Archive for March, 2020

The contrapuntal wonder of Bach

March 31, 2020

Today, by some reckonings, is Bach’s birthday. Here is a wonderful video (from someone called gerubach) that takes us, step by contrapuntal step, through 14 canons which he wrote on the Goldberg Variations theme. These are not the Goldberg Variations themselves, but rather some exercises Bach jotted down on the back of his personal copy of the Goldbergs. They are, I suppose, mere chips from the workman’s bench, but they are marvellous.

Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo

March 26, 2020

The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas
(Everyman, 2009) [1844]
1240 p.

St Thomas taught that it is virtuous to take pleasure in the punishment of wickedness, and it’s a good thing, else I’m not sure I could have enjoyed Dumas’ gargantuan revenge tale in good conscience.

The story falls neatly into two parts. In the first, Edmond Dantès, a young man whose life, just blooming into happiness, is undone by the jealousy and fecklessness of three self-interested men. He finds himself imprisoned in deepest obscurity, dead to the world, and likely to be truly dead before long. But, by a series of advantageous chances, he eventually re-emerges into the world, free, colossally wealthy, and bent on avenging the wrongs he suffered.

If this first half is like a narrative stream, tumbling and turbulent but narrowly confined, then the story’s second half broadens out like a river delta, with cross-currents and rivulets running in many directions. Dantès, now calling himself the Count of Monte Cristo, comes to Paris and patiently plots the downfall of the three men who had so unjustly betrayed him.

It is an adventure story, then, with plot twists and exotic locales and disguises and traps, undergirded by the steady righteous heartbeat afforded by the prospect of wrongdoers brought to justice — or, perhaps it would be better to say, of sinners brought to judgment, for Dantès’ rebirth as the Count permits him to adopt the persona of an avenging angel, a personification of Providence who blesses those who do good and curses those who do evil, who brings divine justice where human justice has failed. He thinks of himself in these terms:

I, betrayed, sacrificed, buried, have risen from my tomb, by the grace of God, to punish that man. He sends me for that purpose, and here I am.” (Ch 89)

I was curious to see what Dumas would do with this general line of thought. Would the novel turn into a cautionary tale about the hubris of the Count’s plan? The heart of man is deceitful above all things, and even the best laid plans, we know, can go awry, and in this vale of tears the cure is often worse than the disease. But Dumas does not go there, at least not mostly; his Count really is righteous, and really can (mostly) manage his revenge without it spiralling out of control.

We are, therefore, meant to see the Count of the hero of his tale, and this raises certain tensions. I referenced above Thomas’ view that pleasure in evil brought low is virtuous, but Thomas also has something to say about licit conditions for punishing evil: that it be carried out by a legitimate authority, for instance, and that it not be exacted by the injured party. What we have in The Count of Monte Cristo, instead, is essentially vigilante justice, an evil in itself, even if it can bring about good effects. And Dumas is also aware that alongside justice there is, for a Christian, a complementary imperative to forgive.

At least this is the case insofar as we see the Count’s persona as a mere disguise. But if we are willing to allow a sliver of allegory into our tale, and see the Count as he seems to see himself, as “an emissary of God”, a being born into the world precisely to herald and effect mercy and justice, as befits the case, then the novel becomes a long, rich, long, enjoyable, long, and satisfying moral tale.

I read a slightly modernized version of a translation that was originally made in the 1840s. Oddly, the Everyman edition does not state the name of the translator, which seems an injustice that might itself merit revenge, given the Herculean scale of the task.

This was my first encounter with Dumas. I am in some doubt as to whether my next move should be toward The Man in the Iron Mask or The Three Musketeers. Recommendations welcome.

Feast of the Annunciation, 2020

March 25, 2020

Ovid: Metamorphoses

March 17, 2020

Translated from the Latin by A.D. Melville
(Oxford, 1987) [8 AD]
xxxvii + 480 p. Second reading.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses is one of the literary marvels of the ancient world: a roiling riot of tales clipped from the ripened Greco-Roman crop. It is a virtuosic performance in which Ovid revisits the ground previously plowed by Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil, adding his own distinctive touches, not excepting the extra energy of wit.

The poem is about 12000 lines long, and includes a staggering 250 different tales, and hundreds of characters, woven together into one long narrative tapestry. Sometimes the thread is strained almost to the point of breaking, and sometimes he lingers to delve his narration several layers deep — tales within tales within tales — but always emerging again, winking, sure of his direction, even if the reader is somewhat dazed.

The principal organizing feature of this melange is right there in the title: transformations. In each of the tales, a character undergoes some sort of change, usually a miraculous change of shape: into a bird, into a fountain, into a monster, into a tree, into a bird (again), into a bear, into stone, or into a bird (for good measure). This is the golden thread that runs from start to finish. Often this gives Ovid’s tales a folky flavour inasmuch as the transformation serves also as an origin story: this is how a certain flower came to be, or how a certain river was first made, or how (surprise!) a certain bird was created.

His commitment to this idea sometimes leads to idiosyncratic treatment of stories, as when he glosses over the Fall of Troy in a few lines in order to focus on the tragic tale of Hecuba, the Trojan queen, but more often it delights. We begin each tale in a state of expectation, knowing that something, anything, might happen, and this helps to sustain the reader through what might otherwise seem merely an interminable series of short tales. To a reader encountering Ovid for the first time, there can indeed seem to be little reason to his rhyme, even granting the main recurring feature of metamorphoses, but a larger scale structure becomes apparent if we step back. The Metamorphoses begins with the creation of the world and tales of gods (roughly Books I-VI), transitions to tales involving gods and men (roughly Books VI-XI), and concludes with historical, or quasi-historical, tales of Greeks and Romans, culminating in treatments of Julius Caesar and, Ovid’s own patron, Caesar Augustus, here made to appear — and appear might be just the right word, given Ovid’s impish playfulness — to be the man at whom all of history had been pointing.

Anyone who claimed to know all of the stories in the Metamorphoses should be viewed with suspicion, for it is a buzzing, swirling conglobulation seemingly calculated to confound even the most diligent student, and Ovid seems to delight to show off his learning. In this he was joined by other Roman poets, like Virgil and Propertius, though with Ovid the learning is worn lightly. But the point to stress is that so many of the stories are wonderful! Ovid gives us memorable versions of the stories of Apollo and Daphne, of Echo and Narcissus, of Pyramus and Thisbe, of Phaethon, of Orpheus and Eurydice, of Midas. Some of the tales are sweet, as in the hilarious story of how the cyclops Polyphemus fell in love with the girl Galatea, and some are gruesome, as in the horrific story of Procne and Philomela, which features [redacted]. Ovid’s virtuosity is flexible: grave or facetious or winsome, he can apparently do anything, and he doesn’t mind if we know it.


So the Metamorphoses is a brawl, a kind of circus, an anthology, a clamour. Does it have depth? Critical opinion has been divided on this question over the centuries.

Ovid’s talent was recognized by his contemporaries, and he was among the choice circle commissioned by Augustus to write an epic (ie. the Metamorphoses), but his reputation suffered as the Augustan age passed away. A century later Quintillian thought him lively but shallow; Seneca (the Elder) considered he had wasted his rhetorical talents in poetry. The early Christians generally viewed him warily, as being flashy and seductive but immoral and trivial, and this has been, if you want, one of the enduring poles of Ovidian reception: he was a trickster, a showman, an endlessly inventive and rhetorically gifted storyteller who nonetheless lacked profundity, a man without a chest, whose poems were mere clouds which a gust of strong Virgilian wind would disperse.  It was, as I’ve said, a common enough view in the ancient world, and it was the dominant view of Ovid from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century.

This judgment is not easily dismissed; there is something to it. If we stop to ask ourselves, “What did Ovid believe?”, or “What did Ovid love?”, we find answers hard to come by. For instance, in the early Books of the Metamorphoses Ovid tells us about the creation of the world: how there was a primordial chaos, and how divine powers shaped the world and then created man as the pinnacle. If there were ever a theme for sobriety and grandeur and confidence, this was it. But Ovid treats the whole affair quite casually, giving several different, contradictory versions of what might have happened, being quite nonspecific about exactly which god it was who did this great work, and then shrugging it off. And this basic orientation to his subject matter persists: Ovid may seem to be, here and there, in earnest, but then he pivots on a denarius and the mood is gone. He is like a curator of a museum who sets his artifacts in place, but then disappears, scrupulously avoiding any effort to tell us how to interpret what we see. For many readers down the ages this diffidence on Ovid’s part has been taken as evidence of superficiality.

Yet there is another school too. Ovid’s time bore certain resemblances to our modern world: as the Roman republic crumbled and then collapsed Roman culture experienced a loss of faith in traditions and its institutions became unstable; at the same time it underwent a major economic expansion and enjoyed new prosperity; and of course the Roman Empire was a vast geographical space in which cultures began to mix, with a corresponding loss of confidence in local cults and customs. All of these factors influenced Ovid, and have led some readers to see him as a particularly modern, or even post-modern, figure. To this way of thinking, Ovid is an antifoundational, non-dogmatic empty shirt who relativizes hierarchies of value and undermines meta-narratives.  This school of thought agrees with the previous one insofar as it sees Ovid as having no fixed positions, no doctrine, and no point-of-view, but it differs by thinking this good rather than bad.

The third major branch of Ovidian readers were those who dominated the high medieval and early modern periods. To them, Ovid was again not exactly a personality, but rather a portal. He was the great story-teller, the captivating conjurer through whom the whole tumult of ancient myth came tumbling into our world. From the multifariousness of his tales they concluded not that everything was relative or that nothing mattered — the pessimistic conclusions that have tempted modern lost souls — but that stories could be their own worlds, and that life was rich with possibility, and that a story could be enjoyed for its own sake. Ovid dazzled them with an excess of truth, rather than draining it away. And but for this strand of Ovid’s readers, our literature would have been immeasureably impoverished, for it would be that much harder to imagine Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Rabelais, to name only those who come first to mind.

I suppose it is obvious that my sympathies are with the latter group — Ovid is a great storyteller, and I am inclined to appreciate him simply on those grounds — although I feel a temptation from the first school as well, for the Metamorphoses does linger in the mind as a work whose parts are greater than the whole. All the same, it has been great to again grapple with it after an absence of some years. It makes a good wrestling partner.

Marlowe: The Jew of Malta

March 12, 2020

The Jew of Malta
Christopher Marlowe
(Oxford World’s Classics, 1995) [c.1590]
75 p.

The Jew of Malta, though it involves extortion, fraud, and mass murder, is as close as Marlowe came to writing a comedy, for it ends with the happy comeuppance of its wicked protagonist, and has a fleet, circumstance-rich plot that reminded me of the comedies of Plautus and Menander.

The Jew is Barabas, a rich Maltese citizen called upon to pay the nation’s debts from his own coffers. Refusing, his goods are confiscated and his person thrown into prison. From that low estate he plots revenge on the governors and ruling powers of Malta. Eventually, by cunning and slaughter — of his daughter’s suitors, of a friar, of a group of nuns, of his servant, and even of his own daughter! — he contrives to become governor himself, from which post he plans to execute his final vengeance, only to be caught, at the last minute, in his own trap.

The play has been accused of anti-Semitism, and, indeed, it is hard to avoid the charge. This Jew is rich, greedy, faithless, cunning, and ruthless, and it makes for painful reading. One could argue that a play can have a wicked character without thereby impugning that character’s ethnicity in general, and this is true, but certain passages in the play do the generalizing for us:

I have been zealous in the Jewish faith,
Hard-hearted to the poor, a covetous wretch,
That would for lucre’s sake have sold my soul
(IV, i)

Or consider this exchange:

First help to bury this; then go with me,
And help me to exclaim against the Jew.

Why, what has he done?

A thing that makes me tremble to unfold.

What, has he crucified a child?

Ugly, and no question about it. We can take some comfort, I suppose, in  dramatic irony, as when Barabas knowingly exaggerates his own faults in order to play upon his opponents’ prejudices for his own purposes, and it is true, also, that the Christians in the play are, if not quite so black as Barabas, at least sketched in a dark charcoal:

Know that confession must not be reveal’d;
The canon-law forbids it, and the priest
That makes it known, being degraded first,
Shall be condemn’d, and then sent to the fire.

So I have heard; pray, therefore, keep it close.
Death seizeth on my heart:  ah, gentle friar,
Convert my father that he may be sav’d,
And witness that I die a Christian!          [Dies.]

Ay, and a virgin too; that grieves me most.

Whereupon the good Friar spills the beans about Abigail’s juicy confession.

Really all of the play’s characters, with the exception of poor, dead Abigail, are power hungry, or greedy, or murderous, or selfish, or hypocritical. Barabas is merely the king of this infernal kingdom. No doubt we are more sensitive today to Jewish stereotypes than was Marlowe’s Elizabethan audience, for whom tales about cunning Jews may have been rather like our tales about, say, medieval men, whom we imagine to have been ignorant and brutal as a matter of course: it’s unjust, but convenient rather than malicious. That’s the best construction that could be put on it, anyway.

All the same, we are more sensitive, and there is no doubt that the play is difficult to enjoy as a result. This is not to deny, however, just praise where it is due: it is very well constructed, fabulously witty at times, and works well as a tragic revenge comedy, or a comedic revenge tragedy. It’s a pity that Marlowe didn’t have time to give us an outright comedy.


March 5, 2020

An Epic Search for Truth
Apostolos Doxiadis & Christos Papadimitriou
(Bloomsbury, 2009)
352 p.

It was Chesterton who memorably quipped that there is a kind of madness that consists in losing everything but your reason. It would have made a good epigraph to this interesting graphic novel about early twentieth-century developments in mathematical logic, structured around the life of Bertrand Russell, whose personal quest to find a secure rational foundation for mathematics culminated in the famously daunting Principia Mathematica (with Whitehead), which stood as a monumental achievement until Kurt Gödel blew it up.

The book doesn’t get into technicalities, but does convey the basic aims and, to some extent, the arguments of the architects of modern logic: Frege, Peano, Russell, Cantor, Hilbert, and, on the periphery, Wittgenstein, who appears in the role of court jester. Although I had some familiarity with all of these men, the overall arc of the story in which they were players was largely new to me. The authors of this graphic novel are interested at least as much in the psychology of their characters — why were they so obsessed with certainty? why did some of them go mad? — as they are with the actual achievements. Russell himself, the protagonist, is an interesting case, for he was wholly devoted to reason as the panacea for all that ails us, and craved certainty above all, but eventually came around to accepting that this quest was fundamentally flawed — again, with a little shove from Gödel.

So the story goes, anyway. The authors have complicated the biographical angle by avowedly fictionalizing parts of it. Russell didn’t actually meet Frege, nor did he hear Gödel’s famous lecture in person, nor did he know Cantor, etc. I understand the narrative reasons for streamlining the story in these ways, but it does leave the reader with a shaky understanding of just what Russell did or didn’t do. Was Wittgenstein actually his student? (Sort of.)

It could be natural to end the story with Gödel’s big foot coming down on everybody’s necks, but I liked that they included a quasi-epilogue on the consequences of Gödel’s work, especially Turing’s subsequent work on provability and algorithms, which of course laid the foundations for computer science. There is also, running through the book, a “meta” aspect in which the authors of the graphic novel themselves appear in the graphic novel, talking about making it. Given that self-reference was historically one of the most interesting and vexing features of mathematical logic, this is thematically apt, and I thought it was narratively effective too.

This is probably the most accessible book on mathematical logic ever published. It’s mostly pictures! I can testify that it makes for good bedtime reading — though if your preference tilts from “reading” to “bedtime” then for sheer soporific power you could probably not beat Russell and Whitehead, pure and unadulterated.

Austen: Pride and Prejudice

March 2, 2020

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen
(Penguin, 1972) [1813]
392 p. Fourth reading.

It’s a perfect book.