Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

(This is the first of two summaries and reviews of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically

Contents

Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.

(For summary and notes on the second half of the Metamorphoses, see my next blog post.)


Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

What Where by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Time passes.
That is all.
Make sense who may.

What Where is Samuel Beckett’s last play. Like many of his later works it was written for a commission, in this case for the 1983 Autumn Festival in Graz, Austria. Beckett wrote it between February and March 1983, initially in French as Quoi où, then translated it into English himself.

Setup

As you might expect What Where is a very minimal work, although quite a bit fuller than its predecessor, Nacht und Träume. In that play there was no dialogue at all and no named characters, so What Where feels positively packed by comparison, with no fewer than five characters, namely:

BAM
BEM
BIM
BOM
VOICE OF BAM (V)

Beckett gives relatively short and simple stage directions:

Players as alike as possible.
Same long grey gown.
Same long grey hair.
V in the shape of a small megaphone at head level

It is set in a confined ‘Playing Area’, for which Beckett, in his original script, characteristically provided a floorplan marked very precisely to indicate the location of the four actors, or the positions they entered, stood at, and exited from.

Note the way the Voice of Bam (V) is different from the actual physical person, Bam, and that the Voice emanates from a megaphone, carefully and distinctly placed apart from the main ‘Playing Area’. As we work through the different versions and interpretations of the play, the ‘apartness’ of this voice will take on larger and larger significance.

TV production

Though conceived and premiered in the theatre in 1983, in 1985 Beckett supervised a made-for-TV adaptation for the German Süddeutscher Rundfunk, assisted by Walter D. Asmus. The producers claim:

This new production of What Where also represents a significant technical updating of the original version with new production techniques adding subtleties and dimensions to the work that were not achievable with the technology that was available when What Where was first adapted for the screen.

In this version the whitened faces of the characters simply appear and disappear with no physical movement whatsoever, either by them or the camera, which remains rigidly in place. Compare this with Beckett’s script which describes both a definite, visible place, and the movements of the characters between very specified locations within it (the letters in the following refer to specific locations in Beckett’s set diagram).

[BOM enters at N, halts at 1 head bowed.
Pause.
BIM enters at E, halts at 2 head haught.
Pause.
BIM exits at E followed by BOM.
Pause.
BIM enters at E, halts at 2 head bowed.
Pause.
BEM enters at N, halts at 1 head haught.
Pause.
BEM exits at N followed by BIM.
Pause.
BEM enters at N, halts at 1 head bowed.
Pause.
BAM exits at W followed by BEM.
Pause.
BAM enters at W, halts at 3 head bowed.
Pause]

This sequence at the start has come to be called the ‘opening mime’ of the play. For the German TV version Beckett cut it altogether.

Plot

The four men are all dressed in identical grey gowns with the same long grey hair, similar to the long white hair of the protagonists in Ohio Impromptu and That Time.

The names are incongruously silly, nonsense names – Bam, Bem, Bim, Bom. The opening voice says there are five of them, suggesting one for each of the five vowels in which case the fifth member would be Bum. As my little boy would put it, ‘Daddy, you said a rude world’.

In fact Bim and Bom were the names of real historical personages, two Russian clowns from the 1920s and 30s who were allowed to travel abroad. Beckett saw them perform in Paris and their names or variations on them crop up throughout his works, in the collection of short stories More Pricks Than Kicks in the novel Murphy (along with Bum), in draft passages deleted from Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Bom and Bem appear in the long gruelling ‘novel’ How It Is before making their final appearance in this, Beckett’s final play.

The silly names contrast with the intense seriousness of the content. This can be divided into two aspects.

First there is the mystery of presence and absence, by which I mean the way the oracular opening voice calls into being the other characters, in a solemn stately, incantatory way, intones solemnly about time passing, calls the other three to him and disapproves (‘No good’) then approves (‘Good’) of their entrance and disposition.

But the second element is quite different. In this, Bam and Bom dialogue on a much more specific topic, namely the violent interrogation of a third, absent, person. By contrast with some other Beckett plays where characters speak at great length, the dialogue in What Where is very clipped, consisting of one short sentence each, like a call and response, making it harsh and brief, almost itself like an interrogation between a menacing interlocutor and someone almost visibly shaking with fear.

BAM: He didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.
BAM: You gave him the works?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: And he didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.
BAM: He wept?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Screamed?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Begged for mercy?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: But didn’t say anything?
BOM: No.

Screamed?. So the topic would appear to be torture. This links What Where back to Rough For Radio II, written back in 1961, in which a man is interrogating a prisoner tied to a chair with the help of a stenographer who reads out the previous day’s proceedings and an actual torturer who is periodically ordered to whip the prisoner, who as a result screams. Hmm. Torture. A surprisingly lurid and violent theme not usually identified with Beckett, whose plays rarely feature action of any kind.

And indeed, in this work, the animation of Rough For Radio II – the way we hear the victim actually being whipped and actually screaming – has been muted until it simply consists of Bom and Bem and Bim reporting on the supposed torture of the third party, who is tortured in each instance until he passes out.

What slowly becomes clear is that the person being tortured is one of them, that each of them are tortured, in turn. Each of the Bems presents themselves to Bam, who asks whether they got the desired results and, when they claim their victim passed out, Bam refuses to believe them, accuses them of being a liar, and summons the next in the sequence of Bems and Bims, orders them to take away their predecessor and give them ‘the works’.

Thus, one by one, three others is ordered to be taken away by one of the others to torture his predecessor; when he returns, having failed to get results, he himself is carted off and tortured until he confesses. But confesses to what?

BEM: What must I confess?
BAM: That he said where to you.
BEM: Is that all?
BAM: And where.
BEM: Is that all?
BAM: Yes.

In fact the thing each torturer is instructed to extract from his victim changes: First it is spring and the Voice of Bam tells Bim that he only wants to know ‘That he said it to him’. Then it is summer and the Voice of Bam orders Bim to take away Bem and to ascertain that ‘he said where to you’. Then it is autumn and Bem returns to report he has been unable to extract ‘where’ from Bim, whereupon Bam accuses Bim of lying and threatens him with ‘the works’. Since there is no one left to carry out this threat, Bam himself escorts Bem away.

That he said it, that he said where – Are these absurdly unspecific and apparently inconsequential concerns meant to highlight the absurdity of torture as a practice?

It is a notable aspect of the play that the ritualistic way each of the four becomes, in turn, the victim to be taken away and ‘given the works’, is preceded by a little passage from the Voice of Bam indicating the passing of the seasons:

V: I am alone.
It is summer.
Time passes.
In the end Bim appears.
Reappears.

Thus the movement of the status of prisoner and torture victim through the four characters is deliberately pegged to the very ancient trope of the passage of the four seasons, and you can see several reasons for this. One is that Beckett is addicted to numbers and patterns, witness the supercomplex choreography of Quad, also featuring four players, although silent fast-moving unspeaking dancers in that case, but also in numerous other works in prose and drama.

The second reason is, presumably, to make the doleful point that humanity’s tendency to persecution and torture is as ancient and unchanging as the cycle of the seasons.

What where

Let’s look again at what’s at stake in the serial interrogation. First of all Bam asks Bom whether the person he interrogated till he passed out (presumably the logical fifth in the sequence, the unnamed Bum) said ‘it’.

BAM: You gave him the works?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: And he didn’t say it?
BOM: No.
BAM: He wept?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Screamed?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: Begged for mercy?
BOM: Yes.
BAM: But didn’t say it?
BOM: No.

Then Bam orders Bim to interrogate Bom till he admits that ‘he’ (presumably Bum) did say ‘it’ to Bom, but the latter is refusing to admit it. And when Bim fails in this task, Bam orders Bem to interrogate Bim in turn:

BEM: What must he confess?
BAM: That he said where to him.

So that’s where the What Where of the title come from. The first two interrogations are designed to identify ‘it’ (what?); the third interrogation is designed to identify ‘where’. So What? and Where? are the key subjects of the interrogation.

This has the vagueness of allegory, allowing thousands of critics and commentators to read into this focus on ‘what’ and ‘where’ the issues of their choice. Some have taken a psychological interpretation, focusing on birth and Freudian issues of personal guilt, others on the origin and nature of consciousness.

But maybe a more obvious interpretation is to expand the two questions into the big Meaning of Life ones, namely ‘What is it all about?’ and ‘Where do we come from and where are we headed?’ Thus, without much effort, the play can be turned into an allegory of ‘philosophical enquiry’, or at least of metaphysical enquiry.

An allegory but also, maybe… a parody, a mockery of the pointlessness of asking such questions. From the start of his writing career Beckett expended a lot of energy mocking the Rationalist tradition in philosophy, which he associated with René Descartes, and his entire oeuvre amounts to an attack on the notions that the human mind is rational or knowable, or that it can understand a rational, ordered world. Precisely the opposite.

And yet, we find ourselves over and over asking the same questions of life, of our existence, even though we know that no sensible answer exists, condemned by our natures to endlessly asking unanswerable questions. As Ezra Pound wrote in The Exile’s Letter in 1917:

What is the use of talking! And there is no end of talking…

That could almost be Beckett’s motto. What is the point of writing, but there is no end of writing. The writing has to continue even if the writing is doomed to failure. You just have to fail again, fail better.

The Beckett on Film production

In December 1999 Damien O’Donnell directed a filmed version of What Where for the Beckett on Film project with Bam the person and the Voice of Bam-coming-through-the-loudspeaker played by Sean McGinley, and the succession of other Bems and Bims all played by the same actor, Gary Lewis.

This production is, in my opinion, preferable to the Asmus production. It makes a big difference to see the action taking place in an actual location because it clarifies the way each successive character fails in his attempts to get the previous one to confess and is himself hauled off to be given ‘the works’. It makes it a much more political play. It brings out the extreme menace of Bam, placing him up there with O’Brien, the torturer in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eight-Four, as an embodiment of total, terrifying power:

BAM: It’s a lie. [Pause. ] He said it to you. [Pause.] Confess he said it to you.

The Beckett on Film version dramatically highlights the transformation of each Bem figure from initially smirking torturer to terrified victim. And it brings out an aspect I didn’t get at all from the Asmus production, which is the way the Bems are picked off one by one, until there is only Bam left to escort the last one away and then, in the final scene, none of the clones remain, leaving Bam alone.

Thus this production brings out the way that the text is not cyclical but unidirectional. The way it starts with five characters and ends with one, the implication being that the others have been tortured to death. It paints an image of humanity as having exterminated itself down to a bare handful of survivors. As if in some science fiction apocalypse we witness the tragedy of the last survivors unable to end the ceaseless cycle of suspicion and pointless accusation and torture and death which has brought them to the brink of, and will drive them on to, extinction:

VOICE: We are the last five.

This is one way of interpreting the remark Beckett made for the 1985 production, that the Voice of Bam – which very stagily emits from an onscreen loudspeaker – is to be imagined as coming ‘from beyond the grave’. Maybe the last five have reduced themselves to zero. Mankind has tortured itself to extinction.

The German version, reprise

But this notion of the ghost peaking from beyond the grave brings us back to the 1985 German TV version for, if you watch it again after the Beckett on Film production, the German version may well lack the drama of the various Bems and Bims entering and exiting, and the amoral thrill of McGinley’s menacing presence – but this is because, instead, it has turned the play from a political powerplay into one of Beckett’s late period ghost stories.

The German version brings out, much more than the On Film version, the way that the entire action may be no more than a memory of the speaking voice, V. That the Voice of Bam may be only remembering all the onstage actions which are so carefully annotated.

More than that, more than a living mind remembering all these supposed events – what if Bam himself may be dead! What if the Voice of Bam (V) is so distinct and separate from the onstage actor called Bam, because it is a voice from beyond the grave, another of Beckett’s late-period spectral voices from nowhere.

This appears to have been the understanding encouraged by Beckett himself during the German production which he helped supervise. In the words of director Walter Asmus, we are dealing with:

The ghost Bam, dead Bam, a distorted image of a face in a grave, somewhere not in this world any longer, imagining that he comes back to life in the world, dreaming and seeing himself as a…face on the screen.

What? When? Turns out to be no-one, from nowhere.

The reflexive consciousness

Actually there is a third element, sitting above the way the 1. repeated scenes of accusation are embedded within 2. a frame of the four seasons – and this is the extremely characteristic way the narrative reflects on itself, stopping, pausing, making itself start again, try again, do another take.

Not good.
I switch off.
[Light off P]
I start again.

The way in which his texts comment on themselves or, more precisely, one of the several ‘voices’ in the text will command it to stop, try again, start again and so on – in the words of the famous quote from Worstward Ho, ‘Fail again. Fail better’ – this had been a central characteristic of most of Beckett’s prose from Molloy onwards.

The novel has a long tradition of intrusive narrators right from the start (Henry Fielding in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy) but generally they were light, humorous, chatty and inventive. In Beckett, the comic exuberance of the tradition has been pared right back to the bone, right down to this specimen of hard, mechanical, rote repetition, as grimly robotic as every other element of this bleakly automated fable.

There is a God supervising our fates but he has the heart and soul of a robot arm in a Nissan car-making factory.

It says what it means

I’ve a lifelong aversion to seeking symbolic or moral or psychological truths lurking in the depths of literary texts. All too often, when these are dredged to the surface they turn out to be trite and disappointing, blether about Original Sin or the Oedipus Complex or the revelation that all the world’s a stage or money makes the world go around.

I am far more interested in the mechanics of language, and the infinite number of registers, tones and effects it can create. In the detail and precision of the language and in the weird, other-worldly effects language (and light and sound and music and movement) can create in a theatrical context.

Therefore I have every sympathy with the Beckett who loathed being asked what his works ‘meant’. For example, the exasperated author was forced to state explicitly that if he had meant the name Godot to refer to God, he would have written as much.

Over and over Beckett had to tell inquisitive actors that he had no idea what happened to his characters before they make their appearance in the plays, what their ‘back stories’ or ‘personal histories’ consist of. I was delighted when I came upon director George Devine’s 1964 statement regarding the script of Play that even the text itself barely matters, but is merely the dramatic ammunition which enables the performance to take place (quoted in Knowlson, page 516) – a performance which, in Beckett’s vision, is often closer to a kind of moving sculpture, or painterly ballet, than any traditional idea of a ‘play’.

So I am heartened to find Beckett, here at the end of his writing career, repeating the same stance. When he was asked by yet another in a long line of berks what What Where ‘means’, he very reasonably and accurately replied:

I don’t know what it means. Don’t ask me what it means. It’s an object.

I think of works of literature as sophisticated devices designed to create certain psychological or aesthetic effects, neurological reactions in the mind. ‘Meaning’ can be among these effects and may well be a component of the work, the author might even think it’s the most important part of the work, but it needn’t be either the most important or the most interesting aspect.

Often asking what the ‘meaning’ of a work is, is as stupid as asking what’s the meaning of vanilla ice cream. It’s a flavour. You like it or don’t like it, it produces a certain reaction on your palette, you may be in or not in the mood for it. It’s an experience not a ‘meaning’.

Same with most poems, novels and plays, in my opinion. They are psychological experiences in which the ostensible or even buried meanings may play a part but don’t account for the entire experience, which is likely to be much richer, stranger, deeper, emotional or aesthetic and so on, than the narrow concept of ‘meaning’ allows. A lot more is going on than we are ever aware of…

Two versions

Having read about What Where in James Knowlson’s brilliant biography of Beckett and in the Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett I have now understood that the two YouTube versions I’ve included in this review represent what were, in fact, two distinct versions of the play. The Beckett on Film version is (despite the grandiose Terry Gilliamesque setting in a futuristic library) very loyal to the original script 1983 (as published in the Collected Shorter Plays of Samuel Beckett), and so makes clearer the sequence of events Beckett originally conceived, whereby successive Bems and Bims are turned on each other and done away with, until there is only one left.

Whereas the 1985 Asmus version benefited from Beckett’s ongoing amendments to the play, and transformed it into a thorough-going ghost story, in the sense that Bam might well be dead, all the characters in it might be dead, including the physical Bam, and the entire thing might be the staging of a ‘memory’ and the creation of fake personages, who are put through their paces and then put through their paces again in the strange ritualistic way, by the faint volition of a person beyond the grave.

By the time of a 1986 production, Beckett had revised the text so much – dispensing with the opening mime which I quoted at the start of this review, reconceiving the Bems and Bims not as actual people coming and going but as static disembodied faces illuminated only by spotlights, the actors now standing stationary on platforms two feet off the stage with none of the entrances and exits of the original version – that this new iteration came to be known as What Where II. It is, according to the Beckett Companion, nowhere written down or published, for reference we have only the earlier, unamended What Where I version which is what is included in the edition of Collected Shorter Plays which is the text I started off analysing and working from, and which is why it took me a while to even realise that the play exists in two such very different forms.

So the Beckett on Film version presents What Where I and the Asmus production presents What Where II and you’re left reflecting on the immense impact different stagings can have on work which is essentially the same but which, through different visualisations, can create such sharply, such hugely different experiences.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Fizzles by Samuel Beckett (1973 to 1975)

The ‘fizzles’ are eight short prose pieces by Samuel Beckett. He wrote seven of them in French in the early 1960s and translated them into English a decade later, apart from Still, which he wrote straight into English in 1972.

Order and names

Some of the fizzles are unnamed and are identified by their numbers or first few words ‘in speech marks’. There’s no particular logical order and different publications have varied the order and not necessarily included all 8, but they tend to be arranged as per an edition published by Grove Press which Beckett reportedly approved:

  • Fizzle 1 ‘He is barehead’
  • Fizzle 2 ‘Horn came always’
  • Fizzle 3 Afar a Bird
  • Fizzle 4 ‘I gave up before birth’
  • Fizzle 5 ‘Closed place’
  • Fizzle 6 ‘Old earth’
  • Fizzle 7 Still
  • Fizzle 8 For to end yet again

Foirades

In French their title is Foirades and a ‘foirade’ translates as ‘squitters’ or ‘jitters’, a flop or failure. According to the Faber Companion to Beckett he himself referred to the Fizzles as ‘wet farts’ or attempts to break wind quietly (you should never underestimate the element of sheer, bucket, gutter, potty-mouthed crudity in lots of Beckett, his obsession with bodily functions and the crudest Anglo-Saxon terminology e.g. the prominence of the c word in How It Is or casual remarks such as ‘I considered kicking her in the cunt’, in First Love).

Going beyond closure

Regarding the content, the Companion spends a lot of time on their publishing history and gives just a one-sentence interpretation, namely that the Fizzles were – when written in the early 60s – attempts to go beyond the closure or ending implied in a work like The Unnamable.

This is certainly a way to think about how the fizzles all concern different personages, are in different voices, appear to be exploring different scenarios. Obviously they are unified by a) being about derelict characters with dysfunctional minds b) conveyed in prose which experiments with various strategies, most notably Beckett’s familiar tactics of i) Repetition of key phrases, and ii) Oblique syntax i.e. missing out verbs or adding multiple phrases without indicating their relationships with punctuation or prepositions.

But within this overall approach, each fizzle is like an experiment with a different approach to his themes. It helps that most of them are relatively short, barely half a page, which adds to the sense that they are offcuts of a larger work, fragments at a tangent from a bigger vision.

Fizzle 1 ‘He is barehead’

An unnamed male protagonist, ‘destitute of history’ and ‘near to death’, wearing uncomfortable clothes, possibly ‘prison garb’, barefoot, is walking endlessly uphill so his head is bowed, but through a narrow place where he’s constantly banging his shoulders and arms, sometimes it narrows so much that squeezing through hurts his arms and shoulders even draws a little blood, there’s no chance of seeing through the gloom so more and more he closes his eyes, he reviews his body – the legs, the head, the heart – no complaints, he zigs to the left, he zags to the right, sometimes he stops to lick the walls, behind it he hears the sound of an enormous fall or drop, but mostly there is silence; he makes a distinction between the air here which is ‘foul’, and ‘the other, the true life-giving’, suggesting he is underground and heading always upwards towards the surface, towards ‘the open’ (which explains the gloom, the silence, the foul air, the uphill gradient) and his memory endlessly pores over the maxima and minima of his experiences, the loudest fall, the quietest fall, the sweetest wall lick, and so on, indefinitely.

Fizzle 2 ‘Horn came always’

First person narrator describing how a character named Horn always came in the dark, the narrator would send him away after 5 or 6 minutes, 5 or 6 years since anyone had seen the narrator, it’s some time before s/he has gotten out of bed, it (the body’s injuries) are sure to show, but no-one at any price is to see her face, hence making Horn come at night, Horn’s visits don’t seem to be for sex, the narrator asks Horn questions e.g. ‘And her gown that day?’ Horn gets out his notebook, checks, and answers, once she asked him to turn on the flashlight so she could see his face, as the torchlight faded she was certain it was him, definitely him, but she has only to pass her hand over her eyes or take off her eyeglasses for the image to fade, that’s why she prefers looking at the ceiling, although she did get out of bed the other day and she thought she had long ago ‘made my last journey’, she’s started making little journeys hanging onto the bars of her bed; in a bizarre, surreal and presumably humorous last few sentences she blames her decrepitude on ‘athletics’:

What ruined me at bottom was athletics. With all that jumping and running when I was young, and even long after in the case of certain events, I wore out the machine before its time. My fortieth year had come and gone and I still throwing the javelin.

Fizzle 3 Afar a Bird

A third-person narrator describes the progress of an unnamed character walking, as so often in Beckett, across a ‘ruin-strewn land’, taking little wary steps, resting after every ten steps:

that image, the little heap of hands and head, the trunk horizontal, the jutting elbows, the eyes closed and the face rigid listening, the eyes hidden and the whole face hidden,

Strange phrasing suggests the narrator was ‘inside’ this figure, somehow and somehow was given birth to:

but birth there had to be, it was he, I was inside… I’m inside, it was he who wailed, he who saw the light, I didn’t wail, I didn’t see the light…

More strange phrasing suggests the observer and the actor are one and the same, and when he comes to describe his death it sounds as if the soul is describing the death of the body, boasting that he will survive, certainly it sounds like a psyche or persona split in two:

he is fled, I’m inside, he’ll do himself to death, because of me, I’ll live it with him, I’ll live his death, the end of his life and then his death, step by step, in the present, how he’ll go about it, it’s impossible I should know, I’ll know, step by step, it’s he will die, I won’t die, there will be nothing of him left but bones, I’ll be inside, nothing but a little grit, I’ll be inside

Wow, this obviously echoes the title of Not I but also the duality in one mind or one narrative of The Unnamable, but is genuinely spooky, like a ghost story where the ghost is inside the head of the lead character.

Fizzle 4 ‘I gave up before birth’

This appears to be a close variation in number 3. It’s interesting to compare 4 and 3 because the topic is identical, the notion of a narrator being inside a man who he confidently predicts will die by he, the narrator will survive, and a score of other notions stemming from this idea – but version 4 is much more pure, it is much clearer about the plight and its consequences and so, maybe surprisingly, is less effective than 3. 3 is more obscure and contains ambiguous or impenetrable phrases, but for that reason, comes over as the more genuinely deranged of the pair, and therefore more likely what an unhinged soul or body-occupier would actually sound like i.e. deeply worrying.

Fizzle 5 ‘Closed place’

Opens with a typically incoherent sentence:

All needed to be known for say is known.

Which indicates it is the speech of yet another character whose mind is collapsing, and at the same time hints at profound meanings which are not immediately translatable into standard prose. In fact, the very next two sentences are considerably clearer:

There is nothing but what is said. Beyond what is said there is nothing.

This sounds like a Zen Buddhist saying, not that meaningful in itself, but designed to prompt meditation and pondering.  From this abstract opening, the text goes on to become the description of a place rather than a person – a vast ‘arena’ big enough to hold ‘millions’ who spend their time;

wandering and still. Never seeing never hearing one another. Never touching’

This vast space is divided up into millions of equal lots:

Just room for the average sized body. Stretched out diagonally. Bigger it has to curl up.

In other words this ‘arena’ has distinct similarities with the claustrophobic ‘hell’ described in The Lost Ones. It’s also one more example of Beckett’s obsession with conceiving the precise space and geometry of human bodies and the claustrophobically closed spaces they inhabit. The arena is also a ‘ditch’ a few feet deeper than the surrounding surface.

Some of these ‘lots’ are bright, some are dark, making a patchwork quilt. Above the arena, light is shed down onto the bright squares. ‘In the black air towers of pale light. So many bright lots so many towers.’ There is a track all around the ditch, a step up from it and just wide enough for one to walk. That’s it.

The precision of the imagining makes it very close to Dante’s imagining of the afterlife, except without any of Dante’s personality, humanity, characters, dialogue, interactions, and religious, legal and moral symbolism.

Fizzle 6 ‘Old earth’

Flavour is conveyed by quoting:

Old earth, no more lies, I’ve seen you, it was me, with my other’s ravening eyes, too late. You’ll be on me, it will be you, it will be me, it will be us, it was never us.

With a kind of surreal or delirious inconsequentiality the narrator abruptly declares:

It’s a cockchafer year, next year there won’t be any, nor the year after, gaze your fill.

The narrator appears to turn on the light to watch them flying towards the river. And this morphs into surprisingly obvious and sentimental memories:

For an instant I see the sky, the different skies, then they turn to faces, agonies, loves, the different loves, happiness too, yes, there was that too, unhappily. Moments of life, of mine too, among others, no denying, all said and done.

Fizzle 7 Still

Another surprisingly naturalistic description of someone sitting quite still at a window watching the sun set in the south west. The phrase ‘quite still’ is repeated to create that intensity.

As so often what comes over is Beckett’s intense imagining of the precise position of the human figure and of its movements. We don’t get a name or spoken words or thoughts or emotions. None of that interests him.

Sitting quite still at valley window normally turn head now… Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window… at open window facing south in small upright wicker chair with armrests. Eyes stare out unseeing till first movement some time past… Normally turn head now ninety degrees to watch sun… Even get up certain moods and go stand by western window… Eyes then open again while still light and close again in what if not quite a single movement almost…

Except the figure is not still. On closer examination he, she or it is trembling all over. This sets up a dynamic opposition which then rings through the rest of the short text which goes on to describe the position or positions of this human in the usual excruciating detail:

Legs side by side broken right angles at the knees… Trunk likewise dead plumb right up to top of skull seen from behind including nape clear of chairback. Arms likewise broken right angles at the elbows forearms along armrests just right length fore arms and rests for hands clenched lightly to rest on ends…

It makes you realise that these descriptions of precise bodily movements and the super-precise stage directions he gave for his later plays, are all cut from the same cloth:

The right hand slowly opening leaves the armrest taking with it the whole forearm complete with elbow and slowly rises opening further as it goes and turning a little deasil till midway to the head it hesitates and hangs half open trembling in mid air. Hangs there as if half inclined to return that is sink back slowly closing as it goes and turning the other way tillas and where it began clenched lightly on end of rest.

These could almost be stage directions for one of his hyper-minimalist late dramaticules. The poetry or the drama is in these very limited, small-scale but super-precisely described physical gestures.

Fizzle 8 For to end yet again

It is quite ironic that one his post-war short stories was titled The End because, of course, Beckett never finished ending, he was endlessly ending. Or was compelled to end endlessly, over and over again, the sentences trying to assemble meaning from broken fragments at odds with each other, incomplete, trying to reach an end:

For to end yet again skull alone in a dark place pent bowed on a board to begin.

Like so much of Beckett’s prose it works by the incantatory repetition of certain key words phrases which build up a strange, not a romantic power, something more modern and metallic and baleful.

  • skull
  • alone in the dark, alone in a dark place
  • grey sand as far as eye can see
  • leaden dawn

To our surprise the narrator mentions that here in this waste of sand as dawn arrives over a leaden grey sky, ‘amidst his ruins the expelled‘! The Expelled is of course the title of one of the four long short stories wrote right at the end of the war, and all the stories rotate around the same figure who has been ‘expelled’ from his home by ‘them’. Is this ‘expelled’ the same guy? Or is everyone expelled in Beckettworld? Is everyone condemned to the same eternal trudging across grey dusty landscapes or circling round rubber cylinders (The Lost Ones), bent double climbing endless hills (Enough), haunting the ruined refuge of Lessness?

As usual there is no name, no character, no personality, no psychology, no dialogue, no thoughts, no humanity; it’s all about the bodies:

Same grey all that little body from head to feet sunk ankle deep were it not for the eyes last bright of all. The arms still cleave to the trunk and to each other the legs made for flight.

It’s odd that he specifically uses the word ‘hell’ and then goes on to mention the ‘refuge’. Is this meant to be a kind of summary, pulling together themes scattered through the fizzles (and other texts, the ‘refuge’ which appears throughout Lessness – this and Lessness seem very closely linked)?

Astonishingly two white dwarfs appear. They are trudging through the dust, inevitably, with the just as inevitable bowed backs. No-one walks with a spring in their step and a song in their heart in Beckettworld. The dwarfs are so alike the eye cannot tell them apart and they are carrying, between them, a litter, such as the rich rode in in Roman times. They are not pretty dwarfs:

Monstrous extremities including skulls stunted legs and trunks monstrous arms stunted faces… Atop the cyclopean dome rising sheer from jut of brow yearns white to the grey sky the bump of habitativity or love of home

Can he see it, this scene, ‘the expelled [person] amid his ruins’? Is it him regarding the two dwarfs carrying their litter. This scenario gives the text more key words and phrases to repeat and circle:

  • litter
  • dwarfs
  • ruins
  • little body

‘The expelled’ falls amid his ruins in the white dust, the dwarfs let drop their litter once again. Is this hell:

hell air not a breath? And dream of a way in a space with neither here nor there where all the footsteps ever fell can never fare nearer to anywhere nor from anywhere further away?

No.

No for in the end for to end yet again by degrees or as though switched on dark falls there again that certain dark that alone certain ashes can

It can’t be the end because the end is endless. It can never end.

One thing leads to another

Apart from the obvious aspects of these pieces – they are very unlike anyone else’s ‘stories’ or prose pieces, the lack of character or dialogue or plot – one thing that comes over strongly in most of them is the sense of free association. What I mean is one thing leads to another, one idea throws up a phrase or notion which the text then moves onto with no real, external logic, no logic of events, certainly, but the logic of association.

As Tristram Shandy had shown 200 years earlier (1759) the idea of building a fictional text by letting one idea suggest another which suggests another was hardly new, and prose which tried to capture the so-called stream-of-consciousness had been developed in their different ways by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce during and just after the Great War.

Hard-hearted prose

What makes these pieces’ use of a sort of stream-of-conscious approach so different is their hard quality. There is a hard, stiff quality about Beckett’s prose. And there is a hard quality about the descriptions. They are more often than not descriptions of people in some kind of mental or physical extremis, and yet there is never any softening of the style or of the attitude. There is no compassion. Everything is described in a kind of forced, compelled way which sometimes verges on the mechanical or robotic.

This is most obvious, maybe, in Beckett’s obsessive concern with the body of his characters, not just with the tortured contortions or trials he often puts it through, but the mechanical way he lists body parts and enumerates actions, with the detachment of an anthropologist.

Some day he’ll see himself, his whole front, from the chest down, and the arms, and finally the hands, first rigid at arm’s length, then close up, trembling, to his eyes. He halts, for the first time since he knows he’s under way, one foot before the other, the higher flat, the lower on its toes…

You can read into the pieces a certain compassion for these figures, but it isn’t actually there in the pieces themselves. They are hard to the verge of being feeling brittle.

Unfree association

Back to the free association idea, take Fizzle 2, ‘Horn came at night’, it’s tempting to think that Beckett simply free associated it. The progress of ideas is: ‘Horn always came at night’. So straightaway you suspect that is a rude pun, ‘horn’ being slang for erect penis, ‘came’ being the common verb describing orgasm, all helped along by the night-time setting. Then you can see Beckett thinking this is far too obvious and immediately intruding a bit of Beckett business, a kind of spurious precision, by saying that the narrator only hosts Horn for 5 or 6 minutes, and going one step further to remove it from the world of porn or even faintly sensual writing by stating that Horn always switches on his torch to consult his notes. What torch? What notes? Why is he taking notes?

And the thought that she only lets him visit for 5 or 6 minutes leads to the question why the short intervals – which prompts Beckett to concoct the idea that it’s because the narrator is ashamed of how she looks. ‘It was five or six years since anyone had seen me’. Which leads onto the thought that she is changing her mind, emerging from her self-imposed exile, and determined to let herself be seen again.

That all happens in the first paragraph, but the point I’m making isn’t about the subject matter, it’s about Beckett’s process of moving quickly from one idea to another. And I’m trying to bring out the way the ideas don’t exactly flow. It isn’t stream of consciousness in the way Woolf or Joyce were trying to capture what thinking actually feels like, were trying to give a realistic description of the way our thoughts endlessly link together.

Beckett’s version is much more contrived and hard-hearted than that. It’s more like a deliberate attempt to avoid realistic stream of consciousness, and replace it with a sequence of arbitrary and unexpected developments. The same sense of arbitrary develops characterises the end of fizzle 2 when the character suddenly starts blaming their physical decrepitude on athletics, all that running or jumping when they were young.

Or take the equally incongruous and ‘random’ appearance of two dwarfs carrying a litter across a bone dry plain in fizzle 8. This and other odd and arbitrary developments, like the sudden appearance of the cockchafers in fizzle 6, arise from no known logic, no realistic depiction of the world or of the mind, but reflect a kind of contorted, unfree association.

What appears to be a random arbitrary thought occurs, and then directs the text down along a new course.

And no sooner has he thought of them, these random features, than they are subjected to the usual tough-minded treatment of Beckett’s prose strategies:

  • obsession with the body and its precise posture and movements
  • obsessive enumeration or listing of activities or attributes
  • above all the obsessive, meaning-draining incantation of a handful of key words or phrases which either deepen and intensify the reading experience, or drive you nuts with frustration, depending on your mood and inclinations

Luxury literature

Beckett is usually promoted as the purveyor of world-class pessimism, bleakness and nihilism, a poet laureate of impoverishment, decay and collapse.

But by the time I began reading serious literature in the mid-1970s, he was already a world-famous figure, with a Nobel Prize to his name. Any play he wrote was immediately put on at the Royal Court Theatre with a massive press fanfare, and any prose he wrote was liable to be printed in full in the most prestigious journals or newspapers. It was impossible, in other words, for anyone to be more famous or successful in the field of literature than Samuel Beckett was.

Not only that, but by the mid-70s Beckett was also becoming known for collaborating in high-end, elite de luxe editions of his works and Fizzles is a good case in point. In 1973, soon after the Froisades were published in French, Beckett was introduced to American artist Jasper Johns and they agreed to work together on an illustrated version of the English translation, Fizzles.

Johns chose just five fizzles and to create a little ‘artist’s book’ containing both French and English versions (he chose fizzles 2, 5, 1, 6, and 4). Johns created 33 images plus the book’s end papers. The resulting book was published with the title Foirades/Fizzles in an edition of 250 copies, signed by both creators. I saw some of the illustrations at the big 2017 Jasper Johns retrospective at the Royal Academy.

What the exhibition showed is that although Johns is famous for painting the American flag and other everyday artifacts, he went through a big black and white phase and that’s when the fizzles project took place. The rather grim, rough-hewn, black and white abstract shapes, or shapes made of black and white letters of the alphabet, are appropriate for the semi-abstract texts, with their lack of colour and repetition of black (fizzles 1, 5, 8) and in particular grey, which dominates fizzle 8 (‘Grey cloudless sky grey sand as far as eye can see’).

Many of these limited editions found their way into the collections of the V&A or Museum of Modern Art and so on, or into the hands of the usual art market investors. Nowadays they change hands for $30,000 or more.

I know I’m being naive, but for me aged 17, there was something very off-putting about knowing that this supposed prophet of immiseration and the extremity of human consciousness, was in reality fawned on by cultural elites around the world who fought like ferrets for the privilege of staging his latest 10-minute play or publishing his latest 3-page prose masterpiece, and that the the supposed poet laureate of impoverishment and collapse in reality collaborated in creating luxury collectors’ items designed to find their way into the hands of the super rich and the art elite.

It’s taken me all this time to overcome my antipathy to Beckett because of his association with the Art and Theatrical and Financial Elite, and to try and read his works objectively, for what they are.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

First Love by Samuel Beckett (1946)

I have enough trouble as it is in trying to say what I think I know.

Between the publication of Murphy in 1938 and this suite of short stories written in 1946, came the small matter of the Second World War. Beckett spent it in embattled France rather than in neutral Ireland. For some time he was involved in the French Resistance, doing enough to merit being awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance after the war.

While in hiding from the Nazis in the south of France, Beckett worked on the manuscript of another novel, Watt, which finally saw the light of day in 1953. In 1946 he wrote the four very short novellas, more like short stories – First Love, The Expelled, The Calmative and The End which in the 1950s were gathered into one volume.

First Love – the plot

First Love is a short narrative, told in the first person, more of a dramatic monologue than a story.

The narrator is mentally challenged, talking like a simpleton about his visits to his father’s grave, his fondness for hanging around in graveyards, his liking for the smell of the dead. He has a male adolescent’s fascination with the unpleasant aspects of the human body – its farts, arses and sticky foreskins.

There’s a passage where he ponders the different types of constipation and fondly imagines Jesus at stool, pulling his buttocks apart to help his stool descend.

To quote Leslie Fiedler, Beckett enjoyed ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’, often in quite a childish way.

The other members of his father’s household never liked him, or barely tolerated him.

He reminds me a bit of Benjy the idiot in The Sound and the Fury, dimly trying to make sense of things which other people are always doing to him. – He remembers his father saying, ‘Leave him alone, he’s not disturbing anyone’ as if the other people in the house, who he refers to as ‘the pack’, think he should be… what? Taken away and put in a home? (As Murphy is, as Watt ends up.)

When his father died, they promptly kicked him out the house – more precisely locked his door and piled all his things up outside it. He left, wandering off into the great outside. He sleeps for successive nights on a bench by a canal until disturbed by Lulu, a prostitute.

(The pattern of a self-obsessed man being interrupted, disturbed from his self-absorption by a woman recurs in most of the stories in More Pricks Than Kicks, and in Murphy where the solipsistic protagonist is also troubled by the attentions of a streetwalker, Celia. Men are useless solipsists until rescued by a practical woman is one way of interpreting this common narrative structure.)

After a few night-time encounters with Lulu, the narrator goes off to find shelter in a barn in the country, rather absurdly reduced to writing out Lulu’s name in cow pats.

He returns to the city and allows himself to be taken to her small apartment where, with the obsessive-compulsive behaviour typical of a Beckett figure, he empties the room he’s given of every scrap of furniture, piling it all in the hall outside.

He hears Lulu – who he has renamed Anna – having sex with clients in the other room. I think the narrator and Lulu have sex a few times, though it’s hard to tell.

Lulu-Anna gets pregnant. She strips and shows him her belly and breasts swelling. The protagonist realises he must leave. One night he hears the baby being born, the screams and the cries. He gets dressed quietly, exits the house, but wherever he goes he still hears the baby crying.

Not a conventional romance, is it?

The style

What the war, or something, has done to Beckett’s prose is to transform it. Most obviously, almost all the arcane and deliberately obscure words he clotted the earlier books with have vanished. Almost. There are a few regressions.

Are we to infer from this I loved her with that intellectual love which drew from me such drivel, in another place? Somehow I think not. For had my love been of this kind would I have stooped to inscribe the letters of Anna in time’s forgotten cowplats? To divellicate urtica plenis manibus?

‘Divellicate’ meaning ‘to tear apart or off’ and urtica plenis manibus meaning ‘handfuls of nettles’. Nothing profound here; the ‘joke’ here, as in so much Beckett, is in the elaborate over-telling of a humorously mundane action.

A handful of really obscure phrases aside, the prose is, by and large, much less racked and clotted than in the earlier books. That said, the majority of the text is still ornate, mock academic, falsely pedantic and orotund in tone.

As to whether it was beautiful, the face, or had once been beautiful, or could con­ceivably become beautiful, I confess I could form no opinion.

‘I confess’ – the tone of the ancient clubman over whiskey and soda, or the Oxford professor over sherry. This tone of arch contrivance predominates throughout. But in amidst it are all kinds of other registers. Most enjoyable, on its occasional appearances, is the register of poetic prose.

When the voice ceased at last I approached a little nearer, to make sure it had really ceased and not merely been lowered. Then in despair, saying, No knowing, no knowing, short of being beside her, bent over her, I turned on my heel and went, for good, full of doubt.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the fairly recurrent tone of schoolboy crudity.

The smell of corpses, distinctly per­ceptible under those of grass and humus mingled, I do not find un­pleasant, a trifle on the sweet side perhaps, a trifle heady, but how in­finitely preferable to what the living emit, their feet, teeth, armpits, arses, sticky foreskins and frustrated ovules.

Wherever nauseated time has dropped a nice fat turd you will find our patriots, sniffing it up on all fours, their faces on fire.

I considered kicking her in the cunt.

These are examples of what Fiedler called Beckett’s bourgeois-baiting, but also, maybe, a crudity, an aggressiveness, which can be interpreted as part of the character’s mental disturbance, his lack of socialisation.

There is still the minute, the obsessive description of mundane physical activities which hamper all Beckett’s characters. Having piled all the furniture in the hall, he’s made it difficult to get in or out of his room, and thus difficult to get to the toilet (which we know he needs despite his sometimes heroic constipation he mentions right at the start).

Te remedy the getting-to-the-toilet issue, he and Anna decide a chamber pot will be necessary. But Anna does not possess a chamber pot. Oh dear. And so they discuss the options in mind-numbing detail – the obsessive triviality – and the sordid subject matter – being the point. Oh woe is mucky material man.

Give me a chamber-pot, I said. But she did not possess one. I have a close-stool of sorts, she said. I saw the grandmother on it, sitting up very stiff and grand, having just purchased it, pardon, picked it up, at a charity sale, or perhaps won it in a raffle, a period piece, and now trying it out, doing her best rather, almost wishing some­one could see her. That’s the idea, procrastinate. Any old recipient, I said, I don’t have the flux. She came back with a kind of saucepan, not a true saucepan for it had no handle, it was oval in shape with two lugs and a lid. My stewpan, she said. I don’t need the lid, I said. You don’t need the lid? she said. If I had said I needed the lid she would have said, You need the lid?

‘Recipient’ presumably used in the sense of ‘recipient of my poo and pee’ – any receptacle. And ‘the flux’ is an archaic term for what we nowadays call dysentery – carefully combining the turdy reality of human existence with arcane historical terminology – a classic Beckett manoeuvre!

Learnèd wit

All this can be seen as part of Beckett’s deployment of ‘learned wit’. 65 years ago Professor D. W. Jefferson wrote a classic essay explaining, categorising and defining the long literary tradition of ‘learned wit’ – the type of humour which takes the mickey out of academic knowledge by exaggerating it to grotesque proportions.

This is a long tradition of this approach and style, dating from the classical world which runs strong through medieval, Renaissance and 18th century literature.

It seems to me Beckett is firmly in this line of smart-arse, show-off humour, taking the mickey out of its own erudition.

One element of it is dressing up the crudest physical bodily functions in elaborately academic periphrasis, littered with learned references and classical quotations. (The great example of this in Western literature is The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1530-1560) by François Rabelais, describing the gross adventures of the two giants of the title in a comically pedantic style. In English probably the greatest example is the experimental comic novel, Tristram Shandy, by Lawrence Sterne.)

So Beckett’s obsession with farting, pissing and pooing in Latin or 16th century vocabulary is slap bang in the middle of this tradition.

As is another element, the making of long, pedantic lists out of all proportion to the triviality of the subject matter. Thus, for example, the narrator doesn’t just complain about his pains, but goes on to sketch out a theory of his pains, and draw up a deliberately ridiculous list:

I’ll tell them to you some day none the less, if I think of it, if I can, my strange pains, in detail, distinguishing between the different kinds, for the sake of clarity, those of the mind, those of the heart or emotional conative, those of the soul (none prettier than these) and finally those of the frame proper, first the inner or latent, then those affecting the surface, beginning with the hair and scalp and moving method­ically down, without haste, all the way down to the feet beloved of the corn, the cramp, the kibe, the bunion, the hammer toe, the nail ingrown, the fallen arch, the common blain, the club foot, duck foot, goose foot, pigeon foot, flat foot, trench foot and other curiosities.

And this quote also demonstrates that long-windedness can be comic (in intent, anyway) – although in Beckett, over-long sentences oscillate between being humorous and becoming the unchecked logorrhoea of the mentally disturbed. Or both at once. You can never be sure.

Mentally challenged or hyper-intellectual?

This raises the issue that, although the narrator lives in squalor, can’t remember his name or things that have happened to him, has a brain-damaged fixation with his own body and an autistic inability to communicate with others – nonetheless, all this is conveyed in an incredibly ornate, articulate, intellectual and educated register. It is precise and finicky, regularly using a tone of academic detachment and pedantic precision.

It is this unlikely clash or dichotomy which produces the peculiar effect of Beckett’s prose – the feelings of an autistic savant expressed in the language of a scholar.

Yes, there are moments, particularly in the afternoon, when I go all syncretist, à la Reinhold. What equilibrium! But even them, my pains, I understand ill. That must come from my not being all pain and nothing else. There’s the rub. Then they recede, or I, till they fill me with amaze and wonder, seen from a better planet. Not often, but I ask no more. Catch-cony life! To be nothing but pain, how that would simplify matters! Omnidolent!

The thoughts of a simpleton couched in the terminology of an Oxford professor.

Poetic

And then there’s another, mostly buried, aspect. Amid all the other tones and registers, just occasionally a poetic voice peeks out and hints at a completely new direction out of the mire of obfuscation, the bleak way of the lost and forlorn. Sometimes, in fact fairly regularly, there are phrases which are neither nihilistic, ridiculous or disgusting, but haunting and touching. There are quite a few moments which, despite the clammy negativity, actually emerge as sweet and doleful.

Thus, right at the end of the text, the speaker is haunted by the cries of Anna’s newborn who is in fact his own son, despite the fact that he has abandoned them both and is walking away as fast and as far as he can.

As long as I kept walking I didn’t hear them, because of the footsteps. But as soon as I halted I heard them again, a little fainter each time, admittedly, but what does it matter, faint or loud, cry is cry, all that matters is that it should cease.

Not ‘a cry is a cry’, but ‘cry is cry’, making it sound more elemental, profound, harrowing.

To be cynical, this kind of rhetorical twist, this sudden incursion of a portentous tone, will be Beckett’s schtick for decades to come. But, if you are not repelled by the subject matter, if you put yourself mentally in a place where you accept the incongruity of a simpleton who talks like an antiquated Cambridge professor, if you accept the lying in cow pats and the autistic behaviour and the deliberately vague sense of other people, the drift and the decay – then there are regularly moments when the prose achieves a kind of epiphany of sadness, a rather hard-faced poetics of desolation.

These four short texts are weirdly compelling. I read all of them twice.


Credit

First Love by Samuel Beckett was written in 1946. It was first published in 1976. Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition, The Expelled and other Novellas.

Related links

Samuel Beckett’s works

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

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Journey To The East by Hermann Hesse (1932)

A slender novella, 88 pages in the Picador paperback version, The Journey To The East is a first-person narrative told by a former member of the secretive ‘League’ of poets, writers and seekers who, in their different ways, all undertook journeys to the East in ‘the troubled, confused, yet so fruitful period following the Great War’ (p.5).

What sets it apart, at least to begin with, is that it is nothing like a sensible factual account of a straightforward ‘journey’ such as you might read by traditional travel writers like Robert Byron or Peter Fleming.

Instead it is more like a fairy story, in which the ‘travellers’ encounter legendary figures and mythical beasts, pass through fictional lands from fables and fairy tales, and travel not only in space, but in time – back into the past, penetrating ‘into the heroic and the magical’ (p.7).

One day, when I was still quite a new member, someone suddenly mentioned that the giant Agramant was a guest in our leaders’ tent, and was trying to persuade them to make their way across Africa in order to liberate some League members from Moorish captivity. Another time we saw the Goblin, the pitch-maker, the comforter, and we presumed that we should make our way towards the Blue Pot.

The giant Agramant, the Goblin. It is fairy land.

Despite these imaginative frills, though, the League feels like a Christian monastic order – casual phrases continually remind the reader that Hesse had an intensely pious Christian upbringing, against which he rebelled but whose stern moral seriousness he kept for the rest of his life.

Thus newcomers to the League are ‘novitiates’, must take an ‘oath’ to renounce the world and its temptations, must wear a ring proclaiming their membership of the order. The journey is referred to as a ‘pilgrimage’ and the travellers as ‘pilgrims’. The leader of the narrator’s group talks freely about ‘grace’ and ‘repentance’, both utterly Christian concepts.

But at the same time it is a phantasmagoria of all the cultural greats through the ages:

Our League was in no way an off-shoot of the post-war years, but that it had extended throughout the whole of world history, sometimes, to be sure, under the surface, but in an unbroken line, that even certain phases of the World War were nothing else but stages in the history of our League; further, that Zoroaster, Lao Tse, Plato, Xenophon, Pythagoras, Albertus Magnus, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Novalis and Baudelaire were co-founders and brothers of our League.

This is a kind of greatest hits of world culture. And the way the ‘pilgrims’ travel is both a physical path or itinerary, very much in the style of medieval pilgrims –

And as we moved on, so had once pilgrims, emperors and crusaders moved on to liberate the Saviour’s grave, or to study Arabian magic; Spanish knights had traveled this way, as well as German scholars, Irish monks and French poets.

But also an imaginative one, as they travel through realms of magic and myth, experiencing not only all times, but the real and the imaginary on the same terms.

The core of the experience, the thing which, looking back, the narrator realises brought him the greatest happiness, was:

The freedom to experience everything imaginable simultaneously, to exchange outward and inward easily, to move Time and Space about like scenes in a theatre.

When you reflect on this, it sounds increasingly like the adventures of someone in their library – with the leisure time to roam freely over time and space, and between factual and imaginative literature.

The plot

The first-person narrator is ‘a violinist and story-teller’ who joined the League with the aim of travelling to the East to meet the princess Fatima and, if possible, to win her love (we learn that all League members have quirky or idiosyncratic goals, one wants to see the coffin of Mohammed, another to learn the Tao).

But the oddest thing about the story is that… they don’t travel to the East. About a third of the way through the text, the narrator tells us that at an early point of the journey, while they were still in Europe, at a place called Morbio Inferiore, a municipality in Switzerland, one of his team’s most loyal servants, Leo, goes missing, so the entire squad sets out to find him, searching up hill and dale.

Not only do they never find him, but his group begins to squabble amongst itself, loses focus. Somehow the journey was abandoned and he never made it to the East. Now, we learn, the narrator is struggling to set it all down in a written account, in a bid to revive the heady joy of those young days.

Now the narrative cuts to ‘the present’, some ten years after the journey. The narrator tells us it is a long time since he was active in the League, he doesn’t know whether it exists any more, he’s not sure it ever existed and these things ever happened to him.

And now the narrator tells us that the episode of missing Leo has given him writer’s block, he doesn’t know how to tell the episode correctly, and can’t manage to get the story past it.

And in an abrupt and surprising switch, the narrative stops being about any journey to the East whatsoever.

Now, surprisingly, the scene cuts back to the narrator’s home town and becomes spectacularly more realistic and mundane. To address his problem of writer’s block, the narrator goes to meet a friend of his who’s a newspaper editor, named Lukas, and who wrote a successful book of war memoirs.

Discussion of the war memoirs gives rise to a consideration of how difficult it is to describe any human experience, at how you need to create eras or characters or plots to even begin to get it down.

Even further than this, how some experiences are so intense or evanescent, that you can’t even be sure you had them. In which case, how do you describe them? Lukas replies that he wrote his book about the war because he simply had to, whether it was any good or not was secondary, the writing itself was vital therapy, which helped him control ‘the nothingness, chaos and suicide’ which would otherwise have overwhelmed him (p.46)

So. This is less a book about a journey anywhere, and a lot more a book about the difficulty of writing a book. Ah.

When the narrator tells Lukas how, in writing his account of the journey to the East, he’s got blocked on this episode of the missing servant, Leo, Lukas promptly looks Leo up in the telephone directory and finds there is a Andreas Leo living at 69a Seilergraben. Maybe it’s the same guy, he says – as if we’re in a 1930s detective novel and not the imaginative phantasmagoria we started out in. ‘Go and see him,’ the editor suggests.

So the narrator does, and finds 69a Seilergraben to be an apartment in an anonymous building in a quiet street. The narrator knocks on the door, questions the neighbours, hangs around, and goes back on successive days. Finally he sees this Leo exit his apartment block and walk quietly to the park where he sits on a bench and eats dried fruit from a tin.

This is not at all the mystical imaginative phantasmagoria I was promised on the back of the book, is it? This is staggeringly mundane.

The narrator approaches Leo, and tries to remind him of their time back in the League and on the great journey East which, the text confirms, happened some 10 years earlier. But Leo is calmly dismissive and walks off, leaving the narrator standing alone in the park as dusk falls, in the rain.

Now he is rejected like this, we learn the narrator is prone to depression, in fact to despair and thoughts of suicide.

I had experienced similar hours in the past. During such periods of despair it seemed to me as if I, a lost pilgrim, had reached the extreme edge of the world, and there was nothing left for me to do but to satisfy my last desire: to let myself fall from the edge of the world into the void — to death. In the course of time this despair returned many times; the compelling suicidal impulse…

In other words, he shows the same bouncing from one to extreme to the other that characterised the Steppenwolf and his moods of suicidal despair. And very like the author himself, a glance at whose biography reveals attempts at suicide, prolonged psychotherapy, and a spell in a mental sanatorium.

The narrator gets home and sits down, still damp from the rain and writes a long letter to Leo, then falls asleep. When he wakes up Leo, is sitting in his living room. Leo reveals he is still a member of the League and says he will take the narrator to see the current President. Leo leads him through the streets of the quiet town by a circuitous route, stopping at various inconsequential locations including a church, to an anonymous building, which is large and labyrinthine on the inside (reminding me of the labyrinthine buildings Franz Kafka’s protagonists stumble through).

The narrator is led into an enormous room full of shelves lined with books which turn out to be the archive the League. Leo suddenly starts singing and, as in movie special effects, the archive recedes into the distance and in the foreground appears a large judgement chamber.

A jury assembles and a ‘Speaker’, who acts like a judge. It has turned into a sort of court-room, which makes the comparison with Kafka feel overwhelming – a confused little man dragged to judgement before a huge, imposing court which he doesn’t understand. The essence of the Kafkaesque.

For the first time the narrator is named as ‘H.H.’. H.H.? So a barely veiled reference to the author himself which, yet again, could barely be more like the Kafka who named his two most famous protagonists K. and Joseph K. with his own initial.

The ‘Speaker’ refers to H.H. as ‘the self-accused’ and asks him:

‘Is your name H.H.? Did you join in the march through Upper Swabia, and in the festival at Bremgarten? Did you desert your colours shortly after Morbio Inferiore? Did you confess that you wanted to write a story of the Journey to the East? Did you consider yourself hampered by your vow of silence about the League’s secrets?’
I answered question after question with ‘Yes’…

So I was expecting H.H. to get hammered, but, surprisingly, he is now given permission to go right ahead and write a full account of the League and all its laws.

He is handed a copy of the manuscript of the Journey he had been working on and which had got bogged down at that moment when Leo left the group. But now, when he rereads it, he feels it is bodged, clumsy, inaccurate and – further – as he tries to amend it, he watches the letters change shape, become patterns and pictures, illegible, the entire manuscript changes form in front of his eyes.

Rather improbably, the Speaker gives him free run of the immense archive to research his book, which leads to a passage where H.H. rummages through the archives to find records about his friends and then himself, but finds the records written in strange languages and arcane scripts. Slowly he realises there isn’t enough time in the world to go through this immense and probably infinite library.

From all sides the unending spaciousness of the archive chamber confronted me eerily. A new thought, a new pain shot threw me like a flash of lightning. I, in my simplicity, wanted to write the story of the League, I, who could not decipher or understand one-thousandth part of those millions of scripts, books, pictures and references in the archives! Humbled, unspeakably foolish, unspeakably ridiculous, not understanding myself, feeling extremely small, I saw myself standing in the midst of this thing with which I had been allowed to play a little in order to make me realize what the League was and what I was myself.

the court magically re-assembles, with the Speaker presiding. Now we learn that this little episode was a further step in H.H.’s trial, to show him how vain and presumptuous his aim of writing a history of the league was. The Speaker asks if he is ready for the verdict on him, and whether he wants it delivered by the Speaker or the President himself.

In a surreal development, the grand figure who emerges from the bloom of the archive hall turns out to be none other than… Leo! The Leo he had followed into the party, who is himself the Leo who was his group’s servant on the Journey and now he comes to think about it, was the same President who initiated him into the League and gave him his ring.

H.H. is covered in shame and confusion. To think that he could write a history of the League. To think that he had imagined the League had ended or had never existed. Now Leo recounts H.H.s sins against the League. Forgetting about its existence. Losing his League ring. Even their long walk through the town had been a test because H.H. should have gone into the church and worshipped, as is fitting, instead of standing outside locked in his impatient egotism. It is his egotism which made him deny the League and sink into a world plagued with depression and despair.

Again, as in so many of Hesse’s books, which you imagine will be about Eastern philosophy, the most eloquent passages are about misery and despair. Leo tells the jury how H.H.s loss of faith in the League led him down into the pit, and delivers some puzzling lines:

‘The defendant did not know until this hour, or could not really believe, that his apostasy and aberration were a test. For a long time he did not give in. He endured it for many years, knowing nothing about the League, remaining alone, and seeing everything in which he believed in ruins. Finally, he could no longer hide and contain himself. His suffering became too great, and you know that as soon as suffering becomes acute enough, one goes forward. Brother H. was led to despair in his test, and despair is the result of each earnest attempt to understand and vindicate human life. Despair is the result of each earnest attempt to go through life with virtue, justice and understanding and to fulfill their requirements. Children live on one side of despair, the awakened on the other side. Defendant H. is no longer a child and is not yet fully awakened. He is still in the midst of despair.’

So: Despair is what you enter when you are no longer a child, when you become a questing adult, and before you are initiated or awakened.

Now President Leo initiates H.H. for a second time, giving him a replacement ring and welcoming him back into the ranks of the League.

This really is nothing at all about any literal Journey To The East, is it? It is about adventures of the spirit, or maybe psychological experiences, in a quiet Swiss town.

Now the President leads H.H. to the final test. He is shown the League archives about himself. Specifically, he is shown several other accounts written by members of his group or party on his Journey of ten years ago. Here he is horrified to read that it is he, H.H. that the other members of the group blamed for Leo’s disappearance, for accusing Leo of having taken key documents with him, it was he, H.H. who was blamed by the rest of the group for spreading dissension.

He learns something about trying to write ‘the truth’ (something which is, to be blunt, fairly obvious), which is that everyone has a different account of what happened, and no ‘truth’ can ever be arrived at.

If the memory of this historian was so very confused and inaccurate, although he apparently made the report in all good faith and with the conviction of its complete veracity – what was the value of my own notes? If ten other accounts by other authors were found about Morbio, Leo and myself, they would presumably all contradict and censure each other.

No, our historical efforts were of no use; there was no point in continuing with them and reading them; one could quietly let them be covered with dust in this section of the archives. ..

How awry, altered and distorted everything and everyone was in these mirrors, how mockingly and unattainably did the face of truth hide itself behind all these reports, counter-reports and legends! What was still truth? What was still credible ?

The final few pages end on an enigmatic moment and symbol. Tucked away in the shelf where his records are stored, he finds a grotesque little statuette, like a pagan idol. Only slowly does he realise it is two-sided, shows two human figures joined at the back. And then slowly makes out that one is a depiction of himself, with blurred features, weak and dying. And as he lights another candle he sees something stirring in the heart of the glass statuette, and realises that some kind of life force is moving from his half of the statuette over into Leo’s

And in the last few sentences of the book he remembers a conversation he had with the servant Leo on the Journey, ten years earlier, amid a wonderful festival early in the journey, where Leo had explained that a pet or writer drains himself in order to give eternal life to his work, just as a mother suckles a baby and gives the babe life, at her own expense. So the poet.

And on this slightly ominous, pregnant image the book ends. The narrator feels very sleepy. He turns to find somewhere to sleep. Maybe enacting exactly the gesture whereby the poet, writer or maker, gives all their spirit and life force to their creation and then expires.

Thoughts

Well, it turns out not to be a literal Journey To The East in the slightest. Anyone expecting a straightforward narrative of a pilgrimage to India will be disappointed and puzzled.

However, anyone familiar with Hesse will be less surprised by its combination of the strangely mundane and the wildly phantasmagorical. This is the same combination as in Steppenwolf, which evolved from being a dull account of a middle-aged boarder in a provincial boarding house into the giddy surrealism of the Magic Theatre.

And Steppenwolf also covered a similar range of emotional or psychological states – to be more precise, it displayed a similar, almost schizophrenic, tendency to jump between extremes of Despair and the giddy heights of ecstatic imaginative delirium.

I had this impression of Hesse as being a lofty propounder of high-minded Eastern philosophy. I wasn’t prepared to encounter so many characters who were so full of despair, self-loathing and so many discussions of suicide.

And I’m still reeling from the way the book is not about a Journey To The East at all; it’s much more about the psychological adventures or journey of a middle-aged man living in a Swiss town. All the key events happen in the narrator’s mind. It is a psychological odyssey.

Building a universe

It’s a small detail, but it’s interesting that Hesse includes among fellow members of the League, not only some of his real-life friends, but characters from his other books.

Thus the character ‘Goldmund’, one of the two leads in Narziss and Goldmund, crops up in his initial memories of the Journey, as does the painter Klingsor, who is the fictional lead of Hesse’s earlier novel Klingsor’s Last Summer.

And when I started reading Hesse’s final novel, The Glass Bead Game, early in the introduction the narrator mentions the League of Journeyers To The East as forerunners of the game. Hesse was quite obviously creating a kind of larger imaginative canon, an imaginarium, in which characters not only from history, not only actual writers and composers, along with mythical and legendary figures, but figures from his own earlier fictions, could meet and mingle on equal terms.


Images of war in The Journey To The East

I am always interested in the social history revealed by older texts. It is striking that Hesse doesn’t just launch straight into his fairy-tale journey, but feels the need to define the times, the era, the period against which his pilgrim is reacting, and that he defines these times by repeated references to the social, economic, cultural and spiritual chaos following Germany’s defeat in the Great War.

Ours have been remarkable times, this period since the World War, troubled and confused, yet, despite this, fertile…

It was shortly after the World War, and the beliefs of the conquered nations were in an extraordinary state of unreality. There was a readiness to believe in things beyond reality…

Have we not just had the experience that a long, horrible, monstrous war has been forgotten, gainsaid, distorted and dismissed by all nations? And now that they have had a short respite, are not the same nations trying to recall by means of exciting war novels what they themselves caused and endured a few years ago?…

At the time that I had the good fortune to join the League – that is, immediately after the end of the World War – our country was full of saviors, prophets, and disciples, of presentiments about the end of the world, or hopes for the dawn of a Third Reich. Shattered by the war, in despair as a result of deprivation and hunger, greatly disillusioned by the seeming futility of all the sacrifices in blood and goods, our people at that time were lured by many phantoms, but there were also many real spiritual advances. There were Bacchanalian dance societies and Anabaptist groups, there was one thing after another that seemed to point to what was wonderful and beyond the veil. There was also at that time a widespread leaning towards Indian, ancient Persian and other Eastern mysteries and religions…

His name is Lukas. He had taken part in the World War and had published a book about it which had a large circulation…

And indeed, from a structural point of view, this editor, Lukas, is included mainly for the discussion he promotes about the struggle he had to write his memoirs of the war, and his eventual conclusion that it was better to write something rather than nothing – even if untrue or less than perfect – if only because the act of writing was so therapeutic and saved him from terrible feelings of despair and suicide.

I’m doing no more than suggest that Hesse, who is generally thought of as a kind of high-minded explorer of timeless values was, in fact, very much a man of his times, and that his thinking was marked and shaped by the great cataclysm which he and his nation lived through just as much as all the other authors of the Weimar period.

Credit

Die Morgenlandfahrt by Hermann Hesse was published in German in 1932. The English translation by Hilda Rosner was published by Peter Owen Ltd in 1956. All references are to the 1995 Picador paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

The Weimar Republic

German history

Gainsborough’s Family Album @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition is pure visual, intellectual and emotional pleasure. It is beautifully hung and really informatively labelled and guided. In particular the American scholar who curated it, David Solkin, is pitch perfect in his audioguide commentary, telling you exactly what you need to know about each key painting, and about Gainsborough’s wider family background.

It’s a simple enough idea: Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) was one of the 18th century’s most successful portrait painters, rising from modest beginnings in Sudbury Suffolk, to owning a mansion on Pall Mall and being painter to Britain’s aristocracy, rivalled only by the towering figure of his contemporary, Sir Joshua Reynolds.

But alongside his formal commissions he painted an unusual number of portraits of his immediate and extended family. This exhibition brings together some 50 of these paintings and a few drawings, some familiar from national collections, some never before publicly displayed, to tell the story of his changing and evolving painterly style, as well as the biographies of himself, his wife and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, and other members of the extended family.

It’s not quite a portrait of the age but it’s certainly a portrait of a charming, sometimes tragic, often comic and endearing family, told via sketches, drawings and paintings which are sometimes breath-takingly beautiful.

The two Gainsboroughs

It’s always seemed to me there are two Gainsboroughs: the early paintings from the 1740s feature beanpole figures with Woodentop faces which I personally find difficult to take seriously.

the artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

The artist with his wife Margaret and eldest daughter Mary by Thomas Gainsborough (1748)© The National Gallery, London

Then something seismic happened to his technique during the 1750s, so that within a decade his handling of the human face had become marvellously expressive, and his handling of the volume and shape of the human body, masterful.

The following is one of my all-time favourite paintings, one of the best depictions of love and affection and innocence I know of. it looks and feels as if by a completely different artist from the painting above.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

It demonstrates several of Gainsborough’s qualities. One is the characteristic ‘feathering’ of the trees and clouds in the background. Another is that it is unfinished – a lot of the paintings in this exhibition are unfinished. They demonstrate his sprezzatura, his ability to rough out an image at astonishing speed.

And for me, personally, I love the way you can see the artist at work. I almost like the rough sketching of the arms and hands as much as the smooth finish of the seraphic faces. They remind me of the quick evocative charcoal sketches by Degas which were exhibited next door at the National Gallery earlier this year. I love draughtsmanship, outlines, the miraculous way a few lines on a flat surface can conjure up the look and feel of warm human bodies, and many of even the most mature paintings on display here have an unfinished quality, which allows you to enjoy Gainsborough’s terrific verve and confidence.

Gainsborough’s speed

In fact Gainsborough’s legendary speed often caused him problems. One was that, even once he was famous, his clients regularly complained that he’d left his paintings unfinished. There’s an example here of his wife, done in sumptuous silks but, when you look closer, lacking hands, as if he was in too much of a hurry to bother.

As to sheer speed the commentary tells us that he made this painting of his nephew and protégé, Gainsborough Dupont, in one hour. One hour. It is riveting to be able to examine this painting really closely and observe the nerveless precision of his draughtsmanship and the dash and confidence of his brushstrokes. The eyes and eyebrows in particular dazzled me. Note the ‘feathering’ effect of the background and the quick, dashed-off impression of the boy’s ‘cavalier’ costume.

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist's nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

Gainsborough Dupont, the artist’s nephew by Thomas Gainsborough (1773) Waddesdon (the Rothschild family)

The influence of van Dyck

As he became more successful the young painter moved from his Suffolk home to the fashionable spa resort of Bath. Here he made important contacts with rich clients and also got the opportunity, when visiting the aristocracy, to see their collections of Old Masters.

Of all the past masters, the one that struck him most was Sir Anthony van Dyck, the Flemish painter who came over to work at the court of Charles I in the 1630s. I’d love to know whether it was the deliberate attempt to copy van Dyck which led to the revolution in his work which I indicated above. Certainly Gainsborough revered van Dyck till his dying day. In fact the exhibition tells us that, as his death from terminal cancer approached, he told those around him he wanted to be measured against van Dyck, and apparently his very last words were ‘Van Dyck is right’.

The commentary on the Gainsborough Dupont portrait mentions that van Dyck used flicks of red to create depth of colouring of human skin and then points out just such red flecks which you can see if look closely above the figure’s left eye. It’s the type of opportunity to lean right into the real paintings, and to really appreciate their subtle technique – to see at first hand exactly how paint is laid onto the canvas – which makes visiting exhibitions like this so worthwhile.

Gainsborough’s daughters

The exhibition brings together all twelve surviving portraits Gainsborough made of his beloved daughters. The ones of them as children are wonderful (see above) but the portraits follow them through into young womanhood and then maturity. We learn at one point that he taught them both how to paint landscapes so that they would have a trade to fall back on in case he should be struck down. Later on we learn that the younger sister married but the marriage broke down after just two years. She suffered mental illness and moved in with her older sister who never married and cared for her for the rest of her life.

In this painting I was drawn to the peripheral details, to Gainsborough’s ‘feathery’ treatment of the trees’ foliage, and to the shaggy dog, a symbol, we are told, of fidelity, to the extraordinary finish on the shimmering silk of the daughter on the left. But keep returning to the faces, especially of the daughter on the right, which seems to frank and open and candid.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughters by Thomas Gainsborough (1770-74) Private collection

Gainsborough’s wife

Family tradition had it that Gainsborough painted a portrait of his wife every year and gave it to her as a present on their wedding anniversary.

The commentary doesn’t make a meal of it but strongly hints that Gainsborough was serially unfaithful to his wife who was well known for having a fierce temper. Maybe the paintings were a form of atonement.

Rather beautifully, their relationship is discussed in terms of their dogs because Thomas owned a brisk alert collie which he called Fox (maybe because it looked a bit fox-like but also in humorous reference to the fat radical politician of the day, Charles James Fox). His wife owned a spaniel, which she named Tristram after the hero of the wildly popular contemporary novel, Tristram Shandy. Moreover:

‘Whenever [Gainsborough] spoke crossly to his wife …he would write a note of repentance, sign it with the name of his favourite dog, ‘Fox’, and address it to his Margaret’s pet spaniel, ‘Tristram’. Fox would take the note in his mouth and duly deliver it…’

In 1746, aged just 19, Gainsborough had married Margaret Burr, an illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Beaufort, who settled a £200 annuity on the couple. The commentary points out that at various tight moments in the 1750s and before he became successful, the couple had to borrow extensively against the promise of this annuity.

Apparently, Margaret was the tough-minded, business-minded person in the relationship, with Gainsborough being the more slothful and phlegmatic. He casually had affairs. She went mad with anger.

None of this is present in the later portraits of her, quite a few of which are gathered here, which really beautifully capture the flavour of mature married love, of mutual forgiveness and affection. Next to the daughters with the invisible cat, this painting of Margaret Gainsborough was my favourite work in the show. It is marvellous how he has captured (or invented or created) the impression of deep and affectionate character in her face, in the deep calm accepting maturity of her gaze.

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s wife by Thomas Gainsborough (1777) The Courtauld Gallery, London

Other points

The exhibition has other themes. Although he made his living as a Society portrait painter, throughout his life Gainsborough’s first love was landscape painting, and the exhibition contains a massive unfinished landscape, included on the pretext that two of the figures in its central incident of a farm cart pulled by unruly horses are based on his two daughters (the white-chested figure looking up, and the woman being pulled up into the cart).

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Harvest Wagon by Thomas Gainsborough. (1767) The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

We learn an awful lot about Gainsborough’s extended family and there is a big family tree at the start of the show showing just how extensive it was. The wall labels give us interesting anecdotes about his father and mother (he went bankrupt) about his sisters (one was a milliner which gave him a lifelong interest in fabrics and women’s dresses) about one brother, Humphrey, who became a non-conformist minister and was also a noted inventor, while the other one, John, became known in the family as ‘Scheming Jack’ because of his endless moneymaking plans and schemes all of which came to nothing with the result that Scheming Jack and his family lived on handouts from his siblings.

In other words, there’s a lot of fascinating gossip-cum-social history mixed in with the art appreciation.

And then there is the steady sequence of self-portraits, not quite as profound and searching as, say, Rembrandt’s, but stretching from his earliest works in the 1740s right to the end of his life in 1788, which take you on a fascinating journey from ambitious neophyte, to proud father, to accomplished craftsman, to ageing husband.

The exhibition tells us that he wanted this self-portrait to be the approved one, with (as the commentary points out) its rather quizzical raised eyebrow, and the air of a calm mature man, confident in his powers and conscious of a life well lived (and note the jazzy, unfinished squiggles which depict his neckerchief. Dazzling sprezzatura and confidence right to the end!)

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

Self Portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1787) Royal Academy of Arts, London

This is a wonderful, gossipy, beautiful and life-affirming exhibition.

Battle of the videos

NPG have commissioned an official video of the show:

But there’s also an informal review by Visiting London Guide which shows more pictures and gives more information.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759-68)

Everything in the world is big with jest.

This is sort of embodied in Vol VII where Tristram flees Death heading South to warm France and ends up dancing with a beautiful gypsy girl. Or in Vol IX where he gets fed up of trying to tell the story of Widow Wadman & Uncle Toby & cuts to himself in the south of France listening to the postillion telling him the touching story of the unhinged country girl…

Tristram Shandy was published in 5 instalments: Vols 1&2; 3&4; 5&6; 7&8; 9. It came out annually between 1759 and 1768. Like Harry Potter.

The book is made of a number of elements. For me Sterne grasps two particularly profound aspects of ‘the novel’: the ambiguous role of the narrator; the arbitrary and thus ludicrous function of chapters.

[It must be said that, for all its tomfoolery, Tristram Shandy emphatically partakes of Ian Watts’s ‘formal realism’ every bit as much as Crusoe or Pamela: almost more so in that the characters are taken to be real people, with realistic names, in a realistic setting, behaving in silly but ultimately plausible ways].

The Digressive Narrator

Sterne noticed the centrality of the narrator as a puppetmaster in Fielding’s novels. But Fielding can be relied upon to return to the plot: what if the narrator didn’t return? What if he wandered off all over the place, constantly distracted?

Why would he do that? Two reasons:

  • Brain damage – as outlined by Walter Shandy p.296: Tristram’s animal spirits are dispersed at conception; then his mother seethes with resentment for 9 months; then his head is squashed by Dr Slop’s forceps. No wonder his mind wanders.
  • Locke’s theory of associations: Locke provides an intellectual underpinning for the novel’s divagations with his theory that the mind, the understanding, works through chains or trains of associated thoughts. Thus Walter’s learned obsessions e.g. with names and noses, and Toby’s notorious obsession with fortifications.

Thus we arrive at the easy paradox that the main body of the text is made of digressions and diversions.

Learned Wit

The tradition of learned wit i.e. using learning for comic effect by:

  • exaggeration
  • complexification
  • absurdity

Apparently the critic D.W. Jefferson coined the phrase ‘learnèd wit’ to characterise the tradition from Rabelais thru Cervantes to Sterne.

Thus Walter Shandy can be a receptacle for the most reconditely learnèd obsessions, and this provide a peg for the most ludicrous displays of abstruse learning, of the utterly useless medieval variety e.g. the long disquisition on noses and the quote from Slawkenbergius’s tome on same; or the treatise on swearing…

Chapters

Along with the key role of the unbalanced narrator, Sterne has grasped the key role of chapters in ‘the Novel’ i.e. their implicit absurdity. Any chapter break by any author in any novel is a huge, improbable, highly artificial, interference by the author in a narrative. Sterne plays on this insight for all it’s worth: once he’s discovered he can declare that he will have a chapter on a specific subject, there is no end to the nonsense of promising chapters on every subject under the sun:

There is no end in trying experiments upon chapters. (p.311)

Bawdy

A sexual understanding underpins the entire novel. It opens with the split second of Tristram’s conception: from then on there is a permanent risk that any remark he makes will have a sexual innuendo.

Innuendo is a question of creating a context, a mood, an atmosphere in which even the most prosaic or innocent remark can be misinterpreted as sexual in meaning. This is a question for pragmatics i.e. context over logical content.

  • It begins with sex
  • Uncle Toby’s wound in the groin is a source of endless innuendo
  • The debate about why Mrs Shandy did not want Dr Slop to come too close to her ****
  • The hot chestnut on Phutatorius’s penis (needing to be warped in a wet sheet from his new book about concubines!)
  • The crude summary of Vol IV Chap 8 as having been about chambermaids, a green gown (deflowering a virgin) and an old hat (the vagina)
  • The sole purpose of the story of the abbess of andouillets is to get a pair of nuns shouting Bugger and Fuck
  • The story of the mule leads abruptly to Tristram’s breeches being slashed and, strongly implied, his pecker falling out

Sterne was friends with John Hall-Stevenson, a rake and libertine, who lived in Skelton Castle (nicknamed Crazy Castle) where they held pale copies of the Medmenham Hellfire Club, under the name of the Demoniacs. J H-S appears as the character Eugenius throughout; at the end of Vol III the debate, supposedly called to discover whether Walter can change Tristram’s name – after he was accidentally baptised Tristram by Yorick – back to the intended Trismegistus, but which instead discusses whether a child is at all related to its parents, with the incident of Phutatorius and the hot chestnut in the groin, can be taken as a comic account of the Demoniacs, with appropriately Rabelaisian names (Mr Kiss-Arse, for example).

The Imagined Reader

In fact a variety of imagined readers are created in order to give Sterne numerous opportunities for turning the text into a dialogue. I suppose Bakhtin’s notion of the heteroglossia of the text is relevant ie it contains multiple voices in permanent dialogue. The actual dialogues are on a variety of subjects:

  • Bawdy, where he comically deflates what appeared to be a bawdy moment
  • Invocations, e.g. a prologue, preface, dedication
  • Critics, who are invoked to give their opinions

Thus the book can be said to have a far larger cast of characters than merely the named half dozen.

Decorum

We are always taught that the Augustans valued decorousness of literature and art more than any other age i.e. had a highly worked-out sense of the fittingness, the appropriateness, of various sentiments to literary forms. And yet this is the age with a strong parallel tradition of burlesquing and parodying this formality, from Pope’s satires to Fielding’s use of burlesque and parody.

Everybody agreed The Epic was the highest form (just as History painting was the highest genre). Which makes it the more striking that no Augustan considered themselves capable of one. Pope and Dryden translated Homer. But their age – the late 17th and early 18th centuries – saw the heyday of the mock epic. Among the most famous examples are Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, John Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe and Absalom and Achitophel, and Alexander Pope’s Dunciad. A key source of the humour is the delivery of low matter in a highflown style. Fielding used this repeatedly in his novels, starting with the mock epic invocation or paean. He saw his novel as ‘a comic epic poem in prose’. Sterne simply represents this tradition taken to an extreme where the actual content

Death

Sterne was ill all through the writing of Tristram Shandy. Various characters die:

  • Yorick: and his tombstone
  • Brother Bobby
  • Tristram, in the middle of describing Trim & Toby’s campaigns on the bowling green, end of Vol VI, has a morbid vision of Trim attending Uncle Toby’s funeral
  • All of Vol VII appears to be Tristram trying to outrun death by fleeing to France. There’s a Shandy moment when Tristram’s adult flight overlaps with his boy-ish Grand Tour accompanied by Walter, Toby et al. But this volume feels strangley rushed and hysterical…

Timescale

1698 Uncle Toby injured at the siege of Namur
1700 Toby & Trim’s 1st year of building fortifications in the bowling green

Tristram’s conception

Tristram’s birth i.e. Obadiah bumping into Dr Slop, Tristram’s bungled delivery i.e. squashing his nose
Tristram’s christening by the vicar
Tristram’s penis is cut off by the window sash when Susannah made him pee out of the window because the maid forgot to put a chamber pot under the bed

Example of the wandering narrative

We never get to find out how Tristram’s brother, Bobby, died. Instead Walter is inspired to deliver a moving panegyric to him, so moving he forgets about his son’s actual death – and Mrs Shandy bursts in, misunderstanding what is going on – and we cut to Corporal Trim’s extempore eulogy in the servants’ quarters – which leads to a meditation on the dropping of his hat – and so on, but never back to Bobby…

Characters

  • Tristram Shandy
  • (Jenny, his consort)
  • (Eugenius, his friend)
  • Walter Shandy, his father
  • Mrs Shandy, his mother
  • Toby Shandy, his uncle
  • Bobby Shandy
  • Corporal Trim (James Butler)
  • Yorick the vicar
  • Dr Slop, the Catholic doctor
  • Susannah
  • Obadiah
  • Jonathan the coachman
  • The scullion
  • Didius – member of the Demoniacs
  • Phutatorius – member of the Demoniacs
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