The I without a self by W.H. Auden

In January 1939 the English poet W.H. Auden sailed to America where he intended to make a new life for himself. He wanted to escape the fame and notoriety he had garnered in England, and the association his work had with left-wing politics, as well as the more basic consideration that there was more work for a freelance poet, dramatist, essayist and commentator in America than in Britain.

He set about the process of shedding his politically committed 1930s persona, and embarked on an earnest attempt to understand himself and the times he lived in. This was eventually to lead him back to the Anglican beliefs of his childhood, but recast in the forms of 1940s and 50s existentialist theologians.

His poetry stopped being about gangs of schoolboys behaving like soldiers or vivid descriptions of England’s derelict depression-era industry or calls for action in civil war Spain, a fabulously thrilling mix of vivid detail and urgent mood, which makes the reader feel part of some insider gang:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

and became more consciously detached and urbane. In the worst of it, his characters carry out long monologues full of knowing references to Character Types and Schools of Thought. In the best of it he invokes or addresses the Greats of European Culture such as Horace or Goethe or Homer and writes poems of tremendous authority such as The Shield of Achilles. As the terrible war dragged on, Auden came to see it as the poet’s role to define and preserve the values of civilisation.

Meanwhile, to earn a living, he needed to deliver lectures and write reviews. He was always a highly cerebral person, from early youth given to sorting and ordering friends, poems and experiences into categories. Thus his essays and lectures have a kind of brisk, no-nonsense clarity about them, much given to invoking types and archetypes and categories, and to then explaining how they apply to this or that writer.

Thus, when he came to write about Kafka, Auden takes as his premise the notion that Kafka was the century’s greatest writer of parables and then goes on to work through the consequences of that idea. It is characteristic of Auden that his explanation requires reference to Dickens, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and an explanation of the archetype of The Quest and the Princess and the Hero, as well as references to Gnostics and manicheism. It is characteristic that Auden uses quite a lot of Christian theological language, while making no reference to Kafka’s well-known Jewish context.

The essay is already available online in its entirety and since it is so lucid I can’t see any point in garbling it through my own interpretation but quote it in full.

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

Kafka is a great, maybe the greatest, master of the pure parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by characters, situations, actions which, though they may be analogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a pure parable in this way.

Though the hero of a parable may be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be called ‘a certain man’ or ‘K’) and a definite historical and geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read. The ‘meaning’ of a parable, in fact, is different for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic can do to ‘explain’ it to others. Thanks to his superior knowledge of artistic and social history, of language, of human nature even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he does not and cannot have any idea.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, ‘This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens’, but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. ‘Where are you going?’ said the guard. ‘I’m trying to get out,’ I replied. ‘You are out,’ he said. For the moment I felt I was K.

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowledge of his personal life and character contributes almost nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by preventing one from making false readings. (The ‘true’ readings are always many.)

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The Duchess who owns the castle is kind and good but she is often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she tells the truth, and all ends happily.

What is illuminating about this information is that the castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, which suggests that those critics who have thought of the inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially correct.

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those interpreters who see in the castle the residence of ‘divine law and divine grace’. Its officers are totally indifferent to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detachment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion.

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again.

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle are, Kafka’s finest work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great Wall of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. The wall it portrays is still the world of his earlier books and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like The Penal Colony almost unbearable, has gone. Existence may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters are more humorously resigned to it.

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the traditional Quest, the goal – a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. – is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who know both and give him accurate directions and warnings.

Moreover the goal is publicly recognizable as desirable. Everybody would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he
will succeed.

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are obstructive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: ‘There is a goal but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering’. Far from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under a special curse.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what he ought to do and his one problem is ‘Can I do it?’ Odysseus knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detective knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. But for K the problem is ‘What ought I to do?’ He is neither tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; it may well be proof of his own.

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquiring the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to say I. But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt.

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to become a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to acquire.

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for which he was created, and freedom would destroy him.

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will go – not the rending or the block from its foundation, which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and with that the gay and empty journey.

The narrator hero of The Burrow for example, is a beast of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself without a mate and never encounters any other member of his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he be pursued and attacked by other animals – ‘My enemies are countless,’ he says – but we never learn what they may be like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: ‘Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable burrow?’ This is a torment because he can never be certain that there is not some further precaution of which he has not thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as he would defend himself.

One of my favourite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thickness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free space of about the same width all around the Castle Keep … I had always pictured this free space, and not without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull oneself up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe between one’s claws . . .

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but decides against it.

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in itself, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be exquisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him … I simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we must both descend at the same time, in which case the advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust can I really put in him? … It is comparatively easy to trust any one if you are supervising him or at least supervise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story breaks off without a solution.

Edwin Muir has suggested that the story would have ended with the appearance of the invisible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubtful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears have any objective justification.

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: ‘To be worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy of me.’

But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explanation. It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedicated to a particular function, whose personal existence is accidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of whom it could be said that he ‘hungered and thirsted after righteousness’, it was Kafka.

Perhaps he came to regard what he had written as a personal device he had employed in his search for God. ‘Writing,’ he once wrote, ‘is a form of prayer,’ and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his aim in writing thus:

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: ‘Hammering a table together is nothing to him,’ but rather ‘Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,’ whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and if you will, still more senseless.

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work published should at least make a reader wary of the way in which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean notion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of Kafka’s sayings come perilously close to accepting it.

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the physical world.

Kafka’s own life and his writings as a whole are proof that he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can alwaysbe recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judgment cannot be applied to its actions.

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think of the higher life they search for as existing in some otherworld sphere: the distinction they draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.


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The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: Either three quick sex sessions, then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but scheduled at three-weekly intervals. (Putting it like this makes you realise how, well, crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas is sent to a sleepy provincial town by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. Here, in a sleepy local restaurant, he meets Tereza who is a waitress. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smells the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to form an extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary occurs in more than one of the sections and includes such subjects as: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels deeper, more deeply felt, simply from the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters via a reasonably chronological narrative.

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. Tereza gets chatted up by various male customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What if she was somehow filmed or recorded having sex, compromising herself?

And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom they lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight Tomas realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so Tomas tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who he is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is duly published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while the opposite decision (to be compliant to stronger powers, at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do? All alternatives seem to lead down to defeat.

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel, in fact one of the worst things Kundera ever wrote. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial.

In a great hurry Kundera progresses through an anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habits. Then Kundera picks up this idea of human faeces and runs with it via references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, the way they force a binary choice on us: that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

Kundera then hurries on to rope in thoughts about ‘sentimentality’, defining sentimentality as The awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder around a million of their fellow citizens, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

Kundera tries to redeem what even he may have suspected was forced material by piling in ‘tragic’ material about his characters. In particular we now learn that the son, Simon, who Tomas abandoned early on in the novel is now all grown up and is also working as a farm labourer. He starts writing letters to Tomas in which he explains that, in protest at the regime, he left an academic career and married a devout wife and became a Christian. Simon and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, Simon hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind Tomas and Tereza’s deaths being reported at one remove like this, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task. We barely know him before he is carrying the freight of having the deaths of our two beloved central characters die.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self-important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and then… feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown-up body parts of a press photographer, then slowly breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, and are merely machines; and this view is compared with Nietzsche, who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin) along with plenty more philosophising on his own account:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all these lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas -being a doctor – is forced to put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.

This event prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury the little doggy corpse, is pretty obviously designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sensitive reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then, one day, he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her years of anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick, some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented so the reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others – the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is considered acceptable behaviour, especially around men and their speech and behaviour towards women. Sometimes, reading one of his countless reflections about ‘women’, it feels like a massive tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote about relations between the sexes seeming very dated.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

The Joke by Milan Kundera (1967)

‘A melancholy duet about the schism between body and soul’ (Milan Kundera in the Introduction)

Czech history – a postwar snapshot

Kundera was born in 1929 in Brno, Czechoslovakia. When he was ten the Nazis annexed his country and imposed Nazi rule, when he was 16 the Russians liberated his homeland, and when he was 19 the Russians supported the February 1948 coup which brought a communist government to power. Initially, many of the brightest and best in the country celebrated a new era which promised to deliver a new world of freedom and justice and equality for all. Soon enough the government showed its Stalinist colours, rounding up not only conservatives and capitalists, big landowners, bankers and so on, but also socialist and liberal writers and critics. Hundreds of thousands were sacked from their jobs, around a hundred thousand were imprisoned and tens of thousands executed as spies and traitors and saboteurs, including friends and colleagues of Kundera’s.

After putting up with nearly twenty years of oppressive rule, in late 1967 and early 1968 rising protests against the regime was met by a new, more liberal generation of party leaders, who set about loosening communist policy, reining back the dreaded secret police, and allowing a flowering of expression and political criticism in the media, newspapers, radio and TV, and among artists and writers. Which all became known as ‘the Prague Spring’.

The growing political, economic and cultural liberalism of Czechoslovakia led to fears that it might be about to leave the Soviet-backed security and economic alliances, and that its example might undermine Russia’s grip on all Eastern Europe. So in August 1968 some 500,000 Russian and other eastern bloc soldiers rode tanks into Czechoslovakia, occupying all the cities and strategic points, overthrowing the liberal government and reinstalling a hardline Stalinist regime. Over a hundred thousand Czechs fled the country, and another massive wave of repression and punishment threw an entire generation of professionals out of their white collar jobs, forcing them into menial labouring jobs.

Kundera, just turning 40, was among this group. Back in 1948 he had been an enthusiastic communist, joining the party when still at school. He welcomed the 1948 coup and the arrival of a new world, and went, as a student, to study film at university. But his outspoken wit and anti-establishment stance got him in trouble with the authorities and he was expelled from the party in 1950. After a hiatus in his studies, he was, however, readmitted to the university, completed his studies in 1952, and was appointed a lecturer in world literature. In 1956 he was readmitted to the Communist Party. For the next ten years he was a dutiful communist and academic.

Kundera played a peripheral role in the Prague Spring, looking on as his students went on strike, organised meetings and rallies, devised slogans which they printed on posters and banners and carried on marches and spray-painted on the walls of the capital. But even after the Russians invaded, he continued to defend the Communist Party, engaging in polemical debate with more thoroughly anti-communist intellectuals, insisting that the communist regime was capable of reform in a humanist direction.

Only in the early 1970s, as it became clear that the new hardline government was imposing an inflexibly authoritarian regime, did Kundera finally abandon his dreams that communism could be reformed. In 1975 he moved to France, taking a teaching job at Rennes, then moving on to Paris. He was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979, and legally became a French citizen in 1981.

By the 1980s, when his novels began to become widely popular in the West, Kundera had, in other words, been on a long gruelling journey of personal and intellectual disillusionment.

Themes in Milan Kundera’s fiction

Communism

This all explains why, although the main action of the novels is often set contemporaneously – in the later 1960s and 1970s just before they were published – their root is in that 1948 coup. Again and again, in all of his books, he returns like a soldier revisiting the scene of his post-traumatic stress disorder, to the primal trauma of the revolution (in The Farewell Party, Jakub – a key character – describes it as the obsession of someone who’s been in a bad car crash to endlessly relive the trauma). Again and again he examines all its aspects, reliving the jubilation and sense of emotional awakening he and his generation experienced, and then – in the rest of the text – generally delineating the long, grim consequences the advent of communist rule had on so many people and so many aspects of life.

So Kundera’s work is characterised by his obsessive return, again and again, to relive aspects of the coup and re-examine what it meant, recasting the events as fable, fairy tale, allegory, in a host of genres and forms, in order to try and work through what was for him, the primal imaginative and psychological trauma.

Cynicism and the absurd

There’s no-one as cynical as a disillusioned revolutionary. All Kundera’s books bespeak an immensely jaded cynic, with a bitter view of human nature. What makes them interesting is he keeps his corrosive cynicism under control, and deploys it strategically to dramatise and emphasise his plots. What I mean is – he will often create one particular character who is extremely jaded and disillusioned and cynical, and let that character give full vent to (what we can guess is) Kundera’s own bitterness, against optimism, against utopian politics, against idealistic revolutions, against unimaginative party apparatchiks who carry out orders without reflecting. BUT – these characters are often set in juxtaposition with other characters, often with sunnier, happier outlooks, and often the cynical characters are proved to be completely wrong.

So he creates dramatic structures in which his bitter cynicism can be forcefully expressed but is always careful to balance and control them with other points of view. Eventually, as we shall see in our analysis of The Joke, what emerges is less cynicism as such, than an all-consuming sense of the utter absurdity of human existence: that nobody’s intentions come out as they mean them to, that all human perceptions, understandings, analyses and goals are absurd.

And this doesn’t necessarily mean bleakly, nihilistically absurd. it can mean ridiculously, comically, even light-heartedly absurd.

The personal and the private

If the communist government could nationalise entire industries, dispossess the rich of their belongings, collectivise the farms, determine what jobs each citizen is allotted, take over control of all newspapers, radio and TV, and monitor everything every citizen published or wrote, even in private letters and diaries – the one area of life it could not easily control was the citizens’ love lives, in particular their sex lives.

Sex plays a huge role in Kundera’s fiction, on one reading it is arguably his central theme, and some of his descriptions of sexual encounters between characters are immensely powerful and erotic. And, if you are a card-carrying feminist, I can see how the unrelenting emphasis on the predatory sexual stance of almost all the male characters can become claustrophobic and, eventually, oppressive. I am a heterosexual man, and I have gotten a little tired of the way all of the male characters are obsessed with sex, and with very straightforward, vanilla, penetrative sex, at that. Many elements of his obsession with male predatory sexuality now seem very, very outdated to modern readers.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that sex performs two other functions in Kundera’s fiction.

1. Given that it was impossible for citizens of Czechoslovakia to write or publish what they felt, to write poems or plays or novels or stories that wouldn’t be censored by the authorities, let alone make films or TV documentaries or radio programmes, or even put on festivals or meetings which didn’t go unmonitored by the authorities – given that almost all forms of expression were banned or heavily censored and controlled – then sex – the sexual encounter between a man and a woman (that’s all it ever is in Kundera’s traditional mindset) can be a theatre of the intellect and the emotions, a place where all kinds of thoughts and moods and opinions which are utterly banned in the public sphere can be expressed in the private realm of the bedroom.

2. But the most dominant idea which emerges is Kundera’s fundamental concept of absurdity, the absurdity of the human condition. When I mentioned to a friend that I was rereading all of Kundera, she said, ‘Oh my God, he’s so sexy, so erotic!’ But the odd thing is that, studying the texts, you realise that many of the sexual couplings which take place are actually quite repugnant. In several of the novels men force themselves on women who are very very reluctant to have sex. There is at least one instance of brutal gang rape. And most of the other couplings take place between people who have ludicrously misjudged each other’s intentions. A good example of which lies at the heart of The Joke.

The Joke – structure and style

The Joke was Kundera’s first novel. The end page states that it was finished in December 1965, when Kundera was thirty-six i.e. it is not a young man’s book, it has been long meditated on. In fact, towards the end, the protagonists’ age itself becomes a topic of reflection, see below.

The Joke is divided into seven parts which are listed on the Contents page.

  1. Ludvik (10 pages)
  2. Helena (10 pages)
  3. Ludvik (84 pages)
  4. Jaroslav (34 pages)
  5. Ludvik (40 pages)
  6. Kostka (30 pages)
  7. Ludvik, Jaroslav, Helena (58 pages)

Which tells us straightaway the names and genders of the main protagonists, and that the main figure is going to be Ludvik, who has more appearances, and more pages devoted to him (134 of the book’s 267 pages), than all the others put together.

Kundera’s prose style is flat and factual…

The sections are named like this because each one presents a narration in that character’s voice, and Kundera makes an obvious effort to distinguish their voices. Ludvik, for example, is self-centred and factual in his approach. Helena’s style is immediately different, in that her sentences are made up of numerous clauses which all run into each other. Maybe this is an attempt to capture a more ‘feminine’ stream of consciousness, and noticing this reminds me of James Joyce and Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of Ulysses. However, Kundera is a very different writer from Joyce.

Joyce had a miraculous, Shakespearian grasp of the infinite range of the English language and, in Ulysses, made it explode into a multi-coloured firework display, melting and reforming words and phrases, and mixing them with other languages to create an extraordinary verbal extravaganza.

Kundera is the opposite. His language is pretty flat and boring. Maybe this is the fault of the translation, but I don’t think so. No, the interest of the book doesn’t stem from the words but from:

  1. a complex, farcical and thought-provoking plot
  2. from the complex interplay of the handful of characters caught up in the plot
  3. but most of all from what the characters think about the events they’re caught up in and activate; the characters are endlessly reflecting, thinking, pondering and analysing their motives

…because Kundera is not a descriptive writer but an intellectual, analytical author

This is what it means to say that Kundera is an intellectual writer. We barely find out what any of his characters look like (having read to the end of the book I have no clue what Ludvik actually looks like, what colour his hair or eyes are, whether he’s tall or short or fat or thin).

1. Analysis Instead we are incessantly fed with what the characters are thinking. And their thinking almost always takes the form of analysis. Even when they’re thinking about their love lives – and they spend most of their time thinking about their love lives – they are thinking about them in an analytical way. When they think about other people, even their supposed beloveds, the people they’re married to or in love with or planning to have an affair with – they tend to think of them as categories of person, as types which fit into certain typologies, and must be managed and handled as types.

Thus Ludvik thinks of Zemanek as The Betrayer and of Zemanek’s wife, Helena, as Instrument For Revenge, and remembers Lucie as being Ideal Pure Femininity.

2. Deconstruction But the book is intellectual in another way, which is that the entire story has been dismantled and analysed out into separate elements. The text itself is made up of parts like a jigsaw puzzle. As the index indicates, Kundera conceived a story – then he dismantled it into a set of disparate narratives given from the points of view of four main characters. Like a forensic scientist investigating a complex chunk of organic matter by submitting it to a set of procedures designed to identify the basic elements which make it up.

3. Multiple points of view So, although – as per point 1 – all the characters tend to think of each other as types or categories – the use of multiple points of view almost always undermines their analyses, showing just how wrong they are. Thus it’s only about page 100, when we first hear from a completely different character outside Ludvik’s worldview, Jaroslav, that we see things from a completely different perspective and learn that Ludvik is not the master narrator of events but is himself also a type – the Cynic, the Man Who Abandoned Folk Music For The Revolution – and a type very much caught up in events, misunderstanding and misreading other people.

In some ways the heart of the book only comes with the thirty pages devoted to the character named Kostka, where we see the world through his eyes and gain a completely different perspective on Ludvik’s history, and on his pivotal relationship with Lucie, showing the Ludvik was completely wrong in everything he thought about his one true love.

Thus:

  1. not only do the characters obsessively analyse their own motives and other peoples’
  2. and the narrator analyses his characters’ analyses
  3. but also, by juxtaposing characters’ analyses against each other, Kundera performs a further level of analysis, a kind of meta-analysis of the analyses

See what I mean by a very intellectual author.

The Joke – the plot

The book is set around the time it was published, the mid 1960s. But to understand it you have to realise that its roots lie 15 years earlier, at the period of the 1948 Communist coup and its immediate aftermath.

The fateful postcard

To be precise, the summer of 1951. Ludvik Jahn is one of the generation of young students caught up in the idealism generated by the Communist Party’s seizure of power and he is still a staunch communist, but also an intellectual and wit and joker. In his circle of friends is a particularly po-faced and unimaginative woman student named Marketa. She never gets any of their gags or references, which tempts her friends to spin all kinds of jokes on her, for example the time they were all down the pub and Ludvik invents the notion that the hills of Bohemia are home to a shy and elusive race of trolls – which Marketa accepts with open mouth and wide eyes.

So when she goes away to summer labour duty, helping with the harvest, as all young zealous communists do, and when she sends him a series of letters each more po-faced and staunchly patriotic and communist than the last, Ludvik decides to pull her leg by scribbling a quick postcard with the sentiments most guaranteed to shock her, namely:

Optimism is the opium of mankind!
A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity!
Long live Trotsky!

The card is intercepted on the way to Marketa’s camp. The authorities call her in for questioning. Then Ludvik is called into a kangaroo court where he slowly realises that his quick jeu d’esprit is being interpreted in the most sinister way possible. How long have you been an agent for enemy powers, his interrogators ask him. With horror he realises that merely making a joke, of any kind, is – to these people – an insult to the 100% earnest, patriotic, communist fervour required from the entire citizenry.

Things reach a peak of horror when he is hauled before a roomful of his peers at the university, fellow students and communist party members. Ludvik is briefly heartened when he learns the chair is to be his good friend and fellow wit Zemanek. However, Zemanek rises and gives a thrilling and brilliantly damning indictment of Ludvik, kicking off by quoting the prison diaries of a young communist, Julius Fucik, who was arrested, tortured and executed by the Nazis but who died knowing he gave his life for a noble cause. Having let that sink in among the tearful audience, Zemanek then comes to another text, and reads out Ludvik’s postcard. At which point Ludvik realises he is lost. When it comes to a vote, 100% of the arms of his friends and colleagues stretch up to expel him from the university and from the communist party.

In those heady revolutionary times, Kundera explains, it was thought that human beings had a fixed inner essence and that that essence was either for the Party and with the Party, or it was against. Black or white. And a single slip, a chance remark, in a conversation or article or meeting – might suddenly reveal the terrible fact that you were not for the Party. And just that one slip revealed to all the party zealots, to the police and to all society who you really were. Just one slip of the tongue, and you were categorised and condemned for life as an enemy of the people. You would be fired from your job, unable to get a new one, all decent respectable people would shun you.

(Reading Kundera’s bitter and extended explanation of how the young, clever, intellectual communist zealots of this day took a fierce delight in policing everyone’s speech and writing, and pouncing on the slightest example of unrevolutionary sentiments… the reader can’t help reflecting that this is exactly the fierce, young university student zeal which drives modern political correctness.)

In the mining camp

It was only the fact that Ludvik was a student that had exempted him from military service. Now he’s kicked out of university, he is immediately conscripted straight into the army and, because of his misdemeanour, into a punishment battalion which works in the coal mines.

There follows a long passage describing the grim lives of the coal miners and the barbed-wire-encircled barracks they live in. Slowly Ludvik gets to know the other criminals and ‘social deviants’. I like prison camp memoirs (the twentieth century was, after all, very rich in them; the prison camp memoir is a major twentieth century genre) and I found this extended section powerful and moving. For the first time Ludvik is forced to pay attention to the lives and fates of people outside himself, and to sympathise with their plights.

Once a month they all get a pass to go into town on a Saturday night and spend the money they’ve earned in the mine, getting pissed and shagging the local prostitutes. Ludvik describes this in some detail.

But then he also describes meeting a shy girl who is different from the rest and who he conceives something resembling true love for, a young woman named Lucie Sebetka. He can only meet her once a month, and comes to project all his sensitivity and soulfulness onto her, turning her into an image of frail purity.

But Ludvik is a man – and a man in a Milan Kundera novel – so sex is ever-present in his mind and it isn’t long before he wants to – needs to – possess her, and make her his.

This sequence is written very convincingly, the way Ludvik’s thoughts slowly morph from worshiping Lucie’s purity to needing to possess it. Thus, on several successive dates – spread months apart – he tries to have sex with her, despite her refusing, clenching her legs together, pushing him off, and bursting into tears.

Maybe it’s because I’m so much older than Ludvik (he is, after all, only 20 at the time) or because I’ve read so many hundreds of accounts of #metoo-type rapes and assaults – but I quickly suspected that she had been abused earlier in her life and this explains her paradoxical behaviour: she loves Ludvik, she brings him flowers, she visits the camp and says hello to him through the wire mesh – in every way she is devoted to him; and yet on the two occasions where he manages to engineer meetings (at some risk – for the second one he manages to escape through a hole in the wire, and devise an elaborate set of arrangements whereby he borrows the bedroom of a civilian miner he’s befriended down the mines for just one evening) she is OK kissing, and sort of OK taking her clothes off but… absolutely and completely refuses to go any further, driving Ludvik into paroxysms of frustration, and then into a fiery rage.

He eventually shouts at her to get out and throws her clothes at her. She dresses and leaves in tearful silence. Ludvik waits an appropriate period of time, goes back downstairs to find the friendly miner has got a few mates round and they’re all a bit drunk, so he regales them with an entirely fictional account of what wonderful championship sex he’s just had with his girlfriend, before riskily sneaking back into the camp, and going to bed in his miserable bunk.

He never sees Lucie again – on his next furlough he discovers she’s simply left the dormitory she was sharing in with two other girls and left no forwarding address – but he never stops being haunted by her memory.

His mother dies while he’s doing his time and when it’s finally over, he is so heartlost and forlorn, that he signs up for another three years hard labour. The loss of Lucie – the stupid bungling lust of that one night – plunges him into years of ‘hopelessness and emptiness’ (p.104).

The Revenge

It is fifteen years later. We are in the mind of plump, middle-aged Helena. She is fed up with her husband Pavel and his philandering. She hates the petty bickering at work – she works in a government radio station. She resents all the fuss they made when she got some little hussy who she discovered was having an affair with a married man, sacked from her job. All her staff rounded on her, some even muttering ‘hypocrite’. But what do they know about all the sacrifices she’s made for the Party? And for her country? And for Truth and Justice?

OK, she herself flirts with younger men but that is completely different. And anyway, now she has met the love of her life, a wonderful heartfelt passionate man named Ludvik. And he has invited her for a trip out of Prague, to a town in the country where there is an annual folk festival. She has combined business with pleasure, as she’ll cover the festival for her radio station (accompanied by a loyal young puppy of a sound engineer named Jindra) but her real motivation for going is that Ludvik has told her he can’t contain his passion any more and must have her. She is thrilled to her fingertips. She has brought her best underwear.

And so she proceeds to check into the hotel in this rural town and then to meet Ludvik. It is only half way through this passage, and half way through the book (on page 151) that we casually learn that her last name is Zemanek. When I read that sentence I burst out laughing and everyone on the tube carriage looked at me. Yes, Zemanek, the name of Ludvik’s smooth-talking friend who was the first to betray him and led the meeting which had him expelled from university and the party, who ruined his life.

Now Ludvik is taking his revenge. Having eventually returned to Prague and found white collar work he is suited for, he one day meets Helena who comes to interview him for her radio programme and her surname makes him perk up. He does background checks and establishes she is the wife of his persecutor and contrives for them to have another meeting, at which he uses all his wiles to seduce her. The seduction proceeds apace and is now due to reach its climax in his home town, the setting of the annual folk festival.

And the heart of the novel (arguably) is this grand, staged, ceremonial act of sexual intercourse between the aggrieved Ludvik and his blissfully ignorant, plump adorer, Helena. It is described in great detail and is, I suppose, very erotic.

The two standout features of Ludvik’s technique are 1. He insists she strip naked for him, until she is standing there before him, starkers – without pulling the curtains or turning off the light. She is initially reluctant but eventually strips, and this has the psychological effect of making her truly really completely accept the reality of the situation. Rather than hiding under a blanket and letting something unspeakable happen to her, she is made completely complicit, willing and responsible for the act of sex.

Number 2 is that half way through coitus, Ludvik gets carried away and slaps Helena and, to his and her amazement, she likes it, it makes her howl louder, so he slaps her again, and soon he is slapping her face at will, then turns her over and spanks her big wobbly bum, while she howls and groans in ecstasy.

All very erotic, and written with an intense erotic charge, but – as I’ve emphasised above – also all wildly absurd. Because the forced stripping and the beating unleashes in Helena a deeper level of erotic experience than she could ever have imagined possible, with the result that her love and adoration of Ludvik goes from high on a normal counter, to off the scale, into slavish, super-deotional Shades of Grey territory.

BUT, as the process unfolded, Ludvik found himself more and more overcome with disgust and hatred. With the result that, once they are totally spent, Helena can’t keep her arms off him, is all over him, kisses him all over his body, while Ludvik, thoroughly repulsed and now ashamed of himself, shrinks like a starfish at her touch, and only wants to get dressed and flee.

So the idea of the joke has multiple levels. It refers to:

  1. the original joke postcard that Ludvik sent
  2. and this elaborate ploy he sets up to ravish, ransack and steal from his bitter enemy, everything that he (the enemy) loves (p.171)

However, there is more to come. Namely that Ludvik makes the tactical error of asking Helena to tell him more about her husband. He does this for two reasons a) he wants to hear more about their deep love, so he can savour the idea that he (Ludvik) has ravaged it, b) it will stop Helena pawing and fawning all over him.

What he hadn’t at all anticipated was that Helena proceeds to tell him that her marriage to Zemanek is over. Zemanek doesn’t like her. He has been having affairs. They have ceased living as man and wife. True they share the same house, but they have completely separate lives.

In a flash Ludvik’s entire plan turns to ashes, crashes to the ground. It has all been for nothing. Worse, Helena now enthusiastically tells Ludvik that now she can announce to Zemanek that she has a lover of her own, and he can go to hell with all his pretty dollybirds because she, Helena, has found the greatest, truest love of her life.

Appalled, Ludvik finally manages to make his excuses, plead another appointment and leave.

Jaroslav and the Ride of the King

The book is so long and rich and complex because there are several other distinct threads to it. One of these is about Czech folk music. It turns out that the provincial town where this folk festival is taking place is also Ludvik’s home town. As a teenager he played clarinet in the town’s folk ensembles and was deeply imbrued with the folk tradition. He became very good friends with Jaroslav, a big gentle bear of a man, who emerged as a leader of the town’s folk musicians and a one-man embodiment of the tradition.

Jaroslav’s monologue allows Kundera to go into some detail about the Czech folk tradition, what it means, why it is special, and the impact the communist coup had on it. Surprisingly, this was positive. After all the Czechs were forced to copy the Stalinist model of communist culture – and this emphasised nationalist and folk traditions, while pouring scorn on the ‘cosmopolitianism’ of the international Modernist movement, then, a bit later, strongly criticised the new ‘jazz’ music coming in from the decadent West.

The communist government gave money to preserve folk traditions and to fund folk traditions like the one taking place on the fateful weekend when Ludvik and Helena are visiting his home town. Jaroslav is not backward in expressing his contempt for Ludvik, who abandoned all this to go to the big city, who turned his back on the true folk tradition to celebrate a foreign, imported ideology. Once best friends, they haven’t met for many years, and Jaroslav in particular, harbours a deep grudge against his former band member.

Jaroslav describes in some detail the ‘Ride of the King’ which is the centrepiece of the festival, when a young boy is completely costumed and masked to re-enact the legend of the almost solitary ride of an exiled king in the Middle Ages. It is a great honour to be chosen to play the ‘king’ and Jaroslav is thrilled that his own son was selected by the committee to play the king.

Admittedly the ride itself, as witnessed through the eyes of both Jaroslav and Ludvik, is a rather shabby and tawdry affair. The authorities don’t even close off the main street so the characters dressed in bright traditional costumes and riding horses, are continually dodging out of the way of cars, lorries and motor bikes. And the crowds are the smallest they’ve ever been. (At this point you realise this novel is set in the early 1960s, as radio-based rock and roll was just coming in, as the Beatles were first appearing – and the reader can make comparisons between this Czech novel lamenting the decay of traditional folk festivals, and similar books, describing similar sentiments, written in the West.)

Jaroslav puts a brave face on it all, decrying the horrible noisy modern world, insisting on the primacy and integrity of folk music and traditions and still beaming with pride that his son is riding on a horse through their town dressed as the King of the Ride.

Except he isn’t. Later on in the book Jaroslav makes the shattering discovery that his son has bunked off, gone off on a motorbike with a mate to a roadside café to drink and listen to rock’n’roll. And his wife knew all about it and helped cover it up, helped arrange the dressing up of a completely different boy, and then lied to Jaroslav!

No greater betrayal is conceivable. Stunned, the big man stands in their kitchen, while his wife faces their stove, continuing to fuss over the soup she’s making while her husband’s whole world collapses in ashes. Then, one by one he takes every plate on the dresser and hurls them at the floor. Then he smashes up each of the chairs round the table. Then he turns the table over and smashes it down on the pile of broken crockery. While his wife stands trembling at the cooker, crying into their soup. Then he leaves, dazed and confused, wandering through the streets, and beyond, out into the fields, out to the countryside and eventually sits down by the river which flows through the town, the Morava, then lies down, using the violin case he’s brought with him as a pillow. Lies and stares at the clouds in the sky, completely forlorn.

Kostka’s story

Kostka’s story comes toward the end of the novel, but it provides an important centre and touchstone. As you read it you realise that although Ludvik may be the central consciousness, he is powerfully counterbalanced by first Jaroslav and now Kostka.

Kostka was also of Ludvik and Jaroslav’s generation, the 1948 generation. But Kostka was and is a devout Christian. (Christianity, Christian faith and Christian terminology crops up throughout Kundera’s fiction. Readers [correctly] associate him with meditations on politics and communism, but Christian belief is also a substantial theme in his books.)

Kostka’s inflexible religious belief meant that he, too, eventually found it impossible to stay in university, though he differed from Ludvik in voluntarily quitting and being assigned to a state farm as a technical adviser (p.184) where, being highly intelligent and hard working, he was soon devising more effective ways to grow crops. It was then that a rumour spread about a wild woman of the woods, stories circulated about milk pails being mysteriously emptied, food left out to cool disappearing. It wasn’t long before the authorities tracked down the young woman to her shad shabby lair in a disused barn and brought her in for questioning.

It was Lucie, Ludvik’s pure young woman. This is what happened to her after their tragically failed night of sex, after he threw her clothes at her and told her to clear out. She did. She left her job and the dormitory she shared, and travelled across country sleeping rough, and ended up in a rural area, living off berries and food she could steal.

The authorities take pity on her and assign her to the communal farm. This is where she comes under the protection of Kostka. And very slowly we learn how she relaxes and opens up and tells him her story. As I had suspected, she was abused, to be precise as a teenager she hung round with a gang of boys and on one pitiful occasion, they got drunk and gang raped her. Even the quietest, sweetest boy, the one she thought was her special friend. He was the most brutal, to show off to his mates that he was a real man.

That is more than enough explanation of why she couldn’t give herself to Ludvik. It was precisely because what she needed wasn’t sex, but protection. In her mind, she was forcing Ludvik to conform to the role of Lover and Protector. Having sex destroyed that image which is why she couldn’t do it (over and above the sheer terror the act revived in her mind). And of course, in his mind she was pure and virginal, and he had worked himself up into a young man’s romantic state where he thought of her as especially his, and the act of love as a sacred blessing on the altar of her unsullied beauty.

So both were acting under pitiful delusions about the other.

In fact, we had been briefly introduced to Kostka right at the start of the novel because when he arrives back in his home town for the festival and to deflower Helena, Ludvik looks up one of the few friends he can remember in the place, Kostka, who is now an eminent doctor at the local hospital. In an amiable but distant way, Kostka agrees to loan Ludvik his apartment for an afternoon (for the fatal act of sex). It is only later, when they meet up that evening, that they share a drink and Kostka ends up telling him about his life.

Now Kostka remembers another meeting, by chance, on a train, in 1956. Kostka had been forced to quit the collective farm because of political machinations and had ended up becoming a labourer. First they shared the irony that two young men, both so idealistic about their beliefs, had both been dumped on from a great height by… by… by what? By ‘History’ is the best they can come up with. By the impersonal forces of society working to a logic nobody really understands, certainly nobody can control. In fact Ludvik was so incensed by the unfairness of Kostka’s fate that he moved heaven and earth and used all his old contacts, to get Kostka appointed to the hospital where he still works.

This is why Ludvik looks Kostka up when he arrives back in his hometown in the book’s ‘present’. This is why Kostka agrees to lend him his flat for the deflowering of Helena. And this is why, later that night, when the two old friends share a drink, Kostka tells Ludvik about Lucie, without realising he knew her: about the gang rape, the flight. How she found one man she could trust, a miner in a god-forsaken mining town. But how he, too, turned out to be just like all the rest. How she had turned up the collective farm all those years ago, how Kostka took her under his wing and how, despite himself, he too took advantage of her and began a sexual relationship with her – about which he now, older and wiser, feels cripplingly guilty.

Soon after this revelation, Kostka’s section ends and we are returned to the mind of Ludvik, in the present, walking back from Kostka’s flat late at night, and absolutely reeling. What? Everything he ever believed about Lucie, both during their ill-fated affair and for fifteen years since – turns out to be utterly, completely wrong (p.210).

Back to Helena

But there are still more acts to go in this pitiful black farce. For to Helena’s own surprise no other than her suave philandering husband, Pavel Zemanek, turns up for the festival. He is now a super-smooth and successful university lecturer, adored by his students for his fashionably anti-establishment (i.e. anti-communist) views. And he’s brought his latest student lover along, a long-legged beauty – Miss Broz – perfectly suited to Pavel’s stylish sports car.

Helena takes advantage of her recent mad, passionate coupling with Ludvik, to tell Zemanek that she’s met the love of her life, that she doesn’t need him any more, and generally take a superior position. She goes so far as telling Zemanek her marvellous lover’s name, Ludvik Jahn, and is puzzled when he bursts out laughing. Oh they’re old friends, he explains.

Helena recounts this all to Ludvik when they meet up the next morning, and it is all Ludvik can do to conceal his dismay. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse. And then a few hours later, in the throng of the bloody festival, in among the crowds packing the streets to watch the Ride of the bloody King, suddenly Zemanek emerges from the crowd, accompanied by his long-legged dollybird and Helena is introducing the two enemies, face to face for the first time in 15 years.

And, of course, whereas Ludvik is strangled by an inexpressible combination of rage and hatred, Zemanek is unbearably suave and cool, well dressed, well-heeled, hair well-coiffed, gorgeous student on his arm – unbearable! And doubly unbearable because he realises his revenge on Zemanek has not only failed, but epically, massively failed. Not only did he not ravish and desecrate the body of Zemanek’s beloved wife – because Zemanek doesn’t give a damn who his wife sleeps with – but Helena falling so deeply and publicly in love with him (Ludvik) has done Zemanek a big favour. For years Helena has been a burden round his neck – now at a stroke Ludvik has done him the favour of removing that burden!

Farce is laid over farce, bitter black joke on top of bitter black joke.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, yet another layer is added to the cake of humiliation – because as Ludvik is forced to swallow his rage and join in the polite chit-chat going on between Helena and Zemanek and Miss Broz, he realises something from the latter’s talk. As she witters on praising Zemanek for standing up to the authorities and bravely speaking out about this or that issue and generally becoming a hero to his students, Ludvik is subject to a really shattering revelation: the past doesn’t matter any more.

As she talks on Ludvik realises that, for her and her generation, all that stuff about 1948 and purges and executions and party squabbles and ideological arguments: that’s all ancient history – ‘bizarre experiences from a dark and distant age’ (p.232) which is just of no interest to her and her generation, who want to party and have fun.

Not only has Ludvik failed utterly to wreak his revenge on his old antagonist – but the entire world which gave meaning to their antagonism, and therefore to his act of revenge, has ceased to exist. He has been hanging onto a past which doesn’t exist anymore. It sinks in that the entire psychological, intellectual and emotional framework which has dominated his life for fifteen years… has evaporated in a puff of smoke. No one cares. No one is interested. It doesn’t matter.

Alone again with Helena, Ludvik lets rip. He tells her he hates her. He tells her he only seduced and made love to her to get his own back on her husband, the man who sold him down the river when they were students. He says she repulses him.

At first she refuses to accept it – she has just thrown away her entire life with Zemanek, the security of their house and marriage – for Ludvik and here he is spitting in her face. Eventually she wanders off, dazed, back to the village hall where she and her sound engineer, Jindra, have set up base to make their radio documentary. In a dazed voice, she says she has a headache and the engineer (still virtually a schoolboy, who has a puppy crush on Helena) says he has some headache tablets in her bag. She sends him out for a drink and then, rummaging in his bag, comes across several bottles full of headache pills. She takes two and then looks at herself in the mirror, at her fact tear-stained face, contemplating the complete and utter humiliation she has just undergone and the shattering of her entire life.

And, as she hears Jindra returning with a bottle from a nearby tavern, she hastily swallows down the entire contents of not one but all the bottles in the engineer’s bag. She emerges back into the hall, thanks him for the drink and writes a note. It is a suicide note addressed to Ludvik. She pops it in an envelope and scribbles Ludvik’s name on it and asks Jindra to track Ludvik down and deliver it.

Now, Jindra has got wind of Helena and Ludvik’s affair and was present when Zemanek and his student were introduced to them, so he knows Ludvik by sight. Reluctantly he goes off with the letter. The observant reader might notice that the story commences with a missive – a postcard – and is ending with another, though I can’t quite figure out the meaning of this – something about misunderstood messages.

Jindra fairly quickly finds Ludvik in the beer garden of the most popular pub in town. He grudgingly hands over the letter. Now a message from an angry upset Helena is about the last thing Ludvik wants to have to deal with and so, to delay matters, he invites Jindra to join him in a drink. He calls the waiter. He orders. The drinks arrive. They drink. They toast. The letter sits on the table unopened. I really enjoyed this little sequence.

Eventually and very reluctantly Ludvik opens the envelope and reads the message. He leaps out of his chair and demands to know where Helena is now. The engineer describes the village hall they’ve borrowed and Ludvik sets out at a run, zigzagging through the crowds and avoiding the traffic.

He makes it to the hall, bursts in and it is empty. Down into the cellar he goes, amid the cobwebs and detritus, yelling Helena’s name. No reply. They check every room on the ground floor, then realise there’s an attic, and find a ladder and go up there, Ludvik convinced at any moment he’ll see a mute body dangling from a rope. But no Helena – so another frenzied search reveals a door into a back garden, and they burst out into this quickly realising there is no body prone in the grass or hanging from the trees.

But there is a shed. Ludvik bounds over to it and beats on the door, which is locked. ‘Go away’ they hear Helena’s anguished voice, and Ludvik needs no bidding to kick open the door, smashing its flimsy lock to reveal…

Helena squatting on a toilet in agony, angrily begging him to close the door. Those headache pills? They weren’t headache pills. The puppyish engineer now sheepishly admits to both of them that he often gets constipated and so keeps a supply of laxatives ready to hand. Only he’s embarrassed about people seeing them so he keeps them in old headache pill bottles.

Ludvik steps back, surveys the situation and closes the door on Helena’s humiliation and stands lost, dazed, staggered. What… What is life about? What is the point? Could he be any more of an ironic plaything of Fate?

He walks away from the outside loo, from Helena and Jindra, back through the church hall, out into the hectic streets, along busy roads, across town to the outskirts, where the houses peter out, and on into fields, farmland, lanes and hedgerows and trees. Eventually he finds himself walking along beside the river Morava, and then makes out a figure lying down beside it. As he comes closer he is astonished to see it is his old friend and fellow musician, Jaroslav. He greets him and asks if he can sit down beside him.

And so the two lost men, their lives and their illusions in tatters, sit out in the empty countryside contemplating the absurd meaningless of existence…

Summary

The Joke is the longest of Kundera’s books, and also the most dense. The plot is intricate, ranging back and forth over the fifteen-year period and some of these periods are described in great detail, for example the long passage describing life in the miners’ punishment camp. As his career progressed, Kundera was to compress passages like this, making them ever shorter and punchier.

The Joke also feels dense because it includes large sections packed with very intellectual meditations – about music, folk music and Christian belief, as well as politics, communism, and human life considered from all kinds of angles. Kundera doesn’t hesitate to lard almost every action in the book with a philosophical commentary, some of which lift off from the text entirely to become stand-alone digressions in their own right.

And if it is a traditional form of literary criticism to describe the patterns in a novel’s narrative, particularly in terms of the growth and development of its characters – then you could easily do the same and analyse the patterns in Kundera’s deployment of ideas which, like the characters, seem plausible enough when you first meet them but then, slowly, over the course of the book’s intricate windings, themselves are undermined and contradicted. To put it another way – in a Kundera novel, the ideas have as many adventures as the ‘characters’.

It’s true there are a number of sequences acts of copulation and, more to the point, the male characters in particular, obsess about sex almost continually – which can, if you’re not careful, become very tiresome. But, as I hope I’ve shown, this focus on the private act of sex itself is continually opening up into more philosophical and psychological speculations about human nature. It’s as if sex, the sex act, is itself merely a stage on which much deeper philosophical and fictional questions can be raised and explored. There may be a fair amount of sex in the book, but if you look closely, you’ll see that hardly any of it is happy and fulfilling; most of it is fraught and tragic. Or tragi-comic.

And fundamentally, beneath the meditations on History and Communist power, beneath the stories of the individual characters and their worries and experiences and plans, and beneath the erotic layer of lust and sex which lards much of the book – at bottom the message, for me, is one about the complete Absurdity of human existence.

For me the message is that: Humans are the meaning-making animal, condemned to waste vast amounts of energy trying to find meaning and purpose in the grand narrative of their lives as much as in the slightest event or accident which occurs to them… But at the same time – because we are limited to our own very narrow points of view and relatively tiny number of lived experiences – our interpretations of the world and other people are more often than not howlingly inaccurate and ridiculously self-centred.

It is this mismatch between the will to understand, and the completely incomprehensible reality of the world, which is the Absurdity of the Human Condition. It’s all a big Joke.

The plot of The Joke is itself a joke. And not only its plot. Its ‘philosophy’ as well: man, caught in the trap of a joke, suffers a personal catastrophe which, when seen from without, is ludicrous. His tragedy lies in the fact that the joke has deprived him of the right to tragedy. (Introduction)

Because what if the ‘aberrations’ and ‘mistakes’ and miscarriages of justice aren’t aberrations from History at all? What if the aberrations and mistakes and miscalculations, which people are continually dismissing from their thoughts, are the norm? What if everything, if all human endeavour and effort, is one vast continual ongoing misunderstanding, just one big stupid joke? (p.240)

Most people willingly deceive themselves with a doubly false faith: they believe in eternal memory (of men, things, deed, people) and in the rectification (of deeds, errors, sins, injustice.) Both are sham. The truth lies at the opposite end of the scale: everything will be forgotten and nothing will be rectified. (p.245)

Another view

A friend of mine is mad about Kundera. She says I miss the point, or miss her point, about him.

Reading Kundera showed her that even the most grim and sordid events – the kind she was familiar with from her unbookish, working-class upbringing – can be redeemed by thought and imagination. Reading Kundera transported her into a world where even the most crude and barbaric behaviour was translated into intellectualism, into dazzling insights and memorable formulations. The act of reading Kundera was in itself an escape into the company of a highly educated, urbane, confident, man of the world, who could deploy ideas and quotes from the great names of European literature with a light touch, to bring out hitherto unsuspected aspects of even the most mundane situations (two reluctant lovers groping in a shabby bedroom). He sprinkled a magic dust of insights and ideas over everything, making her realise that every minute of her day was just as capable of being analysed, just as susceptible to witty insights and psychological revelations. Reading him made her own life feel full of imaginative promise and intellectual excitement.

And she was dazzled by the way the reader feels they know the characters via their interiority, going straight to the heart of their affairs and dilemmas. She loves the way Kundera plunges you straight into their psychological depths and complexities. It doesn’t matter at all that they remain undescribed physical shadows, in fact it’s a big plus, it helps you focus all the more on their minds and characters.

As a woman she didn’t feel at all patronised by the focus on sex-driven male characters. After all, she grew up in a world of sex-driven men. What riveted her thirty years ago, when she first read Kundera’s novels, and has stayed with her ever since, was the revelation that even the most humdrum moments of the most humdrum lives can be transformed by the imagination and intellect into wonderful luminous ideas. This opened doors into a whole new way of thinking and helped inspire her go to university, and beyond.

It’s hard to think of a more moving and profound tribute to an author, which is why I include it here.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Collecting histories: Solomon Islands @ the British Museum

The Asahi Shimbun displays

As you walk up the stairs and into the main entrance of the British Museum it’s easy to miss the room immediately on your right, hidden behind the tide of visitors pouring in and out.

Officially room number three, since 2005 this smallish room has been devoted to displays sponsored by the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun.

The idea is to showcase single or small groups of objects from the Museum’s vast collections, focusing right in on a particular object or set of objects or region or era. It’s a kind of lucky dip into the Museum’s bottomless store of treasures and wonders. Since 2005 the room has hosted more than 40 displays. My favourite was the mummified crocodile from ancient Egypt, which was displayed along with a fascinating explanation of the place of crocodiles in Egyptian mythology.

The Solomon Islands

The current Asahi Shimbun Display focuses on the Solomon Islands. There’s a map showing you their location in the Pacific, and wall labels describing their history before Europeans arrived, the story of their conquest and colonial administration, and then events since independence from Britain in 1978.

We learn that the Solomon Islands is an independent country of six large and many small islands, home to about 80 ethnic groups whose distinctive cultures are represented in many colonial collections around the world.

I was surprised to learn that, although the islands became steadily more enmeshed in patterns of global trade during the 19th century, it was only in 1890 that they became a British Protectorate. After 90-odd years of British governance, Christian missions and colonial plantations, the Solomon Islands became independent in 1978.

Many people these days have moved from the remote islands to the capital Honiara on Guadalcanal Island to take advantage of its jobs and facilities. Most Solomon Islanders are now Christians, children and grand-children of pagans successfully converted by European missionaries – but still very close to their tribal histories and traditions.

It’s because of this British imperial connection that the British Museum has such an important collection of native objects and historic photos from the Solomon Islands.

Objects from the Solomon Islands

The maps of the islands are good, the old photos are sort of interesting, but it is the half dozen or so native objects which fire the imagination. These include:

A bird net float The Lau people, living on islands in the coastal lagoons, used consecrate bird floats on special nets to catch fish for festivals celebrating the ancestors. After use these powerful and dangerous objects were hung up in the priest’s house. Priest Kailafa of Ferasubua Island gave this bird float to Anglican missionary Arthur Hopkins in 1903, who later sold it to a collector, who then bequeathed it the museum.

Bird net float from the Solomon Islands, late 19th century

A large carved ‘figure of an ancestor’ This image of an ancestor belonged to a shrine at Munda in the New Georgia group of western Solomon Islands. People prayed to these ancestors for spiritual support and protection, so their memorials were sacred and precious. This figure was among artefacts taken from homes and shrines by the crew of HMS Royalist in 1891. The captain later sold it to the British Museum.

Figure of an ancestor, 1890s

Carved wooden canoe figurehead During the colonial period the islands continued to export its a fairly narrow range of raw materials including plantation crops, timber and fish. But it was interesting to learn that before, during and after the British Protectorate, the islanders also made a healthy living selling visitors their hand-carved and decorated artefacts.

Trade boomed after the Second World War which saw the rise and rise of speciality tourism and then mass tourism. The islanders responded by producing increasing numbers of masks and sculptures carved in the traditional way and inlaid with pearl shell, to create striking designs such as this canoe figure-head. This example, made by the craftsman named Bala of Butana, was bought by a British Museum curator in an art shop in 2004.

Canoe figure-head (nguzunguzu) of wood with pearl shell inlay, 2004

This, in a way, was the most interesting learning. We all know that a lot of the artefacts in the British Museum were looted, stolen or swindled off the original owners. It’s a surprise, and goes against that whole narrative of colonial guilt and imperial injustice which is now received opinion, to learn that some of them were just — bought at gift shops 🙂

Summary

The display is not really worth a trip in and of itself. But if you’re passing nearby, or certainly if you’re visiting one of the museum’s big exhibitions, it’s always worth taking a moment to pop into Room 3 to find out what random objects and subjects the Asahi Shimbun display has pulled out of the British Museum’s bottomless trove of treasures.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

The last decade of the 19th century is famous for its fin-de-siecle, decadent, dark imagery. In Imperial Britain this was epitomised by the decadent sexuality associated with the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book magazine and the pornographic prints of Aubrey Beardsley. In France there was a reaction against Impressionism which took many forms including the urban posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swarthy nudes of Paul Gauguin down in the South Seas. All were well-known and public artists, working in cosmopolitan cities which were the capitals of far-flung empires – London, Paris. They were famous and playing on large stages.

In the other countries of northern Europe, however, one of the most powerful artistic currents was Symbolism.

As the exhibition notes:

Symbolism was a literary and artistic movement that rejected representations of the external world for those of imagination and myth. Symbolists looked inwards in order to represent emotions and ideas.

In Belgium, north Germany and the Scandinavian countries, artists developed a wide range of techniques and styles, but tended to fixate on a handful of themes, namely sex and death. Death awaits with his scythe. Empty boats arrive at forbidding islands. Youths waste away from frustrated love. Beautiful young women turn out to be vampires.

Sex and death and anguish and despair, these are all much more personal, introverted, emotions. Wilde was a flamboyant public personality, Beardsley’s art was defiantly clear and elegant, both were immensely sophisticated and urban and cosmopolitan, confident doyens of the largest, richest city in the world.

Whereas much of the fin-de-siecle art from Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia was much darker, more personal. Of course they produced urban and sophisticated art as well – the 1890s is characterised by an explosion of diverse art movements – but there was also a big strand of empty lakes and immense dark pine forests and brooding skies and agonised artist-heroes.

Edvard Munch

Munch is slap bang in the middle of this social and cultural movement. His most famous work is The Scream, which was first made as a painting in 1893 and then turned into a lithograph in 1895 which was reproduced in French and British and American magazines and made his reputation.

The Scream is probably among the top ten most famous images produced by any artist anywhere, and has been parodied and lampooned and reproduced in every medium imaginable (pillow slips and duvet covers, posters, bags, t-shirts). It featured in an episode of The Simpsons, clinching its status as one of the world’s best known art icons. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa.

The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch. Private Collection, Norway. Photo by Thomas Widerberg

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

  1. It is highly stylised and simplified – it barely looks like a human being at all, more like some kind of ghost or spirit of the woods.
  2. The rest of the landscape is drawn with harsh single lines, whose waviness seems to echo the long O of the protagonist’s mouth.
  3. Thus ‘primitiveness’ of the technique of wood carving – with its thick, heavy ‘crude’ lines – somehow echoes the primalness of the emotional state being described.

The exhibition

This exhibition brings together nearly 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum, making this the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints seen in the UK for 45 years.

It also includes sketches, photos and a few oil paintings, not least a big haunting portrait – The Sick Child – of his favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when she was just 13. These are set alongside works by French and German contemporaries, to present a powerful overview of Munch’s troubled personality, the artistic milieu he moved in, and his extraordinary ability to turn it into powerful images conveying intense, primal, human emotions.

Vampire II (1896) by Edvard Munch. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

Claustrophobic

The exhibition is up in the top gallery in the Rotunda, a relatively small space, which was divided into smallish sections or rooms, the prints hung quite close together on the walls, and the place was packed, rammed, with silver-haired old ladies and gentleman. It was hard to move around. More than once I went to move on from studying a print and found I couldn’t move, with people studying the next-door prints blocking me to left and right and a shuffle of pedestrians blocking any backward movement. Imagine the Tube at rush hour. It was like that.

Possibly, in fact, a good atmosphere to savour Munch’s work. Trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical. it forced me to look up at the quotes from his letters or diaries which have been liberally printed up on the exhibition walls. Just reading these immediately gives you a sense of where Munch was coming from, his personality and the motivation for his art.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. (1908)

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted – and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there, trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (22 January 1892)

The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.

All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood. (1890)

I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe it.

We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

Sexual anxiety

There’s plenty more where this came from. The exhibition gives a lot of biographical detail about his early life, describing the Norwegian capital of Kristiana, how it was connected to the rest of Europe by sea routes, how it was a small provincial town whose every aspect was dominated by the stiflingly respectable Lutheran church, but how young Edvard was attracted to its small bohemian, artistic set of poets and writers and artists, how he conceived a massive sequence of works about love and sex and death which he titled The Frieze of Life –

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death. (1918)

How he travelled to Paris and to Berlin and scandalised respectable opinion with the exhibitions he held there, but created a stir and won admirers for the stark, elemental quality of his woodcuts and prints. (The exhibition includes a map of Europe showing Munch’s extensive travels during the 1890s and 1900s, along with a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps.)

We are told Munch was born and brought up in a fiercely religious and conservative bourgeois family which was horrified when he fell in with Kristiania’s bohemian layabouts. These bohos practiced sexual promiscuousness, had numerous affairs, and so were plagued by jealousy and infidelity and fights – all exacerbated by the way they drank too much, far too much.

It seemed obvious to me that Munch’s anxiety was caused by the crashing conflict between his extremely repressed bourgeois upbringing and the chaotic and promiscuous circles he moved in as a young man. On the one hand was a young man’s desire and lust, on the other were all the authority figures in his culture (and inside his head) saying even looking at a woman with lust in his heart would lead to instant damnation.

The scores of images he made of women as vampires and weird gothic presences and looming succubi emerging from the shadows, represent a repeated attempt to confront the epicentre of that clash – sex, embodied – for a heterosexual young man – by sexualised young women. They attracted him like a drug, like heroin – but all these compulsive thoughts about them triggered the terror of physical disease – the appalling ravages of syphilis for which there was no cure – along with the certainty of eternal damnation – and all these led to anxious, almost hysterical thoughts, about the only way out, the only way to resolve the endless nightmare of anxiety – and that was release and escape into death, the death which he had seen at such close quarters in the deaths of his beloved mother and sister from tuberculosis.

The obsessiveness of his sexual thoughts, and their violent clash with orthodox Christianity, is most evident in the hugely controversial Madonna, an obviously erotic image to which he blasphemously misapplies the title of the chaste Mother of God. And, when you look closely, you realise that those are sperm swimming round the outside of the frame, and a miserable looking foetus squatting at the bottom left. Sex versus Religion! It’s amazing he wasn’t arrested for blasphemy and public indecency. In fact his 1892 exhibition in Berlin so scandalised respectable opinion that it was shut down after just a week.

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

So Munch’s vampire women aren’t real women, of course they’re not. They are depictions of male anxiety about women, namely the irreconcilable conflict between the demanding, drug-addiction-level lust many young, testosterone-fueled men experience, whether they want to or not – and the multiplicity of feelings of shame about having such strong pornographic feelings and experiences, and regret at handling relationships with women badly, and anxiety that you are a failure, as a man and as a decent human being, and terror that – if there is a God – you are going straight to hell for all eternity.

Plus, as the wall labels indicate, there really was a lot of heavy drinking in his circle and by him personally, which led to chaotic lifestyles among the bohemian set, and Munch became a clinical alcoholic. And this addiction – to alcohol – will, of course, have exacerbated all the psychological problems described above.

Exposure to so many of Munch’s prints – alongside detailed explanations of how he made them, the Norwegian and north European tradition they stem from, and so on – really rubs in the fact that he was a great master of the form. It’s not just the Scream. Lots of the other prints have the same archetypal, primitive power, and the exhibition brings it out by setting Munch’s work beside prime examples by other leading printmakers of the time, in France and Germany (many of which are themselves worth paying the price of admission to see).

The subtle prints

It tends to be the extreme images we are attracted to – the Scream, the Madonna, the numerous vampire women, the worrying image of a pubescent girl sitting on a bed. But some decades ago we crossed a threshold into being able to accept all kinds of erotic and extreme images, so these no longer scandalise and thrill us in the same way they did their initial viewers, although they still provide powerful visual experiences.

But having had a first go around the exhibition taking in these greatest hits, I slowly came to realise there was another layer or area of his work, which is – in a word – more subtle. If the most obvious and impactful of his images are about stress and anxiety mounting to open hysteria – there were also plenty of images which were far more restrained. In which – to point out an obvious difference – the women are wearing clothes.

Instead of vampire women whose kisses are turning into bites, these tend to be of fully dressed, utterly ‘respectable’ late-nineteenth century types, set outdoors, in open air situations where… somehow, through the placing and composition of the figures, a more subtle sense of aloneness and isolation is conveyed. They capture the mood of a couple who are, for some reason, not communicating, each isolated in their brooding thoughts.

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Like the complex ways relationships between the sexes fail, become blocked and painful in the plays of Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. (Munch, as a leading artist of the day, was acquainted with both Ibsen and the younger playwright, Strindberg. It crosses my mind that if Munch’s more hysterical images can be compared to the highly strung characters in a Strindberg play, the more subdued and unhappy images in some way parallel Ibsen’s couples.)

Having processed the extreme images of vampire women, sex and death in my first go round, on this second pass I warmed to these less blatant images.

I noticed that the naked women images are almost always indoors (as, I suppose, naked women mostly had to be, in his day). But that the more ‘respectable’ and subtle images were all set outside, and often by primal landscapes – namely The Lake and the Forest – the kind of primeval landscape we all associate with Scandinavia and which really was available right on Kristiana’s doorstep.

The exhibition ends with a set of prints which perform variations on his characteristically hunched, half-abstract human figures – characteristically, showing one man and one woman – but in this series hauntingly isolated, leaning on each other – or against each other – in something which doesn’t look at all sensual but more like the survival techniques of characters from a play by Samuel Becket.

Towards the Forest II (1897/1915) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Less striking than the vampires and naked women and girls, I thought these strange, half-abstract, ‘lost souls in the landscape’ images had a kind of purity and haunting quality all their own.

Breakdown and rebirth

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1908 Munch had a nervous breakdown. His anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and sometimes fighting, had become acute, and he was experiencing hallucinations and persecution mania. He entered a clinic and underwent a comprehensive detoxification which lasted nearly eight months.

When he left, he was a new man. Well, new-ish. His work became more colourful and less pessimistic and the wider public of Kristiania for the first time began to appreciate his work. Critics were supportive. His paintings sold. Museums started to buy his back catalogue. His life improved in all measurable ways. But in a textbook case of the artist who needs his anxieties and neuroses to produce great works, everything he carved and painted from then on – portraits of rich friends, of the farm he bought, murals for factories – lacked the intensity and archetypal power of his early years.

Years later all that storm and stress and hysteria seemed so distant as almost to be inexplicable.It is typical that, decades later, he told the story of how his famous painting, Vampire II, got its title. He himself had simply titled it Love and Pain. Pretty boring, eh? But Munch’s friend, the critic Stanisław Przybyszewski, and clearly a man with a flair for publicity, described it as ‘a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.’ And, looking back, Munch comments:

It was the time of Ibsen, and if people were really bent on revelling in symbolist eeriness and calling the idyll ‘Vampire’ – why not?

A man in remission from alcoholism and mental illness, the older Munch can be forgiven for not wanting to revive unhappy memories, and for wanting to palm off the idea for lurid titles onto his friends. But the prints themselves, and all his early writings, don’t lie. The later work is interesting and decorative – but it is the unhappy period covered by this exhibition which produced the intense and troubled works which seem to take you right into the heart of the tortured human condition.

Older, wiser and sober – Munch among his paintings at the end of his life

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubadour poetry for the following reason: troubadour poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in standard phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes.

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. They occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use standardised phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Once again, Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern’s account of how the Cistercian monks spread what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because they have the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour.

They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995)

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics along with an extensive introduction explaining their historical and cultural context and explaining the rhyme scheme, scansion and pronunciation of the poems. Each work benefits from a ‘crib’ or translation of obscure phrases which is on the same page as the text, and extensive notes on each poem at the back of the book.

The pronunciation

First the pronunciation. In the following short poem ‘i’ is pronounced like a long ‘e’ as in leave so ‘miri’ is pronounced like mini except with an r in the middle and ‘while’ is pronounced weelë. ‘Sumer’ is soomer, the ‘i’ in ‘i-last’ is ee. The extra ‘e’ on the end of many words is generally voiced which is why Duncan prints it as ‘ë’ to remind the reader to pronounce it. ‘Ou’ is pronounced oo, so ‘foulës’ is pronounced foolës. Gh is like loch in Scottish. So ‘night’ is pronounced with an ‘i’ as in lit or sin and the ‘gh’ sounding as in loch, to make it sound like the German word nicht. ‘Ich’ is pronounced itch, ‘michel’ sounds like mitchell. A’s are short as in cat.

Miri it is while sumer i-last
With foulës song;
Oc now neghëth windës blast
And weder strong.
Ei, ei, what this night is long,
And Ich with wel michel wrong
Sorwe and murne and fast.

So a phonetic version would go something like this:

Mirry it is weel soomer eelast
with foolës song
oc noo neiyeth windës blast
and weder strong.
Ei, ei, wat this nicht is long,
and ich with wel mitchell wrong
sorwe and mourne and fast.

You can make out the pronunciation in this medieval setting of the poem.

‘Mirie it is’ on the Luminarium website

Read out loud

As to the meaning, well, when I studied Middle English (and Anglo-Saxon) at university I found it was best to read the poetry aloud, over and over again, to get the pronunciation and rhythms and sounds into your mouth and mind for some time before worrying about the ‘meaning’.

The kind of crib Duncan provides – i.e. not a full translation into modern English, but just picking the hardest words or phrases and suggesting a meaning – helps because it is fragmentary and doesn’t swamp the poem with a full modern version but just guides you in interpreting some of the original medieval words.

This is one of the appeals of medieval poetry, that it speaks to us before we completely understand what it means and, even after we’ve read modern translations and ‘cribs’, it still says something more than a literal translation into modern English can do.

Thus Duncan helps by pointing out in his glosses that ‘i-last’ means lasts, ‘foulës song’ means birds’ song, ‘oc’ means ‘but’, ‘neigheth’ means ‘draws near’, ‘wat’ means ‘how’ (so the line means ‘how this night is long’), and – most suggestively – that ‘with wel michel wrong’ means ‘for very great wrong doing’…

Given these clues, the reader is forced to reread the poem and assimilate these new meanings to the lines. In effect, to begin to learn Middle English. Compare and contrast the effort required and the reward of trying to understand a different language, with simply swamping your mind with a brisk modern translation:

Merry it is while summer lasts with the song of birds;
but now draws near the wind’s blast and harsh weather.
Alas, Alas! How long this night is! And I, most unjustly,
sorrow and mourn and fast.

In my opinion all the power and mystery is lost in this or any modern translation. How much more powerful, mysterious and interesting (and difficult to scan) it is to say:

and ich with wel mickle wrong

than it is to say:

And I, most unjustly

If one of the purposes of poetry is to refresh the language, or our understanding and use of language, this can be done far more quickly and deeply by learning just one medieval lyric which transports you to a different universe, than by listening to a hundred rap songs which merely entrench you deeper and deeper into the baleful, violent present.

Scansion

Another cause of uncertainty, mystery and pleasure is the odd scansion of most of the lines. Some of them fall right into our modern-day feel for iambic pentameters and regular rhythms. But others just don’t. Duncan has a long essay explaining the scansion i.e. how the rhythm of the poems is made up of the emphases which should – in theory – be given to different vowels, consonants, or words which start lines or words which end them.

For example, it’s important to realise that Middle English had far more words ending in ‘e’ than we do and that sometimes the ‘e’ was voiced but sometimes it wasn’t. It is generally voiced before a consonant but if a vowel begins the next word, elided into that vowel and so not distinctly sounded.

This is why Duncan sometimes prints ‘e’ with a diaeresis over it – ë – when it is to be pronounced – as in ‘foolës song’ – but otherwise leaves the e plain, when it is to be elided into the following vowel to create just one syllable instead of two – ‘Sorwe and murne and fast’ where the e’s on the end of sorwe and murne blend into the a of the following and.

But – in practice – as Duncan admits, many of the poems seem to ignore these rules or to only obey them erratically. No manual or criticism or explanation survives by contemporaries to explain the thinking behind rhythm and syllables and beats, so scholars have had to reconstruct ‘the rules’ six or seven hundred years after the poems were written and there is still a lot of debate because whichever rules you devise, you can immediately find examples which seem to break them.

All this adds to the sense of mild challenge about the poems and forces you to read and reread each one until you think you’ve got the correct rhythm.

Music

And finally, all the poems were in fact lyrics, designed to be set to music and this music – genuinely medieval music – worked according to rules and values most of us find strange, lacking the basic ideas of a dominant key and a structured progression through related chords with the voice picking out melodies from the chord progressions. Instead, in medieval music, the voice was its own master, far less constrained by ideas of harmony and chord progression.

This is particularly true of a solo vocal rendition, as of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ which I quote below. In this instrumental version of ‘Miri it is’, there is a strong sense of rhythm which rides over the doubts and uncertainties you get from just reading the words.

For example, they sing just one ‘ei’ whereas the presence of two ‘eis’ in the original is one of the complicating factors in trying to scan that line. As so often in musical settings of a poem, the composer / performer just ignores the problems of scansion in order to produce a smooth product.

Amended spelling

I am intrigued that the singers in this performance pronounce the word Duncan has given as ‘sorwe’ as ‘sorrich’. This is because they have spelt it ‘soregh’ and not ‘sorwe’ which brings us to a big point.

In this edition Duncan has made the big editorial decision to change the spelling of all the poems in his collection to ‘bring them into conformity’ with the dialect of south-east England. During this period – 1200 to 1400 – there were many distinct regional variations of English, complete with different grammar, spelling and vocabulary. Duncan says he has brought all the spellings into line with the dialect of south-east England – or London – because that is the Middle English of Chaucer and so the version which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with.

I think this is a controversial decision. On the whole I think I would like to be in possession of what the medieval scribes actually wrote than a cleaned-up version which Duncan thinks will be easier for me to read and understand. I don’t want it to be easy. I want it to be accurate and faithful.

There’s a fascinating article devoted to this very song:

which contains a photo of the one and only surviving manuscript of the song (complete with stave lines indicating the note to be sung over each word).

Manuscript of Miri it is

Immediately you can see that the first word is a) missing the initial M b) is written [M]irie, not ‘miri as Duncan gives us. This is a vast difference. The article suggests it should be pronounced with three syllables: mi-ree-e (the last e pronounced as in web). That’s a hell of a difference from the two syllables of Duncan’s ‘miri’.

Similarly, on the second line you can quite clearly see that what Duncan has given as ‘foulës song’ is in fact written ‘fugheles song’. They both mean birds’ song, but Duncan has changed the northern dialect word fughel to the word Chaucer would use, ‘fowl or foul’.

I don’t want to be churlish, but I object to this. 1. I prefer to know what the scribe actually wrote and 2. fugheles quite obviously has three syllables unlike ‘foulës’. Or at least there is a flicker of hesitation over the ‘ughe’ which has been removed by turning it onto ‘ou’.

(Also, as explained, none of the originals have the diaeresis over the e – ë – because that is an entirely Duncan invention, put in hte poems to help the reader with the correct pronunciation.)

In other words, any effort made trying to scan Duncan’s version is effort wasted, or led astray, by the fact that he doesn’t print the words of the actual poem! The online article I’ve referred to gives this as the poem’s correct, unexpurgated text:

[M]Irie it is while sumer ilast
with fugheles song
oc nu necheth windes blast
and weder strong.
Ei ei what this nicht is long
And ich with wel michel wrong.
Soregh and murne and [fast].

(Note that the final word, ‘fast’, is not included in the text as we have it, but is a guess by all succeeding editors.)

Conclusion

Study of this one short poem suggests an approach to Duncan’s entire book which is:- to use it to ramble and surf and browse through the wonderful world of medieval lyrics, to let yourself be caught and captivated by individual poems and work with Duncan’s cribs and read up his notes on each one…

But then to use the wonders of the internet to search for the actual original text of each poem, and to get to know that and not the bowdlerised version Duncan has confected for us.

I sing of a mayden

One hundred and thirty-two is a lot of poems and they range from short seven-liners like the above, to the five short stanzas of a classic like ‘I sing of a mayden’, to much longer, wordier, and more complex poems, poems with elaborate refrains such as ‘Alysoun’, or even dialogue poems where alternate verses are spoken by characters.

‘I sing of a mayden’ is a favourite among fans of this period and has been set to music by many modern composers. Duncan’s version is:

I syng of a mayden
that is makëles:
King of alle kingës
to her sone she chees.

He cam also styllë
ther his moder was
As dewe in Aprylle
that fallëth on the gras.

He cam also styllë
to his moderës bowr
As dew in Aprille
that falleth on the flour.

He cam also stillë
ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
that fallëth on the spray.

Moder and mayden
was never non but she:
Wel may swych a lady
Godës moder be!

It appeals:

  • because of the short simplicity of the lines
  • because of the repetition of the three central verses which vary only the rhyme words was/gras, bowr/flowr, lay/spray
  • because of the sweet innocent purity of the floral imagery
  • and because of the way the simplicity, repetition and natural imagery convey an immensely gentle, sweet and loving relationship between Mary and her beloved son

Does it need translating? As mentioned, Duncan has already bowdlerised it a little, converting the original ‘þ’ into modern ‘th’, and adding his diaeresis e’s to clarify pronunciation and emphasis. The original version of the first two verses reads:

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,
kyng of alle kynges
to here sone che ches.

He came also stylle
þer his moder was
as dew in aprylle,
þat fallyt on þe gras.

You can feel the rhythm and the meaning, cant you, but your mind just needs guiding and supporting at a few of the more obscure moments, and this is the merit of Duncan’s ‘cribs’ i.e. printing the meaning of some of the more obscure terms on the same page as the poem. Thus you need to know that ‘makeles’ means ‘matchless’, ‘ches’ means ‘chose’ and that ‘þ’ is pronounced as ‘th’ as in this or that. Once you know that you’re away!

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless,
King of all kings
For her son she chose.

He came as still
Where his mother was
As dew in April
That falls on the grass.

He came as still
To his mother’s bower
As dew in April
That falls on the flower.

He came as still
Where his mother lay
As dew in April
That falls on the spray.

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;
Well may such a lady
God’s mother be.

As to pronunciation, key points would be that ‘makeles’ is not pronounced like modern ‘make’, but mack-e-less, and that maiden is pronounced my-den. Again, once you’ve grasped its meaning and a feel for the pronunciation, how much cooler and slicker it is to say:

Moder and maiden
Was neverë noon but she

Than:

Mother and maiden
There was never, ever one but she;

Just as it is cooler and slicker to refer to someone’s savoir faire than to their ‘knowledge of how to do things properly’. Learning Middle English is like learning another language which 1. is not, at the end of the day, that difficult because so much of it is similar, sometimes identical, to modern English, and 2. you don’t have to learn well enough to have conversations in it, just well enough to begin to have a feel for the words and phrases, enough of a feel to bring these magical poems to life.

Rhythm and repetition

These two poems epitomise one aspect of Middle English, its ability to make brief, punchy phrases pregnant with meaning:

[M]irie it is while sumer ilast

I syng of a mayden
þat is makeles,

But ‘mayden’ also highlights the ability of what are, for the most part, songs made to be sung, to use repetition with variation to create beautiful rhythms. (In this example remember ‘bounden’ is pronounced ‘boonden’.)

Adam lay ybounden
bounden in a bond,
fowre thousand winter
thoughte he not too long;

And al was for an appil
an appil that he took,
As clerkes finden writen
writen in hire book.

Ne hadde the apple taken ben
the apple taken ben,
Ne hadde nevere Oure Lady
ybeen hevene Quen.

Blessed be the time
that appil taken was:
Therfore we mown singen
Deo Gratias.

Even if you’re not sure what ‘Adam lay ybounden, bounden in a bond’ exactly means, it’s not hard to 1. get a feel for the nice rhythm of the thing and 2. get the gist of the meaning – that Adam paid dearly for his original sin of eating the forbidden appil, and defying God’s ordinance, and triggering the Fall of Man.

But all’s well that ends well, because if that appil had never been taken, there would have been no need for Christ to have been conceived and born and crucified to redeem us all, in which case there would have been no Virgin Mary, and imagine the world without the Virgin Mary! No, it can’t be done!

And therefore Adam lying bounden in a bond is a small price to pay for having the Mother of God reigning in heaven to guard over us poor sinners and hear our prayers.

(Duncan’s note explains that in medieval theology, Adam was supposed to have remained in bonds with the other patriarchs in the limbus patrum from the time of his death until the crucifixion of Christ, and that this was estimated to have lasted four thousand winters.)

There’s something immensely powerful in the way the entire theology of the Christian religion, with its vast holy books and thousands of theologians, can all be compressed down into this simple carol, whose well-chosen repetitions can all be sung in less than a minute, and bring great spiritual and psychological reassurance.

The literary critic John Spiers makes the acute point that part of the poem’s appeal is the way the idea flows so naturally. ‘The doctrine of the song is perfectly orthodox… but here is expressed very individually and humanly. The movement of the song reproduces very surely the movements of a human mind.’

I think of Shakespeare with his colourful conceits, of John Donne with his far-fetched similes or John Milton with his heavy Latinate tread. Compared to all those later poets, this poem flows as simply but as profoundly as a fairy tale.

Four categories

Duncan divides his book up into four categories:

  • Love Lyrics
  • Penitential and Moral Lyrics
  • Devotional Lyrics
  • Miscellaneous Lyrics

In the modern, post-romantic world almost all the poetry and certainly all the songs we are subjected to are about worldly love. Another appeal of medieval poetry is the way it transports you beyond the limits and clichés of modern poetry to an entirely different world, which had different priorities and perspectives.

Some of the love poetry has a familiar feel, and Duncan makes the point that it was during this period that the notion of courtly love, of romantic love for a powerful and demanding mistress which originated among the troubadours of the South of France, first entered English culture. He goes on to make fine distinctions between the highly sophisticated and deliberately intellectual poetry of the troubadours and the more relaxed, more sensuous love poems to be found in medieval England.

The frailty of man’s estate

But personally, I never get tired of the central medieval theme of the decline and fall, the turn of Fortune’s wheel, the inevitable decay of all earthly success, wealth and love, the frailty of man’s estate, and so liked the section of Penitential and Moral Lyrics most. Take ‘Wynter wakeneth’. Here’s Duncan’s made-easy version.

Wynter wakenëth al my care,
Nou this levës waxeth bare.
Ofte I sike and mournë sare
When hit comth in my thought
Of this worldës joie hou hit goth al to nought.

Here’s the original text:

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

Remembering medieval pronunciation, here’s my phonetic interpretation:

Winter whackeneth Al me ca [a as in car]-rë
Noo this lay-vës waxeth ba[a as in bar]rë
Ofte ee sick ant mournë sa[a as in saab]re
When hit comëth in mee thocht
Of this worldës joy, hoo hit goth Al to noght.

Once you’ve got the pronunciation right and rolled it round your mouth a few times, it shouldn’t take much translating; you just need to know that that ‘leves’ means leaves, ‘waxeth’ means grow, ‘y’ means I, ‘sike’ (pronounced sick, the final e elided into the a of ant) means sigh, ‘sare’ means sore or sorely or bitterly, ‘goth’ means goeth i.e. goes. Thus a modernisation would read:

Winter wakens all my grief,
Now these leaves grow bare.
Often I sigh and sorely mourn,
When it enters my thoughts,
Regarding this world’s joy,
how it all comes to nothing.

But once you’ve really processed and absorbed the meaning, how much smoother and more musical it is to say:

Wynter wakëneth al me care

which is strange and far more invigorating, than:

Winter wakens all my grief

Which is boring.

Wele and wo

The poems describing spring and maidens and love and flowers and bowers contain sweet simple imagery, dance along with gladsome rhythms, and have been turned into songs of striking happiness and joy.

Lenten ys come with love to toune,
With blosmen & with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth;
Dayes eyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales;
Uch foul song singeth.

Translated:

Spring has come with love to town,
With blossoms and with birds’ song
Which all that this bliss bringeth;
Daisies in these dales,
Notes sweet of nightingales;
Each bird his song singeth.

‘Lenten is come with love to toune’ (pronounced toon’), isn’t that a great opening line? In fact it’s a noticeable characteristic that many of the poems, short or long, announce their presence with a striking first line.

But by the same token, the poems lamenting man’s brikkelness and the unpredictable turns of destiny also have just such a primitive, almost primeval force, reeking of a society with no safety nets, where most people were close to famine and disease all their lives, where average life expectancy was around the mid-30s.

This rendition of ‘Wynter wakeneth’ captures perfectly the sound of a lone survivor of the Black Death or one of the period’s endless wars, sitting in the pew of a burnt-out church, sole survivor of his family and his community, lamenting his fate as the cold snow falls endlessly all around, smothering the land.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (1) by Norman Cohn (1975)

Norman Cohn (1915-2007) was an English academic historian. In the 1960s he became the head of the Columbus Centre, which was set up and initially financed by Observer editor David Astor to look into the causes of extremism and persecution. As head, Cohn commissioned research and studies from other academics on numerous aspects of persecution, and himself wrote several books on the subject, namely:

  • The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957) which traced the long history of millenial, end-of-the-world cults which, more often than not, seek scapegoats when the Great Awakening or Rapture or whatever they call it fails to happen
  • Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993) which traced millennial religious themes to their sources in ancient civilizations
  • Warrant for Genocide (1966) about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-semitic forgery which surfaced in Russia in 1903 and claimed to describe a Jewish conspiracy for world domination

Europe’s Inner Demons is roughly in two halves: what it builds up to is a description of the witch craze and witch trials of early modern Europe and America (i.e. the 1600s and 1700s). But it’s the first half which interests me more. In this Cohn describes the origin and meanings of many of the absurd accusations which were later to be brought against the ‘witches’, following them from their origin in pagan times, through the early medieval period, and climaxing with their deployment in the arrests, torture and execution of the Knights Templar in the early 1300s.

It happens that I’ve just finished reading a book about the Knights Templars, which mentions Cohn’s book, and so I was inspired to read the first half, up to and including the Templars trial.

Cohn shows that:

  • In pre-Christian, pagan Rome writers and authorities attributed inhuman and uncanny activities to minority, outsider groups who they associated with secret societies dedicated to overthrowing the state. Chief among these was the (originally traditional) event of the Bacchanalia, which, originally, was an orgiastic festival celebrating the god Bacchus but, over time, became associated with dark nights, wine and promiscuous sex. Cohn shows how traditional Roman writers came to associate it with darker, anti-social motivations. A fateful link was made between tiny, minority sects who held secretive activities – the worry that these sects were in some way anti-social, dedicated to social revolution – and the attribution to them of increasingly absurd accusations, such as child murder, ritual sacrifice, the drinking of human blood, and deliberately indiscriminate sex – all designed to undermine traditional values and hierarchies and relationships.
  • In the early centuries of Christianity, pagan and Roman writers redirected the tropes they’d developed to blacken the followers of the Bacchanal at the new Eastern religious sect, accusing the Christians of unholy rituals at which they drank the blood of ritually murdered individuals, or engaged in promiscuous sex. Cohn points out that these are easily understandable distortions of a) the Eucharist, where Christians really are enjoined to drink the blood of Christ and b) the Loving Cup or various other references to group love, team love, Christian love, which had a purely Platonic, non-sexual meaning. But not for the accusers and propagandists who scraped the barrel of the human psyche to dredge up all the worst crimes they could think of.
  • Once Christianity had become established (by, say, around 400) the powers-that-be began to persecute Christian heretics and Cohn shows how these heretics now found themselves subject to the same slanders and propaganda as the early Christians had been – dark rumours of midnight masses, perverted rituals, the slaying of a victim whose blood was then drunk and body eaten. And he shows how the ritual victim was all-too-often said to be a baby.

Medieval pessimism

A big-over-arching idea which I found particularly powerful was Cohn’s contention that as the Middle Ages progressed, Christianity – and western culture, such as it was in the early Middle Ages – became more pessimistic.

Going back and reading the early Church Fathers – Tertullian and Justin Martyr and St Jerome and so on – he says you are struck by their conviction that the end of the world is just around the corner and the Day of the Lord is at hand. The early Christians are strong in their faith and happy, burning with conviction that the End is Nigh, that any day now the Lord will return in splendour and all their sufferings will be justified.

However, as the years, then decades, then centuries go by, hopes fade, the Roman Empire is overthrown, societies sink into less advanced forms, the economy collapses, waves of barbarians fight their way across the old imperial lands. And Jesus does not return. By around 1000 AD, medieval culture can be described as depressed. And in its disappointment, it looked with ever-greater desperation for scapegoats.

The atmosphere was changing. Fantasies which in the early Middle Ages had been unknown in western Europe were turning into commonplaces. (p.41)

This is reflected in the rise of the figure and role of Satan and his demons. Cohn has a fascinating chapter (pp.16-34) describing the development of Satan, the Devil. In the Old Testament he is barely mentioned. When bad things happen it is generally because the Old Testament God is wilful and capricious and swayed by his bad moods. Satan does appear in the Book of Job but he is more of a collaborator with God than his enemy; it is Satan who comes up with new ways to persecute Job. It is in the so-called inter-testamentary period – between the last of the accepted books of the Old Testament, written about 300 BC and the first books of the New Testament, written about 50 AD, that Satan undergoes a sweeping change of character. Historians usually attribute this to the influx of Eastern, Zoroastrian and Manichean ideas coming from the Persian Empire in the greater multicultural atmosphere created by the triumph of the Roman Republic and then Empire.

Anyway, in the New Testament, Satan has become a completely new thing, a tormentor and tempter sent to oppose Jesus at every step. Satan’s demons possess innocent people and only Jesus can exorcise them. In the climax of a series of tests, Jesus is made to go out into the wilderness to be confronted and tempted by the Devil in person.

Cohn shows how in the early centuries of the church, saints and holy men were still supposed to be able to drive out demons and Satan’s helpers, merely by revealing the consecrated host or a cross or saying Jesus’ name. But in line with the growth of medieval pessimism, the years from around 1000 AD saw greater and greater anxiety that the Devil was taking over the world which translated into ever-more paranoid fears that secret societies and heresies were flourishing everywhere, dedicated to the overthrow of existing society and to establish the triumph of the Antichrist.

Slowly and steadily, the myth of Devil worship, and the details of how this worship was carried out – by murdering a baby, drinking its blood or its ashes mixed with blood, and then weird rituals to do with black cats (lifting its tail to kiss its anus) – were carefully elaborated by successive generations of highly educated and paranoid Catholic intellectuals.

The stereotype of the Devil-worshipping sect was fully developed, in every detail, by 1100. (p.76)

Heretic hunting and the inquisition

Cohn devoted a chapter to the rise of inquisitions, carefully delineating the difference between secular courts and their power, and the power vested in one-off inquisitors by the pope. He describes the hair-raising campaigns of heretic-hunting inquisitors in Germany and the South of France in the 1200s, notably the egregious Conrad of Marburg appointed inquisitor in central Germany in 1231, or John of Capestrano, appointed heresy inquisitor by the pope in 1418. Already, in 1215 the Lateran Council, by insisting that bishops do everything in their power to suppress heresy on pain of dismissal, had incentivised people across society to come forward with denunciations. Basically a lot of people were tortured into confessing and then burned to death. A lot.

Along the way we learn about the beliefs, the demographics and then the terrible persecutions endured by groups such as:

  • the Paulicians – Christian sect which was formed in the 7th century and rejected a good deal of the Old and much of the New Testament, originally associated with Armenia and horribly persecuted by the Byzantine Empire
  • the Bogomils – sect founded in the First Bulgarian Empire by the priest Bogomil during the reign of Tsar Peter I in the 10th century, a form of opposition to the Bulgarian state and the church, they called for a return to what they considered to be early spiritual teaching, rejecting the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Dualists or Gnostics, they believed in a world within the body and a world outside the body, did not use the Christian cross, nor build churches, as they revered their gifted form and considered their body to be the temple, giving rise to many forms of practice to cleanse oneself through purging, fasting, celebrating and dancing.
  • the Waldensians – originated in the late twelfth century as the Poor Men of Lyon, a band organized by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who gave away his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. Waldensian teachings quickly came into conflict with the Catholic Church and by 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to intense persecution.
  • the Fraticelli ‘de opinione’ – members of the Franciscan order of monks who rebelled against its growing worldliness and corruption (St Francis had died in 1226) and tried to return to a really primitive material life, owning literally nothing, and having no food from one day to the next. Declared heretics in the 1400s, Cohn goes into great detail about the trial of leading Fraticelli in 1466.
  • the Cathars – from the Greek katharoi meaning ‘the pure’, the Cathars were a dualist or gnostic movement which became widespread in Southern Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. They believed there were two gods, one good, one evil – diametrically opposed to the Catholic church which believes in only one God. The Cathars believed the God of the Old Testament, creator of the physical world, was evil. Cathars thought human spirits were the genderless spirits of angels trapped in the material realm of the evil god, and destined to be reincarnated until they achieved salvation through the consolamentum, when they could return to the benign God of the New Testament.

The self-fulfilling nature of torture

Cohn introduces the reader to each groups’ likely beliefs and social origins, then describes how the secular and religious authorities (i.e. the King of France or Holy Roman Emperor or pope) launched an inquisition, sometimes even called a ‘crusade’, against each of them. (The crusade to exterminate the Cathars in the south of France became known as the Albigensian Crusade, 1209-1229).

And then he makes his over-arching point which is that, time and time and time again, the use of torture made ‘heresies’ appear to explode, appear to be held by huge numbers of people, at all levels of society, as innocent victims were roped in and tortured and, quite quickly, would say anything and implicate anyone in order to stop the torture (or, more cruelly, to prevent their family and children being tortured, too).

Yet as soon as they were free to speak in front of secular courts, again and again these supposed ‘heretics’ recanted and said they only confessed to the bizarre rituals, murder, cannibalism and orgies, because they were tortured into saying so.

Cohn shows that there were real heretics i.e. groups who rejected the worldly corruption of the Catholic Church and tried to return to the simple, pure, ascetic life of the early apostles and that, on its own terms, the Church was correct to be concerned about them and to try and bring them back within the fold.

But that the way it did this – by trying to blacken their name by getting members to confess under torture to midnight masses where the Devil appeared in the shape of a black cat, and then a baby was ritually burned to death and its ashes mixed in with wine which all the followers had to drink to assert their membership — all this was fantasy cooked up in the feverish brains of Catholic propagandists and the inquisitors themselves.

What interests Cohn is the way these fantasies became formalised, and turned into part of received opinion, official ‘knowledge’ – not least when a list of these perverse practices was included in a formal papal bull, Vox in Rama, issued in 1233, which included the accusation that the Devil in person attended the midnight covens of the Waldensians and other heretics. In other words, by the early 13th century these absurd fantasies had received official sanction and recognition from the highest religious authorities on earth.

Although each of the heretic-hunting frenzies Cohn describes eventually burned out and stopped – sometimes due to the death or discrediting or, in the case of Conrad of Marburg, the assassination of the lead inquisitor – nonetheless, the period as a whole had established the absurd practices of all heretics and enemies of the Church as accepted, indisputable fact, sanctioned by the pope and the entire church hierarchy.

The crushing of the Knights Templar (pp.79-101)

Cohn then goes on to show how precisely the same old tropes, the same accusations of unnatural and blasphemous crimes, were dusted off and dragged out to accuse the Knights Templars, in their trials which lasted from roughly 1307 to 1309. His account is largely the same as Michael Haag’s in The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States namely that the whole farrago of trumped-up accusations was made by King Philip the Fair of France in order to get his hands on the Templars’ vast amounts of gold and land. Its more proximate cause was that Philip wanted to merge the two great crusading orders, the Templars and Knights Hospitallers, into one super-order and then place himself at the head of it in order to lead a mighty new crusade – but that was never very likely to, and indeed never did, happen.

Instead Philip’s loyal bureaucrats pounced, arresting all the Templars on the same day and submitting them to torture to force them to admit to the same litany of crimes: that at the initiation ceremony they were forced to spit on the cross, to kiss their initiator on the lower back, buttocks or mouth, agree to sodomy if requested by a senior brother, and other blasphemous acts such as worshiping a malevolent satanic head.

All the Templars who were tortured signed confessions agreeing this is what they had done – understandable, seeing that the tortures included:

  • having your hands tied behind you, being hauled up via a hook secured to the ceiling, then suddenly released, coming to a stop with a jerk, so that the tendons, muscles and sometimes bones on your shoulders and bones were abruptly torn or shattered
  • having your feet covered in grease and pit in a naked fire, where they roasted until the toe and feet bones fell out of the cooked flesh

As one Templar said, rather than submit to the tortures he would have confessed that he personally murdered Jesus Christ. The sorry saga dragged on for three years because Pope Clement feebly tried to rescue the order which was, theoretically, answerable only to him. But being himself French and a nominee of the French crown, and based in Avignon on French soil, he eventually, feebly acquiesced in the crushing of the order, the confiscation of its wealth and the burning at the stake of its four most senior officers (plus at least a hundred others).

The fate of the Templars is a sorry, sordid tale of greed, corruption and unbelievable cruelty, but for me is one more proof that the nominally Christian Middle Ages were a complicated mixture of genuine religious belief, almost incomprehensible religious fanatacism, alongside staggering cruelty, all underpinned by very recognisable motives of greed and ambition.

More generally, Cohn’s review of how society has tended to demonised outsider groups -from as far back as we have records – sheds sobering light on this permanent tendency of human nature, and shows how even the most ridiculous prejudices and bigotries can be entrenched as established ‘fact’, and then revived as and when needed to persecute the different, the strange, the non-conformist, the helpless. Couldn’t happen now? Well, the career of the fanatical heretic-inquisitor Conrad of Marburg could be usefully compared to that of Senator Joe McCarthy. And in our own time, right now, 2019, we are seeing the revival of all kinds of tropes and stereotypes designed to justify prejudice and persecution. At least we don’t strappado people or burn them to death – but the underlying impulses of human nature haven’t changed one whit.

Some Knights Templar being burned at the stake, illustration in the Chroniques de France ou de St. Denis.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Byzantine Emperors 324-802

This blog post uses the timeline of Byzantine emperors from Wikipedia and then adds details and comments from John Julius Norwich’s book Byzantium: The Early Centuries.

Constantine I ‘the Great’ (324-337)

Son of the Augustus Constantius Chlorus and Helena. Proclaimed Augustus of the western empire upon the death of his father on 25 July 306, he became sole ruler of the western empire after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. In 324, he defeated the eastern Augustus Licinius and re-united the empire under his rule, reigning as sole emperor until his death. Constantine completed the administrative and military reforms begun under Diocletian, who had begun ushering in the Dominate period. Actively interested in Christianity, he played a crucial role in its development and the Christianization of the Roman world, through his convocation of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea. He re-founded the city of Byzantium as ‘New Rome’, popularly known as Constantinople.

Constantius II (337 – 361)

Second surviving son of Constantine I, he inherited the eastern third of Roman Empire upon his father’s death, becoming sole Roman Emperor from 353, after the overthrow of the western usurper Magnentius. Constantius’ reign saw military activity on all frontiers, and dissension between Arianism, favoured by the emperor, and the Orthodox supporters of the Nicene Creed. In his reign, Constantinople was given equal status to Rome, and the original church of Hagia Sophia was built. Constantius appointed Constantius Gallus and Julian as Caesars, and died on his way to confront Julian, who had risen up against him.

Constans I (337 – 350)

Third surviving son of Constantine I. Caesar since 333, he inherited the central third of Roman Empire upon his father’s death, and became sole emperor in the west following the death of Constantine II in 348. Constans was assassinated during the coup of Magnentius.

Julian ‘the Apostate’ (361 – 363)

Grandson of Constantius Chlorus and cousin of Constantius II. Proclaimed by his army in Gaul, Julian became legitimate Emperor upon the death of Constantius. He was killed on campaign against Sassanid Persia having failed to revive pagan religion.

Jovian (363 – 364)

Captain of the guards under Julian, elected by the army upon Julian’s death. Died on journey back to Constantinople.

Valentinian I (364 – 375)

An officer under Julian and Jovian, he was elected by the army upon Jovian’s death. He soon appointed his younger brother Valens as Emperor of the East. Died of cerebral haemorrhage.

Valens I (364 – 378)

A soldier of the Roman army, he was appointed Emperor of the East by his elder brother Valentinian I. Killed at the Battle of Adrianople.

Gratian (378 – 379)

Son of Valentinian I. Emperor of the West, he inherited rule of the East upon the death of Valens and appointed Theodosius I as Emperor of the East. Assassinated on 25 August 383 during the rebellion of Magnus Maximus.

Theodosius I ‘the Great’ (379 – 395)

Aristocrat and military leader, brother-in-law of Gratian who appointed him as emperor of the East. From 392 until his death sole Roman Emperor. Theodosius passed laws banning pagan religious practice, entrenching Christianity as the religion of the empire.

Arcadius (395 – 408)

On the death of Theodosius I in 395, the Roman Empire was permanently divided between the East Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire, and the West Roman Empire. Theodosius’ eldest son Arcadius became emperor in the East while his younger son Honorius became emperor in the West.

Theodosius II (408 – 450)

Only son of Arcadius. Succeeded upon the death of his father. As a minor, the praetorian prefect Anthemius was regent in 408–414. Died in a riding accident.

Marcian (450 – 457)

A soldier and politician, he became emperor after being wed by the Augusta Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II, following the latter’s death. Died of gangrene.

Leo I ‘the Thracian’ (457 – 474)

Of Bessian origin, Leo became a low-ranking officer and served as an attendant of the Gothic commander-in-chief of the army, Aspar, who chose him as emperor on Marcian’s death. He was the first emperor to be crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople. His reign was marked by the pacification of the Danube frontier and peace with Persia, which allowed him to intervene in the affairs of the western empire, supporting candidates for the throne and dispatching an expedition to recover Carthage from the Vandals in 468. Initially a puppet of Aspar, Leo began promoting the Isaurians as a counterweight to Aspar’s Goths, marrying his daughter Ariadne to the Isaurian leader Tarasicodissa (Zeno). With their support, in 471 Aspar was murdered and Gothic power over the army was broken.

Leo II (January – November 474)

Grandson of Leo I by Leo’s daughter Ariadne and her Isaurian husband, Zeno. He was raised to Caesar on 18 November 473. Leo ascended the throne after the death of his grandfather on 19 January 474. He crowned his father Zeno as co-emperor and effective regent on 10 November 474. He died shortly after, on 10 November 474.

Zeno (474 – 491)

As the leader of Leo I’s Isaurian soldiers, Zeno rose to comes domesticorum, married the emperor’s daughter Ariadne, took the name Zeno, and played a crucial role in the elimination of Aspar and his Goths. He was named co-emperor by his son on 9 February 474, and became sole ruler upon the latter’s death, but had to flee to his native country before Basiliscus in 475, regaining control of the capital in 476. Zeno concluded peace with the Vandals, saw off challenges against him by Illus and Verina, and secured peace in the Balkans by persuading the Ostrogoths under Theodoric the Great to migrate to Italy. Zeno’s reign also saw the end of the western line of emperors, with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476.

Basiliscus (475 – 476)

General and brother-in-law of Leo I, Basiliscus seized power from Zeno but was then deposed by him.

Anastasius I (491 – 518)

He was a palace official when he was chosen as husband and Emperor by the Empress-dowager Ariadne. Anastasius reformed the tax system and the Byzantine coinage and proved a frugal ruler, so that by the end of his reign he left a substantial surplus. His Monophysite sympathies led to widespread opposition, most notably the Revolt of Vitalian and the Acacian Schism. His reign was also marked by the first Bulgar raids into the Balkans and by a war with Persia over the foundation of Dara. He died childless.

Justin I (518 – 527)

Officer and commander of the Excubitors bodyguard under Anastasius I, he was elected by army and people upon the death of Anastasius I. Illiterate, he was much influenced by his nephew Justinian.

Justinian I ‘the Great’ (527 – 565)

Nephew of Justin I, possibly raised to co-emperor on 1 April 527. Succeeded on Justin I’s death. Attempted to restore the western territories of the Empire, reconquering Italy, North Africa and parts of Spain. Also responsible for the corpus juris civilis, or ‘body of civil law’ which is the foundation of law for many modern European nations. For John Julius Norwich Justinian was the last Roman emperor of Byzantium. (See my review of Robert Graves’s novel about his reign, Count Belisarius.)

Justin II (565 – 578)

Nephew of Justinian I, he seized the throne on the latter’s death with support of army and Senate. Became insane, hence in 573–574 under the regency of his wife Sophia, and in 574–578 under the regency of Tiberius Constantine.

Tiberius II Constantine (578 – 582)

Commander of the Excubitors, friend and adoptive son of Justin. Named Caesar and regent in 574. Succeeded on Justin II’s death.

Emperor Maurice (582 – 602)

Became an official and later a general. Married the daughter of Tiberius II and succeeded him upon his death. Named his son Theodosius as co-emperor in 590. Deposed by Phocas and executed on 27 November 602 at Chalcedon.

Phocas (602 – 610)

Subaltern in the Balkan army, he led a rebellion that deposed Maurice but turned out to be spectacularly brutal and cruel. Increasingly unpopular, he was deposed and executed by Heraclius.

Heraclius (610 – 641)

The eldest son of the Exarch of Africa, Heraclius the Elder. With his father and uncle launched a revolt against the unpopular Phocas in 609 and deposed him in October 610. Brought the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628 to a successful conclusion but was unable to stop the Muslim conquests; during his rule Muslim armies conquered of Syria (637), Armenia (639) and Egypt (639). In 638 Jerusalem fell after a two-year siege. The loss to the Muslims of Jerusalem, the holiest city to Christians, proved to be the source of much resentment in Christendom for centuries to come.

Heraclius officially replaced Latin with Greek as the language of administration. This act, for Norwich, makes Heraclius the first fully Greek Byzantine emperor. His military and administrative reforms created the backbone for the Byzantine Empire which helped it last another eight hundred years. He tried to solve the ongoing divisions caused by the monophysitic heresy by promoting a compromise theory, monothelitism, devised by Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople, although this only ended up causing more ill-feeling and excommunications. Nonetheless, according to Norwich, his record:

remains a magnificent one. Without his energy, determination and inspired leadership, Constantinople might well have fallen to the Persians – in which case it would almost inevitably have  been engulfed a few years later by the Muslim tide, with consequences for Western Europe that can scarcely be imagined. (Byzantium: The Early Centuries p.310)

Constantine III (February – May 641)

Born 612, eldest son of Heraclius by his first wife Fabia Eudokia. Named co-emperor in 613, he succeeded to the throne with his younger brother Heraklonas following the death of Heraclius. Died of tuberculosis, reputedly poisoned by scheming empress-dowager (i.e. Heraclius’s wife) Martina.

Heraklonas (February to September 641)

Born 626 in to Heraclius’ second wife Martina, named co-emperor in 638. Succeeded to the throne with Constantine III following the death of Heraclius. Sole emperor after the death of Constantine III, under the regency of Martina, but was forced to name Constans II co-emperor by the army. In September both Martina and Heraklonas were arrested: her tongue was cut out and his nose was slit, and they were sent into exile on Rhodes.

Constans II (641 – 668)

Born 630 the son of Constantine III. Raised to co-emperor in summer 641 i.e. aged just 11, after his father’s death, Constans became sole emperor after the forced abdication and exile of his uncle Heraklonas (see above). Baptized Heraclius, he reigned as Constantine, ‘Constans’ was his nickname. Constans’s 27-year reign was overshadowed by constant struggle against the fast-expanding Muslim caliphate. In 642 the seized Alexandria, later razing its defences to the ground and starting a new town at the head of the Nile Delta, which would become Cairo. In 649 the Muslims sacked Cyprus. In 654 they attacked Rhodes. In 655 they thrashed an imperial fleet off the coast of Lycia. In 663 Constans led an army across the Adriatic and into Italy to combat the Lombards. Having taken Rome he stripped it of its last remaining treasures and shipped them back to Constantinople. Then he moved on to Syracuse, which he made his base for the last five years of his reign. He was murdered by a slave while bathing.

Constantine IV (668 – 685)

Eldest of Constans II’s three sons. In 669 there was an army uprising against his rule which he put down and then slit the noses of his two younger brothers to render them unfit to rule (in Byzantine theory the king or basileus had to be free of physical blemishes). From 674 to 678 he held off a sea-based siege of Constantinople, not least by deploying Greek fire, and in doing so – according to John Julius Norwich – ‘saved Western civilisation’.

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – ad America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)

Not bad for a man who died of dysentery aged just 33.

Justinian II nicknamed ‘the Slit-nosed’ (685 – 695)

Son of Constantine IV, he was named co-emperor in 681 and became sole emperor upon Constantine IV’s death. He was a stern disciplinarian whose biggest act was to move an estimated quarter of million peasants and villagers from Thrace and northern Greece into Bithynia and the south coast of the Black Sea. He was also a ferocious taxer who made it plain he wanted to tax the aristocracy to extinction so when a military revolt broke out, they and other sections of the population gleefully welcomed Justinian’s overthrow in 695. He was dragged into the Hippodrome where his nose was slit, before being sent into exile at Cherson in Crimea.

The Twenty Years’ Anarchy (695–717)

Leontius (695–698)

A professional soldier from Isauria, Leontius led a military revolt against Justinian II, who was disfigured and sent into exile. In 698 the Muslims conquered Carthage and thus extinguished the entire Roman province of North Africa. Leontius had sent a fleet to defend the city but rather than return in disgrace, the sailors mutinied and elected a new king, the fleet returning to Constantinople and overthrowing Leontius.

Tiberius Apsimar (698–705)

Originally named Apsimar and of German origin, this is the admiral the failed Byzantine fleet elected their leader and king (and hastily gave the Roman-sounding name of Tiberius) and who led them back to the capital to overthrow Leontius. In the seven years of his reign he led military expeditions against the Muslims in Syria and Cilicia. His reign (and life) came to an end when the exiled Justinian II returned.

Justinian II ‘the Slit-nosed’ (705 – 711)

In exile Justinian did a deal with the Bulgar King Tervel to make the latter caesar in exchange for Slav troops. With these troops Justinian returned to Constantinople and seized power. The two usurpers – Leontius and Tiberius – were tracked down, put in chains, dragged round the Hippodrome in front of a jeering crowd, had their noses slit as Justinian had, and then were beheaded. Justinian then went on to inaugurate a reign of terror, torturing and executing his enemies.

In 709, for reasons which remain obscure, he sent an army to Ravenna – theoretically still a Byzantine ‘exarchate’ – round up the town’s dignitaries and packed them off to Constantinople where they were all executed except for the archbishop, who he had blinded, while his army went on the rampage in the captured city.

Then he launched an expedition against the Khazars who had taken Cherson, site of his exile, where a complicated sequence of events led to an exiled general named Bardanes rallying rebellious Byzantine forces and  sailing to take Constantinople, where a grateful populace greeted him. Justinian was captured a few miles outside of town and beheaded. His mother took his son, six-year-old Tiberius, to the sanctuary of a church across the Bosphorus but soldiers followed them there and slaughtered the little boy ‘like a sheep’. The Heraclian line of emperors had ended.

Philippicus Bardanes (711 – 713)

A general of Armenian origin, he led the forces from Cherson which deposed Justinian II, but turned out to be a ‘hopeless hedonist’ (p.347). The Bulgar King Tervel vowed to avenge his friend Justinian and marched his Slav army up to the walls of Constantinople. Philippicus called on the Opsikian Theme (a theme was a geographical and administrative unit of the empire) just across the Marmaris to send troops to help, but they refused and instead nominated a rival basileus. Philippicus was enjoying a siesta in his palace when soldiers broke in, seized him, dragged him to the Hippodrome where his eyes were put out.

Anastasius II (713 – 715)

Originally named Artemios, he was a chief secretary to Philippicus and proclaimed emperor by the soldiers who overthrew Philippicus. Anastasius set about repairing the walls defending Constantinople and, hearing the Muslims were once again on the war path, sent a pre-emptive force of Opsikian troops in a fleet to Rhodes. However the rebellious troops clubbed the head of the expedition to death and then returned to the capital, picking up an inoffensive tax collector named Theodosius along the way. After a six month siege, Constantinople submitted to the rebels and Anastasius, who had fled to Nicaea, was allowed to retire to a monastery in Thessalonica. In 719 he led a revolt against his successor but one, Leo III, but failed, and was executed by Leo.

Theodosius III (715 – 717)

A tax collector unrelated to any royal blood, Theodosius was proclaimed emperor by rebellious Opsikian troops, entering Constantinople in November 715. Two years later Leo the Isaurian, who was governor of a theme on the eastern border, led a revolt of soldiers on Constantinople and, after some negotiations with the Senate and Leo, Theodosius was allowed to abdicate and retire to a monastery in Ephesus.

End of the Twenty Years’ Anarchy

Leo III the Isaurian (717 – 741)

Norwich, in his history of Byantium, calls Leo ‘the saviour of the empire’. He rose through the ranks from very obscure origins (‘a Syrian peasant’) to become a general. Led a rebellion and secured the throne in spring 717. In the autumn a massive Muslim army and fleet besieged Constantinople but Leo had prepared well, the besieging army was decimated during a bitter winter of famine and disease, the survivors massacred by a Bulgarian army which attacked from the north, and then the retreating fleet was destroyed in a storm. Saved again.

Leo’s other big achievement was to inaugurate the movement known as Iconoclasm which set out to destroy all images of the human figure and face and which was to divide the empire and severely exacerbate the divide between the Western and Eastern churches. He had barely begun, by removing just one statue from one church, before he sparked a storm of protests across the city and the Greek East and from the pope in Rome. Despite protests, he pressed on and in 703 issued an imperial decree banning all religious images, demanding they be destroyed. Monks and priests fled east and west carrying their beloved icons and images concealed. The fleet and numerous military garrisons mutinied. There were riots in the major cities.

Some scholars attribute the rise of iconoclasm to the influence of the sternly anti-image Muslims who now controlled most of the former Roman territory in the East. But Norwich points out that the movement actually began as a charter launched by eastern bishops who thought they were challenging the increasingly fetishistic worship of icons in themselves. It had got to the stage where icons stood in as godparents during baptisms.

Constantine V (741 – 775)

The only son of Leo III. Constantine was made co-emperor in 720 and succeeded on his father’s death. He was leading a military expedition against the Muslims when he was attacked by Artabasdos, an old colleague of his father’s who had helped Leo seize the throne from Theodosius.

Artabasdos (741 – 743)

General who had helped Leo II to the throne and been given Leo’s sister’s hand in marriage, thus becoming brother-in-law to Leo and uncle to Constantine V, who he overthrew. For eighteen months he ruled in Constantinople making himself very popular by calling for the restoration of icons, which suddenly reappeared all over the city. Meanwhile Constantine had not been killed, but taken refuge in an eastern garrison filled with icon-supporters (the issue now split every level of Byzantine society) who marched behind him and they defeated Artabasdos in battle in Lydia.

Artabasdos fled to Constantinople which Constantine re-entered at the head of his army, dragged Artabasdos to the Hippodrome where he and his two sons were ritually blinded, their chief supporters executed or subjected to various mutilations. The Patriarch Anastasius was stipped naked, flogged, and paraded round the Hippodrome sitting backwards on a donkey.

Constantine V (741 – 775) part two

Constantine returned to power with renewed virulence against the icon-supporters, not least because they had helped overthrow him. He convened a church council which banned icons. He banned the use of the word ‘saint’ and ‘mother of God’ as blasphemous. He was particularly violent against monasteries, which had been growing in size and power. We have records of entire monasteries being sacked, the head monks having their beards doused in oil and set on fire, libraries burned to the ground. And this not by the Muslims, but by their fellow Christians.

Constantine campaigned continually against the Bulgars who threatened from the north but he was granted relief from the Muslim threat when, in 750, at the Battle of the Greater Zab River, the army of Caliph Marwan II was smashed by that of Abu al-Abbas al-Suffah and the Omayyad dynasty of Damascus came to an end. Power moved to the new Abbasid dynasty based in Baghdad, which was to be more interested in the East, in Persia, Afghanistan and Transoxiana than in Europe or Africa.

But in 751 Ravenna was taken by the Lombard king Aistulf and the last Byzantine foothold in north Italy was snuffed out forever. Constantine died of natural causes while on campaign against the Bulgars aged 56.

Leo IV ‘the Khazar’ (775 – 780)

Eldest son of Constantine V, co-emperor since 751, he succeeded upon his father’s death and was much influenced by his powerful, scheming wife Irene. When he died aged just 30, Irene made herself Regent for their son, Constantine VI. Irene was

scheming and duplicitous, consumed by a devouring ambition and an insatiable lust for power, she was to bring dissension and disaster to the Empire for nearly a quarter of a century (p.366)

Constantine VI (780 – 797)

Born in 771 and only child of Leo IV, co-emperor in 776, sole emperor upon Leo’s death in 780, he was for the next ten years under the regency of his mother, Irene of Athens.

Irene was a fierce supporter of icons and overthrew all Constantine V’s legislation, in 787 convening the Second Council of Nicaea which condemned the practice of iconoclasm and restored the veneration of icons to Christian practice. This also helped restore relations with the pope in Rome, the Western church having never condemned icons in the first place.

Her icon-support sparked repeated mutinies in the solidly iconoclast army. Anticipating a coup in 790 she placed her son – fast becoming a focal point for iconoclast rebellion – in prison. When she tried to make the entire army swear an oath of allegiance to her personally, it mutinied, freed young Constantine (now 18 years old) and confined Irene to house arrest. Constantine proved weak and indecisive and a poor military leader. The famous Muslim leader Haroun al-Rashid had to be bought off with vast tributes of gold, while Constantine failed in his campaigns against the ever-threatening Bulgars of the North.

Constantine scandalised his church, especially the monks, by divorcing his first wife and marrying a court attendant. This issue, like everything else, became ensnared in theological language and led to splits among the icon-supporters which were exploited by the iconoclasts. In 797 Irene launched a coup against her own son, having him captured, taken to the palace and there ritually blinded. Her own son. He died soon after of his wounds.

Irene (797 – 802)

Although she tried to court popularity by reducing all manner of unpopular taxes, this only had the effect of impoverishing the empire, leaving her unable to repel further incursions by Haroun al-Rashid, alienating the iconoclast army, as well as every conservative who thought there mustn’t be a woman basileus.

In 802, out of the blue, came a marriage proposal from Charles, King of the Franks, who had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor at St Peter’s on Christmas Day 800. Theoretically the pope in Rome was subject to the emperor, the Roman Emperor, resident in Constantinople. But Irene’s reign created a unique conjunction of events. For most churchmen, aristocrats and citizens, a woman couldn’t be basileus. Therefore the Roman throne was vacant. Add in the factor that the popes of Rome had been abused, ignored, sometimes kidnapped and even murdered by various Eastern emperors – and that the East seemed to have been taken over by icon-destroying madness – and was militarily weak, especially against the Muslims – all these are reasons why Pope Leo should turn to by far the strongest military figure in the West, the pious and genuine Christian believer Charles King of the Franks who, in the preceding 30 years, had hugely expanded the territory of his kingdom.

Crowning him emperor in Rome in 800 a) created an entirely new centre of power in the West, resulting in there being two emperors in Christendom b) gave enormous power and influence to Leo (which protected him against powerful enemies who were conniving at his downfall) and – though no-one realised it at the time – to all his successors.

Charles and probably Leo thought that if Charles married Irene it would reunite the two halves of the empire, and hence the marriage proposal. Irene for her part knew how unpopular she had become and looked favourably on it. Imagine if they had go married and Christendom united.

Instead she was overthrown in a palace coup in 802, sent into exile on Lesbos and died a year later. The epoch of one Roman Empire united under one emperor, was over. From now on there would be a Holy Roman Emperor in the West and a Byzantine Emperor in the East.


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Other early medieval reviews

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


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