Bread and Circuses

Bevis Marks Synagogue is the oldest site of Jewish worship in Britain, dating back to Cromwell and the reformation. I was a little surprised to be asked to wear a Kippah skull cap, not having had any such request in Prague’s synagogues, though I rather concluded that I liked it. The interior, in wood, white plaster and gold leaf is similar to Wren’s churches, just as some of the Prague synagogues took on the guise of Baroque churches. I was also able to gain access to several Wren churches; St Botolph (elaborate Victorian stained glass with stuccoed angels in line across the ceiling), St Bride’s (rather Catholic, with the eye streaming light from the altar beneath a barrel vault, suprisingly homoerotic photographic depictions of the crucifixion on the walls) and St Dunstan in the West (a gothic building, now filled with Orthodox icons). St Bride’s crypts were open and were especially intriguing, showing both the foundations of succeeding churches and cleared gravestones. Finally, St Sophia, the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, represents what Westminster Cathedral may one day come to look like, with the mosaics created by the same artist, Boris Anrep. I had been to Brompton Cemetery before but hadn’t realised that it is laid out in the plan of a basilica, albeit one with whose plans were incomplete with several chapels and bell towers never having been completed and the catacombs left largely unused. Unlike Highgate or Kensal Green, Bunhill Fields cemetery is only just outside the city of London and represents an outcast’s cemetery as much as the Jewish cemetery in Prague (which is what it most reminds me of). Containing the graves of Blake, Defoe and Bunyan as well as assorted Cromwells and Wesleys, the tombstones are packed in thickly and are mostly unostentatious, bar the weathered skull motifs found on many of the graves. I walk to St Giles Cripplegate before travelling to the Tower of London. The tower is a rather hyperreal construct, a process that began as early as the restoration when the Crown Jewels were put on display there (originally so that the king’s majesty could be touched, until one of the crowns was damaged) and wooden heads of past kings were put on display to legitimise the monarchy once more (Elizabeth had a special place alongside relics of the Armada and later the Jacobite rebellion). Another curiousity was a Venetian winged lion taken from Corfu, on display inside the White Tower. The white tower itself was only painted and gabled later, while much of the tower is a Victorian reconstruction of the original. Nontheless, what does tend to be interesting about the tower is the Chapel of St John the Evangelist or the graffiti scrawled on the walls by the likes of Arundel or by an astronomer sent to the tower by Bess of Hardwick on suspicion of sorcery. Before I leave I notice a seagull making of with meat intended for the ravens, three of whom indignantly fly in pursuit.

I go for a walk in Greenwich, beginning with St Alfege, whose interior rather reminds me of the churches in Denmark; white plaster and dark wood. Greenwich reminds me a little of Oxford; a place outside of civil society throughout history and whose confrontation with modernity has left it as a fly in amber. I go for a walk around the Naval College Chapel and the Cutty Sark before walking the Greenwich foot tunnel to east London. Here, I return to St Anne’s Limehouse and am able to see the interior. Damage due to damp was all too visible, with the elaborate blue plaster horribly disfigured and decayed. The following day is witness to a St George’s Cathedral. The building was shorn of its spire the second world war and is consequently rather drab and forgettable. leaving a marked sense of incongruity when one walks through to the beautiful interior. I then walked around the park that was formerly the grounds of the Bethelem Royal Hospital and are now adjacent to the Imperial War Museum (former site of Bedlam); within it grows the 34 native trees that colonised Britain after the ice age. Today, the grass has shrivelled and the tree’s leaves are curling and withering in the heat. London silver vaults reminded me of Highgate’s Egyptian avenue of funerary vaults; one descends downwards through a series of maze-like passages and stairwells. Upon arrival, corridors stretch off into the distance with doors on either side. Each shop is effectively a walk-in safe, with each of them selling the same kinds of candelabra and assorted ephemera. Visiting Convent Garden, I noticed the church there now has its own orthodox icon, showing the madonna, flanked by st paul and st genesius, the patron saint of actors.

The Holbein exhibition at the Tate represents the point at which art became full human and secular. Although Holbein did produce religious works they could most charitably be described as inferior imitations of renaissance painting. With most devotional work proscribed in Britain, his painting of Erasmus shows the scholar in the guise typically reserved for saints while other works are created as roundels in imitation of classical coins. Holbein pioneered painting where the subject looks directly at the viewer, so that his works acquire a peculiarly intimate quality (the subjects loom large, taking up the entire canvas). Merchants sought pictures that were true to life to send to far-fling contacts and family, thereby displacing classical and religious paintings. Elsewhere, the Tate had a painting of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun, Moorish Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I and the peculiarly surreal painting of The Cholmondeley Ladies. The later section of Blake was also especially interesting, showing Blake’s work in the context of artists between the wars who responded to his vision of a New Albion, such as Nash’s paintings of the Mansions of the Dead and the Flight of the Magnolia as well as Robin Ironside’s Daliesque paintings. Other interesting works include John Singer-Sergeant’s paintings of the Middle-East and Whistler’s surprisingly traditional Crepuscule in Flesh Colour and Green: Valparaiso , Piper’s paintings of Bath destroyed by the Luftwaffe’s Baedaeker’s raids and Rossetti’s The Annunciation. That evening I watched fireworks exploding over London, tracing patterns in the sky with sparklers and watching Millbank Tower silhouetted and Battersea Power Station being lit up by the lights.

Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul exhibits many of the same ambivalent attitudes to civilisation shown by Tacitus; the relatively civilised Gauls prove easy to conquer while the barbaric hunters of the German tribes cannot be vanquished. In a similar fashion, Thucydides records during The Pelopennesian War that the habit of dressing lavishly had been abandoned in Athens as being decadent in favour of Spartan simplicity.

Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop ends with its two protagonists fleeing from the burning shop, a moment Carter saw as being akin to the expulsion from Eden (though the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was perhaps the more obvious metaphor). However, the novel has two such Eirenic moments elsewhere (once in Melanie’s garden at home and once with Finn in the pleasure gardens) with the surfeit of symbolism consequently overwhelming precise interpretations (particularly given the question of whether Uncle Philip represents the devil or a totalitarian god in the narrative). Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight affords a similar problem. Szerb was heavily influenced by Lukacs and the idea of the problematic individual, and the novel accordingly presents a disjunction between society and the bohemian aspirations of the novel’s characters. Conversely, Szerb was also heavily influenced by Karl Kerenyi, a Jungian scholar of Greek myth Lukacs drove into exile. The character’s bohemian rebellion is accordingly expressed as thanatophilia, through doors to the underworld and an Etruscan Eurydice leading Orpheus back down to Hades for their union to take place. The two narratives barely interlock and instead proceed in parallel with one another, the notion of Marxist alienation being aborted in favour of a view of society as despiritualised.

One of the advantages of the layout of the Globe Theatre is that it affords far more possibilities than a normal confined stage arrangement. The last production of Titus Andronicus saw the action spill out of the stage and around the rest of the theatre. Confetti is hurled from the galleries down to the conquering heroes and Emperors of Rome. Bassinius is thrown into a pit into the arena, where scaffolding is errected and moved for hangings and speeches. The actors move amongst the crowds in the arena, all of which seems apposite for a play that is often concerned with bread and circuses. The play itself is an anomaly; its bleak rejection of worldly affairs has more in common with King Lear and Timon of Athens than with the other early works. Like much of Marlowe’s work, it seems well characterised by Artaud’s ideas; "The Theatre of Cruelty has been created in order to restore to the theatre a passionate and convulsive conception of life, and it is in this sense of violent rigour and extreme condensation of scenic elements that the cruelty on which it is based must be understood.

This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid." As in Artaud’s manifesto, the play uses symbolism to work with the emotions and to remove the audience from the quotidian, to attack their senses through violence and to use the grotesque (a late Bakhtinian concept that has lost its vital connection with renewal; much of the play can really only be directed as carnivalesque farce or burlesque. Hence Bloom’s comment that the play should really be directed by Mel Brooks). Whereas later works, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream carefully balance the claims of the wild greenwood and civilised Athens, Titus Andronicus lacks any such symmetry. The play opens with Titus mercilessly ordering the death of Tamora’s son in spite of her entreaties and slaying his own, creating a question mark from the outset as to whether Rome is more civilised than the barbarous Goths (throughout, I found myself reminded of Cavafy’s Waiting for the Barbarians). Later, the ascending of Tamora to becoming Rome’s Empress further blurs that distinction, as much as the use of a Goth army by Lucius to liberate Rome from a despotic ruler. Walking back along the Embankment, I notice that all the trees have had blue and white fairy lights layed over their boughs, vesting the place with an oddly ethereal feel. Two men lovingly kiss underneath the leaves.

Coetzee’s Slow Man marks an understated sequel of sorts to Elizabeth Costello, continuing in the same anti-novelistic tradition. Coetzee places the central elements of the novel in the background, whether it is narrative (events are understated, abandoning resolution in favour of the indeterminacy of life) or consciousness (the central character being essentially hollow, experiencing a series of reactions towards Marijana, none of which can be fully characterised as emotion or feeling). As a fable, Slow Man is non-existent, its protagonist gaining no
redemption, resolution or closure, simply a dying fall.

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