The Life of Caligula by Suetonius

‘I am rearing a viper for the Roman people.’
(Tiberius talking about young Caligula, in Suetonius’s Life of Caligula, section 11)

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known by his nickname Caligula (meaning ‘little boots’), was the third Roman emperor.

Born in 12 AD, Caligula ruled from 37 until his assassination in 41, four brief, chaotic years. He was the son of the popular Roman general Germanicus Julius Caesar and Augustus’s grand-daughter, Agrippina the Elder.

Family tree of the Julio-Claudian emperors

Coming from a small nuclear family I find extended family trees confusing at the best of times. The family tree of the early Roman emperors is especially confusing because:

  1. the emperors and everyone else in their families married multiple times
  2. many of the emperors, and people in their families, had the same names or combinations of the same names, such as Drusus, Germanicus, Nero and Tiberius
  3. they regularly changed their names, exemplified by Octavian who went through half a dozen name changes – but most of all because:
  4. all the key men adopted nephews or grandchildren as sons, thus radically confusing the traditional notion of ‘sons’ being the blood relative of at least one of their ‘parents’ – not in Imperial Rome, they weren’t

Which goes to explain why none of the Julio-Claudian emperors was a blood descendant of his immediate predecessor.

Maybe the family tree below helps. It is very much simplified. What I like about it, compared to the many similar trees on the internet, is the use of dotted lines to indicate adoption, which makes it clear how Julius Caesar adopted Octavian, Octavian – renamed Augustus – adopted Tiberius, Tiberius adopted Germanicus (who predeceased him) and then Gaius (Caligula) and Claudius adopted Nero.

Family tree of the Julio-Claudian emperors.

From it you can see that Caius Julius Caesar adopted his great-nephew Octavianus as son and heir. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Thirteen years later (31 BC), after two further civil wars, Octavianus had become the sole power in Rome. Awarded the honorific ‘Augustus’ in 27 BC, he adopted a number of male members of his extended family but these died before him, so he ended up adopting his step-son, Tiberius Claudius Nero, as his son and heir.

Augustus had forced Tiberius to a) marry his daughter, Julia and b) to adopt Julia’s son, Germanicus, as his own son, sitting alongside his actual biological son, Drusus. According to Suetonius, Tiberius hated both these ‘sons’. He was happy when his adopted son, the popular charismatic Germanicus, died in 19 AD, and when his biological son, Drusus, died in 23 AD (possibly had him poisoned).

Suetonius’s life of Caligula

Roman texts were divided into short sections, sometimes called ‘chapters’ though most are less than a page long. Suetonius’s biography of the emperor Caligula is 60 sections long.

Suetonius himself divides his Life of Caligula into two halves: sections 1 to 21 deal with The Emperor; then the last 40 sections deal with The Monster.

Part One: The Emperor

1. Germanicus Julius Caesar was son of Drusus and the younger Antonia. A charming, immensely popular figure, successful general, popular with the crowd, stylish and elegant, he was adopted as ‘son’ by his paternal uncle Tiberius. He processed through the posts of quaestor­ship and consul before the legal age.

When Augustus died Germanicus was sent to the army in Germany. The legions there didn’t want to accept Tiberius as emperor but Germanicus made them. He defeated the Germans in various battles and was a warded a triumph back in Rome.

Chosen consul for a second time, he was sent to restore order in the Orient, and after vanquishing the king of Armenia and reducing Cappadocia to a province, died of a lingering illness at Antioch, aged just 33.

It was widely believed that Tiberius had him poisoned by the governor of Syria, Gnaeus Piso, governor of Syria. In consequence Piso narrowly escaped being torn to pieces by the people on his return to Rome, and was condemned to death by the senate.

3. Suetonius delivers a paean to Germanicus: he was a paragon of a man: handsome, brave: in battle he fought the enemy hand to hand; a great orator; adept at the best learning of Greece and Rome, among other fruits of his studies he left some Greek comedies. He was kind, with a remarkable capacity for winning men’s affection.

In Germany Germanicus planned to bury all the dead of Varus’s three lost legions (massacred in the Teutoburger Forest in 9 AD) and took the lead in collecting and assembling them by hand.

4. Germanicus was so popular with the masses that he was greeted by cheering crowds wherever he went. When he returned from Germany after quelling the rebellion, the entire population poured out of Rome as far as the twentieth milestone.

5. Popular sadness at Germanicus’s death was immense. The temples were stoned and the altars of the gods thrown down, some flung their household gods into the street. Even barbarian peoples unanimously consented to a truce as if all the world shared in the tragedy. It is said that some princes cut off their beards and had their wives’ heads shaved.

6. False rumours that he had recovered led to widespread rejoicing, only to be cast down when the final confirmation of his death came through. Public grief knew no limits and continued even during the festal days of the month of December.

Germanicus’s fame and regret for his loss were increased by the horror of the times which followed since it was widely believed that Tiberius’s cruelty had been held in check through his respect for Germanicus and was now given free rein.

7. Germanicus had married Agrippina, daughter of Marcus Agrippa and Julia, who bore him nine children. Two died in infancy, one in boyhood. Of the surviving six, three girls – Agrippina, Julia Drusilla and Livilla, born in successive years – and three boys – Nero, Drusus and Gaius Caesar, the future emperor. Nero and Drusus were accused of being public enemies by the senate on the accusation of Tiberius.

8. Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus was born in 12 AD when his father was 27. Suetonius spends several sections weighing the evidence about where Gaius was born.

9. Gaius’s surname, ‘Caligula’, was a jokey nickname awarded by the soldiers he grew up among. [Caliga was the name of a type of military boot. His father liked dressing his little son in a child’s version of a soldier’s outfit, including miniature versions of these boots. Latin formed diminutives of words by adding ‘-ula’ to the end of them. So ‘caligula’ literally meant ‘little boots’ and the nickname stuck.]

10. As a boy Caligula accompanied his father on his expedition to Syria. After Germanicus’s death, his widow, Caligula’s mother, Agrippina, returned with her six children to Rome, where she became entangled in a bitter feud with Tiberius, which led to her banishment. Caligula went to live with his great-grandmother Livia and when Livia died (in 29 AD), he lived with his grand-mother Antonia. The emperor Tiberius had retreated to Capri in 26. In 31, as he reached the age of manhood (18), Caligula was summoned to join him.

In Capri Caligula proved resilient to the ill-will of the emperor and his flatterers. He ignored the bad treatment of his mother and brothers, and was so obsequious to his grandfather that it was said of him that no one had ever been a better slave or a worse master.

11. Here in Capri his natural cruelty and viciousness were allowed to flourish. He developed a taste for witnessing torture and execution and by night revelled in gluttony and adultery. He liked wearing a wig and practicing the arts of dancing and singing. It was observing his cruelty and immorality blossoming which led Tiberius to (allegedly) say that Caligula’s advent marked the ruin of him (Tiberius) and the world; that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world. [In the Greek myth Phaethon tricked his father, Apollo, into letting him drive the chariot of the son which, not being strong enough, he let plunge down towards the earth, drying up rivers, causing earthquakes and destroying entire cities.]

12. Gaius took to wife Junia Claudilla, daughter of Marcus Silanus, a man of noble rank. He was appointed augur then advanced to the role of pontifex maximus. After the fall of Sejanus, Tiberius’s henchman, in 31, Tiberius encouraged Caligula to think of himself as the heir to the throne.

After Junia died in childbirth, Caligula seduced Ennia Naevia, wife of Macro, who at that time commanded the praetorian guard, promising to marry her when he became emperor. Difficult for us to understand that, according to Suetonius, he did this in order to worm himself into Macro’s favour.

Suetonius then, with astonishing casualness, claims that Caligula poisoned Tiberius. He ordered his signet ring of power to be taken from him and when it was discovered that Tiberius was still breathing, himself placed a pillow over his face. Others claim he strangled the old man (Tiberius was 78 when he died) with his own hand, immediately ordering the crucifixion of a freedman who cried out at the awful deed.

Later, Caligula put it about that he was avenging Tiberius’s execution of his mother and two brothers.

13. Caligula was popular with the general population because of his youth, his popularity with the soldiers, who he’d grown up among, and the aura from his legendary father, Germanicus. And Tiberius had led a reign of terror for over a decade. So his accession was greeted with rejoicing. His journey from Capri to Rome accompanying the body of Tiberius was greeted by cheering crowds at each town.

14. When he entered Rome, full and absolute power was at once put into his hands by the unanimous consent of the senate and of the mob, contrary to Tiberius’s will which had named his other grandson as joint heir with Caligula.

Foreign rulers sent messages of congratulation, including king Artabanus of Parthia who had been outspoken in his contempt for Tiberius.

15. At the beginning of his reign Caligula carefully courted popularity. He delivered a tearful eulogy at Tiberius’s funeral, then send to the islands where his mother and brothers had been banished, to fetch back their ashes to give a decent burial as well as games in the Circus in honour of his mother, providing a carriage to carry her image in the procession.

In memory of his father he renamed the month of September Germanicus. He lavished on his grandmother Antonia all the honours Livia Augusta had ever enjoyed. He took his uncle Claudius as his colleague in the consul­ship (37 AD). He adopted his brother Tiberius on the day that he assumed the gown of manhood and gave him the title of Chief of the Youth. He caused the names of his sisters to be included in all oaths.

He recalled those who had been condemned to banishment, had all documents relating to the cases of his mother and brothers carried to the Forum and burned, declared the era of anonymous informers over.

In other words, he dazzled everyone by displays of filial duty and respect.

16. Caligula banished from Rome the sexual perverts called spintriae who Tiberius had patronised.

He published the accounts of the empire, which had regularly been made public by Augustus,​ a practice discontinued by Tiberius. He allowed the magistrates unrestricted jurisdiction, without appeal to himself. He revised the lists of the Roman knights strictly and scrupulously. He tried also to restore the suffrage to the people by reviving the custom of elections. He paid faithfully and without dispute the legacies named in the will of Tiberius as well as in that of Julia Augusta, which Tiberius had suppressed.

He remitted the tax of a two-hundredth on auction sales in Italy, made good to many their losses from fires, and whenever he restored kings to their thrones, he allowed them all the arrears of their taxes and their revenue for the meantime.

This was all wildly popular and a golden shield was voted him, which was to be borne every year to the Capitol on an appointed day by the colleges of priests, escorted by the senate, while boys and girls of noble birth sang the praises of his virtues in a choral ode. It was decreed that the day on which he began to reign should be called the Parilia (the festival celebrating the founding of Rome) indicating that, after the long cruel years of Tiberius, Rome had been founded a second time.

17. Caligula twice gave the people a gift of 300 sesterces each, and twice a lavish banquet to the senate and the equestrian order, together with their wives and children. To make a permanent addition to public gaiety he added a day to the Saturnalia and called it Juvenalis.

18. Caligula gave several gladiatorial shows. He exhibited stage-plays continually, of various kinds and in many different places, sometimes even by night, lighting up the whole city. He also gave many games in the Circus, lasting from early morning until evening, introducing the manoeuvres of the game called Troy.

19. Caligula bridged the gap between Baiae and the mole at Puteoli, a distance of about 3,600 paces,​ by bringing together merchant ships from all sides and anchoring them in a double line, afterwards a mound of earth was heaped upon them and fashioned in the manner of the Appian Way. Over this bridge he rode back and forth for two successive days, the first day on a caparisoned horse, resplendent in a crown of oak leaves, a buckler, a sword, and a cloak of cloth of gold.

[Interestingly, Suetonius makes mention, here, of his own family, telling us that his grandfather told him the reason for the work was that Thrasyllus the astrologer had declared to Tiberius, when he was worried about his successor and inclined towards his natural grandson, that Gaius had no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding about over the gulf of Baiae with horses.]

20. Caligula gave shows in foreign lands, Athenian games​ at Syracuse in Sicily, and miscellaneous games at Lugdunum in Gaul.

21. Caligula completed the public works which had been half finished under Tiberius, namely the temple of Augustus and the theatre of Pompey. He likewise began an aqueduct in the region near Tibur and an amphitheatre beside the Saepta (the former finished by his successor Claudius,​ while the latter was abandoned). He planned to have a canal run through the Isthmus of Corinth in Greece and sent a chief centurion to survey the work.

Part Two: The Monster

22. So much for Caligula as emperor; Suetonius tells us that the rest of his biography will now tell of the monster.

Caligula claimed to be a god. He ordered all the best statues in Greece brought to Rome, decapitated and topped with copies of his own head.

Caligula converted the temple of Castor and Pollux into the vestibule of a hugely expanded Imperial palace and often took his place between the divine brethren to be worshipped by citizens.

He set up a temple to his own godhead, with priests and with victims of the choicest kind. He placed in it a life-sized statue of himself made from gold, which was dressed each day in the same clothes he was wearing.

During the day he would talk confidentially with Jupiter Capitolinus, now whispering in his ear, then turning his ear to the god’s mouth. Sometimes they had angry arguments if Jupiter disobeyed Caligula’s orders.

23. Caligula hated to be thought of as the grandson of Agrippa, a mere commoner, so spread the rumour that his mother was the product of an incestuous passion between Augustus and his daughter, Julia. He insulted the memory of Livia, and drove his grandmother Antonia to an early death with insults (although some think that he also gave her poison)

He had his brother​, Tiberius, put to death without warning, suddenly sending a tribune of the soldiers to do the deed. He drove his father-in‑law Silanus to end his life by cutting his throat with a razor.

He spared his uncle, Claudius, as a laughing-stock.

24. Caligula lived in habitual incest with all his sisters. He is believed to have violated Drusilla when he was still a minor, and even to have been caught lying with her by his grandmother, Antonia. Afterwards, she married Lucius Cassius Longinus, an ex-consul, but Caligula took her from him and openly treated her as his lawful wife

After Drusilla died Caligula was beside himself with grief, not cutting his hair or shaving his beard. He never afterwards took an oath about matters of the highest moment except by the godhead of Drusilla. The rest of his sisters he slept with sometimes, or prostituted them to his favourites.

25. Suetonius says it is hard to decide whether he behave more appallingly in contracting his marriages, annulling them, or as a ‘husband’.

At the marriage of Livia Orestilla to Gaius Piso he gave orders that the bride be taken to his own house, where he ravished her for two days before ‘divorcing’ her. Two years later he banished her on the suspicion that she’d gone back to her former husband.

When he heard the rumour that the grandmother of Lollia Paulina, who was married to Gaius Memmius, had once been a remarkably beauti­ful woman, he recalled her from the province where he husband was serving suddenly called Lollia from the province, separated her from her husband, and married her; then in a short time had her put away, with the command never to have intercourse with anyone.

Though Caesonia was neither beauti­ful nor young, and was already mother of three daughters by another, Caligula loved her passionately, often exhibiting her to the soldiers riding by his side, decked with cloak, helmet and shield, and to his friends even in a state of nudity. Only when she bore him a daughter did he formally declare her his wife (in 39 AD). He named the child Julia Drusilla.

Ptolemy, son of king Juba, his cousin, Macro and Ennia, who helped him to the throne, he had put to death.

He forced senators to run alongside his chariot and to wait on him at table. Some he had put to death. When the consuls forgot to proclaim his birthday, he deposed them and left the state for three days without its highest magistrates.​

His sleep was disturbed by the noise made by people who’d come in the middle of the night to get the free seats in the Circus, so he had them driven out with cudgels and in the melee more than twenty Roman knights were crushed to death, with as many matrons and a countless number of others.

He liked to scatter free tickets at the theatre in order to sow confusion.

At gladiatorial shows he ordered the awnings pulled back when the sun was hottest and give orders that no one be allowed to leave, leaving the audience to burn.

27. When cattle to feed the wild beasts which he had provided for a gladiatorial show were expensive, Caligula ordered them to be fed with criminals. He had prisoners lined up and selected on a whim those to be executed and fed to the animals.

He had many men of noble rank branded with hot irons then condemned to the mines, to work at building roads, or to be thrown to the wild beasts, or he had them up in cages on all fours, or sawn in half.

These punishments were not for serious offences, but having maybe having criticised one of his shows or not having sworn by his Genius.

He forced parents to attend the executions of their sons, sending a litter for one man who pleaded ill health, and inviting another to dinner immediately after witnessing the death of his son and baiting him trying to with jokes and gaiety.

He had the manager of his gladiatorial shows and beast-baitings beaten with chains in his presence for several successive days until the stench of his putrefied brain prompted him to finish him off in disgust.

He burned a writer of Atellan farces alive in the middle of the arena of the amphitheatre, because of a humorous line of double meaning.

When a Roman knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence, he took him out, cut off his tongue, and threw him back again.

28. Caligula conceived the notion that exiles were conspiring against him and so sent emissaries from island to island to butcher them all.

He had one of the senators stabbed with quills then turned over to the mob. He wasn’t satisfied till he saw the man’s limbs, members and bowels dragged through the streets and piled up before him.

29. Caligula’s speech was full of threats. When his grandmother Antonia gave him some advice he replied: ‘Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody.’

After banishing his sisters, he made the threat that he not only had islands, but swords as well.

An ex-praetor who had retired to Anticyra for his health, sent frequent requests for an extension of his leave, so Caligula had him put to death, joking that anyone who had not been helped by a long course of hellebore needed to be bled.

When he signed the list of prisoners who were to be put to death, he said that he was ‘clearing his accounts’.

30. Caligula seldom had anyone put to death except by numerous slight wounds, his constant order, which soon became well-known, being: ‘Strike so that he may feel that he is dying.’ He often uttered the familiar line of the tragic poet Accius:

‘Let them hate me, so they but fear me.’

He regularly castigated the senators for having informed against his mother (who Tiberius had exiled then killed on trumped-up charges).

He constantly tongue-lashed the equestrian order as devotees of the stage and the arena.

Angered at the rabble for applauding a faction which he opposed, he cried: ‘I wish the Roman people had but a single neck.’

31. Caligula lamented that there had been no great disaster during his rule, saying the reign of Augustus had been made famous by the Varus massacre,​ and that of Tiberius by the collapse of the amphitheatre at Fidenae, while his own was threatened with oblivion because of its prosperity. So he was heard wishing for famine, pestilence, fires or a great earthquake.

32. Even while feasting or at amusements, he was cruel, having people tortured in front of him as he ate, and employing a soldier who was adept at decapitation to cut off the heads of people brought from prison.

At the dedication of a bridge he’d had constructed at Puteoli, he invited members of the crowd to join him on the bridge, then ordered them all to be thrown into the water.

At a public banquet a slave was caught stealing a strip of silver from a couch so he ordered his hands to be cut off and hung round his neck and that he then be led about among the guests, preceded by a placard giving the reason for his punishment.

When he was training with a murmillo from the gladiatorial school who was using a wooden sword and fell out of deference to the emperor, Caligula stabbed him with a real dagger.

At a particularly sumptuous banquet he suddenly burst into a fit of laughter and when the consuls politely inquired why, he replied: ‘I was just thinking that at a single nod of mine both of you could have your throats cut on the spot.’

33. Caligula stood next to a statue of Jupiter and asked the tragic actor Apelles which of the two seemed to him the greater and, when he hesitated, had him flayed with whips.

Whenever he kissed the neck of his wife or sweetheart he would say: ‘And this beautiful throat can be cut whenever I please.’

He loved Caesonia but he sometimes playfully threatened to torture her to find out why he loved her so passionately.

34. Caligula made malicious attacks on men from every era. Augustus had moved some statues of famous men from the court of the Capitol to the Campus Martius. Caligula had them all destroyed, and thereafter forbade the erection of the statue of any living man anywhere, without his knowledge and consent.

He even considered destroying the poems of Homer, asking why he should not have the same privilege as Plato, who excluded Homer from his ideal commonwealth.

He came close to More than that, removing the writings and the busts of Vergil and Livy from all the libraries, calling Virgil talentless and Livy wordy and inaccurate.

He considered abolishing the legal profession altogether in order to prevent any opinions being given which contradicted his wish.

35. Caligula deprived the noblest families in Rome of their traditional emblems.

He invited King Ptolemy to Rome, entertained him lavishly and then had him put to death merely because, when giving a gladiatorial show, he noticed that Ptolemy on entering the theatre attracted general attention by the splendour of his purple cloak.

Whenever he ran across handsome men with fine heads of hair he ordered the backs of their heads shaved.

There was no one of such low condition or such abject fortune that he did not envy him whatever advantages he possessed.

36. Caligula had no respect for his own chastity or anyone else’s.

He is said to have had unnatural relations with Marcus Lepidus, the pantomime actor Mnester, and certain hostages.

Valerius Catullus, a young man of a consular family, publicly proclaimed that he had buggered the emperor and worn himself out in the process.

Beside incest with his three sisters and his passion for the concubine Pyrallis, there was scarcely any woman of rank whom he did not proposition.

He invited them to dinner with their husbands and, as they passed by the foot of his couch, inspected them critically as if buying slaves. Then he would leave the room, sending for the one who pleased him best, returning soon afterwards with evident signs of what had occurred, after which he would openly commend or criticise the woman, commenting on her body and performance.

37. Caligula’s extravagance was unparalleled. He invented new sort of baths and unnatural varieties of food. He bathed in hot or cold perfumed oils, drank pearls of great price dissolved in vinegar, and set before his guests loaves and meats of gold, declaring that a man ought either to be frugal or Caesar.

He scattered large sums of money among the commons from the roof of the basilica Julia for several days in succession.

He built galleys with ten banks of oars, with sterns set with gems, multi-coloured sails, spacious baths, colonnades and banquet-halls, and even a variety of vines and fruit trees. Then he would recline at table as they cruised up and down along the coast of Campania amid songs and choruses.

He built villas and country houses with utter disregard of expense.

He deliberately set out to achieve the impossible: he built moles out into the deep and stormy sea, tunnelled rocks of hardest flint, built up plains to the height of mountains and razed mountains to the level of the plain.

In sum, he squandered vast sums of money, including the 2.7 billion sesterces which Tiberius had amassed, in less than a year.

38. When he ran low on funds he devised a complicated system of false accusations, auction sales, and taxes. For example he demanded proof of Roman citizen­ship or payment.

He disallowed all returns of property from emperor to owner, if the owner had subsequently made any additions or improvements.

If any chief centurions since the beginning of Tiberius’ reign had not named that emperor or himself among their heirs, he set aside their wills on the ground of ingratitude.

With the result that hosts of people included Caligula as beneficiaries of their wills. But if he learned of this and the will-maker hadn’t died, he accused them of toying with him and sent them poisoned food.

He conducted trials of people like this himself, assigning fines at random, naming in advance the amount he intended to fleece them by.

At one sitting he condemned in a single sentence more than forty prisoners who were accused on different counts, boasting to Caesonia, when she woke after a nap, of the great amount of business he had done while she was taking her siesta.

He attended auctions and deliberately drove the bids as high as possible, forcing people to pay ridiculous sums, bankrupting bidders, forcing some of them to commit suicide.

39. When Caligula was in Gaul he had arranged to be sold for huge amounts the jewels, furniture, slaves, and even the freedmen of his sisters who had been condemned to death. He found this so profitable that he sent to Rome for all the paraphernalia of the old palace,​ seizing for its transportation public carriages and animals from the bakeries with the result that bread became scarce at Rome.

40. He levied new and unheard of taxes. There was no class of commodities or men on which he did not impose some form of tariff. On all eatables sold in any part of Rome he levied a fixed charge. On lawsuits and legal processes he demanded a fortieth part of the sum involved, on the daily wages of porters, an eighth, on the earnings of prostitutes, as much as each received for one trick.

41. He opened a brothel in his palace, setting aside a number of rooms where matrons and freeborn youths should stand exposed. Then he sent his pages​ about the fora and basilicas to invite young men and old to come and enjoy themselves, lending money on interest to those who attended and having clerks openly take down their names, as contributors to Caesar’s revenues.

42. When Caligula’s daughter was born he complained that, in addition to the burden of a ruler he now had to bear that of a father and asked for contributions for the girl’s maintenance and dowry.

He declared he would accept New Year gifts and on 1 January took his place in the entrance to the Palace, to receive the coins which a throng of people of all classes showered on him.

Finally, seized by with a mania for money, he would pour out huge piles of gold pieces, walk over them barefooted or wallow in them for a long time.

43. On a whim Caligula announced an expedition to Germany. It was a farce. He assembled legions and auxiliaries from all quarters, collecting provisions of every kind on an unheard of scale. Then he made a forced march for the border, while he himself was carried in a litter by eight bearers. He required the inhabitants of the towns through which he passed to sweep the roads for him and sprinkle them to lay the dust.

44. On reaching his camp, to overawe everyone, Caligula dismissed in disgrace the generals who were late in bringing in the auxiliaries. In reviewing his troops he deprived many of the chief centurions who were well on in years of their rank, in some cases only a few days before they would have served their time.

All that he accomplished was to receive the surrender of Adminius, son of Cunobelinus king of the Britons, who had been banished by his father and had deserted to the Romans with a small force. But he sent a letter back to Rome boasting as if he’d conquered the whole island.

45. Finding no one to fight with, he had a few Germans of his body-guard taken across the river and hidden and then word brought to him after lunch that the enemy were close at hand. This allowed him to rush out with his friends and flatterers, where they ‘captured’ these Germans and brought them back to the camp where he berated everyone else for their cowardice.

Another time he had hostages sent ahead and, again, suddenly left a banquet with some of the cavalry, galloped off and overtook these entirely quiescent friends, leading them back to the camp in fetters like a great hero.

Meanwhile, he rebuked the senate and people back in Rome for living the life of luxury while he exposed himself to untold dangers.

[If we compare this behaviour to the eight hard years fighting of Julius Caesar in Gaul, it really feels like history repeats itself, first as genuine struggle, then as pantomime.]

46. Caligula drew up his army on the coast (presumably the Channel coast) and then ordered them to…gather seashells and fill their helmets and the folds of their gowns with them.

As a monument of his victory he erected a lofty tower, from which lights were to shine at night to guide the course of ships, as from the Pharos.

47. Caligula then stage managed a triumph back in Rome in which he ordered various friendly Gauls to dye their hair red and pose as captured German chieftains.

He had the triremes in which he had sailed on the Channel carried overland to Rome. Imagine the effort of just this one act!

48. Before leaving Gaul Caligula conceived the insane idea of massacring all the legions there because, 20 years earlier they had, upon hearing of the death of Augustus, besieged the headquarters of his father Germanicus.

He was only just restrained from this order but insisted on decimating them i.e. killing every tenth one, so had them assembled without their weapons, but when he saw some sneaking off to get their swords, he panicked, and fled, travelling back to Rome and taking his fury out on the Senate.

49. Caligula entered Rome to an ovation (one step down from a formal triumph), meditating further crimes and atrocities, but four months later he was dead.

It is said that he intended to massacre all the best men of both orders (presumably senate and knights) and then move the capital of the empire to Antium or maybe to Alexandria. Two lists were found of the men to be executed.

50. Caligula’s physique He was very tall and extremely pale, with an unshapely body, but very thin neck and legs. His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head, though his body was hairy. Because of this to look upon him from a higher place as he passed by, or for any reason whatever to mention a goat, was treated as a capital offence.

While his face was naturally forbidding and ugly, he purposely made it even more savage, practising all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror.

He was sound neither of body nor mind. As a boy he was troubled with epilepsy and it recurred in manhood. During attacks he was hardly able to walk, to stand up, to collect his thoughts, or to hold up his head.

Some say his wife Caesonia gave him an aphrodisiac which had the effect of driving him mad.

He suffered from insomnia, never getting more than three hours sleep a night. He had bad nightmares and premonitions.

51. Caligula combined two mental faults: extreme assurance and excessive timorousness. He claimed to despise the gods but was terrified of lightning and thunder.

Panicked by rumour of a German attack, he deserted his troops, rode quickly back to the bridges, which were packed with troops, and so had himself passed from hand to hand over the men’s heads.

Hearing of an uprising in Germany he made preparations to flee Rome. His assassins played on this well-known fear when they claimed to the soldiery, after they’d murdered him, that he committed suicide after hearing of a defeat.

52. Caligula wore outlandish clothes. Instead of a plain toga, he often appeared in public in embroidered cloaks covered with precious stones, with a long-sleeved tunic and bracelets, sometimes in silk​ and in a woman’s robe, now in slippers or buskins, again in boots, such as the emperor’s bodyguard wear, and at times in the low shoes which are worn by women.

He frequently wore the uniform of a triumphing general, even before his campaign, and sometimes the breastplate of Alexander the Great, which he had had taken from Alexander’s tomb at Alexandria.

53. Caligula wasn’t very interested in literature but paid attention to oratory and very eloquent. When he was angry he let forth an abundant flow of words and thoughts, he paced up and down, and his delivery was such that he was clearly heard at a distance.

The Stoic philosopher, statesman and dramatist Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4 BC to 65 AD) was popular during his reign but Caligula accused him of writing ‘mere school exercises’ and of being ‘sand without lime’.

He liked to compose speeches for and against those he had brought to trial and often forced the senate and knights to listen to both addresses, before making a decision on a whim.

54. Caligula was very active. He appeared in the Circus as a Thracian gladiator, fighting with the weapons of actual warfare; as a charioteer; and even as a singer and dancer.

He fancied his talents so much that even at public performances he couldn’t refrain from singing with the tragic actor as he delivered his lines, or from openly imitating his gestures by way of praise or correction.

On the day he was assassinated he seems to have ordered an all-night vigil for the sole purpose of taking advantage of the licence of the occasion to make his first appearance on the stage.

On one occasion he summoned three senators of consular rank to the palace and when they arrived in fear of their lives, he seated them on a stage and then suddenly burst onto it amid a great din of flutes and clogs, dressed in a cloak and a tunic reaching to his heels, performed a song and dance and disappeared again.

Yet he could not swim.

55. Those Caligula loved he loved with a mad intensity. He used to kiss Mnester, the pantomime actor, even in the theatre, and if anyone made the slightest sound while his favourite was dancing, he had him dragged from his seat and scourged him with his own hand.

On the day before the games, in order to prevent his horse, Incitatus, from being disturbed, he sent his soldiers to enforce silence in the whole neighbourhood.

Besides a stall of marble, a manger of ivory, purple blankets and a collar of precious stones, he gave this horse a house, a troop of slaves and furniture, for the elegant entertainment of the guests invited in his name. It said that he planned to make his horse consul.

56. There were many conspiracies, until two men succeeded in killing Caligula with the co-operation of his most influential freedmen and the officers of the praetorian guard.

They decided to kill him at noon as he left the Palatine games. The principal part was claimed by Cassius Chaerea, tribune of a cohort of the praetorian guard. Caligula used to taunt him, a man already well on in years, with voluptuousness and effeminacy and every form of insult. Whenever he asked for the watchword Gaius would give him ‘Priapus’ or ‘Venus’ and when Chaerea had occasion to thank him for anything, Caligula would hold out his hand to kiss, forming and moving it in an obscene fashion.

57. Caligula’s approaching murder was foretold by many prodigies:

  • the statue of Jupiter at Olympia, which he had ordered to be taken to pieces and moved to Rome, suddenly uttered such a peal of laughter that the scaffoldings collapsed and the workmen took to their heels
  • a man called Cassius turned up, who declared that he had been bidden in a dream to sacrifice a bull to Jupiter
  • the Capitol at Capua was struck by lightning on the Ides of March, and also the room of the doorkeeper of the Palace at Rome
  • he soothsayer Sulla, when Gaius consulted him about his horoscope, declared that inevitable death was close at hand
  • the lots of Fortune at Antium warned him to beware of Cassius, and he accordingly ordered the death of Cassius Longinus, who was at the time proconsul of Asia, forgetting that the family name of Chaerea was Cassius
  • the day before he was killed he dreamt that he stood in heaven beside the throne of Jupiter and that the god struck him with the toe of his right foot and hurled him to earth
  • the day before his death, as he was sacrificing, he was sprinkled with the blood of a flamingo,
  • the pantomimic actor Mnester danced a tragedy which the tragedian Neoptolemus had acted years before during the games at which Philip king of the Macedonians was assassinated
  • in a farce called ‘Laureolus’, in which the chief actor falls as he is making his escape and vomits blood, several understudies​ so vied with one another in giving evidence of their proficiency that the stage swam in blood

58. On the ninth day before the Kalends of February, at about the seventh hour, he hesitated whether or not to get up for luncheon, since his stomach was still disordered from excess of food on the day before, but at length he came out at the persuasion of his friends.

In the covered passage through which he had to pass, some boys of good birth, who had been summoned from Asia to appear on the stage, were rehearsing their parts, and he stopped to watch and to encourage them and had not the leader of the troop complained that he had a chill, he would have returned and had the performance given at once.

From this point there are two versions of the story: some say that as he was talking with the boys, Chaerea came up behind, cried ‘Take this!’ and gave him a deep sword wound in the neck, and that then the tribune Cornelius Sabinus, who was the other conspirator and faced Caligula, stabbed him in the breast.

Others say that Sabinus, after getting rid of the crowd through centurions who were in the plot, asked for the watchword, as soldiers do, and that when Caligula gave him ‘Jupiter’, he cried ‘So be it’ and, as Caligula looked around, he split his jawbone with a blow of his sword.

As he lay writhing on the ground crying ‘I am still alive’ the other conspirators dispatched him with 30 wounds as the cry went around, ‘Strike again.’ Some even thrust their swords through his privates. At the beginning of the disturbance his bearers ran to his aid with their poles and then some of the Germans of his body-guard, who killed several of his assassins, as well as some innocent senators who happened to be nearby.

59. Caligula lived 29 years and ruled 3 years, 10 months and 8 days. His body was conveyed secretly to the gardens of the Lamian family, where it was partly consumed on a hastily erected pyre and buried beneath a light covering of turf. Later his sisters on their return from exile dug it up, cremated it, and consigned it to the family tomb.

Before this was done, it is well known that the caretakers of the gardens were disturbed by ghosts, and that, in the house where he was murdered, not a night passed without some fearsome apparition until at last the house itself was destroyed by fire.

With Caligula died his wife Caesonia, stabbed with a sword by a centurion, while his daughter’s brains were dashed out against a wall.

60. The atmosphere of fear and paranoia continued after his death. Not even after the murder was made known was it believed that Caligula was dead. People suspected that Caligula himself had staged his own death and would return to punish anyone who was celebrating.

The confusion was exacerbated because the conspirators had not agreed on a successor. The senate was unanimously in favour of re-establishing the republic and so called the first meeting, not in the senate house, because it bore the by-now hated name Julian Building, but in the Capitol.

Some wanted all memory of the Caesars obliterated and all their temples destroyed. Men commented that all the Caesars whose forename was Gaius had perished by the sword, beginning with the one who was slain in the times of Cinna. [Although Michael Grant tells us in a footnote that this is not factually correct, it indicates the terrible reputation the family had acquired.]

[Once Claudius was securely in power he had Caligula’s assassins, including Cassius Chaerea and Julius Lupus, the murderer of Caligula’s wife and daughter, put to death – to ensure Claudius’s own safety and to act as a deterrent against conspirators during his reign.]


Credit

Robert Graves’s translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was published by Penguin in 1957. A revised translation by Classicist Michael Grant, more faithful to the Latin original, was published in 1979. A further revised edition was published in 1989 with an updated bibliography. I read the Penguin version in parallel with the 1914 Loeb Classical Library translation which is available online.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: A Conversation Piece by Evelyn Waugh (1957)

‘Why does everyone except me find it so easy to be nice?’
(Mr Pinfold after an uncomfortable visit to his mother, in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold)

As I’ve commented umpteen times while reviewing his oeuvre, Evelyn Waugh had a lifelong (fictional) interest in mental illness, with numerous of his characters going mad, having nervous breakdowns, becoming alcoholics, committing suicide or being locked up in asylums. The sequence came to a head in his 1957 novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, in which the protagonist undergoes a full-blown mental collapse and becomes subject to auditory hallucinations i.e. hearing voices, lots of voices, threatening with all kinds of violence and humiliation.

Terminology

‘Pinfold’ is a rare English word which means ‘a pound for stray animals, a fold, as for sheep or cattle, a place of confinement or restraint’ so for a while I thought it was an abstruse but apt word indicating the character’s confinement in his cabin and in his madness. But Selina Hastings’ biography of Waugh says it was the name of the Catholic family who originally owned Waugh’s country house at Stinchcombe in Gloucestershire.

Gilbert appears to be a reference to the popular Edwardian music hall song about a certain type of Edwardian dandy and ne’er-do-well (which, as it happens, is mentioned several times in the comic novels of Saki).

‘I’m Gilbert, the filbert,
The knut with the K,
The pride of Piccadilly,
The blasé roué.’

Waugh sub-titled Pinfold ‘a conversation piece’. This is the name of a specific genre of art. According the Tate website, a conversation piece is:

an informal group portrait popular in the eighteenth century, small in scale and showing people – often families, sometimes groups of friends – in domestic interior or garden settings. (Tate)

‘Small in scale’, well it is the shortest of Waugh’s novels. Most of them (apart from the bloated Brideshead Revisited) clock in around 240 pages in the Penguin editions. At 157 pages Pinfold is around 60% the usual length (which explains why the Penguin edition is bulked out with the post-war short story Tactical Exercise and novella Love Among The Ruins.)

Gilbert Pinfold

It’s a transparently autobiographical book, but with modifications. Gilbert Pinfold is a moderately successful novelist with 12 books to his name (like Waugh) turning 50 when the story begins. It’s interesting to read Waugh’s portrait of his character, presumably fairly self-portraying.

he had written a dozen books all of which were still bought and read. They were translated into most languages and in the United States of America enjoyed intermittent but lucrative seasons of favour. Foreign students often chose them as the subject for theses, but those who sought to detect cosmic significance in Mr. Pinfold’s work, to relate it to fashions in philosophy, social predicaments or psychological tensions, were baffled by his frank, curt replies to their questionnaires; their fellows in the English Literature School, who chose more egotistical writers, often found their theses more than half composed for them. Mr. Pinfold gave nothing away. Not that he was secretive or grudging by nature; he had nothing to give these students. He regarded his books as objects which he had made, things quite external to himself to be used and judged by others. He thought them well made, better than many reputed works of genius, but he was not vain of his accomplishment, still less of his reputation. He had no wish to obliterate anything he had written, but he would dearly have liked to revise it, envying painters, who are allowed to return to the same theme time and time again, clarifying and enriching until they have done all they can with it. A novelist is condemned to produce a succession of novelties, new names for characters, new incidents for his plots, new scenery; but, Mr. Pinfold maintained, most men harbour the germs of one or two books only; all else is professional trickery of which the most daemonic of the masters–Dickens and Balzac even–were flagrantly guilty.

Pinfold lives in Lychpole, a secluded village some hundred miles from London and some time is spent, in a leisurely civilised old fashioned way, describing the local gentry, most living in ‘reduced circumstances’ since the war and being: Colonel and Mrs. Bagnold, Mr. and Mrs. Graves, Mrs. and Miss Fawdle, Colonel and Miss Garbett, Lady Fawdle-Upton and Miss Clarissa Bagnold.

Pinfold’s Catholicism

Who knows whether this is how Waugh saw himself, but his portrait of Pinfold’s faith is shy and private.

The Pinfolds were Roman Catholic, Mrs. Pinfold by upbringing, Mr. Pinfold by a later development. He had been received into the Church–‘conversion’ suggests an event more sudden and emotional than his calm acceptance of the propositions of his faith–in early manhood, at the time when many Englishmen of humane education were falling into communism. Unlike them Mr. Pinfold remained steadfast. But he was reputed bigoted rather than pious. His trade by its nature is liable to the condemnation of the clergy as, at the best, frivolous; at the worst, corrupting. Moreover by the narrow standards of the age his habits of life were self-indulgent and his utterances lacked prudence. And at the very time when the leaders of his Church were exhorting their people to emerge from the catacombs into the forum, to make their influence felt in democratic politics and to regard worship as a corporate rather than a private act, Mr. Pinfold burrowed ever deeper into the rock.

Pinfold’s friends

But Mr. Pinfold was far from friendless and he set great store by his friends. They were the men and women who were growing old with him, whom in the 1920s and ’30s he had seen constantly; who in the diaspora of the ’40s and ’50s kept more tenuous touch with one another, the men at Bellamy’s Club, the women at the half-dozen poky, pretty houses of Westminster and Belgravia to which had descended the larger hospitality of a happier age.

Where Bellamy’s is the name of the fictional London gentleman’s club which features in many of Waugh’s fictions, not least the Sword of Honour trilogy which he was writing at the same time as Pinfold.

Grumpy old man

His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz–everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion, sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom. There was a phrase in the ’30s: ‘It is later than you think’, which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought. At intervals during the day and night he would look at his watch and learn always with disappointment how little of his life was past, how much there was still ahead of him.

A protective shell

In an earlier review I wrote of the practical usefulness of adopting the persona of a grumpy old man. Playing a predictable and grumpily humorous role means you never actually have to be yourself, never have to reveal your true feelings. It is fascinating and moving to read Waugh’s own description of this:

As a boy, at the age of puberty when most of his school-fellows coarsened, he had been as fastidious as the Bruiser and in his early years of success diffidence had lent him charm. Prolonged prosperity had wrought the change. He had seen sensitive men make themselves a protective disguise against the rebuffs and injustices of manhood. Mr. Pinfold had suffered little in these ways; he had been tenderly reared and, as a writer, welcomed and over-rewarded early. It was his modesty which needed protection and for this purpose, but without design, he gradually assumed this character of burlesque. He was neither a scholar nor a regular soldier; the part for which he cast himself was a combination of eccentric don and testy colonel and he acted it strenuously, before his children at Lychpole and his cronies in London, until it came to dominate his whole outward personality. When he ceased to be alone, when he swung into his club or stumped up the nursery stairs, he left half of himself behind and the other half swelled to fill its place. He offered the world a front of pomposity mitigated by indiscretion, that was as hard, bright and antiquated as a cuirass…

As a little boy he had been acutely sensitive to ridicule. His adult shell seemed impervious. He had long held himself inaccessible to interviewers and the young men and women who were employed to write ‘profiles’ collected material where they could. Every week his press-cutting agents brought to his breakfast-table two or three rather offensive allusions. He accepted without much resentment the world’s estimate of himself. It was part of the price he paid for privacy. (p.15)

A protective disguise, a front of pomposity – quotes worth bearing in mind when you read Waugh’s biography, letters or diary.

Structure

This short novel is divided into eight chapters:

  1. Portrait of the artist in middle-age (see the excerpts above)
  2. Collapse of elderly party (he becomes ill)
  3. An unhappy ship (hears voices on the cruise ship)
  4. The hooligans (hears voices of hoodlums threatening to break in and beat him)
  5. The international incident
  6. The human touch
  7. The villains unmasked — but not foiled
  8. Pinfold regained

2. Collapse of elderly party

The setup is straightforward. Pinfold has trouble getting to sleep and has been dosing himself for years with a sleeping draught which he dissolves in Crême de Menthe. In the evenings he drinks wine and brandy with dinner. He was fit in his 20s and 30s but now spends most of his day slumped in an armchair. He smokes cigars. He starts to suffer from insomnia, waking up, padding round, sleepily taking another draught.

Things take a turn for the worse when his joints begin to ache, specially his feet and ankles and calves. The local doctor, Dr Drake, prescribes some ‘rheumatism pills’, large grey pills, supposedly very strong. He takes both the sleeping draughts and pills in haphazard amounts, often far more than prescribed. He becomes clumsy. He becomes forgetful and cantankerous. He develops crimson patches on the back of his hands. His face turns an unhealthy purple colour.

And it is the depths of winter, freezing cold in the house so that he and his wife hunker down in just two rooms where they can afford to light a coal fire.

With the result that he becomes obsessed with getting away from this cold climate and taking a cruise to somewhere hot. Now it has been emphasised from the start that his wife is the practical one, who manages all the affairs of the small farm on their land. What’s more there’s been a period of litigation about land they let during the war and now want back. Managing all this means she won’t be able to come with him.

There’s a lot of peripheral detail about hassling the travel company in increasingly clumsy desperation and then going to see his mother, who he doesn’t get on with, at her house in Kew, to say goodbye, in a short-tempered fractious way which he regrets as soon as they leave. His wife packs for him since he’s become incapable of doing it himself. They stay overnight in a hotel in London where he struggles to cope, is too ill to go downstairs for dinner which is wife has by herself. Next morning she sees him to the train to the port. He can barely climb onto it. He drops his luggage. He keeps lighting cigars, forgetting about them and dropping them.

3. An unhappy ship

Finally he makes it aboard the SS Caliban, run by captain Steerforth, a basic steamer taking passengers to Rangoon and stopping at ports en route. It is not luxurious. There is no en suite, he has to share a bathroom. Plenty of plumbing and cabling is visible on the ceiling. He takes more of the pills and passes out of his bed.

Next morning he dressed and staggers to the captain’s table for breakfast, gets talking to the chap he shares a bathroom with, a Mr Glover, solid colonial chap who runs a business in Ceylon and plays golf. Glover tells him the passengers are a regular bunch, and all know each other.

Mr Pinfold begins to experience aural hallucinations. He thinks he can hear a jazz band playing from a wireless or gramophone. He can hear a dog barking. Waking in the darkness he can hear an entire evangelical church service being carried out somewhere beyond the bed. Worse, he overhears a vicar having a one on one interview with a sobbing schoolboy who he is counselling to stop masturbating.

At the next meal, when he mentions the dog and the jazz music and the church service to his neighbour, Glover, the latter has heard nothing. He struggles to stand up from the table. At after dinner drinks he suspects all the other guests of laughing at him. Or conspiring against him. Paranoia.

More hallucinations. He thinks he hears yells and roars from the deck above more suitable to a pirate ship. One of the black sailors appears to be injured. He hears the captain explaining to the passengers that he will be sent back to England and given the best medical treatment available. Then he hears the captain talking to a woman with a hard grating voice, telling her the injured sailor is actually being sent to a hellhole. Pinfold worries whether he should tell someone, but then the jazz music cuts in, deafeningly loud as if being played right there in his cabin.

Looking at the tangle of wires and cables on his ceiling he wonders whether they carry communications from all over the ship and have somehow gotten fused or damaged so that he can hear conversations (and music and religious services and confessions).

The days pass in a daze and the hallucinations become more florid, as lying on his bed in his cabin he hears a choral performance, or two old generals gossiping about him and how ‘tight’ he looks. He is oddly relaxed about all this, after all he has made a career out of gossip, or fictions about gossip:

The voices of the two old gossips faded and fell silent. Mr. Pinfold lay smoking, without resentment. It was the sort of thing one expected to have said behind one’s back–the sort of thing one said about other people. (p.57)

One morning he hears the Captain and a sadistic, harsh-voiced woman whom Pinfold nicknames ‘Goneril’, at first interrogating and then torturing one of the ‘coloured’ seamen. (‘Coloured’ in this context, appears to mean from India.) Presumably this scene of erotic torture, like the one with the schoolboy being questioned about masturbation, are straightforward Freudian projections of Pinfold’s own fantasies or repressed memories (?).

When the pair have apparently tortured the seaman to death, Pinfold hears the voice of a kindly nurse called Margaret, and then of the ship’s surgeon saying he only obeys orders and will record a natural death.

And then, for some reason, as if by magic, the pains in his legs and feet disappear. He is able to stand up straight and immediately goes for a joyful walk around the decks, feeling healthy and happy.

4. The hooligans

But the aural hallucinations do not desist. When he is dressing in his cabin he hears clear as day the voice of a literary critic Algernon Clutton-Cornforth really laying into his book on a BBC radio programme.

But the centre of this chapter is the arrival of new voices, a couple to teenage boys who he hears threatening to break down his cabin door and thrash him. They accuse him of being a Jew named Peinfeld. They accuse him of being a sodomite. They accuse him of stealing a moonstone and abandoning his mother to die a pauper. They blame him for the death of a neighbouring farmer back near his place in the country. He is an arriviste, the kind of man destroying the English countryside. The hooligans dance with hatred and anger, threatening to break his cabin door down and whip him to within an inch of his life.

But then they try the cabin door and announce it is locked. In reality, the door isn’t locked at all, and yet in the fantasy it is what prevents the fantasy from being disproved.

What gives the book its peculiar quality is the way that Pinfold, in the grip of his delusions, takes all this at face value and literally. At one point he hears the voice of an old general trying to calm the young hoodlums down and then, at the end of the fantasy, one of them goes off to be sick over the railings and then is comforted by the soothing voice of his mother. So far so fantastical. What makes it an odd mix of odd, funny or sad is that Pinfold then gets a copy of the passenger list and tries to figure out who this family could be, who the mother, who the old general, who the young thugs.

In the same way he is convinced that the scene he overheard in which the captain and the woman he nicknamed Goneril torture a steward, apparently, to death – he is convinced it was real.

All this gives rise to a sort of comedy, on the face of it the same kind of social comedy at which he excelled in the 1930s novels, when he finds himself at dinner with the captain, a drops a few heavy hints about stewards, and murder at sea, and disposing of bodies. The captain answers in polite generalities but the other guests at the table are puzzled, as you or I might be. But in Pinfold’s paranoia, he reads into their puzzled expressions the fear that they are all in on it!

Then the voices of the young women chatting about how they’re going to give him gifts to make up for the fright the young men have caused him. When he returns to his cabin, he of course finds nothing, but the girls voices urge him to look, look.

In the dining room the voices pursue him. In the lounge he hears the hooligans or the old generals or Margaret and her friend. Back in his cabin he hears a radio programme hosted by someone he knows where people read out letters from celebrities and, of course, they’re all from him, so he is forced from the cabin and to take strolls round the ship.

He continues his attempts to rationalise all these voices. Maybe it’s not a question of faulty wiring of the ship’s communications but maybe some of it is a play: that would explain the melodramatic aspects of some of the incidents, for example the torturing of the steward. Maybe it wasn’t the captain after all.

In a particular corner of the lounge he hears the lead hooligan and his father discuss the best ways to punish Pinfold for being such a beast, which include taking him to court. Bide your time, says the father. We’ll get him eventually.

5. The international incident

His hallucinations escalate. As they pass the straits into the Mediterranean Pinfold thinks he overhears the fact that the ship has been boarded by the Spanish navy and commanded to steam to Algeciras. The captain has refused and so the ship is becalmed while the matter is escalated to NATO and the UN. When he goes up on deck Pinfold is surprised to observe that there is no Spanish ship in sight (obviously it must be hiding below the horizon), nobody else has noticed any Spaniards, the ship appears to be steaming steadily East and the captain is calm and relaxed at dinner. Everyone is behaving as if nothing has happened. All very strange!

But as soon as he’s back in his cabin, the plot resumes and now Pinfold overhears the conversation between the captain and his chief officers. To his amazement he learns that the passenger who eats at a table by himself is a VIP government agent. It’s him the Spanish are after. What the captain proposes is that they will substitute Pinfold for the agent, pull him from his cabin, dress him similarly, stuff identical papers in his pockets and hand him over to the Spanish authorities. They’ll fake a tussle on the gangplank to the other ship as if trying to save him but in fact ensure that the Spaniards secure him and sail off. Apparently he has a wife and children but some story will be concocted to cover his disappearance.

Pinfold is a patriot so he’s happy to impersonate the agent, if the latter truly must be saved. but only if he’s consulted and asked in a formal way. He makes up his mind to confront the captain. He hears the Spanish corvette he’s to be transferred to coming alongside, hailing of crews, throwing of ropes, clattering of gangplank. Brave and determined, Pinfold leaves his cabin to confront the situation…

Only to find the corridor, the gangways and the decks utterly deserted. Nobody else in sight, no other ship, no gangplanks, no Spanish, no nothing. For a moment he is gripped by real, genuine, heart-stopping fear. Maybe he is going mad. Seconds later what you could call the secondary mind, the rationalising mind, takes over and he decides the Spanish spy scenario doesn’t exist, it’s true – because it was all concocted by the young hooligans! who have somehow taken over control of the radio apparatus and are playing hoaxes and tricks on him.

In this way his tortured mind establishes two levels of hallucinations, the ones which are real, and the trick ones being perpetrated by the hooligans.

6. The human touch

Margaret emerges as the kindly sister of one of the teenage hooligans. She is countered by ‘Goneril’, the tough woman who supervised the torture. In an anticipation of the final part of Unconditional Surrender Goneril accuses Pinfold of wanting to die, of going up on deck to throw himself overboard.

When he walks round the deck he thinks everyone is talking about him, judging him, accusing him of being gay, wearing make-up, being a religious hypocrite, drunk, impotent, a fascist blackshirt, involved in a scandal in the army, a communist, a Jew, a clapped-out author, on the scrapheap…and so it goes on.

But while most of the voices vilify him, one, Margaret’s, becomes more and more concerned and eventually declares she is in love with him. ‘Can they meet?’ he asks. ‘No’ she says, that would be against the rules. Later she returns chaperoned by her mother who insists that Pinfold declares his love for her daughter. But he can’t he says; he’s a married man. Pinfold gets fed up and calls the mother an old bitch. To his surprise, this makes her husband, the old colonel, burst out laughing. There’s an unnerving element of sex in her father’s talk, telling young Margaret that she needs an older man to induct her into the mysteries of sex.

All this develops into Margaret being undressed and clad in epithalamium weeds, while Pinfold goes through an array of emotions, recalling his promiscuous twenties (he frequented brothels abroad) through to his Catholic faith and then his fidelity to his wife. Nonetheless the expectation of a pretty pink nymph coming to his bed excites him, then she hesitates to come in, asks him to say something kind.

This passage really goes on and on, dragging out this scene where in his head he is preparing to seduce a teenage virgin.

Eventually he gets bored, puts his pyjamas on and gets into bed. As he’s drifting off, he thinks he sees the cabin door slip open for a second then shut; then hears Margaret’s voice wailing that she did, she did go to him but he was snoring, the General upbraiding him, saying the snoring was a sham. It’s because he’s impotent, ‘Aren’t you, Gilbert, aren’t you?’

7. The villains unmasked – but not foiled

Next morning he is determined to move cabin, but not before he hears a new scene, which is the telegraph officer reading out loud his messages to his wife (and earlier, when he was still in England) out loud to the group of bright young things associated with the jazz music.

Pinfold manages to confront the captain, accusing the telegraph officer of reading out his telegrams, saying he is the victim of all kinds of accusations and the ship’s communications are faulty since he can overhear conversations from all round the ship in his cabin. He asks to move cabin. The captain arranges it straightaway.

Back in his cabin the voices are sad to see him go. But the new cabin is no quieter. In fact the move escalates the number and location of voices. Everywhere he goes on the ship he hears voices., He becomes convinced it’s all being controlled by a young man from the BBC who came to interview him at Lychpole a few weeks before he left and who, he thinks, must have smuggled himself aboard with a voice projection device. It’s something to do with the wireless, the wire-less.

In a series of operations a carefully co-ordinated sequence of voices follow him round the ship or all its passengers take part in co-ordinated conversations against him as he passes. But the strategy is starting to wear thin. One night Pinfold confronts Angel, saying he knows who he is and what he’s trying to do.

And then he gains the upper hand. He writes a long letter home to his wife explaining that the BBC chap Angel is aboard with some kind of new-fangled device the Germans and Russians were working on during the war to project voices into people’s heads and soften them up for interrogation. He announces he has been persecuted since he’s been aboard so he’s going to leave the ship at Port Said and fly to Colombo.

He has his last dinner at the captain’s table and is civil to everyone. the voices in the cabin warn him that he can’t escape but he puts out the light and sleeps. On his way to the cabin he meets the dark-suited figure who had eaten apart and discovers he is Mr Murdoch, a northern industrialist. Murdoch is being collected by a company car and asks Pinfold if he would like a lift. Pinfold gratefully accepts.

the next day they are driven in the company car through a landscape Pinfold finds more heavily armed and warlike than during the Second World War, with barbed wire fences and checkpoints at repeated intervals from Port Said to Cairo. Pinfold experiences a wonderful sense of liberation of being free of the voices. But that night Murdoch takes him to dinner with business associates at Ghezira. But as Pinfold starts to mention a mutual friend (who is a lord) Goneril interrupts him. I.e. they have followed him.

8. Pinfold regained

So Pinfold flies on to Colombo but a reduced set of voices accompany him all the way and talk to him almost continuously, mostly hateful Goneril and lovely Margaret. Margaret now claims all the other male voices were done by her brother, Angel, who is a great mimic. And her brother is married to Goneril (Mr and Mrs Angel), so that’s how the three of them are linked.

In Colombo he writes a telegram to his wife explaining about the ‘box’ which is projecting the voices into his head but saying it’s mostly alright now. He meets an acquaintance from New York who invites him to go visit some ruins with him. Later in the day a telegram arrives form his wife imploring him to return home. Obviously, to her, his telegrams appear quite deranged. By now he is used to the voices. They witter on during that evening’s meal with the American, but no longer frighten or worry him. Now they just bore him.

He gets another telegram from his wife saying she’s flying out to join him but that decides him to return and he telegraphs her to that effect. One last day in Colombo, then by ship to Bombay, Karachi, past Aden and into the Med. Rome. Plane to Paris. The voices talk to him, wheedling and cajoling but he ignores them.

Finally Angel explains that it was all a scientific experiment which has gone badly wrong. When they get back to Blighty he will turn the box off and Pinfold will never hear from any of them again as long as he promises to tell no-one about the experiment, about his – Angel’s – role in it. But as the plane circles over London Pinfold refuses: he says Angel has behaved very badly and he is going to expose him.

He takes a car to the taxi where he and his wife always stay. It is all frightfully British. She has checked with a friend in the BBC and the Angel who came to interview at Lychpole has never been out of the country. She tells him they don’t exist. The voices he heard are only in his head. None of these people exist. And as she says it, Margaret agrees.

‘It’s perfectly true, darling,’ said Margaret. ‘I never had a brother or a sister-in-law, no father, no mother, nothing… I don’t exist, Gilbert. There isn’t any me, anywhere at all… but I do love you, Gilbert. I don’t exist but I do love… Goodbye… Love…’ and her voice too trailed away, sank to a whisper, a sigh, the rustle of a pillow; then was silent.

Pinfold tells his wife they’ve gone, and he knows, for certain, that they have, completely. She’d come to town with a view to getting him admitted to a nursing home. Now he says he just wants to go home. The pack bags, go to Paddington and catch the train home. He explains his sudden return to a few neighbours. Then spends whole evenings reliving the experience, telling his wife every detail, wondering about bits, for example why the attacks and criticism on him were so crude and generic when he himself knows much worse things he’s done.

It ends with him going to see the local doctor, not a very advanced thinker but in tune with Pinfold’s conservatism. He says it simply sounds like mixing the medicines did it. Has he stopped taking the grey pills? Yes. And have the voices stopped? Yes. Well, there you are then.

‘Those voices were pretty offensive, I suppose?’
‘Abominably. How did you know?’
‘They always are. Lots of people hear voices from time to time–nearly always offensive.’
‘You don’t think he ought to see a psychologist?’ asked Mrs. Pinfold.
‘He can if he likes, of course, but it sounds like a perfectly simple case of poisoning to me.’

Well, there you go. The voice of incurious English philistinism. It’s not much advanced on ‘then I woke up and it was all a dream’. Next day, after Mass, he settles himself in the library, spreads a new quire of foolscap before him and writes in his neat, steady hand the title of this book, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold.

Thoughts

The auditory hallucinations are, apparently, closely based on what Waugh himself experienced.

It’s my (limited) understanding that psychotics often identify the problem with the latest gadgets or technology, through which they hear voices, often persecuting. Thus Pinfold for a long time thinking the voices he’s hearing are coming from the ship’s internal communications system which, in his delusions, he thinks, by a freak engineering accident, is audible in his cabin and at a certain place in the lounge.

Then he goes on to associate it more specifically with a new piece of technology accessed by Angel through his position at the BBC and brought with him aboard the ship. Or, later, being deployed against him from a distance. In other words the delusion of some kind of device being used to create the voices persists despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Slurs

Modern readers might bridle at the way some of his hallucinatory persecutors ‘accuse’ Pinfold of being a Jew or a homosexual. But at the time of writing casual antisemitism was still common in the kind of social circles Waugh frequented and homosexual acts were still a criminal offence. To be precise, the accusation that he’s Jewish is spoken not by him but by two foul-mouthed, angry hooligans threatening violence, And finally, these are only some of the accusations his unconscious hurls at him, which also include countless other insults as well (being a thief, abandoning his mother, being a snob, a fake, and so on), which are themselves only part of a florid array of scenarios (torture, murder, deflowering a virgin and so on) which his unconscious throw at him.

Aboard ship

One of the things which interests me most about Pinfold is the way it is set aboard a ship, on a cruise into the warm Mediterranean. It brings back all Waugh’s other descriptions of being aboard ship and sailing across the Med in Labels, Remote People, Black Mischief, Waugh in Abyssinia and Scoop. In all those books being aboard ship signified freedom and escape. But here the ship signifies the opposite, which is being trapped, ‘cabined and confined’.

But the setting aboard ship also solves a problem. If the episodes had happened at home it would have been pretty dull for the reader reading descriptions of his bedroom and landing and bathroom and so on. And his wife would have intervened in the first half hour to tell him it’s all nonsense and then send for a doctor.

So the setting aboard ship does at least four things.

  1. It is an unusual and exotic setting, unlike home.
  2. It means he doesn’t have the comforts of home, wife and doctor, who would damp down the incidents and stifle the narrative before it got started.
  3. Instead the comforts of home and familiar faces are replaced by the discomforts of a strange place which brings out and reinforces the disconcerting alienness of his experiences.
  4. Lastly – and given Waugh’s focus on social interaction, this may be the most positive reason for the setting – it provides a large cast with whom Pinfold can have comic misunderstandings and comic interactions.

Madness like being an author

There is an obvious literary interpretation which is that writing a novel is a little like being mad in the sense that you invent characters and everything they say and do. Some authors describe hearing their characters speak in their heads, many authors have reported that their characters become more ‘real’ and present to them than ‘real’ people. Many authors base their fictions on their own lives and freely incorporate not only their experiences but their feelings, feelings of guilt and regret and persecution. Well, Pinfold’s ‘madness’ can be seen as, in one way, only a small step beyond the cultivation of characters and voices which novelists practice as a profession.

Is that it?

Ultimately, this short novel has the same feel as his other longer post-war fictions, Scott-King’s Modern Europe and Love Among the Ruins. They feel like good ideas, which are professionally worked through and contain many pretty details and are written in a lovely clear prose style and yet…lack punch. Lack conviction or depth or real feeling. Maybe I ought to be moved by Pinfold’s plight but I am not, at all.

The Loved One is much funnier and the Sword of Honour trilogy is a magnificent achievement. Beside either of them, Pinfold feels shallow and, crucially, not, in the end, very entertaining. Presumably Waugh’s awareness of this is part of the reason he wittily sub-titled Pinfold ‘a conversation piece’, but conversation pieces are designed to be warm and charming. The opening chapter profiling Pinfold certainly has these qualities; but the extended portrait of a man suffering from paranoid hallucinations on a long sea cruise is, in the end, neither warm nor charming. The relationship with his wife never comes alive. In fact none of it really comes alive for me. It all feels somehow small.

And as to it being in the slightest bit useful or interesting as a depiction of actual mental illness, no. The ending when his doctor says, ‘Well, just don’t mix your medicines, old boy’, is dishearteningly bathetic. If you want to see how English prose can convey off-the-scale states of mental extremity, try reading Samuel Beckett’s novels The Unnamable (1953) or How It Is (1964), published while Waugh was alive but coming from a different galaxy altogether. Compared with them, Waugh’s novel reads like an odd but comforting children’s story.


Credit

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1957. All references are to the 1984 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Dorothea Tanning @ Tate Modern

This is the first large-scale exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s work to be held in the UK for 25 years.

It brings together 100 pieces from her seven-decade-long career (she lived to be an astonishing 101 years old, 1910 – 2012) across a range of media, including oil paintings, pencil drawings, ‘soft’ sculptures, lithographs, a massive installation, and a film about her. It is as comprehensive a survey of her artistic achievement as you could wish for.

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Birthday (1942) by Dorothea Tanning. Philadelphia Museum of Art © DACS 2019

Tanning was born in provincial America (Galesburg, Illinois) in 1910. As soon as she was able to, she moved to New York, where she soon afterwards saw the famous Surrealism exhibition of 1936. It was a coup de foudre which changed her life. She began painting in a boldly Surrealist style and in 1939 set off to Paris to meet the leaders of the movement.

Unfortunately, Hitler had other plans, and the advent of the Second World War saw her coming straight back to New York but, happily, so did half the Surrealist artists, fleeing the Nazis. These fleeing artists included one of the leading Surrealists, Max Ernst (b.1891), who she fell in love with and married in 1946.

Surrealist paintings

The exhibition features a generous selection of the Surrealist paintings she made from the mid-1930s to the end of the 40s.

Tanning said she wanted to depict ‘unknown but knowable states’ and the pictures show humans in strange postures, or morphing into inanimate objects, or bursting into flames, or standing in deserts littered with incongruous objects, or standing in bedrooms among strange and Gothic figures, or staring into sunflowers which are changing into mirrors, or standing in front of doors opening onto other doors.

Some of these are really powerful images, although many felt to me like they were channelling existing Surrealist artists, especially Salvador Dali, the man who had crystallised the Surrealist ‘look’ in the late 1920s, introducing an immaculate finish to his oil paintings which depicted random objects or events, melting watches, elephants on stilts, melting limbs propped up by crutches and so on.

In other works you can detect the influence of Giorgio de Chirico (b.1888) with his mysterious abandoned Italian squares and brooding neo-classical architecture. In some of them you can see the Magritte who painted a man in a bowler hat with an apple in front of his face.

For example the blue skyscape at the bottom of this Surreal image of a chess game, and its startling optical illusion it gives that the rest of the painting has been draped in front of a landscape, reminds me of the deceptively simple blue skies of Magritte paintings.

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

Endgame (1944) by Dorothea Tanning. Courtesy Gertrud V. Parker © DACS 2019

But all that said, many of Tanning’s paintings do have a unique and distinctive feeling.

The recurrence of women in the paintings is nothing special in itself, since the Surrealists as a movement thought of the female as being more instinctive, irrational, closer to the unconscious and an all-purpose muse figure – so Tanning’s depictions of women with bared breasts (or herself with bared breasts) don’t cover any new ground.

But I felt that her depictions of girls do capture something unique. Pre-pubescent girls are not such a common motif in male artists, who tend, all too often, to depict shapely, nude and nubile women.

I think Tanning’s depictions of pre-pubescent girls and the depiction of women not as sex objects but as individuals – I’m struggling to put this into words, but her depiction of girls and women – did have a different and distinctive feeling, capturing something genuinely strange about a girl’s experience of the world. I thought of Angela Carter’s retelling of fairy tales from a girl’s point of view.

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (1943) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Prismatic style

In the 1950s Tanning and Ernst moved to Paris and this marked a seismic, comprehensive reinvention of her visual language. It is signalled in the exhibition when you walk into the next room and are confronted with the massive and staggering painting, Gate 84.

Installation photograph of Dorothea Tanning at Tate Modern, 2019

Admittedly this is from a lot later, 1984, but Gate 84 captures the massive change in style which happened in the 1950s. It depicts two girls drawn in vivid graphic style with the use of strong border lines, emerging from a background of violent flaming yellow. Dividing the painting right down the middle is part of an actual door and door jamb which has been embedded into the canvas and sticks out of the picture plane. Both the girls are wearing thigh-length dresses, the one on the left is performing an acrobatic leap so as to hit the door with outstretched hand and foot; the one on the right is more lazily sitting, with her right leg outstretched, her foot pressed flat against the door as if keeping it shut.

I visited with my wife who said this reminded her vividly of the fights she was always having with her own sister, when they were kids. And she got talking to another middle aged woman standing in front of it, who agreed that it reminded her of her childhood with two sisters, rampaging and fighting. A very female sensibility capturing something vivid and dynamic about girls’ experiences of the world.

What struck me more than anything was the chunky realism of the legs, the muscular thighs and the weight and tension in the calves and feet. The entire depiction of the human body is utterly utterly different from the rather attenuated, pallid, doll-like figures in the Surrealist paintings.

And this proved to be true of all her paintings from this point onwards. They become a) much larger and b) much much more abstract, great billowing shapes.

And yet, paradoxically, the graphic element becomes clearer. Faces and bodies and fragments of bodies appear as if out of a rampaging fog and, when they do, are often painted with strict anatomical accuracy, or even a kind of super-accuracy, a monumental accuracy. The arms and thighs and bottoms reminded me of Michelangelo.

It is like the work of a completely different artist.

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Dogs of Cythera (1963) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

In Dogs of Cythera, at bottom left you can make out what might be an arm going round a woman’s breast, in the centre something like the top of a shaved black skull, at bottom right another arm bent at the elbow, leading up to a hand with splayed fingers.

So there are people, or people-like objects in the painting, but quite clearly something radical and massive is going on that utterly eclipses them, or only uses them as raw material in a bigger and bewildering process.

To quote the wall label, these works mark:

a more abstracted ‘prismatic’ style of painting, and her brushwork and compositions became much looser. Where her earlier work used precise realism to present fantastical scenes, in these paintings it is colour and light that bring imaginary worlds into being. The possibilities of her medium became more important to her.

‘In looking at how many ways paint can flow onto canvas, I began to long for letting it have more freedom.’

In Tanning’s Surreal works the human body, mostly female, is often stylised, thin, elongated – or given an eerie, science fiction otherworldliness, as in this disconcerting girl being covered in flowers. The subject is set in a recognisable space with perspective to create depth and often to draw the eye to some Surrealistically disturbing detail, such as the fireplace which opens onto clear blue sky.

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

The Magic Flower Game (1941) by Dorothea Tanning. Private collection, South Dakota © DACS 2019

In this later, ‘prismatic’ style, there is no depth or perspective, there is only a great storm of cloud happening right on the surface of the canvas from which parts of one or more bodies threaten to temporarily emerge into focus before disappearing again into the tumult. The paintings vary quite a lot in feel, some lighter and airier, others really dark and stormy – but all in the same immediately recognisable style.

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

Inutile (1969) by Dorothea Tanning. The Destina Foundation, New York © DACS 2019

There are over twenty paintings in this maner, it looks like most of her output after the mid-1950s was like this, and I loved them.

Many of the Surrealist works are wonderful, inventive and mysterious but I couldn’t help the nagging through that she was working – often to marvellous effect – but in someone else’s idiom. With the ‘prismatic’ paintings it seemed to me Tanning became completely free. I loved the tremendous sense of energy they convey, the sense of muscular, lithe bodies struggling, fighting, embracing, tumbling through clouds – as different as could be from the absolutely static, dream-like, frozen tableaux of the Surrealist works.

They reminded me of the last stanza of Yeats’s poem, Near The Delphic Oracle.

Slim adolescence that a nymph has stripped,
Peleus on Thetis stares.
Her limbs are delicate as an eyelid,
Love has blinded him with tears;
But Thetis’ belly listens.
Down the mountain walls
From where pan’s cavern is
Intolerable music falls.
Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,
Belly, shoulder, bum,
Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs
Copulate in the foam.

Bellies, shoulders and bums all appear momentarily our of the seething fog of these strange, visionary paintings. Some are sensual, even sexy. And in some the human figure entirely emerges to be given a surprisingly traditional and realistic treatment, like this one, Tango Lives, from 1977, which seemed to me to be channelling Degas’s studies of ballet dancers on a stage, strongly lit from below.

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

Tango Lives (1977) by Dorothea Tanning

But many others convey bewilderment and confusion, and some of them seem genuinely dark and terrifying, visions of a weird hell where monsters are eating each other. More than one of the dark ones reminded me of Goya’s Saturn devouring his children in a swirling fog.

Soft fabric sculptures

And then – something completely different, again.

In the 14-minute film about her – Insomnia – which runs in the final room, Tanning herself explains that at some point in the mid-1960s she just got sick of the smell of turpentine and, by implication, of painting as a medium.

So she got a sowing machine (she is shown in the film using a classic black Singer machine) and began making soft sculptures.

She used the machine to sew together strange shapes which she stuffed with wool to become free-standing sculptures. Like the prismatic paintings they hint strongly at bodily parts – not least because many of them are made out of flesh-coloured fabric – with long tubes which could be arms flung around bulbous shapes which might be bodies. Take Nue Couchée which is made from cotton textile padded with cardboard and filled with seven tennis balls and a load of wool.

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Nue Couchée (1969-70) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

There’s one round pink shape with a wide crack open in the front which is lined with jagged pieces of wood, obviously a rather nightmareish face. And the biggest piece is a mysterious black pin cushion, studded with giant pins, containing strange pinnacles and spouts, as well as worrying orifices.

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Pincushion to Serve as Fetish (1965) by Dorothea Tanning. Tate © DACS 2019

Tanning made it when she was living in Seillans, a hill-top town in Provence. From 1965 to about 1970 she made about twenty of these cloth sculptures.

By far the most dramatic work along these lines was an enormous room-sized installation which is in fact a life-sized model of a room, complete with open door and fireplace, but which is infested with cloth sculptures looming out of the floor and bursting from the walls – a three-dimensional, if rather dingy, homage to the Surrealist nightmares which shook her imagination all those decades earlier.

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (1970–3) by Dorothea Tanning

Conclusion

There’s also a section devoted to her work for the stage, designing Surrealist sets and costumes for collaborations with the choreographer George Balantine – and a sequence of lithographs which, to me, smacked of the covers of 1950s science fiction novels, of the more abstract, harrowing, post-apocalyptic flavour.

But overall her career can be divided very broadly into these three threads

  1. Dali-like Surrealist paintings
  2. huge billowy ‘prismatic’ paintings
  3. mysterious and unnerving soft sculptures

In light of this, I think the curators have made an excellent decision which is to mix it up.

I suspect that if they’d hung the works chronologically it might have been a bit boring, each room would have risked being a bit samey. A couple of rooms of non-stop Surrealism, one of the strange 1950s lithographs and stage designs, a couple of rooms of just prismatic paintings, and then a room or two of just soft sculptures – each space would have been limiting and samey.

Instead the curators have mixed it up, with works from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s all in the same room, huge oil paintings next to lithographs, early drawings next to Surrealist classics.

The net result is to create thought-provoking connections and juxtapositions of subject matter and style – in short, to foment the kind of rather dreamy, disconnected, unsettling effect which I’m sure Tanning herself would have appreciated.

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Self Portrait (1944) by Dorothea Tanning © San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The promotional video

Women curators

Dorothea Tanning is curated by Alyce Mahon, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art History at the University of Cambridge and Ann Coxon, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern, supported by Emma Lewis and Hannah Johnston, Assistant Curators, International Art, Tate Modern.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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