Sunday, 12 February 2017

Review: Euripides, Alcestis / Hippolytus / Iphigenia in Tauris

Euripides, Alcestis / Hippolytus / Iphigenia in Tauris (trans. Philip Vellacott), (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1974)
When I was a young undergraduate and studying classics, I remember thinking that ancient Greek plays should ideally be read in summer on a beach somewhere.  The culture that produced them, after all, was addicted to life, to sunlight, and to personal wholeness.  Reading this selection of Euripides’ plays I’m even more persuaded that this is the case.

The theme that seems to link these plays is the theme of personal strength.  That is, the strength that comes with self-mastery.  The collection begins with Alcestis.  The play begins on the day on which Alcestis, wife of Admetus, is to die.  She had previously agreed to meet death to save the life of her husband.  Admetus is inconsolable and refuses to set any bounds to his grief (p.71) despite the chorus offering a rebuke (p.55):
Her death, Admetus, is a blow which you must bear.
You are not the first of mortal men – no, nor the last –
To lose a noble-hearted wife.  Consider this:
Death is a debt which every one of us must pay

The day is saved (somewhat improbably) by the arrival of Heracles en route to one of his labours.  Heracles – physically powerful, unsophisticated and earthy – treats the matter simply as a problem to be solved (p.70):
The woman’s newly dead; and I
Must save her, and pay my debt of kindness to Admetus,
Setting Alcestis safe again in her own home.
The black robed king of the dead will come to drink the blood
Of Victims offered at her tomb.  I’ll go there, hide,
And watch for him, and so leap out and spring on him,
And once I have my arms locked round his writhing ribs,
There is no power that can release him, till he yields
Alcestis to me.  And if I miss my prey this time,
If death does not go to the bait of blood, I’ll go
Down to the sunless palace of Persephone
And Pluto, and I’ll ask for her.  And, by my soul,
I’ll bring Alcestis up again, and deliver her
Into Admetus’ hands

This he does, leading to a mildly comic happy ending.  The contrast the play stresses is between Admetus’ inability to master his own grief, and Heracles’ literally Death-defying confidence in his own strength.

Hippolytus covers another aspect of self-knowledge.  The hero (if that is the word) in the title is a young man whose life is dedicated to honouring Artemis, virginal goddess of the hunt (pp.84-5).  He shows little respect – even contempt – for Aphrodite, the goddess of love (in this case, sexual love): “My body is pure … I have no liking for a god worshipped at night” (p.86).  Aphrodite, in revenge, causes his stepmother Phaedra to become infatuated with him.  Phaedra’s secret is revealed to Hippolytus by a servant.  He is incensed and excoriates them both (pp.102-3).  Phaedra, in despair, hangs herself.  She leaves a note accusing Hippolytus of raping her.  This provokes Theseus (her husband) to curse him in a fit of rage, causing Hippolytus to be killed by a bull - that is, a breeding animal.  The play ultimately works as a lesson on self-control, and the lack of it.  Phaedra kills herself to break the grip of an uncontrollable passion.  Hippolytus’ almost fanatical self-control makes it impossible for him to understand the pain his rejection and vituperation causes her.  And Theseus’ loss of self-control leads him to kill his own son.

The collection ends with Iphigenia in Tauris, which shows us the end-stage of self-mastery.  Iphigenia was the daughter of King Agamemnon.  She was to be sacrificed by him to induce Artemis to allow his fleet to leave harbour and sail to the Trojan War.  At the last moment, however, she was taken by Artemis to Tauris where she would serve as the goddess’ priestess, preparing foreigners as human sacrifices on the orders of King Thoas (pp.131-2).  She pines to return to Greece and to see her brother Orestes again.  Iphigenia and Orestes are descendants of Atreus and the nth generation of a family wrapped in a cycle of crime and revenge which has involved cannibalism, incest, curses and more homicides than a season of Midsomer Murders.  Orestes arrives in Tauris, having recently murdered their mother Clytemnestra.  He and Iphigenia recognise each other before he is to be sacrificed.  Through a ruse they escape from Tauris with a sacred statue of Artemis, which Orestes has been tasked with stealing in recompense for the murder of Clytemnestra.

The setting in Tauris and the escape seem to be included for the sake of dramatic completeness.  What is more interesting is the decision of the key participants to renounce vengeance.  Iphigenia helps Orestes to steal the statue (and so free himself of bloodguiltiness for the murder of his mother) when it is within her power to kill him.  She also renounces vengeance of Agamemnon and his posterity for attempting to sacrifice her (p.161):
now my wish is matched with yours – first, to release
You from your torments; next, renouncing bitterness
Against the hand that offered me in sacrifice,
To restore the shattered fortunes of my father’s house.
So my hand would be guiltless of your blood, and we
Could all be saved.
This action ceases the long cycle of violence and ends the curse in which “anger grimly returns, cunningly haunting the house, avenging the death of a child, never forgetting its due” (Aeschylus, Agamemnon (trans. Louis McNiece)).  The end of the curse is made possible by Iphigenia’s innate self-control which allows her to renounce vengeance.

The modern West lives a long way from faith.  Scanning the death notices of most newspapers shows recollections of times spent together and a vague notion that people will ‘meet again’ someday.  Our world may be one from which gods have either been banished or upon which they have given up in disgust.  If the heavens are no longer able to suggest how a person can honourably live their life, then Euripides would be a good place to start seeking a replacement.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Review: Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (trans. Alastair Hannay), (Penguin: London 1985)

I can comfortably tell you that this is kinda sorta about Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14).  However, that’s about all I can tell you after slogging through the longest 158 pages of my life.
Image from here
I’d love to tell you that this "lynchpin... of the existentialist movement" opened my eyes to a new way of living.  However, I found Kierkegaard almost completely impenetrable.  The problem seems to lie partly in his extremely repetitive use of abstractions and symbols.  He refers constantly to “making this movement” (which I think means ‘making a decision’), “becoming absolute in relation to the universal” (or possibly vice versa), and being a “knight of faith” as opposed to being a “tragic hero”.  If any of these terms were defined, I missed it.  I’m assuming Hannay’s translation is sound and the book is equally inscrutable in Danish.  The editors of Wikipedia seem to think the same, since the article on the book mostly consists of slabs quoted from it.

The other problem is that Kierkegaard seems addicted to changing his style and subject.  You find yourself reading a speech in praise of Abraham.  A bit later you’re reading about whether it was ethically permissible for that patriarch to conceal the intended sacrifice from his family (a fair enough question).  And then for no obvious reason he wants to talk about a fucking mermaid (pp.120-125).  I was disappointed in my hopes that there’d be a postscript telling readers that the whole thing had been 1843’s version of the Sokal hoax.

If you’re a student and you’ve been set this text for a course, you have my pity.  If you’re looking for your next book, save your money.  But if you’re looking for a cure for insomnia, this is it.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Birthday Blues

Some months are poorly named.  February is one of the worst, because it abbreviates easily to "Feb".  The breathy whistle of the "F" sounds like the descent of a guillotine blade.  It slices into protesting flesh in the "e" and comes to a sharp stop on the wooden block of "b" below the neck.  This month takes you another year closer to your appointment with the Grim Reaper.  Vulnerant omnes, ultima necat.

Guyot Marchant, La Danse Macabre ( Paris, 1485)
[Image from here]
Grim start to a blogpost?  Sorry about that: I just turned 39 and I'm still in the grip of the birthday blues.  I managed the day well enough last year, which is to say that I cloaked it on Facebook and it passed almost wholly unremarked.  Unfortunately, Facebook seem to have rejigged their privacy settings and the date leaked out before I could re-cloak it.  I know the wellwishers' hearts are in the right place - no doubt in my mind - but I still feel like the amputee who is offered the consolation "cheer up: at least you've lost those last five kilograms".

How about no?
Fuck you very much, Facebook.
I don't think I've felt good about my birthday since 2010.  That was the year Grace and Rachel had just been born and I hadn't yet had an opportunity to fail as a husband and father.  I was still a moderately successful lawyer, and New Orleans had just won the Superbowl.  And every year since then?  On one birthday or another I've been watching my family life crumble to its ultimate failure, my work life morphing first into tragedy and then into farce (at this stage, I suppose one could call it 'street theatre'), and my bag of tricks become thinner and thinner.

I asked Dr Google about this and found that "birthday blues" is actually a thing.  Its advice wasn't especially helpful beyond that point.  To remember positive events in the past and remind yourself of past successes is to whistle past the graveyard when the present mercilessly throws them into perspective.  When you can't even secure work as a factory hand, your university degrees become a mere gewgaw.  Your 'achievements' in SES are just an unusual hobby.  Everything you've ever been or done becomes the contemptible toy of a child.

I don't know what this year will bring, but I can tell you I'm dreading 40 next year.

Monday, 6 February 2017

The leech's eye view

One of the few perks of unemployment is that you get to see life from a different perspective than you would ordinarily.  It's one thing to see it from the perspective of someone in steady employment and when it's happening to someone else.  It's another to see it from the business end of the microscope.

Before today's appointment at MADEC I'd never noticed that you can almost gauge how long someone has been out of work from their walk.  A man (I have only noticed this in men) who is only just unemployed has a purposeful bearing: one could even say active and vigourous.  Someone who has been looking for work for a long time, and has had plenty of knockbacks, has a different stride.  'Ponderous' is the best adjective, whether or not the person is out of shape or not.  Imagine a person who finds that the burden of existence increases by the weight of a five-cent piece (a dime for American readers) every few hours for years.  Still other people (women more than men) develop a thin-to-emaciated look that, rightly or wrongly, one tends to associate with ice addiction.  Their eyes are alert and their movements are quick.  These people tend to find and lose jobs quickly.

Two old men eating soup, by Francisco Goya
(Image from here)
I'd never realised just how remote from the experience of unemployment those working at the coalface seem to be.  At today's appointment I was asked "what work would you like to do".  I could have laughed at the absurdity of the question: my likes and dislikes seem utterly unimportant.  I think I said "well, anything really".  The consultant clearly believes that at some level I have a choice about this.  Her colleague then began to recite to us the jobs ads from last Friday's Shepparton News, and I explained that I'd been through all of those ads and found precisely three from which I was not excluded for want to training or experience.

Shepparton News, 3 February 2017, showing jobs marked off
The only one I could recall immediately was a job as a cleaner.
"Are you going to apply for it?" she asked.
I replied probably not.
"What, so you're not even going to try?"
"Well, I last did that work nearly twenty-five years ago, so I can't imagine I'd be the preferred candidate"
This exchange was enlightening.  If we assume that the consultant was sincere, then finding work would seem to be a kind of bizarre lottery where one's prospects of success increase in relation to the number of tickets one buys even when the odds against you remain stratospheric.  The lesson from this for me is that I don't think I'll again consider I've learned anything much about the human condition from representing injured people.  The gulf in experience is too wide.  I must also doubt how much we can really learn from books like Life at the Bottom or London Labour and the London Poor.

I had also never quite understood how easily you can come to see others as your enemy.  Recently the Australian Broadcasting Corporation covered a story of fruitgrowers in this area facing a labour shortage in the absence of backpackers.  It's no secret that fruitgrowers will also refuse to hire Australians in general and welfare recipients in particular as pickers.  As one has said
Anybody in industry knows that people on welfare, well intentioned as they may be, are not a reliable source of labour to do the hard, low-paying work that is available on farms.
Despite this, the denizens of Facebook were confident that any fault for not having a job as a picker would lie with the unemployed themselves:

After reading things like this I found myself understanding why radicals like Abiezer Coppe could gain a following among the poorest people: faced with a brick wall of scorn and contempt, the only way out can seem to be by waiting for the world to turn upside down.

Abiezer Coppe, A Fiery Flying Roll ( London, 1649)
If I've learned anything from watching Time Team, it's that you can tell a great deal about a culture by what it throws away.  When I look at many of the unemployed in a MADEC office, I understand our own culture less and less.  How profligate are we that we allow so many healthy bodies and working brains to go unused?

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Sir John de Mandeville hits the Road: Skirza to Blair Castle

Three hundred and fifty-four kilometres down and the trip was going remarkably well.  In the span of a few weeks John de Mandeville and Nostradamus had jogged and pedalled the distance from John o'Groats via Skirza to Tayside.

The rolling country of the north had become the rocky hardness of the Cairngorm Mountains, testing their energies.  On the plus side, it had also prevented them getting separated: the bicycle was scarcely faster than running up the hills.

Cairngorm Mountains [Image from here]

Both John De Mandeville and Nostradamus were finding the twenty-first century reassuringly familiar.  When they had stopped in Kingussie, they had heard Bob Marley's crowd-pleaser "I shot the Sheriff".  Nostradamus had always found the English office of "Shire Reeve" or "Sheriff" rather baffling.  Who, after all, would have thought it sensible to combine the jobs of collecting taxes and keeping the peace?  In his view it was a guarantee that both tasks would be done badly.  That someone would shoot such a pesky official was completely predictable.  Clearly officialdom agreed, since they were more concerned with the killing of the deputy. 

Image from here
They weren't sure, however, about the Highland Folk Museum.  Both had imagined a museum of Highland folk - perhaps ones who had been enslaved and now were required to do Highland Things for public edification; perhaps they would be taxidermied.  De Mandeville had been very excited by the idea of a museum that had borrowed ideas from the Great Khan and Ivan the Terrible.  They were a little disappointed when the Guidebook told them
Here, among exhibits showing all facets of the past life in the Highlands - dress, furnishings, etc. - is a replica of the 19th-century farm-shed and mill of a crofter*
Nevertheless, both were happy to give the museum operators the benefit of the doubt: the museum title was clear that they'd wanted to take their artistic bearing from Vlad the Impaler even if the visiting public had wanted something more genteel.  Clearly the future was another country.

Highland Folk Museum [Image from here]
They had broken their journey in Newtonmore to hear Mass and get refreshments, and this was where they had discovered newspapers.  They found these a thoroughly delightful innovation.  Nostradamus had been drawn especially to the finance pages.  The seers who filled these columns were as intent as he was about predicting the future.  They, however, were even more impenetrable than his most difficult quatrains:
The fund will initially pay 5p of income per £1 invested, while the current £9.6bn Woodford Equity Income fund initially targeted 4p for every £1 invested.
After the first year the new fund will aim to deliver 20pc more than the yield of the FTSE All Share index, the benchmark for British companies.**
Why had he not thought to write like that?  He could had thousands more readers and much less risk of being burned at the stake for witchcraft.

St Bride's Church, Newtonmore [Image from here]
De mandeville was more struck by news of the king of New Outremer (as he assumed the lands across the Atlantic must be named).  An elected King had always seemed to him a thoroughly good idea - the Holy Roman Empire usually had effective and skilful rulers - but he was could not fathom why a king named "Trump" would be elected.  These moderns had translated the sacred scriptures, and their Bible in English expressly warned that
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Cor. 15:52).
In his view, electing a king named Trump was asking for trouble, especially when he seemed to sound a couple of times a day:
His firm view was that the British people would have been much safer to stick with the reassuring sonority of the Vulgate: In momento in ictu oculi in novissima tuba canet enim et mortui resurgent incorrupti et nos inmutabimur.

The road south had taken them as far as Blair Castle in Tayside.  This was much more to their liking.  The guidebook enthused that -
The ancient home of the Dukes of Atholl, Blair Castle dates from the 13th Century, although its appearance has changed considerably over the years.  In 1269 the Crusader Earl of Atholl complained that during his absence John Comyn had started to build a castle at Blair.  The foundations of the present Cumming's Tower probably date from this time, although the tower itself has been rebuilt several times.  In 1530 the 3rd Earl built the Hall and the vaulted rooms beneath it.
In 1652 the castle was captured by Cromwell's troops and held for eight years until the Restoration.  More violence was in store for the castle in the 18th century - although Queen Anne had made the 2nd Marquess Duke in 1703, by 1745 the only member of the family to support the Hanoverians was the 2nd Duke, Lord James Murray.  The Jacobites, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Duke's exiled elder brother, marched on the castle and occupied it, and in the following year the Duke's younger brother laid siege to the castle - the last castle in the British Isles to be besieged.
Because of the extensive damage caused by the Jacobite attack, the 2nd Duke decided to remodel the castle completely in the Classical manner - between 1747-58 the battlemented turrets and stepped gables were removed and sash windows put in.  But in 1868, when the Gothic style had once more become fashionable, the 7th Duke employed David Bryce to restore the castle to its former appearance.
The interior of the castle still retains its classical scheme of decoration.  The rooms contain some fine furniture - including Chippendale and Sheraton cabinets displaying a collection of Sevres pocelain - paintings, among them works by Lely, Hoppner and Zoffany, and many items of embroidery, lace and jewellery.  Collections of weapons and armour reflect the history of the castle and the military campaigns of successive Dukes***
The coming and going of armies was familiar to both men.  De Mandeville's life (such as it had been) had overlapped with the Hundred Years War; Nostradamus' with the metastasizing bloodshed of the Italian Wars.
Blair Castle [Image from here]
Neither could have been called bellicose, exactly, but they had a different view of war to moderns.  Wars were a prerogative of princes.  Destructive, heartbreaking, murderous and as obdurate as weather.
Lastlie stode warre in glittering armes yclad,
With visage grim sterne lokes and blacklie hued;
In his right hand a naked sword he had
That to the hiltes was all with blood imbrued
And in his left that kinges and kingdomes rewed
Famine and fire he held, and therwithall
He rased townes and threw doune towres and all****
They were lamentable, no question, but it was as pointless to imagine a world without war as a world without kings.  The late afternoon sky turned the colour of blood above the battlements.  De Mandeville reminded Nostradamus of his most famous quatrain:
In the year 1999 and seven months,
From the skies shall come the king of terror,
The Mongols’ mighty leader to raise again,...
The prophet interrupted him: "Before and after, Mars shall reign at will".  Both men looked wearily at the castle.  The peace of the modern world seemed a very flimsy thing.

"Let's get going".

* Automobile Association, Treasures of Britain (Drive Publications: London, 1977), p.259
** Laura Suter, 'Woodford to launch higher income fund paying 5pc', Telegraph, 4 February 2017.
*** Auto. Assoc., Treasures of Britain, p.89
**** Thomas Sackville, 'A Myrroure for Magistrates', in John Hayward (ed.), The Penguin Book of English Verse (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1956) p.7

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Sir John de Mandeville Hits the Road: John o'Groats and Skirza

This wasn’t fair.

When you’re dead, they’re supposed to leave you alone aren’t they?  And he was more than just dead.  He was a figment of a forger’s imagination.  And he’d been enjoying slipping into ever darker obscurity.  But then some bastard of a writer had yanked him back into existence, given him a map, a guidebook, a bicycle and a pair of Nikes and then stood back to watch the fun.
It wasn’t fair.

Sir John de Mandeville looked grumpily at the North Sea and checked the map again.  John o’Groats to Lands End on foot and by bicycle, with a travelogue on the way.  And his speed would be controlled by what his author managed to run, walk or cycle in reality.  Why a writer should choose such a convoluted way of framing a story was anyone’s guess, he thought.  Still, he couldn’t complain too loudly.  He only existed at all because a fourteenth-century writer had prepared his own pastiche travelogue and attached the name “Sir John de Mandeville” to it.  He owed his life to dodgy authorial choices.  Now it was time to pay.
He wasn’t at all certain about his travelling companion.  He found he'd been paired with Nostradamus.  This wasn't the worst match that could have been handed to him.  For one thing, the man knew how to treat the plague (possibly useful, possibly not).  For another thing, he was usually thought to be able to foresee the future (Mandeville had some doubts on this score).  By comparison, Dante had a reputation as a difficult travelling companion:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge couldn’t stop in a town without finding a drug dealer, and Christopher Marlowe couldn’t leave a town without finding a whorehouse.  And François Villon couldn’t speak English but that never stopped him picking fights with the first local official he spotted -
Au Cappitaine Jehain Riou
tant pour lui que pour ses archiers
je donne six hures de lou
qui n'est pas viande a porchiers
prinses a gros mastins de bouchiers
et cuites en vin de buffet.
Pour mangier de ces morceaulx chiers
on en feroit bien ung malfait*

Nevertheless, Nostradamus had his drawbacks.  He tended to spend a lot of time staring off into the distance.  He also seemed to find it impossible to answer a question in anything less than a four-line verse of dubious meaning.  Mandeville expected to find this immensely annoying very soon.  Still, he had another go.

"Hey Nostradamus - do you want to run or cycle for this first leg?  We'll have to take it in turns
"When the fish that travels over both land and sea / is cast up on to the shore by a great wave, / its shape foreign, smooth and frightful. / From the sea the enemies soon reach the walls." **
"Yeah, you're going to be running".

John o'Groats wasn't the worst place to set out from, at least.  The town itself was unremarkable; if it hadn't been the northernmost inhabited part of Britain, it would have been even forgettable.  The suspiciously convenient yPhone he had been given told him that -
In 2005, a popular tourist guide, Lonely Planet, described the village as a "seedy tourist trap" and in 2010 John o' Groats received a Carbuncle Award from Urban Realm magazine for being "Scotland's most dismal town".

Although this information came from Wikipedia, which he was finding was as reliable (and compiled in much the same way) as the travelogue to which he owed his existence in the first place.
John o'Groats from the air
By Madras9096 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Over Nostradamus' complaints, Mandeville detoured them to the first Point Of Interest the guidebook suggested in the vicinity, a broch (Iron Age fort) at Skirza.  The guidebook advised -
Standing on a narrow spur of cliff above the sea, the approach to the broch from the main cliff-top is protected by a wide ditch.  There is a wall, very thick in proportion to the enclosed space, the one being 14 feet thick and the other some 22 feet across.  The entrance is on the seaward side of the building and there is some evidence of minor additional structures.  It is an Iron Age dwelling***
The broch looked its vast age: somewhat dilapidated, somewhat worn, and yet timeless.  The stones and earth and grasses had a sense of waiting about them.  They expected the tough, durable men who made them to return and seek protection.  The pyramids had no greater craving for the future.
Broch at Skirza (Image from here)
"You look into eternity, Nostradamus.  Nothing to say to these ancient stones?"
"A scythe joined with a pond in Sagittarius / at its highest ascendant. / Plague, famine, death from military hands; / the century approaches its renewal."**
"This place will be safe from the scythe then?" asked Mandeville, but the prophet said nothing.
"Time to go".
Mandeville wheeled the bicyle around.  The gears clanked as they began the first leg of the long journey south.
* "And to the captain, Jean Riou
as much for him as for his archers
I give the meat from six wolves heads
(which is no food for swine-herds),
snatched from butchers' dogs
and cooked in lousy sour wine.
For tasty morsels such as these
a man would go to any lengths
François Villon, 'Le Testament' (trans. A. Bonner), in The Complete Works of François Villon (Bantam: New York, 1960), p.81.
*** Automobile Association, Treasures of Britain (Drive Publications:London, 1976), pp. 433-4