Eastern Promise

Eastern Promise continues Cronenberg’s move away from science fiction towards realism, with the incidents of the film set against the Thames Flood Barrier, St Luke’s Old Street and Brompton Cemetery. Nonetheless, the effect of this is essentially to contrast with the events depicted, using London’s scenery in effectively the same way the likes of 28 Weeks Later did. Characters in Shivers and eXistenZ undergo horrific transformations and those in Crash the characters embrace their own deformation. Similarly, the tattoos of the Russian mafia serve the same purpose, with the characters driven to enter that world against their better judgement. The Russian characters see London as a form of decadent infection, in spite of the sumptuous surroundings of the Russian restaurant that is the film’s principal setting and their contrast to the more prosaic world of the English characters.

Having seen one of the film’s characters having his throat slit in Brompton cemetery, I found myself there a few days later. The weather was impossibly mild for November, with the yellowed leaves slowly falling to the ground and forming a carpet on the central avenue. I found myself looking at some details I’d missed before; Minton tiling forming a headstone above a floor of unraveling white and black diamond tiles, the lily and ivy decorating one of the tombs designed by Burne-Jones. A large chunk had fallen off the imposing bulk of the Hannah Peters Mausoleum. Squirrels frantically scamper about, trying to bury nuts and seeds, usually in the flower pots left by the graves. I walk to the Embankment, where I watch a pair a ducks trying to sleep on the Thames; periodically one would realised that they were about to be beached on Cleopatra’s Needle, swim upstream and settle down again, so beginning the process anew.

I then walk to the National gallery, for its Renaissance Siena exhibition. Sienese art has been described as overshadowed by that of Florence, with the former written out of art history by the Florentine Vasari and by Florence’s conquest of Siena. In this revisionary account, Sienese art is visionary and mystical, with Mariolatry (the Virgin was the city’s patron) as its principal subject, in contrast to the naturalistic art of Florence, with its depiction of the male form and of fighting in particular. I can’t help but wonder if a better word to describe Siena’s art might not be ‘medieval’ if we think of the Renaissance as the displacement of religion and the discovery of the individual. Certainly, Siena retained many gothic influences, such as painting onto gold (and then using sgraffito to expose it as part of clothing or the beams of heaven’s rays) and was often slavish in its imitation of figures like Donatello, while the city itself was a rather enfeebled city state, wracked by internal strife, debt and threat of invasion. Some of the most powerful works here are by Raphael (The Dream of a Knight) and the Cortonese Lucca Signorelli rather than by any Sienese painter.

The exhibition opens with some classic examples of Siena’s Marian art; in San di Pietro’s The Virgin Recommends Siena to Pope Calixtus, which shows the Virgin towering over a dwarfed and distorted city. Others showing her leading the ship of state or protecting the city from earthquakes. Paintings by Pietro and Francesco di Giorgio firmly continue the gothic tradition of iconography. Renaissance influences only figure with the idealised landscape shown in Benvenuto di Giovanni’s Virgin and Child or Giorgio’s sculpture of Male Nude with a Snake. However, later works show a different and more interesting side; cassone chest paintings show scenes of seduction and classical scenes (like the Roman capture of Zenobia or the meeting of Antony and Cleopatra from the workshop of Neroccio de Landi). For a female art, much of it proves surprisingly homoerotic, as with Signorelli’s Two Nude Youths or portraits by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (nicknamed Sodoma due to being openly homosexual, keeping a bizarre menagerie of animals and claiming tax relief because it was so expensive to keep all his boys and pets.) Particularly striking are the interior scenes, where the tone is profane rather than sacred; carved wooden pilasters, frescos of classical scenes and maiolica flooring. Most impressive are the paintings by Domenico Beccafumi, with soft brushwork and an ethereal rendering of colour. Paintings of virtuous historical figures often seem quite odd; did the Tanaquil Livy denounced really seem a virtuous figure? Nor do the ruined backdrops seem to serve any particular allegorical purpose. His two most striking works are a malevolent Cupid with Venus and a bizarre depiction of the feast of Lupercalia.

Journeying to Westonbirt Arboretum, a bright sunny day is transformed into mist. The arboretum has a complete collection of Japanese Maple cultivars, whose leaves were bright burgundy, ochre, pink and bronze. Evergreen yews, pine and firs forms a backdrop to this. Several of the planted trees are new to me; Sapphire Berry (a bright azure berry), Katsura (gives off the scent of caramel), Spindle Tree (with its bright red berries), Wingnut (named for its sycamore-like seeds), Persian Ironwood (named after the explorer who rediscovered Mount Ararat, turned gold and red in autumn), Alue Atlas Weeping Cedar (with a curtain like fall of branches) and Paper Birch (whose bark turns pink-orange as the lenticels fall off). Other plants were more familiar, from Giant Redwood to Monkey Puzzle and an ancient lime coppice. I was equally impressed by the lichens growing on the tree trunks, from hairlike encrustations to something that looked like bright orange rust. One dead tree had its base covered with bracket fungi.

Reading Arthur Hugh Clough’s poems, I’m struck by the idea of a Victorian poet working in a largely discursive mode, with Dryden and Wordsworth as his principal influences for their use of the language of everyday speech. His work is not only heteroglossic but it is also dialogic, with much of it being taken up by counterpointed discussions on the death of god. Amours de Voyage has two narrators with opposed perspectives of the protagonist, with much of the narrative opposing is attitudes to christianity, Rome’s pagan past and the revolutions of 1848. Similarly, Dipsychus utilises the format of Goethe’s Faust, only to assign the role of the tempter to christianity.

Reading Mishima’s The Golden Pavilion, I’m reminded of the concept of occidentalism. A conference held in Kyoto in 1942 was devoted to the subject of how "how to overcome the modern." Modernity was associated with the West, and particularly with Western imperialism. Westernization, one of the scholars said, was like a disease that had infected the Japanese spirit. The "modern thing," said another, was a "European thing." Others believed that "Americanism" was the enemy, and that Japan should make common cause with the Europeans to defend old civilizations against the New World. There was much talk about unhealthy specialization in knowledge, which had fragmented the wholeness of Oriental spiritual culture. Science was to blame. So were capitalism, the absorption into Japanese society of modern technology, and notions of individual freedom and democracy. These had to be "overcome." All agreed that culture – that is, traditional Japanese culture – was spiritual and profound, whereas modern Western civilization was shallow, rootless, and destructive of creative power. The West, particularly the United States, was coldly mechanical, a machine civilization without spirit or soul, a place where people mixed to produce mongrel races.

Mishima’s novel exhibits many of the symptoms identified here. Mizoguchi looks at the lights of the city, the same lights Tanizaki had denounced as an unwelcome manifestation of modernity in his Praise of Shadows (Tanizaki had also praised the glimmer of gold in the dark, as with the temple here), and dubs it "the mundane world… people are being driven about under that night by evil thoughts… please let the evil that is in my heart increase.. so that it may correspond in every particular with the light before the eyes." As this quotation suggests, Mizoguchi’s response to modernity is bifurcated between embracing it as a form of nihilism (itself a profoundly un-Japanese idea; "burdened with a special individuality or sense of mission" which the novel opposes to the intoxication offered by the temple) and rejecting it outright (though even the form of asceticism offered by religion in the novel represents a form of alienation); " youth like myself came to entertain two opposing forms of power wishes… my dream of being a tyrant or great artist." The conclusion of the novel, the arson of the Golden Temple, unifies these themes in a form of immolation just as Mizoguchi’s observation produces an ecstatic state that is directed inward; "I was drenched up to the neck in the existence that was myself.. my inner being and the outer world slowly changed places" Mishima’s particular brand of masculinist homosexuality further contributes to this nihilism, with women the repeated object of dehumanisation and violence; "the same masculine evil thoughts as the others… the smell of a young man’s sweat-moistened skin that they gave off… there was an intrepid beauty about him like that of a lovely woman."

Much the same applies in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, a sort of Japanese Lord of the Flies, where Ryuji’s fall is largely predicated on his acceptance of marriage and the feminine world. Mishima’s masculinist homosexuality seems not unlike that of William Burroughs, seen as somewhere opposed to effeminancy and the perception of matriarchy and developing a cult of violence in response to it. Women and death are seen as coterminous ("her sweat and perfume fragrance reaching him on the breeze seemed to clamour for his death… are you going to give up the life that impelled you towards the pinnacle of manliness?"). With that in mind, the nihilist children are both in revolt against a Westernised society and a product of its degeneration, of modern society’s alienation.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward can be best described as a variant on the trope used by both Twain and Irving of a sleeper awakening to find himself in another time (the idea being also essentially the analogue of that depicted by Huxley in Brave New World). It depicts a decidedly bourgeois form of utopianism, by which social equality has been achieved through a process of evolution rather than through any need for a communist revolution (anarchism and communism are portrayed as essentially invidious to the cause of social progress). Bellamy seems to regard evolution in Lamarckian terms, as a form of progress ("in accordance with the principles of evolution… the next phase on the social and industrial development of humanity") achieved through sexual selection ("the principle of sexual selection, with its tendency to preserve and transmit the better types of race and let the inferior types drop out, has unhindered operation") rather than through natural selection and the survival of the fittest (Bellamy closes by denouncing how nineteenth century society created "a brutal struggle for existence"). In spite of the determinist tone taken here, Bellamy is nonetheless closer to Edward Taylor than Marx though (and closer still to Comte). Where the likes of Owen saw human nature essentially as a tabula rasa and therefore capable of being adjusted to new social conditions, Bellamy frequently uses the term ‘human nature’ to denote a fixed state, which Doctor Leete denies having altered since West’s time. Bellamy nonetheless decries the idea that "the only stable elements in human nature, on which a social system could be founded, were its worst propensities." Accordingly, Bellamy can often be quite conservative, viewing women as having a distinct and separate nature from men (""the distinct individuality of the sexes"), in spite of discarding the idea of women as either household drudges or gilded ornaments. Equally, the notion of the majority of society being employed by an ‘industrial army’ seems a harshly masculine mode of social organisation, if not unpleasantly reminiscent of the national socialist brand of utopianism (particularly as issues like race are almost entirely elided from the novel, the presence of a black servant in the nineteenth century notwithstanding).

Dostoevsky’s The Double reminds me most of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in so far as uncanny events unfold without an obvious sense of explication. Where the double is most often invoked as an example of man’s divided nature between good and evil or between expression and repression (as in The Confessions of a Justified Sinner or Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Dostoevsky instead frustrates the morality tale aspects of the narrative by placing the emphasis on Golyadkin’s status as a superfluous man, his desire for self-annihilation, his inability to preserve himself. The relationship between self and double is an almost sado-masochistic one, leaving the reader uncertain as to whether they have witnessed a morality tale or not. Tolstoy’s The Cossacks and Hadji Murat deal with a rather more conventional form of other, with the former novel defining a liminal space between three of set of groups; Russian, Cossack and Chechen. As with The Double one expects some form of fable concerning the moral progress of another superfluous man through his contact with nature and removal from the frivolities of Muscovite life. For Tolstoy, the Caucasus serves almost the same sort of function that Italy did for EM Forster or DH Lawrence. In practice though, Tolstoy’s fatalism often tends to preclude the sort of teleological development associated with characters in European novels. Something similar applies to Hadji Murat whose hero dies a death that is essentially futile and entirely contrary to the status the narrative has accorded him.

On a quite different note, I recently watched the film Thirty Days of Night, one of the more memorable contributions to the vampire genre of recent years. The vampires depicted in it are different from the suave model of Christopher Lee and instead resemble Shreck’s Count Orlok, looking both mundane and alien at the same time. Another film I saw not all that long ago is Sunshine, a film that follows similar generic principles to earlier science fiction films like Event Horizon (science arrogantly assuming the prerogative of the divine and so on) but does have some interesting variations on that theme. The character of Pinbacker sees the sun as a god and views any attempts to reignite it as desecration, although when the character of Capa does precisely that he is for instant staring into the face of god. The film seemed unsure as to whether it should be mystical or materialist.


Single Form

I began by walking through Battersea Park, a beautiful place next to the ruined towers of the power station. The park has been richly planted with cycads, banana trees, tree-ferns, pampus grass and bamboo, which provide a suitably defamiliarised setting for Hepworth and Moore sculptures. A heron looked out over one of the lakes while coots nest next to the shorelines (and an odd pochard duck, with a brown head and deep red eyes). Apparently, the park is having a duck race tomorrow. In time, I arrive at the peace pagoda, a wonderful contrast of white Portland stone, gold Buddha statues and dark Canadian fir. Crossing back into North London via the Albert bridge, I pass by Chelsea Old Church (and Hans Sloane’s tomb) and Crosby Hall before walking up to the Albert Hall. Today’s Prom consists of Wagner’s Meistersingers, Barber’s lyrical Knoxville and Prokofiev’s music for Alexander Nevsky. As a piece, it seemed to me to illustrate some of the problems with Soviet realism; though this is clearly a composer of the same period as Weill and Bartok much of the tone is nonetheless familiar with Borodin and Mussorgsky.

Following a walk to watch the Pelicans in St James Park (descendents of a gift bequeathed by the Russian Ambassador to Charles the Second) around the Jewel Tower and a visit to the top of Westminster Cathedral’s bell tower (which did rather confirm many of my prejudices about London, with the most beautiful buildings obscured by modern office buildings; Nelson’s Column was barely visible, for example), I arrived at Cadogan Hall. Formerly a church (though its tower rather resembles a minaret), it combines gothic and celtic revival designs (especially in the stained glass) with art-deco sensibilities. The interior is beautifully light and airy and I settled down in the pews for a performance of two of Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos and some pieces by Mozart showing the influence of such ‘ancient music.’ The concert, performed by the Academy of Ancient Music, was extremely pleasant before leading up to an evening performance of Janacek’s Taras Bulba, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (derived from his wartime film music) and some Sibelius (not to my taste though Pohjola’s Daughter had its moments). The following day saw more travels in London, from Temple to The Strand, before arrving at the Albert Hall for an organ recital. Mozart and Back again figured prominently, with the former represented by his Fantasy in F minor for mechanical organ. This is something of a curiosity, being written for a mechanical instrument that renders it impossible to be played as it was written (reminding me somewhat of Nyman’s sonata for six fingered hands from Gattaca); this version had been adapted. Another oddity was a quietly beautiful Shostakovtch piece from The Gadfly. A Bach chorale prelude was the foremost representative of liturgical organ music, while many of the other pieces typified its use in Romantic music, such as Glazunov’s Fantasy. However, the performance was very dominated by Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,’ combining both traditions in a piece that was originally written for an instrument that was a cross between a piano and organ.

One of the advantages of the Proms is the closeness that one has to the orchestra and conductor. When the conductor happens to be John Adams, one is left with the distinct feeling that this is what it must have been like to stand next to Wagner or Stravinsky when they conducted their own works; the comparison is perhaps a little precipitate and somewhat awe-struck, but it was nonetheless rather difficult to keep out of mind. Like Barber’s Knoxville, My Father Knew Charles Ives is a homage to smalltown America, pastiching the Ivesian style in its first part before proceeding to something closer to what we think of as minimalism. Pastiche also features in Harmonielehre, which draws on the romanticism of Mahler and Schoenberg, but draws it within the ambit of minimalism. Where the former normally has crescendos and glissandos while the latter only gradually and subtly varies its notes, Harmonielehre builds itself up to peak and simply remains there. The frenzied music simply holding itself at what should have been a point of climax reminded me oddly of the insistent thudding and Dionysiac quality of dance music. Finally, Adams’ setting of Whitman’s The Wound Dresser was especially beautiful, a poem that perfectly illustrates the gap between the homosexual and the homosocial.

The Kandinsky exhibition at the Tate proved unusual; while much modern art is centred on Western Europe, he is the only Russian representative of note. At first, the patterns in his work appear essentially chaotic, like a surrealist Rorschach test but stochastic is probably the better term as it becomes clear what the patterns represent (angels of judgement, icons, halos, crosses etc). Influenced by muscians like Wagner and Schoenberg, by ethnographic study of peasant art, like Blake, Kandinsky has constructed a private symbolic language in his work, introducing religious symbolism into an otherwise abstract form in an attempt to perceive the inscape of things (many of his paintings suggesting patterns like butterflies, birds or even musical notation). However, unlike abstract art, his work retains depth of field and perspective. Kandinsky’s opposite is the protestant, reductionist style of Modigliani, whose portraits, like those of Lempicka, are conventional in how they depict their subjects (though influenced by Cubism, he never fragmented his figures, merely distorted them). Unlike her, his work has a mask-like, impersonal, ritualistic quality to it, like the Benin bronzes. As in Byzantine art, the eyes are striking, often with the ‘windows to the soul’ blanked out, missing their pupils. Equally, they often retain a disturbing intensity, as the viewer is directly stared at.

Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk makes subtle changes to the original novella that leave one wondering if Stalin’s verdict of ‘muddle, not music’ might not have been correct. To accommodate the ill-defined idea of Soviet realism, Shostakovitch satirises and dehumanises all the characters into contemptible vermin except the heroine, Katya. But he fails to turn Katya into a rebel against bourgeois society, fails to overturn her betrayal by her working-class lover, and his tendency to satirise authority figures cannot have endeared him to the totalitarian regime. Had Katya been beated and oppressed, she could have become a tragic heroine in the way Shostakovitch appears to have intended but without that the lack of sympathy for the other characters simply leaves the text unabalanced between tragedy and satire, a combination that works for the music but not the text. The opera was preceded by a screening of Kozintzev’s film of Hamlet (where the music was written by Shostakovitch to a screenplay by Pasternak), its black and white eloquently emphasising the melancholy of the play to the same sort of effect as Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Kozintzev fills the play with fire and water imagery, placing scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the castle walls. In tragedy, fate is normally an ineluctable entity; Oedipus and Orestes have already had their destiny cast for them; it only remains for them to fulfil it. For Shakespeare, living in an age whose metaphysical certainties had been upturned by state decree, no such conviction is possible. His characters instead defy augury, dramatising their consciousness and examining their own roles. Hamlet is the overreacher, the machiavel, the fool and the wronged hero, failing to become, as Eliot had it, a clear objective correlative for the events of the play.

Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther presents an interesting dialectic between Romantic ideas of nature and rationalist ideas. Werther speaks of "my resolve to keep to Nature alone in future. Only Nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist." Nonetheless he also later reverts to a less idealised conception of nature when he writes; "Nature, which has brought forth nothing that does not destroy both its neighbour and itself." Werther’s fall is characterised by his loss of feeling for nature (though the editor speaks of Werther’s ‘natural powers’ being confounded) but it equally suggests that Nature has a dual role within the novel. When debating with Albert he defends the Romantic individual against the contempt of the mundane masses, only to be told; "a man wholly under the influence of his passions has lost his ability to think rationally,"before Albert states that suicide is simply a display of weakness where fortitude was called for.

Rather perversely, La Dame Aux Camelias reminded me of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of the Wildfell Hall, not in terms of any novel attitude towards gender but in terms of its belief that the sinner is inevitably brought back to the path of salvation, with Marguerite repeatedly being described as saint-like before her eventual martyrdom; "to any woman whose education has not imparted knowledge of goodness, god opens up two paths to it; these are suffering and love." Nonetheless, the novel denies the possibility of redemption within Marguerite’s life; she dies as surely as a sinner condemned to the fires of hell.

Thucydides’s The Pelopennesian War presents some interesting challenges to conventional views of the ancient world. Firstly, that for all of the antipathy towards Persia, the Spartans were as willing to ally themselves with Persia as they had been to ally themselves with Athens at Marathon. Secondly, that it was largely Athenian imperialism rather than Spartan militarism that led to the war.

In the case of a figure like Pythagoras it is comparatively easy to distinguish his theorems from the religious credo that were formulated to prove. In the case of Plato, whose thought uses the principles of logic in the service of a view that sees philosophy as an essentially ascetic and religious function (a means of purging onself of the corruptions of the body), the matter is not so easy. I tend to regard Plato in the same manner as I do Paul or Augustine; as a dreadful mistake. Through christianity, Plato produced a philosphical tradition that disdained empirical experimentation and observation in favour of a focus on the causes of causes (i.e. the forms), disdained the body as a prison and which distinguished itself in opposition to sophistry’s concern with descriptions of the world that meet our needs rather than conceptions of absolute truth. Socrates repeatedly scorns those who deal in paradox, viewing their arguments as being concerned with power rather than with truth, but is far from reluctant to marshall sophistical violence in his own arguments.

For example, within Euthyphyro, Socrates deconstructs good and evil into unknowable categories in order to lay blame on Euthyphyro for having laid a case against his own father for the death of a slave (an argument that leaves him open to the modern accusation that he is indifferent to the fate of anyone who was not a citizen. Conversely, in the Phaedo the claims of duty to the law and the state are absolute and transcend those of kin and friendship (equally, the product of a view that placed such emphasis on the role of the philosopher-king and none on the autonomous subject). Nonetheless, Plato regards philosophy as a process rather than a doctrine, suggesting in Phaedrus, that reading philosophy is a poor second to doing it; one can reject a conclusion, but it is much harder to reject a process of imaginative expansion.

Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation is essentially predicated on the argument that "Western man may be said to have been undergoing a massive sensory anesthesia.. with modern art functining as a form of shock therapy for both confounding and closing our senses." Rejecting the idea of naturalism, Sontag sees art as a means of conveying sensation rather than of imparting information. Her Notes on Camp advocate stylised art as a means of obectifying content. Conversely, criticism should not concern itself with content and hermeneutics but with form and the erotics of art. In practice, what this aesthetic translates into varied considerably; the objectified films of Bresson and Goddard with their lack of concern for personality on the one hand and the more convulsive work of Artaud on the other. The difficulty with her work is that she had essentially minsinterpreted the spirit of her age, which was better described in Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle as not suffering from sensory deprivation but from a veritable surfeit of images; "the ever more triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote–indeed, impose–the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating for quite different reasons," as she wrote in a later preface.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake posits a world where genetic engineering is used to root out the most aggressive aspects of human nature, creating a new species and leading to the extinction of the old. Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island follows a similar path, though Houellebecq disdain’s Atwood’s ‘ecologism,’ seeing nature as a far more resilient force than human civilisation. Instead, he is concerned with what could be called the engineering of the psyche. Houellebecq cites Peirce in identifying personality and memory, identifying language as the conduit of memory, leaving open the issue of how language can be unbiased and objective (much of the text shows the cloned ancestors of the contemporary characters writing commentaries on their predecessors and attempting to cross-reference them to establish the truth; often failing totally to understand the inherently alien emotions being expressed). His ancestor is later to cite Godel in opposition to the rather mechanistic view of the self being developed. This immediately leads to the difficulty of establishing the unbiased conditons; the central character of Daniel begins the text by complaining of being mistaken for a humanist or a progressive (he later calls himself a rightwing anarchist, although in practice, much of what he achieves throughout the text is precisely that, the sort of progress familiar from Comte and positivism). Accordingly, Daniel spends much of the text advancing a cause that will lead to the extinction of desire in the interests of gaining a form of Buddhist serenity, whiel still fiercely pursuing both love and desire. Equally, Daniel follows his discourse on Peirce by noting that much of his memory, such as why he married his first wife, has simply been erased.

The Elohminite movement depicted in the novel itself rests upon a number of internal contradictions, particularly in the way it depends on a consumer society that turns youth into a commodity that can be indefinitely preserved only for this expectation to be inevitably disappointed. Its force depends entirely on what it opposes, just as Daniel’s career depends on the sensibilities it deliberately provokes and outrages; "if the fluidification of forms of behaviour required by a developed economy was incompatible with a normative catalogue of restrained conduct, it was perfectly suited to a celebration of the will and ego". The consequence of this ambiguity is that the new species of neohumans find themselves leaving the calm of their habitations and exploring a post-nuclear wasteland inhabited by savage humans for whom the collapse of civilisation has been total and complete. The neohumans are both revolted by these creatures (the culture of the mind being impossible in a society locked into struggles for existence) while remaining unsatisfied by their own lack of will and consequent stagnation. As a species they achieve nothing and their lack of suffering effectively leaves them as an evolutionary dead-end.

Orwell’s novels often depict the fall of a cause and the hero that propounded it, as in Burmese Days and 1984. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell appears to be attempting, like Forster in Howard’s End, to write a modern Victorian novel which values ideals of discipline and humility rather than individuality or non-comformism; "Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning anymore except failure and success." Gordon’s defeat is as total as Winston’s (especially given his comments about how it is women that force men to live by the money-code) but it would strain the novel to read it in the same terms as 1984 (as much as it would read to read The Taming of the Shrew as a parable of abuse or Shylock as a tragic victim). The same depiction of the udnerworld that animates Hamsun’s Hunger simply manifests itself as petulance here. It also casts an odd light on Orwell’s socialism, with him describing it as youthful fixation when "one can’t see the hook for the stodgy bait." The character of Ravelston, is depicted as using a vaguely defined socialism as a lifestyle (where Gordon describes socialism as Huxley’s Brave New World), something he can afford but others cannot; when matters are pressed his "class instinct" simply revert.

Mark Twain’s Roughing It is a revisionist account of the American Dream, covering all aspects of the mythology of westwards migration (Indians, outlaws and gold mining, for example) through to his travels to Hawaii. However, in spite of rejecting his own misspent youth and the romanticisation of the West (instead depicting it as uncomfortable, lawless, unstable and dangerous) he remains far from immune on that score; "we are descended from desert lounging Arabs and countless ages of growth towards civilisation have failed to root out of us the nomadic instinct. We all confess to a gratified thrill at the prospect of camping out." Equally, his account of one outlaw finds him admiring his "splendid courage" and "peerless bravery." Nonetheless, Twain’s astringent brand of realism is not without its attendant problems, particularly in his depiction of the Indians; "if perchance I had been over-estimating the Red-Man, while viewing him through the moonshine of romance… left him treacherous, filthy and repulsive." Twain has no time for the idea of the noble savage but is perhaps not entirely prejudiced in this regard. His account of the Mormons often treats them in the same terms, depicting them as "ignorant, simple, of an inferior order of intellect," and perfidious in their attempts to disguise the massacre of a hundred and twenty people as the work of Indians. Conversely, he praises the disenfranchised Chinese community for their industry and diligence. Nonetheless, his travels in the wake of Captain Cook form the greatest source of interest on this score. Describing the native transition from paganism and scarifice to christianity, Twain writes "the missionaries braved a thousand privations to come and makes them permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and blissful a place Heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there." Twain appears to be somewhat affected by romantic primitivism after all, in spite of an acute awareness of the previous practice of human sacrifice and his statement that "the benefit conferred upon this people by the missionaries is so prominent, so palpable," in recognition of their ending tyranny, sacrifice and war (while noting that the native population had plummeted since the introduction of christianity). Finally, Twain makes an especially interesting comment about Captain Cook; "plain unvarnished history takes the romance out of Captain Cook’s assassination and renders a deliberate verdict of justifiable homicide." Cook is seen as both treacherous and ruthless in his dealings with the natives.

The Magic Mountain

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the expression of a society at the zenith of its prosperity and power. Paxton’s Crystal Palace was a huge iron goliath with over a million feet of glass, containing such industrial exhibits as the jacquar loom, courts depicting the history of art and architecture from ancient Egypt through the Renaissance as well as exhibits from imperial territories like India and Austrialia. Major concerts were held in the Palace’s huge arched Centre Transept, which also contained the world’s largest organ. The central transept also housed a circus and was the scene of daring feats by world famous acts such as the tightrope walker Blondin. The Crystal Palace itself was almost outshone by the park in which it stood, which contained a magnificent series of fountains (the water pumped through a set of towers designed by Brunel) and the park’s original trees.

Today, it is a rather different matter. What Mayhew described as the glass hive burned down in the thirties; all that remains are a set of empty terraces, the sort of enigma that would leave archaeologists with endless speculation. Some architecture has within it the potential for decay and ruin; the ruins of the gothic St Dunstan in the East wear their decay as if they had never been anything else, while the baroque ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars are decidedly ill at ease with their decline. The terraces of the Crystal Palace clearly fall into the former category, with headless statues gracing the steps and Sphinxes guarding the entrance way to nothingness. Based on the designs of ruined Egyptian temples, the Sphinxes seem entirely at home with their place amidst overgrown oak trees. Behind the trees, a BBC transmitter now lords it over the empty spaces of the park. A nearby lake provides a home for lillies, a family of coots with their shrill young and a heron.

One part of the exhibition was sufficiently at a distance to be spared destruction; the nearby dinosaur park, an exhibition of prehistoric reptiles and mammals, and examples of geology, spanning 350 million years of Britain’s evolution (all rather reminiscent of Conan Doyle’s lost world). The park was conceived by Richard Owen as part of the same project that led to the founding of the Natural History Museum. Amongst eminent Victorians, Owen was especially striking. Having identified a giant fossil bird from New Zealand (the Moa) from a tiny fragment of fossilized bone alone and inventing the term ‘dinosaur,’ he nonetheless became notorious for opposing the theory of evolution. Famously, he hosted an extravagant party in the belly of a reconstructed Iguanodon at the park. Recently, the park has been restored and is now planted with tree ferns and monkey puzzle trees, along with azaleas and Australian bottlebrush, making it a minor botanical garden. Water birds nest inbetween the paws of the dinosaurs and another heron guards the shore line. Infant swans and coots cluster by the side of the water in the expectation of bread. A cormorant preens itself and stretches its wings in the centre of the lake. The dinosaurs themselves are easily as impressive as the skeletons in the central hall of the Natural History Museum, albeit subject to certain inaccuracies (the placing of the Iguanodon’s thumb spike on its nose, placing of Megalosaurus on four legs or the turning of Dicynodon into a tortoise-like animal); though it should be remembered that such problems persist to this day (e.g. the discovery of feathered dinosaurs in China).

Ruskin was apparently often in the habit of journeying out from his home in Herne Hill to visit Dulwich Picture Gallery in order to reconfirm his prejudices against Baroque art and leave feeling "encouragingly disgusted." It’s difficult not to sympathise with opprobrium against a period characterised by the trivialities of Watteau and Fragonard, Italian propaganda of the Counter-Reformation or the stately but arid paintings of Gainsborough and Kneller. A post-romantic sensibility is inevitably likely to struggle somewhat with this period. Nonetheless, the gallery does contain rather more than Ruskin gave it credit for, especially its collection of Dutch paintings. From a period when Holland had formed a society that was the prototype of everything Europe was to become (liberal democratic, mercantile and tolerant), its paintings were intended for private consumption rather than for ecclesiastical display, opening a space that allowed for a new form of art. Aelbert Cuyp’s pastoral scenes were to be greatly influential on artists like Constable but were also to lead to a more proto-romantic sensibility in artists like Ruisdael (the same applyig De Velde’s maritime paintings, intended to show the trading status of the Dutch nation). Still-life and landscape became more prominent as genres, historical and allegorial paintings, less so. Rembrandt’s paintings denoted a move towards a focus on the individual and the interior life. A particularly Gerrit Dou painting shows a marked move from allegory to realism. The gallery also has a number of striking pictures in other sections; a Canaletto painting of Venice, Claude’s equally proto-romantic Arcadian scenes or Reni’s Caravaggioesque St Sebastian.

Otherwise, what is most of interest about the gallery is its status as a combined art collection and mausoleum (a form of modern Pantheon, like that of Canova, or a return to the style of cemetery originally found on the Via Appia before they were banished to necropolises outside Rome). The paintings in the gallery are effectively a form of grave good, no different to works found in Egyptian or Viking tombs. The gallery was the work of Sir John Soane and reflect an interest in funerary architecture that is also on display with his own tomb in St Pancras Cemetery and reflects his typically pagan style, placing Roman funerary urns on the outside of the mausoluem. Unhindered by practical considerations, funerary building was to prove an ideal area for architects to experiment with novel forms. Although a classicist in style (regarding himself as a latter-day Etruscan tomb-builder and brininging an Egyptian Sarcophagus of Seti into his house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields as well as a monk’s tomb, based on gothic arches from Westminster), Soane’s ideas for a funerary architecture based in gardens and parks (the Elysian necropolis) were to form the basis of the rather more gothic Victorian garden cemeteries. Previously, churchyard burial had been considered as low status in comparison to the monuments found within churches and abbeys, a shift that was encouraged by the Napoleonic wars creating a need for large martial, public monuments.

Of all the Victorian cemeteries, Brookwood comes closest to having reverted to nature. The stretches of its heathes are filled with heathers and ferns interspersed with sequoia and cedar. This wild aspect is particularly odd as it was also the most modern, with the cemetery’s railway bringing in coffins from London. In 1854, Brookwood was the largest cemetery in the world, and is accordingly filled with the customary Victorian angels and funeral urns. But it is also became home to other religions, from Swedish Evangelicals to Muslims. The Zoroastrian section is by far the most impressive though,with stone torches, Persian tiling and ornate tombs that are worthy of Highgate.

I’ve also recently been to Chelsea Physic Garden, which was founded in 1673, as the Apothecaries’ Garden, chosen for its the proximity to the Thames and for a warm microclimate that allowed the survival of many non-native plants – such as the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain, pomegranates and bananas. The area was already famed for gardens and orchards owned by the likes of Thomas More and was used as a means of growing and studying medicinal plants (though the garden also now has plants like cotton, woad and madder), evolving in time into what we would now recognise as a botanical garden (the cedar of Lebanon was first cultivated in Britain here and its heated glasshouse was the first in Europe). The garden presents its specimins through a number of taxonomies; species (the fernery), geography (North America and Madeira), type (monocotyledons or dycotyledons), usage (Belladona for optics, Valerian for sleep, Digitalis for heart convulsions, Castor Oil Plant for skin conditions as well as curiosities like Mandrake and Mandragora), history (traditional kitchen gardens and exhbitions on the work of Joseph Banks on species like Australian Bottlebrush; Banks also brought back volcanic lava from Iceland for the central fountain) and a garden of world medicine, discussing Maori, Indian and Zulu uses of plants. This last section does have a certain romanticisation of the primitive to it, particularly given that research found that the tribal use of Madagascan periwinkle to treat diabetes was wholly ineffective though the plant did have a marked effect in laying waste to white blood cells. Whereas most gardens rely on sight as the main sense to appreciate them with, flowers are less common here but a thick scent pervades the air as bees, butterflies, and dragonflies flash cut through it. A wollemi pine is on display within one of the greenhouses.

A city like Amsterdam functions as a whole, lacking the grandiose monuments of other cities but rather creating its effect through an accretion of small details. London is quite the reverse, a grey and dirty concrete city, which is nonetheless relieved by the presence of small spots of beauty. One such is St Pancras Cemetery. This was once the churchyard of a village outside London, but urban expansion drew it increasingly within the cemtery. Then came the Midlands railway, arriving by St Pancras Chambers and cut through the graveyard. The then young architect Thomas Hardy was appointed to clear it and instead of stacking the headstones in a corner or cementing them into footpaths, he gathered them round the base of a tree. The Hardy Tree remains as a testament to the dead in the cemetery, as the railway goes through its second expansion. It also retains its mythic aspect, reminding one of that other ash tree, Ygdrasil, with the headstones bearing a grisly resemblance to roots. The cemetery now is more like a park, albeit filled with the more impressive monuments remaining. Foremost amongst these is the Soane Mausoleum, a classical structure that seems to reach back to the times when St Pancras was the site of a pagan compitum rather than a place dedicated to a christian martyr. Elsewhere, the cemetery contains the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft (and it was by this that Shelley first saw Mary Godwin) and the a sundial as a memorial to Angela Burdett-Coutts (in memory of the important people who had been buried near the church, and whose graves had been disturbed by the encroachments of the Midland Railway). The church itself is largely Victorian but does contain a beautiful Blomfield reredo.

From there, I went to the city, to the church of St Giles at Cripplegate (sitting on a moated island within the impenetrable fortress of the Barbican) and to St Botolph’s Bishopgate. The churchyard there is especially noteworthy for containing one of the last Victorian Turkish Baths (though why something most likely to have been used by gay men should have been there rather puzzles me). From thence, I left the city and travelled to Westminster and to the cathedral there. This is perhaps a rather odd area, housing the Anglican Abbey, the Methodist Central Hall as well as the Roman Catholic Cathedral. Modelled on the Haghia Sophia so as not to compete with the Abbey, the Cathedral’s Byzantine design compares oddly to Pugin’s ambition to re-anglicise Catholicism by emphasising its gothic heritage, as with his church at Cheadle (particularly given the way the Cathedral dwells on English saints like Alban, Bede, Edmund, Cuthbert, Winifrid and, rather less convincingly, George, as well as martrys persecuted during and after the reformation, such as Thomas More). Much of the interior is simply blackened brick (still awaiting its mosaics; in this sense it is as incomplete as the Sagrada Familia) but with the lower areas given up to rich marbles and vividly colourful mosaics. Many of these follow Byzantine conventions but one of Boris Antrep depicted them in the style of his native Russia, against pink rather than gold. Work still contines; as I was there a mosaic was laid out on the floor waiting to be put in place in one of the side chapels. Finally, I walked to the Inigo Jones Banqueting House. To some extent this was a disappointment; the exterior had actually been redesigned by Soane whilke the introduction of murals onto the ceiling by Rubens also substantiually changes the building, preventing it from being used for masques.

The half-timbered gateway to the church of St Bartholomew the Great shows the saint wielding the knife with which he is thought to have been flayed (not inappropriately so; the feast day in his name was commemorated by Vlad Dracul impaling thirty thousand Transylvanians). Through the gate, there is an odd sight; the remains of the medieval church, a Victorian tower and heind it the modern Barbican tower. The interior is largely Norman and its blackened stones and dark transepts provide a strange contrast to the gleaming portland stone of the English baroque more commonly associated with London churches (even Southwark Cathedral’s stone is a light honey colour that seems to glow in the light). Only a set of painted monument statues relieve the darkness.

Walking past the Old Bailey and the dark tower of St Sepulchre-Without-Newgate, to Postman’s Park. St Botolph Aldergate, completed in 1791, has a late-Georgian exterior. The church is most noted for its churchyard, Postman’s Park. Filled with tree ferns and a pleasant fountain, this is nonetheless as important a representation of the Victorian interest in death as Highgate or Kensal Green. Established by the Pre-Raphaelite painter GF Watts, one park walls is lined with tiles that serve as monuments to various people that were deemed to have died heroically, typically saving others from either fire or water. As an example of heroes and hero-worship it encapsulates both a Victorian instinct for egalitarianism and for sentimentality. Onwards again, to the ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars. Like St Dunstan in the East, this church was destroyed in the blitz. Where St Dunstan’s gothic ruins are now filled with lush and exotic growths, Christchurch’s more stately baroque remains are now home to rose gardens. Walking back past St Nicholas Abbey with its boat-shaped weathervane, St Dunstans in the West, the Daily Telegraph building and Charing Cross, I arrived at the Coliseum for a performance of Nixon in China by John Adams.

As a musical style, minimalism has tended to conflate Eastern influences with more popular Western styles, like Jazz, so it is an appropriate vehicle for an opera dealing with the rapprochement of West and East. Following the Second World War, the United States had refused to recognise China, instead conferring legitimacy on the exiled government in Taiwan. Nixon’s state visit enabled the US to drive a wedge between Russia and China, and inaugurated a policy of detente that has led to China’s re-emergence as an economic power, to the point where it has become quite easy to envisage it overtaking the US itself. The opera recognises this, depicting Map as seeing the demise of all he had worked for before him and alternately lauding how ‘the pople are the heroes now’ before condemning the collective violence of the Cultural Revolution. Act four in particular, where the Nixons attend The Red Detachment of Women, an opera written by Madame Mao, shows the Nixons responding to the downtrodded heroine but repulsed by the violence used to liberate the proletariat and the ideological conformity behind it. The Nixon’s poor background is stressed against Madame Mao’s elitism, while the opera repestedly seeks to both counterpoint and undermine right/left distinctions (Nixon and Mao agree that it is only the right that can act). Since both Nixon and Mao were adept manipulators of public opinion the opera seeks to portray the private persona, frequently embodied in Pat Nixon and Chiang Ch’ing.

Thomas Mann journeyed from bourgeois conservative to liberalism and his novels trace a not dissimilar path from from the social realism of Buddenbrooks to the symbolism of The Magic Mountain. Like Joyce in Ulysses, Mann has the real world of a sanatorium in the Alps shadowed by the mythic, with his protagonist entering the underworld in the same manner as Orpheus, Dante, Aeneas and Odysseus. Nonetheless, the novel often slips between realism and symbolism (most obviously with the depiction of a seance where Hans meets his dead cousin Joachim, meeting the dead literally rather than figuratively). The sanatorium represents something akin to Wagner’s Venusberg or Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, with the death instinct displacing love. However, the symbolism is uncertain; firstly symbols like the lindenbaum form an unclear objective correlative (not unlike Kafka in this respect, the tree of life is a symbol of death, resurrection, life the transcending of time into an epiphany). The mountain itself is revealed as a Freudian symbol by Dr Krokowski; "whoever recognises a symptom of organic disease as an effect of the conscious soul-life of forbidden and hystericised emotions recognises the creative force of the psychical within the material – a force which one is inclined to claim as a second source of magic phenomena." Krokowski sees disease as a physical manifestation of the psychic, forming the magic as much as references to Nietzsche’s Zauberberg. Ilness, in Sontagian terms is clearly a metaphor but although she saw the novel as storehouse of the early-twentieth century metaphorical thinking, the nature of that metaphor remains elusive (tubercolisis clearly represents more than romantic wasting) but the wider implications In Memories, Dreams and Reflections , Jung saw mountains as symbolic of life, writing that "this is it, my world, the real world, the secret, where there are no teachers, no schools, no unanswerable questions, where one can be without having to ask anything." The inversion of the mountain and the underworld, life and death suggests how unstable symbols within the novel can be. Although the novel is essentially a bildungsroman, the development of Hans Castorp essentially takes place bu touching the ineffable through dreams and music.

The uncertainty of the symbolism also applies to the role of the characters in a manner that is profoundly dialogic, characteristic of the novel’s polyphony. For example, some of the Berghof’s denizens, such as Joachim, do not conform to the pattern of the symbolism and instead follow the course one would expect in a realist novel; Joachim feels trapped and imprisoned, not seduced by the Berghof, with his death being due to his escape from it. The oppositions between the differing characters can be read as being both Apollonian and Dionysian, German Culture and French Civilisation. Mann had previously emphatically endorsed Culture and the Apollonian only to later recant, but nonetheless Joachim’s military honour and steadfast obedience remain the virtues of the Germany that Mann had turned his back on ("War is necessary. Without war the world would soon go to rot"). Similar difficulties pertain to the others; Settembrini is identified with reason and humanism, the form of positivism ridiculed by Nietzsche and exposed by Naptha as being both transcendental and aristocratic. In the other instance, Naptha is identified with nihilism and romanticism, accordingly somewhat closer to Mann’s thought but nonetheless identified with the death instinct. Castorp’s dreams suggest both are a destructive force whose positions frequently cease to be stable opposites and converge. Their duel proves the point but the via media of the earthy and sensual advocate of the Dionysian and Eastern gay science condemned by Settembrini and Naptha alike, Peeperkorn proves an equally dead-end with his suicide. Since the novel repeatedly imbricates life, love and death as concepts, each philosophy (with philosophy after all being concerned with being rather than its converse) within the novel fails to offer a coherent and convincing account that could divert it from its thanatophilia.

Mann’s Doctor Faustus raises similar issues to Bernhard’s Correction in its depiction of a genius throught the mediating narration of an observer; "the highly subjectivising contrast I feel between the nature of the artist and the ordinary man…. Adrian reacted witheringly to such romantic tripe" or "all the ideas and points of view made vocal around him were present in himself." Zeitblom implicitly draws anaologies between Adrian’s descent into the irrational and that of Nazi Germany (where mythical fiction must replace debate and consensus) but the parallel is never clear, with Zeitblom also defending Adrian’s liturgical music against the charge of barbarism. Adrian grows to look increasingly christlike, spiritualised through suffering; "with it is an inversion of the temptation idea; in such a way that Faust rejects as temptation the thought of being saved." The scene with the devil raises the question of how literally to take the idea of damnation or whether to see it as a metaphor for artistic creation or for the author’s homosexuality and Adrian’s love for Rudi; "barbarism even has more grasp of theology than has a culture fallen away from cult, which even in religious has seen only culture, only the humane, never excexx, paradox, the mystic passion."

Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul is both a bildungsroman and an account of the history and architecture of his native city. Where a Western writer would typically have sought to interrelate these two themes, Pamuk alternates between them, reflecting his own preoccupation with the idea of the divided self. Pamuk writes of his childhood imagining of another Orhan living in the same city, of seeing his myriad other selves reflected in the mirror, of his father’s other life in another flat and of his dual perception of his city as its inhabitatant and under his own westernised eyes so that he comes to see it as a foreigner. The New Life depicts the idea of the transcendent as something disruptive and traumatic that causes people to fall away from their path in life and to encounter death. Pamuk writes that the novel is an unfamilar form, that rather being like Chekhov, writing of the pain and dignity of being alive "instead, like a writer from the East let me take the opportunity to tell a cautionary tale. In short, I had desired to set myself apart from others." Reality is dispersed and fractured, with characters taking on new identities from the dead and establishing new ones as doubles of the deceased; "I used to be someone else once and that someone used to desire to become me." As such, the novel casts its attempts to discern patterns and symbols (few of the characters use anything other than pseudonyms while the line between accident and design is continually unclear) into a cohesive whole through a series of characters, like Doctor Fine’s attempts to preserve collective memory in certain objects (" if that were true flea markets would be bathed in spiritual enlightenment" ) like watches. Like the angel, Fine deplores the printing press against the written word but sees the cult as both un-Turkish and un-Islamic and therefore Western. The novel constantly aspires to allegory but is always frustrated.

In the style of Lucretius, Ovid’s Metamorphoses concludes with a speech given by Pythagoras; "our souls are immortal and are ever received into new homes… everything is in a state of flux and comes into being as a transient appearance. " The Pythagoreans were known for their theory of Metempsychosis, the transference of souls between man and animal and between man and woman, just as Ovid depicts characters being transmogrified between species and gender. Distinguishing between the material and immaterial, many of Ovid’s characters, like Aeneas, Caesar and Heracles, have their mortality burnt away, leaving their divinity. The poet himself concludes by saying that his poetry will perform a similar service for himself; "with my better part, I shall soar, undying." It’s easy to see why Ovid was often read as a christian allegorist (or even Pound’s "Say that I consider the writings of Confucius and Ovid’s Metamorphoses the only safe guides in religion"). This dialectic between the material and immaterial is nonetheless rather problematic for Ovid, leaving the relation between the two rather uncertain; in some cases the deaths that lead to change are those of maligned innocents, in others they are punishments for crimes. The story of Arachne summarises this ambiguity, with Athena weaving a pattern of mortals guilty of hubris and Arachne depicting mortals wronged by the gods.

Daniel Defoe’s A tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain is effectively the product of homo economicus; "we saw no idle hands here, but every man busie on the main affair of life, that is to say, getting money." The tour details the trade, commerce and condition of each part of the country (or in the case of Scotland, discussing its lack of trade, industry and discipline), often pausing to look at other matters but largely refusing to "meddle with the antique." Nonetheless, Defoe devotes much of his description of London in particular to lamenting the uncontrolled sprawl of the city, predicting economic collapse (occasionally citing the South Sea Bubble), decrying the mediocrity of the city’s church architecture and calling for Whitehall Palace to be rebuilt in such a form as to rival Versailles.

With the return of the Proms, I once more found myself walking across Kensington Gardens to the Royal Albert Hall for the third part of the Ring cycle, Siegfried. In some senses, this continues the anti-capitalist romanticisation of the feudal past that underpins much of the ring; the love of gold destroys Mime while Siegfried is the authentic noble savage, untainted by society. Conversely, there is also something alarmingly feral about his status as ubermensch warrior, with his slaying of Fafnir being precipitate at best. This throws an interesting light upon the ‘sleeping beauty’ sequence with Brunnhilde, where he is emasculated by his sense of fear in her presence and she is feminised by the destruction of her armour; both experience love as weakness rather than as a civilisation of their wildness.

Jarrold and Dore’s London: A Pilgrimage is structured much in the manner of a Dickens or Thackeray novel covering both the highs and lows of London society. Jarrold is quite striking when he describes life in nineteenth century London as a constant struggle for survival with each and every man fixed on commerce as his sole aim. Nonetheless, even after describing the rookeries around Westminster, his account lovingly lingers on society dinners and events before concluding with an somewhat inapposite peroration on the excellence of British charity and philanthrophy.


I had hoped to see the exhibits of the Carlsberg Glyptotek in the Copenhagen gallery that normally houses them (if nothing else because the prospect of a gallery and museum that has its own heated palmhouse seems more than a little striking), but since that is shut for renovation for several years, the current exhibition at the Royal Academy makes a reasonable substitute. The exhibition certainly makes clear that it is the product of the vagaries of a family of private collectors, consisting of Danish and French painting and ancient sculpture. The Egyptian exhibits are rather fine, including an impressive seated statue of Anubis and a bust of Pharoah Amenemhat the third. Rather memorably, it eschews the typically stylised nature of Egyptian art in favour of a more naturalistic style, emphasising the Pharoah’s rather sharply defined cheekbones. The Roman exhibits covered a variety of periods and geographies, the most unusual being the Palmyran exhibits, showing many of the conventional aspects of Roman sculpture (e.g. couples with linked hands) are combined with Asiatic dresses and even camels. Of the native Roman exhibits, I was especially struck by a sarcophagus showing ships at sail; the waves are filled with dolphins and one man is drowning; very Musee des Beaux Arts. Other impressive exhibits here included a rather adorable red marble hippo from the Gardens of Sallust, and some statues of three of the Muses from the Sabine hills.

Nineteenth century Danish painting proves to have had a rather agreeable penchant for landscape and ruins. Much of this can be accounted for with paintings within Denmark, like Lundbye’s painting of Zealand (a somewhat Constableseque affair, enlivened by a burial tumulus on the hill and what looks like a stone circle in the foreground) and Lake Arre or Kobke and Skovgaard’s paintings of Frederiksberg Castle. But like many other European painters of the same period, the ancient world looms large, as with Rorbye’s painting of the Tower of the Winds and Cypresses by the Baths of Diocletian, Hansen’s painting of Rome, Naples and Vesuvius. By contrast, the French painting tends to be impressionist, heavily weighted towards Degas, Cezanne, Lautrec, Courbet and Manet (whose The Absinthe drinker, I especially liked). Most interesting here were paintings by Monet (a dark and unusually realist piece showing smoke stacks along a Dutch canal, counterpointing a more turquoise typical seascape) and Sisley. However, the highlight was clearly Gauguin, with paintings of Frederiksberg woods and Ostvald windmill showing his early realist style, and his later riotously colourful paintings of Tahiti. Of especial interest was a wood carving, recasting the narrative of the fall in Tahiti.

I then went for a walk, past Fortnum & Mason’s clock with its automata appearing on the hour (a rather odd contrast to the Horologe in Prague), a market at St James Church, the Athenaeum and the Haymarket theatre, before emerging in Trafalgar where a group of pigeons were holding a sit-in against the London Mayor. Finally, I went to the National Portrait Gallery to looks around the Victorian and Modern wing. It’s interesting to note that the museum inadvertently traces the decline of the court painter, so that the likes of Holbein are gradually replaced with Millais painting Gladstone and Disraeli or Singer Sergeant painting Balfour. In the modern area, it was especially good to see Brigid Marlin‘s portrait of JG Ballard alongside Graham Greene and Phillip’s painting of Iris Murdoch.

Run Lola Run has a peculiar mix of chaos theory and free will; the slightest change in events has wildly different repercussions (along the lines of the flapping of the butterfly’s wings), but the action is rerun until it produces an outcome satisfactory to Lola. The changes each time seem essentially unpredictable, but there is an order in how the lives of each of the characters proves to overlap, as well as in how Lola seems to retain a distant memory of how the events had previously been played out. In contrast to the wasted and conventional lives of her parents (The film shares Goodbye Lenin!‘s anti-materialism; Lola’s mother is the only point in the film never to change, more wrapped up in television than in events around her), Lola’s actions reinvent reality, as much as her travels take her through an impossible Berlin that barely corresponds to the actual geography of the city and stitches together East and West, crossing the formerly restricted Oberbaumbrucke.

The Motorcycle Diaries seem an oddly empty film, just as after his death Che Guevara became an oddly empty symbol of rebellion. Much of the film is taken up simply with the cinematography of the South American landscape and lacks any specific ideology other than a broad protest against social injustice and some more specific sympathy for indigenist causes. With the actor playing Guevara’s Hollywood looks, the motorbike (more Brando than Lenin), the rock & roll soundtrack (more Jagger than Castro) and incongruously American metaphor of the road (more Kerouac than Marx), Guevara becomes the perfect rebel without a cause. Ironically, given the criticism of how a sisterhood of nuns run a leper colony in the film, one of the most powerful images in the film, that of Che’s body wracked by his asthma, is arguably an icon of Catholic martyrdom (communism may have officially been atheist, but it hardly seems unreasonable to characterise it as a religious movement in its own right). It is, in short, the perfect film was a post-ideological age that believes that everything communism said about capitalism, as was everything capitalism said about communism.

On the other hand, it’s difficult not to suspect that the film represents something noted by the likes of Martin Amis, Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum; a tendency to excuse the horrors of communism where one would do nothing of the kind for other ideologies (It’s somewhat difficult to imagine a film that lovingly depicted the coming of age of an idealistic Hitler or Franco.). I am reminded of a quote Lessing attributes to Koestler in the Golden Notebook, that it was only possible to continue to cleave to the idea of communism out of a personal mythology, as a form of denial. Having read Arenas’s Before Night Falls, and his descriptions of Che’s labour camps I find it difficult to witness the mythologisation of Che. Certainly, the sole indication of the later Che (the Commandante of the Cuban labour camps) in the film is a scene at Machu Picchu where he dismisses democratic change in favour of armed insurrection. Nonetheless, I have to admit that it’s difficult not to respond to the sense of injustice in the film, to the idealism, to the beautiful South American landscape. By contrast, Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education (also starring Gael Garcia Bernal) is oddly reminiscent of what Hitchcock might have made of Death in Venice; the same confused identities feature for both Directors, with the glacial blondes being replaced with dark latin men.

Meteorology, it seems to me, can be considered as a form of aesthetics (nature as a form of art; typical romanticism). During fog the most familiar of objects become rich and strange. Most obviously, the brick church steeple I can see from my window, rising through the trees. Reduced to a faint sliver of darkness ("Annihilating all that’s made / To a grey thought in a grey shade. "), the denial of the usual detail grants it an otherwise unknown air of the unheimlich. Equally, the loss of colour in the trees as they become simply shades of grey, between which the difference is in degrees of colour rather than kind, seems to change the depth perception. Later, the sky grew more and more overcast until it rained, and it rained more and more until the rain became almost a solid wall of water. The level ground all around turned into a fast flowing river that had to be waded through and the thunder was deafening. One especially striking morning saw rime frost covering the ground all around, a light mist in the air and a grey sky; but a ferocious crimson sun staining the sky pink, like Homer’s metaphor of dawn’s rosy fingers.

As ever, Autumn is my favourite time of year and the golds, burgundies and crimson of the leaves at this time are something I can never tire of. There are few things as wonderful as walking through piles of crisp leaves as the wind causes others to swirl in the air around you. Accordingly, Wayland’s Smithy is rather fine at this time of year; the funeral barrow is at the centre of a copse of beech trees that have turned to a yellowed shade of brown. Whereas the Kennet barrow can be seen for miles around, one simply happens across Wayland’s Smithy. I noticed that someone had left some flowers and a note for a lost son on a tree stump amidst the beech mast. Uffington is more austere at the best of times and today (with the wind howling and walls of rain descending) the landscape in the distance seemed to dissolve into the bleached white sky, leaving the hill with its bare scalloped slopes (cut during the last ice age) against the tide of nothingness. Since the Uffington white horse can only be seen properly from the sky the most striking thing is Dragon Hill. Like Silbury Hill, this can be easily recognised as an artificial structure; like the stuffed animals in Bernhard’s Correction these things impress because they are neither nature nor art.

Nearby is Ashdown Manor. This tall building is designed in a pure Dutch style, with hipped roof, dormer windows and a peculiar round glasshouse surmounted with a cupola and finial. Lacking any attached wings, the building towers over the surrounding landscape; in the seventeenth century lanes would have radiated from it at each of the four points of the compass, cutting across a square of domesticated parkland. The geometrical precision with which nature is subordinated, especially in the elegant curves of the parterre garden, has something to it that is at least as ritualistic to it as the Uffington horse. Today, the landscape is sparse downland, with sarsen stones embedded throughout the fields in front of the house and inkcap mushrooms growing between them.

I felt that Alan Hollinghust should have won the Booker Prize with The Folding Star ten years ago, so I was pleased to see that The Line of Beauty has won it this year. Firstly, on account of the sexual politics involved and secondly, because it is a social novel. Possibly, I’m becoming a new puritan ("In the name of clarity, we recognise the importance of temporal linearity and eschew flashbacks, dual temporal narratives and foreshadowing… We recognise that published works are also historical documents. As fragments of our time, all our texts are dated and set in the present day."), but the recent vogue for postmodernist, historical and speculative fiction (typically revolving around a somewhat superficial attempt to instantiate a rather limited set of metaphysical ideas) has become more than a little tiresome. Meals cooked recently: Javanese curry and Nasi Goreng (a form of spiced Indonesian paella), Mexican chicken with pineapple rice.

Marco Polo’s Travels are rather more odd than their later English counterpart, Hakluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries. Whether Hakluyt’s compilation divides the world between noble savages and barbarians, Polo is more nuanced, typically cataloguing the wealth of other states in true mercantile fashion. The wealth and technology of the nations visited by Polo is typically more advanced than Europe (as with the Yuan dynasty postal system, paper money or the great canal; oddly enough, coal and stone bridges seem to fall into the same category while Polo neglected to observe either the Great Wall or printing). Polo is especially impressed with the city of Kinsai (City of Heaven), seeing its lakes, lagoons and bridges as being like Venice; it is easy to see where Calvino got the ideas for Invisible Cities. However, the narrative is far from lacking in ethnocentricism (for instance in the description of Christian Abyssinia’s attack on Islamic Aden), often recounting miracles by which Eastern christians were preserved against the Saracen. However, the narrative is also a romance, and the sensationalisation of the east often interferes with this, as with the descriptions of the magical powers of the Brahmins and Buddhist monks, leading to the Khan’s comments; "You see that the Christians who live in these parts are so ignorant that they accomplish nothing and are powerless. And you see that these idolaters (Buddhists) so whatever they will" Polo attributes such magical powers as refilling cups without touching them to the devil (certainly such things remind one of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus), but his descriptions of Buddhism and Hinduism are remarkably sympathetic, seeing Buddha as the equal of a christian saint.

Tanizaki’s The Key presents the text that has no more connection with naturalism than the Bunraku theatre of Some Prefer Nettles, being composed of a dual narrative taken from two diaries, the authors of which frequently elide information or include misleading detail. But it is more interesting than either Some Prefer Nettles or In Praise of Shadows in that it breaks down the binary division they established between oriental and occidental social norms; "In the old days a woman simply obeyed her husband’s wishes, not matter how indecent or disgusting.. I’d begun to understand that making him jealous was the way to make him happy – that was the duty of a model wife."

Maupassant’s Bel-Ami is largely cast in the form of critique of a nouveau riche overreacher, criticising Duroy’s both racism and chauvinism, his sense of emasculation stemming from the women he uses to progress his career. However, this moral fable is one that exists in spite of the death of god, "there are some people who really do suffer. And he felt a sudden anger against the cruelty of nature… these people at least thought that someone cared about them in heaven.. In heaven? Where’s that?"Norbert de Varenne’s complaint of the futility of things substitutes a form of hedonism for morality in much the same way as that of Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray; "no doubt the truth is that we were born to live more materialistically and less spiritually; but through too much thought we’ve created a discrepancy between our overdeveloped intelligence and the unchanging conditions of our life.".

Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is set in a period where Jacobinism threatens to overturn the established aristocratic order, and his novel correspondingly pulled between romance, picaresque and the more modern novels that followed. The romance elements of melodrama, the heroic quest romance for self discovery, aristocratic dramatis personae ("That commonplace does not rise to the height of ours") and almost courtly love are certainly present, so too are the more novelistic elements of character development and the depiction of characters in terms of their social interrelation, as with Eliot and Dickens. In terms of the picaresque, events frequently occur by accident (Fabrizio’s exploits at Waterloo or the death of Giletti) or through a fortune beyond the control of the protagonists. Equally, causality pertains as much as in Dickens or Balzac, with the difference that the characters rarely seem aware of the implications of the actions. The resulting combination of accident with the crossed wills of the characters tends to recall Hardy as much as Defoe.

Astrology is a particularly difficult area for the novel; "inoculated him with unlimited confidence in the signs by which the future may be foretold… my imagination took upon itself to give them meaning and the most romantic one possible." As such. events frequently occur as if predestined by the heavens (as with Father Blanes’s predictions or Clelia’s prediction of her son’s divinely ordained death), but the narration is distanced from the events it depicts and is consistently counterpointed to them; "she did not make that moral reflection that which could not have escaped a woman brought up in one of the Northern religions which allow self examination… That religion deprives men of the ability to reflect on unusual matters and particularly forbids self examination as the most heinous of sins;" Parma is persistently seen as a land governed by an arbitrary and unpredictable despotism (and therefore lacking the social stability that is a precondition for the realist novel) and whose inhabitants are governed by uncontrolled emotions ("Fabrizio was one of those unfortunate people who are tormented by their own imagination; this is a fairly common fault of men of intelligence in Italy") that they are unable to reflect upon. Much of religion is satirised throughout the novel, as with Fabrizio’s use of the preaching as a means to see Clelia.

In Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist Italy emerges in the similar terms for Stendhal as it later figured for Forster and Lawrence. Describing himself as a liberal who despised other liberals, Stendhal’s loathing of aristocratic privilege was only matched by his loathing of the crass mercantilism that was replacing it, something he saw prefigured in England, where all society has been subordinated to the cash nexus. By contrast; "How ridiculous it is for the English worker to have to labour for eighteen hours. The poor Italian in his ragged clothes is much closer to happiness."

Reading Twain’s contemporaneous The Gilded Age alongside Maupassant was especially interesting. Twain departs to a large extent from the individualist conventions of American fiction in favour of something that does resemble a European social novel, examining each social strata through a broad cast of characters. However, there are differences. For example, Twain notes that a conventional novel would resolve the question of Laura’s parentage, using it as means of demonstrating the interconnection of all parts of the social fabric (as with Esther in Bleak House), equally failing to provide a moral fable in the verdict of Laura’s trial (often interrupting the narrative to make these gaps between artifice and nature clear in a surprisingly postmodern way). Maupassant depicts a society where social advancement is predicated on exploitation, counterpointed to the simple life of the peasantry. To some extent, Twain shares this, describing that "they were honest and straightforward, and their virtuous ways command respect" but also tends to see poverty as a form of injury to a greater extent, as with Colonel Sellers’ turnip feast. Conversely, although elites are characterised as utterly corrupt, social advancement is seen in the gentler guise of a series of impractical visionaries (more like Skimpole in Bleak House).

Like Twain, Howells creates a social novel in The Rise of Silas Lapham, but the form seems hollow in comparison to its European counterparts. When Bromfield Corey notes that workers will in time dwell more and more on their poverty and become increasingly discontented, Lapham’s reaction is that a poor man is satisfied if he can make ends meet. Lapham’s fall is not attributable to anything that is deserving of censure, but instead to his unnecessary guilt over ousting Rogers from his partnership and "(if) he had looked after the insurance of his property as carefully as he had looked after a couple of worthless women that had no earthly claim on him, they should not be where they were now." Throughout the novel’s moral scheme is an essentially utilitarian one, where Pen’s self-sacrifice is seen as a form of "shallow sentimentality" that punishes three instead of one. In consequence, the moral fable of the novel deliberately undoes itself, with the fall into poverty having little more redemptive power than wealth had a corrupting one.

Darwin’s The Origin of Species had always struck me as typifying the Victorian emphasis on the systematic, seeing all things as interconnected as much as Dickens or Eliot. The Voyage of the Beagle shares these traits, interweaving geology, paleontology and biology, but equally presents a more problematic picture. Darwin’s observations here are equally amenable with a view based on Gould’s punctuated equilibrium model (describing both natural disasters, such as the extinction of a land snail in St Helena when its habitat was destroyed and human disasters, such as the various South American dictatorships and revolutions as well as noting how South America would once have been populated with monsters, whose extinction left only pygmies in their place) as on natural selection (as with observations on the acquired blindness of a mole). His views on the introduction of alien species are without sentiment; modern environmentalism is anachronistic here, instead he comments on the historical ironies of the reintroduction of the horse into South America after its earlier extinction, these discussion of earlier mass extinctions sitting alongside extinctions caused by the introduction of European species, with the pig replacing the peccary; "according to the principles so well laid down by Mr Lyell, few countries have undergone more dramatic changes."

Although Darwin admires the tattoos of the Tahitians and vehemently opposes slavery ("I shall never again visit a slave-country… I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of"), his views are nonetheless imperialist; it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a great power of improvement." Comparisons between native races and animals, even in the context of arguing against slavery are commonplace; "one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the lower animals could enjoy; how much more reasonably the same question could be asked with regard to these barbarians!… persecuted enough to break the spirit of the lowest animal." Darwin’s imperialism lies in his belief in the ability of colonial administration to effect an improvement in the character of the natives ("at the present day, from the progress of civilisation, there is much less warfare"), invoking Lamarckian terminology where he would have been contemptuous of it anywhere else. But elsewhere, Darwin appears to see the process in terms of natural selection. Just as he had written of how English vegetation was introduced into St Helena or how the Norway rat annihilated much of New Zealand’s fauna, he writes of how the eventual extinction of the Australian aborigines and Tahitian natives ("it was melancholy at New Zealand to hear the fine, energetic natives saying that the land was doomed to pass from their children") due in part to European diseases to which there is no immunity and in part of the extinction of the wildlife seems inevitable to him. On one particular occasion, Darwin explicitly applies the idea of natural selection to the natives in a way he is rather unlikely to have done to Europeans; "nature, by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and productions of his miserable country."

Pliny’s Letters seem rather odd, recalling some of the reservations I had about medieval literature. In that context, all ideas of character and personality were related to moral and social schemes, without the modern idea of any form of interior life. It seems much the same as Chaucer’s descriptions of his pilgrims, which almost exclusively relate them to essentially social ideas of morality. Much the same applies to Pliny, with the additional complication that (as a politician) much of the letters are a studied description of the author’s public aspect, his pietas, that of his patrons and those that received his patronage. The Letters are an attempt to display his own suitability to be a member of the ruling class and for manipulating other members of that elite to subscribe to the same moral values and patterns of behaviour which he felt to be important. More interesting perhaps are the descriptions of the other sides of Roman society, opposed to this public aspect; the slaves that killed their Master, the husband who had a centurion convicted of adultery and exiled him, but refused to banish his wife.

Much of this relates to an attempt to gain immortality through his writings, as when he writes to Tacitus saying "I believe that your histories will prove immortal: a prophecy which will surely prove correct. That is why (I frankly admit) I am anxious to appear in them" and is later unafraid of appearing boastful when his own name is recognised and set along that of Tacitus. However, this is far from problematic, as when he notes that "my idea of the truly happy man is one of who enjoys the anticipation of a good and lasting reputation… lives in the knowledge of the fame to come. Were my eyes not fixed on the reward of immortality I could be happy in an easy life." Others, such as Regulus and Pallas whose monuments are without proportion to their objects are derided as immodest, and Pliny records how "people have criticised me in your hearing for taking any opportunity for the exaggerated praise of my friends.". The negotiation on this subject, between fame and hubris, are delicate, especially when Pliny defends his friend Verginus Rufus for ordering an inscription on his tomb, instead of forbidding such things; "do you really think it shows more reticence to publish throughout the world that your memory will live on, than to record your achievement in a single place in a couple of lines?" Tacitus’s own Agricola and Germania is an equally odd text, lauding what he sees as the barbarians of Germany for their sexual morality (in contrast to Roman decadence) and both the Germans and Britons for their struggles for freedom (to some extent in contrast to Rome under Domitian). On the other hand, he derides their indolence and the primitive nature of their societies; seemingly he endorses a mid-point between barbarism and civilisation that can never be wholly satisfied by either.

Some of the most vivid aspects of Pliny’s writing are the descriptions of his villas, where each of the elements are harnessed. Water falls by each seat, while each room catches the sun at different times. Quite a different conception is at work with Derek Jarman’s Garden. Influenced by Gertrude Jekyll, it lacks any fences or hedges and is filled with the same wild flowers that grow in the shingle elsewhere at Dungeness. Stones are arranged in intricate patterns according to colour, in an imitation of Avebury. Gorse grows in a circle around a pole, which has patterns raked in the centre around it. It seems more reminiscent of the Japanese notion of shakkei, borrowed scenery, and the practice of raking gravel as a meditation exercise. But, as with the stone circles, Jarman does not fully subscribe to any notion of oneness with nature, setting rusted pieces of metals as found sculptures in his garden. Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North encapsulates this idea of oneness with nature, being distanced from an idea of a distinction between subjective and objective; "whatever such a mind sees is a flower, and whatever such a mind dreams is the moon. It is only a barbarous mind that sees other than the flower." The results of this are variable, with the poems often being rather abrupt.

As with Pliny, Suetonius is not especially interested in the psychology of imperial rule, tending not to speculate on the character development of the twelve caesars. However, he does shun a chronological narrative in favour of a more thematic approach (combining both of what we would see as the public and private), a technique that allows him to finely balance the vices and virtues of each Emperor. This doesn’t seem especially surprising, since Suetonius presumably had to approach his subjects with considerable diplomacy. On the one hand, it would have been expedient for someone at the court of Hadrian to diminish former emperors by describing the arbitrary and cruel nature of their rule. On the other, his descriptions of attempts made to restore the Republic make it equally important to describe the need for Imperial authority against instability (including that of the Emperors themselves, especially Claudius). One of the more awkward aspects of The Twelve Caesars is the role assigned to augury. Although many of the defeats and downfalls chronicled throughout are foreshadowed by various omens, there is something often rather mechanical about such things with either generals or priests offering the most convenient interpretations of decidedly ambiguous events. Equally, Tacitus seemed to view such things as barbarian superstition in the Germania, while Plutarch noted how strange it was that Marius succeeded by heeding prophecies while Octavious was destroyed through them. It all rather reminds me of a story in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, where a woman buries her son to his neck in the sand and sits nearby, wailing and lamenting in the hope that their particularly gullible rain god would take pity and cry (rain).

An interesting comparison is offered by Sei Shonagaon’s account of her life at the Imperial Court of Heian Japan, where the sense of the noumenal is very strong throughout (and as manifest as her descriptions of the phenomenal world of her nature descriptions), with Shonagon often shunning rooms and paths proclaimed to be plagued by demons and spirits and fearing the return of ghosts at festivals. Her descriptions show a court that was heavily dominated by a ritual and etiquette that barely manages to conceal her own playfulness. However, as with Pliny, there is the sense of something repressed; given her distaste of the menial and common, to the point where it breaches etiquette even to mention such things, it’s difficult not to wonder about what took place outside of the rather mannered court.


Oxford is beautiful at the moment; cow parsley and buttercups flower in the parks, accompanied by horse chestnut, rhododendrons and laburnum. I’d gone to see the Radcliffe Observatory at Green College. This is actually rather larger than the observatory at Greenwich and much more elaborate, being modelled on the Athenian Temple of the Winds (another copy of which exists at West Wycombe Park) and accordingly decorated with astrological and mythological sculpture; an excellent combination of the scientific and the artistic. The building gains from being set in the college gardens, which are rather more impressive than most of the college gardens and were originally used as physic gardens. Various herbal and poisonous plants remain but overall it is as much of a botanical garden now, with wisteria, redwood, catalpa (Indian bean tree) and goldenrain trees. The actual University Botanical Gardens are also rather fine at this time of year; the grounds were filled with irises, tree peonies, anemones and euphorbias while some of the Chinese trees (such as dove trees and Kousa dogwood) with bright blue and white blossom were especially striking. The glasshouses seemed to have similar plants to the gardens at Montjuic; many South African and Chilean plants as well as lily house. On the other hand, the didactic bent of many botanic gardens was rather too apparent in the insistence on featuring plants like papyrus, cardamom and ginger, known for their utility rather than botanical or aesthetic interest. Finally, the gardens were host to a rare plants sale, so I am now the proud owner of a cycad, a living fossil I’ve always been fascinated by.

The University Botanical Gardens also own the Harcourt arboretum. At this time of year the collection of Lebanon cedars, giant redwoods, monkey puzzle and Moroccan blue cedars is complemented by hosts of rhododendrons throughout the gardens, with everywhere being lit up with purple and red. Most of the gardens are taken up with bluebell woods filled with oak, ash and beech, but many of the glades and walks are also host to less traditional denizens; Acers and Bamboo. The grounds were patrolled by a number of peacocks (apparently indifferent to humans, if their occupation of some of the benches was anything to go by), whose beautiful plumage was perfectly balanced by their horribly shrill calls as they prowled around the irises bordering one of the ponds . Again, the gardens at Montjuic, a section was dedicated to plants from high places (Magnolias from the Himalayas, berberis from Chile and so on.

One of the Sir John Soane Museum shows many of his unexecuted designs, covering such buildings the Houses of Parliament and Royal Palaces, all apparently designed to recreate the splendour of Imperial Rome; a bridge design crosses the distance between the Thames and the Tiber. As his austere design for the Bank of England shows, Soane was very much an architect in the style of Wren, with his failed Palladian designs for London (unlike Haussmann’s Paris, Schinkel’s Berlin or even Cerda’s Barcelona) reflecting a similar intent to Gilbert Scott’s gothic design for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (or Albert Waterhouse’s design for the Strand law courts), but his own house seems more of monument to baroque fancy, a cabinet of curiosities (perhaps not entirely surprisingly; his interest in Roman ruins is a product of the romantic era as much as the enlightenment, while his taste in painting and architecture both betray an interest in the gothic).

Each room is crowded with curiosities from Rome, Egypt and Greece, but both normal and curious convex, fish-eye mirrors are used to create the illusion of space. As corridors and chambers cluster around a central courtyard, the result is much the same as Palau Guell; a confusing Escherian building where space seems to fold in on itself; Soane was greatly influenced by Piranesi and it is not hard to see the resemblance (there is even a portrait of Soane’s Bank of England reimagined as a Roman ruin). The most impressive rooms are perhaps the breakfast rooms and library; the latter painted red in imitation of Pompeii and decorated with Chinese chairs and vases, where the windows are occluded by arches and a profusion of Apulian vases. The breakfast room in No.13 is covered with a vaulted ceiling arranged in a starfish shape from each corner of the room to a domed ceiling, which is covered in the aforementioned fish-eye mirrors. The breakfast room in No.12 has a ceiling covered in with vine and flowers painted in the style of a pergola; they even spill out onto the walls. The Hogarth paintings certainly live up to their reputation; the best is probably The Election, which is worthy of Gilray, where The Rake’s Progress is perhaps more moralistic than satirical today.

The oddest thing I’ve read recently is William Bligh and Edward Christian’s The Bounty Mutiny, a collection of firsthand accounts. Any expectation that such source would permit a judgement on the events in question is largely thwarted by the text though; if ill-tempered Bligh would hardly seem to have provoked Christian with any adequate motivation for the mutiny, even on the basis of Edward Christian’s own accusations against Bligh. Most interesting was the least known part of the narrative; the anti-Rousseauist fable of the mutineers on Pitcairn Island.

Angela Carter’s Wise Children, is a picaresque novel where the carnivalesque world of music hall gives way to the more constrained world of television. With a number of intertextual references to Shakespeare’s comedies; except that here the anarchic aspects of carnival triumph. Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop is really rather impressive. While writers like Agatha Christie moved detective fiction towards a more realist strain (The Forsyte Saga with more corpses), Chrispin instead took the more playful aspects of Conan Doyle and Chesterton and produced something rather more surreal. My favourite part is a rather postmodern little paragraph where the detective, Gervase Fen, decides to pass the time by ‘making up some titles for Crispin.’

By now I have read so much Kundera that each novel begins to seem the work of someone trying to imitate a Kundera novel) represents another dialogic novel featuring Bakhtinian themes of laughter as a subversive force and folk art (whose status is more ambivalent). To a large extent the novel resembles Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, in that a set of differing narrations converges at the end, but Jaroslav’s opposed reaction to Ludvik retains a dialogic quality that staves off any simple convergence or resolution in the ending. As always with Kundera the most dialogic aspect of the novel is the comedy of errors that ensues from the character’s misperception of each other. On the one hand Ludvik states that "the virulence of his (communist) faith was alien to me." But Jaroslav sees him differently; "He had the look all communists had at the time. He looked as if he’d made a secret pact with the future and thereby acquired the right to act in its name;" the same principle applies to Ludvik’s misjudgment of Lucie and Helena’s misjudgment of Ludvik. Similarly, the character of Kostka even deconstructs much of the basis for the novel; "No great movement designed to change the world can bear to be laughed at or belittled. Mockery is a rust that corrodes all it touches." The most interesting aspect of this is the role of folk art in the novel, as it revolves around a folk ritual depicting the ride of a king. On the one hand, this is a source of collective tradition against the corrosive effects of capitalism ("We needed to purge our musical culture of the lifeless hit tune cliches that the bourgeoise had used to force-feed the people. We needed to replace them with an original and genuine art of the people."), but later as a symbol of the communist dereliction of tradition ("nothing but good old romanticism with a thin veneer of folk melody."); it is only as Ludvik ceases to see it as a symbol, as much as he sees other as symbols that it can be revived.

Much of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London is as much polemic as documentary, two genres that never seem entirely reconciled. This respective sections on Paris and London each conclude with polemical sections that cleave to socialist conventions, asserting that "there is no difference between rich and poor" anymore than there is a difference between white and black, while demonising the rich by snidely commenting of American hotel guests "perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not," essentially the inversion of the fear of the mob he had denounced previously. More strikingly, themes of false consciousness appear in the descriptions of waiters; "waiters are seldom socialists, have no effective trade union.. they are snobs and find the servile nature of their work rather congenial." However, the book has many differing views on poverty. Most obviously, Orwell contradicts his own argument on equality by observing that "and educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the great evils of enforced poverty… the man who really merits pity… faces poverty with a blank, resourceless mind." Equally, Orwell may well be sanguine as to swindling American hotel guests, but seems to dislike the same attitude when demonstrated by others, such as a communist waiter; "He had a curious, malignant spirit. He told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup.. just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie." Elsewhere, when reviewing the inhabitants of a hotel, Orwell writes that "poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees them from work," a view that seems more to romanticise poverty, casting it as a form of freedom rather than of oppression.

Given this, it hardly seems surprising that Orwell excites such divergent attitudes (For instance, the recent account of him as someone who dressed his conservatism in progressive rhetoric persistently attacking the legitimate socialist movements of his time. He blamed the poverty in Wigan on the failure of socialists and the rise of tyranny on the success of socialists. Presented with any given problem, he was more enraged by the failure of the left than by anything else), but it’s difficult to avoid wondering if it isn’t more a case of ‘all things to all men,’ since the account of poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London is such that it can easily accommodated into any number of political creeds. Orwell’s political philosophy seems as occluded as the trouble with Hamlet, to borrow TS Eliot’s description.

Another peculiarly inconsistent figure was Derek Jarman, whose Smiling in Slow Motion I have just completed. On the one hand, his vision is one of inclusion and social equality; "queer people should demand equality in all aspects of life" while decrying the fact that "lesbians and gay men have no way of sanctioning of their relationship" i.e. marriage. On the other hand, he can proclaim that "it is the assimilationists are the enemy," and celebrates the polymorphous perversity of queer, denouncing social conformity; "why does he wants us to fit into a pattern of life that is so obviously outmoded.. if this is what gay has to offer, I’m glad I’m queer." Although the term ‘gay’ is frequently used as with invective it is also often used as a mark of identity, reflecting the ambivalence of wanting equality and denouncing that with which equality is sought and wearing the red badge of the outcast with pride. For example, Jarman can relish the prospect of cathedrals being burned down; "It is a delightful outcome that the church should tear itself apart. I hope it as destructive as possible to that prison of dreams and desire. let the trumpets blast the walls of the churches till they fall into a picturesque ruin." But when he visits Durham Cathedral he finds himself holding back any invective to the clerics he meets and follows a life redolent of tradition. To some extent, it’s impossible not to be reminded of his own complaint against Wilde; "an infuriating icon for queers – the complicity with snobbery and writing less interesting than the life."


I‘ve been to Moseley Old Hall recently, a rather strange building in Staffordshire. From the outside it appears essentially Victorian, save for the twisted chimneys, knot garden, hornbeam and honeysuckle arbour and an orchard filled with cherry and quince. On the inside, it is lined with dark wooden panelling over wattle and daub construction. Similar peculiarities were in evidence at Hardwick Hall, not least the row of ash trees outside with their strange swellings amidst the branches. This building has been largely left as it was in Elizabethan times, with the occasional room that is incongruously filled with eighteenth century furniture. It is always pleasant to have a prejudice confirmed, so I was quite pleased to note that the elaborate design of the original furniture seemed much more spectacular than that of the later pieces (unfortunately most of the other original items such as wall paintings and tapestries are now all badly faded; in many respects the interior is an exercise in the poetics of decay as much as the largely glass exterior seems bold and ahead of its time). One particular item of note was the long gallery, which included an unusual painting of Elizabeth the First, her dress showing a depiction of the sea monsters Hilliard had imagined whales to resemble.

I went to Birmingham at Easter to listen to a performance of Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion at the Symphony Hall. While I like much of Bach’s works, this did rather tend towards being the kind of religious work it is difficult for an atheist to appreciate, like much of the works of Thomas Tallis or George Herbert. Looking around earlier, I discovered that the city has an interesting Church designed by Chatwin with a wooden roof and a stained glass window by Morris and Burne Jones. I’d forgotten how much impressive architecture Birmingham has, such as the town hall and cathedral in addition to the rather oppressive disused factory buildings and warehouses. More recently, many of the grimy concrete buildings for which the city is infamous have been demolished and a new centre built. This includes a strange new shopping area, consisting of a sinuous organic shape whose surface pullulates with silver hemispheres; an impressively futuristic building but one which looks incongruous at best in a rather traditional setting. During this time, I often found myself thinking of the idea of the manufacturing of tradition; though the idea of continuity of tradition embodied in the above stately homes is probably a myth, it is nonetheless a powerful one and the lack of any historical sense of time or place in Birmingham is disquieting at best.

Later, I visited the De Morgan Centre; a single room in Putney library that blazes with colour as one walks in. It includes a good selection of William De Morgan’s work including a number of tiles featuring Islamic designs and a distinctive dark blue moonlight suite. Much of the centre is taken up with Evelyn De Morgan’s work, equally characterised by vivid (possibly too vivid) colours. She has been described as a symbolist rather than a pre-raphaelite (her work is much later than that of the original Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood). Unfortunately, much of the symbolism is rather crude and seems regrettably influenced by spiritualism (I suppose it could have been worse; spiritualism left E F Benson with a morbid interest in demonic slugs). Her better work tends is devoted to classical themes, such as a portrait of Phosphorus and Hesperus; more the sort of subject matter one would expect from Simeon Solomon.

The same afternoon was devoted to the Wallace Collection. This house is decorated in typically Rococco style; red crimson and gilded walls, Sevres porcelain and Boulle marquetry furniture. I tend to have ambivalent attitudes to Rococco, since it very much seems a style designed to demonstrate wealth rather than taste. It has a certain kitsch quality to it. Beyond this, the ground floor is filled with a strange diversity of exhibits; Iznik ceramics, Venetian glass and German pewter, for example. It also has an extensive armoury of which the centrepiece is clearly the Islamic section. The Mughal and Persian shamshirs are much more ornate than any European weaponry, save perhaps those of Venice. The upper floor is more dedicated to painting, including the entirely expected horrors from the likes of Fragonard. However, it also has an excellent selection of Canaletto paintings and a good mixture of Dutch genre and maritime painting. Amongst the less well known artists, Horace Vernet’s paintings of Napoleon and the Middle East stand out. The highlight is the Great Gallery, with Velasquez’s The Lady with a Fan, Rembrandt’s Titus and, above all, Hals’ The Laughing Cavalier. This really does stand out; the facial expression is immediately individual unlike the posed expressions of most portrait painting while the elaborate symbolism of the motifs of the clothing recalls Hilliard as much as naturalistic painting.

Elsewhere in London, I spent a pleasant day in Greenwich. This seems a place quite apart from the rest of London; a leafy setting filled with Hanoverian period architecture that looks directly opposite to the Manhattanite setting of Docklands and Canary Wharf. I recall HG Wells once predicted a future where height restrictions would be abolished and it is interesting watching that come to pass. Initially, I had a look at Wren’s Royal Naval College. The banqueting hall is perhaps less impressive than it should be; the use of painting as a substitute for plasterwork (a’la trompe l’oeil) is rather transparent while the choice of colours is rather subdued (mostly browns). More promising is the opposite chapel where the later interior neo-classical design recalls Wedgewood (presumably Wren’s original design might have looked more like the gold and white rococco design of St James’s Church, rather similar to the gusto italiano interior to the nearby Royal Academy). Following this, I went on to the Queen’s house. Designed by Inigo Jones, this is an odd Jacobean version of classical architecture. Much of the painting is more of historical than aesthetic interest. That said, it does have a Canaletto painting of the Naval college, some works by Hogarth and some maritime paintings by Dutch artists such as Backhuysen and the Van De Veldes. I went on then to the Royal Observatory, with its display of camera obscura, telescopes that more closely resembled cannons and John Harrison’s timepieces (I’d been reading Eco’s The Island of the Day Before illustrated many of the themes in evidence here). Finally the Maritime Museum was of least interest, save perhaps for Prince Frederick’s barge and its gold Chinoiserie decorations. Instead of returning by rail, I took the boat back, passing under Tower bridge and past most of London’s main landmarks. Given London’s maritime history I must say that this does seem the most natural way to travel, though perhaps without the tedious commentary on luxury flat property prices I had to endure. I note that the new Norman Foster skyscraper is visible from most points of this tour; perhaps it needs to have a restaurant built on the upper floors so that we can follow the approach Maupassant took to dealing with the Eiffel tower.

A later visit saw a climb to the summit of Wren’s monument to the great fire; a tower that must have originally dominated the skyline in the same way as Nelson’s Column. Now it is hemmed with other buildings and once one has climbed to the top it becomes apparent that the same applies to other buildings such as the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange, St Paul’s and the Tower of London, all of which have been bested by taller modern buildings such as Canary Wharf; only Tower Bridge stands out as much as it would have done originally.

Conversely, where London is a cacophony of architectural styles Oxford manages to assimilate each new development, even the ziggurat of the Said Business School. While in Oxford, I went to the Ashmolean museum. I’ve often thought the Ashmolean has to be counted as one of the most impressive museums outside of London, if only due to the size of its collection of oriental exhibits., which has a large range of objects like painted silk screens, red lacquerware (as well as one lacquer casket formerly owned by Beckford), arita porcelain and a large wooden bodhisattva statue. Similarly, there is also an impressive Islamic section, featuring the customary display of Iznik ceramics and wooden arabesque patterns. The more customary historical sections, such as those of Rome and Egypt are more modest, including a well preserved statue of Athena, colourful mummy cases and an entire Nubian shrine. More impressive though, were the examples of Romano-Egyptian funeral art, the paintings made on coffin lids; the quality of painting is such that wasn’t seen again for hundreds of years. One of the diverting section was that devoted to the Tradescant collection, an original bequest to the museum that reflects the cabinet of curiosities approach to such things. I must admit to finding this ad hoc collection of Malay kris, Danish wooden tankards and Tomahawks rather more engaging from an aesthetic standpoint than the usual collection of like for like. The galleries similarly reflect a high standard; especially the selection of Dutch paintings including one Hals painting. Beyond that, the modern section has some good Pisarro paintings in a pointillist style (Les Jardin Des Tuileries) and a new gallery includes an excellent selection of Sickert paintings, an intriguingly impressionist Picasso painting (Blue Roofs) and a vivid Kandinsky painting. The pre-raphaelite section was dominated by Holman Hunt ranging from religious allegory (a painting of a priest being sheltered from the druids) to painting of London bridge and continuations of his middle-eastern paintings. As in the earlier pre-raphaelite exhibition, some of Seddon’s similar paintings were included, especially a panoramic painting of Jerusalem. In terms of the other pre-raphaelites excellent paintings by Alma-Tadema, Burne Jones (as well as an arts and crafts wardrobe decorated by him) and Millais (The Return of the Dove to the Ark) are included.

Following the interest in De Morgan, I went to Kelmscott Manor, the former home of William Morris. This is an Elizabethan house built next to river, where willows dip their branches into the water and rooks caw in the horse chestnuts. It still looks exactly like its engraving in News From Nowhere The gardens are a riot of colour, even at this time of year, with bluebells, irises, primroses and tulips in a variety of colours (scarlet, black, lilac, white and some striped red and white). The centrepiece is an ancient mulberry tree at the centre of the garden. The interior retains much of its original character, including Flemish tapestries and a considerable amount of seventeeth century furniture (considerably more ornate then the over idealised rustic simplicity of Philip Webb’s chairs). The arts and crafts tapestries, wallpaper and decoration all accordingly fit in well with their surroundings (a prelapsarian vision of history counterpointed to the reality), though it is perhaps a little surprising to discover the amount of Chinese and Burmese furniture and ceramics (including a star shape tile decorated with the first sura of the koran set in a wooden frame) in the house. Dutch imitations of Iznik pottery and an Icelandic casket were rather less surprising. Beyond that the house has several Durer engravings and Rossetti paintings; more particular portrait of Jane Morris with a gold frame against the dark blue wallpaper (the same colour as the blue silk dress Morris wears in the painting) was especially striking.

I’ve been reading Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. A review of this seems a little otiose, given the futility of deconstructing a book that deconstructs itself, but nonetheless. Although ostensibly written with one authorial persona or heteronym, the book deconstructs that notion to a large extent, with each of the subject it treats of being rewritten throughout the text. On religion, the text veers from mourning the death of god; "Never reaching union with god… always with a longing for it." and castigating atheism "to deny the existence of this intelligence, namely god, strikes me as one of those idiocies… every sound mind believes in god," whereas elsewhere it is stated that belief in god is impossible and the very concept is castigated as dangerous. Similarly, an aesthetic view of art is propounded; "Art is a substitute for acting or living…Why is art beautiful? Because it is useless" But elsewhere, advances a view of art that sees it in didactic terms, as advancing human civilisation. In some places, dreaming is described as "superior to reality," while later it states "I lack the money to be a dreamer," recasting it as a luxury, rather than a retreat from the quotidian. The text even asserts its own plurality, "I have the most conflicting opinions, the most divergent beliefs," only to deny this later, "I reread some of the pages that will form my book of random impressions..even while saying that I’m always different, I feel that I’ve always said the same thing." The result is that reading The Book of Disquiet becomes a matter of finding the figure in the carpet.

Pessoa reminded me of Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg a revisionist novel fictionalising elements of Dostoevsky’s life (an unusual concept to begin with; A Dead Man in Deptford being the only other example to come to mind). As much as The Life and Times of Michael K pastiches Kafka (it’s difficult not to use that term in a pejorative sense, and to some extent I can thinking of Bakhtin’s concept of heteroglossia) The Master of Petersburg pastiches Dostoevsky. This is in spite of the novel having a similar structure to The Life and Times of Michael K, representing a dialogic conflict between a social ingenue (Doestoevsky, with his view of anarchism as a form of nihilism at best, possession at worst) and elements of social extremism (Nechaev with his denunciation of Dostoevsky’s greed in his gambling and ignorance of the economic forces that determine existence). In his own way though, Coetzee deconstructs the idea of an authorial identity every bit as much as Pessoa. Waiting For The Barbarians presents a more idiosyncratic work, wherein the narrator wavers between dissolving the dichotomy between civilisation and barbarism (by presenting the two as part of a cycle; "civilisation entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues.. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them.") and doubting this dissolution (something epitomise by his archaeology, the preservation of the filiations of memory; "Do I really look forward to the triumph of the barbarian way; intellectual torpor.. if we were to disappear would the barbarians spend their afternoons excavating the ruins? ")

I’ve also been reading Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Science fiction often tends towards the extremes of the utopian (in this case, an extropian or transhumanist view) or the dystopian (in this case, environmentalist or religious conservative; whose language Atwood seems peculiarly close to here), with little time for the no-man’s land between that the present is invariably composed of. This book is no exception to that, following the likes of Brave New World or (perhaps more accurately) Day of the Triffids. With that in mind, it would be perfectly possible to read Oryx and Crake as a dystopian text where Crake, a Faust-figure like Nemo, Moreau or Frankenstein, pursues dangerous technologies without thought for the consequences, unintended (such as the Craker’s development of symbolic thought and religion) or otherwise (the success of the engineered virus). On the other hand, most dystopian novels, including Brave New World, 1984 and We deal with the suppression of biological imperatives rather than their alteration. But comparisons with other Atwood novels suggest otherwise. Surfacing is full of similar dystopian theories concerning an American invasion of Canada for its oil reserves, and sees its protagonist retreat from civilisation into nature (feeling a guilt at being human and expressing a desire for humanity to disappear); similarly, throughout Oryx and Crake mankind is viewed as an aggressive species that consumes resources indiscriminately (essentially, as Easter Island writ large); the Crakers represent a similar retreat to nature, allowing Crake to take on the mantle of an almost heroic figure instead. To be specific, Oryx and Crake shares the same concerns over capitalism as Surfacing but its depiction of gated communities having evolved into a corporate caste system is essentially tangential to the plot, and the overall depiction is more ambiguous since the damage is largely done by environmentalist characters rather than corporate strategy.

Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before, on the other hand, was something of a disappointment, seeming more a vehicle than a novel. More promising was VS Naipaul’s Beyond Belief, an examination of Islam considered as a colonial force in formerly non-Islamic countries. Naipaul characterises islam as a totalising ideology that isolates it adherents from both regional traditions and foreign influences, leaving those societies in an ideological vacuum with islam as the only philosophy available to them (though many of the outcomes of that seem typical of monosyllabic post-colonial societies to some extent). Although he compares the Islamic displacement of other faiths to the spread of christianity in the Roman Empire, Naipaul suggests that christianity tends more to assimilate other traditions and to allow some form of congruence. Certainly, it is possible to think of examples that might confirm this, such as the use of pagan symbolism at Christmas, but equally the history of Protestantism after the reformation hardly seems all that different from islam. Equally, Naipaul notes the Islamic assimilation of Hindu myth and suggests that islam in these societies had become less tolerant in recent times (again inviting parallels with the change from Catholicism to Protestantism). The overall impression is that a predetermined thesis has been proved, with the result that much of the picture painted is both uniform and monolithic. By way of contrast, compare Naipaul’s account to that of Orhan Pamuk; "it seemed to me that their little bursts of lawless individualism were strangely at odds with the state-imposed religious laws that dictated every other aspect of life in the city."

Junichiro Tanizaki’s Some Prefer Nettles represents an interesting continuation of the themes I discussed from In Praise of Shadows. Interestingly, where a European novel would have rendered these themes against a wider social panorama with a large cast, Tanizaki uses a narrow number of characters and suggests such wider concerns through metonym and symbol. The book suggests that Kaname’s westernisation lies at the root of his personal problems; "the tradition of woman worship in the West is a long one, and the Occidental sees in the woman he loves the figure of a Greek Goddess, the image of the Virgin Mother… to some extent every woman tries to make herself look like an American movie star." Conversely, Kaname’s emulation of his father-in-law, with his doll-like concubine, upholds a more reactionary set of Oriental norms, and Tanizaki implies that Kaname has allowed his wife too much autonomy (though conversely, the father-in-law’s concubine appears unhappy).

In terms of film, I’ve been watching Before Night Falls, Beau Travail (a film that reminds me of Apocalypse Now in that cinematography fails to act as a proxy for the interior narrative of the novel used as a source in either case) and Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amelie Poulain, a film that avoids sentimentality through its suggestion that happiness is something that must people must be cajoled or deceived into. Similarly, Delicatessen is an excellent film. Where the Americans always envisaged the post-apocalyptic future as being one of urban warfare and anarchy, the French see it more as people going quietly insane behind masks of middle-class respectability. Interesting food cooked recently: Polish sauerkraut stew, Hungarian ghoulash, Turkish bobotie, Turkish Lahmacun, Chicken Fricassee, Chicken Marengo, Lebanese spiced chicken and Coq au Vin.

The Book of Dreams

I‘ve visited the Gardens at Wisley, which, while rather more mannered and less curious than those at Kew, are certainly not without interest. This year the English autumn has been more of a New England fall, with vivid golds, reds and yellows everywhere. But these gardens were caught in that liminal moment between summer and autumn; a bonfire tree’s leaves turned flaming red, while lilac crocuses flower.

The most striking feature is a country house built in 1903 in imitation of a seventeenth century manner; a testament to the English ability to invent tradition (or to travels in hyperreality, depending on your point of view). Although the gardens have large areas dedicated to woodland and lakes, the two most striking areas for me (perhaps rather predictably) were the glasshouses (less striking than those at Kew, but with some interesting bromeliad displays) and Japanese garden (filled with slate stones amidst gravel, bamboo, Acers and bonsai juniper).

Another event was a second video evening, again showing two versions of Dracula; the first with Bela Lugosi, the second with Christopher Lee. The Lugsosi version benefits considerably from his presence and that of Dwight Frye or Edward Van Sloan, as well as some well designed sets. On the other hand, it is resolutely (brazenly, some might say) cast in the mould of melodrama and features some rather amusingly unconvincing bats and spiders (not to mention the somewhat bizarre presence of armadillos). The sequel, Dracula’s Daughter is a more staid affair, in which the eponymous heroine decides that Freudian psychoanalysis is the obvious means of curing her vampirism.

I’ve read The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza. The novel reflects Pericles striking Phidias’ statue of Athena to force it to speak; "What does it mean? What do you mean? The paper, of course, yields, no answers;" there is, quite literally, nothing outside the text. Accordingly, the novel grafts an anachronistic postmodern view of language onto ancient Greece; "words simply lead to other words, thoughts to other thoughts and the truth remains unattainable… Someone else would, with utter confidence, produce a different version, evoking different images… to another reader they might be something quite different.. images change, they’re imperfect. " Within this context, a debate on Platonic ideas ensues; each chapter of the novel uses differing phrases to build up eidetic images corresponding to the Platonic notion of ideas. These ideas would not vary for differing readers; the discovery of such a consensus would point to a discovery of a world that is rational, beautiful and just. However, the novel characterises such attempts in the mode of tragedy, with the discovery of a Bacchic cult within Athens, and the more postmodern deus ex machina of exposing the translator and his footnotes as being as much a textual construct as the other characters.

Perhaps the problem is that this conclusion is an ineluctable as that of a Greek tragedy (with the possible exception of the fact that both Heracles’ rationalism and Diagoras’ idealism are thwarted by the text). As such, while the parallels this has provoked to Pale Fire and The Name of the Rose are well earned, I am not quite as persuaded by this curiosity, which seems perhaps a little too geometric; as John Bayley argued literature perhaps needs to be a little untidy; "The conventional novel depended on our "not knowing" in life, its function being to supply the omniscience that life denies. James has now found how to turn into art the fact that in life we never find anything out. " In essence, The Athenian Murders denies its characters the omniscience it comes close to claiming for its author by proxy Philotextus. The ethos behind conceiving an author as puppet master seems opposed to the emphasis on plurality of meaning.

I’ve also been reading My Education: A Book of Dreams by WS Burroughs. It’s been described as a book of the mythology that underpins the Burroughs cannon and certainly much of what we would expect in that regard is present and correct. However, the absence of the cut-up technique changes both context and meaning; the land of the dead or post-apocalyptic landscapes are peopled with figures from his own past, and disquisitions on the possibility of immortality. Given these intimations of mortality, the novel, like Queer to some extent, provides a curiously intentional aspect to the Burroughs oeuvre.

Finally, I’ve also read Sartre’s The Reprieve (read alongside Pullman’s The Subtle knife; a disturbingly appropriate combination), The structure of this book, flitting from the stream of consciousness of one character to another leaves me oddly reminded of a Victorian novel; in the sense that Dickens and Eliot showed the interrelation of otherwise unconnected characters through the plot devices of their respective novels. Sartre does this to some extent (as with the meeting of Philippe, Mathieu and Irene) but relies on stylistic techniques to achieve a similar effect; "each dimension was an autonomous consciousness…yes, each of those consciousness, by imperceptible contacts and insensible changes, realises its existence as a cell in a gigantic and invisible corral." Where The Age of Reason retained a much more conventional bourgeois form at odds with its themes, The Reprive is more experimental. However, this should be viewed in the context of the Sartrean tension between existentialism and humanism, which is why the structure of the novel largely sees its characters remaining separate from one another, unlike in Dickens or Eliot. Accordingly, at some points Sartre tends to agree with Merleau Ponty that "Our freedom does not destroy our situation, but gears itself to it: as long as we are alive, our situation is open" and elsewhere tends towards a Marxist critique of freedom.

For example, Mathieu considers that "If I had done what I wanted, if I had once, only once, succeeded in being free – well, that would in my case have been an ugly deception, since I should merely have exercise my freedom in this false piece.. I am free for nothing." Daniel faces the same predicament; "Why can’t I be what I am… a loathsome object that does not even manage to exist." The novel is certainly dialogic on this point; is this being-for-itself or the frustration of one’s freedom. In the similar case of Philippe, we decides that he is condemned to freedom and faces his own cowardice, but his predicament is couched in the same terms as those of Daniel. The absence of a defined structure allows for a polyphonc interplay between the characters; for example, being-for-others ("I am seen therefore I am" as Daniel puts it) being represented by the unthinking conformity of a bourgeois character receiving his call-up papers, some of the female pacifist’s showing for being-for-others for the opposite reason, while Gomez’s commitment to fighting is another aspect of being-for-itself.

Hell Fire

Kew Gardens is wonderful at this time of year. The bluebells and Rhode were in flower, as was the Wisteria that formed a shady pergola, and, indeed, the vivid red and purple bromeliads within the Conservatories. One particular highlight were the enormous flowering strelitzia reginae, though sadly the lily pads in the main conservatory were rather smaller than on my last visit. On the other hand, peacocks stalked the grounds and greylag geese swam in the lake before the Palm house, its shore dominated by flowering rhubarb.

Although much of the interest in Kew is ethnographic (for instance, the traditional Japanese house and Indonesian musical instruments made out of Bamboo) or based on curiosity (the Dali sculpture behind the Palm House) my interest was more historical (for instance, Burton’s Palm houses with its heraldic statues and the classical temples scattered throughout the grounds); the contrast between the genteel eighteenth century design and the more naturalistic reinvention of the gardens by Capability Brown being particularly striking. The most fascinating buildings are William Chambers’ Pagoda (though its brickwork is a little dour, and much of the building is in need of restoration; the Chinese teahouse and Dragon House at Sanssouci are superior examples of the eighteenth century fascination for Chinoisserie), and the Chokushi Mon with its wonderful kare-sansui gravel garden and burgundy Acers. The last time I visited the place had small plots dedicated to Japanese gardens, but I recall thinking at the time that the original was best.

One of my favourite places was the elegantly patterned parterre box garden behind Kew Palace with its wrought iron pillars and gazebos (again not unlike Sanssouci) painted in blue and gold. The one part I was not especially taken with is the most modern conservatory; although its contents are fascinating, ranging from cloud forest to desert, the building itself is rather unpleasant and contains far more concrete than one would ideally wish to see.

Nearby are the Hell Fire Caves excavated by Sir Francis Dashwood; somewhat spoiled by gimmicks but the underground stream and large banqueting hall are quite impressive nonetheless. Much the same applies to Dashwood’s renovated church, build using flint in a traditional style but with an eighteenth century design. Particularly odd is the golden sphere at the top of the summit, apparently built in imitation of Venice and St Petersburg. Regarding West Wycombe Estate itself, the grounds remain dotted with classical temples and follies (albeit with tiling on the roof) while the otherwise Palladian landscape, like that of Kew, has been redesigned into a more romantic style from its rococco original. The effect is rather impressive, with the grounds being composed of quite densely grown woodland and lakes with Islands linked by bridges. It does rather create the sensation of walking in a <a href="
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/WebMedia/Images/10/NG1018/eNG1018.jpg&#8221; target=”_blank”>Claude painting Similarly, the Manor dates back to Queen Anne but had been redesigned itself in mock-grecian and rococco styles. Accordingly, the Manor shows the personality of its creator; quite literally in the case of the numerous painting of Sir Francis in various rooms., but also in the case of the flamboyant decoration. Pictures of Bacchanalian scenes vie for space with pictures of the eminently eccentric Sir Francis Dashwood in various costumes (the dining room has him dressed as the Pope while toasting Hermaphrodite, as an Ottoman Emperor and as himself). There is also a picture of Milton looking very uncomfortable at the company he keeps (i.e. the pictures of Bacchanalian orgies to either side of him).

I’ve also visited Hughendon Manor in Buckinghamshire; in truth not an especially interesting place, largely interesting because it was once owned by Disraeli. The house is essentially Georgian with some Gothic alterations; for example, intricate wooden panelling in the Gothic style; I was rather struck by a set of prints of Pottsdam, dating from the Berlin Congress. Similarly, the garden is most interesting for the collection of firs and pines started by Disraeli.

Hughendon Manor

Elsewhere, I’ve been for a rather pleasant walk alongside the Kennet and Avon canal and underneath a bridge constructed by Brunel for the Great Western Railway. I hadn’t actually noticed the plaque marking the bridge as a listed building before (the amount of graffiti, sadly, made it rather difficult to discern) but it is quite striking; two small arches on either side flank a fifth central arch which spans the canal. Although the area is rather dilapidated, the willow trees and buddleia made for reasonably pleasant scenery, while coots, swans and ducks nest nearby while vivid blue dragonflies flit around.

I’ve just finished reading Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera. Like Stoker’s Dracula it is atrociously written (in a curiously staid manner which is ill at ease with the sensationalist plot). The interest of the story largely comes from the set pieces (unlike, say, The Woman in White); the same labyrinthine caverns as in The Castle of Otranto and the same oriental decorations as in Vathek. I’m reminded of something Umberto Eco wrote in an essay on Casablanca as a form of intertextual collage; "in order to transform a work into a cult object one must be able to break, dislocate, unhinge it so one can only remember parts of it." I’ve also been reading Kipling’s Kim. What was surprisingly interesting about this is the extent to which identity is such an uncertain concept, as Kim howls his name over and over again; "letting the mind go free upon speculation as to what is called personal identity." Kim’s identity exists within a liminal space between the idea of a noble savage and the civilising European, between his Buddhist master and the great game.

Dorian by Will Self is essentially a cover version of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (not quite as Wide Sargasso Sea relates to Jane Eyre). I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about Wilde; where How the Dead Live and My Idea of Fun left me indifferent and feeling that Self was best confined to short stories, Great Apes was quite striking, a Ballardian revision of Swift and Boulle; "the idea of depicting, allegorically, the anti-naturalism of the condition of modern urban chimpunity… the distorted relation between chimp’s minds and chimp’s bodies." Similarly, in Dorian, Dorian’s chameleon like character performs a similar allegorical function (similarly Simon’s art and Henry’s novel perform a similarly postmodern role; Henry’s distortion of reality in writing is akin to his warping of Dorian; "Dorian was one of those unusual beings who make a reality out of the fictions they cannot write") "the product remains the same… the packaging remains the same…artists always create themselves to begin with." As such, Dorian is "a social chameleon, adapting himself perfectly to whatever background he finds himself standing against." or "the chameleon is the most significant of modern social types."

The ending resembles that of My Idea of Fun in calling into question the reliability of what has preceded it, Accordingly, the novel is close to magic realism, suggesting the social reality in a superficial age is largely symbolic and arbitrary, thereby explaining one odd feature of the book; the lack of social change. The book is filled with vitriolic social commentary, but there is no sense of change throughout. Conversely, the original The Picture of Dorian Gray was a fable, where sir Henry Wotton’s aestheticism is the dialogic heart of the novel, with Wotton commenting that murder contravened his aesthetic code as much as conventional moral codes. Wotton is less interesting in Dorian, resembling the cynical and self hating Lilly in How the Dead Live. The problem with this is that the novel does rather tend to become the moral fable Wilde saw too much of in The Picture of Dorian Gray, particularly with the introduction of AIDS as a theme; "the nasty moral majority saying it was all your minority fault;" Self is a (left-wing) moralist, where Wilde was an aesthete.

As a parallel to this, Derek Jarman’s film, Sebastiane (or Beau Travail for that matter) sees Sebastiane condemned because of his own repression; the problem is that be retaining the christian narrative, Jarman turns Sebastiane into a martyr.

I suspect a more interesting portrayal of what a modern Sir Henry Wotton might resemble lies in Ravelstein by Saul Bellow, a novel that could be described as depicting the process by which the establishment strengthens itself by absorbing foreign bodies. Ravelstein, a homosexual Jew (although "he despised campy homosexuality and took a very low view of gay pride." Incidentally, Dorian says exactly the same thing of Wotton) with conservative philosophical predilections, oscillates between subversion and conservatism, buying expensive suits and spilling food on them. That is not to mention vacillating between the philosophical poles of Athens and Jerusalem, and spending time in Paris inspite of disliking the ‘Anti-American’ views and relativist philosophies of its inhabitants; "a bourgeois solution in bohemian dress.. I mentioned bohemianism because we need to feel we are liberated."

Wallinger and Pitt Rivers

This weekend, a visit to the Oxford University Museum, at which Mark Wallinger is currently hosting an art exhibition by Mark Wallinger, in which two replicas of the Tardis are shown, one on the front lawn in front of a giant sequoia (a native of California, which can live for several thousand years), and another ensconced within the museum behind the skull of a Triceratops. The idea is quite ingenious; by making sure that neither Tardis is visible from where the other stands, it is never entirely possible to be certain that it has not simply moved itself.

It would certainly seem to be the case that both objects only partly derive their effect from the recognition of an familiar object in an unexpected location (although only partly so, if we recall Shada). The effect would also seem to be partly due to the sudden confrontation of the viewer with an apparently impenetrable object (of the steady stream of people looking at the Tardis, all of them attempted to open the doors), although each of its four sides has a double-door, only one of which ever opened (the four doors being an obvious absurdity, which the series only ever explored this in Castrovalva). As an ‘installation’ this is certainly a particularly intriguing example, although it seems that it might not be of interest for the reasons Wallinger thinks. Far from forming a contrast between high and low culture, the Tardis seems completely at home in the environs of the museum. The present exhibition, devoted to Lewis Caroll’s Dodo, and the theme of jumping down rabbit holes into other worlds only appears to reinforce this.

The exhibition of the arcane is perhaps rather more a speciality of the Pitt Rivers museum than the University museum. The Pitt Rivers museum is my idea of what every museum should be like, with Victorian glass cases crowding the room, even to the extent of exhibits on top of the cases. The original conception was typological; to concurrently display exhibits (such as musical instruments or carved ivory) alongside similar exhibits from differing cultures. The original conception was to trace lines of communication between cultures, a decidedly dubious conception, which appears to be largely attributable to the importance of systematisation in Victorian intellectual life. Nonetheless, the more immediate reaction to the museum today (which is required to retain the original organisation) is that of a tribute to the Victorian fascination with the arcane and the exotic than to note any scientific reason for the arrangement. Certainly, the organisation of exhibits alongside each other does elicit some rather more unusual connections than would otherwise be the case. My favourite exhibits were a Nigerian wood carving of Queen Victoria (which is quite recognisable as the lady in question, although it would seem unlikely to have won her approval), a set of carved Chinese concentric ivory spheres (it seemed somewhat unclear as to how each sphere had come to be contained within each of the others) and a bottle bequeathed to the museum in the early twentieth century – purportedly containing a witch imprisoned within.

Also visited Kew Gardens – photos in the gallery. The more interesting part of Kew is undoubtedly the Victorian glasshouses, most of which now seem to have become somewhat dilapidated. However, the plants that were planted within them have thrived; one of the most memorable images was of the original Victorian mechanisms for opening the upper windows – completely entwined by the thickened tangles of the vines.