Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

How students, academics, artists and galleries help to create a globalised, woke discourse which alienates ordinary people and hands political power to the Right

‘As polls have attested [traditional Labour voters] rejected Labour because it had become a party that derided everything they loved.’
(John Gray in The New Statesman)

As of January 2020, Labour has 580,000 registered members, giving it the largest membership of any party in Europe, and yet it has just suffered its worst election defeat since 1987. How do we reconcile these contradictory facts?

Trying to make sense of Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the 2019 General Election has prompted a flood of articles and analyses, most of which rightly focus on the distorting effects of Brexit. But I was fascinated to read several articles, by writers from the Left and the Right, which also attribute the defeat to more profound changes which have taken place in the Labour Party itself, that:

  • The decline of the traditional, manual-labouring working class, the decline in Trades Union membership and the increasing diversity of types of work and workplace, with the rise of part-time and zero hours contracts, now mean that the only section of society which Labour can entirely rely on is the vote of students, academics and middle-class, urban, university-educated progressives – writers, artists, film-makers, actors and the like – in other words, the cultural élite.
  • Students and academics and artists and film-makers are vastly more woke and concerned about the cultural issues which make up political correctness – feminism, #metoo, Black Lives Matter, LGBT+ issues and trans rights – these issues matter hugely more to them than to the rest of the population. Why? Because they’re well fed, they have the time, and the education.

1. ‘Why Labour Lost’ by John Curtice in The Spectator

John Curtice is Professor of Politics at the University of Strathclyde and Senior Research Fellow at the National Centre for Social Research. His article in the Spectator (in fact extracts from a speech) is measured and cautious, but includes the following revealing statements:

Where does the [Labour] party go from here? Well, you certainly need to understand where you are at. This is no longer a party that particularly gains the support of working-class voters. Although it does still do relatively well in places that you might call working-class communities. This, at the moment, is a party that has young people, it has graduates, and their distinctive characteristic is that they are socially liberal. These are the people who are remain-y. These are people who are not concerned about immigration…

… now the party should run with the grain of what its got, which is young, socially liberal, university-educated voters

This is where source of the new members who flocked into the Labour Party as it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn was running for leadership in 2015: young, socially liberal, aware and radical students or former students, who elected and then re-elected the old school, radical Socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Image result for labour party membership graph

UK political party membership

So if it has such an enormous membership, why did Labour lose so badly? Obviously Brexit played a large part, but so – every single post mortem and account of anyone who canvassed on the doorsteps indicates – did the public’s profound dislike and distrust of Jeremy Corbyn himself.

To put in bluntly: the half million or so members of the Labour Party repeatedly voted for a leader who was shown time after time to be incompetent and unelectable. And in so doing cemented the shift from Labour being a party of the working class, to it becoming a party which mostly represents the bien-pensant, socially liberal, urban, professional middle classes.

2. ‘Why the Left Keep Losing’ by John Gray in the New Statesman

I very much enjoy Gray’s detached scepticism. Like me, he starts from the belief that humans are only another type of animal, mammals who happen to be able to stand up, speak and make things and as a result have developed an over-inflated sense of their own importance, but whose main achievement, in the long run, may turn out to be making planet earth uninhabitable.

Gray rightly gives pride of place to Brexit in this long analysis of what went wrong for Labour. But it is set in the context of a broader attack on the self-defeating progressive strain within the party.

He starts by enjoying the way the progressive liberal-minded politically correct have been shocked to discover that they don’t own the electorate and that things don’t appear to be smoothly trundling along fixed railway lines towards their version of a progressive Nirvana.

For the two wings of British progressivism – liberal centrism and Corbynite leftism – the election has been a profound shock. It is almost as if there was something in the contemporary scene they have failed to comprehend. They regard themselves as the embodiment of advancing modernity. Yet the pattern they imagined in history shows no signs of emerging. Any tendency to gradual improvement has given way to kaleidoscopic flux. Rather than tending towards some rational harmony, values are plural and contending. Political monotheism – the faith that only one political system can be right for all of humankind – has given way to inescapable pluralism. Progress has ceased to be the providential arc of history and instead become a prize snatched for a moment from the caprice of the gods.

He is describing that state of blank incomprehension and incredulity which we have seen all across the progressive cultural élite (writers, commentators, film-makers, actors, playwrights, poets, novelists and academics) ever since Leave won the Brexit referendum (23 June 2016).

The root cause is because progressives don’t understand that the majority of people are not like them – didn’t go to university, don’t agonise every day about the slave trade and trans rights, don’t have cushy office jobs writing books and articles.

Because many people in Britain struggle to earn enough to keep a roof over their heads and feed their children. Many people never read books or magazine articles and only read newspapers for the football and racing results. In fact many people in this country – up to 8 million adults, a fifth of the population – are functionally illiterate. (Adult Illiteracy In The UK)

Ignoring these most basic facts about the country they live in and the people they live among, progressives think everyone is like them, deep down, whether they know it or not – because progressives are convinced that their values are the only correct values and so must inevitably triumph.

Given this mindset, the only reason they can conceive for their repeated failures is that it’s all due to some right-wing conspiracy, or Russians manipulating the internet, or the first past the post system, or the patriarchy, or the influence of the right-wing media, or institutional racism, or any number of what are, in effect, paranoid conspiracy theories.

A much simpler explanation doesn’t occur to them: that the majority of the British people do actually pretty much understand their ideas and values and simply – reject them.

Gray makes a detour to demolish the progressive case for changing the electoral system, the case the Liberals and Social Democratic Party and then the Lib Dems have been making all my adult life.

Because they don’t understand the nature of the population of the country they live in, Gray says, it rarely crosses the progressive mind to consider that, if we introduced some other form of electoral system such as proportional representation, it would in all probability not usher in a multicultural Paradise, but might reveal the electorate as being even more right-wing than we had imagined. Progressives easily forget that in the 2014 election UKIP won nearly 4 million votes. If we had an elementary system of proportional representation, that would have given them 80 MPs!

Progressives talk of building the kind of majority they want, as if it somehow already latently exists. More likely, parties of the far right would set the political agenda, as they do throughout much of the continent. If you want a European-style voting system, you get a European style of politics.

Sceptics love ironies and Gray is a turbo-charged sceptic, he revels in paradoxes and ironic reversals. Thus he enjoys the idea that Tony Blair’s enthusiasm for modernising New Labour, for the glamorous appeal of a global economy and for the unlimited immigration which went with it, ended up shafting his own party.

New Labour’s unthinking embrace of globalisation and open borders produced the working-class revolt against economic liberalism and mobilised support for Brexit.

A key element of this has been the unforeseen consequence of Blair and Brown’s idea to send 50% of the British population to university.

The result over the past fifteen years or so has been a huge increase in the number of young people with degrees, people who – if they did a humanities degree, certainly – will have been exposed to an exhilarating mix of Western Marxism, feminism, anti-racism, post-structuralism and the whole gamut of progressive ideas which come under the rubric of ‘Theory’ or ‘Critical Theory’. (What is critical theory)

I feel confident of this terrain since this is precisely the exhilarating mix of ideas which I absorbed as an English student back in the 1980s, when we thought reading Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan and Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida would somehow sort out the Miners’ Strike and overthrow Mrs Thatcher, much like the rioting students of 1968 thought that reading Michel Foucault would usher in the Millennium.

But it didn’t, did it?

It turns out that clever students reading clever books – devoting months of your life to studying ‘the death of the author’, Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony or Derrida’s notion of deconstruction – doesn’t really change anything. And then they all go out into the real world and become lawyers and accountants. Or TV producers and writers. Or they remain in academia and teach this self-reinforcing and weirdly irrelevant ideology to a new generation of young acolytes.

Gray devotes a central section of his essay to the baleful impact which contemporary woke academia and the progressive ideology it promotes have had on actual politics.

If only people aged between 18 and 24 had voted in the general election, Corbyn would have won an enormous majority. No doubt this is partly because of Corbyn’s promise to abolish student tuition fees and the difficulties young people face in the housing and jobs markets. But their support for Corbyn is also a by-product of beliefs and values they have absorbed at school and university. According to the progressive ideology that has been instilled in them, the West is uniquely malignant, the ultimate source of injustice and oppression throughout the world, and Western power and values essentially illegitimate.

Humanities and social sciences teaching has been largely shaped by progressive thinking for generations, though other perspectives were previously tolerated. The metamorphosis of universities into centres of censorship and indoctrination is a more recent development, and with the expansion of higher education it has become politically significant. By over-enlarging the university system, Blair created the constituency that enabled the Corbynites to displace New Labour. No longer mainly a cult of intellectuals, as in Orwell’s time, progressivism has become the unthinking faith of millions of graduates.

When Labour voters switched to Johnson, they were surely moved by moral revulsion as well as their material interests. As polls have attested, they rejected Labour because it had become a party that derided everything they loved. Many referenced Corbyn’s support for regimes and movements that are violently hostile to the West. Some cited anti-Semitism as one of the evils their parents or grandparents had gone to war to defeat. For working class voters, Labour had set itself against patriotism and moral decency.

Compare and contrast Gray’s summary with this excerpt from an article by Toby Young, who did some canvassing for a friend standing as a Tory candidate in Newcastle. All the working class people he spoke to said they were going to vote Conservative, often for the first time in their lives. This was partly because many wanted to get Brexit done, but also:

Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have talked a good deal about winning back these working class voters, but his policy positions haven’t been designed to appeal to them. I’m not just talking about his ambivalence on Brexit – there’s a widespread feeling among voters who value flag, faith and family that Corbyn isn’t one of them. Before he became Labour leader in 2015, he was an energetic protestor against nearly every armed conflict Britain has been involved in since Suez, including the Falklands War. He’s also called for the abandonment of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, the withdrawal of the UK from NATO and the dismantling of our security services – not to mention declining to sing the National Anthem at a Battle of Britain service in 2015. From the point of view of many working class voters, for whom love of country is still a deeply felt emotion, Corbyn seems to side with the country’s enemies more often than he does with Britain. (Britain’s Labour Party Got Woke – And Now It’s Broke)

Immediately after the election I read an interview with a Labour activist in a northern constituency which was home of several army barracks of the British Army. She said many people considered Corbyn a traitor who was a more enthusiastic supporter of groups like Hamas and the IRA than of our own armed forces.

The discrepancy between how woke, over-educated commentators interpreted the Brexit vote and the reality on the ground was epitomised by disputes about whether it involved some kind of nostalgia for the British Empire. I read numerous articles by academics and progressive commentators saying Brexit was the result of entrenched racism and/or nostalgia for the days when Britain was Great.

But on Radio 4 I heard Ruth Smeeth, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, saying she’d been reading London-based, college-educated commentators claiming that the people who voted Brexit were nostalgic for the British Empire, and went on quite crossly to say people voting Brexit had nothing to do with the bloody British Empire which hardly any of them remember…

It’s because where they live there’s widespread unemployment, lack of housing, the schools are poor, the infrastructure is falling to pieces and they just think they’ve been ignored and taken for granted by London politicians for too long. And being told they’re ignorant white racist imperialist chavs by posh London liberals doesn’t exactly help.

This is the problem Rebecca Long-Bailey tried to address a few weeks ago when she called for a patriotic progressivism. She had obviously seen how Corbyn’s support for Britain’s enemies lost him huge swathes of working class support, the support of not only soldiers and sailors and air force personnel, but all the families of those people, the average squaddie and seaman who have often come from rough working class backgrounds and for whom a career in the services, with the training which goes along with it, is a welcome way out of a life of low expectations.

But on ‘patriotism’ Long-Bailey is caught between two forces, the common sense views of the majority of the British public and the hyper-liberal progressive values of the modern Labour Party’s middle-class and student base. Just as she is on transgender rights and anti-Semitism and dwelling endlessly on the evils of the slave trade – because the majority of the population doesn’t hold these views, but the majority of the Labour Party’s young, indoctrinated, politically correct students and graduates (the ones John Gray describes) very powerfully do hold all these views.

They have been taught by their lecturers and professors that the British Empire was the worst thing in world history, worse than the Nazis and Stalin and Pol Pot, and that Britain only has any industry or prosperity because of the slave trade, and that all British institutions (starting with the police, the army and the judiciary) are institutionally racist and sexist – just as they think trans rights are one of the key issues of our time, and are vehemently anti-Israel and pro-Palestine – the attitude which lies behind the lamentable rise of anti-Semitism in the modern Labour Party.

Here’s an excerpt from an article in GQ lamenting the big hole Labour has dug for itself by identifying with progressive anti-patriotism, and essentially agreeing with the John Gray and Toby Young analyses:

Much has been made of Labour leadership hopeful Long-Bailey’s reference to “progressive patriotism”, a phrase which wants to have its cake and eat it, but ends up satisfying nobody. The fact that she felt compelled to mention at all it suggests a cultural jolt is underway. In this context, “progressive” is being used to soothe her suspicious supporters, to help them hold their noses when discussing something as demeaning as patriotism. For the millions of voters Labour has lost, patriotism is not and has never been a problem, so dressing it up in the frills of progressive politics not only neuters the idea, but insults their intelligence. (Boris Johnson has won the culture war… for now by George Chesterton in GQ magazine)

Who can forget Emily Thornberry’s tweeted photo of a white van parked outside a house displaying the English flag while she was out canvassing in Rochester, a photo which neatly embodied both the anti-patriotic instincts of the Labour high command, as well as their Islington middle-class contempt for the actual working classes they so ludicrously claim to represent.

Thornberry was forced to resign from the shadow cabinet as a result of this tweet and this image, but she was, of course, taken back into the cabinet a year later, and until very recently was one of the candidates to become next Labour leader. Who needs any additional proof of the Labour Party top cadres’ contempt for the ‘patriotic’, ‘white’, ‘working classes’, three terms which, in the last decade or so, have become terms of abuse within progressive ideology.

Image result for emily thornberry tweet

Towards the end of his essay Gray skewers politically correct progressives with a vengeance:

Liberal or Corbynite, the core of the progressivist cult is the belief that the values that have guided human civilisation to date, especially in the West, need to be junked. A new kind of society is required, which progressives will devise. They are equipped for this task with scraps of faux-Marxism and hyper-liberalism, from which they have assembled a world-view. They believed a majority of people would submit to their vision and follow them. Instead they have been ignored, while their world-view has melted down into a heap of trash. They retain their position in British institutions, but their self-image as the leaders of society has been badly shaken. It is only to be expected that many should be fixated on conspiracy theories, or otherwise unhinged. The feature of the contemporary scene progressives fail to understand, in the end, is themselves.

Given the grip of these progressive zealots over the party base, it is going to be difficult to create a coherent Labour Party ideology which can reunite its alienated working class voters, especially in the North, with the liberal, middle-class progressives of the bourgeois south.

And then Gray ends his essay with a calculated insult designed to infuriate the kind of woke progressives he is describing, suggesting that to a large extent their vehement espousal of women’s rights, black rights, Muslim rights, LGBT+ rights, trans rights and so on were in fact, in the end, the convenient posturing of cynical careerists who could see that it would help their careers as actors and film-makers and TV presenters and artists and gallery curators and so on to adopt the latest progressive views but who might, given the right-wing drift of the times, be prepared to abandon them… for the right price.

Faced with the possibility of a decade or more of Conservative rule, Britain’s cultural establishment may change its complexion. As well as an identity, progressive views have been a means of advancement in the academy, the arts and broadcast media. With the funding position of cultural institutions under review, the usefulness of progressivism as a career strategy may be about to decline.

As satirical insults go, this is quite funny, as funny as anything in Swift or Pope, but I think it’s wrong.

In my opinion progressives will continue painting themselves further and further into a virtuously woke corner, and in doing so permanently undermine the ability of a Left-of-centre government to ever return to power.

Conclusion

The point of this blog post is not to present conclusive evidence for my thesis. There is a world of evidence for countless other positions and I’ve mostly omitted the importance of Brexit which might turn out to have caused a one-off temporary alignment of British politics which then gently returns to its basic two-party model, all the commentators I’ve quoted say that is a possibility.

And I’m always ready to accept the possibility that I am simply wrong.

The main point of this brief commentary on John Gray’s article is more to explain to readers the thinking underlying my response to books and exhibitions which embody progressivee ideology i.e. which go out of their way to criticise Britain, Britain’s armed forces, the British Empire, white people, men, and straight people.

My points are:

1. The progressive academics and writers and artists and film-makers and gallery curators who use 1960s sociological terminology to attack British history, British heritage, the British Empire and British values, and who quote feminist and post-colonial rhetoric to attack men, the patriarchy, the male gaze, heteronormativity, Britain’s racist society and so on – they quite clearly think that History is On Their Side and that each one of their critical and minatory articles, works of art, films and exhibitions, are chipping away at the white, patriarchal, racist Establishment which, because of their efforts, will one day crumble away and reveal a multicultural Paradise in which the male gaze and inequality and manspreading have all been abolished.

2. But not only is this not very likely to happen, but the General Election of 2019 (and the Brexit vote and, if you want to drag the Yanks into it, the election of Donald Trump) suggest the precise opposite: that there is no such thing as history being on anyone’s side, that events take their own course regardless of anyone’s intentions, that their victory is far from inevitable. I entirely agree with Gray’s fundamental interpretation of human history which is things change, they change all the time and often at bewildering speed – but they don’t necessarily change for the better. To believe they do is a fundamentally Christian idea, based on the notion that History has a purpose and is heading towards a glorious endpoint, the Revolution, the Return of the King, the creation of a fair and just society.

But it’s not. It never has been and it never will. To believe otherwise, contrary to all the evidence of human history, is to have precisely the same kind of ‘faith’ as Christians and other religious believers do in their consoling ideologies. It is not, in other words, to live in the real world which we all actually inhabit.

3. And lastly, as the various writers quoted above suggest, there is plenty of evidence that, if anything, the metropolitan, liberal, progressive élite of artists and actors and film-makers and writers and gallery curators and their relentless insistence on woke issues actively alienates the majority of the population.

The majority of the population does not support its victim-grievance politics, its disproportionate concern for refugees and immigrants and every other minority cause, its excessive concern for the Palestinians and the black victims of the American police. Who gives a damn about all that (the overwhelmingly white, London, liberal middle classes, that’s who).

On the contrary most of the polling evidence shows that the majority of the British population just wants someone to sort out the NHS, and the police, and crack down on crime, and control immigration, and improve their local schools. Much the same issues, in other words, as have dominated all the general elections I can remember going back to the 1970s, and which a huge swathe of working class and Northern voters didn’t believe the Labour Party was capable of delivering.

The sound of losers

So it is this real-world political analysis which explains why, when I read yet another book by a left-wing academic attacking the British Empire or the slave trade i.e. fighting battles which were over generations or hundreds of years ago – or when I visit another exhibition about the wickedness of straight white men, or read another article explaining why I should be up in arms about the rapacious behaviour of Hollywood film producers, my first reaction is: this is the rhetoric of losers.

Not ‘losers’ in the playground, insult sense. I mean it is, quite literally, the rhetoric of the over-educated minority of the population who keep losing elections, who lost the last election, and the three before that, and the Brexit referendum. It is the sound of people who keep losing. Any way you look at it, the progressive Left’s record is appalling.

  • 2010 General Election = Conservative-led coalition
  • 2015 General Election = Conservative government
  • 2016 Leave wins the Brexit referendum
  • 2017 General Election = Conservative government
  • 2019 General Election = Conservative government

In order to win elections in a modern Western country you need to build coalitions and reach out to people, all kinds of people, imperfect people, people you don’t like or whose values you may not share or actively oppose, in order to assemble what is called ‘a majority’.

The woke insistence on an utterly pure, unstained and uncontaminated virtue – a kind of political virginity test – militates against this ever happening.

So all this explains why, when I visited the Barbican gallery’s exhibition Masculinities: Liberation through Photography and read its wall labels:

  • attacking traditional notions of masculinity
  • attacking men for running the Patriarchy and for their male gaze and for their manspreading and mansplaining and their toxic masculinity (in case you think I’m exaggerating, there is a section of the exhibition devoted to manspreading, and several displays devoted explicitly to toxic masculinity)
  • attacking white people for their institutional racism
  • attacking straight people for their homophobia
  • and attacking heteronormative people for their transphobia

I very simply concluded that this is not how you reach out and build alliances. This is not how you create coalitions. This is not how you win political power.

This is how you create a politically correct ivory tower, convinced of your own virtue and rectitude – this is how you propagate an ideology which objectifies, judges and demonises the majority of the population for what you claim to be its sins of sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and so on.

What I felt was that exhibitions like this are part of the much broader anti-British, anti-white, anti-straight, anti-family, anti-tradition cultural message being pumped out across all channels and all media by a London-based, university-educated, progressive élite, which worships American gay and black and feminist art, but which – when it came to the crunch – repelled huge numbers of traditional Labour Party voters and helped deliver the Conservative Party its biggest electoral victory since 1987.

Quite frankly this scares me. It scares me because I wonder whether the decline of the old manual-labouring working class, the disappearance of all the old heavy industries I grew up with – coalmining, steelmaking, shipbuilding, car manufactring – the casualisation and zero contract nature of so much modern work, the loss to Labour of the so-called Red Wall constituencies, the loss of Scotland dammit, combined with the sustained attack on all forms of traditional belief by the metropolitan cultural élite and the reduction of Labour support to the progressive middle classes of the big English cities – London, Bristol, Brighton…

All these social, economic and cultural changes hardly make me think we’re on the verge of some glorious multicultural, post-patriarchal age of Aquarius which progressive ideology promises if only we can smash the patriarchy and reclaim the night and free the nipple and stand up for trans rights and welcome tens of thousands more refugees into the country…

It all makes me wonder whether the Labour Party will ever hold power in Britain again.

And, more specifically, whether the kind of progressive art élite I’m describing is destined to become a permanent minority, stuck like a cracked record in its reverence of ‘transgressive’ and ‘rebel’ art by black and feminist and gay and trans artists from New York and Berlin and Seoul, luxuriating in its rhetoric of ‘subversion’ and ‘challenge’ and ‘interrogation’, while in reality being completely ignored by the great majority of the population or, if it makes any impression at all, simply contributing to the widespread sense that a snobbish progressive London élite is looking down its superior nose at the lifestyles, opinions and patriotic beliefs of the great majority of the working class, while hypocritically keeping all the money and power, the best schools, the private hospitals and the plum jobs for themselves.

The scale of the challenge


Related links

Here is an article by Owen Jones in the Guardian which soundly rejects the position I’ve sketched out. I agree with him that just because Labour lost is no reason to blame it on the various minorities which have achieved huge advances in freedom and reality over the past 30 or 40 years. I’m not blaming the minorities: I’m blaming the middle-class cultural élite which has prioritised trendy minority issues at the expense of the bread-and-butter issues which affect real communities the length and breadth of the land.

Also, analysing Jones’s piece, it is notable for being relatively light on psephological data i.e, quantitative or qualitative analysis of the 2019 election, and relies on going back to the 1970s and 1980s to dig up ancient examples of dated bigotry. In other words, it sounds good but unintentionally exposes the weakness of its own position. The 1970s were a long time ago. I was there. They were awful. But it’s 2020 now. Crapping on about 1970s bigotry is similar to crapping on about the British Empire or the slave trade – it’s enjoyable, makes us all feel virtuous, but avoids the really difficult task of explaining how you are going to tackle entrenched poverty and inequality NOW.

Related blog posts

The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre versus Camus by Andy Martin (2012)

Martin’s savvy, streetwise, wordplayful book is a joint biography of the two great mid-twentieth century French writers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

It’s told in a popular, punning, jokey style which is hip to the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll reputation of these two top thinkers and proceeds by the themes, ideas and associations of their writings more than strict chronology.

This is plain enough from the title which refers to the fact that young Sartre was a boxer at school, whereas Camus is famous – to anyone who cares about these things – for being the goalkeeper for various soccer teams in his native Algeria. The aggressive pugilist spoiling for a fight, and the cautious backstop with time to admire the view – this is just one of the many dichotomies Martin uses to build up a portrait of these two complex men.

Like the ‘New Journalism’ of the 1960s, the book also has a fair sprinkling of Martin’s own memories and autobiographical anecdotes which are told to ease us into the subject.

The tone is set by the opening where Martin looks back to being a troubled bookish teenager in the 1970s, plagued by worries about whether he exists, whether other people exist, is it all a dream etc? In this mood he picked up a second-hand copy of Sartre’s masterwork – Being and Nothingness – and was instantly hooked by its description of a waiter.

Sartre’s waiter

Sartre is in the Café Flore in Paris. He watches the waiter who brings him his coffee then serves other customers. He begins to realise that the waiter is being just a bit too punctilious, with his bowing and scraping and smiling and his exaggerated politesse. Sartre realises he is playing the role of a waiter. And who is he playing it for? Not only for everyone in the café but – for himself! The eyes of the customers are upon him, reinforcing his role, but his own mind is looking watching judging his performance.

This insight is the gateway into Sartre’s philosophy. We humans are completely free, at every moment, to do what we wish. But this freedom is too much, crushing, causes anguish and so most of us prefer to act a part. There are a thousand ways to do this but they can all be described as bad faith i.e. denying, refusing to acknowledge, our freedom. Instead we prefer to say ‘I am a waiter’ and then to adopt the persona of The Waiter in all our social relations. Makes life so much simpler. In reality, the waiter could stand up at any moment, undo his pinafore and step outside, walking into whatever future he wants to create – poet, painter, soldier, runaway. But, like most of us, he is afraid to.

The total freedom of each human being; the burden of the resultant responsibility which gives rise to anguish and panic; taking refuge in role playing/bad faith; and the compelling power of other people’s gaze in moulding and defining us – in just a few pages Martin has not only neatly explained key concepts of Sartre’s philosophy, but related it to the feelings of a confused teenager in the 1970s in a way which makes it accessible to any sympathetic reader.

Martin’s style

And this is the playful, accessible approach Martin then takes for the next three hundred pages, introducing us to the key themes and ideas of Camus and Sartre’s writings, relating them to everyday life, all told in punning, jokily clever prose.

As examples, the short chapter covering the attitude towards drugs of the two writers is titled ‘The Philosophers Stoned’ ha ha. (Sartre experimented with mesacline in his 20s and later became dependent on stimulants and uppers, although drugs only really confirmed the weirdness, the often hallucinatory intensity of his early perceptions; whereas Camus had no illusions about drugs – he married an opium addict and stuck with her till he found she was being unfaithful to him; for the rest of his life he was suspicious of all short cuts to ‘ecstasy’).

Similarly, he riffs on Sartre’s most famous quote – ‘other people are hell’ – when he describes Camus’s very different feel for social solidarity, for whom – ‘other people are health’ boom boom!

Maybe the high point of Martin’s word play comes on page 215 – by which stage Camus and Sartre are established as not only very different types of men and writer, but have become enemies slagging each other off in publications – and Martin produces a sort of aria of allusiveness:

If their dual intellectual trajectory had to be written down in a single letter, it would look like this:

X

Jacques Derrida used to refer to this crossover effect (which is also deferral and aporia) as a ‘chiasmus’ (thinking of the original Greek letter). I am going to stick with the X because I like to think of Sartre and Camus as, if not ‘existentialists’ (a label even Sartre initially refused), then ‘X-men’ – or even ‘ex-men’ – subject to random mutation. Sartre and Camus contain an anti-Camus, an anti-Sartre, and in their opposition to one another they also oppose themselves. The X is an X-ray, illuminating not so much two adversarial individuals as a larger, composite, conflicted consciousness, the ‘universal singular’ (in Sartre’s phrase). X-theory is the meeting, the clash, between existentialism and the absurd. (p. 216)

Quite finished, Mr Martin? No more puns, jokes, high-brow, low-brow or scientific references to x, y or z? Right. We can begin.

Graphomania

What came over strongest for me from reading the book is the way that both men were essentially writers, that’s to say they were addicted to writing, writing anything, first — and the exposition of logical philosophy a long way second. Martin uses their notebooks and diaries and letters to show two men who wrote compulsively about how it feels to be alive, to think, to perceive, to feel, to act, and how these thoughts were continually friable, fissiparous, open to radical reassessment and reworking.

Only snippets and snapshots appeared in print till after their deaths. From their letters and notebooks Martin creates a much more fluid, intensive, insightful, probing, exploratory investigation of their mind-sets than is remotely possible from the isolated bulletins of their published works.

It would be convenient to think of Sartre and Camus’s works of ‘philosophy’ as settled statements of fact, but – alas – Martin highlights how they are more like way stations in a never-ending flow of thought, insights and ideas. It would be nice to think that once you had struggled through the 650 pages of Being and Nothingness you had ‘understood’ Sartre, but unfortunately, the so-and-so went on to develop a ‘late’ philosophy, embodied in the Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) which differs substantially from the early version.

(The Critique is a sustained and punishing attempt to reconcile ‘the best’ in Marxist thought with Sartre’s earlier existentialism, specifically to reconcile the early idea of man’s indeterminable freedom with the Marxist notion that History has a predetermined course and is hurtling towards the communist revolution. Tricky balancing act, which explains the book’s retreat into impenetrable jargon.).

Similarly, the reader of Camus’ essay on suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), can’t help noticing the change of tone, subject and emphasis between it and his next major essay, his massive demolition of revolutionary thought, The Rebel (1951).

Also, both writers notoriously didn’t just write ‘philosophy’. Camus was first and foremost a novelist, but just as famous for his half dozen plays, for his powerful short stories and – like many French thinkers – for the notebooks or carnets which he tidied up and published throughout his life.

Which is the real Camus?

Sartre was even more prolific and Martin confirms the impression I had from reading his Roads to Freedom trilogy, that Sartre had lifelong graphomania – he just couldn’t stop writing. There’s a story that during his national service in the French army he not only wrote continuously through all his downtime but even wrote standing up while on sentry duty. As well as the numerous big books of philosophy, Sartre wrote long essays about contemporary artists and authors (collected in the sequence of volumes titled Sequences I, II etc), wrote journalism for Camus’s paper, Combat (32 articles from New York), lectured across America and Europe, edited and wrote for his own journal, Les Temps Modernes (est. October 1945), produced his own suite of plays, as well as scribbling away in a series of packed notebooks and diaries, not to mention a huge number of letters to his countless mistresses and lovers.

Moreover, Sartre wanted to be famous. He published details of his love affairs, he gave numerous interviews, he wanted to appear in magazines and newspapers and be interviewed on radio and TV, he encouraged de Beauvoir to write romans à clef about their affairs and relationships, he wanted it all to be out there, he wanted to bombard the world with Sartreana.

And it worked. By 1945 he was famous, by the 1950s he was a superstar.

How much is enough?

For me this appalling profusion of words raises a fundamental question about authors, writers, philosophers and thinkers of all stripes, which is: How do you know when you’ve finished? How many books by Sartre or Camus (or any other author) do you need to read to feel confident that you have understood, grasped and got them?

There’s obviously a spectrum of consumption, from ordinary people who’ve never heard of either of them, ordinary people who’ve heard the names but never read them, people who’ve read magazine or newspaper articles and picked up a hint of what they’re about, people who’ve read simple introductions or bluffer’s guides, people who’ve read one or two of their books and liked (or disliked) them, people who’ve read a few books and maybe studied them at uni, people who are fans and read most of their works, students who have studied aspects of their work in detail, academics who have read most of it and written papers or books about them, all the way through to die-hard scholars who have read and reread everything available and are world experts on them.

Which are you? Which should you aim to be? What is the correct attitude to ‘key twentieth century thinkers’ like this?

Whatever it is, Martin gives a really good, accessible, light-hearted, stylish introduction to the two men, their lives and times and obsessions and theories and ideas and writings, which not only informs but entertains and amuses. Crucially, he joins the dots, he takes themes from the totality of the writings – not just the famous works but the letters and notebooks and diaries, as well as interviews and articles – to embed the famous Penguin paperback works into a really fertile bed of their lives, writings and relationships.

This is a hugely enjoyable and brilliantly informative book.

Sex lives

Let’s get it out of the way, the two men had florid sex lives. Both were professional seducers and womanisers. Camus at one point actually feared he had a sex addiction and wondered about seeking professional help. Sartre knew that he was a selfish, womanising bastard (he writes as much to his lifelong partner in crime, Simone de Beauvoir). They competed to have as many (young) women as possible. They met up and paraded their latest catches in front of each other. They even competed over the same (young) women.

For example, a young American journalist (improbably named Sally Swing) approaches Sartre in a restaurant in Cannes and asks for an interview. Sartre (always charming) agrees and gives her his card, says call me in Paris. She leaves, He turns to the other people at the table and says he is going to seduce and fuck her. And he does (p.143)

‘Fuck’ because Sartre – it emerges – swore like a trooper. His normal speech was littered with effing and blinding. It was part of his rejection of bourgeois norms. Similarly he refused to wash and was filthy dirty. During his time in a barracks in the Phoney War of 1940, the other soldiers forcibly stripped and showered him, his stench was too much even for soldiers.

He was, apparently, a cold fish of a lover. De Beauvoir said so (it was part of their fidelity to truth to always be brutally honest) and so did numerous of the young women he speared. Sartre himself described how he clambering aboard a woman, harshly penetrating and then jigging hurriedly to his climax. Bearing in mind that he rarely washed or cleaned his (yellow, tobacco-stained) teeth, the stench from his crotch, armpits and mouth must have been disgusting. But the young women queued up because he was famous, charming and intensely clever.

As Martin points out, to a large extent, for Sartre, love affairs and even sex, only really existed when he wrote about them in diaries, notes for novels or plays, insights to be included in critical essays, and in the hundreds of letters he wrote to his lovers and the thousands he wrote to de Beauvoir about his lovers  — they were maybe just a pretext for the never-ending writing he was addicted to.

Camus, meanwhile – Mr clean-cut, good-looking Mediterranean Man in contrast to short, ugly, foul-mouthed stinking Sartre – also had numerous lovers, running alongside his two wives. (In America he describes being at Vassar College, dazzled by ‘the army of long-legged starlets, lazing on the lawn’. He has a fling with Patricia Blake, the 19-year-old student tasked with showing him round New York. Par for the course. In the months before his tragic death in a car crash, he was living in a remote village in the south of France with his lover, Mi, a twenty-something Dutch artist. His wife and his twin children came to stay. And in the days before the crash he wrote letters to Blake in New York, to his lover Catherine Sellers in Paris, and to his other lover in Paris, the actor Maria Casares. No wonder he was exhausted. p.278)

But whereas it’s relatively easy to explain/understand why the short ugly Sartre had to continually prove himself with a string of young women, Camus presents (as he does generally) a slightly more puzzling case. It seems he was suspicious of his success with women, of anything which came too easy. In fact, Martin extends the metaphor, he was suspicious of all ejaculations, effusions, ecstasies. He fought a constant battle to rein himself in, restrain his life and moods and writing.

The reverse. In various forms he sought oblivion, an almost oriental idea of self-erasure. His first novel is about an empty man who commits a meaningless murder and is pointlessly hanged for it. His first factual book revolves around suicide. If Sartre is a machine generating endless texts laced with weird mental states, Camus is the hugely restrained reporter of minimal consciousness and bare desert landscapes. Martin quotes Camus’s notebooks to show that not only in his fictions, but in his life and loves, he was always seeking moments of stasis, transcendence.

I’m so glad I persisted in tracking down and reading Camus’s last volume of stories, Exile and the Kingdom, because I think it’s his best book, least troubled by religion and Big Meanings, in which the problematics of existence are given their sparest, most dramatic, most compressed expression. Martin’s account helps bring out how this strange desert mood was central to Camus’s imagination.

The triteness of biography

However, the trouble with reading about writers’ sex lives is they are so samey: boy finds girl, writes love letters, diary entries, finally gets to fuck girl, ecstasy, misunderstandings, they split up, anguished letters/diary entries, boy marries someone else, gets bored, is unfaithful, more anguished letters/diary entries, mistresses, mess, alcoholism. Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Albert Camus, Harold Pinter, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis – adultery, alcoholism, suicides. It’s so boring and predictable.

We read writers’ writings because they have an exceptional way with words, language, ideas and feelings which are disturbing, innovative, exciting, which help us escape and transcend the human condition, carry us with it, flying up on wings of words.

I avoid writers’ biographies because they are the extreme opposite, always the same thing: unhappy childhood, precocious schooldays, bright young students, first love affairs, early hope, middle-aged achievement, discontent, affairs, mistresses, unhappiness, alcoholism, decline, death.

Any of the stories in Exile and the kingdom – but especially The Silent Men or The Guest – are worth more than all the facts of Camus’s biography.

Clash of the titans

The twin motives for reading this book were the promise of understanding their philosophies better; but also to read a good account of their famous falling out and enmity. And Martin does not disappoint. The first 200 or so pages paint in the evolution of their writing and thought, against the backdrop of their lives and characters. The final 100 go into some detail about their quarrel.

Camus and Sartre met in 1943. Sartre invited Camus to read through Huis Clos, playing the part of Garcin. They got on like a house on fire and hung round with Sartre’s daemon, Simon de Beauvoir, in Martin’s version flirting with her body and mind, while having numerous affairs with other women, discussing them, sex, politics, novels, plays, everything with each other. Thick as thieves. Camus commissioned Sartre to go to New York as American correspondent for the Resistance newspaper, Combat, which he carried on editing till 1947 (giving rise to a very interesting chapter comparing and contrasting their attitudes to America: Camus loved it; Sartre loathed it).

But, in the later 1940s, as Sartre became keener on communism (though never quite keen enough to join the Party), promoting it through the pages of his quarterly magazine Les Temps Modernes, Camus had his doubts. The newly defined Cold War was forcing people to take sides – and the Parisian intellectual world was overwhelmingly anti-American and pro-communist: Sartre was snugly nestled in the majority view.

But Camus had increasing doubts. The Berlin Blockade (1948-49) and the steady communist seizure of power in all the East European nations which the Soviets had ‘liberated’, crystallised Camus’s dislike, growing slowly into fear, encouraged by friends like the arch anti-communist Arthur Koestler.

It took Camus several years to write his long political essay on the subject of revolution, L’Homme Révolté, which was published in 1951. Martin points out that it refers to now fewer than 166 authors, poets, writers, artists and philosophers (and points out with typical humour that he knows because he counted them himself).

In readings of de Sade, Saint-Just, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and many others, Camus finds the same basic ideal of freedom with no limits, the exorbitant, all-consuming wish for the triumph of extra-human values regardless of others, despite others, over others. In Hegel, Marx and the communist tradition, this Romantic delusion of Total Freedom becomes a fetishised utopia which will be reached at some remote time in the future. In the meantime, through a grotesque perversion, almost any repression, suppression, violence, censorship and inhumanity can be justified in the here and now because – according to the new tyrants, the leaders of the ‘Party’ – only this way can we reach the Promised Land.

L’Homme Révolté starts off slowly (and quite obscurely, with its lengthy discussion of Sade) before building up to a sustained and devastating critique not only of communist theory and practice but, eventually, implicitly, of the practice of philosophy itself, which the book suggests has been on the wrong track for 150 years.

Sartre was personally insulted not only by the anti-communism and the anti-philosophy stance of L’Homme Révolté, but also – as Martin notes, typically bringing out the highly personal nature of everything the dynamic duo wrote – also by the simple fact that he, the leading philosopher of the day, was not mentioned among all those 166 writers! Not once!!

The rest of the editorial board of Les Temps Modernes, Marxists to a man, was also outraged. They commissioned a junior editor in the office to write a hatchet job of L’Homme Révolté. Camus was upset by the review – which took twenty pages to say that he was basically too stupid to understand Hegel or Marx and his opinion was therefore worthless – but just as upset that they gave it to a young unknown; that his ex-bosom buddy J.P. hadn’t considered it worthy of his attention. Camus wrote a long letter restating his case and complaining of his treatment. At which point Sartre rolled up his sleeves and wrote a long editorial explaining that their friendship was over, that Camus misunderstood philosophy, politics and history, that he was yesterday’s man.

Ouch.

Martin describes all this with his trademark grasp not only of the facts and the texts, but with a stylish witty insight into how the men’s philosophies derived from their worldviews which ultimately stemmed from their very different characters and upbringings, summed up in the book’s knowingly tabloid sub-title:

The Boxer and The Goal Keeper: Sartre Versus Camus
They should have been a dream team. It turned into a duel to the death!

The final 30 or 4o pages are riveting because they cover some fascinating topics.

1. Martin explains how Sartre tried to morph the Free Man of the early existentialist philosophy into the Proletarian, the Working Man of Marx’s worldview, who carries the burden of changing the world. Camus, by contrast, withdrew bruised from the L’Homme Révolté debacle, and turned his attention to plays, the wonderful stories of Exile, but was also filling his notebooks with almost mystical questions about life and the universe. It is a revelation to know that he produced a series of haikus about nature. All this nature-feeling was incorporated into the big autobiographical novel he was writing at the time of his death, and which was later published as The First Man.

2. In terms of the Cold War, Sartre managed to criticise the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe while still supporting a vehemently anti-capitalist line, supporting anti-Franco agitators in Spain and anti-colonialists around the world.

3. Separately from the issue of communism in Europe was the rapid spread of anti-colonial movements all around the world. If he had trouble reconciling existentialism with Marxism in  his philosophical works, Sartre had no problem at all translating his communist sympathies into a loud and unflinching anti-colonialism. If Third World nationalists were fighting for independence, Sartre could be guaranteed to write articles, sign petitions and go on marches. Hence his much-photographed meeting with Che Guevara who he fatuously described as ‘not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age’, as if the Cuban revolutionary needed his endorsement.

4. Algeria, of course, was Camus’s Achilles’ heel, and when the Algerians broke their uneasy post-war acquiescence by rising for independence in 1954, Sartre had absolutely no problem giving the violent National Liberation Front his full blessing and condemning all the colonists and France’s entire presence there. He happily wrote an introduction to Frantz Fanon’s 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, a blistering attack on colonial racism and repression, supporting Fanon’s proposition that revolutionary violence is not only an option in the struggle for liberation, but vital for the mental health of the oppressed (by erasing the colonial oppressor, the nationalist killer asserts his freedom, dignity and identity, p.281).

For Camus it was a tragedy, since he had grown up among the 80% of the white Algerians who didn’t own limousines and chauffeurs, but themselves lived in abject poverty (the poverty described in his story Les Muets and in the unfinished First Man).

Camus’s attempts to stop the spiral of murder, massacre and torture came over as mealy-mouthed and ineffectual, though surely they are the position most of us liberals would take nowadays.

5. The Nobel Prize, Camus was awarded it (in 1957), Sartre turned it down (in 1964). Martin’s chapter on this is absolutely riveting. Camus hated it, the attention it drew, and the knowledge that his clever enemies in Paris would despise him even more for selling out. He refused to give interviews about it, he tried to back out of attending the ceremony, he felt it was like being ‘buried alive’. By the last few years of his life he wanted to be a recluse in the rural house he bought with the prize money in the south of France.

Sartre, of course, loved the attention, lapped it up, and managed the situation with suavity and aplomb, politely telling the Academy that i) the prize generally went to writers from the west whereas he considered the East should have equal respect as well, that ii) he didn’t believe in a hierarchy in literature, that iii) he didn’t want to become an ‘institution’. Almost as if he had had the letter, and the dignified refusal, prepared for years :).

Later he regretted losing out on the money – quite a sum, 250,000 Swedish kronor – which he airily declared in interviews he would have given to third World nationalist struggles, starting with donations to London-based anti-apartheid organisations.

6. Death. The final chapters are grim, giving a detailed account of Camus’s pointless death in a car crash on a drive back to Paris (his friend, Michel Gallimard was driving the poxy French car, a Facel Vega, on a rainy road at 100 miles per hour when it skidded and hit a tree. He and Camus, in the front, were killed. Gallimard’s wife and daughter, in the back, escaped with scratches.) By contrast, Sartre lived on till 1980, past is heyday, having the baleful experience of becoming an irrelevant back-number. In his last years, totally blind, his mind went – and his final drooling bumbling years are portrayed in unflinching detail by his faithful if brutally honest companion, de Beauvoir.

Wow. What a journey the reader has been on!

T shirts

In the end, Martin returns to his own life, living, working studying in New York, pondering the meaning of Sartre/Camus’s writings. He brings in Barthes and Derrida, Wittgenstein and Bergson, to give us his take on the pair’s relevance and importance, their enduring insights into the great puzzle of the mind-body conflict, the disjunction between the symbolic and the real, the way nothingness is the vital prerequisite for our sense of being, and so on.

Maybe. It’s a view.

But I suspect that the great writers most enduring gift to posterity will be – t-shirts.


Related links

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Reviews of books by Albert Camus

Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Declaration of interest

I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.

The jargon of desire

In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.

The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915,  The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desireGender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this, that or the other work of art or fiction or film ‘subverts’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ gender conventions and ‘transgresses’ gender stereotypes and ‘rewrites’ gender narratives.

With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced towards the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.

For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, as a result, more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.

On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘discourse of desire’.

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.

What is a queer work of art?

Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?

Is queer art any  work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.

And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?

Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?

Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?

Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.

Tricky questions. In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.

The drawbacks of telling history through art

This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey placed next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.

Although Tate calls in plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available, what has survived. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – and especially the painted – record.

In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.

The dates

In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.

The exhibition is in eight rooms

Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly-clad women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched towards a feel for the same-sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before in this period.

The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see ‘gender norms’ being ‘transgressed’, but they’ve included one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous-looking young men.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s.’

Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in.

This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.

Alongside the Wilde and Beardsley are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.

You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.

Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.

There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war (his ‘surrealised portraits’), was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. The show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.

This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué and ‘transgender’ comedy.

A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.

The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.

Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
  • Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’.

The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as ‘neo-romantics’ in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.

Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. The fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady stream of less well-known gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.

This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with good-looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same-sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.

Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.

For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange sensibility of the 1940s, surely the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life.

Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973. How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


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