memory of her husband. Mary Watts was an exceptional artist in her own right, a painter and potter who worked with Celtic and art nouveau styles.

The structure of the rather squat chapel is cruciform (though essentially a rotunda intersected by the stations of the cross) and surmounted by a somewhat incongruous campanile. The exterior is ringed with a band covered in Celtic ribbonwork patterns made from terracotta and supported by three corbels on each section of the wall. The band’s imagery is somewhat pantheistic, drawn from Egyptian and Sanskrit sources as much as The Book of Kells. Built from local red clay, Mary Watts had apparently hoped it would ‘tone down’ as it aged over time, but my suspicion is that the colour is only slightly less vivid than it was after it had been built. Surrounding it, much of the gravestones are made from the same clay and combine Burne Jones style angels with Celtic patterns. As you might expect, the overall effect is bizarre, more resembling a Byzantine or Italian church than something to be found in England; Romanesque design (the dome, Greek cross and lozenge shaped windows) with Celtic imagery. The interior, complete with white and marmalade guard cat (lying in wait for visitors and demanding to be stroked), is different again. The style is late pre-raphaelite or art-nouveau, showing gesso angelic figures and the tree of life, save for the altar where one of Watt’s symbolist paintings hangs.

In truth, Watts himself is not one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painters. His work lacks the colour and vividness of Rossetti or Leighton (not to mention their rather decadent glamour) and, while anticipating the impressionists, lacks the dreamlike aspect of Monet’s paintings. Looking at the works in the gallery he seemed to me to resemble William Blake more than most of his contemporaries, with all of his paintings being loaded with symbolism borrowed from christian and classical sources as well as an essentially private mythology. Like Blake, much of his work has a very direct aspect of social criticism (ranging from sympathy for ‘fallen women,’ anger at poverty and inequality and even concern about animal cruelty). In many cases, even his portraits seem to burst into the allegorical, with one such portrait having been changed from an original depiction of a neiad. The back of the gallery houses a junk room sculpture collection, littered with casts of his large public sculptures (like Physical Energy in Kensington Gardens) and one odd Egyptian sculpture that Watts had designed to look as if it had been ruined and devastated. Finally, the gallery has a small room dedicated to other Victorian painters like Arthur Hughes and Albert Moore.

The Edvard Munch exhibition at the Royal Academy. The range of personae on display is often surprising. Where Frida Kahlo always represented herself in broadly similar terms, it is often difficult to credit that Munch’s paintings are of the same man. Partly, this is due to the fact that the paintings span his entire life, but equally he changes from naturalistic depictions where the flesh is whole to ones where the skin seems scarred (equally, his paintings often seem like acts of self-mutilation, showing his murdered or dissected corpse, his decapitated head, his skull and eyeball; Munch left his paintings out in the rain to be warped and distorted, inverting Dorian Gray’s picture) to ones where his face has been all but erased completely. Equally, Munch’s features displace those of any number of mythical and historical personae; John the Baptist, Marat, Orpheus. Women figures in any number of roles; whore, virgin, muse. Munch often simply allows paint to slide down the canvas, creating a particularly disturbingly liquid effect when he is painting blood, or even hair in the case of The Vampire; but again the range of painting styles were many and varied over his career. The early paintings are characterised by their sense of bohemianism; as if Wilde were being painted by Leighton. The later styles are clearly more symbolist, but unlike Kahlo there is no sense of an hermetic personal mythology. I was especially struck by one painting, Murder where the entirety of the painting swirled around a central point in the distance; it reminded me of how camera angles zoom in onto a central figure, especially in Hitchcock’s films.

Der Edukators (or Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei as it was originally titled) rather left me feeling that matters had been resolved rather too neatly. Much of the film revolves around contested ideas; in one instance, a group of activists who break into the villas of the wealthy, rearranging the furniture and leaving notes saying that the owners have too much money. In the other, the owners of one of the villas that they are keeping prisoner after things go wrong. For much of the film, it isn’t clear whether his statements of former activism and sympathy for their ideals are genuine or whether he isn’t simply manipulating them; the ending does seem to answer this question a little too equivocally for my taste, though it was rather noticeable that their prisoner’s claim that it is simply natural for some to lead and others to follow receives rather more credence than might be expected from the way in which he almost over from them.

A pleasant day was spent with a walk around the Roman ruins at Silchester, leading to the incongruous discovery of a field in the middle of the old city housing some young llamas. I visited St Mary’s Church and looked at the pre-reformation wall paintings (mostly floral). I also managed to spot a sparrowhawk almost floating over the walls.

A History of Violence sees David Cronenberg shedding the elements of science fiction in his films in favour of a more ostensibly naturalistic genre, the thriller, where a married man in Midwest America is confronted with his past with the mob. However, it seemed rather clear that this was a false distinction, with Cronenberg using the trappings of normalcy to disturb in precisely the same manner that the surrealism of his previous films did. What particularly achieves this effect is that the film seemed to suggest that violence isn’t something that is repressed and periodically erupts but is rather something that forms an intrinsic part of normality, blurring moral distinctions between the Midwest family and the gangsters.

When I’ve reviewed Juan Goytisolo’s novels on past occasions, I’ve tended to describe them in relation to the ideas of the Russian formalists Mikhail Bakhtin. In his essay collection, Cinema Eden, he himself raises Bakhtin in the first sentence of the first essay, characterising the Arab world as one where discourses are intermingled, between the sacred, the profane and the satirical; "this happy blend of licence and piety." Throughout, he adheres to this precept, mingling fantasy and reality in a piece imagining Gaudi living as a hermit in Cappadocia. Nonetheless, Goytisolo seems to introduce a further ambiguity, noting that many of these traditional elements of Arbaic culture help people "not to deny modernity but to co-exist with it," but elsewhere suggests that such arrangements are threatened by progress and Islamism alike and that they are better described as "a new form of shelter against the rootlessness and alienation created by modernity." It’s difficult not to wonder at the extent to which these discourses really are entangled; the homosocial love of mystics or the soldier and the charcoal burner depends on homosexuality as a practice while leaving it castigated as an identity. The qualities he sees in the inhabitants of Cairo’s city of the dead contrast to the antiseptic values of the West but also seem to come close to endorsing a form of social Darwinism in a society where life is nasty, brutish and short.

Reading the Laxdaela Saga, I found myself reminded of Ruth Benedict’s distinction between shame and guilt cultures in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. In guilt cultures personal morality is specific to the individual and their relationship to god, whereas in shame cultures morality is a social concept relating to community opinion (for instance, Hrafnkel The Priest of Frey sees its protagonist expelled from his lands for having been so foolish as to spare Hrafnkel’s life earlier). The saga depicts Iceland’s transition from one to another. Iceland as a society lacked executive government, meting out punishment through exile, ostracism and private compensation; something that became more complex with the introduction of christianity. One consequence of this is that the saga depicts character with unusual complexity (the concept of the individual being essentially inapplicable for the majority of other medieval texts where personality is seen in relation to religious and social categories). Gudrun is depicted against both a christian scheme of private sin and repentance and a pagan scheme of moral attrition and atonement where guilt is shared and negotiated (not unlike Aeschylus and The Oresteia).

Engel’s The Condition of the Working Class in England struck me as vacillating between a number of opposed concepts; between a desire to both prevent ("it is high time too, for the English middle-class to make some concessions to the working men who no longer plead but threaten; for in a short time it may be too late") and to spark a revolution to end the class structure ("the revolution must come; it is already too late to bring about a peaceful solution"), between an idealised account of earlier more pastoral social structures (speaking of its ‘idyllic simplicity;’ "leading a righteous and peaceful life in all piety and probity; and their material position was far better than that of their successors.") and a view that their destruction was an advance towards the creation of communist society ("in a well-ordered society such things could only be a source of rejoicing; in a war of all against all, individuals seize the benefits for themselves."), even celebrating the creation of an internal proletariat and the deadening of national characteristics in the English working class. To a large extent, Engels is both awed and horrified by London, observing that "I know nothing more imposing than the view which the Thames offers…all this is so vast, so impressive that a man cannot collect himself, but is lost in the marvel of England’s greatness," before detailing the sacrifices required to achieve it.

Barnaby Rudge is one of only two historical novels written by Dickens and it’s interesting to observe how the constraints of a genre typified by Scott conflict with the more gothic and sensational elements that are more characteristic of Dickens. On the one hand, the historical genre demands a detailed observation of social and individual change. On the other, the gothic and sensational elements demand a more Manichean approach. As such, the narrative lacks a generic centre, perhaps due to its centre being the blank slate of Barnaby himself. In terms of social observation, Dickens frequently notes how much smaller London was at the time of the riots; "Nature was not so far removed, or hard to get at, as in these days… which turned into squalid courts." Social criticism is as present here as in any of contemporary social novels, as with the depiction of Sir John Chester’s dissipated character. However, he also condemns Sim Tappertit for his opposition to the state of urban society; "the degrading checks imposed upon them were unquestionably attributed to the innovating spirit of the times, and how they united therefore to resist change." Accordingly, the social dimension of the novel is a complex one. Equally, the gothic and sensational elements complicate this further; George Gordon and Barnaby’s father are both depicted in almost demonic terms to begin with ("prowled and skulked the metropolis at night… a spectre at their licentious feasts, something in the midst of their revelry and riot haunted and chilled him."), with the rioters also compared to devils. Innocence in the novel is no protection, either for Barnaby himself or for Miggs, the parody of his more virtuous heroines. The result is that Dickens is ambivalent in his attitude to the riots; "composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations and the worst conceivable police… stimulated by their own headlong passions, by poverty, by ignorance" The riots emerge as both something unnatural and something manufactured by society, where the commons can revenge themselves on their oppressors.

Keith Robert’s Pavane struck me as being quite odd; like many counterfactuals (such as Bring the Jubilee or even His Dark Materials; Pullman’s vision of Geneva becoming the centre of christendom being the inverse of Robert’s vision of Rome as remaining dominant in England) it is essentially whiggish, presenting a version of history where a vision of progress based on science and technology has gone awry and a vision of superstition and feudalism triumphed. It’s an odd vision that ignores the fact that capitalist economies began to thrive through the renaissance more than the reformation. Conversely, its a fantasy, crafting a land still where faeries and old gods still hold sway; the peculiarity is that such a vision fails to lend itself to the same kind of pastoralism to be found in Tolkein.

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