The Drowned World

With the return of the sun after the rain, much of the countryside has taken on a strange aspect, with English woodland and fields more resembling mangrove swamps at present. I went to Oxford this weeekend, a place is always familiar to me but which usually manages to afford some surprises. For example, the science museum had some new exhbits showing the astrological and magical along with their customary arsenal of armillary spheres and ivory dials. This included a rock crystal ball suspended above a map of the planets, a Tamil magic square, Dee’s Enochian tablet, Chinese rhino horns used to protect against poison and charms from Persia. Within the Natural History Museum, I was qually captivated by a drama unfolding inside a glass display case; on a topmost branch a battle ensued between two beetles. Eventually a beetle with especially large mandibles succeeded in knocking its fellow off the branch leaving its black and yellow victim to fall to the floor (after a few seconds of it clinging onto those mandibles), from where it slowly crawled away. New College’s gargoyles were visible without leaves on the trees, revealing dung beetles, chameleons and snakes. The church of St Mary Magdalen was open, revealing an interior that seemed more Catholic than High Church. Redesigned by George Gilbert Scott, the interior would have been quite plain were it not for the effigies of Christ and the Madonna, a tiled depiction of the Madonna that looked more Iberian, incense burners and an Orthodox icon of the martyrdom of Thomas a Beckett. The church was always royalist, retaining a painting of the ‘martyred’ King Charles and defied Cromwell before proceeding through Tractarianism to its present stance of Anglo-Catholicism. Outside, its weathered tombstones were encircled by crocuses and daffodils. An exhibition was being held at Oxford Town Hall, displaying some excellent photographs of Port Meadow by Adrian Arbib and Gunilla Treen. Finally, I went to the municipal museum, and its tracing of the history of Oxford through Roman settlement, a Saxon town and defensive burh, St Frideswide, the Norman castle and the antiquarian collection of Alderman Fletcher.

The Petrie Museum in Bloomsbury has an impressive collection relating to the Roman cemeteries at Hawara such gilded plaster cartonnage heads and fayum paintings, including the painting of the ‘red youth.’ I was also struck by a set of sarcophagi, Mamluk pottery, Badarian pottery, faience shabti and votive statues. Nearby is the Percival David Foundation, with its collection of Song stoneware and Ming blue and white porcelains. I was struck by the ritual aspects of the ceramics, with white symbolising the moon, blue for heaven, red for the sun and yellow for earth, while the depiction of tigers and dragons had an equally symbolic function. I quite liked the idea of flower vases alongside incense burners for votive offerings on altars. Finally, the Grant Museum was rather reminiscent of the Pitt Rivers Museum in its wonderfully crowded aspect of skeletons and bottled specimens. Its contents included skeletons of cobras, an icthyosaur, quagga and an archaeoptrex. Other exhibits included a Thylacine skull, a hairy toad, Surinam Toad (which lays eggs under the skin on its back from where the young burst out), lampreys and pangolins. Finally, I also visited the chapel at University College Church, a gothic revival affair with angelic corbels and vivid stained glass.

Jack London’s The Iron Heel is a dystopian novel, which depicts the efforts of an American oligarchy to quell a socialist revolution. It’s an odd book, given that it attributes the evils of capitalism partly to the disconnected nature of the free market economy and partly to deliberate manipulation on the part of a plutocratic class, a conception that seems to recall a distinctly American pre-occupation with an overly powerful central government crushing grass-roots democracy. A similar example of ‘anti-American literature’ is afforded by Dreiser’s Sister Carrie a novel that emphasises the desire of its protagonist in a similar manner to how Balzac or Flaubert would, but then stresses her lack of autonomy and the inevitability of events as determined by the social context, leaving a tension between socialist criticism and a sense of destiny.

Cavafy’s poetry presents a fascinating play of different perspectives and viewpoints. Joseph Brodsky spoke of how Cavafy’s symbols and metaphors were a vehicle in themselves, lacking an object of description. The setting of his work in the classical past partly depicts a civilised world that was lost (echoing the poet’s place at the fringe of what was once the Hellenic world, recalling events like the battle of Magnesia) and with it the possibility of homosexual love (Cavafy’s erotic poems are often without a specific date but are filled with classical allusions, such as the depicting the beloved as a having come down from Olympus). Equally, he looks back at the Hellenic period as a heathen one and vests his faith in the christian church, consequently coming to despise pleasure and regard himself with self loathing. A similar ambiguity permeates his view of art; in one instance art is something fired by life ("but what profit for the life of the artist" in Their Beginning), in another it becomes something that exists either independently of life or in opposition to it. As in Ithaka experience and pleasure are held up as ends in themselves rather than as a means to creating art.

Gothic fiction tends to be both immersed in the medieval and exotic (Vathek, The Castle of Otranto) and in the modern and scientific (Frankenstein’s experiments, blood transfusions in Dracula). The two exist in an uneasy relationship; often science is a means to beat back some form of ancient horror, in other instances it is what produces it. Dark Domains by Stefan Grabinski is a particular good example of this, with his work being heavily influenced by surrealism whilst retaining something of the conservatism of the horror genre towards modernity. Grabinski tends to depict solitary protagonists who have withdrawn into their insanity (as in The Area), sometimes as a result of that isolation, sometimes as a result of contact with the modern world. The Compartment witnesses all of its protagonists repressed drives to lust and murder being unleashed by travelling on the train. Conversely, The Gravedigger is a story that could have been written at the time of Maturin, depicting arcane rites in a cemetery, while the fear of female sexuality in Szamota’s Mistress strongly bears the mark of Freud and Breton. The most representative story is Saturnin Sektor which elaborates on the persistent theme of schizophrenia, thereby expressing the dialogic stance most of Grabinksi’s stories hold towards individual insanity (The story foregrounds the theme of insanity by noting the disdain of its protagonist for normality and that he has been in an asylum) and collective derangement; "you’re desecrated the sacred mystery of duration… an example of how one mechanises life you will find me in the city in a somewhat more modern form. " In one instance, the protagonist is killed by time and its tendency to murder existence by dissecting it. In another, it is a simple case of insanity and suicide.

Reading Balzac’s The Black Sheep, I was struck by what an anti-novel it is. The form of the novel should be similar to that of Lost Illusions, Scarlet and Black or a novel like Nicholas Nickleby but instead of depicting the disjunction between self and society that Lukacs saw as central to the modern novel, Balzac instead depicts his protagonist’s raw will to power who could have been a great general but is left out of place in the world he finds himself in. Instead of a world of overlapping social relationships, Balzac instead depicts &quo t;a place where speculation and individualism are carried to the highest level, where the brutality of self interest reaches the point of cynicism." The bifurcated treatment of Philippe and Joseph is more what one might expect from the depiction of female characters split between virgin and whore.