Thursday, September 22, 2016

Someone's got to do it: On Saint Sebastian and Aubrey Beardsley, with just a bit (of course) of Anthony Powell

We open today's post with the entry on Saint Sebastian from Foxe's Book of Martyrs:
Sebastian being born in that part of France called Gallia Narbonensis, was a Christian, and was lieutenant general of the vaward of Dioclesian the emperor; who also encouraged many martyrs of Christ by his exhortations unto constancy, and kept them in the faith. He being therefore accused to the emperor, was commanded to be apprehended, and that he should be brought into the open field, where by his own soldiers he was thrust thro' the body with innumerable arrows.
Martyrological legend has it that Sebastian survived the arrows and was given a chance to harangue Diocletian in person, only to then be clubbed to death. In the world of art, however, that death has almost no place, while Sebastian, looking calm, pious, even beautiful under a hail of arrows has been a common subject for centuries now, familiar from any number of works and artists.

I was not, however, familiar with this engraving of the scene by printmaker Jacques Callot.

What I like about this is the spaciousness of it: Callot chose to depict not merely the moment of death but the organized process of bringing it. This is an execution more than a martyrdom, Sebastian a small figure at its center

I doubt I'd ever have seen this engraving--being not a believer, I don't spend a lot of time on saints--had I not been flipping through a volume of Aubrey Beardsley's letters and found this reference to it in a letter to his friend Andre Raffalovich, a Catholic, of May 5, 1897:
I suppose Gray knows of Callot's singularly interesting eau-forte of the Martyrdom of St Sebastian. There is a charming soldier in the background picking up the arrows that have missed the Saint.

Had you noticed the soldier? I can't say I would have without Beardsley as my guide. I'm not sure I would describe him as charming. That feels like Aubrey being deliberately casual, decadently arch. There is, nonetheless an unusual quality to him. Does his awkward step signal caution? (Are there more arrows coming?) Delicacy? Even goofiness? Looking at his almost mincing manner, you can imagine him as a character from a Monty Python sketch, trying simply to do his job and finding himself utterly beset.

My first thought on encountering Beardsley's letter, and being led to the image itself, was that Anthony Powell would have loved this detail. I quickly turned to a pair of Powell's reviews of volumes of Beardsley's letters from the 1970s in hopes of finding a comment, but alas: it goes unremarked. Nonetheless, the whole of it seems to his taste: the discovery and highlighting of an inessential background figure; the realization that the artist put him there deliberately, and seems to have even perhaps taken some pleasure in doing so; and the acknowledgment he signifies that even the most dramatic moments of life retain their humdrum characteristics--there is always someone around just doing their job. I realize that an alternative response to this scene would be one of horror: a man is cooly going about his job as another is being murdered. But the bloodless quality of centuries-old tales of martyrdom, and my sense of Powell's own sensibility, suggests he'd take it lightly. As he once wrote of Beardsley, without obvious judgment, "He was without sentimentality.

A line from Powell's notebooks came to mind: "They are casting lots for my raiment at this moment." The gallows humor is kin to that arrow-gathering soldier, no? I also thought of a more sentimental way of reading a not-dissimilar scene, this one from Roger Ebert's 1983 review of Return of the Jedi, praising George Lucas's inclusion of small details:
Here is just one small moment in "Return of Jedi," a moment you could miss if you looked away from the screen, but a moment that helps explain the special magic of the Star Wars movies. Luke Skywalker is engaged in a ferocious battle in the dungeons beneath the throne room of the loathsome, Jabba the Hutt. His adversary is a slimy, gruesome, reptilian monster made of warts and teeth. Things are looking bad when suddenly the monster is crushed beneath a falling door. And then (here is the small moment) there's a shot of the monster's keeper, a muscle-bound jailer, who rushes forward in tears. He is brokenhearted at the destruction of his pet. Everybody loves somebody.
All drama has a center, which means it has a periphery, and on that periphery are a lot of people simply trying to get through their day. That Callot paused to think, "Not all those arrows are going to hit," then followed that thought out and had fun with it, makes me happy.

 Beardsley, meanwhile, can be forgiven a bit of gallows humor, even a shade of deliberate affectless decadence: read more than a handful of his letters and you'll begin to realize how awful tuberculosis must have been. Letter after letter is little more than a patient, mostly uncomplaining recital of symptoms and hoped-for routes to respite. His death didn't have the drama of a martyrdom, but he was able to see it coming for a long time.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

On weather, at this change of seasons

I've lived in or around Chicago for nearly twenty-five years now, but autumn still belongs to the land and climate of childhood.

I grew up in a pocket of gently rolling hills in southeastern Illinois, farm country, stitched to southwest Indiana and southwestern Kentucky by the Wabash and Ohio Rivers (the latter of which also forms the region's only real tie to American history, serving as it did as the principal highway into the pathless west for decades). In that part of the world, autumn comes late, and as an explicit hinge, or perhaps a down-shifting gear, linking the bounty of summer with the post-harvest austerity of winter.

In a new anthology of writings on autumn from the UK edited by Melissa Harrison, Horatio Clare writes that "autumn has a summer and a winter." Sinead Gleeson writes that "tendrils of summer heat creep into these months." That's unquestionably true for the autumns of my growing up. Early September was like crossing from sidewalk to grass, the fading heat of the day radiating from the one, a vegetal coolness gentling the other. The autumn sun downstate is strong and golden, offering hints of our fate only at the ends of days--the mornings with a curious flatness to their light, the evenings burnished, almost liquid.

But then the leaves start to gather--we burned them still, out in the country down there--and then, the moment of true transition: the combines take to the field. I'm too young to have seen the harvest brought in by hand. I know it only from Wendell Berry, and, going farther back, Thomas Hardy, and, farther still, Tolstoy. I expect the distant prospect of men moving in rhythm across a field, slicing away at the summer, would be remarkable if seen without familiarity. But a motorized combine has its drama, too: at a glance, you see speed, precision, innovation, a robotic clarity brought to what had been the carefully constrained chaos inherent in nature. In motion, it is autumn: in front of it, summer; behind it, winter.

As the crops disappear, we see the bones of winter emerge. There's nothing quite so explicitly wintry as a harvested field. The dirt remains humped up in skeletal rows, soon to freeze in that position and hold all winter, chaff and stubble scattered about. But the overwhelming impression is of absence. Something was here and has been taken. Like the trees at the end of autumn, like the people at the end of autumn. Winter will bring its pleasures--one of them, curiously enough, gazing across an expanse of open fields sprinkled with snow--but at that moment we feel the turn as loss.

Melissa Harrison's Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons is the perfect book of its type: the light seasonal companion. It presents a mix of new work from contemporary nature writers alongside excerpts from figures like John Clare, Gilbert White, Shelley, Coleridge, and others far more obscure. Each piece is deliberately short, no more than a few pages; it's a book to set beside your cup of coffee on the porch and pick up here and there. Throughout, the emphasis is on observation: what do we see when we look closely at our landscape at this season? How do we suss out the changes underway? What can we tell of what the animals know? "Swallows are gathering on the telegraph wires," writes Alice Hunter. "Everywhere, our native wildlife is preparing to hunker down for the colder months." As are we, and I'm glad to have this book as a companion. (Note: it's only available in the UK now, but easily enough obtainable from there.)

On a grander scale is the book that might be my favorite nonfiction book of the year thus far: Alexandra Harris's Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies. Harris's book is as ambitious as its title--no less than a tracing of her theme throughout the whole history of the island. Within pages, you believe that she will be able to pull it off. Her voice is simply so confident, clear, compelling, and, crucially, welcoming. These paragraphs from the introduction will give you a sense of her assuredness:
Our thoughts will be affected by the kind of weather we're in. Dark clouds are liable to engender gloomy feelings. The weather can be responsible not just for our own mood but for the mood of a whole town or country. Our weather-talk has a special grammar. "What's it like today?" we ask, replacing the specific noun "weather" with a cosmically generalizing "it." What is it like--the weather, the day, the world? Weather is one of the most powerful threads holding us together: it is what we share with everyone else who is in it, or under it. Rainy days turn people in upon themselves--hat pressed down, chin tucked in--but there are common rhythms in the dodging and splashing and weariness. in the park on the first warm day of the year people of all kinds will be drawn into cheerful fellowship. When a bad day suddenly clears to late sun the thoughts of individuals all over a city, intent on thousands of different tasks, will take a momentary united leap. Still, each among those thousands will feel something different. The thermometer may be the same whoever reads it, but our experience of weather is more than statistical. The naturalist Richard Mabey, a lifelong observer of the weather's effects on us, describes a a "complex weave of metaphor, ancient association, and real physical experience." Our weather is made up of personal memories and moods; an evening sky is full of other evenings; a mist may be given its identity by a line from a song or a half-remembered film. The weather is made for us partly by writers and artists who have set down permanently their response to a fleeting effect. This is all interwoven with the practicalities of being hot or cold, wet or dry, while the world around us is blotted out or lit up, a brass handle or a shopfront suddenly picked out by the sun.
Weatherland is full of pleasures, and familiar names: Austen, Milton, the Brontes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Woolf, Wordsworth, the Pre-Raphaelites. From almost every one, Harris manages to extract something new. It's partly the effect of a tightly focused lens--close-ups in unexpected areas are bound to yield insight--but it's also a credit to her eye, and her quickness of insight and association.

My favorite section comes early, in the book and in time. It's Harris's look at early Britain, of the Romans and the Saxons. There's a wonderful analysis of surviving mosaics featuring human figures representing seasons:
The Winter who survives at Chedworth in Gloucestershire is more vigorous. He is well wrapped in leggings and tunic and a cape blowing out in the wind as he bears two seasonal totems, a dead hare in one hand and the essential branch in the other.
I don't know that I've ever come closer to feeling the Roman Britons as actual people than when reading Harris's account of their commemorations of the seasons.

And then we come to the Anglo-Saxons:
English literature begins in the cold. The elegy now known as "The Wanderer," usually dated to the eighth or ninth century, introduces the figure of an exile who finds himself completely alone in the world, adrift on an icy sea and haunted by memories of the life he used to lead.

he must dip his oars
into icy waters, the lanes of the sea:
he must follow the paths of exile.

Whether or not he is actually out at sea, the Wanderer feels the solitude of a single oarsman alone with the elements and without any prospect of shelter . He was once part of a community, owing allegiance to a lord who in return gave warmth, protection, and loyalty. This man's lord is dead, "covered by earth," and it seems that his comrades have been killed in battle, leaving one desolate survivor without home or human comfort. "I left that place in wretchedness, / ploughed the icy waves with winter in my heart."
The opposite of cold for the Anglo-Saxon poet, Harris tells us,
is not the warmth of the sun, but the warmth of the communal indoor fire. Sunshiny days barely feature, and when the sun is mentioned at all it is often known as the "candle of the sky."
Good to know that some things about England and the English character never change . . .

You leave Weatherland absolutely invigorated--it's one of those rare books that makes you see things, both in the world and in other books, differently and better.

I also came away from it deeply envious of the English. We have had our share of nature writers, of course, many of genius, but both the relative youth and breadth of America work against us. In Weatherland, Harris can say of a summer that it was wet, or hot, or dry, and know she's right for nearly all in the realm; America can never be encompassed that way. In addition, the strength and duration of the nature writing tradition has given the English accounts, it seems, of nearly every county, every little pocket of land. Adding Harris's book to Melissa Harrison's you feel like you could almost lay out the writers in their places and come up with a nearly complete map of the island.

The region where I grew up has no writers telling of its seasons or nature. In the scheme of America, it's unimportant--of no larger cultural value, and too ordinary in topographic and biological terms to merit attention. But when I think back to the warmth of an October sun through closed eyelids as I lay back on a pile of leaves, it feels distinct, and beautiful, and I wish for a writing tradition that could encompass it.

"There is an air of fulfilment and rest in the landscape and the brooding weather of October," write Adrian Bell in his wonderful memoir of 1930s farm life, Silver Ley, which Harrison anthologizes. "It is like a ghost of summer evening all the time." October is still a few weeks away, but that's very much where we are. Year after year, I'm grateful for it, beyond words.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

William Morris and Co.

Ever since reading Penelope Fitzgerald's biography of Edward Burne-Jones last year, I've been vaguely circling the Arts and Crafts movement and their predecessors cum fellow travelers the Pre-Raphaelites. A. S. Byatt's lovely little new book-length essay on William Morris and the (essentially unrelated) artist and designer Mariano Fortuny pushed me a little further on the path, and now I find myself flipping back and forth between Fiona MacCarthy's bio biography of Morris and a volume of Morris's letters.

Both are rewarding in exactly the way that reading about that period and group tends to be: even when presented with warts, they're hard not to admire--serious but not self-serious, dedicated to beauty yet aware of its practical limits in the world, looking backwards for what could be reclaimed even as they (or at least Morris) tried to build a better future. And then there are the books: they loved, loved, loved books. Morris would buy them for his friends, a typical extravagance generated by his discomfort with his inherited wealth. Here, from MacCarthy's biography, is an account of how the set, in their Oxford years, received the publication of Ruskin's Edinburgh lectures in 1854:
"I was working in my room," wrote Burne-Jones, "when Morris ran in one morning bringing the newly published book with him: so everything was put aside until he read it all through to me. And there we first saw about the Pre-Raphaelites, and there I first saw the name of Rossetti. So for many a day after that we talked of little else but paintings which we had never seen."
At a time when it wasn't possible to simply look up an image of a painting after hearing about it, books were the next best thing--the fire Ruskin's descriptions kindled is palpable in Burne-Jones's account. No wonder the book was revered. As Fitzgerald wrote in her Burne-Jones book, "Without the concept of the book as hero, Victorian idealism can hardly be understood." In Morris's Novel on Blue Paper, a character "long[s] so much for more and more and more books." Little wonder that Morris turned to book making and literary translation.

Morris's designs, and particularly his wallpapers and stained glasses, continue to enchant more than a century later, drawing us in with their clear lines and repeating patterns, then surprising us with singular details. His letters, personable and lively, are also full of such detail. Complaining about the town of Lewes, he says that as you approach,
you can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalk hills: the ride is very pleasant: Lewes when you get there lies on a ridge in its valley, the street winding down to the river (Ouse) which runs into the sea at Newhaven: on the whole it is set down better than any town i have seen in England: unluckily it is not a very interesting town in itself: there is a horrible workhouse or prison on the outskirts, and close by a hideous row of builders' houses: there are three old Churches in it, dismally restored, but none of them over-remarkable: there is the remains of a castle, 14th century: but it is not grand at all. Never the less it isn't a bad country town, only not up to its position.
Though I'd quibble with him about Lewes, at least as it exists today, there is a clarity of expression here that calls to mind a line I came across in Joseph Conrad's writing recently: "To take a liberty with technical language is a crime against the clearness, precision, and beauty of perfected speech." Morris isn't using technical language here, of course, but he is deploying a technical eye, one that sees detail that he then carefully conveys in words.

Here he is applying the same analytic clarity to the difficult-to-explain work of creating, in a letter to Georgina Burne-Jones:
I have perhaps rather more than enough of work to do, and for that reason or what not, am dwelling somewhat low down in the valley of humiliation--quite good enough for me doubtless. Yet it sometimes seems to me as if my lot was a strange one: you see, I work pretty hard, and on the whole very cheerfully, not altogether I hope for mere pudding, still less for praise; and while I work I have the cause always in mind, and yet I know that the cause for which I specially work is doomed to fail, at least in seeming; I mean that art must go under, where or how ever it may come up again. I don't know if I explain what I'm driving at, but it does sometimes seem to me a strange thing indeed that a man should be driven to work with energy and even with pleasure and enthusiasm at work which he knows will serve no end but amusing himself; am I doing nothing but make-believe, then, something like Louis XVI's lock-making? There, I don't pretend to say that the conundrum is a very interesting one, as it certainly has not any practical importance as far as I am concerned, since I will without doubt go on with my work, useful or useless, till I demit.
In one long paragraph, we have a version of the struggle that would define Morris's life: what does a man whose greatest skill is creating objects of breathtaking beauty--but often of little utility--do if he also believes powerfully that social and economic difference should be leveled? How to be for beauty in a world of utility? A century later, surrounded by far, far more objects of limited utility--and, for all the dross, a hitherto unimaginable access to beauty--we've not come close to answering that question.

Friday, September 02, 2016

On a return to blogging, and Joseph Conrad

It's been a bad summer for blogging. I'd blame Jenkins, our new dog--named, naturally, after Nicholas Jenkins from A Dance to the Music of Time, an aspirational name that reflects our hopes that Jenkins the dog will carry at least some of Jenkins the character's generosity of spirit--but that's a cop-out. Yes, time with Jenkins has taken away from other activities. But many's the day I've sat on the porch with him and a book, and could as easily have had the laptop and been typing away to you all.

Rather, it's more that the ongoing decline in the frequency of my blogging has fed on itself so that in a crucial way I've lost the blogging sense: I find I'm no longer reading quite like the blogger I was--the connections I would have made (and that I see myself making when I come across old posts) aren't readily coming to me; the mental note-taking I habitually engaged in for nearly a decade has atrophied.

And I miss it. I miss thinking and reading that way. So this post marks an attempt at a new start. I'm going to start modestly: my goal for the rest of the year is to post once a week, even if some (or many) posts are brief. I won't promise to hold to it--I believe promises should be kept, and I know the vagaries of life could easily disrupt this plan--but I'll do my best to make it happen. Come the new year, we'll see where things are at. And with all this, certainly implicit but deserving to be made explicit, is an apology from me: if you've bothered to check in here with any regularity, only to be dismayed by the Havisham-esque cobwebs burying memories of glory, well, I'm sorry to have been so remiss.

As for the substance of today's post, I'll keep it simple. I've recently returned to Joseph Conrad after some years away, reading Chance, Youth, and The End of the Tether. It's been wonderful, reminding me of the clarity of expression and thought that drew me to Conrad in the first place. But what's perhaps struck me most was Conrad's own assessment of his work, offered in a preface to his memoir A Personal Record in 1912, and included in the mid-1990s Penguin Classic edition:
Those who read me know my conviction that the world, the temporal world, rests on a few very simple ideas; so simple that they must be as old as the hills. It rests notably, amongst others, on the idea of Fidelity. At a time when nothing which is not revolutionary in some way or other can expect to attract much attention, I have not been revolutionary in my writings. The revolutionary spirit is mighty convenient in this, that it frees one from all scruples as regards ideas. Its hard, absolute optimism is repulsive to my mind by the menace of fanaticism and intolerance it contains. No doubt one should smile at these things; but, imperfect Aesthete, I am no better Philosopher. All claim to special righteousness awakens in me that scorn and anger from which a philosophical mind should be free . . .
Fidelity. That really is what it's all about with Conrad. It's most obvious in Victory, which I remember nearly twenty-five years after reading it as all but a monument to the importance--and costs--of holding to one's ideals. But it's there in so many of the books, situation after situation where someone is ruined either by the impossibility of reconciling their ideals with the reality of a situation or someone is utterly, and ultimately, undone by a momentary, even reflexive, self-preserving deviation from those ideals. Writing at the end of an era and an empire that frequently honored those values more in the breach than in reality--and on the cusp of a war that would in many ways show them up to be breathtakingly destructive, where not hollow--Conrad kept his subject narrow but powerful, and firmly held before him.