The Year One by M.I. Finley (1968)

History tends to be the history of the winners, with the losers assigned the passive, largely unvoiced, faceless role of the people on whom the winners operated.
(‘Aspects of Antiquity’, page 189)

Notes on ‘The Year One’, a short essay included in Finley’s 1968 collection, ‘Aspects of Antiquity’.

Ancient calendars

People living through a momentous year (1066, 1789, 1939, 2000) usually know about it. The most obvious thing to say about the year 1 is nobody living through it knew about it at the time. The entire chronological framework of Western civilisation, whereby we divide years into before Christ (BC) or after Christ (in the year of the Lord, anno Domini, AD) hadn’t been invented.

Instead, all the different cultures of the ancient world kept their own calendars relating to their own cultural landmarks. The Greeks thought in terms of four year blocks or ‘Olympiads’ which began with the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, so year one was the first year of the 195th Olympiad.

The Romans had, for centuries, dated events by referring to the two consuls who were in office for that year, thus ‘in the consulship of Caius Caesar, son of Augustus, and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, son of Paullus.’

Only the learned wanted to look back deeper than a few decades and, for those purposes, Roman historians had worked out the year of the legendary foundation of Rome, and dated everything AUC standing for ‘ab urbe condita’ or ‘since the founding of the city (Rome)’. Many centuries later Christian historians aligned this legendary date to 753 years before the birth of Christ. So the year one was 754 AUC. This system was devised by the Christian historian Dionysius Exiguus, a Greek-speaking monk.

The evidence of the gospels

Of the four gospels only two give details of the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke

Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s gospel includes the story of ‘the massacre of the innocents’ (chapter 2, verses 16 to 18). Herod the Great, king of Judea, is said to have heard a prophecy that his kingdom will be overthrown by a child about to be born in Bethlehem, so he ordered the execution of all male children aged two and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The Catholic Church regards them as the first Christian martyrs, and their feast – Holy Innocents’ Day (or the Feast of the Holy Innocents) – is celebrated on 28 December. In this story, Joseph and Mary were warned by angels about the impending massacre and so made their way secretly to Egypt, ‘The Flight to Egypt’, a journey depicted in countless paintings.

Unfortunately for the veracity of this version, Herod the Great died in 4 BC. If Matthew is literally correct, Jesus must have been born in 4 BC at the latest.

Luke’s Gospel

Luke’s story is different. He says the Romans sent out a decree that everyone had to return to their home town in order to take part in a national census of the population of Judea so they could be taxed more efficiently.

Unfortunately, the only census decreed by the Romans that we know of occurred in either 6 or 7 AD.

In 6 AD the Romans deposed Herod’s son, Archelaus, themselves took over Judea, and installed a Roman governor with instructions to conduct a census. (The northern province of Galilee remained under the rule of the Herod family; Finley says this slight inconsistency between direct and indirect rule was common in provinces on the edge of the empire.)

The Roman Empire

Was an empire in the full sense. The ‘Roman people’ i.e. citizens of Rome and central and northern Italy, ruled all the other inhabitants of the empire as subjects. The empire outside Italy was divided into provinciae. In 1 AD the Roman empire covered about 1,250,000 square miles with a population of about 60 million (population figures are deeply contested). Censuses were taken in the provinces to maximise tax revenue, but at different times in different provinces, using different methods and definitions, so…

The tax collector, along with the soldier, was the most obvious and ubiquitous link between the provinces and Rome. (p.187)

The limits of Empire

In 9 AD a Romanised German warrior chief named Arminius lured three legions into an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest and annihilated them, seizing the precious standards. Traumatised by this terrible news, the emperor Augustus ordered the remaining two legions and all Roman citizens to withdraw back across the Rhine, a decision reinforced by his successor Tiberius, which crystallised into a fiat. The Romans never attempted to conquer and colonise Germany and the north European border settled for the next four centuries along the Rhine-Danube line.

The borders finalised as England in the north-west, the Atlantic in the west, the Atlas mountains, the Sahara and the cataracts of the Nile in Africa, Judea in what is now the Middle East, and Asia i.e. half of Anatolia up to the border with Armenia.

Imperial exploitation

The Romans had no shortage of writers and propagandists (Horace, Virgil and so on) praising Augustus’ rule and, by extension, Rome’s right to rule the entire world (Virgil). The Christian European empires 1700 years later (Spain, France, Britain, Holland) made lengthy attempts to justify their imperial conquests in terms of bringing civilisation etc to barbarian lands. The Romans used the same rhetoric but were much more honest about the sheer greed and looting involved in conquest. As Finley says in his essay about slavery, Julius Caesar set out for Gaul a penniless aristocrat from a down-at-heel family and he returned 8 years later a multi-millionaire and the most powerful man in Rome. That’s what 8 years of burning and looting did for him.

Once a province had been conquered and pacified there an infrastructure was imposed designed to extract wealth, consisting of extensive taxes(in goods and services and money) for the state, but great personal income skimmed off by high officials and members of the tax farming corporations.

Rome had no mission to civilise comparable to France’s great pretension to a mission civilisatrice. Some of her propagandists later developed this idea but the reality was that, so long as they paid their taxes, Rome left her subject peoples largely to themselves, only interfering if there was disorder, rebellion etc. Over a century of conquering and administering other peoples had shown that minimal interference paid off and…was cheap to run.

This was particularly true in the East, which had well-established cultures/civilisations long before the Romans arrived. Latin was the language of the new rulers but Greek remained the language of intellectuals and the ruling classes which sat directly below the Roman governor. Educated Romans learned Greeks but Greeks rarely bothered to learn Latin, a far simpler, cruder language.

Josephus

Finley makes a pit stop to spend a page profiling Joseph ben Matthias, member of a Jewish priestly family known to history as Josephus and for the epic history of the Jewish War, an account of the 4-year rebellion of Jews against Roman rule 66 to 70 AD which led up to the Romans storming Jerusalem and destroying the Great Temple built by Herod.

Josephus was a Pharisee, a member of the elite priestly caste who identified with law and order and the Romans, so the enemies in his book are the Zealots, who he calls rebels and bandits, religious visionaries who stirred up the people to revolt by playing on their grievances, their extreme poverty and promises of a new world.

Augustus

The essay then turns to consider Augustus’s achievement, namely bringing to an end 60 odd years of chaos as the Roman Republic proved incapable of managing its empire, or, more precisely, the scale of the wealth and power pouring into Rome exacerbate the toxic rivalries among great men which had previously been contained by its republican institutions, but now boiled over into repeated civil wars by over-mighty rulers. Until Octavian put a stop to it (helped by the fact that all the eminent men of his generation had been killed in the civil wars, committed suicide or been murdered in his ‘proscriptions’, leaving him the last significant military-political figure standing).

Augustus’s titles

In 27 BC Octavian was awarded the title ‘Augustus’ by the senate. But his other titles are significant. He wanted to be known as ‘princeps’ i.e. principle figure, partly because it avoided the dreaded term rex or king. And also kept the title Imperator, originally given to victorious generals, but now awarded him a) as recognition of victorious campaigns but b) as continual reminder of where his power lay – the complete loyalty of the army.

Around the time of Christ’s birth, in 2 AD Augustus was awarded a further title, ‘Father of the Nation’, which is not as cuddly as it sounds, given the draconian authority the father of a family had over all its other members, male or female.

Augustus tries to ensure heirs

In his magisterial biography of Augustus Adrian Goldsworthy goes out of his way to emphasise that through most of his rule Augustus appears to have not wanted to create a dynasty and been succeeded by one heir. On the contrary he tried to create a cohort of experienced young men who, Goldsworthy thinks, were meant to form a small cabinet, to rule collegiately.

The two problems with this was that they all tended to come from within his own close family, so royal, monarchical, imperial logic was hard to deny – but worse, that almost all his proteges died, leaving, the grumpy, surly, graceless Tiberius as the last most obvious figure standing.

But before all this had become clear Augustus spent time and energy grooming a succession of young male relatives for rule and in doing so rode roughshod over many of the conventions of the Republic he claimed to be defending. Thus in 4 BC the Senate was prevailed upon to decree that Augustus’s two grandsons (who he had adopted to make legally his sons) Gaius and Lucius, should be designated consuls at the tender age of 15 and then awarded the actual posts, for a year, when they turned 20. Each was titled ‘Princeps of the Youth’. In the Year One Gaius was indeed ‘elected’ consul (as everyone the Princeps recommended to the voters tended to be). But then the curse struck…Lucius died in 2 AD, Gaius in 4 AD.

Augustus’s propaganda machine

Augustus had statues of himself carved and erected in cities all over the empire. Instead of realistic depictions they show an idealised, tall virile commander of men. He ensured his face was on all coinage, so even the illiterate knew who he was. He encouraged his inclusion in the ceremonies of all the religions and cults practiced across the empire. Via his unofficial minister of the arts, Maecenas, he ‘encouraged’ praise by the leading poets of the day, poets like Virgil, Horace and Ovid whose words of sycophantic praise have survived down to our time, 2,000 years later.

Augustus’s campaign for moral regeneration

Alongside a major programme of rebuilding and renovating not only Rome but all the major cities in the Empire, Augustus tried to bring about a moral revival as well. He had roughly two concerns: one was that the ancient noble families of Rome had been severely depleted by the civil wars and so he passed successive legislation promoting marriage and punishing adult men who failed to marry or have children. He gave legal and financial incentives to families with three or more children – legislation collectively known as the Leges Iuliae.

Augustus wasn’t concerned about sexual morality as such but was concerned about its impact on the stability and fecundity of the ruling class which he wanted to grow and stabilise in order to secure Rome’s future. It’s in this context that he passed legislation severely punishing adultery. He wanted more sons of the aristocracy, and that they should marry and do their military and civic duty, instead of not marrying and frittering away their family fortunes on increasing displays of opulence.

Exiling the Julias

It was in this context that in 2 BC he exiled his only biological child, his daughter Julia the Elder (39 BC to 14 AD), who he married to an unwilling Tiberius, allegedly for flagrant adultery and sexual depravity. Several men who had allegedly been her partners were also exiled. In 8 AD he similarly exiled Julia the Elder’s daughter and so Augustus’s grand-daughter, Julia the Younger, again for adultery.

On each of these occasions the ostensible reason was breaching the emperor’s own code of morality, but he also spoke about Julia the Elder being involved in some kind of plot against his life. The details remain obscure but most modern historians think there was more to both affairs than meets the eye, and that in both cases the exiled women were in some way figureheads of attempts to overthrow Augustus’s rule. Hence historians speak of a ‘Julian’ party at his court.

Although the details continue to elude us, Finley draws the central point which is that as soon as you have courts you have courtly intrigue, you have palace plotting – in the later empire this kind of conspiracy became endemic but it is instructive to note that it appears to have arisen as soon as there was a court, in the close family of the very first emperor.

Ovid is exiled

This is the view of Peter Green who devotes most of the long 80-page introduction to his translation of Ovid’s Art of Love to a forensic analysis of events and accusations surrounding the 8 AD exiling of Julia the Younger, because the poet was caught up in the same event and, with little or no warning, exiled by Augustus to the furthest border of the Roman empire, to the miserable provincial town of Tomis on the Black Sea. Ovid wrote a large number of letters to former friends and officials begging to be allowed to return, and a series of poems elaborating on the wretchedness of his fate – but to no avail. Even when Augustus died, his successor, Tiberius, renewed his exile and Ovid died miserably, far from his beloved Rome.

Frustratingly, despite writing a huge amount about his exile, Ovid never anywhere specifies the nature of his error. He insists it was minor, that he never plotted against the emperor, or planned to use poison or a knife or anything like that. Green weighs all the evidence and thinks Ovid must have seen something or been present at meetings where such plots were discussed and failed to report them to the authorities. Because he wasn’t an active plotter, Ovid’s life was spared; but because he didn’t report whatever he saw, his lack of loyalty to the emperor – and to the entire peaceful regime which Augustus had spent a lifetime creating – was called into doubt. Hence exile.

The Augustan peace

It’s easy to criticise Augustus’s early career, his cut-throat manoeuvres, his participation in the proscriptions i.e. mass murder of anyone who stood in the way of the Second Triumvirate, his hugely unpopular land redistribution away from traditional farmer and to veterans of the military campaigns leading up to the decisive Battle of Philippi. But by these expedients he secured the end of the civil wars which had lasted as long as anyone could remember, brought military, civil and social peace, order and stability. He secured the longest period of continuous peace the Mediterranean world had ever known. In this atmosphere of peace and stability business flourished and people got rich.

If the theatre was the characteristic secular building of the ancient Greeks, the amphitheatre was its Roman counterpart, and the long peace saw them built in cities all around the Central Sea.

Augustus worship

The result, especially in the East, was that people began to worship Augustus:

as Saviour, Benefactor and God Manifest (Epiphanes) just as they had deified a succession of Ptolemies, Seleucids and other rulers of the preceding centuries. (p.194)

In Rome he couldn’t be worshipped as a god while alive, only his spirit was said to be holy. But the east had no such hesitations and built temples to Augustus the god. This had nothing to do with love or respect but simple pragmatism. Most people were utterly powerless to influence events, least of all the slaves. It made simple sense to venerate and appease the mighty; that was the way of the world. Finley draws the major conclusion with huge implications for the growth of Christianity, that:

Religion became increasingly centred on salvation in the next world, whereas it had once been chiefly concerned with life in this one. (p.194)

Client kings and dependent rulers had a vested interest in encouraging the cult of Augustus as it underpinned their own authority, for most of the East was a patchwork of cults and religions which, for the most part, co-existed peacefully enough.

The Jewish Revolt

The Jews stood apart in their fierce insistence on monotheism. Jews had migrated and had communities all around the Mediterranean and in Rome (where Ovid recommends the synagogue as a good place to pick up women in The Art of Love). The Old Testament writings had been translated into Greek as far back as the third century BC as Jews in the diaspora lost touch with Hebrew.

Herod the Great, King of Judaea, had more in common with his Roman rulers than his Jewish subjects. When he introduced an amphitheatre and gladiator fights in the Roman style there were mutterings of discontent, but when he tried to impose official worship of Augustus the god there was an outcry and an assassination attempt.

The Jews’ dogged insistence on the uniqueness of their god puzzled the Romans (and their neighbours). Neither Augustus nor Tiberius took any steps against the Jews, but Roman officials in the provinces were less tolerant and insistence on conformity to Augustus worship or other religious practices led to repeated clashes. Many Jews were nervous of their masters’ lack of understanding and religious extremists – the Zealots so criticised by Josephus – played on these fears and encouraged proactive rebellion.

All these forces led to the outbreak of the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73 AD), sometimes called the Great Jewish Revolt or The Jewish War. It began in the twelfth year of the reign of Nero, with anti-taxation protests leading to attacks on Roman citizens by the Jews. The Roman governor, Gessius Florus, responded by plundering the Second Temple, claiming the money was for the Emperor, and the next day launching a raid on the city, arresting numerous senior Jewish figures. This prompted a wider, large-scale rebellion and the Roman military garrison of Judaea was quickly overrun by the rebels.

It took the Romans with all their might four full years to quell the rebellion, marked by the sack of Jerusalem, the destruction of Herod’s Temple and the displacement of its people around the Mediterranean, followed by three years of further mopping-up operations. Most other Roman provinces suffered from extortionate taxation, harsh military rule, severe punishment for anyone who breached the peace. What made the Jews different was the involvement of fierce religious belief which shaded into millenarian visions of a Final Battle and Second Coming of the Promised One. Egypt, Greece, Britain, Spain and other equally exploited provinces had nothing like this.

The rise of Christianity

Obviously nobody alive in the Year One had a clue that it would one day, centuries later, be singled out as the start of a new dispensation on human history. If you’re not a Christian, chances are you still use the Christian system of numbering years, if only for business purposes. If you are a Christian this year marked the start of a completely new epoch of world and human history, one in which Divine Grace entered the human realm and all people were offered the chance of salvation through faith in the risen Christ.

Finley dwells on the fairly well-known textual records of early Christianity, within his realm of Roman studies, for example the famous letters of Pliny the Elder to the emperor Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with the men and women being denounced to him as ‘Christians’.

Returning to borders, Finley points out that this same emperor Trajan conquered ‘Dacia’, roughly modern Transylvania, and embarked on a foolhardy campaign against the Parthians (graveyard of the ambitions of Crassus and Anthony to name but two) but Hadrian, who succeeded him, gave up the Parthian gains and settled the borders of the empire for good. Thus, give or take a few small provinces and the elimination of a few client-kingdoms, such as Judaea, the frontiers established by Augustus in the Year One were not far from being the final, definitive borders of the Empire.

Trade

One of the consistent surprises when reading about pre-modern history is the extent and complexity of pre-modern trade routes. It was one of the big messages of the British Museum’s great Vikings exhibition, showing just how far-flung Viking exploration and trade was. Whether considering the trading networks of ancient China or the early explorations of the Portuguese or the vast extent of the Mongol conquests, the message is always the same: pre-modern trading networks were always more wide-reaching than you would have thought.

Same here: Finley points out that the Romans bought silk from as far afield as China (via middlemen in Chinese Turkestan), and more directly with China and Ceylon. Indo-Roman trading stations existed as far away as Pondicherry. ‘There was a drain of Roman coins to India and further East’. Yet references to India were thin and misleading. In the works of the elegiac poets India is usually just linked as a name alongside Parthia to represent the furtherst ends of the earth.

Similarly, there was trans-Sahara trade, especially for ivory, but almost total ignorance of the African continent below the desert. (p.198)

In a way the northern border was more intriguing. After the catastrophe of the Teutoburg Forest (described in vivid detail by Goldsworthy in his biography of Augustus) Augustus withdrew all legions, merchants and settlers in Germany back south of the Rhine and the Rhine-Danube became de facto the northern border of the empire for the next four centuries.

Despite interacting with them extensively, despite making treaties with chieftains, trading with them, understanding something about their societies, in a sense the Romans never got to grips with the Germans. Finley explains part of this was because the Germans were illiterate so had no texts for the Romans to study; no history, art, no architecture.

Also, the Germans were made up of loose and constantly changing tribal confederations. The Parthians had an emperor, the Armenians a great king and so on: you knew who you were dealing with and what they had to offer and how to bargain. None of this worked with the Germans.

(He makes the interesting point that, in their relative ignorance, the Germans relied on ‘primitive agricultural techniques’ which rapidly exhausted what agricultural land they created by forest clearance, and this was a factor in their constant migrations. That and the periodic arrival of entire peoples from further east, which pushed the nearby Germans over the Rhine, often for safety.)

Lastly, he makes a quick point that despite trade with far-flung places outside the empire, most of the cultural and especially religious innovation came from within the empire.

The great matrix of religion innovation was within the empire, in its eastern regions: Egypt, Syria and Palestine, Asia Minor. And, of course, in the end the triumphant contribution from that area in this period was Christianity. (p.198)

East and West

He concludes with the Big Idea that the whole notion of Western Europe in a sense owes its existence to the Augustan settlement which secured Italy, Spain, France and Britain for Roman rule for centuries to come, bequeathing them a common culture, no matter how far it decayed during the Dark Ages.

The East, with far deeper cultural roots of its own, was not ‘Romanised’ to anything like the same extent, retaining a cultural independence which was expressed, first through the survival of the Byzantine Empire for another 1,000 years, and then through its conquest by another Eastern religion, Islam, tearing the Middle East and North Africa out of the Roman Christian family of nations, setting up a profound geographical and cultural divide which lasts to this day.


Credit

‘The Year One’ was included in a collection of essays by M.I. Finley titled Aspects of Antiquity, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Cornelia Parker @ Tate Britain

Cornelia Parker (CBE, RA) is a very well-known and successful figure in British art. Born in 1956, she’s become famous for her ‘immersive’ i.e. BIG works. Above all she is a conceptual artist. What is conceptual art? According to the Tate website:

Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object. It emerged as an art movement in the 1960s and the term usually refers to art made from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

In some exhibitions you react to the painting or sculpture immediately, as an object in space which fills your visual cortex with sensations and impressions. You don’t necessarily have to read the wall labels. With conceptual art it is almost always vital to read the wall label in order to understand what you’re looking at. Sure, you could still respond naively and sensuously to the work’s appearance but you would be missing out on 99% of its meaning and intention.

The wonderful wall labels

This major retrospective of Parker’s career brings together almost 100 works, spanning the last 35 years. So that’s quite a lot of reading you have to do in order to understand almost every one of these pieces.

But a major feature of the exhibition is that the wall labels are written by Parker herself. Most wall labels at exhibitions are written by curators who, in our day and age, are obsessed with the same handful of issues around gender and ethnicity and lose no opportunity to bash the visitor over the head with reminders of Britain’s shameful, imperial, racist, slave-trading past etc etc.

So it is a major appeal of this exhibition that, instead of every single piece explained solely in terms of race or gender – as it would be if Tate curators had written them – Parker’s own wall labels are fantastically interesting, insightful, thought-provoking insights into her way of thinking and seeing the world. Instead of the world of art being reduced to a handful of worn-out ideas, Parker’s wall labels are as entertainingly varied as her subject matter, full of stories, anecdotes, bright ideas, explanations of technique, aims, collaborations.

They give you a really privileged insight into her worldview and into her decades’-long ability to be interested, curious, take everyday objects and have funny and creative ideas about how to transform them. After spending an hour and a half working through her thought processes for the different pieces, some of her creative spirit begins to rub off on you, you begin to see the everyday world the way she does, full of opportunities for disruptive and fun interventions. In this respect, this exhibition is one of the most genuinely inspiring I’ve ever been to.

Types of work

The exhibition includes immersive installations, sculptures, photographs, embroidery and drawings, as well as four large-scale, room-sized installations, and two rooms showing her art films. At the simplest, physical level, the pieces can be divided into two categories: Small and Large. Examples of the small will serve as an introduction to the large.

Introductory

In the downstairs atrium of Tate Britain stands a single sculpture, preparing you for the exhibition ahead.

The Distance (A Kiss with String Attached) by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Tate Photography

It is, of course, a life-size cast of Rodin’s sculpture, The Kiss, wrapped up in a mile of string. A vague symbolic gesture towards ‘the ties that bind’ people in relationships, maybe. In the nearby wall label Parker describes this as a ‘punk gesture’, which I found very significant. It’s the only time she mentions punk but she was just 20 when it hit, maybe at art school by then, so its attitude of really offensive, in-your-face irreverence must have taken her art school by storm. The point is, various later wall labels repeatedly say that she is interested in destruction and violence – but not violence against persons, against things. Her art does violence to inanimate objects in all kinds of inventive, creative and often very funny ways.

But there is, as so often, a further twist to the tail. Wrapping The Kiss in string is a relatively tame thing to do compared with Dada, Surrealist, Duchamp provocations from 100 years ago. It becomes more interesting when you learn that some opponents of conceptual art within the art world, fellow young irreverent artists, vandalised the original version of The Distance by cutting up the string into short sections, thus ‘liberating’ the sculpture.

And best of all, that Parker was undaunted and promptly gathered up all the cut-up pieces of string and tied them back together around a mysterious object at the centre, ‘a secret weapon’, which is unnamed and unknown.

‘The Distance (with concealed weapon)’ by Cornelia Parker (2003) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Small

I’ll jump straight in and give examples.

‘The Negative of Words’ (1996)

Parker realised that when an engraver engraves words into silver, for example into a cup like the Wimbledon champion’s cups, tiny fragments or curls of silver are generated. This piece is a pile of the shavings thus created. Parker contacted a silversmith, who agreed to her proposal, and it took several months to accumulate enough shavings for her to create the little mound, with sprinkled outliers, which we see on display here. As she points out, each sliver represents a letter, is the trace of a letter, is the inverse of writing, of language. They are absences made solid. This idea really resonated with me as I admired this carefully created little mound and its sprinkled outliers.

‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker (1996) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

‘Luck Runs out’ (1995)

In the case next to it is an old dictionary. Under careful supervision, Parker arranged for a shotgun loaded with dice to be fired into the back of the book. The die penetrated to different depths into the text and jammed most of the pages together.  As it happens the post-shooting dictionary automatically fell open at a page about ‘luck’. Hence the title, The luck of the draw. The roll of the dice.

‘Luck Runs Out’ and ‘The Negative of Words’ by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Apparently it’s part of a series titled ‘Avoided Objects’, so-called ‘object poems’ which ‘explore the fractured, unmade and unclassified’. The series explores ‘the denied and repressed’, which sounds a bit hackneyed and stale until she goes on to specify what that means in practice – the backs, underbellies or tarnished surfaces of things, which is much more interesting. Hence shooting this dictionary ‘in the back’.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995)

While in Hartford Connecticut, Parker asked to visit the factory where the famous Colt 45 handgun is made. She was surprised to discover the process began with blank featureless gun-shaped casts, before any working parts were added. She asked if she could have one and the Americans, obliging as ever, gave her two and gave them a nice smooth industrial polish. Adding the word ’embryo’ to firearm juxtaposes the birth of the gun with the general idea of the birth of a human being, alongside a tool which might potentially bring it to an end.

‘Embryo money’ (1996)

Fascinated by money, Parker asked permission to visit the Royal Mint in Pontyclun, Wales. She asked for some samples of coins before they were ‘struck’ i.e. had the monarch’s face, writing, value, corrugated edges and everything else added – just the blank dummy coins. Embryo money, before it has accrued any of the power which so dominates all our lives.

‘Embryo Firearms’ (1995) and ‘Embryo money’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

See what I mean by ‘conceptual’. You could relate to these just as intriguing objects, but the stories behind them – the anecdotes of Parker’s expeditions to interesting and unusual places to see industrial processes in action – add immeasurably to the enjoyment.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996)

Parker developed a relationship with His Majesty’s Customs and Excise. She visited and got to know them at their Cardiff headquarters over a period of several months. One of the many, many types of contraband objects they confiscate are drugs. Parker persuaded them to let her have a seizure of cocaine after it had been incinerated. A million pounds worth of cocaine turned to ash, which is on display here, as a sad little pile.

In her wall label, Parker adds the coda, which you’d never have got from a curator, that she really loves the way Customs and Exercise destroy things in such a theatrical way, steamrollering fake Rolex watches or alcohol. ‘Like me, they are often symbolically killing things off.’ This kind of casual, candid opinion is a lovely insight into her way of thinking.

Inhaled cliffs’ (1996)

A personal favourite was ‘Inhaled cliffs’. She asked Customs about methods people use to smuggle stuff into the country, especially drugs, and discovered that some drugs can be used to ‘starch’ sheets, so a set of innocuous looking sheets turn out to be drenched in heroin, cocaine or other illicit substances which can be extracted once they’re safely in the country. This notion inspired ‘Inhaled cliffs’ in which Parker starched sheets with chalk from the white cliffs of Dover, ‘smuggling’ those great symbols of England into bed with her. She is tickled by the notion of ‘sleeping between cliffs’.

‘Exhaled cocaine’ (1996) and Inhaled cliffs’ (1996) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

I’m focusing a bit much on these objects in cases. There were conventional things attached to the wall, prints, flat objects treated in various ways. Photographs, for example. On her way to her studio past Pentonville Prison she noticed workmen plastering cracks in the perimeter wall, creating vivid white abstract shapes. They then started to whitewash the wall as a whole so, before these irregular, crack-shaped gestures disappeared, she quickly took photos with her phone and developed a set of 12 prints which are hung here, titled ‘Prison Wall Abstract’.

Or the ‘Pornographic drawings’ (1996). As part of her ongoing conversations with HM Customs she asked for examples of contraband and they gave her (along with the bag of cocaine ashes) chopped up lengths of pornographic film. Parker dissolved the fragments in solvent to create her own ink. She used this ink to create Rorschach blots i.e. poured them on one side of a piece of folded paper, pressed the other side down on the inked side and reopened it to have a symmetrical image. For some reason, all the ones she made (or chose to display) came out ‘to be particularly explicit’.

It dawns on me that these works are beyond ‘conceptual’ in the sense that they might better be described as anecdotal. Often there isn’t a grand concept, project or goal behind them – there is happenstance and accident. Seeing an opportunity to do something interesting and seizing it.

The other obvious thing is that she’s about transforming objects from one state to another. She starts with ‘found objects’ – gun moulds, unstamped coins, porn movies, cocaine and so on – and, in the examples I’ve given, doesn’t even transform them herself, but recognises their artistic potential.

Medium

Using this technique of remodelling the existing and everyday, is a middle-sized work titled ‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ from 2013. Parker describes playing hopscotch on pavements with her daughter. This led her to pay attention to pavements and to notice the antiquity of the old stone paving in Bunhill Fields near Old Street. She got permission to pour liquid rubber into the cracks in a path through Bunhill Fields. When the rubber dried she used the mould to make a metal cast, memorialising the captured cracks in bronze. She then suspended the mould on pins so that the cracks in the pavement hover a few inches above the floor, making it seem more spectral and ghostly. (It’s an accidental quirk that my photo of it features so many people’s feet.)

‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’ (2013) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Large

The interest in destruction I’ve mentioned earlier really comes to the fore in the three most famous room-sized installations in the exhibition. These are by way of being her greatest hits. They are:

  • Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988 to 89)
  • Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)
  • Perpetual canon (2004)

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991)

I’ll quote her wall label in its entirety:

We watch explosions daily, in action films, documentaries and on the news in never-ending reports of conflict. I wanted to create a real explosion, not a representation. I chose the garden shed because it’s the place where you store things you can’t quite throw away. The shed was blown up at the Army School of Ammunition. We used Semtex, a plastic explosive popular with terrorists. I pressed the plunger that blew the shed skywards. The soldiers helped me comb the field afterwards, picking up the blackened, mangled objects. In the gallery, as I suspended the objects one by one, they began to lose their aura of death and appeared reanimated. The light inside created huge shadows on the wall. The shed looked as if it was re-exploding or perhaps coming back together again. The first part of the title is a scientific term for all the matter in the universe that can’t be seen or measured. The second part describes a diagram in which a machine’s parts are laid out and labelled to show how it works.

I’ve seen photos of this many times. Seeing it in the flesh I realised several things:

  1. it is a mobile – a very complex mobile, but in principle the same kind of thing my son makes to hang his origami figures from his ceiling
  2. it has a cubic, rectangular shape i.e. it is the opposite of chaotically exploding outwards; it is very contained
  3. this is achieved by hanging multiple objects from the same string, not just one
  4. as people walk slowly respectfully round it the eddies of air they stir
  5. and placing a single light bulb at the centre of it means not only that is casts shadows on the wall, but as the string move gently, so a) your perspective through the multiple layers of debris shifts and changes b) the shadows they cast on the wall subtly change

Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Perpetual canon (2004)

Again, I’ll give Parker’s words verbatim:

I was invited to make a work for a circular space with a beautiful domed ceiling. I first thought of filling it with sound. This evolved into the idea of a mute marching band, frozen breathlessly in limbo. Perpetual Canon is a musical term that means repeating a phrase over and over again. The old instruments had experienced thousands of breaths circulating through them in their lifetime. They had their last breath squeezed out of them when they were squashed flat. Suspended pointing upwards around a central light bulb, their shadows march around the walls. This shadow performance replaces the cacophonous sound of their flattened hosts. Viewers and their shadows stand in for the absent players.

Perpetual canon (2004) by Cornelia Parker © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

The ghosts of music past. I was really taken by the idea that the shadows of us, the visitors, stand in for the long-dead players of these instruments.

Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-89)

Tate own this piece. In Tate’s words:

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ comprises over a thousand flattened silver objects, including plates, spoons, candlesticks, trophies, cigarette cases, teapots and trombones. All the objects were ceremoniously crushed by a steamroller at Cornelia Parker’s request. She then arranged the transformed silver artefacts into thirty disc-shaped groups, which are suspended about a foot from the floor by hundreds of fine wires. Each ‘disc’ is approximately ninety centimetres in diameter and they are always hung in orderly rows, although their overall configuration is adapted each time to the space in which the work is displayed. The title refers to the biblical story of how the apostle Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus in return for thirty pieces of silver.

And in Parker’s own words:

Drawn to broken things, I decided it was time to give in to my destructive urges on an epic scale. I collected as much silver plate as I could from car-boot sales, markets and auctions. Friends even donated their wedding presents. All these objects, with their various histories, shared the same fate: they were all robbed of their third dimension on the same day, on the same dusty road, by a steamroller. I took the fragments and assembled them into thirty separate pools. Every piece was suspended to hover a few inches above the ground, resurrecting the objects and replacing their lost volume. Inspired by my childhood love of the cartoon ‘deaths’ of Roadrunner or Tom and Jerry, I thought I was abandoning the traditional seriousness of sculptural technique. But perhaps there was another unconscious reason for my need to squash things. My home in east London was due to be demolished to make way for the M11 link road. The sense of anxiety lingers even now.

‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’ by Cornelia Parker (1988-89) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

Newer works

‘War Room’ (2015)

The biggest thing in the show is a big long room entirely lined with red paper with holes in, titled ‘War Room’, from 2015. As usual, you need to read the wall label to understand what this is about.

‘War Room’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

In Parker’s own words:

I was invited to make a piece of work about the First World War. I had always wanted to go to the poppy factory in Richmond, London. Artificial poppies have been made there since 1922. They are sold to raise for money for ex-military personnel and their families. When I visited the factory, I saw this machine that had rolls of red paper with perforations where the poppies had been punched out. The fact that the poppies are absent is poignant, because obviously a lot of people didn’t come back from the First World War, and other wars since. In this room there’s something like 300,000 holes, and there’s many more lives lost than that. I decided to make War Room like a tent, suspending the material like fabric. It’s based on the magnificent tent which Henry VIII had made for a peace summit with the French king in 1520, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. About a year later they were at war again.

The story, the anecdote, is, as usual, interesting but the resulting work less so.. You walk in, you walk round, you walk out. Meh. A slightly shimmery effect is created by having two layers of hole-y red paper hanging everywhere but…this is a minimal effect.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ (2015)

One work dominates the penultimate room. It is an enormous, thirteen-metre long, hand-sewn embroidery of the Wikipedia page about Magna Carta.

‘Magna Carta (An Embroidery)’ by Cornelia Parker (2015) © Cornelia Parker (Photo by the author)

It is a collaborative work which involved over 200 volunteers including public figures, human rights lawyers, politicians and prisoners. On the wall is a list of the worthies who signed up to be involved, an entertaining list of the usual suspects: media-friendly left-of-centre politicians (Tom Watson, 55), actors, psychotherapists (Susie Orbach, 75), academics (Germaine Greer, 83), other high profile artists (Antony Gormley, 72), writers (Jeanette Winterson, 63, Philip Pullman, 75) and so on.

What struck me was how old all these people are. Our generation is declining, now, Cornelia. We’ve trashed the planet, wrecked the economy and degraded the political system for our children: best to withdraw tactfully and not keep on shouting and marching and trying to dominate everything. We’ve had our time. Over to a younger generation and hope they can do better.

The videos

There are two rooms featuring 7 or 8 art videos running consecutively. The best thing in the first room is a new six-minute video titled ‘FLAG 2022’ and made specially for this exhibition. Very entertainingly this shows the creation of a Union Jack by seamstresses in a factory only run backwards – so we see the British flag being systematically unsown and unstitched. It’s accompanied by a straight orchestral rendition of the hymn Jerusalem. Shame. It would have been funnier if Jerusalem had been played backwards, too – but maybe that would be a bit too 1960s, too much like the old avant-garde.

The second film room is about America. Oh dear. That far away country of which we hear so little, which is so rarely in the news, whose cultural products we so rarely get to see. This room contains:

  • One film which Parker shot at the annual Halloween Parade in New York, that city we so rarely hear about. Personally, I’d have though New York has enough artists of its own to do this kind of thing.
  • Another film showing supporters of Donald Trump milling about in New York outside Trump Tower sometime during his election campaign. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of Donald Trump? He was quite big in America, apparently.

Frankly, these films are a let-down. It’s disappointing to see Parker genuflecting to God’s Own Country – as if New York or America need the slightest bit more coverage or publicity than the saturation exposure they already enjoy in the British media, TV, radio, films, academia, all across the internet and the toxic marshes of social media. There are other countries in the world, you know.

I’d like to have shared FLAG or any of the others in t his review, but I can’t find any of them on the internet.

Politics

From here onwards – in the second half of the exhibition – politics emerges as an increasingly dominant theme.

As well as the flag movie, the British film room includes a film made in the empty chamber of the House of Commons in 2018 using a camera attached to a drone, titled ‘Left Right and Centre’. Not only did they make this film, but they made a film about the making of the film, in which I caught Parker telling us how damn difficult it was to make because of health and safety, fire risk assessment etc. When artists start to think they are heroes…

I thought the result was very underwhelming. The drone hovered over the table you see in front of the Speaker of the House’s chair, set between the two front benches, which usually has the Mace on it – except in this film it had been covered with copies of England’s daily papers, which fluttered in the downdraft of the drone’s little rotors.

As with Donald Trump, I am sick to death of Parliament, the succession of incompetent politicians we have had leading our nation for the past 12 years, and the corrupt newspapers which lie and distort in order to keep the ruling party in power. Watching a 10-minute film on the wretched subject of contemporary British politics went a long way to destroying the happy, creative, open impression inspired by the first half of the exhibition.

In 2017 Parker was the first woman to be appointed official artist for the General Election. In this role, she observed the election campaign leading up to the 8 June vote, meeting with politicians, campaigners and voters and producing artworks in response. She made several films during this period including the aforementioned drone movie, and one titled ‘Election Abstract 2018’, a documentation of Parker’s observations during the campaign, posted on her Instagram account.

None of this, to my mind, is as funny or inventive as flattening a load of silverware with a steamroller, or displaying a little pile of incinerated cocaine, or soaking sheets in white cliff chalk, or taking a mould of Bunhill pavement. It just looks and sounds like the news, with little or no inventiveness and no particular insight. British politicians are idiots. Our newspapers are studies in bias and lies. So what’s new?

My heart sank even further when I read that another of her films is titled ‘Chomskian Abstract 2007’ and is an interview with the American social critic and philosopher Noam Chomsky, apparently about ‘the entwined relationship between ecological disaster and capitalism’.

Oh dear God. It’s not that Chomsky’s wrong or that hyper-capitalism driven on by American corporations and banks is not destroying the planet; it’s just that he is such a bleeding obvious choice for Great Man of the Left to interview. And so very, very, very old (born in 1928, Noam Chomsky turns 93 this year).

Is this the best Parker can do in the field of ‘radical’ or oppositional politics – interview a 93-year-old? It’s like waking up one morning and deciding you need to make a film about the environment and, after careful consideration, deciding you’d like to interview David Attenborough (aged 96) on the subject. Topics, and interviewees, don’t come more crashingly obvious than this.

Each year thousands and thousands of students in Britain graduate from international studies, politics or environmental courses. It would have been so much more interesting to interview the young, the future generation, and get their point of view rather than the done-to-death, decrepit old.

And he’s another Yank for God’s sake. What is it with the British cultural establishment and their cringing obeisance to American culture, artists, film-makers, politicians and intellectuals. Of the 200 contributors to the Magna Carta embroidery, in their summary of the show the curators single out just two – Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (who stitched ‘user’s manual’ into the embroidery) and Edward Snowden (who stitched the word ‘Liberty’).

Notice anything about them? Yes, they’re both American. Americans just seem carry more weight with Britain’s art establishment. They have a little more human value than mere Brits like you and me. More pizzazz, more glamour.

Lastly, what has Chomsky actually changed in his 50-odd years of railing against the American government and global capitalism? Nothing. Come to that, what good does getting 200 media-friendly worthies to contribute bits to a 13-metre-long embroidery achieve? Nothing. It’s a feel-good exercise for everyone involved and maybe it makes some of the gallery visitors feel warm and fuzzy and virtuous, too. Which is nice, but…

But meanwhile, out in the real world, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng are destroying the economy, ruining Britain’s standing in the financial world, and declaring war on the poor, the unwell, the vulnerable, even trashing support among their own middle-class, mortgage-paying supporters, in a zombie march of ideologues divorced from reality.

Flying a drone round the House of Commons or stitching a room-length embroidery are not only feeble responses to the world we live in but, worse, I found them imaginatively limiting and cramped. If you’re going to tackle the terrible world of contemporary politics, at least do it with some style and imagination. Old newspaper photos of Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn didn’t take me anywhere new – unlike the pile of silver shavings or a cast of Bunhill pavement or most of the pieces in the first half of the show, which opened magic doors in my mind.

Maybe Parker should stick to what she does best – blowing things up. Guy Fawkes Night is coming. Just a thought…


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


Related links

Borges reviews

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

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

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

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

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

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

Adventures among books and ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

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

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

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

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

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

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

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

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

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

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

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

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

The Circular Ruins (1940)

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

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

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

The Library of Babel (1941)

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

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

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

Funes the Memorious (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

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

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

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

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

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

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

Death and the Compass (1942)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret Miracle (1943)

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

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

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

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

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

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

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

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

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

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

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

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

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

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

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

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

The Immortal (1949)

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

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

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

The Theologians (1947)

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

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

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

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

Emma Zunz (1948)

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

The House of Asterion (1947)

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

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

Averroes’ Search (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

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

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

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

The Waiting (1950)

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

The God’s Script

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

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

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

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wall and the Books

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

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

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

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

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

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

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

Partial Magic in the Quixote

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

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

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

Valéry as Symbol

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

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

Kafka and His Precursors

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

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

Avatars of the Tortoise

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

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

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

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

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

The Mirror of Enigmas

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

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

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

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

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

A New Refutation of Time

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

Parables

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

Inferno, 1, 32

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

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

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

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

Ragnarök

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

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

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

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

The Witness

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

A Problem

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

Borges and I

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

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

Everything and Nothing

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

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

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


Labyrinths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

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

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

The Borgesian

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

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

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

Books

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

References

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

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


Related links

Borges reviews

Nacht und Träume by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Nacht und Träume (German for Night and Dreams) is the last television play written and directed by Samuel Beckett. It was written in English in mid-1982 for the German TV channel Süddeutscher Rundfunk, recorded in October 1982 and broadcast on 19 May 1983.

Wordless

Beckett had run out of words, but all is not silence. Although for only a fraction of the time, although only intermittently, the viewer hears the sound of a male voice softly humming, then singing, the last seven bars of Franz Schubert’s song Nacht und Träume and a fragment of the song’s lyrics, ‘Holde Träume, kehret wieder!’ (‘Sweet dreams, come back’). Schubert was one of Beckett’s favourite composers, and this was one of Beckett’s favourite songs.

By this late stage of his career, Beckett aficionados knew that this kind late work would probably dispense with character, plot, realistic setting and all the other conventions of theatre or drama. Instead, it’s better to think about the production as composed from basic elements, or elements of stagecraft reduced to a bare minimum (like the spotlight on the talking mouth in Not I), to the bare minimum of lighting, movement and gesture.

In many respects the late plays or playlets (because they’re generally so short) are more like abstract modernist sculptures except sculptures which exist in time. In his last period Beckett was far more interested in the precision and timing of gestures, movements, lighting effects, than anything remotely resembling character or plot or psychology.

With no characters and no dialogue and no real action, the text for the production really consists of technical instructions. Beckett lists five elements: evening light, the dreamer (A), his dreamt self (B), a pair of dreamt hands and the last seven bars of Schubert’s lied (German for classical art song, pronounced leedt). In fact, they’re so short, why not share the entire text of the instructions?

Full text

Elements

Evening light.
Dreamer (A).
His dreamt self (B).
Dreamt hands R (right) and L (left).
Last 7 bars of Schubert’s Lied, Nacht und Träume.

  1. Fade up on a dark empty room lit only by evening light from a window set high in back wall.
    Left foreground, faintly lit, a man seated at a table.
    Right profile, head bowed, grey hair, hands resting on table.
    Clearly visible only head and hands and section of table on which they rest.
  2. Softly hummed, male voice, last 7 bars of Schubert’s Lied, Nacht und Träume
  3. Fade out evening light.
  4. Softly sung, with words, last 3 bars of Lied beginning ‘Holde Träume…’
  5. Fade down A as he bows his head further to rest on hands. Thus minimally lit he remains just visible throughout dream as first viewed.
  6. A dreams. Fade up on B on an invisible podium about 4 feet above floor level, middle ground, well right of centre. He is seated at a table in the same posture as A dreaming, bowed head resting on hands, but left profile faintly lit by kinder light than A’s.
  7. From dark beyond and above B’s head L appears and rests gently on it.
  8. B raises his head, L withdraws and disappears.
  9. From same dark R appears with a cup, conveys it gently to B’s lips. B drinks, R disappears.
  10. R reappears with a cloth, wipes gently B’s brow, disappears with cloth.
  11. B raises his head further to gaze up at invisible face.
  12. B raises his right hand, still gazing up , and holds it raised palm upward.
  13. R reappears and rests gently on B ‘s right hand, B still gazing up.
  14. B transfers gaze to joined hands.
  15. B raises his left hand and rests it on joined hands.
  16. Together hands sink to table and on them B’s head.
  17. L reappears and rests gently on B’s head.
  18. Fade out dream.
  19. Fade up A and evening light.
  20. A raises head to its opening position.
  21. Lied as before (2).
  22. Fade out evening light.
  23. Close of Lied as before (4).
  24. Fade down A as before (5).
  25. A dreams. Fade up on B as before (6).
  26. Move in slowly to close-up of B, losing A.
  27. Dream as before (7 to 16) in close-up and slower motion.
  28. Withdraw slowly to opening viewpoint, recovering A.
  29. Fade out dream.
  30. Fade out A.

The action

The action begins with a dreamer sitting alone in a dark empty room, his hands resting on the table before him. He is on the left of the screen and we see his right profile. A male voice hums the last seven bars of the Schubert lied. Then, as we hear the same section sung again, the man rests his head on his hands and the light fades until the words ‘Holde Träume’ at which point the light fades up on the man’s dreamt self who is seated on an invisible podium four feet higher and well to the right of him. We see the dreamed man’s left profile, a mirror image of his waking self. The dreamed self is shown in what the directions describe as a ‘kinder light’. The dreamer is still faintly visible throughout though.

A left hand appears out of the darkness and gently rests on B. As the man raises his head it withdraws. The right hand appears with a cup from which B drinks. The right hand vanishes and then reappears to gently wipe the dreamed man’s brow with a cloth. Then it disappears again.

B raises his head to gaze upon the invisible face and holds out his right hand, palm upward. The bodiless right hand returns and rests on B’s right hand. He looks at the two hands together and adds his left hand. Together the three hands sink to the table and B rests his head on them. Finally the left hand comes out of the darkness and rests gently on B’s head.

The dream fades as A awakens but, as in so many Beckett plays, the entire sequence is then repeated – the music is replayed and the sequence recurs, only this time ‘in close-up and slower motion’.

After this repeat, the camera pulls back, leaving us with the image of A ‘recovering’ before the two visual zones fade out, first the dream space on the right, and then the original image of A at his table.

Themes

A number of things are obvious.

1. Wordless It is wordless, and so linked to Beckett’s several mimes from the 1960s. Lacking character, plot or dialogue the ‘play’ relies entirely upon the visual effects and, to a lesser extent, on the few moments of fragmentary music…

2. Personless A and B are almost the last in a long line of Beckett personages who have been deprived of names or identities and reduced to letters, literally to cyphers, algebraic notations rather than people, since at least Rough For Theatre I and II (c.1960) which both feature characters labelled simply A and B, or Play (1963) which features personages referred to simply as M, W1 and W2.

3. Moving It is sad and sombre and moving. A is an old man, moving in slow motion, requiring care. Having read the Beckett biography I know that he spent a lot of time caring for his ailing mother in her last years, and then being with his elder brother Frank during his final illness. Beckett had done a lot of lifting cups to weak lips, stroking the hair of the ill, resting hands together.

4. Repetition Repetition is Beckett’s key strategy at a meta level many of his pieces take place in a first part, and then are repeated, generally with deterioration, in the second. Classic examples are Waiting For Godot and Happy Days, but also the less well-known Play and Quad, part two of the latter, in particular, repeating part one only more slowly and in black and white. Same here. Life is repetition, over and over, while we wait for the end.

5. Old Master Painting I mentioned sculpture earlier, which is one way of thinking about the late pieces, but probably a more obvious analogy is painting. The two images, A at his table, B in his separate space, at numerous points appear like Old Master paintings. Biographer James Knowlson made the link with Beckett’s fascination with Albrecht Dürer’s famous etching of praying hands, a reproduction of which hung in his room at Cooldrinagh as a child (as it did in one of my school corridors). Then again, Beckett was a lifelong devotee of Dutch seventeenth century painting with its immaculate depictions of calm, motionless interiors, and something of the almost complete stillness of the simple domestic scene possibly invokes them…

6. Consolation Freud wrote in a letter that he was unable to give his patients the one thing which, deep down, they all wanted, which was consolation. Similarly, Beckett made a career out of depicting a comfortless universe or, more precisely, the inside of minds which have collapsed, which can barely sustain a narrative of any kind let alone one which provides any kind of comfort.

But all that said, the helping hands which are offered to B, well they are very powerful images of comfort and consolation. When the three hands are conjoined and B lays his head on them, well, there could hardly be a more moving image of support and basic human comfort.

7. Christian imagery The way the figure of A appears behind a screen, the notion of a screen itself, recalls countless big Christian paintings from the Western tradition, and the image of a chalice, cloth and comforting hand are core Christian iconography. Astonishingly, the English cameraman who worked on the German TV production, Jim Lewis, said that:

…at the moment when the drops of perspiration are wiped from the brow of the character, Beckett simply said that the cloth alluded to the veil that Veronica used to wipe the brow of Jesus on the Way of the Cross. The imprint of Christ’s face remains on the cloth.

Wow. This is an astonishing reversion on Beckett’s part to the core Christian iconography of his boyhood in a God-fearing, church attending Protestant household. Why? Well, one interpretation is that it lay to hand. The Wikipedia article on the play quotes Beckett telling actor Colin Duckworth:

Christianity is a mythology with which I am perfectly familiar, so I naturally use it.

The artist works with what he or she has to hand. In theory, this doesn’t mean he or she endorses, the narrative structures, iconography and imagery provide raw materials to work with, clay to be shaped, metal fragments to be arranged into post-modern abstract sculpture.

Yes, but despite all that, it still feels mighty religious, doesn’t it? It feels like an image of hope.

But then again, the way the music appears only as fragments, lost forlorn fragments of an abandoned or ruined civilisation, and the way the action is mechanically repeated with a strong suggestion of steady entropy and decay, those are emphatically not images of hope.

Therefore, we can observe a simple tension between the structure of degradation and decay, against which silent images of consolation are set. A dynamic tension or interaction.

TV production

As far as I can tell, this is the original German TV production. Haunting, though, as so much late Beckett is haunting, is a matter of ghosts and ghostly memories.

Thoughts

Once again I am struck by the contrast, or contradiction, between the way Beckett has evolved a highly avant-garde, experimental, out-on-the-edge approach to a theatrical production, to creating productions which aren’t really plays in any meaningful sense – and the way that what content you can make out is surprisingly old fashioned, conservative. Schubert and Christian imagery, both have been twisted and mashed into something utterly weird and strange, and yet Schubert and Durer are almost as traditional and old school as you can imagine.

As it happens I’ve recently been reading cyberpunk novels by William Gibson, and Gibson’s work just seems to come from another world, a world where there is absolutely no concern or acknowledgement of Western culture, or Christianity, or the classics or icons of either, an internationalised consumer world of shiny chrome surfaces and hi-tech digital gadgets.

The comparison really brings out how Beckett, for all his hyper-modernism, for all his ostensible rejection of it, nonetheless, at his core, derives from an old, conservative, deeply Christian, highly traditional view of Western culture – a slow, sombre, reverential, poignant quality that Nacht und Träume, probably more than any other of his works, feels soaked in.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


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The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (1) by Michael Haag (2012)

From its title I expected this book to focus narrowly on the history of the Knights Templars, but it is much more than that.

The Knights Templar

The history of the order can be summarised thus:

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, also known as the Order of Solomon’s Temple, the Knights Templar or simply the Templars, were a Catholic military order founded in 1119 after the First Crusade had seized Jerusalem. The order was recognised by the Pope in 1139 and was active until 1312 when it was suppressed by Pope Clement V.

The Templars became a favoured charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order, who formed as much as 90% of the order’s members, managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, developing innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking, building its own network of nearly 1,000 commanderies and fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land, and arguably forming the world’s first multinational corporation.

The Templars were closely tied to the Crusades so that when the Holy Land was lost, support for the order faded. Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremony created distrust, and King Philip IV of France – deeply in debt to the order – took advantage of this distrust to destroy them and erase his debt. In 1307, he had many of the order’s members in France arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and burned at the stake. It was under pressure from King Philip that Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312. (Wikipedia)

From that time to the present day rumours have swirled around the Templars, and I have met conspiracy theorists who think that the tentacles of the transnational organisation they founded persist to the present day, and underlie modern banking/wars/global inequality.

Deep history, revisionist history

So much for the order itself. What is surprising about Haag’s book is the extreme thoroughness with which he presents the deep historical background for the crusades themselves, a history so deep it goes back before the founding of Christianity, and covers the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC), the rise of the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome to the barbarians, the endurance of the Byzantine empire, the rise of Persian power, and then the eruption of militant Islam into the Middle East in the 630s.

And the reason he goes back to such an early period is because…

Haag presents the entire crusading enterprise in a radically revisionist light.

The politically correct, modern view of the crusades is that they were a racist, orientalist, unjustified, colonial attack by rapacious, cruel and undisciplined European armies, motivated solely by greed and personal aggrandisement, against the peace-loving Muslim world upon whose civilians (and even local Christian populations) they perpetrated grotesque massacres.

By going so very far back into the deep pre-history of the crusades Haag aims to present us with the broadest possible historical context for them, a perspective which then forms the basis of his drastic reinterpretation. Thus he claims that:

1. At the time of the First Crusade the majority of the population of Palestine was Christian – so the crusades weren’t an attack on a majority population of Muslims, but an attempt to rescue the majority population of the area from subjugation by alien oppressors. He quotes a young Islamic scholar Ibn al-Arabi who stayed in Jerusalem from 1093 to 1096 and wrote that, four and a half centuries after the Muslim conquest, Jerusalem was still a predominantly Christian city, as was Palestine generally:

The country is theirs [the Christians’] because it is they who work its soil, nurture its monasteries and maintain its churches. (quoted on page 88)

2. Because it was not the Christians, but the Muslims who were the outsiders and conquerors – erupting into the Levant in the 7th century and imposing a violent, racist, imperialist ideology on the native inhabitants of the region over the next few hundred years.

You can see how that is completely opposite to the self-hating, anti-western narrative most of us are used to. Haag goes back to the start of the Christian era to show that:

  1. The entire Mediterranean basin, from the south of Spain through Italy and Greece on to Anatolia and the Levant, then around Egypt and along the whole coastline of North Africa to Ceuta opposite Spain – this entire region was part of the Roman Empire.
  2. Christianity did not spread via the sword; the exact opposite, for its first three centuries (from Jesus’ execution in 33 AD to the Emperor Constantine decriminalising Christianity in 312) Christianity spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean empire despite the violent and cruel attempts of the Empire to crush it. Christianity was not a religion of the sword but of proselytising and persuasion, which despite all efforts to stamp it out had nonetheless become the de facto religion of the Empire by the mid-350s, and was officially made the state religion by the Emperor Theodosius in the 390s.
  3. With the result that, from around 400 to around 700 AD, the entire Mediterranean basin formed one unified Christian civilisation.

The extent of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan in 117 AD

The invaders were the Muslims, who erupted from Arabia in the 650s and quickly overran Persia and the Levant, then spread along North Africa, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and pushed up through Spain, crossing the Pyrenees and raiding half way-up France until stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732. From about 718 onwards, various Christian princes and armies began the very long, slow process of reconquering Spain for Christianity – the so-called Reconquista – which was only completed in 1492, over 700 years later.

The spread of Islam 622 – 750

Meanwhile, Muslim armies continued pushing eastwards into Persia and on towards India, and north and west through Anatolia towards the embattled centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, which they were only prevented from capturing by a series of heroic stands by succeeding Byzantine emperors.

During the 800s and 900s Muslims also seized the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Sicily (842) and the Balearic Islands, using them and ports along the North African coast as bases for pirate raids on Christian ships and ports. They even attacked the heart of Christendom in the West, the city of Rome, in 846, when Muslim raiders plundered the outskirts, sacking the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls, and were only prevented from entering the city itself by the sturdiness of the Aurelian Wall. In 849 another Arab raid targeted Rome’s port, Ostia, but was repelled.

This, then, was the broad – and often ignored – context for the crusades. Christian Europe was, in effect, under siege from extremely fierce warriors motivated by an ideology which aimed to suppress or wipe out all traces of Christian civilisation.

Haag goes on to make key points about the new Muslim overlords of the conquered areas:

1. The Muslim rulers generally despised agriculture and manual labour. In all the Mediterranean lands they conquered they saw themselves as a warrior élite whose fierce ideology justified them in subjugating the native inhabitants who were overwhelmingly Christian in culture and belief. The native Christians and Jews (in Palestine, particularly) were subject to punitive taxes, unable to worship openly, forbidden to repair their churches or synagogues and, in some periods, forced to wear specific clothes or even branded to indicate their lowly serf status.

2. The call for Christians in France and Italy – the ‘West’ – to come to the aid of their fellow Christians in the newly-occupied lands were not new to the 11th century (when the crusades began). Throughout the 800s, 900s and 1000s came repeated pleas for help from Spain, from the imperilled emperor at Byzantium, from Christian leaders in Alexandria and Jerusalem –  pleas to be liberated from semi-slavery, from the Muslim desecration of Christian holy places, and the destruction of churches and synagogues. From the suppression of the original Christian culture and belief of the native inhabitants.

Of the five original patriarchal seats of the Roman Empire – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – by the 1050s Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem had fallen into Muslim hands, and – as mentioned – Constantinople was under permanent threat.

In other words, seen from this deep historical perspective, it is not the Christians who were the aggressors. Christian armies didn’t march on Mecca and Medina and occupy them and tear down their holy places and plunder their treasures and force the native inhabitants to wear special markers on their clothes or even to be branded. Christian armies have never attacked the holy places of Islam.

But Muslim armies had by the 800s:

  • conquered Alexandria, the great centre of Christian learning
  • Jerusalem, where Jesus was tried, executed and rose from the dead
  • Antioch, home of the first Gentile Christian church and where the term ‘Christian’ was first used
  • and Constantinople, explicitly founded as the new, Christian capital of the Roman Empire

For Haag, then, the crusades are the precise opposite of a colonial Western attempt to conquer peace-loving Muslims; they were an attempt to recover authentically and originally Christian lands, shrines and holy places which the Muslims had seized and whose majority Christian populations the Muslims were oppressing.

Haag makes further arguments.

Jerusalem not a Muslim holy city By going back into the deep history he shows that Jerusalem was, for centuries, not the Holy City for Muslims which is it now generally seen to be. It is so now because the tradition grew up that the city was the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey. Just to be crystal clear, I’ll quote Wikipedia on the subject of the Night Journey.

The Isra and Mi’raj are the two parts of a Night Journey that, according to Islam, the Islamic prophet Muhammad took during a single night around the year 621. Within Islam it signifies both a physical and spiritual journey. The Quran surah al-Isra contains an outline account, while greater detail is found in the hadith collections of the reports, teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad. In the accounts of the Isra’, Muhammad is said to have traveled on the back of a winged mule-like white beast, called Buraq, to ‘the farthest mosque’. By tradition this mosque, which came to represent the physical world, was identified as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. At the mosque, Muhammad is said to have led the other prophets in prayer. His subsequent ascent into the heavens came to be known as the Mi‘raj. Muhammad’s journey and ascent is marked as one of the most celebrated dates in the Islamic calendar.

But Haag points out that the sura in the Koran which is the basis of this belief in no way mentions Jerusalem, but simply refers to ‘the farthest mosque’ or masjid.

Glory to Him Who carried His beloved by night from the Sacred Masjid to the Furthest Masjid, whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders! He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing![Quran 17:1 (Translated by Tarif Khalidi)]

In Haag’s view, the tradition that Muhammad’s flight took place from Jerusalem was created after Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. He describes in detail the career of Muslim warrior Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, who built the al-Aqsah mosque (which became known as the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem in order to promote and aggrandise his achievements, and in deliberate competition with the large Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But, as Haag highlights, the carved inscription inside the al-Aqsah mosque in which al-Malik claims credit for building it (and which also threatens Christians and Jews with dire punishments unless they obey their Muslim overlords), and which is also one of the earliest written records of a text from the Koran – this inscription nowhere mentions the Night Flight. Thus, in his view:

Far from commemorating the Night Journey, the Dome of the Rock seems to have generated the tradition. (p.34)

The point of this section is that Haag is seeking to undermine or question what most historians (and ordinary people) tend to take for granted, which is that Jerusalem was a Muslim Holy City at the time of the Crusades.

Not so, claims Haag. It certainly had been a Jewish and then a Christian Holy City – it had been founded by Jews and was the centre of their world for a thousand years before the Romans arrived, and it was where the Jewish heretic and/or Son of God, Jesus, was crucified and rose again and preached to his disciples before ascending into heaven, which makes it pretty obviously holy to Christians, too.

But for the Muslim rulers it was, at least to begin with, just one among numerous ports and trading centres in the Levant, with no particular strategic significance in itself, but with the notable perk that – as a destination for European pilgrims could be heavily taxed – it was a useful profit centre.

Saladin not a Muslim hero In another reversal of the usual story, Haag points out that Saladin (An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), the legendary opponent of Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade (1189-92), was not an Arab at all, but a Kurd, who spent more time fighting against his fellow Muslims than against Christians.

For years before he finally took Jerusalem, Saladin fought Muslim rivals in Egypt and Syria in his efforts to found a new dynasty, the Ayyubid dynasty. Above all, Saladin aspired to supersede the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad and his seizure of Jerusalem was, for him, a great propaganda coup.

Thus if Saladin fought the Crusaders it wasn’t as part of a high-minded general Muslim resistance; it was as part of his attempts to gain kudos and respect in the Muslim world in order to reach his deeper goal, the establishment of his own dynasty, achieved through what Haag calls ‘an imperialist war.’ In fact, the core of the Muslim world, the caliphate based in Baghdad, hoped the Christians would defeat Saladin and thus remove this troublesome usurper.

Summary of Haag’s argument

In the section about the Night Flight, in his passages about Saladin, and in numerous other ways throughout this book, Haag sets out to counter the politically correct narrative and to show that:

  • the crusades were not a violent attack on the Muslim Holy City of Jerusalem because it was not in fact a genuine Muslim Holy City, not in the same way that Mecca or Medina were
  • the majority population of the Middle East was not Muslim, but Christian and Jewish
  • that the imperialists in the story were not the Europeans, but the conquering Muslims who (as he vividly shows) at various times massacred the native Christians and Jews (who had both been living there far longer than the Muslims) or imposed all kinds of restrictions on them – forbidding them to practice their religion in public, closing churches and synagogues, mulcting them for money, and making them wear special clothes, or even branding their skin

Which leads up to Haag’s claim that the Crusader States, far from being the oppressive intervention of Christian outsiders, were a rare period when the majority Christian population of Palestine had something approaching local rule, representing local interests.

These are the big, thought-provoking points Haag makes before he even gets to the origins of the Templars.

The vital role of Constantinople

It’s not the main focus of Haag’s book but, covering the Dark and Middle Ages in the East as he does, his narrative can’t help bringing out the way that Constantinople/Byzantium again and again and again proved a bulwark protecting the rest of Europe from the marauding Muslims.

Prompting the reader to reflect that, if Constantine had not happened to win the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 (the battle in which he defeated his main rival to the throne and thus became Emperor of Rome), and if Constantine had not become convinced of the power of Christianity – he would never have decided to create a new capital in the East and commissioned the mighty new city which came to be known as Constantinople. And this city and its outlying territories and warrior population would not have gone on to become Christian Europe’s main bulwark and protection against invading Muslims for eight hundred years (from the 600s until its fall in 1453).

And so, if it had not been for this sequence of fortunate events, might not the whole of Europe – and so its later colonies like America, Australasia and so on – not all now be Muslim?


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The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (1908)

‘We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession.’
(A policeman, talking to the novel’s protagonist, Gabriel Syme)

Chesterton’s paper-thin characters

Having just read four novels on the trot by H.G. Wells, I am well aware that one of Wells’s notorious shortcomings is the way his characters are often mere pawns in scenarios or plotlines designed to convey Wells’s social, technological and political ideas.

At least that’s what I thought until I read these two novels of Chesterton’s. Wells’s characters have Shakespearian depth compared to Chesterton’s.

Chesterton’s characters are names attached to attitudes, or positions, and a great deal of the interchanges between these entities are really the cut and thrust of opposing ideas in a debating society.

I find Wells’s characters endearing because, by comparison, they do have real back stories and histories – for example, Wells goes to maybe silly lengths to give realistic depth to his character Bert Smallways. He builds up our sense of Bert’s ability with mechanics and engines, at repairing bicycle and motor bikes, a skill which will come in handy as he proceed through the adventures in the novel, The War In the Air.

Chesterton’s characters, by contrast, are almost all the same. They all give clever speeches. They are all fond of paradoxes. And very fond of generalising about human nature, about God. Reminiscent of the kind of ‘soft’ theologising you get in Graham Greene. But whereas Greene does it (at length) in his novels mainly to make the reader share Greene’s basically suicidal worldview by blackening human nature at every opportunity…

Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.

We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.

In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

… Chesterton does it to make the reader chortle with the recognition of a clever paradox, to satirise the progressive philosophies of his day, and to point to something deeper and more mysterious about human existence.

The introductions to The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Man Who Was Thursday confidently extract from them certain ‘messages’ and ‘meanings’; but the experience of actually reading the books is nowhere near as clear-cut and simple. I found them both to be murky and difficult reads. I sensed that a ‘message’ was being propounded, I just couldn’t work out what it was.

Chesterton’s characters are, in fact, so featureless and interchangeable that they do, often, interchange. The Man Who Was Thursday is not so much a novel, more a fantasy entirely concerned with false identities and secret sides, and characters who flip, in a moment, from being on the side of darkness to being on the side of light – or vice-versa.

The plot

The novel is set in the present-day, Edwardian era, where we find two poets in the garden of an artist’s colony, located in a fictional new garden city, named Saffron Park.

Mr Lucian Gregory, the red-haired poet, is holding court. All the young ladies of the town flock to admire him and his daringly ‘anarchistic’ sentiments. But on this evening Gregory is confronted by another poet, flaxen-haired Mr Gabriel Syme, who politely doubts the anarchist’s ‘commitment’.

Gregory argues that poetry is anarchy and breaking the rules. This makes the young ladies swoon with excitement. Syme counters that poetry is law and gives as an example the wonderful poetry of the London Underground, where you have a map and know exactly which station is coming next on any journey. Law and logic and certainty are the only poetry (says Syme).

Angered, Gregory waits for the party to end then confronts Syme outside the ground of his house. In a feverish conversation Gregory reveals that he really is an anarchist and makes Syme swear not to tell anyone. At which point Syme reveals that he is really a policeman, but that Gregory must swear to tell no-one. They both solemnly swear to keep each other’s secrets.

You see how Chesterton’s taste for symmetry and paradox overcomes any attempt at ‘realism’.

Gregory promptly takes Syme along to a pub which contains a secret table which – in true James Bond style – at the touch of secret button descends down through the floor to a basement below the pub.

This turns out to be the meeting place of the most dangerous Anarchists Club in London. Syme accepts all this with upper-class sang-froid. He is told he is attending a meeting to decide who will become the next leader of this anarchists’ ‘chapter’. He learns there are seven anarchist groups, each ruled by someone given the codename of a day of the week. Head of the entire Anarchist Movement is a mysterious man named Sunday.

As it happens the man named ‘Thursday’, who was leader of this section, recently passed away and tonight they are voting for his successor. Everyone expects Gregory to be elected ‘Thursday’, but he is suddenly overcome by worry that, making them all sound too dangerous will prompt Syme to denounce them all to his police colleagues.

So Gregory makes a surprisingly tame speech recommending they obey the Law, which is met with general disappointment from the assembled anarchists. At which (in a characteristically Chestertonian paradox) Syme the policeman leaps to his feet and makes a startlingly violent speech, denouncing Gregory’s pacifism – and he is elected by an overwhelming majority. Humorous paradox, and ironic reversal.

Thus Syme is made the new ‘Thursday’ and is led off down a secret passage which opens onto the Thames where a steam boat is waiting – leaving Gregory seething with anger and impotence. It is, to say the least, odd to the modern reader that Gregory keeps his promise not to expose his rival – but then the entire novel is odd, and is really more of a psychological fantasia than a ‘novel’. If you try applying realistic criteria you will get nowhere.

The man who was Sunday

The steam boat chugs along to the Embankment in central London where ‘Thursday’ is met by ‘the secretary’, a posh man with a disfigured face who takes him through the streets up to Leicester Square where the Anarchists are holding a meeting on a balcony overlooking the tourists.

Their leader, Sunday, has a theory that if you loudly announce to everyone that you are an anarchist no-one will believe you. Thus they make their plans to blow up kings and emperors, at an open-air restaurant while waiters come and go bringing drinks and dishes, tut-tutting and laughing at those funny old anarchists who do like their little jokes. Irony. Paradox.

Syme is greeted by the assembled anarchist leaders as the new Thursday and promptly introduced to Monday, Tuesday etc. Chesterton takes the time to introduce them all to us, along with their real identities and histories, including a grey-haired professor.

After all the introductions, Sunday does in fact call them away from the terrace and into a locked room, where he announces that one among them is a traitor!!

This is a scene I’ve seen in so many James Bond and other spy adventure movies, I wonder if it originated with Chesterton. Probably not, in which case I wonder if an origin can be found – or whether the trope of the spy among the band of conspirators, the traitor in our midst, is not in fact as old as story-telling.

Anyway, Sunday ratchets up the tension with furious denunciations of the as-yet-unidentified spy in their midst, and Syme is just about to stand up and confess that it is he when, to his amazement, a scraggy-haired Polish anarchist does just that – stands up and confesses to being a policeman, throwing his blue police card onto the table.

Sunday is incomprehensibly magnanimous, and asks him to go now and promise not to tell their plans to anyone (!).

Then Sunday gets down to organising an assassination outrage against a politician visiting Paris. After this the group break up and go their separate ways.

Syme is pursued

There is then a spookily atmospheric sequence where Syme wanders along to a Soho restaurant… only to find the so-called Professor has followed him.

Syme gets up, walks through Covent Garden and stops in a pub… only to find the Professor sitting at a table.

Syme storms out and runs along to St Pauls, its dome shimmering as night falls and with it a shower of snow and hears, in the snowdrift quietness… the sound of the Professor pottering along behind him.

Gripped by a kind of panic fear Syme runs on through the black London streets, down to the docks and ducks into a rough pub. Where the Professor walks through the door straight after him.

Sequences like this fully justify the novel’s sub-title, ‘A Nightmare’. There is something fully nightmareish, something creepily uncanny, about this unstoppable pursuit.

The Professor finally confronts Syme, asking whether he is a policeman, which Syme furiously denies. ‘Shame,’ replies the Professor’, because I am,’ and he tosses onto the table the same type of blue police identity card that the Pole had done earlier, at the same time ripping off the mask which makes him look like a senile old man, to reveal a fresh-faced young chap beneath!!!!

So now Syme knows that three of the seven dangerous anarchists sitting round the meeting table off Leicester Square… were in fact policemen (the one who got throw out, himself and now, the Professor)!

Double identities and ironies!

Revealing the other police spies

This has taken us up to chapter 8 of 15. To cut a long story what happens next is that Symes and the Professor then track down the other three members of the group and discover, one by one, that they are all policemen masquerading as anarchists.

Unmasking the last one requires the by-now assembled squad of undercover policemen to catch the ferry to France and track down the last member of the seven, who was nominated to be the assassin sent to blow up a leading politician in Paris. The last of the seven is a French aristocrat named the Marquis de Saint Eustache.

This turns into a really compelling and weird fantasia of a sequence as our man Syme ends up fighting an elaborately staged duel with the Marquis, under the misapprehension that the latter is actually an anarchist.

During the duel (with fencing swords) Syme repeatedly sticks his point into the Marquis with no apparent result. Exactly as in a nightmare where, whatever you do to stop it, the monster keeps getting back up.

The solution of the mystery, revealed at the climax of the contest, is that the Marquis is wearing an early type of bullet-proof vest.

Anyway, the Marquis has no sooner revealed that he, like all the others, is in fact an undercover policeman than the train, which everyone thought he was intending to catch to Paris to carry out his terrorist outrage – pulls into the nearby station.

Chased by anarchists

To the horror of the assembled anarchists-now-revealed-as-policemen, a great crowd of genuine anarchists swarm out of it, all wearing Keystone Cops-style black masks over the tops of their faces, and led by none other than the ‘secretary’ who had escorted Syme from the Embankment to the anarchist meeting in Leicester Square, in the earlier chapter.

The chase is on! Our chaps run through woods with the gang of black-masked figures gaining on them. They arrive at a farm the marquis knows, where the kindly old owner lends them horses. But the anarchists are still gaining on them and then they are horrified to hear the sounds of horse galloping after them and to recognise the kindly old man among them. He is one of the Enemy!!

Our chaps gallop onto another house where a friend of the Marquis’s lends them cars and off they zoom. But one breaks down and they hear… other motor cars chasing them, look up and see the ‘friend’ among their pursuers. The whole world is against them!

This nightmare sense becomes overwhelming when they arrive at a fishing village on the coast and… the entire population rises up against them, forming a mob, joined now by the horse riders and the car drivers, creating an enormous crowd of black-masked anarchists and villagers and fishermen who surround them and chase them down onto a pier, pushing them further and further out till they reach the end of the pier and have nowhere left to turn.

The earth in anarchy

No wonder this chapter is titled ‘The Earth In Anarchy’. Apparently, Chesterton wrote the book during a bout of severe depression. It was partly caused by the great wave of anarchist, socialist, positivist and nihilist thinking which swept over Europe in the 1890s and 1900s. All these trends were materialist, denying the existence of a ‘soul’ or God, insisting on the purely material view of life as a constant struggle unmediated by any kind of transcendent values.

As a devout Anglican, Chesterton found all of these philosophies represented profound attacks on his most deeply cherished beliefs and all the things he loved in life.

The Man Who Was Thursday is thus a kind of ecstasy of horror, a vision of a world borne down in a great black tide of nihilism. As he explained: ‘It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date.’

At this, its hysterical climax, Syme, pushed to the end of the quay, suddenly rebels and runs straight at the anarchist crowd and, in particular, at the ‘secretary’ who is leading them. He accuses them of being filthy anarchists who deny the beauty of order and law and life.

At which point the ‘secretary’ steps back, tears off his mask and announces ‘I arrest you in the name of the law.’

‘The law?’ screams Syme. ‘But you’re anarchists.’

‘No you’re the anarchists,’ says the secretary. ‘I am a policeman and these are my deputies, and we have dressed up as anarchists as a disguise, to try and mix in with you.’

!!!!!!

The crowd which has been chasing them all this time was doing so because they had been told they were pursuing dangerous anarchists. They aren’t anarchists at all. The entire thing has been a mistake and a misunderstanding.

‘There is some mistake,’ [the Secretary] said. ‘Mr. Syme, I hardly think you understand your position. I arrest you in the name of the law.’
‘Of the law?’ said Syme, and dropped his stick.
‘Certainly!’ said the Secretary. ‘I am a detective from Scotland Yard,’ and he took a small blue card from his pocket.
‘And what do you suppose we are?’ asked the Professor, and threw up his arms.
‘You,’ said the Secretary stiffly, ‘are, as I know for a fact, members of the Supreme Anarchist Council. Disguised as one of you, I – ‘
Dr. Bull tossed his sword into the sea.
‘There never was any Supreme Anarchist Council,’ he said. ‘We were all a lot of silly policemen looking at each other. And all these nice people who have been peppering us with shot thought we were the dynamiters. I knew I couldn’t be wrong about the mob,’ he said, beaming over the enormous multitude, which stretched away to the distance on both sides. ‘Vulgar people are never mad. I’m vulgar myself, and I know. I am now going on shore to stand a drink to everybody here.’

Note this last little speech. Bull is one of the anarchists-who-is-really-a-policeman and here he expresses one of Chesterton’s shibboleths.

It is the intellectuals who we should be worried about, the intellectuals who are promoting anarchy and socialism and nihilism, the intellectuals who are attacking everything good and sweet and clean.

By contrast, the so-called common people have never lost touch with the real values of life, with country lanes and Anglican churches and pints of good old English ale.

Who is Sunday?

So all the six anarchists named after the six days of the week, who are now all revealed to be policemen in disguise, catch the ferry and train back to London and all troop off to Leicester Square to confront big black-suited Sunday. He is still (as in a dream) sitting eating on the balcony overlooking the square where they left him. To be honest I didn’t understand the ending at all. Here is the Wikipedia summary:

Sunday reveals that setting them against each other was all part of his Master Plan. In a surreal conclusion, Sunday is unmasked as only seeming to be terrible; in fact, he is a force of good like the detectives. Sunday is unable to give an answer to the question of why he caused so much trouble and pain for the detectives.

Gregory, the only real anarchist, seems to challenge the good council. His accusation is that they, as rulers, have never suffered like Gregory and their other subjects and so their power is illegitimate. Syme refutes the accusation immediately, because of the terrors inflicted by Sunday on the rest of the council.

So the crux of the thing seems to be that Gregory (the poet, the man we met in the opening scene) is the only spokesman for real anarchists – and he says that the opinions of Syme and all the rest are not valid because they have never suffered.

Only Gregory and his kind have suffered, and their terrorism is justified by their suffering.

But Symes denies this. He and others like him have suffered. The anarchists don’t have a monopoly of suffering. Syme shouts:

‘No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, “We also have suffered.”‘

A dream

And then… it all turns out to be a dream! Syme awakens. He has napped while on a country walk. He resumes his walk along a country lane, in a little epiphany of the kind of values, images and ideas which Chesterton values: the countryside, tradition, good fellowship.

And this hymn leads up to a vision of one of the pretty young women who Syme had met and chatted to in that garden at the start of the novel.

As [Syme] gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’

* * *

When men in books awake from a vision, they commonly find themselves in some place in which they might have fallen asleep; they yawn in a chair, or lift themselves with bruised limbs from a field. Syme’s experience was something much more psychologically strange if there was indeed anything unreal, in the earthly sense, about the things he had gone through.

For while he could always remember afterwards that he had swooned before the face of Sunday, he could not remember having ever come to at all. He could only remember that gradually and naturally he knew that he was and had been walking along a country lane with an easy and conversational companion. That companion had been a part of his recent drama; it was the red-haired poet Gregory. They were walking like old friends, and were in the middle of a conversation about some triviality. But Syme could only feel an unnatural buoyancy in his body and a crystal simplicity in his mind that seemed to be superior to everything that he said or did. He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.

Dawn was breaking over everything in colours at once clear and timid; as if Nature made a first attempt at yellow and a first attempt at rose. A breeze blew so clean and sweet, that one could not think that it blew from the sky; it blew rather through some hole in the sky.

Syme felt a simple surprise when he saw rising all round him on both sides of the road the red, irregular buildings of Saffron Park. He had no idea that he had walked so near London. He walked by instinct along one white road, on which early birds hopped and sang, and found himself outside a fenced garden. There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.

Sunday’s parting question as the nightmare collapses – ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’ is the question Jesus asks St. James and St. John in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, vs 38–39. It is a challenge to Syme and maybe to the reader, asking whether they have the ‘commitment’ to follow in Jesus’ footsteps… Maybe this makes sense to a Christian but within the context of the novel it is difficult to… pin down, to really understand.

Metaphysical landscapes

At its most intense – in the sequence where Syme is followed by the spooky Professor across London, and in the delirious chase scene across the French countryside where everyone on earth seems to be pursuing our heroes – The Man Who Was Thursday becomes a really effective spine-chiller.

And throughout there is an otherworldly sensibility at work. Chesterton’s is a mind which doesn’t flow toward the concrete but naturally leads him off into apocalyptic theological and symbolical landscapes. Here he is summing up Syme’s first impression of the other anarchists sitting round the conference table.

Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again.

Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something – say a tree – that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself – a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.

‘An ultimate horizon, visions from the verge.’ That is where a lot of Chesterton’s imagination is always tending. He is always moving from the actual towards the metaphysical, but the metaphysical with an Edwardian twist.

The strangeness of some of these visions reminds me of the weird otherworldly landscapes conjured up in C.S. Lewis’s great science fiction trilogy, or even in Wyndham Lewis’s very peculiar theological science fiction novel, The Childermass.

London landscapes

However, the parts of the book I liked most were when Chesterton’s natural taste for the fantastical is tied, anchored and embedded in naturalistic descriptions of Edwardian London.

For example, on the tugboat journey from the secret basement where Syme is elected ‘Thursday’ to a mooring at the Embankment near Charing Cross, where he first meets the ‘Secretary’ and is escorted to Leicester Square.

Over the whole landscape lay a luminous and unnatural discoloration, as of that disastrous twilight which Milton spoke of as shed by the sun in eclipse; so that Syme fell easily into his first thought, that he was actually on some other and emptier planet, which circled round some sadder star.

But the more he felt this glittering desolation in the moonlit land, the more his own chivalric folly glowed in the night like a great fire. Even the common things he carried with him – the food and the brandy and the loaded pistol [which he has brought from the anarchists meeting] – took on exactly that concrete and material poetry which a child feels when he takes a gun upon a journey or a bun with him to bed.

The sword-stick and the brandy-flask, though in themselves only the tools of morbid conspirators, became the expressions of his own more healthy romance. The sword-stick became almost the sword of chivalry, and the brandy the wine of the stirrup-cup. For even the most dehumanised modern fantasies depend on some older and simpler figure; the adventures may be mad, but the adventurer must be sane. The dragon without St. George would not even be grotesque.

So this inhuman landscape was only imaginative by the presence of a man really human. To Syme’s exaggerative mind the bright, bleak houses and terraces by the Thames looked as empty as the mountains of the moon. But even the moon is only poetical because there is a man in the moon.

The tug was worked by two men, and with much toil went comparatively slowly. The clear moon that had lit up Chiswick had gone down by the time that they passed Battersea, and when they came under the enormous bulk of Westminster day had already begun to break. It broke like the splitting of great bars of lead, showing bars of silver; and these had brightened like white fire when the tug, changing its onward course, turned inward to a large landing stage rather beyond Charing Cross.

The great stones of the Embankment seemed equally dark and gigantic as Syme looked up at them. They were big and black against the huge white dawn. They made him feel that he was landing on the colossal steps of some Egyptian palace; and, indeed, the thing suited his mood, for he was, in his own mind, mounting to attack the solid thrones of horrible and heathen kings. He leapt out of the boat on to one slimy step, and stood, a dark and slender figure, amid the enormous masonry. The two men in the tug put her off again and turned up stream. They had never spoken a word.

Chesterton’s point in the middle of the passage is a conservative, Christian one, that even the little things in our life are illuminated and somehow redeemed by repeating older, more noble ‘figures’ and archetypes.

Maybe. Maybe not. But there is no denying the majesty of his description of day breaking like the splitting of great bars of lead, nor the power of his description of Syme leaping onto the slimy steps of a quay, a slender figure dwarfed by the enormous stones of the Embankment.

For Chesterton that physical description is the basis for his theological points; but for me the physical description is the metaphysical. The depiction of the actual world around us – whether in well-chosen phrases or in lines of pen or charcoal – is, for me, the really true worship.

The seven days of the week

Monday

He was the Secretary of the Council, and his twisted smile was regarded with more terror than anything, except the President’s horrible, happy laughter. But now that Syme had more space and light to observe him, there were other touches. His fine face was so emaciated, that Syme thought it must be wasted with some disease; yet somehow the very distress of his dark eyes denied this. It was no physical ill that troubled him. His eyes were alive with intellectual torture, as if pure thought was pain.

Tuesday

The man’s name, it seemed, was Gogol; he was a Pole, and in this circle of days he was called Tuesday. His soul and speech were incurably tragic; he could not force himself to play the prosperous and frivolous part demanded of him by President Sunday… Gogol, or Tuesday, had his simplicity well symbolised by a dress designed upon the division of the waters, a dress that separated upon his forehead and fell to his feet, grey and silver, like a sheet of rain

Wednesday

A certain Marquis de St. Eustache, a sufficiently characteristic figure. The first few glances found nothing unusual about him, except that he was the only man at table who wore the fashionable clothes as if they were really his own. He had a black French beard cut square and a black English frock-coat cut even squarer. But Syme, sensitive to such things, felt somehow that the man carried a rich atmosphere with him, a rich atmosphere that suffocated. It reminded one irrationally of drowsy odours and of dying lamps in the darker poems of Byron and Poe. With this went a sense of his being clad, not in lighter colours, but in softer materials; his black seemed richer and warmer than the black shades about him, as if it were compounded of profound colour. His black coat looked as if it were only black by being too dense a purple. His black beard looked as if it were only black by being too deep a blue. And in the gloom and thickness of the beard his dark red mouth showed sensual and scornful. Whatever he was he was not a Frenchman; he might be a Jew; he might be something deeper yet in the dark heart of the East. In the bright coloured Persian tiles and pictures showing tyrants hunting, you may see just those almond eyes, those blue-black beards, those cruel, crimson lips.

Friday

Next a very old man, Professor de Worms, who still kept the chair of Friday, though every day it was expected that his death would leave it empty. Save for his intellect, he was in the last dissolution of senile decay. His face was as grey as his long grey beard, his forehead was lifted and fixed finally in a furrow of mild despair. In no other case, not even that of Gogol, did the bridegroom brilliancy of the morning dress express a more painful contrast. For the red flower in his button-hole showed up against a face that was literally discoloured like lead; the whole hideous effect was as if some drunken dandies had put their clothes upon a corpse. When he rose or sat down, which was with long labour and peril, something worse was expressed than mere weakness, something indefinably connected with the horror of the whole scene. It did not express decrepitude merely, but corruption. Another hateful fancy crossed Syme’s quivering mind. He could not help thinking that whenever the man moved a leg or arm might fall off.

Saturday

Right at the end sat the man called Saturday, the simplest and the most baffling of all. He was a short, square man with a dark, square face clean-shaven, a medical practitioner going by the name of Bull. He had that combination of savoir-faire with a sort of well-groomed coarseness which is not uncommon in young doctors. He carried his fine clothes with confidence rather than ease, and he mostly wore a set smile. There was nothing whatever odd about him, except that he wore a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles. It may have been merely a crescendo of nervous fancy that had gone before, but those black discs were dreadful to Syme; they reminded him of half-remembered ugly tales, of some story about pennies being put on the eyes of the dead. Syme’s eye always caught the black glasses and the blind grin. Had the dying Professor worn them, or even the pale Secretary, they would have been appropriate. But on the younger and grosser man they seemed only an enigma. They took away the key of the face. You could not tell what his smile or his gravity meant. Partly from this, and partly because he had a vulgar virility wanting in most of the others it seemed to Syme that he might be the wickedest of all those wicked men. Syme even had the thought that his eyes might be covered up because they were too frightful to see.

Sunday

At the nearest end of the balcony, blocking up a great part of the perspective, was the back of a great mountain of a man. When Syme had seen him, his first thought was that the weight of him must break down the balcony of stone. His vastness did not lie only in the fact that he was abnormally tall and quite incredibly fat. This man was planned enormously in his original proportions, like a statue carved deliberately as colossal. His head, crowned with white hair, as seen from behind looked bigger than a head ought to be. The ears that stood out from it looked larger than human ears. He was enlarged terribly to scale; and this sense of size was so staggering, that when Syme saw him all the other figures seemed quite suddenly to dwindle and become dwarfish.


Related links

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes – outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

Saint Anthony

Saint Anthony a.k.a Anthony the Great (c. 251 – 356) was a Christian monk and visionary who reacted against the increasing acceptance and normalisation of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire by becoming, first an ascetic, and then rejecting social life altogether by going to live in the Egyptian desert, to fast and pray by himself, relying only on gifts of food from pilgrims and local villagers.

Rumours and legends spread about his simple life and holiness, and soon he gained a following. He is known to posterity because his contemporary, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, wrote a long biography of him. For many years Anthony was credited as the founded of monasticism i.e. the idea that holy men should go and live in isolation from society, ideally in remote locations, to live simple lives and praise God – though modern scholars now know he was part of a widespread movement of religious puritans away from urban centres, which predated and accompanied him.

Athanasius’s biography describes how Anthony was tempted by the devil and by demons who appeared in numerous disguises, trying to seduce him with food and the pleasures of the flesh or, more subtly, trying to lure him into some of the heretical beliefs with which his age abounded.

Continually elaborated in the retelling, embellished with demons, naked women and weird monsters, the legend of the ‘Temptation of St Anthony’ went on to become a familiar subject in western art, inspiring lovingly grotesque depictions by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Mathias Grünewald.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (1501)

In more modern times the Temptation was painted by Max Ernst and Salvador Dali, and was the subject of a symphony by the German composer Paul Hindemith (1934).

And it inspired this prose fantasia by Gustave Flaubert, published in 1874.

The mundane and the fantastic in Flaubert

As I’ve read through Flaubert I’ve realised his output can be very simply divided into two categories: the contemporary realist works (Madame Bovary, The Sentimental Education) and the exuberant historical fantasias (Salammbô, The Temptation of Saint Anthony).

In other words, alongside his painstaking attention to the detail of contemporary life, Flaubert was also fascinated and inspired by a wide range of historical and fantastical subjects. He had a long-running interest in the ancient world of the Mediterranean (an interest fuelled by his visits to Tunisia and Egypt) and a lifelong fascination with religion, all religions, ranging as far afield as Buddhism and Hinduism.

It is as if all the uncontrolled sexual, sadistic, fantastical and philosophical fantasies which Flaubert kept completely bottled up when creating the painstaking ‘realist’ novels, just had to erupt somewhere else – in the sustained cruelty of Salammbô and into the extended philosophical and psychological fantasia of Saint Anthony.

The problem of ‘evil’ in 19th century literature (i.e. it is boring)

Flaubert wrote three completely different versions of the Temptation (1849, 1856 and this one).

The long introduction to the Penguin paperback edition by Kitty Mrosovsky compares how the images and ideas changed in the three versions. She then goes on to quote the opinions of later French writers and critics, from Baudelaire through Valéry, from Sartre to Michel Foucault.

What becomes clear is that if you write about God and the devil, heaven and hell, being and nothingness, sex and sin, any number of critics will be able to impose their own critical schemas and obsessions on your text, and it can be turned into a Symbolist, Freudian, Modernist, Existentialist or Structuralist masterpiece, depending on which critic you’re reading.

In other words, modern texts on this kind of subject often turn out to be strangely empty.

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Inner right wing of the Isenheim Altarpiece depicting the Temptation of St. Anthony by Matthias Grünewald (1512-1516)

Personally, I find the history of the late Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity and the efflorescence of its countless heresies, absolutely riveting. By contrast I often find the way secular ‘modern’ writers use this era and these ideas to spool out endless ruminations about the meaning of life, unutterably boring. Why?

I think the reason I like the history of the actual heresies – all those gnostics and Arians, the Adamites, Marcionians, Nicolaitans, Paternians, Archonites and so on – is that they are interesting in themselves, and they really mattered. There were riots, insurrections, people fought to the death about these beliefs and – arguably – the weakness of the Church in North Africa after centuries of bitter sectarian fighting made it easy for militant Islam to sweep across the region in the 7th century. This was of world-historical importance.

And the arcane Christological heresies of the 3rd or 4th centuries AD are interesting in themselves as thought-provoking explorations of the potential of Christian theology – was Christ a man? or a God? or half-man and half-God? Which half was which? Did God speak through him or were his words his own? Has the Son existed for all time, like God, or was he created at some later date i.e. is he equal to, or inferior to, God the Father? How can they be part of the same Substance when Jesus continually refers to ‘his Father’ as a distinct entity? And how does the Holy Spirit fit into each of these scenarios?

1. The long line of 19th century non-believing poets and writers who tackled issues of ‘sin’ and ‘damnation’ and ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ – from Byron via Baudelaire to Rimbaud and beyond – were just playing at being ‘damned poets’. There is no sense of risk in their work. The absolutely worst thing they could conceive of in their fictions, was suicide (which, when all is said and done, is just a personal psychological disorder), or murdering someone (just the one person) the subject of Dostoyevsky’s 500-page-long Crime and Punishment. Even the primevally wicked Mr Hyde only in fact murders one person. The worst thing most of these writers did, in practice, was sleep around and get drunk a lot.

In a sense the twentieth century made much 19th century literature redundant. The First World War went a long way towards (and then the Second World War, the Holocaust and the atom bomb, completed the work of) redefining forever the meaning of evil, despair, horror.

Agonising over one person’s soul seems, well, rather paltry in the light of the world we live in. (This is the reason I find the novels of Graham Greene, and their enormous obsession with the sinfulness or damnation of just one person, rather ludicrous.)

2. Also, no-one believes in Christianity any more. Not in a literal hell and damnation, not like they used to. In the Middle Ages the idea of damnation really mattered, psychologically: in Chaucer and Dante it is a real place, with real fire, and real demons skewering your tortured body. By the nineteenth century, in the hands of a dilettante like Byron, it is a fashion accessory, part of the pose of tormented genius.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony

The Temptation is divided into seven parts. It is written as if a play, with prose instructions describing the setting and goings-on (Opening words: ‘The setting is Thebaid, high on a mountain…’) while the dialogue of the ‘characters’ is given in dramatic format- the name, a colon, the speech.

It starts with Anthony outside his primitive hut in the desert at nightfall, and he proceeds to have a bewildering series of visions, some of which transport him to cities and palaces, where he encounters emperors and queens, and all manner of famous individuals such as the Queen of Sheba, Helen of Troy, the Buddha, the Greek gods and so on.

Right from the start Anthony – surprisingly – bemoans his lot, hates being alone, wonders whether he shouldn’t have followed another vocation, grumbles and complains in what – to be honest – is Flaubert’s awful, stagey dialogue.

Another day! another day gone!… What solitude! what weariness!… Ah! woe, woe is me! will this never end? Surely death were preferable! I can endure it no more! Enough! enough!… Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery!… What shame for me! Alas! poor Anthony!… It is my own fault! I allow myself to be caught in every snare! No man could be more imbecile, more infamous!…

Since he doesn’t really do anything, we only know Anthony through his speech and his speech is hammy Victorian melodrama. As with the dialogue in Salammbô, every sentence seems to end in an exclamation mark but, paradoxically, the more exclamation marks he uses, the less dramatic (or interesting) the speech becomes, the more tiresome and simple-minded.

I found it impossible to take Anthony seriously as a character.

He stamps his foot upon the ground, and rushes frantically to and fro among the rocks; then pauses, out of breath, bursts into tears, and lies down upon the ground, on his side.

In fact, given the extravagant cast of characters, there is also surprisingly little drama, hardly any sense of conflict or threat, in the whole work. Anthony remains the same miserable moaner all the way through. There is no change or development, no sense of critical encounters or turning points or sudden revelations.

As I’ve read through Flaubert’s works I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of Set Piece Scenes in his fiction. In a sense the Temptation is a reductio ad absurdam of this approach: it consists of nothing but an apparently endless series of set-piece encounters and scenes. This accounts for the highly static impression it makes on the reader.

One critic compares the entire book to the panoramas created by magic lanterns in the mid-nineteenth century. These enchanted their simpler audiences by projecting a series of images onto a flat wall. You can envisage the entire book as just such a series of slides.

The Temptation Of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck

The Temptation of St Anthony by Joos van Craesbeeck (1650)

Part one – Human frailty

We find Saint Anthony in front of his hut in the desert as the sun sets. The entire book takes place in the space of this one night, from dusk to dawn.

Anthony is moaning about his lot in life and wonders why he didn’t do almost anything else, become a soldier or a teacher. Almost continually his thoughts are interrupted by wolves prowling just outside the light of his torch, or by birds, by strange noises.

Personally, I found almost all the scenes involving Anthony off-putting because he comes across as so wet and feeble. As in Salammbô and the realist novels, I often found the quiet, descriptive passages the most enjoyable, the ones where Flaubert uses his extensive background reading in the period to depict ordinary life of the time. Here he is imagining the life of your ordinary Alexandrian merchant.

The merchants of Alexandria sail upon the river Canopus on holidays, and drink wine in the chalices of lotus-flowers, to a music of tambourines which makes the taverns along the shore tremble! Beyond, trees, made cone-shaped by pruning, protect the quiet farms against the wind of the south. The roof of the lofty house leans upon thin colonettes placed as closely together as the laths of a lattice; and through their interspaces the master, reclining upon his long couch, beholds his plains stretching about him – the hunter among the wheat-fields – the winepress where the vintage is being converted into wine, the oxen treading out the wheat. His children play upon the floor around him; his wife bends down to kiss him.

Anthony sees this vision because he himself is lonely and hungry. The local villagers used to come and give him food, now they’ve stopped. Anthony reminisces about his days back in the city, as a trainee monk, when he was invited by Athanasius to join a set piece debate against the Arians (a very popular type of Christian heresy). Then he sees visions -‘ a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple, a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing’, then he faints.

Part two – the Seven Deadly Sins

Out of the darkness comes the Devil, like a huge vampire bat, and under its wings are suckling the Seven Deadly Sins. It is a disappointment, then, that this ominous creature doesn’t speak. Instead Anthony hallucinates that his mat is a boat, rocking on a river, floating past the temple of Serapis.

Papyrus-leaves and the red flowers of the nymphæa, larger than the body of a man, bend over him. He is lying at the bottom of the boat; one oar at the stem, drags in the water. From time to time, a lukewarm wind blows; and the slender reeds rub one against the other, and rustle. Then the sobbing of the wavelets becomes indistinct. A heavy drowsiness falls upon him. He dreams that he is a Solitary of Egypt.

I like passages like this, clips or little scenelets of vivid description. When Anthony wakes the Devil has, apparently, disappeared – very disappointing. Anthony finds a husk of bread and his jug empty and this prompts a vivid hallucination of a great banqueting table set for a feast, replete with intoxicating sights and smells.

Then many things appear which he has never seen before – black hashes, jellies, the colour of gold, ragouts in which mushrooms float like nenuphars upon ponds, dishes of whipped cream light as clouds.

It was only the notes which explained to me that what now follows is a sequence in which Anthony hallucinates each of the Seven Deadly Sins in turn. This one represented the Sin of Gluttony. As in a hallucination the food morphs into lips and then into one loaf on a table which now stretches to right in front of his face. He pushes it away and it vanishes.

Then Anthony stumbles over something underfoot, which turns into money, lots of money, a crown, precious jewels.

As water streams overflowing from the basin of a fountain, so diamonds, carbuncles, and sapphires, all mingled with broad pieces of gold bearing the effigies of Kings, overflow from the cup in never ceasing streams, to form a glittering hillock upon the sand…

It is the Sin of Avarice. As he throws himself upon the pile it vanishes. He trembles in the knowledge that, had he died in the middle of succumbing to any of these temptations, he would have gone to hell.

Now the scene completely changes and Anthony thinks he sees a panoramic overview of the city of Alexandria. In style this is identical to the numerous panoramic overviews of Carthage which Flaubert gave us in Salammbô. He sees crowds of vengeful monks pouring through the streets, seeking out their heretical opponents, the Arians, and then Anthony suddenly sees himself to be one of them, bursting into the houses of the heretics, burning their books, torturing and eviscerating them, wading up to his knees in the heretics’ blood!

And the blood gushes to the ceilings, falls back upon the walls like sheets of rain, streams from the trunks of decapitated corpses, fills the aqueducts, forms huge red pools upon the ground. Anthony is up to his knees in it. He wades in it; he sucks up the blood-spray on his lips; he is thrilled with joy as he feels it upon his limbs, under his hair-tunic which is soaked through with it.

This is the Sin of Wrath.

Next the scene morphs to a Roman city (which I deduce is the newish capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople) and Anthony finds himself ushered through countless rooms in a grand palace, past armed guards to arrive in the presence of the Emperor. This painted, dazzling personage treats him as an equal, discusses politics and religion with him and places his imperial diadem on Anthony’s brow. He is taken out into the balcony overlooking the Hippodrome where the great chariot races are held, walking past prison cells in which are imprisoned his theological enemies, the Arians, grovelling and begging hur hur hur. The Sin of Pride.

Then the scene morphs into the throne room of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon 600 BC, a long banqueting table, and crawling in the dirt all the kings Nebuchadnezzar has defeated, whose hands and feet have been cut off. A little way off sit the king’s brothers, all of whom have been blinded. As in Salammbô the reader becomes aware of Flaubert’s oppressive interest in sadism and cruelty. Anthony enters the mind of the king of kings and is immediately drenched in feelings of lust and cruelty. He climbs on the table and bellows like a bull and then…

Comes to himself. He is alone in front of his hut. He picks up his whip and flagellates himself, enjoying the pain, the tearing of his rebellious flesh, whereupon…

He sees men riding on onagers (a kind of Asiatic wild ass) and then a procession of camels and horses and then a white elephant with a golden net and waving peacock feathers, which bears the Queen of Sheba. The elephant kneels, the queen slides down its trunk onto a precious carpet laid out by her slaves and she greets Anthony. As with Salammbô, there is in these scenes an excess of description over psychology or character.

Her robe of gold brocade, regularly divided by furbelows of pearls, of jet, and of sapphires, sheaths her figure closely with its tight-fitting bodice, set off by coloured designs representing the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

She wears very high pattens – one of which is black, and sprinkled with silver stars, with a moon crescent; the other, which is white, is sprinkled with a spray of gold, with a golden sun in the middle. Her wide sleeves, decorated with emeralds and bird-plumes, leave exposed her little round bare arms, clasped at the wrist by ebony bracelets; and her hands, loaded with precious rings, are terminated by nails so sharply pointed that the ends of her fingers seem almost like needles.

A chain of dead gold, passing under her chin, is caught up on either side of her face, and spirally coiled about her coiffure, whence, redescending, it grazes her shoulders and is attached upon her bosom to a diamond scorpion, which protrudes a jewelled tongue between her breasts. Two immense blond pearls depend heavily from her ears. The borders of her eyelids are painted black.

And she claims they have been searching the wilderness for him and, now they have found him, she will marry him and worship him and anoint him and caress him. There is a great deal of Miltonic description of the riches and luxuries from far-flung exotic places which she can offer him, but then it focuses down to the pleasure of her body, which sums up a whole world of desire. The Sin of Lust.

I am not a woman: I am a world!

But Anthony stands firm and after flirting with him some more, she turns on her heel, remounts her elephant and departs along with all her servants, laughing, mocking him.

Part three – Hilarion (11 pages)

A small child appears. Going up to him Anthony recognises the face of his one-time disciple, Hilarion, long since departed for Palestine. This phantasmal Hilarion sets about systematically undermining Anthony’s faith:

  • he criticises Anthony’s teacher, Athanasius, pointing out his theological errors
  • he says Anthony’s mortification is pointless since many heretics do just the same
  • Jesus went cheerfully about his ministry, mixing with people, talking, teaching, unlike misanthropic Anthony
  • when Anthony points to the Scriptures as the basis of faith, Hilarion immediately rattles off a list of the inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts of Jesus
The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by David Teniers the Younger (1647)

Part four – the Heresiarchs and the circus victims (60 pages)

The heresiarchs Hilarion ushers Anthony into a vast basilica full of people who turn out to be a collection of all the founders of heresies, all the rival theologians and preachers and mystic, the Gnostics and neo-Platonics and religious thinkers, of his time. This is quite a long list and, as most of them only get a sentence or so designed to baffle and demoralise Anthony, it is very difficult from Flaubert’s text alone to properly understand their deviant beliefs.

After all these years I still recommend Paul Johnson’s excellent History of Christianity (1977), whose long second chapter is devoted to a detailed exposition of the Christian heresies which exploded around the Mediterranean and caused outrage, riots and even wars (when different candidates for emperor adopted opposing theologies) until well into the 8th century.

Thus Anthony meets in quick succession the heresiarchs Mani, Saturninus, Cerdo, St Clement of Alexandria, Bardesanes, the Herbians, the Priscillianists, Valentine, Origen, the Elkhasaites, the Carpocratians, the Nicolaitans, the Marcosians, the Helvidians, the Messalians, the Paternians, Aetius, Tertullian, Priscilla, Maximilla, Montanus, the Archontics, the Tatianians, the Valesians, the Cainites, the Circumcellions, Arius. Pandemonium breaks out:

The Audians shoot arrows against the Devil; the Collyridians throw blue cloths toward the roof; the Ascites prostrate themselves before a waterskin; the Marcionites baptise a dead man with oil. A woman, standing near Appelles, exhibits a round loaf within a bottle, in order the better to explain her idea. Another, standing in the midst of an assembly of Sampseans distributes, as a sacrament, the dust of her own sandals. Upon the rose-strewn bed of the Marcosians, two lovers embrace. The Circumcellionites slaughter one another; the Valesians utter the death-rattle; Bardesanes sings; Carpocras dances; Maximilla and Priscilla moan; and the false prophetess of Cappadocia, completely naked, leaning upon a lion, and brandishing three torches, shrieks the Terrible Invocation.

As you can see, this glorified list is more a goldmine for editors and annotators than any kind of pleasure for readers. Indeed, the Penguin edition has 47 pages of notes giving you fascinating facts on almost every one of the characters and places mentioned in the text. But if you read it as text alone, all these names quickly blur.

This long section about heretics makes clearer than ever the fact that Flaubert has the mentality of an encyclopedist, a compiler of dictionaries. He boasted to friends about the hundreds of history books he read as research for both Salammbô and Anthony and boy does it show.

Flaubert cuts and pastes together the results to produce scenes packed with exotic names, but almost always without any life or psychology and, as here, disappointingly uninformative. The controversies about the precise meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion which racked the early church are riveting because there was so much to play for; they were political as well as theological arguments, because different sects seized control of entire Roman provinces, Roman emperors disinherited their own children or fought opponents because they espoused divergent beliefs.

Flaubert manages to drain this exciting and complex historical and theological subject of all interest and turn it into a procession of cardboard mouthpieces, who all sound the same.

Following Arius, the chapter continues with a paragraph or so from: Sabellius, the Valentinians, the Sethians, the Theodotians, the Merinthians, the Apollinarists, Marcellus of Ancyra, Pope Calixtus, Methodius, Cerinthus, Paul of Samosata, Hermogenes, the Cerinthians, the Marcosians, the Encratites, the Cainites, the Old Ebionites, Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellina…

The ceremony of the Orphites Anthony is then taken through a door into a dark shrine where he witnesses a ceremony of the Orphites, who worshipped the snake, the serpent in the Eden story, believing it to be the true saviour. Their chanting awakens a monstrously huge python which they handle and twine around themselves as they hold a blasphemous eucharist.

Christians being thrown to the lions Exhausted with horror at the sheer number of heresies, Anthony falls to the floor and is immediately back in the dust in front of his humble hut. Time passes and a new hallucination begins. He is in a dark room, a prison cell, among other wretches. Outside it is sunny, he hears the roar of a crowd, the sound of lions and has a vision of the arena, tier after tier of seats. He is among Christians about to be thrown to the lions.

Various characters explain why they’re there (interrupting pagan rites, burning down temples, refusing to worship pagan gods) and explore their plight: an Old Man lamenting he didn’t escape, a Young Man bewailing the lost years, a Consoler saying a miracle might happen. The idea (apparently) is to disillusion Anthony by showing him the mean motives, the backsliding and lack of faith of the so-called ‘martyrs’. The portcullis on the other side of the arena opens and out lope lazy lions, panthers, leopards, and then the martyrs’ door opens and the gaoler whips the weeping Christians out into the sand…

In the cemetery And Anthony awakes, dazed, looks around him, then.. falls into another dream. He is in a cemetery where he meets veiled women lamenting the deaths of their husbands, sons or how they themselves were condemned as Christians and persecuted, and then… as they bow and pray together, eat together, their robes slip open and their mouths join and.. I think they have an orgy – presumably the Devil’s intention is to show him the lack of faith and the easy lasciviousness of the widows of the faithful. This scene fades out and…

The Hindu sage Anthony is at the edge of a tropical forest, with parrots and lizards. On a pyre squats a shrivelled man wearing a necklace of shells and with a bird’s nest built in his long matted hair. He is ‘the Gymnosophist’, a Hindu sage. This wizened figure repeats basic Hindu teachings about reincarnation, about striving to reach purity so as not to fall into corruption. Then his pyre bursts into flames and he is burnt alive without a sound.

Simon Magus and Helen of Troy Anthony tramples out the flames and it is dark again. Then through a cleft in the rocks comes a voice followed by a white-haired old man leading a young girl with bite marks on her face and bruises on her arm. It emerges that he is Simon Magus, a magician of the first century mentioned in the Gospels. He claims to be the reincarnation of God and that the woman with him is his ‘First Thought’ or Ennoia, who has been reincarnated through the ages, at one point in the body of the legendary Helen of Troy, before he rescued from her work in a brothel in Tyre. Simon shakes the pot he’s carrying which has a live flame at the top, but the flame shivers and goes out and a great smoke or fog fills the stage.

Apollonius of Tyana Anthony stumbles though the fog to discover Simon and Helen are gone. Now through the fog come a pair of men, one tall and lordly like Christ, the other a short servant. It is Apollonius of Tyana, the sage or thaumaturge, and his servant Dimas. Apollonius declaims grandly. As so often with Flaubert, the reader gets the sense that the author is more interested, intoxicated even, by lists of grand, exotic-sounding and remote peoples and places – than by any kind of sense or logic. Thus Apollonius:

I have conversed with the Samaneans of the Ganges, with the astrologers of Chaldea, with the magi of Babylon, with the Gaulish Druids, with the priests of the negroes! I have ascended the fourteen Olympii; I have sounded the Scythian lakes; I have measured the breadth of the Desert!…

But first I had visited the Hyrcanian Sea; I made the tour of it; and descending by way of the country of the Baraomati, where Bucephalus is buried, I approached the city of Nineveh….

At Taxilla, the capital of five thousand fortresses, Phraortes, King of the Ganges, showed us his guard of black men, whose stature was five cubits, and under a pavilion of green brocade in his gardens, an enormous elephant, which the queens amused themselves by perfuming. It was the elephant of Porus which had taken flight after the death of Alexander….

Upon the shores of the sea we met with the milk-gorged Cynocephali, who were returning from their expedition to the Island Taprobana…

So we returned through the Region of Aromatics, by way of the country of the Gangarides, the promontory of Comaria, the country of the Sachalites, of the Adramites and of the Homerites; then, across the Cassanian mountains, the Red Sea, and the Island Topazos, we penetrated into Ethiopia through the country of the Pygmies…

I have penetrated into the cave of Trophonius, son of Apollo! I have kneaded for Syracusan women the cakes which they carry to the mountains. I have endured the eighty tests of Mithra! I have pressed to my heart the serpent of Sabasius! I have received the scarf of Kabiri! I have laved Cybele in the waters of the Campanian gulfs! and I have passed three moons in the caverns of Samothracia!

And so on. There is not a trace of drama, character, psychology, theology or philosophy in sight. This is quite transparently just a litany of resonant names. Apollonius and Dimas step backwards off a cliff and remain suspended in the air, like Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, before ascending slowly into the black night sky.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Félicien Rops (1878)

Part five – the pagan gods and goddesses (42 pages)

Another long chapter in which Anthony meets what amounts to a list of all the pagan gods and goddesses, each of them given – as we’ve become used to – a few sentences or a paragraph in which to show off Flaubert’s erudition and wide reading, before handing on to the next one.

In fact it starts off with a parade of pre-pagan gods, the blocks of wood or stone which original humans worshipped. Anthony and Hilarion mock the stupidity of the men who worshiped these clods. Then detours (unexpectedly) to a quick review of the original Hindu gods and of the Buddha, who tells the story of his life. The purpose of this temptation is that, as each of these entities tells its story, Hilarion (like a mini-devil) chips in to point out that this or that aspect of their worship is really no different from Christian belief or practice; it is designed to erode Christianity’s claims to uniqueness.

We have appearances from the Buddha, Oanna (of the Chaldeans), the gods of ancient Babylon and their temple prostitutes, Ormuz god of the Persians, the Great Diana of Ephesus with her three rows of breasts.

Cybele’s priests sacrifice a sheep and spatter Anthony and Hilarion with the blood, Atys who in a frenzy castrates himself as do his priests, we see the funeral of Adonis, killed by the boar, and the lamentation of Persephone, Isis suckling her babe and lamenting the death and dismemberment of Osiris.

Anthony is racked with sadness that so many souls have been lost worshiping these false gods; but sly Hilarion points out that so many aspects of the gods or their worship echo the True Religion, seeking to undermine Anthony’s belief.

Now he and Anthony see a vast mountain with Olympus on its height and witness the pantheon of Greek gods, one by one lamenting their decline and fall: Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Hercules, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Vulcan, one by one they lament the loss of their powers and the end of their worship, before going tumbling down into a black abyss.

The lament of Osiris for her lost lover, and the sorrow of the Greek gods are the only pages in the book which I found moving enough to reread and savour. In it we can hear the voice of Flaubert, who from his schooldays believed he lived in a fallen world of stupidity and vulgarity. Hence the words he puts into dying Jupiter’s mouth:

‘Eagle of apotheoses, what wind from Erebus has wafted thee to me? or, fleeing from the Campus Martins, dost thou bear me the soul of the last of the Emperors? – I no longer desire to receive those of men. Let the Earth keep them; and let them move upon the level of its baseness. Their hearts are now the hearts of slaves; – they forget injuries, forget their ancestors, forget their oaths – and everywhere the mob’s imbecility, the mediocrity of individuals, the hideousness of every race, hold sway!

Latterly go the household gods, those minor deities who gave grace and dignity to all aspects of daily life in ancient Rome, who laid the bride in her bed, tended at childbirth, at sickness, at feasts, during illness. All scorned, ignored and gone. Finally – surprisingly – a page is devoted to Jehovah, the god of the Old Testament, himself rejected and abused, his followers – the Jews – scorned and scattered over the earth.

It was a struggle to read the previous chapters, but these long laments of the dying pagan gods and the imaginative grace and nobility they brought to everyday life is, I think, genuinely moving. For the first time the text stirred, for me, as actual literature instead of a list of gaudy names.

Part six – the Devil (8 pages)

Hilarion gives way to the Devil himself who chucks Anthony onto his horns and carries him up, up and away, through the sky, into space, up to the moon, beyond the solar system, into the realm of the stars, all the time explaining a) that the universe is infinite, nothing like the earth-centred structure of the ancient Greeks or Jews b) while giving him a compelling lecture on theology (the only theology in the text), explaining in a dry logical, professorial manner the unbounded infinitude and one substance of God.

God has no imperfections, God has no passions, God doesn’t worry or fret about his creatures, he is vastly beyond the momentary whims of man, his is as extended, infinite and integral as the universe. BUT the corollary of this is that He doesn’t listen to prayers and hear the sobs and hopes of his countless creations. He is infinitely remote, completely Perfect, utterly indifferent. (According to the notes, this is a summary of the philosophical pantheism of Spinoza.)

The point is that the Devil’s fluent and vast philosophising leads up to the terrifyingly logical conclusion:

Adore me, then! – and curse the phantom thou callest God!

On some instinct Anthony, despite being overwhelmed by this vision of the universe and the Devil’s compelling logic, lifts his eyes as if to pray. The Devil drops him in disgust.

Part seven (20 pages)

Anthony regains consciousness by the cliff edge. It crosses his mind to end it all by simply rolling over it and falling to his death. This final chapter is in three parts:

1. He is approached by a wizened old woman and a nubile young woman. One argues the case for suicide, the other urges him to embrace life. Slowly it becomes clear they are Death and Lust, respectively. He dismisses them and is confronted by:

2. The Chimera and the Sphinx. The former attracts men towards pointless delusions, the latter devours seekers after God. They squabble and argue until the Sphinx sinks into the sand and the Chimaera goes swooping off in pointless circles.

3. Their argument morphs into the most genuinely surreal and hallucinatory section in the text, where Flaubert creates a parade of the strangest creatures or human-beasts he has come across in all his reading of myths and legends. These include:

  • the Astomi, humans who are completely transparent
  • the Nisnas, who have only one eye, one cheek, one hand, one leg, half a body, half a heart
  • the Blemmyes who have no head at all
  • the Pygmies
  • the Sciapods, who live with their heads and bodies in the earth, only the soles of their feet and legs showing
  • the Cynocephali, men with the heads of dogs who fly through trees in great forests,
  • the Sadhuzag, who has seventy-four antlers which the wind blows through to make beautiful sounds
  • the Martichoras, a gigantic red lion, with human face, and three rows of teeth
  • the Catoblepas, a black buffalo with a pig’s head, falling to the ground, and attached to his shoulders by a neck long, thin, and flaccid as an empty gut
  • the Basilisk, a great violet serpent, with trilobate crest, and two fangs, one above, one below
  • the Griffin, a lion with a vulture’s beak, and white wings, red paws and blue neck

And then there is a terrifying outpouring of Life in a profusion of forms:

And all manner of frightful creatures arise: – The Tragelaphus, half deer, half ox; the Myrmecoles, lion before and ant behind, whose genitals are set reversely; the python Askar, sixty cubits long, that terrified Moses; the huge weasel Pastinaca, that kills the trees with her odour; the Presteros, that makes those who touch it imbecile; the Mirag, a horned hare, that dwells in the islands of the sea. The leopard Phalmant bursts his belly by roaring; the triple-headed bear Senad tears her young by licking them with her tongue; the dog Cepus pours out the blue milk of her teats upon the rocks.

Mosquitoes begin to hum, toads commence to leap; serpents hiss. Lightnings flicker. Hail falls.
Then come gusts, bearing with them marvellous anatomies: – Heads of alligators with hoofs of deer; owls with serpent tails; swine with tiger-muzzles; goats with the crupper of an ass; frogs hairy as bears; chameleons huge as hippopotami; calves with two heads, one bellowing, the other weeping; winged bellies flitting hither and thither like gnats.

They rain from the sky, they rise from the earth, they pour from the rocks; everywhere eyes flame, mouths roar, breasts bulge, claws are extended, teeth gnash, flesh clacks against flesh. Some crouch; some devour each other at a mouthful.

Suffocating under their own numbers, multiplying by their own contact, they climb over one another; and move about Anthony with a surging motion as though the ground were the deck of a ship. He feels the trail of snails upon the calves of his legs, the chilliness of vipers upon his hands: – and spiders spinning about him enclose him within their network.

Finally, in this endless chain of evolutions and transformations, animals turn into insects, flowers turn into rocks, beasts turn to crystal, ice pullulates with life, it is a wild hallucination of the pantheistic vision of life in all things

And now the vegetables are no longer distinguishable from the animals. Polyparies that seem like trees, have arms upon their branches. Anthony thinks he sees a caterpillar between two leaves: it is a butterfly that takes flight. He is about to step on a pebble: a grey locust leaps away. One shrub is bedecked with insects that look like petals of roses; fragments of ephemerides form a snowy layer upon the soil.

And then the plants become confounded with the stones. Flints assume the likeness of brains; stalactites of breasts; the flower of iron resembles a figured tapestry.

He sees efflorescences in fragments of ice, imprints of shrubs and shells—yet so that one cannot detect whether they be imprints only, or the things themselves. Diamonds gleam like eyes; metals palpitate.

His vision narrows right down onto ants, onto the tiniest creatures, onto organisms no bigger than pinheads, furred with cilia and quivering with primordial life. Anthony has seen the origins of life and evolution in reverse, and he bursts out:

‘O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life! I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting! I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl! Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell – that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk – make my body writhe – divide myself everywhere – be in everything – emanate with odours – develop myself like the plants – flow like water – vibrate like sound – shine like light, squatting upon all forms – penetrate each atom – descend to the very bottom of matter – be matter itself!

And then:

Day at last appears, and, like the raised curtains of a tabernacle, golden clouds furling into larger scrolls unveil the sky.

There in the middle, inside the very disk of the sun, radiates the face of Jesus Christ.

Anthony makes the sign of the cross and returns to his prayers.

Conclusion

Now, either Anthony has learned something definitive in the course of this long, busy night, and Flaubert intends this final outcry, apparently in praise of a kind of pantheistic materialism, as the climax and ‘message’ of the piece (which is very much how it feels when you read it)…

Or the ending has a more pessimistic meaning: namely that the return to his prayers signals a return to the same rut, the same wheel, and that the next night the whole thing will repeat itself all over again. I.e. he is caught like a Beckett character in an endless, pointless cycle of torment and fake wisdom.

I could see that both of these are possibilities but I am happy to leave my reading of the ending completely open because I was just so relieved to get to the end of this long, dense, almost unreadable fantasia of cuttings and notes transmuted into a bizarre sequence of sometimes unbearably tedious scenes.

The only moving part of the whole book is the Lament of the Pagan Gods – where the scenario of each of the gods in turn lamenting the decline of their worship and the end of their influence for once was adequate to the feeling of world sadness Flaubert is obviously aiming at.

Also, the final few pages, the almost hysterical hallucination of the very origins of life, are also head-spinningly delirious. But most if it felt like I was at the dentist having a filling.

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Salvador Dali (1946)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burgundy and France

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

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

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

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

Permanent war

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

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

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

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

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

Two theories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lack of theory

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

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

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

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

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

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

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

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complexity as a defence mechanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scholasticism

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

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

The gap between theory and reality

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

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

Courtly Love

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

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

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

Anxiety and hysteria

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

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

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

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

Waning and decay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unexpectedly critical

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

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

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

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

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

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

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

For two reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

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

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

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

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

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

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

Conclusion

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


Credit

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

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