Oxoniensis

The week back after Paris is Oxford Open Doors weekend which accordingly offers little opportunity for relaxation. I start off at Hertford College, with its Blois inspired staircase, before visiting the Union for the first time in over a decade, with its Burne Jones decorated library. I also visit Lady Margaret Hall, with its Byzantine chapel designed by Gilvert Scott and St John the Evangelist, a Bodley designed church just down the road from where I used to live. The rich decoration of the interior with its Kempe stained glass rather contrasts with how empty it is. The following day I go on a tour of the former prison (now a hotel) before visiting Rhodes House. The exterior is decorated with images of Elephants, Sphinxes, Zimbabwee birds and pyramids but the interior is spartan, filled with memorials to Rhodes scholars who died in world wars. I then visit the library at St John’s St Edmund Hall; again, rather odd to return to a place I had once spent so much time. I recalled much of the detail correctly; the layout, the desks but not elements like the monuments, ceiling or stained glass, which would now be the first things I’d look at.

A few weeks later and it’s the Open House in London. I start off with Freemason’s Hall; a work of Stalinist brutalism on the exterior proves to contain an opulent art deco interior; stained glass windows, mosaic floors and frescoed ceilings. I then head southwards for a tour of Lambeth Palace, including the library with its hammer beamed roof the guardroom with its paintings of past Archbishops (Laud’s painting being accompanied by the remains of his pet tortoise) and the chapel. I then spend a bit of time in Brompton Cemetery. The bracken and dried grass is high and the sound of crickets can be heard in the background. Conkers fall from the trees. Squirrels scamper about in the autumnal sun carrying nuts in their mouths. Holly berries are ripening while the ivy has turned a deep crimson. I’m pleased to see the Courtoy mausoleum, which had suffered bad frost damage when I had last visited, has been repaired. I also visit Greenwich and the restored Cutty Sark. It looks rather odd now sat on a glass and steel cushion and while the view of the ship’s golden prow from beneath is impressive, I rather conclude that the Great Britain in Bristol has been rather better conserved. I do rather like the collection of ship’s figureheads though.

Towards the middle of October, the sun continues to shine as the leaves brown and fall. One weekend, I decide to visit Old Basing. I walk beneath a Victorian railway viaduct and alongside the rover Itchen, which is full and clear but with no fish. Arriving, the Tudor tithe barn is the only complete part of the original estate and is a wonderful, vast, cathedral like building. The house itself is but a ruin; at the time of my visit, there were a number of civil war re-enacters there. Rosehips are flowering in the hedgerows and I see a jay in the trees. Finally, I visit the nearby church, whose interior is rather stark, with only one monument.

Reading Ibsen’s plays, I’m struck by the contrast between a writer similar to Shaw in exposing the hypocrisies and inequities of the bourgeoisie and a more modernist writer who instead documents perverse and destructive impulses (the sort of Freudian mythology that predated Freud). The Pillars of the Community is a perfect illustration of the former tendency, in depicting a community built on repression and hypocrisy. The play insists that truth is the only acceptable response to such a foundation but in Ibsen’s other plays this particular recommendation proves entirely destructive. A play like A Public Enemy is more pessimistic, suggesting that society will typically prefer falsehood to truth and do all it can to suppress it; but it also opens the door on the suggestion that those who wish to discard society’s lies are often driven by selfish and perverse impulses. A play like the Wild Duck adheres even more closely to Freud’s suggestion in Civilisation and its Discontents that repression is an essential building block of society, given that Gregers pursuit of truth only results in pain and destruction. Similar patterns emerge in his other plays; The Lady from the Sea and When We Dead Wake contrasts nature and civilisation. Nature is represented in the former by the sea with its sense of fascination for Ellida. Her eventual choice of domestic life is predicated on greater openness and Wangel’s equal treatment of her. By contrast, in When We Dead Wake nature as represented by the mountains symbolises the lure of the animal life for Maia in contrast to the deathly life of art offered by Rubek. A Doll’s House suggests that the subordination of women carves out a path that leads only to hypocrisy, with the solution being greater equality. In Hedda Gabler, Hedda too yearns for a sphere of greater freedom but her instincts tend towards the destructive, leaving it unclear whether society has deformed her or whether her destructive nature is hers alone.

In some sense, similar patterns recur in Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. The custom in question is that of American marriages; "the average American looks down on his wife…How much does he let her share in the real business of life? How much does he rely on her judgement… why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t have enough interest in them. " In this hypothesis, American women lead a gilded existence in which they demand to be kept in a luxury whose means of production they are entirely abstracted from. Having nothing else to occupy them, those demands are all that their existence amounts to. Certainly, throughout the novel Undine’s ignorance of such matters leads her into a series of errors, in which she mistakes aristocratic grandeur for genuine wealth. However, equally, Ralph is clearly an exception to this rule, but his desire to save Undine from the mercenary aspects of New York life are confounded by her own wishes; his failure is not due to lack of interest. Similarly, if European man take more interest in their wives, such interest does nothing to salvage Undine’s marriage to Raymond, leaving it open whether Undine is a "monstrously perfect result of the system" or whether she is simply more representative of the wider greed of American life. The main thing that occurs to me from reading the Pages From the Goncourt Journals is also about women and how the brothers were utterly alienated from any. Their existence revolved around a series of society soirees that were almost exclusively populated by men. The only two exceptions in the decades spanned by the journal are the Princess and George Sand; otherwise the only means by which they encounter any women is through prostitution. Their attitudes towards women are accordingly a mixture of fear and contempt. The other aspect of their lives that comes through particularly strongly is how a set of writers given to naturalistic depiction of the lower class were actually snobbishly aristocratic in their attitudes, fearing the lower classes and sneering at the middle class.

Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons expounds the themes of heredity versus environmental factors that were to become a staple of all his novels; "Heredity, like gravity, has it laws… the dual problem of temperament and environment… he was predisposed to utopian ideas by certain hereditary influences… his lonely childhood, his patchy education led to unusual developments of his natural tendencies." It also introduces some of the dichotomies inherent in his novels; although it dwells on the Rougon tendency towards greed and ambition, it also introduces the tendency towards violent zealotry that re-emerges in The Debacle; "another dream, that of compelling men to be happy by force… Liberty was his passion, an unreasoning, absolute, passion." Utopian idealism is not easy to square with the general character of the Rougons or Macquarts in the novel and it accordingly also introduces some of the anomalies that re-emerge later, as with Pascal’s very different character to his parents and brothers; "he was one of those frequent exceptions to the laws of heredity. As a race evolves, nature often produces a being whose every aspect is derived from his own creative powers." The irony in this case is that as a doctor, Pascal is precisely the one who sees everything in terms of genetics, comparing his parent’s drawing room circle to animals in his mind.

I’d wanted to read Lichtenstein’s Rodinsky’s Room for a while after visiting the old synagogue on Princelet Street in Spitalfields. The initial premise of the tale is one of singularity, with Rodinsky seen as a mysterious figure possessed of arcana kabbalistic knowledge like a figure out of Meyrink’s The Golem. As the narrative unfolds though, Rodinsky takes on a dual character, half characterised by singularity of that kind and half characterised by being representative; sufficiently ordinary as to represent an entire swathe of Jewish history in London; "as did any notion of Rodinsky’s singularity. It was clear to me.. that this story… was only one of many similar tales… make sure that David Rodinsky’s story was not being mythologised.. the different Rodinskys lived on in memory… we each see each other in a different light."

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