Monthly Archives: January 2013

La Tristesse Durera Toujours: The Poetry of Lermontov – I

Mikhail Lermontov (1814 – 1841) is considered to be among the greatest of the Russian poets, and a very important figure in Russian literature of the 19th century, as well as the Russian romanticist movement. His life-history is a case-study in tragedy: he was estranged from his father in early youth, with the latter possibly dying as a consequence, and in any event, occasioning tremendous guilt in his son;  his life at university was brought to an abrupt end, and he joined the military; on the death of Pushkin, he famously wrote the poem “Death of a Poet“, all but accusing the establishment for causing Pushkin’s death in a duel. For this, he was exiled to the Caucasus, where he composed some of his best poetry, that brought him (temporary) fame and recognition. An unhappy time at St Petersburg and a doomed love affair were followed by a second exile to the Caucasus – and eventually, his death (like Pushkin) in a duel at the age of… twenty-seven.

I’ve found Lermontov’s poetry (quite apart from his famous novel, A Hero of Our Time, which is brilliant) fascinating and intriguing (notwithstanding having to struggle through some absolutely horrendous translations). In particular – and despite being placed firmly in the romantic tradition – Lermontov is a poet who defies classification and pigeonholing. It is the varied dissonance of his poetry, the clashing and conflicting themes and ideas, that interest me most – and it is these that I propose to examine over the next two posts.

The Sail

A far sail shimmers, white and lonely,
Through the blue haze above the foam.
What does it seek in foreign harbours?

What has it left behind at home?

The billows romp, and the wind whistles.
The rigging swings, and the tall mast creaks.
Alas, it is not joy, he flees from,
Nor is it happiness he seeks.

Below, the seas like blue light flowing,
Above, the sun’s gold streams increase,

But it is storm the rebel asks for,
As though in storms were peace.

I start with this piece because I think it is representative, to a great degree, of Lermontov’s ethos, the ethos that is visible in most of his poetry. Like Byron, Lermontov seems to me to be an anti-romantic romanticist: he feels the powerful allure of the romantic creed, an allure he cannot resist, and it forms an integral part of his poetry; and yet, at the same time, he is aware, all too aware, of its limitations; and this, again like Byron, takes the form of a constant, ubiquitous and self-aware ironising, an ironising that is pungent, biting and at times, extremely bitter.

And The Sail is an example par excellence. The first eleven lines express some of the classic romantic themes: the ship as a metaphor, both for exile, and for an endless quest; detailed descriptions of the sea, that in this poem comes to embody nature, the nature that is yet unspoilt by the mechanistic age; a solitary endeavour (presumably because no-one else shares in it); and the neverending yearning of the romantic, a yearning to escape from the dull, quotidian and altogether inadequate world that he finds himself trapped in, into a place that will allow his soul to find utterance. The penultimate line approaches the apotheosis: “but it is storm the rebel asks for…” – yes, wearied of the tame world in which life is an illusion, the poet is longing for the storm, the chaos, that will allow him to truly live. And then Lermontov, in the last line, shatters with one wry observation all that he has painstakingly built up through eleven lines of sense, imagery and emotion: “As though in storms were peace.” To the reader expecting the high climax, this is a profoundly disorienting denouement. What is Lermontov trying to say here? Perhaps that the quest itself is hopelessly misguided; that the perennial flight from is fated to only ever remain that – a flight from, but a flight to nothing; that escapism, the raison d’etre of romanticism is impossible, because there is no destination to escape to; and that the dream-world, even as dream world, on its own terms, not only cannot transcend its own illusory essence, but must always remain painfully self-aware of the illusion. Complete deception is unachievable, and so comfort in that deception is a vain hope. But above all else, there is doubt, doubt about the one thing that romanticism considers beyond all doubt – the validity of its constructed world (think of how, in The Biographia Literaria, Coleridge focused so strongly and powerfully on the primacy of the imagination). And this, I think this is a rather acute diagnosis of the romantic condition, because it explains perfectly why, in the poetry of Shelley, Keats and Coleridge (I hesitate to include Byron), despite the relentless construction of dream-worlds, there is a near-constant, all-pervasive sense of melancholy, of incompleteness, of entrapment. 

Lermontov addresses the construction of dream-worlds in a similar fashion. The First of January is a poem that touches upon a very familiar romantic theme: it is a lament for lost and irrecoverable love. After registering his disgust with the shallow throng that he now finds himself amidst (“motley crowd“, “foolish whisperings of speeches“, “false politeness“), and after traveling back in time and space to the site of his young love, with poignant and melancholic descriptions (“a quiet pool under a net of grass“, “the mists – above the lawns so endless…“), without any kind of warning, he gives us this:

I think about her, I weep and I do love,                                                                                                                                              I love my sacred dreams’ creation… 

Astonishingly affirming the unreality of something that defines the romantic ethos: the concept of romantic love itself. Lermontov returns immediately to the traditional romantic theme of contrasting the depth of his love with the pale mockery that he sees around him, ending the poem with a savage yearning to “cast in their eyes my iron verse/ steeped in bitterness and hatred!“, but those two lines have destabilised the reading of the poem. It is as if, just for a moment – yet knowingly, premeditatedly, very deliberately – the curtain has fallen from the romantic vision, and its inadequacy has been laid bare.

Nor does Lermontov believe in a love that exalts the being. In The Beggar, he finds an astonishing image to describe his unrequited love: a beggar who, in the throes of anguish, asks for a piece of bread – and is given, instead, as a cruel jest, a “cold stone”. 

The romantics had an abiding faith in the power of poetry to change the world. Shelley famously claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world“. And Arthur O’Shaughnessy, in his famous “Ode“, writes:

    And out of a fabulous story
    We fashion an empire's glory:
    One man with a dream, at pleasure,
    Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
    And three with a new song's measure
    Can trample an empire down.

Lermontov, however, is having absolutely none of that. In The Poet, he compares the influence of poetry to that of a dagger, once constructed and wielded to accomplish great deeds, but now fallen into disuse, rusted away, “harmless and inglorious“. And the poet?

In our tame age, ah poet, think how you

Have lost significance…

Exchanged for gold that power which hitherto

Commanded reverence!  

Both the poet and the dagger, Lermontov finishes with a brilliant bit of imagery, are “rusted by contempt.” And interestingly, in the 1960s, Bateson and the Movement would make much the same point in their battle against the Victorian and Georgian romantics. Lermontov anticipated them by a hundred and twenty-five years.

If Lermontov has little patience with the poets’ delusion of grandeur, he has even less time for sentiment. A number of his poems represent a quite Lucretian yearning for the absence of emotion. In The Clouds, for instance, comparing the southward-bound clouds to his own exile, he ends thus:

No! O’er those barren wastes heedlessly journeying,

Passion you know not or anguish or punishment;

Feeling you lack, you are free – free eternally,

You have no homeland, for you there’s no banishment.                                                                     

 Equating freedom with the inability to feel, to long, to yearn, to love, to suffer – well, there is an argument to be made for that, of course, and Lucretius and the Stoics have made it – but it is a strange one for a romantic to endorse. Moreover, there is a clear sense that this antipathy for the emotions (much like Byron) stems from the weariness of satiety. The prevailing sense is that emotions were indulged in to the hilt during misspent youth, and laid waste to such an extent that now there is nothing but exhaustion, emptiness and a desire to be rid of the whole business. So, Lermontov writes:                                                                                                                   

 To love… Whom?.. If briefly, ’tis not worth the effort…


Vain longing, since love cannot last.

Look into your heart: joy and torment – all paltry, and there

Remains not a trace of the past.

The passions?.. Sweet ailment that reason will easily cure,

A cold word of logic arrest…                                                                                                                                                                                            

Could you have a more express denunciation of romanticism than in the last two lines, a more emphatic embrace of the Enlightenment, against which the former creed set itself up?

It is an unusual romantic, indeed, who ironises and mocks four of romanticism’s great themes: escapism through imagination, romantic love, the power of poetry and the importance of emotion and sentiment. I think there’s no better word for Lermontov’s poetry than to call it “Byronic” – it is, like I said in the beginning, romantic in precisely the same way as Byron’s verse is. Unsurprising, since Byron’s influence on the young Lermontov is well-documented; and Lermontov even writes one poem dedicated to Byron, and another titled, “Not Byron… of another kind…” And it seems to me that in these poems – and I’ll come to this point in detail in the next post – Lermontov is in the grip of the same existential agony that Byron suffered from: a despair that stems from the twin-pronged awareness of the futility of the world around, and the impossibility of an alternative.



January 21, 2013 · 9:05 pm

Some Thoughts on Shakespeare and Inter-textuality

I’ve just returned from watching a stupendous Globe Theatre production of Twelfth Night at West End. I haven’t read Twelfth Night for a while, and watching the play tonight, at a couple of points, I caught myself thinking of a few issues of inter-textuality.

It’s interesting how the intertwined themes of youth, time, aging, love, death and immortality occur and recur throughout the corpus of Shakespeare’s work – obsessively, almost. Sonnets 1 – 17 are collectively known as “the procreation sonnets“, and follow a common theme: Shakespeare accuses the youth of wanton cruelty, both to himself and to the world, for refusing to marry and bear children; because time will, eventually, erase and deface his beauty, and the only way in which it is possible to defeat time’s work is by begetting a son who will bear the youth’s image in the world, once he himself has become old and decrepit. So, Sonnet II:

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery so gazed on now,
Will be a totter’d weed of small worth held: 
Then being asked, where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days; 
To say, within thine own deep sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserv’d thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

The very famous Sonnet XII:

When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o’er with white; 
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
   And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

And one of my personal favourites, Sonnet XVI:

But wherefore do not you a mightier way
Make war upon this bloody tyrant, Time?
And fortify your self in your decay
With means more blessed than my barren rhyme?
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers,
Much liker than your painted counterfeit:
So should the lines of life that life repair,
Which this, Time’s pencil, or my pupil pen,
Neither in inward worth nor outward fair,
Can make you live your self in eyes of men.
To give away yourself, keeps yourself still,
And you must live, drawn by your own sweet skill.

Shakespeare’s brooding, melancholic preoccupation with time and mortality and their destruction of all beauty, has been familiar to me through his sonnets, where these themes form a very self-contained whole. But tonight, I started when I heard the identical sentiment voiced in Twelfth Nigh, this cry of anguish from Viola as she attempts to persuade the hard-hearted Olivia to accept the Duke Orsino’s suit:

‘Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white
Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on:
Lady, you are the cruell’st she alive,
If you will lead these graces to the grave
And leave the world no copy(Twelfth Night, Act I Sc V)

Here again, you have the language of the sonnets: praise of beauty, anger at the beauteous one’s unwillingness to marry and procreate, and an affirmation that the only way to defeat time is through producing the likeness of your beauty in your children. I now wonder how often this theme recurs in this way throughout Shakespeare’s plays.

The second issue, even more interesting. Consider this famous wooing scene from Webster’s Duchess of Malfi:

DUCHESS: Sir, this goodly roof of yours, is too low built;
I cannot stand upright in’t nor discourse,
Without I raise it higher. Raise yourself,
Or, if you please, my hand to help you: so.

ANTONIO: Ambition, madam, is a great man’s madness,
That is not kept in chains and close-pent rooms
But in fair lightsome lodgings and is girt
With the wild noise of prattling visitants
Which makes it lunatic beyond all cure.
Conceive not I am so stupid but I aim
Whereto your favors tend: but he’s a fool,
That being a-cold, would thrust his hands i’th’ fire
To warm them.

DUCHESS: So now the ground’s broke,
You may discover what a wealthy mine
I make you lord of.

ANTONIO: O, my unworthiness!

DUCHESS: You were ill to sell yourself.
This darkening of your worth is not like that
Which tradesmen use i’th’ city; their false lights
Are to rid bad wares off. And I must tell you,
If you will know where breathes a complete man
(I speak it without flattery) turn your eyes,
And progress through yourself.

ANTONIO: Were there nor heaven nor hell,
I should be honest: I have long serv’d virtue,
And ne’er ta’en wages of her.

DUCHESS: Now she pays it.
The misery of us that are born great!
We are forc’d to woo, because none dare woo us.

And Maria’s imitated letter, in the hand of Olivia, to Malvolio in Twelfth Night:

If this fall into thy hand, revolve. In my stars I
am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some
are born great, some achieve greatness, and some
have greatness thrust upon ’em. Thy Fates open
their hands; let thy blood and spirit embrace them;
and, to inure thyself to what thou art like to be,
cast thy humble slough and appear fresh. Be
opposite with a kinsman, surly with servants; let
thy tongue tang arguments of state; put thyself into
the trick of singularity: she thus advises thee
that sighs for thee. Remember who commended thy
yellow stockings, and wished to see thee ever
cross-gartered: I say, remember. Go to, thou art
made, if thou desirest to be so; if not, let me see
thee a steward still, the fellow of servants, and
not worthy to touch Fortune’s fingers. Farewell.
She that would alter services with thee,

Ignoring for a moment that one is a dialogue, and the other a letter, there are some striking similarities in content (in Shakespeare’s case, let us suspend our knowledge of the farce for a moment). Both are instances of high-born women taking the (rare) initiative to initiate proceedings through a declaration of love, since they know that the difference in social hierarchy between themselves and the men they love will always prevent him from making the first move. Both contain very similar imagery, and the exhortation to the man that “his life is made“, if only he will overcome his inhibitions and take what is offered. And indeed, the two even use similar vocabulary, albeit in different contexts: “born great” is a striking phrase present in both.

Twelfth Night was performed in 1602, and The Duchess of Malfi ten years later. I suppose it is probable that Webster was well-aware of Twelfth Night, and consciously or sub-consciously modeled the essence of his scene on Shakespeare’s prototype. Of course, there is one crucial difference: in Twelfth Night, the fake letter is a device of the comic form, and is the starting point for some of the most farcical and hilarious incidents in the play. On the other hand, the parallel scene in Malfi is the foundation of all the tragic events that follow – you couldn’t possibly have a more serious scene, more gravitas, than when the Duchess decides to woo Antonio. So, same motifs – but in entirely different contexts.

This, I think, lets us reflect upon fascinating issues of inter-textuality and allusive reference within literary traditions. Allusion was the stock-in-trade of the classic scholars, and from what I’ve read, it served broadly two purposes: it allowed the poet to place himself within the tradition – and thus, in a sense, define himself (in a relatively stable way) to his readers; by referencing known and established authors of a canon, the poet defined his genre, placed at least approximate limits upon the scope of his creative exercise, and generated certain specific expectations of form and content within his readers. But in changing the context of the allusion, and thus making it mean or signify something different, the poet also established his own individuality and unique voice for the reader.

Here, as in most things classical, Virgil leads the way. Right from the opening line, “Arms and the man, I sing…“, which, in a dual reference to The Iliad (“arms”) and The Odyssey (“the man”) establishes that The Aeneid is going to be both a war-epic and a quest-epic, Virgil’s epic is full of allusions to Homer, to Ennius, and to all the other epic poets of note. And Virgil, as I’ve noted on a few occasions before, is master of subversion and defamiliarisation. It would be the subject of a full, separate post to go into the complexity of the allusions in The Aeneid (and I am only just about competent to skim the surface), but I think that even this much is enough for us to think seriously about our ideas of authorship, of originality, and of where the point lies in literature. Is it that when one writer has come up with a motif, or a theme, or a particular treatment of it, that we ought to recognise it as his, and to castigate others who incorporate it into their own works as lacking in originality? Or ought we to regard those motifs and everything else as part of the tradition, and simply judge a writer on the basis of how well he uses them? In his essay, What Is An Author?, Foucault points out that the idea of single, individual authorship in the strong sense as we know it is an invention of the modern world. Perhaps that explains the allusion-heavy, intertextual nature many classic writings; and also explains why, in responses to allegations of plagiarism, Virgil was able to reply, blandly, “It is as easy to steal the club from Hercules as a line from Homer” – because it didn’t really matter whether he had used the same words or images, or motifs, or even themes as Homer – what mattered was how well The Aeneid read, how good an epic it was. Perhaps, then, there is no given, a priori, in-the-nature-of-things reason for our convictions about individuality, authorship and originality to be as they are (they certainly weren’t this way in the genre of oral epics, for instance). Perhaps we ought to think about them as deeply and as carefully as we think about, say, the ethical dimensions of writing literature; and perhaps, if we find that there is no basis or warrant for them, we ought to modify, or even discard, these basic notions with which we, now, approach all our texts.

The Duchess of Malfi

Twelfth Night:


Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Epic, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, Shakespeare, Virgil

Baudelaire and the Ugliness of Beauty – An Addendum: Auden on Poetry

Earlier, I wrote about how, in the best of Baudelaire’s poems, he brings out with unrestrained clarity and starkness, through striking and brutal images, the repulsive – yet alluring – aspect of beauty and love. Today, I came across this passage by Auden:

We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.” – “Robert Frost”, from The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. (Emphasis Supplied)

The first half of that passage would, I suppose, be the philosophy of a Keats writing La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or a Tennyson writing The Lady of Shalott, or a Walter de La Mere writing A Song of Enchantment – romanticism, essentially. The second half seems to resemble the approach of the Movement, perhaps D.J. Enwright’s Saying No, or Larkin’s Deceptions. And as I think about Auden’s passage, it seems to me that these two approaches have often been in tension, evolving as a response, and in opposition to, each other. The 19th century Romantics were reacting to the Enlightenment, to mechanisation, to industrialisation, and so they were consciously trying to create, in the words of the critic F.R. Leavis, “a dream world“; and it was against this dream world that first, the Modernists, and then the Movement, in turn, reacted (think of Ezra Pound’s A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste and Kingsley Amis’ Lovely, to take just two examples). 

And as I continued to muse over the passage, it occurred to me that perhaps one of the major reasons why Baudelaire’s poetry is so striking and impactful, and why it lingers so long in the memory, is that he does succeed in carrying out the Auden edict, to a great degree. I’ve underlined a few of the words in that passage, because I think they are most accurate. La Mort des Amants (The Death of Lovers) and La Chevelure (Of Her Hair) are two brilliant examples of how Baudelaire can build a “verbal earthly paradise“, that timeless world of pure play that contrasts with “actual historical existence… of inescapable suffering“. And for ugliness at its starkest, we of course need look no further than Une Charogne (The Carcass), and so many more.  The presence of these two types of poems in the same volume already hints at the point that Auden is making, but what is more, Baudelaire repeatedly succeeds in marrying them within the same poem. A few poems that I discussed earlier: Le Cygne (The Swan), where Baudelaire appropriates the classically romantic image of the swan to illustrate the desperate situation of the victims of colonialism (discussed here), and his series of poems on love and the ideal, in which allure and repulsion, attraction and disgust, beauty and ugliness – are all held together, mutually reinforcing each other, integral parts of both the poem and the experience (discussed here).

It is part of the point that, I think, Walter Benjamin makes in the very title of his book – “Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism“, and in the book itself, when he calls Baudelaire the last of the lyric poets, and explains how he used the lyric form, and lyric motifs, in writing about the effects of the rise of the cities as part of the rise of 19th century industrial capitalism. This perhaps explains it – Baudelaire remoulded the language, imagery and vocabulary of romanticism – without depriving it of its essence – in a way that it becameincredibly – the language of the city, of everyday life, of what Auden calls “the truth“. Lyricism, but with no dream words, and “free from self-enchantment and deception” (remember, for a moment, how obsessed Larkin was with the word “deception”, and of freeing poetry from it – see this poem, called Deceptions. Larkin’s solution was a different language altogether, while Baudelaire kept the language, because he saw himself as a lyric poet).

Le Soleil (The Sun) is, I think, one of Baudelaire’s most beautiful poems, and it illustrates the point perfectly (Aggeler translation):

The Sun

Along the old street on whose cottages are hung 
The slatted shutters which hide secret lecheries, 
When the cruel sun strikes with increased blows 
The city, the country, the roofs, and the wheat fields, 
I go alone to try my fanciful fencing, 
Scenting in every corner the chance of a rhyme, 
Stumbling over words as over paving stones, 
Colliding at times with lines dreamed of long ago.

This foster-father, enemy of chlorosis,
Makes verses bloom in the fields like roses;
He makes cares evaporate toward heaven,
And fills with honey hives and brains alike.
He rejuvenates those who go on crutches
And gives them the sweetness and gaiety of girls,
And commands crops to flourish and ripen
In those immortal hearts which ever wish to bloom!

When, like a poet, he goes down into cities, 
He ennobles the fate of the lowliest things 
And enters like a king, without servants or noise, 
All the hospitals and all the castles.

I think the great thing about this poem is how the two sets of images – and words – are intertwined so closely, so subtly, even, that it’s impossible to keep them apart in your head. “Secret lecheries” and “verses blooming in the fields like roses“; the “cruel” sun that “strikes with increased blows” – and yet “rejuvenates” those on crutches, filling them with the “sweetness and gaiety of girls” – and at the end, in the last line, “hospitals” and “castles” as the two places into which the sun goes. Baudelaire uses classic romantic vocabulary, referring to “immortal hearts” and “dreams“, and at the same time, destabilises it by also using “chlorosis” and “slated shutters“.  At the end of reading this poem, my mind, at least, was filled with a clutch of contradictory and confusing images, sensations, thoughts and ideas. The verbal earthly paradise, in the process of construction, had been subverted by the intrusion of the problematic, the painful, the disorderly and the ugly. And the key point, I think, the point that Auden does not make in the passage, but one that appears repeatedly in his own poetry – is the essentiality of not taking sides, of not driving the poem to a resolution where either one view prevails over another, or both are reconciled. This absence of reconciliation is, I feel, a key feature of Baudelaire’s poetry, something that distinguishes his treatment of contradictions from the romantics’ “sublimation of sorrow” that I discussed here. The contradictions remain unresolved, remain in tension, and yet remain integral and indispensable parts of the entire experience. And at the end of the day, we get a sense, from Baudelaire, that dissonance, disharmony, disarray… even these things can be beautiful.

This is perhaps what Auden’s vision of poetry – as it comes out through that passage – was, and perhaps what Baudelaire accomplished brilliantly.


Filed under Charles Baudelaire, French poetry, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory, W.H. Auden

Thinking about the Mahabharata – I: Individual Heroes in Epics

I often enjoy thinking about comparisons between epics that spring from different soils. What, for instance, are the similarities – and the differences – between an Aeneas and an Achilles or a Beowulf and a Roland? How do Aeneid and The Ramayana treat the question of just war? How does the amorality of The Iliad relate to that of the Germanic epics? These are all fascinating issues, because it does seem, at one level, that the historical and social conditions that give rise to epic (and I use “epic” in a very broad, loose sense, ignoring for the moment distinctions between oral and written, and so on) are similar, across times and nations – and yet, when you get down to particulars, very different.

One question that has always interested me is the role of the hero in the epic. Epics were composed in an age that many call “heroic” (see Vico), and their main protagonists (think of Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf, Roland, El Cid, Siegfried, Rama, and to an extent, Aeneas) exist at a level between gods and human beings; they are far superior to the ordinary humans in terms of strength and battle-prowess (in some cases, that seems to exempt them from being bound by the codes, customs and conventions of mortals – positively Nietzschean), and the epic, to a large extent, becomes about their interactions with each other and with the gods.

One set of epics are actually named for their individual heroes. The Odyssey (Odysseus); The Aeneid (Aeneas); Beowulf (Beowulf); The Ramayana (Rama); The Song of Roland (Roland); The Lay of the Cid (El Cid); Orlando Furioso (Orlando). And there’s no doubt that, despite a decent supporting cast, these epics are about their heroes. Of course, you need a Turnus and a Dido to make an Aeneid, a Grendel to make a Beowulf, a Ravana to make a Ramayana, but these characters remain precisely that: a supporting cast. In other words, in a certain (very simplistic sense), these characters owe their existence to the hero, derive their raison d’etre from the hero, and are, at least to an extent, defined and constituted in virtue of their relationship with or opposition to the hero.

The obvious exception, of course, is The Iliad. Admittedly, The Iliad paints upon a large and diverse canvas. It can’t very well be called The Song of Achilles, because Achilles spends most of the epic sulking in his tent. Nor can it be called The Song of Hector, because Hector, for all his heroism, is defeated and killed (think of Karna). Perhaps it might be called The Song of Achilles and Hector? That, I think, wouldn’t be too inaccurate, because Achilles and Hector (like Aeneas and Turnus, perhaps?) do attain a level of prominence that exceeds the lot of the other characters: Agamemnon, Menelaus, Odysseus, Nestor, Ajax, Diomedes, Patroclus, Priam, Paris, Andromache. Yet, the very fact that we feel like we must invoke the names of all these characters to have a fair description of The Iliad makes The Song of Achilles and Hector a curiously unfitting title. 

So The Iliad is a problem case. Nonetheless, the fact remains, again, that it is, in at least one sense, about the conflict between Achilles and Hector, since all the events of the epic seem to lead up to that final climax, that battle beside the walls of Ilium – Agamemnon’s insult of Achilles leads to Achilles’ refusal to fight; that, in turn, allows Hector to wreak havoc among the Achaeans, and the famous burning of the ships; that compels Patroclus to put on Achilles’ armour and go out to battle, leading to his death at the hands of Hector; and that drives Achilles back into the war – and crucially, the epic ends with the burial of Hector (“and so they buried Hector, tamer of horses“).

Another problem case – or set of problem cases – are the Germanic epics. But again, the only difference here, I think, is that while they are not about individuals, they are nonetheless about a few (Sigurd and Gudrun), a chosen few (sometimes, a single clan). Moreover, the reason for this is that these epics (think of The Volsunga), unlike their Greek or Roman or other European counterparts don’t span a particular event or a series of events – but they often span a generation, or generations, events following upon events, with a logic of their own. Das Nibelungenleid, for instance, has two distinct sets of events – the first, involving Siegfried, Gunther, Kriemheild and Brunhild, and ending with Siegfried’s death; and the second involving Kriemheild’s revenge, in which the likes of Hagen von Tronje and Deitrich of Bern come to the fore; during one particular event, however, it’s very clear who the heroes are, and who the subsidiary characters are.

The Mahabharata, I think, is very different. Clearly, it is not named after a single hero, or even a group of heroes, like the Volsungs, or the Nibelungs. More importantly, I think it is simply impossible to reduce the epic to a manageable cast of “main characters”, or “heroes”. Yes, at a very basic level, the epic is about the conflict between the two branches of the Kuru clan. It’s clear that amongst the Pandavas, Yudhishthira, Bheema and Arjuna are prominent (already, you have three “heroes), and likewise, Duryodhana amongst the Kauravas. But where, in this scheme, do you then fit in Bhisma? Drona? Karna? Draupadi? Dhritarashtra (he is no Priam)? Krishna, even. Furthermore, in one sense, the story is linear – all events are oriented towards, and linked to, the final battle, but unlike The Iliad, individual episodes not only exist for that purpose, but also they are episodes and stories about the characters in their own right. Think about the episode of Karna and Parashurama; or Drona and Eklavya; or of course, most importantly, The Gita. Yes, all these episodes owe their existence to their place in the overall scheme of the epic, but they could also be read standing alone, in themselves, for themselves, for what they tell us about these fascinatingly drawn characters.

What do I mean by that last sentence? Well, think of Dido and Turnus in The Aeneid. Now, I yield to no-one in my estimation of The Aeneid as a sublime and beautiful work of literature, deserving of enduring for centuries; but Virgil’s private voice notwithstanding, there is at least an argument to be made – and has been made repeatedly (see Bowra’s From Virgil to Milton, and other similar works) that Dido and Turnus exist as part of Aeneas’s story, as part of the story of the founding of Rome, and their role, their very existence, is defined and characterised by that story. “So great a task it was to found the Roman people“, writes Virgil in Book I, and Dido and Turnus’ role is to demonstrate just how hard the task was. Dido, by almost tempting Aeneas to stay on in defiance of his mission, until the gods remind him that he cannot abandon his trials and wanderings until Rome is founded; and Turnus to demonstrate how Rome can’t be founded without bitter toil and conflict (and because of various accumulated curses, not least, Dido’s!). This is buttressed by how Virgil plaintively asks, again at the very beginning of Aeneid I, whether the gods can know from such anger against ordinary mortals. The encounters with Dido and Turnus are determined by the gods, and the way these two characters act is, again, pre-decided by the gods (like Cupid inflaming Dido’s heart with love for Aeneas).

And in another sense, those two are necessary for Aeneas to prove his heroism, to prove that he is a worthy founder of the Eternal City and the universal Empire. Against Dido, he proves his stoicism, his unswerving commitment to the mission of Rome; and against Turnus, his valour and heroism. Like a bildungsroman, these stories are about the hero, and the other characters exist as foils, to allow him to bring out his most heroic qualities. And if this is a controversial example – as it must be – just think about Circe in The Odyssey; or Ganelon in The Song of Roland – two very different characters, but the first essential to presenting the obstacles that are necessary to make the return to Ithaca the heroic quest that it is, and the second, the traitor who is required for the battle at the pass of Roncesveux to happen, and for The Song of Roland to be what it is.

And now think of Karna, persecuted, embittered, brooding, tragic, magnificent Karna, the likes of which I have not come across in any epic (Hagen von Tronje in Das Nibelungenleid may come close, but not really!); who, far from being rolled about like a dice by the gods, attempts to outwit them at their own game (recall the beggar-scene with Indra), who always and ever tries to make his own fate (Draupadi’s swayamvara). Who will dare say that he is part of someone else’s story, a member of the supporting cast, his destiny defined by and subservient to someone else’s, the stars’ tennis-ball? Or even Eklavya, who comes on to the stage, blazes briefly like a meteor, and exits as suddenly – despite his short length of stay in the epic, he is no poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more – his story impacts us deeply and profoundly, and his presence stays with us, casting a pall and a shadow over the rest of his epic. Shalya, Ashwatthama, Ghatotkaccha – the list of such characters is endless.

This has been one of the reasons why The Mahabharata has always fascinated me. The complexity is astounding. I don’t intend to write here about how this complexity exists not only in framing the cast of characters, but pervades the entire epic through questions of morality (again, not a common feature of epics generally); for now, suffice it to say that even this – a vast template of characters all of whom have their own lives, their own characters, their own living, breathing, passionate souls, their life-histories and their unique stories, who exist not in relation to others, not to hold up a mirror to the hero, not as cogs in the wheel of the epic, but who live as men and women, as subjects in their own right and as the locus-points of stories, dreams and desires – that is what has always made The Mahabharata unique for me, among all the epics.


Filed under Epic, The Mahabharata

A Moment in Eternity: Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel

Octavio Paz says calls The Invention of Morel, “without exaggeration… a perfect novel.” According to Borges, “to classify [it] as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” It has influenced creations as diverse as the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the influential French film Last Year at Marienbad, and the television series Lost. Wikipedia says (albeit, without citation) that “many consider it… to be one of the best pieces of fantastic fiction.” And if that isn’t enough to pique one’s interest, the principal character, Morel, is  named after H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau, and the main female character is called Faustine, which I am convinced is a play on Faust – and moreover, these two names are entirely appropriate.

First things first – The Invention of Morel is entirely resistant to genre classifications. Perhaps the safest bet is to call it a work of speculative fiction, but I don’t think that label does it justice. In its willingness to play with and twist our conceptions of existence and reality, it anticipates some of the best works of Philip K. Dick (notably, Ubik which, in turn, was subject to a rip-off by Inception), but has greater philosophical depth than Dick; its musings on death, on immortality, on love, loss and regret, on the impossibility of desire, and on the intertwined nature of reality, time and dreams (think of Borges’ The Circular Ruins), and on the connections between all of these, are moving and profoundly beautiful; and the denouement is both melancholy and haunting, worthy of the great tragedies.

The second thing is that it is virtually impossible to write a review of this short, 90-page novella, because everything turns upon a single premise that, if revealed, would spoil the story, but without which nothing would make any kind of sense. So I’ll commence with an outline of the story, and then, following a Spolier alert, proceed to discuss the main themes. For me, personally, reading the book a second time, even knowing exactly what was going to happen, didn’t take away from the experience. But for some, it might, and so I’ll be careful not to give away too much. 

The story is told from the point of view of a fugitive who, fleeing from the law, has arrived upon a remote and inaccessible island, where he determines to live out the rest of his life. This plan is thrown into serious jeopardy when, for no apparent reason, a group of people suddenly arrive upon the island, and the fugitive has to hide form them. Soon, however, he finds himself falling in love with the pensive and enigmatic Faustine, whom he sees every evening, watching the sunset from a rock (there are some truly brilliant observations about the psychology of love scattered throughout the novel – it’s worth reading for that alone). The fugitive’s attempts to attract her attention fail utterly; she refuses to acknowledge his existence – she even seems blindly oblivious to it. Subsequently, he sees a man named Morel come up to speak to her, at times in an intimate manner, and yet at other times distantly and formally – so that it is impossible to tell whether they are, or have been, lovers. The fugitive feels an intense jealousy – and yet Morel refuses to take any notice of him either, even when they nearly come face to face.

At this point, other strange things begin to happen. The fugitive notices that the conversations between Morel and Faustine are repeated, word for word, after the interval of a week. People complain of feeling cold even when the climate is excessively hot. They dance in a storm and swim in a pool that is full of rotten leaves and decaying fish. And one day, two suns and two moons appear simultaneously in the sky.


The fugitive finds, eventually, that the island belongs to Morel, who is a scientist. Morel has discovered a method of recording that captures not only the visual (as in the case of photographs), or the auditory (radio), but reproduces, instead, all of sensorial parts of the individual (the word “all” is ambiguous, and the story does not resolve the ambiguity). As Morel says:

When all the senses are synchronized, the soul emerges…When Madeleine existed for the senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, Madeleine herself was actually there.”

The price, however, is that the process of recording kills the subject. Morel himself is in love with Faustine, but (for reasons never explained entirely) she cannot be his. So Morel decides to bring a group of his closest friends to his island, where he has set up his elaborate equipment, and without informing them, record the entire week that they spend upon the island. The consequence is that physically, they all die (their bodies are found in the ship that is taking them back from the island), but in the recording, they live on. And since the equipment runs upon a perpetually renewable source of kinetic energy generated from the sun, the wind and the tides, the one week is like a song on an infinite loop: it repeats itself forever, the same week, beginning to end. And this explains all the strange occurrences – the apparent dancing in the storm and the swimming in a putrid pool, and the two suns and two moons in the sky – it is the world of the recording and the “real” world rubbing shoulders. In essence, you have two “times” existing side-by-side: linear, “ordinary” time, to which the narrator is subject; and circular time, in which the rest of the people, including Morel and Faustine, live forever.

Morel kills his friends, but gives them in return an eternity with each other, and himself an eternity with the woman he loves. The week will repeat itself forever, but obviously those who live in the projection will have no memory of it; at the end of each cycle, they will begin again as though the world was beginning again. They are trapped in endless repetition – but they do not know itand so, for them, every moment is new. As Morel says:

Even if we left tomorrow, we would be here eternally, repeating consecutively the moments of this week, powerless to escape from the consciousness that we had in each one of them – the thoughts and feelings that the machine captured. We will be able to live a life that is always new, because in each moment of the projection we shall have no memories other than those we had in the corresponding moment of the eternal record, and because the future, left behind many times, will maintain its attributes forever.

On learning, then, that Faustine is actually nothing more than a projection, a recording, a phantom, the fugitive is distraught. But then, he discovers his solution. Finding out how the machines work, he restarts the process, and places himself in the recording – walking just ahead of Faustine, as though they are lovers and she is following him, saying something to her just before she speaks, making it seem as though she is replying to him – and all the while, through a conscious effort of will, bringing himself to believe that this is real, that Faustine is real, that they really are lovers. And so, at the end of it, the fugitive has sentenced himself to death, but he too will live on forever in that one week upon the island, with Faustine. And as he feels himself beginning to die, as he senses his body decaying, the fugitive’s last wish is a prayer to those who follow in the footsteps of Morel, and invent an even more perfect machine, to merge his and Faustine’s consciousness. “It would be an act of piety.”

In a previous post, I discussed immortality in the context of the Faustian pact. I discussed how there is a paradox in the Faust wishing for a moment that would last for eternity; simply because it is the momentariness of the moment that makes us wish that it would last forever. If it really did last forever, or even for very long, it would simply lose everything that makes it what it is. Bernard Williams calls this the “tedium of immortality“, and Janecek’s opera, The Makropoulos Affair, is a brilliant exploration of the theme. Casares accepts the paradox, and resolves it: in The Invention of Morel, the moment (or, to be more precise, the week) does last for eternity, but the word “lasting” is not entirely accurate. By repeating itself continuously, yet without any consciousness on the part of the subjects that there is any such repetition, Morel, Faustine and the fugitive can truly live in the moment for eternity“. And curiously enough, my own response to this was a mingled awe and horror. Would I, given the choice, take Morel’s solution, the solution that the fugitive later adopts as his own? I simply do not know. It seems ideal, it seems perfect and yet, at the same time, it seems utterly horrifying. That, I feel, is where the great success of this novel lies. Casares manages to convey to us the sheer vastness, the magnitude of what immortality, in its best imaginable form, could be like, and the thought, almost beyond the ken of comprehension, is truly frightening.

Immortality is not the only complex theme that Casares deals with. Love is ever-present. Perhaps the spirit of the novel is summed up by one of the characters quoting the first two lines of Verlaine’s famous poem:

Âme, te souvient-il au fond du paradis
De la gare d’Auteuil et des trains de jadis…

What is it that we really love, when we fall in love? Is it, as Tolkien, would say, “a shadow and a thought“? Casares certainly seems to think so. The fugitive falls in love with a phantom. Morel creates a phantom to spend an eternity with. But if we’re pressed to answer what exactly makes this phantom any less real than a human being, or the experience poorer, paler, more attenuated – barring the obvious – there is nothing that we can say. Consider the point made by this review of the book:

Yet Morel’s projections belie his words. The characters generated by Morel’s invention are hollow creations, lacking any sort of totality; and there is no proof to support Morel’s claim that his machine will capture the soul, since his existing creations are only the sum of their sensorial parts. What the machine does offer, however, is a presentation of reality that is fixed and unchanging, not dependent upon the shifting viewpoint of the subjective self.

But what is the soul, then, if the sum of the “sensorial parts” is present? Do we even need someone’s soul, if we have the rest, and if we have it like this – “a fixed and unchanging presentation of reality“?

The fugitive sums up the paradox here:

To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares; to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost).

And yet, by the end of it, he changes his mind completely:

He [Morel] loved the inaccessible Faustine. That is why he killed her, killed himself and all his friends, and invented immortality! Faustine’s beauty deserves that madness, that tribute, that crime. When I denied that, I was too jealous or too stubborn to admit that I loved her. And now I see Morel’s act as something sublime.

Here, love and immortality become intertwined. In a sense, it is not only a solution to the Faustian pact, but also to the Tithonus problem – Faustine has been given Tithonus’ gift of immortality without the curse of ever growing old. Because murder is the only way to achieve that, Morel’s act remains “a crime” – and yet, is something “sublime“.

But the price, of course, is that Morel and the fugitive are both condemned to love a phantom, a phantom who is herself unaware of the gift that she has been given. As the fugitive himself concedes, by his death he achieves the “eternal” and “seraphic” contemplation of Faustine. Is that better than nothing? Perhaps. Is that ideal? Not by a long shot.

And I think that the final point that Casares makes is that it is simply impossible to, in a sense, have it all: if you were aware of the fact that the week you’re living in is going to repeat itself eternally, than even the most intense joy would be tempered by a kind of horror; and on the contrary, if, like Faustine, you didn’t know, then your thoughts and your feelings remain as they ever were; is immortality any good if you don’t know that you are immortal? 

I can’t say.


Part-Borges, part-Kafka, part-Philip K. Dick; lyrical, beautiful and haunting; this is the kind of book you never, ever forget.

Bioy’s Britannica Online Page:

His Wiki page:

The Invention of Morel’s wiki page (with spoilers):

A spoiler-free review:

A spoiler-laden review:

Another spoiler-laden review (right from the go):

The opening:

A note on the translation:

Verlaine’s poem:



Filed under 20th Century Anti-Realism, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Latin American Fiction, Speculative Fiction, The Invention of Morel (Casares)

Musings on The Aeneid – II: Carthage, Dido and Empire

Ostensibly, The Aeneid is a paean to the Roman Empire, a triumphant celebration of Roman overlordship over the known world, and a joyous vindication of Roman virtues. What, then, are we to make of Book IV, and the encounter between Aeneas and Dido, Queen of Carthage? In brief: Aeneas lands upon Carthage, and is warmly received by Dido who, herself originally a refugee, is now engaged in building a great city. By the machinations of Venus and the arrows of Cupid, Dido is made to fall passionately and irrevocably in love with Aeneas. During a hunt, they shelter in the same cave from a ferocious storm, and something – we are never told what – happens between them. Subsequently, Dido believes they are married; Aeneas’ own actions, in adopting the Carthaginian dress and customs, and himself overseeing the building of the city, suggests nothing to the contrary. Until Mercury, sent down by Jove, sternly comes to Aeneas and reminds him of his heaven-decreed mission – the founding of Rome. Struck by remorse, Aeneas determines to promptly set sail. All of Dido’s entreaties are in vain. Aeneas, courteous but firm, leaves; and Dido commits suicide by throwing herself on a funeral pyre and burning to death.

Maurice Bowra, in his From Virgil to Milton, has a straightforward explanation. The story is a synecdochic representation of the inevitable advance of Roman civilisation and Roman virtue, and the corresponding yielding of the “barbaric”. Dido, it is to be noted, is a classically Homeric character (much like Turnus, who also dies at the end of The Aeneid). Strong-willed, highly individualistic, uncontrollably passionate – all qualities that would have stood her in good stead in The Iliad or the The Odyssey, built as they are on the cult of larger-than-life individual heroes. But the Roman world, with its focus on duty, self-control and the priority of Rome over the individual, simply has no place for Homeric – barbarian – characters, and the fate of Dido is simply an inevitable – if sad – corollary to that undeniable truth.

And yet, as ever, in The Aeneid, things aren’t quite so simple. In my earlier post, I wrote about Parry’s description of the two “voices” of The Aeneid – the “public voice”, that is, the glorification of Empire – and the “private voice” that, side by side, casts doubt upon and subverts the public. In Book IV, the private voice, I think, is at its strongest.

To start with, recall who Dido is. She is the Queen of Carthage, Rome’s fiercest, deadliest and most implacable historical enemy. During the three Punic Wars, Rome came as near to its destruction as it ever during its history. Hannibal marched his army right up to the gates of the Eternal City, and it is said that even at the time of Virgil and Augustus, Roman mothers would frighten their children with tales of Hannibal. We know of Cato’s delenda est Carthago to the Senate, and we know that at the end of the third Punic War, the Romans furrowed the Carthaginian soil and sprinkled salt over it to signal their determination that Carthage would never be allowed to rise again.

With all that in the background, note lines 12 and 13 of Book I:

urbs antiqua fuit (Tyrii tenuere coloni)
Karthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe

That is, “an ancient city there was, named Carthage/ inhabited by a colony of Tyrians.”

What is crucial to observe here is that the very first time “city” is mentioned in The Aeneid, a poem presumably about the city of Rome, it is Rome’s greatest enemy, Carthage, and what’s more, this comes immediately after Virgil’s invocation of the Muse! This, it would seem, would have had a profoundly destablising effect upon the Roman reader. And this is continued later in Book I, where the description of Carthage closely matches that of Rome. There are “marvelous buildings, gateways, cobbled ways“; there is the “din of wagons“; the building of citadels, the enactment of laws, the choosing of magistrates, and of a senate, the dredging of harbours, the building of a theater – the entire scene is compared to that of a hive of bees, and it could not be more Roman in character. Dido herself welcomes Aeneas’ company, and invites them to live in Carthage “on equal terms” with her own Tyrians. Remarking on this entire scene, Davidson puts the point beautifully:

“Virgil’s punic passages, in short, provide a perfect opportunity for the discourse of orientalism. Confronted with Carthage Flaubert comes up with Salammbo and Petrarch with his epic Africa, two monuments of Western discourse of the Eastern Other, but Virgil misses his appointment with anti-Semitism. Why isn’t Rome’s greatest enemy a cruel and foreign nation? Why isn’t Juno Tanit? Why don’t the Carthaginians practice human sacrifice? Why aren’t the Carthaginians more Carthaginian?” 

(And this is especially fascinating when one considers that historically, one of the grounds for the Roman claim of cultural superiority over Carthage was the continuing Carthaginian practice of human sacrifice.)

And if Carthage is like a Rome, then logically, Dido, as its leader and governor, exhibits quintessentially Roman virtues (until the gods intervene). She is kind and hospitable to the Trojans, and she acts in every way a ruler should – comforting them and providing them refuge. And she is also a ruler in a more general sense, as the entire building of Carthage is taking place under her supervision – she is, essentially, an ideal Roman administrator! The character of Dido is fascinating – despite being female and Carthaginian, she is depicted as a ruler, as well as possessing a strong character. In other words, she is the precise opposite of the passive vessel that is Lavinia, but neither is she villainous, like Turnus becomes, at a certain point.

But most starkly, perhaps, this sense of defamiliarisation is heightened further in the beginning of the famous cave scene:

Speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem deuenient...”

Ostensibly, this means “Dido and the Trojan leader to the cave came.” However, the word “dux” can apparently classify either “Dido” or “the Trojan”; in other words, another grammatically correct way of reading this line is “Dido the leader and the Trojan…” – and this has Dido, not only as a Carthaginian, but also as a woman, taking the lead in her interactions with Aeneas (see here for a nice analysis of the Latin grammar at issue).

So at this stage, we have Carthage, an almost Rome, and the queen, despite being Carthaginian and female, being a “leader”. The private voice is in full flow.

Not only that, Dido’s grief and fury at her abandonment by Aeneas is not simply the passion of a woman scorned. On learning that Mercury himself, at the behest of Jove, has commanded Aeneas to leave, she bursts out:

What fit employment/ For heaven’s high powers! What anxieties/ To plague serene immortals!

As this article, and many others, point out, this is not only a protest, it is a presentation of another worldview altogether, one which is opposed to the dominant theme of the Aeneid. What this suggests is the Epicurean idea of disinterested gods, who have far better things to do with their time than meddle in petty human affairs. Of course, throughout The Aeneid, on the other hand, it Aeneas’ mission is near-constantly referred to as being divinely-sanctioned and heaven-approved. While Dido’s death may represent Epicureanism’s defeat, just as it represents the defeat of the Homeric character, it is nonetheless an instance what D.P. Fowler calls “deviant focalisation” in the Aeneid – that is, the presentation of perspectives that are at variance with the narrator’s perspective, with Virgil’s perspective. To put it in a way that I think captures the issue, The Aeneid is extraordinarily susceptible to a resistant reading – or, more accurately, many resistant readings.

This is buttressed by what Feeney says, even more simply: that there is available in the Aenid, the material to construct an opposite kind of argument. A reading of Book IV will illustrate the point – Dido is far more eloquent than Aeneas. Perhaps it is now an inescapable modern sensibility speaking, a bondage within a Gadamer-esque horizon, but surely, Dido’s speeches are more convincing, more passionate, and far more beautifully spoken than Aeneas’ – whether it be about Epicureanism, or her own agony at being abandoned. So Virgil essentially gives the best lines to the very person who is supposedly destined to be pushed aside in a world that no longer has any use for her like, who is doomed from the start, whose entire raison d’etre is to only provide Aeneas with another barrier on his obstacle-laden quest for founding Rome.

And that, in summation, is why I enjoy reading The Aeneid so much, and why I think it absolutely must be on any list of great works of Western literature or, for that matter, on any to-read list. It is supposedly a song of Empire, but it makes the Empire’s greatest enemy hold up a mirror to itself. It is apparently the celebration of a man, the founder of Rome, a hero – but that man is anything but heroic, plagued as he is by self-doubt, and prone to committing morally dubious acts. It is meant to be a celebration of Roman virtues, but the so-called barbarians have the best and the most eloquent lines. And so on. The poem deals with themes crucial to the human condition, and even as it builds up one narrative, it simultaneously undermines it, directly at times, and subtly at times; perhaps Fowler exaggerates when he says that The Aeneid has as many ways of interpreting it as there are readers – but for me, that is, indeed, the core of its greatness – the multiplicity of meanings and ideas in the text, and the conflict that subsists between them, while all the time being acceptable readings and interpretations of the text itself, leaves one with no easy conclusions, and forces one to think about these things, afresh and deeply. And all the way, through the medium of unforgettable characters such as the likes of Dido, queen of Carthage. And not only this, it is especially instructive, I think, to think about how most Empire writing voluntarily or involuntarily, deliberately or reflexively, consciously or unconsciously, always casts the “Other” as fundamentally different and opposed, so that the self can be defined more sharply, more starkly, by the opposition. It is beautiful – and moving – to see how such definitions simply break down and dissolve in The Aeneid, the supposed archetype of Empire writing, how this trite, annoying play of opposites expands into something infinitely more subtle, more complex, and ultimately, non-judgmental. Like an impressionist painting, it is the reader who must complete, for himself, the full picture, from the brush-strokes and play of colours before him.

To end: some passages from Book IV, which is certainly my favourite part of The Aeneid.

Virgil on unspoken love:

Alas, what darkened minds have soothsayers!                                                                             What good are shrines and vows to maddened lovers?                                                                 The inward fire eats the soft marrow away,                                                                                   And the internal wound bleeds on in silence.

Dido in agony:

“What shall I say first, with so much to say?”

She prayed then to whatever power may care                                                                                    In comprehending justice for the grief                                                                                                 Of lovers bound unequally by love.

It was not given to me to lead my life                                                                                                  Without new passion, innocently, the way                                                                                          Wild creatures live, and not to touch these depths.


Filed under Empire, Epic, Virgil

Baudelaire, Swinburne and the Ugliness of Beauty

In a previous post, I discussed the similarities between Baudelaire’s conception of the unattainable ideal in To A Passerby, and Swinburne’s narration of the Rudel story in The Triumph of Time. Yesterday, while thumbing through my copy of Fleurs du Mal, I perceived what I think to be another affinity between the two poets: a similarly contradiction-laden view of the intertwined concepts of beauty and love.

That there do exist contradictions in the very nature of these concepts is nothing new. It has been a common theme for poets through the ages. As far back as the Greek lyric age, Anacreon wrote:

I love and yet I do not love,
I am out of my mind – and I am not out of my mind. (fr46)

Most famously, perhaps, the Roman poet Catullus:

hate and I love. Why would I do this, perhaps you ask?                                                                                                        do not know, but I realize it happens and I am tormented. (Catullus 85)

And, of course, the troubadours:

I never held it but it holds me
all the time in its bail, Love,
and makes me glad in angerfool in wisdom 
(Arnaut Daniel)

And the idea perhaps reached its apotheosis with the romantics. But what, I think, is crucial to note here is that the contradictions are, in virtually all cases, mirror images of each other (something that becomes clear on a close reading of the chiasmus in each of the lines). Furthermore, all these are examples of what Parry, in his article on Virgil, calls “the sublimation of sorrow”: that is, the so-called negative emotions that love and beauty evoke – hatred, madness, the absence of self-control, rage, foolishness – are, in a certain sense, every bit as high, pure, beautiful and noble (“sublime) as their opposites. If there is pain, then it is, in its own way, as glorious and uplifting as joy, it is, in a sense, to be as much desired as joy – and both joy and pain are two integral parts of the complete and fulfilled experience.

So far, so romantic. But the fascinating thing about Baudelaire and Swinburne is how, in their poetry, they emphatically reject this entire tradition of love-and-beauty versification, and focus upon a very different kind of contradiction. Let’s start with Baudelaire’s L’Ideal (Aggeler translation):

It will never be the beauties that vignettes show, 
Those damaged products of a good-for-nothing age,
Their feet shod with high shoes, hands holding castanets, 
Who can ever satisfy any heart like mine.

I leave to Gavarni, poet of chlorosis, 
His prattling troop of consumptive beauties, 
For I cannot find among those pale roses 
A flower that is like my red ideal. 

The real need of my heart, profound as an abyss,
Is you, Lady Macbeth, soul so potent in crime,
The dream of Aeschylus, born in the land of storms;

Or you, great Night, daughter of Michelangelo,
Who calmly contort, reclining in a strange pose
Your charms molded by the mouths of Titans.

This piece has the first hints of what later poems make explicit: namely that, in its entirety, beauty has an aspect that resists sublimation, that isn’t simply a reflection of pure virtues. “Profound as an abyss“, “soul so potent in crime“, “… contort, reclining in a strange pose…” – all these bear not only clear suggestions of an unabashedly carnal yearning, but also an essence that escapes a simple division into opposites (love and hate, foolishness and wisdom, and so on). And it is impossible, on reading this, especially the lines about Lady Macbeth and crime, to not be reminded of these lines from Swinburne’s Dolores:

Seven sorrows the priests give their Virgin;
But thy sins, which are seventy times seven,
Seven ages would fail thee to purge in,
And then they would haunt thee in heaven:
Fierce midnights and famishing morrows,
And the loves that complete and control
All the joys of the flesh, all the sorrows
                That wear out the soul.

In Baudelaire, this theme becomes even more explicit in Hymn to Beauty:

Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss
Beauty? Your gaze, divine and infernal
Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime, 
And one may for that, compare you to wine.

You contain in your eyes the sunset and the dawn; 
You scatter perfumes like a stormy night; 
Your kisses are a philtre, your mouth an amphora, 
Which make the hero weak and the child courageous.

Do you come from the stars or rise from the black pit
Destiny, bewitched, follows your skirts like a dog; 
You sow at random joy and disaster, 
And you govern all things but answer for nothing. 

You walk upon corpses which you mock, O Beauty!
Of your jewels Horror is not the least charming,
And Murder, among your dearest trinkets,
Dances amorously upon your proud belly.

The dazzled moth flies toward you, O candle!
Crepitates, flames and says: “Blessed be this flambeau!”
The panting lover bending o’er his fair one
Looks like a dying man caressing his own tomb, 

Whether you come from heaven or from hell, who cares, 
O Beauty! Huge, fearful, ingenuous monster
If your regard, your smile, your foot, open for me 
An Infinite I love but have not ever known?

From God or Satan, who cares? Angel or Siren, 
Who cares, if you make, — fay with the velvet eyes, 
Rhythm, perfume, glimmer; my one and only queen! 
The world less hideous, the minutes less leaden?

There are a number of different things at work, I think, in this poem. First, notice his use of the chiasmus, as compared to the example of the lyric poets. Some of them – “joy and disaster”, “governing all things, but answering for nothing” – would not be out of place in the latter – but the rest certainly would be. “Heaven and abyss”, “divine and infernal”, “benevolence and crime”, “stars and the black pit” – none of these, I think, are the images of romanticism – quite the contrary. They suggest, again, an aspect that is the very opposite of purity and sublimity, that is almost… repulsive. That brings me to the second point – the feeling of repulsion – although not very strong just yet – is reinforced by the words he appends to describe Beauty: “horror”, “murder” and “monster” cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be sublimated in the same way that “madness” or “foolishness” or “pain” can. And this – the third point – in turn, is reinforced by his personification of Beauty – or rather, the personification of two body parts that are decidedly anti-romanticist: the “proud belly” (upon which murder is dancing “amorously”) and the foot.

There is, again, something decidedly similar in the Swinburne’s fervent declamations in Dolores: 

Fruits fail and love dies and time ranges;
Thou art fed with perpetual breath,
And alive after infinite changes,
And fresh from the kisses of death;
Of languors rekindled and rallied,
Of barren delights and unclean,
Things monstrous and fruitless, a pallid
               And poisonous queen.

By the hunger of change and emotion,
By the thirst of unbearable things,
By despair, the twin-born of devotion,
By the pleasure that winces and stings,
The delight that consumes the desire,
The desire that outruns the delight,
By the cruelty deaf as a fire
               And blind as the night.

As for Baudelaire, the repulsion finally becomes unambiguous and express in this single line the final quatrain of I Adore you as much as the Nocturnal Vault:

I advance to attack, and I climb to assault, 
Like a swarm of maggots after a cadaver
And I cherish, implacable and cruel beast, 
Even that coldness which makes you more beautiful.

This is a truly extraordinary image. Moths and flames is part of the standard imagery of love; but who would ever describe the pursuit as a swarm of maggots chasing after a cadaver? And that is not all: Baudelaire has a complete poem that is called, unsurprisingly, The Carcass: 

My love, do you recall the object which we saw, 
That fair, sweet, summer morn!
At a turn in the path a foul carcass
On a gravel strewn bed,

Its legs raised in the air, like a lustful woman, 
Burning and dripping with poisons,
Displayed in a shameless, nonchalant way 
Its belly, swollen with gases.

The sun shone down upon that putrescence, 
As if to roast it to a turn,
And to give back a hundredfold to great Nature 
The elements she had combined;

And the sky was watching that superb cadaver 
Blossom like a flower.
So frightful was the stench that you believed 
You’d faint away upon the grass.

The blow-flies were buzzing round that putrid belly,
From which came forth black battalions
Of maggots, which oozed out like a heavy liquid 
All along those living tatters.

All this was descending and rising like a wave, 
Or poured out with a crackling sound;
One would have said the body, swollen with a vague breath, 
Lived by multiplication.

And this world gave forth singular music, 
Like running water or the wind,
Or the grain that winnowers with a rhythmic motion 
Shake in their winnowing baskets.

The forms disappeared and were no more than a dream, 
A sketch that slowly falls
Upon the forgotten canvas, that the artist 
Completes from memory alone.

Crouched behind the boulders, an anxious dog 
Watched us with angry eye,
Waiting for the moment to take back from the carcass 
The morsel he had left.

— And yet you will be like this corruption,
Like this horrible infection,
Star of my eyes, sunlight of my being, 
You, my angel and my passion!

Yes! thus will you be, queen of the Graces,
After the last sacraments,
When you go beneath grass and luxuriant flowers, 
To molder among the bones of the dead.

Then, O my beauty! say to the worms who will
Devour you with kisses,
That I have kept the form and the divine essence 
Of my decomposed love!

I don’t think I need to say anything about this poem – it speaks for itself, far more eloquently than any critic ever could. The imagery is stark and brutal. Swinburne never goes quite this far, but he does have a stanza that is vaguely suggestive of the same idea, along with the use of the words “corpses” and “barren”:

For the crown of our life as it closes
Is darkness, the fruit thereof dust;
No thorns go as deep as a rose’s,
And love is more cruel than lust.
Time turns the old days to derision,
Our loves into corpses or wives;
And marriage and death and division
               Make barren our lives.

While highlighting the similarity between the two, I think it is also important to note that they come from very different places. Yes, both Swinburne and Baudelaire reject the romanticist conception of love as feeble, withered, incomplete, pale. But Swinburne’s poetry, as is especially evident from Hymn to Proserpine and The Last Oracle is full of anger against Christianity, which he believes has diluted and watered down real life to an unacceptable extent (“the pale god’s kingdom come“) through its emphasis on abnegnation, on a weak morality, on sinning and forgiveness, and so on. Dolores can also be read, perhaps best, as an attack on stifling Victorian morality (recall that the press in his day castigated Swinburne as “that libidinous laureate of a pack of satyrs“), and that’s why, much of the focus of Dolores is on uncontrolled and uncontrollable passion. On the other hand, one of the points that Walter Benjamin makes in his book on Baudelaire, or at least, so I gathered, is that Baudelaire was writing lyric poetry but was also, first and foremost, a poet of the city, the city and the arcades of mid-19th century Paris. This essentially is one of the causes of the seeming tension in his work, between lyric form and style and themes, and subjects and images that are entirely alien to traditional lyric poetry (the situation is somewhat similar to Byron’s Don Juan).

Nonetheless, I love to read both Swinburne and Baudelaire for precisely this reason: they fly to where other great poets fear to tread, make prey where others dare not perch, exploring the ugly and repulsive side of love and beauty to its very depths, and coming up with a very different kind of paradox: that it is precisely that ugliness and repulsiveness that is alluring, without which the experience would be, in a sense, only partial. That a decaying and putrefying corpse can nonetheless be possessed of a strange and inexplicable enchantment of its own, a kind of horrifying fascination that can’t just be rendered sterile by simply making it, like I said before, a straightforward mirror of the straightforward pleasures and joys of love and beauty that have, by now, become almost quotidian.

And lastly, the difference between Baudelaire/Swinburne and the great romantics comes out beautifully, I think, in this instance, where Baudelaire and Keats invoke precisely the same image in radically different ways. Consider:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task… (Keats, Bright Star)

For Keats, the image of the star suggests steadfastness, loyalty, beauty, splendour, eternity. But Baudelaire, in one his poems (which I have, at the moment, shamefully forgotten) finds in that same image simply the suggestion that the star, hung up in isolation in the sky, will burn for all time in utter pointlessness. It is two great poets simply looking at the world in radically different ways, and perhaps, both philosophies have something to recommend themselves.

Fleurs du Mal:

Swinburne’s Dolores:

Keats’ Bright Star:



January 4, 2013 · 6:34 am

William Dalrymple, Return of a King: The First Afghan War

Much like my previous experiences with Dalrymple, I began this book in the afternoon, and read it cover to cover at a single sitting, punctuated by frequent breaks to rest my eyes, until I finished it at five in the morning. Return of a King – his latest book – is a description of the first Anglo-Afghan War, that took place between 1839 and 1842, one of the hallmark events of the “Great Game” – that is, the struggle between the Russian and the British Empires for political end economic control over central Asia. Now, I am no historian, so I can hardly comment upon Dalrymple’s book as a substantive work of history. I do, however, have some observations about his historical method (which I’ll come to last of all), about his writing, more generally, and about my own response to this book.

The very first thing to say – and this, I know, has been repeated ad nauseam – is that Dalrymple is a fine, fine writer. Mellifluous prose, lush description and evocative imagery were, for me, the defining features of The Last Mughal, and they are present in abundance here. The descriptions capture your attention from the beginning. On page three, for instance, this sweeping description of Afghanistan:

Everything had always conspired against its rise; the geography and topography and especially the great stony skeleton of the Hindu Kush, the black rubble of its scalloped and riven slopes standing out against the ice-etched snow-topped ranges which divided up the country like the bones of a massive, rocky ribcage. (p. 3)

The last bit wouldn’t be out of place as a description of the Misty Mountains – the image is indelibly imprinted upon the memory, and all the action that takes place hence takes place within that background, enriching it to a great extent. And then, it’s not only about descriptions. Dalrymple’s isn’t an account, it’s a story. Consider:

The real reason behind the dispatch of this first British Embassy to Afghanistan lay far from both India and the passes of the Hindu Kush. Its origins had nothing to do with Shah Shuja, the Durrani Empire, or even the intricate princely politics of Hindustan. Instead, its causes could be traced to north-eastern Prussia, and a raft floating in the middle of the River Nieman. (p. 5)

And immediately, he creates a sense of mystery and suspense that we’re far more accustomed to finding in fiction. Yet, this is no mere thriller: Dalrymple punctuates his work with frequent invocations of Afghan and Persian poetry, as applicable. The effect is brilliant, not only because the poetry is, for the most part, of a very high standard, but also because Dalrymple’s sense of timing is outstanding. After recounting the grave political situation in the lead up to the British Embassy to Shah Shuja,  he breaks the tension by quoting this hilariously risqué couplet from the tribal leader Khushal Khan:

There is a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach                                                                                              But alas, I cannot swim.

And it’s not only poetry – Dalrymple quotes liberally from the journals and diaries of the main protagonists in the drama. Much like The Last Mughal, this has the signal impact of giving us an unparalleled amount of depth – far more than what the most detailed account could provide. This is especially true in juxtaposition – there are few reading experiences quite as arresting or defamiliarising as reading the journal entry of the governor-general’s wife, followed immediately by an Afghani poet, and both on broadly the same theme.

These three things, I think, are what make Dalrymple the writer of popular history par excellence: outstanding language and description, a feel for the story, and his great erudition combined with a knowledge of when and how to use it for maximum effect.

On a personal note, I found it fascinating – with my weakness for grand narratives – to make a connection between the situation of Shah Shuja, when he is dethroned and pursued into exile, with the situation of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Scottish highlanders.

But he eluded the search parties and with a few companions wandered on unmarked tracks from the poplars and the holly oaks of the valleys to the crystalline snows of the high passes, crossing the kerfs and shelves of the mountains, sleeping rough and biding his time. 

I read this passage, and I was promptly reminded of the Prince in the Heather, eluding his pursuers through the harsh country of the Highlands, and finally escaping across the sea, to the strains of “Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing/ Onward the sailors cry…” In fact, Dalrymple himself expressly makes the connection later in the book, although ironically enough, it is in the context of the situation of Dost Mohammad Khan, Shah Shuja’s great rival.

Another personal note – this book opened a window for me into understanding better the first poet I ever read and enjoyed – Kipling. A fair few of Kipling’s poems are set in Afghanistan, and he paints a stark and vivid picture of utterly barbaric brutality. I remember a poem that left a great impact upon me – it was about how a would-be assassin of a sheikh was gradually stoned to death with such deliberate and casual cruelty that the remembrance of it still makes my hair stand on end. I remember, specially, the refrain:

Abdhur Rahman, the Durani Chief, to the North and the South is sold.
The North and the South shall open their mouth to a Ghilzai flag unrolled,
When the big guns speak to the Khyber peak, and his dog-Heratis fly:
Ye have heard the song—How long ? How long ? Wolves of the Abazai!

Of course, now I know who the Ghilzais and the Heratis were, but more importantly, Dalrymple’s account is instructive in that it explains what so shocked and fascinated Kipling. For instance, when he says:

These blood feuds rolled malevolently down from generation to generation, symbols of the impotence of state-run systems of justice.”

And describes the system of rewards and punishments at other places, Kipling’s poetry makes a lot more sense. And not only the bits about the brutality. Dalrymple quotes Elphinstone writing about the Afghans being “fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, brave, hardy, frugal, laborious and prudent” – and his later descriptions about the bravery and generosity of Prince Akbar Khan – both of these promptly recalled to mind those immortal – and by now, trite – lines:

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,                                                                                Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;                                                                                   But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,                                                                              When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

And if you’ve read the full poem, you’ll know what I mean.

Two comments – one minor, and one slightly major – about historical method. The first is that Dalrymple is anything but what we commonly understand to be “neutral”. Of course, neutrality is an impossible ambition, even in the abstract, so let me change the word: he isn’t detached. He makes no bones about calling the British persecution of the First Afghan War “illegal”, which is a strong word under any circumstances. He mentions, almost as an aside, that the great Indian famine was exacerbated, to a large extent, by the British forcible replacing cultivable crops with opium, and goes on to make an observation about their plans for another illegal war, this time, in China, in the context of opium. Other examples abound, adding to these two, and the overwhelming sense one gets from the book, to use that Scottish phrase, is that of “perfidious Albion” at the root cause of all evil. Now, that might very well be true, but I wonder if it is sensible to make claims as controversial as these in a popular history book – I, for instance, would have liked to see at least a few citations for the proposition about the great Indian famine. Dalrymple pulls no punches, and it makes for great writing – but without the rigour that a work of professional scholarship would demand, I find his book to be weakest at precisely the points where he is at his most rhetorical. And what is crucial to note is that Dalrymple doesn’t – I feel – actually need any of that. For me, one of the most striking episodes of the book was his narration of the sack of Kabul. A simple description of the pillaging, the looting, the rapes, the murders and the entirely arbitrary destruction of a beautiful city was a far more damning indictment of the colonial army than any “opinion”, no matter how strongly worded. In the long run, that is what I will remember when I think of the First Afghan War.

And lastly, I mentioned above that Dalrymple doesn’t provide an account – he narrates a story. Not only that, he does so through strongly drawn and sharply delineated characters. So The Return of a King is not really an account of the First Afghan War. It is the story of Shah Shuja, trying relentlessly, heroically and ultimately, tragically, to recover his lost kingdom. It is the story of Dost Mohammed Khan, fighting to maintain his freedom against overwhelming odds, and that of his son, Akbar Khan, seeking vengeance for his father’s exile and a return of lost glories. It is the story of Alexander Burnes, scholar and colonial administrator, struggling to be more than just a pawn in the Great Game. And it is the story of so many others – Dalrymple paints them, flaws, warts and all, but never without a lack of empathy. He makes us passionately interested in their histories, their lives, their beliefs, their drives, their fates. And while, again, this makes for tremendous reading, it seems at times that he is carried away by the logic of his own method. A classic example is when he attributes the officer Nicholson’s having to watch the death of his brother to some of the major events of the 1857 Rebellion. Dalrymple makes a grand, sweeping statement, something to the effect of, “this would go on to change the fate of Delhi in 1857.” Statements like this punctuate many of the momentous events of the book. In other words, Dalrymple’s made his book so individual-centric, that it seems he ends up subscribing to an almost mid-19th-century Carlyle-esque view of history, where it is the genius, ambition and brilliance of single, extraordinarily gifted individuals that provide the gears, sprockets and driving force behind all important historical events. Again, I am no historian, but to the best of my knowledge, this is now a thoroughly discredited view of history (Carr has a brilliant critique in What is History?). At the very, very least, it is thoroughly controversial, and I wonder if it is entirely proper for Dalrymple to simply presuppose its veracity, even in a popular history book. Again, it’s the best thing he could do to make it a great read, but at times I did feel that it was too great a price to pay.

In sum, apart from a few nit-picky reservations, this is a wonderful read. I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who, like me, has a layman’s interest in the history of colonialism generally, and that of the British Empire in Asia in particular; or to anyone who, like me, isn’t that great a fan of historical fiction, but does love well-done historical writing (and I know that sounds awfully snobbish); and to anyone, indeed, who is looking for a good, thought-provoking read with at least a bit of history involved. Not as good, perhaps, as The Last Mughal, which frequently brought tears to my eyes, but very, very good nonetheless.

The Amazon link to the book:

Kipling’s Ballad of East and West:

Kipling’s The Ballad of the King’s Mercy


Filed under Empire, History, Indian history, William Dalrymple, William Dalrymple