Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt @ the British Museum

Temple lintel of King Amenemhat III, Hawara, Egypt, 12th Dynasty (1855 to 1808 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is a major exhibition held to mark the two hundredth anniversary of the year 1822 when French Egyptologist Jean-François Champollion cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphs which had been puzzling scholars for the best part of 1,500 years.

At its heart is the eerily beautiful and hugely important Rosetta Stone, discovered by French troops in Egypt in 1799. The central part of the exhibition summarises the genuinely exciting narrative of the great Race To Decipher hieroglyphics, as it developed into a rivalry between Great Britain – represented by antiquarian Thomas Young (1773 to 1829) – and France – represented by the ambitious young scholar Jean-François Champollion (1790 to 1832).

The exhibition brings together a rather staggering 250 artefacts, many (as usual) on loan from foreign museums. As such it provides a unique opportunity to see so much high quality Egyptiana in one place – all presented in a beautifully designed and laid out exhibition space. If the sheer scale sounds daunting, maybe the crucial thing to grasp is that the exhibition is divided into three main areas or parts.

Part One: The end of hieroglyphics, the revival of interest

Part one briefly covers the end of the millennia-long tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs in the years after the Greek conquest of Egypt in 320 BC. The Greek dynasty of the Ptolemy family kept up all the Egyptian traditions, but it was the advent of Roman rule from 30 BC (when the last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra VII, committed suicide) which signalled the slow decline of hieroglyphic writing. It was the imposition of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire by the emperor Theodosius in 391, and the order to close down all pagan temples, which spelled the end of the tradition of writing and reading hieroglyphs. The last known hieroglyphic inscription dates from 394. Byzantine rule of the province continued for centuries until swept away by the great Arab Conquest of the 640s AD.

Intellectual energy in the centuries following the Muslim conquest went into elaborating aspects of Islamic religion and philosophy, as well as preserving and commenting on survivals from antiquity, especially Greek texts. There was only scattered interest in the pictorial language carved into the huge stone monuments all across Egypt.

Some Muslim scholars are namechecked, but for us in Europe it was only the revival of learning from the 1400s onwards, the period which came to be called the Renaissance, which saw sustained scholarly activity to decipher the hieroglyphs. A negative key factor was that there had been some scholarly enquiry during ancient times, with Roman scholars writing books about the hieroglyphs – but that these were often seriously wrong and misleading but were considered indisputable evidence throughout the Renaissance.

Interestingly, study of ancient Egyptian artifacts centred on Rome itself for the simple reason that victorious generals from Julius Caesar onwards had a fondness for stealing and shipping back to Rome impressive numbers of obelisks, stelae, statues, inscriptions and so on (a stela is an inscribed stone or wooden slab) – many of which were still standing 1,400 years later when the revival of interest in old texts (be they ancient Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syrian, Egyptian and so on) gathered pace.

The most significant figure was a German Jesuit and polymath, Athanasius Kircher (1602 to 1680). Working with Arabic grammars and dictionaries of Coptic acquired in Egypt by an Italian traveller, Kircher produced flawed but pioneering translations and grammars of the language in the 1640s and 1650s, leading up to his masterwork, the ‘Oedipus Aegyptiacus’ of 1652.

Unfortunately, Kircher brought to his studies a deep belief in mystic practices and magic. As a Jesuit he believed Egyptian religion must have foreshadowed the One True Religion i.e. Christianity, and so all his interpretations were coloured by a wish to find mystical meanings in even brief sets of symbols. In his hands even short texts of only a few hieroglyphic characters were translated into lengthy sentences describing mystical religious ideas.

But Kircher was only one of hundreds of scholars and commentators, including many of the early Muslim scholars, who were convinced the hieroglyphs represented ancient magic or the secrets of ‘alchemy’, and that true knowledge would allow modern practitioners to revive magical spells and incantations.

The Enchanted Basin

This belief that the hieroglyphs contained ancient magic is represented here by ‘the enchanted basin’, a large black granite sarcophagus from about 600 BC, covered with hieroglyphs and images of gods. Devotees believed that bathing in the basin (accompanied by the appropriate rituals and spells) could offer relief from the torments of love.

‘The Enchanted Basin’ aka the sarcophagus of Hapmen, Egypt, 26th Dynasty (600 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The ritual bath was discovered near a mosque in Cairo, in an area still known as al-Hawd al-Marsud – ‘the enchanted basin’ – and has been identified as simply a sarcophagus – for Hapmen, a nobleman of the 26th Dynasty.

Exhibition design 1

This first part of the exhibition is presented in the usual glass cases etc but against a backdrop of jet black walls themselves covered in silver hieroglyphic scripts which shimmer and capture the eye as you walk through them – evoking a world of black magic and mystery. Most wall panels relate to specific exhibits but the curators have also had the bright idea of creating standalone panels devoted to specific glyphs, explaining what they are and what they mean. This is one of several aspects designed, I think to appeal to children and school visits, and a charming idea.

One of the panels for schoolchildren in ‘Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt’

Part Two: The Rivalry

The second section declares its change of focus with a complete change of design, layout and atmosphere. No longer black, the gallery walls are lighter and the room is dominated by three long wooden benches, with wooden chairs set in front of them (which I think visitors are encouraged to sit at so as to study the artifacts on offer).

The dominance of stained wood reminds me of the British Museum’s extensive Enlightenment Gallery on the ground floor and is, I assume, intended to convey a sense of 18th and 19th century scholarship taking place in the civilised, wood-panelled rooms of Royal Societies and the private collections of rich European travellers across Enlightenment Europe.

This woody, benchy room is the setting for the gripping story of The Race To Decipher Hieroglyphs between the two men who are presented as rivals in scholarship and representatives of their respective nations, Thomas Young of Great Britain and Jean-François Champollion of France.

The Rosetta Stone

In fact the transition from part 1 to part 2 of the exhibition takes you past the famous Rosetta Stone itself, which was the clue to the whole thing and is a story, or several stories, in itself.

The Rosetta Stone, Rasid, Egypt (Ptolemaic, 196 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

History of the discovery

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte led an invasion of Egypt with 40,000 troops. By this stage revolutionary France had been at war with Great Britain for five years and the Egyptian strategy was designed to cut off Britain’s lucrative trade with her greatest colony, India. But, being French and priding himself on being a man of the Enlightenment, Napoleon took with him 200 scholars, engineers, antiquarians and so on. Over the next few years these experts made numerous drawings, descriptions and maps of the antiquities of Egypt which were later published in the multi-volume Description de l’Égypte (1809 to 1829).

The following year, in 1799, French forces were rebuilding an old fort in the coastal town of Rashid, when they dug up this large fragment of stone covered in writing. Realising its importance the officer in charge sent it to Napoleon’s headquarters. It was taken into possession of the lead scientist in Napoleon’s force but events were about to take a significant twist. In August 1798 the Royal Navy defeated the French navy at the Battle of the Nile.

A treaty (the Capitulation of Alexandria) was then negotiated (in 1801) between the victorious British and the French by which the victors took possession of most of the artefacts, findings and notes created by the French antiquarians. Discussions were detailed and became heated, but to cut a long story short, the British seized the Rosetta Stone and shipped it back to London, where it was presented to the king who in turn passed it onto the fledgling British Museum. It went on public display in 1802, has been on public display at the British Museum almost continuously and is its most visited object.

Almost immediately the British Society of Antiquarians made plaster copies of the stone and printed reproductions of the text and distributed them to other institutions across Europe.

It is called the Rosetta Stone because Rosette was the name Europeans gave to the town Arabs called Rashid and the name stuck.

What I took from all this was that this breakthrough in Egyptology and understanding of the ancient world came about almost entirely because of war between the great powers.

All down the line, from the first officer to see it, through the experts on Napoleon’s staff, through to the British officers in charge of the peace negotiation, through to the king’s advisors and officials at the British Museum, everyone recognised the stone’s immense importance.

Why is the Rosetta Stone important?

Because it was the first artifact found anywhere in Egypt which contained several languages or scripts in parallel. At a glance you can see that the top part of the stone contains rows of hieroglyphics, the next section contains lines of text in another script, and the lower third of the stone contains text in yet another script, which scholars quickly recognised as Greek.

To be precise, from top to bottom, the top two scripts are in Ancient Egyptian, the top one using hieroglyphic and the second one ‘Demotic’ script, while the bottom one is in Ancient Greek.

What is ‘Demotic’? We now know that the ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs on their official monuments, but on administrative and religious life used a form of cursive script which was easier to write and read. This cursive script changed and evolved over the thousands of years of Egyptian history:

  • the oldest form is called ‘hieratic’ from its development in the third millennium BC until the rise of Demotic in the mid-first millennium BC
  • the so-called Demotic form of the language developed and then held sway from about 650 BC to the 5th century AD
  • and was replaced by the third major form, Coptic, the final development of the Egyptian language, spoken by the common people from around the third-century AD through till the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Coptic has no native speakers today, although it is preserved and still recited by priests of the Coptic church

So what the Rosetta stone presents is a text in classical hieroglyphs, a text in ‘Demotic’ i.e. the common form of written Egyptian of the day, and then a text in ancient Greek.

Scholars immediately realised that, if the three sets of script represented the same text in three different languages, then they should be able to use the Greek at the bottom to read the hieroglyphs at the top and, in so doing, identify what words or sounds individual hieroglyphs stand for and so crack the code, decipher the language of hieroglyphs.

The Rosetta Stone as it appears in the exhibition. Note the animated timeline of the Race To Decipher in the right background, and blown-up reproductions of scholarly texts hanging from the ceiling

Unexpected delay

In my ignorance I thought the discovery of the stone meant we had the key to the door, the job was done, and we could start deciphering hieroglyphs immediately.

Not at all. Turns out there was still a lot of work to be done, not least because there was disagreement on fundamental facts. For example, not all scholars agreed the three scripts contained the same text. And the stone at first presented more puzzles than solutions because antiquarians could no more read demotic than hieroglyphs. So at first sight the stone presented double the problem, two challenges – of aligning the ancient Greek (readable) with the demotic and hieroglyphs (unreadable).

It took a surprising amount of scholarly guesswork, trial and error, devising and testing different theories for knowledge to inch forward. This room – the wooden table room- presents a year-by-year account of the 20 or so years between the stone going on public display and Champollion’s breakthrough in 1822. You might think all this is a fairly niche subject, but think again; there’s an impressive number of books on the subject:

Major landmarks in the decoding included recognition that:

  • 1799: the stone shows three versions of the same text
  • 1802: the demotic text uses phonetic characters to spell foreign names
  • 1814: the hieroglyphic text uses phonetic characters as well, and so has numerous similarities to the demotic
  • 1822: phonetic characters were used to spell not just foreign names but native Egyptian words

The breakthrough 1822

Scripts for languages can be either:

  • ideographic – symbols are used for words or concepts
  • syllabic – symbols are used to convey the sounds of syllables which make up words
  • alphabetic – a symbol is assigned to individual elements out of which words are built

The latter two are examples of phonetic languages i.e:

You can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it. Or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

The ancient Romans had queered the pitch and misled centuries of scholars by claiming that all hieroglyphs were symbols, one glyph directly standing for one idea or concept. Hundreds of scholars wasted their lives trying to figure out what each hieroglyph ‘stood for’.

As I understand it, Champollion’s big breakthrough was realising that Demotic and hieroglyphic i.e. ancient Egyptian language as a whole, was a combination of ideographic and phonetic. He realised this after seeing another scholar’s decipherment of foreign names as phonetic sounds in the hieroglyphs. This was the actual key – that the names of foreign (generally Greek) rulers, were spelled phonetically.

Rather than try to explain further, I’ll quote Wikipedia:

In 1822, Champollion saw copies of brief hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions taken from an obelisk found at Philae, on which William John Bankes had tentatively noted the names “Ptolemaios” and “Kleopatra” in both languages. From this, Champollion identified the phonetic characters ‘k l e o p a t r a’. On the basis of this and the foreign names on the Rosetta Stone, he quickly constructed an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters, completing his work on 14 September and announcing it publicly on 27 September in a lecture to the Académie royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. On the same day he wrote the famous “Lettre à M. Dacier” to Bon-Joseph Dacier, secretary of the Académie, detailing his discovery. In the postscript Champollion notes that similar phonetic characters seemed to occur in both Greek and Egyptian names, a hypothesis confirmed in 1823, when he identified the names of pharaohs Ramesses and Thutmose written in cartouches at Abu Simbel.

1824 Champollion published a Précis in which he detailed a decipherment of the hieroglyphic script demonstrating the values of its phonetic and ideographic signs.

In 1829, he travelled to Egypt where he was able to read many hieroglyphic texts that had never before been studied, and brought home a large body of new drawings of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

In 1832 Champollion died from illnesses brought on by travel in Egypt.

1838 his Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian was published posthumously. But if you thought that was the end of the affair, you’d be wrong, for Champollion erroneously assumed that the hieroglyphs could be read directly in Coptic script, whereas in fact they represented a much older stage of the language which differs in many ways from Coptic.

It took scholars the rest of the century to work through all the details of ancient Egyptian and work is still ongoing because it turns out to have developed in more forms and variations and dialects than initially thought.

What does the Rosetta Stone actually say?

At the end of all that, what does the Rosetta Stone text actually say? Each of the 3 languages records a priestly decree of 196 BC issued by a council of Egyptian priests from the city of Memphis during the reign of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (i.e. ironically, it’s a text about a Greek ruler and not one of the classic ancient Egyptian pharaohs). The text praises the righteous acts of the king and lists the honours bestowed on him by the priests.

So no magic spells or alchemical procedures, much more banal than that. Interestingly, this kind of decree wasn’t even an Egyptian tradition, but hailed from Greece, a type of inscription imported along with the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty.

Part Three: Modern Egyptology

Design 3: Airy design and huge videos

Struggling to process the complexities of this story, the visitor walks from wood-lined part two of the exhibition through an Egyptian archway into a completely different space.

Here the walls are white and the ceiling is high, creating a sense of light and clarity. On the wall on the right is a video projection of part of an ancient wall with birds flying by – but this is dwarfed by the end wall onto which is projected a huge landscape video of the River Nile itself, a long band of rippling blue water, above which sits the fabulously fertile green riverbank – all reeds, grasses and palm trees – and then the deep blue of the Egyptian sky.

So, in terms of design, the visitor has progressed from pitch black walls at the start, though the gentlemen’s-club brown wood panelling of the second part, and now arrives in the kind of bright light space typical of modern art galleries. I guess this is also symbolic of passing from ignorance, through purblind scholarship and study, into the modern age of research and understanding.

Egyptian social history

This final part of the exhibition could almost be staged in its own right, for it is a fascinating overview of Egyptian social history, social life, in all its many aspects.

If you want the history of ancient Egypt – the political history of all those pharaohs, their wars, their dynasties, maps of their territory etc – that is already available in the vast series of rooms which, as it happens, you exit into after the exhibition space, the long gallery called Room 4. This isn’t that.

Instead this third part of the exhibition presents a careful selection of objects which illustrate the modern understanding of all aspects of Egyptian society, which Champollion’s discovery (much elaborated and built on by later scholars) allowed. It is a collection of choice artifacts which shed unparalleled insight into the lives, not of kings and pharaohs, but of ordinary people – their lives, loves, marriages, divorces, financial affairs, loans and mortgages, the stories they told each other, the poems and hymns they recited, their religious beliefs and practices, maths textbooks, guides to the interpretation of dreams, their calendar and how they structured the year, the months, the weeks, the days, even shopping lists and tax returns.

For example, a papyrus from about 1200 BC explains that the Egyptian year was divided into 12 months of 30 days. Their week lasted 10 days, and the year had three seasons – Akhet (flooding), Peret (growing) and Shemu (harvest).

Or take the richly illustrated Book of the Dead papyrus of Queen Nedjmet is over 3,000 years old and more than four metres long. A recitation of the texts demonstrates the power of the spoken word and includes ritual spells. The papyrus features alongside a set of four canopic vessels that preserved the organs of the deceased. These were dispersed over French and British collections after discovery, and this is the first time this set of jars has been reunited since the mid-1700s.

Detail of The Book of the Dead of Queen Nedjmet (papyrus, Egypt, 1070 BC, 21st Dynasty) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The mummy bandage of Aberuait from the Musée du Louvre, Paris has never been shown in the UK. It was a souvenir from one of the earliest ‘mummy unwrapping events’ in the 1600s where attendees received a piece of the linen, preferably inscribed with hieroglyphs.

A 3,000-year-old measuring rod from the Museo Egizio in Turin was an essential clue for Champollion to unravel Egyptian mathematics, discovering that the Egyptians used units inspired by the human body.

Royal cubit rod of Amenemope (18th Dynasty) Torino, Museo Egizio

The cartonnage and mummy of the lady Baketenhor, on loan from the Natural History Society of Northumbria, was studied by Champollion in the 1820s. In correspondence with colleagues in Newcastle, Champollion correctly identified the inscription on the mummy cover as a prayer addressed to several deities for the soul of the deceased only a few years after he cracked the hieroglyphic writing system. Baketenhor lived to about 25 to 30 years of age, sometime between 945 and 715 BCE.

Cartonnage of the lady Baketenhor (late 22nd Dynasty, between 945 and 715 BC) Courtesy of the Natural History Society of Northumbria. Image © Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums

Prayers to Hathor, the goddess of love and music, were often accompanied by the sistrum, a musical instrument used in dances and religious ceremonies. When shaken, the sistrum produced a soft clink or a loud jangle which had power to appease the gods. Note the face at the top of the handle.

Ancient Egyptian sistrum (747 to 332 BC)

(In fact I’ve just come references to a sistrum – ‘the sacred rattle… the jingling bronze of the sistrum…’ – used in worship of Isis, in a story in book 9 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

On a much more humble level, a papyrus from 1100 BC records the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener and tells us that he supported her for three years after the divorce. The reasons for the divorce aren’t stated but we know from other sources that the wife probably kept the possessions she brought to the marriage.

Papyrus from 1100 BC recording the separation of Hessunebef from his wife Hener

We now know the ancient Egyptians had over 90 recipes for the treatment of eye problems. Black and green kohl had antibacterial properties and could be carried around in pots to be used as eye liner.

There’s a book helping with the interpretation of dreams, a perennial topic in the ancient world. This one belonged to a certain Qenherkhepshef and contains the following useful advice:

If a man sees himself in a dream looking after monkeys: bad – a change awaits him!

And hundreds more.

I also noticed the way a number of wall labels featured quotes all attributed to ‘Voices from Rashid’. What is this? The British Museum interviewed schoolchildren from the town of Rashid (modern day Rosetta) about the stone and ancient Egyptian life and these quotes are the opinions of the schoolchildren on aspects of Egyptian history, the hieroglyphics, the stone and so on, sprinkled on panels throughout the exhibition.

Statue of a scribe (6th Dynasty) Photo © Musée du Louvre, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Georges Poncet

This exhibition is fascinating, inspiring, beautifully designed and laid out. In the section about the Race To Decipher, it is surprisingly gripping. And the wide-ranging final section brings you closer to the concerns of ordinary ancient Egyptian men and women than you would have thought possible.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Prehistoric timelines

Texts about prehistory are liable to use three different timelines or naming systems interchangeably so it’s as well to be absolutely clear about them. What follows isn’t definitive, it’s the opposite. It’s my attempt to make sense of the timelines and period-related terminology used in the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. As far as I can tell there are three systems:

  1. the geological eras
  2. the sequence of ice ages
  3. the archaeological periods relating to human culture

1. Geological eras

The geologic time scale is the very high level division of earth history into units called — in descending order of duration — eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages. We are interested in just two epochs:

a) The Pleistocene epoch: 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago

This long period includes all the earth’s most recent periods of glaciations. It ends with the end of the most recent ice age and general climate warming.

b) The Holocene epoch: 11,650 to now

The Holocene is said to have started about 11,650 years ago, at the end of the most recent maximal glaciation or ice age, and we are still living in it today (although see the note at the end about the possible creation of a new epoch, Anthropocene).

Human figurines carved from yew wood with quartzite eyes from Roos Carr, East Yorkshire, 1000 to 500 BC © Hull Museums

2. Ice ages

The Quaternary glaciation: 2,588,00 YA to the present

The Quaternary glaciation started around 2,588,000 years ago (YA) and is ongoing. The dating of its start is based on the formation of the Arctic ice cap. The Quaternary glaciation itself consists of a sequence of glacial and interglacial periods and we are living in the most recent of its interglacial periods i.e. a warm spell between ice ages.

The Last Glacial Period (LGP): 115,000 to 12,000 YA

The Last Glacial Period (LGP), known colloquially as the last ice age, covers the period 115,000 to 12,000 years ago. The LGP is just part of the larger sequence of glacial and interglacial periods known as the Quaternary glaciation (see above). During this last glacial period there have been alternating episodes of glacier advance and retreat.

Last Glacial Maximum (LGM): 33,000 to 12,000 YA

The most recent period of glacier advance, when ice reached its furthest extent, is called the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Ice sheets covered much of North America and Northern Europe leading to a large drop in sea levels. The ice sheets began to grow 33,000 years ago and maximum coverage was reached between 26,500 and 20,000 years ago. At this point all of Scotland, most of Ireland and Wales and England north of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel was under ice. South of the ice the land was covered by permafrost with scattered glaciers and ice sheets at high points further south.

During the last glacial maximum, 26,500 and 20,000 years ago, the sea level was about 125 meters (about 410 feet) lower than it is today. After about 20,000 years ago deglaciation commenced in the Northern Hemisphere, and the ice cap began to retreat north, causing sea levels to rise.

The Holocene: 11,650 YA to the present day

Relevant both as a geological epoch and in the timeline of glaciation, the Holocene is the most recent geological epoch and the one we’re all still living in today. In Britain it correlates to the withdrawal of the ice sheets from the entire country.

As the ice sheets withdrew, Britain continued to be part of the continent of Europe, joined by an extensive area referred to as Doggerland. With the withdrawal of the ice and the rise of sea levels, Doggerland was flooded, creating what we now call the North Sea and the English Channel, a process which was complete by about 8,000 years ago.

Bone-bead necklace, part of the finds from Skara Brae, c. 3100 to 2500 BC Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland © The Trustees of the British Museum

3. Human culture timelines

Human archaeology and ethnography uses what is called the ‘three age’ system, dividing the prehistory of humans into three broad categories – stone age, bronze age, iron age – according to the type of tools found in find sites.

It’s surprising to learn that this schema is 200 years old. It was developed by Christian Thomsen, director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1820s. Thomsen wanted to categorise objects in his collection chronologically according to the main medium used for tool making in each era, and his collection suggested that stone tools came first, then bronze, then iron.

In 1865 the British archaeologist and ethnographer John Lubbock sub-divided the stone age into two, the old stone age or paleolithic (from the Greek paleo meaning old and lithos meaning stone) and the new stone age or neolithic (from the Greek neo meaning new and lithos). Almost immediately the British archaeologist Hodder Westropp suggested an intermediary stage, the middle stone age or mesolithic (from the Greek meso meaning middle and lithos meaning stone), which is still used but is a little more controversial.

Finally, it was realised that the huge extent of the so-called ‘paleolithic’ itself needed to be subdivided, eventually into 3 stages, the lower, middle and upper, which were proposed in the 1880s. And so we find ourselves with the following schema:

  1. Stone Age: 
    • Paleolithic 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA
      • Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago
      • Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago
      • Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 YA
    • Mesolithic: 15,000 to 5,000 years ago
    • Neolithic: 5,000 to
  2. Bronze Age 5300 years ago to 3200 YA
  3. Iron Age to (depends on region)

Two reservations

1. It’s worth emphasising that this entire system works well in Europe and some parts of Asia but doesn’t far at all with human developments in Africa, the Americas or far Asia. In many parts of the world there was no Iron Age at all, for example in Pre-Columbian America and the prehistory of Australia.

2. The term Megalithic does not refer to a period of time, but only describes the use of large stones by ancient peoples from any period.

Now let’s look at the ages in a bit more detail:

Fine jadeitite axe-head made from material quarried in the high Italian Alps, c. 4500 to 3500 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Paleolithic or Old Stone Age: 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA

Paleolithic indicates the fact that from the dawn of the first proto-humans who used any kinds of tools through to the discovery of metal smelting, all human species used tools made from stone, particularly flint blades and axes. The paleolithic covers a vast period of time, from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominids c. 3.3 million years ago to the start of the Holocene era, about 12,000 years ago. It covers 99% of the period of human technological prehistory. For that entire period humans appear to have been roaming bands of hunter-gatherers living off the land.

As mentioned, as long ago as the 1880s it was found necessary to subdivide the Paleolithic into three:

Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago

The Lower Paleolithic is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It spans the period from around 3 million years ago when the first evidence for stone tool production and use by hominids appears in the archaeological record until around 300,000 years ago.

I was a bit puzzled by use of lower and upper until I equated this with the physical location of the finds with the older findings being literally lower down in the earth, and more recent findings being less deep or uppermost.

Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago

The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. Anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens) are believed to have emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago. Around 125,000 years ago they began migrating out of Africa and slowly replaced earlier pre-existent Homo species such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

The use of fire became widespread for the first time in human prehistory during the Middle Paleolithic and humans began to cook their food about 250,000 years ago.

The later part of the period saw the development of a range of new tools: about 90,000 years ago harpoons were invented which brought fish into human diets. Microliths or small stone tools or points were invented around 70,000 to 65,000 YA and were essential to the invention of bows and spear throwers.

Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 years ago

The Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. About 50,000 years ago there was a marked increase in the diversity of artifacts. In Africa, bone artifacts and the first art appear in the archaeological record.

The early modern humans who migrated out of Africa and into Europe about 50,000 years ago, commonly referred to as the Cro-Magnons, left sophisticated stone tools, carved and engraved pieces on bone, ivory and antler, cave paintings and Venus figurines.

The distinct species Homo neanderthalensis, which had first emerged in the fossil record 400,000 years ago and lived widely across Europe and Asia, continued to live for a very long time – as long as 10,000 years – alongside the new incomers Homo sapiens. Then, abruptly, Neanderthals disappear completely from the fossil record 40,000 years ago, leaving archaeologists to speculate about the reasons for their sudden disappearance to this day.

This upper paleolithic revolution which kicked off 50,000 years ago saw many innovations. It witnessed the first evidence of human fishing. New implements were invented: for example, the spear thrower (30,000 years ago), the net (around 29,000 YA), the bolas, the bow and arrow (30,000 to 25,000 YA). From this period date the oldest examples of ceramic art, for example, the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (about 29,000 YA). Members of the European early Upper Paleolithic culture known as the Aurignacian had even developed lunar calendars by 30,000 YA.

Human populations

A really important fact to grasp is that human populations during this period were tiny. The entire population of Europe between 40,000 and 16,000 years ago was probably somewhere 4,000 and 6,000 individuals.

Bronze Age sun pendant, 1000 to 800 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Mesolithic (in Britain): 12,000 to 6,000 years ago

The Paleolithic is said to end with the end of the last ice age and the spread back into Europe of human communities which developed new tools and techniques. The period from the end of the ice age to the arrival of metal smelting 4,500 years ago was initially simply referred to as the Neolithic or new stone age because of the proliferation of new techniques.

But, as we’ve seen, archaeologists almost immediately felt the need to define an interim period between the end of the Old Stone Age and the final period of innovation – hence the creation of the term mesolithic, which refers to the final period of hunter-gatherer cultures in Europe and Western Asia, between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the Neolithic Revolution. In Europe it spans roughly 15,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Precise dating of the Mesolithic varies between areas because they were impacted by a) deglaciation and the creation of newly habitable land and b) the arrival of the agricultural revolution, at widely varying times. Thus the mesolithic is said to start in warm Greece around 15,000 years ago but in chilly Britain only around 12,000 YA.

Broadly speaking the Mesolithic is associated with a decline in the group hunting of large animals in favour of a broader hunter-gatherer way of life, and the development of more sophisticated and typically smaller lithic tools and weapons than the heavy-chipped equivalents typical of the Paleolithic.

The Neolithic (in Britain): 6,000 to 4,500 years ago (2,500 BC)

The Neolithic is now used to refer to the period after the ice age when human society was transformed by the advent of agriculture with its enormous cultural, social and economic consequences, but most tools continued to be made of stone, albeit of high levels of sophistication.

The advent of agriculture is sometimes referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. It saw the wide-scale transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, with the domestication and breeding of edible grasses and farm animals. With settlement came villages and then towns. We have religious records which point to polytheism.

Some archaeologists refer to a ‘Neolithic package’ in which they include farming, herding, polished stone axes, timber longhouses and pottery. Farming formed the basis for centralised administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies, depersonalised systems of knowledge (that’s to say, writing), densely populated settlements, specialisation and division of labour, more trade, the development of non-portable art and architecture and greater property ownership.

The agricultural revolution spread from its origins in the Middle East, through Turkey, across Greece and slowly into central and western Europe. Different sites in the Middle East point to different dates for the domestication of different plants or animals but the process was underway by as long ago as 12,000 years ago.

The diffusion across Europe, from the Fertile Crescent through Anatolia, across the Aegean and central Europe to Britain, took some 3,000 years (9500 to 6000 years ago). It is calculated to have spread at a speed of about 1 kilometre a year, but it was patchy, spreading to some (fertile) areas, moving round mountains, stalling, then suddenly jumping again.

Interestingly, there is evidence of some communities keeping to the mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for very long periods after the neolithic package arrived, for as long as a thousand years! Archaeologists call such societies are called ‘subneolithic’, the ‘sub’ just meaning hanging on after the main era had ended.

One of the mind-blowing aspects of the neolithic revolution is that all the evidence suggests it made human beings measurably worse off! Many of the cultivated crops (wheat, barley, maize) are deficient in vitamins and minerals and relying on them and cow or goat milk to the exclusion of other elements in a diet can be very harmful. All the archaeological evidence suggests that the Neolithic Revolution led to much more limited diets and poorer nutrition. Human height decreased by an average of 5 inches! Apparently human height didn’t return to pre-neolithic levels until the 20th century.

In addition, close habitation with animals led infectious diseases to jump the species boundary. Smallpox and influenza are just two diseases we got from animals. And higher population densities, living with poor sanitation led to tainted water supplies and the usual diseases of diarrhoea and dysentery, typhoid and cholera.

Jared Diamond suggests that the status of women declined with the adoption of agriculture because women in farming societies typically have more pregnancies and are expected to do more demanding work than women in hunter-gatherer societies.

Having read widely about it, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Neolithic Revolution was a catastrophe for most humans.

The Bronze Age (in Britain): 2,500 BC to 800 BC

Bronze is produced by smelting copper and alloying it with tin, arsenic, or other metals to strengthen it i.e. use it to make stronger, more durable tools or weapons.

In Eurasia the development of bronze tools definitely follows the final refinement of stone ones, and supersedes them. When exactly this happened varies largely from region to region and even from site to site within regions.

In Britain the advent of the Bronze Age is generally agreed to be marked by the arrival of the so-called Beaker culture, so named for the sudden appearance of beaker- or bell-shaped bowls in graves. In Britain the Bronze Age is subdivided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 700 BC).

The Beaker people appear to have known how to smelt copper from their first arrival but it is only around 2150 BC that there is evidence of them smelting copper with other metals (generally tin) to make bronze.

A 2017 study suggests that the Beaker People almost completely replaced the island’s earlier inhabitants, with an estimated 90% of Britain’s neolithic gene pool being replaced! That’s to say, the people who built Stonehenge were substantially wiped out and superseded.

Primarily the Bronze Age is characterised by the widespread use of bronze tools and implements. It is usually accompanied by most of the traits of ‘civilisation’, including craft, urban centres, crafting of precious objects, widespread trade. In the Middle East and Greece we know it was accompanied by the worship of ethnic gods.

Devon and Cornwall were major sources of tin for much of western Europe and the earliest Greek and Roman historians refer to trade with these remote islands which brought the ore to the Mediterranean heartlands.

Bronze twin horse-snake hybrid from hoard, 1200 to 1000 BC. Kallerup, Thy, Jutland, Denmark © National Museum of Denmark

The Iron Age (in Britain): 800 BC to 43 AD

The Iron Age in Britain is dated by the first finds of iron tools in burial sites (around 800 BC) to the arrival of the Romans (43 AD).

The Iron Age is characterised by substantial population growth which allowed increasing social specialisation in societies living in large settlements. In Britain there was a proliferation of large hill forts. There is sophisticated social organisation, for example a class system overseen by a king and the implementation of taxation. There is extensive trade, nationally and internationally, leading to burial sites rich in high value goods, sometimes transported across great distances.

Also a good deal of immigration with entire tribes moving into and settling territories. Whether this involved conquest or peaceful ‘diffusion’ is debated to this day. When the Romans arrived they found a land divided among tribes with a highly developed sense of identity, regional allegiance, names and kings.

The Iron Age is said to end when writing begins. Even though the same kinds of tools are used, a culture has clearly entered a new phase when it enters the historical record. But obviously this happened at different times in different regions.

Thus in the Ancient Near East the Iron Age is taken to end with the start of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC, as it enters history in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. In Western Europe the Iron Age is ended by the Roman conquest, which was established by 100 AD. By contrast in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe that the Romans did not reach, the Iron Age is said to have continued until the start of the Viking Age in about 800 AD.

As the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum strongly indicates, the later Iron Age was characterised by increasing warfare and social strife. Skeletons show signs of multiple injuries. Average life expectancy at birth was around 25. Into this culture arrived the Romans with their writing, education, towns, roads and laws.

P.S. A new geological era – the Anthropocene?

Remember how I said we’re only interested in two geological epochs, the Pleistocene and the Holocene. Well, there is a new, third category: many scientists are pushing for the scientific community to recognise that the Holocene has ended and we have entered a new epoch, to be named the Anthropocene.

The idea is that this new era should be dated to mark the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. With widespread acceptance that manmade global warming is having (and will continue to have) a significant effect on the world’s ecosystems, you can see the logic of arguing that we live in an entirely unprecedented era. But to date, none of the official bodies which recognise the geological eras have accepted the anthropocene and there is ongoing debate about when  it should be said to have started.

The problem with our over-documented, over-determined time is that too much has happened. Since Hiroshima we live in The Atomic Age. And since the end of the Second World War we are also all living in an age of rapid technological and social change, which some historians call the Great Acceleration.

Or should we be going further back, should the start of the anthropocene be lined up with the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1710 or 1770 (depending on which precise technical discoveries you prioritise)?

Or, in a massive leap, should we go right back to the start of the neolithic revolution described above, which is when human beings first began to have a measurable impact on their environment? Which would make it identical the current term, the Holocene?

The debate is ongoing and there’s no shortage of candidates but if we stick to permanent markers which are being laid down now and which geologists will find in a million years time, then apparently radioactivity from the nuclear tests is now embedded in ice cores and a thin layer of microplastics has been laid down on the ocean beds, the kind of thing which 100% fulfil the geological criteria.

Personally I think it should be the 1780s and the invention of new, more efficient steam engines, as it was this breakthrough – more than agriculture itself – which set us on the course of greater and greater reliance on energy, first coal, then oil and gas whose use, we all now know, has led to our runaway proliferation, our destruction of every ecosystem we come into contact with, and what looks likely to be massive and irreversible effects on the entire global climate.

Will Stonehenge, built as a result of the neolithic agricultural revolution, survive long enough to see the world transformed by the manmade global warming which is that revolution’s long-term legacy? (Photo © English Heritage)


Related links

How It Is by Samuel Beckett (1964)

warmth of primeval mud impenetrable dark

Although he is meant to be the poet laureate of impoverishment and paucity and minds reduced to tatters, it never ceases to amaze me how much Samuel Beckett managed to write on more or less this one subject, and how ironic it is that he was so copiously prolific on the subject of the poverty, collapse and failure of imagination, language and writing.

Not only that, but as soon as you begin reading any criticism of any particular Beckett text, you realise all his critics and scholars are addicted to referring off to other Beckett texts, to referencing the structure of other similar works, to exploring how the theme of collapse, for example, is dealt with in related texts, pointing out how specific imagery like bowler hats or rocking chairs recur in so many of the texts and plays, or the image of the sea, the beach, the shingle and the waves, which recurs throughout his radio plays and later prose.

As an example, we’re barely three sentences into the introduction to How It Is before the editor (the improbably named Édouard Magessa O’Reilly) is making references to Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable because How It Is ‘recapitulates the themes of reduced circumstance and the search for self that are the focus of the earlier novels’. Soon afterwards we’re being pointed towards the Texts For Nothing and Stirrings Still as references and comparisons.

In other words, a key aspect of Beckett’s work is that, not only did he write so much – so many dramaticules, so many novels, short stories and scattered prose pieces – but that they all build up into a massive system of endlessly echoing self-references and correspondences. Beckett’s oeuvre is like some Gothic cathedral, you can get lost in the wings and extensions and aisles and apses, each of which repeats the same dominant themes (as a cathedral endlessly repeats the iconography of the Cross and stories from the Bible) but with an apparent infinity of variations in structure, tone and treatment. That’s why The Beckett Companion is nearly 700 pages long and contains over a thousand detailed entries on a huge range of subjects. A handful of themes, but hundreds of variations.

Commencer

How It Is is the English translation of a novel Beckett first published in French in 1961 as Comment c’est. This is a pun because the phrase ‘comment c’est’ (how it is) and the verb ‘commencer’ (to begin) sound the same in French. Beckett’s English translation was published in 1964.

As the introduction by Édouard Magessa O’Reilly puts it:

We have a character alone, in constant darkness, able to subsist. Which is all that is needed for the narration to proceed and, in the end, is all we are given. This is How It Is. Realism, causality and explanation are written out of the text. The narrator crawls through mud and darkness without knowing where he comes from or where he is going, and certainly not why. He drags with him a sack containing tins of food, the origin of which is a mystery to him. On his journey he meets another whom he calls Pim and with whom he has a brief, abusive relationship.

That’s how it is.

Explanatory letter

Or, as Beckett put it in a letter dated 6 April 1960 to Donald McWhinnie of the BBC Radio Drama Company, the text is the product of a:

‘man’ lying panting in the mud and dark murmuring his ‘life’ as he hears it obscurely uttered by a voice inside him… The noise of his panting fills his ears and it is only when this abates that he can catch and murmur forth a fragment of what is being stated within… It is in the third part that occurs the so-called voice ‘quaqua’, its interiorisation and murmuring forth when the panting stops. That is to say the ‘I’ is from the outset in the third part and the first and second, though stated as heard in the present, already over.

Comment c’est

I see me on my face close my eyes not the blue the others at the back and see me on my face the mouth opens the tongue comes out lolls in the mud and no question of thirst either no question of dying of thirst either all this time vast stretch of time

The novel is a monologue told by a narrator who seems to be crawling through mud dragging a coal sack full of tins of food, which he periodically hugs, lugs behind him, opens and rummages in or folds up to sleep on. It performs the function of a comfort blanket to a child, it is all he has:

I say it as I hear it in this position the hands suddenly empty still nipping the sack never let go the sack otherwise suddenly empty

The narrator’s mind continually wanders off to include fragments (‘bits and scraps’) of memories of brief shining moments scattered throughout his life. He seems to be driven by a voice, hearing a voice which is speaking through him but which he can only hear periodically when he ceases his movements and rests from his loud panting:

in me that were without when the panting stops scraps of an ancient voice in me not mine

Repeatedly he repeats the catchphrase, ‘I say it as I hear it’, as it comes to him, the voice, in the quiet between the panting, as if the text is being dictated by this external force or internal force over which he has no control.

The text is separated into three distinct periods, indeed the first sentence or ‘word block’ lays out the structure:

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it

and the text obsessively recurs to this claim, that there was an era before Pim, a period with Pim, and now he is in the era after Pim, and is formally divided into Part One, Part Two and Part Three.

Having read the text carefully, I’m not sure this division matters that much, I mean it doesn’t make much difference to the quality of the memory fragments he appears to have, nor does it really change anything, but texts need a structure, and ‘before and after’ is among the most basic, minimal viable structures you can imagine, cognate with the before and after structure of both Waiting For Godot and Happy Days.

The narrator crawls through the mud by flinging his arm out and then inserting his fingers like grapnels into the mud and painfully pulling himself forward. He uses his right arm and right leg the most.

right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards

a gesture or technique he describes at length, repeatedly, to ram home the immiseration of his condition. As does his repeated use of swearwords to refer to bodily functions, namely that he pisses, farts and shits there, in the mud, wiping his arse with the mud. Beckett is addicted to potty language, and sprinkles his texts with the crudest Anglo-Saxon obscenities, it’s a mental tic, like the theme of mental collapse and ruined memory, the obsessive repetitions of words and phrases, the use of diagrams with mathematical keys or symbols, the obsessively detailed descriptions of humans performing actions like robots.

Overall, it is not a pretty picture, an old man in rags, a shadow of his former self (a ‘little dead weight’, ‘four stone five stone’) clutching into the mud, crawling through mud fouled by his own faeces. At one point he appears to say he has covered four hundred miles in this fashion:

and so in the mud the dark on the belly in a straight line as near as no matter four hundred miles

and what do you say to yourself as you labour on, day and night, through the mud, clinging to your sack of tinned provisions, hugging it close at night, your mind subjected to a chaos of half memories and fragments of education, ruined Latin tags or moments from philosophers or poets. For example, he remembers Belacqua, a minor character from Dante’s Purgatorio, who makes his first appearance in Beckett’s pre-war collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, and then pops up periodically as a one-word reference at odd moments in later texts:

asleep I see me asleep on my side or on my face it’s one or the other on my side it’s preferable which side the right it’s preferable the sack under my head or clasped to my belly clasped to my belly the knees drawn up the back bent in a hoop the tiny head near the knees curled round the sack Belacqua fallen over on his side tired of waiting forgotten of the hearts where grace abides asleep

In the mud, on his side, clasping, bent, what words can comfort you in such a plight?

what can one say to oneself possibly say at such a time a little pearl of forlorn solace so much the better so much the worse

Part 1 – before Pim

The solitary narrator journeys in the mud-dark hag-ridden by the ‘the voice’ dictating his broken memories:

I say it as I hear it natural order more or less bits and scraps in the mud my life murmur it to the mud

His journey, if it is a journey, is really a montage of memories from his life, including moving reminiscences of his mother, of his childhood of being taught to pray, of the many visitors who came to dandle him on their knees. Suddenly, as so often happens, out of the swirl of avant-garde disjecta comes a perfectly plain memory, of a morning in April or May when he and a girlfriend took her dog for a walk on a leash, near a racecourse, near fields full of lambs.

we are if I may believe the colours that deck the emerald grass if I may believe them we are old dream of flowers and seasons we are in April or in May and certain accessories if I may believe them white rails a grandstand colour of old rose we are on a racecourse in April or in May

But it is just as characteristically ruined by Beckettian subversions: he suddenly realises how grotesque he looks, the dog lowers its head to its black and pink penis, the couple eat food in an increasingly surreal mechanical, way:

suddenly we are eating sandwiches alternate bites I mine she hers and exchanging endearments my sweet girl I bite she swallows my sweet boy she bites I swallow we don’t yet coo with our bills full

and then the vision collapses, and he is back in the mud.

Part 2 – with Pim

Part 2 opens, bizarrely, Proceeding through the mud the narrator appears to catch a man in a similar situation on the buttocks. He tries to turn him over but fat chance of that, no:

I’ll never know Pim but on his belly…and having rummaged in the mud between his legs I bring up finally what seems to me a testicle or two

he’s a little old man we’re two little old men something wrong here

like two old jades harnessed together

He feels the back of the man’s head, all white hair, then the man starts up a little tune. Slowly painfully he pulls himself abreast of the man, pulls his arm back, it has a watch on, holds it to his ear, vast vistas of memory, open, lets the arm go, it returns to its former position. The narrator decides to call him Pim, it’s not his ‘real’ name, then says he likes it because it’s his, the narrator’s name, too,

when this has sunk in I let him know that I too Pim my name Pim there he has more difficulty a moment of confusion irritation it’s understandable it’s a noble name then it calms down

Mind you, the man he’s waiting for can call him Bom if he wants to.

m at the end and one syllable the rest indifferent

Pim the narrator decides to teach Pim the other a few lessons. They’re not nice lessons:

first lesson theme song I dig my nails into his armpit right hand right pit he cries I withdraw them thump with fist on skull his face sinks in the mud his cries cease end of first lesson

second lesson same theme nails in armpit cries thump on skull silence end of second lesson all that beyond my strength

The narrator learns if he digs his nails into Pim’s armpit, Pim sings. If he thumps him on the skull, he stops, for the simple reason that the thump drives Pi’s eyes, nose and mouth under the mud. The narrator tries to grab Pim’s sack but he won’t let go, narrator tears Pim’s wrist to the bone, the blood he lost. He clasps him to his right side, ‘fear of being abandoned’, he takes the can opening and drives it into Pim’s buttock, Pim screams, the narrator thumps his skulls, pushing Pim’s face under the mud. Stabs his buttocks so many times it becomes an open wound, stabs him so many times the initial cry becomes a dulled murmur, so then the narrator uses the tin opener to bang hard on Pim’s kidney, a new source of torment. In fact the narrator works out a repertoire of getting sounds out of Pim:

  1. gouging Pim’s armpit with his nails makes him sing
  2. tin opener in the arse makes him speak
  3. thump on skull makes him stop
  4. banging opener on kidney makes him louder
  5. index finger in his anus makes him softer
  6. smack across arse makes him say bravo

All this with his right hand. Why? Because his left is clinging onto his old coalsack full of tins, of course!

With the sharp nails of his right hand he carves letters into Pim’s bare back. He seems to be carving YOU PIM into Pim’s back in an effort to teach him that that’s his name. Takes a long time. Hard lessons. Pim becomes the narrator’s ‘unbutcherable brother’.

I’ll stay where I am yes glued to him yes tormenting him yes eternally yes

glued together like a single body in the dark the mud

About now I began to really notice the references to ‘up above’, to people up above, coming from above, as if the mud is on the lower level of something.

sky and earth yes people poking about yes all over the place yes… and he calls that life above yes as against life here

to those under whom and all above and all about the earth turns and all turns who hasten so from one goal to the next that but for this breath I would fancy I hear their hastening feet

days of great gaiety thicker than on earth since the age of gold above in the light the leaves fallen dead

Is it an underworld, then, this mudworld? It’s certainly not the underworld of either classical or Christian myth, but Pim had a life up there and the narrator had a life up there which he strains to remember. Is he ‘down here’ as a punishment?

two more years to put in a little more then back to the surface…

We learn the narrator had a wife, Pam Prim. They had sex every day, then a few times a week, then once a week, then he tried to revive interest by sodomising her. She used to shave her mound i.e. her mons veneris. She jumped out the second floor window. He visited her in hospital, took flowers.

We are introduced to the witness Kram and the scribe Krim, their silly names not far from Bim and Bom* and the egregious Pim. These Krims seem to have come in generations and been given numbers, thus Krim the Seventh, Krim the Ninth, men of consequence, the narrator wishes he’d known them, his grandfather did, his grandfather is suddenly a presence in the narrative.

He remembers a dog, named Skum or Skom, these names are obviously jokes. There’s pages more essentially repeating the notion of his eternal tormenting of Pim and the latter’s apparent references to ‘up there’, before the clusters of phrases begin to indicate we are nearing the end of part two, and the voice needs to describe what happened after Pim but before Bom.

Part 3 – after Pim

The narrator returns to his earlier solitude and considers in more detail the details of his situation, down here in the mud world, rehashing phrases about moving right arm right leg, advancing a few yards, but there is more focus now on the voice which gives him the words, few pitiful words, to say it, tell it, describe it.

try and hear a few old words on and off string them together in a phrase a few phrases try and see how it can possibly have been

but without motion in the mud-dark. Pim is gone but someone else comes up behind him as he came up behind Pim, he thinks he’s called Bim or Bem, word ending in m.

together then life in common me Bem he Bem we Bem vast stretch of time

This Bom performs the same function towards the narrator as the narrator performed towards Pim i.e. a tormentor.

instead of me sticking the opener into Pim’s arse Bom sticking it into mine

Or is it that he left Bem in order to find Pim, and at the same moment another left Pim to move on, thousands of them, a vast relay?

at the instant I leave Bem another leaves Pim and let us be at that instant one hundred thousand strong then fifty thousand departures fifty thousand abandoned no sun no earth nothing turning the same instant always everywhere

Millions, the whole world caught in this mud, endless relay, series of pointless movements, encounters and tortures:

millions millions there are millions of us and there are there I place myself at my point of view Bem is Bom Bom Bem let us say Bom it’s preferable Bom then me and Pim me in the middle

a million then if a million strong a million Pims now motionless agglutinated two by two in the interests of torment too strong five hundred thousand little heaps colour of mud and now a thousand thousand nameless solitaries half abandoned half abandoning

He theorises about the experience, about the endless relay which heads from left to right or east to west. Maybe its stages can be categorised:

one the journey two the couple three the abandon

This expands into a characteristically geometric way of conceiving the shape made by all the people in the mud, he uses algebraic symbols to depict the shape of the journey, and a mathematical-sounding consideration of the relationship between any three or four people taken at random in this vast sequence of people who are victims to the one coming up behind but tormentors of the one ahead in the endless sequence. Then he picks a number at random, hypothesising the numbers to entities in the endless chain of mud creatures:

number 814327 may speak misnomer the tormentors being mute as we have seen part two may speak of number 814326 to number 814328 who may speak of him to number 814329 who may speak of him to number 814330 and so on to number 814345 who in this way may know number 814326 by repute

And the only relationship these endlessly forming and breaking couples can have in each other is of torment and torture:

always two strangers uniting in the interests of torment

Are there only one of him, or millions?

in other words in simple words I quote on either I am alone and no further problem or else we are innumerable and no further problem either

In other words, this final section, part 3, after Pim, brings together various fragmented speculations about the overall context, the situation, the plight, individual or communal or global, of all these ‘people’ in the mud, their slow crawling advance, reaching and gripping handholds in the mud, clasping their sacks, until they encounter the one ahead of them, clambering themselves over their bodies and then systematically torturing them till they get away, a pause, and then someone behind catches up and clambers over them and tortures them.

Skullscape Critics invented the word skullscape to describe the narratives of these mid-period prose pieces in which the events seem to be occurring entirely within the narrator’s head, which is itself described or referenced, a small claustrophobic space made of white bone. The image recurs in All Strange Away and Imagination Dead Imagine which were written around the same time, and crops up here in part 3.

the voice quaqua on all sides then within in the little vault empty closed eight planes bone-white

my life a voice without quaqua on all sides words scraps then nothing then again more words more scraps the same ill-spoken ill-heard then nothing vast stretch of time then in me in the vault bone-white

if we are innumerable then murmurs innumerable all alike our justice one life everywhere ill-told ill-heard quaqua on all sides then within when the panting stops ten seconds fifteen seconds in the little chamber all bone-white

Final negation On the last page the narrator comes to consider that everything he’s said, everything about Krim and Kram and Bim and Bem and Pim and millions of others, it’s all ‘balls’, it’s all lies, it’s all rubbish, there are no others, only him in the mud, alone.

all this business of sacks deposited yes at the end of a cord no doubt yes of an ear listening to me yes a care for me yes an ability to note yes all that all balls yes Krim and Kram yes all balls yes

and all this business of above yes light yes skies yes a little blue yes a little white yes the earth turning yes bright and less bright yes little scenes yes all balls yes the women yes the dog yes the prayers yes the homes yes all balls yes

and this business of a procession no answer this business of a procession yes never any procession no nor any journey no never any Pim no nor any Bom no never anyone no only me no answer only me

‘Only me’ ‘and the mud yes the dark yes the mud and the dark are true’ not even the sack, no, the sack balls too, only him, only me, yes, even the moving the crawling the right arm right leg ten yards fifteen yards, all balls, untrue, no movement, fixity, stasis, consciousness in the mud, the voice, in the mud, yes.

How it is’s prose style

in a word my voice otherwise nothing therefore nothing otherwise my voice therefore my voice so many words strung together

First and foremost the work is an assault on any normal person’s expectations of what a ‘novel’ or even proper prose should be. In the introduction Édouard Magessa O’Reilly describes how the work moved through four revisions as Beckett struggled to find a format for what he meant to say. With the fourth revision he had the brainwave of abandoning the entire notion of conventional sentences and instead using forward slashes to subdivide and break up the prose. And once it had been written through like that, to take one further step and abandon the slashes, creating blocks of prose with no punctuation whatsoever.

you are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it’s over you are there no more alive no more then again you are there again alive again it wasn’t over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark

The fundamental decision which underpins the entire text is to break it up not into units of meaning but units of breath. The distinct fragments do not correspond to fragments of meaning or symbolism or semantic coherence, but to the length of the narrator’s ability to speak without taking a breath.

‘A voice is talking non-stop, yet uncertain of what needs to be said, repeating itself, pausing only to take in air.’

The result is Beckett’s only work which genuinely has no punctuation except for gaps and spaces. And not only punctuation is omitted but copulas, the verbs and adverbs and prepositions which normally help us understand the logical connection between words and phrases. With these left out the text becomes a thing of repeated repetition as the narrator tries again and again to find the right word or phrase, and these fragments work not by logical flow but by juxtaposition, their placing next to each other creating a distinctive kind of prose poetry.

my hand won’t come words won’t come no word not even soundless I’m in need of a word of my hand dire need I can’t they won’t

Because it clearly lacks sentences and traditional punctuation, some critics claim How It Is cannot be a novel. Well, why not, novels can be more or less anything you want them to, including graphic cartoon novels or novels in verse. Closer in spirit were the canny French critics who pointed out how each block of prose could be considered ‘versets’:

suddenly afar the step the voice nothing then suddenly something something then suddenly nothing suddenly afar the silence

Others have pointed out the similarities with the Bible, that the text, like much of the Old Testament in particular, works through juxtaposition, of phrases in parallel rather than placed in consecutive logic.

my memory obviously the panting stops and question of my memory obviously that too all-important too most important this voice is truly changeable of which so little left in me bits and scraps barely audible when the panting stops so little so faint not the millionth part I say it as I hear it murmur it to the mud every word always

But it’s more radical than that. The text progresses through ‘clumps’ or word groups which, with most of the syntax removed, take on a really powerful and obscure charge of their own. Meaning is built up by apposition, by repetition of phrases with variation which create a kind of local vortex of implied meaning before shuttling onto the next vortex.

Vortices of repetition

Key phrases are repeated with variations. Maybe you could say this is a musical technique – themes with variations – but it’s a lot of other things too. From a psychological view, it could be said to be the demented repetitions of a mind gone right off its hinges. But it’s also a purely literary strategy, the way Beckett repeats these key phrases create little local eddies on the flow of the disconnected prose, stirs up eddies as in a stream stirred by a stick, stirring up the mud on the bottom, creating little local focuses, for a moment. It’s a different way of creating meaning: instead of standard prose proceeding in an orderly fashion from left to right in definite sentences characterised by the correct structure of subject verb object, accompanied by clarifying adverbs, prepositions and adjectives, having discarded all of that, instead the text creates meaning through these localised vortices. And each time one is invoked again the effect is more powerful, more creepy, more deranged, more… something, more taking you to a new place, a new type of prose.

  • part one before Pim – a few figures to wind up with part one before Pim the golden age, golden age so it ends part one before Pim my travelling days vast stretch of time
  • vast tracts of time – where I have my life where I had it where I’ll have it vast tracts of time, with Pim after Pim how it was how it is vast tracts of time when I see nothing, how long thus without motion or sound of any kind were it but of breath vast a vast stretch of time, the day comes that word again we come to the day at the end of how long no figures vast stretch of time, and Pim all this time vast stretch of time not a movement, all this time vast stretch of time all that beyond my strength, silence more and more longer and longer silences vast tracts of time, monster silences vast tracts of time perfect nothingness, before Pim long before with Pim vast tracts of time, how it was after Pim how it is vast stretch of time before Pim with Pim vast tracts of time, loss of the noble name of Bem part one before Pim how it was vast stretch of time it’s done
  • something wrong there – to have Pim’s timepiece something wrong there, I fleshed them indistinctly something wrong there, head up rick in the neck hands tense in the mud something wrong there, in the mud the dark the face in the mud the hands anyhow something wrong there, how it was after Pim how it is something wrong there, not me Pim you Pim we Pim but me Bom you Pim something very wrong there
  • panting stops – then in me when the panting stops bits and scraps I murmur them, always as I hear it in me that was without quaqua on all sides and murmur to the mud when the panting stops barely audible bits and scraps, how it was with Pim vast stretch of time murmur it in the mud to the mud when the panting stops, the voice of us all quaqua on all sides then in us when the panting stops, the panting stops I murmur it, an image too of this voice ten words fifteen words long silence ten words fifteen words long silence long solitude once without quaqua on all sides vast stretch of time then in me when the panting stops scraps
  • the voice – the voice said so the voice in me that was without quaqua, every word always as I hear it in me that was without quaqua the voice of us all when the panting stops and murmur in the mud to the mud
  • murmured to this mud –  murmur it to the mud, as I hear it in me that was without quaqua on all sides and murmur to the mud when the panting stops barely audible bits and scraps, how it was with Pim vast stretch of time murmur it in the mud to the mud when the panting stops, vast tracts of time part three and last in the dark the mud my life murmur it bits and scraps, the way I murmur in the mud what I hear in me when the panting stops bits and scraps, always every word as I hear it in me that was without when the panting stops and murmur it in the mud bits and scraps, all alone and yet I hear it murmur it all alone in the dark the mud and yet, no more time I say it as I hear it murmur it in the mud
  • right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards towards Pim – set forth forth again ten yards fifteen yards right leg right arm push pull, before Pim the journey part one right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards, right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards halt, as I depart right leg right arm push pull ten yards fifteen yards towards Pim
  • I say it as I hear it – unspeakable flurry in the mud it’s me I say it as I hear it, you mustn’t too weak agreed if you want weaker no you must as weak as possible then weaker still I say it as I hear it every word always, but the cord a burst sack a cord I say it as I hear it murmur it to the mud, I was young all that all those words chevrons golden vertices every word always as I hear it in me that was without quaqua on all sides and murmur to the mud when the panting stops barely audible bits and scraps, that was the point to be made I say it as I hear it, no nothing I said nothing I say it as I hear it, no more time I say it as I hear it murmur it in the mud
  • life above – only one life above from age to age, YOUR LIFE ABOVE, had a life up above down here I’ll see my things again, the good moments I’ll have had up there down here nothing left, samples my life above, a few more little scenes life above in the light, in my twenties iron constitution above in the light, my life again above in the light, life along with it above in the light
  • ten yards fifteen yards – the old road towards my next mortal ten yards fifteen yards push pull
  • good moments – before Pim the golden age the good moments, part two with Pim how it was good moments, we lie thus a good moment they are good moments good for me, it does you good now and then they are good moments, a distant ticking I listen a good moment they are good moments, our life in common we had good moments they were good moments drivel, my side glued to his my right arm round his shoulders his cries have ceased we lie thus a good moment they are good moments, they were good moments there will be good moments less good, the next much better much safer that will be good good moments the good moments, life as we say little scene one minute two minutes good moments then nothing

What paying attention to these repeated phrases indicates is a) just how often they are repeated and b) how relatively few there are. I probably missed some but we’re talking in the region of ten or a dozen of these key phrases.

What do they tell us? Precious little. Poets from Homer to T.S. Eliot draw upon traditional imagery, lace their works with symbolism, drawing on a common myth kitty or sets of archetypes or religious or political ideology. Even the most obscure of symbolist poets works with images and metaphors which, you feel, would mean something if only you could unlock the clue to their system.

Empty phrases Not Beckett. These word clusters form vortexes around which the text swirls and accumulates and builds up and yet each of them is, ultimately, empty. Refers to nothing but itself. They are sui generis, invented, made up for the occasion phrases and images. A phrase ‘right arm right leg’ means nothing more than it says, but by dint of being repeated 40 or 50 times, acquires a certain incantatory power.

Word zones Not only that, but phrases cluster in certain parts of the text more than others so that reading through the text means, in part, moving from the magnetic field of a certain group of repeated phrases into the zone of a different group. Each group provides a different verbal landscape or ambience. If we used a musical analogy the slow decrease in use of one phrase-set and rise in usage of a new one is like the way classical music progresses through treatment of one motif or theme before moving to a secondary or tertiary theme, which is itself explored through variations, inversions and so on. And then old themes reappear, maybe slightly reworked, restructured.

The major difference between music and Beckett’s text being that these word clusters or motifs are so densely repeated. Word block after block is made up of nothing but key phrases, the text is supersaturated with his chosen phrases.

every word always as I hear it in me that was without quaqua the voice of us all when the panting stops and murmur in the mud to the mud

Potty mouth

  • a dream what a hope death of sack arse of Pim end of part one
  • under me convulsed the mud goes guggle-guggle I fart and piss in the same breath
  • from the murmurs of my mother shat into the incredible tohu-bohu
  • the hand dips clawing for the take instead of the familiar slime an arse two cries one mute
  • quick a supposition if this so-called mud were nothing more than all our shit yes all if there are not billions of us at the moment and why not the moment there are two there were yes billions of us crawling and shitting in their shit hugging like a treasure in their arms the wherewithal to crawl and shit a little more now my nails
  • it’s as I thought then back left just the same just to clinch it and there to be sure there’s the arse again
  • BOM scored by finger-nail athwart the arse the vowel in the hole I would say in a scene from my life he would oblige me to have had a life the Boms sir you don’t know the Boms sir you can shit on a Bom sir you can’t humiliate him a Bom sir the Boms sir
  • all I hear leave out more leave out all hear no more lie there in my arms the ancient without end me we’re talking of me without end that buries all mankind to the last cunt
  • the urethra perhaps after piss the last drop
  • between the cheeks of his arse not very elastic
  • when stabbed in the arse instead of crying he sings his song what a cunt this Pim
  • no stopping him thump thump all his fat-headed meatus in the shit no holding him thump thump
  • a thing you don’t know the threat the bleeding arse
  • YOUR LIFE CUNT ABOVE CUNT HERE CUNT
  • my wife above Pam Prim can’t remember can’t see her she shaved her mound
  • Pam Prim we made love every day then every third then the Saturday then just the odd time to get rid of it tried to revive it through the arse
  • papa no idea building trade perhaps some branch or other fell off the scaffolding on his arse no the scaffolding that fell and he with it landed on his arse dead burst
  • efforts to resuscitate through the arse joint vain through the cunt
  • what age my God fifty sixty eighty shrunken kneeling arse on heels hands on ground splayed like feet very clear picture thighs aching the arse rises the head drops touches the straw
  • DO YOU LOVE ME CUNT [this is one of the phrases the narrator carves into Pim’s naked back with his fingernails]
  • two there were two of us his hand on my arse
  • and when on the unpredictable arse for the millionth time the groping hand descends that for the hand it is the first arse for the arse the first hand
  • with that of a slowness difficult to conceive the procession we are talking of a procession advancing in jerks or spasms like shit in the guts
  • or emotions sensations take a sudden interest in them and even then what the fuck I quote does it matter who suffers
  • who drinks that drop of piss of being and who with his last gasp pisses it to drink

There are plenty of academic books with titles like ‘Beckett and Negation’, ‘Beckett and Identity’, ‘Beckett and Gender’, polite titles, respectful titles, utterly conforming to contemporary requirements for gender, race and identity to be included in every work in the humanities.

Not so many with titles like ‘Beckett and Shit’ or ‘Beckett and Cunt’, but Beckett uses the coarsest swearwords surprisingly often in all his works. Partly it may have been a childish enjoyment in ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’ as critic Leslie Fiedler pointed out 70 years ago, seeing how far he could go before his books were banned or censored, especially in his own Roman Catholic Church-dominated Eire. Partly, maybe. But Beckett is more serious than that. The widespread use of the coarsest swearwords is also something to do with the central topic of his works, the death of the mind, its collapse into dementia, a wreckage of fragmented memories.

In this state of being reduced to having hardly any mind, what his various protagonists do retain is two things: bodies, which he describes in unnecessary minute detail, particularly their postures and gestures and positions and angles; and the fragments of language across its full range, from recondite and arcane vocabulary through to the crudest cuss words.

Interestingly, it is a common observation of dementia patients that they lose inhibitions and restraints and revert to extreme language.

One common complaint and concern that is frequently expressed by the loved ones of a dementia patient is the use of swear words and foul language.
(Dementia & Foul Language – Why Some People with Dementia Develop Problems with Swearing)

I’d suggest two things are going on here.

1. Beckett’s texts to some extent reflect his own observation of the elderly and senile, that they lose physical inhibitions, fart and, above all, swear at will.

2. But the language, rude or otherwise, always exists to serve the work, it is part of the project to create the literary artefact, and in this respect, the crudity of the language reflects the crudity of the condition to which his protagonists have been reduced, reduced to decrepit, knackered bodies crawling through the mud, occasionally encountering and torturing any other bodies they meet, their language is reduced to the same state, sometimes melliflous, studded with shreds and tatters of learning, punctuated by the crudest swearwords the English language can offer.

Still it is funny, the extent to which Beckett does twit the bourgeoisie, including the sages of Academe. Many academic commentaries linger on the numerous variations of his catchphrase ‘I can’t go on, I will go on’. That is what you could call officially-approved Beckett nihilism, sanctioned by high-minded theatre goers and literary critics, a rather heroic vision of battling on against all the odds.

Not so many academic papers dwell on that other Beckett catchphrase ‘DO YOU LOVE ME CUNT’. Hm. This kind of language is not so officially sanctioned, not so beloved of high-minded theatre goers and critics. Cunt arse shit says Beckett.

Cultural references

You could argue that each work erects its own system of correspondences, with unique dynamics and tensions between the names, the people, their works or connotations. But you could also argue that this is also one of Beckett’s tics or tricks, one of the half dozen or so literary devices he uses in virtually all his works, along with pauses, repetition and graphic swearwords. Since the beginning of his career as a writer he has namedropped and referenced classic literature and philosophy in each of the works. The effect is always the same: the professors may investigate the works of Malebranche or Haeckel and note the immense relevance to one or other aspect of their huge bodies of work to this or that aspect of the present text. But there’s a simpler motive. Beckett’s characters reference classic literature or Latin tags or quotes or names to show that they were once young and well-educated and to highlight how utterly prostrate, low and abject their current situation has become. The literary references may contain subtexts and shed light up to a point on a particular text. But in a more general sense all such quotes and namedropping are an indicator of the narrator or character’s utter collapse into wretched, broken-minded, senile mind-fail.

  • Belacqua, character in Dante’s Purgatorio
  • Malebranche, rationalist philosopher
  • Haeckel, German naturalist and philosopher
  • Klopstock, German poet

Recondite diction

Another Beckett tic, present since the start of his career is that, in among the for the most part pretty straightforward language and lexicon of his works, Beckett will from time to time lob an artfully positioned rare or arcane term. I suggest that its primary function is to help create that distinctive Beckett flavour, like a chef who puts coriander in every dish. But it has at least two other functions. One is obviously related to the tactic of occasional namedropping or quoting i.e. it indicates how low the once well-educated and fluent protagonist has fallen. But it also impinges on Beckett’s liking for the pedantic and the precise, most evident in his fanatical attention to the precise positioning and posture of the bodies he often describes with geometric accuracy often invoking algebraic terms or even drawing diagrams to be mathematically precise. Well, the pedantic preciseness of the occasional arcane term he drops into the text serves the same purpose. It is a sort of pedantic positioning of language which mimics the author’s pedantic positioning of the bodies.

  • malar = relating to the cheek
  • buccinator = a thin, flat muscle lining the cheek, the action of which contracts and compresses the cheek
  • Lied = German song from the classical era
  • sparsim = sparsely; scatteredly; here and there
  • piriform = pear-shaped
  • serotines = a medium-sized insectivorous bat
  • felly = the outer rim of a wheel, to which the spokes are fixed
  • latrinal = of or relating to tears
  • scissiparous = of or relating to reproduction by means of fission
  • prepensely = arranged in advance, premeditated
  • sithence = thereupon; subsequently, afterwards
  • acervation = a heaping up, accumulation

The geometry of human bodies

As touched on above, most of Beckett’s fictions contain super-precise descriptions of the bodies involved, often describing them more like an architect’s blueprints or an engineering plan than humans, as in the prose works closely related to How It Is, All Strange Away and Imagination Dead Imagine which assign algebraic symbols to different parts of the body in order to then map out different postures and folding and contortions of the human form. How It Is doesn’t quite go that far but, in the descriptions of the precise method whereby the narrator pulls himself forward through the mud, and then the super-precise descriptions of how he aligns his own body with Pim’s, this text clearly comes from the same mind, deploying the same set of textual tactics.

  • sudden swerve therefore left it’s preferable forty-five degrees and two yards straight line such is the force of habit then right right angle and straight ahead four yards dear figures then left right angle and beeline four yards then right right angle so on till Pim
  • thus north and south of the abandoned arrow effect of hope series of sawteeth or chevrons sides two yards base three a little less this the base we’re talking of the base in the old line of march which I thus revisit an instant between two vertices one yard and a half a little less
  • semi-side right left leg left arm push pull flat on the face mute imprecations scrabble in the mud every half-yard eight times per chevron or three yards of headway
  • my arm bends therefore my right it’s preferable which reduces from very obtuse to very acute the angle between the humerus and the other the anatomy the geometry
  • semi-side left right leg right arm push pull right right don’t lose him round his head hairpin turn right right straighten up across his arm along his side close in and halt my head to his feet his to mine

How far how fast does this technique advance him and the others, the maybe millions of others trapped in the mud? In part 3 the voice works it out

knowing furthermore by the same courtesy that the journey is accomplished in stages ten yards fifteen yards at the rate of say it’s reasonable to say one stage per month this word these words months years I murmur them

four by twenty eighty twelve and half by twelve one hundred and fifty by twenty three thousand divided by eighty thirty-seven and a half thirty-seven to thirty-eight say forty yards a year we advance

correct

from left to right we advance each one advances and all advance from west to east year in year out in the dark the mud in torment and solitude at the speed of thirty-seven to thirty-eight say forty yards a year we advance

The old tune

The previous half dozen sections have shown how Beckett deploys his familiar box of half a dozen or so tricks to great advantage in this text. Obviously the central theme of a human being reduced to utter wretched mental collapse and physical humiliation is the core Beckett idea, it appears here, too, and so we aren’t surprised that at several moments, variations on Beckett’s basic and much-repeated motto float into view, namely the need to go on, the impossibility of going on, I can’t go on, I will go on – an idea which was brought to perfection in The Unnameable and was then repeated in an impressive number of variations ever afterwards:

one can’t go on one goes on as before can one ever stop put a stop that’s more like it one can’t go on one can’t stop put a stop

Or, alternatively, the slightly less soulful and spiritual:

DO YOU LOVE ME CUNT

Ah, my darling, I thought you’d never ask.

———————————————-

* The Beckett Companion tells me that Bim and Bom were the names of two well-known Russian clowns from the 1920s and 30s who were promoted by the Soviet regime. But Beckett saw them as emblems of ‘cruelty under a comic garb’. Their names appear in Murphy, in draft passages deleted from both Waiting For Godot and Endgame, before cropping up here in How It Is and making a final appearance in What Where.


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

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

%d bloggers like this: