Category Archives: fine arts

Shelley: England in 1819

England in 1819

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

This is one sentence. Minus the adjectives and adjectival phrases, it says: “A king, princes, rulers, people, army, laws, religion, and senate are graves from which a phantom may burst to illumine our day.” (It’s interesting that one phantom will arise from all these separate graves.)

The “king” is George III, suffering by now from advanced dementia. He has seven surviving sons, which would be the narrowest definition of “princes.” But Shelley could mean a broader category–“princes” in the sense of the crowned heads of Europe. They are back on their thrones after Waterloo, erecting a system of reactionary absolutism that will last until 1830.

“Rulers” would mean the whole government, starting with the Prime Minister, Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, who suspended civil liberties from 1817-19. The “people” are suffering from the Corn Laws (which prohibit importation of grain) and early industrialization. The “army” refers to the cavalry who charged a peaceful demonstration for parliamentary reform (the Peterloo massacre of August 16). The “senate” is parliament, although I don’t quite follow how that noun relates to “Time’s worst statute.” And the “Phantom” is something like liberty.

The situation is bad but unsustainable. The rulers may be evil, but they “drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” The army wields a two-edged sword, liable to slice its own bearer. The people, however, seem passive: they think and do nothing in particular but are “starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.” The Phantom may (or may not) burst forth; it’s not clear that the people can decide that.

The poem is a sonnet: fourteen 10-syllable lines, rhymed, with a final couplet that answers the question posed by the rest of the poem: What will happen? However, the form is not strictly conventional. Shelley uses just four endings (-ing, -ow, -ield, and -ay) in an ABABAB CDCD CC scheme.

Christopher Spaide says that the poem was too radical to publish in 1819. By the time Mary Shelley included it in Shelley’s posthumous Poetical Works (1839), she thought it needed an explanation, since the “younger generation … cannot remember the scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded some few years ago.” In other words, the sonnet went from revolutionary to quaint in 20 years–not because an actual revolution ensued in Britain, but because the political situation mellowed as reforms eased the crises of the day. No Phantom burst, but the laws arguably became less sanguine and the people less likely to be starved and stabbed.

See also Brecht, To Future Generations.

Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls

Ivo Andric,* the 1961 Nobel Laureate in Literature, wrote the book variously translated as Bosnian Chronicle or The Days of the Consuls during WWII. It depicts his hometown, Travnik in Bosnia, during the years 1807-1813. I read it as translated by Joseph Hitrec (New York, Arcade, 1963).

Andric introduces scores of characters clustered in seven main groups: the “Begs” (Ottoman chiefs), the Vizier’s court, the French consulate, the Austrian consulate, the Franciscan monastery, the bazaar, and the Sephardic Jewish community.

He describes relationships between pairs of people within these clusters and from one cluster to another. For the most part, these interactions take the form of bilateral meetings and conversations, but there are other formats as well. For instance, an important character in the French consulate, Desfosses, has a largely wordless flirtation with the wife of the Austrian consul. At various points, the French consul sees across the darkened town the candlelight from the Austrian consulate and from a Moslem mausoleum: a physical manifestation of links between clusters.

These interactions create a dense lattice, and I have the sense that they are arranged carefully, with symmetry and other forms of rhythm. I have not taken the time to explore the whole pattern carefully, but, for example, the Prologue and the Epilogue both describe conversations among the Begs, who otherwise rarely speak to anyone. There are 28 chapters, and the 14th tells of the sexual crisis between Desfosses and the Austrian consul’s wife, thus linking the French and Austrian consulates in a debacle of misunderstanding.

In the first chapter, the newly arrived French consul, Daville, receives a cold welcome from the people of Travnik. His “little cavalcade passed through the town arousing little or no interest among the Travnichani. The Moslems pretended not to see it, while the Christians dared not show undue attention.”

In the final chapter, Daville and a Travnik Jew named Solomon experience a moving moment of near-contact just before the Frenchman rides out of Travnik for the last time. Solomon generously assists Daville with money because he wants to convey his own experience to the departing Frenchman so that he can be understood, because this would “make everything we have to bear more tolerable.”

But the very desire that filled him so intensely all of a sudden, to convey and impart something more, some important and sweeping truth about his own life and situation and the indignities which the Travnik Atiases had had to endure all these years, prevented him from finding the right manner and the words needed to express, briefly and adequately, what now choked him and started the blood pounding in his ears. And so he began to stammer out, not the things he was so full of and which he longed to express—how they struggled and managed to preserve an invisible strength and dignity—but only the disjointed phrases that came to his tongue.

The narrator explains in detail what Solomon would have said to Daville “had he known how, had he been a man used to speaking his thoughts,” instead of one who, “even in his crib [had not been allowed] to cry out loud, let alone speak freely and clearly during his lifetime.”

In other words, the novel begins and ends with a rift between Daville and the people of Travnik–the first an intentional shunning, the last a pitifully unsuccessful effort to communicate.

Solomon is not the only one who yearns to be heard. Daville, too, seeks

something that neither life nor books could give: a compassionate fellow spirit who would be willing to listen and would have an endless capacity for understanding, to whom he might talk openly and receive lucid and honest answers to all questions. In this dialogue he might then, as in a mirror, see himself for the first time as he really was and learn the true value of his work and determine, without ambiguity, his own position in the world.

The narrator is interested in why almost all of the bilateral conversations are unsatisfactory. For instance, when the wives of the Austrian and French consuls meet,

their talk was bound to falter. When two people converse, one word usually sparks another and together they light a flame, but here the words missed one another and went off in different directions.

Or a married European couple who wash up in Travnik:

But what they needed most urgently, it seemed, was to talk and quarrel, for they neither listened to nor cared to understand each other.

Or a group of ne’er-do-well Travnik Moslems:

they hummed or talked in undertones, with sluggish tongues, disconnectedly, without particular reference to one another’s words. … They looked at one another with unseeing eyes, they listened without hearing …

Or the two European consuls:

A conversation with the Colonel was, in fact, an exchange of data—which were invariably accurate, interesting, and copious, on any and all subjects—but hardly an exchange of thoughts and impressions. Everything about these talks was impersonal, dispassionate, and general. Having said all he wanted to, the Colonel would leave with his rich and precious bag of facts, as fresh, neat, cool, and upright as he had come, and Daville would be left just as lonely as he had been before, his craving for a good talk unappeased. A discussion with the Colonel left nothing for the senses or the soul; one could not even recall the timbre of his voice. His conversation gave the partner no clue to his inner personality, and invited no confidence from the latter.

In chapter 12, soon before the embarrassing sexual encounter between Desfosses and the Austrian consul’s wife (chapter 14), we are introduced to the four doctors of Travnik: one each from the French consulate, the Austrian consulate, the Franciscan monastery, and the Jewish community. The occasion for introducing them is a tragedy that strikes the most morally appealing character in the novel, Mme Daville (who is the opposite of her Austrian counterpart).

Each doctor has a different relationship with his patients and with the other physicians. Each holds a different theory of human health and fate. The best relationship forms between the Franciscan and the Jew, who “had been inseparable friends and confidants” for 20 years. “The Travnik bazaar had long become used to seeing Mordo and Fra Luka huddling and whispering together, or browsing through herbs and medicines.”

The doctor in the Austrian consulate, Cologna, seems initially as inscrutable as the silent Jewish healer, but for the opposite reason: “he talked too much and constantly modified what he said.” However, in chapter 15 (symmetrical with 13), Desfosses initiates an interview with Cologna in which the latter suddenly becomes both eloquent and sincere in describing himself as a man caught between cultures. At the end of his speech,

The doctor dropped his arms with an air of utter hopelessness, of anger almost. There was no vestige left of that queer, elusive “Illyrian doctor” Desfosses had known. Here stood a man who thought his own thoughts and expressed them forcefully. Desfosses burned with the desire to hear and learn more; he had quite forgotten his own feeling of superiority of a little while before and the house he was in and the business on which he had come.

This is one of the fleeting moments of connection that are distributed on the network of misunderstandings that structure the novel.

Many characters–and sometimes the narrator–employ the categories of Europe and the Orient, or East and West, or Europe and the Levant. Such distinctions are problematic in general. To be more specific, some Bosnians have accused Andric of anti-Moslem prejudice in novels like Bosnian Chronicle.

I cannot judge his whole oeuvre and I could easily have missed bias in this novel, but I read it in a different way. I think the East/West distinction is an error on the part of the characters and works as a red herring for the reader. Human faults and frailties are evenly distributed across the communities of the novel. Their common problem is a failure to connect, and such categories as East and West contribute to that that failure. To be sure, the Ottoman government is tyrannical, but the problem is tyranny, not the Turks as a people. (And some of the Ottoman officials are much more appealing than some of the Christians.)

Apparently, the 1961 Nobel committee considered E.M. Forster along with Andric (and others). The comparison seems fitting, since Forster’s catchphrase, “Only connect,” could also be the motto of Bosnian Chronicle. But I think that gaol is much harder in Andric’s world than in Forster’s.

*His name should be spelled with a diacritical mark under the “c,” but for reasons that I can diagnose but not fix, my website won’t display diacriticals.

memory politics

I’ve been in Madrid, Munich, and Berlin for a few days of vacation with family, plus the meetings with scholars from Spanish-speaking countries and scholars and activists from the former Soviet bloc that are described in “Civic Studies Goes Global” (July 17). In all, I had conversations with roughly one hundred people, if you include the high school students whom I taught in their school outside of Madrid, a firm of Spanish anarchist architects, grad students from countries like Belarus and Georgia, and even the well-informed guide who led our walking tour of Berlin’s Mitte. We also learned a lot from museum displays in places like the German Historical Museum, and I’m deep into David Blackbourn’s History of Germany 1780-1918: The Long Nineteenth Century.

Memory politics (how political actors influence what nations or other groups remember) is important everywhere and often generates current divisions. That is true in the United States, where questions of American exceptionalism versus the original sin of white supremacy are at the forefront right now. A leading question is how we should remember our past–not just what we should do next. Similar questions arise in the former Soviet bloc, in Latin America, and practically everywhere I can think of.

Germany does a good job with its memory politics today. The Federal Republic has made an acknowledgement of its Nazi past central to its civic culture–but you can see how that stance evolved, sometimes painfully, in the post-War era. In the library of an agricultural institution, I read a proclamation issued in 1945 on behalf of Bavarian farmers. It denounces the tyranny and war they have just experienced. The farmers express sympathy for the murdered, including an explicit mention of the death camps. But they add that it is “particularly” cruel that the tyranny conscripted Bavarian agricultural workers, since a farmer has Christian love for the land and other people. I admit that my first reaction was that these farmers were probably part of Hitler’s electoral base in 1932. That turns out not to be true–he did much better with Protestant rural voters and lost Bavaria (narrowly) to the Catholic Centre Party in the last free election of Weimar. Still, this document seems like only the first halting step toward an appropriate view of the past.

A fine example of current memory politics–German, but one could imagine similar efforts in other countries–is the exhibition “Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode-Museum.” Bronzes and other sculptural works from Africa are paired with European sculptures selected from this extraordinary collection. The labels invite us to ask why some things have been categorized as ethnographic objects and others as works of art; how to think about artists whose names are famous or who are anonymous; how aesthetics, faith, and functionality interrelate; how various cultures represent power, gender, and otherness; how these objects found their way to a museum on the Spree; and how sculptures from Europe and Africa have been cleaned and displayed (in this case, the parallels are more evident than the differences), among other questions.

As a whole, the Bode-Museum displays primarily Christian religious objects in a building that recalls a grand renaissance basilica, but its religion is High Culture or Geistesgeschichte, not Catholicism. Its contents are not of local provenance, nor looted from other countries, but purchased on the international market–albeit often as a result of someone else’s looting. And many of the objects are themselves efforts at memory politics, like this 19th-century figure of an ancestor from Hemba in the DRC.

See also: thoughts after a similar trip last year; the politics of The Sound of Music; the state of the classics in 2050; marginalizing odious views: a strategy; and civic education in the year of Trump: neutrality vs. civil courage.

“the body of us all”: Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”

Anne Carson’s long poem entitled “The Glass Essay” relates how the narrator, having been dumped by her romantic partner, goes home to Canada to visit her mother (a difficult-sounding person–prone to rehashing old criticisms) and her father, now suffering from Alzheimer’s. Being a scholar, this narrator takes with her

… lot of books—

some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.
This is my favourite author.

She thinks about Emily and Charlotte Brontë, about herself, about her father and her mother. She feels strong emotions. For example:

Anger travels through me, pushes aside everything else in my heart,
pouring up the vents.
Every night I wake to this anger,

the soaked bed,
the hot pain box slamming me each way I move.
I want justice. Slam.

I want an explanation. Slam.
I want to curse the false friend who said I love you forever. Slam.
I reach up and switch on the bedside lamp. 

But the poem moves toward something that I can only call transcendence. The narrator concludes with a perspective and a moral concern that goes infinitely beyond herself and her own circumstances.

But how can you transcend your circumstances if you are a modernist writer who favors concrete images and objective correlatives? How can you transcend earthly pain if you cannot invoke God? (“I am uneasy with the compensatory model of female religious experience and yet ….”) How can you transcend the injustices you have faced if you believe that your identity as a woman matters–that not everyone has the same problems, that differences are important?

One answer, Anne Carson suggests, is time. “Days passed, months passed and I saw nothing.” She finally attains insight, but only after a long wait. Another answer is hard thinking. The narrator probes herself, nature, and other people. She asks the hard questions and debunks her own answers.

Most importantly, you need the courage to believe and say things that are un-ironic, explicitly ethical, and close to cliché:

I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

This is moving because it is so hard-won.

See also: on the moral dangers of cliché and on the proper use of moral clichés.

Notre-Dame is eminently restorable

I’m sure others have made this point or are typing it this minute, but I will pile on …

Notre-Dame de Paris is a stunning building but not a well-preserved medieval one. It has been through a lot, including the 18th-century removal of the original stained glass in the nave, the smashing of statuary and most of the remaining glass during the French Revolution, and a profound reconstruction that began in 1844. Some of the most famous features of the cathedral are the work of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a Romantic-era restorer who was comfortable redesigning medieval buildings in ways that are now obvious to us. The gargoyles, the spire that collapsed yesterday, portions of the interior architecture, and much of the stained glass is by Viollet-le-Duc, not by anonymous craftsmen of the 12th and 13th centuries. Many other Gothic buildings are much better preserved.

John Ruskin wrote in 1849 (not specifically about Notre-Dame but about the general approach to restoration in his time):

Neither the public, nor those who are responsible for the maintenance of public monuments, understand the true meaning of ‘restoration’. It signifies the most complete destruction that an edifice can suffer; a destruction from which not a single vestige can be recovered; a destruction that comes from the false description of the thing destroyed. It is impossible, as impossible as it is to bring the dead back to life, to restore whatever might have been grand or beautiful in architecture….the enterprise is a lie from the beginning to the end.

Notre-Dame is not a “lie,” but it is to a large degree a legacy of the French Romantic period, as much a creation of Victor Hugo and Viollet-le-Duc as of the first builders in 1160-1260. It is part of the city that we know today, which was profoundly influenced by Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), the flattener of ancient neighborhoods and planner of boulevards:

Old Paris is gone (no human heart

changes half so fast as a city’s face) …
There used to be a poultry market here,
and one cold morning … I saw

a swan that had broken out of its cage,
webbed feet clumsy on the cobblestones,
white feathers dragging through uneven ruts,
and obstinately pecking at the drains …

Paris changes … but in sadness like mine
nothing stirs—new buildings, old
neighbourhoods turn to allegory,

and memories weigh more than stone

From Richard Howard’s translation of Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal

It is not a criticism to place Notre-Dame in the 19th century. The years from 1848-1870 mark the apogee of a certain Parisian culture that is admirable and attractive. It was the age of boulevards and cafes, Seine embankments, and Impressionist cityscapes, all of which shape our view of Notre-Dame. The reason the history matters is that we can reconstruct late-19th-century buildings when they are well documented, as every stone of Notre-Dame is. In contrast, we would have neither the materials nor the craftsmanship to reconstruct the stained glass of the nearby Sainte-Chapelle if that were lost.

The fire is a tragedy; the crown jewel of 19th-century Paris will be badly damaged for some time. But in the long run, this will be a footnote.

See also: seeing Paris in chronological order; Paris from the moon; and Basilica of Notre-Dame, Montreal.