Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

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Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Art of Love by Ovid

ego sum praeceptor Amoris
I am Love’s teacher
(The Art of Love, book 1, line 17)

Ovid the pickup artist

Anyone expecting a treatise on the philosophical types of love à la Plato or Castiglione, or expecting a text about sentimental or romantic forms of love, will be very disappointed and possibly repelled. This is a hard-headed book by a professional pickup artist and consists of practical advice to young men on where and how to pick up, chat up, seduce and take to bed women married or single, young or old.

‘Love’ suggests a steady state, an ongoing condition. That bores Ovid. He is interested in the chase, the pursuit. His premise is that any woman can be seduced but only if you have technique, and that’s what he’s going to teach. Any fool can try to chat up a woman just as any fool can try his hand at sports, angling or taming horses. But all these things have a technique, an expertise, traditions and methods to guarantee success. He, Ovid, the teacher of love, pickup artist extraordinaire, seduction guru par excellence, is going to share his top tips with the excited young reader.

Vexing Augustus

Over half of Peter Green’s immense introduction to the Penguin edition of Ovid’s love poems is taken up speculating about why the emperor Augustus abruptly exiled Ovid to the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire, to the miserable frontier town of Tomis, on the Black Sea. To cut a long story short, Green thinks it’s because Ovid was witness to some kind of meeting or evidence about a conspiracy to overthrow Augustus in 8 AD and didn’t report it. In his wretched Letters From Exile Ovid hints at the nature of his crime, but to the immense frustration of scholars for 2,000 years, nowhere spells it out explicitly. He simply insists that he, personally, was never treacherous, never acted against the emperor or planned to poison or kill or hurt anyone. It wasn’t enough. Augustus, and his successor Tiberius, refused to rescind Ovid’s exile and he died miserably in Tomis in 17 or 18 AD.

The point is that Green has to piece this together, and present it as a theory, because Augustus and his people gave it out that the official reason Ovid was banished was for corrupting morals, that Ovid had deliberately undermined Augustus’s programme of moral revival, and they cited this poem, The Art of Love, as the prime example of his corrupting influence.

To grasp the background to this you have to know that, once he had secured a position of complete power, Augustus set about a wholesale programme or reviving Rome in every way: building new roads and aqueducts, encouraging the building of cities in the provinces and roads connecting them, reviving trade. And in Rome, building a grand new forum, rebuilding the temples of various gods, encouraging the revival of ancient religious ceremonies and rituals.

And when it came to the population of Rome, Augustus embarked on a campaign to reform morals and, above all, to encourage the upper classes to marry and have many sons. The series of civil wars from 91 to 31 BC had decimated many venerable old families. Augustus embarked on a series of laws designed to revive them.

In 18 BC he passed the Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus (all laws passed under Augustus began with ‘lex Julia‘ because he saw himself continuing the Julian family of Julius Caesar). This law required all citizens to marry, and granted numerous benefits to fathers of three children or more; conversely, there were penalties for the unmarried and childless. Senators were forbidden from marrying freedmen (ex-slaves).

A year later Augustus passed the Lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis. This law punished adultery with banishment. The two guilty parties were sent to different islands and part of their property was confiscated. Fathers were permitted to kill daughters and their partners taken in adultery (!). Husbands could kill unfaithful partners, under certain circumstances, and were compelled to divorce adulterous wives (!). Augustus himself invoked the law against his own daughter, Julia (Julia the Elder, who was banished to the island of Pandateria in 2 BC) and then against her eldest daughter (Julia the Younger who was exiled in 8 AD).

In 9 BC Augustus passed the Lex Papia et Poppaea which encouraged and strengthened the institution of marriage. It included provisions against adultery and against celibacy after a certain age. Specifically, it forbade the marriage of a senator or a senator’s children with a libertina (an emancipated slave), with a woman whose father or mother had followed one of the ars ludicra (i.e. been a dancer, actor, gladiator, or other entertainer), with a prostitute, and also the marriage of a libertinus with a senator’s daughter. The provisions against celibacy included, for example, a provision that any unmarried person could not inherit a bequest or legacy; to qualify for the bequest, they had to marry within 100 days. All else being equal, candidates with children were preferred in elections or court cases over candidates with none.

So: Rebuilding Rome, ongoing military campaigns (to pacify northern Spain, parts of Gaul and Switzerland), reviving venerable religious ceremonies, erecting fine new public buildings, enforcing sexual morality, these were all key policies of the new emperor – and, in the Art of Love, Ovid mocks every single one of them.

Ovid’s book says that being a layabout sex pest is a much more worthy lifestyle than being a boring old soldier. He mocks the empire’s military campaigns. He thinks the gods are a load of lies and fancy stories. He thinks the only use of Rome’s fine new buildings is for hanging round so you can pick up women. And above all, he targets married women. The Art of Love encourages and gives tips about precisely the kind of marital infidelity and sexual aberrance which Augustus passed laws and went to great lengths to try and prevent.

Let me instruct you in all
The way of deceit.
(3.617)

In line after line, topic after topic, Ovid seems to be deliberately, calculatedly, spitting in the face of everything Augustus dedicated his life to achieving. The only wonder about all this is why it took till 8 AD for Augustus to banish Ovid given that the Ars Amatoria was published around 1 BC i.e. 8 or 9 years earlier. And also the fact that, by the time of his banishment, Ovid himself had moved on from his erotic period and had only just published the Metamorphoses, his huge collection of ancient myths and legends, far more acceptable to Augustus and his regime, although with a strong, amoral emphasis on sex and violence.

Hence Green’s elaborate theory that the accusations of corrupting public morals which the regime used to justify exiling Ovid so far away were really just a cover for something else, in Green’s view Ovid’s passive participation in some kind of political conspiracy against Augustus.

Comparison with Oscar Wilde

So, in a way, reading the Ars is like reading Oscar Wilde. Obviously you can just read Wilde for the immediate pleasure of his wit and style but…the experience changes when you learn that many passages of his work were read out in court and interpreted in a blunt, literal sense in order to be used as evidence against him, evidence that he mocked Victorian values, mocked decent ‘morality’, and promoted irresponsible sensuality and gross immorality i.e. homosexuality.

What made Wilde’s defence so difficult was that he had written all these subversive thoughts, albeit in a wonderfully witty style. Wilde thought his style would save him but it didn’t. Therefore, reading Wilde with this in mind can be unintentionally harrowing, because each time he pokes his tongue out at conventional Victorian values you shudder for the wretched fate it was to bring him (two years hard labour in a series of grim prisons, which utterly broke his spirit and led to his early death).

Same with Ovid. Having read Green’s very long introduction, which dwells on the miseries of his Black Sea exile, means that, every time Ovid pokes his tongue out at and mocks all the po-faced solemnities of official Roman morality, you shiver a little with a premonition of what is to befall him, the miserable fate that all these witty little jokes would end up bringing down on his head.

The theatre’s curving tiers should form your favourite
Hunting ground: here you are sure to find
The richest returns, be your wish for lover or playmate,
A one-night stand or a permanent affair.
As ants hurry to and fro in column, mandibles
Clutching grains of wheat
(Their regular diet), as bees haunt fragrant pastures
And meadows, hovering over the thyme,
Flitting from flower to flower, so our fashionable ladies
Swarm to the games in such crowds, I often can’t
Decide which I like. As spectators they come, come to be inspected:
Chaste modesty doesn’t stand a chance.
(lines 89 to 100)

Proem

Back to the poem itself, the first 30 or so lines make up the proem, an ancient term for preface or prologue. It is here that Ovid explains his aim of systematically teaching the technique of the pickup artist. It does include a half line invocation of the goddess Venus, but in an almost insultingly cursory manner, compared to the five lines he spends explaining that this book isn’t theoretical – he has lived and practiced all the tricks he describes himself. He emphatically insists everything the book is based on personal experience and is fact.

There follows a brief, 10-line partitio (‘a logical division into parts or heads’, ‘a descriptive programme of contents’) where he lays out the subject matter the poem will address, which is easily summarised:

  • Book 1 is about finding and wooing a woman
  • Book 2 is about keeping her

The text contains a book 3, just as long, in fact longer than either book 1 or 2, so the fact that it isn’t mentioned in the partitio makes scholars think it was a later addition.

Book 1 (773 lines)

After the proem and partitio, book 1 is divided into two halves: part one is a description of all the best places in Rome to pick up women, namely the colonnades, foreign temples (the synagogue is a good place), the theatre, the circus (for chariot racing), during triumphal processions, at dinner parties and at coastal spas, notably the notorious resort of Baiae.

Part two lists ploys and strategies for winning women. Cultivate their maids (but don’t end up sleeping with them) so they’ll put in a good word for you at the opportune moment, like when the mistress has been snubbed by another lover.

Don’t let the target woman con you into giving them expensive presents: he lists some of the scams women use to try and wangle gifts from their lovers, and how to resist them. (This was a prominent theme in the elegiac love poems of Tibullus and Propertius, too.)

Soften them up with love letters. Use language carefully, softly, sweetly. And persist: Time breaks stubborn oxen to the yoke, Time accustoms wild horses to the bridle. Same with women.

Be clean in your personal hygiene, though not effeminately so: ‘Real men shouldn’t primp their good looks’ (line 509). Take exercise, work up an outdoor tan. Hair and beard demand expert attention. Trim your nails and your nose hairs. Avoid male body odour.

Don’t drink too much at dinner parties (though it can be handy to pretend to be more drunk than you are as this gives you licence to be more forward than a sober man would be, in order to test the waters). Become knowledgeable in the language of secret signs. Drink from her cup, accidentally brush your hand against hers. If she’s with a companion, butter him up. Let him have precedence, award him the garland so he looks favourably on you.

Promise anything; lovers’ oaths don’t count.

Don’t be shy about promising: it’s promises girls are undone by. (1.631)

You can’t flatter too much, every woman is vain of her appearance.

Undermine them with devious
Flatteries: so a stream will eat away
Its overhanging bank. Never weary of praising
Her face, her hair, her slim fingers, her tiny feet.
Even the chaste like having their good looks published,
Even virgins are taken up with their own
Cute figures.
(1.619 to 624)

Look pale and thin to prove your sincerity. Lean and haggard, reek of sleepless nights, make yourself an object of pity so passersby comment, ‘He must be in love.’

Mocking Romulus

Describing the theatre as a good location to pick up women leads Ovid into an extended comparison with the legend about early Rome, that Romulus and his band of earliest settlers invited members of the nearby Sabine tribe to a very early version of a theatrical entertainment and then, at a pre-arranged signal, all the Romans grabbed a Sabine woman and ran off with them. The so-called Rape of the Sabine Women. It was a traditional story, told in many texts, what makes it Ovidian is the way he satirises and mocks Romulus’s high-minded speeches, and makes the entire story a kind of justification for the contemporary theatre being a good pickup location, an ironic mocking use of ‘tradition’ to justify his current cynical activities.

Ever since that day, by hallowed custom,
Our theatres have always held dangers for pretty girls.

In his notes (p.341) Green points out that Augustus, as part of his programme of restoring Roman values and traditions and religions, took the figure of Romulus very seriously indeed, in fact he had for a while considered renaming himself Romulus before the negative connotations outweighed the positive and he settled on the title ‘Augustus’ (awarded him by the Senate in 27 BC). So in this passage Ovid is going out of his way to take the mickey out of a figure very dear indeed to Augustus’s heart, and remodel him as a sponsor for Ovid’s own brand of cynical sexual predatoriness. Can you imagine how furious Augustus must have been?

The gods are expedient

Book 1 contains a line which became famous, it’s line 637 in Green’s translation:

The existence of gods is expedient: let us therefore assume it.

This sounds like a grand philosophical statement. In fact it’s more to do with the fact that the gods of the Graeco-Roman pantheon behaved scandalously, indulging human passions, mad with lust or jealousy…so let’s copy them with a clear conscience. Jupiter seduced umpteen women so…so can I! Again, you can imagine Augustus reading this kind of thing and grinding his teeth with anger.

Book 2 (746 lines)

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much more offensive, it stops. Book 2 is about keeping your beloved and is considerably more emollient and less sexist than Book 1.  Obviously it has the same underlying ideology, which is that women are passive animals while men are the smart manipulators, which 50% of the population may find grossly offensive, but a lot of the actual advice could have come out of a contemporary advice column. Maybe…

To be loved, you must prove yourself lovable.

(So much so that Green in his notes is regularly lampooning the triteness of some the agony aunt truisms he spouts. Maybe. Maybe not.)

Ovid opens Book 2 with ironic cheers for the man who has followed his advice and managed to ‘bag’ himself a lady love. Well done, sunshine. But now the real challenge in this whole business is how to keep her. So that’s what this book will be about:

If my art
Caught her, my art must keep her. To guard a conquest’s
As tricky as making it. There was luck in the chase,
But this task will call for skill.

Don’t mess with witchcraft, aphrodisiacs or drugs. Didn’t work for Medea or Circe. Instead (surprisingly) cultivate the life of the mind.

… to avoid a surprise desertion
And keep your girl, it’s best you have gifts of mind
In addition to physical charms…

Then build an enduring mind, add that to your beauty:
It alone will last till the flames
Consume you. Keep your wits sharp, explore the liberal
Arts, win a mastery over Greek
As well as Latin. Ulysses was eloquent, not handsome…

Be pleasant. Be tactful, be tolerant and understanding. Keep clear of all quarrels and recriminations. Love is sensitive and needs to be fed with gentle words. Leave wrangling to wives; a mistress should hear what she wants to hear.

He emphasises the distinction between married couples who have law to keep them together, and the kind of couples he’s describing where ‘love substitutes for law’. a) the kind of thing calculated to get Augustus’s goat b) a shrewd distinction. Married couples have not only the law, but shared responsibilities for raising children and the expectations of family, plus social reputation, to keep them together; illicit lovers have none of that. So it behoves them to be more considerate and tolerant. In another throwaway line which mockingly equates Rome’s mighty military enterprises with his frothy adulterer’s handbook:

Fight Parthians, but keep peace with a civilised mistress.
(2.175)

Do not use brute force. Go with the natural bend of the bough, don’t force it. Go with the current. Laugh when she laughs, cry when she cries, approve what she approves, criticise what she criticises. Open her parasol, clear a path through the crowd. Help her on and off with her slippers. Don’t bridle at menial tasks like holding her mirror for her. Always be early for dates. If she asks for you at her country residence, Go, no matter what the weather or obstacles.

About now I began to wonder what the point of all this is? The aim doesn’t appear to be to have sex at all. Sex isn’t mentioned anywhere in Book 1 and only appears a bit in the last couple of pages of Book 2 (see below). It’s nice, but it doesn’t appear to the be the prime aim. It feels more as if the whole point of the chase is the thrill of the chase itself and the achievement of…. what exactly? Winning a woman’s what? Heart? Allegiance? Devotion? When he writes that ‘Love is a species of warfare’, I don’t take it in the sexist sense to mean warfare between men and women, but warfare between male suitors for.. for what? For the beloved’s love? All the elegiac poets complain bitterly when their lady love is taken off them by another man: the embittered poem to The Rival is a genre unto itself.

Is it just about a sense of possession, of ownership? Is it about winning a woman as a trophy and then….then not really knowing quite what to do with her?

Anyway, the reference to Parthia allows Ovid a passage comparing the soldier of love with the actual soldier in the army, and make witty comparisons with the hardships both have to endure, a trope which is beginning to feel done to death in the Amores and here, let alone in all the other elegiac poets.

It may sound ludicrous but the rhetoric about the need to humble your pride, humiliate yourself, debase yourself before your beloved, accept that no task is too great to please her is reminiscent of Christian rhetoric, with its emphasis on humility and service. At moments Ovid steps out of the 1st century BC and sounds like a medieval troubador or Renaissance lover.

(Personally, as a Darwinian materialist, I would venture that this is because human nature is finite and only capable of a fixed array of emotions, feelings and strategies. The same kind of rhetoric is found in communist propaganda, which tells you to mortify your bourgeois pride in order to throw in your lot with The People, accepting any task, no matter how humble, for the sake of the Revolution. I appreciate the contexts are wildly different but the same phrases and attitudes can be found in numerous ideologies and religions. We humans think we’re fabulous but are, in practice, very limited, very predictable animals.)

Back to Ovid’s Top Tips for Lovers: Don’t give your mistress costly presents – give small ones, but chosen with skill and discretion. Poetry? Girls might be impressed by it as by a cute little gift, but what most women really want is money, rich presents. That’s why this is truly ‘the Golden Age’, he says, with heavy irony.

Very casually he mentions slaves that are going to be manumitted, or about to be flogged, or sent to a chain gang. As usual, I find references to slavery profoundly disturbing (as I do the references to upper class women scratching the faces of their slave maids or stabbing them with pins, if they make a mistake). The context is that if you were thinking of forgiving your slaves their punishments, wangle it so your mistress pleads for mercy, then do what you were going to do anyway.

Praise her beauty. Praise anything she’s wearing. Compliment her hair, or her dancing, or her singing. Lay it on with a trowel. Praise her technique in bed. The one golden rule is don’t overdo it and get caught out obviously lying. Then your reputation’s ruined.

If she gets ill, attend her sick room, cry, be all sympathy, bring an old crone to purify the room.

The key is to be always present, get her accustomed to you, hearing your voice, seeing your face. Then, when you’ve reached peak presence, arrange to be absent and make her miss you. Absence makes the heart grow fonder…up to a point. Not too long. In a page-long passage he doesn’t blame Helen for eloping with Paris but Menelaus for going off and leaving her by herself (2.357 to 372) (a theme he explored in some detail in the Heroides supposedly written by Helen and Paris).

In a very throwaway manner he says, obviously he’s not imagining you’re restricting yourself to just one lover. God forbid! So in order not to get caught out, don’t give X presents that Y might recognise; make sure you erase all previous messages from a wax tablet letter you send lover Y; don’t meet different lovers in the same places, cultivate different locales for each.

If she catches you out, deny everything, if that fails go for it, in bed. Hard ‘cocksmanship’ is its own proof that a) your not shagging anyone else b) you’re still devoted. Some aphrodisiacs might work and he gives a characteristically Roman quirky list of foodstuffs and ingredients (white Megarian onions, colewort, eggs, Hymettus honey, pine nuts).

If things get boring you could strategically let slip that you’re seeing someone else. Handled correctly, with the right kind of girl, this could lead to terrible scenes and recriminations, sure, but if you navigate your way through the tears, beg forgiveness, take her to bed and have great make-up sex, this can rejuvenate a relationship.

The last couple of hundred lines become chaotic. I found this with Horace’s last few epistles, as well. Roman poets are not great at structure. Their poems often take unexpected turns and detours. Out of nowhere the god Apollo appears by Ovid’s side and delivers a 20 line lecture, telling lovers to employ the famous motto over his oracle in Delphi, namely to know yourself. So if you’re handsome, always present your profile; if you’re clever, fill the space at dinner parties with brilliant talk; if a good drinker, show it and so on. It’s puzzling and random that Apollo pops up like this, given that he was name-checked in the opening lines of the poem as a god who had not inspired the poet (who insists everything he teaches derives from his own experience).

After this interruption, there’s a more puzzling digression as he appears to say that all lovers should know when to quit. It is not gentlemanly to become a bore. Know when to leave, before she starts complaining that you’re always hanging around (2.530). You’d have thought this – advice on how to end a relationship – would come right at the end of the book.

Instead the book still has 200 lines to run and continues with a section on how to cope with a rival, which is accept him with sang-froid – advice Ovid immediately goes on to say he finds hard to follow himself. He advises lovers to let their mistress have another lover and turn a blind eye. Snooping, opening letters, eavesdropping, those are the mean-minded activities of a husband, a lover should rise above them.

There’s more contradiction here, because Ovid had (unnecessarily and briefly) asserted that he doesn’t have in mind, he never has in mind, respectably married matrons. And yet here and at many other places, he mentions the husband of the ideal target of all this seduction technique. It’s a flat contradiction which has no clever or literary impact – it just comes over as confused and contradictory, either badly planned or contradictory passages have been cut and pasted together, for some reason.

The final section seems repetitive. He (again) advises flattery: if the mistress is black as pitch call her a ‘brunette’ to flatter her; if she squints, compare her to Venus; if she croaks, tell her she’s like Minerva; if she’s a living skeleton, call her ‘svelte’.

Never ask a woman her age, specially if she’s past her girlish prime. Anyway, age is good, it brings experience, sophistication and skill. They know a thousand different positions. And then he surprised me by making the most explicit reference I’ve read in any Roman poet. Green has Ovid saying he likes it when both partners reach climax during love making. That’s his main objection to sex with boys, he loves making his mistress gasp with sex, and making her climax (2.683 to 691).

He gives sex advice: touch her where she wants to be touched; watch her eyes assume that expression, rapture, gasps and moans. Take your time. Don’t hurry to climax and don’t come before your mistress.

Book 2 ends with a comic conclusion in which he says he excels all the soldier heroes of legend for his skill and excellence in teaching, so may every man who uses his advice to win and keep a mistress carve a trophy with the words: ‘Ovid was my guide’!

This feels like a very neat tying up of the poem and many scholars feel it was the original ending, emphasised by the fact that two of the heroes he mentions – Achilles and Automedon – were mentioned right at the start of Book 2.

But there then appear 2 additional lines, claiming that now – the girls want his advice, which most scholars think were tacked on in order to justify the later addition of Book 3.

Book 3 (812 lines)

A prologue explaining that he’s equipped men against women, now he’s going to do the reverse and offer the girls the benefit of his ‘wisdom’. The same kind of sweeping generalisations he made against women in books 1 and 2 he now makes for women. It reminds me of Cicero the lawyer, arguing sometimes for, sometimes against, the same client. It makes you realise the extent to which this poem obviously, but maybe Roman literature as a whole, was always much more of a rhetorical exercise than we are used to. Was always more of a performance of the poet’s skill in a certain style, in a certain metre, on a certain topic – than anything like our notion of poetry in particular as expressing genuine personal feelings and views.

All this explains his sudden volte-face and attempts to prove the opposite of what he was asserting a few pages back.

Men are often deceivers, girls hardly ever.

I was president of my school debating society. I recognise the signs of being given a topic you don’t have much sympathy for, and being told to present a case, first for it, then against it. You don’t win prizes for sincerity. You win prizes for the skill with which you select and present your points.

He invents the notion of Venus appearing to him and complaining that men are benefiting from his 2 books of advice; give the girls a chance.

In fact, his advice kicks off by not being particularly woman-friendly. He spends a couple of pages striking the carpe diem note i.e. your youth will pass, you’ll grow old and wizened and grey-haired so seize the day, give into love. Maybe your lover will turn out a cheat and a liar, who cares? What’s lost? Have a shower and move onto the next one. Some goods wear out with use, but your privates won’t wear out (line 92) so let your lovers come to the well a thousand times.

I naively thought the book would be a guide to women on the art of seducing men, so was disappointed when it turned out to be more like a woman’s magazine-type set of articles about how to make the most of yourself. Don’t overdo jewellery and accessories. Advice on the best hairstyle to match the shape of your face. A page on different colours for dresses. Shave your armpits and your legs. Clean your teeth. Make-up, powder and rouge. Mascara. As traditional, the best make-up remains unobtrusive (3.211).

Keep all this hard work hidden. ‘There’s a lot men are better off not knowing.’

Beauties don’t need him, his advice is for the less than perfect, the ugly or plain or short (just as his advice to men wasn’t to the handsome and rich, who need no help, but the less well-off and physically ordinary). He goes on to give advice for the skinny, the pale, the swarthy, those with skinny calves or ugly feet, buck teeth or bad breath.

Learn to cry on demand. Learn to walk elegantly with a nice sway of the hips (3.302).

Girls should know how to sing and play a musical instrument. And, of course, poetry, leading into a much-cited passage mentioning the appeal of various poets, the love poetry of Catullus, Tibullus or Propertius, the heroic history of Virgil (‘the most publicised Latin poem of all time’) maybe even his own products, the Amores and Heroides (proudly boasting that the heroic epistle is an art form he invented himself).

A girl should know how to dance. And how to play board games, which leads into a page about Roman board games which is infuriatingly light on detail (apparently, historians don’t know how to play even one single Roman board game). Ovid points out the key thing about playing is to maintain control while men, all too easily excited by games, lose theirs.

A confused section contrasts women’s limited social freedoms with men being able to exercise on the Field of Mars and go swimming in the Tiber; which quickly cuts back to places women can go to, a surprisingly large amount i.e. temples, the colonnades, the theatre, the circus, the forum. Somehow this morphs back onto a passage about poets and how they used to be respected in olden times, not so much nowadays. As towards the end of Book 2, it feels like Ovid is just cutting and pasting passages in willy-nilly, with no logic and unnecessary repetition. Somehow the passage about poetry ends with the conclusion that a good place to find a husband is at your last husband’s funeral, when you’re there with dishevelled hair and tear-stained eyes, which some men find very sexy.

Beware of smart-looking young beaux with a handsome profile and rings on their fingers – they’re cheaters and users.

By line 470, sensing that he’s becoming chaotic, Ovid tells himself to rein his muse in and try and be more structured in how he’s presenting this advice.

How to handle letters from passionate lovers i.e. wait a bit then get your maid or boy to reply. Don’t be taken in by feigned passion.

Riskily he refers to Augustus as ‘our great leader’ and just as he places men in various positions, advises a woman to do the same to her prospective lovers.

Confusingly there’s now a third section about poets, this time including some famous lines about how they get their inspiration from heaven, the God is within them etc. Sure, but why weren’t these three separate passages about poets gathered together and ordered more logically?

Back to lovers. Lock them out sometimes. Make them sweat. When things are getting boring drop hints that you have another lover, he has a rival. Juice him up. Pretend your husband’s a tyrant who’s having you watched. In the middle of an assignation have a maid come running in shouting, ‘The master’s coming,’ and then both bundle him out the window in a panic. That’ll keep him interested.

He gives a couple of pages on how to evade the watchful eye of your husband or guardian, by smuggling messages in and out, arranging illicit meetings, using a friend’s apartment, dates at the theatre or circus, let alone the baths, or the religious ceremonies supposedly restricted to women only etc.

Don’t trust girlfriends. Or your own maid. Ovid confesses to having seduced many a maid when her mistress just made herself too unavailable. The theme of jealousy prompts him to insert a lengthy telling of the story of Cephalus and Procris (3.687 to 746). This feels like padding out and is immediately followed by a note to himself to stop all these digressions.

Final burst of advice: regarding parties, already arrive late, after dark, when the torches have been lit. Eat sparingly and daintily. Final part is another surprisingly candid section of sexual advice. Just as he recommended different hairstyles and dress colours for different faces and physiques, here he runs through half a dozen different sexual positions which are appropriate for different body types (if you have a pretty face, do it missionary position; if a strong back, from behind; if you’re petite, ride him like a horse etc).

This and the parallel passage in Book 2 are the only descriptions I’ve read in the 50 or so Roman texts I’ve read. As this is a guidebook, they’re brisk and practical. As in Book 2, his ideal is that man and woman climax together. He is aware of the fact that many women can’t climax (at least not through penetrative sex) and so suggests they pant and moan and pretend, ‘put on an act!’ something, as I understand it, hundreds of millions of women have done through the ages.

And with that it’s over and he, very weakly, ends with a straight repeat of the lines at the end of Book 2, telling his girl disciples, like the boys before them, to inscribe on their trophies of successful loves, ‘Ovid was my guide.’ It was funny the first time round. Here it’s indicative of Book 3’s very belated, tacked-on and ragbag structure. No wonder he tells himself frequently throughout the book to leave off digressing, to get back to the point, to pull his socks up.

I wonder if a powerful woman ordered him to add a Book 3. Livia, maybe?


Sexism

The Ars Amatoria isn’t a bit sexist, it is made of sexism. Has there ever been a more sexist book? The entire text is based on the assumption that women are prey, like wild animals, to be stalked and captured, that they have little or no will of their own, that their main characteristics are vanity about their looks and shopping, which is why the pickup artist should focus on relentless flattery and know how to gracefully handle endless demands for gifts.

As the Amores set out to capture and record every possible aspect of the love poem, as the Metamorphoses set out to record every single Greek myth which involved bodily change, so the Ars Amatoria is, in effect, an encyclopedia of sexist and misogynist attitudes.

I could list the ways Ovid dehumanises women, reducing them to game (as in big game, animals to be hunted), birds to be caught, wild animals to be stalked, fish to be hooked, or soil to be ploughed, wild land to be tamed, and so on.

At a less metaphorical level, he is straightforward insulting about women’s natures:

If you’re wise
Gull only girls, they’re no danger. In this one deception
It’s good faith that ought to make you blush.
They’re cheats, so cheat them: most are dumb and unscrupulous: let them
Fall into the traps they’ve set themselves.
(1.642 to 646)

If Augustus was driven to fury by Ovid’s calculated mockery of Rome’s religion, venerable founder, and sexual mores, what must the formidable Livia have made of this unrelenting abuse of women as a sex? Did she have any input into the decision to banish the scandalous poet?

I imagine modern women readers will struggle with such continual libel, objectification, undermining, insult, sexism and misogyny without being overcome with disgust. Towards the end of Book 1 Ovid sinks into the darkest hole of all when he repeats the lie of the ages, that when a woman says no she doesn’t mean it: all women, deep down, want to be overcome, by force if necessary.

It’s all right to use force – force of that sort goes down well with
The girls: what in fact they love to yield
They’d often rather have stolen. Rough seduction
Delights them, the audacity of near-rape
Is a compliment.
(1.673 to 677)

And goes on to mention two women from Greek mythology who were raped and then fell in love with their rapists. Wow. Needs no comment from me.

Just one comment about Green’s style. As I mentioned in my review of his translation of the Amores, Green uses an exaggeratedly demotic, Jack-the-Lad register, and this turns out to be really appropriate for this poem, which is a long hymn to Jack the Lads. I now understand that Green’s very demotic style – which I initially thought inappropriate for the Amores – turns out to be very appropriate for the Art of Love, bringing out the vulgarity and crudity of a lot of the thought, more so than a smoother, more ‘literary’ translation might have done.

Many women adore the elusive,
Hate over-eagerness. So, play hard to get,
Stop boredom developing. And don’t let your entreaties
Sound too confident of possession. Insinuate sex
Camouflaged as friendship
. I’ve seen ultra-stubborn creatures
Fooled by this gambit, the switch from companion to stud.
(1.717 to 722)

This is a vivid translation of often very repellent sentiments.

Anticipations of the Metamorphoses

Ovid is most known and read for his epic masterpiece, the Metamorphoses, a long poem in 15 books which chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. What makes it distinctive is that it tells the story via a series of classic Greek myths or legends, in particular, stories about humans metamorphosing into plants and animals of which, when you come to study it, there turn out to be a surprising number.

I mention it here because, unexpectedly, and not really directly relevant, the Ars Amatoria contains fairly long passages which anticipate some of these stories. Thus there are extended accounts of:

Book 1

  • the legend of Pasiphaë, queen of Crete, and how she was impregnated by a bull, conceiving the half-man, half-bull monster, the Minotaur (1.289 to 327)
  • Bacchus coming to the rescue of Ariadne, abandoned on her desert island by Theseus (1.525 to 564)

Book 2

  • Daedalus devising his plan to escape imprisonment on Crete by creating wings for himself and his son Icarus, and flying to freedom (2.20 to 97)
  • the creation of the world and the universal drive to procreate among animals (2.467 to 489)
  • Vulcan trapping his wife in adultery with Mars (2.561 to 592)

Book 3

  • the legend of Cephalus and Procris (3.687 to 746)

Last word

Let others worship the past; I much prefer the present,
Am delighted to be alive today.
(3.121)

This is actually quite a striking departure from convention, because it was axiomatic for pretty much all writers and thinkers in the ancient world that the past contained a matchless Golden Age and the present was a sad, fallen age of degeneration and decline. In this handful of words Ovid rejects that entire tradition and hapless, sorry-for-itself way of thinking and strikes an exuberantly Nietzschean note: Rejoice! The present is all we have, so: Make the most of it.


Credit

The Erotic Poems of Ovid, translated by Peter Green, was published by Penguin Books in 1982. All references are to the 1982 paperback edition.

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The Aeneid by Virgil – books 4 to 6

‘[This is] Trojan Aeneas, famous for his devotion and his feats of arms.’
(The Sibyl defending Aeneas to Charon in Aeneid book 6, line 404)

Book 4 Dido, love and death

Dido admits to her sister, Anna, that she is falling in love with Aeneas. Anna says she has held aloof from suitors from all the neighbouring tribes, but yes, she needs to let go of her dead husband and fall in love. Encouraged by this, Dido falls madly in love. Virgil – in his Epicurean, anti-emotion way – describes it as a madness, a fever, a fire in the bones, and other alarming analogies.

Remember that in the third Georgic Virgil wrote an extended denunciation of love and sex and passion in all its forms, whether in animals or humans, as a fire and frenzy which completely derails efforts to live rationally and orderly:

Man and beast, each and every race of earth,
creatures of the sea, domesticated animals, and birds in all their finery,
all of them rush headlong into its raging fury; love’s the same for one and all.
(Georgic 3: lines 242 to 244, translated by Peter Fallon)

Venus meets with Juno. Juno suggests they let Aeneas and Dido marry, thus uniting exiled Tyrians and Trojans into a super-tribe. Venus interprets this as a transparent attempt to stop Aeneas continuing on to Italy and founding the Roman people who will, centuries hence, crush Dido’s heirs. She agrees in principle but diplomatically suggests Juno asks her husband, Jupiter, king of the gods, what he thinks. Juno outlines her plans to interrupt Dido and Aeneas’s next hunting trip, conjure up a storm, separate the lovers from their entourages, drive them into a cave and there have them consummate their love.

And this is what happens, with fire flashing and nymphs wailing from the mountaintops. For centuries of readers their love has been reinterpreted in the light of the medieval concept of courtly love and the sentimental romantic ideas which followed. But Virgil is harshly critical. Not only does this mark the beginning of the end for Dido:

This day was the beginning of her death, the first cause of all her sufferings. (4. 170)

But it had a ruinous effect on her people. When she slackened her leadership, they stopped building the city. The towers ceased to rise. The harbours and fortifications were left half-finished. All stood idle.

Virgil spends a page describing the genealogy and character of Rumour which runs fleet of foot among all men and communities spreading lies and when he describes Rumour as telling foreign rulers that Dido and Aeneas have ceased leading their people in order to wallow in lust…I immediately realise Virgil has made them Antony and Cleopatra, ‘lovers who had lost all recollection of their good name’ (4.221) which makes Creusa the emblem of Octavia, Antony’s loyal dutiful Roman wife, abandoned for an oriental whore.

The local king, Iarbas, had long harboured plans of marrying Dido so now he is infuriated that she abruptly abandoned herself to another. He offers up heartfelt angry complaints to his father, Jupiter.

Jupiter hears and is angry that Aeneas is shirking his duty. He calls Mercury and tells him to deliver an angry message to the Trojan. Is this the hero Venus promised them? Hardly. ‘He must sail. That is all there is to say.’

Mercury puts on his winged sandals, takes his caduceus and skims down through the skies to alight by Aeneas, busy helping build a temple. Mercury gets straight to it, telling Aeneas he is a disgrace by abandoning his destiny and to think about his little son who is meant to inherit leadership of a brave new race: ‘You owe him the land of Rome and the kingdom of Italy.’ (4.286)

So Aeneas immediately calls his lieutenants to him and tells them to ready the ships and the people for departure. Dido obviously hears about this and comes raging to see him, eyes blazing with anger. he tries to justify himself, but furious Dido dismisses all his excuses, calls him a traitor, mocks his stories about Jupiter this and Mercury that, then dismisses him, tells him to leave, but warns that her furious ghost will return to haunt him. (Lots of ghosts, a poem of ghosts, bringing with them the sad wisdom of the dead.)

Dido runs off into her palace, collapsing with despair. Virgil points the moral: See? This is where ‘love’ gets you:

Love is a cruel master. There are no lengths to which it does not force the human heart. (4.413)

But Aeneas, unlike Antony, is faithful to his duty (4.394) and continues preparations for departure. Dido pours her heart out to her sister, Anna, and sends her again and again with heartfelt pleas for pity or at least a delay – but the Fates forbade it and God blocked his ears to all appeals.

‘Possessed by madness’, Dido perceives all kinds of portents. Her sacrificial offerings turn black and bloody, She hears muttering at the shrine of her dead husband. She has nightmares in which she is abandoned on the African shore alone. Madness is the key word, repeated again and again.

She instructs her sister to build a big funeral pyre in the atrium of the palace where she says she will burn all Aeneas’s belongings. She attends ceremonies supervised by a terrifying priestess from Ethiopia who chants incantations to all the deities of hell.

Like all suicides Dido can’t see a way out: if she goes with Aeneas and the Trojans she will be their chattel; if she tries to persuade the entire Tyrian people to follow her they will refuse; if she stays behind she will be the laughing stock of all the tribes around who she used to treat so haughtily and will now see her humbled. No. She must die. [Virgil dramatises the logic of her thinking all too vividly.] And she reproaches herself for ever abandoning her independent single status as a widow.

Aeneas is asleep in the stern of a ship but he has a terrifying dream vision of ‘the god’ who warns him not to wait, but to leave now before morning comes and Dido comes to talk him out of leaving or to burn his ships. He wakes and wakes his men, they weight anchor and depart.

Dido waking with the dawn sees the sea covered with their ships and the harbour empty and delivers a magnificent harangue cursing Aeneas mightily and ends with an actual curse, invoking all the gods to ensure Aeneas in his new homeland never enjoys it, but is harried by a strong race, and driven from his own land, and beg for help and see his people dying. Let him die before his time and lie unburied on the sand. And may undying enmity be between her people and his (obviously referring to the legendary enmity which grew up between Rome and Carthage in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC).

Then she climbs onto the pyre she has prepared, delivers another magnificent speech about her destiny and her good intentions and plunges upon Aeneas’s sword and her blood foams out. Her serving women see and a great wailing spreads across the city as if the enemy were within and destroying everything (exactly as they had at Troy: repetitions and echoes).

Her sister Anna comes running, cursing herself for not realising this is what her sister really wanted the pyre built for and recriminating Dido for not waiting or sharing her death. She climbs atop the pyre and holds her sister as three times she tries to rise on her elbow but collapses and then expires.

Thus Dido died ‘in a sudden blaze of madness’ and Juno took pity and sent Iris down to loosen the binding of her soul. And so Iris descends as a rainbow through the sky and alights on the pyre and cuts a lock of Dido’s hair and thus releases her soul from its anguish.

God, surely this is the most magnificent and moving book ever written! It is breathtakingly powerful, cuts deep, and yet is short, just 23 pages in the Penguin edition, with not an ounce of fat, nothing verbose or long-winded or tiresome, but fast-moving, alert and to the point, fiercely and deeply imagined, and transcendently moving!

Book 5 Funeral games

Another storm hits, forcing them ashore back in Sicily, in the port run by his brother Eryx, where the bones of his father Anchises are buried. They are greeted by Acestes, half Trojan. The months pass until it is a full year since Anchises died and was buried. Aeneas leads sacrifices and ceremonies at his tomb.

Then he holds grand funeral games. First a boat race across the sea to a prominent rock and back. Then a running race. Then boxing matches. All are described in loving (and surprisingly exciting) detail. An arrow shooting competition and then equipage, horse management by the young contemporaries of Ascanius. They young cavalry perform a mock battle. Virgil explains how Ascanius will pass this on to his descendants and eventually it will be performed in Rome by youthful cavalry and called the lusus Troiae.

For the first time Virgil associates specific companions of Aeneas with the patrician Roman families they will establish (Mnestheus giving his name to the Memmii family, Sergestus the Sergii, Cloanthus the Cluentii [5.120], Atys founder of the Atii [5.569]).

The games are then officially ended but meanwhile the wretched women of Troy, fed up with seven years wandering over the endless ocean, rebel. Juno, font of endless schemes against Aeneas, sends Iris in disguise of one of their number to rouse them to indignation and insist that they sail no further but settle here on Sicily. Possessed by divine fury, they seize brands from the various altars and throw them into the Trojan ships.

The men quickly drop their games and rush to the beach just as the goddess leaves the women’s minds and, coming to their senses, the realise what they’ve done and run off into the woods and hills. Aeneas stares at his burning fleet and calls on Jupiter to save what little remains – at which there is a sudden torrential downpour. Most of the ships are saved but four are write-offs.

Aeneas is downhearted. But old Nautes gives good advice: he says Aeneas and the young and fit must continue on to Italy; but leave here on Sicily the old men, the women worn out by the sea, the ‘heart-weary’. Let them build a city and call it Acesta.

Still, Aeneas is worried and careworn when the ghost of his father slides down through the dark. He reinforces Nautes’ advice to leave the old and sick here on Sicily and only take the young and strong with him to Italy for there, as he has been told quite a few times by now, he will have to overcome ‘a wild and strong people’.

But Anchises tells him something new. First he will have to go down into Dis, the underworld, to meet his spirit there. He will be helped through the doorway to hell by a Sibyll. There he will learn about all the descendants who are to follow him. Then, like so many of his visions, he disappears into thin air like smoke.

Aeneas, as is his wont, goes straight into action (as he did after the god told him to leave Carthage immediately). For nine days he helps the people they’re leaving behind lay out the boundaries of the new city, build a forum, ordain laws and erect a temple to Venus, building a mini-Troy.

Then they say their farewells, make the sacrifices and oblations, and set sail, with a fair wind and rowing. Cut to Venus visiting Neptune god of the sea and bewailing Juno’s unending spite against the Trojans and beseeching Neptune to take pity on them. Neptune reminds her how he protected Aeneas when Achilles was running mad in front of Troy, and promises fair seas.

All the mortals see is the appearance of a clear sky and fair winds and they set sail for Italy with good heart. Thus Virgil shows us, behind every physical event, especially large scale ones like the weather, storms, shooting stars, erupting volcanoes and so on, the direct involvement of the gods. The gods are the environment through which mortals walk, purblind and ignorant.

And Palinurus, the loyal helmsman who has always given the best advice – the god of sleep wafts down from heaven, taps him on the temples with a stick dripping with water from the rivers Lethe and the Styx (rivers of the underworld), Palinurus is plunged into a deep sleep and the god of sleep chucks him overboard where he drowns down down down into the blue ocean.

Noticing something wrong, Aeneas goes astern and discovers his top helmsman has fall overboard, and blames him for trusting to a calm sea. But, as we know, it is not his fault. Like all mortals, there is nothing he can do to resist the whims of the gods.

Half way through the book I am noticing:

  • how many visions, ghosts, dream visitations, spectral appearances and just as sudden disappearances there are
  • by extension, the way there are few if any conversations, but rather great block chunks of speeches
  • the enormous amount of sacrifices – so many bullocks slaughtered, so many entrails, so much steaming gore

Book 6 The underworld

They make land at Cumae (according to Wikipedia ‘the first ancient Greek colony on the mainland of Italy, founded by settlers from Euboea in the 8th century BC and soon becoming one of the strongest colonies.’) Aeneas makes to the citadel with its huge temple of Apollo, and a vast cave, retreat of ‘the awesome Sibyl’. On the doors of the temple are depicted scenes from legend including the story of the Minotaur. For legend has it that this is where Daedalus touched down after making wings for himself to escape from captivity in Crete.

The daughter of the high priest tells them to make animal sacrifices then come with her. She is suddenly possessed by the go and tells Aeneas to pray. Aeneas delivers a page-long supplication to the god Apollo to have mercy on his people.

The priestess fights against the god but finally he possesses her and delivers his prophecy to Aeneas. They have finished their travels by sea. But what awaits them by land will be worse.

I see wars, deadly wars, I see the Thybris foaming with torrents of blood. (6.86)

Immigration

This line was notoriously quoted out of context by the British politician Enoch Powell in his virulently anti-immigration speech of April 1968. Reading it here, I realise there’s a political irony here, because this speech, about bloodshed, isn’t addressed to the native people, warning them against immigrants – Aeneas is the immigrant. He is the one arriving in a strange land and it is his god-inspired conviction that he’s owed a living and a future here which brings bloodshed and war.

Women’s wombs

Anyway, the god goes on to predict he must face ‘a second Achilles’. More interestingly, he warns that ‘Once again the cause of all this Trojan suffering will be a foreign bride’ – just as the entire Trojan war was fought over Helen (and just as the action of the Iliad is triggered by a squabble between Agamemnon and Achilles about who should be assigned a slave girl they captured at a raid on an outlying temple). The rightful ownership of women, and their reproductive capacity, is the core cause of these wars between violent men. Next to ownership of the land and its food-producing capacity, comes ownership of women and their baby-producing capacity. It is as primitive as that.

Madness

The visionary state in which the priestess speaks Apollo’s words is described as ‘madness’. Did Virgil use the same word for this as for the ‘madness’ of Dido? In which case it weakens the rhetoric of his argument against love and passion. If so, is it the same word he used for the ‘madness’ of the Trojan women who set fire to the ships in Sicily (5.660, 670)? In which case, is he making the point that a certain kind of madness is restricted to, or characteristic of, women?

Aeneas begs the Sibyl to allow him to go down into hell to see his father. The Sibyl warns the way down is easy, it’s the coming back that’s difficult. When the Sibyl warns that undertaking such a journey is ‘the labour of madness‘ I begin to see frenzy, insanity and madness as being a recurring theme or motif of the poem.

The Sibyl tells him a) there is a dead man lying unburied which is polluting the fleet; he must find and bury him and perform the rituals b) there is a tree in a dark grove which bears a golden bough; he must pluck it and carry it down to hell to please Queen Proserpina; but only the favoured of the gods can find it or pluck it.

Aeneas leaves, accompanied by his faithful friend Achates, and on the shore above the tideline they discover the body of Misenus. He had engaged in a horn blowing competition with a Triton who drowned him. So the Trojans chop down a load of trees (whose species Virgil carefully lists) to build a shrine and altar. While doing so Aeneas prays for help in finding the grove of the golden bough and his mother Venus sends two white doves who lead him to the tree.

He plucks the golden bough, presents it to the Sibyl, who insists on numerous more rites and sacrifices and then leads him down into hell, taking him past a checklist of the florid monsters who guard the gates, centaurs, scyllas, chimera, gorgons, harpies and so on.

Dante

I can see why Virgil was such a model for Dante in terms of format. Aeneas spots individuals among the various crowds (such as the crowd waiting to be ferried by Charon across the Styx), asks them a question, and the other briefly tells his story, explaining why he’s ended up here. This is more or less the recurring format for the entire Divine Comedy.

So Aeneas sees Palinurus, quizzes him, and Palinurus tells him his sad fate – he was not drowned after all, but swam to shore where he was murdered by ruffians. He begs to be allowed to cross the river; the sibyl says this is not possible till his body is given a decent burial; the sibyl reassures him that the people who live near his corpse will be driven by signs from heaven to find it and give it a decent burial

This entire story of Palinurus seems designed to evoke a sweet sadness, as we observe his grief, his regrets, Aeneas’s grief for him, their manly love for each other – commander and staunch helmsman – who met a cruel fate through no fault of his own. The Palinurus story encapsulates Virgil’s pity for suffering humanity. Seeing the great tide of woeful humanity waiting on the river bank, ‘the helpless souls of the unburied’, Aeneas ‘pitied their cruel fate.’

The hell sequence is packed with mythological details (three-headed Cerberus etc), but it is the human moments which strike home, not least his encounter with the shade of Dido. Till this moment he wasn’t sure what became of her but now he realises the rumours were true and she killed herself. He fulsomely apologises, saying he was driven on by the command of the gods, but she won’t even look at him, stands silent, then wafts away to be with her first, murdered, husband, grief speaking to grief.

In Wilfred Owen’s famous preface to his war poems he said ‘the poetry is in the pity’. Well, there is poetry in every aspect of this magnificent poem, but the consistent underlying tone of the Aeneid is heartfelt pity at the sad and tragic plight of humanity.

There is an awesome description of their walk through hell while the aged priestess of Apollo explains the variety and ingenuity of the punishments for all who have broken the laws of gods and men, including the shades of all the Greeks and the Trojans who fought and died during the recent war. Then they come to the home of the blessed: here there is singing and games, poets, leading up to the great Musaeus, who tells Aeneas where to find his father.

Aeneas is reunited with the spirit of his father. He goes to embrace him three times (the rule of three; just as Aeneas tried to embrace the ghost of Creusa three times, 2.792) but, like Creusa, Anchises is soft as the wind (6.700). But he can speak. He is delighted to see his son and then explains how some souls in the afterlife are purged of their earthly memories and returned to the primeval fire which first began the universe; but others buzz round Elysium for a thousand years and then are sent back to inhabit new bodies on earth. In other words, reincarnation.

He leads Aeneas and the Sibyl to a slight mound in the plain and predicts the long line of Aeneas’s descendants who will make Rome and Italy great. Reincarnation seems very unGreek but then, if his prime aim was to have scene where Aeneas is shown all his descendants, it’s hard to see how else this could have been achieved. The souls of famous men had to be available before they were born in order for Aeneas to review them. The more you think about it, the weirder it becomes.

Anchises points out Aeneas’s descendants starting with his posthumous son, Silvius who will be followed by Procas, Capys, Numitor, Silvius Aeneas, founders of Alba Longa and other settlements. Then Romulus founder of Rome ‘whose empire shall cover the earth’.

Then Anchises turns to the Caesar, mentioning Julius Caesar (remote descendant of Iulus, or Ascanius, Aeneas’s son). Then follows the famous hymn to Augustus Caesar, son of a god, who will bring back the golden years of the age of Saturn, who will extend the borders of the empire to the edge of the known world, who will achieve more than Hercules or Bacchus. Is that enough brown-nosing?

Rather anachronistically, Anchises goes back to recount the line of kings who ruled Rome, before switching to heroes of the early Republic, the Brutus who drove out the Tarquins, others who invented the consulship, Cato the Elder, the Gracchi, the two Scipios, Fabius Maximus, great figures from Roman history. And then some sternly patriotic rhetoric:

Your task, Romans, and do not forget it, will be to govern the peoples of the world in your empire. These will be your arts – and to impose a settled pattern upon peace, to pardon the defeated and war down the proud. (6.851)

Then Anchises delivers a page-long lament for a young man they see accompanying Marcellus on his triumph. This is Marcus Claudius Marcellus (42 to 23 BC), nephew of Augustus and his closest male relative, who enjoyed an accelerated political career and was married to Augustus’s daughter, Julia. But he died of an infection which swept through Italy (Augustus got it but recovered) dashing Augustus’s hopes of making him his heir. So it seems likely that this extended passage in praise of young Marcellus was written just after his death in 23 BC, in order to please Virgil’s patron, the great Augustus.

David West, the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the Aeneid, devotes a 3-page appendix to this section, the procession of Roman heroes, giving brief descriptions of all the eminent Romans who feature in it. He mentions the story, recorded in a near-contemporary biography of Virgil, that when he was reading his poem to Augustus and his family, his sister – Octavia (mother of Marcellus) – fainted at this passage. It’s worth repeating this anecdote to emphasise just how direct and personal Augustus’s relationship with Virgil was, and therefore, by extension, with much of the content of the poem.

After the long passage of praise for Marcellus the last few sentences of the book are an anti-climax. Virgil tells us that Anchises told Aeneas about the entire future course of events, his war against the Laurentines, how he should maximise his fate.

Aeneas’s return through hell, crossing back over the Styx, climbing back up to the entrance to the great cavern – all this isn’t even described. Instead all we get is a short, abrupt sentence saying that Aeneas made his way back to his ships and his comrades, then steered a straight course to the harbour of Caieta, where they dropped anchor.

It’s an oddly abrupt ending to one of the most magnificent and influential books of poetry ever written.

Epithets of Aeneas

I’ve slowly been realising that, as the poem progresses, Aeneas comes to be accompanied by more and more adjectives. I mean that, in the early books, he is mostly plain ‘Aeneas’. But it’s noticeable that, certainly by book 6, his name rarely occurs without being accompanied by an adjective indicating his greatness. By this sly method, Virgil implies the way Aeneas grows in stature, experience and leadership as the adventures continue. I’d noticed the same happening to Anchises who, in the earlier books, comes to be referred to more and more frequently as Father Anchises. When he dies the title passes quietly to Aeneas, Father Aeneas, sometimes referred to as ‘the son of Anchises’, and then the epithets begin to occur more frequently:

  • the leader of the Trojans (4.165)
  • the son of Anchises (5.424)
  • the great-hearted son of Anchises
  • Father Aeneas (5.461)
  • dutiful Aeneas (6.233)
  • devout Aeneas (5.685, 12.175)
  • the hero Aeneas (6.103)
  • huge Aeneas (6.413)
  • great glory of our Troy (6.547)
  • Aeneas, greatest of warriors (9.41)
  • great Aeneas (10.159)

Roman 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

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy @ Tate Modern

Pablo Picasso. You might just have heard of him, since he is probably the most famous artist of the twentieth century. Picasso had a number of ‘great years’, years in which he made stylistic innovations which really did send ‘shockwaves through the art world’ and change the way that educated people see and think about art.

The EY Exhibition: Picasso 1932 – Love, Fame, Tragedy has the simple idea of looking at one of Picasso’s Great Years in immense detail. It takes us month by month through Picasso’s life and output in 1932, ‘a time so pivotal in Picasso’s life and work that it has been called his “year of wonders”‘.

Pablo Picasso, rue La Boétie, 1933, Paris by Cecil Beaton ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Pablo Picasso, rue La Boétie, 1933, Paris by Cecil Beaton © The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

The exhibition includes more than 100 outstanding paintings, sculptures and works on paper to give you a flavour of Picasso’s prolific and restlessly inventive character. It includes an unprecedented range of loans from collections around the world, including the Musée National Picasso-Paris, as well as many works from private collection, reuniting some of Picasso’s greatest works of art, many of which are rarely shown in public, for the first time in 86 years.

What was happening to Pablo Picasso in 1932

In 1932 Picasso turned 50. He was married (to Russian dancer, Olga Khokhlova) and had an 11-year-old son Paulo. Many galleries were vying with each other to stage a retrospective of his works, a competition won by the Galeries Georges Petit, which staged Picasso’s first major retrospective in June 1932.

Picasso was the most famous living artist. He  bought a big farmhouse in Normandy, created a studio in the barn and toyed with having an outdoor swimming pool built. He owned a luxury apartment in Paris and was ferried around in a chauffeur-driven Hispano-Suiza car.

Yet he was restless. He had been carrying on an affair with a sporty, outdoorsy 22-year-old blonde, Marie-Thérèse Walter. And the new flavour of the month in fashion-conscious Paris were the Surrealists, who in the 1920s had mostly been a literary movement, but whose visual experiments and confidence had been given a shot in the arm by the arrival of Salvador Dalí, who joined the group in the late 1929.

Some critics wondered whether Picasso was finished, a man of the past. He consciously set out to prove them wrong, with the result that 1932 marks an explosion of creativity and a restless set of experiments in oil painting, sculpture and drawing.

Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Tate. © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Nude Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Tate. © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Pictures of women

When I (and the curators) say ‘experiment’ something must be emphasised right from the start: the exhibition showcases Picasso’s stunning creativity and includes a dozen or more quite wonderful works – but at the same time you can’t help noticing the monotony of subject matter. Women. Women are his subject. Or rather, single women. A woman in a chair. Sleeping woman. Woman reflected in a mirror.

Later in the show there are several women playing on a beach. Or a man saving a woman from drowning. Or women lying around while being serenaded by fauns. But at the imaginative core of the work is one woman.

You don’t get far into the exhibition before you’re being told that the woman in question is Marie-Thérèse, the mistress. She was blonde and she had the kind of nose which is an extension of the forehead without a dent or kink, a Roman nose it’s sometimes called.

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The obsessive repetition of the same woman, sleeping or sitting in a chair makes the visitor wonder whether there was some kind of a trade-off – that Picasso had to limit his subject matter to the tiny world of the studio, and his one, central muse figure – blanking out the entirety of the roaring, industrial, political, urban world of 1932, rejecting every visual thing in the universe except his blonde lover and a few studio props – in order to be imaginatively free to submit it to so many fantastic and brilliant variations.

Information

Each room is dedicated to a month or two, and the audioguide zeroes in on pictures often painted on a specific, named day.

The exhibition includes a huge amount of biographical information, a host of articles about what was going on in Paris at the time, about the fashionable popularity of Freud and Jung’s psychoanalytic theories, about the competition from the Surrealists and the launch of the Surrealist magazine Minotaur (first edition published June 1933 and devoted almost entirely to Picasso), about Picasso building the sculpture studio at his Normandy house, a detailed account of his comings and goings during the year, and the elaborate preparations for the retrospective exhibition.

So much so that it’s almost easy to lose sight of the art in the blizzard of explanations and timelines.

Reclining Nude (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Reclining Nude (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Practicing curves

One way to approach them is via the room devoted to some of the black-and-white charcoal drawings on canvas which Picasso made throughout 1932. The commentary very usefully pointed out that the sweeping lines, the curves and arabesques of the charcoal lines, are like a preparation for the paintings. For in the paintings, the scholars tell us there was little if any preparation. Picasso rarely painted from life – he started from memory and imagination and created shapes and patterns by great sweeping curves of his hand.

The charcoal pictures show his hand and arm building up the technique of creating great sweeping curves first time, with no afterthought or adjustment, again and again depicting the kind of curve which, in the finished paintings, become a woman’s face or nose or arms or torso or bottom.

His habit was to mark out shapes and patterns in black paint and, once he was happy with the composition, to fill in the shape with colour, but quite happy to leave both elements (black lines and colour) unfinished, rasping the paint, letting undercolours or even blank canvas show through.

All of the paintings here benefited from looking at close up to see this technique up close. Colouring and setting varied a little, but the fundamental idea of the defining black line (almost, at times, the thick black line of a cartoon) is always paramount.

Wallpaper

It may sound trivial and the commentary didn’t mention it, but I was struck by the care with which he depicts the wallpaper behind the subjects.

The Mirror by Pablo Picasso (12 March 1932) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Mirror by Pablo Picasso (12 March 1932) Private Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The curator’s commentary dwells on the fact that these are paintings of a woman, and paintings of Picasso’s mistress. Either angle gives the opportunity for lengthy discussions of either his private life, or the long tradition of painting women in Western art. A woman near a mirror is bound to set off a small explosion of art theory referencing the long tradition of associating women with ‘vanity’.

Maybe. But when I look at this picture the first thing I notice is the dark blue patterned wallpaper and then the orange frame of the mirror, in other words the overall design of the composition, long before I notice the broad-nosed sleeping blonde with her ripe-apple boobs. And after processing her shape and curves, it is to the extraordinarily deep blue of the backdrop that my eyes returns.

In this concern for the decorative ancillaries to the main image a lot of these paintings reminded me of the purely decorative concerns of Picasso’s long-time frenemy, Henri Matisse.

The subject may be a female nude, it may be his hushed-up mistress, she may be passively sleeping and yet reflected, in a semi-surreal way, by the mirror. But the painting is also an arrangement of colours on a flat surface. It is a decorative object, whose subject you can almost ignore, if you will. It is first and foremost a big bright image and I think the viewer reacts immediately, either for or against the size and vibrancy of the colour and shape of the composition, long before you get round to thinking about the ‘issues’ of women and mirrors or marriage and mistresses.

Angles

Again, putting aside the subject matter for a moment, by the time I’d got to the end I realised Picasso had roughly three approaches or ‘styles’, at least in this year of 1932.

One is the curvy, ‘feminine’ style exemplified in the pictures shown above. But there was another, very different style – characterised by uncomfortable angles, distortions, harsh straight lines and geometric interactions. There are quite a few of them here and they feel completely different to the soft curvy sleeping blondes.

The most striking instances are a sequence of smaller works he made which are all variations on the idea of a woman sunbathing – but not a woman as you or I might conceive the subject.

Woman on the Beach (1932) by Pablo Picasso. The Penrose Collection © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Woman on the Beach (1932) by Pablo Picasso. The Penrose Collection © Succession Picasso / DACS London 2018

The commentary points out that the small circle in the middle is the woman’s anus. Apparently, Picasso’s usual gallerist refused to exhibit the series because he said he didn’t want a load of ‘arseholes’ in his shop. But I think this rather typical obsession with sex and the body on the part of critic and seller is missing the more obvious point – which is the entire conceptualisation of the human figure which has, in a work like this, become fantastically stylised.

In the strange combination of the zoomorphic (i.e. curved shapes) with harsh geometry (the set of triangles and the table leg-style legs) there’s a lot of the influence of Surrealism, maybe of Max Ernst, influencing Picasso’s own abstracting tendencies.

But Picasso never actually becomes abstract – his paintings are always of something, almost always of people, and overwhelmingly of young nubile women.

Henry Moore

The closest he comes to pure abstraction is in the works of his third style, which kept reminding me of the drawings and sculptures of Henry Moore. In both the styles identified above – curvy and angular – the image is essentially flat. There may be token references to chairs or wallpaper but they don’t really create a sense of depth.

In the works where he does go for a sense that the picture is a window into the world, the effect is strikingly odd, for there’s a thread throughout the work of pictures made up of blobs and odd, curved shaded shapes, which look like the products of a pot-maker or clay modeller who’s gone mad.

Seated Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée national Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Seated Woman in a Red Armchair (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée national Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London 2018

Here the two balls in the middle, the curved object which seems to contain them, and the curving cowl up towards two tiny eyes in a blank monster’s face – all of them have shade and shadowing which give them the illusion of three dimensionality.

Can you see why I mention Henry Moore? They look like paintings of Henry Moore sculptures.

One room in the show is devoted to a rarely-seen sequence of thirteen drawings Picasso made based on the crucifixion section of the Isenheim Altarpiece by the German painter Matthias Grünewald.

The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1512-15)

The Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece (circa 1512-15)

The commentary goes heavy on the religious subject matter, but what struck me was how Picasso recast almost all his versions by breaking down the human figure into a sequence of Henry Moore-style blobs and craws.

The Crucifixion (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Crucifixion (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The approach may also, possibly, owe something to the Surrealists Hans Arp or Yves Tanguy. It was very much a style of the age. But on the evidence of all these works it does look as if, when Picasso thought of depth and perspective, everything turned into shaded, blobby shapes.

Sculpture and landscapes

There are many more themes and subjects. It is, ultimately a staggering and exhausting exhibition. How did he manage to think and see and create so many different things in one short year?

There is a series of surprisingly charming landscapes of the view from his Normandy house over the nearby village, Boisgeloup, which could almost be illustrations of a children’s book.

There is an entire room dedicated to classic works from earlier in Picasso’s career – including Blue Period, Rose Period and Cubist paintings – to give us a flavour of the major retrospective of June 1932. Picasso was very careful in which works he chose to include in it and, most strikingly, he mixed them all up, eschewing chronological order in order to create a solid wall of art, all of it as relevant as any other.

And another room has been carefully arranged to recreate something of the atmosphere of the rough and ready sculptor’s studio he created in a barn at his Normandy house, with one entire wall of the room covered in a massively blown-up photo of the studio with its decrepit barn doors, a sequence of b&w photos made of the artist at work on his sculptures by the classic photographer, Brassaï, and a handful of actual sculptures – big, semi-abstract heads. (Notice the Roman nose – I wonder who this could be a bust of?)

Bust of a Woman (1931) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Bust of a Woman (1931) by Pablo Picasso. Musée National Picasso © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The rescue

But the exhibition ends with a turn to a completely new subject, something you wouldn’t have predicted at all from all the sleepy blondes or blondes in armchairs from earlier in the show.

1932 ended traumatically for Pablo when Marie-Thérèse fell seriously ill after swimming in the river Marne. During the illness she lost most of her iconic blonde hair. The result in his art was a series of paintings, large and small, showing the rescue of a drowning woman by a man – all heavily stylised.

Some of the variations take on a dark overtone with the male presence not rescuing but threatening the drowning woman, and at least one of them is titled The Rape.

Or there are variations like this one in which a woman appears to be saving the drowner. And who is the third figure at bottom right – a passing swimmer or a siren reaching out to drown the unwary? (And note the scrappier use of colour – in the earlier sleeping woman pictures the colours tended to be uniform within each section demarcated by a solid black line- – in these last paintings the colours are more blotched and varied within each section.)

The Rescue (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

The Rescue (1932) by Pablo Picasso. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Sammlung Beyeler © Succession Picasso/DACS London, 2018

Here, in the last room, the commentary leads off into a load of history, explaining that only a month or so later, in January 1933, Herr Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and it was only 3 years later that General Franco rebelled against the Republican government of Spain, triggering the brutal Spanish Civil War. And then World War Tow. And the Holocaust. And the atom bomb.

Yes, yes, yes, I know that terrifying things were just around the corner, but I think a) nobody in 1932 had an inkling that any of that was going to happen, and b) the curators are over-politicising a painter who went to great lengths not to reference the contemporary world in any way at all in his art. Guernica was still seven years off and even then it is a thing of primitive people and horse. Not many planes, trains and automobiles in Picasso’s entire oeuvre. In this respect – in  terms of subject matter – he was a very unmodern, a surprisingly conservative, artist.

Anyway, I had never seen any of the works in this room before so, in some ways, found it the most rewarding room of the exhibition. The many variations on The Rescue, although mostly done in the big, cartoony, boldly coloured style of the previous rooms, were nonetheless haunting and powerful.

For reasons I can’t put into words I found one particular painting in this room especially hypnotic and upsetting.

The Rescue by Pablo Picasso (1933)

The Rescue by Pablo Picasso (1933)

It’s at the most abstract end of his range. Probably the ‘figures’ are women, but they really seem more like creatures caught in some agonising death dance and suddenly turned to bronze, against a crude sea and an eerily realistic sky.

Picasso almost never painted landscapes, certainly not intending to make them ‘realistic’ depictions. This reproduction doesn’t convey the incongruity of setting such a completely abstract, modernistic, sculptured shape against that extreme rarity, a realistic Picasso sky.

I don’t know if I was more upset, or scared, or touched by it.

Sometimes it is good to just be in front of a work of art, undistracted by curatorial talk about mistresses and wives, breasts and anuses, analysis of the male gaze, and the theme of the mirror, and rivalry with other painters, and the vagaries of the Paris art market, and the looming European catastrophe, and all those other issues and stories.

To just stand in front of a work and be awed and puzzled and confused and absorbed and transported.

Videos

A brief, wordless overview of the exhibition.

A longer tour of the show by two art experts.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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