Archive for December, 2021

Favourites in 2021: Film

December 30, 2021

I had an unexpectedly wonderful year in movies. Sharing the house — and, in particular, sharing the nights — with baby twins meant that I was frequently awake in the wee hours, bottle-feeding, and in this manner managed to see quite a few films, piecemeal. It turns out that 25 or 30 minutes a day is enough to peg one’s way through quite a few films in a year. The conditions might not, from a certain point of view, have been ideal, but honestly I didn’t find it all that bad.

Here are brief notes on the ten best films I saw for the first time this year, in rough descending order of preference.


Come and See
(Elem Klimov, 1985)

I have sometimes heard the complaint that film, as a medium, is inherently prone to glorify war because simply putting it on the screen inclines us to admire the spectacle and the scale of it. Come and See is a counterexample. It captures the texture and the mechanics at least as well as other films do — rather better on the texture, I’m inclined to say — but it infuses the imagery with a disconcerting manic energy and a derangement of purpose and a moral horror that undercuts quite effectively whatever might, in its power and glamour, be seductive. If you want to make an anti-war film, this is how to do it.

What is really remarkable about the film is that it seems to have a point of view, an actual mental world, through which we experience it. We inhabit the mind of someone who is not well. Think, for example, of that episode in the forest in which a vaudeville act seems to intrude upon the action, out of nowhere. Is it a dream? Or those roving point-of-view shots during the barn burning sequence, as though a mad man were stalking the grounds — as indeed was the case, and not just one.

As the film approached its conclusion I was convinced by its artistic vision, but with a reservation: it could see naught but evil. It seemed to have been born from a white heat of hatred. But even if you take the view that war is an evil, or, more narrowly, that this war — the Nazi occupation of Belarus — was an evil, it is nonetheless not the case that all involved were or could be wholly devoid of all goodness. And then, in the closing minutes, that chance, that crack through which the light could get in, appeared. Bravo.

By putting it here at the head of my list for this year, I don’t mean to give the wrong impression. It’s not an easy film to sit through, and I’m in no hurry to return to it. It’s a big, swirling, crazy film that defies easy judgment, but I cannot deny that it seems to me a masterpiece.


The Mill and the Cross
(Lech Majewski, 2011)

What an amazing film. The premise would be hard to beat: we enter the landscape that Pieter Bruegel painted in his masterpiece The Way to Calvary. The idea is not exactly that we enter the painting — although it feels that way if you know the painting in question — but rather that we enter the world from which the painting was made (as though such a world ever existed!). The effect is marvelous: the bizarre imaginative landscape peopled by a huge variety of sixteenth-century Flemish folk comes alive in a way that frequently left me slack-jawed in wonderment.

It’s a wonderful idea, though it is not quite clear how one could make a story of it. And, indeed, in one sense there isn’t really a story. “Nothing is going to happen,” we hear from one of the characters, in a rare burst of loquacity. But in another the story is the greatest ever told, and providential contemplative viewing during Lent.

This was actually the second time I saw it. The first was almost ten years ago, shortly after it was made, and at that time it left me cold. This time the effect was wholly different. It’s a difficult film, chiefly because of its non-narrative nature, but it enchanted me.


The Green Knight
(David Lowery, 2021)

It was my most anticipated film of this year, both on account of the director, whose previous films I have admired, and the source material, which I love. I can’t decide if that love is a handicap or not in this context; Lowery is clearly very aware of the poem and wants us to think of it, but he is also clearly not doing what it does.

The truth is that, considered simply as cinema, I loved this to bits. It’s the moviest movie I’ve seen in a long time: beautiful, striking imagery, an imaginative story, and superb direction.

But it’s a perplexing film in many ways. It doesn’t always make sense, even on its own terms. By the film’s end, it had grown so enigmatic, or confused, or inconsistent that I could not be sure what happened. It was also true that the music, much of it faux-medieval, was rather hokey and distracting, and might have been so much better with the right people on board.

Even so, I think it is such a strong film that it deserves to be treated seriously, both for its technical and artistic merits and also for its philosophical and religious perspective. After reading a superb long-form essay on the film, I’m convinced that it is not only fundamentally anti-Arthurian and anti-Christian — which sets it at odds with its source material, of course — but nihilistic. It’s a problem. Any film that wants to put the emptiness and futility of all human things at its centre isn’t going to win, and doesn’t deserve to win, my highest praise, but I can’t deny that this is in certain ways a great achievement, and it is a film I plan to see again.


Taste of Cherry
(Abbas Kiarostami, 1997)

I guess the lesson here is: if you’ve only got $50 but you’re a genius, you can still make a pretty great film.

Taste of Cherry is about a man searching for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. With remarkably spare means, Kiarostami sets before us a meditation on the value of a human life. We don’t know why this man has come to this decision — what horror he has committed, or witnessed; what disappointment he has endured; what affliction he has suffered. For Kiarostami, it seems, it doesn’t matter. Be he victim or perpetrator, the value of his life is set before us, in the balance.

I couldn’t help but notice that his various interlocutors traced out the basic structure of a Kierkegaardian dialectic. One attempts a religious argument, derived from transcendent sources. “The Koran says…” Another attempts an ethical argument, in, for an Iranian film, a remarkably Kantian mode. “What would happen if everyone did as you intend to do? Killing yourself is killing.” But if anyone is successful, it is the stalwart taxidermist who appeals in the aesthetic sphere. “The taste of mulberries.” You have to meet people where they are at.

I have a problem, which is that my screen was really very dark in the last few minutes, and I don’t know if I missed something that I was supposed to see. For me, the film ended in ambiguity. I believe the film’s title prods us to resolve the ambiguity in a particular way.

What is missing in Taste of Cherry is the “cinema” part of cinema. I cannot deny that it is drab looking and unimaginatively shot. But we all carry around with us the memory of the films we have seen, and in my memory those disappointing aspects of it have faded away, and the strength of the film’s story and structure have remained.


Whisper of the Heart
(Yoshifumi Kondō, 1995)

A quiet and very welcome surprise. I expect good things from Studio Ghibli, but I don’t believe this is one of their most heralded films. A case can be made that it ought to be. Sidestepping much of the mythical or magical elements in the studio’s better-known films, this is a very grounded, closely observed (with a gorgeous, realistic animation style to match) look at young love and young ambition, and how one affects the other.

I was completely charmed by the sensitivity of the film to the delicacy of this tentative romance between teenagers. So many films can only treat teenaged love as comedic or vulgar; here there is some comedy, yes, but gentle, and joyful, and careful not to impugn the importance of what is happening between these two characters. A scene of two characters sitting at a table in a library, reading and writing, is here invested with so much tenderness that it becomes a kind of icon of honourable love.

And the romance is only the sub-plot! The main thread explores how these two see their lives opening up before them, full of possibilities, and attempt to discover or discern the right path forward. This, too, is carried off so triumphantly that I am lost in admiration.

Finally, the girl in the film has a father, and, as a father, I am grateful to the filmmakers for this portrait of a man who is tired, but intelligent and caring, and who does his best for his family. No sign of the Dumb Father motif so common in American animated films.


Cleo From 5 to 7
(Agnes Varda, 1962)

Another surprise! My only previous experience of Agnes Varda’s filmmaking was “The Gleaners and I”, and that could hardly be more different. Where it was frumpy, casual, artless, and cheap-looking, this is elegant, formal, superbly crafted, and gorgeous. Comparisons are odious, but the contrast is really striking, and raises a somewhat parenthetical question in my mind about what the rest of her films are like.

In any case, on the strength of Cleo I understand why Varda has a reputation as a great filmmaker. This is a great film. Everything is perfectly judged. From the beginning, we feel that we are in the hands of a master, leading us step by step through several busy hours of self-discovery for Cleo. The extent to which the central character arc is told visually is fascinating. Cleo is played by Corinne Marchand, a striking beauty whom I was eager to see more of, but it seems that apart from this film she didn’t do much of note.

I am surely not the first to note that it really ought to be called Cleo from 5 to 6:30.


The Ascent
(Larisa Shepitko, 1977)

Another Russian war film, and another great one: an incredibly powerful depiction of the physical and psychological trauma of war. For one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a colder movie; the first half must have been awful to film.

The film offers much to ponder in the difficult decisions these people must make, under conditions of unbelievable hardship. Volunteer for the mission? Return for the wounded comrade? Admit the soldiers who appear at your door? Hide them or betray them? Tell the truth or lie? Appear to co-operate or refuse outright? On and on it goes.

What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?

Schnittke’s score is minimal but effective.

The title of the film is mysterious.


Winter Sleep
(Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2014)

Based on Chekhov, and it shows. The film is driven almost entirely by the interpersonal dynamics between its principal characters, and from those specific ingredients it produces a rich, satisfying stew.

People are complicated. They may have good intentions, and still create problems for themselves and those around them. They want to do good, but can’t see a path forward. There are things they feel they can’t say.

It is a long film, and it rests largely on several very long domestic scenes of conversation, masterfully done. They are like miniature dramas, with character arcs of their own. The actors do a remarkably wonderful job with them. They are absorbing and wholly convincing.

If the film has a defect, it is, for me, that, like its characters, it feels stuck and doesn’t quite know what to do about it. Maybe this is a strength, the form following the content.

Despite its humble domestic settings, the film is ravishingly shot and gorgeous to look at. And the music, built around haunting chords from one of Schubert’s sonatas, is marvelous.


Tokyo Twilight
(Yasujirō Ozu, 1957)

Tokyo Twilight is an unusually turbulent and wrenching drama from Ozu, whose films are famous for their understated drama. It is still, of course, quiet on the surface, but troubled in the depths, and masterful at every level.

The story is about a father and his two daughters, one of whom has returned home because of marital problems, and the other, in her late teens, who is unmarried and, unbeknownst to her family, pregnant. Their mother abandoned them many years ago, but now turns up unexpectedly. It’s a real tangle of knots to wrestle with, and the stakes are high.

It is a film that would not be made today on account of the way it treats abortion and divorce and fatherhood and motherhood. We are lucky — very lucky — to have it.


Our Little Sister
(Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2015)

It’s a sweet, slight tale about the affectionate relationships of four sisters who live together. The film is remarkably understated: no big drama — unless you count a squabble over who can wear a sweater; no bad guys — unless it’s their deceased father, whose problems still influence their lives. These four are generous and kind to one another, living their lives as best they can, looking to the future and wondering how things will turn out.

The craftsmanship of the film is exquisite. Everything is subtle, but just right: excruciatingly slow pans and zooms, long tracking shots that are as un-flashy as such things can be, but so wonderful! It has been very carefully judged and deliberately made. I feel about it as I often do when I see such care taken: if the filmmaker loves his story enough to lavish that kind of attention on it, I can love it too.


As usual, I didn’t go to see any films at the theatre this year, and so at year’s end there are a few acclaimed films yet unseen, notably those from Joel Coen, Denis Villeneuve, Paul Schrader, P.T. Anderson, and Wes Anderson, among others. I’ll catch up with those in the new year. In 2022 I’m looking forward to new films from Terrence Malick, Damien Chazelle, and Robert Eggers, and I’m sure there will be others too.


Finally, some trivia about the films I watched this year:

Watched again: Inside Out (2015), A Serious Man (2009), In the Loop (2009), Match Point (2005), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Lion King (1994), Three Colors Trilogy (1993-94), The Princess Bride (1987), Ran (1985), Back to the Future (1985), The Third Man (1949).

Abandoned unfinished: Annette (2021), La Flor (2018), The Killer (1989), Mishima (1985), Possession (1981), A Touch of Zen (1971).

Disappointments: Wolfwalkers (2020), L’Argent (1983), The Big Chill (1983), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974).

Newest films: Power of the Dog (2021), The Green Knight (2021), The Invisible Man (2020).

Oldest films: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931), Shanghai Express (1932), Design for Living (1933).

Multiple films by same director: Hirokazu Kore-eda (4), Frank Capra (3), Krzysztof Kieślowski (3), Yasujiro Ozu (3), Martin Scorsese (3), Sam Raimi (2), Agnes Varda (2), Ernst Lubitsch (2), Billy Wilder (2), Coen Brothers (2), Brian de Palma (2), Kenji Mizoguchi (2), Zhang Yimou (2).

Best pandemic viewing: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Nobody Knows (2004), Parasite (2019).

Quod linguam dicent? French (13), Japanese (12), Mandarin (5).

Favourites in 2021: Music

December 27, 2021

A good chunk of my listening this year has been related to David Hurwitz’s YouTube channel in which he surveys the discography of individual pieces, highlights rare but rewarding repertoire, and gives chats about various aspects of music. His focus is mostly on orchestral music, and his channel has helped me to rediscover, in a sense, the orchestral music in my collection, which has been a very good experience.

But my favourite music of the year has not been orchestral, but vocal, choral, and, in a few cases, pianistic. That’s the kind of music lover I am.


This past year marked the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin Desprez, and many ensembles made recordings to celebrate the occasion. I heard a number of excellent ones, but there was one that stood out above the rest, and that’s putting it mildly.

The adventurous Belgian group Graindelavoix put out a disc they called Josquin the Undead, devoted to songs on sombre themes: laments, dirges, and the like. Sounds appealing, no? It is fair to say that Josquin’s sacred music is the more popular side of his compositional personality, but this disc explores his secular chansons, a genre that I tend to think of as relatively light-weight, but is here anything but. I’m not a musician, much less an expert on the theory of early music, so I cannot tell you what Graindelavoix is doing that infuses this music with so much tension and passion and unsettling beauty, nor can I tell you if this is defensible on historical grounds, but I can tell you that whatever they are doing is mesmerizing. This music has never sounded like this before, and it’s something to behold.

Let’s take an example by listening to two performances of Nymphes, nappes. First, here is what I would consider a “standard” approach, from the King’s Singers:

Now let’s hear Graindelavoix tackle the same piece. Notice that it’s more than twice as long — dramatically slower — but especially notice how the harmonies have been juiced up and milked for all they’re worth. There’s a level of attention, and a depth of feeling, and an organic sense of improvisation even (though I doubt actual improvisation) that is simply missing from the other performance, which sounds strait-laced and perfunctory in comparison.

I think that’s extraordinary on every level, and this record is my favourite of the year.


Another wonderful disc that approached Josquin’s music from a very different angle was The Josquin Songbook. On this recording a selection of Josquin’s motets, masses, and chansons have been arranged for one or two voices, with vihuela accompaniment. Instead of a dense polyphonic fabric, we hear one or two of the vocal lines in an intimate, chamber music ambiance. This sort of thing has been done before, preeminently by the counter-tenor Carlos Mena, many years ago, on a recording of music by Victoria, a disc that remains the gold standard for me. But this new record, with the splendid soprano Maria Cristina Kiehr and the fine (and new to me) tenor Jonatan Alvarado, and the vihuela played by Ariel Abramovich, is outstanding by any reasonable standard. The music takes on a limpid beauty that pierces the heart. Again, this is not “standard” Josquin, but it is another approach to his music that highlights its many beauties.

As an example, let’s hear the same chanson as we heard above, “Nymphes, nappes”:


In the runner-up category of the Josquin Anniversary sweepstakes, there were a number of excellent recordings that I recommend. The Tallis Scholars completed a decades-long project to record all of Josquin’s Masses; the final volume included three Masses, and was awarded the Recording of the Year award from BBC Music Magazine. This is an ensemble that practically defines the “standard” approach to Josquin’s music, and indeed to all Renaissance polyphony, and they are very good at what they do. Another excellent record was Giosquino, from the ensembles Odhecaton and The Gesualdo Six, which was dedicated to music Josquin wrote in Italy; these are both very fine groups and I enjoyed this disc. The British ensemble Stile Antico recorded the Missa Pange Lingua and were up to their usual high standard. One of the oddest programmes came from the enterprising ensemble Theleme; they recorded a selection of the chansons, and sang them relatively straight, but added a variety of unusual musical interludes, including one for ondes martenot in which Josquin’s music was re-imagined as a video game theme song. Good stuff.


Sometimes a certain artist and a certain piece of music just seem made for one another. Think of Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations, or Arthur Rubinstein and Chopin’s Nocturnes, or Kathleen Ferrier and Mahler’s songs. When I heard that Igor Levit had made a recording of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues, I immediately sensed that same kind of hand-in-glove fit. Here is a pianist with exactly the right combination of sturdiness and finesse to bring these 48 little piano miniatures, which are tightly argued but expressively generous, to life. I’m happy to report that my instincts were sound: this really is the kind of music that showcases his many strengths as a pianist. I’ve got three or four versions of this music in my collection, including the two made by the dedicatee Tatiana Nikolayeva, and Levit is more than worth hearing alongside the others. On a technical level he is flawless (which can’t always be said for Nikolayeva!), and the sound is unimpeachable.

Had he recorded only the Preludes and Fugues it would have been a feast, but actually this only accounts for half of this new record — which runs, incidentally, to about 3-1/2 hours! The other half is Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, a long (90 minute) piece written in tribute to Shostakovich. Stevenson was a Scottish pianist and composer who passed away in 2015. I’ve heard some of his music here and there, but never anything like this gargantuan monster. The music is based throughout on the famous DSCH theme that runs through so many of Shostakovich’s own pieces. It’s a big, harmonically lush, and impressive piece, but I would need to hear it a few more times before I could say more.

Here is Shostakovich’s Fugue No.7, in A major:


The idea to pair the music of Alfred Schnittke — thorny, knotty, and often fiercely dissonant — with the music of Arvo Part — serene, simple, and clear as a struck bell — is a good one. I was delighted this year, therefore, to see a new recording of Schnittke’s marvellous Concerto for Choir paired with Part’s Seven Magnificat Antiphons, and from the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir too, who would be near the top of my short list if I could choose a dream team in this repertoire. They don’t disappoint. The Concerto is hideously difficult, but this crew has no problems with it; they sing with wonderful beauty of tone and allow the dissonant textures to come through clearly. The text of this piece is based on thousand-year-old prayers of an Orthodox monk, and Schnittke’s supple music responds sensitively to them. We then get Schnittke’s brief Three Sacred Hymns, which are comparatively simple and consonant, and therefore a nice transition to Part’s Antiphons. The latter aren’t quite the masterpiece that the Concerto is, but they serve as a splendid contrast, and are beautiful in their own right. The disc is a great way to hear outstanding examples of sacred music from the late 20th century, and it could hardly be better sung or better recorded.

Here is the first of Schnittke’s Sacred Hymns, the Hail Mary:


Although it was not, so far as I know, an anniversary year, it was nonetheless a banner year for the music of Arvo Part, with a half dozen very fine recordings of his music issued, among them new performances of his Miserere, his Stabat Mater, and his Passio, all of which had authoritative recordings decades ago by the Hilliard Ensemble, in the presence, or at least with the imprimatur, of the composer, and in the meantime, it seems, others have been afraid to try them. But the river thawed this year, and it is wonderful to have a raft of new recordings of these great pieces. I’ve flopped around trying to decide which to pluck for this list, and I’ve settled on the Passio, from the Helsinki Chamber Choir. It’s one of Part’s most monumental scores, combining strict compositional rigour with the starkest of stark beauties. It relies heavily on the voices of a clutch of soloists; they need to be solid and sombre, and a lack of personality is an asset. The Helsinkians carry it off very well. I’m not ready to say it matches the Hilliard Ensemble, but it is very good, and the sound is more immediate, with greater presence. The final peroration, on which so much depends in this piece, is wonderful.

Here is an excerpt from near the end that includes Jesus’ final saying: “Consummatum est”, which you’ll hear from the solo bass voice:

Other fine Part recordings this year, apart from those already mentioned, are a new recording of Lamentate paired with Part’s more recent piano music from the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and Onute Grazinyte, and a disc of Part’s smaller-scale orchestral pieces from Renand Capucon and the Orchestre de chambre de Lausanne. All terrific, and well worth hearing if you’re an admirer of this music.


It has been five years since I picked a disc of Bach’s motets for my year-end list, so the time was ripe for this new recording from Pygmalion, an ensemble that impresses me every time I hear them. This music needs fleet rhythms, clear textures, perfect timing, and joy! Pygmalion brings everything they have, and it sounds wonderful. They interleave between the motets a variety of pieces written a century or two earlier, in a Renaissance style, by composers like Praetorius (H., if you are wondering) and Gabrieli (G., if you are wondering). It’s an interesting programming decision that highlights the effervescent energy of Bach’s music, while also serving as a pleasant palate cleanser between courses. Excellent all around.

Here is a brief promotional video for the disc:


The sensational young Icelandic pianist Vikunger Olaffson returned this year with a record built around the music of Mozart, Haydn, and their contemporaries. A couple of years ago I praised a recording of Bach by Olaffson, and this new repertoire once again plays to his strengths: rhythmic verve, perfect precision, marvelous clarity, and a singing musicality. We get to hear Mozart’s Sonata No.16 and Haydn’s Sonata in B minor alongside a variety of shorter pieces by lesser-known composers like Galuppi, CPE Bach, and Cimarosa. Olaffson has done these pastiche programmes before, and he does them well. (The disc ends with Liszt’s transcription of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, which makes a perfect finish.) I’ve returned to this music often this year.

Here he is playing Mozart’s famous Rondo (K.545):


Estonia, a small country, produces more than its fair share of composers and choirs, and it might be that Cyrillus Kreek had something to do with that. Born late in the nineteenth century, he belongs to an older generation of Estonian musicians who built up the musical culture of the country. The Suspended Harp of Babel is a fine tribute from the superb Estonian ensemble Vox Clamantis, who sing an assortment of Kreek’s settings of folk songs, hymns, and psalms, all of which are woven together with instrumental interpolations on unusual instruments like the nyckelharpa and kannel. The disc closes with an enterprising collision of Estonian folk music, a Lutheran chorale, and, of all things, a song of Guillaume de Machaut. It’s all very “ECM”, if you know what I mean, but in my books that’s a good thing more often than not, and I find it definitely a good thing here. The mood of the disc is generally serene and contemplative. As good as the music is, the biggest draw for me is Vox Clamantis, who are one of the world’s great vocal ensembles. Let them sing anything, and I will listen.


Another favourite pianist, Anton Batagov, was back this year with a two-disc set of Schubert’s music. It had to be two discs because Batagov plays the music so slowly. That’s his thing. I’ve an affection for him that is something like the affection one has for a true but socially awkward friend: one doesn’t wheel him out at a party, but afterward, when most everyone has gone home and the lights are low, he’s just the thing. I’ve discovered, with his help, that I quite like slowed down music. I like hearing the harmonies and the melodic lines without being hurried. On these discs he plays the massive Sonata No.21 — which, of course, is even more massive in his hands: where a canonical pianist like Kempff takes about 45 minutes, Batagov takes a little over 60. Andras Schiff gave us the Impromptu No.3 in about 5 minutes; Batagov takes 11. It’s not the last word on this music, not by any means, but it’s wonderful in its own peculiar way.


I’m a person who likes to be systematic, and so it’s fitting, I suppose, that St. Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum, which is sometimes called the first opera, was also the first opera I ever went to. It’s not an opera in our later sense, of course, but it is a musical drama. She wrote it for performance in her abbey, and it tells an allegorical story about a soul tempted by the devil but defended by the virtues.  All of the singing parts are for women, of course, but the devil’s role, shouted instead of sung, is for a man. I saw it performed by Sequentia, who I think were the first to make a recording of it. In the intervening years another three or four records have been made, some quite good, and this year there was another: from the US ensemble Seraphic Fire. They say it is the “first complete recording”, but I’m not sure what that means; at just over an hour, it’s the shortest of the versions I have in my collection. No matter. It’s beautiful. This music was an interesting choice for Seraphic Fire because they are by no means medieval specialists. They sing the piece mostly a capella, though the different sections of the drama are introduced by bells, and the devil’s entry gets some crude, toneless percussion. It’s a relatively simple interpretation, but the singing is so fine, and the sound so good, that I’m happy to recommend it.

Here is a segment from early in the drama, “The Soul Invokes the Virtues”:


All in all, a great year for music, as it always is!

Some Damnable Errors About Christmas

December 26, 2021

G. K. Ch*st*rt*n

That it is human to err is admitted by even the most positive of our thinkers. Here we have the great difference between latter-day thought and the thought of the past. If Euclid were alive to-day (and I dare say he is) he would not say, “The angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal to one another.” He would say, “To me (a very frail and fallible being, remember) it does somehow seem that these two angles have a mysterious and awful equality to one another.” The dislike of schoolboys for Euclid is unreasonable in many ways; but fundamentally it is entirely reasonable. Fundamentally it is the revolt from a man who was either fallible and therefore (in pretending to infallibility) an impostor, or infallible and therefore not human.

Now, since it is human to err, it is always in reference to those things which arouse in us the most human of all our emotions—I mean the emotion of love—that we conceive the deepest of our errors. Suppose we met Euclid on Westminster Bridge, and he took us aside and confessed to us that whilst he regarded parallelograms and rhomboids with an indifference bordering on contempt, for isosceles triangles he cherished a wild romantic devotion. Suppose he asked us to accompany him to the nearest music-shop, and there purchased a guitar in order that he might worthily sing to us the radiant beauty and the radiant goodness of isosceles triangles. As men we should, I hope, respect his enthusiasm, and encourage his enthusiasm, and catch his enthusiasm. But as seekers after truth we should be compelled to regard with a dark suspicion, and to check with the most anxious care, every fact that he told us about isosceles triangles. For adoration involves a glorious obliquity of vision. It involves more than that. We do not say of Love that he is short-sighted. We do not say of Love that he is myopic. We do not say of Love that he is astigmatic. We say quite simply, Love is blind. We might go further and say, Love is deaf. That would be a profound and obvious truth. We might go further still and say, Love is dumb. But that would be a profound and obvious lie. For love is always an extraordinarily fluent talker. Love is a wind-bag, filled with a gusty wind from Heaven.

It is always about the thing that we love most that we talk most. About this thing, therefore, our errors are something more than our deepest errors: they are our most frequent errors. That is why for nearly two thousand years mankind has been more glaringly wrong on the subject of Christmas than on any other subject. If mankind had hated Christmas, he would have understood it from the first. What would have happened then, it is impossible to say. For that which is hated, and therefore is persecuted, and therefore grows brave, lives on for ever, whilst that which is understood dies in the moment of our understanding of it—dies, as it were, in our awful grasp. Between the horns of this eternal dilemma shivers all the mystery of the jolly visible world, and of that still jollier world which is invisible. And it is because Mr. Shaw and the writers of his school cannot, with all their splendid sincerity and, acumen, perceive that he and they and all of us are impaled on those horns as certainly as the sausages I ate for breakfast this morning had been impaled on the cook’s toasting-fork—it is for this reason, I say, that Mr. Shaw and his friends seem to me to miss the basic principle that lies at the root of all things human and divine. By the way, not all things that are divine are human. But all things that are human are divine. But to return to Christmas.

I select at random two of the more obvious fallacies that obtain. One is that Christmas should be observed as a time of jubilation. This is (I admit) quite a recent idea. It never entered into the tousled heads of the shepherds by night, when the light of the angel of the Lord shone about them and they arose and went to do homage to the Child. It never entered into the heads of the Three Wise Men. They did not bring their gifts as a joke, but as an awful oblation. It never entered into the heads of the saints and scholars, the poets and painters, of the Middle Ages. Looking back across the years, they saw in that dark and ungarnished manger only a shrinking woman, a brooding man, and a child born to sorrow. The philomaths of the eighteenth century, looking back, saw nothing at all. It is not the least of the glories of the Victorian Era that it rediscovered Christmas. It is not the least of the mistakes of the Victorian Era that it supposed Christmas to be a feast.

The splendour of the saying, “I have piped unto you, and you have not danced; I have wept with you, and you have not mourned” lies in the fact that it might have been uttered with equal truth by any man who had ever piped or wept. There is in the human race some dark spirit of recalcitrance, always pulling us in the direction contrary to that in which we are reasonably expected to go. At a funeral, the slightest thing, not in the least ridiculous at any other time, will convulse us with internal laughter. At a wedding, we hover mysteriously on the brink of tears. So it is with the modern Christmas. I find myself in agreement with the cynics in so far that I admit that Christmas, as now observed, tends to create melancholy. But the reason for this lies solely in our own misconception. Christmas is essentially a dies iræ. If the cynics will only make up their minds to treat it as such, even the saddest and most atrabilious of them will acknowledge that he has had a rollicking day.

This brings me to the second fallacy. I refer to the belief that “Christmas comes but once a year.” Perhaps it does, according to the calendar—a quaint and interesting compilation, but of little or no practical value to anybody. It is not the calendar, but the Spirit of Man that regulates the recurrence of feasts and fasts. Spiritually, Christmas Day recurs exactly seven times a week. When we have frankly acknowledged this, and acted on this, we shall begin to realise the Day’s mystical and terrific beauty. For it is only every-day things that reveal themselves to us in all their wonder and their splendour. A man who happens one day to be knocked down by a motor-bus merely utters a curse and instructs his solicitor, but a man who has been knocked down by a motor-bus every day of the year will have begun to feel that he is taking part in an august and soul-cleansing ritual. He will await the diurnal stroke of fate with the same lowly and pious joy as animated the Hindoos awaiting Juggernaut. His bruises will be decorations, worn with the modest pride of the veteran. He will cry aloud, in the words of the late W.E. Henley, “My head is bloody but unbowed.” He will add, “My ribs are broken but unbent.”

I look for the time when we shall wish one another a Merry Christmas every morning; when roast turkey and plum-pudding shall be the staple of our daily dinner, and the holly shall never be taken down from the walls, and everyone will always be kissing everyone else under the mistletoe. And what is right as regards Christmas is right as regards all other so-called anniversaries. The time will come when we shall dance round the Maypole every morning before breakfast—a meal at which hot-cross buns will be a standing dish—and shall make April fools of one another every day before noon. The profound significance of All Fool’s Day—the glorious lesson that we are all fools—is too apt at present to be lost. Nor is justice done to the sublime symbolism of Shrove Tuesday—the day on which all sins are shriven. Every day pancakes shall be eaten, either before or after the plum-pudding. They shall be eaten slowly and sacramentally. They shall be fried over fires tended and kept for ever bright by Vestals. They shall be tossed to the stars.

I shall return to the subject of Christmas next week.


This essay was written by Max Beerbohm, and first published in “A Christmas Garland” (1912). It captures Chesterton’s style quite well, and seems to me to be an affectionate parody. I always laugh when I read it.

Merry Christmas!

Favourites in 2021: Books

December 22, 2021

Back in 2017 I launched a reading project in ancient Roman history and literature; the year 2021 was, as it turned out, the year in which that project was concluded. The capstone to the whole enterprise, which absorbed a gigantic chunk of my reading time this year, was Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in six volumes and I-can’t-count-that-high pages. Reading it was a great experience, and a fitting conclusion to what has been a tremendously interesting and enjoyable few years of Roman immersion. Notes on Gibbon, and on a few Roman stragglers will, I hope, appear here over the next few months.

In the meantime, I am preparing to launch a similar reading project on the ancient Greeks. More about that another day, perhaps.

Not much reading time was left over once Gibbon was given his due, so I fell back on an old trick: I read things that were short, and, in particular, I turned to reading poetry. I devoted a couple of months each to several poets, beginning with Yeats, and then, honouring his anniversary year, Dante. Reading an epic was so rewarding — though admittedly not clearly in the spirit of reading things that are short — that I decided to revisit both Milton and Wordsworth. In the waning months of the year I spent a few dispiriting weeks with Rilke and, rallying, a few months with Frost.

I’ve enjoyed this poetic sojourn so much that I intend to continue it in 2022, devoting a few months each to individual poets. Although my plans are still inchoate, I’m looking in the direction of William Blake, George Herbert, Shakespeare (the sonnets), Gerard Manley Hopkins, and, perhaps, either Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath.

Another aspect of this reading-short-things strategy is that I’ve been reading plays. At least, I thought I was reading plays, but at year’s end I am surprised to find that I read only three, all by Thomas Middleton, a quite interesting contemporary of Shakespeare. I hope to pull up my socks and make more progress on this front in the new year.

I read a half-dozen novels this year, of which the longest was Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, and the best was, maybe, Rosemary Sutcliff’s Three Legions (which was actually three novels). Novel reading is something I’d like to do more of in 2022, and I am planning to tackle Crime and Punishment again, but the trouble with novels is that they are long.

On the non-fiction side of things, my favourite of the year was Deformities of Samuel Johnson, a totally earnest, perfectly delightful broadside against the great man that made me laugh heartily and at length. I also read a quite wonderful art history book called Rome 1300, and I enjoyed Evelyn Waugh’s outrageous travel anthology When the Going was Good. At year’s end I’m reading, as seems appropriate to the times, a nineteenth-century curio cabinet called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Will 2022 be less mad than 2021? There is but one way to find out.

Suetonius: Lives of the Twelve Caesars

December 15, 2021

The Lives of the Twelve Caesars
(Modern Library, 1931) [121]
361 p.

The twelve Caesars are those who ruled Rome from 48 BC, when Julius Caesar defeated Pompey, to 96 AD, when Domitian was assassinated. Much of this ground, excluding the reigns of Julius and Augustus on the front end and the reigns of the three Flavian emperors at the back end, was covered, and covered better, by Tacitus. Suetonius is less probing and more anecdotal, which is mostly too bad but has a silver lining.

Suetonius typically begins by giving us the family history of the emperor, relates how he came to power, and gives an overview of his chief accomplishments in politics, military affairs, and religion. All of this is well and good, and would be particularly valuable to a reader coming to this history untutored. If you want Augustus’ reign in 10 pages, Suetonius is your man.

He then pivots to more personal commentary on each emperor. What sort of character did he have? What were his chief virtues and vices? Which family members did he murder? Which sexual perversions were his favourites? What entertainments did he stage in Rome? When he died, did the Roman people rejoice or weep?

This is where Suetonius really comes into his own. I know of no other historical source, for instance, that tells us that Julius Caesar had male pattern baldness, or that Augustus liked to eat cucumbers, or that Caligula operated a brothel in his own palace. He is truly the master of imperial gossip.

If Suetonius is to be believed — and it is important to stress that there is some question about this — then it is fair to say that the Roman emperors were a sick lot, mostly. Some considerably sicker than others, granted. The old nostrum about the corrupting powers of absolute power finds ample support in these pages. There are all the sexual crimes and misdemeanors: rumours swirled around Julius Caesar, who behind his back was dubbed “every woman’s man and every man’s woman”; even Augustus, the paradigm case of a good Roman emperor during this period, with a reputation for just governance, moderation, and intelligence, was apparently a Jeffrey Epstein-type who had his friends bring him young virgins to deflower; Tiberius seemed fairly level-headed and restrained at first, but when, in later years, he retired to Capri, he had his rooms painted with pornographic scenes and indulged a passion for pedophilia; Caligula, if possible, was even worse, and is best discreetly veiled. Speaking of veils, Nero wore one, along with a lovely dress, when he had himself married to another man. On and on it goes. The Flavians, starting with Vespasian, seem to have brought a measure of restraint on this front — or maybe Suetonius was still too close to them to write freely.

They were a violent lot too. To some extent this came with the territory; Romans had none of the qualms we have about capital punishment, and they applied it frequently. But the worst of the emperors seem to have relished the power they wielded over the lives of others. In Tiberius’ later years, we are told, “not a day passed without an execution”. Caligula would force parents to attend the executions of their children, and had a special passion for violent spectacles:

“He burned a writer of Atellan farces alive in the middle of the arena of the amphitheater, because of a humorous line of double meaning. When a Roman Knight on being thrown to the wild beasts loudly protested his innocence, he took him out, cut off his tongue, and put him back again.”

Nero, not content with the power to order deaths, was actually accused of venturing into the streets at night to randomly accost and murder civilians: “…he used to beat men as they came home from dinner, stabbing any who resisted him and throwing them into the sewers”.

And to lust and violence we can add greed: Caligula, again, was the worst offender, for, Suetonius says, “seized with a mania for feeling the touch of money, he would often pour out huge piles of gold pieces in some open place, walk over them barefooted, and wallow in them for a long time with his whole body”. Presumably this was in the early days of his reign, because he burned through the imperial treasury in just a few short years with his extravagant living.

Like Tacitus, Suetonius completely misses the importance of Christianity’s first forays into the Roman world. Christians are mentioned once, in connection with Nero, who, Suetonius comments, persecuted this “class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” But the persecution under Domitian, which looms large in Christian history for its many Roman martyrs, gets no notice.

All in all, these are very much “feet of clay” portraits of the emperors. Admittedly, they have a certain diverting quality, like a P.T. Barnum gallery of freaks. There is a reason Suetonius has remained as popular as he has over the centuries. But even the most lurid stories can be redeemed by a touching anecdote or a telling detail. I’d have been willing to read through a good deal of salacious gossip just to learn that Julius Caesar, freshly dead, was carried through the streets of Rome, “with one arm hanging down”.

Callender: Deformities of Samuel Johnson

December 7, 2021

Deformities of Samuel Johnson
James Thomson Callender
Available from

I don’t know about you, but having learned that a book exists with this title I am unable to resist it. Just as bad men have their sycophants, so great men have their critics, and James Thomas Callender, it seems, was a doozy. A cranky Scot with unfettered passions for scurrility and scandalmongering, he assembled this prosecutorial pamphlet with Dr Johnson in the dock. It is, to put the matter plainly, a hoot of a high order.

You might wonder just what aspects of Johnson’s personality or public influence so raised the ire of Callender. He is not shy to tell us. It is a little matter of

“his covetous and shameless prolixity; his corruptions of our language; his very limited literature; his entire want of general learning; his antipathy to rival merit; his paralytick reasoning; his solemn trifling pedantry; his narrow views of human life; his adherence to contradictions; his defiance of decency; and his contempt of truth.”

Of Johnson’s prolixity we can, perhaps, grant the justice of the charge, but obviously anyone intent on accusing him of “want of general learning” or “contempt of truth” is preparing something special, and Callender does not disappoint.

The book actually begins rather promisingly: “Man is endowed with sagacity sufficient to discover his errors, but seldom has fortitude to forsake them.” It is an aphorism worthy of Johnson himself. Among the errors that Johnson cannot forsake are numbered his slovenliness (“his personal appearance cannot much recommend him”) and his inability to speak well in good company (“his conversation would shock the rudest savage”) — that same conversation, of course, which has delighted generations of discerning readers. Taken together, Callender finds in Johnson affirmation of a popular proverb:

“His ignorance, his misconduct, and his success, are a striking proof that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.”

Not content with general accusations, Callender inspires admiration by the assiduity with which he has combed through Johnson’s publications, searching out specific instances of ignorance and idiocy, and the conscientiousness with which he has presented them for our perusal. There is, for example, this atrocious specimen:

[Johnson wrote] ‘M’Leod left them lying dead by families as they stood.’

upon which Cellender comments

This is profound; for no man can stand and lie at the same time. The line ought to be read thus: ‘M’Leod left them lying dead by families as they HAD stood.’

And who can deny that he is right? Zing! There are many more examples of this kind, some even more horrible.

But it is when Callender turns to Johnson’s Dictionary that his case really takes flight. The dictionary as a whole Callender judges a “load of blunders”, concluding that the definitions fall into three categories, “the erroneous, œnigmatical, and superfluous.” Among the former are, for instance, Johnson’s definitions of “fish” or “bird”, from which we might conclude that an alligator is a fish and a bat a bird. Zing! The œnigmatical definitions are especially numerous, for Johnson defines, we learn, a veritable blizzard of words “to be found in no language under heaven”. Just the ‘A’ section, for instance, supplies this delightful concatenation of multisyllables:

“Abacus, Abandonement, Abarticulation, Abcedarian, Abcedary, Aberrant, Aberuncate, Abject, v. a. Ablactate, Ablactation, Ablation, Ablegate, Ablegation, Ablepsy, Abluent, Abrasion, Abscissa, Absinthiated, Abitention, Absterge, Accessariness, Accidentalness, Accipient, Acclivious, Accolent, Accompanable, Accroach, Accustomarily, Acroamatical, Acronycal, Acroters, or Acroteria, Acuate, Aculerate, Addulce, Addenography, Ademption, Adiaphory, Adjectitious, Adition, Abstergent, Acceptilation, Adjugate, Adjument, Adjunction, Adjunctive, Adjutor, Adjutory, Adjuvant, Adjuvate, Admensuration, Adminicle, Adminicular, Admix, Admonishment, Admurmuration, Adscititious, Adstriction, Advesperate, Adulator, Adulterant, Adulterine, Adumbrant, Advolation, Advolution, Adustible, Aerology, Aeromancy, Aerometry, Aeroscopy, Affabrous, Affectuous, Affixion, Afflation, Afflatus, Agglomerate, Agnation, Agnition, Agreeingness, Alate, Abb, Alegar, Alligate, Alligation, Allocution, Amalgmate, Amandation, Ambidexterity, Ambilogy, Ambiloquous, Ambry, Ambustion, Amende, Amercer, Amethodical, Amphibological, Amphibologically, Amphisch, Amplificate, Amygdalate, Amygdaline, Anacamptick, Anacampticks, Anaclacticks, Anadiplosis, Anagogetical, Anagrammatize, Anamorphosis, Anaphora, Anastomosis, Anastrope, Anathematical, Androgynal, Androgynally, Androgynus, Anemography, Anemometer, Anfractuousness, Angelicalness, Angiomonospermous, Angularity, Angularness, Anhelation, Aniented, Anileness, Anility, Animative, Annumerate, Annumeration, Annunciate, Anomalously, Ansated, Antaphroditick, Antapoplectick, Antarthritick, Antasthmatick, Anteact, Auscultation, Antemundane, Antepenult, Antepredicament, Anthology, Anthroposophy, Anthypnotick, Antichristianity, Auxiliation, Antinephritick, Antinomy, Antiquatedness, Apert, Apertly, Aphilanthrophy, Aphrodisiacal, Aphrodosiack, Apocope, Apocryphalness, Apomecometry, Appellatory, Apsis, Aptate, Aptote, Aqua, Aquatile, Aqueousness, Aquose, Aquosity, Araignee, Aratory, Arbuscle, Archchanter, Archaiology, Archailogick, Archeus, Arcuation, Arenose, Arenulous, Argil, Argillaceous, Argute, Arietate, Aristocraticallness, Armental, Armentine, Armigerous, Armillary, Armipotence, Arrentation, Arreptitious, Arrison, Authentickness, Arrosion, Articular, Articulateness, Austral, Arundinaceous, Arundineous, Asbestine, Ascriptitious, Asinary, Asperation, Asperifolious, Aspirate, v. a. Assassinator, Assumptive, Astonishingness, Astrography, Attiguous, Attinge, Aucupation, Avowee.”

I told you he was thorough. And Callender even has a bit of fun with this list, imagining for us how an ESL student using Johnson’s dictionary as an authority might write:

“‘An Admurmuration has long wandered about the world, that the pensioner’s political principles are anfractuous. Their anfractuousness, their insipience, and their turpitude, are no longer amphibological. His nefarious repercussion of obloquy must contaminate, and obumbrate, and who can tell but it may even aberuncate his feculent and excrementitious celebrity. His perspicacity will see without comity, or hilarity, that his character as an author and a gentleman, requires resuscitation, for it is neither immane nor immarcessible. This is a homogeneous truth. Let him distend, like the flaccid sides of a football, his sal, his sapience, and his powers of ratiocination. The mellifluous and numerose cadence of equiponderant periods cannot ensure him from a luxation, a laceration, and a resiliency of his adminicular concatenation with the rugged mercantile race. The loss of this adscititious adminicle would make the sage’s impeccable, but lugubrious bosom vibrate with the horrors of dilution and dereliction. His organs of vision would gush with salsamentarious torrents of spherical particles, of equal diameters, and of equal specific gravities, as Dr Cheyne observes—their smoothness—their sphericity—their frictions, and their hardness,’ &c.”

I told you this was a hoot. But I think my favourite of Callender’s criticisms, because it touches on Johnson’s real, endearing personality, is his reliance on high-brow literary authorities for his examples of word usage. Writes Callender:

“He tells us, on Shakespeare’s authority, that two is, ‘one and one,’ Pope and Creech are quoted to prove, that three is, ‘two and one.’ Four is, ‘two and two;’ and, if you have the least doubt that ‘four and one’ make five, or that five is, ‘the half of ten,’ you will be silenced by the name of Dryden. Six is, ‘twice three, one more than five.’ Seven is, ‘four and three, one more than six.’ Eight is, ‘twice four, a word of number.’ Nine is, ‘one more than eight.’ Ninth is, ‘that which precedes the tenth.’ Ten is, ‘the decimal number, twice five.’ Tenth is, ‘first after the ninth, the ordinal of ten.’ Eleven is, ‘ten and one.’ Eleventh is, ‘the next in order to the tenth, and is derived from eleven.’ Twelve is, ‘two and ten;’ and twelfth, ‘second after the tenth, the ordinal of twelve.’ Thirteen is, ‘ten and three.’ Fourteen is, ‘four and ten.’ Fifteen is, ‘five and ten.’ Fifteen, ‘the ordinal of fifteen, the fifth after the tenth;’ and, if you entertain any suspicion as to the verity of these definitions, read over Boyle, Brown, Dryden, Moses, Raleigh, Sandys, Shakespeare, and Bacon. Thirdly is, in the ‘third place.’ Thrice, ‘three times,’ threefold, ‘thrice repeated, consisting of three.’ Threepence, (three and pence) ‘a small silver coin, valued at thrice a penny.’ Threescore, a. (three and score) ‘thrice twenty, sixty.’ Pope, Raleigh, Wiseman, Shakespeare, Brown, Dryden, and Spencer, are cited to convince you, that these explanations are accurate.”

That is simply wonderful. God bless Johnson, and God bless Callender for his efforts, however malintentioned. This little book may be little more than a curiosity, but there is a time and place for happy, idle diversions, and these Deformities of Samuel Johnson provide them in abundance.