Churchgoing

"A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies." – Larkin

It was a delightfully misty morning today, with all the trees and hedges silvered with frost. Braving the cold, I travelled into London for the British Museum’s exhibition on the Persians. Arriving a little early, I wandered around the Great Court and some of the other exhibits, including the Sutton Hoo finds, a double headed turquoise Aztec serpent and Chinese miniature landscapes. The largest room in the exhibition was taken by a series of exhibits from Persepolis and Susa, combining original sculptures and friezes from Iran and nineteenth century casts held by the museum. The walls were lined with friezes showing the differing peoples of the Persian Empire paying tribute to Darius, as well as a frieze of faience glazed bricks showing one of the ‘Immortal’ guards (a similar style to the Ishtar gate in Babylon). This room also had one of the bull-headed columns that would have supported the roof of the Apadana at Persepolis. Most of the other exhibits were rather smaller, showing intricate gold jewellery and tableware, finishing with the Cyrus cylinder, describing the conquest of Babylon.

Derby’s Cathedral is an odd mixture of architectural styles, its tall gothic tower where peregrines nest being joined to an understated neo-classical chancel. Light effortlessly flows into the interior, causing the gold and white that covers the Baldachin and broad columns to shine. I’m not sure I don’t prefer the more enigmatic gloom of a gothic cathedral to this sunny and typically English idea of religion (Lichfield, for instance, always seems to hide so many small details that are easy to overlook, such as the Green Man carvings I saw recently at the top of columns in the Chad’s Head chapel); the one contrary aspect to the cathedral is yet another of Fyodorov’s icons, this time of Jesus.

Derby museum houses a diverse range of exhibits, the most interesting of which is the gallery of Joseph Wright paintings. These veer from Arcadian views of the Italian countryside, Mythical scenes, rustic views of the Midlands and his most famous works, showing various industrial and scientific scenes from orreries to blacksmith’s workshops (not to mention that many of his portraits are of industrialists, such as ). It’s an odd combination, which reflects the rapid changes wrought by the industrial revolution. In many respects, this is something I find rather depressing; the Midlands was a technological and economic powerhouse, the home of Lunar Men like Erasmus Darwin, Boulton and Watt. Today, most of the industries they helped to create have vanished from the region. Some pictures, showing the sea through a cave (black and turquoise) reminded me strongly of Arkhip Kuindhzi’s Moonlit Night on the Dnieper, though the rendering of the waves was not particularly well done.

Elsewhere in the museum are some smaller exhibitions on Egyptian Mummies, as well as pieces dating from the Viking occupation of the Mercian capital, Repton, including a boar’s tusk and crow’s foot from a Viking burial (offerings to Odin). I note some small orange ladybirds in a garden nearby; odd for the time of year. I call at St Wystan’s in Repton on the way back, including the crypt where the Mercian Kings were buried. The modern church is largely 15th century, but the crypt largely remains Saxon, supported by barley sugar columns. I went round a few churches in the area as well; most interesting was the church in Abbot’s Bromley, where the antlers for the horn dance are kept.

As the days passed, the snow came. Only the lightest dusting but enough to change the aspect of trees and buildings into something rich and strange (especially the sudden visibility of cobwebs on bushes). It was also enough to leave the local birds feeling rather hungry and Tits, Robins, Dunnocks, Blackbirds came to feed at the table, while Greater-Spotted Woodpeckers, Yellowhammers, Greenfinches, Bullfinches, Chaffinches, Jays and even a Tawny-Owl were seen nearby.

I’d been to Wightwick Manor before, but it’s a place I loved going to, ranking easily alongside Kelmscott Manor and Leighton House as one of my favourite places. It’s a wonderful concatenation of Victorian redbrick and hotchpotch ha lf-timer, much like Little Moreton Hall but more ornate. This time, I noticed many new details like the Phoenix and Dragon carvings by the fireplace or the Dragon and Owl carvings by the doorway. Much the same can be said of All Saint’s Church in Herefordshire, surrounded at this time of year with the dead flowers of wild Clematis and Mistletoe thriving in the bare trees. An arts & crafts building constructed around 1900, it combines an awkward miscellany of differing architectural styles; a wooden spire (above the porch rather than the chancel) and a thatched roof, with a low building carved from the pinkish local stone. The interior is whitewashed with low arches sharply pointed upwards while diamond-shaped lamps hang down. The effect of this is oddly art-deco but most of the interior is emphatically different; the altar is flanked by two Burne-Jones tapestries while the window frames are patterned with ribbonwork designs.

I watched the two most famous Frankenstein films at a recent video evening; the Universal film (starring Edward Van Sloan and Dwight Frye) and the Hammer film (starring Lee and Cushing), with the customarily interesting reception differences. In the Universal Film, Frankenstein is both a hero redeemed by his love for Elizabeth into destroying the monster and the insane criminal that created it (similarly, the monster is both mistreated and simply a vicious animal that can do no other); two separate endings were filmed that reflected this difference, one where he dies as a punishment and another (the one we saw) where he is allowed to marry Elizabeth. Conversely, the Hammer film shows Frankenstein as a ruthless sociopath who keeps the monster chained up and treats it like an animal; the violence that follows is largely his own doing. One thing both films have in common is that although they depict his work as unnatural and immoral, they both suggest that it would have been eminently feasible for the experiment to have gone perfectly had events taken different course; not an idea in the original novel and one that the Hammer sequel, Revenge of Frankenstein, used to excellent effect, depicting Frankenstein much more sympathetically as someone essentially undone by events.

Brokeback Mountain originally fitted into a collection of stories, dealing with the harshness of life against the American landscape, Proulx’s narratives are concerned with the quasi-mystical connection between man and the landscape (especially contained in the romanticised image of the cowboy) in the first instance and the hardness of life in impoverished and conformist rural communities in the second. The original context weaved homosexuality as a single thread within a larger pattern. Once it becomes the pattern in the film, the result seems somewhat unsettling; homosexuality is foregrounded as something aberrant from its setting but is still treated in similar terms to the way Proulx wrote the other stories.

Proulx describes the story thus "It is a love story. It has been called both universal and specific, and I think that’s true. It’s an old, old story. We’ve heard this story a million times; we just haven’t heard it quite with this cast." To some extent, this could apply to Madame Bovary or Anna Karenin but more than any other, it reminded me of Hardy and The Return of the Native or even Wharton and Ethan Frome. The mountain displaces Egdon Heath while Jack and Ennis play the same roles as Eustacia and Damon. In both cases, fate is something ineluctable and changing social mores are not to be conceived of; class and environment are paramount. By contrast, gay writers have tended to present matters differently. To take Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room or White’s A Boy’s Own Story, the narrative typically has its protagonist abandoning his rural background in favour of the city (or Europe, in Baldwin’s case), with the liberation that follows from that being balanced by their sense of internalised homophobia. Sexual identity is a sufficient case in its own right and other issues are more easily transcended, dealing as these books do with middle-class life (though Baldwin did later write novels that took considerations like class and race into account). In Proulx the question of a gay identity is surprisingly absent (Jack and Ennis lacking any vocabulary to describe it) and questions of class are at least as important.

As such, it’s not surprising that there has been some ambivalence over the political implications of the film. On the one hand, the film takes an icon of American masculinity and subverts it; on the other it predicates the audience’s acceptance of the characters on their masculinity, (whereas femininity would have been more subversive), their lack of a sexual identity and their status as victims. Accordingly, the film chooses to dwell on Ennis as the lead character, too unimaginative and bound by the internalised homophobia bequeathed to him by his father to be able to consider breaking free of it. By contrast, Jack is less constrained, and is able to imagine the possibility of another life with Ennis or at the very least furtive escapism over the Mexican border (which revealingly represents the film’s only portrayal of the urban gay lifestyle). While Jack’s death is certainly eminently plausible (the parallel with the Matthew Shepherd murder being introduced in the film) it does nonetheless come over as a form of judgement on him for daring to imagine too much.

Radio 3 has been broadcasting Bach continuously, including the Toccata and Fugue as played on the organ and the violin (the latter being suggested to be the instrument the piece was originally composed for). Having previously heard Stokowski’s orchestral arrangement and Grainger’s piano arrangement, I was a little surprised by the violin arrangement. At some points, it sounded rather thin (lacking the reverberation produced by an organ and therefore simply falling silent), in others the sweetness of the sound did seem to lend the piece a different aspect. On the whole though, I’m not convinced.

Pamuk’s The White Castle uses the format of a picaresque adventure in the manner of Rasselas or Candide, but is rather more detached from its allegorical aims (the castle of the title simply represents something unattainable). Pamuk treats phenomena as a matter of differance, where, lacking any attainable noumenal aspect (the ending mentions "some infinite-point in the emptiness… some non-existent focal point"), phenomena acquire an undifferentiated character, which only become distinct through interpretation (that of the Sultan, for example); "I began to believe that my personality had split off from me and united with Hoja’s."

Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary presents a disorientating set of viewpoints, between theism and atheism, treatise and satire, philosophy and polemic. Somewhat surprisingly, the clearest parallel to it is Swift’s Tale of a Tub. Voltaire’s style is essentially deconstructive and parasitic upon the discourses he dismantles, leaving the question of his own viewpoint largely elided. On the one hand, religion is described as leading to violence while even the taboos on such matters as cannibalism are dissected (though not those on homosexuality or anti-semitism, where it is uncertain as to whether Voltaire’s prejudice is theological or racial). On the other, Chinese philosophy and Quakerism are praised for their record on toleration, as he distinguishes between dogma, superstition and morality, between artificial and natural religion. Instead, he repeatedly emphasises the limits of human knowledge, stating that the purpose of the Dictionary is to ask questions; "he concluded that beauty is decidedly relative; in the same way that which is decent in Japan is indecent in Rome, and what is fashionable in Paris is not so in Peking."

Zola’s La Bete Humaine presents, like Crime and Punishment and Bleak House, an early instance of the detective novel (anticipating the role trains were to play in Agatha Christie’s fiction in particular). Where much of Zola’s fiction deals with the extent of environmental and genetic influences, La Bete Humaine heavily weights matters in favour of the genetic; unlike many of his other novels, much of this is set in rural environments, while none of his characters are compelled to kill for financial reasons; "but wild beasts are still wild beasts, and however much they go inventing still better machines, there will be wild beasts underneath just the same." To a large extent, this seems surprising; this period of urbanisation and industrialisation gave birth to modern policing, the idea of the panopticon and the idea of the detective novel. Indeed, Zola’s withering portrayal of police ineptitude more resembles those of Wilkie Collins than Dostoevsky; the biological basis for Jacques’ distemper is not one that is susceptible to the normal techniques employed by society (which instead chooses to preserve itself at a time of unrest by covering the matter up). Instead, the interest of the novel is with the portrayal of Jacques. Where Raskolnikov’s crime is motivated by material concerns and forms the nexus point for a set of metaphysical concerns, this is only true to a limited extent for Jacques, who more resembles the protagonist of American Psycho; "at certain times he could clearly feel this hereditary taint… at such times he lost all control of himself and just obeyed his muscles, the wild beast inside him." Jacques is both unable to control his instincts and aware of them from afar, caught between Zola’s materialism and a more metaphysical portrayal.

A Year in Thoreau’s Journal and Walden offer a contradictory picture of their author, Most obviously, Thoreau’s view of science is not dissimilar to that of Blake but he meticulously documents the botany of Concord while citing Linnaeus, Humboldt and Darwin. Equally, there is considerable ambiguity as to whether his eremitic existence is a product of misanthropy or mysticism (what we might now consider either a counter-culture lifestyle); "I go through the fields endeavouring to recover my tone and sanity & to perceive truly and simply again…a fatal coarseness is the result of mixing in the trivial affairs of men. Though I have been associating even with the select men of this.. I feel inexpressibly begrimed." However, Thoreau is rarely consistent, elsewhere observing that "what recommends commerce to me is its enterprise and bravery." When Thoreau refused to pay taxes as a gesture of civil disobedience regarding the Mexican war, he explained it as "men with pursue him and paw him with their dirty institutions and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd fellow society." In part, such narratives seem the product of social resistance in part of rugged individualism; his view that "the best government (is) where the inhabitants are least often reminded of the government" is after all as much a product of American suspicion of central government as it is of romanticism.

The tendency with Thoreau is to aestheticise social questions, often seeing poverty through the lens of his own asceticism; "my greatest skill has been to want but little… I have since learned that trade curses everything it handles." For example, when hearing a factory bell, Thoreau’s tendency isn’t to imagine toil but to envisage matins in a spiritual community of holy knights; "of what significance are charity and alms houses? That they live unmolested.. a certain wealth of nature not poverty it suggests. Not to identify health and contentment.. with the possession of this world’s goods." When looking at said workers (his reactions to Irish labourers in particular are rather reminiscent of Carlyle), his typical reaction is one of snobbishness; "the filthiness of his house… I am reminded there are all degrees of barbarism even in this so-called civilised community." But equally, this leads him to call for the state to educate such citizens to ‘refine and civilise’ them (a curiously Whiggish conceit for Thoreau). Conversely, at the other end of the social spectrum he writes that "give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth. Farmers are respectable to me and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor – poor farmers." In spite of the railways and telegraph Thoreau invariably attempts to see the country as being isolated from its social and economic aspects.

Umberto Eco’s How to Travel with a Salmon presents a number of differing versions of irony, from the clearly ironic assertions of the ludicrous in place of the commonplace (advice on how to smuggle bodies through customs) to sly insinuations of oblique views to displace the commonplace (creating a chain of reason to demonstrate that such hated devices as faxes and mobile phones could only be the preserve of the common and vulgar). Rather than clear exercises in irony and satire, his object is more to show the slippery relation of signifier and signified, often dwelling on sign systems such as road signs and instruction manuals.

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