The Square Egg and Other Sketches by Saki (1924)

Eight amusing short pieces by Hector Hugh Munro (pen name Saki) who was shot dead by a sniper while serving on the Western Front during the First World War. These last few pieces were collected and published posthumously in 1924.

The Square Egg: a badger’s eye view of the mud war in the trenches

The first few pages are a humorous description of life in the First World War trenches, whose main points can be summarised as:

  • snuffling around in the mud is like being a badger
  • though engaged in a titanic struggle against one of the greatest armies in the world, the average soldier thinks about the enemy relatively little
  • the subject which does consume the soldier’s every waking minute is the mud and how to avoid it; now the narrator knows what it’s like to be one of those animals you see at the zoo wallowing in muddy enclosures
  • he describes the nature of the many estaminets just behind the front lines, a cross between coffee houses and bars, and the way they always manage to have small children running round and getting in the way

At which point the text morphs into an anecdote about a chap he met in such an estaminet, a shifty French bloke who talked to him about eggs, specifically the way he’s noticed one of the many hens kept by his aunt lays eggs with the hint of angles. Consider how, through a programme of selective breeding, one could eventually create hens which produce only square eggs! Well, this guy claims to have done just that!! (Saki’s narrator makes wry, sardonic references under his breath).

The shifty Frenchie then explains how he had set up a thriving square-egg business but then came the war, he has been sent to the Front and his aunt is now selling his square eggs without any special consideration about keeping the breeding line secure and keeping the money she owes him. Therefore he has decided to take her to court to stop her, but the law is so expensive, monsieur. So, could Saki please lend him a small sum towards his legal fees, 80 francs should do it! The whole thing is, in other words, a scam.

This was a mildly amusing story which confirmed my sense of how many Saki’ stories are set on farms or involve farmyard animals.

Birds of the Western Front

These texts written at the Front highlight, almost exaggerate, Saki’s characteristic upper class nonchalance; everything is cast into an ironical manner which, for example, amuses itself by making elaborate and ironic comparisons. Thus, since the war began:

Rats and mice have mobilized and swarmed into the fighting line, and there has been a partial mobilization of owls, particularly barn owls, following in the wake of the mice, and making laudable efforts to thin out their numbers. What success attends their hunting one cannot estimate; there are always sufficient mice left over to populate one’s dug-out and make a parade-ground and race-course of one’s face at night.

Crows and rooks have become habituated to shellfire and machine guns. Drolly, Saki describes observing a pair of crows fighting a pair of sparrowhawks while above them the same number of English and German airplanes were fighting. Nature red in tooth and claw. He observes that magpies have been bereft of the poplar trees they used to love to nest in, and so on with further observations about buzzards, kestrels, larks and a hen-chaffinch which he noticed unaccountably hanging around a wrecked woodland, even during the most intense bombardment.

He ends with the sardonic observation that English gamekeepers as a breed believe their precious gamebirds and pheasants and whatnot must be protected from the slightest disturbance. They should come to the Western Front and learn how hardy birds are in face of even the most ruinous disruption.

The Gala Programme: an unrecorded episode in Roman history

The scene shifts abruptly from the present war, jumping back in time 2,000 years to ancient Rome.

It is the birthday of the Roman Emperor Placidus Superbus who has arrived at the Circus Maximus to enjoy the games, but just as the first entertainment is about to begin – a thrilling chariot race – hundreds of shouting women are lowered by ropes into the track and completely prevent the race taking place.

‘Who are these furies?’ the emperor demands. ‘The dreaded Suffragetae,’ his miserable Master of Ceremonies explains. The emperor has a brainwave. ‘Skip the chariot race,’ he tells the MC, ‘let’s go straight to part two, the combat of wild animals.’ And so a horde of beasts are let loose among the protesting women, to really very entertaining effect :).

Takes its place with the other 3 or 4 Saki stories entirely dedicated to commenting on / ridiculing the suffragettes.

The Infernal Parliament

Bavton Bidderdale (a typically Sakian preposterous name) dies, but the medical authorities contest the exact cause of death etc and so, although his soul has gone down to hell, the officials there keep it in a kind of limbo until the paperwork is sorted out.

While he’s waiting, the officials offer to show him round and suggest taking a tour of the infernal Parliament, a relatively new innovation. As he arrives the infernal Parliament is having a debate to lodge a formal complaint with the human race for describing events or activities as ‘devilish’ or ‘fiendish’ when they are, in fact, nothing of the sort, but entirely human.

Other details obviously mock contemporary parliamentary debates (and, in the final passage, mock a living playwright, possibly George Bernard Shaw) but these references are lost without some kind of annotation. You can see the comic intention but it would have more bite if included in my dream idea of an ‘Annotated Saki’.

The Achievement of the Cat

A wonderfully suave and ironical tribute to the qualities of the domestic cat:

It is, indeed, no small triumph to have combined the untrammelled liberty of primeval savagery with the luxury which only a highly developed civilization can command; to be lapped in the soft stuffs that commerce has gathered from the far ends of the world; to bask in the warmth that labour and industry have dragged from the bowels of the earth; to banquet on the dainties that wealth has bespoken for its table, and withal to be a free son of nature, a mighty hunter, a spiller of life-blood. This is the victory of the cat.

The Old Town of Pskoff

Not a story at all, but a straightforward description of how this city in west Russia, now referred to as Pskov, represents a kinder, quainter, more colourful and older Russia than the unpleasantly nouveau riche style of Petersburg. Sounds like it’s based on a real visit and the real views of Hector Munro who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, wrote a history of it.

Clovis on the Alleged Romance of Business

The last appearance of Clovis Sangrail, the witty, ironic, ‘languidly malicious’ young man who embodies key aspects of Saki’s droll, langorous, ironic humour.

This one is a short squib, a return to the format of his early Reginald ‘stories’, and amounts simply to a 2-page speech by Clovis, declaiming, fairly predictably, against the so-called Romance of business. In his view, business is deadly dull, which is why all the best adventures have been written about the young men who ran away from it:

The romance has all been the other way, with the idle apprentice, the truant, the runaway, the individual who couldn’t be bothered with figures and book-keeping and left business to look after itself.

The Comments of Moung Ka

Moung Ka is a wise man who lives by the banks of the River Irrawaddy (whichm, upon looking it up, I discover is the longest river in modern Burma).

The opening description of the landscape and birds where Moung Ka lives is a final reminder that, although people routinely describe Saki as a deliciously malicious critic of Edwardian upper class society, he was also obsessed with animals, and wrote a lot of vivid descriptions of landscapes and the wild animals living in them. A collection of excerpts titled ‘Saki’s nature and animal writing’ would be surprisingly extensive.

In the tall reed growth by the riverside grazing buffaloes showed in patches of dark slaty blue, like plums fallen amid long grass, and in the tamarind trees that shaded Moung Ka’s house the crows, restless, raucous-throated, and much-too-many, kept up their incessant afternoon din, saying over and over again all the things that crows have said since there were crows to say them.

Anyway, the story, such as it is, is another political satire. Old Moung Ka reads the paper which is brought up the river and then interprets its contents for his village followers. He comments on two related pieces of news. The recently announced division of Bengal by the (British-run) government of India has been cancelled. In 1905 Lord Curzon divided Bengal along sectarian lines, into a Hindu and Muslim province. The policy was a disaster, leading to an outburst of terrorism and sectarian violence and so was reversed in 1911. This is the news Moung Ka reads out to his followers.

And contrasts with the fact that the newspaper tells him that the United Kingdom itself is about to be partitioned. It isn’t explained what he means so it took me a moment to realise he must have been referring to the granting to Ireland of home rule, which led to vehement protests from Protestant Ulster and a serious crisis which dominated Edwardian politics from 1911 up to the outbreak of the Great War.

The very last joke in this, Saki’s very last published story, is a satirical and political one. Earlier Moung Ka had explained to his followers that Britain is what is called a Democracy. One of the followers doesn’t understand how come, if Britain is a Democracy, it can enact such a big and impactful decision  (the partitioning of Ireland) without consulting its people.

Moung Ka clarifies – and this, one imagines, is the point of the whole ‘story’ – that he didn’t say Britain was a democracy; he said Britain is what is called a democracy. The implication being that its alleged democracy is in fact a sham. The implication being that Saki is a Unionist and considers the prolonged political haggling about granting Ireland independence to be squalid and destructive.

There’s plenty of meat in this short text to chew over, it confirmed my sense of Saki as an unrepentant Unionist and conservative and anti-suffragette reactionary, and review in my mind the reactionary views which crop up periodically through the short stories and underpin the entire novel When William Came.

Then again, the world is more full than ever before of division, dispute and angry argument. For my part, I like to take leave of this long journey through Saki’s complete works by remembering the grazing water buffalo like plums fallen amid long grass, and the eternal crows in the tamarind trees.


Saki’s works

Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

Ovid’s Amores translated by Christopher Marlowe

The bed is for lascivious toyings meet (3.13)

Introduction to Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, generally known as Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD) was a well-known Latin poet who lived at the time of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), and a younger contemporary of arguably the greatest poet of ancient Rome, Virgil (70 BC – 19 AD).

After years of success and public honours, at the height of his fame, in 8 AD the emperor ordered Ovid to be summarily exiled to the remote backwater of the Black Sea. Possibly some of his verse had offended, either because of their satire or their erotic content. Possibly he had a relationship with the emperor’s daughter Julia. To this day, scholars aren’t completely sure. Augustus ordered Ovid’s works removed from libraries and destroyed, but that seems to have had little effect on his popularity. He was always among the most widely read and imitated of Latin poets and more copies of his works survive than of any other Latin poet.

Amores is Latin for ‘loves’ and the work consists of 48 poems, all in the first person, which describe the poet’s love affair with a rich and unhappily married woman, named Corinna. The series doesn’t tell a well-defined narrative with beginning, middle and end. Some poems seem to refer to specific events, but more often they address topics arising from the general idea of being in love. Some seem aimed at a generic female figure, others wander off the central topic altogether to make general points about Poetry, or the poet’s Muse. One is an elegy to fellow poet Tibullus, who had done much to establish the genre of the erotic elegy.

The word ‘elegy’ has come to mean a lament for someone who’s died, but in Ovid’s day it had the broader meaning of a poem written to or about a specific person – in this case Corinna, although many of the poems are actually written to figures surrounding her, such as her eunuch.

Scholars credit Ovid with taking aspects of the love elegy and developing them further, in particular a subversive irony and humour, ironising his own role as lover, the beloved’s character and, indeed, the whole palaver of being in love, wooing and all the rest of it.

Summary of the Amores

Book 1 contains 15 poems. The first tells of Ovid’s intention to write epic poetry, which is thwarted when Cupid steals a metrical foot from him, changing his work into love elegy. Poem 4 is didactic and describes principles that Ovid would develop in the Ars Amatoria. The fifth poem, describing sex in the afternoon, first introduces Corinna by name. Poems 8 and 9 deal with Corinna selling her love for gifts, while 11 and 12 describe the poet’s failed attempt to arrange a meeting. Poem 14 discusses Corinna’s disastrous experiment in dyeing her hair and 15 stresses the immortality of Ovid and love poets.

The second book contains 19 poems. The opening poem tells of Ovid’s abandonment of a Gigantomachy in favour of elegy. Poems 2 and 3 are entreaties to a guardian to let the poet see Corinna, poem 6 is a lament for Corinna’s dead parrot; poems 7 and 8 deal with Ovid’s affair with Corinna’s servant and her discovery of it, and 11 and 12 try to prevent Corinna from going on vacation. Poem 13 is a prayer to Isis for Corinna’s illness, 14 a poem against abortion, and 19 a warning to unwary husbands.

Book 3 contains 15 poems. The opening piece depicts personified Tragedy and Elegy fighting over Ovid. Poem 2 describes a visit to the races, 3 and 8 focus on Corinna’s interest in other men, 10 is a complaint to Ceres because of her festival that requires abstinence, 13 is a poem on a festival of Juno, and 9 a lament for Tibullus. In poem 11 Ovid decides not to love Corinna any longer and regrets the poems he has written about her. The final poem is Ovid’s farewell to the erotic muse.

The most accessible poems

I have boldened the poems I found easiest to understand and so most enjoyable, being 1.5, 2.4, 2.10, 2.13 and 2.14 about abortion, 3.6 about impotence, 3.8 the elegy to Tibullus, 3.13 telling his mistress to be discreet.

The summaries in italics are in the Penguin edition and appear to be the summaries given in the original Elizabethan edition.

Book 1

1.1 How he was forced by Cupid to write of love instead of war – At the time epic poetry was written in hexameters which have six ‘feet’ or units per line, whereas love poems were written in pentameters with five ‘feet’. The poet humorously complains that he set out to write bold, manly war poetry but that Cupid stole one of the ‘feet’ of his verse, and so now he is condemned to write love poems. He complains this is topsy turvey, Cupid should not have the power to intervene in poetry, but Cupid replied by shooting him with one of his arrows.

Thus I complaind, but Love unlockt his quiver,
Tooke out the shaft, ordaind my hart to shiver:
And bent his sinewy bow upon his knee,
Saying, Poet heers a worke beseeming thee.
Oh woe is me, he never shootes but hits,
I burne, love in my idle bosome sits.

1.2 First captured by love, he endures being led in triumph by Cupid – What is keeping him awake at night? It is love. He gives examples of types of animals which know that fighting against man’s shackles and bridles only makes it worse. Similarly, he has the wisdom to submit.

Yielding or striving do we give him might,
Let’s yield, a burden easily borne is light.

1.3 To his mistress – He describes his devotion and his good qualities as a lover:

Be thou the happy subject of my books
That I may write things worthy thy fair looks.

1.4 He advises his love what devices and signals they ought to employ when they were at dinner with her husband present – The poet goes to a dinner party along with his lover and her husband and gives a long list of instructions to her not to dally too much or too openly with him, not to hang about his neck, fondle his chin, entwine her legs with his and the secret signs they will use to convey their passion to each other.

View me, my becks, and speaking countenance;
Take, and return each secret amorous glance.
Words without voice shall on my eyebrows sit,
Lines thou shalt read in wine by my hand writ.

1.5 Sex with Corinna – He describes an afternoon when Corinna comes to his rooms and they make love (quoted in full below).

1.6 To her porter, to open the door for him – He begs Corinna’s doorkeeper to let him into the house to see his love. This is an example, believe it or not, of a recognised genre, the paraclausithyron, the ‘door poem’ or ‘lament beside the door’, in which the exclusus amator (‘shut-out lover’) addresses the door or doorkeeper keeping him from his mistress. Horace wrote a poem threatening the door, Tibullus appealed to the door, Propertius wrote a poem in which the door is the speaker. The trope was revived by some of the troubadors, recurs in Victorian poetry, and lives on into our day, witness the 1971 song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? by the Rolling Stones:

Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your window
Can’t you hear me knockin’ on your door

1.7 That his mistress, who he has beaten, should make peace with him – In a blind rage he hits his lover, then sees her tears and throws himself at her feet in regret.

1.8 He reviles the bawd who has been introducing his mistress to the courtesan’s art – The longest poem in book 1, the poet describes the ancient bawd and procuress Dipsas as a witch and then overhears, from a hiding place, the old crone giving his mistress lessons on how to keep a lover on tenterhooks. At the end of her lecture the poet heartily curses her.

1.9 To Atticus: that a lover may not be lazy, any more than a soldier – The poet compares lovers with soldiers, including the greats of the tale of Troy, and says he is like a soldier, at his mistress’ beck and call as a soldier is of his captain’s.

1.10 To his girl, that she should not demand money for her love – He complains that alone among species, female humans refrain from sex until given gifts, until bought like whores.

The mare asks not the horse, the cow the bull,
Nor the mild ewe gifts from the ram doth pull.
Only a woman gets spoils from a man,
Farms out herself on nights for what she can;
And lets [prevents] what both delight, what both desire,
Making her joy according to her hire.

He swears that the gift he gives his mistress – his – will last long after the gold and jewels that common mistresses demand.

1.11 He pleads with Nape to carry a letter to Corinna – He asks Corinna’s maid to take a message to her and await her reply.

1.12 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – He seems to be attacking a book or books or manuscript, maybe it’s a letter announcing his mistress cannot visit.

1.13 To Dawn, not to hurry – He criticises the dawn for waking humanity from its rest and forcing all kinds of people, trades and animals to their daily work.

Poor travellers though tired, rise at thy sight,
And soldiers make them ready to the fight.
The painful hind by thee to field is sent;
Slow oxen early in the yoke are pent.
Thou coz’nest boys of sleep, and dost betray them
To pedants that with cruel lashes pay them.

But, worst of all, parting him from his mistress.

1.14 He consoles his girl, whose hair has fallen out from excessive hair-washing  – He mocks Corinna for cutting off her hair and dyeing the rest and then complaining about the result.

She holds, and views her old locks in her lap;
Ay me! rare gifts unworthy such a hap!

1.15 To those who begrudge the poet eternal fame – The book ends with Ovid describing the immortal fame achieved by the great poets of the past and the subjects they wrote about (Troy, Aeneas, the golden fleece) and that he will be among them (as he, indeed, is).

Therefore when flint and iron wear away,
Verse is immortal and shall ne’er decay.
To[ verse let kings give place and kingly shows,
And banks o’er which gold-bearing Tagus flows.
Let base-conceited wits admire vild things;
Fair Phœbus lead me to the Muses’ springs.

Book 2

2.1 Why he is impelled to write of love, rather than of titanic struggles – The poet describes the sort of audience that he desires, hot maids looking for a husband and boys hurt, like him, by Cupid’s arrows. He jokingly says what good will it do him to write about Achilles or Odysseus, they’re long dead? But if he writes a poem to a pretty woman, he might get a snog out of it!

2.2 To Bagous, to keep a more lax watch over his mistress, who has been entrusted to him – The poet asks Bagous, a woman’s servant, to help him gain access to his mistress in a poem I found largely incomprehensible.

2.3 To the eunuch serving his mistress – The poet addresses a eunuch, arguing he should let him see his mistress.

2.4 That he loves women of all sorts – An unusually comprehensible poem in which the poet explains that he loves every woman he sees, tall or short, dark or fair, coy or brazen, singing or silent, dancing or plodding:

I cannot rule myself but where Love please;
Am driven like a ship upon rough seas.
No one face likes me best, all faces move,
A hundred reasons make me ever love.

2.5 To his faithless mistress – How lucky is a lover who intercepts letters or hears gossip that his lover is unfaithful: because she can deny it and he can believe her. But the poet saw with his own eyes how, when a dinner party had ended, she kissed at length, with tongues, ‘another’ (presumably her husband).

2.6 On the death of his parrot – A pet parrot has died and he expends numerous classical analogies in mourning it. Despite reading the poem several times I can’t work out whether the parrot belonged to Corinna, or the poet, or whether Corinna is meant to be speaking (‘The parrot, from East India to me sent/Is dead…’)

2.7 He swears to his mistress that he has not made love to her maid – The poet complains that she’s always accusing him of something, in this case of sleeping with her handmaiden Cypassis. The poet denies it based on class loyalty, he would never demean himself to have sex with a slave. He throws in an unnerving detail – that her back is ‘rough with stripes’. From being whipped!?

With Venus’ game who will a servant grace?
Or any back, made rough with stripes, embrace?

2.8 To Cypassis, Corinna’s maid – In humorous contrast to the preceding poem, the poet now addresses Cypassis freely admitting that they’ve been having sex, and using classical precedents (Achilles and Agamemnon both had affairs with servants) as freely to justify the affair to Cypassis as he had used others to deny it to Corinna.

The poem appears to take place in real time, i.e. is his part of a dialogue, because after he’s taken the credit for speaking up in her defence when Corinna accused her, he promptly asks her to lie with him as a reward and, when she refuses, gets cross and threatens to reveal the truth to her mistress (which would, presumably, lead to another whipping).

2.9 To Cupid – The poet reproaches Cupid for causing him so much pain in love, for driving him like a headstrong horse or a storm at sea, when he (the poet) is a fellow soldier, a colleague, in love’s wars.

2.10 To Graecinus, that he can love two at once – His friend Graecinus told him it was impossible to be in love with two women at the same time, but he is (‘Which is the loveliest, it is hard to say’)! He describes the joy of two lovers at length and humorously gloats over his enemies who lie alone at night in their big empty beds.

2.11 To his mistress sailing – He is very anxious indeed about a planned sea voyage Corinna is going to make, curses the pioneers of sea adventures, and then invokes a ton of gods to look after her, before anticipating the joy of their reunion when she returns.

2.12 He rejoices that he has conquered his mistress – A humorous poem in which he compares himself to a mighty warrior and says he deserves to be crowned with bay leaves like the traditional victor of a campaign because he has won Corinna who is even at this moment lying on his breast, a victory greater than the defeat of Troy.

2.13 To Isis, to aid Corinna in Labour– He prays to the Egyptian goddess, Isis, and to Lucina goddess of childbirth, to protect and save Corinna who is having an abortion he is sure is from him, save Corinna and, in doing so, also save the anxious poet.

My wench, Lucina, I entreat thee favour;
Worthy she is, thou should’st in mercy save her.

2.14 To his mistress, who has attempted an abortion – The poet laments that, although women are not involved in war, they have come up with ways to harm themselves, namely having abortions which, apparently, involves ‘hid irons’ and ‘dire poison’. If all women had practiced abortion, the world would be empty, there would have been no Priam or Achilles (as usual his mind goes straight to the Trojan Wars), no Romulus and Rome, in fact no Ovid and Corinna.

2.15 To a ring which he has given his mistress – He wishes he were his mistress ring so he could familiarly touch her lap and pap.

2.16 To his mistress, to come to his country estate – He wishes his mistress would come to his country estate in Sulmo (in the Abruzzi, a region of east-central Italy). He gives an extensive description of the region’s natural beauties but says that, without her, it means nothing.

2.17 That he will serve only Corinna – He laments that his mistress is well aware how beautiful she is and this makes her haughty and disdainful. He recalls how many women from classical myth accepted a more junior lover e.g. Venus with club-footed Vulcan.

And thou, my light, accept me howsoever;
Lay in the mid bed, there be my lawgiver.

2.18 To Macer, writing of his love poems – Another poem pointing out that he would like to write of war and high tragedy but his mistress is wriggling on his lap, refuses to go when he orders her, and so his poems end up being about love and his love emotions.

I yield, and back my wit from battles bring,
Domestic acts, and mine own wars to sing.

2.19 – To his rival, her husband, who does not guard his wife – He is irritated with the husband for making Corinna so available. Forbidden love is sweeter, and he rattles off a list of women from myth and legend who were difficult to attain and so fired up their lovers more (Danae kept in a high tower, Io guarded by Juno)

What flies I follow, what follows me I shun.

In fact, he warns the husband, unless he starts protecting her more seriously, Ovid is going to give up being her lover, it’s too easy, it’s boring.

Now I forewarn, unless to keep her stronger
Thou dost begin, she shall be mine no longer.

Book 3

3.1 The poet’s deliberation whether to continue writing elegies or to turn to tragedy – Walking in a wood he is confronted by personifications of Elegy and Tragedy. Tragedy says he has become a laughing stock, writing about his lewd love affairs. Time to fulfil his talents and write Great Things. Elegy replies that she is light and trivial and yet suited for some subjects. She dresses out Venus and Corinna. The poet says he will turn to Grand Things in time and Tragedy appears to grant him a period to continue dawdling with trivial love, before turning to Higher Things. A worry which is still nagging him in 3.10:

When Thebes, when Troy, when Cæsar should be writ,
Alone Corinna moves my wanton wit.

3.2 To his mistress watching the races – He has come to the races, not to look at the horse, but his mistress. As avidly as she feeds on the arduous horse, he feeds on sight of her. There is an extended description of every element of a Roman horse-race and how they can be metaphorically applied to his feverish wooing.

3.3 On his mistress, who has lied to him – He is appalled that his mistress has lied to him and yet looks just as beautiful and desirable as before. Are there no gods, is there no justice? Characteristically, he launches into a long list of legendary figures and asks why the gods bothered punishing them so excessively if they are going to let his mistress off scot-free?

3.4 To a man who guards his wife – He warns a man who is trying to guard his lover from adultery that it will have the opposite effect: forbidden fruit tastes sweeter; it is nature to hanker for what is banned.

3.5 To a torrent, while he is on his way to his mistress – He has travelled day and night to reach his lover and now is prevented by a river in flood as the mountain snows thaw. Characteristically, he then compares the flooded river to numerous other rivers in Graeco-Roman mythology, an extended litany which helps to make this the longest poem in the book.

3.6 He bewails the fact that, in bed with his mistress, he was unable to perform – 

Though both of us performed our true intent,
Yet could I not cast anchor where I meant.

Interestingly, he points out that whatever caused the first failure, it was compounded by shame i.e. embarrassment. Interesting because that is, indeed, how erectile disfunction works, the more aware you become, the worse it gets, and the more humiliated you feel. At several points he directly describes the failing member:

Yet like as if cold hemlock I had drunk,
It mockèd me, hung down the head and sunk…

Yet notwithstanding, like one dead it lay,
Drooping more than a rose pulled yesterday…

3.7 He mourns that his mistress will not receive him – He is consumed with anger and jealousy that his mistress has rejected him, ‘the pure priest of Phoebus and the Muses’, for a battle-scarred hunk whose hands are bloody from the men he’s killed. Alas, poetry and the arts are now worth less than gold – Barbarism!

3.8 He mourns the death of Tibullus – Albius Tibullus (c. 55 BC – 19 BC) was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. In Ovid’s poem Cupid has broken his bow and mourns. He compares Tibullus’ death to those of legendary heroes and says death makes him doubt the existence of the gods.

Outrageous death profanes all holy things,
And on all creatures obscure darkness brings.

It is a sweet and moving elegy, in the modern sense of the word.

3.9 To Ceres, complaining that because of her ceremonies he is not allowed to sleep with his mistress – The Festival of Ceres prevents Ovid from meeting his mistress who lies alone in an empty bed. There is an extended description of Ceres’ history and attributes, before he concludes that he’d rather be celebrating a festival to Venus!

3.10 To his mistress, from whose love he cannot free himself – So many times he has been turned away from her door and slept on the floor. ‘Long have I borne much, mad thy faults me make.’ He has impersonated one of her servants and seen many a sated lover leaving her bedroom, observed her tricks and signs to lovers at dinner parties, put up with her lies and deceptions. But now he has made some kind of break:

Now have I freed myself, and fled the chain,
And what I have borne, shame to bear again.

Now hate and love fight in his breast.

Now love and hate my light breast each way move,
But victory, I think, will hap to love.
I’ll hate, if I can; if not, love ‘gainst my will,

Torn: ‘Nor with thee, nor without thee can I live.’

3.11 He complains that his lover is so well known through his poems that she is available to many rival lovers – Actually, when you stop and reflect on the previous 40 or so poems, you realise that he has not in fact painted a particularly vivid picture of his lover. Horse-racing, his native countryside, the maid he had a fling with, the doorkeeper, her husband, even the details of horse-racing – and lots and lots of references to classical myths, yes, certainly. But in a curious way, the mistress – if her name is Corinna – is strangely absent from many of the poems, and even when she’s explicitly named, a strangely fugitive presence.

Which makes you realise how conventional this poem lamenting that fact that he’s made her famous, actually is.

Characteristically, he turns to classical mythology to give examples of how vivid and blazing and enduring the poet’s myths and fables have been.

3.12 On the feast of Juno – A straightfoward description of the Festival of Juno, which takes place in the town of his wife’s birth, Falsica (Falerii), and its origins. He ends the poem by piously hoping that Juno will favour both him and the townspeople.

3.13 – To his mistress; if she will be licentious, let her do it discreetly – He tells her not to boast about her night’s adventures, if she is going to stray, at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Be as wanton as she likes in bed, but, risen and dressed and in company, be sage and graceful and proper. That will make it easier for him to overlook her infidelities.

3.14 To Venus, putting an end to his elegies – In a relatively short, poignant poem, he bids farewell to ‘tender Love’s mother’ i.e. Venus, to ‘weak elegies’ and his ‘delightful muse’. What gives it a particular feel is that it is almost devoid of the extensive lists of gods and heroes which pad out most of the poems. Instead he speaks fondly of his home among the Paeligni tribe of the Abruzzi. Whereas visitors might think it fitting that Mantua sired the great poet Vergil and Verona was home to Catullus, they might be surprised that the little town of Sulmo was his birthplace. But he loves it and will praise it. And now it is time to move on, to tackle a greater ground with a greater horse. To move onto the more Serious kind of poetry which has periodically nagged him throughout the series.

Marlowe’s translation

Marlowe’s Ovid is the earliest, the least studied of his works and the most dismissed. One reason is the technical inaccuracies, errors and mistranslations which, apparently, crop up in every line, partly Marlowe’s errors, partly because the printed texts he was working from were themselves inaccurate.

This, understandably, irks Latin scholars and has resulted in 400 years of negative reviews. We, however, need not be very troubled by these pedantic concerns about literal accuracy. A hundred years ago Ezra Pound showed that translations can be full of howlers but still be very beautiful (Cathay). The thing deserves to be judged on its own terms.

That said, these poems are often boring and quite hard to follow. Why? Having just read Hero and Leander and the first couple of plays, I think it’s for several inter-connected reasons:

The couplet form

Ovid’s original was written in couplets, that’s to say paired lines, sentences divided into two lines which end with a full stop. The impact of reading a series of self-contained rhymed couplets quickly becomes monotonous. It feels mechanical.

Aye me an Eunuch keepes my mistrisse chaste,
That cannot Venus mutuall pleasure taste.
Who first depriv’d yong boyes of their best part,
With selfe same woundes he gave, he ought to smart.
To kinde requests thou wouldst more gentle prove,
If ever wench had made luke-warme thy love.

It feels like Marlowe is cabined and confined by this format. He is clearly constrained to convey Ovid’s original meaning and struggles to do so within the narrow bounds of the couplet. It routinely feels like he is contorting normal English phrasing or rhythm, so much so that I found it very difficult to understand what entire poems were actually about. 1.2 mentions a husband and husbands generally, but I struggled to understand even one line.

I sawe ones legges with fetters blacke and blewe,
By whom the husband his wives incest knewe.
More he deserv’d, to both great harme he fram’d,
The man did grieve, the woman was defam’d.
Trust me all husbands for such faults are sad
Nor make they any man that heare them glad.
If he loves not, deafe eares thou doest importune,
Or if he loves, thy tale breedes his misfortune.

The pronouns, and the apparent subject, of the poem keep changing so that I’m not sure who’s being talked about. I’ve no idea why incest has cropped up, I’ve no idea who the man is, or the woman is in the first four lines. I don’t understand what faults are being referred to, and I nearly understand the last couplet but don’t really know who the ‘thou’ referred to is. Is it the poet’s lover Corinna? But if so, why does her tale breed ‘his misfortune’?

Latin

Latin is a more compact language than English. Its declensions and conjugations, the way it changes the ends of the words to convey changes in case for nouns, and tense and person for verbs, mean that one Latin word can convey what can easily take two, three or four English words to express.

Latin can elegantly fit into two lines ideas and meanings which English can only fit into the tight straitjacket by mangling word order and meaning. To give one repeated example of this at work, many of the poems start with a ringing couplet whose first line sounds fine because he has written it out at full length, so to speak – but whose second line is incomprehensible, as Marlowe tries to fit into the second line a meaning which really requires one and a half or two. Quite often the second lines are incomprehensible.

I ask but right, let her that caught me late,
Either love, or cause that I may never hate… (?)

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains,
While rage is absent, take some friend the pains…(?)

I, Ovid, poet, of my wantonness,
Born at Peligny, to write more address. (?)

It explains why Marlowe continually distorts normal word order and sense. In the poem about the doorkeeper, he writes:

Little I ask, a little entrance make,
The gate half-ope my bent side in will take.
Long love my body to such use makes slender,
And to get out doth like apt members render.

So, the first line is fairly smooth and understandable, the second is peculiarly phrased (‘bent side’?). The third line is understandable if you make the effort to read it carefully, and the fourth line is gibberish. He’s mangling the English because he’s trying to shoehorn a Latin meaning which simply contains more than an English couplet can handle.

The net effect is that it’s possible to read line after line, poem after poem, without really understanding what they’re about. Easy to begin skipping verse which is so hard to get a grasp of, or reading through entire passages without properly understanding them. Takes this couplet from 1.3:

I love but one, and her I love change never,
If men have faith, I’ll live with thee for ever.

The first line is so compacted you have to read it several times to parse the meaning – the second half of the second line is clear enough, but I don’t quite get why he’ll live with his love forever ‘if men have faith’. What have other men got to do with it? Maybe it means something like, ‘as long as men are faithful, I’ll live with thee forever’, but the little shoebox of the heroic couplet forces him to abbreviate English words so much as to teeter on the incomprehensible.

Contrast with Marlowe the playwright

Taken together what the set highlights, by being such a sharp contrast to it, is Marlowe’s natural gift for a completely different type of verse when he is writing at will and with freedom – for verse which flows freely for entire paragraphs – his gift for rolling lines which convey a luxurious flow of meaning over 5, 6, 7 or more lines, the kind of wonderfully fluent passages you find again and again in the plays. Here is Jupiter flirting with Ganymede at the start of his earliest play, Dido, Queen of Carthage:

Sit on my knee, and call for thy content,
Control proud Fate, and cut the thread of Time;
Why, are not all the gods at thy command,
And Heaven and earth the bounds of thy delight?
Vulcan shall dance to make thee laughing sport,
And my nine daughters sing when thou art sad;
From Juno’s bird I’ll pluck her spotted pride,
To make thee fans wherewith to cool thy face:
And Venus’ swans shall shed their silver down,
To sweeten out the slumbers of thy bed:

What makes this both enjoyable and understandable is they way the same basic thought (‘I’ll give you anything you want, sweet Ganymede’) expands out over ten lines. All the examples repeat the same basic idea – that all the gods will dance at Ganymede’s command – and the reader, having once grasped the basic idea, is freed up to enjoy the poet’s embellishments and elaborations. We readers revel in Marlowe’s inventiveness and fluency and therein lies the mental pleasure, the sense of luxury which derives from the effortlessness with which Marlowe spins out elegantly phrased elaborations of the theme. It’s like a luxury hotel, every room is smoothly and tastefully furnished.

Seeing Marlowe pace up and down the cage of these rhyming couplets, makes you appreciate it even more when you see him released to go bounding joyfully across the open sunny savannah of the blank verse of his plays.

The dead parrot

Whereas in the Ovid translations, the reader continually feels, along with the poet, that his natural grandiloquent discursiveness has been chopped up and cramped into bite-sized couplets. The poem about the death of Corinna’s parrot ought to be funny, the subject is potentially humorous, but the performance feels stuttery and confined.

Elisium hath a wood of holme trees black,
Whose earth doth not perpetuall greene-grasse lacke,
There good birds rest (if we beleeve things hidden)
Whence uncleane fowles are said to be forbidden.
There harrnelesse Swans feed all abroad the river,
There lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever.
There Junoes bird displayes his gorgious feather,
And loving Doves kisse eagerly together.
The Parrat into wood receiv’d with these,
Turnes all the goodly birdes to what she please.

What does ‘if we believe things hidden’ really mean? That belief in the afterlife is some esoteric knowledge? – but it wasn’t. As in hundreds of other lines, the meaning is puzzlingly meaningless or unclear. The line about harmless swans on the river is easy enough to understand but, although you can see the idea lurking behind ‘there lives the Phoenix one alone bird ever’, the actual phrasing feels clumsy and contorted, and poetry is about the actual phrasing.

Juno’s bird (the peacock) displaying her gorgeous feather I understand alright, and the loving turtle doves are a stock cliché – but the final couplet is horrible: ‘The parrot into wood received with these’ is just horrible phrasing, and what does the final line actually mean? Is it something to do with the parrot’s ability to mimic the other birds? I’ve no idea.

Love in the afternoon

Of the 45 poems only one manages to be both completely understandable and to show the extended fluency on a simple idea which distinguishes the more relaxed and fluent verse of his plays – which explains why it’s the one that is always included in anthologies.

Book 1 Elegy 5

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay;
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefaced maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed
Or Lais of a thousand wooers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered there withal.
And striving thus, as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see!
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me!
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh!
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest; being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!

And then, it’s about a naked woman and sex, which always helps.

Legacy

There are several points to make.

1. Marlowe’s sonnet sequence

Although they are obviously not sonnets, and he didn’t write them from scratch, nonetheless the Amores can be thought of as ‘Marlowe’s sonnet sequence’. Most other leading poets of the day wrote an extended series of sonnets, all addressed to the same remote and aloof mistress, which they used to explore different moods and subjects, some tragic, some humorous. Examples include Astrophil and Stella by Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser’s sequence Amoretti, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and the set which is sometimes seen as ending the fashion, Michael Drayton’s Idea sequence.

The point is, the Amores played something of the same role for Marlowe, allowing him to experiment with how to phrase in English a wide variety of moods, emotions and tones of voice. Each of the poems tends to make a case i.e. is not a flow of emotion, but a string of rhetorical arguments around a particular love-related issue (jealousy, passion, anger, regret). So you could argue that the Amores was practice, warming up and rehearsal for deploying variations on all these emotions in the mouths of the characters in his plays, for example the variety of arguments deployed by Aeneas and Dido as they fall in and out of love.

2. Grabby openings

One of the often-noted features of both Shakespeare’s sonnets and John Donne’s lyrics, is their colloquial, dramatic, buttonholing opening lines – ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ or ‘I wonder by my troth what thou and I did till we loved…’ being examples of Shakespeare and Donne, respectively.

The point is you can make the case that Marlowe helped establish this tone – that instead of the long and formal exordium of earlier Renaissance poetry,  Marlowe’s translations leap straight in with colloquial, chatty or arresting openings:

What makes my bed seem hard seeing it is soft?

Thy husband to a banquet goes with me…

Bind fast my hands, they have deservèd chains…

Leave colouring thy tresses, I did cry…

Ay me, an eunuch keeps my mistress chaste… (2.3)

Well, maybe. Maybe some of them. But just as many start with crabbed or obscure lines, simple situational setups, or promising phrases which are then bent and broken:

An old wood stands, uncut of long years’ space,
‘Tis credible some godhead haunts the place…

I sit not here the noble horse to see;
Yet whom thou favour’st, pray may conqueror be.

What, are there gods? herself she hath forswore,
And yet remains the face she had before.

Rude man, ’tis vain thy damsel to commend
To keeper’s trust: their wits should them defend.

Flood with reed-grown slime banks, till I be past
Thy waters stay: I to my mistress haste.

3. The ubiquity of classical mythology

So obvious it’s easy to overlook, but the Amores are stuffed with references to the gods and legends of the ancient world. Probably Marlowe read Horace and Virgil, too, and many other Latin authors, but the way the characters of the gods and the stories of their adventures continually pop into the poet’s mind to illustrate almost every point he’s making, will also characterise the plays – certainly Dido and Tamburlaine – where all the characters invoke the Roman gods, the characters from the tale of Troy, plus stock stories from ancient myth.

4. Classical padding

About half way through I began to notice a pattern to many of the poems: Ovid states the situation and describes it in fairly realistic terms. And then, around line 10, he will suddenly switch to invoking classical precedents. One minute he’s addressing his mistress, doorkeeper, friend etc. Then there is almost always a swerve, a change of tone, and he suddenly begins a (usually very extended) list of comparisons with figures from myth and legend. This suggests two thoughts:

  • It is padding. He can pad out any thought, emotion or moment by invoking a classical precedent and then describing it at length, or alternatively piling up a list of quickfire precedents. Either way, most of the poems are twice as long as the ostensible subject justifies, because they have these long passages invoking Venus and Vulcan and Jove and Achilles and so on.
  • I wonder to what extent people living in those times really did structure, categorise and make sense of their human experience through the filter of classical myth and legend. We nowadays – I think – invoke a range of discourses, popular sayings about mental health, maybe, or gender stereotyping or other cliches, maybe about northerners and southerners, or class-based tropes. I’m not in a position to make a full list and I dare say it varies from person to person. But whereas we might think ‘I’m depressed, I’m stressed, it’s sexism, the management don’t know what they’re doing’ – those kinds of categories – I wonder if denizens of the ancient world actually thought, ‘Well beautiful Venus had an affair with ugly Vulcan, this is like jealous Juno taking her revenge on Hercules, he’s sulking like Achilles’ and so on. Or was it only in the poems? Is it an entirely literary artifact?

5. Poetry lasts forever

People still talk about Troy, the Trojan War, Helen of Troy, getting on for 3,000 years after the stories were first told. Ovid is still mentioned, discussed and quoted long after most of the generals and all the politicians of his day are forgotten. Poetry really does outlast not only men’s lives, but entire civilisations. It’s an ancient trope because it’s true. In this couplet, I like the way he places poetry alongside ‘history’s pretence’.

Poets’ large power is boundless and immense,
Nor have their words true history’s pretence.

That’s a complicated word, ‘pretence’, because it involves effort and aspiration (pretensions), but also acting and dissembling. History is the attempt to make sense of what has happened but, as I’ve made clear in my 350 history reviews, it is always a story, or an attempt to frame a meaningful narrative. And the sense of what history is, what it is for, as well as the actual ‘histories’ of every period, change and mutate over time. But not Ovid’s words, or Marlowe’s. When Marlowe wrote ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships’ he made something which will last as long as the English language.

It’s a trope, it’s a cliché which recurs as on of the threads running through the Amores. But it’s true.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Content warnings at Tate

Warning: This blog post contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including depictions of slavery, violence and suffering.

Baroque Britain

When I visited the Baroque Britain exhibition at Tate Britain I was surprised that there was a Content Warning at the entrance to the second room. This warned us that some of the images were disturbing and might upset visitors. Specifically, a massive painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger which shows black people in collars and chains. Slaves, in other words.

Portrait of Hortense Mancini, Duchess of Mazarin by Benedetto Gennari the Younger (1674)

A handful of other paintings show rich people – men and women – being served or accompanied by black servants, but this is the only one where the black people (all boys, I think) are wearing very obvious metal slave collars round their throats.

William Blake

This is the second warning notice I’m aware of Tate putting up. The William Blake exhibition last year also warned visitors, in these words:

The art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering.

That’s putting it mildly, seeing as Blake illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy with its extensive descriptions of thousands of sinners being subjected to all sorts of tortures and torments in Hell, and Milton’s Paradise Lost which opens with Satan and the fallen angels languishing in agony in a lake of fire. Presumably it was these images of fire and brimstone which the warning was talking about.

Satan, Sin and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell by William Blake (1807)

Although when you actually look at Blake’s images, they are pretty inoffensive, aren’t they? Is an image like the above really thought to be so scary that visitors to an art gallery need a warning about it?

I wonder if the curators have ever seen a Hollywood film? Or even an average episode of Eastenders? Chock full of threat and violence. I can think of plenty of other Tate exhibitions which were full of much more genuinely upsetting images.

Notes and queries

Maybe visitors do need to be warned that art galleries and exhibitions contain images of slavery or violence or threat, but this new trend obviously raises a few questions:

Slavery 1 – black slavery

There must be thousands of images of black slavery scattered around the art world. Will every single one of them eventually require a Warning? For example, the huge memorial sculpture to slavery by Kara Walker currently on display in the atrium of Tate Modern. I don’t recall there being a warning for visitors about to encounter this. Should there be one?

Much more appalling and upsetting than any painting is actual period photographs of black slaves, which survive by the tens of thousands. I suppose if there’s an exhibition about slavery, or about these kinds of photographs it will be self-evident but, presumably if they’re included in exhibitions focused on other subjects – like the American Civil War or American history – presumably any photos of slavery will require a warning, as well.

Slavery 2 – white slavery

Most pre-modern societies had some form of slavery: ancient Rome and ancient Greece were based on slavery, and the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings traded in slaves (it’s estimated that at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, 1 in 10 of the British population were slaves).

The Mayans and Aztecs kept slaves in the Americas, as did the Sumerians and Babylonians in the Near East. The Egyptians employed huge numbers of slaves, including Israelites, Europeans and Ethiopians. Slave armies were kept by the Ottomans and Egyptians.

In Imperial Russia, in the first half of the 19th century, one third of the population were serfs who, like the slaves in the Americas, had the status of chattels and could be bought and sold.

In fact the English word ‘slave’ is derived from Slav, the white ethnic underclass of Eastern Europe that provided the bulk of medieval-and-later slaves, not only to Europe but to the Turks, Arabs and Tatars.

SLAVE – late 13the century, ‘person who is the chattel or property of another’, from the Old French esclave (13c.), from Medieval Latin Sclavus ‘slave’ (source also of Italian schiavo, French esclave, Spanish esclavo), originally ‘Slav’; used in this secondary sense because of the many Slavs sold into slavery by conquering peoples. (Etymological dictionary)

Will any gallery displaying any images of slaves from any of these historical cultures, from any period of history, from anywhere around the world, require there to be warning messages for visitors?

‘Trade negotiations in the country of Eastern Slavs by Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov (1909)

If not, why not?

Violence 1 – secular

Human history is more or less the ceaseless history of wars and empires, human history is saturated with conflict and violence. Will notices warning of ‘strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of violence and suffering’ have to be placed outside every gallery which includes any images of conflict and war?

The first VC of the Great War won by Capt Francis Grenfell of the 9th Lancers at Audregnies, Belgium on 24th August, 1914 by Richard Caton Woodville

Violence 2 – religious

Christianity is saturated with violence. Its central image is of a man being tortured to death, and is closely accompanied by the stories and images of countless thousands of other Christian martyrs, most of whom died blood-curdling deaths.

Will all of these images require a warning notice? They would have to be put up in every gallery which includes images of the Passion of Christ or of the saints and, if we follow this logic through, outside every Roman Catholic church in the world.

Crucifix at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Hanceville, Alabama, USA

Why now?

Why now? The painting by Benedetto Gennari the Younger has existed for 340 years and been sporadically on public display throughout that period, the Blake images for over 200 years during which they have featured in numerous books and exhibitions.

Why are these warning notices making their appearance now?

It’s not as if we are suddenly more opposed to slavery – the Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade got going during the 1780s, 240 years ago, and used as many images of atrocities against slaves as it could find. Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, was founded in London in 1839 and is still very active. I.e. graphic images of slavery have been in the public domain for over 200 years.

As to images of threat or violence, my God what have most movies for the past 100 years been about, plenty of plays and countless hundreds of thousands of art works not to mention millions of photographs taken of every war since the Crimea or the Indian Mutiny.

What is it in contemporary society which suggests that art lovers, old and young, native and foreign, have, for the last 300 years or so, been able to confront and process images like this without any kind of warning… but now they can’t.

Re. the slavery images, is it because the black population of the UK has reached a kind of tipping point where images like this are no longer acceptable, even in an obviously academic and historical context?

Have changes in social attitudes across the British population suddenly made images of black people in chains unacceptable?

But what about the warning about Blake’s pretty harmless cartoons? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Or is it not British society, is it the attitudes of art curators which have changed?

Is it not the British public that the curators are concerned about? Is it the art curating profession which has been swept by progressive views, and whose modern woke training has told them that images like this are objectionable.

When they envision visitors being offended, is it really themselves and their progressive cohorts who they are envisioning?

Conclusion

So I’m not belittling the impact that images of black slavery might well have on black, or any other, visitors to an exhibition like this, or the emotional impact of images of threat or violence might have on gallery goers more broadly.

But up until a year or so ago, curators of pretty much every gallery and museum in the world were happy to assume that gallery visitors were grown-up enough, adult enough, to take images like this in their stride. To be shocked, maybe, maybe even to have an emotional response, but to be able to cope with it.

I’m genuinely curious to know 1. what has changed and 2. where this new trend will go.

And 3. am I going to have to put warnings at the top of every one of my blog posts which is about war or slavery or violence or conflict or threat? Because that’s most of them…


Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Piranesi drawings: visions of antiquity @ the British Museum

To mark the 300th anniversary of the Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the British Museum has created a landmark FREE exhibition displaying the Museum’s complete collection of Piranesi’s drawings.

Piranesi (1720-1778) is often reckoned to be the greatest printmaker of the 18th century. He was extremely prolific, producing hundreds of views or veduti, of Rome in particular, focusing on its ancient ruins, sometimes portrayed as monstrously huge and elaborately decayed, in other series shown as if restored to their former glories.

Into these elaborately staged and dramatic scenes he introduced groups of vases, altars, tombs and other baroque details that were never actually present in ancient Rome, in order to produce finely detailed, elaborate and often fantastical views. (Note the very small chariot and people at the bottom centre of this amazingly cluttered composition.)

Fantastical view of the Via Appia. Engraving by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

The Enlightenment taste for ruins

It is fascinating to learn that the taste for ‘views’ of Roman ruins was growing in order to cater for the growing numbers of rich northern Europeans making the Grand Tour of classical sites. To cater for this growing market, Italian artists developed and named a new set of artistic genres, including:

  • veduta – a highly detailed print of a cityscape
  • capriccio – a whimsical aggregate of monumental architecture and ruin which never existed in real life
  • veduta ideata – idealised and larger-than-life depictions of the ancient ruins in their supposed glory
  • veduta di fantasia – architectural fantasies

As this list suggests, the taste of the times was for the fantastical, the awe-inspiring in age and size, curly-cued with fantastical details and elaborations. In fact so exaggerated were the size of many of Piranesi’s images of Roman ruins that when Northern tourists actually arrived, they were sometimes disappointed to discover the actual remains were far more modest in scale.

Goethe is mentioned as one of many Northerners who formed their ideas about Rome from Piranesi’s fabulously successful books of prints and, on finally arriving at the Eternal City, being disappointed.

Interior view of the Flavian Amphitheater, called the Colosseum (1766) by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Antiques dealer

Although he was born and educated in Venice, Piranesi came to Rome as a young man and made his career there. Not only a frustrated architect and very successful print-maker, Piranesi was also an antiquarian and antiques dealer. He not only dealt in the large number of Roman antiques to be found in and around the city (especially Hadrian’s Villa outside the city which was being uncovered during his lifetime) but he a) incorporated these vases and sarcophagi and reliefs and other detail into his prints and b) he restored many of the antiques to his idea of how they ought to look, often adding his own elaborations.

Thus there are a couple of pieces of sculpture in the exhibition (like the enormous marble horned lion emerging from a lotus) but the commentary also recommends you drop into the Enlightenment galleries back on the Ground Floor of the Museum to check out the two Piranesi vases there.

I’m glad I did, because they are vast, twice the height of a man and so monstrously heavy that, apparently, they simply could not be moved up to the Print Rooms and, if they’d tried, would have broken the floor.

The Piranesi Vase at the British Museum. The vase was discovered at the Villa Hadrian, then restored in Piranesi’s workshop, where other monumental elements were added. It is enormous.

Elements of Piranesi’s style

From below Architecture is most impressive if seen from below, looking up, especially if features like arches loom over the viewer’s head, as they do in most of the Imagined Prisons pictures.

From the side Classical art and classical architecture liked to view classical buildings head on, emphasising the clarity and balance of their design, and Piranesi did just that in some of the earliest architectural drawings in this exhibition. But as he matured, Piranesi preferred to look at buildings from the side, creating a more dynamic affect. Here’s a fairly mild example, View of the Campidoglio from the Side.

View of the Campidoglio from the Side. Etching by Piranesi (1761)

You can see how the subject matter is overwhelmingly architectural. Piranesi trained as an architect and throughout his life produced huge numbers of architectural plans, some sensible, some wildly extravagant, yet only once was he actually commissioned to practice some architecture (between 1764 to 66 he carried out restoration work on the Santa Maria del Priorato Church in Rome). There are people in this print, but they’re in a rather disorganised heap at the bottom left and their main contribution is to being out the scale and monumentality of the architecture and the architectural composition.

Light in the distance Another trick Piranesi used regularly was to make the foreground of an image dark and clotted with the middle distance light and airy. This gives the visual impression of size and scale, as if the building is rising up into a more sunlit region. It’s a trick he used in what are probably his most famous series, the Carceri d’invenzione or Imaginary Prisons, a series of 16 prints that show enormous subterranean vaults with stairs and awesome machines. (And look at the size of the tiny human figures shuffling along floor or gesticulating on various walls and platforms; it looks like an illustration for an H.G. Wells story about the distant future.)

Carceri Plate VI, The Smoking Fire by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1745)

The Imaginary Prisons series went on to inspire the Romantics and, a lot later, the Surrealists, with their sense of mysterious but looming forces.

People are small So obvious it barely needs mentioning, but just review how minuscule the human figures are in the Appian Way or the Colosseum or the Imaginary Prisons: this is a monumental architecture of the imagination which is intended to dwarf and overawe mere mortals, including the viewer.

Defender of Roman art

It was fascinating to learn that during the 18th century a controversy developed among critics and writers and artists about the relative merits of ancient Roman and Greek art. More was being learned about ancient Greek architecture and ideas, and its defenders claimed it had greater purity and simplicity, and accused the later Romans of copying everything that was good about Greek architecture and then blowing it up to elephantine proportions and encrusting it with unnecessary details.

By his stage Piranesi had established his reputation as one of the great illustrators of Roman buildings and art, not least via the successful four-volume series Roman Antiquities. he had been elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquarians in London, and a member of the Accademia di San Luca in Rome, so it was not, maybe surprising, that he found himself drawn into controversy with the French Hellenophile Pierre-Jean Mariette.

Piranesi defended the more advanced technology used by the Romans to build larger buildings; the awe-inspiring magnificence of their buildings; but also the Romans’ willingness to absorb motifs from other cultures: not just ancient Greek, but Etruscan and even Egyptian, creating a rich and original synthesis.

In other words, it’s fascinating to learn that his works aren’t just whims and fancies, but the putting-into-practice of a thoroughly worked-out theory of art and art history resulting in the conviction that borrowings from exotic sources and bizarre combinations are the paths to originality and creativity.

Piranesi’s drawings

All the foregoing is by way of introducing Piranesi, his main achievements, his interest in architecture and the fantastical, and his patriotic defence of Rome and its artistic legacy.

But this is not an exhibition of Piranesi’s famous prints. It is a comprehensive display of the British Museum’s entire collection of Piranesi drawings.

Throughout his career Piranesi made detailed architectural drawings, first as an apprentice draughtsman and then for all sorts of reasons: as preparations for the prints, as working sketches of antique pieces to either market them or as studies for larger compositions. Some drawings are huge and portrays vast, fantastical, imaginary scenes which he later converted into prints, while others are relatively small detailed studies of particular aspects, like the drawing here of a sword, or a vase.

The 51 drawings are placed in simple chronological order so the visitor can track Piranesi’s artistic evolution from sensible architectural draughtsman to impresario of the fantastical. Here he is in his early 20s, being sensible and factual.

A colonnaded atrium with domes by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1740-43) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ten years later, here is the source drawing for the hyper-fantastical vision of an Appian Way that I opened this review with, a helter-skelter surfeit of impossible buildings and exotic details.

The meeting of the Via Appia and the Via Ardeatina, seen at the second milestone outside the Porta Capena by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1750-56) © The Trustees of the British Museum

If we compare this drawing with the print the differences are immediately apparent. The composition is the same but drawn with surprising freedom and vim, with multiple lines sketching out perspectives and shapes, and with a very loose colour wash creating light and shade.

This lightness of touch and freedom characterises all the drawings which have an expressive charm of their own. I particularly liked the early design for a temple he had drawn, along with careful notes on scale and aspect and then, right at the end, he thought ‘Blow it’ and added a pyramid to the composition.

“If in doubt, add a pyramid,” is not a bad rule for life.

When he came to Rome he adopted a yellow paper and washes (as opposed to the more factual white tonalities of his earliest Venetian work) and this palette is compounded in the many later drawings where he used red ink or crayon to really ram home the vibrancy of the composition.

A monumental staircase in a vaulted interior with columns by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1750-55) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Although the exhibition features nine prints (including the ones of the Colosseum and the Side View of the Campidoglio and several of the Imaginary Prisons) to give context and show what some of the drawings were preparatory drawings for, many of the 51 drawings weren’t preparations for prints at all, but were finished works in their own right, or studies of details.

There’s are some of the scores of drawings he did of human figures (Standing man in profile), the detailed studies of a Roman sword I mentioned above, studies of ancient vases and what are called candelabra, multi-storeyed stone confections – and countless experiments in architectural fantasy, taken from a wide range of perspectives and points of view – as well as a selection of drawings he did when he visited the newly excavated ruins of Pompeii.

View of the Strada Consulare with the Herculaneum Gate in Pompeii by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (c. 1772-78) © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the time of his death Piranesi was one of the most influential interpreters of ancient Rome. His prints and treatises were popular across Europe and his grand, and grandiose, visions of the Eternal City would define the idea of Rome for generations of travellers and armchair tourists.

This exhibition is a fascinating glimpse into the engine room of his creativity, a look behind-the-scenes of the brightly finished and smooth prints at the much more creative, extempore, roughly finished and, in many ways, more exciting drawings.


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Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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