Archive for the 'Books' Category

Plautus: Four Comedies

November 19, 2017

Four Comedies
Titus Maccius Plautus
Translated from the Latin by Erich Segal
(Oxford, 1996) [c.200 BC]
xlvi + 242 p.

Plautus is the earliest extant Roman literary figure; he was the author of about 130 plays, of which 20 survive in whole or significant part. Writing at a time when Rome was expanding in power and coming into contact with other major powers in the Mediterranean, his period of success overlaps with the Second Punic War (218-201 BC); Rome was under the greatest existential threat she’d yet known, and so, naturally, Plautus wrote raucous and diverting comedies. Rome was also moving more into the Greek sphere of influence, and this was decisive for Plautus; many of his plays are adapted from Greek originals, even retaining a Greek setting and making frequent jests about Greeks.

On the evidence collected here, his plays are works of quick wit, rapidly developing plot, wordplay, and delightful farce. His characters are not richly developed, but then the plays are not really about the characters; they are comedies of circumstance and situation. This Oxford edition calls Plautus “the single greatest influence on Western comedy”, and his manner does feel familiar (more so than does, for instance, Aristophanes). The characters crack jokes, make frequent asides, and even address the audience. They are unbuttoned affairs in which, it seems, anything might happen.

**

The Braggart Soldier is the longest of the plays in this volume (about 1400 lines), and it illustrates well the attractions of Plautus’ writing. The situation involves a conspiracy among the household slaves to allow the mistress of the house to abscond with a handsome young man, and a boastful husband who is duped into trading her for her non-existent twin sister. It is great fun, and Segal’s translation is part of the pleasure: there is a long sequence in the middle in which he sustains page after page of lines with internal rhymes, and it is quite a delight.

*

The Brothers Menaechmus is about twin brothers, separated as children, who find themselves, many years later, unbeknownst to themselves or anyone else, in the same city at the same time. It’s a delightful little comedy featuring a long string of hilarious instances of mistaken identity. I was quite taken with Segal’s translation, which, though it introduces elements (such as occasional rhyme) not present in the original, is wonderfully witty and engaging.

The play is best known to English speakers as being the play Shakespeare adapted into The Comedy of Errors, and it is on account of this adaptation that English speakers have a motive, and an understandable one, not to get to know the original. The truth is that Shakespeare’s version is incomparably superior, not only in its verbal wit but in its plot construction, for by adding a second pair of twins (the Dromios) as the servants of the twin brothers, Shakespeare exponentially expanded the play’s scope for confusion and comedy. It’s no contest. But presumably Shakespeare chose to adapt Plautus’ play because he saw some merit in it, and he was right so to see. It would be fun to read the two plays in close conjunction. But read Plautus first, to avoid disappointment.

*

Although I anticipated that The Haunted House might have a supernatural angle, in fact the house in question is just one that emits noises because a wayward son and his many drunk friends are inside, hiding from the father, who has returned unexpectedly from a long journey. Meanwhile, outside, a clever household slave concocts a series of comedic diversions to prevent the father from entering. It’s an entertaining play that I imagine would work very well on stage.

*

The last play in this volume is The Pot of Gold, about a miserly father who obsessively guards a pot of gold — that is, not a pot full of gold, but an actual gold pot, though the distinction hardly matters for the play’s purposes. He is one of the best rendered characters I’ve encountered in this set of plays, coming closest to having something like a realistic, albeit exaggerated, psychology. Meanwhile his daughter, soon to be married, is about to give birth — though she is apparently not great with child, for the father is entirely unaware of her condition — having been “ravished” (or, to speak plainly, raped) at a city festival by a relation of her fiancé. In the principal comic scene this “ravisher” approaches her father to confess his crime and ask for her hand in marriage, but her father misconstrues his confession as an admission that he has stolen the precious pot of gold. This is comedy, yes, but dark; the man’s greed corrupts even his closest relationships and, indeed, his whole experience. The play breaks off before the conclusion, but the notes indicate that “most scholars” believe it ends with the father giving the pot of gold as a dowry gift — a redemption story.

Molière was impressed enough by this play to take it as the model for his L’Avare (The Miser); he retained many of the comedic elements from Plautus, including the discomforting humour of the daughter/pot-of-gold confusion, but infused all of the characters with more realism and, in my mind, brought out the interior corruption of the central character with even greater force.

**

I’ve enjoyed each of these plays. In his introductory notes to this volume, Erich Segal makes a distinction between “great drama” and “great theatre”; with his stock characters, loony situations, and comedic high-jinx, Plautus may not qualify as the former, but he might very well deliver the latter. Should I ever have the opportunity to see one of his plays on the stage, I would not readily turn it down.

Livy IV: Dawn of the Roman Empire

November 13, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XXXI-XL
The Dawn of the Roman Empire
Titus Livius
Translated from the Latin by J.C. Yardley
(Oxford, 2000) [c.20 BC]
xxxvi + 612 p.

The previous volume in this edition of Livy’s Roman history had ended with the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio Africanus and the consequent end of the Second Punic War. It was Rome’s first victory over a major regional power, and it was a signal to the other political powers in the Mediterranean basin that the Romans were a force to be reckoned with.

An ally of the Carthaginians during that conflict had been Philip V of Macedon, a ruler a few generations removed from Alexander the Great, presiding over a much-reduced but still extensive territory to the east of the Adriatic. In Books 31-40, which are the topic for today, the Romans go to war against Philip and other Mediterranean powers, especially King Antiochus of Syria. They eventually emerge victorious, thus establishing themselves not only as a European and African power, but an Asian one as well, and in consequence the territory later generations would know as “the Roman Empire” began to take on recognizable shape.

The particular conflicts described in this sequence of books are known to historians as the Second Macedonian War and the Roman-Seleucid War. The period covered is 201-180 BC.

**

Livy remarks at the outset that his task seems to be becoming unmanageable:

“I plainly perceive that, like those who, tempted by the shallows near the shore, walk into the sea, the farther I advance, I am carried, as it were, into a greater depth and abyss; and that my work almost increases on my hands which seemed to be diminished by the completion of each of its earlier portions.”

It is beginning to become unmanageable for the reader too, or at least for this reader, not because of its length but on account of its complexity; when the Romans moved into Greece, Macedonia, and Asia Minor they encountered a bewildering variety of small kingdoms, with alliances and enmities already formed, and then broken and re-formed in response to the Roman threat, and the course of events by which the Romas eventually came to dominate fits no neat narrative the way the conflict with Carthage and Hannibal had. One hardly knows where to look for the main story. Nonetheless, a few significant events can be picked out.

It is worth noting that when the Romans first came into Greece they did so, publicly, as liberators, to free the Greek peoples from submission to Philip of Macedon. And Livy leaves open the question, so far as I can tell, whether this cry of liberation was genuine or merely a front for Roman imperialism. Certainly there were those in Rome who thought it foolhardy to start another war so soon after the victory against Hannibal had been concluded, and it is not obvious that there was a widely shared appetite for expansion of the Roman sphere of influence.

Yet, be that as it may, in 200 they commenced hostilities against Philip, and, after a series of convoluted developments, came to a decisive battle with him in 197 at Cynoscephalae, a battle in which they were victorious, in the aftermath of which the consul Flamininus declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. A few years later the Romans were again victorious against Nabis, the “tyrant of Sparta”, and again declared the “Freedom of the Greeks”. For later generations this pronouncement acquired an ironic tone, for whatever their intentions at the time, the Romans never did relinquish influence over these areas, and eventually, some decades later, annexed them as Roman territories, the liberators having become the masters.

Sensing a power vacuum with the ousting of Philip, the Seleucid king Antiochus III, who ruled over a large territory to the north and (primarily) east of the Mediterranean, entered Greece in 192 with an army intent on expanding the Seleucid Empire. Whereupon several Greek cities appealed to the Romans for help, which they very obligingly did.

In fact, this venture by Antiochus occasioned one of the most memorable events of this period of Roman history: another face-to-face meeting of Scipio Africanus and Hannibal. It happened in this way: in the aftermath of the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio, Hannibal had temporarily fled Carthage, but when he returned the Carthaginian authorities saw him as a liability likely to inflame Roman wrath, and they forced him out. He fled to the court of Antiochus III, where he began to encourage Antiochus to take up arms against Rome. Antiochus was convinced; he sent his troops across the Hellespont into Greece, bringing about the Greek appeal for Rome’s assistance that I mentioned above. Opening with a diplomatic move, Rome sent Scipio Africanus to meet with Antiochus for discussions, and Antiochus, with a flair for the dramatic, hosted a dinner and invited them both to attend.

A memorable conversation is reported to have taken place. Scipio, perhaps seeking to tweak Hannibal’s ego, asked him, “Who is the greatest general?”

Hannibal answered, “Alexander, king of Macedonia; because, with a small band, he defeated armies whose numbers were beyond reckoning; and because he had overrun the remotest regions, the merely visiting of which was a thing above human aspiration.”

Scipio then asked, “To whom do you give the second place?” and he replied, “To Pyrrhus; for he first taught the method of encamping; and besides, no one ever showed more exquisite judgment, in choosing his ground, and disposing his posts; while he also possessed the art of conciliating mankind to himself to such a degree, that the nations of Italy wished him, though a foreign prince, to hold the sovereignty among them, rather than the Roman people, who had so long possessed the dominion of that part of the world.”

On his proceeding to ask, “Whom do you esteem the third?” Hannibal replied, “Myself, beyond doubt.”

On this Scipio laughed, and added, “What would you have said if you had conquered me?” “Then,” replied the other, “I would have placed Hannibal, not only before Alexander and Pyrrhus, but before all other commanders.”

This answer, turned with Punic dexterity, and conveying an unexpected kind of flattery, was highly grateful to Scipio, as it set him apart from the crowd of commanders, as one of incomparable eminence.

It’s a great story.

The diplomatic route went nowhere, so Rome went to war against Antiochus. This conflict was not so convoluted as that against the Macedonians, but it was not straightforward either. An important battle took place at Thermopylae, where Leonidas and the Spartans had, centuries earlier, attempted to defend Greece against the Persians. Antiochus chose the ground, thinking it would give him at advantage, but it was not enough; the Romans flanked him and he was routed. There followed a sea battle; the Romans triumphed again. Finally, the Romans, led by Lucius Cornelius Scipio (brother of Scipio Africanus), crossed the Hellespont and forced Antiochus to accept terms. This was important not so much because Antiochus was defeated, but because it marked the first time a Roman army had crossed the Hellespont into Asia Minor. They would find that they rather liked it there, and would be disinclined to leave.

One of the conditions the Roman consul, Flamininus, imposed on Antiochus as part of the peace negotiations was that Hannibal be turned over to the Roman authorities. He was their greatest opponent, and it rankled that he was still at large. Hannibal, of course, was unwilling to go peacefully, and fled to the court of Prusias, king of Bithynia, where, however, the Romans caught up with him. He chose death before dishonour. Livy gives us an account of Hannibal’s end that is worth quoting at length:

“The Carthaginian had always foreseen some such end of his life; for he knew the implacable hatred which the Romans bore him, and placed little confidence in the faith of kings. Besides, he had experienced the fickle temper of Prusias, and had, for some time, dreaded the arrival of Flamininus, as an event fatal to him. Encircled by enemies on every side, in order to have always some path open for flight, he had made seven passages from his house, of which some were concealed, lest they might be invested by a guard. But the imperious government of kings suffers nothing to remain secret which they choose to discover. They surrounded the circuit of the entire house with guards in such a manner, that no one could escape from it. Hannibal, on being told that some of the king’s soldiers were in the porch, endeavoured to escape through a back door, which was the most private, and from which the passage was most secret; but, perceiving that to be guarded by a body of soldiers, and every avenue round to be blocked up by the guards that were posted, he called for poison, which he had long kept in readiness to meet such an event, and said, “Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since they think it too long to wait for the death of an old man. Flamininus will gain no very great or memorable victory over one unarmed and betrayed. What an alteration has taken place in the behaviour of the Roman people, this day affords abundant proof. Their fathers gave warning to Pyrrhus, their armed foe, then heading an army against them in Italy, to beware of poison. The present generation have sent an ambassador, of consular rank, to persuade Prusias villanously to murder his guest.” Then imprecating curses on the head of Prusias, and on his kingdom, and calling on the gods who presided over hospitality, and were witnesses of his breach of faith, he drank off the contents of the cup. This was the end of the life of Hannibal.” (XXXIX, 51)

Hannibal was not the only major figure to pass from the scene in these years. Scipio Africanus had died as well, a few years earlier, and Philip of Macedon died shortly afterward, in 180. The time of giants was passed, it seemed.

**

The great majority of Livy’s attention in these books is focused on military affairs. I have not even begun to try to convey the immense complexity of the story, which took place not only in Greece and Macedonia and Asia Minor, but also in Spain, and in Gaul, and in Liguria, a region that still retains the same name today, near Genoa. (Livy quips of the Ligurians: “This enemy seemed born for the purpose of preserving military discipline among the Romans, during the intervals between important wars.”) Yet from time to time we get a glimpse of domestic politics in Rome, and these glimpses are quite enjoyable.

Livy tells us, for instance, about a controversy that arose when it was proposed that the Oppian Law be repealed. This law, a war-time measure, had forbade Roman women to buy or wear ostentatious clothing or jewelry; they could show no signs of luxury while the men were in harm’s way and the public coffers were empty. However, with the coming of peace a move was made to remove the law. A drama arose when Marcus Porcius Cato (viz. Cato the Elder), one of the chief statesmen of his day, opposed the repeal. Livy gives us his splendid speech, in which he argued, in effect, that though the need for the law had been occasioned by the war, its effects had been, on the whole, beneficial, as tending to maintain an honourable austerity and suspicion of luxury, and that it should therefore be retained in perpetuity. The restrictions had been put in place to combat a real problem. Although Cato’s conservatism has irked some modern commentators — with one calling him a “self-confident and boorish embodiment of austere moral rectitude” — Livy admires him immensely.

About 10 years later (c.183) we read about a controversy which arose over the introduction of the Bacchanalia in Rome. These religious rites were an import from Greece, and were an occasion of scandal when the nature of the rites (drunkenness, unbridled sexuality, mixing of classes) and the extent to which they had infiltrated Roman society were made known. How much of Livy’s reporting of these matters is faithful, I am not sure, but in his telling the response of Rome’s civil leaders was swift and brutal, and the rites were suppressed.

Another religious controversy arose when some books, purporting to date from the reign of Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, were discovered on the Janiculum Hill. The religious authorities found the books to be unsound inasmuch as they would tend to cast doubt on Roman religious practices. They were, accordingly, burned. Unfortunately Livy does not explain what was objectionable in them, but his brief account nonetheless exposes to view, like a crack in the foundation stone, the vulnerability of Roman religion.

Also, a note about domestic politics in Rome: in the early days of the republic the most important political posts had been those of the two consuls, and in this period the consuls remained important but were joined by six praetors and one censor. The praetors, like the consuls, were also military leaders, and were each assigned a theatre of conflict to manage, but the role of the censor is less clear from Livy’s account. What we do learn is that the censor had at least two roles in Roman life: he counted the number of Roman citizens (hence, our modern “census”) and he oversaw maintenance of Roman public morals (hence, our modern “censor”). It’s just interesting to see how these two quite different ideas came to bear the same name for us because they were originally conjoined in one Roman office.

**

This volume of Livy’s history was, for me, the most challenging thus far, principally on account of the tangled, disjoint, multi-faceted military history it has to tell, which I found difficult to follow. But the overall picture is clear enough: Rome expanded her sphere of influence into Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, and Syria, and the Roman Empire, or something very like it, was born. The next volume in this edition, which contains the last books of Livy to survive (Books 41-45), treats of a renewed challenge to Rome that arose in Macedonia after the death of Philip. Sometimes, it seems, a victory has to be won more than once before it takes.

[Liberty]
“Of all blessings none is more grateful to the multitude than liberty.” (XXXIII, 32)

[Jealousy]
“No personalities are as susceptible to jealousy as those of men whose strength of character does not measure up to their pedigree or status, because these people hate quality and merit in another.” (XXXVIII, 43)

[Reactionary politics]
“As diseases must necessarily be known before their remedies, so passions come into being before the laws which prescribe limits to them.” (XXXIV, 4)

Morton: A Traveller in Rome

November 5, 2017

A Traveller in Rome
H.V. Morton
(Methuen & Co., 1957)
432 p. Second reading.

I first read this book shortly after my first visit to Rome, in 2001. Having returned to the city four times in the intervening years, and having come to know it much better in consequence, I decided to revisit the book, both in order to return to the Eternal City in my imagination once more, and also to see how the book stands up. I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

H.V. Morton was a British travel writer who wrote a shelf-full of books over the course of several decades, finding his first success in the 1920s and continuing to publish until his death in the late 1970s. I have a half-dozen of his books on my shelves, but as yet this is the only one I’ve read. My tardiness in this regard has to be attributed to culpable neglect or honest incapacity, because, on the basis of the evidence I have, he’s a fine and judicious guide, generous in judgement, discerning and articulate, and I’ve every reason to believe that those other books of his would be rewarding.

But the theme for today is Rome, a city that one walks, as Gibbon said, “with a lofty step”, surrounded on all sides by beauty and history, a great clamour in one’s ears and a great fullness in one’s heart. It was Garibaldi who called her “a dethroned queen”, adding that “from her ruins, immense, sublime, gigantic, there emerges a luminous spectre — the memory of all that was great in the past…”; and this is quite true. She is sublime, and she is gigantic. I’ll not forget the morning, a few years ago, when I entered the Borghese Chapel in Santa Maria Maggiore for the early morning Mass, having flown to Rome late the night before for a weekend’s sojourn, and I stared, stupefied, at the thick marble columns, gilded angels, and hovering frescoes, and knew that I could be nowhere but Rome, sublime and gigantic.

Morton takes the reader through the city, exploring the famous monuments and some lesser-known sites as well, filling in the history with genial exactitude, giving us some notion of how the city has changed over the centuries, relating tales of memorable events and people, and also giving us a portrait of modern Rome — Rome of the 1950s, that is — and its citizens. I laughed in recognition at his account of a taxi ride through the city streets:

The driver of this car was a mild looking Italian until he settled himself behind the wheel, when he became aggressive, if not actually homicidal. We shot round the Piazza Barberini, weaving our way in and out at great speed, missing by an inch or so a man on a bicycle loaded with carnations, braking violently to avoid another car, shooting ahead to overtake it, for he was one of those drivers who consider it dishonourable to be passed, and darting up narrow Renaissance streets hooting insanely until the passers-by dashed for shelter.

‘In one year,’ he said, turning to me and accelerating, ‘I have nine accidents…’

As if this had not sunk into my mind, he took both hands off the wheel and shouted, ‘Nine!’

I will not try to summarize the contents of the book; if there’s something about Rome that particularly interests you, the probability is high that it is mentioned somewhere. He visits the Forum, the major basilicas and many minor churches, the Vatican, the principal fountains, the gardens; he makes side-trips to the catacombs and even to Castel Gandalfo (where I, alas, still have not been!).

Let me highlight a few my favourite passages.

On the overall plan of the city:

Rome has no centre. There is no part of the city which you can say at once is definitely the one and only heart of Rome… Instead of one great forum, Rome has innumerable piazze scattered all over the city, and the stranger cannot decide which is the most important. There seems little to choose between the Piazza Colonna, the Piazza Barberini, the Piazza di Spagna, the Piazza dell’Esedra, and all the other piazze; and even the famous Piazza Venezia, with its adjacent monument to Victor Emanuel, is more a landmark and a beacon to the stranger than a civic centre.

On the characteristic architecture of Rome:

The landscape of Rome is itself declamatory. Upon the roofline stand hundreds of gesticulating saints, their garments tossed about in a baroque breeze, their fingers admonishing, pointing and blessing. The undulating architecture with which the Church in the seventeenth century expressed its satisfaction with the Counter Reformation is itself a gay, inspiring background for gesticulation. It is a stage upon which a Puritan with modest, downcast eyes would be an impossibility: it is the Church flamboyant, the Church resurgent, the Church so sure of itself that it can be quite humorous at times.

On the sense of discovery one feels:

It is the singular charm of Rome that, turning a corner, one comes suddenly face to face with something beautiful and unexpected which was placed there centuries ago, apparently in the most casual fashion. Rome is a city of magic round the corner, of masterpieces dumped, as it were, by the wayside, which lends to the shortest walk the excitement of a treasure hunt.

**

Insofar as I can tell, Morton was not a Catholic, but he seems to have appreciated the Church, and he writes with knowledge and understanding about her prominent place in Roman history. Of the many religious pilgrims who visit the city every day, whom he calls “the original visitors to Rome”, he writes that “they may be strangers, but they are at home”, and this, too, captures something of the uniqueness of the city.

Most interesting to me was what he had to say about Pope Pius XII, who was pontiff at the time. For the past several decades, since the production of Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy” in 1963, Pius XII has been criticized from various quarters for, at best, inaction in the face of the Nazi’s final solution, and, at worst, collaboration in its aims. Naturally the question of what Pius did or did not do to help the Jews in their darkest hour is a valid and valuable one, but Hochhuth’s charges owed more to imagination than any historical discovery — if they were not actually engineered by the KGB — and the least subtle of Pius’ detractors seem to have gone down to defeat.

In any case, Morton was writing before the controversy arose, and so the book gives us a window into what an informed non-Catholic thought of the Pope at the time. He says that “There probably has never been a Pope who is more certain to be canonized than Pius XII”, and then proceeds to tell how he first saw him during the praying of the Angelus at St Peter’s:

It may be a strange thing to say of a small figure in white on a distant balcony, but I was aware that this man was radiating to us all an extraordinary sense of peace and tranquillity; of holiness, for there is no other word.

Later he was granted a brief personal audience, about which he wrote:

When my turn came, I made my reverence and found myself looking with interest at the most beautifully made red velvet shoes I have ever seen. There was a small gold cross embroidered on the toe. The shoes looked comfortable, and the Pope’s foot was small, narrow, and aristocratic. I rose and found myself gazing into a pair of dark eyes behind gold-rimmed glasses. I felt I was in the presence of a beautifully dressed hermit… Everything about him was fastidious. He had spoken French to the Arab, now he spoke in English with a strong accent, and when I answered his questions, he drew a beautiful cross in the air and passed on. And I knew that I had spoken to a holy man.

The interest in the shoes is consistent with Morton’s slightly aristocratic temperament, but it is clear that he admired the Pope greatly, and this, I believe, was a fairly common judgment at the time.

**

A book about Rome could never be a substitute for the real thing, but, as books go, this is a worthy one. I would recommend it most highly to readers who have already been to the city at least once; someone reading it sight-unseen would not, I think, reap so great a reward. This makes it rather peculiar as a guide book, but then again it is not really a guide book in that sense, but rather a memoir of one man’s experience of the city, and a testimony that

To seek out good thoughts and to reverence them is the privilege of those who have lived for no matter how brief a time in the mother city of the western world.

Bouteneff: Out of Silence

October 29, 2017

Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence
Peter C. Bouteneff
(St Vladimir’s, 2015)
250 p.

Of the books written about the life and music of Arvo Pärt, this is the first to focus specifically on the way in which his life and work are rooted in Orthodoxy, to which Pärt converted in the early 1970s. Given the obvious importance of sacred texts and religious tradition for Pärt, the book fills an important gap.

Bouteneff is a musician and an Orthodox theologian, and is co-director of the Arvo Pärt Project based at St Vladimir’s Seminary. If he is not the ideal person to write this book, I don’t know who is. He writes with an eye to how Orthodoxy has influenced Pärt’s life, and also to how Orthodox theology and devotion has affected the subject matter of his music and, in important ways, his musical approach.

Writing about Pärt almost invariably gets around to describing his music as “spiritual”, but it is less common to find it described as “religious”. Bouteneff welcomes the testimony of those listeners who, though not religious themselves and not particularly interested in Pärt’s religion, find something valuable and “spiritual” in the music, but the point of his book is largely to remind us that, however spiritual it may be, the music is definitely religious:

“To a person conversant with biblical, liturgical, and/or theological themes, locating the spirituality of Pärt’s music requires no great excavation: it is right there in the words, addressed to God, to Jesus, to Mary or another saint.”

Pärt’s compositional career falls into three main phases: an early period, in which he experimented with a variety of avant-garde techniques; a silent period, during which he immersed himself in Gregorian chant and polyphony but published few compositions; and, beginning in the 1970s, his tinntinnabulation period, when he wrote the music for which he is best known. Bouteneff is interested in all three periods, which he sees as closely related. Roughly speaking, the early period culminated in a compositional crisis in which Part did not know how to proceed; the silent period was the remedy for the crisis, during which he discovered both musical and religious sources that opened up, as the title of this book suggests, the artistic pathway that he has followed ever since.

The process by which he found his compositional voice again through contact with the ancient tradition of sacred music was more than just a musical one, but also a religious one. Pärt has said that sacred polyphony — the music of Palestrina, Josquin, Ockeghem, and the other great masters — can, he believes, only be fully received by someone who has learned to pray, for the music itself arises out of a life of prayer: “Only through prayer is it possible. If you have prayer in your hand, like a flashlight, with this light you see what’s there.” This was his own experience, and his learning to pray went hand in hand with his learning to compose again.

There is something odd about describing a composer’s years of silence as a phase in their artistic career, but for Pärt it seems apt. It is, at least, no odder than describing his music by talking about silence, which is nonetheless a pretty common response to it. His music seems to many listeners, myself included, to be in a kind of dialogue with silence. He allows silence to slip in between the notes — his scores often look mostly empty — and sometimes give the impression of having arisen out of silence in a way that most music does not. And, as Bouteneff’s book makes clear, there is a genuine truth in this impression, for Pärt has been greatly influenced, in his own inner life, by that stream of Christian devotion, often ascetic and monastic, in which silence plays a key role. Silence, in this tradition, is not emptiness, but fullness; not poor, but rich; for it is in silence that we hear God speak. Silence fosters prayer, and prayer, in its turn, fosters silence.

The book has many good things to say about silence in the Orthodox tradition; a parallel account of silence in the Catholic tradition would not be radically different. Bouteneff also brings in a few contemporary voices who speak specifically about the kinship of music and silence, such as Manfred Eicher (the founder of ECM Records, the label by means of which most listeners have come to know Pärt’s music) who once said that music bears the greatest hope of expressing the inexpressible, save only silence; or George MacDonald’s description of heaven as “the regions where there is only life, and therefore all that is not music is silence“. Even Screwtape knew that there is a special relationship between the two, and Pärt’s music seems to capture and convey this closeness to an unusual degree.

Since the 1970s Pärt has, with rare exceptions, written music with a text — sometimes even his instrumental works are “texted”, although the text is not sung; this I did not know before reading the book — and the text has usually been a sacred text. Words are critical to Pärt as a composer; “the words constitute the skeletal structure on which his music is hung and which gives it its form”. This attention to integrating words with music has for him theological roots, being ultimately grounded in the prologue of St John’s Gospel: words are rooted in the Word, and all meaning is finally rooted in God. He has said,

These mystic words of the Gospel according to John, “In the beginning was the Word,” lie at the heart of it all, since without the Word, nothing would exist. I believe that this concept should not only be conveyed in the text, but in every note of the music as well, in every thought, in every stone. The roots of our skill lie in this thought: “In the beginning was the Word.”

His compositions, therefore, are intended to convey the meaning of the text, which at least suggests that listeners who are indifferent to the meaning of the text are missing something.

The final principal theme which Bouteneff draws on as being particularly pertinent to Pärt’s music and important in the Orthodox tradition is what he calls “bright sadness”: a kind of interpenetration of joy and sorrow that characterizes our lives, an acknowledgement that “there is no joy not tinged with grief, and no suffering beyond redemption”. Theologically, the Crucifixion is the exemplar of this conjunction, but Bouteneff discusses many sources, Biblical and otherwise, that highlight this mixed quality of experience. He notes that Pärt’s music is a particular favourite in hospices and palliative care wards, for it is music that has a sad quality (most of his compositions are in minor keys) but seems nonetheless infused with light and hope. It speaks to people who are suffering. This, too, I did not know, but can well believe.

*

There are now a number of good books about Pärt. I think the best is still Paul Hillier’s; for analysis of the music he is pre-eminent. But this book exploring the religious sources and character of Pärt’s art needed to be written, and I very much appreciated reading it. Bouteneff has not only helped me to better understand the music, but also encouraged me to listen more closely to several of Pärt’s recent compositions, such as In Principio and Adam’s Lament, to which I have not, for whatever reason, devoted much time. For this, I am grateful.

St Athanasius: On the Incarnation

October 22, 2017

On the Incarnation
St Athanasius
(Fig, 2012) [c.315]
72 p.

Christianity is distinctive first for claiming that God, the fount and origin of all things, entered human history as a man, and that this man suffered and died the death of a criminal before being resurrected. It is a story that has seemed messy and arbitrary to some, and manifestly unfitting, or even blasphemous, to others. In this important early work of Christian theology, St Athanasius mounts a series of arguments to convince his readers that the Incarnation was fitting, and that the death of Christ, both as to fact and to manner, was neither arbitrary nor unreasonable. His understanding of these events sets forth a powerfully attractive account of the meaning of Christianity.

He begins with an assessment of the state of humanity prior to the Incarnation, and specifically with the twin premises of, on one hand, sin, and, on the other, God’s promise that the wages of sin would be death. Together these two posed a dilemma:

It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.

It would not be fitting for a work of God to suffer destruction, for we, being made in his image and likeness, ought properly to enjoy the fulfillment of our nature as God Himself enjoys His own infinite fulfillment in Himself. The Incarnation then appears, says St Athanasius, as the solution to this dilemma, for by taking on human nature God healed it of the corruption and injury which sin had produced in it, and by his death he suffered the consequence of sin, and by his resurrection he overcame both sin and death: “through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection.”

Athanasius illustrates this re-creation of human nature by means of an analogy:

You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honoured, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.

He also wants us to appreciate that when God the Son became part of the created order, this was not an act wholly alien to his nature, for, being the Logos by whom all things were made that have been made, he entered a world to which he had always been intimately related:

He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.

Furthermore, granting God’s initiative to himself assume the nature of a thing he created, it was of all parts of Creation most fitting that he should take on human form, for the human being is made in God’s likeness and image. David Bentley Hart (on whose recommendation, incidentally, I undertook to read this book) has expressed the point in this way:

“The act by which the form of God appears in the form of a slave is the act by which the infinite divine image shows itself in the finite divine image: this then is not a change, but a manifestation, of who God is.” (The Beauty of the Infinite, p.357.)

We have then, one motive for the Incarnation: by taking human nature into himself in a particularly intimate way, he healed it and even re-created it, thereby carrying on the creative activity that he always exercises with respect to the world in general, and our nature in particular. That the Incarnation corresponded so well with the nature of God — as saviour, creator, and Logos — made it fitting.

But of course God might have healed our nature by some means other than the Incarnation had he so wished. Athanasius therefore introduces another line of argument to show its fittingness: it provided it a particularly apt means for us to know God. Before Christ, the situation was this:

Three ways thus lay open to them, by which they might obtain the knowledge of God. They could look up into the immensity of heaven, and by pondering the harmony of creation come to know its Ruler, the Word of the Father, Whose all-ruling providence makes known the Father to all. Or, if this was beyond them, they could converse with holy men, and through them learn to know God, the Artificer of all things, the Father of Christ, and to recognize the worship of idols as the negation of the truth and full of all impiety. Or else, in the third place, they could cease from lukewarmness and lead a good life merely by knowing the law.

Yet even with these ways, many men did not seek God, and did not find him. What was God to do, for it was unworthy of man, made in God’s image, not to know God. By the Incarnation, therefore, God revealed himself in a new, clearer way, suitable to our way of knowing:

He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body.

To summarize, two things were accomplished by the Incarnation:

He banished death from us and made us anew; and, invisible and imperceptible as in Himself He is, He became visible through His works and revealed Himself as the Word of the Father, the Ruler and King of the whole creation.

or, restated in a more elaborate way:

We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Savior Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Father’s true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols.

And added to this is a third reason for the Incarnation: so that Christ could die. But why did he have to die, and why in the way that he did?

Christ renewed and transformed sinful human nature by his Incarnation, but this alone was not enough to erase the calamity of sin. God had promised that the wages of sin would be death, and that promise created a debt that had to be paid, and so Christ, by dying, proceeded “to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression”.

I am not a theologian, but I believe that this understanding of Christ’s death is called “substitutionary atonement” — personal sin imputes guilt; guilt, in justice, requires restitution; and Christ, in love, offers his own life as restitution. But I confess that I am confused, for this seems to allow that God is not free in his dealings with us, but subject to some higher moral requirement. Why could God not “overrule” the punishment for sin by offering mercy out of his sovereign power? I can think of two possible responses to this. The first is that the requirement of justice which demands a punishment for sin is not actually independent of God but an expression of God’s own just nature. (But, troubling this possibility from within is the question of whether substitutionary punishment is consonant with justice in the first place.) The second is that although God, strictly speaking, was not compelled by anything to impose punishment for sin, he did so because this logic makes sense to us, and he wanted our salvation to make sense to us. And it is true, generally speaking, that our sense of justice does make such demands in the ordinary course of events, even though, in an ironic turn, Christianity itself has gradually undermined the absoluteness of these just demands.

But there is a further reason why Christ died: by doing so, he dramatically overcame death. In the Gospels he asked, “Is it easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”, and he said the latter so as to assure all that he had the power to say the former. In a similar way, it was one thing for him to restore and heal our nature, and another to demonstrate his power to do so by actually conquering our final enemy: “He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.” This is the drama of Holy Saturday, and it is a magnificent drama. Too often, I think, we get a genteel account of Christ’s death and Resurrection: by dying he showed his love, and by raising him God the Father gave us a kind of “endorsement” of Christ’s life and message. But here, instead, we find Christ descending to the depths in power, doing battle with all the powers of evil and decay and destruction, bursting the bonds that sin had laid upon us, and rising in triumph.

This dramatic, narrative approach to the meaning of Christ’s death strikes my own heart with greater power than does the more legalistic language of substitutionary atonement. Through Christ, the Word made flesh, God speaks our story again, and by so speaking he re-shapes and re-makes it, for it is always in his words that his creative power is manifest. Again, David Bentley Hart has put this point more eloquently than I can:

“It is because Christ’s life effects a narrative reversal, which unwinds the story of sin and death and reinaugurates the story that God tells from before the foundation of the world – the story of the creation he wills, freely, in his eternal counsels – that Christ’s life effects an ontological restoration in creation’s goodness; it is because the rhetoric of his form restores the order of divine rhetoric … that created being is redeemed in him.” The Beauty of the Infinite, p.325.)

Athanasius then proceeds through a quite interesting set of arguments in which he looks at the manner in which Christ died, and explains why it was an appropriate death. It was fitting that his death be public, for instance, because his triumph over death was fittingly public. His death was something he suffered at the hands of others so that he would not seem to have chosen one manner of death over another: “He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind.” It was fitting that the manner of his death did not divide his body (as in a beheading), for his body represented the Church: “even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church.”

In two final sections of the book he addresses two specific audiences in turn: Jews and Gentiles. To the former he argues his views on Incarnation, death, and Resurrection from the Hebrew Scriptures, and to the latter he argues from pagan philosophers. His arguments to the Gentiles include a well-known celebrations of the triumph of Christ over the pagan deities:

And here is another proof of the Godhead of the Savior, which is indeed utterly amazing. What mere man or magician or tyrant or king was ever able by himself to do so much? Did anyone ever fight against the whole system of idol-worship and the whole host of demons and all magic and all the wisdom of the Greeks, at a time when all of these were strong and flourishing and taking everybody in, as did our Lord, the very Word of God? Yet He is even now invisibly exposing every man’s error, and single-handed is carrying off all men from them all, so that those who used to worship idols now tread them under foot, reputed magicians burn their books and the wise prefer to all studies the interpretation of the gospels. They are deserting those whom formerly they worshipped, they worship and confess as Christ and God Him Whom they used to ridicule as crucified. Their so-called gods are routed by the sign of the cross, and the crucified Savior is proclaimed in all the world as God and Son of God. Moreover, the gods worshipped among the Greeks are now falling into disrepute among them on account of the disgraceful things they did, for those who receive the teaching of Christ are more chaste in life than they. If these, and the like of them, are human works, let anyone who will show us similar ones done by men in former time, and so convince us.

This routing of the imposter gods, which left the sacred groves and temples vacant, was one of the most momentous developments in the history of our civilization; it is one of the main burned bridges separating us from our Greco-Roman roots, and it was a necessary condition not only for the emergence of monotheism but also, I would think, for the materialist atheism of modernity. We are contending with its consequences still.

At the very end of the book he takes a pastoral turn. Much as did David Bentley Hart in the closing pages of The Experience of God, Athanasius tells us that Christianity is not a theory addressed solely to the intellect. It cannot be understood unless one undertakes to live according to its precepts:

One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so.

He invites us, therefore, to wipe our eyes with prayerful tears, and to make the journey to see the goodness of God made manifest in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ. “For the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit.”

Livy III: Hannibal’s War

October 15, 2017

Ab Urbe Condita, Libri XXI-XXX
Hannibal’s War
Titus Livius
(Oxford, 2006) [c.20 BC]
xlviii + 740 p.

We last left Livy as he narrated, at the end of his Book X, the conclusion of the Samnite Wars in c.300 BC, by which time Rome had emerged as a regional power controlling most of the Italian peninsula. In Books XI-XX, which have been lost, he would have recounted the history of the next 80 years, covering first the conflicts in southern Italy against the Greek forces led by Pyrrhus, and then the First Punic War, in which conflict with Carthage arose, principally over control of Sicily.

The present volume, about the Second Punic War, covers a period of just 20 years, but they were years of high drama and memorable incident in which Rome faced her greatest threat yet: the invasion of Italy by Carthaginian forces, led by the famous general Hannibal.

Though Rome had been triumphant in the First Punic War, Carthage had not been crushed in the defeat, and tensions had continued to roil. The story is told of a young boy, Hannibal Barca, who

at about the age of nine, was in a boyish fashion trying to coax his father Hamilcar into taking him to Spain. Hamilcar, who had finished off the [First Punic] war in Africa and was on the point of taking his army across to Spain, was offering sacrifice. He brought Hannibal to the altar and there made him touch the sacred objects and swear to make himself an enemy of the Roman people at the earliest possible opportunity.

Hannibal took his vow seriously. At the age of just 25 he became a general in the Carthaginian army, and decided that the time was ripe to begin.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to simply attack Roman territories; ever the strategist, he conceived a plan to force Rome to declare war on him. He chose Spain as the place to make his first move. At that time Carthage controlled much of Spain south of the Ebro river, while the Romans controlled the territories north of the river. However, there was a city, Saguntum (modern Sagunto, a little north of Valencia), which, though south of the river, was allied to Rome. Hannibal laid siege to the city, and the Romans came to its aid, at the same time sending a delegation to Carthage to formally declare war.

This was all the invitation Hannibal needed to take his troops onto Roman soil, and in Book XXI Livy relates the famous story of how Hannibal led his army north, over the Pyrenees, through Gaul, and then south over the Alps and into Italy. The daring of the journey impressed itself strongly on the imagination of the times: with a huge army, including a set of awe-inspiring war elephants, beset by attacks from the suspicious and worried people who lived along the route, and without roads through the snow-covered mountains, he persevered and emerged onto the plains of northern Italy, where he was met by a Roman legion commanded by Publius Scipio, the father of the man who was, eventually, to prove too much for Hannibal to handle.

But that time was yet to come; now it was Hannibal’s turn to prove too much for the Romans to handle. The Romans met him in three consecutive battles, first along the shores of the Trebbia River, then at Lake Trasimene, and finally, and most famously, at Cannae. In each of these battles Hannibal drew the Roman into a trap — pinning them down, ambushing them, and executing brilliant tactical manoeuvres on the battlefield — and the Romans suffered horrendous, lopsided defeats in each case. The slaughter peaked at Cannae, where Hannibal used a pincer movement to encircle the Roman army, and only a few, who ever thereafter suffered shame, survived. Livy says that more than 40000 Romans were killed that day, and some historians put the death toll even higher.

These were devastating defeats, and had Hannibal pressed his advantage and marched to Rome, it is possible that the course of the war might have played out very differently. Perhaps I would be writing now, in Punic script, about how, despite its promising beginnings, the Roman civilization, known to us only through archeological investigations and a few scattered historical references, was subsumed by the Carthaginian empire.

But that is not what happened; instead, Hannibal took time to rest his troops and tend to supplies, and this gave Rome, with what Livy calls “the spirit of Roman constancy under adversity”, the time it needed to calm its panic, raise new legions (12 of them!), and formulate a defence plan. Fabius Maximus was elected dictator, and he led the new legions out. Considering that they were trounced each time they confronted Hannibal in battle, Fabius made a sensible decision: not to confront him. Instead, his army shadowed Hannibal’s: moving along the ridges when Hannibal was in the valley, keeping the invaders always in view, disrupting their supply lines, but not committing to a full fight. This strategy — which bears Fabian’s name even today — drew intense criticism from the Roman people, who regarded it as cowardly and un-Roman. (Indeed, it was only when he was forced to share command with a consul, Varro, that the disaster of Cannae occurred, for it was Varro who led the army into that trap.)

At this point the scope and complexity of the conflict widened, and I’ll not attempt to trace its complicated course in detail. Hannibal crossed the Alps in 217 BC; by 213 the Romans had 23 legions in the field. Over the next few years, there were numerous regions in which Rome and Carthage came into conflict: in Italy, especially around the city of Capua, which was taken by Hannibal and held for most of the duration of the war, in south Italy (the region of Bruttium, in the toe of the Italian boot), but also in Spain, Gaul, and Sicily. The Romans had a staunch Sicilian ally in Hiero, king of Syracuse, and the Carthaginians courted Philip V of Macedon, who did indeed intervene but to little lasting effect, except perhaps to encourage an increase in the size of the Roman navy.

In 212 BC Hannibal made his closest approach to Rome. During the previous year the Romans had been laying siege to Capua, and Hannibal, in a bid to draw them off by threatening Rome itself, marched his army north and encamped about 8 miles from the city. He himself came within 3 miles, and saw the city with his own eyes for the first, and, as it turned out, last time. The people of Rome were frightened, but her leadership were not spooked, and they resolutely kept their armies where they were. Seeing that Hannibal’s bluff has failed, Capua surrendered.

In the same year a new and momentous figure entered the war: Publius Cornelius Scipio, the aforementioned son of the elder Publius Scipio who had first met Hannibal on his entry into Italy. The elder Scipio had been killed in battle in Spain, along with his brother, in the previous year, and the Roman forces in Spain were leaderless. Scipio the younger, though still in his 20s, volunteered to assume leadership, and the Senate accepted his offer. Upon arrival in Spain, Scipio made an impression immediately. Livy relates two stirring speeches, one to this soldiers, to convince them to accept him as leader (Bk XXVI, 41), and another (Bk XXVI, 43) to justify, as his first military mission, an attack on New Carthage (modern Cartagena), the principal Carthaginian port city on the Iberian peninsula. His troops’ confidence in him was well founded, for by a series of brilliant tactical moves, the Romans took control of the city in a single day of fighting. Scipio won, by acts of magnanimity, the praise of the conquered people too, who described him as “very much like the gods”. He was a man, says Livy, “whose valour was such that he never thought he had achieved enough, and whose search for true glory was insatiable”.

As the contest in Spain turned in favour of the Romans, an army commanded by Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, repeated Hannibal’s feat of marching from Spain, through Gaul, and over the Alps into Italy. It was easier going this time, on account of the roads that Hannibal had built during his passage, but it was no easier upon arrival, for he was met by several Roman legions, and, clashing with them, the Carthaginians were soundly defeated, with Hasdrubal himself killed, and, Livy tells us, as many as 50000 Carthaginians slain. The Romans saw the battle as something of a repeat of Cannae, but with victory now on their side, and they declared a festival of thanksgiving.

By 206 BC the situation was roughly this: Hannibal was still in Italy, but his movement was confined to the southernmost part of the peninsula; in Spain, the Carthaginian presence was confined to the coastal area around modern Cadiz; and Sicily was safely in Roman hands. The time was right, thought Scipio, for Rome to send a force to Carthage, and so to bring the war to an end at last. Livy relates two excellent speeches delivered to the Roman senate, the first by Fabius Maximus (he of the Fabian tactics) arguing against an invasion, and the second by Scipio arguing in favour. Scipio carried the day, and began his preparations.

The Romans sailed for Africa in 203, and, landing, earned a quick victory over the main Carthaginian force by setting fire to their camp at night. In the wake of this disaster for Carthage, Hannibal was recalled from Italy, and, his sixteen-year sojourn ended, he reluctantly obeyed:

Rarely, they say, has anyone departing into exile from his own country displayed such distress as Hannibal did then as he left the country of an enemy. It is said that he often looked back at the coast of Italy, levelling accusations against the gods and men and even invoking curses on himself and his own head for not having led his men straight to Rome when they were covered with blood from the victory at Cannae. (Bk XXX, 20)

Hannibal and Scipio, “the greatest generals not merely of their own day, but of the whole of history down to their time” (Bk XXX, 30), finally met one another at the Battle of Zama. Given the creativity of the two generals, it was a surprisingly straightforward affair; the Romans, though slightly outnumbered, carried the day. Hannibal went to the Carthaginian senate and recommended that they accept terms from the Romans, and then, to elude capture, boarded a ship bound for Antioch. The ship bore him away, and out of this history for the time being, though of course he has retained a permanent place in the memory of Roman civilization and its branches. Scipio, on the other hand, returned to Rome in triumph, and was granted the cognomen by which he is known to this day: Scipio Africanus.

And so this segment of Livy’s history comes to a close.

*

The relationship between Roman politics and Roman religion continues to be an interesting aspect of these books. We don’t hear as much about the sacred Roman chickens as we used to, but religion continues to exert a significant influence over affairs of state in this period. Each year, when the consuls were elected, the principal religious figures for that year were also chosen, and Livy takes care to keep us informed of both. The Senate frequently orders sacrifices, and they were willing to suspend military affairs until honour had been duly paid to the gods. Festivals of thanksgiving were held; temples were built after significant victories. The Romans were a pious people.

Hannibal’s presence in Italy was momentous, and this was emphasized by the number of strange prodigies which occurred during these years. An ox climbed to the third floor of a building and threw itself to its death; glowing figures appeared in the sky; a six-month-old child shouted “Triumph!” in the vegetable market; a spear at Lanuvium moved on its own; a crow entered the temple of Juno; men dressed in white were seen wandering at a distance; stones fell from the sky like rain; a wolf stole a sentinel’s sword; soldier’s spears burst into flame in Sicily; two shields began to bleed; the sun appeared to shrink; burning stones fell from heaven at Praeneste; at Arpi the sun seemed to fight with the moon; at Capena two moons were seen at once; the spring of Hercules flowed with blood; in Antium the ears of wheat were found to be bloodied; sweat appeared on the statue of Mars on the Appian Way; goats grew wool; a hen turned into a cock; the sea caught fire; a cow gave birth to a foal; ravens nested in the temple of Juno Sospita; in Apulia a palm tree caught fire; a shower of chalk occurred at Cales; lightning struck the Capitol and the temple of Vulcan; a spear of Mars moved on its own; a Sicilian cow spoke; a woman in Spoletum turned into a man; an altar was seen in the sky; a swarm of bees entered Rome; the temple of Jupiter was struck by lightning at Aricia; phantom warships were seen on the river at Tarracina; the river at Amiternum ran with blood; the sun turned red; a huge rock seemed to fly; a tower at Cumae was destroyed by lightning; a mule gave birth at Raete; a lamb was born with an udder full of milk; in Anagnia the ground before the city gate was struck by lightning and burned for a day and a night; birds abandoned the grove of Diana; snakes of amazing size jumped from the water like fish at play; at Tarquinii a pig was born with a human face; statues sweated blood; a shower of stones fell at Veii; a wolf entered Capua and mauled a guard; two snakes entered the temple of Jupiter at Satricum; a two-headed pig was born; two suns were seen; an ox spoke; a vulture flew into a shop in a crowded forum; it rained milk; a boy was born with the head of an elephant; mice gnawed a golden crown; a swarm of locusts descended on Capua; a foal was born with five feet; at Arpinum a sinkhole opened. Care was taken to expiate these prodigies with appropriate sacrifices.

*

The Second Punic War was the most extensive that Rome had fought, and it was a watershed in her history. At its end, her influence extended not only through Italy and Gaul, but also Spain and North Africa. She was beginning to look something like the Mediterranean Empire that she was to become. The next books of Livy’s history will, I believe, relate how she turned east and conquered the Greeks, a development that was to have long-term cultural consequences for the West.

In the meantime, few episodes in Roman history had been, or would be, as full of memorable incident and character as the Second Punic War. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this account.

*

It rarely happened that good fortune and sound judgement were bestowed upon men at the same time. (Bk XXX, 42)

Old English Genesis

October 9, 2017

Genesis
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
81 p.

This year my extravagant birthday gift was The Complete Old English Poems, a door-stop of a book in which Craig Williamson has translated into modern English the entire surviving body of Anglo-Saxon poetry. This poetry — consisting of roughly 31000 lines in total — includes, most famously, Beowulf, but also a number of other substantial poems on a variety of subjects. I am planning to read through them, slowly, over the next few years.

I have begun with the Junius manuscript, which consists of several poems on Biblical subjects. The first is “Genesis”, a work of roughly 3000 lines which takes as its matter Genesis 1-22, including the creation of the world, the Fall, Noah, the Tower of Babel, the calling of Abraham, and the Sacrifice of Isaac, but also brings in other Biblical material to relate the story of the fall of the rebel angels.

Happily for me, this first taste has whetted my appetite for more; I enjoyed it thoroughly. Williamson aimed to preserve the poetic form of the original alliterative, strong-stress verse typical of the Anglo-Saxons, and his translation has the tough, terse feeling that we expect.

It is right to praise the Lord of heaven
With wise words and loving hearts.
He is almighty, infinite, eternal, abiding —
Source and Shaper, Guardian of glory,
King of all exalted creatures, Lord of Hosts.
He exists before beginning, beyond ending.
Righteous and steadfast, he will rule forever
The embracing expanse of high heaven,
Its length and breadth, its range and reach,
First established for the children of glory,
The guardian angels, the hallowed host,
Who held a bounty of brightness and bliss
Through the emanating might of their bold Maker. (l.1-13)

What most surprised me about this poem was the extent to which it reminded me of Paradise Lost; the rebellion of the angels, and the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden, especially, and also the poem’s adoption of the devil’s point of view brought Milton’s poem powerfully to mind. Did Milton know this Old English original? I’d have thought not, but in fact the evidence is more ambiguous: he was a friend of Junius, the manuscript’s owner at the time. Most interesting is Williamson’s observation that sections of Paradise Lost can be scanned both as iambic pentameter or as Anglo-Saxon strong-stress verse. He grants the consensus view that the “Old English influence on Milton’s epic is impossible to prove”, but also states his personal view that “there is some connection in terms of form, characterization, and narrative thread between the two poems”.

They refused to revere his words and works,
So he turned their triumph into dark defeat,
An agony of existence under the earth.
They balked in heaven and were blistered in hell,
Where they spend each restless night in flames,
An ever-ready, relentless fire. At dawn, cold comes,
An eastern wind of almost ice. They’re caught
Between the twin torments of frost and fire,
The stabbing heat, the piercing cold.
Hell holds them both in bitter balance. (l.333-341)

Satan resolution to revenge himself on God by marring his finest creation is reminiscent of Milton:

We know he has marked out middle-earth,
Where he has made mankind in his own image.
He hopes to resettle our place in heaven
With these pure souls. This is our chance
To spoil his plan, avenging ourselves
On his precious Adam and all of his heirs.
In that new world we’ll frustrate his will.
Now I no longer aspire to the holy light
Or hope for heaven where the Lord intends
To enjoy eternity with his host of angels.
We’ll never succeed in weakening God’s will,
So let’s just subvert it with the children of men.
Let’s teach them untruths, seduce them to sin,
Lead them to lie. Let’s worm our way
Into this world and undo God’s work. (l.423-437)

Some aspects of the demon’s temptation of Adam and Eve differ from the Biblical account. In this poem the serpent first approaches Adam, but is rebuffed, and only then approaches Eve. More surprisingly, the nature of the serpent’s temptation is different: although he does promise Eve that eating of the fruit will grant her an unsuspected glory:

Eat this fruit, taste its sweetness,
Savor its power to open your eyes,
So that you can see beyond yourself,
Beyond this world to the throne of God
And curry favor with your own Creator. (l.620-625)

He also tells them that God has rescinded and reversed his forbidding of the fruit (“He commands you to taste this fair fruit / That he knows you crave.”), thereby casting their disobedience as, plausibly, a well-intentioned mistake. This is a theologically fraught innovation that I’m not convinced makes a great deal of sense. But then the poet captures the moment of the Fall with admirable concision: “He ate the apple / And lost himself.” (l.780-1)

There are a few places in the poem where the fact that the Anglo-Saxons admired warriors and the warrior virtues comes through strongly. Abraham, for instance, is portrayed as a rather typical heroic figure:

Abraham, you are honored among heroes
In the eyes of God, who gave you the glorious
Gift of ash-spears and gleaming swords
To slash through your savage enemies,
Carve a bloody swath through your fierce foes,
A road of wrath, a hard path of pain.
That company was waiting in a cruel camp
To descend upon you, dealing out death
In grim combat, but God himself
And your great army expelled that evil,
Banned that bane, put the faithless to flight. (l.2128-2138)

This seems incongruous to us, as a transparent example of pre-Christian values infiltrating the Biblical story, but cases like this are instructive, for of course it is likely that we, too, allow the prevailing values of our time to influence how we read and understand our religion, rather than allowing our religion to teach us how to evaluate the values prevailing in our particular time and place. And lest the poet’s characterization of Abraham seem too outlandish, I’ll just note that he can be superbly sensitive too, as when he allows Abraham to describe his feelings at growing old without a child:

“My heart is a cold cache of sorrow —
For this agony I know no comfort or counsel.” (l.2205-6)

**

The “Genesis” poem is, on textual grounds, thought to be the work of at least two poets writing originally in different languages, and the Old English poem as we have it is thought to have been assembled from these earlier pieces sometime in the ninth century. It has been a wonderful poem with which to launch this long-term reading project in Anglo-Saxon verse.

Machiavelli: Discourses on Livy

October 2, 2017

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius
Niccolò Machiavelli
Translated from the Italian by J.C. & P. Bondanella
(Oxford, 2003) [c.1515]
xxxii + 413 p.

Casting about for supplementary material to accompany my reading of Livy’s Roman history, I discovered that Machiavelli had written this analysis and commentary on Livy’s first ten books, covering Rome’s history from her origins down to the end of the Samnite Wars, c.300 BC. Intrigued, and anticipating that reviewing important episodes in Livy would help to cement my knowledge, I thought that I would glance at it, and I ended up reading it cover to cover.

Machiavelli wrote these Discourses at a country villa near Florence beginning in about 1513, at around the same time that he was writing The Prince, but, like that more famous volume, it was not published until after his death. (The Discourses appeared in 1531.) I am probably one of the few modern readers for whom the Discourses are my first encounter with his writing; he has a reputation as an amoral but brilliantly perceptive analyst of politics and strategy, and I was curious to see to what extent that reputation would be confirmed in this context.

The book is not a section-by-section commentary on Livy, but a collection of wide-ranging political and military analyses, with historical illustrations drawn principally, though not exclusively, from Livy’s Books 1-10. From time to time he draws also on later books of Livy, from other ancient sources, and, quite often, from Italian history of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. As such, the Discourses can, I think, be seen as belonging to the tradition of Italian Renaissance humanism, for which antiquity was a special source of interest and inspiration for contemporary intellectual and political life. He states his purpose as follows:

“I shall be bold to speak freely all I think, both of old times and of new, in order that the minds of the young who happen to read these my writings, may be led to shun modern examples, and be prepared to follow those set by antiquity whenever chance affords the opportunity. For it is the duty of every good man to teach others those wholesome lessons which the malice of Time or of Fortune has not permitted him to put in practice; to the end, that out of many who have the knowledge, some one better loved by Heaven may be found able to carry them out.” (II, preface)

It is a book that displays to very good effect his talent for keen analysis of complicated political problems. That said, the Machiavalli I met in these pages was not the ruthless strategist whom I had expected to meet, but rather a thoughtful and careful student of human nature and history, with a distinct preference for honour and honesty, about which more below.

***

The book is divided into three sections, the first dealing mainly with matters of internal politics, the second addressed mainly to military affairs and international politics, and the third being something of a grab bag (or, at least, a section for which Machiavelli states no particular objectives). Each section is divided into about fifty topics, usually treated analytically and augmented with historical data as evidence. It is, therefore, a difficult book to summarize, but I will try, in what follows, to pull on a few of the common threads that I found woven through it. There is, for those interested, a quite detailed overview of the contents on the book’s Wikipedia page.

Machiavelli is interested, for instance, in the strengths and weaknesses of different forms of government. He sketches out six principal types, corresponding to the same six defined by Aristotle, as principality, aristocracy, and democracy, and their corrupted forms of tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy. He sees something bad in all of them: the corrupt ones are bad, of course, from their nature, but the good ones are also defective on account of their generally brief duration. He is not an advocate for any one form, and in fact recommends (which I think Aristotle also did, if memory serves) that different forms be instantiated at different levels of governance, so that each may serve as a check upon the others. He is interested in how political power is exercised; he praises the Romans, for instance, for replacing the kingship with the consulship, an office having the same powers but having their exercise distributed among persons and alternating in an orderly fashion.

To the question of whether nobles guard freedom more effectively than do the people, he answers in the affirmative, citing the examples of Sparta and Venice in contrast with that of Rome. But he then later argues that “a people is wiser and more constant than a Prince”, especially when judging of particular, concrete matters (I, 43), and are wiser than a prince when choosing men to fill political offices so long as they are comparably well informed (I, 34). On the other hand,the people are vulnerable to flattery and demagoguery, for “large hopes and brave promises easily move them” (I, 53). A great leader is of inestimable value — citing the example of Camillus, he writes that

“a great man is constantly the same through all vicissitudes of Fortune; so that although she change, now exalting, now depressing, he remains unchanged, and retains always a mind so unmoved, and in such complete accordance with his nature as declares to all that over him Fortune has no dominion.” (III, 31)

Yet even the power granted to such a man must be circumscribed and defined, for hazards attend the giving of too much power to any one man:

“Where an uncontrolled authority is given, no security is afforded by the circumstance that the body of the people is not corrupted; for in the briefest possible time absolute authority will make a people corrupt, and obtain for itself friends and partisans. Nor will it be any hindrance to him in whom such authority is vested, that he is poor and without connections, for wealth and every other advantage will quickly follow” (II, 35)

There is much in these pages about good governance. When, for example, a citizen attempts to gain power through false accusations, he points to the example set by the Romans as a remedy:

“The Romans demonstrated exactly how false accusers must be punished. Indeed, they must be turned into public accusers, and when the public indictment is found true, either reward them or avoid punishing them, but when it is found false, punish them as Manlius was punished.” (I, 8)

(Manlius, I remind you, was thrown from the Tarpeian Rock.) To preserve justice, a state must always uphold the rule of law:

“In a republic, nothing should be left to be effected through irregular methods, because, although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be violated for ends which are not good.” (I, 34)

There must, for example, be no-one who is above the law, whether because of their wealth, power, or renown:

“Nothing, I think, is of worse example in a republic, than to make a law and not to keep it; and most of all, when he who breaks is he that made it.” (I, 45)

“No well-ordered State ever strikes a balance between the services of its citizens and their misdeeds; but appointing rewards for good actions and punishment for bad, when it has rewarded a man for acting well, will afterwards, should he act ill, chastise him, without regard to his former deserts. When these ordinances are duly observed, a city will live long in freedom, but when they are neglected, it must soon come to ruin.” (I, 24)

By way of illustration he cites the example of Horatius, a man celebrated for his courage and credited with saving the city from destruction, but then subsequently found guilty of homicide and punished in accordance with the law.

He seems not to have much to say on economics, though he does argue that “it should be the object of every well-governed commonwealth to make the State rich and keep individual citizens poor” (I, 37). He is endorsing here the Roman ideal of the farmer-statesman, especially exemplified by Cincinnatus, who was summoned from ploughing his family farm to the office of dictator in a time of crisis.

He is also aware of the importance of a shared vision and common values for a healthy polity. He advocates a kind of political ressourcement, because “for a sect of commonwealth to last long, it must often be brought back to its beginnings”. The United States, with its strong civic emphasis on the founding fathers, illustrates this virtue. Machiavelli illustrates the principle with reference to the Catholic Church:

“For had not this religion of ours been brought back to its original condition by Saint Francis and Saint Dominic, it must soon have been utterly extinguished. They, however, by their voluntary poverty, and by their imitation of the life of Christ, rekindled in the minds of men the dying flame of faith; and by the efficacious rules which they established averted from our Church that ruin which the ill lives of its prelates and heads must otherwise have brought upon it.” (III, 1)

The Machiavelli we know from The Prince — the master of the tactical art of politics — can also be found in these Discourses. The centrepiece of this aspect of the book is unquestionably the section “Of Conspiracies”, a long (~35 pages in this edition) analysis of types of conspiracies that arise in a state, their origins and objectives, the conditions under which they succeed and fail, and how they can be countered and exposed. It’s an excellent, potted example of Machiavelli’s talent for analysis.

He warns rulers about the dangers that arise when a leader harms those under his authority:

“never … think so lightly of any man as to suppose, that when wrong upon wrong has been done him, he will not bethink himself of revenge, however great the danger he runs, or the punishment he thereby brings upon himself.” (II, 28)

When such dangers do arise, he advises that “it is safer to temporize with than to meet it with violence”, and this, I think, applies when the danger arises from below. But the situation is reversed when one is threatened from above, or by a superior power, for in that case he counsels confrontation as the better tactic, and the passage is worth quoting in full:

“It is better that a thing be taken from you by force than yielded through fear of force. For if you yield through fear and to escape war, the chances are that you do not escape it; since he to whom, out of manifest cowardice you make this concession, will not rest content, but will endeavour to wring further concessions from you, and making less account of you, will only be the more kindled against you. At the same time you will find your friends less zealous on your behalf, since to them you will appear either weak or cowardly. But if, so soon as the designs of your enemy are disclosed, you at once prepare to resist though your strength be inferior to his, he will begin to think more of you, other neighbouring princes will think more; and many will be willing to assist you, on seeing you take up arms, who, had you relinquished hope and abandoned yourself to despair, would never have stirred a finger to save you.” (II, 14)

There is no one size fits all solution for those threatened unjustly by an authority, but those finding themselves in such a situation would do well, I think, to take a good, long look at this passage.

Machiavelli does not dwell in these pages on the relationship of politics to religion, but he does make a few brief comments that illuminate his views. He notes, quite properly, that religion had an essential civic role for Romans, who saw it as “absolutely necessary for maintaining a civilized society” (I, 11), and he seems himself to endorse this view when he says that “there can be no greater indication of the ruin of a state than to see a disregard for its divine worship” (I, 12). But his attitude to religion appears to be rather practical rather than devout; he speaks of the advantages of religion “when it is properly used” (I, 15), and thereby makes it subservient to political ends. Still, his general view on the close affiliation of politics and religion, especially considered as an echo of the ancient understanding, serves as a corrective to what I think is a fairly common misapprehension today — namely, our tendency to think that the union of politics and religion was a peculiarly medieval phenomenon undone in the early modern period, whereas in truth this union was strong in the ancient world, was stressed, teased apart, and clarified by distinctions in the medieval period, only to be recovered in its more ancient form, in the vogue for antiquity, during the Renaissance (Machiavelli being a case in point) and early modern period. It was not until the eighteenth century that the assault on the fittingness of this close alliance began in earnest.

Another recurrent theme throughout these Discourses concerns the risks and advantages of “regime change”, of efforts to alter the form of government of a people. Machiavelli understands that the virtue of a people (or its absence) is relevant to the type of government appropriate to that people (“different institutions and ordinances are needed in a corrupt State from those which suit a State which is not corrupted; for where the matter is wholly dissimilar, the form cannot be similar.” (I, 18)) and that, therefore, no one form of government is suitable for all (“Let a commonwealth, then, be constituted in the country where a great equality is found or has been made; and, conversely, let a princedom be constituted where great inequality prevails. Otherwise what is constituted will be discordant in itself, and without stability.” (I, 55)). The attempt to introduce democracy to a polity that has previously been under a powerful prince is especially fraught, and one must, in Machiavelli’s words, “kill the sons of Brutus” — that is, remove all those tho had specially benefitted under the prince, lest they conspire against the new order. That this counsel might be pertinent to our contemporary affairs has not been entirely overlooked.

Many hazards attend efforts to change social institutions:

“It is no less arduous and dangerous to attempt to free a people disposed to live in servitude, than to enslave a people who desire to live free.” (III, 8)

Rapid social or political change is disruptive and requires or produces violence, and slow change is difficult to motivate and manage. He sees slow change as being, on balance, preferable, and counsels authorities to proceed by subterfuge and misdirection:

“Whoever takes upon him to reform the government of a city, must, if his measures are to be well received and carried out with general approval, preserve at least the semblance of existing methods, so as not to appear to the people to have made any change in the old order of things; although, in truth, the new ordinances differ altogether from those which they replace. For when this is attended to, the mass of mankind accept what seems as what is; nay, are often touched more nearly by appearances than by realities.” (I, 25)

Even in ideal circumstances, however, when foresight and cunning are used conscientiously, success is elusive, and this for a basic reason that is one of the main grounds for a principled conservatism:

“In close vicinity to every good is found also an evil, so apt to grow up along with it that it is hardly possible to have the one without accepting the other. This we see in all human affairs, and the result is, that unless fortune aid us to overcome this natural and common disadvantage, we never arrive at any excellence.” (III, 37)

***

I mentioned at the beginning that the middle section of the book is devoted to an analysis of international affairs, including warfare, and there is a fair bit of material about specifically military strategy and tactics. He writes focused analyses, for instance, of the role of artillery in warfare (II, 17) and on the disadvantages of fortresses (II, 24). (The Romans, he notes, conquered many fortresses and, upon conquering them, invariably pulled them down.) He discusses the causes of war, the value of strength over reputation, and the dangers of using hired soldiers. Occasionally he lets drop a sentence that has something of the aphorism about it:

“We should never hazard our whole fortune where we put not forth our entire strength.” (I, 23)

“Men fighting in their own cause make good and resolute soldiers.” (I, 43)

“Not gold but good soldiers constitute the sinews of war” (II, 10)

His main argument is that military leaders of his own time were incompetent because they failed to follow the military example set by the Romans.

***

In order to bring this long discussion to a close, I’d like to return to the question of Machiavelli’s reputation as an immoralist, or at least an amoralist. These Discourses do not really support that appraisal. It is true that he does not hesitate to describe ruthless or underhanded tactics that will be effective, but this is not the same as endorsing those tactics. The most morally troublesome argument I could find concerns what actions may or may not be licit in the conduct of war; he takes an extreme position:

“When the entire safety of our country is at stake, no consideration of what is just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or shameful, must intervene.” (III, 41)

This is inconsistent not only with modern standards, but with the Just War tradition as a whole. It is also inconsistent with what he says elsewhere, as, for instance, when in a section that would seem to be an illustration of the above principle (“That Fraud is fair in War”), he qualifies it in important ways:

“I would not have it understood that any fraud is glorious which leads you to break your plighted word, or to depart from covenants to which you have agreed; for though to do so may sometimes gain you territory and power, it can never, as I have said elsewhere, gain you glory.”

Similarly, after describing candidly the violence which a king will sometimes have to commit in order to preserve in existence a corrupted state, he remarks as follows:

“These indeed are most cruel expedients, contrary not merely to every Christian, but to every civilized rule of conduct, and such as every man should shun, choosing rather to lead a private life than to be a king on terms so hurtful to mankind.” (I, 26)

All of which makes me think he might have been, after all, a pretty decent fellow.

***

My interest in these Discourses was first aroused on account of their relation to Livy, and I certainly did appreciate the chance to revisit episodes in his history, but, as is probably evident from the comparative lack of references to Livy in these notes, I soon found that the book took on independent interest. Reading The Prince has never been very high on my list of priorities, but it is now higher than it was before.

**

[Law and custom]
Just as good customs require laws in order to be maintained, so laws require good customs in order to be observed. (I, 18)

[Power, real and statutory]
Power may readily give titles, but not titles power. (I, 34)

[Gratitude and vengeance]
Tacitus said, “Men are more inclined to repay injury than kindness: the truth is that gratitude is irksome, while vengeance is accounted gain”. (I, 29)

[Ambition]
…which has such dominion in their hearts that it never leaves them to whatsoever heights they climb. For nature has so ordered it that while they desire everything, it is impossible for them to have everything, and thus their desires being always in excess of their capacity to gratify them, they remain constantly dissatisfied and discontented. And hence the vicissitudes in human affairs. (I, 37)

[A hierarchy of praise]
Among all men who are praised, the most highly praised are those who have been leaders and founders of religions. Close afterwards come those who have founded either republics or kingdoms. After them the most celebrated men are those who, placed at the head of armies, have enlarged either their own realm or that of their native country. To these may be added men of letters… (I, 10)

[Adversity unifies]
The causes of division in a commonwealth are, for the most part, ease and tranquillity, while the causes of union are fear and war. (II, 25)

Nabokov: Pnin

September 26, 2017

Pnin
Vladimir Nabokov
(Vintage, 1989) [1957]
191 p.

Nabokov began Pnin, a novel about a Russian professor emigrated to the United States, as he was in the final stages of writing Lolita. As that book had some trouble finding a publisher, it was Pnin that hit the shelves first. Unfortuately for Pnin, and for its character Pnin, Lolita appeared the following year and thoroughly eclipsed Pnin. But it’s an excellent book all the same, of course; no-one who can write like Nabokov could write something wholly unworthy of attention, and Pnin is very far from being that.

We first meet Pnin as he is en route, in a fairly disorganized fashion, to deliver an evening address to a women’s group in a town some distance from Waindell College, where he teaches. Later we encounter him switching residences, only to find himself beseiged by the noisy antics of schoolchildren. Later still he is hosting a dinner party for academic colleagues. Nabokov is on record as not particularly caring for plot as an element in fiction, and though the cunningly constructed masterpiece that was to be his next book, Pale Fire, might seem to belie that claim, Pnin shows No-Plot Nabokov at his considerable best. To be sure, we get to know Pnin, and we learn quite a lot about his history and his present hopes, his family and his friends, but the half-dozen chapters of the book might, it seems to me, be shuffled around without great impairment to the effect, and each might stand on its own as a masterclass in miniature.

For Nabokov is a master of prose, and that, for me, is the principal attraction. His humour is sharp, his diction impeccable, his tone elegant and erudite. When, for instance, Pnin has his remaining teeth removed in order to make way for dentures, Nabokov gives us this delightful passage:

It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate.

Later we learn that as a young man Pnin had been in love with a woman, Mira, from whom he was separated by the Russian Civil War, but whom he encountered again, a decade later, in Germany:

…one night, at a Russian restaurant on the Kurfürstendamm, he saw Mira again. They exchanged a few words, she smiled at him in the remembered fashion, from under her dark brows, with that bashful slyness of hers; and the contour of her prominent cheekbones, and the elongated eyes, and the slenderness of arm and ankle were unchanged, were immortal, and then she joined her husband who was getting his overcoat at the cloakroom, and that was all — but the pang of tenderness remained, akin to the vibrating outline of verses you know you know but cannot recall.

And I, at any rate, can sense the vibrating outline of those verses too.

Given the similarities between Pnin’s history and Nabokov’s own, it is tempting to see the novel as partially autobiographical. In support of this we might cite Pnin’s numerous careful sotto voce lepidopteric observations, but then Nabokov put such material into many of his books. Certainly Pnin has not the linguistic gifts of his author, a good portion of the novel’s broad comedy deriving from his manful but unavailing wrestling with the English tongue. In the end, I know of no particular reason to think the book particularly autobiographical in substance.

Though I enjoyed this and that aspect of the book, I suppose that on balance I am mildly disappointed with Pnin. For me the summit of Nabokov’s art, insofar as I know it, is Pale Fire, and naturally I approach each new Nabokovian novel in the hope of scaling another such summit. It’s a self-defeating recipe for disappointment. But on its own terms Pnin is funny, entertaining, sometimes touching, and technically virtuosic. A good read.

*

[Academic life]
And still the College creaked on. Hard-working graduates, with pregnant wives, still wrote dissertations on Dostoyevsky and Simone de Beauvoir. Literary departments still laboured under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers. Word plastics like ‘conflict’ and ‘pattern’ were still in vogue. As usual, sterile instructors successfully endeavoured to ‘produce’ by reviewing the books of more fertile colleagues, and, as usual, a crop of lucky faculty members were enjoying or about to enjoy various awards received earlier in the year. Thus, an amusing little grant was affording the versatile Starr couple – baby-faced Christopher Starr and his child-wife Louise – of the Fine Arts Department the unique opportunity of recording post-war folk-songs in East Germany, into which these amazing young people had somehow obtained permission to penetrate. Tristram W. Thomas (‘Tom’ to his friends), Professor of Anthropology, had obtained ten thousand dollars from the Mandoville Foundation for a study of the eating habits of Cuban fishermen and palm climbers. Another charitable institution had come to the assistance of Dr Bodo von Falternfels, to enable him to complete “a bibliography concerned with such published and manuscript material as has been devoted in recent years to a critical appraisal of the influence of Nietzsche’s disciples on Modern Thought”. And, last but not least, the bestowal of a particularly generous grant was allowing the renowned Waindell psychiatrist, Dr Rudolph Aura, to apply to ten thousand elementary school pupils the so-called Fingerbowl Test, in which the child is asked to dip his index in cups of coloured fluids whereupon the proportion between length of digit and wetted part is measured and plotted in all kinds of fascinating graphs.

Beowulf, pictured

September 18, 2017

Beowulf
Adapted by Gareth Hinds
(Candlewick, 2007)
128 p.

Generally speaking I’m fond of attempts to adapt classic stories into a variety of different forms: poetry, film, music. Granting that such adaptations are usually inferior to their originals, they nonetheless can give a familiar story a new freshness, and when done with affection and appreciation they augment my appreciation too.

Beowulf is an interesting case, for the Old English original is inaccessible to me (still, though I have dormant plans), and all I’ve ever known are a variety of adaptations, some, I believe, more nearly conveying the experience of reading the original than others. Gareth Hinds has adapted the story into a graphic novel, which, given the nature of the medium, means that he is primarily adapting the story rather than the poem, but it’s such a wonderful story, and so well suited to a visual treatment, that I approached it in a spirit of expectation, especially on the strength of a glowing appraisal in a recent overview of Beowulf adaptations.

I’ll be the first to admit that my familiarity with graphic novels is slight, and so I am perhaps not an informed judge, but I thought this was excellent and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is quite faithful to the original, both in overall structure and in certain details. As to the latter, for instance, there is that brief sequence shortly after Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot in which King Hrothgar’s wife makes an appearance in the hall; it is a notable moment of the poem because it’s the only occasion, I believe, in which a woman enters the action (unless we count Grendel’s mother); Hinds introduces her at the same point, and with the same modest emphasis.

As to the structure of the story, Hinds captures and conveys it brilliantly through the use of three very different colour palettes for the story’s three panels. Each of the three battle scenes are shown in long, wordless sequences of drawings. The monsters are truly monstrous, and, like the poem, this graphic novel is extremely violent (reserved for teens or older, I should think). Where Hinds does use words, they are of an elevated tone befitting the material, and on the basis of the occasional echoes of alliterative verse that I hear in the prose, I believe he must be relying in whole or in part on an uncredited translation.

For me an edition of Beowulf like this could never be a substitute for a verse translation (of which my favourite is Sullivan/Murphy), but as a complement it has much to recommend it. In closing, here are a few photographs to give a flavour of the look of the book: