Plutarch’s life of Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 to 53 BC)

Marcus Licinius Crassus was reputed to be the richest man in Rome due to astute property development and loan making. In 73 BC he was given command of the army charged with putting down the Spartacus rebellion. In 70 he served as consul. Well into middle age, he formed the triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey in 60 BC, an uneasy alliance which dominated the 50s. In 54 BC he was tempted to assume leadership of an army sent against the Parthian Empire way out East, where his army was defeated and he met a miserable death.

This is one of the shorter lives, at a mere 33 chapters because we in fact know remarkably little about Crassus and Plutarch, apparently, didn’t either. The account of the Spartacus campaign is far longer than really necessary and a good half of the text deals with his final doomed campaign in Parthia. Of the precise origin of Crassus’s business empire and the complex wheeler-dealing which surrounded the triumvirate, there is disappointingly little. Then again, his grim ending was what Crassus became most famous for and also provided a peg for an orgy of the kind of superstitious omens and finger-wagging moralising that the ancients loved so much. So maybe Plutarch knew his audience.

The life

(Chapter 1) Crassus’s father had been censor and was awarded a triumph for military sucess, giddy heights in Roman society. Yet Marcus was raised in a small house where the family ate meals together. Plutarch thinks this may account for his temperate and moderate behaviour in later life. When one of his older brothers died, Marcus married the widow.

(2) Contrasting with his moderation in all other respects was his greed. Starting with a modest legacy he worked it up into an outrageous fortune: during his consulship he sacrificed the tenth of his goods to Hercules but still had enough left over to feasted the people and then give every Roman enough cash to live on for three months! In 54 BC, before he set out on his ill-fated expedition to Parthia (modern-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan), Crassus made an inventory of his property and valued it at 7,100 talents. Compare this with the fine of 20,000 talents which Lucius Cornelius Sulla imposed on all the cities and towns of Asia combined and which they found impossible to pay off.

One of Crassus’s business strategies was to hear about fires in the city, rush to the blaze and make the owners of threatened or burning properties offers they couldn’t refuse. If they sold him their property he promptly deployed his private fire service to save it. ‘In this most of Rome came into his possession’!

Crassus had a number of sayings which have been preserved. He said that people who build houses have no need of enemies since they will ruin themselves by their own efforts. He is also supposed to have said that no-one should be thought rich who couldn’t support an entire army out of their own wealth – a handy definition.

Crassus owned silver mines and much land and the labourers to work it. He owned a huge number of slaves but took care to educate and manage them well.

(3) Crassus’s house was open to all. He gave good dinner parties, not showy, His guests were often ordinary people, not the elite. He lent money without interest, which sounds nice, but demanded it be repaid back at exactly the allotted time. Crassus studied the art of public speaking and was always prepared. Sometimes he was ready to speak when Pompey, Caesar or Cicero were reluctant. He had an open approachable manner and would talk to anyone freely. In this way he cultivated great popularity.

(4) When Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Gaius Marius seized power in 87 BC it quickly became obvious they weren’t seeking what was best for the state but to exterminate their enemies. Among these were Crassus’s father and brother who were both murdered in the Marian purges. Young Marcus fled to Spain with some servants. He found shelter in a cave which Plutarch describes at length, making it sound like a boy’s adventure. A friend living locally, Vibius, tasked a slave with taking Crassus meals every day and leaving them a little distance from the cave.

(5) After a while it occurred to Vibius that young Marcus might want more than just food and so he sent his two prettiest slave women to keep him company.

(6) Marius died soon after regaining power in 87 BC and Rome was ruled for three years by Cinna. When Crassus heard that Cinna was dead (84 BC) he headed back to Italy to join Sulla in his march on Rome. Crassus became jealous of Sulla’s open partiality for young Pompey. This was because the latter had more military experience and also because Sulla disliked Crassus’s obvious greed.

(7) Deciding he couldn’t compete with Pompey, Crassus opted to focus on politics. He ingratiated himself with everyone, had a hand in all business affairs, made himself open and available and friendly and helpful to large numbers of people. It was said that Pompey was most powerful when he was out of Rome on campaign whereas back in Rome he was in Crassus’s shade, because he was aloof and selfish. Pompey was powerful because he had so many contacts, friends and money; but he was inconsistent in his alliances, shifting and switching to whatever suited him.

(8) Description of the Spartacus rebellion. How the gladiators escaped from the training school of Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. 78 gladiators escaped, came across a wagon carrying weapons, raided it and elected three leaders.

(9) How the gladiators defeated the praetor Marcus Claudius Glabur by escaping from a hill top using vine ropes then attacking the Romans from the rear. Local shepherds and peasants joined them. Subsequent victories against Publius Varinus, Lucius Furius and Lucius Cossinius. Spartacus tries to persuade his men to march north and cross the Alps but many prefer ravaging and looting Italy. The Senate sent both that year’s consuls against them, and Gellius massacred a group of Germans, but then Spartacus’s main force defeated the other consul, Lentulus, and went on to destroy the arms of Cassius, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul.

(10) It was at this point that Crassus was appointed to supreme command of the war. I am puzzled by this as we had established that Crassus forebore the military and had chosen to concentrate on civilian power. Crassus deputed Mummius to tail Spartacus but on no account to engage. Instead Mummius seized an opportunity to attack and was repelled and beaten by the insurgents, the legions turning tail and running. When they had reported back to Crassus he had 500 of the first to run away and had them decimated: every tenth man was chosen by lot and publicly humiliated and executed.

Spartacus marched to the Straits and made a deal with Cilician pirates to carry them to Sicily, where they hoped to revive the recently quelled slave rising, but the pirates took their money and abandoned them. Then they turned for the heel of Italy where Crassus had his men erect a ditch and wall forty miles long.

(11) Crassus fell upon a contingent resting by a lake in Lucania but Spartacus came to their rescue. Then there was a battle near a hill where Crassus massacred 12,500 of the rebels. Spartacus retired to the mountains of Petelia, trailed by Roman forces. Then he turned and engaged them, routing them and nearly killing the quaestor.

But this made the rebels over-confident and they turned to confront Crassus’s main army as it was making camp for the night. This developed into a full battle in which the rebels were comprehensively defeated.

Pompey was approaching with a second army and this engaged the stragglers from Spartacus’s force and wiped them out. To Crassus’s immense chagrin Pompey was awarded a magnificent triumph for his victory in Spain against Sertorius while Crassus was given the much more modest ‘ovation’ for a war which all the nobles thought had been dishonourable from start to finish.

(12) Crassus and Pompey were made consuls for the next year but publicly disagreed about everything. However, at one of their last appearances before the people a man leapt onstage and claimed that Jupiter had appeared to him in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t part without being friends. Characteristically it was Crassus who made the first move and seized Pompey by the hand and praised him.

(13) In 63 Crassus was elected censor but made none of the reforms expected of the post. His colleague in the post strongly objected to Crassus’s policy that Egypt should be annexed by Rome and so the two men resigned their posts.

At the time of the Cataline conspiracy in 63 BC Crassus was accused of being party to the plot, not least by Cicero. This resulted in Crassus’s enmity towards the latter, until his own son, Publius, a devoted follower of the orator, persuaded him to forgive and forget.

(14) In 60 BC Caesar returned from service in Spain and was lobbying to be elected consul for the following year. He persuaded Crassus and Pompey that their enmity was weakening both and letting the party of Cicero and Cato triumph. He proposed they form an alliance, telling each man they’d be stronger together. In reality the person who benefited most was Caesar who was not only elected consult but awarded command in Gaul.

In the spring of 56 arguments threatened to break the triumvirate but Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and a good number of senators to a conference at Luca in north Italy where agreement was reached and the triumvirate reconfirmed. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was extended and the other two were allotted provinces and armies.

(15) On their return to the capital many opponents, led by Cato, interpreted the deal as establishing a tyranny based on armies not on elected office. Cato persuaded Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship but this led to growing violence at the hustings, with Pompey’s supporters attacking Ahenobarbus’s entourage, killing some of them, and then attacking the assembly, manhandling Cato out of the forum and so on.

(16) So all their opponents were intimidated into staying at home and Crassus and Pompey were elected consuls. They drew lots for their spheres of influence and Crassus won the East. He was thrilled as he openly boasted of superseding Lucullus and Pompey’s achievements against the enemy kings, Mithridates and Tigranes, and was desperate to take on the Parthian Empire. Critics tried to talk him out of it and then block his path as he departed Rome.

(17) Crassus sailed with a large army to Galatia and overland to the Euphrates, crossing into Parthian territory. When he discovered old King Deiotarus founding a new city, he joked that he was late in life to do such a thing, but the king joked back that Crassus was pretty long in the tooth to be taking on a massive military mission. He was 60 but looked older.

Another bad omen came. Most of the cities of Mesopotamia went over to him when they saw his army. But at one, Zenodotia, ruled by Apollonius the tyrant, a hundred of his soldiers were slain so Crassus let his forces seize and plunder it and sold its inhabitants into slavery. For this his soldiers hailed him ‘Imperator’ but this wasn’t any kind of military triumph, it was massacring civilians, and the fact Crassus let his soldiers call him Imperator, and was pleased by it, was a worrying indication of his lack of experience or of seriousness, of what Plutarch’s calls ‘a paltry spirit’.

Worse, instead of reaching out to Babylon and Seleucia for alliance against Parthia, he spent all his time in the cities which had come over to him in Syria in mercenary not military activity. Thus instead of reviewing his troops and setting up athletic contests for them, he spent his time counting the money and weighing the treasure he’d acquired. He demanded soldiers and supplies from ‘districts and dynasts’ only to change his mind if they paid him off, thus losing their respect.

As they were leaving the temple of Venus, Crassus’s son (who accompanied him on the campaign) stumbled and fell at the gate, and then his father fell over him.

(18) Men come to the camp from the occupied cities and bring eye witness accounts of the strong armour and warlike temper of the Parthians. Word spreads among the troops who become demoralised. Many, including Caius Cassius Longinus, advise calling a halt and reconsidering the entire campaign. The seers keep seeing bad omens.

(19) Artabazes the king of Armenia arrived to ally with Crassus, bringing 6,000 horsemen and promising an additional 10,000 mail-clad horsemen and 30,000 footmen. He advised Crassus to approach Parthia from Armenia, which is hilly so the cavalry, which were Parthia’s sole military strength, would be disadvantaged. But Crassus preferred to march across flat Mesopotamia. Then Plutarch gives an impressive list of bad omens:

  • as the army crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma it was daunted by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning; a strong wind destroyed the raft Crassus was crossing on
  • the place he intended to camp was hit by two thunderbolts
  • one of the general’s horses violently dragged its groom down to the river and disappeared beneath the waves
  • the first eagle which was raised aloft, faced about of its own accord
  • when the rations were distributed after the crossing of the river, lentils and salt came first, which are traditional Roman signs of mourning
  • while addressing his men Crassus made a bad slip, telling them he would destroy the bridge over the river so that none of could return, when he meant there would be no going back – instead of inspiring it demoralised his men
  • when he was making the customary sacrifice of purification for the army, and the seer placed the viscera in his hands, Crassus clumsily let them fall to the ground, at which all the bystanders were appalled

It’s impossible to tell whether any of this actually happened or whether, as in Cicero’s definition of inventio as explained in the introduction to Sallust, this is the kind of thing which ought to have happened. In other words, these incidents which read to us like fairy stories and folk tales and tend to undermine Plutarch’s veracity, to the ancient mind did just the opposite, piling up all kinds of appropriate details and omens which made the events more plausible.

(20) Crassus advanced with seven legions of men-at‑arms, nearly 4,000 horsemen and about as many light-armed troops. Scouts reported the land was empty of men but they’d seen the tracks of horsemen who had approached the army but wheeled about and left. Cassius advised caution and recuperating the men in one of the garrison cities while he found out more about the enemy.

You can see how the cumulative effect of the bad omens and the persistent advice Crassus receives, from both Romans and allies, creates a very ominous and dramatic tension in the narrative.

(21) Now aan Osroene chieftain named Ariamnes arrived in the Roman camp who set about deceiving Crassus. He had helped Pompey in his campaigns and now tried to persuade Crassus to abandon the river and venture into the flat plain (best fighting ground for the Parthian cavalry). And encourages him to do it soon before the king’s forces are united.

This was all a lie for the king was at that moment ravaging Armenia for its offers of friendship to Crassus, while he sent Surena forward to make trial of the enemy in battle and to distract them. There follows a brief and preposterously inflated description of Surena, presumably to big him up into a worthy opponent of Crassus. ‘He used to travel on private business with a baggage train of a thousand camels, and was followed by two hundred wagons for his concubine’. 200 wagons for his concubines!

(22) Thus Plutarch claims it was Ariamnes who persuaded Crassus to abandon the river and led him out into a plain which was flat at first but then turned into undulating sand, no trees, no water. Messengers came from Artavasdes II, king of Armenia, saying a) he is being attacked by Hyrodes the Parthian b) for Crassus to come and join him in a united war or c) to make sure he stuck near mountains and hills where the feared cavalry couldn’t operate. [The name Hyrodes is nowadays given as Orodes and he was the second Parthian king of that name, Orodes II.]

Cassius has given up trying to warn Crassus, who was angry with him, and reserved his scorn for the joking joshing Arab who led the army into the wilderness.

(23) In keeping with the steady ratcheting up of tension, Plutarch says that on the fateful day of the disastrous battle, Crassus by mistake didn’t dress in a purple robe but in a black one (which seems wildly unlikely) and that the standard-bearers had great difficulty raising their standards, which seemed to be embedded in the earth. Scouts return to announce that the enemy is coming up in great numbers.

Crassus assembles his men in one long line but then changes his mind and makes them form squares, accompanied by a cavalry squad. The army came to a stream but instead of letting them rest and refresh, Crassus insisted on making them continue on a forced march. They come upon Surena’s advance guard who appear to be surprisingly small, until the war drums of the main force behind them boomed out, disheartening the Romans.

(24) Plutarch describes the battle in detail. The Parthians initially planned to charge until they saw the solidity of the Roman squares. Then they sent cavalry to surround the squares. When light troops ran out to skirmish with them, everyone saw how effective the Parthian arrows were at penetrating armour and the army first started to be scared. Then the Parthians started to fire into the densely packed squares of Romans.

(25) At first Crassus thought they would run out of arrows till he realised they had a camel train carrying bags of extra arrows. He lost heart. He ordered his son on the left wing to attack. Publius Crassus led his wing in pursuit of the Parthians who broke and ran, but only to lure them into an ambush where they were surrounded by Parthian horsemen circling round them and stirring up dust.

Publius roused his cavalry to charge again but their spears could do little against the Parthian breastplates of hide and steel whereas the long Parthian pikes did great damage. Publius’s Gauls put up a good fight, crawling under the Parthian horses to stab them and perishing when horse and rider fell on them. They seized Publius who had been injured and took him to a sandy hill to make a last stand but they were surrounded and annihilated by arrows.

Two Greeks tried to persuade Publius to abandon his troops and come with them to a nearby Greek city but he bade them leave, remaining with his troops. Then he turned his side to his shield bearer and told him to stab him to death. Other nobles also committed suicide. The redoubt was massacred and the victorious Parthians cut off Publius’s head.

(26) Meanwhile Crassus initially thought his son’s charge was successful and the main army weakened as some left to deal with it. But then he received messages begging for help. Conflicted, Crassus ordered the whole army to advance. But the enemy rallied and strengthened, started beating their damn war drums and then rode up with Publius’s head on a pike to taunt him. The army is daunted but this is Crassus’s finest hour, and Plutarch has him delivering a stirring speech invoking Rome’s glorious history of victory whatever the cost.

(27) The slaughter continued until night fell and the Parthians backed away and made camp. Crassus lies on the ground in black despair so his lieutenants decide to retreat, rouse the army and back west despite the lamentations of the wounded they leave to die in the desert. An advance guard under Ignatius reached Carrhae at midnight and told the garrison commander, Coponius, to send out reinforcements to help the stricken army, and so the survivors are all brought within the walls of Carrhae.

(28) At daybreak the Parthians slaughtered all the wounded lying about the plain to the number of 4,000, then surrounded and massacred four cohorts who had got separated from the main body of the Roman army.

Surena isn’t sure whether Crassus is in Carrhae or whether his army has fled further west so he sends attendants up to the wall calling for Crassus or Cassius. Crassus comes to the city walls and the ambassadors propose Crassus accept an honourable truce, sign a peace treaty and leave Mesopotamia. They invite him to a conference with Surena. Crassus agrees.

(29) But having confirmed that Crassus was in the city, Surena changed his tune and surrounded it, with men deputed to mock the Romans and telling them to send Crassus and Cassius out in chains.

Morale collapses and his lieutenants suggest Crassus flee the city abandoning his army. But his closest Greek adviser, Andromachus, is a double agent and reports this to Surena. And when this escape party sets out that night in secret from the city Andromachus treacherously leads them a zigzag route through marshes. Cassius left with 500 cavalry by a different route and made it to Syria. Octavius led 5,000 to a hill country named Sinnaca.

[Only now does it become clear that when Plutarch said Crassus left Carrhae, he meant with a significant armed force (four cohorts of men-at‑arms, a few horsemen all told, and five lictors). Add in Octavius’s forces and you can see that a lot of the army got away. This suggests that Surena wasn’t mounting a very effective siege and throws into doubt the whole story about the Roman army taking refuge in the city.]

Anyway, up come the Parthians and surround Crassus’s force on a hill but Octavius fights his way through to join him.

(30) Surena realised that, with night coming on, the Romans were likely to escape into the hills. So he changed his approach and a) released prisoners who had overheard staged conversations between Surena and lieutenants saying it was time for peace, which softened Crassus up for when b) Surena and lieutenants made their way up the hill under truce, symbolically unstrung his bow and held out his hand, offering peace.

Crassus hesitates to accept but the army rebelled, clashed their shields and insist they will fight no longer. So much against his better judgement Crassus is more or less forced to go down the hill to meet with Surena.

(31) Octavius insists on joining him with his entourage. Then Plutarch gives a detailed description of the scuffle which leads to the fray in which Crassus is killed. Crassus had walked down on foot while Surena had advanced on horseback. He said it ill befitted his opponent to be on foot and offered a fine horse with gold-studded bridle. Surena’s lifted Crassus onto it then ran alongside slapping it to make it ride faster. But Octavius and a tribune seized the bridle to slow it down and keep Crassus in their protection. A scuffled developed and blows were exchanged. Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the grooms but was himself killed. Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.

Rumour has it that the Parthians cut off Crassus’s head and right hand. Some of the Roman embassy made it back to the hilltop redoubt. That night they tried to sneak away but very few made it out of the desert alive. Most were hunted down and cut to pieces. ‘In the whole campaign, twenty thousand are said to have been killed, and ten thousand to have been taken alive’ – as usual with ancient accounts, these are suspiciously round figures.

(32) Surena sent the head and hand of Crassus to King Hyrodes in Armenia. Then he organised a mock triumph in the city of Seleucia, with a Roman noble forced to wear a dress being set on a horse backwards and mockingly saluted as ‘Crassus’, with lictors on camels and troupes of actors and musicians mocking the fallen Romans.

Plutarch makes a big deal out of the fact that the Parthians discovered in Crassus’s baggage train a copy of the ‘Milesiaca’ by Aristides, a collection of love stories. These are read out and mocked as inappropriate to take on a military campaign, but Plutarch acidly points out that this was rich coming from a leader (Surena) who himself led wagon-loads of concubines and whose train trailed off in the rear into dances, cymbals, lutes, and nocturnal revels with women. Plutarch quotes Aesop’s fable of the two wallets. He is more interested in literary allusions than history per se.

(33) Meanwhile, in faraway Armenia, King Hyrodes was at last reconciled with king Artavasdes II and agreed to receive the latter’s sister as wife for his son Pacorus. Both kings were (supposedly) well educated in Greek literature and when the head of Crassus arrived at the palace, as part of the wedding feast a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae was underway. The messenger threw Crassus’s head on the stage and the lead actor picked it up and addressed it with Euripides’ lines.

Then the man who had actually killed Crassus, Pomaxathres, stepped forward and claimed the head. King Hyrodes was delighted and gave both men rewards. Plutarch moralises: thus was the tragedy of Crassus, as is traditional, followed by farce.

[The later historian, Cassius Dio, claimed that the Parthians poured molten gold into Crassus’s mouth in symbolic mockery of his thirst for wealth. Thus grotesque gossip and macabre stories accrue around famous men.]

The text contains one last afterthought, presumably designed to ram home the perfidious treachery of the wicked orientals: soon afterwards Hyrodes became jealous of Surena’s fine reputation and had him put to death. Then Hyrodes lost his son Pacorus, defeated in battle by the Romans,​ and became ill, so that another of his sons, Phraates, had his father strangled.

All lives end in death, but this short life feels particularly grim and depressing.

Plutarch’s summary

For Plutarch, Crassus’s fate was:

to the multitude an illustration of the ways of fortune, but to the wise an example of foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything. (27)

I.e. he was driven to his death because of rivalry with his two partners in the triumvirate, Pompey and Caesar.

Superstitions and omens

It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. (8)

When Crassus is marching out of Rome for the East his way is blocked by a critic, Ateius:

Ateius ran on ahead to the city gate, placed there a blazing brazier, and when Crassus came up, cast incense and libations upon it, and invoked curses which were dreadful and terrifying in themselves, and were reinforced by sundry strange and dreadful gods whom he summoned and called by name. The Romans say that these mysterious and ancient curses have such power that no one involved in them ever escapes, and misfortune falls also upon the one who utters them, wherefore they are not employed at random nor by many. And accordingly at this time they found fault with Ateius because it was for the city’s sake that he was angered at Crassus, and yet he had involved the city in curses which awakened much superstitious terror.

There follows a steadily increasing crescendo of bad omens as Crassus’s army advanced into the badlands. Surely these are classic examples of Cicero’s inventio. This is what ought to have happened for the gods are just and send us omens and prophecies and so every fraught event must be accompanied by heavenly signs. Precisely what makes this aspect of these ancient texts ludicrous to us, made them plausible and convincing to most of their readers.


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Eunuchus (The Eunuch) by Terence (161 BC)

‘Whatever’s happened here, it wasn’t my fault.’
(The cowardly servant Parmeno to his master Demea, page 212)

In her introduction, the editor and translator of the Penguin edition, Betty Radice, observes that The Eunuch was Terence’s most popular play and is also the most Plautine of his plays, as if these are coincidental facts. When I opened the The Ghost by Plautus I was laughing by the end of the first page. By contrast, wading through Terence’s play, The Self-Tormentor, made me want to stop reading Terence altogether, it was so contrived, impenetrably complex, and without a single laugh in the entire text. Plautus is my man.

Fortunately, The Eunuch is a lot clearer and a lot funnier than The Self-Tormentor. According to Suetonius’s life of Terence, it was performed twice in one day at the Megalensian Games in 161 BC and won its author 8,000 sesterces, ‘the highest fee ever paid for a comedy’. Like all Plautus and Terence’s plays, it is based on a Greek original, in this case by the Greek playwright Menander.

Incidentally, this play is apparently the earliest surviving Latin text to use the word ‘eunuch’, making it an important resource for academic histories of the (very varied roles played by) ‘the eunuch’ in the ancient world.

The plot

As usual, the scene consists of a street and two houses, showing the front doors of Demea, father of two errant sons, and Thais, a courtesan. As usual, the worthy father, Demea, is struggling to cope with two sons who have made inappropriate love matches: Phaedria is in love with a courtesan, Chaerea is in love with a slave girl.

Phaedria and Parmeno

Parmeno is the elderly family servant. When Phaedria tells him he is mad with love for Thais, Parmeno tells him to grow up, pay up and get rid of her.

Enter Thais

Phaedria goes weak at the knees. Thais apologises to him for locking him out of her house the day before but then goes on to give some key exposition. Thais says her mother came from Samos and lived on Rhodes. A merchant made her a present of a little girl stolen from the area where the play is set, Attica. The little girl knew her father and mother’s name but not where she came from or whether she was free or slave. The merchant had bought her off pirates who claimed to have stolen her from Sunium. This kidnapped girl was brought up alongside Thais as her sister. Then Thais found a ‘protector’, a soldier, Thraso, who brought her here to Athens (where the play is set) and set her up as his courtesan. is soldier, Thraso, then went off to Caria and Thais has found a new protector/sponsor/lover in Phaedria. And that brings the backstory up to date.

But there’s more. Recently Thais’s mother died, leaving the house and goods to her brother, including the foster sister. Since the latter was pretty and could play the lyre, Thais’s brother put her up for sale and, in a spectacular coincidence, she was bought by Thais’s very same protector, the soldier Thraso. He has recently returned to Athens, intending to give Thais the girl as a servant but, when he found out that Thais has been seeing another man (i.e. Phaedria) Thraso changed his mind. He won’t come to see her or hand over the slave girl while Phaedria is on the scene.

So now she gets to the point: will Phaedria agree to lie low for several days so that Thraso can resume his position as her lover, and give her the gift of the slave girl – so that Phaedria can then do a good deed and track down the girl’s family and return her to them?

Phaedria is angry. He thinks it’s all a story to cover wanting to go back to the soldier. Hasn’t he bought her everything? Only yesterday he paid 2,000 drachmas for an Ethiopian slave girl and a eunuch Thais said she wanted. Doesn’t he buy her whatever she wants?

Thais begs, pleads and wears him down and eventually Phaedria promises to leave town for a couple of days so the soldier can return and give Thais the slave girl. But he begs her to remain loyal in her heart. Then Phaedria turns and walks back into his father’s house. Nothing especially funny about this, is there?

Thais tells the audience one further fact, which is that she thinks she’s already identified and contacted the slave girl’s brother and he’s coming to meet her (Thais) today to discuss the matter. Then she goes into her house.

Re-enter Phaedria and Parmeno

Phaedria weeps and wails but we aren’t to take his anguish seriously; he is played for a figure of fun. He instructs Parmeno to fetch the eunuch and Ethiopian slave girl and give them to Thais and to keep an eye on his rival. Then he shoulders his bag and walks offstage, planning to stay out of town for the two days he agreed with Thais.

Enter Gnatho

Gnatho is the bumptious servant of the soldier Thraso. He is bringing the slave girl Pamphila to give to Thais. Parmeno is impressed and says the slave girl is even more beautiful than Thais.

Gnatho soliloquises, saying how proud he is of his status and profession of sponger and hanger-on. He gives a little explanation of the key requirements of the trade, namely to agree shamelessly with whatever your patron says.

The old servant Parmeno overhears all this, then cocky Gnatho spots him and likes the way he looks glum, indicating that he and his master (Phaedria) are not doing well with Thais. Good. Gnatho shows off the slave girl to Parmeno and teases him and then goes into Thais’s house. Having delivered the slave girl, he makes a few choice comments to Parmeno then exits.

Enter Chaerea

Chaerea is Demea’s other son, younger brother to Phaedria. He is a very young man in a frenzy about his new love. Parmeno overhears him talking, rolls his eyes, and pities his poor master (Demea) for having two such lovestruck puppies for sons. Chaerea announces he’s in love with a plump and juicy girl. Parmeno asks how old. 16. Parmeno rolls his eyes. As Chaerea goes on to describe falling in love with her in the street, and that she was accompanied by one of those spongers, Parmeno realises he’s talking about Pamphila, the slave girl who Gnatho has just delivered to Thais.

Parmeno explains all this and that she’s been given as a present to Thais by her soldier lover. ‘What, the rival to his brother?’ says Chaerea. ‘Yes,’ replies Parmeno. Parmeno goes on to explain that Phaedria is giving Thais the old eunuch he brought home yesterday. Not that smelly old man, Chaerea says. How unfair it is that he’ll get to be under the same roof with the fair Pamphila etc.

At which Parmeno jokes that maybe he, Chaerea, could pretend to be a eunuch and gain access to Thais’s house. YES, shouts Chaerea, yes, he can wear a eunuch outfit and pretend to be the gift from Phaedria to Thais. That way he can be close to his new beloved all day long, yes, YES! And he bundles Parmeno into Demea’s house to help dress him up as a eunuch, despite all the latter’s protestations that it was only a joke, he didn’t mean it seriously, he’ll be the one to suffer when it’s all found out etc.

Enter Thraso

Thraso is the middle-aged soldier and lover of Thais. He is a version of that well-established type, the miles gloriosus, full of sound and fury about his brave military exploits, while in fact being a pompous coward and bore.

Thraso enters accompanied by his sponger, Gnatho. Parmeno hears them arrive and opens Demea’s front door to spy on them. He watches while Gnatho shamelessly sucks up to Thraso, laughing at all his bad jokes and nodding at his stories about being the favourite of the king of Caria.

GNATHO: Heavens above, what wisdom! Every minute spent with you is something learned. (p.202)

Thraso asks Gnatho whether Thais loves him and the sponger, of course, insists that she is devoted to him i.e. reassuring Thraso’s delicate ego, as spongers are paid to do.

Enter Thais

Thais enters from her house and encounters Thraso and Gnatho. The soldier says he hopes she likes the slave girl Gnatho gave to her a bit earlier on and invites her for dinner. Parmeno takes the opportunity to present Phaedria’s gifts to Thais. He calls for the Ethiopian slave girl to be brought out, and Thraso and Gnatho make comedy insults about how relatively cheap she looks. Then Parmeno has Chaerea dressed as a eunuch brought out and presented to Thais. She is struck by how handsome Chaerea is, as are Thraso and Gnatho. I think Thraso makes a joke to the effect that, given half a chance, he’d have sex with this handsome eunuch (p.186).

Thais takes her new properties into her house while Thraso tries to mock Parmeno for having a poor master, but Parmeno easily gets the better of him, and strolls away. Gnatho quietly laughs at Thraso being mocked but hurriedly adopts a straight face when Thraso turns to him.

Thais re-enters with an elderly woman slave, Pythia. Thais tells Pythia to take good care of the new acquisitions and that, if Chremes turns up, to tell him to wait. Then she goes off to dine with Thraso and Gnatho, leaving the stage empty.

Enter Chremes

Chremes is the young man who Thais thinks is the next of kin of the slave girl she grew up with and who Thraso has just given to her, Pamphila. He enters and delivers a long speech explaining he’s puzzled why Thais contacted him, asked him a load of questions about a long lost sister, and then asked him to come see her today. He wonders whether Thais is going to pretend that she’s the long lost sister, but Chremes knows the sister would only be about 16, and Thais is much older, so it can’t be her.

Chremes knocks on the door, Pythia opens it and asks Chremes to wait for her mistress but he, suspicious and irritated, says no, so Pythia calls for another servant to take Chremes to see Thais at Thraso’s dinner, and they exit.

Enter Antipho

Antipho is a friend of Chaerea’s. A bunch of the lads had decided to club together for dinner and Chaerea’s meant to be organising it but he’s disappeared, so the lads chose Antipho to find him and ask what’s going on. At just this moment Chaerea emerges from Thais’s house but dressed as a eunuch so Antipho is understandably astonished. But Chaerea explains to him the whole scam, how he’s madly in love with the young slave who’s just been given to Thais as a present, how Parmeno suggested he pretend to be the eunuch Phaedria planned to give to Thais, how it’s worked like a dream, how he’s even been tasked with looking after her, how she’s had a bath and emerged fragrant and beautiful.

Chaerea goes on to explain how all the other serving girls left them to go off and bathe so he…locked the door and…apparently had sex with Pamphila!

This is quickly skipped over as Antipho is interested in the dinner. Chaerea says he rearranged it to take place at Discus’s house. Antipho invites Chaerea to come to his place and change out of the eunuch’s clothes first, and off they both go.

Enter Dorias

Dorias is a maid of Thais’s. She’s just come back from the dinner party where things turned sour. When Chremes turned up, Thais insisted he be brought in. But Thraso thought he was a rival for Thais’s affections, got very angry and insisted that Pamphila be brought in, in retaliation. Thais insisted that a slave girl should not be invited to a dinner and so they had a big argument.

Enter Phaedria

Phaedria should, of course, be at the family farm in the country, as he’d promised Thais. But he couldn’t keep away and has come all the way back to town, casual-like, just to catch a glimpse of his beloved.

Enter Pythias

Which is the exact moment when Pythias, Thais’s head slave, comes bursting out of her house, livid with anger. She explains to an astonished Phaedria that the eunuch who he, Phaedria, recently gave to Thais was no eunuch at all but has raped Pamphila, tearing her clothes and messing her hair. She’s inside now, in floods of tears. Pythias blames Phaedria but Phaedria disavows any knowledge that the eunuch was not a eunuch, and says he’ll go look for the eunuch straightaway. Maybe he’s in the family home, so he goes into Demea’s house to see.

Re-enter Phaedria

Phaedria almost immediately re-enters dragging the real eunuch, Dorus, out of his house. Dorus is wearing Chaerea’s clothes (Chaerea having insisted they do a swap) so Phaedria mistakenly accuses him of stealing his brother’s clothes and making ready to flee. But when he presents Dorus to Pythia and Dorias, Thais’s servants, they both claim never to have seen him before. This is not the rapist!

They all cross-question the eunuch who quickly explains that Parmeno and Chaerea came and ordered him to swap clothes with Chaerea, then they both left. Now they all understand. Chaerea impersonated the eunuch in order to be near Pamphila and then raped her.

Phaedria is terribly embarrassed. It looks like he might be in on the scam, and it certainly reflects badly on his family. So in an aside he tells Dorus to reverse his story and deny everything he’s just said. When the bewildered man does so, Phaedria says the man is an obvious liar and he’ll take him into his house to ‘torture’ him to find out the truth

Re-enter Chremes

Pythias and Dorias are just wondering whether to tell Thais about all this when Chremes re-enters. He’d got drunk at Thraso’s dinner party and now he makes a bit of a pass at Pythias (Thais’s female head slave) who primly fends him off. Instead she extracts from Chremes the fact that there was a big argument at Thrasos’s dinner party.

Enter Thais

Thais is still angry from the argument at Thrasos’s dinner party. She warns her servants that Thraso is on his way to reclaim Pamphila but that he’ll do so over her dead body. She’ll have him horsewhipped first.

First of all she briskly tells Chremes that Pamphila is his long lost sister. Not only that, but Thais hereby gives her to him, free, gratis. Chremes is immensely grateful though not quite as surprised or emotional as you might expect.

Then Thais tells Pythias to hurry inside and fetch the box of ‘proofs’ which prove Pamphila’s identity. But just then Thraso approaches.

Thraso is, of course, a seasoned soldier, albeit a bullshitting braggart. Thais instructs Chremes to stand up to him and hands him the proofs of Pamphila’s identity that Pythias has just fetched out of the house. There is comedy in the way Chremes is a complete milksop, refuses to face Thraso and wants to run off to the market to fetch help, but Thais physically restrains him and tells him to be a man.

THAIS: My dear man, you’re not afraid are you?
CHREMES: [visibly alarmed]: Nonsense. Who’s afraid? Not me. (p.200)

Thais and all her people go into her house.

Enter Thraso and followers

Enter Thraso and Gnatho with six followers. There is quite a funny parody of a military campaign, with Thraso bombastically issuing complex orders for storming Thais’s house to his motley crew of incompetent ‘soldiers’. Thais and Chremes appear at a window overlooking the action. Chremes is fearful while Thais gives a fearless and comic commentary on Thraso’s cowardly and ineffectual ‘military’ orders.

Thraso now parleys with Thais at her window. He reminds her that she promised him the next couple of days, no? And has gone back on her word? So that’s why he wants Pamphila back.

Now Chremes steps forward and confronts Thraso with the new facts: Pamphila is a) a free-born citizen b) of this region, Attica and c) Chremes’ sister. Therefore she cannot be anyone’s property. Thraso thinks he’s lying, but Chremes sends for the box of proof documents.

This is sort of funny if we buy into the play’s premises, but it is also a fascinating slice of social history on a huge subject, namely the definition and rights of free citizens and slaves in the ancient world.

Disheartened Thraso hesitates about what to do next. At which point his parasite, Gnatho, suggests they make a tactical withdrawal on the basis that women are well known for being perverse and so, if Thraso stops asking for something (which is making Thais obstinate), if he changes his approach, maybe Thais will change hers and come round. Rather doubtfully, Thraso calls off the ‘assault’ and he and his men all leave.

Enter Thais and Pythias

With Thraso gone, Thais turns her thoughts to Pamphila who she has discovered in her house with torn clothes and inconsolably weeping i.e. having been raped. Thais is furious with Pythias for letting it happen but Pythias explains that they’ve established it wasn’t the eunuch Phaedria gave her who raped Pamphila, it was Phaedria’s younger brother impersonating the eunuch who did it. At which point the culprit, Chaerea himself, strolls onstage, wearing the eunuch’s clothes.

Enter Chaerea

Chaerea had gone along to Antipho’s house to change for the lads’ party, but Antipho’s parents were home so he was scared to go in and has returned to Thais’s house by backstreets in case anyone recognises him. Now he sees Thais standing in her doorway and momentarily hesitates but decides to brazen it out and continue in character as the eunuch Dorus, so he steps forward.

But after a few exchanges of him pretending to be Dorus, Thais drops all pretences and calls him by his real name, Chaerea. About this point it began to dawn on me that Thais is the real ‘hero’ of this play, easily the most manly, resolute, strong and decisive character on the stage – and that, by the same token, all the men (Thraso, Chremes, Chaerea) are weaker and feebler and morally flawed than she is.

Thais and Chaerea come to an arrangement. Chaerea insists he meant no disrespect to Thais and that he genuinely loves Pamphila. Grudgingly, Thais accepts his apology, despite the scorn of her aggrieved servant, Pythias. In fact, Chaerea grovellingly offers to put himself completely under Thais’ guidance. She is a strong woman.

At this point they both see Pamphila’s brother Chremes approaching and Chaerea begs to be let inside so he can change out of his shameful costume. Thais laughingly agrees and they all go into her house.

Enter Chremes and Sophrona

Sophrona was Chremes’ and Pamphila’s nurse when they were small. Chremes has shown her the tokens Pamphila had and the nurse recognised them all. Now he’s brought the nurse along for the final ‘recognition scene’. The servant Pythias welcomes them and tells them to go into Thais’ house.

Enter Parmeno

As mentioned, Thais has emerged as the main driver of the plot. Usually it’s the cunning slave, in this case Parmeno, but in this play he has been totally overshadowed by Thais’ control of the narrative.

There follows a carefully staged and prepared scene in which Parmeno gets his comeuppance. He had swaggered onstage feeling very pleased with himself because his ruse (disguising Chaerea as the eunuch) had secured Chaerea his beloved, and he had also educated the young man in the ways of courtesans and their wicked ways (by which he is casting a slur on the house of Thais who is, we are reminded, a courtesan by trade).

Pythias, the angry housekeeper overhears all this, including the slur on her mistress and household, and decides to take Parmeno down a peg or two. She comes onstage pretending not to see Parmeno and lamenting and bewailing. When Parmeno asks her what the matter is, Pythias tells him that the young man he introduced into Thais’s household, Chaerea, assaulted Pamphila but now it has emerged that the latter is a free citizen, and has a well-born brother, and the brother has found out and had Chaerea tied up and is about to administer the traditional punishment for adultery and rape – castration!!!

Parmeno is devastated and thrown into a complete panic about what to do, specially when Pythias goes on to tell him that everyone blames him for what’s happened, and are looking to punish him, too. At this moment they both see the two errant sons’ father and Parmeno’s master, Demea, coming up the street. Pythias advises Parmeno to tell Demea everything, before disappearing back onto Thais’ house.

Enter Demea

Parmeno greets his old master and tells him everything (one son in love with Thais, the other in love with a slave woman who’s in Thais’s house, impersonated a eunuch to gain admission, was caught in a rape and is tied and bound and about to be punished). Suitably appalled, Demea rushes into Thais’ house to rescue his son.

Enter Pythias

Re-enter Pythias crying with laughter. Oh, she tells the audience, the comedy of misunderstandings she has just seen! And only she understood why Demea was in a panic about his son being castrated (because she’d just invented it). Hardly able to speak for laughing, she tells Parmeno she properly took him in and made him look a right fool. Now both son and master are furious with him, Parmeno, blaming him for everything. She stumbles back into the house, helpless with laughter.

Enter Thraso and Gnathos

The braggart soldier and his parasite. Thraso has decided to throw himself on Thais’ mercy but they haven’t gone far before Chaerea bursts out of Thais’ house, delirious with happiness. He rushes up to a surprised Parmeno and hugs him and calls him the ‘author and instigator and perfecter’ of all his joys. Obviously the ‘recognition scene’ has just taken place and Pamphila has been confirmed as a free citizen of Attica and therefore an entirely eligible woman for Chaerea to marry. Also, Thais has agreed to marry Phaedria, and thus put herself and her household under Demea’s protection and patronage. It is an entirely happy ending for both sons and the father.

Parmeno dashes into Demea’s house and returns with Phaedria who they tell the good news: he is going to be married to his beloved Thais!

Thraso and Gnatho have overheard all this and Thraso drily remarks that it looks like all his hopes of winning Thais have been dashed. For once Gnatho can’t find words of sycophantic support. But Thraso asks him to make one last sally and see if he can remain in Thais’s good books, if only as a friend. Gnatho extracts a promise from Thraso that, if he pulls this off, Thraso’s house and table will be open to him (Gnatho) for evermore, which Thraso agrees to. Then Gnatho goes up to the two happy brothers.

Phaedria’s first response of Thraso’s offer of friendship is to tell Thraso to clear out and if he ever sees him in this street again, he’ll kill him (!).

Gnatho asks him to calm down, ushers Thraso aside, and speaks confidentially to Phaedria. He proposes a very cynical offer. He suggests that Phaedria accepts Thraso as his rival i.e. a sort of official lover for Thais. ‘What? Why?’ Phaedria asks.

Because Thraso is such a dimwit he presents no threat whatsoever to Thais and Phaedria’s love, but he is very prodigal with gifts and money. These he will lavish on Thais and thus keep her in the manner to which she is accustomed and which, let’s face it, Phaedria can’t afford. Hmm. The brothers confer. It is quite a tidy plan and they agree on it.

Lastly, Gnatho asks if he can be accepted into their circle of friends. Again the brothers agree, and with that, Gnatho mockingly presents them with Thraso! ‘For the laughs and everything else you can get out of him’ (p.218).

Gnatho calls Thraso over and announces that the deal has been struck. Thraso recovers his composure and starts to strut and swank, and the two brothers laugh at his pompousness and foresee years of milking him for his money and mocking his pretensions.

And that is the end. Phaedria abruptly turns to the audience, asks for their applause and they all go into Thais’s house.

*******

Dark thoughts

The Eunuch has plenty of genuinely funny moments, the increasingly funny role of the bombastic soldier Thraso, the comedy swapping of the eunuch’s identity, Chremes’ cowardice, Pythias’s humiliation of Parmeno and so on.

But at the same time, I struggled to get past the ‘otherness’ of Roman society. I can’t really get past the way the entire story rest on the buying and selling of slaves and giving and receiving them as gifts.

Then, when Chaerea rapes the sleeping Pamphila, the entire tone changed for me, and I found it difficult to find anything after that very funny.

And the casual way Phaedria remarks that the only thing which will extract the truth from Dorus is ‘torture’, the casual way Pythias declares that Chaerea is about to be castrated, and the casual references to the way slaves are routinely whipped as punishment – once again I found myself being brought up short and the smile being wiped right off my face by the casual references to hyper violence (torture, whipping, chains, even crucifixion) in these Roman plays.

Sunny thoughts

If you can manage to put those dark thoughts aside then, yes, this is a funny play, by far the funniest of the three I’ve read so far. I think this is because, even though the plot is quite convoluted, of two things:

  1. Once the backstory of the abandoned slave girl and the two brothers in love with two girls is established, everything follows reasonably logically from those premises.
  2. Second reason is that the scenes are quite long and leisurely meaning that – crucially, for me at any rate – the characters thoroughly explain what is going on, what is happening and what they intend to do. For example, the idea for Chaerea to dress up as a eunuch develops quite naturally out of Parmeno’s joke suggestion which then, as it were, gets out of hand. This scene has great psychological and/or comic realism, in the sense that all of us know the experience of making a jokey, off-hand remark which our interlocutor picks up and takes far more seriously than we’d intended, and which we then regret ever mentioning. 2,200 years ago the same experience was common enough to be a comic gag in onstage.

Compare and contrast these two attributes with Terence’s play The Self-tormentor where the plot very much does not follow from the basic premise, but is 1. the result of a whole series of ad lib schemes dreamed up by the naughty slave Syrus and 2. which he keeps to himself; which he does not explain; which may well keep the characters comically in the dark about what he’s up to, but also had the result that I couldn’t follow what was happening half the time and so gave up on the play and almost gave up on Terence as a whole.

The Eunuch restored my faith in Terence as a comic playwright and confirmed my determination to continue and read all six of his plays.


Credit

Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies, edited and translated by Betty Radice.

Roman reviews

Andria (The Girl from Andros) by Terence (166 BC)

‘There’s scarcely a man to be found who’ll stay faithful to a woman.’
(Mysis the servant)

‘A father shouldn’t be too hard on his children whatever their faults.’
(Chremes)

The astonishingly detailed production notes, attached to the play in antiquity, tell us that Andria was first performed at the Megalensian Games in 166 BC. It is based on an original but unnamed play by the Greek playwright, Menander.

The set consists, as usual, of the front doors of two houses set next to each other, the house of Simo, father of the hero, and of Glycerium, the young female ‘love interest’

Back story

The play is set in Athens. There are two middle-aged men, Simo and Chysemum. Simo has a son, Pamphilus. Pamphilus has seduced and impregnated a young woman named Glycerium and has promised to marry her. But his father, Simo, has other ideas and has promised Pamphilus in marriage to the daughter of his friend Chremes, Philumena.

Everyone has always assumed that Glycerium was the sister of the girl she came to Athens with three years earlier, who was named Chryses. They came to Athens together from the island of Andros (hence ‘the girl from Andros’). Chryses set up as a courtesan and acquired a devoted following of young gentlemen. Sadly, she got sick and died just before the action of the play starts.

It was at the funeral of Chryses that Pamphilus first publicly revealed his loved for Glycerium when the latter ventured a little too close to the funeral pyre on which her friend was burning, and Pamphilus promptly leapt forward, embraced her, pulled her back and ended up kissing her in full sight of all the other mourners. His father, Simo, witnessed this and was appalled.

Meanwhile, young Pamphilus has a friend, Charinus, who is himself in love, with a young woman named Philumena, the daughter of Pamphilus’s father’s friend, Chremes. That’s what the ‘double plot’ means in practice – two young men in love with two young women; both in similar plights which are then ‘treated’ differently by the plot.

It’s worth noting that Glycerium, Pamphilus’s lady love and, in a sense, the crux of the plot, never actually appears onstage. She does, however, have one line – when she cries out from inside her house as she gives birth (exactly like Phaedria, another invisible love interest, does in Plautus’s Aulularis).

But this is one more line than Charinus’s lady love Philumena, the daughter of Chremes, is awarded, as she never appears at all. They are almost invisible cogs in the machine of the plot.

Rather than the love interests, the central figure of the play, as so often, is the canny slave, in this case Pamphilus’s slave, Davos, who devises a cunning plan to rescue his master and unite him with his girl. This plan goes badly wrong to begin with but he manages to recover it at the last minute, so that the play ends with a happy marriage.

The plot

Sosia and Simo

Simo, the father, explains the backstory of the play to the elderly family freed slave Sosia: the story of Chryses coming to Athens, her success in garnering lovers, how Simo knows that his son Pamphilus hung round in their set but wasn’t actually in love with her. How Simo’s neighbour Chremes has offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to Pamphilus, and that today is the day set for the wedding feast.

Simo goes on to say that a few days after he and Chremes sealed the deal, this neighbouring courtesan Chryses passed away. Simo attended the funeral and it was there that he saw his son dash forward to prevent Glycerium getting too close to Chryses’ pyre. Then Chremes got to hear about Pamphilus’ love for Glycerium and so called off the wedding of Pamphilus and his own daughter.

Sosia is confused: if the wedding has been called off, how come caterers are arriving and setting up for the wedding feast? Simo replies that he has two very specific aims: one, if Pamphilus refuses to take part in the wedding feast he’s staging, then he’ll have a real reason to rebuke him; two, if his rogue of a servant Davos has any tricks up his sleeve, Simo hopes he’ll deploy them here, at the fake wedding, rather than at the real one. [This slightly convoluted logic explains why a wedding feast is in preparation, even though the bride’s father, Chremes, has cancelled her participation in it.]

So the upshot of this rather complicated story is that Simo wants Sosia to supervise the setting up of the feast and keep his eye open for scams. So, with these instructions the freed slave Sosia goes through the door into Simo’s house.

Enter Davos

Davos is Pamphilus’s smart young slave who will emerge as the main driver of the play. Simo warns him that if he tries to pull off any smart tricks to help Pamphilus, Simo will have him whipped senseless then sent to the mills. As with all of Plautus’s plays, I am appalled at the way extreme violence is routinely threatened to all the slaves and for laughs! Simo exits leaving Davos alone onstage.

Davos soliloquises

Davos explains he wants to help his master, Pamphilus, but is understandably worried about getting into trouble with his actual owner, Simo – the man who just threatened him with a whipping!

Davos goes on to explain that Pamphilus and Glycerium are behaving like naughty children, specially as Glycerium is pregnant. They’re promoting the story that Glycerium isn’t Chryses sister at all, that she was shipwrecked as a baby off the coast of Andros. She was in the care of a merchant and they were both taken in by a kindly local. The merchant then died leaving the local to raise the orphan girl Glycerium alongside his own daughter, Chryses. But – and this is the important point – not only are the girls not sisters, but Glycerium is a freeborn Athenian. This, apparently, really matters. If she was the daughter of a slave and had grown up to become a courtesan, she would be no fit wife for a wealthy man’s son like Pamphilus. But if it can be proven that she is freeborn, that changes everything. She would be a worthy bride.

Having explained all this to the audience, Davos exits.

Enter Mysis

Mysis is a maid of Glycerium. She comes out of Glycerium’s house, as so often in these plays, calling back something to someone inside. She is being sent to fetch a noted midwife, Lesbia, to handle the delivery of Glycerium’s baby.

Enter Pamphilus

Pamphilus has heard from his father that the latter has organised his wedding today, without even telling him! He rants and raves and says he is cursed since he can’t refuse his father but doesn’t want to go through with marriage to a woman he doesn’t love.

Mysis steps forward and Pamphilus asks how her mistress i.e. Pamphilus’s beloved, Glycerium, is. Mysis replies that Glycerium is scared to death of giving birth and that she’ll be abandoned by Pamphilus. Upset, Pamphilus swears he will stick by her. He quotes the deathbed scene in which ailing Chrysis left Glycerium to Pamphilus’s care to protect and look after.

PAMPHILUS: Oh Mysis, Mysis, the words Chryses used of her are forever written in my heart. (p.51)

Pamphilus regards it as a sacred duty. Exit Mysis to fetch the midwife, Pamphilus moves to the side of the stage.

Enter Charinus

Enter Charinus and his servant Byrria. Charinus is Pamphilus’s best friend. He is in love with Philumena, who is a) the daughter of Chremes, Simo’s best friend and b) the very woman Pamphilus is supposed to be marrying today. He has just heard the news about the wedding feast and is distraught. Byrria is his down to earth slave, delivering cynical punchlines to Charinus playing the distraught lover.

Charinus and Pamphilus

Pamphilus moves back to centre stage and Charinus confronts him. Begs him not to marry Philumena today, as he himself is in love with her. Tells Pamphilus if he married Philumena it is the last he’ll see of him. Pamphilus quickly assures Charinus he is not in love with Philumena and has no intention of marrying her if he can help it. They make a pact: Pamphilus will do everything he can to avoid marrying Philumena if, at the same time, Charinus does everything he can to win her.

Enter Davos

Davos is excited to find his master and Charinus. He thinks he has the solution to their problems. He’s been hanging round Chremes’ house and there’s absolutely no preparation for a wedding there. So he tells Pamphilus and Charinus that the wedding feast is a fake. Simo is faking a wedding feast so that, if Pamphilus pulls out, he can land all the blame on him.

Charinus is delighted to learn it isn’t a real wedding, but Davos points out that just because Pamphilus is not marrying Philumena doesn’t necessarily mean Charinus will win her. He needs to go and ‘canvas’ her father’s friends. [Interesting insight into ancient marriage practices.]

Davos now proposes his plan. He tells Pamphilus to agree to the marriage. That way his father can have absolutely no reproach against him. ‘But what if I end up accidentally being married to Philumena?’ Pamphilus protests. Davos insists there’s no danger of that, because Chremes won’t let her marry him, because of his public display of affection for Glycerium. With Davos’s plan,:

  • Pamphilus will gain his father’s good wishes
  • all the blame for the failed wedding will fall on Chremes
  • and his father will be all the more favourable to finding him another bride

At that point they’ll manoeuvre him into accepting Glycerium. Pamphilus is understandably very doubtful about all this, but Davos talks him into it.

Enter Simo, shadowed by Byrria

Pamphilus’s father enters, but he is being tailed by Byrria, who’s been told by Charinus to follow him about and report everyone’s actions and responses. So he spies on the others while himself invisible.

1. When Simo tells Pamphilus that today is the day of his wedding, Pamphilus astonishes him by saying he will be guided by him in everything and will marry whoever he wants. Simo is astonished and Pamphilus meekly goes into the family house.

2. Byrria spied all thus, unseen, and is horrified because he thinks Pamphilus is reneging on his deal with his master. Byrria goes off to tell his master the bad news, leaving just Davos and Simo onstage.

Simo cross-questions Davos, convinced something is going on but Davos remains straight-faced and says he’s sure Pamphilus will obey his father. Davos tries to throw Simo off the scent by telling his son does have one grudge against him – that he’s tight with money and scrimping on this wedding feast. That nettles Simo.

Enter Mysis and Lesbia

Things are going just right when enter Mysis the serving girl who’s fetched Lesbia the midwife. As they go into Glycerium’s house they chatter for just long enough to blow up Davos’s plan, because Mysis tells Lesbia what a lovely young gentleman Pamphilus is, how he has sworn to remain loyal to her, and how she is about to have his baby!!!!

They enter the house and Simo explodes with indignation. But…at that moment Glycerium calls out in her labour pains to the goddess Juno Lucina and…Simo decides it’s all a con. It’s too contrived. She isn’t really having a baby, this is all some scam of Davos’s to horrify Chremes into cancelling the marriage.

Davos takes advantage of Simo’s misinterpretation to say that, ‘Yes, Simo is correct, it’s all a cunning scheme hatched by Glycerium to wreck the marriage and steal Pamphilus. Her next step will be to borrow a baby from somewhere and place it on Simo’s doorstep as if it is hers and Pamphilus’s.’

Simo thanks Davos for his loyal service and the latter goes into the house, leaving Simo to tell the audience that his next step is to ask Chremes to agree to hand over his daughter for the wedding.

Enter Chremes

Simo describes how he and Chremes have been friends since boyhood, and now he wants his daughter to marry Pamphilus. Chremes is sceptical, what about the foreign woman. Simo assures him that the young couple have fallen out, been trading insults, and so now is the time to quickly marry him to Philumena, and get him to redirect his affections into a respectable channel. Chremes asks how he knows this. Simo replies that Davos told him and he calls Davos out of his house.

Enter Davos

Simo tells Davis he has now, reluctantly, come round to trusting him and believes him when he says his son, Pamphilus, is a reformed character and definitely wants to marry Philumena. And that he’s just persuaded Chremes, here, to marry her off today! (Chremes exits to go home and prepare Philumena for the wedding.)

Davos keeps up a running commentary of asides to the audience in which he comically reacts to this disastrous news. Chremes agreeing to marry off his daughter?! The wedding going ahead?! This is a catastrophe. What can he do?

Exit Simo, enter Pamphilus

Simo goes into his house to tell Pamphilus the good news, while Davos laments that he’s going to get the blame for everything. And sure enough a few moments later Pamphilus bursts out of the house, furious. He accuses Davos of screwing everything up and asks him what punishment he thinks he deserves? Davos astonishes me by saying ‘Crucifixion’ (p.69). The casualness with which these violent punishments of slaves are tossed about never ceases to flabbergast me.

Enter Charinus

Charinus has just received Byrria’s mistaken report that Pamphilus intends to go ahead with the wedding, and now runs onstage to deliver a soliloquy on the perfidy of friends. Now he intends to find Pamphilus and heap abuse on him.

Pamphilus hears all this from the side of the stage then steps forward and apologises to Charinus. Charinus accuses Pamphilus of only falling in love with Philumena after he, Charinus, had declared his love for her. Pamphilus tells him he’s got it all wrong. It was Davos who persuaded him to agree to the marriage. They then both turn on poor Davos, who tries to defend himself, saying he’s a loyal slave and works day and night in his master’s best interests. Anyway, has anyone else got a better plan?

Enter Mysis

Mysis comes out of Glycerium’s house [the reader tries to ignore the absurdity of everyone discussing the inconvenience of Pamphilus’s foreign lover when her house is right next door to Pamphilus’s.] Mysis tells Pamphilus her mistress is desperate for him. Pamphilus assures Mysis that he will remain loyal to Glycerium no matter what.

During all this Davos comes up with another plan. He tells the two men he’s in a hurry to implement it so Pamphilus goes into Glycerium’s house to see his beloved. Charinus then pesters Davos to help him. Davos says his first loyalty is to his master but he’ll see what he can do. And Charinus exits, going home.

Davos tells Mysis to wait here for him and pops into Glycerium’s house. He re-emerges with the newborn baby and gives it to Mysis and tells her to lay it on Simo’s front door. He wants her to do it so that, later, if anyone asks him whether he did it, he can answer with a clear conscience that he didn’t.

Enter Chremes

But his cunning plan is interrupted when along comes old Chremes, father of the bride. Davos runs off, leaving Mysis alone.

Chremes is congratulating himself on having made all the preparations for the marriage of his daughter when he sees the baby on Simo’s doorstep. What is all this?

At this point Davos re-enters, talking out loud and pretending to have just come from the busy market. He spots the baby on the doorstep and loudly asks Mysis who the baby is and what it’s doing there (in order to persuade Chremes he has nothing to do with it). Davos cross questions Mysis very loudly for the benefit of Chremes who is listening. Mysis is bewildered by Davos asking questions he knows the answer to but he hisses at her to play along.

And so Chremes overhears Mysis explain that this baby is Glycerium’s and that Pamphilus is the father. Davos denies it and pretends to accuse Mysis of being part of a monstrous plot, saying the baby was smuggled in by the midwife and is not Pamphilus’s and is part of a plot to discredit Pamphilus and put Chremes off allowing his daughter to marry him.

Of course Chremes has overheard all this, in fact Davos staged the loud dialogue for his benefit. Now he steps forward and Davos play acts surprise that he’s been here all along. Chremes is predictably outraged by all he’s heard and insists on going into Simo’s house to confront him.

Enter Crito

At just this moment when things are hanging in the balance, enter Crito. He is a middle-aged man from Athens, cousin to the dead Chryses. He tells us that Chryses’ friend Glycerium appears to have inherited Chryses’ property but it should really go to him by rights. This is because Glycerium has always been thought of as Chryses’ sister but she isn’t. Crito is here to prove the story that she is not Chryses’ sister but an unrelated foundling. Of course he’s got a vested interest in doing so because then, as her nearest kin, he’ll get Chryses’ inheritance.

He’s already known to Mysis, who welcomes him and then takes him into the house to see Glycerium.

Simo and Chremes

Simo and Chremes come out of Simo’s house. Chremes is upset by what Simo is asking him, namely to marry his daughter to Pamphilus who is clearly in love with another woman – to marry his daughter into a loveless marriage, purely in an attempt to ‘reform’ young Pamphilus.

Chremes was willing to go along with it out of their old friendship, but now he hears rumours that the woman is a free citizen of Attica (the wider region surrounding Athens) and not only, that, but has had a baby by Pamphilus!

Enter Davos

At just this moment Davos comes out of Glycerium’s house rubbing his hands with glee because of the impact Crito’s arrival is going to have on everything.

Davos comes out the front door and stumbles into Simo and Chremes who promptly accuse him of lying when he said Pamphilus had argued with Glycerium, lying about their baby, and lying about Glycerium’s status as an Attican citizen.

Davos stutters with excuses and then blusters on about Crito having arrived and declaring that Glycerium is a free citizen of Attica, but Simo has had enough and calls out another one of his slaves, big lumbering threatening Dromo, to grab Davos and ‘string him up’ ready for a whipping. Dromo hustles Davos off into Simo’s house to be tied up.

At all these moments of physical threats to slaves I remember Mary Beard’s words that a working definition of a slave was someone you could offer physical violence to with no comeback (as long as it was your slave, that is).

Enter Pamphilus

Simo yells into Glycerium’s house for his son who comes out. They are both ready to give up. Simo is exhausted and tells his son that, since he is ready to disobey his father and shame his homeland in his infatuation with this woman, then why not just do it. He washes his hands of him (p.83).

SIMO: Why harass my old age with the folly of a boy like this?

Instead of yelping with joy, Pamphilus is overcome with remorse and offers to give up his beloved and do whatever his father wishes (p.84).

Simo accuses him of having arranged for this witness to appear to prove that Glycerium is freeborn as if it’s a really big deal. Pamphilus swears he hasn’t, that it’s only a coincidence and asks to call Crito out to prove so.

Chremes persuades Simo to accede to this wish. In fact it’s really notable how mellow and forgiving Chremes becomes. As father and son recriminate each other, Chremes intervenes to tell Simo he ought to be more forgiving. All the characters are, deep down, nice and well meaning.

Re-enter Crito

Turns out that Crito and Chremes know each other, so Crito’s bona fides are established from the start. Nonetheless, Simo is witheringly scornful and accuses him of being paid to bear witness that Glycerium is a freeborn woman because that makes Pamphilus’s marriage to her socially acceptable.

For his part, Crito gets very cross at being treated like a liar and proceeds to tell the key backstory which transforms the situation: 20 years ago a citizen of Attica was shipwrecked on the coast of Andros. With him was a small girl. The traveller lost everything in the wreck and the first person to offer help was the father of the little girl who grew up to be Chrysis. Well, this benefactor who helped the shipwreckees out was a relative of Crito (who is telling the story). The shipwrecked man died.

Suddenly Chremes becomes very interested and begs Crito to tell him the name of the shipwrecked man. When Crito reveals it was Phania, who claimed to be a citizen of Rhamnus, Chremes is thunderstruck: Phania was his brother! And he was taking Chremes’s young daughter to come and meet him (Chremes) when they were shipwrecked.

The identification is clinched when Pamphilus tells Chremes that Glycerium is not the girl from Andros’s original name – her original name was Pasibula. In other words – Glycerium is Chremes’s long-lost daughter!!!

At a stroke:

  1. Simo is reconciled to his son marrying Glycerium (‘The truth has reconciled me to everything’)
  2. Chremes is delighted to be reunited with his long-lost daughter
  3. Chremes is double delighted to have such a worthy son in law, Pamphilus, and offers him a dowry of 60,000 drachmas on the spot, which he accepts
  4. and Pamphilus:

Oh, I’m beside myself, my head’s in a whirl with hope and fear and delight at this marvellous, unexpected, immense good fortune! (p.86)

Pamphilus says Davos must help Glycerium over to their house for a celebration. ‘Oh, er, well, he’s a bit tied up,’ his father replies. He runs inside to get his slaves to untie him and a few moments later Davos comes out rubbing his arms and shoulders.

Charinus enters but unobserved by the other two, while Pamphilus is telling Davos that all his troubles are over – that Glycerium has been revealed as Chremes’s long-lost daughter and that both Chremes and Pamphilus’s dad have agreed to their marriage.

Davos is delighted, but not as much as Charinus for this means Pamphilus won’t be marrying Philumena after all, leaving her free for him!

Rush ending

The play ends in a spectacularly hurried flurry of phrases because Pamphilus announces they can’t wait for Chremes to come out of the house and have to go through the whole fol-de-rol of Charinus asking for the hand of his other daughter in marriage. Instead Pamphilus and Charinus both hurry into Glycerium’s house to fetch her to the feast, leaving Davos onstage to wind up with the extremely brief words:

You needn’t wait for them to come out again; the other betrothal and any other business will take place in there. Now give us your applause! (p.90)

Thoughts

Double plot

I’ve read that Terence’s contribution to dramaturgy was developing the ‘double plot’ which a) makes the plays more complicated and sophisticated b) gives more scope for comedy. But as you can see, although there’s a sort of parallel between the two young men Pamphilus and Charinus being in love with two young women, Glycerium and Philumena, it’s very one-sided. All the emphasis is on the Pamphilus-Glycerium story and Charinus only has a handful of scenes, in most of which he whines unattractively, and Philumena never makes an appearance.

Above all, none of it is very funny, certainly not as laugh-out-loud funny as Plautus. Probably in performance a lot of the scenes which feature asides, especially the ones featuring Davos, these might be funny if done well by a good comic actor. But there is nothing intrinsically funny in any of the scenes. It’s cleverly and elaborately constructed, it moves at a cracking pace, but it lacks the wisecracking, rackety, gagfest feel of a Plautus play.

Related to this is the way the characters are all, at bottom, nice and well meaning. Their opinions, like the two I’ve quoted as epigraphs to this review, are eminently sensible. This explains why Terence’s plays were recommended to be taught in schools by no less of an earnest figure than Martin Luther. The ending doesn’t come as a shock and comic surprise – it feels more like the inevitable conclusion given that everyone is so basically nice. There is no wicked baddie driving the action, just a few genuine misunderstandings and misaligned intentions which take a little sorting out and then everyone can be happy.


Credit

Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies edited and translated by Betty Radice.

Roman reviews

Rudens (The Rope) by Plautus (c.210 BC)

Prologue

Rudens is widely considered Plautus’s best play. The setting, a patch of rocky Greek coastline with a cottage and a shrine, make a change from the usual setting of a street scene in Athens.

Plautus’s plays often have quite a bit of backstory i.e. a lot has happened before the action actually begins. In this one a fairly long prologue in verse is delivered by a personification of the star Arcturus (note how E.F. Watling, the editor and translator of the Penguin edition, gives this and certain other long speeches in verse, in loose iambic pentameters):

You see me as I am, a bright white star,
Rising at my appointed time in heaven,
And upon earth. Arcturus is my name.
By night, a god, a bright star in the sky –
By day, a mortal, walking among men.

Arcturus explains that on this rocky coast lives an old man, Daemones, whose little daughter, Palaestra, was stolen from him 16 years ago, when she was three years old, by pirates and sold into the ownership of a ‘pimp’, Labrax (in Trachalio’s words, ‘a pot-bellied old Silenus, bald head, beefy, bushy eyebrows, scowling, twister, god-forsaken criminal, master of all vice and villainy’ p.102).

One day Palaestra was spotted coming out of music school by a young man, Plesidippus, who fell in love with her on the spot and asked to buy her off Labrax. The latter agreed, they signed a contract and Plesidippus made a down payment. But then Labrax reneged on the deal. A business colleague persuaded him to move to Sicily where business was good.

So one night in secret Labrax packed all his girls and his belongings onto a private ship he’d chartered. He made a covering excuse to Plesidippus, telling him he was only sailing round the coast to an isolated shrine of Venus to give offerings. He even made so bold as to arrange to meet Plesidippus there for lunch (here on this rocky shore where the scene is set, by the shrine of Venus which is visible onstage).

However the speaker, the minor god Arcturus, intervened to right this injustice. He whipped up a storm which smashed the ship to pieces on the rocks. The pimp and his Sicilian friend were thrown ashore on a reef of rock, while the beautiful young lady Palaestra and her best friend Ampelisca made it into a lifeboat. For a perilous moment this was heading straight for the rocks when Arcturus whipped up a mighty wave which carried their boat safely to land, just below the cottage of the sad old man Daemones which is the main feature of the set.

As it happens the storm stripped half the tiles off Daemones’s little cottage and the play now opens with his surly, insubordinate slave, Sceparnio, coming out of the house intending to dig up some clay and make some tiles to fix the roof. And with the end of that very detailed prologue, Arcturus retires and the play proper begins.

So the storm is central to the actions and the play could easily have been called The Tempest. And the restoration of justice to an exiled old man after a storm obviously reminds the reader of the Shakespeare play.

Rudens (The Rope)

Barely has the surly slave Sceparnio spoken before the young Athenian loverboy Plesidippus arrives with three of his friends who he a) dragged down to the harbour to try and prevent Labrax’s ship departing and now b) has dragged along to this remote shrine to Venus in the hope that the pimp actually meant it when he said he was just sailing round the coast to anchor here and give some offerings.

Plesidippus introduces himself to Daemones and asks whether they’ve seen a man answering to the description of Labrax. Slave and master both say no but then all three look down at the shoreline where they see some obviously shipwrecked men clambering ashore. Plesidippus and his mates run off to find out whether it’s Labrax or not.

Sceparnio points out to his master some women clambering up the rocks but Daemones complains that they’re continually bombarded with people visiting the shrine to Venus and expecting a meal, so they can look after themselves, and the two men go back into his cottage.

Palaestra clambers up the rocks onto the set where she laments her fate. But she barely finished lamenting how alone and forsaken she is before she is reunited with her friend (and serving woman?) Ampelisca amid much rejoicing.

They climb up onto the stage proper and notice the shrine to Venus and that moment its old priestess, Ptolemocratia, emerges. Surprised to see two wet damsels in distress, Ptolemocratia kindly says she’ll feed and dress them, and so leads them into the shrine.

Some fishermen come up from the short singing sea shanties just as Plesidippus’s servant, Trachalio, arrives. He asks them if they’ve seen Labrax and give his vivid description (quoted above) but they’ve seen no-one and exeunt.

At which point Ampelisca emerges from the shrine and is spotted by Trachalio. (Now, Trachalio loves Ampelisca so if he’s a slave, presumably so is she.) Anyway Ampelisca quickly fills him in about how she and Palaestra were being taken away from Athens by ship by Labrax but the how a storm struck and here they are, washed up and taking refuge in the shrine.

Trachalio goes into the shrine to find Palaetra, while Ampelisca goes over to the cottage with a jug to get water.

The rough slave Sceparnion is aroused by the sudden appearance of a pretty young woman on his front doorstep and chats her up, gropes her and, at one point, appears to refer to his erection. He crudely tells her that he certainly will fetch her some drinking water, if she does him a little favour! She agrees, he disappears into the cottage to go to the well out the back.

While he does so Ampelisca, scanning the shore, is horrified to see Labrax and friend emerging from the sea. She runs back into the shrine to tell her mistress with the result that, when Sceparnio emerges from the cottage with the jug full of water, she is nowhere to be seen. Sceparnio has convinced himself Ampelisca is in love with him and, reading the writing on the jug which says it belongs to the shrine and figuring that’s where she’s gone, goes over and also enters the shrine. Quite a few characters in there, now. Must be fairly big.

Enter Labrax the pimp and his friend Charmides. They lament their lot, cold and shivering, their teeth chattering. Labrax castigates Charmides for every persuading him to set out for Sicily. Now all his belongings are at the bottom of the sea. Sceparnio emerges from the shrine wondering aloud at the two pretty young women clinging to the shrine and crying. Labrax overhears him and, convinced they must be ‘his’ girls, storms into the shrine. Charmides begs Sceparnio for some clean clothes and for his to be dried but Sceparnio is his usual surly self and offers, at most, a roll of raffia matting.

At which point the clever slave Trachalio comes running out crying blue murder that Labrax is attacking the two girls and manhandling the priestess inside the shrine. Shocked, Daemones calls up his two toughest slaves and leads them into the shrine (must be quite a large building!).

Then Labrax is dragged out of the shrine and everyone threatens extreme violence and punishment against him but he defies them and insists the two girls are his property. The girls are clinging to the altar of Venus but Labrax swears he’ll prise them off it and Trachalio and Daeomones threaten him with dire punishment if he tries it.

As usual, the violent talk is very violent and graphic. Labrax threatens to burn the girls away from the altar, while Daemones threatens to knock his eyes out, or throw him into the middle of the fire. Daemones gives his two burly slaves clubs and tells them that if Labrax makes a move on either of the girls, they’re to beat him to a pulp, else he (Daemones) will have them (his slaves) killed. Violence upon violence.

Trachalio re-enters with his master, handsome young Plesidippus, who slips a noose round Labrax’s neck with a view to dragging him off in front of a magistrate. The girls are persuaded to take refuge in Daemones’ cottage where his wife is making dinner.

(In the timeless comic stereotype which has lasted over 2,000 years, Daemones is scared of his middle-aged wife who, he tells us, is always accusing him of looking at other women – so bringing two pretty young ladies home is not going to go down well.)

At which point up from the shore comes Daemones’ fisherman, Gripus. He’s pleased as punch because he’s dragged up in a net a wooden trunk from the sea. It’s very heavy so he’s confident it’s full of treasure with which he’ll buy his freedom and become a rich man, buy a yacht, maybe have a new town named after him which will become the capital of a mighty empire!

Unfortunately for Gripus, Plesidippus’ clever slave Trachalio is hanging round outside, offers to help him with his nets, spots the trunk and recognises it. He asks for half a share in order to keep the thing secret at which they have an extended verbal fight which turns into a tug of war, each one pulling on the main rope of the net (p.134). Trivial though this incident sounds, they’re argument becomes very legalistic, even philosophical, and is dragged out over 6 pages 130 to 135. Hence the title of the play. In fact the argument extends further as Trachalio suggests they get the owner of the nearby cottage to adjudicate their dispute.

It’s odd naming the play The Rope because it should really be titled The Trunk, as it’s the trunk and its contents which form the crux of the action. It certainly is the trunk belonging to the pimp Labrax and Trachalio now tells Daemones that inside it is a little trinket-box containing the lovely Palaestra’s few belongings in the world, a handful of toys she played with as a baby and which she’s kept all these years to help her find her parents.

What follows is a staged Recogniton Scene in which Daemones decides that if Palaestra can identify the items in the trinket-box she can keep it. He – Daemones – will examine them, while Gripus stands grumpily by and Trachalio tells him to keep his trap shut.

What’s a little odd is that the very first item she mentions, a little toy sword, has the name of her father on it. When Daemones asks what her father’s name was and she says ‘Daemones’, well, the game’s up. Daemones continues the identifying game as people in this kind of play do, but the essential ‘reveal’ has taken place.

Daemones is overjoyed, gives a speech of gratitude to the gods and takes Palaestra inside to meet her tearful mother. One last thing remains to be arranged, her marriage to a suitable young Athenian. In a comic scene Daemones tells the canny slave, Trachalio, to run off and fetch his master, but not before Trachalio has extracted from Daemones a promise to free him, and reward him for his good work, and set him up to marry Palaestra’s serving woman, Ampelisca.

Daemones delivers a moral lecture to Gripus telling him it is just as well he didn’t try to conceal Labrax’s trunk. Involvement in any kind of crime never pays. Gripus has a comic moment when he turns to the audience and tell them he often hears these kind of noble sentiments expressed in comedies, but has never heard of the audience going home and actually changing their behaviour as a result.

Re-enter Trachalio with his master who is all moony about his good fortune. Comic banter and Trachalio helps him psych himself to enter the cottage. To my surprise, that’s the end of the Palaestra-Plesidippus love affair. They don’t reappear, in fact they never appear onstage together and they aren’t referred to again. When Beard refers to Plautus’s plays as boy-meets-girl comedies, that’s not really true.

But first there is one last comic scene. Surly old Gripus has been sent outside to clean a spit for the marriage feast, just as Labrax the pimp stumbles up. The latter overhears the former grumbling because he lost the trunk and they quickly establish that it was Labrax’s trunk and full of treasure. Without it, Gripus says he’s ruined. Realising he’s on to a good thing Gripus extracts a promise from Labrax to give him a lot of money (2,000 sestercii, to be precise) if he tells him where the trunk is. And not just promise but lay his hand on the shrine and vow to Venus to give him the money.

So Gripus goes and fetches Daemones and they bring the trunk out. At this point there is a complicated deal. Labrax, like the reptile he is, now refuses to pay Gripus. Gripus asks Daemones to intervene and adjudicate. Daemones establishes that Labrax promised 2,000 sestercii. As the slave’s owner, the debt really falls to Daemones. Therefore he comes to the following deal with Labrax. He remits 1,000 of the debt, saying that in effect pays Labrax for Ampelisca’s freedom. Done. And the other 1,000 will pass direct from Labrax to Daemones, in respect of which he will grant Gripus his freedom. Thus Gripus won’t see a penny of money, but he is now free.

Gripus is distraught at having his phantom riches stolen away like this and wants to hang himself whereupon the play hurtles to an end with a final short speech from Daemones where he invites both Labrax and Gripus into his cottage for the feast and begs the audience’s indulgence and applause.

Slavery

Hiding in plain sight, the most mind-boggling thing about The Rope is that half the characters are slaves. It’s worth taking a minute to let that really sink in. According to Mary Beard between a tenth and a fifth of the population of Rome was slaves. According to her, slaves inhabited a huge variety of social positions from forced labour in the Spanish silver mines, to workforces in factories and on farms, to the kind of domestic slaves Daemones has (grumbling Gripus) through to highly literate, civilised assistants to senior politicians and writers.

This situation created all kinds of social dynamics and relationships which had to be handled at multiple levels and for entire lifetimes. What was it like to manage a household of slaves? What was it like to be raised by slaves, to have a slave or slaves as companions throughout your entire life, right through to your deathbed? And what was it like to be a slave in lifelong bondage?

And, with regard to Plautus’s plays, was the relationship between master and slave as rough and ready as between Daemones continual admonishing of grumpy Gripus? Or more like the lads together relationship between Plesidippus and canny, savvy Trachalio?

Casual violence

Related to the play is the way that, at the slightest provocation, the characters threaten each other with the most extreme violence – tearing the other guy’s eyes out, seeing his legs broken, promising a beating with a cudgel, beating black and blue, being burned alive, dragged by the hair, and so on. Even oaths and promise are accompanied by hair-raising threats of torture and pain.

At first I thought it was entirely masters threatening slaves – and it is mostly in that context that the direst threats are made, reminding me of Mary Beard’s point that the essence of slave status was the permanent liability to physical punishment for which you had absolutely no legal recourse. But all the characters threaten Labrax with just as much horrific abuse and he is a free citizen and businessman, albeit of a type universally despised. But he proves this kind of thing wasn’t solely restricted to slaves, it was a culture awash with the concept of extreme violence and physical punishment:

Thus when Gripus is assuring his master that he found the trunk by accident while out fishing, he vouchsafes his assertions by saying:

GRIPUS: What’s in that net I caught with my own hands, crucify me if I didn’t.

Crucify me if I didn’t!!

Hercules

Hercules is invoked in oaths on pages 100, 116, 124, 125 and 141. Was he really almost the only figure in Rome’s wide and varied pantheon that people swore by?


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

Roman reviews

Mostellaria (The Ghost Story) by Plautus (c.210 BC)

The plot

We are in Athens in front of the house of Theoproprides, a Greek merchant, and his neighbour Simo. Theoproprides has a son, Philolaches, who is in love with a courtesan Philematium (who has an elderly woman attendant, Scapha). Philolaches recently bought Philematium her freedom for 3,000 drachmas which he borrowed off a moneylender for the purpose. He also has a best friend, Callidamates, who has a girlfriend of his own, Delphium.

The play opens with a rough country slave up from the family’s farm, Grumio, giving us a bit of backstory – telling us that the master, Theoproprides, has been away for three years and during that time the family’s servus callidus (clever slave) Tranio has been living high on the hog and corrupting the master’s son, Philolaches.

This is confirmed in a scene where we see Philolaches eavesdropping on his pretty courtesan and her maid chatting, and even more so then when his friend Callidamates turns up, drunk off his face and continually falling over or falling asleep, only propped up by his irritated girlfriend.

Tranio had gone off to the harbour to buy fish, but now he rushes on the disastrous news traditional in this sort of plot – after a three years’ absence, during which they’ve eaten him out of house and home, the master has returned!!

From this point onwards the play turns into one sustained improvisation by the clever slave Tranio, designed to prevent the old master, Theoproprides, from discovering the truth that his debauched son has been eating and drinking away the family fortune.

Improvising in a mad hurry, Tranio tells Philolaches et al to go inside the house, lock the door and be silent.

This is so that, when Theoproprides arrives a few moments later, Tranio can tell him a cock and bull story that the house is haunted by a ghost, the ghost of a man cruelly murdered by the previous owner. He claims that eight months earlier Philolaches saw a vision of the ghost in a dream and so the entire family packed up and locked up and left. So it would be terrible bad luck for Theoproprides to even touch the doorknob.

While Tranio is developing this whopping fib, a shabby moneylender comes along demanding back the 3,000 drachmas he loaned Philolaches. This is the money the latter used to buy the freedom of  his courtesan girlfriend, Philematium. Including interest it now amounts to 4,400 drachmas, a very large sum.

Tranio desperately ad libs, telling Theoproprides that the money the moneylender is talking about was given to Philolaches to use it as a deposit on a house. Now his father approves of this because it indicates his son plans to become a man of property, going into business. So, he asks Tranio, where is this new house? Tranio falls back on the desperate expedient of saying it’s the house next door.

Having dug this hole, Tranio has to corner the owner of the next door house, Simo, as he emerges from his house planning to go for a nice stroll. He buttonholes him and talks him into letting Theoproprides have a tour of his house. Why? Well, he explains that the master is back and that he and the dissolute son are for the high jump but…er…er…the master is thinking of extending his house and would like to see how Simo’s done his house up? Would that be OK? Simo takes a while to be talked round, but then reluctantly agrees.

So Theoproprides is shown round Simo’s house under the impression that the house has been sold to his son, while Simo is under the impression he’s doing him a favour and showing him his improvements and extensions – all the while Tranio is on tenterhooks lest either of them give his scam away.

The tour goes off without too much of a hitch and Theoproprides is persuaded that his son has made a wise investment. So Tranio now offers to go to Theoproprides’s and fetch the young master (the one who is, in reality, hiding silently inside the locked-up house). So he exits.

So the ghost scam and the buying a house scam are working alright when a new complication arises. Along comes the slave of Philolaches’s very drunk friend, Callidamates, in fact two of them, a refined one and a coarse brutish one (echoing Theoproprides’s two slaves Tranio and Grumio).

These two slaves start banging on the door of Theoproprides’s house and when the latter, undirected and unconstrained by Tranio’s presence, asks them what the devil they’re doing, they swiftly give the entire game away. They say they’ve come to collect their young master, that he’s continually at this house where there have been wild parties every day for the past three years while the young master drinks his father’s wealth away, that Philolaches spent 3,000 drachmas on buying the freedom of a slave girl, that he’s never put down a deposit for the house next door, and that the leader of his revels is the disreputable slave Tranio.

Well, you can imagine how Theoproprides takes this series of hammer blows, physically recoiling from this devastating news!

At this moment Simo, the neighbour re-enters and Theoproprides asks whether it’s true that his son has put down a deposit on his house. First he’s heard of it, Simo replies, thus confirming that everything Tranio has said has been an outrageous pack of lies.

In the denouement Tranio reappears to tell the audience that he’s just slipped round the back of Theoproprides’s house, unlocked it and let the son, lover and the others get away. But when he tried to recruit them to his tricks they refused. So Tranio shares with the audience that’s he’s pretty hacked off by this disloyalty. After all the hard work he’s put in to save them! So he reckons the time has come to be straight with Theoproprides and throw himself on his master’s mercy.

In fact Tranio has returned to the stage just in time to overhear Theoproprides telling Simo he now knows the complete truth, and asking Simo to borrow some slaves and some whips which he’s going to use to chastise Tranio!

In a comic piece of business Tranio sidles to the front of the stage to where an altar has stood throughout the play. He is taking pre-emptive sanctuary from punishment for a slave who clung to any altar of the gods was inviolable.

Theoproprides spots him and asks him to come away from the altar but Tranio very nicely and politely refuses. At which point Theoproprides reveals that he knows everything (but, as the audience knows, Tranio already knows that Theoproprides knows) and threatens him with torture, crucifixion, fire and faggots!

At which point the play ends very simply when Philolaches’ friend Callidamates enters, now sobered up, and apologises to Theoproprides on behalf of his friend/Theoproprides’ son, and generously offers that he, Callidamates, will pay Theoproprides the 4,000 drachmas his son has spent. Please forgive him.

And when Theoproprides persists in his wish to gorily punish Tranio, Callidamates begs him to forgive him too. ‘Oh…alright,’ Theoproprides grudgingly agrees. And that’s the end, with a dinky little epilogue addressed to the audience.

Spectators, there our story ends.
Give us your hands, and be our friends.

Trickster strategy

Tranio has a neat speech about the strategy of the trickster slave in these kind of plays:

Well, if I’m going to be sold in my own shop [i.e. be let down by his colleagues in trickery] the best thing I can do is to do what most other people do when they find themselves in a dangerous and complicated situation – make everything a bit more complicated and never give things a chance to settle down!

Surely a lot of the pleasure of this kind of plot, from Plautus to the city comedies of Ben Jonson, is enjoying the sheer energy and inventiveness of the trickster servant. Very often they whip up such a fantasia of interlocking scams that there’s a kind of peak moment when they hug themselves with sheer glee at how clever they are – and the same happens here when Tranio declares:

TRANIO: Alexander the Great and Agathocles, so I’ve heard tell, were the two top champion wonder workers of the world. Why shouldn’t I be the third – aren’t I a famous and wonderful worker? (p.63)

By Hercules!

A small detail but I’m struck by the way that all the character swear oaths by Hercules, and how Tranio at one point calls himself the Hercules of tricksters. No other gods and no other legendary figures are referred to at all. Hercules dominates the field. It’s true of his other plays, too, and then, of course, Plautus wrote an entire play about Hercules. So what was it about Hercules?

When Tranio in a brief outburst begs Hercules for help, a footnote to the 1912 translation by Henry Thomas Riley reads: “Hercules having slain so many monsters, was naturally regarded as a Deity likely to give aid in extreme danger.”

To the remark, ‘He’s the Hercules of money-spenders’, Riley notes: “It was the custom with many to devote to Hercules the tenth part of their possessions. Consequently, the revenues belonging to the Temples of this Deity would be especially large.”

Fair enough, but it doesn’t explain the plethora of other invocations of the legendary demigod.

(Hercules is also the only deity invoked in Plutarch’s Life of Marius:

When [Jugurtha] had been thrust down naked into the dungeon pit, in utter bewilderment and with a grin on his lips he said: “Hercules! How cold this Roman bath is!” (Marius 12)

In Sallust’s Jugurthine War Hercules is said to have led an army in Spain (18) and also to have founded the Numidian city of Capsa (89). Hercules’ ubiquitous presence around the Mediterranean is a recurring them in Richard Miles’s history of Carthage.)

Crucifixion and torture, fire and faggots

Theoproprides to Tranio: ‘I’ll see you’re taken off to the cross; that’s all you deserve.’ (p.82)

Tranio is subjected to threats of a whole series of dire physical punishments, and from the play as a whole radiates a strong sense of the physical abuse and punishment slaves were vulnerable to. In Mary Beard’s book about ancient Rome she says that the ease with which they could be physically abused was the real defining aspect of slaves, hence the expression whipping boy. That’s true with a vengeance here.

In the early scene Philolaches eavesdrops on his mistress being lectured by her old serving woman, and every time the latter says something against his interests Philolaches soliloquises that he will:

  • make her starve and thirst and freeze to death
  • scratch her eyes out
  • choke her with a quinsy

I suppose this can be considered comic hyperbole, but it’s worth noting that the comic style of these Roman plays (and presumably their Greek originals) included extreme physical abuse.

This is even more true of Tranio who worries on every other page about the physical punishment he’s going to incur and when his scams are uncovered. In his speech announcing that he’s spotted Theoproprides at the Piraeus, he says the game’s up and he’s going to be punished. Presumably the following is spoken directly to the audience:

Anybody ready to be crucified in my place today? Where are all the punch-takers, chain-rattlers – or the chaps who are ready to rush the enemy’s trenches for threepence? Anybody used to having his hide perforated with a dozen spears at once? I’m offering a talent to anyone prepared to jump onto a cross, provided he has his legs and arms double-nailed first. (p.42)

Then, at the climax of the play, Theoproprides threatens Tranio with a whole array of punishments – to be whipped, crucified, hanged, beaten with a cudgel and burned alive, and Simo joins in:

Simo: ‘In that case, the cord will be stretched for you; thence to the place where iron fetters clink; after that, straight to the cross.’

Although played for laughs, this is quite a litany of hair-raising physical abuse and gives the ‘comedy’ a very dark or complicated flavour.


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

Roman reviews

Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen (1995)

Nothing in her modest criminal part had prepared her for the hazy and menacing vibe of the hurricane zone. Everyone was on edge; evil, violence and paranoia ripened in the shadows.
(Stormy Weather, page 107)

Stormy Weather is Carl Hiaasen’s sixth novel. It is longer than usual, at 472 pages, and it feels decisively more nihilistic and misanthropic than its predecessors. Boy, is it full of scumbags and sleazeballs!

Just like its predecessors, Stormy Weather rotates around a central theme, in this case the impact of a big hurricane on South Florida (the setting for all Carl Hiaasen’s novels), from which all kinds of other topics and issues spin in gleeful riot.

Actually, I was hoping for some grand set-piece description of a hurricane but the storm itself is strangely absent. The hurricane happens off-stage, as it were, and has been and gone by page 30. What the text consists of is the adventures of a larger-than-usual cast of miscellaneous characters, often lowlife, often criminal, across the comprehensively devastated and trashed South Florida landscape after the hurricane has hit.

In the darkness, she couldn’t see Augustine’s expression. ‘It’s madness out here,’ he said. (p.51)

In most of the previous novels there’s been not only a central theme but a central crime or scam, which then spawns further crimes in a bid to cover it up (I’m thinking in particular of Skin Tight though the same structure informs his most recent book, Squeeze Me) and these subsidiary crimes ramify out into a luxurious growth of garish characters and grotesque incidents.

Stormy Weather feels like a distinct development or offshoot of the basic pattern, in that there is no central crime or scam: instead Hiaasen’s lowlifes and criminals roam across a devastated landscape, meeting, mingling, scamming and attacking each other at will. It reminds me a bit of the late Elizabethan epic poem, The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser (1596). In each of the first two books of the poem one central knight undertakes one clearly defined quest and the reader knows what the themes and issues are. But in books 3 and 4 Spenser lets go this format, relaxes and introduces a fleet of knights and squires and monsters and enemies and lets them roam, apparently at random, across his fairie landscape, characters from one storyline unexpectedly popping up in another character’s story, or disappearing without explanation.

That’s exactly the sense of expertly controlled narrative chaos you get from this novel. And it is, as a narrative structure, of course, entirely appropriate to, and mimics, the main theme of post-hurricane chaos.

Characters

Chief among the characters is our old friend Skink, aka Clinton Tyree, the former governor of Florida-turned-environmental vigilante who’s featured in most of the previous stories (full backstory on pages 142 to 146). Skink catches two students chucking empty beer cans over the side of the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys and terrifies them into tying him to the guardrail of the bridge so he can experience the full awesomeness of the hurricane’s primal energy. Skink, we are told, has spent the years since he quit as governor on:

a solemn hermitage interrupted by the occasional righteous arson, aggravated battery or highway sniping. (p.146)

Max and Bonnie Lamb are on a week-long honeymoon in Florida but Max (a junior account executive at a New York advertising company named Rodale & Burns) angers his new wife by cancelling their planned trip to Disney World in order to tour the hurricane ruins with a videocamera, even interviewing families shivering outside their utterly wrecked and flattened houses, speculating that he might be able to sell the footage to cable TV. Bonnie realises with a thump that she’s married a heartless schmo.

Edie Marsh is a typical Hiaasen lowlife. Before the hurricane she had been cruising Miami bars determined to hook up with a member of the famous Kennedy clan and marry rich. To her own surprise she does indeed manages to be wined and dined by a minor Kennedy one evening, but completely fails to seduce him. Instead, she finds herself teamed up with ‘Snapper‘ (real name Lester Maddox Parsons, p.386, full backstory, including his upbringing in a Ku Klux Klan family! pages 132 to 133) and, along with him, fakes a scene in which she appears to have been trapped and pinioned under a falling house in order to defraud an insurance company.

They’ve chosen one of a huge estate of houses which were completely flattened by the storm, on the recommendation of a crooked housing inspector they know, Avila, under which to pretend to have been injured. Unfortunately, they’ve picked the house next to Tony Torres, greasy scumbag ‘salesman of the year’ for a company called A-Plus Affordable Homes. Tony won the award for selling hundreds of flimsy trailers which blew away in the first strong wind, producing a cohort of very angry customers. The address Edie and Snapper have chosen is 15600 Calusa and it is destined to become the central location of the novel.

Anyway, at this early point of the story Tony sees through Snapper and Edie’s scam in moments. He’s a no-nonsense hardcase and makes them come and sit in the ruins of his house at gunpoint while he figures out what to do with them. He has two dachshund pets, Donald and Marla.

In other words, a lot of the characters are already two-timing scumbags, even before a big natural disaster like this brings out the worst in people. As Tony Torres says:

‘Because of the hurricane. The whole place is a madhouse!’ (p.31)

Augustine Mojack had just inherited his uncle’s failing wildlife import business when the hurricane hit. Augustine is 32 and independently wealthy. He doesn’t have to work because of the big insurance settlement he received after a boating accident. Augustine’s hobby is juggling skulls (an image picked up on the book’s cover art), medical skulls from hospitals or medical shops. He can juggle up to five at a time. He harbours fantasies of performing some big destructive spectacular theatrical event, though he doesn’t know what.

But the important thing about Augustine is he has just inherited a wildlife import business from his recently deceased uncle. When the storm hits, it devastates the animal compound and cages, releasing a bear, a Cape water buffalo, a cougar, a lion, miscellaneous snakes and lizards, and a bunch of monkeys into the wild.

Ira Jackson is a tough guy from New York (‘a stocky middle-aged stranger with a chopped haircut [and] a gold chain round his neck’, p.210). The mobile home belonging to Ira’s mother, Beatrice Jackson, was blown into fragments and she was killed by a flying barbecue from next door. Unfortunately, Ira remembers the name of the sleazy fat man who sold his mother the trailer and it only takes a phone call to the city records for him to find the address and come looking for… Tony Torres.

Long story short: Jackson finds Edie at Torres’s place, tells her to take a walk, then knocks Torres unconscious, drives him to a remote plot and nails him to an eight-foot satellite dish in the crucifixion position, impaling his body on the central node. Most Hiaasen novels have one or a few central gruesome and macabre incidents or images. Well this is it: a crooked homes salesman crucified to a huge satellite TV dish!

Plot developments

Max Lamb is in the middle of filming yet another distraught home owner in the wreckage of their house when a small monkey darts out of nowhere and attacks him, scratching his face before seizing his camera and scampering off. Max gives chase and is kidnapped by Skink. Skink had enjoyed being tied to the bridge during the storm but it wasn’t as totally awesome as he had hoped. Now he is going seriously off-piste, as indicated by the fact he has taken to smoking toad sweat, which is amusingly referred to as generating ‘Bufo madness’ (p.270).

Skink said, ‘Care for some toad?’ (p.170)

Skink fits an electric shock collar (a Tri-Tronics dog collar) around Max’s neck, tramps him out of suburbia, through woods to a waterway, forces him into a boat, takes him out to an Indian camp in the Everglades and subjects him to various humiliations, all the time asking what he’s doing, the pretentious New York jackass, coming down here to Florida, knowing nothing about the place or people or making any effort to learn etc? Over the coming days we watch as Skink, by repeatedly shocking Max, manages to train him, to make him as obedient as a dog.

Now abandoned, Bonnie Lamb is rescued by Augustine who is out in his car looking for his escaped animals and carrying a tranquiliser dart gun. In all Hiaasen’s novels there is generally one more or less normal, reasonably good guy, strong and capable. Augustine plays that role in this novel. When we see Augustine through Bonnie’s eyes, he is tall, square-shouldered and handsome. Rather gorge, in fact.

Just a reminder of Hiaasen’s good guys:

  1. Tourist Season – Brian Keyes, private eye, former journalist
  2. Double Whammy – R.J. Decker, private eye, former newspaper photographer
  3. Skin Tight – Mick Stranahan, private eye
  4. Native Tongue – Joe Winder, reluctant PR man, former reporter
  5. Strip Tease – the central figure is probably Erin the stripper, with the good guy role divided between Shad the bouncer and the recurring character, Miami homicide detective Al García

Over the coming days Augustine helps Bonnie try to find her husband, a quest which involves several trips to the city morgue which seem pretty peripheral to the ‘plot’ but give the reader an insight into what a big city American morgue looks and smells like, and a cross-section of corpses each coming with a particularly fruity backstory.

Since Skink periodically allows Max to use payphones (reminding us that this is all set years before the advent of mobile phones) he is able to leave messages on the couple’s answerphone in New York. When Bonnie rings the number, she gets Max’s messages saying he’s OK, but she is distraught and then disgusted to realise he is much more concerned about his work, about the fate of the advertising accounts he’s managing, than he is about her wellbeing or feelings.

As you might have predicted, slowly Bonnie falls for strong, well-armed Augustine, who every night takes her back to his place. He doesn’t lay a finger on her; it is entirely her choice when she chooses to snuggle up in his bed for comfort and then, a couple of nights later, to sleep with him.

Meanwhile, when Edie returns to Torres’ house (remember how Ira Jackson had shooed her away at gunpoint) to find him gone so she sets up base there, it’s as good as anywhere else.

Along comes Fred Dove, an insurance assessor (thousands of them are by now swarming all over the wrecked territory). At first she tries to con Dove into believing she’s Torres’ wife, hoping to get the full $141,000 which she discovers is the payout for Torres’ wrecked house. Unfortunately, Dove finds a wedding photo of Torres amid the wreckage which clearly shows that Torres’ wife was a petite but well-endowed Latina, not Edie. Edie immediately switches tack, makes schoolgirl eyes, apologises, bursts into tears, grabs Dove’s hand and kisses it and manages to seduce him on Torres’ (very uncomfortable) lounger. Having shagged him, Edie now ties him into her plan to defraud the insurance company and split the proceeds. Dove is understandably reluctant and scared of breaking the law, but also ‘pussy whipped’ (definition: ‘dominated or controlled by a woman – typically used of a man’).

A day or so earlier, Edie’s partner, Snapper, had gone on an exploration and fallen in with a bunch of crooked roof repairers organised by Avila the crooked standards inspector. In fact, this little crew know nothing about repairing roofs but realise they can gouge cash deposits from desperate home owners, promise to come back, then disappear with the loot. Snapper has a lucky break when he finds himself selling the crew’s dodgy services to the ditzy woman owner of a big luxury house now minus a roof, Mrs Whitmark, who is only too willing to hand over $7,000 in cash (p.150). With typical deception, he hides this from his fellow scammers when he gets back to the truck where they’re waiting, keeping the cash for himself.

When the woman’s husband, Gar Whitfield, returns and discovers what his wife has done, he is livid. Turns out he is himself a property developer and not only knows Avila but has actively been bribing him, with money, booze and porn to give legal approval to the sub-standard housing Whitefiled has been putting up for years.

So Gar Whitfield rings up Avila and tells him he has enough dirt on him to have him arrested the same day and in prison by nightfall, and has the clout to make sure Avila is put in the same cell as Paul Pick-Percy, a famous cannibal, unless he a) repays the seven grand b) pays for the actual repair of Whitfield’s roof.

This little vignette is a good example of the way Hiaasen depicts corruption within corruption, scumbaggery within scumbaggery. Everyone is corrupt. Everyone is deceiving each other.

What a cold shitty world, thought Avila. There was no such thing as a friendly favour any more; everybody had their greedy paws out. (p.276)

On the plus side, also making a reappearance is Skink’s good fairy, Highway Patrolman Jim Tile, the only black man on the force and the routine target of all kinds of racist abuse from redneck drivers and his own cracker colleagues. In this novel we watch Jim form a relationship with a fellow (white) woman police officer, Brenda Rourke. Unfortunately for her, we then see her try to arrest Snapper, who is ‘one mean motherfucker’ (p.200) and beats the crap out of her. When Jim Tile is called to the scene he is devastated to see his battered girlfriend and vows revenge. A landscape of corruption, theft, embezzlement and extreme violence.

Backstories

I really like the way Hiaasen creates and positions backstories for the characters, not when they’re first introduced but scattered cleverly throughout the text. These backstory interludes break up the flow of the narrative in a very enjoyable way as the forward engine of events is put on hold while we get 2 or 3 pages about the childhood, upbringing and previous adventures of various characters.

It helps that these potted biographies are themselves often every bit as florid and entertaining as the narrative itself, for example the detailed description of Snapper’s upbringing in a household of devoted Ku Klux Klan members is worth reading in and of itself for its sheer amazeballs. Other backstories include:

  • Snapper pp.132 to 134
  • Skink pp.142 to 146
  • Bonnie Brooks pp.216 to 219
  • how Avila and Snapper met at a brothel p.264
  • how Snapper shot his drug dealer partner Sunny Shea p.386

More plot developments

After crucifying Tony Torres, Ira Jackson discovers that he doesn’t really feel much better, so decides to go after the next person responsible for his mother’s death, the crooked building inspector, Avila, who he again tracks down from city records.

Ira kidnaps Avila and gets him to confess that he didn’t even inspect the trailer homes Jackson’s mother lived in, but ‘passed’ them after being paid a hefty bribe by the builders. Then Ira sets about crucifying Avila, too. He knocks up a makeshift crucifix nailed to a half-destroyed pine tree and tapes Avila’s wrists and ankles to it. He hammers a nail into Avila’s right hand and the latter faints but when he comes round he realises a) he’s alive b) he’s not in agony. He opens his eyes and sees a lion, a lion!!! finishing off Jackson. (The reader realises this is one of the animals who’ve escaped from Augustine’s wildlife centre). The lion has eaten half of Ira. There are bones scattered around and tatters of clothing. Avila freezes and watches the lion as it finishes its Ira Jackson meal, snuggles down and falls asleep. Then very, very slowly Avila unwraps the tape, frees his nailed hand and sneaks off.

Being Hiaasen, having a character eaten by a lion isn’t quite enough. Avila is a devotee of Santería, the Cuban voodoo religion and, as he tiptoes past the snoring lion, he bends down to retrieve one of the wet and glistening bones of what was once Ira Jackson. You never know. Might come in handy in one of Avila’s Santería rituals.

Skink motorboats Max Lamb out to a wooden house on stilts in the part of Biscayne Bay known as Stiltsville. He’s arranged a rendezvous here with Bonnie and Augustine. The encounter is suitably bizarre and surreal, Skink takes off Max’s electric collar and calmly hands him over but announces that he wants to spend some time with Bonnie who is intrigued but not scared byt Skink’s grotesque appearance but calm and polite manner. However, Augustine shoots Skink with the tranquiliser dart gun he’s been carrying round everywhere. Bonnie and Augustine had previously hooked up with Trooper Jim Tile who now supervises them taking tranquilised Skink back to the mainland and helping him recover.

Tile is conflicted. He knows he should arrest Skink for kidnapping Max, but will only do so if Max presses charges. But in the weird, post-hurricane atmosphere, Max realises he’s in more of a hurry just to get back to New York and his job than get involved in a prosecution.

Thus as soon as he can, Max showers, puts on clean clothes and flies back to New York. Bonnie says she feels too ill to accompany him, promises that she’ll catch the next plane. Of course she doesn’t, she misses the next flight, then the one after that, as she falls more and more deeply in love with Augustine. Eventually they sleep together.

The Max-kidnap storyline has run its course. The reader had been in suspense over how it would pan out, and now we know: it ends with a relatively peaceful handover and Skink being brought back into civilisation.

It is replaced as the main motor of the narrative by Our Gang (Jim Tile, Bonnie, Augustine and Skink) setting out to track down whoever it was who savagely beat Brenda. The Max Kidnapping has been replaced by The Brenda Beater Quest. We readers know it was the vile scumbag Snapper. (This creation of an alliance of the good guys, featuring solid Jim Tile and wacky but effective Skink, who then set out to get to the bottom of a crime or mystery, is the characteristic narrative shape of many of the novels.)

While Our Gang is meticulously tracing the stolen car in which the scumbag was riding who beat her up (Brenda remembers its number plate), the narrative cuts away to the further adventures of Edie and Snapper. The central idea is that Edie is now routinely shagging and blowing weak-willed insurance assessor Fred Dove with a view to getting hold of dead Tony Torres’s house insurance. But their plans are complicated by three developments:

1. Fred Dove alerts them to the fact that his supervisor from the insurance company is paying a visit to check on things. Thus Snapper and Edi (who are by this point at daggers drawn; he has tied her up and kicked her in the head, she managed to get free and smashed his knee with a tyre lever; it’s a very uneasy, violent ‘partnership’) are going to have to pretend to be Tony Torres and his loving wife for the duration of the visit. Comic potential.

2. Out of the blue a 71-year-old named Levon Stichler arrives to wreak vengeance on Tony Torres who sold him a crap mobile home which blew away in the storm. He mistakenly goes for Snapper, thinking the latter is Torres. He fails and Snapper beats old man Stichler very badly indeed.

3. Just after that happens, Tony Torres’s real wife, Neria, arrives, having made numerous bewildered phone calls from Eugene, Oregon (the couple are, of course, divorced) where she lives with her lover, Charles Gabler, a professor of parapsychology. Just to enhance the scumbag quotient this  fraudulent professor and exponent of crystals and auras and chakras and so on, had insisted they bring along one of his graduate students, big-breasted Celeste, for the ride to Florida, and Neria kicks him out of the VW camper van when she discovers him screwing the bosomy student.

All this takes place while Our Gang – Skink, Augustine and Bonnie – manage to track down the stolen truck from which Brenda was attacked to outside Torres’s house. They park themselves in a nearby wrecked house and watch the comings and goings listed in 1 to 3, trying to figure who’s who and what the devil is going on.

Journey to the Keys

Rather randomly the action then shifts to the Florida Keys. This is predominantly because Snapper has developed a mad, drug-addled plan to drive a hundred miles south in the stolen Jeep Cherokee he’s been driving, to stay at a motel whose owner owes him some favours, and photograph old Levon in compromising positions with a couple of local hookers Snapper knows (that’s how he knows Avila, they had a double date with these two hookers back in the day), and so blackmail Levon into keeping his mouth shut.

This seems improbably complicated – surely just shooting Levon dead would be more Snapper’s style. But then there’s an unexpected twist. At one point Augustine leaves the house where Our Gang are hiding out and spying on events at the wrecked Torres place, and no sooner has he left than Skink amazes Bonnie by simply walking out of their hiding place and walking bold as brass over to the Jeep Cherokee just as Snapper and and Edie are loading the body of Levon Stichler into it (still alive but gagged and wrapped in a carpet).

Bonnie doesn’t know what to do so goes running after him. Inevitably, Snapper, initially fazed by this strange visitation, simply points his gun and tells them both to get in the Jeep Cherokee and, within a minute, this unlikely foursome (Snapper, Edie, Skink and Bonnie, plus Levon in the boot) are heading south on Highway 1, then crossing the Card Sound Bridge (the very same one which Skink had himself tied to at the start of the story).

Snapper behaves like a pig all the way down, threatening Edie with the gun, a .357, pulling her hair, pushing the gun painfully deep into her breast, getting surly on painkillers and Jack Daniels, as Edie drives them all south. Skink is content to let it all happen but in several key exchanges confirms beyond doubt that it was Snapper who brutally beat up Brenda (and stole her mother’s wedding ring, which she  had been wearing on her finger, into the bargain).

Anyway, through devious plot developments, both Avila and Trooper Jim Tile and Augustine also make their separate ways after the bad guys’ Jeep Cherokee. Why? Avila wants to find Snapper so he can pay him back for pocketing the cash from Gar Whiteside’s wife without telling anyone else in Avila’s little roofer scam. Jim Tile sets off in pursuit because his investigations have led him to suspect Snapper is the man who beat up his girlfriend (something the reader has known all along). And Augustine is after them because he is now in love with Bonnie, and was part of the trio staking out Torres’s house till he snuck off to do a chore and, returning, discovered Skink and Bonnie gone.

(By the way, the Jeep is relatively for the other characters to identify since its mudguards have distinctive painted decals, easily spotted from a distance and confirmed closer up.)

Anyway, the novel rushes towards a farcical climax as all these characters pitch up at the ironically named ‘Paradise Palms’ motel (but then anywhere in Florida with a nice name becomes ironic merely by included in a novel by a novelist who believes Florida is a cesspit of unprecedented human corruption) in the middle of a hot, humid tropical rainstorm.

1. Avila

First incident in the brutal climax is Avila angrily chases Snapper round the car park yelling that he wants his seven grand back. Snapper hands Edie the .357 (why doesn’t she throw it away?) before turning the tables and chasing after Avila. Snapper chases Avila for quite a distance along a rain-drenched highway till they reach a bridge and, as Snapper raises the axle of some trailer over his head to whomp him, Avila jumps over the edge and into the water. The current carries him away. He takes off shoes and clothes and bobs into a block of plywood. He’s clinging to it at dawn when he’s picked up by the coastguard, given clean clothes, a coffee and taken onshore to Immigration control. Suddenly, surrounded by immigration officials who think he’s just another illegal immigrant, Avila realises that, rather than go home to face the wrath of his wife and mother-in-law and Gar Whiteside, what the hell,  maybe he should just let himself be ‘repatriated’ to Cuba and start a new life there.

2. Jim Tile

Trooper Jim Tile has followed the Snapper and Edie’s Jeep Cherokee all the way south. Now he parks aslant the entrance to the car park and walks towards the car. Now, when Snapper had been off chasing Avila, Edie, sick to death of the situation had offered to hand the .357 with its 2 remaining bullets over to Skink but the latter, in his perverse way, had refused and Snapper had snatched it back when he eventually loomed back out of the pouring rain having seen Avila jump off the bridge. Seems like a terrible mistake.

Now, as Jim walks towards the Jeep, Snapper winds down the window and shoots Jim smack in the chest, the trooper going over backwards. This really upset me. Earlier Snapper had shown everyone the ring he had yanked off Brenda’s finger and had casually thrown it into a canal. That upset me, too. The way he casually kicked Edie in the head back in Torres’s house upset me. Now I was upset and depressed by Jim being shot. Someone should have killed Snapper long long ago. Instead, he now drives off, skirting the patrol car, and Edie notices Skink has sunk down in the backseat, for once winded and beaten. Why didn’t he take Snapper’s gun from Edie when he had the chance?

In fact, Jim is not dead. He was wearing a kevlar vest, never goes anywhere without one, so his chest is badly bruised but he’s basically OK. The hookers Snapper had set up to look after and compromise Levon, call 911 and police and ambulance soon turn up. But still. For about ten pages everyone in the car (Skink, Bonnie, Edie and Snapper) think Jim is dead and I thought he was dead and it left a really bad taste in my mouth.

3. Augustine

Augustine had separately followed the Jeep Cherokee south, parked a little up from the motel and seen a lot of this transpire because during the Avila interlude he climbed into the back of the Jeep. A ways up the highway Snapper pulls over into a roadside restaurant car park and steals a new car, belonging to a French architect, Christophe Michel. Even this peripheral and marginal figure gets implicated in the theme of the poor building and design standards which have led directly to people’s homes being wrecked. Turns out Michel was himself about to be investigated for malpractice and so had packed up all his belongings and savings with a view to getting a plane out of America (p.398). It’s very bad luck that Snapper chooses his car (a Seville) to steal at gunpoint, turfs Michel out of it, hustles the three others into it and drives it off.

A little ways further up the highway, Edie notices the black Jeep Cherokee is following them. How? It draws abreast, Augustine winds down the window and fires his tranquiliser dart into Snapper’s neck. Simple as that. Snapper immediately passes out, Edie grabs the wheel and steers them onto the hard shoulder. Here Bonnie is joyfully reunited with big, sensitive and competent Augustine.

Now Skink leads them all on an extended tour into the bush, into the outback, through miles and miles of mosquito-infested backwoods until they eventually reach his camp. Skink lights a fire and cooks some roadkill. Augustine and Bonnie are amazed by Skink’s book collection, which he keeps in an old camper van. (Earlier, in this book’s version of Clinton Tyree’s biography we were told that Clint had, between serving in the army and standing in politics, been a literature professor. I think that’s a new nugget of information about him.)

Long story short:

Snapper bound After confirming it was Snapper who beat up Brenda, Skink ties his hands and wedges his mouth open with one of those security locks you apply to a car steering wheel.

Bye bye Edie Edie is seriously confused by what’s going on and the bewildering shifts in psychic dynamics among the group Skink has led into the outback over the next few days. She reacts the only way she knows how by seducing the alpha male in the pack, following Skink into the lake when he goes for a swim and nibbling and teasing him into making love to her in the water. Skink nonetheless gets her dressed and walks her a long way to a highway where he’s arranged for Jim Tile, now much recovered though still wearing bandages on his chest, to pick her up and drive her over the bridge to mainland Florida. She is back in civilisation. Ho hum. Maybe she can go to a bar and pick up a young eligible millionaire…

Neria strikes it rich For some time we have had bulletins on Tony Torres’ wife, Neria, as she drives with her professor boyfriend all the way from Oregon to Miami. In the final stages she is accompanied by a truckload of Bible-tattooed, God-fearing, in-bred Tennesseeans driving down to make a fast buck as cowboy builders amid the hurricane wreckage.

When she finally arrives at the wreckage of her and Tony’s house at 15600 Calusa, Neria tries to find out from the neighbour what’s been going on, coming across some of Snapper and Edie’s belongings strewn about the place which are, of course, a complete mystery to her. While she’s still puzzling it out, a Federal Express man arrives and hands her a letter. Inside is the insurance checks for $201,000. This is the money Edie spent all that time sucking off insurance assessor Fred Dove to get him to sign off and approve from his employer. Now, ironically, neither Snapper, Edie nor Fred are around to collect it. In fact Fred turns up with some flowers for Edie (throughout the story he’s been staying at a nearby motel on company expenses and motoring over to conspire with and/or be sucked off by Edi). But when confronted by a large angry Neria, timid Fred beats a hasty retreat. Now Neria is rich. Who cares what happened to her lowlife, worthless husband? She’s going to start a new life.

Max Lamb flies back down from New York. (Actually he flies via Mexico where he’s sent by his company to try and persuade the owner of a huge tobacco company, Clyde Nottage, who is dying of cancer, and being treated with sheep semen (!), not to cancelling his huge advertising spend with Max’s firm. To no avail.) Since Bonnie has been able to phone him now and then, she sets up a rendezvous where Max and Bonnie are finally reunited under the watchful eye of Skink and Trooper Tile. She tells him she doesn’t love him. He is livid. Trooper Jim Tile drives him back to the meeting point, a boarded-up MacDonalds, as Max kvetches and whines and complains about ‘women’. Then catches a plane back to the Big Apple and his snazzy career.

Snapper redivivus When Bonnie arrives back at the ‘camp’ after her uncomfortable reunion with her soon-to-be ex-husband, it’s to discover that Snapper caught Skink asleep, has beaten him up and heading off into the backwoods. Oh for God’s sake won’t someone just kill Snapper!!! Bonnie takes off after him which is (once again) plain dumb. She catches up with Snapper and jumps on his back but he easily throws her off, throws her to the ground and starts clubbing her in the head using the big metal car lock rammed in his mouth (it’s stuck in his mouth so he waggles his head from side to side to make the long metal handle clout Bonnie again and again in the face). Then Snapper is aware of someone grabbing him by the balls and a gun goes off at his temple.

Max and Edie Edie had been dropped off by Trooper Jim near where Max now collects the rental car he hired in Miami. Opening the car Max discovers she’s stowed away in it. He offers her a lift, they swap stories, Max begins to like her, Edie realises he’s a successful advertising executive. It’s a mismatch made in heaven.

Snapper abandoned Snapper broke Skink’s collarbone and several ribs. It was Augustine who tracked Snapper down and was tempted to shoot him dead but instead just shot his ear off instead. Augustine and Bonnie patch Skink up, insisting he see a doctor but he refuses. Instead he packs up the camp, packs bags and leads Bonnie and Augustine down a trail to a lake which they swim across, then to a road i.e. civilisation, leaves them there before himself disappearing back into the bush. Skink had told Snapper (with his mouth still wedged open by the car lock and now minus one ear) to make his own way to freedom, confident he won’t, that he’ll die of exposure.

Augustine and Bonnie come to the Card Sound bridge and walk up it. At the crest, at the high point of its gentle slope Bonnie asks Augustine if he’ll tie her to it, in readiness for a coming storm, just like Skink had done at the start of the book. She has become fully nativised.

Brief thoughts

By the time you stagger to the end of this 472-page-long narrative the reader is, I think, exhausted with the unrelenting panorama of scumbag lowlife amorality, violence and corruption. Not just that, but Hiaasen’s novels have a distinctive characteristic which is that they are packed with stuff. Either something is happening, generally something violent and garish, and being described in taut, snappy prose and super-pithy dialogue; or you are being filled in on the background of this or that scam (in this case, extensive explanations of how building regulations in Florida aren’t worth the paper they’re written on). It feels like every inch of the text is packed, there is little fat or respite or padding, nowhere for the reader to pause while enjoying a nice restful description. There is no rest or respite. It’s this unrelenting nature of the text which I think makes many critics describe them as ‘page-turners’, ‘gripping’ and so on.

In my opinion this is slightly wrong. Hiaasen’s novels aren’t really ‘thrillers’ or crime novels in the usual sense because by and large the reader watches the crimes being committed and knows exactly whodunnit. There is none of the suspense associated with crime novels: we saw it happen; we know whodunnit.

Instead the grip or pull of the narrative is the reader’s curiosity about what monstrous grotesque incident Hiaasen is going to pull off next. We don’t read for the plot so much as in eager anticipation of the next stomach-turning and mind-boggling atrocity.

This explains, I think, the sensation I often have of being a little disappointed by the final acts in Hiaasen novels. Quite often they don’t live up to expectations set by earlier macabre scenes. So, for example, I felt Snapper, the evil bastard, deserves a punishment of Baroque complexity and vehemence. It’s certainly grotesque that he ends his days staggering lost through the vast Everglades with his mouth wedged open by a car lock but… well… somehow it doesn’t feel quite adequate to the extended Sodom and Gomorrah of incidents which have preceded it, and to the long list of his disgusting brutality and mindless aggression.

I think Hiaasen often finds it difficult to cap, right at the end of his stories, the inspired grotesqueries he often features half way through. Thus nothing that happens later on can imaginatively outdo the incident of Ira Jackson crucifying Tony Torres on a satellite dish. Somehow that says everything about the society Hiaasen is depicting, its values and morality. He manages to outdo himself when crucifixion number two ends with Ira being eaten by a lion! But he’s set the bar very high in the Gruesome Stakes and, in a way, the entire second half of the novel, the long car journey south to the keys and the rather muddled sequence of events in the car park of the Love Motel in the pouring rain, although it has its moments, feels confused and like an anti-climax. In the end the plot only drags on for its last 100 pages because Snapper keeps hurting people and well before the end I just wanted someone to kill him and bring the novel to a close.

Still. Bloody funny, hair-raisingly amoral, shockingly gruesome, it’s a Hiaasen classic.

Minor details

Donald Trump

Ivana Trump was mentioned in this book’s predecessor, Strip Tease. In this one Bonnie Lamb indicates how shallow her husband is by telling Augustine he doesn’t read much and that the most recent book he’s been reading is ‘one of Trump’s autobiographies’ (p.109).

It’s interesting to learn that Trump and his wife were bywords for flashy superficiality 26 years ago, and all the more mind-boggling that 21 years later he was elected President of the Yoonited States. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer country.

Santería

Briefly mentioned in the last book and emerging as a running topic this one is the Cuban version of voodoo religion, Santería. Avila, the crooked surveyor, regularly sacrifices chickens to Chango, the god of lightning and fire, in a bid to escape the various investigations and prosecutions aimed at him.

To quote Wikipedia:

Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha, Regla Lucumí, or Lucumí, is an African diasporic religion that developed in Cuba during the late 19th century. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional Yoruba religion of West Africa, the Roman Catholic form of Christianity, and Spiritism.

The topic is played for laughs as Avila’s sacrifices keep going hopelessly awry, a billy goat he buys to sacrifice brutally goring him in the groin, a raccoon he buys later on scampering free and attaching itself to his mother-in-law’s towering hairdo till Avil sprays it, and her, in fire extinguisher foam. The more earnestly he sacrifices, the worse his luck gets.

It’s also interesting because Santería crops up as a theme in William Gibson’s novel Spook Country, published in 2007 i.e. twelve years after this novel. Interesting in itself, but also because Santeria’s inclusion in these two Hiaasen novels makes you realise it’s a less esoteric and obscure reference than the Gibson novel, and its easily-pleased reviewers, suggest.

Can I hear you knockin’?

You know that cheerful knock on the door pattern many of us give? I’d never heard it described onomatopoeically as ‘shave and a haircut – two bits’.


Credit

Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1995. All references are to the 1996 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

The 1977 Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Sand is in two parts. Part one consists of a baker’s dozen of late short stories which take up 90 pages. Part two contains 35 poems taken from two of Borges’s final volumes of poetry, The Gold of the Tigers and The Unending Rose, presented in the original Spanish with English translations by the Scottish poet Alastair Reid on the facing page, and also taking up about 90 pages.

There’s an author’s note and an afterword. In the author’s note Borges reaffirms his allegiance to H.G. Wells, often overlooked by literary studies but clearly one of the most fertile, imaginative and influential writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

I have tried to be faithful to the example of H. G. Wells in combining a plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot.

In the event, some of the premises of the stories may be fantastical, but they are all conveyed in such a low-key, downbeat, almost offhand manner that you barely notice. The stories don’t signpost their own remarkableness, they downplay it. The stories feel different from those in Dr Brodie’s Report, more consistently fantastical or imaginative than the determinedly realistic narratives in that collection – but both books have more in common and are very different from the intensely bookish ficciones of his Labyrinths phase. Any reader hoping for more ficciones will be sorely disappointed but will, if they allow their expectations to be reshaped by the texts, be rewarded by subtler, more fleeting pleasures.

The stories

1. The Other (location: Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A very relaxed, low key story in which Borges quietly remembers going to sit on a bench in Cambridge Massachusetts overlooking the Charles River and realising the young fellow who’s sitting at the other end of the bench is his own self, 50 years earlier. The young self thinks he is sitting on a bench in Geneva overlooking the river Rhone. Old Borges chats a bit about what’s happened to mum and dad, then when young Borges reveals the book in his hand is by Dostoyevsky, they fall to chatting about literature, as you do, quoting Victor Hugo and Whitman.

Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike. We were unable to take each other in, which makes conversation difficult. Each of us was a caricature copy of the other. The situation was too abnormal to last much longer…

Neither is terrified, but both afflicted with unease, and so hasten to make their excuses, say goodbye, promise to meet up the next day, and walk briskly away with no intention of keeping the rendezvous.

You know the big difference between this and a story by H.G. Wells. This one has no excitement. It is a teasing situation, but with no development or payoff. In fact it just dribbles to a close.

2. Ulrikke (York, England)

The narrator is named Javier Otálora. He is a professor at the University of the Andes. He is visiting York (in England) when he hears a pretty young woman talking in the hotel bar, gets chatting to her, they go for a walk across the freshly fallen snow which becomes steadily more archetypal or allegorical. There are no cars or roads, just them alone in the deep woods. They hear a wolf howl, she kisses him, they invoke the shades of Sigurd and Brynhilde, they arrive at another inn, climb as in a dream up the stairs to a bed where they make love. I think it is a waking dream. I think the author has been beguiled into some kind of re-enactment of the Sigurd and Brnyhilde legend.

3. The Congress (Argentina, 1902)

Don Alejandro Glencoe was a Uruguayan ranch owner and landowner. At one time he had ambitions to stand for the Uruguayan Congress but the political bosses barred  his way. And so, inspired by something he’d read, he decided to set up a Universal Congress, representing all people, representing all humanity. He starts the process by inviting an assortment of 20 or so people to meet regularly at the Gas-Lamp Coffee House in Buenos Aires, trying to ensure a cross-selection, including women and gauchos and blacks. The narrator is Alejandro Ferri and we follow as he is, first, told about the Congress, then taken along, then becomes an active participant, travelling to England on research into ways to expand it and into which books to order to create a definitive library for the Congress.

Soon after his return, in what one could possibly take to be a typically quixotic, random, Hispanic gesture, Don Alejandro scraps his own creation and abolishes the Congress, insisting the members take the library of (rather random) books they have painstakingly assembled and burning them in the street. The members go on to have a wild, intoxicating night together, then part, never to see each other, but convinced by Don Alejandro’s exhortation that the Congress is not dead; on the contrary, it has now become universal and all men and women are members of it, even if they don’t know it. All this happened between 1899, when the narrator arrived in Buenos Aires, and 1902, when he undertook his ill-fated journey to a snowbound London.

The best of Borges’s ficciones left you with your mind completely blown by the intensity and profundity of the ideas and visions he conjured up. These stories are much more ‘meh’. This is the longest of all Borges’s works of fiction and, after this volume was published, he claimed it was his favourite. Meh.

4. There Are More Things (Buenos Aires)

A deliberately hammy hommage to the lurid horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, this one concerns a young student just finishing his studies. He had an uncle who had a house built in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The narrator gets news that his uncle has, sadly, died and then follows from a distance the subsequent developments, namely that the house is sold to a mysterious man who asks the original architect to build new extensions, which the architect indignantly refuses to do. After a few more investigations, the narrator one night, min a heavy storm, finds himself at the gate of the mysterious house, finds himself pushing open the gate, walking up the path, pushing open the front door and investigating the apparently empty and abandoned house and discovering it full of artefacts which make no sense, which don’t seem to have been designed for the human body or purposes… and while he is slowly coming down the stepladder from the attic, he hears the sound of ‘slow and oppressive and twofold’ coming up the ramp into the house…

5. The Sect of the Thirty (4th century Mediterranean)

A fairly brief account which purports to be a manuscript from the fourth century AD describing a Christian heresy, dwelling on the origin of the number 30 before going on to consider the drama of the Crucifixion and to identify ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ actors in it, concluding that there were only 2 intentional ones, namely Jesus and Judas. So the ‘Sect of the Thirty’ takes its name from the thirty pieces of silver which Jesus gave Judas.

This echoes the ficcione ‘Three Versions of Judas’ in which a renegade theologian develops the idea that the real Son of God was Judas, for whereas Jesus was resurrected and went to heaven after a few hours suffering, Judas made the ultimate sacrifice and condemned himself to everlasting hell.

6. The Night of the Gifts (1874 Argentina)

Many years ago in the old Confitería del Águila on Florida Street up around Piedad, a group of men are gathered and having an earnest discussion about Plato’s theory of knowledge (which is that we already know everything but have forgotten it, so that ‘learning’ is merely remembering) when an older man interjects with a long and complicated story.

It is the story of the most memorable night of his life, the night of the thirtieth of April 1874,when he was little more than a boy, he was staying on the ranch of some cousins, and met Rufino, a seasoned cowhand. One night Rufino takes him into town to a brothel down a dirty back alley. The narrator is a bit overwhelmed. When confident Rufino sees him looking at a younger, shy woman, Rufino asks her to tell her tale. In a dreamy voice, the young woman, nicknamed The Captive, begins to tell the story about the time the Indians raided her ranch and took her away, but she’s barely got as far as the Indians riding towards her when the door bursts open and real-life bandits enter, led by the notorious outlaw Juan Moreira! He starts causing a lot of noise and when the little house doggy approaches, whips him so hard the dog dies there and then.

Terrified, in all the brawling, the boy narrator slips down a hallway, finds a secret stairwell and goes upstairs, into a room and hides there. It is, unsurprisingly, the room of The Captive, who quietly comes in, closes the door, slips off her clothes and makes him lie with her. It’s not described but the implication is that he loses his virginity.

But then there’s a lot more banging and a gunshot and the Captive tells our narrator to leave by the back stairs. He does so, nips across the garden and shimmies over the wall. He comes face to face with a policeman who grins and lets him go, but as he loiters, the famous outlaw Moreira slips over the same wall, presumably escaping the cops who’ve gone in the front, and the policeman steps forward and bayonets Moreira. And again. While the horrified boy looks on

Then we snap back to the ‘present’ and the now-old man reflecting on his story, that he experienced two of the Great Experiences of Life in the same night, losing his virginity and seeing a man killed in front of him.

7. The Mirror and the Mask (medieval Ireland)

After the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014, in which he had defeated a Norse-Irish coalition, the High King of Ireland orders his chief bard, Ollan, to commemorate it in heroic verse. The story quickly becomes a kind of fairy tale, for it is structured round three magical events. The king gives his bard a year to go to England, travel widely, and compose a great poem. A year later he returns, and amid great ceremony, recites the poem, which is a masterpiece, which repeats and supersedes all the conventions of his forebears. The king rewards him with a silver mirror.

Then the poet goes off to England for another year, sees and hears many things, returns and this time reads from a manuscript, a poem which is much stranger, in form and substance, combining the Christian Trinity with the pagan gods, in which subject and verbs and nouns do not agree but present strange new combinations. Dazzled, the king says that only the learned can understand so strange a composition and that he will store the manuscript in an ivory casket and he gives the poet a golden mask.

After another year the poet arrives at the king’s court but he is a man transfigured, ‘His eyes seemed to stare into the distance or to be blind.’ This time the man asks to see the king alone and laments that the has produced the finest poem yet but wishes the Lord had prevented it. He asks for the hall to be emptied and then recites the poem which consists of just one line, but which is so transcendent, so numinous that both king and bard are shaken to their core, both wondering whether knowing such Beauty is a sin.

‘The sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden to men. Now it behoves us to expiate it. I gave you a mirror and a golden mask; here is my third present, which will be the last.’ In the bard’s right hand he placed a dagger. Of the poet, we know that he killed himself upon leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering the length and breadth of Ireland – which was once his kingdom – and that he has never repeated the poem.

It is a deep and powerful fable.

8. Undr (11th century Sweden)

This short text is pleasurably complicated, working at multiple removes in narrator and time and place. First of all it claims, in the time-honoured way, to be a transcription of a fragment of manuscript found in a dusty old volume in a library, namely an account by of Adam of Bremen, who, ‘as everyone knows’, was born and died in the eleventh century, and it starts off by being an account of what he has discovered about a people named the Urns, who live in Scandinavia.

But barely a page has gone by before Adam brings in a specific character, a traveller from Iceland named Ulf Sigurdsson. Adam claims to have met him at Uppsala, by the famous pagan temple there, where Ulf tells him his story. So now we have three layers of text:

  1. the introductory paragraph explaining this is all a manuscript in an old book
  2. the text itself describing Adam’s journeys into Sweden
  3. the narrative of Ulf

Ulf explains that he was a skald or poet from Iceland and had travelled to Sweden because he had heard that the Urns create poems with just one word. He meets a blacksmith who prepares him to be taken before the king of the Urns, Gunnlaug, in readiness for which Ulf composes a drapa, an elaborate genre of Icelandic poetry. However, when he performs it for the king, although the latter gives him a silver ring, his place is soon taken by a local poet who strikes his lyre and recites a poem which consists of just one word and everyone is much moved.

On leaving the king’s cabin, Ulf is accosted by a fellow poet, Bjarni Thorkelsson, who confirms that the old tropes Ulf used have been superseded and tells him his life is in danger. Together they conspire to get Ulf onto a boat which heads south.

At this point follows a brief summary of the rest of Ulf’s life, which was action-packed and included being an oarsman, a slave dealer, a slave, a woodcutter, a highwayman, a singer, a taster of deep waters and metals, spending a year in the quicksilver mines, fighting in the Varangian guard at Constantinople, having a big love affair with a woman by Sea of Azov, fighting a duel with a Greek, fighting the Blue Men of Serkland, the Saracens.

At the end of this long life, Ulf is a tired old man who makes his way back to the land of the Urns and, after some difficulty, finds the house of the fellow skald who saved him, Bjarni Thorkelsson. Bjarni is bed-ridden and insists on hearing Ulf’s entire life story. As a reward he takes up his harp and speaks the one Word, undr, which means ‘wonder’. The wonder of the world, and finally he understands.

With that the text ends. It does not go back up a level to Adam’s narrative, or up two levels to the original framing modern explanation. It deliberately ends on this symbolic note.

In the afterword Borges points out that one of his most famous ficciones is about an infinite library which contains every combination of every letter in every language ever conceived by man. This is the opposite, a story about just one word, which manages to capture the entire life of a culture.

9. A Weary Man’s Utopia (centuries in the future)

Some kind of vision or maybe dream. The narrator identifies himself as Eudoro Acevedo, born in 1897 in the city of Buenos Aires, 70 years old, a professor of English and American literatures and a writer of imaginative tales i.e. an avatar of Borges himself.

He is walking over a plain in the rain and sees the lights of a house and walks over to it and the door is opened by a tall man who invites him in and signals straight away that he has entered a different century, apparently in the future when other languages have fallen into desuetude and educated people speak Latin. The host is very relaxed and says they receive visitors from the past ‘from century to century’.

In this future the people are taught to forget history and culture and to rise above the present, to live in all time. He is four centuries old and has only read half a dozen books. Printing has been abolished. For his part the narrator explains that in his world, there were newspapers which made a big fuss about the latest news, a continuous turnover of trivia, plus advertising for a thousand and one products no-one needs. To fully exist you needed to be photographed.

Whereas in this future nobody has possessions, there is no money. People study philosophy or play chess. They are free to kill themselves. Everyone must sire one child but this means the human race is slowly dying out. Politics has ceased to exist because nobody paid any attention. He spends his time painting, he shows the narrator some of his paintings and gives him one as a gift.

Then a woman and three or four men enter the house peacefully and they work with the owner to dismantle all the belongings and then carry them through the streets to a crematorium where they burn all his belongings. The scene cuts back to the ‘present’ where the narrator is writing this text,

In my study on Mexico Street, in Buenos Aires, I have the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances today scattered over the whole planet.

There is no drama and barely any plot. Instead it is a thing of changing moods and angles.

10. The Bribe (Texas 1969)

As the narrator admits at the outset this is more of an anecdote than a story. It concerns three American academics who are all specialists in Anglo-Saxon literature. It takes quite a while to explain because it is about a subtle psychological point which requires an explanation of the ‘politics’ in the English Department at the University of Texas.

A key figure in the department is the upright scion of a New England family Dr Ezra Winthrop. He has been helped in his editing of Anglo-Saxon texts by the able scholar Herbert Locke. A conference is coming up, in Wisconsin. Winthrop is advising the head of the department, Lee Rosenthal, who to send.

Recently the department has been joined by a naturalised American of Icelandic descent named Eric Einarsson. The text describes a series of publications he’s made, starting with a new edition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon (which I have reviewed in this blog) then, only a few weeks before the conference, he publishes a long article in the Yale Philological Quarterly. The aim of the article is to attack the way Anglo-Saxon is taught in the department, which mainly focuses on Beowulf (which I have reviewed in this blog) which the article considers too long, confused but above all too refined and baroque a production to teach beginners.

Partly as a result of the article, Winthrop advises Rosenthal to choose Einarsson to represent the department at the forthcoming conference, rather than the loyal capable Locke. The story such as it is, boils down to the final and only real scene in the text, wherein Einarsson drops into Winthrop’s office to thank him for helping choose him to attend the conference – and then candidly lets Winthrop know how he engineered the decision. When he first met him, Einarsson was surprised that Winthrop, despite being a principled Northern, defended the South’s right to secede from the Union in the American civil war. Einarsson realised in a flash that Winthrop’s rigid Puritan morality made him bend over backwards to see the opposing point of view.

That is why he wrote a long article criticising the way the department teaches Anglo-Saxon. It was reverse psychology. He knew that Winthrop would bend over backwards to be fair so someone who had just attacked him, and choose Einarsson over loyal Locke. And that is just what happened. Low-key, eh? Subtle.

11. Avelino Arredondo (Montivideo 1897)

A peculiar story set in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in 1897 during the civil war which ravaged the country. It tells of a man from the country, Avelino Arredondo, a little over 20, thin, shortish, poor. He is a part of a group of young men who meet at the Café del Globo. One day he tells them he is going away. He kisses goodbye to his girlfriend, Clementina, adieu to his friends, but instead of setting off to a distant town as he told everyone, he holes up in his little apartment, never going out or reading the papers, attended by an ancient servant who brings him his meals. All is aimed towards the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, which is months away and, because this date is mentioned several times, the reader naturally wonders what might happen. Because the slow passage of time and in fact the change in the subjective experience of time is mentioned several times, we wonder if this is a science fiction story and some fabulous transformation will take place.

Alas, no. Arrendondo wakes on the morning of 25 August, dresses, breakfast, then makes his way to the cathedral square just as a group of dignitaries are leaving morning Mass. He asks a bystander to point out the president of this wartorn country, Juan Idiarte Borda, then pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. He belongs to the other side in the civil war (the Whites against the Reds). At his trial he is careful to emphasise that he has lived isolated from the world for months, having said goodbye to his girlfriends, all his acquaintances and not read a newspaper for months – all the more to bring out that this was an entirely existential decision by he and he alone.

12. The Disk (Anglo-Saxon England)

A wonderfully short and strange story. The narrator is a poor woodcutter. A stranger turns up at his hut. He gives him food and shelter. Next morning they go for a walk. When the stranger drops his staff he orders the woodcutter to pick it up. ‘Why?’ asks the woodcutter. ‘Because I am king,’ says the stranger, ‘I am of the line of Odin’. The woodcutter replies he is a Christian. The slightly mad old king says he can prove he is king by showing him the thing in his hand. He opens his fist. There is nothing there, but when the woodcutter tentatively puts out his finger he feels something cold and sees a glitter in the sunshine.

Here is the one spooky eerie detail which makes the whole thing cohere. The king tells him it is Odin’s disk and it has only one side. In all the world there is nothing else with only one side.

13. The Book of Sand

The narrator suffers from myopia, lives in a flat by himself. A tall stranger knocks on the door, he lets him in. He says he is from the Orkney Islands. He says he sells Bibles, The narrator replies that he already owns several English translations of the Bible (as you might expect). Then the salesman opens his case and gets out another book. He bought it off an illiterate Untouchable in India. It is called the Book of Sand because, like the desert, it has no end.

No matter where he opens it there seem to be more pages at the front and back. The pages bear fantastically large page numbers and it is impossible to find one again. They haggle about a price and the salesman parts with it for a monthly pension payment and the black letter Wycliff Bible, packs his case and leaves.

Only then are we treated to the slow possession the infinite book begins to exert over its owner. He stops going out, he devotes his life to trying to tabulate the content of the infinite book, he becomes paranoid, he hides is behind other volumes on his shelves, but he begins to realise it is driving him mad, he realises the bookseller came to him willing to get rid of it at almost any price.

One day he takes it along to the National Library (which Borges himself was Director of), slips past the staff, down into the dusty basement, and without paying too much attention to the rack or shelf or position slips it in among thousand of other anonymous volumes and quickly departs, as if from the scene of a crime.

Late style

Writers who live long enough often develop a recognisably late style. In these late stories Borges is closer to the ficciones of Labyrinths than he was in Dr Brodie’s Report – for a start they’re not all set in contemporary Argentina as most of those stories were; many return to the European settings or to the remote times and places of the ficciones, although he appears to show a fondness for rugged medieval pagan Europe more than the flashy worlds of Islam and China which attracted him in the ficciones. I know what he means. There’s something more genuinely weird and eerie and rebarbative about hearing one wolf howl in the great snowy Northern forests, than there is in seeing a thousand geniis pop out of a bottle or all the dragons of Chinese legend.

But it’s not so much the subject matter, it’s the treatment. The tales are more elliptical and elusive. Borges’s late style has learned to eschew flashy effects for something more subtle and lateral. I liked Ulrikke, The Mirror, Undr, A Weary Man because the inconsequentiality of the dream subject matter matches the flat obliquity of the style.

Is it the wisdom of age or the tiredness of age or the indifference of age? Or is it the result of Borges’s blindness? He never learned braille and dictated all his later works, having them read back to him and correcting them orally, a completely different method of composition from seeing the words you write, and re-seeing them, and seeing them again as you review over and over what you have written to give it not only a rhetorical flow but a visual styling, on the page. None of that here. All of that dense reworking, the temptation to be ‘baroque’, had departed along with his sight.

Was it all or any or a combination of these factors, or just a realisation that, after the metaphysical pyrotechnics of ficciones, it was on many levels more satisfying to play a subtler game, to create not the vaunting elephants and leaping tigers of a Salvador Dali painting, but the subtle understatement of a miniaturist. In the afterword Borges describes A Weary Man’s Utopia as the most ‘honest’ of the stories. In it the exhausted and ancient man of the future devotes his life to painting what appear to be modest, not very dramatic, and semi-abstract works.

I examined the canvases, stopping before the smallest one, which represented, or suggested, a sunset and which encompassed something infinite. ‘If you like it, you can have it as a keepsake of a future friend,’ he said matter-of-factly. I thanked him, but there were a few canvases that left me uneasy. I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Maybe that is an apt description of these stories, products of an old man, far advanced in his chosen craft, indifferent to praise or blame, making them for his own amusement, no longer impressed by the flashy effects of youth and middle age. Lucid and reflective.

I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Nearly… but not quite.


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Borges reviews

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


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Borges reviews

Ping by Samuel Beckett (1966)

Ping is a very short text, just 908 words long. Beckett wrote it in French with the title Bing then translated it into English.

It is in one continuous block of prose, like The Unnamable. It uses a fanatical amount of verbal repetition like How It Is does, taking a handful of key phrases and repeating them in almost every sentence to build up a sense of hysteria.

As so often the vocabulary is plain and simple except for a handful of distractingly unusual words, in this case ‘haught’ (7 instances), ‘unover’ (6 instances) and, of course, the title word, ‘ping’ (37 instances).

The word ‘white’ is particularly repeated and the work’s original title in French was, apparently, Blanc, reminding us of various attempts to create pure white poetry unstained by meaning by the likes of the French poet Stephane Mallarmé. The word ‘white’ is repeated 93 times, making up over 10% of the words used. Ping occurs 37 times, 4%.

The text

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just. Traces blurs light grey almost white on white. Hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle. Light heat white planes shining white bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Bare white body fixed white on white invisible. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white. Head haught eyes light blue almost white silence within. Brief murmurs only just almost never all known. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. Legs joined like sewn heels together right angle. Traces alone unover given black light grey almost white on white. Light heat white walls shining white one yard by two. Bare white body fixed one yard ping fixed elsewhere. Traces blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white. White feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle invisible. Eyes alone unover given blue light blue almost white. Murmur only just almost never one second perhaps not alone. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard white on white invisible. All white all known murmurs only just almost never always the same all known. Light heat hands hanging palms front white on white invisible. Bare white body fixed ping fixed elsewhere. Only the eyes only just light blue almost white fixed front. Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a way out. Head haught eyes light blue almost white fixed front ping murmur ping silence. Eyes holes light blue almost white mouth white seam like sewn invisible. Ping murmur perhaps a nature one second almost never that much memory almost never. Whitewalls each its trace grey blur signs no meaning light grey almost white. Light heat all known all white planes meeting invisible. Ping murmur only just almost never one second perhaps a meaning that much memory almost never. White feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle ping elsewhere no sound. Hands hanging palms front legs joined like sewn. Head haught eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front silence within. Ping elsewhere always there but that known not. Eyes holes light blue alone unover given blue light blue almost white only colour fixed front. All white all known white planes shining white ping murmur only just almost never one second light time that much memory almost never. Bare white body fixed one yard ping fixed elsewhere white on white invisible heart breath no sound.Only the eyes given blue light blue almost white fixed front only colour alone unover. Planes meeting invisible one only shining white infinite but that known not. Nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible. Ping murmurs only just almost never one second always the same all known. Given rose only just bare white body fixed one yard invisible all known without within. Ping perhaps a nature one second with image same time a little less blue and white in the wind. White ceiling shining white one square yard never seen ping perhaps way out there one second ping silence. Traces alone unover given black grey blurs signs no meaning light grey almost white always the same. Ping perhaps not alone one second with image always the same same time a little less that much memory almost never ping silence.Given rose only just nails fallen white over. Long hair fallen white invisible over. White scars invisible same white as flesh torn of old given rose only just. Ping image only just almost never one second light time blue and white in the wind. Head haught nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn invisible over. Only the eyes given blue fixed front light blue almost white only colour alone unover. Light heat white planes shining white one only shining white infinite but that known not. Ping a nature only just almost never one second with image same time a little less blue and white in the wind. Traces blurs light grey eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front ping a meaning only just almost never ping silence. Bare white one yard fixed ping fixed elsewhere no sound legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front. Head haught eyes holes light blue almost white fixed front silence within. Ping elsewhere always there but that known not. Ping perhaps not alone one second with image same time a little less dim eye black and white half closed long lashes imploring that much memory almost never. Afar flash of time all white all over all of old ping flash white walls shining white no trace eyes holes light blue almost white last colour ping white over. Ping fixed last elsewhere legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front head haught eyes white invisible fixed front over. Given rose only just one yard invisible bare white all known without within over. White ceiling never seen ping of old only just almost never one second light time white floor never seen ping of old perhaps there. Ping of old only just perhaps a meaning a nature one second almost never blue and white in the wind that much memory henceforth never. White planes no trace shining white one only shining white infinite but that known not. Light heat all known all white heart breath no sound. Head haught eyes white fixed front old ping last murmur one second perhaps not alone eye unlustrous black and white half closed long lashes imploring ping silence ping over.

Obsession with posture

There is, as usual with Beckett, obsessive and obsessively repeated concern for the precise configuration of the human body. What happens if you extract the phrases solely describing the body?

white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn…
bare white body fixed only the eyes only just…
hands hanging palms front white feet heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed…
bare white body fixed…
head haught…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed one yard…
white feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle…
bare white body fixed one yard…
hands hanging palms front…
bare white body fixed…
head haught…
mouth white seam like sewn…
white feet toes joined like sewn heels together right angle…
hands hanging palms front legs joined like sewn…
head haught…
bare white body fixed one yard…
nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn…
bare white body fixed one yard invisible…
long hair fallen white invisible…
head haught…
nose ears white holes mouth white seam like sewn…
bare white one yard fixed…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front…
head haught…
legs joined like sewn heels together right angle hands hanging palms front head haught eyes white invisible fixed front…
head haught…

Well if you do this the quality of repetition becomes more obvious, as does the importance of the precise physical posture of the figure.

Physical posture as the seed of the pieces

It’s never really clear that these postures relate to anything else at all, no known symbolism, whether astrology or yoga or the kama sutra. Beckett just seems to have conceived of (generally old and decrepit) human bodies in different contorted and uncomfortable postures, and then built texts around them (All Strange Away, Imagination Dead ImagineHow It Is, Enough).

For example, once he had conceived of a decrepit old human body crawling through mud and imagined the right leg moving up along with the right arm in a kind of crab-like movement to shunt itself forward through the mud, then virtually the whole of How It Is follows fairly logically.

Or once he had conceived of a decrepit old man so spavined that he walks literally bent double and can only see the little patch of grass and flowers at his feet, then the text of Enough flows fairly logically.

In each case the positions need to be described in as concentrated and abstract way as possible to achieve the writing degree zero minimalism he was aiming at and this creates a kind of basic mantra or chant which will be repeated ad nauseam, with tiny variations, and will form the scaffold of the piece.

Then, like a christmas tree, the various baubles and bangles can be added – the blue eyes, the white hair, the confined space (as is so frequent in these so-called ‘closed space’ works) and then just the bare minimum possible of sputtering mind or consciousness, in this case the half dozen references to the almost obliterated faculty of memory to suggest the last gasping ghostly operation of something which was once ‘mind’.

Other strands

A shorter extract could be made focusing on the colours because, despite the emphasis on white, there are other colours, namely black, grey, blue, rose. A slightly longer one focusing on the references to eyes. Or the half dozen references to memory. The references to Ping, whatever he, she or it is. So the text can be parsed out into blocks around each of this handful of themes. Or into strands of spaghetti, a whole plateful of text woven out of what, when you single them out, are only ten or so separate strands.

David Lodge tries to salvage the piece for the tradition

Novelist and critic David Lodge, in a 1968 review of Ping, suggests that the ‘consciousness’ depicted in the piece makes repeated efforts to assert the possibility of colour, movement, sound, memory and another person’s presence, only to collapse each time into the acceptance of colourlessness, paralysis, silence, amnesia and solitude. He suggests Ping is:

the rendering of the consciousness of a person confined in a small, bare, white room, a person who is evidently under extreme duress, and probably at the last gasp of life.

Maybe. It’s one approach. It’s an attempt to situate Beckett or a Beckett text within the tradition of realistic or psychologically coherent fiction, as if it was in any way about anything like a human being depicted in anything like the way one is usually depicted in realist fiction.

Ping seen as incantation

Personally, I wouldn’t bother. I think Ping and the other short prose works of the period are more like incantations, spells or chants. Certainly they all benefit from being read out loud. Words can never escape having meanings (well, words in a language you understand). But they are also susceptible to rhythm and pattern, the pattern of sounds (vowel, consonant, long or short sounds, plosives and sibilants) and the rhythm of the way the same words place in different orders or interactions, take different weight or rhythm.

The ostensible meaning may well be the depiction of yet another Beckett protagonist, speaker or ‘voice’ on the verge of conking out. But the text is also, quite obviously, an assemblage of sounds, arranged with obsessive repetition with variations and the continual addition of small new details, to give the thing a dynamic, a sense of a continually changing, rather shimmering surface.

The crucifixion

Lastly, I won’t make a big deal out of it, because I don’t think the text fully intends it, but when I read:

bare white body fixed… hands hanging palms front white feet heels together

I had a vision of the crucifixion and thereafter couldn’t get it out of my mind, despite the repeated references to some kind of container ‘one yard by two’, the characteristic ‘closed space’ of these mid-1960s prose pieces.

And having highlighted the importance of the central physical posture to all of these mid-60s prose pieces, and the obsessive way Beckett repeats descriptions of the contorted, painful position at the centre of each text, it dawned on me that the great Positioned Body in our tradition, the archetypal image of a human body bent into an agonising posture in Western civilisation is, of course, the body of Christ nailed to the cross.

I’m not familiar with Beckett’s biography, I’ve no idea whether he was ever a Christian believer, but he was born and bred in Ireland which is a land dominated by churches and Catholic imagery. So I’ll leave it at just the simple thought: maybe all the contorted, painfully positioned and obsessively described bodies which haunt Beckett’s prose are aftershocks, knackered variations in a different mode, in a modernist style, in a post-nuclear lens, of the original contorted, painfully positioned body which underpins our civilisation.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful full scale and in the flesh.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness at all.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

And it is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other. There are some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together pieces from across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure had been covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is documenting the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists from the period handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, probably the locus classicus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be hoped for or feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of of other subjects which provided an opportunity for nudity, such as Christ being scourged or crucified, or the large number of Last Judgements with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the entire show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The Fall of The Damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the fact that the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to torture and even eat. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was a well-established intellectual practice by the early 1500s.

Initially, humanism focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of the classical mythology which informed them. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. It’s relatively small, but this little drawing is among the most ravishing works in the exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round the exhibition, I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ do not appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, which began to seem increasingly odd to me because some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of naked human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

It may come over as a bit paranoid but looking closely at picture after picture which are obviously about sex, which display sexy young people cavorting sexily, and yet listening to the audioguide and reading all the wall labels, you can’t help noticing the complete absence of the blunt Anglo-Saxon word ‘sex’ in any form.You get the strong impression that it is banned, swept under the carpet. You get the equally strong impression that art scholars prefer to use the vague and willowy term ‘desire’, and you also get the strong impression that ‘same-sex desire’ is the optimum form of this, especially when it comes to men, presumably it is ‘desire’ not targeted at women who have, in recent years, become increasingly touchy about being seen in any kind of sexy context.

Eventually, the banishment of the term ‘sex’ and the failure to point out the sexiness of pretty obviously sexy images led me to believe that male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Not just in this exhibition, but in any other you attend nowadays, any way in which a straight man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but I was struck how they are all banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history. Do you see how the sexy or horny male has been quietly and subtly elided from the picture.

I don’t even really disagree with this view, as such; fine for empowering women, bully for same-sex male desire! It’s more the narrowness of perception I’m complaining about, the sheer tedium of having the same narrow interpretations and carefully limited vocabulary crop up in every art exhibition. For me art opens up, expands broadens my perceptions and ideas and emotions. The repetitive use of just a handful of approved ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters for the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men, often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich sugar daddy? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and Bronzino’s show-off depiction of the red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made by Renaissance artists copying newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and sometimes dismissed as rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artists’ workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion created by Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy (in the example below, of a man’s shoulder).

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated. The founding motif in this subject in the Western tradition is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with a spear as per the Gospel accounts of his interrogation, torture and execution.

There is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. If you can ignore the half naked man being scourged within an inch of his life at the centre, the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were (according to Christian legend) executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on ‘desire’ and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s desire or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives which exist out here in the real world. The universal use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses for the same kind of thing, is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and whippings on display in this room. They were crystallised by this image, which was the first one to make me really disagree with the curators’ interpretations.

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned into the unlikely context of even this dark image.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

Anyway, the curators’ interpretation is so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one

Is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed. The fact that the curators completely miss the religious threat and complexities of the picture in order to focus on the ‘power’ of naked women typifies everything about the shallowness , body obsession and unimaginativeness of their worldview.

Number two

The nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. Surely the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is it just a cooked animal or something worse (i.e. a human body part)? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of smothering investigation and analysis under a blanket of tired clichés and corporate buzz words.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them was a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Netherlandish painter, Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons or bulging musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back towards the little bridge.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti, you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – in my opinion – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming, but I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are. There is something a bit rotten about the Italian paintings, they have the official dullness of those packs of Medici Christmas cards you get in charity shops. Sterile. Dead.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity: they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography, the way the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross was deliberately echoed in depictions of the almost-nudity of countless saints who are shown being tortured to death.

The curators discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (often the belovèd of the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel that it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning – and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy – and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony – and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story – but also key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity – but also incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age – and celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men… or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs… or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400 to 1530.

The opposite: by the end the exhibition has suggested that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and significances which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their many-minded patrons, and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.
  • In fact one of the several medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress a bit to reveal some of her thighs. That’s not nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not, in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between total nudity and the various forms of dress and bodily covering to be found in the pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, each of these statuses drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and their requirement to assert that this period saw The Rise of the Daring Naughty Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world (in its iconography) which often achieved a lovely delicacy and innocence.

This late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny, illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, we learn, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way the artist shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in these books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Yes but note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses as they fall down her back.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of a classic Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists’ workshops, the kind of thing you can nowadays find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker. I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull. The triumph of soulless perfectionism.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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