Virgil and the Christian World by T.S. Eliot (1951)

T.S. Eliot: a potted biography

The great Anglo-American poet, playwright and critic T.S. Eliot (1888 to 1965) came from America to England just before the First World War, published a small number of sensuous, ‘modernist’ poems displaying a sensibility in debt to French Symbolism. Soon after the Great War ended he published the seminal modernist poem, The Waste Land (1922), but also established a reputation as a deeply insightful and intelligent critic of much earlier English literature, particularly the Jacobean playwrights and metaphysical poets of the early 1600s.

His reputation was enhanced and his influence steadily spread, especially among the younger generation of writers and critics, due to his editorship of a literary and philosophical magazine, The Criterion, which he edited from 1922 to 1939. Readers of The Criterion came to realise that, far from being a youthful revolutionary who was set on overturning literary values, and despite the radical format of The Waste Land (collage, fragments, quotes from multiple foreign languages), Eliot was, in fact, a profoundly conservative thinker.

This was made explicit when in 1928, in the foreword to a book of essays titled ‘For Lancelot Andrewes’ (the Jacobean bishop and writer) Eliot ‘came out’, declaring himself ‘a classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion,’ committing himself to hierarchy and order in all three fields.

He had already taken British citizenship. In the later 1930s he attempted to revive the verse drama of the Elizabethans which he had spent so much time analysing, on the modern stage, writing a series of plays in verse, starting with Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

During the Second World War Eliot worked as a reader for the publishers Faber & Faber during the day and a fire warden at night. The masterpiece of his maturity was the set of four longer poems collectively titled the Four Quartets (Burnt Norton, 1936, then East Coker, The Dry Salvages, and Little Gidding, published in 1940, 1941 and 1942, respectively).

After the war, Eliot settled into the position of Grand Old Man of Poetry, with a leading role at the leading publisher of poetry, Faber. He continued to write essays and make broadcasts on the radio. With his public conversion to Anglicanism he had achieved an ideological and psychological stability.

Having lived through two ruinous world wars, a lot of Eliot’s effort was now devoted towards helping to define and preserve the best of European civilisation. His early essays had been offshoots of a poet working through his own problems and interests; the later essays are a conscious effort to establish a canon of classic literature, trying to formulate universal categories to define and preserve it.

It is in this spirit that in 1951 he delivered a lecture on BBC radio titled ‘Virgil and the Christian World’, which was then printed in The Listener magazine and collected in the volume On Poetry and Poets.

Virgil and the Christian World

As befits radio this is not an address to a specialist audience of literary scholars but a more broad brush approach for a general audience. Eliot explains that he is not setting out to assert Virgil’s special value as a poet or moralist, but to pay attention to ‘those characteristics of Virgil which render him peculiarly sympathetic to the Christian mind’.

Straight away he addresses the notorious issue of the Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. This, the fourth and final of Virgil’s set of lengthy poems about the countryside or ‘eclogues’, contains extravagant praise of the forthcoming birth of a special child, who, the poet claims, will bring a new golden age, the return of Saturn and the Virgin, the gift of divine life etc.

As early Christianity established itself, early Christian apologists ransacked all available texts, from old Jewish scriptures to the entire literature of the ancient world, looking for proofs and prophecies, any text anywhere which could be made to prefigure and predict the arrival of their messiah.

Thus the Fourth Eclogue was quickly adopted by these apologists and Virgil was made an honorary Christian before the fact because Christians claimed he had been gifted with spiritual prophecy to foresee the coming of the Christ. Throughout the entire Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance scholars and theologians genuinely believed that Virgil had predicted the coming of the Christ child.

Eliot makes clear right at the start that he in now way thinks that Virgil foresaw the birth of Christ (some 19 years after he himself died). Rather, Eliot thinks the Fourth Eclogue was written to a friend of his, Pollio, whose wife was expecting a baby.

[In fact, the notes to the OUP edition of the Eclogues which I recently read, suggest that this passage of the Fourth Eclogue was describing the hoped-for son of the recent marriage of Antony and Octavius’s sister, Octavia (in 40 BC), because contemporaries devoutly hoped that their union would usher in a final end to Rome’s endless civil wars.]

Eliot then ponders the meaning of the words prophet, prophecy and predict. He himself has no doubt that Virgil had no inkling of the coming of Christ. On the other hand, he suggests that if the word ‘inspiration’ means writing something the poet himself does not completely understand, and which he or she may themselves misinterpret once the ‘inspiration’ has passed, the maybe Virgil was ‘inspired’.

This is by way of preparing the way for some autobiography, for Eliot then paints an obvious portrait of himself and how his most famous poem, The Waste Land, which arose out of his purely private concerns, amazed him by going on to become the rallying cry for an entire generation of writers.

A poet may believe that he is expressing only his private experience; his lines may be for him only a means of talking about himself without giving himself away; yet for his readers what he has written may come to be the expression both of their own secret feelings and of the exultation or despair of a generation.

A poet need not know what his poetry will come to mean for others just as a prophet need not understand the meaning of their prophetic utterance. Thus there may be any number of secular, historical explanations for the Fourth Eclogue; but he repeats his definition of ‘inspiration’ as tapping into a force which defies all historical research.

Anyway the point is that the existence of the Fourth Eclogue which so many Christians mistakenly thought was divinely inspired, gave Virgil and his writing a kind of free pass into the new Christian order, opening ‘the way for his influence in the Christian world’, something mostly denied to other explicitly ‘pagan’ authors. On the face of it this is a lucky accident but Eliot doesn’t believe it was an ‘accident’.

Eliot anticipates Jackson Knight’s view, expressed in his Penguin translation of the Aeneid from a few years later (1956), that Virgil was the poet of the gateway, looking both back to the pagan world and forwards to the Christian dispensation.

So after these preliminaries, Eliot gets to the meat of his essay: In what way did Virgil anticipate the Christian West? Eliot tells us that, to answer his question, he is going to rely on a book by a German scholar, Theodor Haecker, titled Virgil: The Father of the West.

Before he gets started though, Eliot rather surprisingly devotes a page to autobiography, telling us that as a boy learning the Classics he much preferred Greek to Latin (and still does). However he found himself immediately more drawn to Virgil than Homer. The main reason was that the gods in Homer are so capricious, selfish and immoral and all the so-called ‘heroes’ are in fact coarse ruffians. The only decent character in the entire book is Hector.

Nowadays, if forced to explain his preference, he’d say he prefers the world of Virgil to the world of Homer: it was ‘a more civilised world of dignity, reason and order’. Eliot goes on to compare the Greek and Roman worlds, saying the culture of Athens was much superior in the arts, philosophy and pure science. Virgil made of Roman culture something better than it was. Then he quietly makes a very big leap in the argument, claiming that Virgil’s ‘sensibility was more nearly Christian than any other Roman or Greek poet’. How so?

He says he is going to follow Haeckel’s procedure of examining key words in the poem and highlights laborpietas and fatum. However, he immediately drops this plan and veers off into a consideration of the Georgics. What Virgil really intended the Georgics for remains a bit of a mystery: they’re not particularly useful as a handbook to farming, and they contain many digressions completely extraneous to their ostensible subject matter. After pondering Virgil’s motivation, Eliot concludes that Virgil intended to affirm the dignity of agricultural labour and the importance of the cultivation of the soil for the wellbeing of the state, both materially and spiritually.

The Greeks may have perfected the notion that the highest type of life is the contemplative life (Plato et al) but they tended to look down on manual labour. For Eliot the Georgics affirm the importance of manual labour on the land. Then he makes a leap to talk about the monastic movement which grew up within medieval Christendom and how the monastic orders combined both aspects, combining a life of contemplation with quite arduous labour, as both being essential for the life of the complete man.

It may be that the monks who read and copied Virgil’s manuscripts recognised their spirit in the Georgics.

Now onto the Aeneid. Eliot says this epic poem is:

concerned with the imperium romanum, with the extension and justification of imperial rule.

(quite unlike W.A. Camps with his silly claim that the Aeneid is not a work of propaganda.) But Eliot claims that Virgil’s ‘ideal of empire’ was founded on a devotion to the land, to the region, village, and family within the village. This brief explanation is his discussion of labor because Eliot now turns to the more important concept of pietas.

In English someone is called ‘pious’ if they make a great show of their religious faith. Eliot says that pietas for Virgil had much wider associations: it implies a respectful attitude to the individual, the family, the region, and towards ‘the imperial destiny of Rome’. Aeneas is also ‘pious’ in his respect towards the gods and punctilious observance of rites and offerings.

Eliot delves further into the meanings of the word. Piety to a father can, for example, mean not only affection for an individual but acceptance of a bond which one has not chosen. Piety towards the father is also an acceptance of the correct order of things, and so, obliquely, respect of the gods. After some shilly-shallying Eliot gets to the point he wants to make: all these forms of piety involve some form of humility and humility is a professedly Christian virtue. Aeneas is, in this respect, the polar opposite of Achilles or Odysseus, who have not a shred of humility about them.

[Interestingly, given the date of the essay, written soon after the end of the Second World War, Eliot describes Aeneas as the original Displaced Person, a fugitive from a ruined city and an obliterated society.]

Odysseus endures ten years of exile but eventually returns to his home hearth, to a loyal wife, a dutiful son, his slaves and faithful dog. Whereas Aeneas can’t go home: he is a man on a mission and accomplishing that mission, the poem makes repeatedly clear, is only the very beginning of the long history of Roman origins and rise. Odysseus’s story ends when he gets home (and kills the suitors); Aeneas’s entire journey is itself only an episode in the much larger history of Rome.

Therefore, Eliot asserts (with a bit of a stretch, in my view) Aeneas is ‘the prototype of a Chistian hero’. He accepts the duty laid on him by the gods regardless of the price to himself. He subjugates his own will and desires to his god-given task.

This brings Eliot to fatum (so, OK, we are proceeding via the key word process). There is an excess of words to cover this concept. Eliot says maybe the best translation is ‘destiny’ but then makes the polemical point that you cannot have ‘destiny’ in a purely mechanical universe.

Eliot then tries to give a Christian interpretation to Aeneas’s ‘destiny’. It is a burden and a responsibility rather than a reason for self glorification. It happens to some men and not others because some have the gifts and the responsibility but they did not make these; something external made these and the humble man accepts the gifts and the responsibility. Who made them? Not the anthropomorphised pagan gods who behave so selfishly and vulgarly in the poem. Some power much deeper.

He zeroes in on the entire Dido episode (book 4) in particular Aeneas’s shame at abandoning Dido, shame which is revived when he meets her shade in the underworld in book 6 and she refuses to look at him or speak. This, for Eliot, more than personal shame, symbolises how much Aeneas suffered to carry out his god-given destiny. Making his point completely explicit, he says: ‘it is a very heavy cross to bear.’

Eliot can think of no other pagan poet who could have created this situation with its emotional, psychological and philosophical subtlety.

What does this ‘destiny’ mean? For Virgil’s conscious mind, and his contemporary readers, not least the all-powerful Augustus, there’s no doubt it means the imperium romanum. But Eliot then makes some dubious and sweeping generalisations. He claims that Virgil proposed for his contemporaries a noble ideal of empire – personally, I don’t see that in the poem. There are Anchises’ lines reminding Romans they must rule well and there’s praise of Augustus for bringing peace and order, but that’s about it. Eliot stretches it by claiming that Virgil’s work proposed ‘the highest ideal’ for any secular empire. Personally, I just don’t see that. In my view what the Aeneid praises is military conquest, might and power. There might be a strong thread of regret and sadness running through it, but that is the poem’s overt message.

Eliot proceeds to claim that ‘we are all, so far as we inherit the civilisation of Europe, still citizens of the Roman Empire’. Is that true? I can see strong points on either side of the argument.

But he then goes on to claim that the Roman Empire Virgil imagined was ‘greater’ than the actual one of generals and proconsuls and businessmen. Eliot claims that Virgil invented this ideal and ‘passed [it] on to Christianity to develop and to cherish.’ I disagree on a number of levels.

First, I find the actual process of creating empire, as described in the Aeneid, to be hyper-violent and destructive, flagrantly contrary all Christian morality.

Second, part of the ideal which Eliot is describing must include the idealisation of the first Roman emperor Augustus. I can see why Virgil a) pinned his hopes for peace on b) sucked up to, the most powerful man in Rome, but in the end the entire poem amounts to the propagandistic adulation of a mass murderer, a man who achieved supreme power by liquidating all his enemies and then ensuring nobody could threaten his unique rule for the next 40 years. The Aeneid defends a military dictator.

So I just don’t agree when Eliot claims that it passed onto its Christian heirs any kind of noble model for how to run a spiritual empire. The exact opposite.

Eliot reiterates his claim that we are all still citizens the Roman Empire. Well, there are arguments both ways but ultimately I think he is incorrect. The state we inhabit in England in 2022 owes more to the non-Roman traditions of the pagan Danes and Anglo-Saxons and feudal Normans who each conquered this country, than to the Roman civilisation which they eclipsed. Our democracy owes nothing to Rome; it developed out of medieval feudalism, itself an import from Normandy, itself a colony of Vikings.

I think Eliot’s vision of a total European civilisation is erroneous and that his claim that this civilisation was in part inspired by Virgil is wrong.

Moreover, there is a blindingly obvious problem here, which is that Eliot is defending empire as an ideal form of government. Obviously this was considerably easier to do in 1951 than it would be nowadays. Millions of inhabitants of the former British Empire have immigrated to Britain and their children, in politics, in culture and in academia, have enthusiastically set about damning the British Empire, rubbishing any claim that it ever had anything positive about it. So just the sound of Eliot defending empire as a ‘noble ideal’ sounds badly in our time.

As to whether Virgil’s ideal of a suprahuman noble empire actually did inspire church authorities in the Middle Ages, I think you’d need a book examining the impact of the Virgilian ‘ideal’ on theologians, political thinkers, churchmen and statesmen throughout the Middle Ages and that would be a vast undertaking. I bet one exists, though. I’d love to read it.

This was, after all, only a half-hour radio lecture. Eliot’s sensitivity and insight and intellect bring out all kinds of aspects of Virgil’s achievement. And his thesis – that Virgil’s achievement of creating the notion of an ideal empire was to haunt the European imagination – is one of those ideas which is itself so big and vague that you can’t really prove or disprove it. But it’s an interesting perspective to add to the hundreds of other perspectives with which we can view Virgil’s epic poem.

Eliot concludes his essay with a page about a word which is missing from Virgil which is ‘love’. Amor does crop up, especially in the story of Dido and Aeneas. But it has nowhere near the force and central importance that it has for a Christian poet like Dante. It never has:

the same significance as a principle of order in the human soul, in society and in the universe that pietas is given.

Thus Eliot agrees (no surprise) with Dante’s positioning of Virgil in the Divine Comedy as an inspired teacher and guide right up to the barrier of belief, which he is not allowed to cross. In Eliot’s view Virgil mapped out a universe which in many ways anticipated the Christian universe, and handed many of its values onto later generations of Christian thinkers (and poets). But there is a line and Virgil doesn’t cross over into being a Christian. He can’t.

Instead, Virgil was limited by his position in history: the highest value he can conceive of, the value which underpins so much of the character and action of the Aeneid, was pietas, respect for father, family and fatherland.

But the highest value for the Christian poet Dante was love, the love which has created the entire universe and moves the sun and the stars and which we can all aspire to. Next to the gorgeous rose of Dante’s universe of love, Virgil’s pietas is a hard, iron sword, the colour of Roman imperialism.


Other Eliot reviews

Roman reviews

Introductions to the Aeneid – 2. Allen Mandelbaum

I own three English translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1970 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin classics prose translation by David West

This is the middle of three blog posts giving detailed analyses of the introductions to each of these translations. This one looks at Allen Mandelbaum’s introduction to his 1970 translation. (The third blog post, about David West’s introduction, includes examples of each of the translators’ actual translations, including Mandelbaum’s.)

1970 introduction by Allen Mandelbaum

Allen Mandelbaum (1926 to 2011) was a Jewish-American professor of literature and the humanities, poet, and translator from Classical Greek, Latin and Italian. After going to live for decades in Italy he returned to the States and taught English and comparative literature at the City University of New York from 1966 to 1986. His translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1980 to 1984) won him Italy’s highest award, the Presidential Cross of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity. Impressive. This translation of the Aeneid won the 1973 National Book Award in the translation category. The preface to it, which am now going to summarise, was published in 1970.

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Before we even get to Mandelbaum’s introduction, the blurb on the inside cover about Virgil is interesting. It says that as part of Octavius’s sweeping land reallocation to retired soldiers after the Battle of Philippi (42 BC), he confiscated Virgil’s parents’ extensive farmlands around Mantua. It says Virgil travelled to Rome to argue for its return, and this certainly chimes with the accounts in several of the Virgil’s eclogues of land confiscation and of the shepherd who has travelled to Rome and seen the young prince i.e. Octavius to try and get his land back.

The blurb goes on to say it was as a result of Virgil’s pleading that he became friends with Octavius and was handed over to be managed by his arts minister, Maecenas. This close relationship between patron and poet leads the blurb writer to say that it was at Augustus’s express command that Virgil’s request to burn the draft of the Aeneid was overruled, and that it was Augustus who handed it to the scholars Varius and Tucca with specific instructions to edit only the obvious errors and repetitions, but to add nothing new to it, and to publish the result, which they did in 16 BC.

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Mandelbaum’s introduction is only 8 pages long but it’s packed. He gets stuck in right away by saying he came to Virgil late because he was put off him by three judgements. First was a quip by the American critic Mark Van Doren (1894 to 1972) that ‘Homer is a world; Virgil, a style’. Mandelbaum associated this comment with Coleridge’s similarly negative judgement that ‘If you take from Virgil his diction and metre, what do you leave him?’ So these two adverse opinion come under the heading of ‘Homer is the Great Original, Virgil is a Poor Copy’.

Mandelbaum goes on to mentions the judgement of the great Marxist critic, György Lukács (whose thoughts on Kafka I’ve reviewed). György boy who wrote in his Theory of the Novel that: ‘The heroes of Virgil live the cool and limited existence of shadows, nourished by the blood of noble zeal, blood that has been sacrificed in order to recall what has forever disappeared.’

Lukács was a swine but I still enjoy this kind of class-based Marxist criticism, ancient though it now feels; after all, we still live in a heavily class-based society where privately educated ministers hand out multi-million pound contracts to their friends and wives while northern proles queue at foodbanks, where gas and energy prices makes billions in profits while old age pensioners freeze to death in their flats.

Anyway, Lukács’s implication is that Virgil’s characters are contemptible because they harbour a utopian hankering for what has irredeemably disappeared, namely a nostalgic memory of a land of small family-owned farms, which had mostly been swept away by vast estates worked by slaves by the time Virgil wrote.

Anyway, Lukács’s criticism, as well as being vague and impressionistic, seems wrong to me. To me the Aeneid reads as a poem very much of the harsh present, reeking with the blood of animals slaughtered at the altar and men being stabbed, eviscerated and burned to ashes in a very perilous present.

(In case you needed to know, the third dismissal came in Concetto Marchesi’s History of Latin Literature which deprecated Virgil in favour of Lucretius.)

It is when Mandelbaum goes on to describe the personal importance to him of the English poet John Milton that the reader begins to realise that this is not going to be a scholarly introduction, but the personal musings of Mandelbaum the poet (for in addition to his prizewinning translations, Mandelbaum also published several volumes of his own poetry, as the preface now proceeds to tell us). This introduction is going to be a description of his own personal odyssey from these boyhood influences who put him off Virgil, to his late-flowering realisation of Virgil’s brilliance.

Central to Mandelbaum’s conversion were the poems of Giusseppe Ungaretti (1888 to 1970). Mandelbaum was deeply involved in translating Ungaretti’s Italian poems into English as he wrote them, and helped get them published in America throughout the 1950s. And many of Ungaretti’s poems invoked characters or themes from Virgil. So Mandelbaum first really discovered Virgilian themes through the lens of Ungaretti. He quotes a florid passage of Ungaretti’s:

Aeneas is beauty, youth, ingenuousness ever in search of a promised land, where, in the contemplated, fleeting beauty, his own beauty smiles and enchants.

Personally I’d have thought nothing could be further from a true picture of Aeneas, the careworn early-middle-aged son of decrepit Anchises and anxious father of young Ascanius, bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders, stumbling from one disaster to another, his hands red with blood.

As so often with ‘criticism’ by writers or poets, this isn’t objective analysis but a deliberate, and I’d say knowing, teasing, rewriting of Virgil’s character entirely to suit Ungaretti’s own poetic preoccupations. Heavily misleading, in other words. Mandelbaum goes on to quote an even more overripe slice of tripe:

Dido came to represent the experience of one who, in late autumn, is about to pass beyond it; the hour in which living is about to become barren; the hour of one from whom the horrible, tremendous, final tremor of youth is about to depart. Dido is the experience of nature as against the moral experience.

This may be a fine expression of Ungaretti’s (mimsy, impressionist) concerns but strikes me as having nothing whatsoever to do with the Dido who features in the Aeneid. All this is a worrying indication that Mandelbaum’s response to Virgil is going to be hugely contaminated by his embroilment in Ungaretti’s highly ‘poetic’ prose, all ‘tremors of youth’ and ‘the moral experience’ and fuck-all to do with the Dido who calls down the vengeance of the gods on Aeneas and makes her people swear eternal enmity with Rome.

Reminiscing about those happy times in Italy in the 1950s you can almost hear Mandelbaum relaxing the sinews of his mind and slipping into an odoriferous bath of fine feelings, claiming that Ungaretti helped him to see:

the underground denial – by consciousness and longing – of the total claims of the state and history.

I think he means the persistence in the poem of numerous threads which oppose or undermine the overt worship of Rome, of Roman patriotism, of obeisance to the predictions of Rome’s rise to world-dominating empire, which occur throughout it on a surface level.

But like so many other aesthetes what comes over strongly is the way Mandelbaum wants to reject the overt meaning of the text in front of him, preferring to project his own bourgeois fantasies of rebellion and subversion onto Virgil – very much as W.F. Jackson Knight projected his fantasies about spiritualism and universal truth onto the poor Roman in his introduction to his translation.

So much literary criticism from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century consists of this kind of whipping-up meringues made of knowing references and stylish allusions, like a conjuror pulling a string of multi-coloured flags out of his mouth, designed to impress us with the author’s wide reading and fine feelings, but leaving behind no tangible insights or ideas.

Next, Mandelbaum shows off by telling us how he loves a passage by Mark Van Doren, which uses a ‘brilliant suggestion’ by Jacob Klein to use a passage from Plato’s text The Statesman to shed light on the episode in Aeneid book 6 where Anchises is explaining to Aeneas how the souls of the dead are made to forget their past lives before being reincarnated in new bodies back on earth.

It feels like a competition to see how many names he can drop in a single passage.

Van Doren claims this passage is evidence that Virgil believed in the reassuring and ‘lulling myth of cycles’, and the hope that peace would come about by magic. Mandelbaum cites all this in order to disagree with it. He points out that far from finding the creation of new generations ‘lulling’, Virgil had demonstrated in the Georgics the sheer amount of hard physical labour which goes into producing the basics of civilisation.

With this much, I can agree, although Mandelbaum then goes on to equate the hard physical manual labour of maintaining the land depicted in the Georgics with the 11 years of dedicated mental labour involved in writing the Aeneid.

Contrary to all this talk of lulling cycles, Mandelbaum asserts that Virgil believed in power, dominion and the rule of law. As the Sibyl predicts to Aeneas:

yours will be the rulership of nations;
remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer
to spare defeated peoples, spare the proud
(6. 1,134 to 1,137)

But Virgil was aware of the price to be paid in the triumph of positive law over natural law. King Evander explains to Aeneas how his people originally lived at peace and plenty under the rule of exiled Saturn when humans needed no laws or rules. But then an Age of Iron came, violence increased, and laws became vital. All this is an accurate summary of this part of the Aeneid.

But then Mandelbaum is back to Ungaretti, telling us that he was, apparently, ‘a true Petrarchan’. I can’t see any relevance whatsoever of this random observation in a supposed introduction to Virgil. It just feels like another example of Mandelbaum’s compulsive name-dropping and/or personal reminiscence. Develop the idea, man! What are you trying to say?

But the thought isn’t developed or even explained properly. Instead, Mandelbaum switches to tell us that his other route into Virgil was via a long-lasting engagement with Dante, whose Divine Comedy he has also translated. Having lived with the Inferno, in particular, for years, he knew that Dante learned not from the style of Virgil but the styles of Virgil.

Mandelbaum quotes a passage from the English critic Donald Davie who distinguishes poets into two classes (how many critics, over how many centuries, have taken this simple-minded approach of dividing the thing under consideration into just Two Types?)

Davie says the first type of poet revels in words, that Shakespeare would have ended up using every word in the language if he’d enough time. The second type of poet is one who carefully employs a narrower selection of words, consciously excluding ones which don’t fit, in order to create a style, a verbal world.

On this reading Dante is a Shakespearian, with a very wide lexis while Virgil is the second type, with a much more limited vocabulary.

Now Mandelbaum explains what Dante learned from Virgil: he quotes the ancient grammarian Macrobius who says Virgil’s style was ‘now brief, now full, now dry, now rich, now easy, now impetuous’ to suggest that what Dante learned from Virgil was variety of tone.

Also he learned a free approach to the line, the free use of enjambment and runover.

And lastly, the free mixing up of time, the ‘rapid shifts of tenses’ which are, indeed, very noticeable in the Aeneid as Virgil mixes up the past and present, sometimes in the same sentence.

Only as he approaches the end of this brief but packed introduction does Mandelbaum explain his aims as a translator. He has tried to ‘impress’ on his translation ‘the grave tread’ but also ‘the speed and angularity’ of Virgil, ‘the asymmetrical thrust of a mind on the move’. This is fair enough, an interestingly impressionistic description of something which maybe can’t be fully put into words.

But then Mandelbaum goes into full late 60s mystical mode:

The other part of the self brings me to the last way, the unmediated one. The way is the path that opens when the guides, for whom one has been grateful, fall away or say: ‘I crown and mitre you over yourself.’

Mandelbaum doesn’t tell us, because his technique is one of flashy meringue-making, that this last phrase is in fact a quote from Dante’s Paradiso canto 27. I suspected as much though I had to Google it to confirm my hunch.

Veering off in another direction, Mandelbaum then overshares with us the personal fact that he left Italy after many years and embarked on his translation of Virgil ‘at a time of much personal discontent’. He had long thought poetry shouldn’t be used for consolation (why?) but now his experience of ‘personal discontent’ changed his mind.

And now, abruptly and dramatically, he casts a vivid slash across his entire preface when he suddenly starts talking about the Vietnam War!

The Vietnam War has, he claims, as of 1970, made it impossible to talk about American ‘society’ any more – he insists we have to use the harsher word, ‘state’. In Vietnam, the American ‘state’ ‘has wrought the unthinkable, the abominable’.

Wow. With one flash you get the full colour of Mandelbaum’s mindset. In this book, in this translation, in this introduction, it is 1970, America is just starting to withdraw its forces from Vietnam after a shameful military debacle, and Allen Mandelbaum is applying the atmosphere of these times to his thinking about power and dominion as described by a poet from 2,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, instead of drawing any kind of analogy between America’s intervention in Vietnam and Aeneas’s intervention in Italy – which would be unexpected but potentially very illuminating – Mandelbaum’s mind once again veers off into impressionistic mush and hero worship. It is frustrating that he thus raises but fails to address the key political aspect of the Aeneid, which is Virgil’s attitude towards Augustus, his violent conquests and domestic tyranny.

I take the point that the expression of these political themes in the poem is complex and multi-levelled but Mandelbaum’s entire analysis of this huge subject amounts to the following:

Virgil is not free of the taint of the proconsular; but he speaks from time to time of peace achieved, and no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost.

Two points. 1. See how he mentioned Virgil’s complicity in Augustus’s regime in just ten words, ten words expressed in the pompous and evasive phraseology of a nineteenth century politician (‘not free of the taint…’). Mandelbaum avoids the issue; he tries to gloss over it by saying that although Virgil might have been complicit with the crimes of the regime, it’s alright because he was so sensitive to the suffering of ‘the defeated and the lost’ and so that redeems him. But does it?

Second point is the rather offensive hyperbole of claiming that ‘no man ever felt more deeply the part of the defeated and the lost’. Really? No man? Ever? Primo Levi describing the damned in Auschwitz? Solzhenitsyn describing the defeated millions in the gulags? Even if those authors are not directly comparable with Virgil, Mandelbaum’s claim is still wildly hyperbolic, symptomatic of the way hero worship replaces analysis.

At regular moments throughout the poem the text may express what might be Virgil’s feelings about the pity of war, the pity of loss and death and grief. BUT. At the centre of the poem is the brute fact of Aeneas as a huge man-killing machine, raging like Mars across the battlefield, slaughtering hecatombs of men to achieve his God-given destiny. And his last action, the memorable last image of the poem which is left squelching in the mind’s eye – is of Aeneas thrusting his sword right up to the hilt into the chest of a man begging for mercy.

Both Jackson Knight and Mandelbaum have spent years with the Aeneid but, in their respective introductions, repress or ignore the off-the-scale levels of toxic, masculine hyper-violence which runs through it in rivers of blood, preferring to write willowy tripe about universal values and deep feelings.

Instead of analysis, Mandelbaum has namedropping combined with hero worship:

And if the relative weights of the Epicurean, the Stoic, the Pythagorean in him are often hard to assess, his humanity is constant.

Is it, though, Allen? I didn’t find it so. I find the Aeneid very uneven, manufactured from hundreds of strands and themes and tones which often sit very uncomfortably together, and all of it drenched in psychopathic anger and rivers of gore. You can pick out the moment of sad sympathy with suffering humanity, stitch them together and claim this is the ‘real’ Virgil. But what about the far greater number of passages of brutal animal sacrifice? Or passages describing insensate fury? Or the many many passages describing slaughter and massacre? Or the frequent passages expressing slavish sycophancy to the great Augustus. All of these and numerous other topics and tones need to be incorporated into an proper assessment of the ‘real’ Virgil.

Instead of addressing all this, Mandelbaum thanks Virgil for not being ‘shrill’, and then brings in yet another unnecessarily personal angle:

and when, with the goad of public despair, my own poetic voice has had to struggle often with shrillness, the work on this translation has been most welcome.

So, if I read this correctly, we are to be grateful to Virgil for helping Allen Mandelbaum to overcome the tone of shrill invective which his protests against the Vietnam War and the evil American state often led him into. No doubt this is useful if you are a big Allen Mandelbaum fan, but if you’re mainly interested in understanding Virgil, maybe not so much.

Finally, Mandelbaum returns to the notion raised in the comparison with Dante, of Virgil’s limits. In Mandelbaum’s view Virgil does not swarm with the really full variety of a Homer or Dante or Shakespeare. He is not as exhaustive as they are. His is a world, not the world. He is more selective and less objective than the other three greats. At which point, as he reaches the conclusion of his preface, Mandelbaum becomes quite hard to understand:

Virgil is ‘sustained’ and is not ‘of the young’ (though for them, and for the aged, too, of Plato’s Laws); and none of his selection and imagination seems to involve what I think of as premature stripping, where the other world of poetry takes over before this world is known: Virgil selects after his knowing this world. For this he is a name-giver whose letters and syllables seem to imitate not what Lukács called ‘the cool and limited existence of shadows’ but ‘the real nature of each thing’.

After repeated reading I think the second half of this proposition indicates that Virgil is a poet who described the real world, selecting descriptions of the world as experienced and not reaching out to describe the world of shadows beyond this one, which Mandelbaum appears to think the superior approach. But if this is what Mandelbaum means, why doesn’t he say so? Surely a teacher is paid to teach.

Mandelbaum’s short introduction flashes insights like a striptease artist, momentary promises of insights which he never delivers on. One or two of his ideas hove into view, make sense, but then are smothered by his autobiographical reminiscences or detour into namedropping allusions. It’s maybe worth reading for these moments but, on the whole, Mandelbaum’s introduction is not very helpful as any kind of guide to reading the huge, magnificent and appalling epic poem the reader is about to embark on.


Roman reviews

The Aeneid by Virgil – books 4 to 6

‘[This is] Trojan Aeneas, famous for his devotion and his feats of arms.’
(The Sibyl defending Aeneas to Charon in Aeneid book 6, line 404)

Book 4 Dido, love and death

Dido admits to her sister, Anna, that she is falling in love with Aeneas. Anna says she has held aloof from suitors from all the neighbouring tribes, but yes, she needs to let go of her dead husband and fall in love. Encouraged by this, Dido falls madly in love. Virgil – in his Epicurean, anti-emotion way – describes it as a madness, a fever, a fire in the bones, and other alarming analogies.

Remember that in the third Georgic Virgil wrote an extended denunciation of love and sex and passion in all its forms, whether in animals or humans, as a fire and frenzy which completely derails efforts to live rationally and orderly:

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(Georgic 3: lines 242 to 244, translated by Peter Fallon)

Venus meets with Juno. Juno suggests they let Aeneas and Dido marry, thus uniting exiled Tyrians and Trojans into a super-tribe. Venus interprets this as a transparent attempt to stop Aeneas continuing on to Italy and founding the Roman people who will, centuries hence, crush Dido’s heirs. She agrees in principle but diplomatically suggests Juno asks her husband, Jupiter, king of the gods, what he thinks. Juno outlines her plans to interrupt Dido and Aeneas’s next hunting trip, conjure up a storm, separate the lovers from their entourages, drive them into a cave and there have them consummate their love.

And this is what happens, with fire flashing and nymphs wailing from the mountaintops. For centuries of readers their love has been reinterpreted in the light of the medieval concept of courtly love and the sentimental romantic ideas which followed. But Virgil is harshly critical. Not only does this mark the beginning of the end for Dido:

This day was the beginning of her death, the first cause of all her sufferings. (4. 170)

But it had a ruinous effect on her people. When she slackened her leadership, they stopped building the city. The towers ceased to rise. The harbours and fortifications were left half-finished. All stood idle.

Virgil spends a page describing the genealogy and character of Rumour which runs fleet of foot among all men and communities spreading lies and when he describes Rumour as telling foreign rulers that Dido and Aeneas have ceased leading their people in order to wallow in lust…I immediately realise Virgil has made them Antony and Cleopatra, ‘lovers who had lost all recollection of their good name’ (4.221) which makes Creusa the emblem of Octavia, Antony’s loyal dutiful Roman wife, abandoned for an oriental whore.

The local king, Iarbas, had long harboured plans of marrying Dido so now he is infuriated that she abruptly abandoned herself to another. He offers up heartfelt angry complaints to his father, Jupiter.

Jupiter hears and is angry that Aeneas is shirking his duty. He calls Mercury and tells him to deliver an angry message to the Trojan. Is this the hero Venus promised them? Hardly. ‘He must sail. That is all there is to say.’

Mercury puts on his winged sandals, takes his caduceus and skims down through the skies to alight by Aeneas, busy helping build a temple. Mercury gets straight to it, telling Aeneas he is a disgrace by abandoning his destiny and to think about his little son who is meant to inherit leadership of a brave new race: ‘You owe him the land of Rome and the kingdom of Italy.’ (4.286)

So Aeneas immediately calls his lieutenants to him and tells them to ready the ships and the people for departure. Dido obviously hears about this and comes raging to see him, eyes blazing with anger. he tries to justify himself, but furious Dido dismisses all his excuses, calls him a traitor, mocks his stories about Jupiter this and Mercury that, then dismisses him, tells him to leave, but warns that her furious ghost will return to haunt him. (Lots of ghosts, a poem of ghosts, bringing with them the sad wisdom of the dead.)

Dido runs off into her palace, collapsing with despair. Virgil points the moral: See? This is where ‘love’ gets you:

Love is a cruel master. There are no lengths to which it does not force the human heart. (4.413)

But Aeneas, unlike Antony, is faithful to his duty (4.394) and continues preparations for departure. Dido pours her heart out to her sister, Anna, and sends her again and again with heartfelt pleas for pity or at least a delay – but the Fates forbade it and God blocked his ears to all appeals.

‘Possessed by madness’, Dido perceives all kinds of portents. Her sacrificial offerings turn black and bloody, She hears muttering at the shrine of her dead husband. She has nightmares in which she is abandoned on the African shore alone. Madness is the key word, repeated again and again.

She instructs her sister to build a big funeral pyre in the atrium of the palace where she says she will burn all Aeneas’s belongings. She attends ceremonies supervised by a terrifying priestess from Ethiopia who chants incantations to all the deities of hell.

Like all suicides Dido can’t see a way out: if she goes with Aeneas and the Trojans she will be their chattel; if she tries to persuade the entire Tyrian people to follow her they will refuse; if she stays behind she will be the laughing stock of all the tribes around who she used to treat so haughtily and will now see her humbled. No. She must die. [Virgil dramatises the logic of her thinking all too vividly.] And she reproaches herself for ever abandoning her independent single status as a widow.

Aeneas is asleep in the stern of a ship but he has a terrifying dream vision of ‘the god’ who warns him not to wait, but to leave now before morning comes and Dido comes to talk him out of leaving or to burn his ships. He wakes and wakes his men, they weight anchor and depart.

Dido waking with the dawn sees the sea covered with their ships and the harbour empty and delivers a magnificent harangue cursing Aeneas mightily and ends with an actual curse, invoking all the gods to ensure Aeneas in his new homeland never enjoys it, but is harried by a strong race, and driven from his own land, and beg for help and see his people dying. Let him die before his time and lie unburied on the sand. And may undying enmity be between her people and his (obviously referring to the legendary enmity which grew up between Rome and Carthage in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC).

Then she climbs onto the pyre she has prepared, delivers another magnificent speech about her destiny and her good intentions and plunges upon Aeneas’s sword and her blood foams out. Her serving women see and a great wailing spreads across the city as if the enemy were within and destroying everything (exactly as they had at Troy: repetitions and echoes).

Her sister Anna comes running, cursing herself for not realising this is what her sister really wanted the pyre built for and recriminating Dido for not waiting or sharing her death. She climbs atop the pyre and holds her sister as three times she tries to rise on her elbow but collapses and then expires.

Thus Dido died ‘in a sudden blaze of madness’ and Juno took pity and sent Iris down to loosen the binding of her soul. And so Iris descends as a rainbow through the sky and alights on the pyre and cuts a lock of Dido’s hair and thus releases her soul from its anguish.

God, surely this is the most magnificent and moving book ever written! It is breathtakingly powerful, cuts deep, and yet is short, just 23 pages in the Penguin edition, with not an ounce of fat, nothing verbose or long-winded or tiresome, but fast-moving, alert and to the point, fiercely and deeply imagined, and transcendently moving!

Book 5 Funeral games

Another storm hits, forcing them ashore back in Sicily, in the port run by his brother Eryx, where the bones of his father Anchises are buried. They are greeted by Acestes, half Trojan. The months pass until it is a full year since Anchises died and was buried. Aeneas leads sacrifices and ceremonies at his tomb.

Then he holds grand funeral games. First a boat race across the sea to a prominent rock and back. Then a running race. Then boxing matches. All are described in loving (and surprisingly exciting) detail. An arrow shooting competition and then equipage, horse management by the young contemporaries of Ascanius. They young cavalry perform a mock battle. Virgil explains how Ascanius will pass this on to his descendants and eventually it will be performed in Rome by youthful cavalry and called the lusus Troiae.

For the first time Virgil associates specific companions of Aeneas with the patrician Roman families they will establish (Mnestheus giving his name to the Memmii family, Sergestus the Sergii, Cloanthus the Cluentii [5.120], Atys founder of the Atii [5.569]).

The games are then officially ended but meanwhile the wretched women of Troy, fed up with seven years wandering over the endless ocean, rebel. Juno, font of endless schemes against Aeneas, sends Iris in disguise of one of their number to rouse them to indignation and insist that they sail no further but settle here on Sicily. Possessed by divine fury, they seize brands from the various altars and throw them into the Trojan ships.

The men quickly drop their games and rush to the beach just as the goddess leaves the women’s minds and, coming to their senses, the realise what they’ve done and run off into the woods and hills. Aeneas stares at his burning fleet and calls on Jupiter to save what little remains – at which there is a sudden torrential downpour. Most of the ships are saved but four are write-offs.

Aeneas is downhearted. But old Nautes gives good advice: he says Aeneas and the young and fit must continue on to Italy; but leave here on Sicily the old men, the women worn out by the sea, the ‘heart-weary’. Let them build a city and call it Acesta.

Still, Aeneas is worried and careworn when the ghost of his father slides down through the dark. He reinforces Nautes’ advice to leave the old and sick here on Sicily and only take the young and strong with him to Italy for there, as he has been told quite a few times by now, he will have to overcome ‘a wild and strong people’.

But Anchises tells him something new. First he will have to go down into Dis, the underworld, to meet his spirit there. He will be helped through the doorway to hell by a Sibyll. There he will learn about all the descendants who are to follow him. Then, like so many of his visions, he disappears into thin air like smoke.

Aeneas, as is his wont, goes straight into action (as he did after the god told him to leave Carthage immediately). For nine days he helps the people they’re leaving behind lay out the boundaries of the new city, build a forum, ordain laws and erect a temple to Venus, building a mini-Troy.

Then they say their farewells, make the sacrifices and oblations, and set sail, with a fair wind and rowing. Cut to Venus visiting Neptune god of the sea and bewailing Juno’s unending spite against the Trojans and beseeching Neptune to take pity on them. Neptune reminds her how he protected Aeneas when Achilles was running mad in front of Troy, and promises fair seas.

All the mortals see is the appearance of a clear sky and fair winds and they set sail for Italy with good heart. Thus Virgil shows us, behind every physical event, especially large scale ones like the weather, storms, shooting stars, erupting volcanoes and so on, the direct involvement of the gods. The gods are the environment through which mortals walk, purblind and ignorant.

And Palinurus, the loyal helmsman who has always given the best advice – the god of sleep wafts down from heaven, taps him on the temples with a stick dripping with water from the rivers Lethe and the Styx (rivers of the underworld), Palinurus is plunged into a deep sleep and the god of sleep chucks him overboard where he drowns down down down into the blue ocean.

Noticing something wrong, Aeneas goes astern and discovers his top helmsman has fall overboard, and blames him for trusting to a calm sea. But, as we know, it is not his fault. Like all mortals, there is nothing he can do to resist the whims of the gods.

Half way through the book I am noticing:

  • how many visions, ghosts, dream visitations, spectral appearances and just as sudden disappearances there are
  • by extension, the way there are few if any conversations, but rather great block chunks of speeches
  • the enormous amount of sacrifices – so many bullocks slaughtered, so many entrails, so much steaming gore

Book 6 The underworld

They make land at Cumae (according to Wikipedia ‘the first ancient Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, founded by settlers from Euboea in the 8th century BC and soon becoming one of the strongest colonies.’) Aeneas makes to the citadel with its huge temple of Apollo, and a vast cave, retreat of ‘the awesome Sibyl’. On the doors of the temple are depicted scenes from legend including the story of the Minotaur. For legend has it that this is where Daedalus touched down after making wings for himself to escape from captivity in Crete.

The daughter of the high priest tells them to make animal sacrifices then come with her. She is suddenly possessed by the go and tells Aeneas to pray. Aeneas delivers a page-long supplication to the god Apollo to have mercy on his people.

The priestess fights against the god but finally he possesses her and delivers his prophecy to Aeneas. They have finished their travels by sea. But what awaits them by land will be worse.

I see wars, deadly wars, I see the Thybris foaming with torrents of blood. (6.86)

Immigration

This line was notoriously quoted out of context by the British politician Enoch Powell in his virulently anti-immigration speech of April 1968. Reading it here, I realise there’s a political irony here, because this speech, about bloodshed, isn’t addressed to the native people, warning them against immigrants – Aeneas is the immigrant. He is the one arriving in a strange land and it is his god-inspired conviction that he’s owed a living and a future here which brings bloodshed and war.

Women’s wombs

Anyway, the god goes on to predict he must face ‘a second Achilles’. More interestingly, he warns that ‘Once again the cause of all this Trojan suffering will be a foreign bride’ – just as the entire Trojan war was fought over Helen (and just as the action of the Iliad is triggered by a squabble between Agamemnon and Achilles about who should be assigned a slave girl they captured at a raid on an outlying temple). The rightful ownership of women, and their reproductive capacity, is the core cause of these wars between violent men. Next to ownership of the land and its food-producing capacity, comes ownership of women and their baby-producing capacity. It is as primitive as that.

Madness

The visionary state in which the priestess speaks Apollo’s words is described as ‘madness’. Did Virgil use the same word for this as for the ‘madness’ of Dido? In which case it weakens the rhetoric of his argument against love and passion. If so, is it the same word he used for the ‘madness’ of the Trojan women who set fire to the ships in Sicily (5.660, 670)? In which case, is he making the point that a certain kind of madness is restricted to, or characteristic of, women?

Aeneas begs the Sibyl to allow him to go down into hell to see his father. The Sibyl warns the way down is easy, it’s the coming back that’s difficult. When the Sibyl warns that undertaking such a journey is ‘the labour of madness‘ I begin to see frenzy, insanity and madness as being a recurring theme or motif of the poem.

The Sibyl tells him a) there is a dead man lying unburied which is polluting the fleet; he must find and bury him and perform the rituals b) there is a tree in a dark grove which bears a golden bough; he must pluck it and carry it down to hell to please Queen Proserpina; but only the favoured of the gods can find it or pluck it.

Aeneas leaves, accompanied by his faithful friend Achates, and on the shore above the tideline they discover the body of Misenus. He had engaged in a horn blowing competition with a Triton who drowned him. So the Trojans chop down a load of trees (whose species Virgil carefully lists) to build a shrine and altar. While doing so Aeneas prays for help in finding the grove of the golden bough and his mother Venus sends two white doves who lead him to the tree.

He plucks the golden bough, presents it to the Sibyl, who insists on numerous more rites and sacrifices and then leads him down into hell, taking him past a checklist of the florid monsters who guard the gates, centaurs, scyllas, chimera, gorgons, harpies and so on.

Dante

I can see why Virgil was such a model for Dante in terms of format. Aeneas spots individuals among the various crowds (such as the crowd waiting to be ferried by Charon across the Styx), asks them a question, and the other briefly tells his story, explaining why he’s ended up here. This is more or less the recurring format for the entire Divine Comedy.

So Aeneas sees Palinurus, quizzes him, and Palinurus tells him his sad fate – he was not drowned after all, but swam to shore where he was murdered by ruffians. He begs to be allowed to cross the river; the sibyl says this is not possible till his body is given a decent burial; the sibyl reassures him that the people who live near his corpse will be driven by signs from heaven to find it and give it a decent burial

This entire story of Palinurus seems designed to evoke a sweet sadness, as we observe his grief, his regrets, Aeneas’s grief for him, their manly love for each other – commander and staunch helmsman – who met a cruel fate through no fault of his own. The Palinurus story encapsulates Virgil’s pity for suffering humanity. Seeing the great tide of woeful humanity waiting on the river bank, ‘the helpless souls of the unburied’, Aeneas ‘pitied their cruel fate.’

The hell sequence is packed with mythological details (three-headed Cerberus etc), but it is the human moments which strike home, not least his encounter with the shade of Dido. Till this moment he wasn’t sure what became of her but now he realises the rumours were true and she killed herself. He fulsomely apologises, saying he was driven on by the command of the gods, but she won’t even look at him, stands silent, then wafts away to be with her first, murdered, husband, grief speaking to grief.

In Wilfred Owen’s famous preface to his war poems he said ‘the poetry is in the pity’. Well, there is poetry in every aspect of this magnificent poem, but the consistent underlying tone of the Aeneid is heartfelt pity at the sad and tragic plight of humanity.

There is an awesome description of their walk through hell while the aged priestess of Apollo explains the variety and ingenuity of the punishments for all who have broken the laws of gods and men, including the shades of all the Greeks and the Trojans who fought and died during the recent war. Then they come to the home of the blessed: here there is singing and games, poets, leading up to the great Musaeus, who tells Aeneas where to find his father.

Aeneas is reunited with the spirit of his father. He goes to embrace him three times (the rule of three; just as Aeneas tried to embrace the ghost of Creusa three times, 2.792) but, like Creusa, Anchises is soft as the wind (6.700). But he can speak. He is delighted to see his son and then explains how some souls in the afterlife are purged of their earthly memories and returned to the primeval fire which first began the universe; but others buzz round Elysium for a thousand years and then are sent back to inhabit new bodies on earth. In other words, reincarnation.

He leads Aeneas and the Sibyl to a slight mound in the plain and predicts the long line of Aeneas’s descendants who will make Rome and Italy great. Reincarnation seems very unGreek but then, if his prime aim was to have scene where Aeneas is shown all his descendants, it’s hard to see how else this could have been achieved. The souls of famous men had to be available before they were born in order for Aeneas to review them. The more you think about it, the weirder it becomes.

Anchises points out Aeneas’s descendants starting with his posthumous son, Silvius who will be followed by Procas, Capys, Numitor, Silvius Aeneas, founders of Alba Longa and other settlements. Then Romulus founder of Rome ‘whose empire shall cover the earth’.

Then Anchises turns to the Caesar, mentioning Julius Caesar (remote descendant of Iulus, or Ascanius, Aeneas’s son). Then follows the famous hymn to Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will bring back the golden years of the age of Saturn, who will extend the borders of the empire to the edge of the known world, who will achieve more than Hercules or Bacchus. Is that enough brown-nosing?

Rather anachronistically, Anchises goes back to recount the line of kings who ruled Rome, before switching to heroes of the early Republic, the Brutus who drove out the Tarquins, others who invented the consulship, Cato the Elder, the Gracchi, the two Scipios, Fabius Maximus, great figures from Roman history. And then some sternly patriotic rhetoric:

Your task, Romans, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud. (6.851)

Then Anchises delivers a page-long lament for a young man they see accompanying Marcellus on his triumph. This is Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42 to 23 BC), nephew of Augustus and his closest male relative, who enjoyed an accelerated political career and was married to Augustus’s daughter, Julia. But he died of an infection which swept through Italy (Augustus got it but recovered) dashing Augustus’s hopes of making him his heir. So it seems likely that this extended passage in praise of young Marcellus was written just after his death in 23 BC, in order to please Virgil’s patron, the great Augustus.

David West, the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Aeneid, devotes a 3-page appendix to this section, the procession of Roman heroes, giving brief descriptions of all the eminent Romans who feature in it. He mentions the story, recorded in a near-contemporary biography of Virgil, that when he was reading his poem to Augustus and his family, his sister – Octavia (mother of Marcellus) – fainted at this passage. It’s worth repeating this anecdote to emphasise just how direct and personal Augustus’s relationship with Virgil was, and therefore, by extension, with much of the content of the poem.

After the long passage of praise for Marcellus the last few sentences of the book are an anti-climax. Virgil tells us that Anchises told Aeneas about the entire future course of events, his war against the Laurentines, how he should maximise his fate.

Aeneas’s return through hell, crossing back over the Styx, climbing back up to the entrance to the great cavern – all this isn’t even described. Instead all we get is a short, abrupt sentence saying that Aeneas made his way back to his ships and his comrades, then steered a straight course to the harbour of Caieta, where they dropped anchor.

It’s an oddly abrupt ending to one of the most magnificent and influential books of poetry ever written.

Epithets of Aeneas

I’ve slowly been realising that, as the poem progresses, Aeneas comes to be accompanied by more and more adjectives. I mean that, in the early books, he is mostly plain ‘Aeneas’. But it’s noticeable that, certainly by book 6, his name rarely occurs without being accompanied by an adjective indicating his greatness. By this sly method, Virgil implies the way Aeneas grows in stature, experience and leadership as the adventures continue. I’d noticed the same happening to Anchises who, in the earlier books, comes to be referred to more and more frequently as Father Anchises. When he dies the title passes quietly to Aeneas, Father Aeneas, sometimes referred to as ‘the son of Anchises’, and then the epithets begin to occur more frequently:

  • the leader of the Trojans (4.165)
  • the son of Anchises (5.424)
  • the great-hearted son of Anchises
  • Father Aeneas (5.461)
  • dutiful Aeneas (6.233)
  • devout Aeneas (5.685, 12.175)
  • the hero Aeneas (6.103)
  • huge Aeneas (6.413)
  • great glory of our Troy (6.547)
  • Aeneas, greatest of warriors (9.41)
  • great Aeneas (10.159)

Roman reviews

The Eclogues by Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Historical background

Virgil was born in 70 BC, in the consulships of (the bitter rivals) Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaius Pompeius. When Virgil was 7, Cicero was consul and managing the Catiline conspiracy. When he was 10, the rivals Pompey and Crassus were reconciled by Julius Caesar who formed them into the behind-the-scenes alliance which later came to be called the First Triumvirate.

The 50s BC in Rome were characterised by the street violence of rival political gangs led by Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo. For most of the decade (58 to 50) Julius Caesar was racking up famous victories in his campaign to conquer all of Gaul. In 53 Crassus’s army was destroyed by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae and he was killed, ending the triumvirate.

At the end of the 50s, the 18 year old Virgil arrived in Rome to find a career. Throughout 50 BC the political crisis grew deeper and, eventually, in January 49, Caesar illegally led a legion of his Army of Gaul across the river Rubicon, thus triggering civil war with Pompey and the senate. Virgil was 21.

This civil war dragged on for 5 long years, dividing families, laying waste tracts of land which armies marched across despoiling, with a series of battles in which Romans killed Romans at locations around the Mediterranean, until Caesar’s final victory in Spain at the Battle of Munda in March 45.

Caesar returned to Rome and began administering the empire, briskly and efficiently. Soon after he had had himself made dictator for life, he was assassinated in March 44. Virgil was 26. But removing the dictator did not bring the moribund forms of the old Republic back to life, as the conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, had hoped. Instead it inaugurated another 13 years of political instability, with the arrival in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, Gaius Octavius, complicating an already fraught situation.

After initially fighting against Caesar’s former lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, Octavius made peace with him in November 43, inviting a third military leader, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to form what became known as the Second Triumvirate. Virgil was now 27.

In 42 BC the combined forces of Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi (where the poet Horace led a legion on the losing side).

The second triumvirate lasted a long time, from 43 to 31 BC, although the partners often fell out, fiercely criticised each other and sometimes threatened open conflict. Antony assigned himself rule of the eastern Mediterranean in which capacity he a) embarked in 36 BC on an ill-fated attempt to invade the Parthian Empire, which ended in complete failure; and b) based himself in the capital of Egypt, Alexandria, where he famously had a long relationship with its queen, Cleopatra, fathering 2 children by her.

In 36 a war against Pompey’s surviving son, Sextus, who obstinately held the island of Sicily and was using his fleet to attack Roman ships, provided the pretext Octavius needed to accuse Lepidus of ineffectiveness and corruption and send him into internal exile in Italy. Virgil was 34.

The second triumvirate had become a duumvirate and very unstable, with Octavius using Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra to paint him as undignified, unroman, unpatriotic. Eventually Octavius declared open war on Antony, marching his forces to meet Antony’s legions in Greece, and defeating his fleet at the naval Battle of Actium, in September 31, after Cleopatra famously led her small contingent away from the battle, prompting the latter to follow her and abandon his own sailors to defeat.

The ill-fated couple returned to Alexandria and, when Octavius approached the city with his legions, both committed suicide.

Not only was Octavian now the only one of the triumvirate left but, after the long 18 years of almost continual civil war since Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he was the only figure with any authority left in Roman politics.

With astonishing assurance he proceeded to transform the constitution of the old Republic into the shape of what would become the Roman Empire, with him at its centre holding all the strings. Virgil was 39 when Octavius emerged as the strongest figure in Rome, and 43 when, 4 years later, the senate awarded him the title by which he is known to history, ‘Augustus’. His entire adult life had been lived against a backdrop of war, dispute and destruction.

The Oxford University Press edition

The 1930s poet Cecil Day Lewis made translations of The Georgics in 1940 and of The Eclogues in 1963. These (fairly dated) translations are still available in a nifty Oxford University Press paperback, with a 1983 introduction by academic R.O.A.M. Lyne (both, like most classicists, educated at private school and Oxbridge).

Virgil the poet

Let Athena dwell in the cities she has founded. For me the woodlands.
(Eclogue 1, line 62)

Between 42 and 39 Virgil wrote ten short poems known as the Eclogues. In the introduction to this OUP volume, R.O.A.M. Lyne explains that Virgil’s explicit model was the Greek poet Theocritus (300 to 260 BC). Theocritus wrote a variety of poems but is famous for his idylls and bucolics. The word idyll is Greek and originally meant simply ‘little scene’ or ‘vignette’. In Theocritus’s hands, an idyll became a short poem describing an idealised view of country life among peasants, farmers and especially shepherds. A bucolic is a similar form, describing idealised peasant life in the country.

Theocritus helped establish the long literary tradition whereby apparently artless depictions of idealised country life turn out to be the opposite of naive and simple-minded but often the most sophisticated verse of all. Theocritus’s shepherds display a surprising ability to quote previous poets or refer to Greek legend and seem to spend far more time reciting beautifully formed verse to each other than tending their flocks.

Theocritus stands at the start of that tradition that pretending to rural simplicity is nearly always associated with sophisticated and aristocratic audiences who like to take a break from their more serious urban responsibilities with fantasies of country living. Look at the elaborate form and demandingly allegorical content of Spenser’s Faerie Queene or the 18th century’s endless paintings of shepherds and swains. Vide Marie Antoinette’s fondness for dressing up as a shepherdess.

Virgil takes the already sophisticated form Theocritus had developed and adds a whole new range of subterranean depths to it. His stretching of the form he inherited is indicated by the very first eclogue in the set. This deals, albeit tangentially, with a controversial aspect of contemporary Roman policy (see below). Other poems address the turmoil of romantic love with a disruptive intensity not found in Theocritus.

An indication of his difference is that Virgil didn’t use Theocritus’s term, idyll, but called his poems eclogues, eclogue in Latin meaning ‘draft’, ‘selection’ or ‘reckoning’. By the Middle Ages the terms idyllbucolic and eclogue had become almost synonymous.

Eclogue 1

A dialogue between Tityrus and Meliboeus. Tityrus describes having been up to Rome to petition ‘the young prince’ to keep his family land. The prince grants his petition and so Meliboeus is a ‘fortunate old man’, whereas Tityrus laments that he and many like him will be dispersed to Scythia, ‘bone-dry Africa’, even to Britain, ‘that place cut off at the world’s end (line 66).

This poem was probably written in 41 BC, when Octavian was arranging the demobilisation and settlement around Italy of soldiers who had fought for him and Antony in the campaign to defeat the assassins of Julius Caesar, which climaxed in the Battle of Philippi (October 42 BC). Antony went on to sort out the East while Octavian was given the unwelcome task of settling the demobbed veterans. He carried out the very unpopular policy of dispossessing current farmers from their land in order to assign it to veterans (who often had no clue about running a farm, something Meliboeus bitterly points out in this poem):

To think of some godless soldier owning my well-farmed fallow,
A foreigner reaping these crops!

And laments that this is what the civil wars have brought them to:

…To such a pass has civil
Dissensions brought us: for people like these have we sown our fields.

So the first eclogue may be cast as a Theocritan idyll, and feature descriptions of idealised country scenery and farming practices – but it makes no bones about dealing with very contemporary politics, unfair state policy, unfairness and bitterness.

Eclogue 2

By contrast the second eclogue consists of the soliloquy or monologue of the shepherd Corydon who burns with love for the ‘handsome boy’, Alexis. Corydon boasts of his ability with the Pan pipes, the fertility of his flocks, and the idyllicness of the lives they could live together…but to no avail.

And, again, although the poem is deceptively dressed in rural imagery, the feeling is intense:

Yet love still scorches me – love has no lull, no limit. (line 68)

It’s worth pointing out that this is an explicitly homosexual poem, which did Virgil no harm at all with his patron, Maecenas nor his emperor.

Eclogue 3

The third eclogue feels different, again. It features rough and tumble squabbling between Menalcas and Damoetas, which leads up to Damoetas suggesting they hold a singing contest to decide who’s best.

At which point the poem turns from consisting of Virgil’s standard hexameters into alternating series of four-line, four-beat stanzas which have much shorter lines, a lyric format which Day-Lewis captures by making them rhyme.

The wolf is cruel to the sheep,
Cruel a storm to orchard tree,
Cruel is rain to ripened crops,
Amaryllis’ rage is cruel to me.

Eclogue 4

A dramatic departure from the stereotypical idea of an easy-going chat between shepherds, this eclogue is an extremely intense, visionary poem prophesying the birth of a divine baby who will usher in a Golden Age, peace on earth and describes a new age of peace and plenty when farm animals mind themselves and there is enough for all.

Later, Christian, commentators took this to be a prediction of the birth of Christ (about 40 years after the poem was written) and this was part of the mystique that grew up around Virgil in the Middle Ages, one reason why Dante chose him to be his guide through Hell in his long poem, the Divine Comedy.

Chances are, however, that Virgil had a much more mundane practical event in mind. The alliance between Octavian and Antony following Caesar’s assassination was very ropey indeed, and kept needing patching up. One such occasion was the Pact of Brundisium, agreed in 40 BC, whereby, among other provisions, Antony agreed to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia (a betrothal portrayed in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra). According to this interpretation, the ‘saviour child’ of this poem is the son everybody hoped would be born of this union, who would usher in a post-civil war era of peace and plenty.

In the event, the alliance wore very thin before Octavius eventually declared war on Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, leading to their naval defeat at the Battle of Actium and their double suicide soon thereafter. Thus, the cynical reader may conclude, all hyperbolic expectations of a New Age tend to be brutally disappointed by real world politics.

Eclogue 5

In a completely different mood, back in the land of idylls, shepherds Menalcas and Mopsus bump into each other and decide to have a singing contest, taking turns to sing poems they have written about the lovely Daphnis.

Eclogue 6

Two naughty shepherds (Cromis and Mnasyllus) come across the old drunk, Silenus, in a cave and tie him up, but he insists on singing a series of strophes absolutely packed with references to Greek mythology, a kind of 2-page summary of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Eclogue 7

Goatherd Meliboeus relates how Daphnis called him over to listen to a singing competition between Corydon and Thyrsis, who proceed to take turns singing 12 4-line rhyming stanzas.

More sweet than thyme, more fair than pale ivy,
More white to swans you are to me:
Come soon, when the bulls through the meadows are homing,
Come soon, if you love me, my nymph of the sea!
(lines 37 to 40)

Eclogue 8

Another singing competition, this time between Damon and Alphesiboeus, and this time, instead of alternating short verse, each takes it in turn to sing a page-long poem made of longer, rhyming stanzas, each ending with the same line repeated as a refrain. Damon’s verses go like this:

A child you were when I first beheld you –
Our orchard fruit was chilled with dew –
You and your mother both apple gathering:
Just twelve I was, but I took charge of you.
On tiptoe reaching the laden branches,
One glance I gave you and utterly
My heard was ravished, my reason banished –
O flute of Maenalus, come, play with me!

Alphesiboeus’s verse is more interesting: it describes the magic, witchcraft, incantations and magic objects the narrator creates and casts in order to get his beloved, Daphnis, to return to him:

These keepsakes he left with me once, faithless man:
They are things that he wore – the most precious I own.
Mother earth, now I dig by my door and consign
Them to you – the dear keepsakes that pledge his return.
Make Daphnis come home from the city, my spells!

This also appears to be an explicitly gay poem, a man keening for his male lover.

Eclogue 9

This is another poem lamenting the unfair and divisive policy of land sequestration. Two out of the ten poems are on this subject. Sad Moeris complains to Lycidas that an outsider has taken over his farm and made him a servant on his old land and that’s why he is now driving his (the new owners’) goats to market.

Interestingly, Lycidas says he’d heard that the intercession of the poet Menalcus had prevented the land appropriation going ahead. Not so, replies bitter Moeris. But the interesting point is: is this a reference to Virgil’s attempts to moderate the land confiscation policy by appealing to Augustus? And a sad reflection on his failure?

MOERIS:… But poems
Stand no more chance, where the claims of soldiers are involved,
Than do the prophetic doves if the eagle swoops upon them.

This touches on the broader point of Virgil’s ambiguity: his verse is very finely balanced between political allegory, factual description and poetic fantasia. It hovers and shimmers between different layers of meaning.

Meanwhile, the two characters manage to get over their initial bitterness and swap fragments of poems they themselves have written or other people’s lines which they remember. Lycidas points out that the wind has dropped, the lake waters are still. It’s a golden opportunity to stop their trudge to the market town and recite to each other their favourite old songs. At which point the poem ends.

Complex effects. Although the rural setting and the simple names and many of the homely details about goats and plants and whatnot frankly derive from his Greek model, the emotion or psychological effect is more complex and multiflavoured than Theocritus.

Eclogue 10

A poem dedicated to Virgil’s friend, Caius Cornelius Gallus, politician and poet. He wrote elegies devoted to a fictional female figure, Lycoris who, the note tells us, is probably a code name for the courtesan Cytheris, also Mark Antony’s lover. (Shades of Catullus’s beloved Lesbia, being the code name of Clodia, lover of umpteen other young Roman men. Roman poets and their aristocratic affairs).

The translation

I liked Day Lewis’s translation well enough, it is light and clear, as the examples I’ve quoted demonstrate. I suppose you could quibble about the slight unevenness of register: some of his phrasing uses the vague, rather stagey diction of so much translationese:

Let us honour the pastoral muse of Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Whose singing, when they competed together, left the lynxes
Dumbfounded, caused a heifer to pause in her grazing, spellbound,
And so entranced the rivers that they checked their onward flow.
(Eclogue 8, opening lines)

It’s clear enough but not really what any actual modern poet would write. Anyway, my point is that this slightly stiff style comes a cropper in the many places where Day Lewis attempts a more demotic, matey note:

I’m driven from my home place but you can take it easy…

I have two roes which I found in a dangerous combe…
Thestylis has been begging for ages to take them off me…

‘Bumpkin! As if Alexis care twopence for your offerings!’

I wonder when the last time was that any English speaker used the word ‘bumpkin’ in a literal, serious sense? Or:

‘Watch it! What right do you have to lecture a chap!’

‘You desperado, while his mongrel was barking his head off!’

‘Strike up if you have a song to sing, I’ll not be backward…’

‘I’ll not be backward’ – of course I understand the meaning, I just kept being brought up short by Day Lewis’s well-meaning 1950s slang. Maybe it’s in the original: maybe the Virgil has a variety of tones, from the tragically lovelorn to the banter of farm workers. But this unevenness is definitely a feature of the Day Lewis translation.

Scansion

Scansion means the method of determining the metrical pattern of a line of verse. Latin (and French and Italian) verse uses patterns based on the number of syllables in a line and the different ‘lengths’ of each syllable. English poetry, rather more crudely, is based on the number of beats in each line. In English poetry each beat is at the heart of a ‘foot’, and each foot can have 1, 2 or 3 other unstressed syllables either before or after the beat. Thus a iambic pentameter is a line made up of five beats and so five ‘feet’, with each ‘foot’ made up of two syllables, the beat falling on the second one, di dum. A ‘foot’ with two syllables with the stress falling on the second one was called, by the ancient Greeks, a iamb, and so a iambic pentameter is a five-beat line, consisting of five feet, all of them in the form di dum.

Di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

But I struggled to figure out the metre of many of Day Lewis’s verses. First off, the eclogues are not all written in the same style. Day Lewis varies the verse forms a lot. There appears to be a long form line for the basic narrative sections, which he varies when the various shepherds and goatherds go into their singing competitions. But I found it difficult to scan even his basic form. Take the opening of Eclogue 4:

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

This seems to me a regular iambic heptameter i.e. seven beats.

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

But the next two lines throw me:

Shrubberies or meek tamarisks are not for all: but if it’s
Forests I sing, may the forest be worthy of a consul.

If the first line is intended to have only 7 beats in it, surely it would end on ‘if’. Not only do these lines not have 7 beats but the beat is difficult to assign. Is it shrub-be-ries or shrub-ries? Either way that appears to be a trochee i.e. a foot which starts with the beat instead of having it second.

Maybe it’s deliberate. Maybe Day Lewis writes a loose long line which occasionally falls into the regularity of a heptameter but just as often skips round it. Maybe it’s designed to shimmer round regularity just as Virgil’s allegories and political meanings shimmer into view then disappear again.

At the start of the book Day Lewis writes a brief note about his approach to translation, which mentions that in some of the singing competitions between shepherds he uses ‘rhythms of English and Irish folk song’. This explains the stimulating variety of verse forms found throughout the book. Some of them have a regularity I enjoyed, but I found others puzzling and a bit irritating:

The fields are dry, a blight’s in the weather,
No vine leaves grow – the Wine-god is sour

So far I read these as having four beats per line (and so tetrameters), with variation in the feet i.e. they’re not all strict iambs. But having got into that swing, the next 2 lines (and there are only four; this is a quatrain) threw me by having five beats, but beats which don’t occur in any neat way:

Shading our uplands – but when my Phyllis comes here,
Green shall the woodlands be, and many the shower.

I wondered whether he was using the Latin technique of literally counting the syllables in each line and ignoring the beats, but I don’t think it’s that, since the first line has 10 syllables, the second 9, the third 12 and the fourth 12. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I found this lack of regularity in Day Lewis’s verse irksome and distracting.

Competition

All the histories I’ve read of the period describe the escalation of once-sensible rivalry between Rome’s leading men into increasingly violent, bitter and unforgiving conflict. It becomes almost an obsession of Tom Holland’s account, which blames out-of-control, toxic political rivalry for the Republic’s collapse.

That was my first thought when I realised that, far from idyllic peace and tranquility half of the poems describe and enact poetic competitions. Now I know that the competing goatherds aren’t bribing the voters and having each other’s supporters beaten up in the streets, as in the chaotic final decades of the Republic, nothing like that, the competitions are presented as amiable, good-hearted exercises (Eclogues 7 and 8). Still. Its presence in these would-be idyllic poems suggests that competition was a fundamental category which informs / underpins / infects absolutely every aspect of Roman existence.


Credit

The Eclogues by Virgil were translated into English by Cecil Day Lewis in 1963. I read them in the 1999 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Gallic War by Julius Caesar – 1

I’d just bought the Oxford University Press edition of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars off Amazon when I walked into my local charity shop and found the old Penguin edition going second-hand for £2. So I snapped it up and am now reading the two editions interchangeably.

The OUP edition (1996)

The OUP edition (1996) is translated and introduced by Carolyn Hammond. She began to put me off almost immediately when, in her preface, she writes:

The subject-matter of The Gallic War is potentially distasteful, even immoral, for the modern reader. The drive to increase territorial holdings, high civilian as well as military casualties, and the predominance of economic motives for organised aggression – all these belong to an accepted norm of international activity in the ancient world, and hence need careful introduction and explanation…

This begs all kinds of questions. For example: Why are you devoting so much time to translating a work which you find ‘distasteful and immoral’? It’s the same question as arose when reading Mary Beard’s history of Rome: Why has an ardent feminist dedicated her life to studying a world of toxic men?

Second problem is Hammond’s assumption that war to increase territory and incur high casualties for economic motives is somehow unique to, and restricted to, the ancient world and so needs ‘careful introduction and explanation’. Really? Had she not heard of the Yugoslav wars or the Congo wars, which were ongoing as her book went to press? Or the Second World War, possibly? Korea, Vietnam, Biafra, Afghanistan. The world always has wars. Not understanding them means you don’t understand the world you live in.

In fact Hammond’s statement that the concept of ‘war’ needs explaining is rather patronising, isn’t it? Her attitude bespeaks a certain kind of academic condescension, a voice from the bosom of woke academia telling people who have bought a book about a famous war that she needs to explain what ‘war’ is, and that some readers might find ‘war’ ‘distasteful, even immoral’. Maybe her edition should have warning stickers on the cover: ‘This book about an eight-year-long war may contain scenes of a violent nature’. Just in case the purchaser of a book titled ‘The Gallic War’ hadn’t figured that out for themselves.

In her introduction Hammond covers a lot of material but in a consistently confused way. She tells the story (which I’ve read so many times I am now heartily sick of it) about Publius Clodius Pulcher being found in Caesar’s house dressed as a woman and trying to infiltrate a women-only religious ritual. She refers to it mainly to lead up to Caesar divorcing his wife and making his ‘famous’ declaration that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. But she tells the whole thing in such a cack-handed way that I was left dismayed by her inability to tell a simple story.

Hammond refers to key aspects of ancient Rome, such as the consuls, in an oddly throwaway manner as if we all ought to know about this already. Frequently her prose is, well, questionable:

This was the year of the conspiracy of Catiline. It was also the year in which the sacrosanctity of the people’s tribunes was raised once more, this time through the prosecution of an old man called Rabirius, a prosecution behind which Caesar’s hand was detected. (p.xvi)

a) That last phrase doesn’t inspire confidence in her ability to express herself, does it? b) This is all she tells you about both Catiline and Rabirius. I don’t care about Rabirius but if she’s going to mention the Catiline conspiracy, surely it deserves a decent explanation rather than a nine-word sentence. And why does she write the elaborate and clunky phrase ‘the conspiracy of Catiline’ rather than the more smooth and usual ‘the Cataline conspiracy’.

It feels very much like Hammond has a bullet point list of issues to get through but doesn’t have the space to explain any of them properly, instead cramming them into clunky, broken-backed sentences which shake your confidence in her ability to translate anything by anyone into decent English prose.

As happens with many writers, Hammond’s uncertain grasp of English phrasing reflects a clumsiness in conceptualising the ideas she’s trying to express:

In 60 BC Pompey, Crassus and Caesar formed an unofficial pact which came to be known as the ‘first triumvirate’ (on the analogy of the triumvirate of Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus in 43).

I know what she’s trying to say but it’s badly phrased because it’s badly conceived. The first triumvirate wasn’t formed on the analogy of the second triumvirate because the second triumvirate, quite obviously, hadn’t happened yet; it only happened 17 years later. She means something like, ‘this pact is now referred to as the first triumvirate because the same kind of deal was arranged 17 years later between Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus. Historians came to refer to them as, respectively, the first and second triumvirates’. I see what she’s trying to say, but her phrasing literally doesn’t make sense. Again it feels like a) an item on her checklist which she had to cram in but b) didn’t have the space to explain it more clearly and so ends up doing it clumsily.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in her ability to understand and translate complex content from the Latin if, when given free rein to express herself in English, she produces such mangled ideas and tangled-up sentences.

Hammond’s account of the politicking around the triumvirate ticks it off her checklist but isn’t as clear as Beard, Holland or Scullard. You need to understand what the first triumvirate was: that Caesar brokered a deal between the rivals Crassus and Pompey whereby Crassus used his money to bribe voters and Pompey used his influence in order to pass laws and get decisions they each wanted:

  • Pompey wanted land and money awarded to his veterans who’d returned from his wars in Asia Minor in 62
  • Caesar wanted to be made governor of Gaul where he scented an opportunity to acquire military glory and, thereby, political power
  • and Crassus wanted to be awarded governorship of Syria, from where he planned to launch a military campaign into Armenia and Parthia which would bring him not only glory but troves of Eastern loot

It was a deal between three uneasy rivals to manipulate political elections behind the scenes using Crassus’s money and to ensure they each got their way. They didn’t abolish the tools of the Roman constitution; they took them over for their own purposes. Many contemporaries (for example, Cicero) and later historians took the signing of this pact in 60 BC as the defining moment when the old forms of Roman politics were eclipsed by the power politics and rule of Strong Men which was, after 30 years of increasing instability and civil war, to lead to the rise of the ultimate strong man, Octavian.

It would have been nice to have learned something about ancient Gaul but instead Hammond wastes the last seven pages of her introduction on another tick box exercise, an examination of Caesar’s posthumous reputation and influence. She produces a huge list of European historians and poets, not to mention later generals or theorists of war, who she claims were influenced in one way or another by the great dictator but rattles through them at such high speed with barely a sentence about each that you learn nothing.

How much does it help you understand Caesar’s Gallic Wars to learn that Dante placed Brutus and Cassius in the deepest pit of hell next to Judas Iscariot? Not a whit. This kind of thing should either be done properly or not at all.

In summary Carolyn Hammond’s introduction so put me off her ability to think, instruct or write plain English that I hesitated to even begin her translation.

On the plus side, the OUP edition has one big map of ancient Gaul and five other maps of regions or specific battles, scattered through the text as needed; a 3-page timeline; a 15-page glossary of names; and 21 pages of notes, three times the number in the Penguin edition.

The Penguin edition (1951)

Unlike the OUP edition, the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition (titled The Conquest of Gaul) offers a crisp, useful summary of the subject:

  • Between 58 and 50 BC Julius Caesar conquered most of modern France, Belgium and Switzerland along with parts of Holland and Germany and invaded Britain, twice.
  • Caesar’s texts are an invaluable source for these events.
  • Caesar’s texts are the only narratives written by any military leader from the ancient world about his own campaigns.
  • Caesar’s writings were not disinterested academic histories but part of Caesar’s ongoing campaign for power, designed to promote his achievements and forward his political career with his peers and the Roman people.

Good. Feels like we are among adults. As to the extras, this edition also has a big map of Gaul, plus one of southern Britain and a useful one of the crucial siege of Alesia. It has a 17-page glossary, 8 pages of notes (far fewer than the OUP), but on the plus side, a useful 3-page appendix on the Roman army of Caesar’s day.

The Penguin translation was made by Stanley Alexander Handford (born in 1898) and first published in 1951. It was revised and given a new introduction by Jane Gardner in 1982. It would be a relief to report that it is a model of lucidity but the introduction, alas, also reveals an odd way with the English language. For example:

Political necessity, rather than military or than his personal irreplaceability in command, required that he continue in post.

That adjective, ‘military’, in normal English would require a noun after it. I fully understand that it refers back to the noun ‘necessity’ and can, after a moment’s confusion, be understood that way. But it would be clearer to use a synonym such as ‘need’ or maybe just write ‘Political rather than military necessity…’ And the second ‘than’? Delete it. And then ‘continue’? I understand that this is a subjunctive following the conditional preposition ‘that’ so that it is technically correct. But it is not, nowadays, standard English. We’d probably just say ‘continued’ or make it crystal clear with ‘should continue’:

Political necessity rather than military need or his personal irreplaceability in command required that he continued in his post.

The point is that all three of these dubious elements reflect Latin rather than modern English usage. Instead of spelling out the precise relationships between parts of speech it leaves some implicit in ways which are technically correct but strongly influenced by the highly inflected nature of Latin in which grammatical relationships are shown by changes within words rather than prepositions or word order.

In fact this make the third book in a row I’ve read (A.J. Woodman’s Sallust, Carolyn Hammond’s Gallic War, S.A. Handford’s Conquest of Gaul) in which the English translators struggled in the introduction to write in plain English – before I’d even started reading the translation. Instead all three betray an addiction to Latinate ways of thinking, Latinate ways of forming sentences, and to odd, unenglish phraseology.

Anyway, Gardner’s introduction (once you acclimatise to her occasional Latinate phraseology) is much better than Hammond’s directionless ramble – it is direct, straightforward, factual and clear. She establishes the basic fact that Caesar spent 9 years away from Rome, campaigning in Gaul.

The Roman constitution

She has a good stab at explaining the complicated Roman constitution. Theoretically, legislative and electoral sovereignty was vested in popular assemblies. In practice the state was dominated by the Senate which consisted of 300 or so men who had held any of the four ‘magistracies’ (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul) which were elected for one-year posts These posts were arranged in the so-called cursus honorem. There were quite a few other posts such as censor or pontifex maximus, and elections to other priesthoods, such as the College of Augurs. Surprisingly, the Senate could not propose legislation: this was proposed (and vetoed) by the ten or so tribunes of the people elected every year.

Marius

Then Gardner recaps the military and political background to Caesar’s career: Caius Marius saved Rome from invasion by Germanic tribes around 100 BC but at the cost of holding seven successive consulships and developing a close relationship with his army which looked to him to provide money and land for veterans. I.e. he created the template for the Strong General which was to bedevil Roman politics for the next 70 years.

After a decade of political disturbance (the 80s) Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized power (82 to 78 BC) and implemented reforms designed to prevent the rise of another strong man.

Pompey and Crassus

But just eight years later most of Sulla’s reforms had been cancelled, mostly in the people’s enthusiasm to award the boy wonder general Gnaeus Pompeius extraordinary powers to prosecute wars against a) the pirates who bedevilled Rome’s overseas trade (67) and b) against King Mithridates of Pontus who was terrorising Asia Minor (66).

Back in Rome, ambitious young Julius Caesar (born 100 BC) attached himself to the richest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus, and they were both associated with an attempt to set up a hugely powerful land reform commission (ultimately rejected).

Their names were also mentioned in connection with the notorious conspiracy by Lucius Sergius Catilina to overthrow the state (the Cataline conspiracy which Hammond refers to in one half-sentence, quoted above) although nothing, in the end, was conclusively proved.

In 62 Pompey returned from the East and, despite everyone’s fears that he might use his loyal army and widespread popularity to mount a coup in the style of Sulla, he disbanded his army and returned to civilian life. He was unhappy, though, to discover that this weakened his power in the state and that his requests to have land granted to his veterans kept being delayed. Meanwhile Marcus Crassus was having various business ventures blocked. And when Caesar returned in 60 BC from service as governor of Further Spain and wanted to be awarded a triumph, this wish also was blocked by the Senate.

The first triumvirate

So the three men, each in their separate ways stymied by the Establishment, came to a shady, behind-the-scenes agreement to advance each other’s ambitions. Pompey got his land reform, Crassus got his business ventures approved, and Caesar got himself elected consul for 59 BC and secured legislation appointing him governor of Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) and Illyricum (the east coast of the Adriatic Sea). He then bribed one of the ten tribunes of the plebs to propose a law giving him governorship of Transalpine Gaul, the Roman province along the south coast of France. Both posts started in 58 BC and were to be held for an unprecedented five years, ending on 1 March 54.

This is where the narrative of the Gallic War commences, with Caesar arriving to take up command of his provinces.

Back in Rome

Gardner doesn’t stop there but goes on to describe the political shenanigans in Rome following Caesar’s departure for Gaul. After just one year his political opponents began lobbying for him to be relieved of his command and return to Rome as governors traditionally ought to. But if he did this, Caesar knew he would almost certainly face prosecution by his political enemies. He continued in his command until 56, when the political crisis intensified.

Luca

So he organised a meeting in the summer of that year in Luca, in north Italy (in his governorship of Cisalpine Gaul), attended by Pompey and Crassus and a third of the Senate, at which they recommitted to their pact. As a result:

  1. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was renewed for a further five years.
  2. Crassus and Pompey arranged for themselves to be elected consults in 55 BC and then…
  3. for Pompey to be awarded governorship of Spain which he would, however, administer in absentia while remaining in Rome,
  4. and for Crassus to be given command of an army to be sent to Parthia out East in 54.

Clodius and Milo

Meanwhile, escalating street violence between political gangs led by Titus Annius Milo and Publius Clodius Pulcher led to a breakdown of public order and in 52 BC the senate appointed Pompey sole consul in order to bring peace to the streets.

Should Caesar give up his command?

Gardner then gives a day by day account of the complicated manoeuvres around attempts by his enemies to get Caesar to relinquish his command and return to Rome a private citizen – and by Caesar and his supporters to try to get him elected as a consul, in his absence. The aim of this was so that Caesar could transition seamlessly from military governor to consul, which would guarantee he’d be exempt from prosecution for his alleged misdemeanours in Gaul.

It was this issue – whether he would lay down his governorship of Gaul and whether he would be allowed to stand for consul in his absence – which led to complex manoeuvring, proposal and counter-proposal in the Senate and the failure of which, finally, convinced Caesar that he would only be safe if he returned to Italy with his army.

Crossing the Rubicon

When he crossed the river Rubicon which divided Cisalpine Gaul (which he legitimately ruled) into Italy (where his presence with an army was illegal and a threat to the state) Caesar triggered the civil war with Pompey who, whatever his personal feelings, now found himself the representative of the Senate and the constitution. But this latter part of the story is dealt with in the book by Caesar now known as The Civil War and so it is here that Gardner ends her summary of events.

Gaul and its inhabitants

As with the Hammond edition, I wondered why Gardner was going into so much detail about events in Rome which we can read about elsewhere, but her summary of Roman politics only takes 6 pages before she goes on to write about the actual Gauls:

Rome already controlled the South of France whose major city was the port of Massilia (modern Marseilles), founded by the Greeks around BC. Over the 9 years of his command Caesar was to extend Roman control to all of France, southern Holland, Belgium, Germany west of the Rhine and most of Switzerland.

Caesar grouped the inhabitants of this huge area into three tribal groupings. This was an over-simplification but modern scholars still debate the complex ethnic, cultural and political relationships between the many tribes he mentions in his account. Ethnic and cultural similarities connected peoples living across a huge area of north-west Europe, from Britain to the borders of modern Turkey, but to the Greeks and Romans they were all ‘Gauls’ or ‘Celts’, terms they used interchangeably.

The whole of northern Europe was characterised be ceaseless migrations which had been going on since at least the 4th century BC, when one tribe penetrated deep enough into Italy to sack Rome in 390 BC, an event which left a lasting stain on the Roman psyche and an enduring paranoia about the ‘Gaulish threat’.

This fear had been revived at the end of the 2nd century, from 110 to 100 BC, when the two tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutoni threatened to invade north Italy. It was in order to defeat these enemies that the general Caius Marius was awarded the consulship for an unprecedented run and whose ultimate defeat of the threat made him a popular hero.

As Caesar took up his command at the start of 58 BC some tribes, the Helvetii and the Suebi, were once again on the move, threatening their neighbours and destabilising the Roman province. This was the justification Caesar used for taking aggressive military action against them.

Gardner’s introduction goes on to describe Gaulish culture, the existence of towns and trade, their fondness for Mediterranean wine (France didn’t yet cultivate grapes), their coins and art, the fact that some tribes had evolved beyond kings to elected magistrates and so on. Doubtless this would be dealt with more thoroughly in a more up-to-date history.

Last point to make is that Caesar consistently denigrates the Gaulish character. According to him the Gauls are impulsive, emotional, easily swayed, love change for its own sake, credulous, prone to panic, scatter brained and so on. Caesar links the Gauls’ instability of character to the instability of their tribal politics, where leaders routinely feud among themselves, assassinate each other and so on. (This often seems a bit rich coming from Caesar who was himself subject of the most famous assassination in history, representing a state which was about to collapse into a succession of civil wars.)

Gardner makes the simple point that what amounts to what we nowadays might call a ‘racist’ stereotyping of an entire people is deployed in an all-too-familiar tactic to justify conquering and ‘liberating’ i.e. subjugating them.

The Gallic Wars is a propaganda document: it is a set of commentaries, one for each of the eight campaigning years Caesar was in Gaul which a) justify his military conquests b) promoted his reputation as a spectacularly successful general. Each of the eight books might as well end with the same sentence: “So that’s why you ought to give me a triumph.”

His comments and reflections on Gaul and the Gauls or individual tribes or leaders sometimes strike the reader as reasonably objective and factual. But the fundamentally polemical, propaganda motive is never absent.

Which edition?

I started off reading the OUP edition because it was new and clean, the maps were embedded where they were needed in the text and Hammond’s translation, as far as I could tell, didn’t show any of the oddities of style all-too-apparent when she tries to write in her own name. About a third of the way in I swapped to the Penguin edition for no reason I can put my finger on except its prose style, and the physical object itself, felt older and cosier.

The decline in academic writing for a general audience

Older academics (from the 1950s and 60s) tended to have a broader range of life experience, vocabulary and phrasing. More recent academics, from the 1980s and 90s onwards, tend to have lived narrower academic lives and their use of English is marred by ideas and terms taken from sociology, critical theory and the inevitable woke obsessions (gender and race) which make their prose narrow, cold and technocratic.

Born in 1934, Gardner writes prose which is clear, factual, to the point and more sympatico than Hammond, born a generation later, whose prose is clunky, cluttered and confused, and whose sensitive virtue signalling (war is ‘distasteful, even immoral’) comes over as patronising.

There’s a study to be done about the decline in academic writing for a wide audience, the decline in academics’ ability to reach out and connect with a broader public. Immediately after the war, Allen Lane’s creation of the cheap paperback Penguin Classics was designed to bring the best literature from round the world, and from all of history, to the widest possible audience, accompanied by introductions by experts designed to widen their appeal.

By the turn of the 21st century many of the introductions to classic literature which I regularly read spend more time scolding the reader (or their authors) for not having the correct attitudes to race and gender which are absolutely required on their campuses and in their faculties, than explaining the world of the author and their text.

It gets boring being told off or patronised all the time. So I preferred the old Penguin edition and Jane Gardner’s intelligent, useful and unpatronising introduction. And she’s funny. Right at the end of her introduction she explains:

The glossary has been completely redone and now contains more than twice as many items as the original. There are a few additional notes and also a few changes to some of Handford’s more tendentious judgements. The editor has also seized the opportunity, in writing a new introduction, of being tendentious herself. (page 26)

🙂


Related link

Roman 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.


Related links

Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

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

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

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

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

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

Adventures among books and ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

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

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

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

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

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

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

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

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

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

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

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

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

The Circular Ruins (1940)

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

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

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

The Library of Babel (1941)

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

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

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

Funes the Memorious (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

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

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

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

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

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

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

Death and the Compass (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Miracle (1943)

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

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

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

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

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

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

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

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

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

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

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

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

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

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

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

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

The Immortal (1949)

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

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

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

The Theologians (1947)

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

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

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

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

Emma Zunz (1948)

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

The House of Asterion (1947)

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

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

Averroes’ Search (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

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

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

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

The Waiting (1950)

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

The God’s Script

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

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

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

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wall and the Books

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

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

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

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

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

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

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

Partial Magic in the Quixote

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

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

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

Valéry as Symbol

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

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

Kafka and His Precursors

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

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

Avatars of the Tortoise

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

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

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

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

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

The Mirror of Enigmas

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

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

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

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

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

A New Refutation of Time

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

Parables

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

Inferno, 1, 32

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

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

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

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

Ragnarök

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

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

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

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

The Witness

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

A Problem

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

Borges and I

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

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

Everything and Nothing

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

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

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


Labyrinths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

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

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

The Borgesian

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

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

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

Books

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

References

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

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


Related links

Borges reviews

Samuel Beckett timeline

A timeline of Samuel Beckett’s life and works with page references, where relevant, to James Knowlson’s 1996 biography of Beckett, Damned To Fame.

1906
13 April – Samuel Barclay Beckett born in ‘Cooldrinagh’, a house in Foxrock, a village south of Dublin (page 3), on Good Friday, the second child of William Beckett and May Beckett, née Roe. He has an older brother, Frank Edward, born 26 July 1902.

1911
Beckett enters kindergarten at Ida and Pauline Elsner’s private academy in Leopardstown. The spinster sisters had a cook named Hannah and an Airedale terrier named Zulu, details which crop up in later novels (p.24).

1915
Attends Earlsfort House School in Dublin (pages 30 to 35). Begins to excel at sports, for example, long distance running.

1920
Follows his brother Frank to Portora Royal, an eminent Protestant boarding school in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, set in a strikingly beautiful location (pages 36 to 46). During his time there, Ireland was partitioned (1921) and Portora found itself in the new Northern Ireland. Beckett excelled at sports, in particular boxing, cross country running and swimming.

1923
October – Enrols at Trinity College, Dublin (TCD) to study for an Arts degree (p.47). Here he is taken under the wing of the individualistic Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Brown Rudmose-Brown who teaches him classical French and English literature, but also more recent authors. He also engages a private tutor, Bianca Esposito, who teaches him Italian, in particular they embark on detailed study of Dante (p.51). During his time as a student Beckett’s father bought him not one but two motorbikes, one of which, the AJS, he rode in competitive time trials (p.62). His father then bought him a sports car (p.49) a Swift (p.79) in which he managed to run over and kill his beloved Kerry Blue terrier dog (p.67).

1926
August – First visit to France for a month-long cycling tour of the Loire Valley.

1927
April to August – Travels through Florence and Venice, visiting museums, galleries and churches (pages 71 to 75).
December – Receives BA in Modern Languages (French and Italian) from TCD and graduates in the First Class.

1928
January to June – Teaches French and English at Campbell College (a secondary school) in Belfast and really dislikes it. He finds Belfast cold and dreary after lively Dublin (pages 77 to 79).
September – First trip to Germany to visit seventeen-year-old Peggy Sinclair, a cousin on his father’s side, and her family in Kassel (p.82).
1 November – Arrives in Paris as an exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure. Quickly becomes friends with his predecessor, Thomas McGreevy who introduces Beckett to James Joyce (pages 97 to 98 ) and other influential writers and publishers (pages 87 to 105).
December – Spends Christmas with the Sinclairs in Kassel (as also in 1929, 1930 and 1931). His relationship with Peggy develops into a fully sexual one, causing him anguish about the conflict (in his mind) between the idealised belovèd and the sexualised lover.

1929
June – Publishes his first critical essay (Dante…Bruno…Vico…Joyce) and his first story (Assumption) in transition magazine. Makes several visits to Kassel to see Peggy.

1930
July – Writes a 100-line poem Whoroscope in response to a poetry competition run by Nancy Cunard (pages 111 to 112).
October – Returns to TCD to begin a two-year appointment as lecturer in French. He hated it, discovering he was useless as a teacher and not cut out for academic life (pages 120 to 126)
November – MacGreevy introduces Beckett to the painter and writer Jack B.Yeats who becomes a lifelong friend (p.164).

1931
March – Chatto and Windus publish Proust, a literary study they’d commissioned (pages 113 to 119).
September – First Irish publication, the poem Alba in Dublin Magazine. At Christmas goes to stay with the Sinclairs in Kassel.

1932
January – Resigns his lectureship at TCD via telegram from Kassel, stunning his parents and sponsors (p.145). He moves to Paris.
February to June – First serious attempt at a novel, The Dream of Fair to Middling Women which, after hawking round publishers for a couple of years, he eventually drops and then, embarrassed at its thinly veiled depiction of close friends and lovers, actively suppresses. It doesn’t end up being published till after his death (in 1992). (Detailed synopsis and analysis pages 146 to 156.)
December – Short story Dante and the Lobster appears in This Quarter (Paris), later collected in More Pricks Than Kicks.

1933
3 May – Upset by the death of Peggy Sinclair from tuberculosis (p.169). They had drifted apart and she was engaged to another man.
26 June – Devastated by the sudden death of his father, William Beckett, from a heart attack (p.170). Panic attacks, night sweats and other psychosomatic symptoms. His schoolfriend, Geoffrey Thompson, now a doctor, recommends psychotherapy.

1934
January – Moves to London and begins psychoanalysis with Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic (the London years as a whole are described on page 171 to 197).
February – Negro Anthology edited by Nancy Cunard includes numerous translations by Beckett from the French.
May – Publication of More Pricks than Kicks (a loosely linked series of short stories about his comic anti-hero Belacqua Shuah (pages 182 to 184).
August to September – Contributes stories and reviews to literary magazines in London and Dublin.

1935
November – Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates, a cycle of thirteen poems.

1936
Returns to Dublin, to stay in the family home in uneasy proximity to his demanding mother.
29 September – Leaves Ireland for a seven-month tour around the cities and art galleries of Germany (pages 230 to 261).

1937
April to August – First serious attempt at a play, Human Wishes, about Samuel Johnson and his household (pages 269 to 271).
October – After a decisive row with his mother, Beckett moves permanently to Paris which will be his home and base for the next 52 years (p.274)

1938
6 January – Stabbed by a street pimp in Montparnasse, Paris. Among his visitors at the Hôpital Broussais is Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, an acquaintance who is to become Beckett’s companion for life (pages 281 to 284).
March – Murphy, his first novel to be published.
April – Begins experimentally writing poetry directly in French.

1939
3 September – Great Britain and France declare war on Germany. Beckett, visiting family in Ireland, ends his trip in order to return to Paris.

1940
June – Following the German invasion of France, Beckett flees south with Suzanne.
September – Returns to Paris.

1941
13 January – Death of James Joyce in Zurich.
1 September – Joins the Resistance cell Gloria SMH (pages 303 to 317).

1942
16 August – As soon as Beckett and Suzanne hear that the Nazis have arrested close friend and fellow member of his resistance cell, Alfred Péron, they pack a few bags and flee to a safe house, then make their way out of Paris and flee south, a dangerous trip which involves being smuggled over the border into unoccupied France.
6 October – They arrive at Roussillon, a small village in unoccupied southern France, where they spend the next two and a half years, during which Beckett worked as a labourer on a local farm owned by the Aude family, working away at his novel, Watt, by night (pages 319 to 339)

1944
24 August – Liberation of Paris.

1945
30 March – Awarded the Croix de Guerre for his Resistance work.
August to December – Volunteers as a lorry driver and interpreter with the Irish Red Cross in Saint-Lô, Normandy. Appalled by the devastation of war and works closely with people from different backgrounds (pages 345 to 350).

1946
July – Publishes first fiction in French, a truncated version of the short story Suite (later to become La Fin) as well as a critical essay on Dutch painters Geer and Bram van Velde (who he’d met and become friendly with in Germany).
Writes Mercier et Camier, his first novel in French which he leaves unpublished till the 1970s (p.360).
On a visit to his mother’s house in Ireland has the Great Revelation of his career (pages 351 to 353). He realises he’s been barking up the wrong tree trying to copy Joyce’s linguistic and thematic exuberance, and from now on must take the opposite path and investigate the previously unexplored territory of failure, imaginative impoverishment and mental collapse:

‘I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

This unlocks his imagination and from 1946 to 1949 he experiences a frenzy of productivity, writing the Beckett Trilogy of novels and Waiting For Godot, all in French, arguably his most enduring works.

1947
January to February – Writes first play, in French, Eleutheria, unproduced in his lifetime and published posthumously (pages 362 to 366).
April – French translation of Murphy.

1948
Undertakes a number of translations commissioned by UNESCO and by Georges Duthuit (pages 369 to 371).

1950
25 August – Death of his mother, May Beckett.

1951
March – Publication of first novel of The Beckett Trilogy, Molloy, in French.
November – Publication of the second novel of the Trilogy, Malone meurt, in French.

1952
Buys land at Ussy-sur-Marne and builds a modest bungalow on it, subsequently Beckett’s preferred location for writing.
September – Publication of En attendant Godot (in French).

1953
5 January – Premiere of Waiting for Godot at the Théâtre de Babylone in Montparnasse, directed by Roger Blin.
May – Publication of L’Innommable, third novel in the Trilogy.
August – Publication of the pre-war novel Watt, in English.

1954
8 September – Publication of Waiting for Godot in English.
13 September – Death of his brother, Frank Beckett, from lung cancer (pages 400 to 402)

1955
March – Molloy, translated into English with Patrick Bowles.
3 August – First English production of Waiting for Godot in England, at the Arts Theatre, London (pages 411 to 417)
November – Publication of Nouvelles et Textes pour rien.

1956
3 January – American premiere of Waiting for Godot in Miami, which turns out to be a fiasco; the audience had been promised a riotous comedy (p.420).
February – First British publication of Waiting for Godot.
October – Publication of Malone Dies in English.

1957
13 January – First radio play, All That Fall, broadcast on the BBC Third Programme.
Publication of Fin de partie, suivi de Acte sans paroles.
28 March – Death of Beckett’s friend, the artist Jack B.Yeats.
3 April 1957 – Premiere of Endgame at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in French.
August – Publication of his first radio play, All That Fall, in English.
October – Tous ceux qui tombent, French translation of All That Fall with Robert Pinget.

1958
April – Publication of Endgame, translation of Fin de partie.
Publication of From an Abandoned Work.
July – Publication of Krapp’s Last Tape.
September – Publication of The Unnamable which has taken him almost ten years to translate from the French original.
28 October – Premiere of Krapp’s Last Tape.
December – Anthology of Mexican Poetry, translated by Beckett.

1959
March – Publication of La Dernière bande, French translation of Krapp’s Last Tape with Pierre Leyris.
24 June – Broadcast of radio play Embers on BBC Radio 3.
2 July – Receives honorary D.Litt. degree from Trinity College Dublin. Dreads the ceremony but has a surprisingly nice time (pages 469 to 470)
November – Publication of Embers in Evergreen Review.
December Publication of Cendres, French translation of Embers done with Robert Pinget.
Publication of Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies,The Unnamable soon to become known as The Beckett Trilogy (a portmanteau title Beckett actively dislikes).

1960
23 August – Radio play The Old Tune broadcast on BBC Radio.

1961
January – Publication of Comment c’est.
24 March – Marries Suzanne at Folkestone, Kent.
May – Shares Prix International des Editeurs with Jorge Luis Borges.
August – Publication of Poems in English.
September – Publication of Happy Days.

1962
1 November – Premiere of Happy Days at the Royal Court Theatre, London.
13 November – Broadcast of radio play Words and Music on the BBC Third Programme.

1963
February – Publication of Oh les beaux jours, French translation of Happy Days.
May – Assists with the German production of Play (Spiel, translated by Elmar and Erika Tophoven) in Ulm.
22 May – Outline of Film sent to Grove Press.

1964
March – Publication of Play and Two Short Pieces for Radio.
April – Publication of How It Is, English translation of Comment c’est.
April – First performance in English of Play at the Old Vic in London.
June – Publication of Comédie, French translation of Play.
July to August – First and only trip to the United States, to assist with the production of Film in New York (pages 520 to 525)
6 October – Broadcast of radio play Cascando on BBC Radio 3.

1965
October – Publication of Imagination morte imaginez (in French) (p.531)
November – Publication of Imagination Dead Imagine (English translation of the above).

1966
January – Publication of Comédie et Actes divers, including Dis Joe and Va et vient (p.532)
February – Publication of Assez.
4 July – Broadcast of Eh Joe on BBC2.
October Publication of Bing.

1967
February – Publication of D’un ouvrage abandonné.
Publication of Têtes-mortes.
16 March – Death of Beckett’s old friend, Thomas MacGreevy, the colleague who played the crucial role in introducing Beckett to Joyce and other anglophone writers in Paris way back in 1930 (p.548).
June – Publication of Eh Joe and Other Writings, including Act Without Words II and Film.
July – Publication of Come and Go, the English translation of Va et vient.
26 September – Directs first solo production, Endspiel (German translation of Endgame) in Berlin (pages 550-554).
November – Publication of No’s Knife: Collected Shorter Prose, 1945 to 1966.
December – Publication of Stories and Texts for Nothing, illustrated with six ink line drawings by Beckett’s friend, the artist Avigdor Arikha.

1968
March – Publication of Poèmes (in French).
December – Publication of Watt, translated into French with Ludovic and Agnès Janvier.
9 December – British premiere of Come and Go at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

1969
16 June – his 1-minute skit, Breath, first performed as part of Kenneth Tynan’s revue Oh! Calcutta!, at the Eden Theatre, New York City. To Beckett’s outrage Tynan adds totally extraneous male nudity to the piece.
23 October – Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Gets news while on holiday in Tunisia. Appalled at the loss of his anonymity (pages 570 to 573).
Publication of Sans (p.569)

1970
April – Publication of Mercier et Camier, written as long ago as 1946.
Publication of Premier amour, also written in 1946.
July – Publication of Lessness, English translation of Sans.
September – Publication of Le Dépeupleur (pages 535 to 536)

1972
January – Publication of The Lost Ones, English translation of Le Dépeupleur.

1973
January – Publication of Not I.
16 January – London premier of Not I at the Royal Court theatre featuring Billie Whitelaw.
July – Publication of First Love.

1974
Publication of Mercier and Camier in English.

1975
Spring – Directs Waiting for Godot in Berlin and Pas moi (French translation of Not I) in Paris.

1976
February – Publication of Pour finir encore et autres foirades.
13 April – Broadcast of radio play Rough for Radio on BBC Radio 3.
20 May – Directs Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls, which is performed with That Time at London’s Royal Court Theatre in honour of Beckett’s seventieth birthday.
Autumn – Publication of All Strange Away, illustrated with etchings by Edward Gorey.
Luxury edition of Foirades/Fizzles, in French and English, illustrated with etchings by Jasper Johns.
December – Publication of Footfalls.

1977
March – Collected Poems in English and French.
17 April – Broadcast of …but the clouds… and Ghost Trio on BBC 2.
Collaboration with avant-garde composer Morton Feldman on an ‘opera’ titled Neither.

1978
May – Publication of Pas, French translation of Footfalls.
August – Publication of Poèmes, suivi de mirlitonnades.

1979
14 December – Premiere of A Piece of Monologue at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, New York.

1980
January – Publication of Compagnie (French) and Company (English).
May – Directs Endgame in London with Rick Cluchey and the San Quentin Drama Workshop.

1981
March – Publication of Mal vu mal dit (pages 668 to 671).
April 8 – Premiere of Rockaby at the State University of New York at Buffalo starring Billie Whitelaw.
April – Publication of Rockaby and Other Short Pieces.
9 May – Premiere of Ohio Impromptu at a conference of Beckett studies in Columbus, Ohio (pages 664 to 666).
October – Publication of Ill Seen Ill Said, English translation of Mal vu mal dit.
8 October – TV broadcast of Quad (pages 672 to 674).

1982
21 July – Premiere of Catastrophe at the Avignon Festival (pages 677 to 681).
16 December – Broadcast of Quad on BBC 2.

1983
April – Publication of Worstward Ho  (pages 674 to 677).
June – Broadcast in Germany of TV play Nacht und Träume (pages 681 to 683).
15 June – Premiere of What Where in America (pages 684 to 688).
September – Publication of Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment, containing critical essays on art and literature as well as the unfinished play Human Wishes.

1984
February  -Oversees San Quentin Drama Workshop production of Waiting for Godot in London, which features the best performance of Lucky he ever saw, by young actor J. Pat Miller (pages 690 to 691).
Publication of Collected Shorter Plays.
May – Publication of Collected Poems, 1930 to 1978.
July – Publication of Collected Shorter Prose, 1945 to 1980.

1989
April – Publication of Stirrings Still with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy (pages 697 to 699).
June – Publication of Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho illustrated with etchings by Robert Ryman.
17 July – Death of Beckett’s lifelong companion, Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (p.703).
22 December – Death of Samuel Beckett. Buried in Cimetière de Montparnasse (p.704).


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

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

Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 1

This is a brilliant literary biography, combining extraordinarily thorough research with discretion and sensitivity about Beckett’s private life, and a sure touch when it comes to analysing Beckett’s surprisingly numerous works. Everything a Beckett fan could ever want to know is covered, thoroughly and intelligently.

How James Knowlson came to write Samuel Beckett’s biography

James Knowlson (born in 1933) is Emeritus Professor of French and founder of the International Beckett Foundation at the University of Reading. He got to know Beckett after organising an academic conference to celebrate the fact that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize (1969) and founding the Beckett Archive at Reading, corresponding by letter and meeting him several times a year. As early as 1972 a publisher suggested he write a biography but when he broached the idea, Beckett said no.

But some 17 years later, the famous author changed his mind. He had realised that someone was going to write a biography come what may and that, on balance, he’d prefer it to be someone who knew and respected the actual works. He knew from their professional correspondence that Knowlson was very knowledgeable about his oeuvre and the result was that Beckett not only agreed to let Knowlson write the authorised biography, but agreed to give him a series of exclusive interviews and answer all the questions he posed.

Thus, over the last five months of his life, till Beckett’s death in December 1989, the two men had a series of long, in-depth interviews and Knowlson quotes from them liberally i.e. this book benefits hugely from Beckett’s own words and views about numerous aspects of his life and career. That is a masterstroke in the book’s favour.

But Knowlson went quite a lot further further and has spoken or corresponded with an extraordinary number of people, conducting over one hundred interviews with Beckett’s immediate family and close friends to a huge range of people he met in his professional life as a prose writer, playwright and director. The acknowledgements section lists them all and runs to six pages densely packed with names. The range is awesome and Kowlson’s stamina in meeting and corresponding with so many people, and then organising the resulting plethora of information into a coherent and fascinating narrative is awesome.

Samuel Beckett’s family and upbringing

Beckett’s family was comfortably upper-middle-class. His father, William, was a surveyor and made enough money to buy an acre of land in the rising suburb of Foxrock, south of Dublin, and build a big house on it which he named Cooldrinagh (after his wife’s family home), complete with servants’ quarters and tennis court.

The house was in sight of the Dublin hills which his father loved to go climbing and also of the sea, where the boy Beckett learned to swim and then dive into the locally famous pool named Forty-Foot at Sandycove. Not far away was the Leopardstown race track which features in various works, notably the radio play All That Fall.

Beckett’s parents were very different. His father, ‘Bill’ Beckett, was loud and sociable and not at all intellectual. He liked playing golf and going for long walks up into the Dublin hills. His mother, Amy, was tall and stern with a long face. Beckett inherited her looks and personality. The family was Protestant, the mother, in particular, being a devout church-goer.

Beckett had a brother, Frank, three years older, and a bevy of uncles and aunts who, with their own children, created a large, intelligent, well-off and cultured extended family. Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906, in later life he enjoyed the symbolism of having been born on Good Friday.

As a boy Beckett was sent to a small, eccentric preparatory school, Earlsfort House then, from age 13, on to an established public school, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (1919 to 1923) which, like most of its type, placed a big emphasis on sports and super-high standards of honesty, integrity and politeness. Everyone who ever met him later in life commented on Beckett’s immaculate manners and considerateness.

Beckett was very sporty

Beckett was a very sporty young man. At school he won medals for swimming and cross-country running, and was a very proficient boxer, becoming the school’s light heavyweight boxing champion. He was a keen golfer, joining his father’s club, Carrickmines Golf Club, playing for whole days at a stretch, and, when he went on to Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), representing the college at golf. He also played cricket for the college, and was included in the Dublin University team which went on a tour of English country clubs in 1926 and 1927. Hence the well-known fact that Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner who is also in the cricketing ‘Bible’, Wisden.

Beckett’s extended family was very musical and Beckett played the piano very well, well enough to know piano renditions of most of Gilbert and Sullivan when a boy, and to be able to play Debussy at university. When he was down in the dumps as a young man a friend hired a piano for his rooms to cheer him up.

Beckett’s parents bought him a motorbike in his final year at school, and then a two-seater ‘Swift’ sports car at college. As a student he was affluent enough to be able to pick holiday destinations, so one year went on a tour of the Loire Valley visiting the birthplaces of notable French writers, and, in his final college vacation, went to visit Florence where he looked up the sister of his Italian tutor at TCD.

Private school, piano lessons in a music-loving family, membership of sports clubs, top university in Ireland, motorbike, sports car, cultural trips abroad. Beckett had what we would nowadays think of as a very privileged upbringing.

Influences at Trinity College, Dublin

Beckett attended Trinity College Dublin from 1923 to 1927 where he studied Modern Literature. Here he came under the wing of the Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Browne Rudmore-Browne, a brash, aggressively freethinking, womanising intellectual who taught him the English classics and introduced Beckett to a wide range of French poets, classic and contemporary. ‘Ruddy’ as he was nicknamed, is caricatured as ‘the Polar Bear’ in Beckett’s early short story collection, More Pricks Than Kicks.

Beckett’s second formative influence was:

small, plump, middle-aged, Italian tutor named Bianca Esposito, who gave him detailed private lessons in Italian language and literature, who ignited his lifelong love for Dante and features in Pricks’ opening story, Dante and the Lobster.

Nearly 50 years later, Beckett still carried round the student copy of Dante Bianca gave him, packed with his notes and annotations.

Beckett was solitary and aloof

Despite all this physical prowess, and his height and his piercing blue eyes, Beckett was a shy boy, at prep and boarding school and at college. He often withdrew right into himself and, when forced to attend social occasions, did so without saying a word. Tall, clever and charismatic, young Beckett sometimes felt contempt for those less able than him, which he then felt guilty about, redirecting the loathing inwards at himself, creating a downward spiral of negative emotions.

In other words, despite all the privileges of his upbringing, his loving extended family, loads of material advantages, encouragement in sports and the best education money could buy, Beckett developed into a hyper-shy, extremely self-conscious young man, plagued by narcissism, solipsism and self-obsession. Here are just some of the phrases Knowlson uses about him at this period:

  • Beckett, the least gregarious of people (88)
  • Beckett was diffident and solitary (90)
  • Beckett’s cocoon of shyness and silence (90)
  • retiring and inhibited (92)
  • shy, retiring nature (95)
  • he would lapse into deep, uncomfortable silences (95)

The problem of pain

Like many a privileged young man, the discovery of the misery of the poor in his student years had a devastating effect on Beckett, and combined with intellectual doubts to undermine his Christian faith – something which went on to become a bone of contention with his pious mother.

A long time ago I was paid to do the research for a documentary series about the conflict between faith and atheism, a series which set out to define the arguments and counter-arguments across the full range of human history, culture, philosophy, psychology and so on. What emerged, at least in my opinion, was that beneath the thousand and one arguments of believers and atheists, both intellectual positions have One Big Fundamental Weak Spot:

The chief intellectual difficulty for thinking Christians is The Problem of Pain i.e. the very old conundrum that if God is all-powerful and all-loving why does he allow children to die in screaming agony? There is no answer to this, though thousands of theologians have come up with clever workarounds e.g. he is all-loving but is, for some reason, not quite all-powerful; or he is all-powerful but is not what we think of as all-loving because he is working to a plan which is beyond our understanding and presumptuous to try.

Thus Beckett was being very traditional, almost trite, in losing his faith once he came to appreciate the pain and misery in the world around him which his privileged upbringing had hitherto sheltered him from. In a way, most of his writing career went on to focus on this theologically-flavoured issue. (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Beckett’s central subject is not the Problem of Pain so much as the Problem of Physical and Mental Decay).

The biggest weak point in the Atheist position – the mirror image of what the Problem of Pain is for Christians – is The Problem of Consciousness: If we humans are the result of millions of generations of evolution by natural selection, descended from the first amoeba, and if we are the result of the purely mechanistic and amoral struggle for survival, how come we have such complex and delightful feelings and sense impressions, can be transported by the sight of a sunset or the fragrance of a flower? How come we have such a highly developed moral sense that can lead us to spend days debating the rights and wrongs of various actions, feeling such an acute sense of guilt, wasting so much time in complicated rumination? Surely we should just do whatever benefits us or the tribe without a moment’s thought. None of those attributes seem particularly useful for a creature which has come about via the blunt and violent process of evolution.

Maybe we can see this as another of Beckett’s central themes, or the other wing of his interests: the problem of consciousness, which in his prose works in particular, but also in most of the plays, is deeply compromised, broken, fragmented, in some cases, apparently, posthumous (in Play, for example).

Paris

(pp.107+). Beckett graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1927 with a BA degree. Patrons and supporters at the college wangled him the position of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris from November 1928 to 1930.

Paris came as a massive cultural and personal liberation. Throughout school and university Beckett had been strictly teetotal and sexually puritanical but in Paris he learned to drink, both beer and wine, becoming particularly partial to white wine. From now on there are numerous stories of Beckett getting completely trashed, passing out, being found under the table or passed out in alleyways, and so on.

Regarding sex, Knowlson gives detailed accounts of Beckett’s love affairs as a teenager and young man which were strongly shaped by his strict Protestant upbringing and the ferocious emphasis on ‘purity’ at his public school. As a result he was screwed up about sex in a predictably traditional way and Knowlson quotes from diaries, journals and early stories to show how he had the classic difficulty of reconciling the women he respected and placed on a pedestal with the ‘dirty’ shenanigans he got up to with hookers in Paris brothels, sex and love. (pp. 108, 139).

(Later, in the mid-1930s, when he was living a solitary existence in London during his two years of intensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic, Knowlson claims Beckett availed himself of London prostitutes on a regular basis.)

James Joyce

The post Beckett took up at the Ecole Normale Superieure had been occupied by another Irishman, Tom MacGreevey, who stayed on in the city he loved, and acted as guide and mentor to young Sam. MacGreevey had developed high-powered literary contacts and, among others, introduced him to James Joyce and his circle, his wife and grown-up son and daughter, his publishers and magazine editors and so on. It was a golden opportunity, an entrée into a whole new world.

Joyce was widely acknowledged to be the most important avant-garde writer in Europe. Beckett was a star-struck 23-year-old graduate. Sam quickly became one of the great man’s secretaries, tasked with finding Joyce books, reading them out loud or providing written summaries, as well as taking dictation and other chores. The master and the ephebe went for long walks along the Seine (Joyce’s flat was only 100 yards from the river).

Beckett was still so utterly shy that he hadn’t the small-talk to spend with Joyce’s wife, Nora, who, partly as a result, took against him. Whereas Joyce’s nubile and impulsive daughter Lucia, just a year younger than Beckett, became infatuated with the tall, aloof, blue-eyed sportsman, sitting near him at dinner, making eyes at him, inveigling him to take her for walks.

Countless articles have been written about the impact of Joyce on Beckett but the central, much-repeated point is that in the end, Joyce’s example helped set Beckett on a track diametrically opposite to the great man’s. Both men not only spoke the major European languages (English, French, Italian, German) and were deeply familiar with the respective canons of literature of each of these countries, but were impatient with the realist or Naturalist worldview they’d inherited from turn of the century literature – were committed to going beyond the realist worldview.

But whereas Joyce’s technique was accumulative, each sentence attracting to it multiple references and variations in other languages, breaking down English words and (by the 1930s) creating in their stead the entirely new polyglot language in which he wrote Finnegans Wake – Beckett found he could follow Joyce only so far. Indeed he did so in the short stories and novels of the 1930s, which are characterised by deliberately arcane syntax, literary references, the liberal sprinkling of obscure or foreign words, and an attitude which is deliberately contrived and non-naturalistic.

But Beckett lacked the musicality, the sensual feel for language, the world-embracing sympathy and the sheer joy of life which pours from Joyce’s pages. Beckett was by his nature much more tightly wrapped, intellectually costive, temperamentally depressive, repressed by his stern Protestant upbringing.

Compare and contrast the lovely swimming sensuality of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which ends Ulysses with any description Beckett ever wrote anywhere of sensuality and sex. Molly is sweet and sensual and world-accepting; Beckett writes about sex a lot, but it is nearly always shameful masturbating (Malone Dies), callous sucking-off (Mercier and Camier), the disgusting rutting described in the four post-war short stories, the horrible homosexual abuse in How it is and so on. Sex in Beckett is never any fun at all.

Joyce is open to all the world, his books are overflowing with characters, incidents and brimming over with the joy of language. Beckett is locked away in one small, grey room, lying in the darkness, listening to the voices in his head punishing him with guilt and remorse, obsessively paring away language till it is reduced to blunt telegraphese, laced with one or two obsessively repeated key phrases.

Beckett’s women

One of the most boring things about biographies is the attention they are forced to pay to their subjects’ love lives. Here, as everywhere else, Knowlson does a very good, thorough job, providing all the facts without judgement or salacity.

Peggy Sinclair (1911 to 1933)

Beckett fell madly in love with his cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, known as ‘Peggy’, daughter of William ‘Boss’ Sinclair who had married Sam’s aunt, Frances Beckett, generally known as ‘Cissie’. I’m not much interested in classic ups and downs of the actual ‘love affair’, the interesting thing was the way her parents moved from Dublin to Kassel in north Germany, and sent Peggy to school in Austria, so that his visits to see her accustomed Beckett to travelling all over the continent and speaking the local languages. He visited the Sinclair household in Kassel a number of times between 1928 and 1932.

Peggy was the inspiration behind the character of Smeraldina in Beckett’s first, unpublished novel, A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. Eventually the love affair burnt out, and when he visited the Sinclairs in the early 1930s, it was to be distressed by their mounting business problems and by Peggy’s deteriorating health. He was devastated when Peggy, by that stage engaged to another man, died of tuberculosis in May 1933 (page 168).

Lucia Joyce (1907 to 1982)

James Joyce’s daughter, unsmiling, squint-eyed Lucia Joyce, became infatuated with the tall, handsome Samuel and, to please his father, Sam obligingly took her for walks or out to dinner, but he was still in love with Peggy Sinclair and not in the market for affairs. Things came to a head when Lucia threw a fit, denouncing Beckett to her parents and claiming he had cruelly led her on. Egged on by Nora, Joyce cut his links with Beckett, refusing to see him again. Sam was distraught. It was only as the 1930s progress that it became increasingly obvious that Lucia was suffering from severe mental illness, and ended up being placed in a series of sanatoria. A couple of years later, the pair were quietly reconciled and when Beckett moved to Paris permanently in 1935, started to see a lot of each other again.

Ethna MacCarthy (1903 to 1954)

MacCarthy was arguably Beckett’s first mature love. She was a poet, short story writer and playwright who went on to carve a career as a paediatrician. Their love is very tenderly and respectfully traced.

These three women are singled out not least because Beckett’s first attempt at a full-length fiction was a novel about a young Irishman whose life is dominated by… three women! The novel eventually became titled A Dream of Fair To Middling Women (a typically learnèd reference to both Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Legend of Good Women and Alfred Tennyson’s long poem A Dream of Fair Women).

The Dream which is structured around a central protagonist (named, with characteristic over-learnedness, Belacqua Shuah, Belacqua being the name of a minor character noted for his lazy self-absorption in Dante’s Divine Comedy) and his relations with the three women, being Smeraldina, Syra-Cusa and the Alba. Much scholarly ink has been spilt arguing about which ‘real life’ women ‘inspired’ each character. Knowlson takes them to be based on Peggy, Lucia and Ethna, respectively.

After a year or so of trying to get the Dream published in the mid-1930s, and having it continually rejected, Beckett gave up and slowly came to regret having satirised his close friends and family so closely. In the end he actively suppressed the novel and it wasn’t published until 1992, three years after his death.

Writing

When he was introduced to Joyce, he not only met his family, but the network of book publishers and magazine editors connected with him. As an obviously highly intelligent, highly literate young man, Beckett found himself presented with opportunities to publish books, stories and articles which most aspiring authors can only dream of.

In 1929 he wrote his first short story, the 3-and-a-half-page Assumption which was immediately published in the leading avant-garde magazine, transition. Then a 100-line poem, Whoroscope, knocked off in a few hours in order to win the £10 prize for a poetry competition sponsored by literary entrepreneur and anthologist Nancy Cunard and published in July 1930.

A senior editor at Chatto and Windus suggested to Beckett that he write a detailed study of Proust for a series of literary introductions they were publishing. This Beckett did, extensively researching by rereading Proust, and the study was published in March 1931. Once he had bedded in with the Joyce circle he was commissioned to write a translation of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake into French. In other words Beckett was, by 1930, very well-connected with the leading avant-garde writer in Europe, his circle and supporters and publishers.

But, despite all these advantages, Beckett failed to find a published for A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. It went the rounds of numerous publishers, both mainstream and avant-garde for two years before Beckett gave up trying, and the trickle of odd, eccentric short stories he was writing fared no better.

In 1932 the teaching post at Ecole Normale Superieure terminated, and Beckett was forced to pack his bags and return to Ireland where he was extremely lucky to be offered a prestigious teaching post at Trinity Dublin, a very sought-after position, supported by Ruddy and other patrons and supporters.

Unfortunately, Beckett hated it and discovered he was awful at teaching. Miserable, that winter he fled to ‘Boss’ and Cissie Sinclair in Kassel in northern Germany, from where he wrote a letter of resignation which dismayed his sponsors and upset his parents.

Breakdown and psychotherapy

Having chucked in his prestigious job at Trinity, completely failed to get any of his writings published, and been forced to move back in with his parents in 1933, Beckett was deeply traumatised when his father, apparently still in the prime of life in his 60s, died of a massive heart attack, on 26 June 1933.

His father’s death exposed Beckett more than ever to the cloying, critical over-attention of his mother and Beckett suffered a series of increasingly serious physical symptoms, starting with a cyst on his neck, moving to heart palpitations, night sweats and panic attacks, which on several occasions brought him to a complete dead stop, in the street, paralysed with terror, and unable to move a muscle.

Beckett consulted a good friend of his from school, a nerve specialist, Geoffrey Thompson, who was planning to move to London and recommended Beckett to come with him and try psychotherapy at the relatively new Tavistock Clinic. So in January 1934 Beckett himself moved to digs in London and began his treatment with the pioneering psychotherapist Wilfred Bion. Bion was, Knowlson informs us, himself quite a strapping, hearty, sporty chap, while also being formidably well-educated at private school. So he and Beckett bonded on a social and personal level, quite apart from the treatment.

According to Knowlson, Beckett had psychotherapy with Bion for two years, at the rate of three times a week, which equals well over 2,000 sessions, during which Beckett explored his childhood, his formative influences, and came to realise the role his love-hate relationship with his mother played in cramping his life. He came to realise that, for his entire life to date, he had created an ivory tower founded on what he felt was his physical and intellectual superiority to all around him, becoming known for his aloofness and/or shyness, what Knowlson calls an:

attitude of superiority and an isolation from others that resulted from a morbid, obsessive immersion in self (page 180)

Beckett had to learn:

to counter his self-immersion by coming out of himself more in his daily life and taking a livelier interest in others (page 181)

But more than this, Knowlson claims that Bion showed him that he could mine many of these deeply personal compulsions and tendencies to create texts.

By externalising some of the impulses of the psyche in his work – the feelings of frustration and repressed violence for example – he would find it easier to counter the self-absorption that had seemed morbid and destructive in his private life. The writing thus became essential to his later mental and physical wellbeing.
(page 181)

Over 2,000 times Beckett lay on his back in a darkened room, closing his eyes, focusing on the moment, in order to let deeply buried memories bubble up from his unconscious, struggling to express them, struggling to understand their significance – while all the while another part of his mind observed the process with analytical detachment, critiquing the shape and pose of the figures in the memories, considering the words they spoke, assessing how the scene could be improved, the dialogue sharpened up, the dramatic core reached more quickly and effectively.

This is more or less the plot of Beckett’s late novella Company and clearly the basis of the so-called ‘closed room’ and skullscape’ fictions of the 1960s. You can also see how it forms the basis of the breakthrough novels Beckett wrote immediately after the war in French, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, texts of overweening, unprecedented self-absorption and self scrutiny. As late as his last published prose piece, Stirrings Still, Beckett is obsessed with a figure who regards himself as an ‘other’, sees himself rise and leave the room, although is other ‘self’ remains seated.

Reading Knowlson’s fascinating account of Beckett’s psychotherapy makes you realise the ‘essential’ Beckett was there all the time, lying dormant. First, though:

  1. he had to spend a decade, the 1930s, getting out of his system the immature wish to clutter his texts with smartarse quotes, foreign phrases, and mock-scholarly humour in the tradition of Rabelais and Sterne and Joyce, and then
  2. his experiences during the Second World War had to sear away any residues of Romantic optimism and even the last vestiges of late Victorian naturalism

for him to emerge in the immediate post-war period as the stripped-down, minimalist, and bleakly nihilistic writer who would go on to become one of the pillars of post-war literature.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

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

… but the clouds… by Samuel Beckett (1977)

but the clouds… is a short play by Samuel Beckett written expressly for television. It was written in English from October to November 1976, first televised on BBC 2 on 17 April 1977, and published by Faber and Faber later the same year.

By this stage in his career, Beckett’s stage directions for his plays had become super-schematic, so much so that they beg the question whether the works can really be referred to as plays at all, in any conventional sense. This one consists of about a page and a half of detailed stage instructions followed by barely three and a half of action and dialogue, of which the actual dialogue takes up less than half the space. It is a play – if it is a play at app – overwhelmingly, of silent movements.

The stage instructions list six elements to the piece and it is symptomatic that the one and only human in the piece is placed on the same level as camera setups and a disembodied voice:

  1. M – Near shot from behind of man sitting on invisible stool bowed over invisible table. Light grey robe and skullcap. Dark ground. Same shot throughout.
  2. M1 – M in set. Hat and greatcoat dark, robe and skullcap light.
  3. W – Close-up of woman’s face reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth. Same shot throughout.
  4. S – Long shot of set empty or with M1. Same shot throughout.
  5. V – M’s voice.

The directions go on to describe the set.

Set: circular, about 5 m. diameter, surrounded by deep shadow.

And, typically for Beckett, he provides a simple but very precise diagram.

Diagram of the camera angle and stage positions for ‘…but the clouds…’

The four cardinal points of the circle are numbered and given names, thus:

  1. West, roads.
  2. North, sanctum.
  3. East, closet.
  4. Standing position.

With number 5 indicating the position of the camera.

The play stipulates four ‘changes’ which require the performer to turn or walk into the shadow in each direction, or emerge from the shadow. And the lighting? As so often with Beckett, it plays with the bare minimum effect you can achieve on a stage, which is the spectrum from black to light via gloom and shadow. No colours.

Lighting: a gradual lightening from dark periphery to maximum light at centre.

This focus on the minimalist use of light and shadow echoes the lighting in Footfall, which was brightest at feet level, emphasising the pacing feet, and then tapered off so the body and face were in shadow or darkness.

And the obsessive precision doesn’t let up with the end of the initial stage set-up. The three and a half pages of the actual shooting script consist of precisely 60 detailed instructions for changes of lighting or shot. Less than half the text is actual speech. Over half of these directions are one-line shot directions. Here’s the first eight. Note how actual speech – V, the voice of the bowed man, M – are only 3 of the 8 lines:

  1. Dark. 5 seconds.
  2. Fade up to M. 5 seconds.
  3. V: When I thought of her it was always night. I came in –
  4. Dissolve to S. empty. 5 seconds. M1 in at and greatcoat emerges from west shadow, advances five steps and stands facing east shadow. 2 seconds.
  5. V: No
  6. Dissolve to M. 2 seconds.
  7. V: No, that is not right. When she appeared it was always night. I came in –
  8. Dissolve to S. empty. 5 seconds. M1 in hat and greatcoat emerges from west shadow, advances five steps and stands facing east shadow. 5 seconds.

28 words of speech to 64 of directions. Most of the speech is this minimal, although, as mentioned above, the sequence of relatively short, one-sentence directions is interspersed at intervals with longer descriptions of the four ‘changes’. Here’s the first ‘change’, direction number 25:

  1. Dissolve to S. empty. 2 seconds. M 1 in robe and skullcap emerges from north shadow, advances five steps and stands facing camera. 2 seconds. He turns left and advances five steps to disappear in east shadow. 2 seconds. He emerges in hat and greatcoat from east shadow, advances five steps and stands facing West shadow. 2 seconds. He advances five steps to disappear in west shadow. 2 seconds.

In fact, I counted the whole thing and if we include the 60 numbers and various other numbers (the ‘2’ in ‘2 seconds’ etc) as words, then the entire piece contains 1,093 words, of which 448 (40%) are spoken and 645 (60%) stage directions.

The spoken text

Going a step further, we can extract all the spoken words, thus, to see what kind of sense they make when extracted from the carapace of stage directions. Doing this makes it easier to spot the repeated phrases, the dogged repetition of certain key words or phrases being Beckett’s central technique.

3. V: When I thought of her it was always night. I came in
5. V: No
7. V: No, that is not right. When she appeared it was always night. I came in
9. V: Right. Came in, having walked the roads since break of day, brought night home, stood listening, finally went to closet
11. V: Shed my hat and greatcoat, assumed robe and skull, reappeared
13. V: Reappeared and stood as before, only facing the other way, exhibiting the other outline, finally turned and vanished
15. V: Vanished within my little sanctum and crouched, where none could see me, in the dark.
17. V: Let us now make sure we have got it right.
19. V: Right.
21. V: Then crouching there, in my little sanctum, in the dark, where none could see me, I began to beg, of her, to appear, to me. Such had long been my use and wont. No sound, a begging of the mind, to her, to appear, to me. Deep down into the dead of night, until I wearied, and ceased. Or of course until –
24. V: For had she never once appeared, all that time, would I have, could I have, gone on begging, all that time ? Not just vanished within my little sanctum and busied myself with something else, or with nothing, busied myself with nothing? Until the time came, with break of day, to issue forth again, shed robe and skull, resume my hat and greatcoat, and issue forth again, to walk the roads.
26. V: Right.
28. V: Let us now distinguish three cases. One: she appeared and –
31. V: In the same breath was gone…. Two: she appeared and –
33. V: Lingered… With those unseeing eyes I so begged when alive to look at me.
35. V: Three: she appeared and –
37. V: After a moment
38. W’s lips move, uttering inaudibly: ‘…clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…V murmuring, synchronous with lips: ‘…but the clouds…
39. V: Right.
41. V: Let us now run through it again.
47. V: Look at me.
49. W’s lips move, uttering inaudibly: ‘…clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…‘  V murmuring, synchronous with lips: ‘…but the clouds…
50. V: Speak to me.
52. V: Right. There was of course a fourth case, or case nought, as I pleased to call it, by far the commonest, in the proportion say of nine hundred and ninety-nine to one, or nine hundred and ninety-eight to two, when I begged in vain, deep down into the dead of night, until I wearied, and ceased, and busied myself with something else, more … rewarding, such as … such as … cube roots, for example, or with nothing, busied myself with nothing, that MINE, until the time came, with break of day, to issue forth again, void my little sanctum, shed robe and skull, resume my hat and greatcoat, and issue forth again, to walk the roads… The back roads.
54. V: Right.
57. V: ‘…but the clouds of the sky…when the horizon fades…or a bird’s sleepy cry…among the deepening shades…’

The Gontarski production

So what do all these detailed instructions look like in practice? This is a production directed by Stanley E. Gontarski, the noted Beckett scholar.

Several points arise.

1. One is that the Gontarski production uses music, quite prominent modern music and musical sound affects such as the single penetrating note when the image of the woman appears. None of this is justified by the directions.

2. The second is that the precision of the circular set and the precise imagining of the man moving from one cardinal point to another are completely lost in a TV or film production, because we are all used to basic movie or TV technique, namely the camera’s point of view jumping all over the place, from one angle to another, from long shot, aerial shot, slow-mo, close-ups and what-have-you. So we have little or no sense of the man moving carefully from one point of the compass to another as indicated in the stage directions. He just seems to be moving in and out of darkness.

In this respect, the directions are very much conceived as stage directions, based on the notion of a fixed and unmoving audience point of view – and do not translate very well into the much more flexible medium of television/film.

3. Another is that the meanings Beckett attributes to the four points of the compass in his stage directions:

  1. West, roads.
  2. North, sanctum.
  3. East, closet.
  4. Standing position.

Only come out with great subtlety if at all. Nobody watching the piece would know that when the main figure goes to the shadowy position off to the left of the set, this is ‘1. West, roads’. The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett suggests that these later plays are ‘post-literary’ in the sense that simply reading them is not enough, you have to see them in production to grasp the meaning. But I think this is incorrect in two respects. One, anyone who’s ever made any film or TV can tell you that a shooting script is just as ‘post-literary’, in the same sense, that it’s just a set of instructions for creating a final programme or movie.

But, secondly, these late playlets do in fact demand to be read, precisely so that you can enjoy the precision and mathematical numeration of their layout. Rather than being ‘post-literary’, they are in fact a new kind of literary, a new genre, a super-precise, over-enumerated, computer readout style of playwriting, which Beckett took to an extreme, and which has a mechanistic flavour and pleasure distinct to itself.

4. Lastly, an actual visualisation like this brings out what is easy to overlook when reading the text, which is the sudden appearance of those images of the woman:

W – Close-up of woman’s face reduced as far as possible to eyes and mouth. Same shot throughout.

When you read the text, the importance of the woman is easy to overlook because she has no physical presence and doesn’t do anything or say anything. But in the produced film – well, in this one at any rate – the woman has a striking, almost dominating, presence and really brings out the male narrator’s abject submission to her, or the memory of her.

5. And her visual dominance rises to a climax at the two times when we see her face mouthing the words and the male voice speaking them:

‘ …clouds…but the clouds…of the sky…but the clouds…’

These are genuinely spooky. The superimposition of one person’s mouth mouthing words while another person’s voice actually articulates then is genuinely creepy, like a sci fi nightmare, a tale of possession and dispossession.

Themes and interpretations

W.B. Yeats

The title of the piece and those short phrases which the woman mouths and the narrator speaks, are all from the end of a poem, The Tower, by the great Irish poet W.B. Yeats:

Now shall I make my soul,
Compelling it to study
In a learned school
Till the wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Testy delirium
Or dull decrepitude,
Or what worse evil come –
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in the breath –
Seem but the clouds of the sky
When the horizon fades;
Or a bird’s sleepy cry
Among the deepening shades.

The poem expresses an attitude of detachment associated with Eastern philosophy. The poet will deliberately mould his soul in such a way as to be a tower amid the human chaos, so utterly schooled in a philosophy of detachment that every aspect of human life, all its trials and tribulations, will seem but the clouds in the sky, faraway and transient.

With this in mind we can see how the play enacts a dynamic tension, between a man who is trying to attain this level of detachment, to rise above himself and his own petty concerns – but who is quite clearly still in thrall to the image and memory of the woman who, we deduce, he has loved and lost. He is trying to escape from the world – but repeatedly dragged down into it by his own passions and longing.

It is, therefore, despite all the alienating and mechanical modernist trappings, a love story; or a story of lost love, of a man haunted by his lost love and making up all manner of mechanical and mathematical protocols to try and smother and control his hurt.

Endlessly trying to complete a narrative

In countless plays and prose texts since The Unnamable Beckett protagonists have struggled to complete a narrative – in order to achieve completion and closure, in order to get it right, so as to define and understand something, so as to be able to move on.

But they never can. The circle is never complete, the story is never told. My favourite example is the radio play Cascando in which the Voice endlessly restarts and tries to complete one single anecdote about a man who wakes, goes down to the sea, and launches a dinghy… but the Voice can never quite complete the tale or get it right, despite trying, over and over.

Presumably this is easily enough identified as an allegory on ‘the human condition’ – permanently trying to complete, finish and understand our lives and what we’ve done, forever condemned not to be able to.

And so this short play appears to be another iteration of the same basic idea, with the man saying:

39. V: Right.
41. V: Let us now run through it again.

Unaware or not acknowledging that he’s going to have to keep ‘running through it again’, forever.

The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett makes the canny point that the narrator is split in two, into M and M1, because he is directing himself. It is M who is directing his puppet self, ‘M in set’, to try and achieve the ‘right’ result.

This insight sheds light on many of Beckett’s texts, which are routinely divided between a kind of doing protagonist and a consciousness protagonist, between the self doing and the self commenting on the self doing. This insight suggests that all these texts are, in a sense, plays, in which the observing commenting self is endlessly directing the actor self, rehearsing the scene or sequence over and over again till he gets it right. But he can never get it right, only fail again, fail better.

The meaning of numbers

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, reading the obscure autobiographical fragment, Heard in the Dark 2, was a revelation because in it Beckett writes about the boy protagonist that:

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble…Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort…

This, for me, is the key which opens Beckett’s entire worldview, and explains the deeper meaning of his mechanical way of conceiving of the human body, human nature and, above all, the mechanical, rote movements of human bodies, as described in his numerous prose texts, plays and mimes.

Yes, they fall in with the avant-garde tradition dating from Dada of viewing human beings as robots, automata, and this aspect of his work has a strong anti-humanist intention.

But Heard In The Dark 2 reveals that the obsession with numbers also has a very personal psychological meaning for Beckett. It is comforting. It is reassuring. It was a help in times of trouble to the boy and young man, and it is a similar ‘help’ in all his adult fictions.

This piece is no exception and it comes as no surprise when the narrating Man says that, when his desperate pleas to the woman meet with failure – then he busies himself with other things, with something:

more…rewarding, such as…such as…cube roots, for example…

It is no surprise that he categorises the woman’s appearances into four types. It is no surprise that he has worked out the relative proportions in which these cases arise.

This obsession with numbers (and also with enumerating every possible permutation of basic human movements such as infest the experimental novel Watt), this obsession underpins everything Beckett wrote, and especially the plays, which, as we pointed out at the start of this review, became by the mid-1970s, increasingly obsessed with numbers in their apparatus (the stage directions) and in their onstage actions (the actor’s precisely specified movements) and in the text, the actual words spoken. Three levels. Thus:

  1. The superprecise description of the set and the precise numbering of the 60 stage directions.
  2. The superprecise description of the four pieces of onstage activity, the so-called ‘changes’ between one part and the next
  3. The numerical content of what M actually says, namely the enumeration of the four ‘cases’ and then his assessment of the proportion of these ‘cases’, nine hundred and ninety-nine to one, or nine hundred and ninety-eight to two…’, the cube roots and so on

What is the consoling nature of numbers? Well, numbers give the appearance of meaning, even when there is none. They belong to a world of reassuringly objective truth and consistency. In this short piece the psychological reassurance they provide is linked to the voice’s repeated description of himself seeking out his ‘inner sanctum’, ‘where none can see him”, where he crouches and hides away, busying himself with…the consoling power of numbers.

Let’s look at those four cases more closely. M enumerates four possibilities:

  1. the woman appears and instantly leaves
  2. she appears and lingers
  3. she appears and speaks Yeats’s words
  4. she does not appear at all whereupon the narrator busies himself with consolatory activities such as cube roots

In this respect, numbers are like a replacement for religion, which Beckett appears to have long since abandoned. They are a lucid, rational, objective system which can be used to give logic, order and meaning to what are, otherwise, the utterly meaningless actions and the hopelessly unfulfillable hopes of the human animal.

Trudging

Beckett characters walk a lot. Well, trudge might be a better word. Trudge endlessly across bleak landscapes as in Fizzle 8, or as with Pozzo and Lucky endlessly circling round their little world in Godot, or the 120 lost souls traipsing around inside their rubber cylinder in The Lost Ones.

Walking is a basic element of the profoundest, deepest allegorical fictions in literature, from Dante walking through hell and purgatory to Pilgrim walking through the allegorical landscape of Pilgrim‘s Progress.

In Beckett, however, walking is deliberately reduced, humiliated, to trudging, round in a circle, or shuffling forward bent painfully over like the old man in Enough.

Here the male figure, when all else fails, has no other recourse except to take his hat and coat, issue forth again and take to the roads, a phrase repeated four times, to walk the roads, the back roads, trudging and traipsing without hope or consolation…


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

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