Sunday, March 21, 2010

Guinevere and van Gogh's Ear

The March 25th issue of the New York Review of Books has reached my family's mailbox here in Berlin (indeed it already did a while ago) and those of us who have been twiddling our thumbs in the corner room have been glancing into it. If my mother told me which articles she had read I must have exercised the daughterly prerogative of letting it go in one ear and out of the other, but when asked she did say that she had read the rather nice exchange about youthful experiences with paper airplanes between Freeman Dyson and a letter-writer in the back of the periodical. (The letters in the NYRB, particularly the ones in which agèd intellectuals display pique and aggression and trade "I know you are but what am I" recriminations at the behavioural level of two-year-olds, are an institution in themselves — but more about that, perhaps, another time.)

Though at times I plow at once through the first two or three articles, this time I skimmed, looking for subjects that particularly attracted me. The latter part of Alison Lurie's review of Cathleen Schine's novel The Three Weissmanns of Westport, which is evidently composed along the lines of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, lured me because of my Austenite tendencies and because the plot of the book didn't appear too objectionable according to my personal criteria. But, as such an Austenite, I cannot but register a protest against the reviewer's bolder comparisons of the modern author to her Augustan-era predecessor. (The photograph with Kate Winslet and Greg Wise incidentally tied into a Guardian interview with Emma Thompson which I read later, and which is nice though it won't set the Thames on fire, to quote from Persuasion.)

Then there was an article [available online in its entirety, as of March 22, 2010, here] about rape in American prisons, which I skimmed through. Certainly it has puzzled me in the past, as a Canadian/European, how uncritically this phenomenon (especially sodomizing rape between male cellmates) is mentioned in popular culture in the US. I suppose that, like with World War II, people who have no idea of the actual harrowing experience assume that it is a rite of passage to manhood — temporarily uncomfortable but with no untoward psychological effects, rather even beneficial in building character strength. Or they see it as a deserved punishment, if flippantly gleeful remarks that Bernard Madoff should take care not to bend over in the prison shower are any indication. Either way it reflects, in my view, the American tendency to consider the experiences of others as morally clean-cut, biblical tales; and without any particular malice towards those others, the people who share this tendency peculiarly fail, for this reason, to grasp that they are ignoring, condoning, or even encouraging entirely immoral acts. Besides, the mentality that the ill which befalls someone else is quite all right, in the grand scheme of things, does not sit very easily within the moral framework of the Christian tradition.

On a more cheerful note I have a weakness for reading through the personal ads in the back of the NYRB, even if the idea of finding a life partner (if only temporarily) through such means (which, rationally or not, still seem tinged with desperation to me) unreasonably depresses me. The one ad that really puzzled me three or four years ago was written by a "King Arthur" in search of a "Guinevere." Why someone would look for an adulterous wife whose affair causes the downfall of one's kingdom, the destruction of everything one has won hardly through a lifetime of battle and hostile sorcery, and eventually one's death, seems beyond comprehension. (Even though the King Arthur of legend did have a lemming instinct, since he chose Queen Guinevere even after being warned that she was bad news.) My most ingenious but unlikely hypothesis is that the writer of the personal ad was a cynical person who was willing to take a superficially perfect, lukewarm relationship as far as it goes. Other than that it's a little dispiriting when an ad reappears repeatedly; but I like to think that either the person got such a good date out of last month's ad that she wants to try again, or that she might be a "serial dater" in general, who enjoys working her way through men as Goldilocks worked her way through bowls of porridge. At times I also speculate at length about the gap between the ad ("plus beau que la verité," in the lovely French phrasing which I came across in Maria Edgeworth's Helen) and the reality. What makes me less sympathetic is when ads rub one's face into one's own impecuniousness (and déclassé tastes); I'd like to say that my interests include the Riviera or the wanderpfad in Timbuctoo, but I haven't had the chance to be there!!!

Either way, the proper article which I read in its entirety was "The Passions of Vincent van Gogh," by Richard Dorment, published on the occasion of an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. It is a reasonably friendly summary of the painter's artistic career, examined primarily through the spectrum of the letters which he wrote his brother Theo. (At which point be it noted that it sounds as if Dorment's research was a heroic undertaking, since wallowing in reams of subjective verbal outpourings is not really anyone's idea of riotous good fun.) Taking these letters as evidence Dorment also argues that the turmoil which critics facilely identify in the swirls of colour, etc., in van Gogh's paintings is not necessarily a naïve visual effusion of an artiste who had (far) more temperament than brains and self-control, but the result of a reasoned aesthetic or (to risk an oxymoron) emotional choice. The quotations where van Gogh describes the alienation, in a way, which he feels from the people around him, and his inability to show himself to them in any other than a repellent light, struck an aching chord with my own depressive experience in and out of school. In light of this personal experience I was also pleased when Dorment pointed out that van Gogh's mental illness did not in fact fuel his art but impede it. Not all tribulation is treasure; some of it is salt on the soil of Carthage. Anyway, before reading much of the article I became curious about the author and consulted the trusty mini-biography under the table of contents; it turns out that he is an art critic for The Daily Telegraph. I had considered that publication a vile reactionary rag which caters to the lowest fake-populist denominator, but every now and then a dung-hill must fertilize a flower. [N.B.: In my entire life I have only read two or three articles in the Telegraph. And I tend to confuse it with the Daily Mail and the worst bloke-ish bunkum in The Times of London.]

What I should like to read is the article on Madame de Maintenon. I don't care to read about the Tea Party, because such uninformed stupidity, stoked by media outlets who have a financial interest in treating politics as sensation (as pilloried with great ability by Jon Stewart in his recent pastiche of Fox's Glenn Beck), deserves to be quietly debunked with the helpful, sober facts and perspectives which the press largely refuses to provide, and otherwise to be treated like the nullity which its basis in reality is.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cleopatra's Nose

This blog has not precisely been a beehive of activity in any case, but to fill the vacancy of Fridays I have decided to devote them to quotations. Since the plump tome of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations resides in the low shelf which is, helpfully, literally in arm's reach, most of the quotations will presumably originate in its pages. (If this is in contravention of copyright laws, I'd be grateful if said contingency is pointed out. The translation from the French, below, is scarcely any different from the dictionary's; but I quickly did my own without peeking at the other, just because.)


Blaise Pascal, 1623-62
"French mathematician, physicist, and moralist"

Le nez de Cleopatra: s'il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé.

As for the nose of Cleopatra, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have changed.


Pedantry, and the lasting effects of a middle school essay about the Egyptian/Macedonian queen, compel me to point out that Cleopatra's influence did not, in fact, derive from her beauty. It was her charms of manner and of mind that compensated for an ordinary, "matronly" appearance, revealed among other things by an unflatteringly incisive coin-portrait. So her nose had little to no geopolitical significance.

On the other hand, Pascal's observation, whimsical and endearing in its unpretentiously elegant formulation, does touch on the reality that appearance plays a confusingly major role in politics ancient and modern. There is always an Alcibiades or a Helen of Troy, and even if it seems ridiculous that we care if someone happened to have been born with a nicely aligned mug, thousands of years after that individual has croaked, we do.

(I wonder what would happen if Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ever gave up on plastic surgery and cosmetic aids, "abdicated" in the French lady-of-a-certain-age sense, and settled down into being a man who, eschewing the trappings of the celebrity persona, does serious work and wishes to be taken seriously for it. At the risk of being cynical, I presume the leftists would come to power. Or there would be a rash of bizarre and super-creepy developments in the style of The Portrait of Dorian Grey.)


The quotation is originally from Pascal's Pensées (1670) and I'm taking it from [N.B.: Please excuse the unorthodox citation; after all, I've been out of university for years.]
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (4th revised edition), Angela Partington, Ed. (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1996)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil

by John Keats
Written: 1818
The Burial of Phocion, Nicolas Poussin (1648) [Wikimedia Commons]

[Considering the extreme length of this blog post I have foregone the typical fact-checking and appending of numerous links. Please forgive the omission.]

Against the background of the Plague, one of Giovanni Boccaccio's narrators in his Decameron chooses to impart to an audience of lords and fellow ladies the following cheerful tale :
LISABETTA'S brothers slay her lover, who appeareth to her in a dream and showeth her where he is buried, whereupon she privily disinterreth his head and setteth it in a pot of basil. Thereover making moan a great while every day, her brothers take it from her and she for grief dieth a little thereafterward
Even when expanded beyond the synopsis as Filomena tells it, the story is (in my opinion) irritatingly slight in spite of its tragedy. If the driving force behind the brothers' actions were a Greek god on an arbitrary rampage the tale would be far more sensible, and instead they appear to be merely a random act of psychotic violence which in the recounting appeals only to the commonest greed for sensation.

Admittedly one can nevertheless think of possible purposes to the tale. For instance, it might reflect the patriarchal excesses of medieval and Renaissance society, in which family means not protective affection but possessive tyranny. Or it can be a lament for the cruelty of the world toward star-crossed lovers in the Romeo and Juliet tradition. Or it could be an unsympathetic cautionary tale as to what happens when a young maiden has an affair outside the bonds of marriage and thereby thumbs her nose at the gods of expediency, i.e. the idols at whose altar society worships.

Either way, grave doubts as to its romanticness arise at the point where Lisabetta disinters Lorenzo and employs her knife to saw off the man's head for safekeeping. But it wavers back from time to time during the subsequent dubious step-by-step guide to tending a beloved gentleman's cranium:
taking a great and goodly pot, of those wherein they plant marjoram or sweet basil, she set the head therein, folded in a fair linen cloth, and covered it with earth, in which she planted sundry heads of right fair basil of Salerno; nor did she ever water these with other water than that of her tears or rose or orange-flower water. Moreover she took wont to sit still near the pot and to gaze amorously upon it with all her desire, as upon that which held her Lorenzo hid; and after she had a great while looked thereon, she would bend over it and fall to weeping so sore and so long that her tears bathed all the basil, which, by dint of long and assiduous tending, as well as by reason of the fatness of the earth, proceeding from the rotting head that was therein, waxed passing fair and very sweet of savour.
It isn't different in principle from Cinderella (Aschenputtel) watering her mother's grave with her tears in the Grimm fairy tale, but infinitely more disturbing. Which, considering that even over a century after Boccaccio wrote the Decameron, Leonardo da Vinci haunted cemeteries to dig up corpses for anatomical studies, and the peculiar ideas of criminal justice prevalent in those days, and altogether the pervasive mingling of death and life (vide the plague, which Boccaccio describes so pithily in the Decameron's introduction), probably fits into the times.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, William Holman Hunt, 1868 [Wikimedia Commons]

Whatever the merits of the plot may be, it captured the imaginations of John Keats in the first quarter of the 19th century, and of Hans Christian Andersen and (in the painterly realm) the Pre-Raphaelites in the second and third quarters.

Keats's take on the matter is unapologetically soppy, a paean to the dewy-eyed love of youth. [Disclaimer: I skim the poem whenever reading it, so this treatment of it may lack depth.]

Fair Isabel, poor simple Isabel!
Lorenzo, a young palmer in Love's eye!
They could not in the self-same mansion dwell
Without some stir of heart, some malady;
They could not sit at meals but feel how well
It soothed each to be the other by;
They could not, sure, beneath the same roof sleep
But to each other dream, and nightly weep.

The second verse is fortunately improved by little touching details:

With every morn their love grew tenderer,
With every eve deeper and tenderer still;
He might not in house, field, or garden stir,
But her full shape would all his seeing fill;
And his continual voice was pleasanter
To her, than noise of trees or hidden rill;
Her lute-string gave an echo of his name,
She spoilt her half-done broidery with the same.
Though the unkind mind might suggest that Isabella must be as big as a whale to fill all her beloved's seeing. A picture of bucolic bliss, as exists only in the minds of those who read Christopher Marlowe idylls of shepherds and shepherdesses unironically, is drawn at length. After the early hesitancy is surmounted the two of them become lovers and
his erewhile timid lips grew bold,
And poesied with hers in dewy rhyme.
(At which point the reader may have difficulties keeping a straight face.) But then the maiden's brothers destroy their lover's paradise, in what a description of their trade might suggest is an allegory to the destruction of nature and rural harmony by the Industrial Revolution.
With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt,
Enriched from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torched mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver'd loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip;—with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.
This and the next verses could certainly be considered as a point on a line that leads from William Wilberforce and the Luddites through socialism and Charles Dickens to, let's say, Emile Zola's Germinal. In the disdain of filthy lucre and trade these verses are very suggestive, too, of the impecunious artist (and of snobbery).

In Keats's version of events the brothers' pride of caste leads them to abhor the thought that their subordinate should be their sister's beloved, and besides Lorenzo is an impediment to marrying her off to a rich aristocrat.
So the two brothers and their murder'd man
Rode past fair Florence, to where Arno's stream
Gurgles through straiten'd banks, and still doth fan
Itself with dancing bulrush, and the bream
Keeps head against the freshets. Sick and wan
The brothers' faces in the ford did seem,
Lorenzo's flush with love.—They pass'd the water
Into a forest quiet for the slaughter.
After the deed is done, they considerately tell Isabella that her soulmate has sailed away to foreign lands.
In the mid days of autumn, on their eves
The breath of Winter comes from far away,
And the sick west continually bereaves
Of some gold tinge, and plays a roundelay
Of death among the bushes and the leaves,
To make all bare before he dares to stray
From his north cavern. So sweet Isabel
By gradual decay from beauty fell,
pining. Her brothers feel twinges of conscience as she becomes pathetically ill, but they go on lying to her. But the truth is revealed to her by Lorenzo's spirit through a dream. Among other things he remarks,
thy paleness makes me glad;
Thy beauty grows upon me, and I feel
A greater love through all my essence steal.
It may satisfy someone's artistic vision, but if a beloved wanted me to waste away and die amid great mental suffering, the first thing I would do once I've crossed the Styx is sock him in the chin.

There are lines here and there which tend to support the timid suspicion that Keats's verse is at times exceedingly feeble. Witness this fine specimen of rhyme, which describes Isabella's visit to the forest where Lorenzo was killed after she had seen the vision:
she took with her an aged nurse,
And went into that dismal forest-hearse.
Or, when the visit proves sadly successful,
At last they felt the kernel of the grave,
And Isabella did not stamp and rave.
Which is about as climactic (in my view) as "The Star-Spangled Banner" when the lyrics go "and the flag was . . . still there!" Keats then follows in Boccaccio's footsteps in elucidating proper grooming procedures for the skull of a defunct lover:
She calm'd its wild hair with a golden comb,
And all around each eye's sepulchral cell
Pointed each fringed lash; the smeared loam
With tears, as chilly as a dripping well,
She drench'd away:—and still she comb'd, and kept
Sighing all day—and still she kiss'd, and wept.
Whereupon she
withers, like a palm
Cut by an Indian for its juicy balm.
But the basil plant is doing well. The brothers, intent on ruining this questionable idyll too, kidnap it for further examination, and though "the thing was vile with green and livid spot" recognize in the skull the beneficiary of their homicidal activities, and decide privily to go into everlasting banishment.
And so she [Isabella] pined, and so she died forlorn,
Imploring for her Basil to the last.
No heart was there in Florence but did mourn
In pity of her love, so overcast.
And a sad ditty of this story born
From mouth to mouth through all the country pass'd:
Still is the burthen sung—"O cruelty,
To steal my Basil-pot away from me!"
* * *

Though Oscar Wilde or Edgar Allan Poe might appear to be fine candidates to give the story their own twist, given their macabre streaks and appreciation for Italy in bygone and undercivilized times, it was Hans Christian Andersen who took up the lance. Fittingly he sentimentalized it a great deal, and wrote it from the comparatively cuddly perspective of a rose-elf, in the eponymous tale "Elf of the Rose."

This elf wanders along the leaves of the roses, of which the veins serve as roads, so minuscule is his stature, and lives and flits between the flower buds. But once he is weary from his travels and the roses are shut against him before the impending night, so he turns to a honeysuckle arbour and sees a young pair of lovers who are bidding each other farewell. The lady gives the gentleman a rose and after a spot of kissing they part. The latter is pleased with his present, but the brother of the lady is not pleased with his dalliance, so
he drew out a sharp knife, and while the other was kissing the rose, the wicked man stabbed him to death; then he cut off his head, and buried it with the body in the soft earth under the linden-tree.
(On the plus side, the knife wasn't blunt or serrated, and the lady doesn't have to do the decapitating of the corpse later. I wonder, though, if linden trees have knobbly, shallow roots or a tap root, because if the former it would have been a major pain in the neck to bury a body right under one.) Meanwhile the elf has fallen onto a dead linden leaf which fell onto the assassin's head, and hitches a ride home in an understandably disconsolate frame of mind.

The brother visits his sister's bedroom to cackle evilly, the leaf falls out of his head, and during the night the elf serenades the unlucky woman with a recounting of her beloved's demise. As promised, she also finds the crumpled leaf on her bed to prove that the story was no dream. During the day the elf hangs out in a rosebush in her room, and the next night the lady sneaks out and finds the corpse. She takes home the skull and a little jasmine plant that has bloomed nearby, and plants them both in a generously proportioned flowerpot.

Her grief makes the elf too miserable, so he lives out of doors again and pays her regular visits. As in Keats's poem, the lady wilts away as the flora thrives, and as not in Keats's poem the homicidal brother grumbles at her. At long last,
one day she sat and leaned her head against the flower-pot, and the little elf of the rose found her asleep. Then he seated himself by her ear, talked to her of that evening in the arbor, of the sweet perfume of the rose, and the loves of the elves. Sweetly she dreamed, and while she dreamt, her life passed away calmly and gently, and her spirit was with him whom she loved, in heaven.
(At which point I will admit that despite the smothering sentimentality of the words a certain teariness threatens.) Her surviving relative is happy to inherit the jasmine and brings it to his room. The elf follows it and whispers the story of the man's misdeeds to the flower-spirits, who say that it's old news considering whose skull they're growing out of, so the tiny avenger discontentedly goes on to see the bees, who promise to kill the killer. As it turns out the jasmine had appointed itself as the horticultural hangman anyway, and that night the sentence is executed as the spirits give the murderer nightmares and poison him with their infinitesimal spears. The bees and the elf rush in the next morning to find their prey dead.

But the punishment is not complete enough. As people come into the room to gawk, the insects flock around the jasmine pot, and sting a man who lifts it in the hand, so that it crashes to the floor and reveals the skull.
And the queen bee hummed in the air, and sang of the revenge of the flowers, and of the elf of the rose and said that behind the smallest leaf dwells One, who can discover evil deeds, and punish them also.
[Cf. the similarly uplifting Grimm tale of murder inevitably revealed, "Die klare Sonne bringt's an den Tag."]

And, if all goes as intended, a young and overly literate child will go to bed trembling in his little boots, resolving never to stab people and cut off their heads and hide them under linden trees because otherwise our benevolent God (through his self-appointed earthly minions) will hound him to the gates of Hades.
From the Botanical Magazine (1787), Vol. I [Wikimedia Commons]
The End.

(To be fair, I first read the story at the age of nine or ten and wasn't too affected by it, theologically or otherwise, except in finding it gloomily fascinating.)

* * *

The Decamerone of Giovanni Boccacio []
An e-text of John Payne's translation, which had originally been published in 1886.

Keats: Poems Published in 1820 []
A volume of verse with a handy hyperlink to "The Pot of Basil" in the table of contents.

Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen []
A translation of many of Andersen's tales by an unknown person.