The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky. This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper, began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility. (p.63)

The plot

We’re in Oran, coastal port and second city of the French colony of Algeria, in Camus’s day (1940-something, according to the first sentence) which at the time had a population of around 200,000.

Rats start dying and then people, too. After some weeks of denial the authorities acknowledge that there is a major outbreak of plague and close the city so that no one can get in or out. The narrative focuses on Dr Bernard Rieux as he tries to treat the first few victims, and comes into contact with a cross-section of characters from the city. The plague just gets worse and worse with Rieux reporting every step of its development and helping the authorities to cope – setting up isolation wards, establishing quarantine for all diagnosed patients, organising Volunteer Squads to go out checking each district of the city.

The book can be analysed out into three strands:

  • The narrator’s factual, third-person overview of the progress of the plague and its impact on the population’s morale.
  • The narrator’s interpretation of the events in terms of its impact on individual psychologies and community morale – an interpretation which invokes contemporary ideas derived from Catholic Christianity, revolutionary communism, and liberal humanism.
  • And the character development of the half dozen or so major characters who we follow all the way through the plague, who represent different types of humanity with different coping strategies. All of these come into contact with Dr Rieux, acquaintances who he treats or friends who he listens to pouring out their souls, their stories, their hopes and fears. Like planets round the sun.

I found the first hundred and fifty pages of The Plague a struggle to read because of the lack of detail about the disease, the lack of much incident and the lack of scope among the characters; but the final hundred pages significantly altered my opinion, as the characters reveal more and more about themselves, as the mental strain of their medical work or of being locked up in the quarantined city give them more depth, and as we begin to witness actual deaths among those close to Dr Rieux.

The turning point (for me, anyway) is the pain-filled death of the young son of the city magistrate, Monsieur Othon, Jacques. Jacques dies in agony, wailing with childish pain, witnessed by almost all the main characters. From that point onwards the debates about God and judgement and sinfulness and exile and abandonment and so on – which had seemed abstract and flimsy in the first half – acquired a real depth. Not only was the boy’s death terrifying in itself – towards the end he begins screaming and doesn’t let off till he expires – but the impact it has on the main characters is genuinely unsettling. Grown men are shaken into rethinking their whole lives, but Camus’s depiction of the child’s death makes this very believable.

Although it has its faults of style and long-windedness, the second half in particular of The Plague very powerfully brings to life a whole raft of issues which concerned mid-twentieth century minds, and convinces you that this is indeed a masterpiece.

The characters

The Plague is narrated by a man who calls himself the Narrator, who explains how he has assembled eye-witness accounts and various documents and is able to give third-person descriptions of events and people.

Dr. Rieux is the central character. Aged 35 i.e. around Camus’s age, it is he who first stumbles on a dying rat in the hall of his apartment block, comes across the earliest plague patients, phones around other doctors for their opinion, begins to lobby the authorities, helps put in place the quarantine and isolation wards and liaises with his older colleague, Dr Castel, about the latter’s home-made attempts to devise a serum. He is a prime mover of the medical strand of the narrative.

But Rieux is also the copper-bottomed humanist who, we can imagine, most closely resembles Camus’s own humanist position. It is Rieux who has several in-depth discussions with the novel’s priest about God and divine Justice; who discusses the meaning of exile (i.e. being stuck in the city separated from the woman he loves) with the journalist Rambert; who becomes good friends with big strong Tarrou, who represents the political strand of the book.

Rieux is, in other words, a sort of still point around which the other characters rotate, confiding their life stories, sharing their views, debating the ‘meaning’ of the plague, and of their ‘exile’, of ‘justice’, of ‘love’.

Father Paneloux is a Jesuit priest, the representative of Catholic Christianity in the novel. He gives two lengthy sermons in the city’s cathedral. The first, in the early stages of the plague, castigates the city’s population in traditional Christian terms, saying the plague is a scourge sent by God against sinners for turning their backs on Him. It introduces the metaphor of God’s flail or scourge swishing over the stricken city, an image which comes to haunt several of the other characters.

Then, at the turning point of the story, Paneloux is present at the bedside of little Jacques Othon during the latter’s painful death. He offers prayers etc but, of course, nothing works or remits the little boy’s agony.

There follow inevitable are dialogues between Paneloux and the atheist characters, the latter asking how a caring God could torture children. Paneloux roughs out his explanation in conversation with Rieux and then goes on to give a powerful exposition of it in his Second Sermon.

This Second Sermon is, in its way, even fiercer and more unrepentantly Christian than the first, but in a more personal way. For a start, Paneloux stops saying ‘you’ to the congregation and starts saying ‘we’. He is down among them, he is one of ‘us’.

Paneloux’s argument is that you either believe in God or you don’t. If you do, then you must not only accept but embrace the suffering of the world, because it must be part of his plan. It passes our human understanding, but you must want it and will it. If you say you believe in God but reject this or that aspect of his plan, you are rejecting Him. it is all or nothing.

There is a Nietzschean force to this Second Sermon which I admired and responded to for its totality, for its vehemence, as, presumably, we are intended to.

After the death of little Jacques, Paneloux becomes much more interesting and psychologically resonant as a character. He throws himself into the voluntary work being done among the sick. When he himself falls ill and is nursed by Rieux’s mother at their apartment, his decline has depth and meaning, and so when he dies it is genuinely moving.

Jean Tarrou is a big, strong good-natured guy. He keeps a diary which the narrator incorporates into the text and which gives us independent assessments of tertiary characters like Monsieur Othon, Dr Castel, Cottard and so on. On the practical level, it is Tarrou who comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague i.e. going round checking wards, identifying new patients, arranging their conveyance to the isolation wards.

On the level of character type, Tarrou early on lets slip that he fought in the Spanish Civil War on the losing, Republican, side. This explains why he was hanging out in the Spanish quarter when the plague began. He is the political character in the novel, the image of the ‘committed’ man who resonates through existentialist thinking. The man who validates his life by giving it to a cause.

After the little boy’s death, Tarrou’s character moves to an entirely new level, when he confides in Rieux the key incident from his childhood. Tarrou’s father was a kindly family man with an entertaining hobby of memorising railway timetables. Tarrou knew he was a lawyer but didn’t really understand what this meant until, aged 17, he accompanied his father to court one day and was horrified to see him transformed into a begowned harpy of Justice, shouting for the death penalty to be imposed on a feeble yellow-looking fellow – the defendant – cowering in the witness box.

The scales dropped from Tarrou’s eyes and he ran away from home. He joined a worldwide organisation devoted to overthrowing the injustice of bourgeois society, which stood up for the workers and the humiliated everywhere. But he found himself, in turn, acquiescing in the executions which the leaders claimed were necessary to overthrow the regime which carried out executions. Tarrou gives a particularly unpleasant description of an execution by firing squad which he attends in Hungary, in graphic brutal detail. The size of the hole shot in the executed man’s chest haunts his dreams.

Tarrou is telling Rieux all this as the pair of them sit on a terrace overlooking the sea. The mood, the background susurrations of the ocean, and the seriousness of what he’s saying all chime perfectly. Having rejected the orthodox, bourgeois legal world of his father, he has equally walked away from what is not named but is pretty obviously the Communist Party. Now all he wants to do is avoid murder, and prevent death. And then – using the characteristically religious register of this text – he tells Rieux that he wants to be a saint. A saint without God.

This conversation, and Tarrou’s agonised journey from bourgeois rebel, through communist activist and fighter in Spain, to would-be saint is – for me – the best part of the book. For the first time in reading any of Camus’s books I felt I was getting to grip with the issues of his day dramatised in an accessible way.

It is all the more heart-breaking then when, just as the plague is beginning to finally let up, the death rate drop and the city begin to hope again – that tough noble Tarrou himself contracts it and dies. Characteristically, he demands that Rieux tell him the truth about the deterioration in his condition right till the end.

Raymond Rambert is the third major character who rotates around Rieux. He is a journalist visiting Oran to write about conditions in the Arab Quarter, when the plague strikes. When the city is closed he finds himself trapped and spends most of the novel trying to escape, first legally by petitioning the authorities, then illegally by paying people smugglers. This latter strand is long and boring, involving being handed from one dodgy geezer to another and primed to be smuggled out of a gate by ‘friendly’ guards only for the attempt to be permanently delayed due to all kinds of hitches. It is the presumably deliberate opposite of Hollywood exciting. Somewhere the narrator describes the plague as grimly unromantic, as drab and mundane and boring, and that accurately describes this thread of Rambert’s frustrated escape attempts.

Apart from this rather dull thread on the level of the plot, Rambert as a type is the main focus for discussions of ‘love’. He wants to escape so desperately in order to get back to the wife he loves and left in Paris. His energy and devotion is contrasted with the apathy on the one hand, or the frenzied debauchery on the other, of the other trapped townsfolk.

Again, like all the characters, Rambert is transfigured by Jacques’ death. It follows the latest disappointment in his many escape plans and after it, Rambert confides to Rieux, he has stopped trying to escape. After nearly a year in plague-struck Oran, he’s realised that the plague is now his plague; he has more in common with the stricken townsfolk than with outsiders. He will stay until the work here is done.

These are the three major characters (beside Rieux) and you can see how they are simultaneously real people and also function as narrative types who trigger periodic discussions of the issues of Camus’s time, or of larger issues of justice and love.

Minor characters

Joseph Grand is a fifty-something somewhat withered city clerk and a kind of comic version of the would-be author. In numerous scenes we witness him reading aloud to Rieux and sometimes some of the other serious characters, the opening of his Great Novel which, in fact, has never got beyond the opening sentence which he tinkers with endlessly. This is pretty broad satire on the self-involved irrelevance of many litterateurs. On the other hand, once the plague kicks off, he uses his skills to compile the tables and statistics which the city authorities need and finds himself praised by the narrator as precisely the kind of quiet, obscure but dogged commitment to work and efficiency which the narrator considers the true nature of bravery, of heroism.

Cottard lives in the same building as Grand and we meet both of them when Grand calls Rieux to tell him he’s found Cottard just as he was hanging himself. They save and restore him. From that point on Cottard is shifty and evades police and the authorities since attempted suicide is a crime. Once the plague kicks in he becomes much more peaceable, maybe because everyone else is now living in the state of nervous tension which he permanently inhabits. He becomes a black marketeer and pops up throughout the story. When the plague winds down he goes a bit mad and suddenly starts shooting out his window at random passers-by, a scene Rieux and Tarrou stumble across on one of their walks. He is not massacred as he would be in a Hollywood movie, but successfully arrested and taken off by the police.

Dr. Castel is a much older medical colleague of Rieux’s. He realises it is bubonic plague quicker than anyone else and then devotes his time to creating a plague serum, using the inadequate facilities to hand. His efforts tire him out and, although his serum is finally introduced, it’s not clear whether it has any impact on the plague which ultimately declines because it has just worn itself out.

Monsieur Othon the city’s pompous well-dressed magistrate, is often to be seen parading his well-dressed wife and harshly-disciplined children round town. Until his son Jacques dies – at which point he becomes greatly softened. As the relative of a victim he is sent to one of the isolation camps for a quarantine period, but surprises everyone when, upon leaving, he decides he wants to go back and help.

Comments on the characters

Summarising them like this makes it clearer than when actually reading it, how schematic the characters are, how they represent particular views or roles which combine to give a kind of overview of how society reacts to calamity. Having just read three of Camus’s plays (Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Just) I now have a strong sense that this is how Camus conceives of characters, as ideological or issue-driven types.

1. Note how none of them are women. It is the 1940s and still very much a man’s world. Experience only counts if it is male. In any actual plague there would be thousands of mothers concerned and caring for their children and probably many women would volunteer as nurses. The only women named are the remote ‘love objects’ which motivate the men – Rieux’s wife, who is packed off to a sanatorium at the start of the novel for a non-plague-related illness, and Rambert’s wife. In the main body of the narrative no women appear or speak, apart from Rieux’s ageing mother who comes and stays with him. The mother is a holy figure in Camus’s fiction (compare and contrast the centrality of the (dead) mother in L’Etranger.)

2. You will also note that there isn’t a single Arab or Algerian among these characters. Seven years after The Plague was published the Algerian War of Independence broke out and Algerians began fighting for the freedom to write their own narratives of their own country in their own language.

In this respect, in the perspective of history, The Plague is a kind of European fantasy, is set in a European fantasy of a country which soon afterwards ceased to exist.

The medicine and science

There is some medical detail about the plague, some description of the hard buboes which swell at the body’s lymph nodes, how they can be incised to release the pus, some descriptions of the fever, pain, the last-minute falling off of symptoms before the sudden death. Enough to give the narrative some veracity, but no more.

But Camus is more interested in personifying and psychologising the plague than in describing it scientifically.

Thus over a relatively brief period the disease lost practically all the gains piled up over many months. Its setbacks with seemingly predestined victims, like Grand and Rieux’s girl patient, its bursts of activity for two or three days in some districts synchronizing with its total disappearance from others, its new practice of multiplying its victims on, say, a Monday, and on Wednesday letting almost all escape, in short, its accesses of violence followed by spells of complete inactivity, all these gave an impression that its energy was flagging, out of exhaustion and exasperation, and it was losing, with its self-command, the ruthless, almost mathematical efficiency that had been its trump card hitherto.

Rieux was confronted by an aspect of the plague that baffled him. Yet again it was doing all it could to confound the tactics used against it; it launched attacks in unexpected places and retreated from those where it seemed definitely lodged. Once more it was out to darken counsel. (p.232)

In the first hundred pages or so I was hoping for more science, more medical descriptions, and was disappointed. Maybe Camus’s novel reflects the medical science of his day. Or maybe he only did as much research as was necessary to create the scaffold for his philosophical lucubrations.

Either way the book’s science and medical content is underwhelming. Early on Dr Rieux advises a plague victim to be put on a light diet and given plenty to drink. Is that it? Paris sends serum but it doesn’t seem to work very well and there’s never enough. Rieux tries in some cases to cut open the knotted lymph glands and let them bleed out blood and pus – but besides being messy and crude, this doesn’t seem to work either. The only real strategy the authorities have is to cart the infected off to isolation wards where they wait to die before their corpses are taken to massive plague pits and thrown into lime.

In this respect, the science and medical side of the narrative is closer to the medicine of Charles Dickens than to our computer-based, genome-cracking, antibiotic-designing era. It seemed pathetic and antique how the novel describes the isolated old Dr Castel plodding along trying to develop a serum locally, by himself, working with the inadequate means he has,

since the local bacillus differed slightly from the normal plague bacillus as defined in textbooks of tropical diseases. (p.112)

and that the narrator considers this feeble old man’s home-made efforts as truly ‘heroic’.

If it is absolutely necessary that this narrative should include a ‘hero’, the narrator commends to his readers, with, to his thinking, perfect justice, this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth its due, to the addition of two and two its sum of four, and to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.

(Incidentally, this is a good example of the obscurity typical of so much of Camus’s prose — ‘This will render to heroism the secondary place that rightly falls to it, just after, never before, the noble claim of happiness.’ As usual I find myself having to read Camus sentences at least twice to decipher the meaning, and then wondering whether I have in fact learned anything. Does heroism have a secondary place just after, but never before, the noble claim of happiness? It sounds so precise, so logical, so confident. But it’s meaningless and instantly forgotten.)

Camus’s worldview

As Jean-Paul Sartre usefully, and a little cruelly, pointed out back at the time, Camus is not a philosopher – although he studied philosophy at university, it wasn’t to the same level as Sartre who went on to become a philosophy professor. Sartre also denied that Camus was even an ‘existentialist’ – by which maybe he simply meant that Camus wasn’t one of Sartre’s tribe – and Camus himself is ambivalent about using the term.

Instead, Camus is a kind of philosophical impressionist. Without much conceptual or logical rigour he is interested in depicting the psychological impact, the feel, the climate, produced by a handful of interlocking ‘ideas’.

Chief among these is the Absurd, the result of the mismatch between the human wish for order and meaning and the obvious indifference of a godless universe. ‘Exile’ is the name he gives to that sense humans have of being removed from their true domain, the place of consolation, meaning and belonging. He uses the word ‘hope’ to denote the delusions humans create to hide from themselves their complete abandonment in a godless universe.

Thus the brave and heroic Absurd Man faces down a ‘godless universe’ and lives without hope i.e. without resorting to fond illusions.

And finally, Revolt – the Absurd Man revolts against his condition. The notion of revolt arose from his discussion of suicide in The Myth of Sisyphus (do not kill yourself; face the absurdity; overcome it; revolt against your fate) and was to be developed at length in his other ‘philosophical’ work, The Rebel.

Why is this relevant to The Plague? Because the advent of a plague, spreading unstoppably and leading to the closing of the city, throws up a wide variety of dramatic situations in which his cast of seven or eight main characters can act out and think through and express various aspects of Camus’s worldview.

Very little happens in the ‘plot’. The medical aspect is medieval. We read the book to find in it a steady stream of dramatisations of Camus’s worldview. His other two novels – The Outsider and The Fall are much shorter at around 100 pages each. The Plague is the longest fictional depiction of Camus’s theory of the Absurd. Reading it at such length led me to isolate three distinct themes:

  1. The centrality of Roman Catholic Christianity to Camus’s worldview
  2. The revelation that the Law – with its ideas of justice, judgement, crime and punishment – is arguably more important that the ideas around the Absurd
  3. The horrible long-winded style which makes stretches of it almost impossible to read (and which I deal with in a separate blog post).

1. The role of Christianity in Camus’s philosophy

It was talking Camus over with my 18 year-old son (who has just completed an A-Level in Philosophy) which made me realise the centrality of French Roman Catholicism to both Camus and Sartre.

Both Frenchmen go on and on and on about the ‘anguish’ and the ‘absurdity’ of living in what they never cease to tell us is a ‘godless universe’.

But it is only so distressing to wake up to this godlessness if you ever thought it was godful. I was brought up by atheist parents in the mostly atheist country of England where the Church of England is run by nice vicars. The Anglican worldview is one of moderation and common sense and tea and biscuits. There haven’t really been many great Anglican thinkers because thinking hasn’t been its main activity. Running missions in Africa or the East End or organising village fetes in the Cotswolds have traditionally been Anglican activities. The Anglican church has been a central topic of gentle English humour, from Trollope to The Vicar of Dibley.

French Roman Catholic culture couldn’t be more different. It is both politically and philosophically deep and demanding and, historically, has played a vindictively reactionary role in French politics. The Catholic worldview is far more intense, making the world a battlefield between the forces of God and the Devil, with a weekly confession in which you must confront your own innermost failings. Its educational élite are the mercilessly intelligent Jesuits. Its tradition includes Pascal with his terrifying vision of a vast universe, indifferent to us unless filled by the love of God. Politically, the Catholic Church led the attack on the Jewish army officer Dreyfus in the prolonged cultural civil war over his false accusation for treason – the Dreyfus Affair (dramatised by Robert Harris in his novel An Officer and a Spy) – which divided France from 1894 to 1906.

Since the French Revolution, very broadly French culture has been divided into conservatives who line up behind the reactionary Catholic Church, and liberals and socialists, who oppose it.

Think how repressive, how reactionary, how dominating their boyhood Catholic educations must have been in the 1910s and 1920s for young Jean-Paul and Albert. Think how much of a mental and psychological effort it must have been for them to struggle free of their Catholic education. It meant rejecting the beliefs which their parents, their wider family and the entire society around them cherished. It meant standing alone. It meant being an outsider.

Thus my suggestion is that the extremely negative value which Sartre and Camus attribute to the idea of realising that there is no God and that you are free to make your own set of values and decisions derives from their powerful emotional feeling that this involves a loss, the loss of their once life-supporting Catholic faith.

A lot of the emotional intensity of their ideas and fictions derive from the intensity of the struggle to break free from the Catholic Church. Sartre calls this state of lucid acknowledgement of your freedom in the world ‘anguish’. They both describe the state as a state of abandonment. Camus in particular again and again uses the analogy of it being a state of exile.

All of this terminology is powerfully negative. It suggests that there once was something – and now it is lost. In Sartre and Camus’s works they refer to the lost thing as the ‘illusions’ or ‘habits’ of bourgeois life, but my suggestion is that Sartre and Camus don’t themselves realise how fundamental their lost Christian faith is to their entire worldview.

Godless. Over and over again they refer to the horror and terror of living in a ‘godless’ universe. Well, if you weren’t brought up to expect a godful universe you won’t be particularly surprised or disappointed, let alone thrown into mortal anguish when someone tells you that it is godless.

It was my son who pointed out to me with calm rationality that there is no logical need to be upset or anguished or exiled by living in a ‘godless universe’. You can quite logically accept that there is a ridiculous mismatch between our wish for meaning and comfort and security in the world and the absurdity of people being run over by cars or blown up by terrorists – without giving it an emotional value – without making it the source of catastrophic emotional collapse. Just as you can acknowledge the reality of gravity or the speed of light or that humans are mammals without bursting into tears. It is just one more fact among thousands of facts about the world we live, pleasant or less pleasant, which most people process, accept and forget in order to get on with their lives.

Camus, like Sartre, thinks of these ‘ordinary’ people – people who, alas, aren’t writers or philosophers – as sheep, cattle, as ‘cowards’ or ‘scum’ (which is what Sartre – rather surprisingly – calls them in Existentialism is a Humanism) because they are hiding from or rejecting or denying the Truth. I think, on the contrary, that most people are perfectly capable of grasping the truth about the world they live in, they just don’t make the same song and dance about it as two French lapsed Catholics.

All this is prompted by slowly realising that the supposedly existential or atheist worldview depicted in The Plague is completely reliant on the ideology and terminology of Christianity. Thus it is no surprise that the Jesuit Father Paneloux is one of the central characters, nor that the book contains two chapters devoted to sermons delivered by him, nor that one of the central moments in the book is the confrontation between the humanist Dr Rieux and the Jesuit Paneloux following the death of little Jacques. When the priest insists that God’s Plan ‘passes our human understanding’, the doctor replies:

‘No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.’ (p.178)

God also features in several of the conversations between Dr Rieux and the thoughtful Tarrou:

‘Do you believe in God, doctor?…’ His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him. But no one in the world believed in a God of that sort; no, not even Paneloux, who believed that he believed in such a God…
‘After all,’ the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, ‘it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence.’
Tarrou nodded.
‘Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.’
Rieux’s face darkened.
‘Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.’
‘No reason, I agree. Only, I now can picture what this plague must mean for you.’
‘Yes. A never ending defeat.’ (p.108)

This is Camus’s attitude. Revolt against fate. Rebel against the godless universe. Resist. Fight, even if it’s without hope.

But – and this is my point – note how the secular, Absurdist, existentialist, call it what you will, attitude can only emerge by piggybacking, as it were, on the back of Christian theology. This plucky godlessness only really has meaning be reference to the lucky godfulness which precedes it. They can’t discuss the meaning of life cold, from a standing start – there always has to be a preliminary clearing of throats, some foreplay, involving God this or God that, do you believe in God, No, do you believe in God etc — it’s a kind of warming up and stretching exercise before they can get round to saying what they do believe in – justice, freedom, human dignity or what have you.

The entire discourse of the Absurd absolutely requires there to be a Christianity to reject and replace, before it can express itself.

2. The importance of the law, judgement and punishment

Reading his other two novels has slowly made me realise that pretty old-fashioned ideas of crime and punishment are central to Camus. The Outsider (1942) is about a man who commits a crime (murdering an Arab) and is punished for it. The entire ‘drama’ of the story is in the mismatch between his inner psychological state of almost psychotic detachment from his own life and actions – but where this absurd mismatch is brought to life, where his detachment from social norms is misinterpreted and distorted to make him appear a monstrous psychopath, is in a court of law.

The Outsider becomes a study of the process of the law and a questioning of the idea of human ‘justice’. The entire second part of the book mostly consists of the protagonist’s questioning by magistrates, then the long courtroom scenes featuring the prosecution and defence lawyers doing their thing, followed by the judge’s summing up. It is a courtroom drama.

The Fall (1956) is even more Law-drenched, since it consists of an uninterrupted monologue told by a lawyer about his own ‘fall from grace’. It is a text infested with the imagery of crime and sin, punishment and redemption, judgement and forgiveness. There are some passages about the Absurd but really it is ideas about crime and punishment which dominate.

But also, look at the title. The Fall. A reference to the central event in all Christian theology, the fall of Man. Notions of the law are inextricable interlinked with Christian theology and imagery.

Religion and Law in The Plague

So I was not surprised when I began to discern in The Plague at least as much discourse about religion (about sin and punishment) and about the Law (about justice and judgement) as I did about the ideas Camus is famous for i.e. the Absurd and so on.

In particular, it comes as no surprise when Tarrou, one of the most intelligent characters, reveals that the key to his character, to his entire career as a political activist, was revulsion at the vengefulness of his father’s bourgeois form of justice, and a resultant search for some kind of better, universal, political justice. And I have already noted the centrality of Father Paneloux and the debates about God which he triggers wherever he goes.

Many commentators then and now have thought that The Plague is a clever allegory about the occupation of France by the Nazis, and the stealthy way a sense of futility and despair crept over the French population, numbing some, spurring others into ‘revolt’ and resistance.

Every time I read about this interpretation I wondered why Camus, who apparently was ‘active’ in the Resistance, didn’t at some stage write a novel of what it was actually like to live under German occupation and be a member of the Resistance. That would be of huge historic importance and also directly tie his ideas to their historical context, making them more powerful and meaningful. Maybe it’s petty-minded of me – but it is striking how none of Camus’ three novels mention the war, the defeat of France, the German occupation, Nazi ideology, France’s contribution to the Holocaust, any aspect of the work of the Resistance, or how he and his compatriots experienced the Liberation.

On one level, it feels like a vast hole at the centre of his work and a huge opportunity lost.

Anyway, this historical context is completely absent from The Plague. What there is instead are these dominating issues of law and justice, sin and forgiveness, and the all-pervading language of Law and Religion.

Over The Plague hang the shades of Dostoyevsky’s characters interminably discussing whether or not there is a God and how his love and/or justice are shown in the world – and also of Kafka’s novels with their obsessive repetition of the idea of a man arrested or turned into an insect for no reason, no reason at all, with their predominating idea of the injustice of the world.

(Camus includes a jokey reference to Kafka on page 51 where the dodgy character Cottard says he’s reading a ‘detective story’ about a man who was arrested one fine day without having done anything, a transparent reference to The Trial.)

Statistical evidence

Because the entire translated text is available online, you can do a word search, with the following results which tend to support my argument – that the novel is far more about ideas derived from Christian religion or the Law and jurisprudence, than the ideas of Camus’s brand of existentialism.

  • absurd – 7 times, and never in a philosophical sense
  • revolt – 6 – ‘Weariness is a kind of madness. And there are times when the only feeling I have is one of mad revolt.’ (p.178)
  • abandoned – 4
  • futile – 4
  • suicide – 3
  • godless – 0

So there is surprisingly little direct reference to the main concepts which made him famous. Now compare and contrast with the frequency of religious terms. These are far more common, far more expressed and discussed.

  • God – 46 instances
  • saint – 15
  • religion – 12
  • heaven – 8
  • hell – 7
  • salvation – 6
  • purgatory – 2

And finally, legal terminology:

  • law – 14
  • justice – 10 – ‘When a man has had only four hours’ sleep, he isn’t sentimental. He sees things as they are; that is to say, he sees them in the garish light of justice, hideous, witless justice.’ (p.156)
  • judge – 6
  • crime – 6
  • punishment – 4
  • judgement – 2

Again, there is more reference to basic ideas of justice and injustice than to the concepts clustered around his Absurdism.

The one Camusian idea which is very present is that of ‘exile’, which is mentioned 27 times – ‘the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile’. This is, if you like, a kind of metaphorical embodiment of the central idea of Camus’s version of existentialism – the literal sense of loss, separation, exile from home and loved ones standing for the metaphorical sense of exile from belief systems which give our lives purpose. But it is typical of Camus that it isn’t a philosophical idea – it is a metaphor for a distressed state of mind, for the deprivation of the comforts of home which, deep down – as I suggest above – is in fact caused by the loss of religious faith.

Interestingly, the most commonly used abstract word is ‘love’, occurring 96 times. This suggests the, dare I say it, sentimental basis of Camus’s humanism.


Credit

La Peste by Albert Camus was published in France in 1947. This translation of The Plague by Stuart Gilbert was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948, and as a Penguin paperback in 1960. All quotes & references are to the 1972 reprint of the Penguin paperback edition (which cost 35p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1942)

It sums itself up as a lucid invitation to live and to create, in the very midst of the desert. (p.7)

This volume consists of the long (100-page) essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus, which argues against despair and in favour of life – accompanied by five much shorter essays each exemplifying Camus’s healthy lust for living.

It’s worth remembering how young Camus was when he wrote these texts. Born in November 1913, he was just 26 when France fell to the Germans in June 1940, 23 when he wrote Summer in Algiers, 26 when he wrote The Stop in Oran and so on. A young man just beginning a career in writing and still very much entranced by the pleasures of the flesh, sunbathing, swimming, eyeing up beautiful women (a constant theme in his works).

The Myth of Sisyphus

Camus’s preface sums it up. Written in 1940, in the ruins of the defeat of France, the text affirms that even in a Godless universe and a world awash with nihilism, there remain the means to defy and surmount that nihilism. If life is meaningless, the teenager is tempted ask, what on earth is the point of going on living? Why not commit suicide? That is the subject of the essay: it is an essay about suicide, about confronting suicide, the ‘logical’ consequence of realising that we live in an Absurd world.

Camus’s answer is, that we shouldn’t commit suicide because it is more human and more noble and more in tune with a tragic universe – to rebel, to revolt against this fate. To face down the obvious absurdity of human existence and to enjoy the wild beauty of the world while we can.

Revolt gives life its value. Spread out over the whole length of a life, it restores its majesty to that life. (p.54)

Essayist not philosopher

Camus takes a long time to say this. I am influenced by the comment of Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1945 interview, that Camus is not an existentialist, and not a philosopher – he is much more a descendant of France’s 17th century moralists. He is a moralist, an essayist (as the essays later in this volume testify) and the essayist isn’t under any compulsion to produce a coherent sequence of argument – an entertaining flow of ideas will suffice.

Camus certainly plays with philosophical ideas and references a bunch of big names – early on there’s half a paragraph each about Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl – but this very brevity shows that he picks and chooses quotes to suit him, rather like Hazlitt or any of the impressionist Victorian essayists, yanking in quotes here or there to support their flow – and in order to create a rather meandering and impressionistic flow rather than a logical sequence of argument.

Camus himself explains that he is not ‘examining’ the philosophy of a Heidegger or Jaspers – he is ‘borrowing a theme’ (p.40), he is making ‘a sketchy reconnaissance in the origins of the absurd’ (p.20). He is not addressing their philosophical arguments – he is bringing out their common ‘climate’. Camus is much more about impressionistic psychology than repeatable arguments.

  • The method defined here acknowledges the feeling that all true knowledge is impossible. Solely appearances can be enumerated and the climate make itself felt…
  • If it would be presumptuous to try to deal with their philosophies, it is possible and sufficient in any case to bring out the climate that is common to them…
  • Certain men, starting from a critique of rationalism, have admitted the absurd climate…
  • Never, perhaps, have minds been so different. And yet we recognize as identical the spiritual landscapes in which they get under way. Likewise, despite such dissimilar zones of knowledge, the cry that terminates their itinerary rings out in the same way. It is evident that the thinkers we have just recalled have a common climate. To say that that climate is deadly scarcely amounts to playing on words. Living under that stifling sky forces one to get away or to stay…

Climate. Zone. Landscape. Stifling sky. This is not an argument – it is impressionistic prose poetry.

This hell of the present is his [the Absurd Man’s] Kingdom at last. All problems recover their sharp edge. Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’ s heart. (p.52)

This poetic meandering results in the often pretty obscure nature of the work. Camus is, in fact, often surprisingly turgid and difficult to understand.

If thought discovered in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle, then would be seen an intellectual joy of which the myth of the blessed would be but a ridiculous imitation. (p.23)

I understand what he’s saying: if any of us could discover a really unified theory underlying the world of phenomena how happy we, and mankind, would be. But you can see how this is not anything like philosophy: it is more a description of what philosophy would feel like.

When Karl Jaspers, revealing the impossibility of constituting the world as a unity, exclaims: “This limitation leads me to myself, where I can no longer withdraw behind an objective point of view that I am merely representing, where neither I myself nor the existence of others can any longer become an object for me,” he is evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them! At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself. (p.16)

Most of the book is like this. It is not a continuous philosophical argument, it is a series of psychological insights. He uses the Jaspers quote to create a poetic scenario using – characteristically for the man of Africa – the image of a desert, and going on to describe how we ‘must’ stay out there, in the waterless desert of absurd knowledge, in order to study its peculiar features. (Camus uses the metaphor of the desert of human thought seven times in the book – but I don’t find human thought a desert; I find it a bounteous and infinite garden.)

When he says the thinking mind is ‘an inhuman show’ in which a dialogue takes place you realise this is philosophy envisioned as theatre and become alert to the other metaphors of theatre and actors scattered through the text. Camus was himself a successful playwright and a section of the essay is titled Drama.

  • The irrational, the human nostalgia, and the absurd that is born of their encounter – these are the three characters in the drama that must necessarily end with all the logic of which an existence is capable. (p.32)
  • By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. (p.75)

It is a vision obscured, rather than clarified, by the author’s habit of imposing histrionic metaphors wherever they’ll fit. Absurdity, hope and death in the final sentence have specific meanings: absurdity is the lucid knowledge of the pointlessness of existence i.e the absence of any God or external values; hope is the word he gives to the thousand and one ways people turn away from and deny the reality of life, hoping for a God or a political party or a cause or something to transform the absurdity of the world; and death is the resort some people take from absurd knowledge, either getting themselves killed for a cause or doing away with themselves. This tripartite categorisation does make a sort of sense. What makes a lot less sense is to talk about how ‘tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show’ or ‘the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance’.

There is generally a discernible flow to the argument, but Camus’s writerly fondness for metaphors, similes, for paradox, abrupt reversals and the counter-intuitive, so often obscures rather than clarifies his meaning. This is what I mean when I say that he is not a lucid writer. He uses the word ‘lucid’ no fewer than 43 times in the text, and the continual reading of it may begin to unconsciously make you think he is lucid. But he isn’t. Sometimes his style descends into almost pure poetry, emotive, descriptive, incantatory.

‘Prayer,’ says Alain, ‘is when night descends over thought. ‘But the mind must meet the night,’ reply the mystics and the existentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of man – dark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucid -polar night, vigil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence. (p.62)

Here is no argument, just rhetoric, poetry, a particular type of melodramatic and harrowing poetry. Some of it teeters on gibberish.

Perhaps we shall be able to overtake that elusive feeling of absurdity in the different but closely related worlds of intelligence, of the art of living, or of art itself. The climate of absurdity is in the
beginning. The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it. (p.18)

The end is the absurd universe and that attitude of mind which lights the world with its true colors to bring out the privileged and implacable visage which that attitude has discerned in it.

Every time I reread this sentence, it moves further away from me.

Even when I think I understand it, it doesn’t really contribute to any logical argument – it is designed to create a similar climate or attitude in the mind of the reader. It is, thus, a form of attitudinising i.e. creating a mood through poetic means – for example, the way the ‘implacable visage’ is a melodramatic way of describing the Absurd, which is itself a melodramatic concept.

The text is designed to convert you to its rather histrionic (and theatrical) worldview. It is a pose. Every page is made up of this often hard-to-follow attitudinising.

It is barely possible to speak of the experience of others’ deaths. It is a substitute, an illusion, and it never quite convinces us. That melancholy convention cannot be persuasive. The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. All the pretty speeches about the soul will have their contrary convincingly proved, at least for a time. From this inert body on which a slap makes no mark the soul has disappeared. This elementary and definitive aspect of the adventure constitutes the absurd feeling. Under the fatal lighting of that destiny, its uselessness becomes evident. (p.21)

‘Under the fatal lighting of that destiny…’

The cumulative effect is to make you stop trying to elucidate what too often turn out to be spurious meanings.

Men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. (p.68)

Even before I begin to make the effort to decode what he’s saying, I know in advance it will not be worth the effort. Trying to understand a book about quantum physics or about evolutionary cladistics or memorising the different Chinese dynasties – that’s the kind of thing that’s worth making an effort for, because the knowledge is real and will last. But trying to decide whether this is a universe where ‘kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage’ strikes me as being a real waste of time.

In the rebel’s universe, death exalts injustice. It is the supreme abuse. (p.85)

What? Here he is describing music.

That game the mind plays with itself according to set and measured laws takes place in the sonorous compass that belongs to us and beyond which the vibrations nevertheless meet in an inhuman universe. (p.91)

An impressive display of rhetorical fireworks. But useful? Applicable? Enlightening? Memorable?

Quotable quotes

All this, the emphasis on rhetoric over logic, helps explain why it is much easier to quote Camus’s many catchy formulations in isolation than it is to remember any kind of reasoned argument.

  • An act like this [suicide] is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. (p.12)
  • Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. (p.12)

Looked at from one point of view, the text is a kind of impenetrably turgid grey sea from which emerge occasional shiny wave crests, glinting in the sunlight.

  • In a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. (p.13)
  • It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end. (p.16)
  • At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman. (p.20)
  • A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. (p.80)

Seen this way, Camus certainly does fit Sartre’s description as a traditional moralist – his text is just the stuff which joins together the periodic sententiae or moral statements about life, which are meant to be taken away and meditated on.

  • To an absurd mind reason is useless and there is nothing beyond reason. (p.38)

Great t-shirt material.

The Absurd

A bit like Sartre circling round and round his central concept of ‘freedom’, Camus circles round and round his central concept of the Absurd. The word occurs 316 times in the text, again and again on every page.

Put simply, the absurd is the mismatch between man’s deep need for a meaning/purpose/rational order in the world, and the world’s all-too-obvious lack of any meaning/purpose or order – the world’s complete indifference to human wishes. Again and again Camus defines and redefines and approaches and reapproaches and formulates and poeticises the same fundamental idea.

  • At any streetcorner the feeling of absurdity can strike any man in the face. (p.17)
  • That denseness and strangeness of the world is the absurd. (p.20)
  • The revolt of the flesh is the absurd. (p.20)
  • This discomfort in the face of man’ s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this ‘nausea’, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd. (p.21)
  • What is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. (p.27)
  • The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (p.32)
  • The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation. (p.33)
  • The absurd is not in man nor in the world, but in their presence together. (p.34)
  • The absurd is lucid reason noting its limits. (p.49)
  • [The absurd is] that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together. (p.50)
  • [The absurd is] my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle (p.51)

The basic idea is disarmingly simple. It is the way he repeats it with infinite variations, under the lights of numerous metaphors and similes, included in sentences which evoke emotional, intellectual and existential extremity, suffering, endurance, and so on, which make it more a poetics of living than philosophy.

The absurd mind cannot so much expect ethical rules at the end of its reasoning as, rather, illustrations and the breath of human lives. (p.65)

I’m not sure how you’d measure this but it seemed to me that, as the book progresses, the references to absurdity become steadily vaguer and more poetical and meaningless.

  • Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. (p.85)
  • All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. (p.87)
  • For the absurd man it is not a matter of explaining and solving, but of experiencing and describing. (p.87)
  • In the time of the absurd reasoning, creation follows indifference and discovery. (p.88)
  • The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. (p.90)
  • The most destitute men often end up by accepting illusion. That approval prompted by the need for peace inwardly parallels the existential consent. There are thus gods of light and idols of mud. But it is essential to find the middle path leading to the faces of man. (p.94)

This impressionistic approach, this lack of a coherent logic, this mosaic of quotes from Great Thinkers or abstruse analyses of Great Writers, grandiose examinations of the Stage or the mentality of The Conqueror, interspersed with descriptions of everyday life – how, for example, a sense of the futility of life hits you as you look in the mirror to shave – this may account for Camus’s wider popularity than Sartre’s. His very patchiness, the way he’s less logical and consistent, more given to sudden flashes of insight which can be put on a t-shirt.

Thus even if a lot of Sisyphus is turgid and obscure, with much of it showing off or perverse paradox-making for its own sake, there are many other bits which suddenly leap out with great clarity and make you think ‘Yes’.

Sisyphus

It takes Camus a long time to get to the punchline which is that we must face the absurdity of the world and overcome it. We must be like Sisyphus who, in the Greek myth is being punished in hell by being made to roll a rock to the top of the mountain only for it to be dashed to the bottom again. Over and again.

That is how we must live. But we must do it with a smiling heart, happy in the knowledge that we do it because we will it. We want to live.

Teenage heroism

And it is not irrelevant to the book’s popularity, or the popularity of watered-down ‘existentialism’ that it helped promote, that throughout the book the person who holds this notion of the absurd, who doesn’t give in to false consolations or to the siren call of suicide, who faces the meaningless world without flinching – is considered a hero.

It is a heroic pose to be one man undaunted against an uncaring universe, walking a ‘difficult path’.

There is a profoundly adolescent appeal not only in the fascination with suicide but in the rather laughable descriptions of the bold, brave heroism required to outface the absurd, ‘fearlessly’ and stoically living with his bleak knowledge. Refusing consolation and false comfort, committing oneself to live under ‘this stifling sky’ in these ‘waterless deserts’, living a life of ‘virile silence’ and ‘solitary courage’. Sounds like a film noir hero, sounds like Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire. Down these mean streets the ‘absurd man’ must go because, after all –

  • Sisyphus is the absurd hero

The essay is divided into three parts, the second of which is titled The Absurd Man. It’s heroic posturing is quite funny if read through the eyes of Tony Hancock or Sid James.

  • Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. (p.69)
  • There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. (p.81)
  • There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world’s absurdity. (p.86)

Around page 70, while taking a break on the internet, I stumbled over several comic strips devoted to taking the mickey out of Camus and Sartre. From that point onwards found it hard to keep a straight face while reading it. This is all so old, so 80-years-old, so much another time. It was passé in the 1960s, now it is ancient history. Old enough to have been satirised and parodied for generations.

Existential Comics – Camus

There is also something specifically comical in the way a writer decides, at the summary of his masterwork about the meaning of life in a godless universe and so on, that the highest possible calling for the Absurd Man is to be… a writer! The section titled Absurd Creation is not much about music or art, but mostly about other writers. It is rather bathetic that a writer decides,after much cogitation, that being a writer is the pinnacle of the kind of lucid courage required to face The Absurd!

Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure, and strength. (p.104)

So – as the Existentialist Comic puts it – these bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays all agree that the true Resistance to the Nazis and the true heroes of their time must, logically, according to their ‘lucid’ and ‘precise’ philosophy — be bookish guys sitting around in cafés and apartments writing novels, plays and essays.

Guys just like them, who can therefore congratulate each other on their ‘self-mastery’, their ‘revolt’, their  dignity and their strength. How to be a Hemingway hero without even stubbing out your Gauloise!

But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his
naked reality. (p.104)

‘Ordeal’. ‘Overcoming his phantoms.’ Outfacing ‘naked reality’. Braving the deserts of ‘lucid thought’. Mingling ‘intelligence and passion’. Summoning ‘diligence, doggedness and lucidity’ (p.106). Facing up to this ‘difficult wisdom’ (p.106). ‘Unceasing struggle’.

Wow. Never before or since has sitting at a typewriter smoking a fag been so heroic!

Brief discussion

When I was an over-intellectual 17 year-old these thoughts and Camus’ attitude helped reassure me and calm me down from my own nihilistic panic. My family didn’t understand me, my friendships were superficial, I had no job, no wife, no children and little experience of the real world of work and effort. Looking back I can see why I was subject to panic attacks.

But now I’m a fifty year-old family man with deep commitments, children to care for, bills to be paid and meals to be cooked – I find it impossible to recapture the mood of teenage hysteria which permeates all Camus’s books.

I go to the gym and watch, on the bank of TV screens, pop videos showing half-naked young men and women partying in the city or frisking on beaches, under waterfalls, in tropical islands around the world. My kids jet off to exotic destinations I could only dream of back in the 1970s. They text, Instagram and Facebook with friends in America, Spain, the Middle East, even China.  The world just no longer is the limited world of one-town boredom and dull routine that Camus describes. Rather than a crushed, defeated, broken, humiliated culture as was the Nazi world of 1940 or the post-war ruins of the 1940s – my kids live in a vibrant shiny world alive with music, movies, clothes, festivals, travel round the world and futuristic technology: they think life is great.

Looking back, Camus’s writings are really a kind of prose poetry which repeats pretty much the same idea from a thousand angles, expressed in countless metaphors and images, laced with wit and paradox in the typical French tradition, but essentially static.

A stranger to myself and to the world, armed solely with a thought that negates itself as soon as it asserts, what is this condition in which I can have peace only by refusing to know and to live, in which the appetite for conquest bumps into walls that defy its assaults? To will is to stir up paradoxes. Everything is ordered in such a way as to bring into being that poisoned peace produced by thoughtlessness, lack of heart, or fatal renunciations. (p.25)

The ‘appetite for conquest’, the ‘poisoned peace’, ‘fatal renunciations’?

You either enjoy this kind of poetry or you don’t. I can feel my way into it as I feel my way into the harsh world of the Icelandic sagas or the sweet humour of Chaucer’s poetry or the gargoyle world of early Dickens or the bumptious jingoism of Kipling. Those writers, also, have their truths and their insights, create internally consistent imaginative universes, generate quotable quotes which I may or may not apply to myself or others or the world in general.

But whereas I carry Chaucer and Kipling out into the world, remembering their best lines and beauty to enrich and colour my life, when I closed The Myth of Sisyphus I could remember almost nothing of it. — Some people find life absurd and it drives a tiny minority to suicide but it’s best, on balance, to face up to the meaninglessness of a godless universe and to create your own values and purpose within it.

The absurd man catches sight of a burning and frigid, transparent and limited universe in which nothing is possible but everything is given, and beyond which all is collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.

Being aware of one’s life, one’s revolt, one’s freedom, and to the maximum, is living, and to the maximum. (p.61)

The present and the succession of presents before a constantly conscious soul is the ideal of the absurd man. (p.62)

OK. I get it. Most people nowadays do that anyway, and don’t need a laboriously over-written, obscure and attitudinising text to help them.

Why is absurdity negative?

My son’s just got an ‘A’ in his Philosophy A-level. He didn’t study Camus (who is, after all, not a philosopher) though he did spend a lot of time on Martin Heidegger, the grand-daddy of 20th century existentialists.

I explained Camus’s notion of the Absurd to him i.e. the mismatch between the human wish (it’s always translated as nostalgia; maybe it means ‘longing’ as well) for order and meaning in the world and the lack of any such order – and the way it is always presented by Camus as a challenge, a trial, an ordeal, a desert under a hostile sky that only the strongest can face up to and confront, and my son said – ‘Why?’

He understood the idea of the mismatch, he got the absurdity of looking for meaning in a ‘godless universe’. OK. But… why does it have to be negative? Why does this mismatch have to have a value? Why can’t it just be… a mismatch, and up to each of us to make of it what we will, to give it a value? Where does all the horror and anguish come from? The absurd can be funny. Absurdity often is funny in everyday life. The horror and the anguish aren’t logically entailed in the concept of a mismatch. They are a value imposed on the situation.

He suggests that the entire climate, to use Camus’s word, of Sartrean existentialism and Camusian Absurdity, the rhetoric of anguish and despair and futility (in Sartre) and being an alien, an outsider in arid deserts under a stricken sky (in Camus) reflects the grim situation of 1930s and 40s France – the political chaos of the 1930s, the grinding humiliation of defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the even worse humiliation of liberation by the hated Anglo-Saxons in 1944.

Very few people followed the ‘logic’ of the existentialists’ arguments (where a ‘logic’ could be discerned) – but everyone grasped the way their negativity crystallised into words and ideas the vast, continent-wide wartime destruction and the collapse of all established social values, the loss of so many friends and family, hecatombs of corpses, which really did spread an atmosphere of anguish and despair through an entire generation. There was no existentialism in Britain because we never underwent this national humiliation and collapse of values.

At the climax of the book, the last few pages describing the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the book gives way to an orgy of rhetoric and poetic prose. Sisyphus is condemned in Hades to roll his rock up a hill and then watch it be tumbled back to the bottom, and forced to go back down and start rolling it up again – for all eternity. And yet Camus sees him as a positive figure, the epitome of the Absurd Man who sees the futility of life but sets himself to live it, regardless. All this is expressed with rhetoric not reason.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his effort will henceforth be unceasing. (p.110)

In its way, and taking into account its very different context, this stirring rhetoric is as full of moral uplift as a speech by Churchill.


Credit

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus was published in France in 1942. This translation by Justin O’Brien was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1955, and as a Penguin paperback in 1975. All quotes & references are to the Penguin paperback edition (which I bought in 1977 for 75p).

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Battle of France

Algerian war of independence

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

Related links

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson (1992)

There is something to be said for inhabiting the gloomy corners of yourself; there are surprises to be gleaned there, jewels of the soul that only those willing to mine underground will ever find. (p.153)

This is an extraordinarily imaginative, powerful and original novel – quite a stunning bravura performance and mind-blowing conception. Its dense 340 pages describe the adventures of Cain, the Biblical son of Adam and Eve who murders his brother Abel, in a richly rhetorical, biblically heavy and sometimes impenetrable style.

The narrative alternates between third person descriptions of the young earth and the teeming mysterious creation, and Cain’s first person narrative – well after the murder – when he has become an outcast among men detailing, in particular, his experiences in the cosmopolitan and confusing city of Babel.

Jacobson’s natural prose style tends to the rhetorical and pontificatory. In this ancient, elevated subject matter it finds its natural home, raising itself to a permanent orotundity, incorporating Biblical phraseology, high-flown rhetorical tropes and repetitions, with extended meditations on membership of the First Family, of the nature of the jealous God, the passions of angels, the devious hero worship of the sectaries of Babel, and so on.

But, at moments, the book showcases something completely new in his work – an extraordinary visionary quality in the descriptions of the new-minted earth and heavens, still sparkling with freshness, unstable and experimental, of weird creatures, strange astronomical phenomena, of angels and mythical beasts, rendered in the style of a hallucinatory science fiction.

And then, all smiles, the skies opened and poured down shafts of rosy light; beams, in every sense of the word – great grinning girders of lambency in whose brilliant refractions the merest specks of dirt shone magnified like jewels hung around one gorgeous universal neck. The earth jolted, rocked once, then fell upon its axle. Stopped in its tracks, the engorged sun bounced as weightless as a bubble, pricking its circumference against mountains, leaking redness. (p.143)

It is an astonishing, visionary, strange and disturbing book.

The plot

There are two storylines. In one Cain in the first person reminisces about coping with his parents, the first humans, who are strange, puzzled, innocent, confused. His father does conjuring tricks and imitations  of the first animals, crand gets cross with God that he’s not allowed to have sex with Eve while she is still unclean from giving birth to Abel. Cain spends a lot of time naming all the new and puzzling things.

Eve, set apart in her impurity, is distant, remote. They are visited by two scruffy angels and Cain sees close up how badly designed they are, their great wings chafing against their arms. The biggest of them, Semyaza, returns to try and ravish Eve but, as he carries her screaming into the sky, the Almighty does his thing and suddenly the weakened angel falls to the ground, depositing Eve and shrinking away into dust.

These events are interwoven with the second storyline, a third-person account of Cain’s sojourn in Babel. He meets Naaman, his daughter Zilpah, Sisobk the Scryer, Preplen the satirical poet. Cain is now a performer, a lecturer, who addresses theatres full of fans and oglers keen to hear his story and the long-winded conclusions he draws from it. Cain has periodic conversations with Preplen who takes the mickey. Skinny Zilpah tails him and, in a memorable scene, in his bedroom, adopts a doggy position for him, pulling her buttocks apart to reveal her swart orifice, emitting its sour arable flavour (p.171), inveigling her way into his bed, pleading to be his slave and dog.

And Sisobk the Scryer appears to be the gateway to yet a third timeline: for he has visions and foresees biblical events far in the future: in one thread Moses and Aaron impose seemingly endless new divine regulations on the Israelites wandering in the wilderness until they rebel under the leadership of Korah at which God opens a crack in the earth into which the rebels fall screaming. Then Sisobk skips forward to the birth of Esau and Jacob from the womb of Rebekah, giving rise to lengthy and inconsequential meditations on the meaning of this Stone Age story.

Cain kills Abel

In the end Cain is overcome by Abel’s goody-goodiness, snaps and murders him, punching him to the ground then kicking his prone body, then covering his corpse in dust and rubble and stone until only his lifeless face remains. He is retelling and reliving the moment to the audience in the theatre in Babel, and abruptly we cut back to them, embarrassed by what they’ve hear, by the nakedness of Cain’s story, and the performance stops while they visit the rest room or order a refreshing sherbert. Cain stands dazed at the memory of what he did.

During this pause Naaman sidles up to him and – wishing to sever Cain’s unhealthy connection with his submissive daughter – says he’s heard about the murderer’s ambition of building a tower, here in Babel. Well Naaman just happens to know one which has been started, and can supply a troop of builders.

A lot of the warm puzzlement and ingenuity, the enthusiasm at the start of the book, the life, has drained out of the book by now. More and more characters are described as sad, melancholy, and the story feels abandoned. At some point it began to feel to me like a bleak modern allegory, like Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

After Cain has murdered his brother and is sitting pointlessly, abandoned, derelict, cradling his dead body  there is a powerful sequence when a talking raven asks him what he has done and then offers to dig a grave for him. It reminded me of the set of harsh modern myths Ted Hughes wove around the figure of his trickster bird, the crow. Harsh, dry, barren. For all its gorgeous rhetoric the lingering aftertaste of the book is of dust and ashes.

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)

The Tower of Babel as envisioned by Pieter Breugel the Elder (1563)


A Jacobson stylistics

The Very Model of a Man is a powerful and bizarre creation but quite hard going in places. Even when I understood the events of the plot, they seemed strangely inconsequential compared to the tremendous wall of prose which Jacobson deploys, which far swamps the ostensible subject matter and drowns any ‘moral’ or ‘philosophical’ content which the book may be intended to have.

Most of the enjoyment, for me, came from analysing the techniques Jacobson uses to generate his magniloquent style. Almost all of the book is written in a high, ornate and ritualised poetic prose which few modern authors would dare or could achieve.

Repetition of clauses

As the German proverb has it, All Dinge sind drei, buses come in threes and so do clauses from orators who wish to grandstand and impress with the sonority of their rhetoric. These sets of three clauses, or phrases, occur liberally throughout the book; these are just from one page:

  • It wasn’t always a joy to him to be pierced by their mineral blue-green eyes, to be irradiated by the gold-filled tusks they showed in laughter always laughter, to be dazzled by the electric frizz of orange hair which many of them left uncovered.. (p.35)
  • They were brilliant, they were stellar, they were a moving mosaic of light… (p.35)
  • … a grandeur of feature, a weight of expression, an extravagance of facial swoops and circumflections. (p.35)

Using three booming clauses make it sound like you’ve said something deep and moving. Throw in a rhetorical question or a sweeping generalisation and you are moving into Cicero and Churchill territory:

  • Was this not proof of the generosity of their minds, the receptivity of their intelligences, the breadth and scope of their sympathies? (p.37)
  • He sees, for the first time, that it is artificially enlarged, the lobe distended, weighed down by a hanging ball of lead, the porch to the cavity itself gaping obscenely with the promise of infinite attention, infinite indulgence, infinite receptivity. (p.40)
  • Blind, blind, every woman in the hour of her adoration. Blind to reason. Blind to refusal. Blind to herself. (p.41)
  • He needed to speak further to his wife, repeat his performance for her, watch the dagger flashing in her glance. (p.82)
  • The other outdoor venues – the market squares where the prophets and pranksters gather, the parks and river banks that are popular with acrobats and near-sighted poetesses, the temple steps favoured by the little brown fairy-tellers from beyond the Indus… (p.114)
  • A slight woman confirms all his worst fears about existence. A slight woman proves the nugatoriness of things. A slight woman proves there is no hereafter. (p.171)
  • There he would be, up before any of us, already in the dirt, already rigid, already crying. (p.180)
  • All I knew of death was in his voice. It was without music, without colour, without desire. (p.251)
  • [God is] an indefatigable Proscriber. A rigorous Segregationalist. And a most fastidious Picker at food. (p.256)
  • It was up to me in other words. There was no order, no promise, no prediction. (p.260)

At some point repetition bursts the bounds of the threesome and just goes for it, the sophisticated rhetorician rejoicing in the fecundity of his proliferating periods.

  • Babel was thus ultimately the centre of every story, the haven to which all exiles dreamed of returning, the goal of every traveller, the reward of every virtue, the pattern for every striving, the paradise by whose loss every sinner calculated his deprivation and every criminal his fall. (p.38)
  • In Adam’s case a blow to the heart and to the soul, a stab in the back, a poisoning of the central nervous system, a torture to the mind, a suffocation and a braining and a garrotting… (p.54)

Eventually, if pressed in this direction, the prose spills over from numbered clauses to become a list and lists have a pleasure all of their own, conveying a sense of giddy profusion, the abundance of creation or, at least, of the author’s limitless lexicon.

In the cities of Shinar a shuri is assumed to be capable of discharging the simultaneous duties of daughter, sister, mother, companion, interpreter of dreams, reader of palms and minds and foreheads, laundress, seamstress, manicurist, pedicurist, defiled virgin, chaste harlot, contortionist, singer, dancer, looker, listener, linguist, mute, physician for all ailments of body or soul. (p.39)

Rhetorical questions

There are hundreds of these liberally scattered throughout the book, they are a fundamental building block of the style.

  • Who can go on dining on the gruel of fact once they have tasted the rich meats of uncertainty? (p.61)
  • Who would dare adjudicate between two such liberties taken with the name and justice-mechanism of the Almighty? (p.73)
  • How could I possibly have been ignorant of what was taking place? What kind of a son would I have been to my mother had I not seized every opportunity to observe her in her finest hour, captor and mistress of her Creator’s heart? (p.85)
  • [Eve] had always been weak before the power of art? What woman is not? Which of them is proof against a little culture laced with compliment? A song, a dance, a pretty turn of wit, for which she might conceivably be credited with the inspiration? (p.88)
  • You find me too sophistical in this matter? You would have a spade called a spade and greed and grudging given their proper names? (p.90)
  • When God smelled the smoke of Abel’s sacrifice, spread wide his nostrils to accommodate every pungent wisp and curl of it, do you think I fretted over the bounty He was sure to extend my brother in return? Do you think there were any cubits of inhospitable crawling scrub or homers of rotting straw to be handed over, that I could not bear to be without? (p.91)
  • Where would gods be without the devotion of women? (p.96)
  • Does it surprise you that I could feel concern for my brother’s safety, when it was I who at the very hour of his birth had passed a death sentence on him? It shouldn’t. Who can you possibly care more for than a person whose continuing existence depends largely on yourself? (p.104)
  • What else is a First Cause to do to spice up the tedium of predestined effect? (p.131)

The dense profusion of rhetorical questions suggests at least two sources. 1. Jacobson was a university teacher for a long time and asking rhetorical questions of your students is a basic pedagogic technique.

What else makes envy the most excruciating of the passions if not the dread of discovering your utter redundancy in the world’s business? (p.90)

2. The book is about Jewish history, Jewish teaching and Jewish hermeneutics. It powerfully suggests something particularly disputatious in a tradition so cluttered with hundreds of minute stipulations, all of which must be weighed and considered, and discussed and debated, never really reaching a conclusion.

Should he remove his clothing and then recite the ordinance, or should he recite the ordinance and then remove his clothing? (p.75)

Years ago I read the entire Old Testament and some books about Judaism and Paul Johnson’s epic history of the Jews, my conclusion was that it is a tradition designed to prompt endless questioning and debate about its plethora of prohibitions. The joy, the pleasure, is not necessarily in reaching any conclusion – because there are no conclusions – but in the learning and wisdom and intricacy and subtle humour of the argumentation.

Thou shalt? How did the grammar of that work? Was it an order? A prediction? A promise? Was the kingdom of sin being dangled before me as an enticement, a reward if I did such and such? Or had it been given to me, there and then, with no strings attached? (p.260)

However, there are risks. For a start, the addiction to questions sometimes topples over into questionable territory, posing posers which, on closer examination, don’t make too much sense.

What father does not want to hear his daughter confess an ugly and, if possible, unrequited infatuation? What father does not nurse the furtive ambition of having the old jealous dread – the humiliation of rivalry, the vicarious ignominy of rejection – realised just once? (p.265)

Not every statement which can be put into the grammatical form of a question deserves answering. And so isn’t there a risk that after the first hundred or so questions, the reader starts caring less and less about the answers?

Who would settle for being merely the apple of his mother’s eye, when he could be the arrow in her side, the thorn in her flesh, the pestilence in her blood? (p.283)

That the average reader, requiring some substantial points of narrative to cling onto, to orientate himself by, might eventually come to feel he is adrift in a never-ending surf of inquisition? That – on the 217th question, worn down by this cornucopia of quizzicality – the harassed target of these questions might simply reply: ‘I don’t know. You’re the bloody author. You tell me.’

Word play

Related to the joy of questions is a mindset which enjoys puns and quibbles over meaning. The simplest form is a thesaurus-like repetition of synonyms, or near-synonyms, which jostle a definition, cajole and cosset a concept, towards its unclear centre:

  • My father’s incautiousness, or absent-mindedness, or inability simply to feign knowledge when he lacked it… (p.47)
  • … the place we fled from: the fertile valley, our teeming cradle, omphalos, hell, home. (p.52)
  • The teeming land sent up more monsters in an afternoon than I could have catalogued in a year, but its store of validating commendation was exhaustible, finite, dwindling. (p.56)
  • his apostasy, disloyalty, defection (p.123)
  • The word is invariably grotesque to him now – overblown, foolish, laughable. (p.123)
  • He is as particular about his floor as he is about his appearance. Traveller’s scruples. Fugitive’s fastidiousness. (p.213)

Chiasmus and inversion. Jacobson is fond of using sentences which rework clauses, reword them, invert word orders or use the same word orders to extend or modify the concept.

  • They see into each other; she with pity threatening to be love, he with disinclination determined to be hate. (p.112)
  • He would like to lie down for a while. Rest his feet. Close his eyes. And try not to imagine all the ways he has inadvertently amused Naaman. To say nothing of inadvertently unamusing Naaman’s daughter. (p.113)
  • Had Moses been an early Freud – as Freud surely was, for the purposes of another sort of Jewish deliverance, a later Moses… (p.119)
  • He would not want to swear that he has heard what he has heard. But then again he would not want to swear that he has not… If he is unsure what he’s sure of, he is at least sure of what he isn’t. (p.325)

The narrator frequently uses homophonous words, multiples of words which sound around a notion, slinking and sliding around a concept’s slippery centre.

That’s the way to leave; that’s the way to turn your back on home. Fly like a stone out of a sling. Not slink, as he had. Not slope. Not sneak. Not snake. (p.270)

The pedantic correction

A variation on this is a professorial fussiness which insists on correcting itself, making a song and dance about its fossicking and finicketying, about how subtle and refined its perceptions are, a habit of self-adjustment which gives a (spurious) sense of precision to the narrator’s meditations. But not necessarily to the reader’s enlightenment.

  • And so saying – so intuning – … (p.111)
  • It could almost be said that although he hasn’t met her he has talked to her, for she regularly, no, she religiously, attends his recitals… (p.112)
  • His audience was exactly as Naaman had predicted it… with the exception – that’s to say, with the inclusion – of Naaman’s own daughter. (p.115)
  • ‘I intend – that’s too grand a verb – I think, only of a tower.’ (p.125)
  • And the someone else in question – the someone else I do not hesitate to put in question – (p.144)
  • All right, my mother said, let us suppose. But first what am I to suppose is the purpose of this supposition? (p.146)
  • I was man enough. Man enough to think I was man enough, anyway. (p.149)
  • He is in love with his own vagrancy. Would be in love with his own vagrancy. (p.153)
  • He isn’t a cause of Cain’s spongy fungoid blight – he is Cain’s spongy fungoid blight. (p.153)
  • He didn’t love her. He didn’t, that’s to say, discretely love her. (p.155)
  • She stopped what she was doing – what she was undoing – (p.178)
  • Over a shallow stream that we could wade across in three strides my father had thrown – no, had erected – a bridge… (p.178)
  • I do not believe it is his beauty that inspires this heaving love in me. That imposes this heavy love on me. (p.184)
  • He is in the womb of Rebekah… no… no… he is the womb of Rebekah. (p.217)
  • In the case of the last motive – no, I must return to my original word: the last prompting I have attributed to him. (p.245)
  • Which is a claim I am at least prepared to make for the disgust I felt – no, the digust I mensurated – (p.251)
  • An expression of the finest, most unadulterated angelic distaste passed over his features. Passed? No. (p.254)
  • He looked surprised that I needed to ask. No, not surprised – how could any of us surprise him? – sickened. (p.255)
  • She cannot conceal her shame. Or rather, she cannot conceal her awkwardness, and that is a cause of shame. (p.263)

The author is aware of this pedantic fossicking, the habit of never letting one word do when you can turn it over, examine it and try out several synonyms, as if searching for ever-diminishing, finer distinctions. He has the characters address it. In a late section of the book, when the character Sisobk the Scryer appears to have a convoluted dialogue with a roomful of rabbis, the narrator specifically attributes it to the Jewish tradition of learned exegesis, explication, which is described as ‘bookish and biblical’, characterised by a’passion for exegesis prevailing over all other passions’, making it:

Scholiastic. Disputatious. Talmudical. (p.272)

Learnèd tags

The verbal mannerisms of a pompous professor litter the discourse, as if it is an old-fashioned scholarly article.

There is an argument that says… A word of caution here… There is a rumour in circulation that… Accounts vary as to how long… It is sometimes said that… Who would dare adjudicate between… It could almost be said that…. so to speak… It may be a fact that… It could be said… I have a theory to explain… not to beat about the bush… in short… Suffice it to say… I have heard it said… It could be argued…

On a less high-falutin’ plane, he also uses more everyday phrases to give an air of adjudication and authority, using tags which sometimes remind me of civil service pomposity and at others veer closer to classic football manager rhetoric.

as chance would have it… in so far as he can be said to possess… as it were… it could be argued… to wit… if the truth is told… come to that… that’s to say… it goes without saying… when all is said and done…

Learnèd vocabulary

The text evinces a steady enjoyment of words as objects in themselves, as rare and precious as Biblical unguents:

  • ossicle – The ossicles are three bones in either middle ear that are among the smallest bones in the human body.
  • verrucose – Covered with warts or wartlike projections.
  • bacillophobic – An abnormal and persistent fear of bacilli (bacteria).
  • collops – a small slice of meat, especially a small rasher of bacon.
  • venereous – Relating to sexual desire or sexual intercourse; Addicted to sexual pleasure; lustful
  • frit – the mixture of silica and fluxes which is fused at high temperature to make glass.
  • sciolist – One who exhibits only superficial knowledge; a self-proclaimed expert with little real understanding.
  • feldspar – an abundant rock-forming mineral typically occurring as colourless or pale-coloured crystals and consisting of aluminosilicates of potassium, sodium, and calcium.
  • slub – a lump or thick place in yarn or thread.
  • squab – In culinary terminology, squab is a young domestic pigeon, typically under four weeks old or its meat.
  • epiphytic – A plant, such as a tropical orchid or a staghorn fern, that grows on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients.
  • funebral – belonging to a funeral, fr. funus funeral. Pertaining to a funeral or funerals; funeral; funereal.
  • alacrious – Brisk; joyously active; lively.
  • hin – A unit of liquid measure used by the ancient Hebrews, equal to about five litres.
  • mendicaments – a substance used for medical treatment.
  • nigrescent – The process of becoming black or dark. Blackness or darkness, as of complexion.
  • allopathic – a system of medicine that aims to combat disease by using remedies (as drugs or surgery) which produce effects that are different from or incompatible with those of the disease being treated. The opposite of homeopahic.
  • coccygeal – a small triangular bone forming the lower extremity of the spinal column in humans, consisting of four ankylosed rudimentary vertebrae.
  • tenuity – lack of solidity or substance; thinness.
  • ensorcelled – enchanted, fascinated.
  • homer – an ancient Hebrew unit of capacity equal to about 10.5 or later 11.5 bushels or 100 US gallons.
  • foison – a plentiful supply or yield.
  • sacrarium – the sanctuary of a church. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a piscina; (in the ancient Roman world) a shrine, in particular the room in a house containing the penates.
  • fugacy – banishment.

Generalisations

Paradoxical generalisations infest the text like weeds. Jacobson is like a mordant Oscar Wilde, Wilde without the lightness or wit, Wilde with blood in his mouth and slub in his heart.

  • You have to be verbal to be disgusted. (p.51)
  • Words are power, and power has no truck with sensibilities. (p.51)
  • Ridicule is the jealous man’s salvation, the breath of all our being. (p.85)
  • Treachery stokes its own fires. It needs no circumstances or pretexts or motives. Motivelessness is the very thing it thrives on. (p.100)
  • What we call infatuation is nothing other than being mesmerised by the realisation that we can juggle violence. (p.105)
  • All obsessional behaviour this side of madness must make a concession to normality somewhere. (p.107)
  • Despair drives men to believe that riches and salvation are incompatible; and so, sometimes, does repletion. But seldom hope; and never hope in its infancy. (p.119)
  • As with mortals, so with gods: we lose ourselves in ill-definition and crave elucidation – heroic elucidation if we can find it – of who we are. (p.142)
  • Barring exceptional circumstances, there are only two reasons why a man of marriageable age remains a bachelor: either he doesn’t love women at all, or he loves them too much. (p.154)
  • A serious man talks to no-one but himself. (p.185)
  • The more a thing grows, the smaller its capacity to amuse itself. (p.189)
  • Mothers, of course, are always sad. (p.209)

There are scores of sweeping generalisations like this, part of the book’s discourse-creating machinery – but I don’t think there’s a single sententious sentiment which, upon reflection I don’t think is bogus. They sound high and mighty but – like a lot of the text – in the morning have melted and gone like snow.

Rhetoric instead of character

All this goes partly to explain why it’s difficult to remember much of what goes on in a Jacobson novel. In the texture of the prose there is an never-ending display of rhetorical fireworks, but events, actions ‘in the real world’? Which are structured into a sequence which creates a ‘plot’? Harder to discern. Often invisible, buried beneath the magnificent tapestry of rhetoric.

Teachers of creative writing say that character in a novel is revealed by dialogue and action but there is little of either in a Jacobson novel. Not much gets in the way of the ceaseless enchanter’s weaving of the ornate narratorial prosody. The 23-page chapter Cain Expatiates describes Cain’s feelings as he spies on his mother, Eve, nursing baby Abel and being wooed – sort of – impressed, and shown off to by a surprisingly anthropomorphic God. Cain expatiates exactly describes the scene, because in the entire long meditation on what it means for the Creator to be so attracted to one of his muddy creations, we get a beguiling and bewitching 20 pages of Cain’s elaborately rhetorical thoughts – and not a word from Eve. She does and says nothing. At one point Cain describes her character – ‘she was brittle, obstinate, unadaptable, impervious’ (p.93) and I realised, once these fine words had stopped dazzling me – that I had no idea what they meant, was not even sure, in fact, if they mean anything.

And so for all its gorgeous tapestries of words, for all its peculiar and intense inhabitation of Cain’s tortured consciousness and its imaginatively weird descriptions of the First Family, for all the appearance of scrupulous moral and psychological investigation created by the professorial tags and scholarly discriminations – for all its bizarre Talmudical reincarnations –  after I put the book down, the ornate baroque music of the prose rang on in my head for a while, humming and reverberating but… the plot, the meaning, the message of it all, whatever the book was actually about – evaporated from my memory like dew in the desert.

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)

Cain murdering Abel by Peter Paul Rubens (1608)


Credit

The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson by Howard Jacobson was published in 1992 by Viking Books. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life, his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy, then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, his move to Cornwall and submissive affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she, too, dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator on an extended sojourn in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
1992 The Very Model of a Man – An extraordinary achievement, a bizarre and rhetorical imagining into the mind of Cain – son of Adam and Eve and murderer of his brother Abel – as he tortuously remembers the events leading up to the first fratricide, and spends his days as an outcast in the corrupt and cosmopolitan city of Babel.
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –

Milton’s God by William Empson (1961)

The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people act on moral convictions different from your own. (p.261)

This I take to be a piece of humanism in the Lionel Trilling tradition.

What is more it has been thought from Aeschylus to Ibsen that a literary work may present a current moral problem, and to some extent alter the judgement of those who appreciate it by making them see the case as a whole. (p.261)

Ditto. On this view literature contributes to the ‘debate’, which is a fundamental of democratic societies.

What is literature?

By contrast, in my opinion, the term or concept ‘literature’ is an artefact

a) used in various ways in various times and places over the past 3,000 years, and part of its study should be a study of what people of the past have meant by ‘literature’; and a study of the conditions under which it has been i) produced ii) received iii) preserved
b) constructed under specific conditions in Western universities over the past 200 years or so, and it’s worth spending a little time pondering the history of the creation of departments of ‘literature’, studying the history of the subject itself…

In contrast to the varying theoretical views of ‘literature’ put forward by professors, in the real world writers have written for a wide variety of reasons & motives – but the single biggest one has been to earn a living. In this sense most ‘literature’ is motivated not by any belated idea of contributing to a ‘debate’ – but by the wish for fame, fortune, praise and money (from the ferocious competition among the ancient Greeks to win the palm for their tragedy, to Dr Johnson claiming no-one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.)

Milton’s God

It is a great shame that Empson only makes his ideological convictions clear in the final long polemical chapter, Christianity. It is especially regrettable that only on p.267 does he explain the rationale for the entire book, viz. modern Christians have a great amount of leeway in what they believe, can even incorporate bits of Darwinism, science etc into their syncretistic Christianity; and they tend to interpret Christian poets from the past as if they had the same easygoing faith. But Donne, Milton et al were stuck with Christianity – even when their consciences rebelled against its obvious harshness and cruelty. It was a struggle to accept many of its tenets. And so it is the revolt of Milton’s finer feelings against the harsh strictures of Christian belief that Empson sets out to map in this book, via close readings of cruxes to do with, in order, Satan (55 pages), Heaven (54), Eve (35) and Adam (29).

The one great message of this book is to refute the soft lit crit idea that you have to soak yourself into the time and mind-set of a writer in order to appreciate their work: Empson insists that an uncritical acceptance that Milton was a simple Christian belies the evidence of his personal theological work, De Doctrina Christiana, which is full of heresy and worry about God’s justice – and that this nagging doubt, worry & ambiguity are to be found at important cruxes in Paradise Lost.

Empson thinks that when Milton set himself the task of turning ‘the figures of the briefly recorded myth into high-minded intelligent characters’ he led himself into a world of woe, exposing almost every exchange to multiple ambiguities of the type he (Empson) loves to tease out. He thinks scores of these cruxes reveal that Milton actually had deep ambivalence about the myth and the kind of God it reveals – i.e. a sadistic bastard.

I think this is wrong-headed, and that, in a poem of 12,000 lines, there are bound to be anomalies, mistakes, contradictions which can be teased out and presented as deeply meaningful – but are in fact, just mistakes. I believe Milton’s aim and beliefs are clear and consistent.

Empson is a man enormously amused by his own eccentricity, who thinks he is a rebel (by standing out against the tide of neo-Christian critics spawned by Eliot) and a close reader (his tedious over-examination of words) and a humourist (imputing jokes to God, telling anecdotes about the Far East), but is in fact a muddle-headed bore.

By wrong-headed I mean the way Empson cheerfully insists that God really, deep down wanted Eve to eat the apple (p.163).

This is a foolish and ignorant book which demonstrates just how unscholarly, unsystematic, slapdash, unconsidered, inaccurate, wrongheaded, prejudiced, narrow-minded and short-sighted a so-called ‘literary critic’ can be, and why so many sensible intelligent people have looked down their noses at literary criticism as a dubious type of parlour game.

Empson is against Christianity, fine. But he uses his prejudice to interject no end of wrong-headed interpretations of Milton’s lines.

This book is like the school of criticism L.C. Knights lampooned in his 1933 essay, How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth? i.e. criticism which investigates characters as if they were real people in the real world instead of figures in a total poetic, aesthetic system. It tends, therefore, to highlight logical flaws in the poem/play. As everyone knows, Shakespeare’s plays are full of anomalies, e.g. the non-functioning time schemes – but these don’t affect their dramatic plausibility or aesthetic impact. Thus, Empson picks on hundreds of different cruxes to show that, in each case, some lines – Raphael’s explanation of this or Eve’s understanding of that – imply something different from Milton’s overall and obviously Christian aim. Well, Empson’s readings might help to understand particular passages, but it in no way invalidates Milton’s obvious overall aim. I.e. all his examples don’t build up to a systematic critique.

His chapter ‘Critics’ would be useful to this day if it in any way summarised the debate over Milton as it stood in 1961. But it doesn’t, consisting of a muddle-headed skipping from one randomly-selected quote to another, not properly summarising, explaining or critiquing the famous views of Leavis, Lewis or Eliot.

Satan

I’ve just read his 50-page chapter on Satan and I’ve really no idea what it said. Towards the end he seems to be saying that Satan had very good reasons for believing what he did i.e. that God is a tyrant, that God is not the creator but the angels made themselves etc. This seems to me rubbish: whether Satan does or does not believe this is irrelevant to the overall thrust of the poem’s obvious Christian orthodoxy – and to the overall portrayal of Satan who starts off a heroic rebel and steadily degrades himself by the use of Wrong Reason. If we identify with him so much it is because we also are fallen creatures, liable to Satan’s foolish pride (ie erroneously believing there is no God; we made ourselves etc).

Heaven i.e. God is a bad God

Empson produces a list of moments where God seems a very bad God:

God rules Heaven badly

  • God produces a Heaven in which a third of the population rebels against Him; not a good sign.
  • God produces a heaven in which Satan (and presumably other devils) obsequiously and slavishly worship Him, while secretly wishing to overthrow Him.

God fails to win Satan round – in effect, encouraging him to rebel

  • If Satan simply requires proof of God’s omnipotence, why doesn’t God simply produce them – instead of leading Satan on to open rebellion and then orchestrating the whole chain of events which lead to the Fall.

God allows the Fall to happen

  • God lets Satan step out of his chains remarkably easily.
  • God sets Sin and Death in control of the gates of Hell – talk about crazy.
  • God lets Satan travel across Chaos, when a whiff of divine breath would have blown him off into infinity.
  • When Satan is discovered by Gabriel, God sets a scale in heaven to tell Gabriel to let Satan go!
  • Thus God sets a guard on Adam which turns out to be utterly hopeless – and of course he foreknows that.

God has perfect foreknowledge of the Fall – but still lets it happen

  • On the issue of foreknowledge, a parent who foresaw that its children would be mortally injured in an accident – but let it go ahead and happen – would be imprisoned or judged insane.

God encourages Raphael to plant the seeds of the ideas which Satan will exploit to successfully tempt Eve to eat the apple

  • I.e. Raphael tells them they will become like Gods – so later Eve falls for Satan’s argument that eating the apple will make her a god.

Eve

Repeats the same thesis as the whole book which is that God is a bastard who orchestrates and encourages Eve’s fall; namely by getting Raphael to describe Adam & Eve’s possible translation to heaven – which she thinks the serpent will facilitate…

pp.161 he comes to the core of the anti-God argument: a parent who punished an erring child’s first offense with a lifetime of torment and torture, disease, war and famine for all its posterity, would be locked up.

One expects the morality of a God to be archaic, but this God seems to be wickeder than any recorded society.

Adam

Concentrates on when and how Adam learns that his entire posterity will be blasted for the Fall. But mainly quotes a string of texts from De Doctrina Christiana to show just how nervous & ambivalent Milton was about the ideas of the Fall, of infinite punishment being visited on innocent people, of innocent souls being deliberately placed in fallen, impure bodies, etc. how difficult Milton found it to justify God’s justice.

Empson points out that a line in De Doctrina seems to indicate Milton’s rock-bottom position: that if there were no God how come we all have a sense of right and wrong. This is an argument C.S. Lewis uses widely – the so-called Moral Law inherent in the universe. Well, a modern materialist says it is implanted in us by our parents, carers, creating what Freud called the superego, part of our mind which absorbs the rules and regulations laid down by years of moulding by parents, teachers etc.

Milton had nowhere else to go. No intellectually credible alternative to Christianity existed. He was stuck with his God.

I’ve found Christian belief in various people to be a matter of a handful of firm convictions – about right and wrong, or about a purpose to life etc – and then they’ve used these handful of convictions as a foundation on which to ease themselves into the vast a) social organisation b) intellectual system, of Christianity. But Milton is exceptional because he refused to shy away from the logical conclusions of the Christian myth.

Which brings me to a point which arises usefully out of Empson’s book – Milton was a lifelong arguer and controversialist – Paradise Lost is mostly dialogue, most of which is devoted to people argufying. Empson thinks it unlikely that there is any argument about any aspect of Christianity that Milton won’t have considered. Hence the intellectual interest, like watching a philosopher or lawyer make a case.

Thoughts

It is my position that Milton put down in black and white the essential elements of the Christian religion – and that many Christians are extremely embarrassed to see it written down so openly, would prefer there to have been more ‘mystery’, ‘spirituality’ i.e. for it to have glossed over the uncomfortable facts. But Milton was a zealot, convinced of his cause. There is no subtle sub-text here – Milton wrote what he believed.

But the unappealingness – the moral bankruptcy – of the poem’s theology, need not put us off either enjoying it or rating it highly as a work of art. After all, the Iliad and Odyssey and arguably the Aeneid are morally bankrupt – the Aeneid written to justify the rule of a tyrant and murderer as implacable as Stalin – Homer expounding a cruel and sadistic bronze age warrior code.

The appeal of Paradise Lost is multi-levelled and you don’t have to give a Yes/No answer to Milton’s efforts on each individual level: sometimes it works, sometimes less so:

  • first is the sheer music of the verse; but he can be dull
  • then the breathtaking scale; but this can lead him into silliness, arguably the entire allegory of Sin & Death
  • then the psychological acuity of various moments, expressed in beautiful poetry, from Milton’s Invocations to, say, the soliloquy of Satan
  • after a lot more levels you eventually reach ideology, and I think it’s perfectly possible to be struck, at some moments, by the beauty of some aspects of the Christian story – say, the road travelled by Adam and Eve from bitter recriminations to a final resolve to help each other – that is moving and instructive on a human level – but other moments are almost embarrassing, particularly when God is trying to wriggle out of any blame – and whenever you stop and think it is pathetic that a supposedly omnipotent Father can’t either a) protect or b) heal his mortal children.

Why does it have to be 1,000 years before Christ appears to redeem mankind? And why do Sin and Death continue to triumph after the resurrection? Why do we have to wait another 2,000 years of torture and suffering for the so-called Second Coming?

If God is going to forgive and heal mankind – why wait, incurring worlds of pain? Why not forgive us the next day? That’s what you do to erring children…

The Tragic Sense

Empson’s nitpicking approach and facetious generalisations would look pretty stupid if applied to, say, the Iliad. You can imagine him dismissing the argument between Agamamnon and Achilles – why doesn’t Agamemnon just return the girl? Why didn’t the gods let Clytemnestra’s warning about Hecuba’s dream be heeded? Etc There are a 1,000 places where the event could have been prevented…

But to intervene constantly in this way is to miss the wood for the trees. The Iliad presents a tragic vision of life. It has its profound impact because millions of its readers have shared this profoundly tragic worldview and admire the poem for describing it in unflinching and moving detail. To nitpick about this or that aspect of the logic of the story is to completely fail to understand the emotional / psychological / aesthetic appeal.

Same with Paradise Lost. At the end of Empson’s book of nitpicking, he has clarified some points and maybe highlighted Milton’s ambivalence on certain points of Christian theology – but nothing he writes can alter the impact the poem has as a profound, brilliantly structured, and dazzlingly written meditation on the tragic view of human life – which is then overcome by a triumphantly optimistic will for redemption. The psychological factors at play in the broad outline of the story far far outweigh Empson’s individual points.

Conclusion

The book of Genesis works as a vague and metaphorical creation myth – but when it – and the rest of Christian theology implied by it – is written out as a literal narrative, as in Paradise Lost – giving the reader days or weeks to turn it over in great detail – it turns out to be immoral nonsense.

Related links

Johnson’s Life of Milton (1777)

Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.

Since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased.

The characteristic quality of his poem is sublimity… Its end is to raise the thoughts above sublunary cares or pleasures… his natural port is gigantic loftiness… he can please when pleasure is required, but it is his peculiar power to astonish… his great excellence is amplitude.

Johnson’s Lives of the Poets are not pleasurable to read because they are not underpinned by a strong central thesis. Instead he relates separate facts about each poet and comments on them in discrete paragraphs. They feel bitty.

Given Johnson’s complete lack of sympathy with Milton’s politics – and his critique of Milton’s appalling selfishness and beastly behaviour to his two daughters – it is notable how generous he is to Milton the poet.

It is striking how profoundly he misunderstands Milton the man e.g:

  • He deplores Milton’s lack of regular church attendance; Johnson thinks the discipline of church attendance is vital; this is what makes him a Tory; he can’t conceive of people whose spirituality is more free, independent, no less sincere.
  • Similarly, he attributes Milton’s republicanism to jealousy of power, and surly resentment, ‘an envious hatred of greatness… a petulance impatient of control’ – utterly failing to grasp Milton’s ideas about freedom – that everyone should be free to express themselves & rule themselves; that hirelings shouldn’t be appointed in the church just as men shouldn’t be subjected to arbitrary power in civil life.

Paradise Lost

With respect to design, the first product of the human mind.

Bossu says an epic requires 1st a moral – Johnson concurs that to justify the ways of God to men is the highest conceivable moral.

2nd the moral has to be enacted in a fable, i.e. a plot: ‘a narration artfully constructed so as to excite curiosity and surprise expectation.’ In this Milton equals every other poet in his design i.e. the creation of the world, its end, and everything in between, are carefully placed.

Johnson then considers the various characters, the angels, Satan, Adam & Eve.

Of episodes i.e. extraneous to the main action, Johnson correctly points out Raphael’s long account of the war in heaven, the creation, the universe – and Michael’s second book vision into the future as far as the crucifixion and resurrection and second coming. I.e. between them they prepare the background, and then explain the sequel, to the main Event.

The hero Dryden says Adam can’t be the hero; but why not? His posterity will triumph and the feeling of the end of the poem is upbeat.

Style Milton chose a subject appropriate to the vast luxuriance of his imagination and powers. ‘Sublimity is the general and prevailing quality of the poem.’

Moral sentiments ‘In Milton every line breathes sanctity of thought and purity of manners.’

Criticism

Johnson’s criticism is that the subject matter allows for very little human interest. Milton’s achievement is vast in bringing to bear a lifetime’s reading and knowledge to adorn and vary a well-known story – but in the end it feels heavy. ‘None ever wished it longer than it is.’

The poem is undermined by the confusion of spirit and matter: the angels are sometimes pure spirit, other times hit and wounded in battle. Incongruity.

Johnson dislikes the incorporation of Sin and Death – abstract ideas – as real actors in the narration: ‘one of the greatest faults of the poem’. It is mixing allegory with story. I like it because it makes the story a) vivid b) highly visual c) Spenser made a career out of bringing allegorical figures to life e.g. Rumour. But I agree that it feels different in kind and style from, say, Michael.

Faults in the narrative

  • Why did Gabriel let Satan simply go away after he was arrested by the angels?
  • If Man is created to fill the void left by the fall of the rebel angels, how come Satan had heard a rumour about man before his fall? Presumably because God foresees all.

Fault of tone Johnson particularly deprecates the Limbo of Fools in Book II, as inappropriate satire, as lowering the tone.

Diction ‘Both in prose and verse he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantic principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom.’ Nonetheless, Johnson judges that this large fault is overwhelmed by the sheer imaginative power of the poem.

Rhyme Johnson thinks rhyme is superior to blank verse because it distinguishes poetry more easily (rather as he thinks a Christian ought to go to church because it distinguishes holy thoughts from mundane). Nonetheless can’t wish Paradise Lost rhymed (and, alas, makes no comment on Dryden’s rhyming version of the same subject, State of Innocence.)

Related links

Paradise Lost Book XI by John Milton (1667)

PARADISE LOST
BOOK XI
901 lines

The ostensible subject of this book is Michael showing Adam visions of the future.
More generally Michael is inducting Adam into the implications of the Fall – fighting, murder, disease, old age, God’s anger, 1 sole holy man standing out against the giddy crowd, Enoch, Noah (Milton self-portraits).
And Michael imparts simple wisdom: the Middle Way. Moderation.

1-21 Adam and Eve stand penitent. Their prayers go up to heaven.
22-44 The Son intercedes on their behalf, reminding everyone he will eventually die for them.
45-71 The Father agrees forgiveness but they cannot stay in Eden.
72-83 a trumpet blown to assemble all the angelic host.
84-125 The Father explains that, lest the man also eat of the fruit of the tree of eternal life, he will expel him. The father calls & instructs Michael to expel man from paradise, but to do it gently and give him a vision of the future; and set up cherubim to guard the entrance to the garden.
126-140 Michael prepares to descend. Cut to Adam and Eve.
141-161 Adam says he thinks God is listening to their prayers; their lives shall be meliorated; he ends by blessing Eve for being mother of mankind. [We’ve come a long way from their suicide pact].
162-180 Resigned, Eve says let’s get to work.
181-192 But they both notice a change: the sky lours; a bird of prey chases another; a bear chases fawns. The world is Fallen.
193-207 Adam points this all out to Eve, plus he’s seen lights falling from heaven.
208-225 Michael and his cherubim touch down.
226-250 Michael approaches, manly not dazzling.
251-262 Michael announces he’s exiling them.
263-285 Eve laments having to leave the flowers and bower she has dressed.
286-292 Michael says there’s no choice: they will be together.
293-333 Adam manfully acquiesces: if Eve will miss the flowers, Adam will miss meeting with God face to face.
334-369 Michael assures Adam God will be everywhere and his grace follow him, with signs. Come up this hill & I’ll show you the future.
370-422 Adam ascends the hill whence he can see the whole world, and Michael closes his eyes with magic drops.
423-460 Vision 1 They foresee Cain murdering Abel.
461-499 Adam asks, Is this Death? Vision 2 Michael shows him a cave full of desperate sick people dominated by Death…
500-514 Adam asks, Why are we born when life is so horrible? Can the image of the Maker be so degraded?
515-525 They don’t degrade God’s image; they degrade their own, says Michael.
526-546 Michael says it is best to live in moderation; however old age and its infirmities cannot be avoided…
547-552 Why prolong life, asks Adam.

Nor love thy life, nor hate; but what thou liv’st
Live well, how long or short permit to heav’n.

556-637 Vision 3 the Giants marry the daughters of Cain. Seems happy, but Michael explains the daughters of Cain are atheists and wantons.
638-673 Vision 4 a populous plain and city, but war breaks out between the two populations, waste and destruction: a prophet, Enoch, rises up and appeals for peace but everyone turns on him and he is whirled up to Heaven.
674-711 Michael makes it plain he disapproves of the warrior code & ethos, the worshipping of might. Enoch’s righteousness is praised and an example of all the righteous whom God will save.
712-762 Vision 5 amid a world of decadence Noah builds his ark, and Adam watches while his entire posterity is wiped out in the great Flood.
763-786 Adam is appalled: he hoped things would improve not decline. What next?
787–839 Michael makes Milton’s ethics crystal clear: all military might and heroism is an empty sham; it leads to luxury and wantonness- and then to extermination. Only one man in a dark age shall sound the note of warning (cf Abdiel brave in the concourse of the fallen angels) a self-portrait of Milton. But also a crystal clear rejection of the entire ‘heroic’ ethos of Satan.
840-901 Vision 6 Adam sees the ark alight on a mountaintop and the waters recede and a rainbow in the sky and Michael interprets it as God’s promise never again to flood the earth.

Related links

Aspects of Paradise Lost

Theology

Does PL succeed in justifying the ways of God to man?
A: No. The whole argument hangs on three or four very debatable points:

  • Whether you accept the assertion, repeated over and over by God, the Son, the angels and the narrator – that worship from created beings is only meaningful if it is freely given i.e. created beings have to be free – and that freedom involves the freedom to do wrong and well as right. To which one replies: a) couldn’t God have created a world in which there was no evil? Hence, no temptation? Lost of freedom and choices: just nothing Evil. b) couldn’t God have intervened at various points to prevent the tragedy? The obvious answer is, Yes.
  • Whether you accept the assertion that all mankind deserves to be punished for something done before they were born. Obviously not.
  • Whether God could have forgiven them there and then and said, I’ll give you a second chance. Why not?
  • (All this is accepting the hard-to-understand but much-repeated point that merely because God foresees something, does not make it pre-ordained. Let’s accept that.)
  • (And accepting the strange idea that God makes a universe knowing it will be wrecked – why?)

The solution to the entire problem with Milton’s theology is to realise that Christianity is not designed to tell a logical story of the creation: Christianity has devised a myth which explains the current state of mankind, society and people. For those who buy into the myth it has tremendous psychological power – but it is a myth, created retroactively to make sense of the status quo – if you examine the same myth as if it were a logical story explaining the origin of the universe then it becomes highly questionable, because you are essentially saying that God created an imperfect world – and there’s no way out of the paradoxes that throws up – because the Christian response – that, no, God created a perfect world and we, humanity, screwed it up, works if you relate that myth to your own personal life story which will inevitably involve screw-ups and failings (that’s what the whole myth is designed to do). But fails as a stand-alone account of the creation of the whole world, viewed in the abstract. Thus Milton tries heroically, epically, but fails to justify the ways of God to man. God’s ways seem harsh, cruel and arbitrary.

If it succeeded, why isn’t part of the syllabus at any Catholic or Protestant seminary school? Because, by taking the story so literally, Milton lets the cat out of the bag.

Architecture

Does the poem lay out its pretty well-known story in a suitable way?
I think Milton succeeds admirably in taking the well-known story and adapting it for the traditional methodology of epics i.e. starting in media res and telling key events in flashback – just as Odysseus tells all his exotic adventures in flashback, or Aeneas tells the people of Carthage his story ditto, thus Raphael tells the origins of the rebellion and the War in heaven and the Creation of the universe in flashback; and just as Aeneas is vouchsafed a vision of the futurity of Rome, so Adam is given a vision of the future of humanity. Top marks.

However, it is a major flaw that the poem tails off as it drags on – that Raphael’s account of the Creation or Michael’s prophecy are boring. Why? Because we’ve read them before, described much more snappily, in the Bible.

Style

Does Milton’s style help or hinder one’s reading? Is it answerable to the subject matter?
Although the essence of Milton’s style remains the same throughout (the Latinate grammar, the odd use of syntax, Latinate vocabulary) no-once can doubt that the poem goes off. The best books are the first four. Why? Several reasons:

  • In Hell Milton is free-est to invent episodes; thereafter he is more constrained by the Biblical account. Thus in Book X it is a breath of fresh air when Satan encounters Sin and Death again, making their way up to the Universe.
  • Milton seems to have put more effort into fully imagining these early books: one simple indicator is that they are packed with epic similes – whereas the long books of Raphael’s are almost barren of similes – making you realise how refreshing they had been, to add variety to the style and rhythm.
  • If books VI, VII, X, XI and XII are boring because they have to retell large chunks of Genesis without using similes, other sections of books V and so on are just as boring because they have to convey long gobbets of Christian theology. Long stretches are not much more than versified pamphlets.

Epic poem

Does PL succeed as an epic poem in the tradition of Homer, Virgil, Camoes, Tasso?
A: Yes.

Aesthetics

Taken all in all, is Paradise Lost a success?
A: A limited one, or Yes, with reservations. These reservations stem from:

  • The failure of the theology to allay big doubts about God, its fundamental aim.
  • The failure of the later books to maintain the imaginative force and novel subject matter of the earlier ones.
  • The consequent flattening or failure of the style, which becomes pedestrian and boring for long stretches.

It seems to me axiomatic that Milton was a devout Christian who wrote the poem with the explicit aim of justifying the ways of God to men. The facts are the following: the first four or so books are the best. ‘Best’ means they are most enjoyable to read because containing the highest proportion of vivid and memorable language.

From Book V onwards the poem becomes more stodgy – the Raphael books: his account of the origins of the devil rebellion i.e. Satan’s revolt against the Son up till Abdiel standing up against the rebels (V), the actual War in Heaven (VI), the creation of the universe and of Man – all this feels already-read (VII), and then Raphael’s deliberately vague description of the Universe; then Adam’s memories of waking & meeting God (VIII).

The whole of Book IX is an account, told in real time, of Eve leaving Adam, then being seduced by the serpent to eat the fruit, then persuading Adam to eat it. This ought to be the dramatic centrepiece of the poem but is the dullest – we know what’s going to happen so there’s no drama – instead there is lengthy and hard-to-follow argumentation between snake and Eve – she eats – and then between Eve and Adam – he eats – they make love – then feel guilt and shame.

Given a choice, which would you rather read – bks 1,2 & 3 – or bks 9,10,11?

Book X where the Son quickly judges the pair is only enlivened by the great scenes of Sin and Death building a path up to the earth.

Book XI where Michael lays out the future of the human race is dull.

Milton’s style

Debate ranges over Milton’s style, at one end people say it’s recognisably English phrasing and syntax – at the other Dr Johnson & co say it’s written in a style heavily influenced by Latin, and unlike any English ever spoken. I’m at the Dr Johnson end, but then most poetry is unlike the language actually spoken by citizens. The question is not the disputed source or origin of Milton’s style. It’s whether it works.

Christopher Ricks’ book shows in minute detail that Milton’s style is highly considered, carefully wrought, and meaningful i.e. for long stretches it does work.

Related links

Milton’s Satan and the Classical World

The whole debate about whether Satan is the ‘hereo’ of Paradise Lost is wrong-headed. It is based on three premises:

  1. The poetry is most vivid when describing Satan – hence Blake’s claim that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.”
  2. Satan is the protagonist of the plot, moving the action along while the other characters – God, Son, Adam – are in various ways passive recipients of actions.
  3. Satan fits neatly into Milton’s classical frames of reference and discourse i.e. Satan is dynamic like a character in a Greek play, he is described using multitudes of epic similes, themselves generally taken from pagan examples etc.

1. The devil scenes are more vivid because Milton has more freedom to invent and write freely than in the Bible-based scenes where he has to stick very closely to what he thought of as a literal version of history. But it is a delusive attractiveness. Satan quite clearly shrinks and mangles in size and scope as the poem continues and as his superficial attractiveness is reduced to bestiality.

2. Satan is without doubt the main engine of the plot – but this implies no superiority. Everything Milton stands, his whole theology denies and rejects the claim.

3. The identity of Satan with everything classical and pagan is one of the ways Milton condemns him. Milton takes every opportunity to make it absolutely clear that he considers his epic superior to the classic ones because he deals with Christian virtues of justice and forgiveness.

Ways Milton denigrates the Classical world

1. He explicitly says so:

… Sad task, yet argument
Not less but more heroic than the wrath
Of stern Achilles on his foe pursued
Thrice fugitive about Troy wall; or rage
Of Turnus for Lavinia disespoused…
…the better fortitude
Of patience and heroic martyrdom
Usung…” (IX 14-17, 31-3)

2. As a learnèd humanist Milton’s mind adverts continually to analogies from the pagan ancient world but he continually undercuts them to emphasise that they are feigned – NOT TRUE – unlike his Christian analogies taken from the Bible.

At every turn Milton critiques and criticises the very techniques and references he is so learnedly, so deftly, copying from the ancient world.

There is a steady stream of examples of the way Milton downplays, undermines, undercuts his own classical analogies – with its basis in militarism and paganism – in order to foreground his preferred Christian values of fortitude and martyrdom. Remember: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’

Examples

  • Pandemonium is described in classical terms – using all the terminology of the Pantheon or Parthenon. It is a palace of devils. Compare and contrast with the unfeigned simplicity of Adam and Eve’s rural bower and of their simple morning worship.
  • When Satan puffs himself up to persuade Eve to eat the apple he is explicitly compared to an orator from the ancient world, pulling every trick in the rhetorician’s book – and clearly judged bad and immoral for doing so.
  • When Satan addresses the devils in his palace, reporting on his adventure – he couches his story in all the self-aggrandisement of a Great Hero; and yet what is the result of all this ‘heroism’ – he and all his audience are turned by God into hissing reptiles.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: