Pro Caelio by Cicero (56 BC)

Background

Marcus Tullius Cicero gave the speech known as Pro Caelio on 4 April 56 BC in defence of his young protegé and one-time friend, Marcus Caelius Rufus, generally known as Caelius.

The full background to the trial is staggeringly complicated. It is explained in great detail and with admirable clarity by D.H. Berry, editor and translator of the excellent Oxford University Press edition of (five) Defence Speeches by Cicero (2000).

The Cataline conspiracy

In 63 BC Cicero was consul during the crisis of the Cataline Conspiracy i.e. the attempt of the disgruntled aristocrat to lead an armed overthrow of the Roman state. He was in north Italy raising an insurrectionary army when five leading conspirators, including some senators, were caught in Rome and implicated by letters and then confessed. Cicero led a debate in the senate about what to do with them which concluded by voting to execute them and Cicero led them straightaway to the state execution or carnifex who did the deed.

In the years that followed various of Cicero’s enemies developed the accusation that, because the five had never been granted a full (long and probably delayed) trial, they had been illegally killed – and that Cicero was therefore guilty of murder and treason (killing senators).

One of the lead proponents of this view was the nasty piece of work known as Publius Clodius Pulcher, an eccentric scion of the distinguished Claudius clan, who had arranged to be adopted by a plebeian family in order to stand for office as tribune of the plebs. He used this office to pass measures designed to appeal to the people and made rabble-rousing speeches. He developed a following of thugs who terrorised the streets of Rome and even beat up senators and other magistrates.

Cicero sent into exile

In 58 BC, while serving as tribune, Clodius got a law passed declaring it treason to have any Roman citizen put to death without a trial. Everyone knew this was directed at Cicero and his precipitate action in having the five high-ranking Catiline conspirators executed – so he swiftly packed up his things and went into exile, in Greece.

He was gone for a long, miserable 18 months during which Clodius had his house in Rome torn down and had a temple to Liberty build over the ruins, as well as having Cicero’s other properties around Italy looted and sacked.

But the mood in Rome changed. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English as Pompey, had acquiesced in Cicero’s exile but then Clodius got above himself and started attacking Pompey verbally and attacking some of his lieutenants in the street. Pompey and the other members of the triumvirate realised they’d let Clodius get out of control. Pompey signalled to his followers that he would support Cicero’s exile being ended and so a law was raised and passed declaring Cicero innocent of any wrongdoing.

So Cicero made a triumphant return to Brundisium and the a triumphant progress across south Italy feted in every town as the Father of the Nation. In his absence Clodius had not only destroyed his homes but sponsored mistreatment of his wife, Terentia. So the two men were at daggers drawn.

Marcus Caelius Rufus

Now to Marcus Caelius Rufus. Born in 82 BC, and so 24 years younger than Cicero, Caelius had been Cicero’s pupil and protégé, learning the arts of politics and oratory at first hand. In 63, however, he was intoxicated, like many others, by the revolutionary rhetoric of the half-mad Cataline and supported his bid to become consul (the same election which was won by Lucius Licinius Murena, who Cicero had defended in another famous speech).

He appears to have abandoned the Cataline cause when the latter when postal and decided to launch an all-out insurrection. Instead Caelius went off to serve as assistant to the governor of Africa from 62 to 60. Back in Rome he began to make a name for himself as a lawyer by launching a prosecution against Gaius Antonius Hybrida, the man who had been co-consul with Cicero in 63, and who had ‘led’ the army which finally defeated Catalina in the field.

Cicero didn’t much like Antonius but figured the state owed him a debt of gratitude and so defended him – but Caelius won the case, defeating his old master. Inspired by his success, Caelius moved to the smart set on the Palatine Hill and rented a room from Clodius, close to the residence of his sister, Clodia. Clodia’s husband had recently died (59 BC) and it was widely rumoured that Caelius became her lover.

As described above, in 58 Clodius held office as tribune and got Cicero exiled; 18 months later in 57 Cicero was triumphantly recalled. Then at the end of 57 or beginning of 56 Caelius broke with the Clodiuses. Did she dump him, did the men fallout? We don’t know, but Berry thinks the most likely reason is that Caelius had switched his political allegiance from the Clodii to Pompey, who was increasingly antagonistic to them. Whatever the exact reason, in their venomous way the brother and sister decided to take revenge.

Lucius Calpurnius Bestia

The proximate cause of the trouble was the trial of Lucius Calpurnius Bestia. Caelius was prosecuting Bestia for malpractice in the elections for the praetorship of 57, in which Bestia stood unsuccessfully. Now this Bestia had been on trial no fewer than four times previously, and Cicero had defended and got him acquitted on each occasion. So now he defended Bestia against his old protégé, Caelius, and won again. However, Caelius was not daunted. Bestia was planning to stand for the praetorship this year as well and so Caelius launched yet another prosecution against him.

But at this point Bestia’s son, Lucius Sempronius Atratinus, got involved. He realised the best form of defence is attack and so launched a pre-emptive prosecution against Caelius. If Caelius was convicted he would be unable to take forward his prosecution of Bestia. Atratinus needed to move fast to protect his dad and so launched the prosecution in the violence court (quaestio de vi) which, unlike other courts, sat during public holidays. (This fact would be central to Cicero’s speech.) And, crucially, Atratinus’s attack on Caelius attracted the support of Clodius and his sister. They agreed to be witnesses against Caelius and suggested some additional charges against him (see below for the charges).

Caelius was an experienced orator and so elected to defend himself – but he also managed to persuade the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus to join him. Improbably, he also persuaded Cicero to join his defence. You’d have thought there was no love lost between Cicero and his protégé who had betrayed him twice over, once joining the diabolical Catalina, and then allying with his nemesis, Clodius. But it seems that Cicero invoked that timeless equation, my enemy’s enemy is my friend: anyone who Clodius hated must be worth defending.

Ptolemy XII of Egypt

There’s more? Yes, involving – bizarrely enough – the king of Egypt. In 80 BC Alexander of Egypt died and bequesthed his nation to Rome. The throne was usurped, however, by Ptolemy XII ‘Auletes’ who proceeded to rule with the nervous knowledge that at any moment Rome might step in to claim its prize. Thus he sucked up to the Romans at every turn, much to the dislike of his people. When the triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey took power in 60 BC Ptolemy offered to pay them the huge sum of 6,000 talents in exchange for formal recognition of his title. But when he tried to collect it from h is people they rebelled and expelled him from the kingdom.

Ptolemy took refuge in Rome where he borrowed and got into debt lobbying and bribing Roman politicians to raise an army to restore him to power. But the Egyptians didn’t want him back and so in 57 sent a deputation of their best men, led by the Academic philosopher Dio, to put their case before the senate. Ptolemy’s response was to try and get the leading men assassinated, to organise an uprising against them when they stopped in Naples and to bribe slaves in the noble houses where they stayed in Rome to kill them.

At the end of 57 the senate finally found in Ptolemy’s favour but then someone found a reference in the Sibylline books which allegedly forbade it, so the senate rescinded its gesture. Pompey was lobbying to be appointed general in charge of restoring Ptolemy against his rebellious population when, early in 56, Dio was murdered.

Everybody suspected everybody else – the killing obviously suited Ptolemy who wanted the delegation to fail and Pompey who wanted the generalship of imposing Ptolemy on his reluctant people – and a number of prosecutions swiftly followed.

First an agent of Pompey’s, Asicius, was tried for the murder of Dio; Cicero defended him and he was acquitted.

Next we come to the case brought against Caelius by Atratinus. As we have seen this was predominantly motivated by Atratinus’s wish to have Caelius convicted so he wouldn’t be able to prosecute his (Atratinus’s) father, Bestia, for the sixth time. The Clodii were persuaded to join the prosecution against Caelius because a) they had a personal grudge against him, mixed up with the way he had ceased to be Clodia’s lover, nobody knows the details but it obviously left them both furious; and b) it was a way of getting at Pompey, who Clodius now hated.

The charges

The prosecution brought five charges against Caelius, all relating to the disturbances surrounding Dio’s embassy to Rome, namely:

  1. the civil disturbances which affected the Egyptian delegation in Naples
  2. assaults on the delegation at Puteoli
  3. damage to the property of Palla (nobody knows who Palla is but presumably something connected with the above)
  4. taking gold for the attempted murder of Dio and then the attempted poisoning of Clodia: in more detail the charge was that Caelius borrowed gold from Clodia under false pretences, with the intention of using it to bribe servants at the house where Dio was staying to murder him; then, when Clodia discovered what Caelius was planning, Caelius attempted to bribe some of her slaves to poison her in order to shut her up
  5. the murder of Dio – Caelius was accused of being in league with Asicius to have Dio murdered (despite the illogic of the fact that Asicius had, by the time of the trial, been qcuitted – and by Cicero, who therefore had intimate knowledge of all the circumstances surrounding the murder

The preceding speeches

Prosecution

Atratinus spoke first and made an extended attack on Caelius’s character, calling him a ‘pretty boy Jason’, a loose-living, immoral lover of luxury, corrupt and used to committing bribery and violence.

Clodius Confusingly, Berry thinks the ‘Clodius’ who spoke at the trial was not the Clodius but someone who shared the name or a freed slave. We don’t have a transcript but it is likely he deplored the treatment of the Egyptian delegation, criticised Pompey for his support for the corrupt and unpopular Ptolemy, and referred to the evidence Clodia would give at the end of the trial to the effect that a friend of Caelius’s was caught handing poison to some of her, Clodia’s, slaves, having bribed them to poison her with it.

Lucius Herrenius Balbus closing the case for the prosecution, Balbus repeated the accusations of immorality against Caelius, and therefore his unfitness to be continuing the prosecution of Bestia (i.e. fulfilling the core aim of Atratinus who brought the prosecution in the first place.)

Defence

Caelius spoke in his own defence, wittily referring to Clodia as a ‘one-penny Clytemnestra’ i.e. a loose women who murdered her husband (she was suspected of poisoning him). We don’t have his speech either, but it is logical to imagine that he defended himself against all five of the charges.

Crassus ditto, presumably addressed the charges.

Cicero’s speech pro Caelio

Cicero was (as he preferred to be) the third and final of the three defence speakers.

Cicero takes advantage of the fact that the trial was taking place on the first day of the Megalensian games. While everyone else was watching the games in the circus the jury of 75 was stuck all day in the forum listening to this legal case. Therefore Cicero sets out to entertain them, by adopting a jocular tone throughout, telling jokes, impersonating famous people.

Above all it is a relentlessly ad hominem attack on the plaintiffs. In this respect it is a classic example of misdirection. Instead of answering any of the prosecution’s arguments, Cicero turns his speech into a) a defence of Caelius’s character but above all b) a devastating attack on one of the chief movers of the case, Clodia.

In this trial, members of the jury, everything has to do with Clodia, a woman who is not only of aristocratic birth, but notorious. (31)

an impetuous, capricious and angry woman (55)

With a woman like that anything is possible (69)

He is witheringly insulting. The prosecution had painted Rufus as a pretty-boy Jason, but in the ancient story Jason was seduced by the monster of anger and revenge, Medea, and so Cicero is not slow to compare Clodia to Medea, calling her the ‘Medea of the Palatine’ (18). He compares her to a prostitute (1, 37, 48, 49, 50, 57) and a sex-starved matron. He accuses her of incest (32, 34). He says the entire case only exists because of her ‘insupportable passion and bitter hatred’ (2), ‘to gratify the whim of a licentious woman’ (70), that it originates from:

a malevolent, disreputable, vindictive, crime-ridden, lust-ridden house (55)

and:

a household like this in which the lady of the house behaves like a prostitute, in which nothing that goes on is fit to be made public, in which perverted lusts, extravagant living, and all kinds of outlandish vices and outrages are rife (57)

The prosecution had calculated that Caelius would not reveal that he was actually Clodia’s lover and he apparently didn’t – but Cicero did, and depicted Clodia as a nymphomaniac who, if she was spurned, lied, bribed and cheater her way to revenge. Cicero admits their liaison but in such a way as to make Clodia seem the main mover of it, an immoral seducer and then, once spurned, a vengeful harpy. By sleight of hand, or deft presentation, Cicero manages to reveal the affair but have Caelius emerge unblemished. Thus Cicero didn’t address any of the charges, but dismissed them all as the pretexts of a deranged nymphomaniac.

He associates Clodia with Baiae, the southern resort which had become associated with decadence and immorality:

Baiae talks all right, and not only that, it resounds with this report – that the lusts of a single woman have sunk to such depths that she does not merely decline to seek seclusion and darkness with which to veil her immoralities, but openly revels in the most disgusting practices amid crowds of onlookers and in the broadest light of day! (47)

Cicero does address the two specific charges that Caelius took gold from Clodia under false pretences to pay for the murder of Dio, and that, when she found out, he tried to poison her. But he very effectively destroys the plausibility of both charges. Why on earth did she give him such a large amount of gold, unless he was her lover? And as to the entire story about Caelius attempting to poison Clodia when she discovered what he was really using the gold for, Cicero subjects this to a long forensic deconstruction, which demolishes every step of the supposed narrative as wildly improbable until the whole story collapses (56 onwards).

But he goes one further. He pounces on the entire notion of poison and makes the prosecution realise they made a terrible mistake raising it: because Clodia herself was suspected of poisoning her husband, and Cicero describes the death bed scene of this husband, Quintus Metellus, in harrowing detail and in a subtle way so as to implicate Clodia in his death – all in such a way as to completely distract attention away from Caelius.

But far longer is the passage where he ridicules the entire notion of Clodia recruiting men friends to wait concealed in the public baths till they say Lucinius hand over the famous box of poison to one of her slaves. Where are these brave hiders, Cicero asks. What are their names, why have they not been produced by the prosecution, where did they hide, in an actual bath or was there a wooden horse nearby, like at Troy? You can imagine the jury rocking with laughter. Over 2,000 years later it’s still funny and funnier because Cicero keeps piling on the comic exaggeration and ridiculous variations on the prosecution’s narrative, reducing it to smoking wreckage.

This itself is a triumph of the barrister’s manipulating art. But the OUP editor Berry makes a further point. The entire case had a very fraught political significance. The Roman public had been outraged by the shameless murder of an emissary from a foreign country who had come to live, unprotected, among them. It breached very profound codes of hospitality and civilisation. Everyone knew that Pompey supported Dio’s enemy, Ptolemy, and so the case had the serious potential to badly unravel and make Pompey very unpopular.

By focusing on Clodia alone, Cicero managed to contain this: he eclipsed the genuine outrage felt by many over the murder with a pantomime act. Personalising it depoliticised it. It also meant Cicero didn’t have to take a view either way, doing which would have risked alienating either the people or Pompey. Instead he ignored the charges and produced a Carry On entertainment which gave everyone a good laugh.

Each of the Cicero speeches in this volume has a moment when the argument ends, and the conclusion begins. Having read two of them I can begin to see how each speech ends with a description of the distressed family of the accused, and a sentimental appeal to the jury not to condemn the wife, children, mother or father of the accused to misery and shame, in Caelius’s case, Cicero paints a heart-breaking portrait of Caelius’s father as an old man with no-one else to look after him.

The result

Caelius was acquitted which allowed him, against Atratinus’s plans, to proceed with his prosecution of Bestia. Once again Cicero defended Bestia but lost. Bestia went into exile.

The next year, 55, Ptolemy was restored to the Egyptian throne by bribing the governor of Syria, Aulus Gabinius with the eye-watering sum of 10,000 talents. On his return to Rome Gabinius was prosecuted for this, Cicero defended him but lost and Gabinius also was sent into exile.

Ptolemy ruled until his death in 51 when he divided the throne between his son, Ptolemy XIII and daughter Cleopatra VII. It was his deep involvement in the cause of their father, which led Pompey, after his disastrous defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48, to decide to make his way to Egypt to seek sanctuary with Auletes son. This was a fateful decision because Ptolemy XIII’s advisers told him Julius Caesar would like it if he eliminated his rival – and so Pompey was brutally murdered as he set foot ashore in Egypt (Plutarch’s Life of Pompey, chapter 79).

Caelius was elected tribune in 52. This was the year when Clodius was finally murdered, by his longstanding rival Titus Annius Milo, and Caelius helped Cicero defend his killers (see another of Cicero’s best-known speeches, Pro Milone).

In 51 Cicero reluctantly acquiesced in being sent by the senate to be governor of Cilicia, now south-west Turkey. Caelius was elected aedile, in Rome, while he was away and any reader of Cicero’s letters is familiar with the way Cicero had him promise to send him all the news and gossip he could gather. Caelius memorably keeps needling Cicero to send him some panthers so he can make a splash at the public games which he, as aedile, was charged with organising.

When the civil war broke out Caelius made the right call and supported Caesar and was appointed one of the praetors. However, he put forward radical plans for debt relief against the wishes of his fellow praetors, which caused a riot and he was suspended from office. He fled Rome and, along with Milo, who he had helped defend 4 years earlier, tried to foment a revolt against Caesar, but they were both killed by Caesar’s troops. Few, if any, happy endings in ancient Rome.


Credit

Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

Related links

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Trinummus (A Three-Dollar Day) by Plautus (c.200 BC)

‘Stick to the good old ways, my boy, and always do as I tell you.’
(Old Philto to his son Lysiteles, page 176)

Introduction

E.F. Watling’s brief one-page introduction points out the similarities and differences between this play and Mostellaria. Both involve a young adult son taking advantage of his father’s absence to squander the family fortune in riotous living. The difference is that in Mostellaria the father returns early ion the play which turns out into a series of evermore hilarious attempts by the son’s tricky slave to come up with cock and bull stories to cover the situation. Whereas in Trinummus the father doesn’t return till the end.

The comic exuberance of Mostellaria is replaced by the what Watling describes as an excess of moral edification, with no fewer than four elderly gentlemen taking it in turns to deliver words of advice or reproof for their contemporaries, juniors, or society in general (being the young wastrel’s neighbours, Megaronides and Callicles, his best friend’s father, Philto, and his own elderly slave, Stasimus).

Instead of the comic improvisation and verbal violence of the other plays I’ve read, this one overflows with worthy sententiae (plural of sententia, defined as: ‘brief moral sayings, such as proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims, or apophthegms taken from ancient or popular or other sources, often quoted without context.’)

Ancient literature, whether the Bible, Greek or Latin, is packed with them. They are pleasurable to read and get approving murmurs and applause from the audience but, as Gripus remarks in Rudens, nobody has ever been known to put any of them into actual practice:

  • It is a far better thing to be what you ought to be than to be what you want to be.
  • A prudent man is the architect of his own fate.
  • The only virtuous man is the man who knows how far he falls short of virtue and honesty.
  • Prudence isn’t a matter of age, but of character.
  • Never speak ill of an absent friend.

Watling points out that the comic spur in many of these plays is provided by a deception – deception, deceit and disguise, more usually multiple levels of deception and disguise as various scams and deceptions are kept aloft by a skilled juggler, generally the trickster slave, till they all come crashing down in the final scene.

No women appear. Women, and the bad behaviour they inspire in men, are treated in a theoretical, moralising manner. The old geezers who dominate the text grumpily complain about their nagging wives, in a way which was humorously widespread in my youth (for example, Jerry being scared of his wife, Margot, in The Good Life) but which might nowadays be classed as misogyny.

Trinummus

The Prologue introduces herself as Luxury and it’s striking how candidly she tells the audience that this play was translated by Plautus from a Greek original by Philemon entitled Thesaurus or The Treasure. Very starkly she tells us she has been accompanying a young man while, in his father’s absence, he squandered his family’s wealth, and now it has just about run out, she (Luxury) is sending her daughter, Poverty, into the house.

Charmides is a mature man. He is away on business. In his absence his son, Lesbonicus, has been spending all his patrimony on food and booze and fancy women. The play opens as Megaronides emerges from his house and sets the tone of the play with a page-long lecture about the moral decadence of the times, while wickedness flourishes. He sets off to tell his new neighbour, Callicles, that he’s done a disreputable thing by buying the house of old Charmides (next door to Megaronides – several of the plays feature houses right next each other; must have kept the sets simple).

Callicles explains the reason behind it: Charmides told him he had stashed a box of gold in the house (3,000 Phillipics) and Callicles must at all costs protect it. Next thing he knew, young Lesbonicus had put the house up on the market. Should he, Callicles asks Megaronides, have let Lesbonicus sell it to just anyone, who would then have discovered the chest of treasure and claimed it as their own? Obviously not. So he stepped in and bought the house himself and is keeping it till Charmides returns. Lesbonicus, his sister, and his lover are now relegated to the annexe at the back of the house.

This explanation goes on for four or five pages and there’s nothing at all funny about it. It’s more like a problem in ethics which the two old men are chewing over.

‘Oh,’ says Megaronides, ‘so it was a worthy and honourable deed after all. OK.’ Megaronides rounds out the scene not with a comic twist but a page-long lecture about the wickedness of Rumour and Gossip who had falsely maligned Callicles.

Lesbonicus’s best friend is Lysiteles, and he now enters strolling long to his mate’s place. He bumps into his father, Philto, who delivers a barrage of moral advice, to which Lysiteles willingly agrees. He’s a good boy. This develops into Lysiteles saying he wants to help a friend. When he names Lesbonicus, his father his horrified because it’s known all over town that Lesbonicus is wasting the family fortune.

Lysiteles calms his father down by moralising that it is the duty of the upright citizen to help those less well off, even if it is their own fault. OK, his father asks, how you going to help him? Lysiteles explains he’s going to make everyone happy by asking for Lesbonicus’s sister’s hand in marriage – but insisting he doesn’t give her a dowry. This will take the sister off Lesbonicus’s hands while at the same time not burdening him with a massive financial obligation.

So this turns out to be the crux of the entire play which could more accurately have been titled The Dowry. Clearly, it was regarded as absolutely scandalous, to both families concerned, to have a woman pass from one to the other without a cash accompaniment (a concept I’m familiar with from history but is quite difficult to relate to the present day; maybe I should have demanded a dowry with my wife, how much would have been reasonable? £10,000? £100,000).

Lysiteles asks his father just one favour: can he (Philto) be the one to put the proposition to Lesbonicus? Oh, alright son, his dad says and Lysiteles strolls away.

Leaving old Philto to confront cocky young Lesbonicus and his older, responsible and sensible slave, Stasimus. What develops is a three way dialogue in which Philto puts the proposition to Lesbonicus, Lesbonicus is offended and takes it as an insult to his family not to be asked for a dowry, and the slave Stasimus gives a running commentary, half to the audience, half to Lesbonicus, telling him not to be a bloody fool, to swallow his pride and accept the offer because the family is going bankrupt.

Lesbonicus thinks a bit and then comes up with the suggestion that his sister will be accompanied by the family farm which they will give as dowry. Stasimus is horrified since this is the only source of income left in the family. So, in a rare bit of comic business, Stasimus takes Philto aside and gives a comically horrific description of the family farm, as built on a volcano whose fumes kill all the workers, all the crops die, the cattle have pestilence, and so on. With the result that Philto returns to the main conversation with Lesbonicus and politely turns down his kind offer.

Much against his will Lesbonicus is persuaded to accept the deal and stumbles off with Philto leaving the stage to Stasimus who delivers a slave / servant’s comic lament on the ruin of his master and how, the day after the wedding, he bets his master will enrol in the army and then God knows which end of the earth they’ll be sent off to.

Enter Callicles from the main house who asks Stasimus what’s up. When Stasimus expains that his master is being persuaded to let his sister be married to Lysiteles without a dowry, old Callicles says oh dear, oh dear, this will never do, the shame for the family, the shame for the poor young lady, something must be done and bustles off.

Onto the stage come the two ‘friends’, Lesbonicus and Lysiteles. They are arguing with Lesbonicus accusing his friend of insulting him. This irritates Lysiteles so much that he decides to tell his friend a few home truths about his behaviour and proceeds to rattle off a barrage of moralistic criticism of his wastrel lifestyle which could have been spoken by his father.

I see what Watling means, instead of jokes and scams, everyone in this play devotes their energies to lecturing each other.

Lesbonicus admits his friend is right and says he was undone by love. Lysiteles then has an entire page lecture about the irresponsibility of falling in love and how it sways a man from the path of correct living. But he still can’t reconcile himself to betrothing his sister without a dowry:

She would hate me for the rest of my life, and rightly. (p193)

Stasimus appears and once again gives a running commentary on the two men’s conversation. When they exit he is again left to bemoan the fact that in a week’s time he’ll probably be in some awful military camp somewhere.

Callicles and Megaronides come on, with the former telling the latter how Lesbonicus is set to shame his family by letting his sister be married without a dowry. At this point Megaronides comes up with The Big Deceit at the heart of the play. They’ll hire some foreigner from down at the docks and pay him to pretend to be a messenger from Lesbonicus’s absent father, Charmides, come with a sack of gold for the dowry and with two letters, one for Callicles ‘giving’ him the money and one for Lesbonicus telling him to take the money. And this will be some gold Callicles takes from the box of gold in the family house which he bought and is now living in. That way the circle will be squared and everyone will be happy.

Enter Charmides the absent father. How utterly unlike Mostellaria where this arrival causes a helter skelter of comic panic. Here Charmides addresses a two-page-long hymn of praise to the god Neptune for wafting him safely over the seas. Nothing remotely comic about it.

But he walks straight into the most sustained comic scene in the play because as he approaches his own house he sees the messenger hanging round it. This is the foreigner Megaronides hired down at the docks to pretend to be a messenger from…Charmides, the very many who now approaches him and who, of course, he doesn’t recognise. For maximum comic effect the messengers (who says his name is ‘Flip’) is dressed in a garish variety of national costumes. But the core of the scene is Charmides slowly wheedling out of him that he is a messenger from him, Charmides, come to give a message to his son, Lesbonicus, via a tangle of hesitation, obfuscation and lying.

When Charmides insists, despite the other’s denials, that he is the real Charmides, the imposter says he’s been paid for this stupid job and so doesn’t care any more and stomps offstage. So that is the relatively minor character, hired for 3 dollars, who gives his name to the play.

Now onto the stage comes Stasimus, who’d stopped for a beer on the way back from running an errand and is upset because the friend he lent a load of money to is refusing to pay it back. This gives rise to yet another long moralising soliloquy on the corrupt morality and bad manners of the day, which Charmides overhears with approvel.

Then Chramides steps forward and identifies himself as Stasimus’s master. But when he goes to enter his old house Stasimus tells him the bad news that his son, Lesbonicus, has sold it for 4,000 drachmas (p.214). At that moment Callicles comes out dressed to do some gardening, is delighted by the sight of his old friend and takes him indoors to explain to him how things stand.

Enter Lysiteles, Lesbonicus’s friend who is betrothed to the latter’s sister, Charmides’s daughter. At that moment Charmides comes back out of the house with Callicles who he fulsomely thanks for being such a good friend and stepping in to preserve the house. Charmides has just one question: who was the florid imposter he met who claimed to know him. Callicles laughingly explains that this was a man they hired to pretend to be a messenger from Charmides as a cover for using some of the gold in the buried treasure chest for Lesbonicus’s sister’s dowry. Capital idea! declares Charmides, amused and impressed, and Callicles gives credit where it’s due to Megaronides.

Lysiteles steps forward and introduces himself. Charmides is charmed by him and delighted to know he is to marry his daughter, and then insists that he accepts a thousand gold Philippics as dowry. Lysiteles demurs. Charmides insists. Lysiteles says alright. He asks of Charmides just one favour. Yes? That Charmides forgive his son his bad behaviour. Well… he oughtn’t… but he does!

Lysiteles bangs on the house door and Lesbonicus emerges to be confronted by his father. But rather than the mad capers of Mostellaria, in this play the father is all-forgiving, forgives his son and announces not only that his sister will have a dowry when she marries Lysiteles, but that their neighbour, Callicles, wants him (Lesbonicus) to marry his daughter.

All references to the wild women he’s been partying with, or one in particular I thought he had fallen in love with, evaporate like dew and Lesbonicus is thrilled to be marrying Callicles’ daughter and just like that the play abruptly ends.

Thoughts

Trinummus is kind of charming and has some comic dialogue and the one really comic scene when Charmides confronts the imposter who claims to have been sent from him. But overall Trinummus is not really a comic play. It’s amiable and well constructed but it’s more charming and good humoured than actually funny.


Credit

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

Roman reviews

György Lukács on Franz Kafka (1955)

Brief biography of György Lukács

From the 1920s to the 1960s György Lukács was one of the leading Marxist philosophers and literary critics in Europe.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1885, the son of a very affluent Jewish banker, he benefited from a superb education and was a leading intellectual at Budapest university, combining interests in literature and (Neo-Kantian) philosophy, and founded a salon which featured leading Hungarian writers and composers during the Great War.

The experience of the war (although he was himself exempted from military service) radicalised Lukács and he joined the Hungarian Communist Party in 1918. His cultural eminence led to him being appointed People’s Commissar for Education and Culture in the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic which lasted from 21 March to 1 August 1919 and took its orders directly from Lenin. Lukács was an enthusiastic exponent of Lenin’s theory of Red Terror.

When the Republic was overthrown by army generals who instituted the right-wing dictatorship which was to run Hungary for the rest of the interwar period, Lukács fled to Vienna where he spent the 1920s developing a philosophical basis for the Leninist version of Marxism.

In 1930 he was ‘summoned’ to Moscow to work at the Institute of Philosophy of the Russian Academy of Sciences, although he soon got caught up in Stalin’s purges and was sent into exile in Tashkent. But Lukács was fortunate enough to survive – unlike an estimated 80% of Hungarian exiles in Russia, who perished.

At the end of the Second World War Lukács was sent back to Hungary to take part in the new Hungarian communist government, where he was directly responsible for written attacks on non-communist intellectuals, and took part in the removal of independent and non-communist intellectuals from their jobs, many being forced to take jobs as manual labourers.

Lickspittle apparatchik though that makes him sound, Lukács in fact trod a careful line which managed to be critical of Stalinism, albeit in coded and often abstruse philosophical phraseology. Due to his experience and seniority, Lukács was made a minister in the government of Imry Nagy which in 1956 tried to break away from Russia’s control during the so-called Hungarian Uprising. Nagy’s government was suppressed by the Soviets, and Lukács along with the rest of the Nagy government was exiled to Romania. Nagy himself was executed, Lukács only just escaped that fate. Yet again Lukács had experienced at first hand the brutal and repressive force of Soviet tyranny.

He was allowed back to Budapest in 1957 on the condition that he abandoned his former criticisms of the Soviet Union, engaged in public self-criticism, and on this basis was allowed to keep his academic posts, to continue writing and publishing his theoretical and critical works, up to his death in 1971.

His was a highly representative life of a certain kind of Central European intellectual in the twentieth century. He was reviled at the time by the people whose lives he blighted and by a wide range of liberal and conservative opponents.

Modernism as a symptom of capitalist society

In 1955 Lukács delivered a series of lectures on the clash between Realism and Modernism and a year later the lectures were published in essay form in a short book titled The Meaning of Contemporary Realism.

The message is simple: Realism good, Modernism bad. Simple enough, but the interest and, for me at any rate, the great pleasure to be had from reading this book is in the secondary arguments, in the clarity with which he presents his premises and works through the ideas and theories which support his case.

Lukács begins with a sweeping premise: the era we live in is dominated by the conflict between capitalism and socialism. Looking back at the nineteenth century we can see how Realism in the arts emerged with the newly triumphant bourgeoisie, and was a result of the new social conditions brought about by their rise and overthrow of the last vestiges of power of the European aristocracy.

(Realist authors would include Stendhal, Balzac and early Flaubert in France, Tolstoy in Russia, George Eliot in England, Mark Twain in America.)

Realism in literature was followed by Naturalism in the final third of the nineteenth century, which paid more attention to the grim social conditions of mature capitalist society but also, in the hands of a novelist like Zola, began the process of reducing human beings to ciphers worked on by malign environments. Darwinism, when applied to society by right-wing theorists, could be made to make people appear simple tools of their genetic inheritance, while late-Victorian socialist theories could make people appear pawns and slaves of their working environments.

Émile Zola (1840 to 1902) was the chief exponent of Naturalism. He regarded his novels as sociological experiments. In Lukács’s opinion, Zola abandoned the tricky balance which the realist novelists maintained between character and ‘type’, in favour of the latter: he created countless social types, which helps explain why Zola wrote nearly forty novels without a single memorable character in any of them.

(Naturalist authors are spearheaded by Zola in France, with maybe Jack London in America, George Gissing and Arthur Morrison in England.)

By the end of the century (during the 1890s) a shoal of literary movements developed which prioritised an interest in decadence, perversion, the macabre and gruesome, the so-called Decadent movement and the gloomy atmosphere of Symbolism.

This brings us to the eruption of Modernism about the time of the First World War, the movement which, Lukács claims, is still praised and defended by bourgeois capitalist critics at the time he’s writing (1955). But for Lukács, Modernism represents a colossal failure of humanity. Modernism turns its back on history and society, its protagonists are almost all loners undergoing nervous breakdowns, hopelessly alienated from societies which are portrayed as stuck, static, incapable of change or improvement.

From T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land to Samuel Beckett in Waiting For Godot, Modernist writers depict complete psychological collapse, in Beckett’s case the degradation of human beings into mumbling vegetables. He backs it up with references to Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and other European works which foreground hopelessness and despair, and he was, of course, writing during the heyday of French existentialism, which became a byword in the 1950s for black sweaters and anguish.

All of these Modernist works and writers, Lukács argues, are symptoms of the alienating effect of living under Western capitalism. All these writers, artists and composers bear out Marx’s insight that in the capitalist system people are alienated from each other and from themselves.

Specific points

This makes Lukács sound like a cumbersome Stalinist commissar, but in fact the book is a pleasure to read from start to finish because:

  1. it moves relatively quickly, not belabouring the points
  2. it makes references to all kinds of writers, most from the European and not the Anglo-Saxon tradition so which we Brits are not very familiar with
  3. it features a whole series of thought-provoking ideas

Time

There is a fascinating discussion of subjective versus objective time, and how Modernists of all stripe, including Modernist philosophers, became fascinated by trying to describe the undifferentiated flow of sense impressions and ideas which became known as stream-of-consciousness, most famously in the works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

Lukács compares and contrasts Joyce and Woolf’s approaches with the way Thomas Mann uses what, at first sight, is also stream of consciousness to capture the thoughts of the poet Goethe in his novel Lotte in Weimar (1939). Mann is a realist writer and so, in Lukács’s opinion, when he uses stream of consciousness it is as a tool to help particular individuals and events emerge against a clearly defined social backdrop.

Static Modernism versus dynamic Realism

Joyce’s worldview is static. More than one critic has pointed out how Ulysses portrays a Dublin trapped in stasis and his masterpiece, Finnegan’s Wake, portrays a vast circular movement. But, says Lukács, human beings only achieve their personhood, only become fully human, by interacting with other humans in a constantly changing, dynamic society. Realist authors select characters and details to portray their understanding of this ceaseless dialectic between the individual and society.

Solipsism and nihilism

A full and proper understanding of society in all its relations is empowering, an analysis and understanding which gives people the confidence to mobilise and change things. By contrast, Lukács accuses Modernists of turning their backs on a healthy interaction with the world, of rejecting society, and rejecting a historical understanding of how societies change and evolve.

And it is no great leap for Modernists, in Lukács’s view, to pass from the belief that nothing ever changes, to despair. Rejecting society and history leads the protagonists of Modernist fictions to:

  1. be confined within the limits of their own subjective experiences (Joyce, stream of consciousness, Beckett’s monads)
  2. ultimately deprive the protagonist of even a self – a personal history, since that history is (in a normal person) largely a record of the interaction between themselves and the host of others, starting with their family and moving outwards, which constitute society

As Lukács puts it:

By exalting man’s subjectivity, at the expense of the objective reality of his environment, man’s subjectivity is itself impoverished. (page 24)

Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments. (page 26)

Heidegger versus Hegel

In this context, Lukács invokes the teachings of Heidegger, the godfather of 20th century existentialism, with his fundamental idea of Geworfenheit ins Dasein, that human beings have been ‘thrown-into’-Being’, abandoned in a godless universe etc etc, all the self-pitying tropes which have been promoted by existentialist philosophers, critics, playwrights, novelists, film-makers, rock stars and millions of teenagers in their lonely bedrooms ever since.

The individual, retreating into himself in despair at the cruelty of the age, may experience an intoxicated fascination with his forlorn condition. (page 38)

By contrast, Lukács goes back to the origins of Western philosophy to invoke the fundamental insight of one of its founders – Aristotle – that man is a social animal: we only fully live and have our being in a social context. This insight recurs in various Western thinkers and finds its fullest modern embodiment in the vast system of Georg Hegel (1770 to 1831) who, in the early nineteenth century, applies his theoretical model of the dialectic to the continual interplay between the healthily-adjusted individual and the society they find themselves in.

How does this play out in fiction? Well, the realist novelist such as George Eliot or Tolstoy chooses representative types, puts them in a narrative which represents realistic actions which capture the possibilities of their society, and selects details which highlight, bolster and bring out these two aspects. By and large things change in a realist novel, not least the characters, sometimes against the backdrop of dramatic social events (Middlemarch and the Great Reform Bill, War and Peace and the Napoleonic War).

It is the realist’s interest in the interplay between a character and his or her fully realised environment – from Homer’s Achilles to Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkuhn – which gives us a fully developed sense of character and, deeper than this, a dynamic sense of human potential. At bottom, the subject of the realist author is human change and development.

Moreover, Lukács goes on to point out that all literature is, at some level, realistic. It would be impossible to have a totally non-realist novel (whereas you can, for example, have an utterly abstract work of art). More to his point, about the value of society and history:

A writer’s pattern of choice is a function of his personality. But personality is not in fact timesless and absolute, however it may appear to the individual consciousness. Talent and character may be innate; but the manner in which they develop, or fail to develop, depends on the writer’s interaction with his environment, on his relationships with other human beings. His life is part of the life of his times; no matter whether he is conscious of this, approves or disapproves. He is part of a larger social and historical whole. (page 54)

So much for the Realist worldview, then.

The Modernist, on the other hand, rejects all this. More often than not Modernist characters are extremes, psychopaths, neurotic, going mad. Lukács points to all of Samuel Beckett’s characters, trapped in the cage of their solipsism, but also the many mentally challenged characters in William Faulkner, or of the man adrift on a sea of phenomena in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities.

Details are chosen not to highlight the characters’ representativeness but to bring out the freakishness of themselves and the uncanny world they inhabit. And the plot or story is often sick and twisted (Faulkner), or barely exists (Joyce), or revels in degradation and decline (Beckett).

(I laughed out loud when he described the way Beckett stands at the end of this tradition, as an example of ‘a fully standardised nihilistic modernism’, making him sound like a standard edition family saloon or an entry-level fridge freezer, page 53)

In a striking manoeuvre Lukács invokes Freud as a godfather to Modernism, pointing out that Freud himself openly declared that his way of gaining insight into the structure of the ‘normal’ mind was via study of a colourful array of neurotics, obsessives and phobics. In other words, one of the major planks of thought underlying all Modernist psychology, Freudianism, is based on generalisations from the morbid and the unnatural (page 30).

Franz Kafka

Which brings us to Kafka. Kafka, for Lukács, even more than Beckett, for all his genius, represents the acme of the sickness that is Modernism. He points out a detail I’d forgotten which is that, as Joseph K is being led away to be executed, he thinks of flies stuck on flypaper, tearing their little legs off. This, Lukács says, is the vision at the heart of all Kafka’s fiction and at the heart of the Modernist worldview – humans are helpless insects, totally impotent, paralysed in a society they don’t understand, trapped in unintelligible situations.

Kafka’s angst is the experience par excellence of modernism. (page 36)

Lukács dwells on Kafka’s brilliant way with details, his eye for the telling aspect of a person or situation which brings it to life. But Lukács uses this fact to bring out the world of difference between the realistic detail in a realist fiction –which has been chosen because it is representative of the real world, properly conceived and understood – and the details in Kafka, which he selected with absolute genius in order to convey his crushing sense of the utter, paralysing futility and nonsense of existence.

Kafka’s fictions are absolutely brilliant allegories, but allegories of nothing, allegories of emptiness (pages 44 to 45).

Thoughts

Pros

This is just a selection of some of Lukács’s insights in this short and, for the most part, very readable book. He may have been a slimeball, he may have been a criminal, he may have been a hypocrite, he may have been a toady to power – but there is no denying he was a very clever man, very well read, and he conveys his learning fairly lightly. He doesn’t set out to be impenetrable, as most French theorists do.

And he’s candid enough to admit that many of the experiments and new techniques and works written by the Modernists were dazzling masterpieces, and to concede that much of the stuff written under the aegis of Stalin’s doctrine of Socialist Realism was tripe. He’s too sophisticated to defend rubbish.

But his basic critique that the Modernist works which Western critics, to this day, tend to uncritically adulate, do tend to foreground the outsider, the alienated, the loner, often with severe psychological problems, in fictions which often lack much plot or any interaction with other characters, and in which both hero and author have largely turned their back on wider society – this is very insightful. His analysis of these aspects of Modernist fiction is useful and stimulating.

And, having just read Kafka’s biography, his diagnosis of Kafka’s writings as the brilliant masterpieces of a very sick mind are completely spot on. I like the way he brings out the important of the just-so detail in Kafka’s works, the precise details which tip the whole thing over into paranoid nightmare.

Cons

However, all this good stuff is in the first part of the book. As the book progresses an increasingly more dogmatic tone emerges. What are at first scattered references early in the book to the Cold War and the Peace Movement coalesce into a sustained political polemic. Lukács links his concept of the Good Realist writer directly with the 1950s Peace Movement, which was strongly promoted by the Soviet Union amid disingenuous claims to want to end the Cold War (while all the time retaining a vice-like grip on Eastern Europe and funding destabilising communist insurgents around the world).

By contrast, Lukács explicitly links some of the philosophers and authors of angst (most notoriously Heidegger) with Nazism and so tries to tar all Modernist authors with the taint of Fascism, which is clearly not true, think of Kafka, and Joyce and Faulkner.

In other words, Lukács disappoints by dropping the insights of the early part in order to make a direct and crude connection between a writer’s underlying worldviews and current developments in international politics. He is not crude enough to blame individual writers for Fascism or capitalism – but he does point out repeatedly that they base their works on the same worldview that accepts the exploitation and alienation implicit in the capitalist system.

For most of the first half I enjoyed Lukács’s dissection of the psychopathology of Modernism. But when he began to directly relate it to capitalist-imperialism and to lecture the reader on how it led to The Wrong Side in the Cold War, the book suddenly felt crude, simplistic and hectoring. When he suddenly states that:

The diabolical character of the world of modern capitalism, and man’s impotence in the face of it, is the real subject matter of Kafka’s writing (page 77)

I thought, How can such a clever, well-read man write something so crude, and I immediately thought of counter-arguments:

  1. Kafka’s visions of human life crushed by a faceless and persecuting bureaucracy could equally well have come out of Czarist Russia with its notorious secret police or, indeed, Stalin’s Russia.
  2. Kafka didn’t in fact live in an advanced capitalist society such as America, Britain or Germany – the endless, useless bureaucracy lampooned in his books is precisely not that of snappily efficient America or dogmatically thorough Germany, but precisely that of provincial Bohemia, a sleepy backwater entangled in the vast and impenetrable civil service of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
  3. And Kafka would have been horribly out of place in any social system, at any time, as his biography brings home with startling force.

Worst of all, when, in the middle of the book, Lukács says that what counts about a writer isn’t their actual works, not their words or pages or techniques or style, but the general tendency of their thought… the implication is that this tendency can be measured by a communist commissar like himself – and suddenly I could hear the tones of Zhdanov and the other Soviet dictators of culture, whose crude diktats resulted in countless artists and writers being arbitrarily arrested and despatched to die in the gulag, crying out as they went that they meant no offence – while the apparatchiks calmly replied that they weren’t being punished for anything they’d actually said or done: they were being condemned to ten years hard labour for the tendency of their work.

At moments like this in this suave and sophisticated book, you suddenly glimpse the truncheon and the barbed wire of actual communist tyranny, which gives it a sudden thrill and horror not normally encountered in a genteel volume of literary criticism.

So it’s a complicated business, reading Lukács – at one moment, immensely rewarding, at the next genuinely disgusting.


Related links

Kafka reviews

Dates are dates of composition.

Marx and communism

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army’s advance into Poland in 1920 preventing them pushing on to support revolution in Germany
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the Left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which Orwell was fighting with, and how he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution

Communism in England

Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

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

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

As the exhibition notes:

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

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

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

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

Edvard Munch

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

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

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

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

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

The exhibition

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

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

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

Claustrophobic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

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

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

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

The subtle prints

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

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

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

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakdown and rebirth

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

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

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

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

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

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

The promotional video


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Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


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