Archive for the 'General' Category

Seneca: Tragedies

December 3, 2020

Six Tragedies
Phaedra, Oedipus, Medea, Trojan Women, Hercules Furens, Thyestes
Seneca
Translated from the Latin by Emily Wilson
(Oxford, 2010) [c.50]
xxxvi + 240 p.

Quid ratio possit?
Vicit ac regnat furor.

What can reason do? The question is posed in the course of Seneca’s Phaedra, and it is central to all of these tragedies, plays in which ungoverned passions run amok, wreaking destruction on all sides. Madness conquers and reigns.

The plays are horror shows. Suicide, murder, cannibalism, child-murder, incest, self-mutilation – nothing, it seems, is beyond the reach of human depravity. In her play, Phaedra struggles against lust for her step-son; by play’s end he has been cursed and torn limb from limb, and she has killed herself. In his play, Oedipus cannot escape the gruesome end which the fates have prepared for him:

Fate is driving us: give in to fate.
No amount of worrying can change
the threads of fate’s fixed spindle.
All that human beings suffer,
all we do, comes from on high.
(Act V)

Medea is overcome with desire to revenge herself on her husband for his betrayal, no matter the cost to herself:

Come to me now, O vengeful Furies, punishers of sinners,
wild in your hair with serpents running free,
holding black torches in your bloody hands,
come to me, scowling as you did of old
when you stood round my marriage bed. Kill his new wife,
kill her father, and all the royal family.
(Act I)

In The Trojan Women neither Hecuba, the Trojan queen, nor Andromache, the wife of Hector, are able to prevent their children being sacrificed to the gods. Hercules, in his play, falls into a madness and slaughters his entire family. And in Thyestes the anger of two warring brothers results in one feeding the other’s children to him in a gruesome feast.

What is Seneca’s point in these plays? They are not celebrations of violence and depravity; throughout, the tone is melancholy and resigned. My best guess is that they are artistic explorations of his Stoic philosophy. The Stoics believed that detachment from passion, positive or negative, was the key to happiness. Their watchwords were steadiness, rationality, and acceptance of whatever fate laid in one’s path. Perhaps in these plays Seneca is attempting a proof by contradiction: see what happens when you don’t heed the counsels of Stoicism! Love, hatred, grief, terror, menace, and terrible suffering rule the day; witness the terrible consequences. This, at least, is my best reading of the grand strategy at work.

As is probably obvious from the subject matter of the plays, they bear a significant debt to the Athenian tragic tradition. Like the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides they are written in verse (iambic trimeter in the Latin), and are structured antiphonally with sections for dramatic characters alternating with sections for a chorus which comments upon the action. Although it is hard to judge from the page, my sense is that this structure gives the plays a somewhat episodic feel, like a sequence of vignettes, rather than developing them into a flexible drama that builds forward momentum. The plays are not particularly long – around 1000 lines, typically, and I would imagine that on the stage they would play in about an hour or so.

Seneca’s plays have been enormously influential in our tradition. The introduction to this Oxford edition argues that, among classical writers, his influence on European literature is second only to Virgil’s. These plays were read widely in the Middle Ages, and decisively affected early modern drama during the development of national traditions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, in particular, owe them a debt: the tragedies of Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus must be based more or less directly on Seneca’s Thyestes), Webster, and Marlowe are all, to some degree, drawing on them. Personally, I would be more inclined to pick up the plays of those “imitators” than I would be to dwell overlong on Seneca, but I have enjoyed reading them, at least this once.

Feast of the Ascension, 2020

May 21, 2020

Jesus led his followers into the vicinity of Bethany, we are told. “Lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from then, and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51.) Jesus departs in the act of blessing. He goes while blessing, and he remains in that gesture of blessing. His hands remain stretched out over this world. The blessing hands of Christ are like a roof that protects us. But at the same time, they are a gesture of opening up, tearing the world open so that heaven may enter in, may become “present” within it.

The gesture of hands outstretched in blessing expresses Jesus’ continuing relationship to his disciples, to the world. In departing, he comes to us, in order to raise us up above ourselves and to open up the world to God. That is why the disciples could return home from Bethany rejoicing. In faith we know that Jesus holds his hands stretched out in blessing over us. That is the lasting motive of Christian joy.

— Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth.

Today into the heavens has ascended
Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, Alleluia!
He sits at the Father’s right hand,
and rules heaven and earth, Alleluia!
Now have been fulfilled all of
Father David’s songs,
Now God is with God, Alleluia!
He sits upon the royal throne of God,
in this his greatest triumph, Alleluia!
Let us bless the Lord:
Let the Holy Trinity be praised,
let us give thanks to the Lord,
Alleluia! Amen.

Music by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.

Christmas Day, 2019

December 25, 2019

nativity-our-lord

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at him,
And all the stars looked down.

— G.K. Chesterton —

Around and about, Notre-Dame edition

August 1, 2019
  • The New York Times has run a harrowing account of what happened, hour by hour, during that awful day in April when Notre-Dame de Paris went up in flames. Riveting reading.
  • Witold Dybczynski writes about the troubling French politics surrounding the repairs and reconstruction of the church, and gives historical perspective on how reconstruction after disaster has been handled in other famous cases.
  • At The New Criterion, Peter Pennoyer covers some of the same ground, but goes into detail about the philosophy that motivated the extensive reconstructon of Notre-Dame that Viollet-le-Duc undertook in the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Andrew Thompson-Briggs reviews the massive two-volume work Aesthetics that Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote in his final years. I’d actually been lazily circling around these books, wondering if I should take the lure, but this review has put me off for the time being. As reservoirs of critical judgments the books sound excellent; but as advancing a philosophical argument they sound idiosyncratic, and I don’t need 1000 pages of idiosyncracy at this stage in my life.
  • The only thing I like about Twitter is the opportunity it affords to call its users “twits”. And I guess I also like that one of its architects has trouble sleeping at night.
  • I once read an interview with the Hilliard Ensemble in which they lamented the frequency with which their audience would blandly describe as “so relaxing” a piece of music that had been strewn with hair-raising difficulties, suffused with intelligence, and animated by transcendent yearning. I was reminded of this when reading a funny but also sad account of how classical music gets treated by marketers.
  • At Image Journal, novelist Christopher Beha lists his ten favourite novels of the past 30 years. I am not sure any very great novels have been written in that period, and his list, at least, leaves me still in doubt. Infinite Jest may have a legitimate claim; I was only able to get through about 1/3 of it, so I’m no judge. The only other of those on his list that I know is Dillard’s The Maytrees, which I appreciated but am not wildly enthusiastic about. I’d be interested to know if anyone reading here would concur with or contest his judgments.

For an envoi, let’s hear one of those so relaxing pieces from the Hilliard Ensemble. Close your eyes and waft along with this:

Boyagoda: Original Prin

July 14, 2019

Original-Prin.jpgOriginal Prin
Randy Boyagoda
(Biblioasis, 2018)
224 p.

Prin is an academic at a small university in Toronto which, by a series of mischances, has come to be called the University of the Family Universal, or UFU. (One can imagine the mixed-message banner hung in a prominent place: “Welcome to UFU!”) Even in this small pond Prin is a small fish, for his particular expertise — on the symbolism of marine life, and especially seahorses, in Canadian fiction — lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

His professional fortunes, however, are far from being Prin’s main concern as the novel opens, for Prin has cancer, and is looking, with a generous measure of hesitation and indecision, for a way to tell his beautiful young daughters about his condition.

Yet his professional fortunes won’t let him be after all, for he learns that his school faces bankruptcy, and he unemployment (and, one surmises, unemployability) unless something is done, and quickly. Thus is Prin recruited by his academic dean to travel to the Middle East to deliver a lecture (on Kafka, male genitalia as symbols of seahorses, and The English Patient, naturally) as part of a complicated scheme to save the university. The catch: he must travel with a former girlfriend from his graduate school days, a beauty for whom he harbours, against his will, a smouldering charcoal briquette that he fears might erupt into flame if provoked.

Thus far we have a setup for a promising comic send-up of academic life, and I laughed heartily as the pieces fell into place, but Boyagoda is still more ambitious, for in addition to contending against serious illness, the end of his academic career, and his own deceitful heart, Prin is also beset by a religious crisis. He is a Catholic, basically a happy and contented Catholic, who prays his rosary, goes to Mass and confession, and teaches his children to do the same. Yet, for nearly the first time in his life, Prin believes God has spoken directly to him, telling him to do something specific — something he’d much rather not do, and thinks is imprudent or worse — and he can’t understand why.

Now, comic Catholic novels are not thick on the ground — not as thick as they ought to be, if Chesterton’s claim be true that the test of a good religion is whether you can laugh at it. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of a single other: Waugh wrote both comic and Catholic, but not generally in the same book, and while Miss Flannery’s stories have in some cases a comic thread, it is usually a dark thread, whereas Boyagoda’s tone is closer to winking and grinning satire. It’s a fascinating experiment.

The novel makes an audacious swerve in its final act into tense dramatic territory — almost thriller territory, as unlikely as that sounds. I’m not quite convinced that this works, but the book leaves enough questions hanging in the air — it is, apparently, just the first volume in a planned trilogy — that I’m willing to reserve judgement for now.

In the meantime, I recommend this book to Catholic readers, to readers who enjoy a good laugh, to connoisseurs of opening sentences, and (of course) to those with a special interest in seahorses in Canadian fiction.

Linked links

March 15, 2018

Today a set of items sewn together by threads firm and flimsy:

  • Some of us read not so much for plot as for style, but what is style? At The New Criterion Dominic Green has some ideas about it, expressed with style. It’s a splendid essay.
  • Joseph Epstein has written a nice appreciation of that delightful stylist P.G. Wodehouse. It led me to Roger Kimball’s older essay in a similar vein. And that led me to Christopher Hitchens’ thoughts on the subject. Wodehouse has been an obsession of mine of late; I’ve nearly completed all the Jeeves and Wooster novels. As displays of wit they are hard to beat.
  • And what about displays of Whit?
  • The film that won the Best Picture Oscar this year was del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which Ross Douthat sees as a rather unsubtle example of liberal myth-making. I’ve not seen it myself.
  • Neither have I seen — it was a strictly auditory affair — a recent debate between Jordan Peterson and philosophy’s own Angel of Death, David Benatar. At issue is anti-natalism, a view that holds that sentient life is an evil. (Peterson’s against it; so am I.)
  • I’m more likely to throw my support behind a proposition implicit in the novels of our great English moralist Charles Dickens: that coffee is an evil.
  • You have to wonder what the dickens the consciousness deniers are thinking. (Technical answer: nothing.) The linked essay is a good one, but over contented with its preferred solution, and not quite grappling with the scope of the problem. Most educated Westerners today are committed to a metaphysics that leads where the consciousness deniers have ended up. Do I hear someone whistling past this graveyard?
  • I think so, and I think I know the tune. Didn’t Ian Bostridge mention it in his reflections on the English choral tradition?

As an envoi, let’s hear something from that tradition. Here is Herbert Howells’ A Spotless Rose, sung by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Blessed John of Fiesole

April 17, 2016

I’ve written a short appreciation of the painter Blessed John of Fiesole (aka Fra Angelico) for the 52 Saints series at The Three Prayers. I’ve loved Angelico for years, and, with this opportunity to write about him, I’d really hoped to turn out a thoughtful essay on art, beauty, and holiness. Alas, the best I could manage was to witlessly point at a few of his paintings. If you’re interested, it’s here.

Shakespeare!

April 1, 2016

This month marks the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. I hope to do a few Shakespeare-themed posts over the next few weeks, but I thought I’d start by collecting some from the past history of this web log:

I’ve also covered a number of adaptations of Shakespeare in the “Great moments in opera” series:

It’s not much, considering how long I’ve been doing this.

Hither and yon

March 30, 2016

A few interesting items that came my way over the past few weeks:

  • Joseph Pieper’s wonderful book Leisure, the Basis of Culture merits whatever loving attention it receives, but I never thought I would see an admiring appraisal illustrated with pictures from children’s books.
  • My heart rose when I heard that Bob Dylan would be releasing another album later this year, rumoured to be called Fallen Angels … and then it fell when I learned it would be another batch of Sinatra songs.
  • Meanwhile, Dylan has made available a cornucopia of notebooks and paraphernalia for scholarly study. Time to book that flight to Tulsa?
  • Fr Paul Murray, O.P. delivers a very fine lecture entitled “Aquinas: Poet and Contemplative”, in which he considers the devotional life of the great philosopher saint, especially as manifest in his Latin poetry. This is a side of St Thomas which we don’t consider often enough.
  • Matthew Buckley has begun a series of articles explaining the physics under study at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the Higgs Boson was discovered a few years ago. I’ve not known of Matthew Buckley before, but the first instalment in his series is a superb example of popular science writing.
  • The largest ever exhibition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch has opened at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. I do love Bosch! The highlight of my visit to Madrid some years ago was spending a few hours in the Bosch room at the Prado gallery, and were I to be in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the next few months I’d be there to see those paintings, and others, again. In this overview of the exhibition, Michael Prodger argues that Bosch is not best understood as a Renaissance artist, much less a modern (as he has sometimes been said to be), but as a medieval artist through and through.
  • Roger Scruton, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, writes about the relationship between two post-war German masterpieces: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

For an envoi, let’s hear Metamorphosen, for 23 stringed instruments:

Ash Wednesday, 2012

February 22, 2012

Allegri’s Miserere, sung by The Sixteen.