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.