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Oct 30, 2012

The Renaissance

The Renaissance was a popular cultural movement that began in Italy and later spread to the rest of Europe. It spanned roughly from the 14th through the 17th century. The Renaissance was a great intellectual reawakening that encompassed the revival of classical learning and profoundly affected art, literature, philosophy, religion, science, politics and other aspects of intellectual inquiry. Renaissance scholars employed the humanism method to study and search for realism and human emotion in art. Renaissance thinkers desired to learn from classical or ancient text written in Latin or Greek. Scholars searched Europe’s libraries for works of antiquity which had fallen into obscurity for long. In such texts they found a desire to improve and perfect their worldly knowledge.

Important features of Renaissance
Humanism was one of the most important features of Renaissance period. It was a method of learning. The humanist studied ancient text in the original and evaluated them through reasoning and empirical evidence. Humanist studied poetry, grammar, ethics and rhetoric. Humanism was an intellectual reawakening among the scholars of Europe. They retrieved, interpreted and absorbed the language, culture and ancient Greek texts. Humanist scholars acknowledged the supreme ability of the human mind. The humanist scholars played a vital role in shaping the intellectual capacities of their European people. Political philosophers like Machiavelli and Thomas More revived the ideas of Greek and Roman thinkers, and applied them in critiques of contemporary government. Theologians, Erasmus and Martin Luther, introduced new concepts of reasoning and faith.

The Renaissance period saw the emergence of some really great painters and artists. The most famous among them includes Leonardo da Vinci, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Donatello. The period is steeped in art, architecture and painting. In architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi was foremost in studying the remains of ancient Classical building. Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael reached great heights in their artistic endeavor that they became icons.

With a momentous and sweeping change taking place in art and architecture, the Renaissance brought about a scientific revolution heralding the beginning of modern age. There was a blend of science and art during the Renaissance, with artists such as Leonardo da Vinci making observational drawings of anatomy and nature.

The Renaissance witnessed a massive religious unrest. The Protestant Reformation movement in Europe led by Martin Luther to reform the corrupt practices of the Roman Catholic Church was met with widespread resentment among the people. It is believed to have started in 1517 with Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and thought to have culminated with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The movement started with an attempt to reform the malpractices of the Roman Catholic Church. The Papal was blamed to have been indulging in the teaching and sale of indulgences. The selling of indulgences and the Church’s policy on purgatory was the most controversial point.

Beliefs and practices that were vehemently opposed by Protestant reformers included purgatory, particular judgment, devotion to Mary (Mariology), intercession of and devotion to the saints, most of the sacraments, the mandatory celibacy requirement of its clergy (including monasticism), and the authority of the Pope.

Later, this movement led to the emergence of separate protestant churches. Thus, Renaissance can be said to a great intellectual awakening among the European people. 

Oct 26, 2012

Beloved: Morrison

The most overrated novel ever has got to be Beloved. Upon its initial publication, it was rightly passed over for the 1988 National Book Award, which went to Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story, while the National Book Critics Circle handed its fiction award instead to Philip Roth for The Counterlife. In protest, forty-eight “black critics and black writers”—their own self-description—wrote to the New York Times Book Review, “asserting [them]selves against the oversight and harmful whimsy” by which white males were preferred to Toni Morrison. “The legitimate need for our own critical voice in relation to our own literature can no longer be denied,” the forty-eight declared.[1]

Not quite ten weeks later Beloved was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Everyone quoted on the record agreed that the protest and demands for recognition did not influence the prize committee’s decision—not a chance, no way, no how. Just to be sure, the Swedish Academy gave Toni Morrison the Nobel Prize in literature four years later. “She is the first black woman to receive the prize,” the Times helpfully noted on the front page.[2]

To her credit, Morrison disclaimed the “extra-literary responsibility” of expressing black writers’ legitimate need. That was a responsibility Beloved “was never designed for,” she said.[3] And yet the novel invited such an investment of collective hopes: “Sixty Million and more,” read its dedication. In the annals of comparative martyrology, she appeared to suggest, the toll of the slave trade was ten times greater than the Nazi Holocaust.

The novel’s epigraph, taken verbatim from the King James Version of Paul’s letter to the Romans, makes a similar appropriation:
I will call them my people,
which were not my people;
and her beloved,
which was not beloved.
Although it is not clear whether Morrison knows as much, Paul is himself appropriating the words of the prophet Hosea here: “V’amarti l’lo-ami ami-atah v’hi yomar elohai—And I will say to them that were not my people, You are my people, and they shall say, You are my God” (2.25). Originally a reassertion of God’s promise to the people of Israel that, even though they are scattered to the four corners of the earth, they will be gathered back into the land of Israel and return to their God, Hosea’s words are revolved by Paul to refer to the Christians—they will now be God’s people, who were not before—and then revolved again by Morrison to refer to the children of slaves.

In short, the forematter assigns to Beloved just exactly the sort of “extra-literary responsibility” that Morrison sought to disclaim in the New York Times. The novel is intended to be a monument, a permanent marker of memory and history; and this is the source of its failure. It is less mythic than typological; less a “story to pass on” than a dense allegory of racial suffering. Consider the last chapter in which Morrison tries to sum up the history of the people “which were not my people” by identifying them with the ghost of Sethe’s murdered daughter:
Everybody knew what she was called, but nobody anywhere knew her name. Disremembered and unaccounted for, she cannot be lost because no one is looking for her, and even if they were, how can they call her if they don’t know her name? Although she has a claim, she is not claimed. In the place where long grass opens, the girl who waited to be loved and cry shame erupts into her separate parts, to make it easy for the chewing laughter to swallow her all away.[4]Although “she” in this passage is both Sethe’s daughter and the black race, the succession of paradoxes about “her” is effective only if the reader stays on one level of meaning at a time. Any attempt to hold them both in the mind will end in confusion. If everybody knows that the girl is called “Beloved” then the word Beloved merely needs to be halloed in order to summon her. But if everybody knows what the race is popularly called (insert ugly racial epithet here ________) then shouting out the epithet will summon not the people but only a racist projection, a bogey; that is, a ghost. The passage is written with a crossword puzzler’s ear for language. It attains neither rhythm nor sharpness, and the plays on words (lost–looking, claim–claimed) are clumsy rather than charming. As for that last sentence: try picturing it.

Yet Beloved cannot be discussed apart from Morrison’s fumbling for a distinctive rhetoric. The Swedish Academy praised her stylistic experimentation in awarding her the Nobel Prize: “She delves into the language itself, a language she wants to liberate from the fetters of race.” Well, maybe. But you know the saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop delving. Here she is describing Paul D’s entrance into Sethe’s Cincinnati house. He must pass through a “pool of pulsing red light” to get in: “Walking through it, a wave of grief soaked him so thoroughly he wanted to cry. It seemed a long way to the normal light surrounding the table, but he made it—dry-eyed and lucky” (p. 9). Morrison’s technique might be characterized as literalizing stock language. If you can mention a “wave of grief,” she can say that it soaks you. But then she nods or the effort of linguistic distinction proves too tiring, and so the light “surrounding the table” (was there a skylight? A pendant lamp? An angel?) is, um, “normal.” Is there a norm to indoor light?

I cannot think of a worse prose writer who is praised for her language: “What she knew was that the responsibility for her breasts, at last, was in somebody else’s hands” (p. 18). But everyone agrees that Morrison is a great writer and Beloved is a great novel; there is a huge body of scholarship to enforce the agreement (as I found, there are over six hundred items in the MLA International Bibliography in whole or part on the novel). In the most recent scholarly article on it, for example, the critic singles out a “stream-of-consciousness interlude” in which Beloved recalls the transatlantic passage of Africans bound for slavery:
All of it is now     it is always now     there will never be a time when I am not crouching and watching others who are crouching too     I am always crouching     the man on my face is dead     his face is not mine     his mouth smells sweet but his eyes are locked      (p. 210)And then three paragraphs later:We are not crouching now     we are standing but my legs are like my dead man’s eyes     I cannot fall because there is no room to     the men without skin are making loud noises     I am not dead     the bread is sea-colored     I am too hungry to eat it     the man closes my eyes     those able to die are in a pile     (p. 211)The critic then goes on to elucidate this passage, observing that the way in which Beloved speaks of “the living and the dead being piled on top of one another and fastened together by chains in the holds of slave ships graphically testifies to how the killing of the African slave involved more than the taking of her biological life. Stated simply, Black Atlantic and ‘New World’ mass internment, enslavement, and genocide were and are produced as much through the mass reproduction of living death as through the production of biologically expired bodies.”[5] Whether this conclusion deserves the jargon required to yield it is beside the point. The point is that, as Yvor Winters wrote of Edgar Allan Poe, “when a writer is supported by a sufficient body of such scholarship, a very little philosophical elucidation will suffice to establish him [or her] in the scholarly world as a writer whose greatness is self-evident.”[6]

Rather than taking the “stream-of-consciousness interlude” at face value, the critic might ask the obvious question: what is its place and function in the novel? How is it possible that a slave child, born in Kentucky and murdered by her mother at less than a month old (“If I hadn't killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear” [p. 200]), is familiar with the experience of the Middle Passage in horrifying detail? In fiction anything is possible, but Morrison does nothing to devise the possibility. She merely introduces the “interlude” with an allusion to the biblical Song of Songs (“I am Beloved and she is mine”), which implies, I suppose, that Sethe has merged with Beloved after living with the ghost for so long. And Beloved, a victim of slavery, embodies the collective consciousness of racial suffering? And so Sethe achieves mystic oneness with the race’s memory? Or something?

The truth is that the stream-of-racial-consciousness interlude is a display piece, a verbal stunt that is connected to the rest of the novel by the thinnest of fictions—and by the ambition to leave a monument to the suffering caused by black slavery. The odd spacing and lack of punctuation, the fragmented phrases, are little more than an attempt to defamiliarize what are, to be honest, scenes and images that have been familiar since the first photographs of Hitler’s death camps were published in the United States. The dead, heaped in a pile, are nothing new. Only the typography is new.

And that, finally, is the trouble with Beloved. The central idea of the novel is arresting and memorable, although Sethe’s murder of her child may only be a variation on Sophie’s Choice, but nothing else about it is. Beloved has been called a ghost story, but it has neither of the “two ingredients most valuable in concocting a ghost story,” according to M. R. James, the genre’s best-known practitioner—it has neither atmosphere nor the “nicely managed crescendo.”[7] It has, in fact, no pace at all; it is, at best, a series of tableaux. Morrison is more interested in disrupting the chronological narrative than in telling a story. And her ghost is not really a ghost; she is the Oversoul of black folk. My guess is that, secretly, few readers believe in her reality. They claim to believe otherwise because the novel’s monumental pretensions and rhetorical self-importance—to say nothing of the overwhelming scholarly backing—suggest the presence of greatness where nothing of the sort is to be found.

[1] Robert Allen, Maya Angelou, et al., “Statement,” New York Times Book Review (January 24, 1988): 36.

[2] William Grimes, “Toni Morrison Is ’93 Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature,” New York Times (October 8, 1993): A1.

[3] Herbert Mitgang, “For Morrison, Prize Silences Gossip,” New York Times (April 1, 1988): B5.

[4] Toni Morrison, Beloved [1987] (New York: Plume, 1988), p. 274. Subsequent references in parentheses.

[5] Dennis Childs, “ ‘You Ain't Seen Nothin’ Yet’: Beloved, the American Chain Gang, and the Middle Passage Remix,” American Quarterly 61 (June 2009): 277.

[6] Yvor Winters, Maule’s Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism [1938], reprinted in In Defense of Reason (Chicago: Swallow, 1947), p. 234.

[7] M. R. James, Preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary [1911], reprinted in Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, ed. Michael Cox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 339.

Oct 24, 2012

Booker Prize 2012


The whittling has finished. The judges of this year's Man Booker Prize started with a daunting 145 novels and have winnowed, sifted, culled, and in some cases hurled, until there was only one left: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies.

Hers is a story unique in Man Booker history. She becomes only the third author, after Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee, to win the prize twice, which puts her in the empyrean. But she is also the first to win with a sequel (Wolf Hall won in 2009) and the first to win with such a brief interlude between books. Her resuscitation of Thomas Cromwell – and with him the historical novel – is one of the great achievements of modern literature. There is the last volume of her trilogy still to come so her Man Booker tale may yet have a further chapter.

The writing will have to wait a bit though. She may have won before but the torrent of media interest will still knock her back as if she's been hit by a wave. In 2009 she confessed to feeling as though she were “flying through the air”, well, she's soaring again. When she lands she won't have time to think and she will talk into microphones until her throat is sore. It comes with the territory: everyone wants a bit of the Man Booker winner.

It has been a long and uniquely intense journey not just for her but for everyone associated with the prize. For the judges it has meant nine months of work, worry and pleasure. Their choices have been scrutinised and criticised and their thoughts and penchants imagined. They will have read the shortlisted books at least three times. They will await the public's verdict on their choice with sang froid mixed with curiosity. They needn't be worried, Bring Up the Bodies has had near universal praise from critics and reading public alike.

The shortlisted authors meanwhile have felt the hot brightness of the media spotlight on them since July when the long-list was first announced. They can breathe out now. For Hilary Mantel all those middle-of-the-night moments when she had to tell herself not to think of what it would be like to win again, not to jinx herself, can stop.

Indeed, spare a thought for the shortlisted authors; they will have had a day unlike any other they have known. How do you take your mind off the fact that in a matter of hours you might be the winner of arguably the world's most high-profile literary prize? Of course it is an honour and validation to be shortlisted but they will have known that at 11.30 this morning the judges closed the door of a room somewhere in London – possibly near to where they themselves were standing/shopping/chomping their nails – and settled down to decide their future. They will have wondered what that group literary holy men and women, like the conclave of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel choosing a new Pope, were talking about and wondered whether the puff of white smoke that finally emerged was for them. They may be writers but they're only human.

The nerves will have continued all through the prize dinner, even a phalanx of loved ones, publisher and agent can't keep them away. They chatted amicably, a drink – but perhaps just the one – to steady the beating heart. I doubt they tasted their food. Who would have wanted to be them as Sir Peter Stothard took to the rostrum and opened his mouth to enunciate the first syllable of the winner's name? She may qualify as an old hand but Hilary Mantel confessed that her nerves this time round were infinitely worse than in 2009.

This is not the end of the process, however. For Hilary Mantel it is the moment of coronation before she confronts the wider horizons that have suddenly opened up before her. For the other shortlisted authors who came so agonisingly close they have the knowledge that every publisher in the land will bite their hand off for the chance to publish their next book and that, whatever they write, they will have a wide and eager audience. Their names are now known to readers who may have had no idea of them only a few months ago.

Perhaps the real object of envy is not the winner – she thoroughly deserves her triumph – but the readers who have yet to open Bring Up the Bodies. They have just won a prize too.

Oct 19, 2012


History of English Literature by W.J. Long
BEOWULF. Here is the story of Beowulf, the earliest and the greatest epic, or heroic poem, in our literature. It begins with a prologue, which is not an essential part of the story, but which we review gladly for the sake of the splendid poetical conception that produced Scyld, king of the Spear Danes.[2]

At a time when the Spear Danes were without a king, a ship came sailing into their harbor. It was filled with treasures and weapons of war; and in the midst of these warlike things was a baby sleeping. No man sailed the ship; it came of itself, bringing the child, whose name was Scyld.

Now Scyld grew and became a mighty warrior, and led the Spear Danes for many years, and was their king. When his son Beowulf[3] had become strong and wise enough to rule, then Wyrd (Fate), who speaks but once to any man, came and stood at hand; and it was time for Scyld to go. This is how they buried him:

Oct 17, 2012

The Early History of Play in Eighteenth Century

Jacob Tonson was the first publisher to adapt successfully the French practice of including engraved frontispieces to editions of plays, his success largely dependent upon the assemblage of expert foreign engravers which he lured to England with offers of employment. The first illustrated collections of plays published by Tonson were those of Shakespeare, edited by Nicholas Rowe and released to the world in 1709. The choice of Shakespeare may seem rather natural to a modern mind, but, in fact, no complete English edition of Shakespeare had been published since the first folio.

Thus the novelty of Tonson's edition lay first in the very fact of its publication and secondly in -his inclusion of engraved frontispieces - a practice then unfamiliar in England. More than one art historian has pointed out the logistical problem Tonson must have had of how to illustrate a set of plays which had rarely been illustrated before, and thus had no iconographical precedent. The anonymous designers of the Tonson frontispieces solved this problem by recourse to the theatre where an established visual tradition existed. Another explanation for the use of theatrical motifs in the Tonson Shakespeare was tendered in 1916 by M. Salaman who suggested:
The day of the book-illustration in England had
not arrived, and the readers of Shakespeare cannot,
up to the publication of Rowe's edition, •
have been exceedingly numerous. The popular
conceptions of the scenes of the plays were,
therefore, inseperable from the stage-representations
and the personalities of the players.

Salaman's explanation is compelling, but not entirely accurate in relation to the illustrations themselves. The Tonson frontispieces include such theatrical motifs as obvious backcloths (Henry V) (Figure 120) and stage curtains (Twelfth Night) (Figure 121), but these motifs 103 are general, and related to all plays, rather than to specific ones. The one confirmable contemporary theatrical motif in the Rowe/Tonson edition is the fallen chair in the ghost scene of Hamlet- a stage trick practised by Betterton- which, by itself, hardly substantiates Salaman's theory that all the illustrations represent "popular conceptions". Furthermore, Salaman's suggestion that "the personalities of the players" can be discerned in the Tonson frontispieces is not confirmed by the parade of anonymous cardboard cut-outs of Falstaff, Hamlet, Rosalind, et al, in the illustrations themselves. Portraiture, and other forms of theatrical specificity, therefore, play very little part. It is significant that even these theatrical allusions began to disappear in Tonson's second edition of Shakespeare (1714) when du Guernier took over the programme of illustration and rid the series of many of its more obvious stage props.

This depletion of theatrical formula in the 1714 edition is symptomatic and precursive of the gradual infiltration of the rococo into English illustration, largely through the agents of expatriate French illustrators. The very artifice of the rococo necessarily led book illustration on a course away from the naive theatrical realism of Tonson's first edition of Shakespeare. The movement gained momentum in England when the Prince of Wales began to patronise its artists, and, in 1732, at the height of Prince Frederick's enthusiasm, Hubert Franiois Gravelot came to England, and within a few years was called upon to illustrate Theobald's new edition of Shakespeare. Whether or not England had any influence on Gravelot is a moot point, but it is certain that Gravelot had a profound effect on English illustration at that time. His illustrations for Theobald's (1740) and Hanmer's (1744) editions of Shakespeare did much to crystallise the fanciful, non theatrical portrayal of Shakespearian scenes in England for many years. However, Gravelot's rococo delicacy was particularly inappropriate for representation of the more robust Shakespearian characters, as a glimpse at his portrayal of Falstaff or Henry VIII (Figure 123) will reveal.

Not only are these figures alienated from Shakespeare's text, but they reveal that Gravelot was oblivious to the standard characterisation of such figures perpetuated by actors on the English stage. Gravelot's mannerisms were, to an extent, adopted by Hayman when the two worked together on Hanmer's Shakespeare in 1744. 14 Hayman's choice of scene for this edition was substantially limited by his contract with Hanmer, which stated:
The said Francis Hayman is to design and delineate
a drawing to be prefix'd to each play of Shakespear
taking the subject of such scenes as Sr Thomas
Hanmer shall direct —15

A reading of Hanmer's instructions to Hayman indicate that the artists deviated in only minor detail from Hanmer's description for each scene, possibly out of a timid fear of not receiving the three guineas per drawing promised him should be diverge from the accepted formula. However, another possibility presents itself. Within the limitations of Hanmer's instructions, Hayman could express fully his rococo style largely because Hanmer's instructions were concerned almost exclusively with costume and characterisation. The focus of Hanmer's emphasis suggests that he not only knew the texts of the plays, but that he derived some of his more decisive ideas from contemporary stage practice. This is particularly true of costume. For example, Hanmer's choice of the casket scene for the Merchant of Venice (Figure 124) seems in part an excuse to portray Portia's Moorish suitor in his national dress:
Towards the other side of the room Morocchus a
Moorish Prince richly habited in the garb of
his Countrey with a turban and scymitar.16

In other passages he refers to Italo-Spanish costumes, servants' livery, the dress of shepherds and shepherdesses, and, in his description of the scene from King John, he insists that "the habit of the times must be consider'd in this and the following designs".

All of these types of costumes were standard stage dress, and theatrical managers of the period were beginning to attempt to promote historical accuracy in costume, albeit in a haphazard and non-archaeological way.

It would be going too far to suggest that Hanmer's descriptions of character recall specific actors, and such a supposition would be unprovable in any case. However, his very obsession with the essential character and physiognomy of Shakespeare's creations was alien to the work of rococo artists who tended to integrate figure and landscape. Thus, Hanmer's instructions combined with Hayman's rococo style to create an anomaly between the theatrically expressive physiognomy of the characters and the stylistic virtuosity of the scenes. For example, amidst the feathery Athenian landscape of Hayman's Midsummer Night's Dream illustration (Figure 125), Quince, Snug, Flute, Snout, and Starvling run away from the metamorphosed Bottom "with different actions expressing their astonishment and fear".

Hayman depicts each of these characters with gestures fully in keeping with John Bell's later dramatic portraits. One cannot deny that an essentially English obsession with character prevented Hayman from whole-heartedly adapting the Gravelot idiom, but Esther Gordon Dotson's attempt to see Hayman's figures for various Shakespeare illustrations as microcosmic examples of a more general shift of obsession from plot to character in all eighteenth century thought is simplistic. 19 What is more likely is that Hayman's expression of character reflected a concern that had long been present in England with the predominance of portraiture and which began to re-emerge when Hayman combined rococo fantasy with a more literal interest in human character. The logical first step in this re-emergence was a recourse to the theatre as the most accessible visual source for play illustration.

Unlike Tonson's illustrators, Hayman never used obvious theatrical motifs such as rippling stage curtains or visible proscenium doors, but in at least two instances, it has been proven that Hayman borrowed ideas from David Garrick.

In his illustrations for Jennens edition of Shakespeare (incomplete, published 1770), Hayman follows instructions given to him in a letter from Garrick even more closely than he had followed Hanmer's - undoubtedly realising that, with regard to illustration, Garrick's unscholarly knowledge of the great Shakespeare plays was more useful to him than Hanmer's erudition. In his letters, Garrick offers suggestions for scenes in King Lear (Figure 126) and Othello - both of which were in his own acting repertoire. Not surprisingly, his ideas focus primarily upon character, and one can assume that his own experience formed the basis for his confident suggestions:
If you intend altering the scene in Lear ... what
think you of the following one. Suppose Lear mad,
upon the ground, with Edgar by him; his attitude
should be leaning upon one hand & pointing wildly
towards the Heavens with the other. Kent &
Footman attend him, & Gloster comes to him with
a torch; the real Madness of Lear, the frantick
affectation of Edgar, & the different looks of
concern in the three other carracters (sic), will
have a fine effect. Suppose you express Kent's
particular care & distress by putting him upon
one knee begging & entreating him to rise & go
with Gloster.

In his suggestions for Othello, Garrick offers to demonstrate the gestures mentioned, and this fact throws an additional light on Hayman's Lear illustration, and on Garrick's directorial habits as well. However, these theatrical influences are still sporadic and it was not until Bell issued his Shakespeare character plates that the scene was dispensed with in favour of an unquestionably theatrical character portrait. A3 I have mentioned before, these plates were issued separately; the frontispieces to the editions actually sold were traditional scenes from the plays designed by E. Edwards. Several of Edwards' scenes were obviously influenced by Hayman's illustrations for Hanmer, but Edwards' efforts are more literal. For example, both Hayman and Edwards illustrated act IV, scene ix from A Comedy of Errors (Figures 127 and 128) in which Antipholus and Dromio are cornered in the street. Hayman dwarfs his characters in a street which flows off in a recessive diagonal, but Edwards offers no recession, no strange angles, no virtuosity, only a mere hint of houses in the background, in effect, a stock theatrical scene. Edwards' works are, for the most part, minimal and hardly merit Bell's extravagant advertisements, but in his careful depiction of theatrical costume, Edwards carried some incipient tendencies in Hayman's 1744 illustrations a step further.

Before discussing the Bell editions, it is necessary to mention briefly the nature of the texts of plays in the eighteenth century. Tonson's editor, Rowe, was one of the first in a long line of scholars 108 who attempted to establish a definitive text of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare in particular was subjected to a series of atrocities unlike anything perpetuated on a less notable author. His plays were re-written, re-organised, made into operas; new characters and scenes were added, and others were taken away. A large amount of this manipulation was for the purpose of creating a satisfactory acting text, but often these adulterated acting versions were advertised erroneously.

in playbills as "by Shakespeare". These alterations necessitated a series of scholarly editions of Shakespeare, and an increase in the reading public as the century progressed created a greater demand for them. Shakespeare was not the only author to have his plays appearing in multi-volume editions through the century: Johnson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and the popular French neo-classicists, Miliere and Racine appeared in print between 1709 and 1780, although these editions were only rarely illustrated. The ancient classics were also subjected to translation and published. Bonnel Thornton's translation of Plautus (1764-5) immediately preceded Colman the Elder's translation of Terence (1765-6); and the works of both Sophocles (1759) and Euripides (1781-2) appeared in English versions. However, despite the fact that plays by Voltaire, Moliere, Euripides, et al appeared in heavily revised and adapted versions on the English stage through most of the century, the texts mentioned above were meant to be perused and absorbed "in the closet" and thus bore only an academic relationship to the theatre. Popular and contemporary plays were usually published only in cheap un-illustrated individual editions, possibly for the purpose of being sold at the theatre where the play was currently being performed.

Aside from the novelty of adorning his editions with portraits, John 109 Bell was also the first man to publish multi-volume editions of the current acting versions of plays, thus moving away from the highly literary and scholarly text to a more popular and accessible one. Bell's concession to the more fastidious litterati was to include "Lines omitted in representation" in inverted commas, although he almost never indicates which bits and pieces were added at the whim of the Covent Garden or Drury Lane managers. Bell's edition of Shakespeare's plays could be characterised by a purist as all the most execrable into one, and, indeed, it has been Shakespeare that ever appeared.

alterations of Shakespeare rolled dubbed the worst edition of However, perhaps even a lover of Shakespeare's original texts might be prepared to recognise the dramatic logic behind many of the altered and added lines. What was done to Shakespeare in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the name of entertainment is no worse than what many modern directors do to his plays in the twentieth century in the name of artistic expression.

Most of Bell's potential clients were men and women of leisure who were undoubtedly delighted at the prospect of reminding themselves of their favourite play by perusing the same text that the actors themselves used. In an eighteenth century polemic for the cause of authors, James Ralph characterises the reasoning behind the actions of book sellers:
The sagacious Bookseller feels the Pulse of the
Times, and according to the stroke prescribes;
not to cure, but flatter the Disease: As long
as the Patient continues to Swallow, he continues
to administer; and on the first symptom of a
Nausea, he changes the dose.

Bell's shrewdness in choosing such non-academic works for the enjoyment of the theatre-going public also had a great deal to do with his own lack of literary accomplishments. As Leigh Hunt says of him:
He had no acquirements, perhaps not even grammar;
but his taste in putting forth a publication, and
getting the best artists to adorn it, was new in
those times and may be admired in any.

Oct 15, 2012

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Joyce

This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism 
(Cambridge UP, 2007), pp.122-124.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
 From Modernism Lab Essays

Like T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” James Joyce’sPortrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), though a work of youth, seems prematurely aged. Joyce treats his fictional version of his younger self with a mixture of irony and sympathy. The novel tells the story of Stephen Dedalus, a young Irishman, from earliest childhood until his decision to leave Ireland for Paris and become a writer. Before achieving his destiny as an artist, however, the young man experiences various epiphanies, mostly misleading ones.

Oct 13, 2012

German Romantic

The wandering exile is a common Romantic figure. But why was it so inspiring to 19th-century German artists? Robert Hughes on how a nation rediscovered itself.

Moonstruck... Caspar David Friedrich's Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon, 1818/1824. Photo: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Good stuff, bad weather. "Whenever a storm with thunder and lightning moved over the sea he would hurry out to the top of the cliffs as if he had a pact of friendship with the forces of nature, or even go on into the oakwood where the lightning had split a tall tree from top to bottom, and murmur, 'How great, how mighty, how wonderful!'" Thus a friend remembered the wanderings of Caspar David Friedrich, as a young painter on the island of Rügen in 1802. Man among the unchained elements, drawing a sense of his own mingled littleness and grandeur from their convulsion: it is the archetype of Romantic scenarios, Byron on the ocean, Turner in the Alps, and any number of alert, soulful young German idealists contemplating their travels north to the Baltic or south to the Bay of Naples. Romanticism was the primal urge of high German culture in the early 19th century. Nowhere can the force of this, as reflected in painting, be better appreciated at present than in Dublin, where the National Gallery of Ireland is celebrating its 150th anniversary with a wonderful loan show from the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, A German Dream: Masterpieces of Romanticism .

It sometimes happens that a great cultural movement goes hand in hand with the self-discovery of the country in which it takes place, and so it was with German Romantic painting. The early 19th century in Germany was tough on intellectuals; in the wake of the Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna came a fierce persecution of democratic ideas and those who held them, so that to assert one's "German-ness" as an artist, one's allegiance to folk culture and local history, was in some ways a radical act. If a painter portrayed himself or others in altdeutsch (old-fashioned German) costume, that too was a political statement. Gothic was traditional, Greek was modern. "We are not Greeks any more," wrote Goethe, and the implications of this thought went deep.

You see them, for instance, in the extraordinary landscapes with Gothic churches, attended by devout pilgrimages from the whole region, back-lit in all their staggering complication of tracery, by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841). Beyond comparison the greatest neo-classical German architect of the 19th century, Schinkel simply vaporised the boundaries between the classic and Romantic sensibilities; Prussia might think of itself, through his architecture, as a reborn Doric Greece, but his paintings equally celebrate the nationalist continuity of the Gothic past.

You can see Schinkel's paintings as a call to nationalist self-confidence. But there was also an inwardness, whispering and pleading to be let out. So the exemplary Romantic was partly an enraptured patriot and partly an exile within his own culture. This chimed with the preferences of Romantic painting for the wanderer, the solitary figure turning his back on his society to better contemplate the distant moon, the silent bay or the landscapes of a foreign land.

And that was where Caspar David Friedrich came in, quiet, clear and (eventually) dominant. Friedrich was the son of a soapmaker, born in the insignificant provincial seaport of Griefswald in 1774. He died obscure and more than slightly mad in Dresden in 1840.

His modernity isn't due so much to the "look" of his paintings, carefully composed, thinly laid and breathlessly static, as to the ideas behind them. The question they ask is the one asked by his contemporary, the philosopher Friedrich Schlegel: "Can mankind be understood divorced from nature, and is it so very different from other manifestations of nature?"

The answer from Schlegel and Friedrich, as from a congregation of ecologists and earth people since, was no and no again. Friedrich did not believe he, or anyone else, was "outside" of nature, and when he painted images like the Nationalgalerie's Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon , 1818/1824, that was the point he was making. The human pair, in their "Old German" clothes, are scarcely different in tone or modelling from the deep dramas of nature around them, the leaning rocks and the half-uprooted, venerable tree in silhouette. They gaze enraptured at the moon - significantly, when Friedrich was asked what they were doing, he ironically retorted: "These two are plotting some demagogic activities."

If there is one word for the mood of Friedrich's pictures it is "longing": the desire, never satisfied, to escape from the secular conditions of life into union with a distant nature, to be absorbed in it, to become one with the Great Other, whether that other is a mountain crag, an ancient but enduring tree, the calm of a horizontal sea, or the stillness of a cloud.

Sometimes actual symbols of formal religion do appear - a gothic spire, a cross on a mountain pass. But they are not really necessary, since the object of Friedrich's worship is nature rather than its creator. The watchers in his paintings, turning their backs to us, gaze at nature on our behalf; it is a form of vicarious prayer, and that was how Friedrich's rather small audience interpreted it.

Sometimes the painting doesn't even need the watcher. Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869) went to Naples in the travelling party of Prince Friedrich Augustus of Saxony in 1828, and his reaction to his quarters in the Casino Reale would strike a chord with any later tourist who has ever had unexpectedly good luck with a hotel. Led upstairs by an elderly chamberlain, "I enter, and in front of me lie Vesuvius, the sea, the castle, and the blue distance! I thanked God profusely. Not only had He graciously led me to my destination but He had considered me worthy of such a room!"

The mood is very different from the indignant whining about bedbugs and inedible food of a Smollett on the non-so-grand tour, and in Balcony Room with a View of the Bay of Naples , 1829, Carus painted what may be the first visual prayer of thanks to the Almighty for a concierge's kindness ever done by a gratified tourist - the archetypal blue view past the shutters, a neo-classical Matisse almost, with a guitar propped against the doorframe echoing the slant of a felucca's rigging just beyond it.

German Romanticism did indeed carry a strong religious streak. Some of its exponents saw themselves as spiritual reformers, sent by the zeitgeist to reform a culture muddied, as they thought, by relativism and realism. Like the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in England, they would remind viewers of the lost (but regainable) piety and innocence of an earlier world, that of the New Testament. They called themselves the Nazarenes. The squeaky-clean, idealised form of Christian representation they went in for - only a hair away from pious kitsch, and sometimes not even that, to modern eyes - is summed up in Friedrich Overbeck's Christ in the House of Mary and Martha , 1812-16, a highly coloured but rigidly frozen pastiche of Raphael. A little of the Nazarenes' cloying, self-conscious pietism goes a long way, and their idea of turning themselves into a sort of monastic order of art-priests (who lived in a sort of commune until 1820 in an actual monastery in Rome, that of San Isidro on the Pincio) now seems absurd. Yet you can't doubt the sincerity of their enterprise, or the intensity of their cult of friend ship. In 1811, when Wilhelm and Ridolfo Schadow, the artist sons of the Prussian neo-classical sculptor Johann Gottfried Schadow, caught their first distant glimpse of the Eternal City, they swore an oath that they "would rather stay dead in Rome than return to our home city as unknowns". Four years later, Wilhelm painted one of the classics of German group portraiture: himself and his brother clasping hands in manly resolution, while their friend and mentor, the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorwaldsen, seals the bond with his left hand on Ridolfo's shoulder and a laurel wreath in his right. It's almost an artworld version of David's picture of heroic brotherhood, The Oath of the Horatii . The Schadow boys are clearly bound to win the battle for Noble Art, and they will do it with their pals as a band of brothers.

The most startling picture in the show is not a Friedrich, packed as those are with metaphysical symbolism; nor is it a view of those crags, lakes and sunsets beloved of German romantics. It is by Johann Hummel (1769-1852), a professor of perspective and optics at the Berlin Academy of Art, and it depicts The Grinding of the Granite Bowl , 1832. It is an early example of the Technological Sublime, celebrating the wonder of man's power over the natural world.

The bowl in question was destined for the square in front of Schinkel's Altes Museum on the museum island in Berlin. It was cut, hollowed out, ground and polished from an enormous piece of granite found in Brandenburg. It was very consciously meant to be a world's wonder, like the gigantic basins of hard stone that were such monumental features of ancient Egypt and Rome - condensations of human skill, of incredibly laborious triumph over raw, resistant nature. But the size of this bowl and the technical challenges it posed were beyond anything from antiquity, and Hummel produced three pictures of its creation: first the enormous basin, upside down, being ground and polished in a Berlin workshop, then the job of turning it over (a wondrous spectacle to Berliners, as the erection of the Egyptian obelisk in St Peter's Square had been to Romans years before), and finally the bowl on its plinth in the Lustgarten.

With his view of the bowl in the workshop, Hummel achieved a near miracle of detailed and layered perception, recording not only the natural colours of the stone but also the hues and shapes of the workshop reflected in its surface: we see windows distorted by the curvature, and even a fragment of landscape through a window picked up on the glassy granite, every detail of the ponderous bracing that keeps the stone in place and of the geared turning apparatus. The basin becomes an apparition, rigorous in its technological truth but also surrealist in its strangeness and intensity. If Hummel had never painted another picture, this one would have assured him a small but distinct place in the history of European sensibility.

· A German Dream: Masterpieces of Romanticism is at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, until January 30. Details: 00 353 1 661 5133.


Oct 11, 2012

Nobel Prize: 2012

Mo Yan wins Nobel prize in literature 2012


Chinese author Mo Yan has become the first Chinese author ever to win the Nobel prize in literature.

Novelist, the first ever Chinese literature Nobel laureate, praised for 'hallucinatory realism'

The Swedish Academy, announcing his win this lunchtime, said that "with hallucinatory realism", Mo Yan "merges folktales, history and the contemporary". His win makes him the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel in its 111-year history: although Gao Xingjian won in 2000, and was born in China, he is now a French citizen; and although Pearl Buck took the prize in 1938, for "her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces", she is an American author.

The Nobel goes to the writer "who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction", with previous winners including Samuel Beckett, Doris Lessing and, last year, the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer.
Mo Yan's writing, said head of the Swedish Academy Peter Englund this lunchtime, draws from his peasant background, and from the folktales he was told as a child. Leaving school at 12, the author went to work in the fields, eventually gaining an education in the army. He published his first book in 1981, but he first found literary success with Red Sorghum, a novel which was also made into an internationally successful movie by Zhang Yimou.

"He writes about the peasantry, about life in the countryside, about people struggling to survive, struggling for their dignity, sometimes winning but most of the time losing," said Englund. "The basis for his books was laid when as a child he listened to folktales. The description magical realism has been used about him, but I think that is belittling him – this isn't something he's picked up from Gabriel García Márquez, but something which is very much his own. With the supernatural going in to the ordinary, he's an extremely original narrator."
The eminent professor of Chinese literature Howard Goldblatt, who has translated many of Mo Yan's works into English, compared the author's writing to Dickens in a recent interview with China Daily, saying that both write "big, bold works with florid, imagistic, powerful writing and a strong moral core".

"I see parallels with works like William Vollmann's Europe Central, with its historical sweep (Red Sorghum) and trenchant criticism of monstrous behavior by those in power (The Garlic Ballads)," said Goldblatt. "And, of course, there are writers Mo seems to prefer, the modernist Faulkner, the magic-realist Garcia Marquez, and the Japanese
Oe Kenzaburo. And don't forget another "oldie": Rabelais, with his bawdy humour and scatological exuberances."
Goldblatt said that the author's satirical novel Jiuguo (The Republic of Wine) "may be the most technically innovative and sophisticated novel from China I've read", while his Shengsi pilao (Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out) is "a brilliant extended fable", and Tanxiangxing (Sandalwood Death) "is, as the author contends, musical in its beauty".

Red Sorghum is made up of five interwoven stories, set over several decades during the 20th century, touching on topics including the Japanese occupation and the difficult lives of poor farm workers. Mo Yan's 1996 novel Fengru feitun, translated into English as Big Breasts and Wide Hips in 2004, portrays 20th century China through the life of a single family, starting with the story of Xuan'er, six months old in 1900 when she is abandoned in a vat of flour. "By the time she has blossomed into the province's number-one golden lotus girl, her bound feet are no longer in vogue and the best her aunt can do is marry her to a blacksmith in exchange for his mule. But this is no Wild Swans - from here, Mo Yan, author of Red Sorghum, steers his provocative story towards a masculine perspective, as he follows one family through China's war with Japan to the cultural revolution and beyond," said the Guardian in its review, which called the book an "astonishing" novel. "Blending bawdy humour, gory violence and pungent imagery, Mo Yan paints a unique portrait of China's 20th century, and cleverly dramatises the unsustainable predicament of a society fixated on bearing boys."

The author's most recent novel, Wa, is the story of the consequences of the single-child policy implemented in China.
Nicky Harman, a Chinese translator and lecturer at Imperial College, London, hailed Mo Yan's win as "amazing" news. "He's a great writer and will now be better known. That's good news for all Chinese writers, because it will bring English readers a bit closer," she said. "I'm sure they will be deliriously happy in China. He's very well thought of there."
Informing Mo Yan – a pen name meaning "don't speak" – of his win today, Englund said the author, who was at the home in China where he lives with his 90-year-old father – was "overjoyed and scared".

Oct 10, 2012

The Idiot: Dostoevsky

Beauty will save the world. Once upon a time, there was a rich boyar who had three lovely daughters. The youngest was as radiant as the sun and as lovely as the moon. Many suitors vied for her favours, but she rejected them all. One day, a Prince from a foreign land came to seek her hand. To test his worth and the strength of his love, she put him through all manner of tests…

Nastasya Filipovna was orphaned at a tender age, and given into the care of her neighbour, an unscrupulous rogue, who set her up in a secluded dacha, far from the eyes of the world, where he groomed her for himself. When at last she came of age, she became his mistress. He brought her to St Petersburg, where her beauty astonished all who saw it. At last, tiring of her, and wishing to settle down and marry, her master sought to rid himself of her by marrying her off to the highest bidder…

Prince Myshkin returns to Russia after many years abroad in a sanatorium, where he has been treated for epilepsy and idiocy. Naïve, and socially inept, but with a freshness and humility that sees through social conventions, he tries to integrate himself into Petersburg society. He falls in love with two different women and struggles to choose between the two of them...

The Idiot weaves all these plot strands together in what may be the most diffuse, the most problematic, the most elusive of Dostoevsky’s novels. The writer himself regarded the novel as a failure, not perhaps of intention, but of execution. His notebooks reveal his struggle to choose from many ideas, and his stuttering attempts to develop them. There are several false starts and different conceptions before he hit on the final version of the story. His letters are full of his anxieties about the difficulties in the writing of it, the cancelled and destroyed drafts, the postponed and delayed deadlines and the way they effected his finances. He was tormented by worries about money, overjoyed by the birth and then devastated by the sudden death of his first child; he was suffering frequent, debilitating fits; he was battling his terrible addiction to roulette and at the same time recklessly attempting to use it as a means of financing his family; and he was in Europe and homesick for Russia.

Part of the difficulty was in the aim he had set himself. In a letter to his friend Maikov he described his aim to portray a wholly beautiful individual; then the next day, in a letter to his niece he described his aim thus: the basic idea is the representation of a truly perfect and noble man. For Dostoevsky, beauty was equated with moral nobility and perfection, or goodness. Myshkin returns to Russia, not as a miracle worker, or a social reformer or a doer of charity and good works, not as a saviour, but as a kind of savant. His chief goodness appears to lie in the way he establishes a completely genuine and authentic relationship with those he meets, a relationship that has nothing to do with conventions, polite behaviour or social mores: He was almost the only one who spoke that evening, telling many stories, he answered questions clearly gladly and in detail. However, nothing resembling polite conversation showed in his words.

The thoughts were all quite serious, even quite abstruse…He has a strange effect on all who meet him, bringing forth their most genuine responses and allowing them to see their true natures. ‘You can’t be the way you pretended to be just now. It’s not possible’, the Prince suddenly cried out in deeply felt reproach… ‘He guessed right, in fact, I’m not like that,’ whispered… Nastasya Filipovna…Everyone he encounters is disconcerted by his naivety and apparent authenticity: If you are indeed the way you seem to be, it might very well be pleasant to become acquainted with you General Epanchin exclaims at their first meeting... He establishes himself on equal footing with everyone, from the servants to the most exalted personages of Petersburg society, and puts forward his views and describes his experiences with disarming candour and with complete disregard for the social proprieties: I’m going on twenty-seven, but I know I’m like a child. I don’t have the right to express my thoughts…I have no sense of measure….. His goodness works on the sphere of human relationships and on the psychological level.

The literary models for the Prince were Don Quixote and Pickwick, both, according to Dostoevsky, beautiful characters, whose beauty is derided by others who remain blind to it. However, whereas both Don Quixote and Pickwick make the reader laugh, the Prince does not. He makes others laugh, and he laughs heartily with them, and we are told that he can be witty and amusing as well as earnest and profound, but he does not make the reader laugh. Which is not to say that there is no comedy in the novel. The book abounds with a plethora of excellently drawn comic situations and characters: Mrs Epanchin, General Ivolgin and Lebedev, for example, are masterpieces of comic invention and genuinely hilarious. While the Prince himself is not funny, his presence among the other characters of the book, however, does allow the reader to see the beauty of those characters, when those around them cannot.

The book is structured around a series of static social scenes set in drawing rooms. There is very little incident, and much talking. These social scenes are masterpieces of dramatic psychology, as all the characters interact with conflicting motivations, hiding behind social masks and only intermittently revealing hints of their real intentions. The Prince is a calm centre around which the other characters dance. The greatest of these scenes is the birthday party of Nastasya Filipovna, where the guests play a version of spin-the-bottle, confessing an action that they are most ashamed of. Present is Nastasya Filipovna’s seducer; and the tension as he begins to tell his story is masterfully projected onto the reader. The novel unfolds among the summer dachas and outdoor concerts of the resort suburb of Pavolvsk, but its emphasis on interior dramatic social scenes means that descriptions of urban life are minimal; the recreation of the city and the crowd as a participant in the narrative which was such a salient feature of Crime and Punishment is absent. In this sense the novel harks back to an earlier work of Dostoevsky’s The Village of Stepanchikovo, which uses the same essentially static structuring devices, and has a similar type of character as the Prince as one of its twin centres.

This effects the way incident is dealt with. Plenty happens, but it all happens off stage, and is then reported by other characters as gossip or rumour. Incident is presented as conversation. The text is studded with newspaper reports of crimes, but these are also just more examples of hearsay. Even the Prince’s (and Dostoevsky’s) most famous dictum: Beauty will save the world is problematised by being reported at second or even third hand. The dictum nowhere appears directly in the novel, but is reported. Ippolit says: “Is it true, Prince, that you once declared that 'beauty would save the world'? Great Heaven! The Prince says that beauty saves the world!” But Ippolit himself is unsure whether the Prince has in fact said it: he heard that the Prince said it from someone else, and the Prince neither confirms nor contradicts him. Another character is also reported as having said something similar: I know that once when your sister Adelaida saw my portrait she said that such beauty could overthrow the world, Nastasya Filipovna writes to Aglaya. This casts doubt on the role of beauty: will beauty save the world, or overthrow it? Is the difference important? These are all questions that the narrative does little to answer.

The Idiot represents a new departure for Dostoevsky, a break with his previous method and concerns. Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, the two major works which preceded The Idiot both grow out of the writer’s ongoing polemic with the nihilists, and when they are placed next to the journalism of this time, many of the same themes and methods can be discerned. The Idiot, however, is different from his previous work in a number of important ways.

First, is the lack of a clear philosophical target against which Dostoevsky can argue. Dostoevsky’s art relies on a dialectic for its effect: his most powerful work always takes its power from the presence of two (or more) conflicting ideas, both presented with such utter cogency and commitment, that often the writer’s true point of view is difficult to discern. Dostoevsky’s gift is for negative argumentation: he puts forward his most effective arguments by trying to negate or refute a different argument. Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment achieve their effect of underlying unity by a clear refutation of a central idea: Western utilitarian rationalism. All the elements of these two books work to refute this idea. This kind of unified and focussed negative argumentation plays a much smaller role in The Idiot. Dostoevsky employs a more positive style of argumentation, presenting his ideas more positively. True, there are attacks against the Russian liberals, a refutation of the notion of ‘the right of force’, attacks on atheism and socialism, and a marvellously rancid and bitter rant against the Roman Catholic Church, but these are dispersed among different characters.

The closest the novel comes to a focussed dialectic is in the long document that Ippolit reads out at the prince’s birthday party. In this scene, it is as if the underground man has somehow escaped from his own book and gatecrashed this one. Entitled ‘My Necessary Explanation’, in it the consumptive Ippolit, who has only been given two weeks left to live, expresses all the anguish, rage and sense of futility of the conscious human being faced with the ineluctability of death. In Notes from Underground this fatum was represented by the symbol of the wall. In The Idiot, this becomes the wall of his neighbour’s house, the only view that Ippolit can see through his window: Yes, that wall of Meyer’s can tell a lot! I have written a lot on it! There is not a spot on that cursed wall that I have not learned by heart. That cursed wall! In the face of imminent death, all endeavour becomes pointless: I saw clearly that I was forbidden to study Greek grammar- “I won’t get as far as the syntax before I die” I thought at the first page, and threw the book under the table. In the face of death, everything is negated: If it had been in my power not to be born, I probably would not have accepted existence on such derisive conditions. And yet, in spite of that the human being longs for life: I did not deceive myself and understood the matter clearly. But the more clearly I understood it, the more convulsively I clung to life and wanted to live whatever the cost. Ippolit asserts that the point of life is in life itself, in discovering it constantly and eternally, and not in the discovery itself.

In ‘My Necessary Explanation’ Dostoevsky gives some of the strongest arguments for atheism in his work. Ippolit describes the painting he has seen in Rogozhin’s house, a reproduction of Holbein’s Body of the Dead Christ. He says this of it: Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up–impassively and unfeelingly–a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being! … In the face of the terrible ineluctability of natural forces, represented in the picture by the cadaver of Christ, any idea of God or salvation or resurrection becomes highly doubtful. Ippolit conceives of God as a huge tarantula devouring the world. Religion demands that we worship this tarantula, and this Ippolit rejects: Let consciousness be lit up by the will of a higher power, let it look at the world and say: ‘I am!’ and let the higher power suddenly decree its annihilation, because for some reason… that is needed: let it be so, I admit all that, but then again comes the eternal question: why is my humility needed here? Isn’t it possible to simply eat me without demanding that I praise that which has eaten me? Human dignity will not allow itself simply to be subsumed with such meekness: I am unable to submit to a dark power that assumes the shape of a tarantula. As always, Dostoevsky presents his own religious doubts with huge cogency and power, and for this modern, secular reader, his atheistic arguments have more force than his religious ones.

The novel is permeated by the sense of Dostoevsky’s distance from contemporary debates due to his self-enforced exile from Russia. In another letter to his niece, he wrote: I have been so alienated from Russian life that I find it difficult, lacking fresh Russian impressions as I do, to write anything at all… In a meeting with his rival and enemy Turgenev at the time, he sarcastically remarked to him that he should get a telescope, the better to see what was happening in Russia, a suggestion that perhaps reflected his own nagging sense of alienation from the wellsprings of his art. The Idiot was written in Europe, and in many ways this is the most European of his novels, notwithstanding the presence of elements from Russian fairy tales. At times it reads like Jane Austen, Flaubert, George Sand or Balzac, especially in its examination of human relationships, social manners and mores, family relations, sexuality, and the importance of money.

Another important difference of the book from its predecessors is the absence of a controlling consciousness through which the events of the novel are perceived. Crime and Punishment and The Gambler both foreground an individual consciousness, through which the reader perceives the story, in the former case, the criminal student Raskolnikov’s, in the second, the tutor Alexei Ivanovich’s. These foregrounded consciousnesses give those two works an intensity of emotion and a concentration of vision, resulting in a single-minded narrative drive that carries the reader and the story recklessly forward. This is lacking in The Idiot, whose impersonal narrator is not a character in the story, but outside it and unknown to the reader or the characters. This lack of a consistently foregrounded controlling vision results in a slower book, differently and less hurriedly paced.

Perhaps the most significant departure in the book, however, is the conflation of the Prince with Dostoevsky himself, a conflation of author and protagonist that hitherto in his career Dostoevsky had been utterly scrupulous to avoid. Like Dostoevsky, the Prince suffers from epilepsy, and the two fits the Prince suffers in the course of the novel are described with great detail borne of personal experience. Almost upon his very first entrance into St Petersburg society, the Prince describes his conversation with a condemned man, and relates (more secondhand reporting, note) how the man experienced his last minutes in front of the scaffold before his unexpected reprieve and pardon. This description echoes almost word for word the description of Dostoevsky’s own similar experience and thoughts in the letter he wrote to his brother the morning after his own mock execution. This is the very first public discussion of his experience; nowhere in his writing, even in Notes from the House of the Dead, the book about his imprisonment, does it appear until now. The views regarding Christianity that the Prince voices in the novel are known to be the same views Dostoevsky himself held at this time, and the same arguments and views crop up in his letters. While Christianity as a solution to the character’s dilemma is only foreshadowed in Crime and Punishment, in The Idiot it is vigorously asserted by the prince as the only solution to Russia’s problems. Only Russians’ know the true meaning of Christianity: the woman said that to me,… it was such a deep, such a subtle and truly religious thought that all at once expressed the whole essence of Christianity, that is, the whole idea of God as our own father, and that God rejoices over man as father over his own child- the main thought of Christ. Only Russian Orthodoxy is the correct version of Christianity, and Russia must vigorously bring her version to the West: Our Christ, whom we have preserved, and they have never known, must shine forth as a response to the West! Not by being slavishly caught on the Jesuit’s hook, but by bringing them our Russian civilisation, we must now confront them…

This conflation of protagonist and author gives rise to the unpleasantly tempting suggestion that the Prince/Dostoevsky is symbolic of the Christ figure. In the same letter to his niece quoted above, Dostoevsky writes of the beautiful individual: There is in the world only one figure of absolute beauty: Christ, and there are subtle suggestions throughout the book that Myshkin is symbolic of Christ: No one here is worth your little finger, or your intelligence or your heart! You’re more honest that all of them, nobler than all of them, better than all of the, kinder than all of them, more intelligent than all of them! There are people here who aren’t worthy of bending down to pick up your handkerchief you’ve just dropped… exclaims Aglaya Epanchin to the Prince. (Bulgakov describes the devil’s visit to Moscow; in much the same way Dostoevsky describes Christ’s visit to St Petersburg.) Dostoevsky knows that one day, like the prince, he will return from abroad to Russia, asserting positively the supremacy of Russian Orthodoxy and confounding his detractors. At the same time, on a symbolic level, Dostoevsky is recreating his own return from Omsk with his new awareness of the religion and ways of the peasants, and the reassertion of his position after his exile. It’s this suggestion that perhaps forms the basis for Dostoevsky’s subsequent mythical status as a prophet of Russia and Orthodoxy.

In any ingenious or new human thoughts, or even simply in any serious human thought born in someone’s head, there always remains something which it is quite impossible to convey to other people - though you may fill whole volumes with writing and spend thirty-five years trying to explain your thought; there always remains something that absolutely refuses to leave your skull and will stay with you forever, you will die with it…

Compassion is the chief, perhaps the only law of being for all mankind.

Beauty is a riddle.

I’m dissatisfied with the book, for I haven’t said a tenth part of what I wanted to say. Nevertheless, I don’t repudiate it, and to this day, I love the plan that miscarried.

Letter to his niece
February 1869
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