Catherine Pozzi : Immortal Longings

born into a very select Parisian family during the latter nineteenth century — her father was a fashionable surgeon and a Senator while her mother presided over a salon patronised by Sarah Bernhardt and Leconte de l’Isle — ‘Karin’ developed into a withdrawn, very intense young woman “tall, gracious and ugly” as Jean Paulhan describes her cattily. She traversed various emotional and religious crises, which she recounts in her voluminous Journals, before making a disastrous marriage which never survived the honeymoon. Not that she was frigid: a few years on, already suffering from the tubercular complaint which eventually killed her, she embarked on a tempestuous affair with Paul Valéry and committed the unforgivable faux-pas, not of having an affair with a married man, but of openly avowing the liaison.

If ever there was a poète manqué(e) — I am tempted to say génie manqué — it was Catherine Pozzi. In a rather pathetic passage from her Journals, she asks ‘Dieu Esprit’ to forgive her for not having fulfilled her sacred mission and having wasted too much time on trivialities. While her contemporary, Marcel Proust, also a chronic invalid and insomniac, managed to write the longest novel in the world, Catherine Pozzi left us only her Journals, one or two inconclusive philosophical prose pieces and….six poems. Out of these six, only one was published during her lifetime — though this was according to her own wishes.

Like the English Romantic poet Beddoes, Catherine Pozzi spent much of her life vainly searching for some faculty or lost sense, which would enable humanity to overcome the dreadful duality matter/spirit. To this end, she undertook serious studies in biology and physics during her maturer years, and, piecing together scattered passages from her Journals and prose pieces, it would seem that she was groping towards a theory similar to that of ‘morphic resonance’ currently advanced by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, whereby each of our sensations, and ultimately the whole of our lives, is a sort of recapitulation of what has already been : “Je sens ce que j’ai déjà senti” as she puts it. More’s the pity she did not leave us a body of work as substantial as that of, say, Blake.

 Sebastian Hayes
                                                          Vale

That peerless love that was your gift to me,
The wind of days has rent beyond repair,
High burned the flame, strong was our destiny,
As hand in hand we stood in unity
Together there ;

Orb that for us was single and entire,
Our sun, its flaming splendour was our thought,
The second sky of a divided fire,
And double exile by division bought ;

These scenes for you evoke ashes and dread,
Places that you refuse to recognize
And the enchanted star above our head
That lit the perilous moment our embracing shed,
Gone from your eyes…..

The future days on which your hopes depend
Are less immediate than what’s left behind;
Take what you have, each harvest has an end,
You’ll not be drunk however much you spend
On scattered wine.

I have retrieved those wild celestial days,
The vanished paradise where anguish was desire ;
What we were once revives in unexpected ways,
It is my flesh and blood and will, after death’s blaze,
Be my attire ;

Your name acts like a spell, lost bliss I knew,
Takes shape, becomes my heart; I live again
That golden era memory makes new,
That peerless love that I once gave to you,
And lived in pain.

Ave

Love of my life, my fear is I may die
Not knowing who you are or whence you came,
Within what world you lived, beneath what sky,
What age or time forged your identity,
Love beyond blame,

Love of my life, outstripping memory,
O fire without a hearth lighting my days,
At fate’s command you wrote my history,
By night your glory showed itself to me,
My resting-place…

When all I seem to be falls in decay,
Divided infinitesimally
An infinite number of times, all I survey
Is lost, and the apparel of today
Is stripped from me,

Broken by life into a thousand shreds,
A thousand disconnected moments — swirl
Of ashes that the pitiless wind outspreads,
You will remake from what my spirit sheds
A single pearl.

Yes, from the shattered debris of my days,
You will remake a shape for me, remake a name,
A living unity transcending time and space,
Heart of my spirit, centre of life’s maze,
Love beyond blame.

Maya
Descending layer by layer the silt of centuries,
Each desperate moment always takes me back to you,
Country of sun-drenched temples and Atlantic seas,
Legends come true.

Soul ! word adored by me, by destiny made black,
What is it but the body when the flame has fled ?
O time, stand still ! O tightened weft of life, grow slack !
A child again, the trail toward the dark I tread.

Birds mass, confront the sea-wind blowing from the West,
Fly, happiness, towards the summer-time of long ago,
The final bank once gained, all is by sleep possessed,
Song, monarch, rocks, the ancient tree cradled below,
Stars that from old my original face have blessed,

A sun all on its own and crowned with perfect rest.

Nova

Far in the future is a world that  knows not me,
It has not taken shape beneath the present sky,
Its space and time not ours, its customs all awry,
Point in the lifespan of the very star I flee,
There you will live, my glory and my ruin — I
Will live in you, my blood your heart will fructify,
Your breathing, eyesight, mine, while everything of me
That is terrestrial will be lost, and lost eternally !

Image that I pursue, forestall what is to be !
(Acts I once cherished, you have wrought this agony)
Undo, unmake yourself, dissolve, refuse to be,
Denounce what was desired but not chosen by me.

Let me not see this day, fruit of insanity,
I am not done — let fall the spool of destiny !

Scopolamine

The wine that courses through my vein
Has drowned my heart and in its train
I navigate the endless blueI am a ship without a crew
Forgetfulness descends like rain.

I am a just discovered star
That floats across the empyrean —
How new and strange its contours are!
O voyage taken to the sunAn unfamiliar yet persistent hum
The background to my night’s become.

My heart has left my life behind,
The world of Shape and Form I’ve crossed,
I am saved   I am lostInto the unknown am tossed,
A name without a past to find.

Nyx
A Louise aussi de Lyon et d’Italie

O you my nights  O long-awaited dark
O noble land   O  secrets that endure
O lingering glances    lightning-broken space
O flights approved beyond shut skies

O deep desire  amazement spread abroad
O splendid journey of the spellstruck mind
O worst mishap O grace descended from above
O open door through which not one has passed

I know not why I sink, expire
Before the eternal place is mine
I know not who made me his prey
Nor who it was made me his love

Catherine Pozzi

Translation Sebastian Hayes

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Rimbaud : The Hands of Mary-Jane


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“Les Mains de Jeanne-Marie”, written close to the time of the Paris Commune (May 1871), when there was a short-lived popular government in Paris, is the nineteenth-century French revolutionary poem par excellence. The ballad form imitates actual ‘broadsheet poems’ of the time and the image of disembodied hands running amok and killing people indiscriminately surely comes straight from a Parisian equivalent of the Victorian ‘Penny Dreadful’. But Rimbaud combines this with occasional ‘literary’ words and highly romantic images like the Rebel bending down to kiss Mary-Jane’s hands. There may also be touches of Delacroix’s tremendous painting, Liberty on the Barricades, where a larger than life  female figure with breasts uncovered, holding aloft the tricolour in one hand and a bayonet in the other, leads a charge of insurgents across dead bodies. We have in effect, in Rimbaud’s poem, cultural influences from the two classes which, ephemerally, combined to overthrow the Second Empire, namely the proletariat and the liberal elements amongst the urban bourgeoisie.

            This is a poem intended to be read aloud, so I felt it essential to retain the strong, almost nursery rhyme beat, and to retain the rhyme since it knits the poem together effectively. But Rimbaud is also enjoying himself linguistically in the manner of a virtuoso violinist extemporising. So it was necessary to imitate this mannered diction where necessary.

            When you translate a rhymed, metrical poem, you have to decide what elements you choose to retain at all costs and which you choose to let go, since you will never be able to keep everything. Some words in the original are important for the image, others for the sense. I had no scruples about translating “plus fort que tout un cheval” by “stronger than a vice”, since it is not the image of the horse that matters here, but the idea of brute strength. However, I felt that the important visual elements such as ‘jewels’, ‘the Virgin Mary’, ‘barricades’ and so forth needed to be given their closest equivalents — closest in terms of their emotional effect on the English reader. “Mitrailleuses” is translated as “cannonades” since the image of street fighting is what matters — and, as it happens, the literal translation of mitrailleuse (‘machine-gun’) would have been inappropriate here since, for us, it inevitably evokes the trenches of World War I, not barricades in the streets of Paris.

            The ending of the poem is surprising since it seems to suggest that the speaker wants to hurt ‘Mary-Jane’ whom he has, up to this point, idolised. Perhaps, Rimbaud, the rebel, is incapable of maintaining a total attitude of reverence towards anyone or anything, not even   the ‘goddess of revolution’.          

 

                         


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                  The Hands of Mary-Jane

 

Mary-Jane has strong hands,

   Brown hands tanned by the summer,

Pale hands like a ghost’s hands,

— Are these the hands of Juana ?

 

And do they owe their dusky gleam

   To oils of sensual ecstasy?                      

And do they take their moon-like sheen

   From lakes of cool serenity? 

 

These hands have drunk the wine of stars,

   And charmed men shown on knees,

And they have rolled Cuban cigars

   Sold gems in tropic seas.

 

The golden blooms at Mary’s feet

   Lie spoiled through some mishap;

It is because her palms secrete

   Black deadly nightshade sap.

 

Are they hands that follow butterflies

   As blue dawn lightens the countryside,

Seeking the nectar as a prize?

   Or hands that offer cyanide?

 

What fancy can have fired their blood

   Throughout their lucubrations?

A dream that no one understood

   Of Genghiskhans and Zions.

 

These hands are not sellers of fruit,

   Have not toiled for the gods of mankind,

Or washed undergarments of jute

   For poor little children and blind.

 

For these are no ordinary hands,

   Of workers with faces homespun,

Dwelling in stinking wastelands

   And burned by a tarmac sun.

 

These hands will break your backbones clean,

    Though pure as snow or ice,

These hands are deadlier than machines

   And stronger than a vice!

                        Restless as a furnace blaze,

   Shaking as they grow nearer,  

Their flesh has sung the Marseillaise

   But never Ave Maria.                                   

 

                    They’ll squeeze your throat, you haughty dame,

   And crush your dainty paws,

Your hands are steeped in crime and shame,

  Your nails are scarlet claws.

                       

These lover’s hands shine forth so bright,

   That lambs must turn their head,

While in each knuckle the sunlight

   Inserts a ruby red. 

 

The stain of the populace

   Has browned them like breasts in eclipse,

The back of these hands is the place

   For every proud Rebel’s lips;

 

And they have grown pale as hands of maids

   In the noonday of love — wondrous to see,

In the roar of cannonades

   As Paris fought to be free! 

 

And yet, sacred hands, at your fists

   That, enraptured, we kiss once again, There are times when we glimpse round your  wrists

   The silvery links of a chain !

 

And then, angel hands, we draw breath

   For we feel deep inside us a need,

To transmute and discolour your flesh

                          By making your fingers bleed!

 

                                   Sebastian Hayes 

Verlaine : Il Pleure dans mon coeur



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Il pleure dans mon cœur…

 

                         Il pleut doucement sur la ville.

                                    (Arthur Rimbaud)

 

Il pleure dans mon cœur

Comme il pleut sur la ville :

Quelle est cette langueur

Qui pénètre mon cœur?

 

O bruit doux de la pluie

Par terre et sur les toits!

Pour un cœur qui s’ennuie

O le chant de la pluie!

 

Il pleure sans raison

Dans ce cœur qui s’écœure.

Quoi! nulle trahison? …

Ce deuil est sans raison.

 

C’est bien la pire peine

De ne savoir pourquoi

Sans amour et sans haine

Mon cœur a tant de peine!  

 

                                                 

            This is probably the most famous poem by Paul Verlaine, the French nineteenth century poète maudit who is today better known for his turbulent liaison with the adolescent Arthur Rimbaud than for his actual writings. I render it as

 

Tears fall from my heart….

 

Tears fall in my heart

Like rain on the town —

What is this dull smart

That transpierces my heart?

 

The sweet sound of the rain

On roofs and on the ground!

For a spirit in pain,

O the song of the rain !

 

Tears come for no reason,

To this heart sick of life,

Neither parting nor treason,

My sadness has no reason.

 

And the worst is not to know

Why, without love or hate,

Tears do not fail to flow,

But why I do not know. 

 

            [I am indebted to Claude Mignot-Ogliastri, the critic and biographer, for pointing out to me that Verlaine did not write that tears were flowing from his heart, which would be commonplace, but in his heart, causing me to emend my original translation.]   

 

            As far as I am concerned, poetry should essentially be

                 “what oft was felt but ne’er so well expressed”

to slightly adapt Pope’s famous line — he actually wrote “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”.  Here, Verlaine gives perfect expression to a mood or feeling which I, and countless other people, have occasionally experienced : a sort of sadness which has no raison d’être, or not as far as one can make out. Even, it is not clear whether it really is sadness. I remember one whole summer  when, though not having any particular reason for depression, rather the contrary, I found myself afflicted by recurrent periods of continual weeping (after which I felt a  hell of a lot better), and I have met people in ‘Workshops’ of the psychological type who have recounted identical experiences.  The whole point of Verlaine’s poem is that this sadness “has no reason” and the poet is almost as much puzzled as he is afflicted.

     An article recently appeared in the New Scientist discussing whether depression can/should be cured by ‘happiness’ drugs, provoking varied reactions amongst correspondents. Currently, although almost everyone in this country, including or especially the best off, seems to spend most of their time moaning and whinging, there is a positive obligation to always be  photographed not only smiling but laughing uproariously. If the current government had another term (which currently seems unlikely) it would probably end up by making it punishable by law to appear despondent in public — a £50 fine, say, for a first offence and a warning of more serious penalties for recidivism. One envies the Victorians their right to view life as a serious  business.

 

                                                                                                               Sebastian Hayes    


Anna de Noailles : Belle Époque Femme Fatale and Woman of Letters


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although a french speaker and fairly well conversant with French poetry, I only came across the writings of Anna de Noailles (1876–1933) a year or so  ago, which shows how much she is an almost forgotten figure (not one of her many volumes of poetry is currently in print). I was at once struck by the burning sincerity and power of these poems which make the writings of Mallarmé and other Symbolists, her immediate predecessors in French poetry, appear tame and frigid.

            Take, for example, the following poem

 

               The Trace I Wish to Leave

 

i aim to thrust myself against this life so hard,

And clasp it to me fiercely, leaving such a trace,

That when the sweetness of these days I must discard

The world will keep awhile the warmth of my embrace.

 

The sea, spread out across the globe so lavishly,

On stormy days my fitful memory will sustain,

And in its myriad, random motions ceaselessly

Preserve the acrid, salty, savour of my pain.

 

What will be left of me in heath and windswept coomb?

My blazing eyes will set the yellow gorse on fire,

And the cicada perched upon a sprig of broom

Will sound the depth and poignancy of my desire. 

 

Each spring, in fertile meadows where the skylark sings,

In lanes and wayside ditches where wild flowers grow,

The tufted  grass will tremble at the touch of unseen wings,

The phantoms of my hands that held them long ago.

 

My joy and restless passion will not die with me,

Nature will breathe me in, making of me a part 

Of all that lives, while sorrowing humanity

Will hold the individual profile of my heart.   

 

                                                            (translation by Sebastian Hayes)

Or again 

                        Life-Force

 

i have the taste for what is ardent and intense,

Delirious crowds and bodies, a heroic role

In life, such bitter, acrid smells are like incense

To my tumultuous heart and my excessive soul.

 

From mundane tasks and cares I languish to be free,

Oh to be living now amidst the pent-up might

Of storm and spray, inhale the odour of the sea,

And breathe the morning air that silences the night.

 

Dawn breaks, the dazzled world returns to life again,

Birds sing, a clamour rises from the street below,

A thousand bustling noises fill my waking brain,

I am a canvas sail the wind swings to and fro.

 

To fill like this the days that lead towards the tomb,

Bearing a heart that’s swollen like a mellow fruit,

And leaves its juice and scent to beautify the room,

The mark of one who was in pleasure resolute.

 

To see spread out before me all that life can yield,

And clasp it to me fiercely like an infant boy

Hugging an unknown beast discovered in a field,

Who, ev’n when bitten, bloodstained, still is mad with joy.

 

To steel oneself for happiness, hand, will and eye,

Scaling the heights and depths of what the heart can bear,

To risk one’s all and the assaults of time defy,

To breathe the sparse and heady Himalayan air ;

 

To strive to emulate the wheeling sun and moon,

Monarch of golden day and night-time’s silvery queen,

To live like spumes of spray whipped up by a typhoon

Or like the unyielding thorn upon a wind-lashed green.

 

Sorrow and joy are lifelong comrades travelling home,

My heart yields always to their joint pulsating call,

I am an emerald lawn where pairs of lions roam,

Upon my lips there is the taste of honey and of gall.

 

And finally I celebrate that ecstasy

Of dying in full strength within the midst of  strife,

Because desire exceeds my frame’s capacity,

                        And what I hold inside me bursts the bonds of life.               

           

                                                                        (translation by Sebastian Hayes)

 

            I assumed Anna de Noailles must have been a rebellious, tormented individual who published little in her lifetime — a sort of French Charlotte Mew —  and who led the recommended late nineteenth century poète maudit existence. Imagine, then, my surprise — and to a certain extent chagrin —  when I discovered that she was in her lifetime extremely successful : an aristocrat fêted by Parisian literary high society, a friend of Proust, Rostand, Cocteau, Valéry, you name them. Leading artists painted her and Rodin sculpted her. Her first collection of verse Le Cœur Innombrable (‘The Numberless Heart’) was something of a literary sensation and, since, with her long black hair and piercing eyes, she was hauntingly beautiful as well, she attained for a while almost the sort of status of Princess Diana in our own era. Reputedly, a fashionable young man, Charles Demange, committed suicide out of unrequited love for her.

            One can only describe Anna de Noailles as a Romantic,  perhaps the last significant Romantic poet in French literature, and certainly the best female Romantic French poet. She has an edge which nineteenth-century Romantic writers like Lamartine, whom she resembles superficially, do not have because she was militantly atheistic and pantheistic, creating her own feminine version of Nietzsche’s tragic philosophy. Anna de Noailles does not hide, indeed goes out of her way to emphasize, the dark side of passion : she writes, typically, “on aime plus âprement que l’on ne hait” where the ‘on’ refers to ‘woman’ — “We women love more violently than we hate”. Anna de Noailles is also much more specific about female sexual desire than most Romantic poets (including Byron) dared to be. The following remarkable poem, perhaps based on an affair with the writer Maurice Barrès, is the only poem I have ever come across (by a man or woman) which expresses female disappointment after sexual climax (because the male is unable to continue the experience)

 

                        The Aftermath

 

above all, after climaxes the most intense

In our close-knit uniting, frenzied, barbarous,

Reclining side by side, gasping for breath, I sense

            The abyss that severs us;

 

In silence we recline, not understanding why,

After such pent-up fury, longed-for, deep, insane,

So suddenly we find ourselves apart and lie

            As separate selves again;

 

You are beside me but your gaze does not reveal

That eagerness I answered with a fire unknown,

You are a helpless beast gorged with its meal,

            A corpse sculpted in stone;

 

You sleep and do  not stir — how can another know

What dream has quieted your restless mind?

But through me yet great gusts of yearning blow

            Leaving their mark behind;

 

I cannot cease from living, O my dearest love!

My warlike frenzy underneath its peaceful air

In desperation searches round me and above

            To find a passage there!

 

And still you lie content! The throbbing ecstasy

Of sadness coursing through my limbs, and that profound

Confusion, nothing of all this in you I see.

My love, my only love! Between yourself and me

            There is no common ground.    

 

                                                            (translation by Sebastian Hayes)

                       

 

            Anna de Noailles also wrote a lot about death and in a graphic way that betrays a real horror of physical disintegration, combined with a resolute acceptance of the finality of death.

 

                              Regrets 

 

leave me among the graves, I wish to linger here,

The dead are in the ground, the day is bright and clear,

I smell sweet odours, water, leafy trees and hay,

The dead are in their death for ever and a day…

My dancing body will be hard to recognize

Quite soon, my temples cold, dark gaps instead of eyes;

Like them the solitary deed I shall perform

Though used to having by my side a body warm.

And all of this must cease ! all must expire!

Mouth, melting glances, kisses, my desire —

I shall become a thing of shadow, will be dumb

When next year’s spring, so green and rosy-cheeked will come,

An avalanche of  gold and mounting sap and dew !

Yet I who am so tender-hearted through and through,

So filled with idle hopes and dreams, so languorous,

No longer shall I greet the dawning of each day,

But motionless in sleep for evermore must stay !

Others I cannot know, happy and sensuous,

Young men with maidens at their sides will wander by   

And see the labour in the fields, the corn, the vine,

The changing colours of the seasons, whereas I 

Will notice nothing —  in the grave I shall recline,

And all the sweetness of this life will be a memory…

But you who read these lines will stop and think of me, 

You’ll see what I once was before my glow departs;

My smiling ghost will comfort you in your ordeal

For, in your torpor and dejection, you will feel

That my cold cinders hold more passion than your hearts.  

 

                                                            (translation by Sebastian Hayes)

 

            Anna de Noailles also wrote three novels, long out of print : it would seem that they deal mainly with the psychological pressures on young women to conform to patriarchal society.

            Stylistically, Anna de Noailles resisted the temptations of free verse, and wrote almost entirely in rhymed alexandrines or octosyllabic lines. Her diction is careful and she does not use colloquialisms. Also, despite her strongly introspective tendencies, she keeps at arm’s length stream of consciousness techniques which were already becoming fashionable at the time she did most of her writing.

            Why has Anna de Noailles disappeared almost without a trace?                           Although her social and political views were advanced and even controversial for the time, she was, nonetheless, a Countess by marriage and a Greek/Romanian princess by birth which in the inverse snobbish era of today damns her completely. Worse still, she was associated for more than twenty years with Maurice Barrès, a leading right wing political and literary figure of the time though now completely forgotten. (The Dadaists staged a mock trial of Barrès in 1921 and condemned him to twenty years of hard labour.) Anna de Noailles did at least have enough integrity not to allow him to influence either her frequentations — she had several Jewish friends — or her public views since she aligned herself behind the small and very unpopular French pacifist movement in the run up to World War I.   

            One might have expected radical feminism to have resuscitated Anna de Noailles but her stance is not politically correct, since she believed there were profound gender differences between men and women, and was at pains to affirm woman in her emotional and instinctual (rather than rational) persona which, for a certain type of feminist, is hopelessly retrograde. 

            Anna de Noailles has been very little translated and the only full-length critical appraisal in English is Catherine Perry’s scholarly and very perceptive Persephone Unbound, Dionysian Aesthetics in the Works of Anna de Noailles (Bucknell University Press, 2003) to which I am indebted. The best-known French biography of Anna de Noailles,  is by Claude Mignot-Ogliastri (Méridiens-Klincksieck, 1986), who has also edited the Correspondence between Anna de Noailles and Maurice Barrès.   

 

 

 

Acknowledgements:  My  translation “The Aftermath” appeared in Tears in the Fence No. 47 and my translation “The Trace I wish to Leave” appeared in Fire.

                                                                                                        Sebastian Hayes  

           

Cavafy : Irony in the Poems of Cavafy


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Irony in Cavafy’s Poems

 

although the term ‘irony’ is used quite a lot with reference to certain authors, Thomas Hardy in particular, when I was preparing to give a talk to some friends about Cavafy, another author who is supposed to exemplify it, I realized I didn’t really know what it meant, or couldn’t pin it down anyway.

 

IRONY :  1. The mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.  2. A situation or result that is the direct opposite of what was expected or intended. (Greek eironeia)”        

                                                                      (COLLINS) 

 

            Irony in conversation depends on tone and expression and so cannot easily be communicated in writing. In any case, it is rarely used nowadays : it belongs to an era where conversation was cultivated and nuances were noted. Today people are more likely to be openly insulting if they don’t like someone; moreover, the twosidedness of irony is too subtle for today’s one-dimensional world.

            Writers concentrate on irony of situation, not irony of expression. The principal feature, as the dictionary points out, is the co-existence or rapid succession of two opposite or contradictory elements. The classic example of irony is that of the hero who, precisely by attempting to avoid his or her fate, puts his head in the noose. Thus Oedipus who, warned by the Delphic Oracle that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, decides not to return to Corinth where he lives with his supposed parents and, shortly afterwards, comes across his real father, Laius, whom he kills in the equivalent of a modern dispute between motorists. Worse still in a way, when enthroned as King of Thebes with Jocasta as his wife, he makes a big show of wanting at all costs to find out the guilty man in the city who, supposedly, has brought the plague on its inhabitants as punishment from the gods. Bit by bit, he realizes with horror that the guilty man is himself. The situation would not perhaps be so ironical if it was part of a chronicle or history : it seems important that the audience, who are in the know, should be there to watch Oedipus going towards his doom full of good intentions.   

            The Greeks seem to have invented irony as an attitude and  dramatic device : there are few other examples that come to mind in mythology and even Shakespeare and the Elizabethans rarely if ever use it. In principle, there is tragic irony in Lear giving away his kingdom to his daughters who do not care for him and withholding her part from the one who does. Chekov would have exploited such a situation, but Lear is so objectionable that one feels he gets what he deserves — and there is no irony in that. Irony lends itself more to tragic-comedy than to tragedy as such — and there are certainly moments when Oedipus Rex teeters on the verge of black humour, as the author undoubtedly realized.

            Cavafy is the poet of irony par excellence. A fairly crude but nonetheless effective example of ‘irony of situation’ is Nero’s Deadline.

 

“Nero wasn’t at all worried when he heard

What the Delphic Oracle had to say:

‘Beware the age of seventy-three’.

Plenty of time to enjoy himself.

He’s thirty. The deadline

The god has given him is quite enough

To cope with future dangers.

 

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome —

But wonderfully tired from that journey

Devoted entirely to pleasure:

Theatres, garden-parties, stadiums,

Evenings in the cities of Achaia…

And, above all, the delight of naked bodies.

 

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba

Secretly musters and drills his army —

Galba, now in his seventy-third year.”

 

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

 

            Once again, it seems necessary for there to be a ‘god’s eye view’ : the irony of the situation is not apparent to Nero, nor even to Galba, but only to the historian or to the reader of the poem who is put in the know by Cavafy.

            Both these examples, those of Oedipus and Nero, are examples of good fortune turning to bad — I have wondered whether there can be irony in bad fortune turning to good. In the film Les Enfants du Paradis the bandit Larcenaire and two associates waylay the successful actor in his dressing room in order to extort money from him, perhaps kill him. But when asked for money, the famous actor hands them a great wad of notes saying, “If I knew you I’d maybe let you have everything I’ve got, but since I don’t, we’ll share the takings”. The upshot is  they become his friends and offer to be his seconds in a duel he is to fight in the morning. Is this irony? I think so, but it is a rare example. Almost all examples of irony of situation are of the opposite kind. It would be ‘ironical’ if I managed to pick a quarrel for no reason with the very man turns out to be the only person who could help me out in Ia mess I  shortly afterwards get myself into. But it would not, I think, be ‘ironical’ if I render some service to a complete stranger who turns out to be a long-lost relative in disguise testing me out to see if I deserved to inherit  his vast fortune. Still, if this were a scene in a play or film where the audience knew the identity of the stranger, I suppose it could be called ‘dramatic irony’.  

            A much subtler example of ‘irony of situation’ is On the Stairs.

“As I was going down those ill-famed stairs

you were coming through the door, and for a second

I saw your unfamiliar face and you saw me.

Then I hid so you wouldn’t see me again,

and you hurried past me, hiding your face,

and slipped inside the ill-famed house

where you couldn’t have found pleasure any more than I did.

 

And yet the love you were looking for, I had to give you;

the love In was looking for — so your tired, knowing  eyes implied,

you had to give me.

Our bodies sensed and sought each other;

our blood and skin understood.

 

But we both hid ourselves, flustered.”

 

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

 

            But why is this meeting ironic (which it certainly is) rather than tragic — or for that matter ridiculous?

            History, or the part of history that interests Cavafy, is deeply ironic, because of the glaring contrast between expectations and mundane realities, or between memories of past greatness and present mediocrity. Heroes such as Hercules, Theseus or Achilles  do not appear in Cavafy’s poems, not because he despises them in the rather suspect modern ‘anti-heroic’ manner, but simply because he views the situation in which they are placed as psychologically and morally uninteresting, as too one-dimensional. In a sense these heroes are never really tested : they never grow old and feeble, never have to look defeat in the face. Very few of the historical personages  who appear in Cavafy’s poems are famous figures, and even when they are, we do not see them at their zenith :  Mark Anthony only makes an appearance at the moment when the god (Dionysus) abandons him. As an example of Spartan style we are not given Leonidas (the hero of Thermopylae) but Queen Cratesiclea whom no one has ever heard of  :

 

“King Cleomenes did not know, he did not dare —

He did not know how to put into words such a request

To his own mother: that  Ptolemy had demanded

That she be sent to Egypt also, and be held a hostage there

As a guarantee of their agreement;

A very humiliating, unseemly matter.

And he was always about to speak; and he always demurred

And he always started to say it and always faltered.

 

But this superior woman understood him

(besides she had already heard some rumours about it)

And she encouraged him to explain.

And she laughed and said certainly she would go.

And indeed she rejoiced that she was able

Still to be useful to Sparta in her old age.

 

As for the humiliation — well, she was indifferent.

Assuredly he, a son of Lagus, born only yesterday,

Was unable to understand Spartan pride;

And so his request could not really

Humilate a Great Lady as

Illustrious as she, the mother of a Spartan king.”

 

                                    (translated by Rae Dalven)  

 

            Historical characters like Queen Cratesiclea manage to turn the tables on destiny — by accepting it with equanimity rather than by defying, let alone reversing it (which they know to be impossible). The gods (or the Romans)  always win  but it is still possible for humans to gain a moral advantage : the unexpected reaction to disaster of persons such as Mark Anthony or King Demetrios takes the fates by surprise, knocks them off balance, as it were. 

 

 “When the Macedonians abandoned him

And proved they preferred Pyrrhus,

King Demetrios did not, so it is said, behave

In the least like a king. He went

And took off his robes of gold,

And cast off his purple shoes.

He dressed hurriedly

In simple clothes and went off

Behaving like an actor

Who when the performance is over

Changes his clothes and departs.”

 

                                    (translated by Rae Dalven) 

 

            Cavafy’s Greece is not that of Pericles or the Parthenon, nor even that of Alexander the Great, it is above all Greece during the Roman and even Christian period that engages Cavafy. The civilization is in decline but, Cavafy, a fervent Hellene, shows that the Greek spirit was never greater than when the entire people had lost out militarily and politically — but not aesthetically and morally — to the all-conquering Romans, or, in terms of belief, to the all-conquering Galilean.

            The supreme example of Cavafy’s irony is directed against himself. There are one or two poems — but not that many — where Cavafy  protests against society’s attitude towards homosexuals. But even here he is far-sighted enough to anticipate that all this inner torment and soul-searching which he obviously lived through will one day appear hardly worth talking about. This is how I interpret “The Rest I Will Tell To Those Down In Hades”

 

“ ‘Indeed,’ said the proconsul, closing the book,

 ‘This line is beautiful and very true.

Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.

How much we will tell down there, how much,

and how different we’ll appear.

What we protect up here like sleepless guards,

wounds and secrets locked inside us,

protect with such great anxiety day after day,

we’ll reveal freely and clearly down there.’

 

‘You might add,’ said the sophist, half smiling,

if they talk about things like that down there,

if they bother at all about them any more.’ ”

 

            (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)  

       

                                Sebastian Hayes 

 

Jean Rotrou : "Le Veritable Saint Genest", a Baroque Masterpiece


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The Play’s the Thing and Le Véritable Saint Genest

 

the idea, or simile, that ‘Life is a Play’ has a very long history. It can be traced back at least to the Romans of the second and third century AD. At its basis is the notion, or rather feeling, that life in this world is  “not only unimportant [but] also in some sense not quite real”. (The quotation is taken from E.R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, a book I cannot recommend too highly.)

            In what is still a somewhat obscure passage in The Republic Plato compares life in this world to the situation of chained prisoners in a cave. It has been suggested that this potent image is based on the actual experience of initiates to the Eleusinian Mysteries, a sort of elite Freemasons’ Society of the time, and it is quite conceivable (though by no means certain) that Plato himself was an initiate as a young man. The rough idea seems to be that the chained persons have their backs to the light (which either comes from outside the cave itself or from a blazing fire behind them), and the shapes they see in front of them are shadows cast on the wall of the cave, not the actual puppet figures which are being manipulated by someone standing behind them, and of whose presence they are unaware. In their ignorance and delusion, these prisoners take these shapes on the wall for the real thing. The main aim of philosophy (lit. ‘love of wisdom’) should be, according to Plato, to enlighten the wretched prisoners in the cave — the mass of humanity — as to the true state of affairs in the universe and beyond. It is striking that modern physics and mathematics, which owe a lot to Plato indirectly if not directly, tell us that ‘reality’ at its most irreducible level, that of quarks and quantum vacuums and space-time warps, is quite different from the ‘reality’ we perceive through our senses — a difference that is greater, not lesser, than the ‘reality’ the chained prisoners are familiar with compared to the Platonic daylight outside the cave.

            There are two main features about a play, or other ‘realistic’ art form : firstly, there is the conflict between ‘illusion’ and reality which is all the more telling if the play is really persuasive, and, secondly, there is the situation of the actors and actresses who are not free to do what they wish. Plato is perhaps the first prominent thinker to have specifically connected these two features and made the connection the central plank of his philosophy. It is precisely because what we fondly call ‘life’ is such a persuasive illusion, a master play if ever there were one, that we, as living beings, are not free for much the same reason as a madman is not free. For the true ‘reality’ is not down here, but is the world of eternal Forms of which this world is a pale copy. Only the philosopher, the man who has ‘seen through’ the physical world, is capable of ‘free’ action. Humanity  is doomed, not because of any deep-rooted character flaw such as pride or disobedience — this is the Judaeo/Christian approach —  but because of ‘wrong judgement’ about what is truly real. This is close to the Buddhist position. But, during his own lifetime, this otherworldly side of Plato did not have much effect : Athenian society was still too buoyed up with its own successes to turn away from physical reality which it was beginning to master through technology, rational thought and mathematics. 

            From about the time of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who appears in the opening scene of the film Spartacus) a general feeling sets in, amongst pagans and Christians alike, that life in this world is hopelessly inadequate and not worthy of much more respect than the antics of puppies fighting over a bone — the simile comes from the Diaries of Marcus Aurelius himself.  What is new  is not the idea that human society is bad, but that it is also in some sense insubstantial —  the ‘substance of a dream’. This view of the world  contributed to the eventual triumph of Christianity since the latter placed ‘true reality’ in the afterlife, but it certainly did not originate there, indeed many of the early Christian writers, such as Gregory of Nyassa and Saint Augustine, were trained in the ‘pagan’ universities and imbibed a lot of their otherworldliness from strictly pagan sources. The ‘illusionist’ view of the world, though it left a strong mark on the development of Christianity, never quite became orthodox doctrine since, ephemeral and imperfect though it might be, the physical world was nonetheless created by God and thus retained something divine within it, as did mankind.

            The Renaissance took up the theme of ‘Life is a Play’ but with a considerably reduced belief in the afterlife. The prolific Spanish playwright Calderon wrote a very effective play entitled Life is a Dream  where the protagonist actually has considerable difficulty in distinguishing between what is real and what is dreamed — because he is suddenly transported from his mountain prison to the King’s palace for a single day, and then transported back again, all this without being told what is going on. But Calderon is no Platonist : he is much more concerned with human behaviour in the real world down here than with any supposed contrast between deceiving physical reality and what is ‘ultimately real’. The most we get is the rather too pat ‘argument’ that there is no foolproof way of  distinguishing between dream and reality : it is all on a level with Chuang-tzu’s parable of the man who dreamed he was a butterfly and, on waking up, could not decide whether he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. But, in point of fact, outside very special circumstances like being under the influence of hallucinatory drugs, or when people play tricks on us, we do not have much difficulty in distinguishing between dream and reality : if we did life would be a good deal more dangerous than it actually is. It is also perhaps worth remarking that it is not possible for an actor, at any rate in the theatre, to get completely carried away by the part he or she plays, since, if he did this, he might well actually kill someone for real, or more likely fall off the stage and break his leg.   

               Shakespeare uses the theatre simile a good deal in his plays, but never to contrast illusion and reality in the truly metaphysical or Buddhist sense. Jacques’ famous speech “All the world’s a stage…”, memorable though it is, is essentially a put-down on life, not a philosophic statement. And Hamlet does not arrange for the staging of The Murder of Gonzago to show people that life, and the world, is unreal, or that ‘art is truer than ordinary reality’ : he has the play put on for a specific, pragmatic, purpose, namely to reveal the truth about his father’s death. The contrast is not between the sequence of events narrated in The Murder of Gonzago and the actual sequence of events that led to the death of Hamlet’s father, but between the action of the play-within-the-play and what most people think happened in reality, which is quite another matter. In The Tempest Shakespeare comes closer to tackling the Illusion/Reality issue via the character of Prospero who is supposed to be a magician, that is, a person who can create his own reality. But it is obvious that Shakespeare, a man of this world if ever there was one, does not believe in magic as certain near contemporaries of his such as Dr. Dee definitely did.


            The forgotten seventeenth century French neo-classical drama, Le Véritable Saint Genest, which I came across more or less by chance, is a far subtler and more suggestive treatment of the Illusion/Reality theme than anything the Renaissance or Elizabethan period produced, and has been rightly compared to the work of twentieth century authors such as Pirandello — as far as I am concerned, it goes far beyond them.

            What makes Rotrou’s play so striking is that it recounts a double martyrdom, the miraculous conversion to Christianity and subsequent  disgrace of a famous Roman actor, Genest, together with the earlier martyrdom of a prominent public official, Adrian. The two martyrdoms are fitted one within the other, like the painted wooden figures given as presents in Eastern Europe at Eastertime, since the actor, Genest, supposedly becomes converted while playing the part of Adrian in a play put on before the Emperor himself — an extreme case of an actor getting carried away by his theatrical persona.

            The occasion for the ‘play within the play’ is the forthcoming marriage of Diocletian’s daughter, Valerie, to the conquering general and co-Emperor, Maximin. The famous actor, Genest, is summoned and asked to provide an entertainment for the Court; rather rashly as it turns out, he decides to stage a play relating the martyrdom of an official, Adrian, for which Maximin himself was responsible. The real Maximin will thus shortly see an actor representing himself on the stage — “César à César sera représenté” . Genest’s odd  choice of play for the festive occasion  — he specifically rejects the idea of a comedy which would seem more appropriate — and his bold decision to actually ‘double up’ one of the spectators and get him to watch himself, soon unleashes disaster.  This is perhaps the ‘original sin’, as it were,  of the entire action, as if, by messing about with layers of illusion and reality from the very beginning, the actor Genest has broken a sacred law and must pay the penalty. At first,  however, all is well since Maximin readily accepts the idea of  seeing himself on the stage :

 

                        “Oui, crois qu’avec plaisir je serai spectateur

                        En la même action dont je serai l’Acteur ».

 

                        (‘ Yes, of course, I shall be happy to view as a spectator

                        the same events in which I was an actor’)

 

            In Act II we are behind the scenes, as it were : Genest chats with the Decorator, arranges his costume and reads through his script. He, as the leader of the troupe, plays Adrian, the future martyr, and, left alone, he recites  the stirring speech when Adrian, a high Roman official and in the past relentless persecutor of the Christians, steels himself to declare publicly his own conversion to Christianity, well aware that this will almost certainly lead to his death. Genest’s actual wife, Marcelle, the leading lady of the troupe, interrupts his private rehearsal to complain about the unwelcome attentions of hangers-on back-stage. Genest observes that, most likely, she does not find all this attention as objectionable as she claims, and asks her to read out one of her set speeches from the ‘play within the play’ which she does, much to his satisfaction. He then asks to be left alone once more to carry on practising and Marcelle leaves.

           


            We now reach Act II Scene IV, the crucial scene on which all the subsequent events depend. According to Aristotle, every well constructed tragedy should have a peripeteia, a ‘reversal’ or ‘turnabout’ when the whole play suddenly takes a completely different and usually unexpected course. Generally, the peripeteia  comes a lot later, since we are concerned with private emotions — a form of religious conversion — it is appropriate that the ‘turnabout’ occurs much earlier, since it needs time to work itself through the actor’s inner processes before being translated into action. A less skilful dramatist would have had the actor Genest converted, or at least knocked down, on the spot in the manner of Saint Paul and in the earlier Jesuit play, from which Rotrou took the idea, it seems that this is what happens. But Rotrou has Genest little by little feeling himself getting carried away, fighting against this and attempting to reason himself out of the situation. Moreover, Genest is a sincere pagan who believes, as Diocletian and Maximilian do, that Christianity is wrong and adds piquancy to the situation by  actually appealing to the Roman gods to come to his aid :

 

      « Dieux, prenez contre moi ma défense et la vôtre;

      ………….je me trouve être un autre ;

      Je feins moins Adrian que je ne le deviens… » 

 

            [‘O gods, defend me against myself, defend yourselves,

              …..  I feel myself turning into someone else,

            And instead of playing Adrian I am becoming him.’]

 

            He tells himself that, as an actor, he is used to the sensation of taking on a strange identity, but suspects there is something more at work here. Feeling himself more and more attracted to Christian ideas, he is horrified by the ‘sacrilege’ — in much the same way as a sincere Christian would be horrified by a sudden attraction to another belief. He rallies and tells himself firmly that he must stick to his professional role — “Il s’agit d’imiter , et non de devenir”  (‘My job is to represent someone and not to become him’).

            At this point, Genest hears a voice from above which exhorts him to continue in his role, and promises God’s help if he does so. This ‘role’ is not the theatrical one of the play within the play, but Genest’s future role as a martyr, or, if you like, it is both at once. Genest is astonished, at first impressed but immediately afterwards he returns to his rational self and concludes it must be someone playing a trick on him — “Quelqu’un s’est voulu diverter par cette feinte voix”. But the effects of this voice and its message are, he has to admit, undeniable. In total confusion he prays once more to the (pagan) gods to come to his aid, but amusingly ‘hedges his bets’, if  one can put it that way, by simultaneously praying to the Christian God to show his hand more clearly.

            At this point the Stage Decorator enters to light the candles for the show. The spell is broken — for the moment — and, with delicious irony, Genest mocks himself but at the same time says more than he realizes :

 

      « …  Tu m’as distrait d’un rôle glorieux

      Que je représentais devant la Cour des Cieux… »

 

      (‘You have distracted me from a glorious role I was 

      playing before the Court of Heaven’).


            Note that Genest compares the ‘play’ that is about to be put on in front of Diocletain’s Court with the ‘play’ which is Genest’s earthly life and which is being observed by the Court of Heaven. This is baroque indeed !  For look at the boxes within boxes. We, as spectators in the Parisian theatre, are watching an actor preparing to put on a play before the Roman Court. However, everything that takes place is a sort of ‘play’ that is being performed in front of a heavenly audience, an audience, moreover, which intervenes in the sort of way in which a Prompter intervenes in an actual play if he feels the actor is departing from his lines.

            Overriding the terrestrial Illusion/Reality conflict, there is the Christian/Platonic dualism which places our ‘real’ lives in the beyond. Later on, Genest makes this point specifically :

 

“Ce monde périssable et sa gloire frivole

Est une comédie où j’ignorais mon rôle ; »

 

(‘This ephemeral  world with its vainglory

Is a comedy in which I mistook my role’)          

                    

            Rotrou was writing at a period when there was intense religious feeling in certain circles in France : it was the era of Saint Vincent de Paul, also of the Jansenists at Port-Royal. Blaise Pascal, who originally made his name as a mathematician and was something of a freethinker in his youth, actually did undergo a sudden conversion rather like that of Genest, though he did not hear a  voice from the sky.

            When Genest actually does appear on the stage representing Adrian on his inevitable course towards martyrdom, the Court audience is full of praise for his extraordinarily vivid acting. There is an Interval while the audience comment on the performances, the play within the play recommences and leads up to the scene when Adrian declares his indomitable Christian faith and defies the Emperor. At this point, to the dismay of the rest of the cast, and the Prompter, Genest steps out of his role and makes a public declaration of his (Genest’s) conversion to Christianity. The audience at first thinks this is still part of the play, but it seems to be going on too long, Diocletian gets increasingly irritated and eventually ‘the penny drops’ and the audience realizes that Genest really means what he says. In fury, Diocletian has him thrown into prison and threatens him with torture and death if he does not recant. In the ‘play within the play’, Adrian’s wife, Natalie (played by Genest’s wife, Marcelle) visits Adrian in prison. She turns out to be a secret Christian herself and, far from trying to deflect him from his course, she exhorts him to be brave and prepare himself for the glory of martyrdom. This scene has, as its deformed mirror image, the scene towards the end of the (real) play when Marcelle visits Genest in prison and makes a desperate attempt to change his mind. She considers Christianity a low-down sort of religion and dismissed Christ as a criminal that no self-respecting Roman would worship. More to the point, she appeals to his responsibilities towards his wife and his troupe, since they are threatened with ruin because of his crazy behaviour. But Genest is inflexible and goes to his death with serenity. Maximilian sums up the whole sorry tale from his point of view, leaving us once again with the bittersweet theme of Illusion/Reality


« Il a bien voulu, par son impiété,

Par une feinte, en mourant, faire une vérité »

 

 (‘In his impiety, his aim was, by dying, to

turn  play-acting into reality’).

 

 

 

 Note on Jean Rotrou

 

Jean Rotrou was, during his lifetime, a highly successful dramatist and quite a prolific one — he wrote over  thirty-five plays in the space of twenty years. Surprisingly, considering the complexity and genuine religious feeling of Le Véritable Saint Genest, Geoffrey Brereton, though he praises the play in his French Tragic Drama in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, presents Rotrou the man as an ambitious and opportunistic person.  

            Since the seventeenth century this minor masterpiece has been almost completely neglected : it was only put on twice in Paris during the entire nineteenth century. In 1963 the Théâtre de Paris staged it and it received a mixed reception. 

                      

             

              

                       

Antony and Cleopatra


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          Anthony and Cleopatra

 

 

Side by side they stand, surveying from on high

All Egypt slumbering in the stifling heat;

Far off, at Saïs, the black marshes meet

The sinuous Nile, meandering sleekly by;

 

He is from Rome, whom no one may defy,

She like a captive helpless at his feet,

Through his breast-plate he feels her faint heart-beat,

This siren child he seeks to pacify;

 

She looks at him, white cheeks and jet-black hair,

Subtle, all-conquering perfumes fill the air,

With eyes wide open, offers him her lips;

 

And, bending down, Mark Anthony descries,

Mirrored in those gold-fringed dark-blue eyes

The sea at Actium, covered with fleeing ships. 

 

 

 


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  This is a translation of a poem by José-Maria de Heredia, a nineteenth century French poet (18421905)  highly regarded at the time but not much read today.

     The Battle of Actium (September 2, 31 BC) was the decisive encounter between Mark Antony and Octavian, better known by his subsequent honorific title, Augustus. One might be forgiven for thinking Actium was near Alexandria, if one based one’s history on Shakespeare, but it was actually situated in the Peloponnese directly facing the eastern seaboard of Italy which Antony originally planned to invade with his vast armada of ships, five hundred strong of which some sixty or more were Egyptian. Instead of this, Mark Antony, who, whatever his personal prowess on the field, seems to have been an extremely incompetent strategist, found himself bottled up in the gulf with winter coming on and his supply lines with Egypt cut.

            His own general, Canidius Crassus, advised Antony to abandon the vast but unwieldy and undermanned fleet and withdraw his legions by land. Cleopatra, who was present at the Council of War, naturally preferred withdrawal by sea : not only was there the question of her personal safety but she was paymaster with her vast fortune and had a ship laden with treasure. As it happened, whether by intent or design, Cleopatra and the Egyptian contingent seized an opportunity which arose during the sea-battle the following day to pass through a gap in Octavian’s line and fled with Antony following fast after her. The result was that most of Antony’s remaining  seamen and linfantry changed sides — and who could blame them?   (At any rate, this is the version given in Richard Holland’s persuasive book, Augustus, Godfather of Europe.)

            The original French poem is as below

    



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             Antoine et Cléopatre

 

Tous deux ils regardaient, de la haute terrasse,

L’Égypte s’endormir sous un ciel étouffant,

Et le fleuve, à travers le Delta noir qu’il fend

Vers Bubaste ou Saïs rouler son onde grasse.

 

Et le Romain sentait sous la lourde cuirasse,

Soldat captif berçant le sommeil d’un enfant,

Ployer et défaillir sur son cœur triomphant

Le corps voluptueux que son étreinte embrasse.

 

Tournant sa tête pale entre ses cheveux bruns

Vers celui qui s’enivraient d’invincibles parfums,

Elle tendit sa bouche et ses prunelles claires ;

 

Et sur elle courbé, l’ardent Imperator

Vit dans ses larges yeux étoilés de points d’or

Toute une mer immense où fuyaient des galères.

 

                                                José-Maria de Heredia

 

 

 


 

 


  

 

 

Three Novels of Love and War viewed from a Schopenhauerian Perspective: Introduction


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Three Novels of Love and War: A Schopenhauerian Perspective

 

 

this essay started off as a comment on the unjustly forgotten novel whose setting is China during the Japanese occupation, A Leaf in the Storm. As a ‘novel of love and war’ it immediately made me think of two other great novels with similar themes and settings, War and Peace set in Russia during Napoleon’s invasion and Gone with the Wind, set in Georgia during the American Civil War. I was re-reading Schopenhauer at the time and I felt strongly that he would have very much approved of A Leaf in the Storm, with its Buddhistic moral of self-sacrifice and renunciation. This in turn drove me to re-read War and Peace and Gone with the Wind and to ponder whether a similar Schopenhauerian analysis could be applied to them.

            Nietzsche’s powerful antithesis between the Apollonian and Dionysian elements in a culture or personality has been used time and again since the author’s death to get a handle on all sorts of things which otherwise would be slippery or impenetrable. Schopenhauer’s dichotomy between the ‘World as Will’ and the ‘World as Idea’ is even more useful but has not been much applied in works of criticism (mainly, one feels, because of the difficult and rather misleading term ‘Idea’). As it happens, the Schopenhauerian dichotomy fits these three novels I have mentioned amazingly well but before I deal with  them, it is as well to give a brief résumé of Schopenhauer’s views on life and the world as I understand them.        

 

Schopenhauer, the Supreme Pessimist

 

The world and ourselves within it are not self-explanatory. There is, seemingly, something (or someone) behind and within phenomena, and behind and within ourselves. But this something is not a loving God, nor even a Being at all, it is a sort of power that Schopenhauer, not inappropriately, calls ‘Will’. This Will manifests itself within individual human beings as the ‘will to live’ or survival instinct, it informs the Darwinian struggle for existence, is what drives sexual and commercial competitiveness and manifests itself historically as the force propelling men to carry out ‘great deeds’ of conquest, exploration, industrial invention and so forth.

            But Schopenhauer takes matters a good deal further than most life-denying philosophies of East and West in that he views activities in the inorganic world as manifestations of this same merciless Will. Even rocks and pools of water are engaged in the selfsame horrible struggle — by occupying a position in space and time a humble pebble is by implication excluding all other pebbles from occupying the selfsame position, and it is not even satisfied with where it is since it is attracted by gravity to a position which it does not currently occupy.       

            Organic nature is even worse :

 

“The existence of the plant is just such a restless, never satisfied striving, a ceaseless activity through higher and higher forms, till the final point, the seed, becomes anew a starting-point; and this is repeated ad infinitum; nowhere is there a goal, nowhere a final satisfaction, nowhere a point of rest.”

 

  Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation Part I  (p. 309)   

 

            Mankind is subject to the same ceaseless striving, what in Buddhism is called ‘trishna’ (‘craving’, ‘needing’) and, being more sensitive than pebbles or plants, suffers more than they do. Everywhere  we have the spectacle of 

 

“…constant suffering without any lasting happiness. For all striving springs from want or deficiency, from dissatisfaction with one’s own state or condition, and is therefore suffering so long as it is not satisfied. No satisfaction, however, is lasting; on the contrary, it is always merely the starting-point of a fresh striving. (…) That there is no ultimate aim of striving means that there is no measure or end of suffering.”    

                 

                Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation  Part I  (p. 309)   

 

            Like Buddhism, Schopenhauer’s philosophy is a philosophy of salvation since the gloomy Western thinker does give indications of how to escape from the interminable misery of being-in-the-world. By renouncing one’s individual will, one can attain to a kind of liberation within this life, at least for a few precious moments :

 

 “The man in whom the denial of the will-to-live has dawned, however poor, cheerless, and full of privation his state may be when looked at from outside, is full of inner cheerfulness and heavenly peace.  (…) Nothing can distress or alarm him any more; nothing can any longer move him; for he has cut the thousand threads of willing which hold us bound to the world and which as craving, fear, envy, and anger drag us here and there in constant pain. He now looks back calmly and with a smile on the phantasmagoria of this world which was once able to move and agonize even his mind, but now stands before him as indifferently as chess-men at the end of a game, or as fancy dress cast off in the morning, the form and figure of which taunted and disquieted us on the carnival night. Life and its forms merely float before him as a fleeting phenomenon, as a light morning dream to one half-awake, through which reality already shines, and which can no longer deceive; and, like this morning dream, they too finally vanish without any violent transition. ”

                                                         (op. cit.  p. 309)

              

            It is here that, according to Schopenhauer, art has an important role to play since, for those of us who are incapable of leading a monastic style of life, viewing or hearing great works of art  offer us some temporary relief from the horror of everyday existence. Why so? Essentially because of the ‘distancing’ and ‘depersonalization’ which are essential features of all great works of art. In the tranquil contemplation of the beautiful   

 

“we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are,  so to speak, rid of ourselves.” 

 

We can, for example, admire the perfection of human form in a piece of sculpture without feeling the torments of sexual desire, or enjoy the play of light on stone and marble without needing to own the building. Music, being the least earthbound and least specific of the arts, rates highest, though tragedy is the most instructive since it demonstrates the “self-mortifying effects of will on individuals” and, in the finest examples, shows us the hero or heroine ending his or her life with an attitude of resignation, “having renounced, after a long conflict and much suffering, the aims pursued so keenly, and willingly giving up life itself” 1. This ‘quietening of the will-to-live’ produces a kind of ecstasy which is the nearest we are likely to get to happiness in this world.  

            Note that such moments are not moments of action, but rather of inaction and contemplation which is why I propose, in this essay, to use the term ‘spectacle’ rather than the technical Platonic term ‘Idea’, or the rather pompous term ‘Representation’. The term ‘spectacle’ does at least emphasize  the key notion of being present but not actively participating, and this is the philosophic attitude that Schopenhauer recommends. It is best not to take life and the phenomenal world too seriously, in effect to adopt the attitude of the spectator at a drama, who, however  much he or she is engrossed in what is happening on  the stage, nonetheless knows that the swords are made of wood and that the actress playing Desdemona does not in fact run any risk of being strangled.

            This reminded me of a famous classical simile of life, supposedly originating with Pythagoras, to which, as far as I know, Schopenhauer does not allude, but which would have suited his purposes perfectly.        

 

“Life, he [Pythagoras] said, is like the gathering at the Olympic festival, to which people flock from three motives : to compete for the glory of the crown, to buy and sell, or simply as spectators. So in life… some enter the service of fame and others of money, but the best choice is that of those few who spend their time in the contemplation of nature, as lovers of wisdom, that is, philosophers.”                                   

                                             Guthrie, Greek Philosophy

   

            From the Schopenhauerian perspective, of course, the first two classes of people, the athletes and the merchants, are one and the same : they are all persons driven by Will, the desire for glory being just as foolish and self-defeating as the desire for riches. The bystanders, however, who do not participate directly in the competitions are those persons who have renounced the Will to live in favour of peaceful contemplation.     

"Gone with the Wind" Chapter 1 Three Novels of Love and War


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“Gone with the Wind”

 

i propose to start my examination of  the three novels on the twin themes of love and war with Gone with the Wind and end with A Leaf in the Storm, since the former shows us a society where almost all the main characters envisage life in terms of Will, while the latter puts in the foreground a figure, Lao Peng, who specifically views the World as Idea, or Spectacle    he is a Zen Buddhist — and whose world-view seems, with some reservations, to be shared by the (Chinese born) author. War and Peace is situated squarely in the middle, having a foot in both camps.

 

            The society depicted in Gone with the Wind fits neatly into the three categories of the Olympic Games simile. The southern gentry are the equivalent of the athletes : they are healthy, self-confident, move in a world of thoroughbred horses, gossip, balls, poker games, duels and barbecues. They have no culture to speak of, no interest in abstract ideas, and their religious beliefs are either completely lacking or utterly superficial. The men particularly are overgrown children but for all that good-humoured and vital; they are ‘good sorts’ and generally come to each other’s assistance when it is needed.

            The Yankees, despite their peculiar notion that slavery is wrong — an idea that the Southerners do not just reject but genuinely cannot comprehend — are, viewed up close, rapacious and corrupt, certainly always on the look out for financial gain : they are obviously the equivalent of the merchants selling their goods at the Games.

            We would not expect to come across many equivalents of the  Olympic Games bystanders in this sort of society : in effect there is only one amongst the main characters, Ashley Wilkes, and he is presented by the author as an odd man out and a failure. Rhett Butler and Melanie Wilkes have some touches of the ‘intelligent bystander’ but are too dynamic and involved in life to be true spectators.

 

Scarlett O’Hara

 

The enormous figure of Scarlett O’Hara dominates — and unbalances — the book as surely as Heathcliffe dominates Wuthering Heights. In all modern fiction no one epitomises the Schopenhauerian Will as completely as Scarlett O’Hara : her only female rivals in Western literature are Becky Sharpe of Vanity Fair  and Manon Lescaut of the novel with the same title. But Scarlett O’Hara outdoes them both in sheer nerve and callousness. (I must stress that I am speaking of the Scarlett of the book, and not of the film who is a toned down, bowdlerized version of the real thing.) It never ceases to amaze me that so many women, who have always formed the bulk of Gone with the Wind’s vast readership — it was the best-selling book of its time — admire Scarlett O’Hara, perhaps more than any other fictional heroine. For Scarlett O’Hara is scheming, ruthless and opportunistic to a quite astonishing degree — “She’s a mighty cold woman and I can’t help it if I think so” as Belle Watkin sums her up.

            She is also, with all her cleverness, extremely stupid when it comes to human relations, as Grandma Fontaine tells her

 

“‘Oh, you’re smart enough about dollars and cents. That’s a man’s way of being smart. But you aren’t smart at all like a woman. You aren’t a speck smart about folks.’ ”

                                                (GWW, p. 704)

           

            The only genial traits Scarlett shows are a certain respect and tenderness for her own mother and occasional consideration for some of her negro dependents — they are, of course, not in any position to be rivals and so she can afford to be nice to them.  She insists, for example, on Pork inheriting the expensive watch of her father, and makes a point of praising Dilcey’s work in the cotton fields. Otherwise there is nothing but unadulterated ego and Will-to-Power. With the single exception of her crazy infatuation with Ashley, she is not basically interested in love, nor in having affairs, nor even in sex, simply in power, the delirious thrill of having young males at her beck and call. She cuts out other girls without a moment’s thought and although the most successful belle in the whole county, is jealous if one of her ex-beaux, let alone current beau, shows the slightest interest in anyone else.  

           

“She [Scarlett] had never had a girl friend, and she never felt any lack on that account. To her, all women, including her two sisters, were natural enemies in pursuit of the same prey — men.”    

                                 Gone with the Wind  (p.62)

 

            She is not even a femme fatale who has an intellectual curiosity about human psychology : even on her own territory she is never a thinker, always a pragmatist:

 

 she knew nothing of the inner working of any human being’s mind, not even her own. She knew only that if she did or said thus-and-so, men would unerringly respond.”

 

            Unsurprisingly, “mathematics [understand arithmetic] was the one subject that had come easy to her in her schooldays” (p. 62) and she certainly manages to do the accounts efficiently when she eventually gets her hand on her second husband’s business affairs.

            It is not just book knowledge and culture that she despises : even her interest in hats and dresses is not the disinterested appreciation of the aesthete, it is the interest a hired killer has in guns and holsters.  

            Scarlett is quite literally unconcerned about everything which does not advance her own interests. Alone of all the characters in Gone with the Wind  she does not even feel any solidarity for her own class, the Southern gentry, and the ‘Cause’ bores her completely. Military strategy, casualties, the destruction of armies and the defeat of the entire South are not subjects she avoids because she fears to hear or think the truth : they are  simply topics of no interest because they don’t concern her personally:  

 

 “Except for the ever-present torment that Ashley might be killed, the war interested her not at all, and nursing was simply something she did simply because she did not know how to get out of it.”

                                                                      (p. 157)

 

            She muses that even nursing   

 

 “might have been endurable if she had been permitted to use her charms on the convalescent men, for many of them were attractive and well born, but this she could not do in her widowed state.”  (p. 157)

 

            In the majority of women, self-interest usually extends as far as their own offspring — or so we males fondly believe — but not in Scarlett’s case. Children are to be avoided if at all possible because they are a nuisance to look after, and, more important still, increase your waistline. Wade, her first born, is permanently frightened of his mother  and Scarlett ridicules and threatens her ‘favourite’, Bonnie, because the little girl is scared of the dark and subject to nightmares.

            As a businesswoman, Scarlett has no compunction in selling timber she knows is shoddy at inflated prices and she employs convicts and puts them under the control of a bullying foreman who half-starves them, steals their food, and even kills one of them. When asked by Rhett why she does not “steal from the rich and strong instead of the poor and weak” she makes the staggering reply, “Because,” said Scarlett shortly, “it’s a sight easier to steal — as you call it — from the poor”.   

            One might try to make excuses for Scarlett because of her youth. : she is not even thirty at the end of the book. But Scarlett is not selfish in the thoughtless way in which, for example, the Tarleton twins are : she is, from the beginning selfish in a mature calculating way.

            Readers of Gone with the Wind might protest that they do not recognize their heroine in this poison pen portrait. But there is only one thing I have left out : beauty. Had Scarlett been ugly, no one would have taken the slightest notice of her, or rather would have swatted her aside without a moment’s thought. And the reader would not find her sympathetic either — I don’t think anyone finds Suellen, Scarlett’s plain and equally selfish sister at all engaging, or even of interest. Glamour, it seems, successfully covers a multitude of sins. This is a somewhat melancholy comment on society, or rather on life itself — sexual appeal in a female, like strength and virulence in a male, both have solid Darwinian credentials whether Christians and moralists accept the fact or not.

            Like all devoted followers of the World as Will, Scarlett’s  worldly successes do not bring her any satisfaction and right at the end of the book she has a rare moment of self-appreciation, or rather self-depreciation :

 

“She had never understood either of the men she had loved and so she had lost them both. Now, she had a fumbling knowledge that had she ever understood Ashley, she would never have loved him; had she ever understood Rhett, she would never have lost him. She wondered forlornly if she had ever understood anyone in the world.”

 

            But this encouraging moment of enlightenment doesn’t last long ; a few minutes later she is her old boastful, confident self

 

“She could get Rhett back. She knew she could. There had never been a man she couldn’t get, once she set her mind upon him.”

 

                                             (GWW p. 1011)

 

            In this particular situation, her stance is more bravado than anything else but it demonstrates her essential quality which cannot but command respect — Scarlett O’Hara is the supreme survivor. There are obviously situations in which we need persons like her, and the situation in Georgia after the loss of the war was one of them. She has all the essential qualities of the survivor, raw courage, perseverance, the ability to make rapid decisions, a complete lack of sentimentality. She has “the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face”. This is the ‘positive’ side of  Will, a side Schopenhauer refused to recognize and which it was left to Nietzsche to develop and applaud. 

            Suellen, Scarlett’s younger sister, is selfish in a way that could never benefit anyone else in any circumstances whatsoever, since Suellen is cowardly and self-pitying, but Scarlett is different.  While still a young  woman in her early twenties, she takes command of the entire household, organizes everything from how to to grow cotton to doing the accounts, calmly shoots dead a Yankee marauder and buries him in the ground behind the house without a hint of remorse, and, last and worst of all by the standards of Southern gentry, she does not shrink from the ignominy of working in the cotton fields herself at the cost of ruining her precious hands. In extreme situations, self-centredness transmutes into what one might call heroic realism. At one point there is talk of a family marriage that goes against protocol. But this cuts little ice with Scarlett.  “’What a pity he can’t marry her now!’ she thought. ‘That would be one less mouth to feed!’  Excellent!   

 


Ashley Wilkes

 

The foil for Scarlett is Ashley Wilkes, the dreamer and impractical idealist, a sort of Prince Andrei (from War and Peace) who lacks the latter’s staying power and judgment. Like Prince Andrei he is a landowner, owns slaves, and voluntarily enlists in a war with whose aims he has only partial sympathy  — which does not stop him from  fighting gallantly.

            Another author, George Eliot for example, would have made him the main character — as I would myself — but Margaret Mitchell has little time for him, although she portrays him convincingly enough and tells us enough to make him, to me at any rate, the most interesting  (but not the most impressive) character in the book. 

 

            From the beginning, Ashley is presented as an odd man out amongst the Southern gentry, someone who, in Beatrice Tarleton’s scornful put-down, “would prefer books to going on a hunt, he really would!”  

 

         “Ashley was born of a line of men who used their leisure for thinking, not doing, for spinning brightly coloured dreams that had in them no touch of reality. (…) He stood alone [from the other planters] in his interest in books and music and his fondness for writing poetry. (…)He moved in an inner world that was more beautiful than Georgia and came back to reality with reluctance.”

                                                        

                                                         (GWW p. 28)

           

            For him life is clearly spectacle, not action, Idea not Will :   he is  to be classed amongst the bystanders in the Pythagorean schema. But, though regarded with a certain suspicion, he just about passes muster within the macho Southern society because he is a good horseman and a good poker player —  he is not mocked as a buffoon  like  Pierre in War and Peace.

            Ashley Wilkes is a ‘philosophe manqué’ and at the beginning of the novel he actually looks like the real thing. He has seemingly  attained the coveted state of ataraxia, the ‘positive indifference’ which was held out as the goal of Stoic and Epicurean phislophy alike :

 

         He looked on people and he neither liked nor disliked them, and was neither hearted nor saddened. He accepted the universe and his place in it for what they were and, shrugging, turned to music and books and his better world.”  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     (GWW p. 28)

 

            His tragedy, and it is a tragedy, is that he is incapable of retaining this philosophic attitude when things go wrong, not even that, when things begin to get too real. The attitude of  Stoical ataraxia is not only supposed to help you retain a sense of proportion in the boom times —  the voice in the ear of the Roman Emperor during his investiture repeated ‘Remember you are mortal!’ — but it is also supposed to tide you over disaster as well. The reality of the front line, likewise confrontation with woman in all her power as represented by Scarlett O’Hara, is too much for him :

 

         “I don’t know when it was that the bleak realization came over me that my own private shadow show was over. Perhaps it was in the first five minutes at Bull Run when I saw the first man I killed drop to the ground. But I knew it was over and that I could no longer be a spectator. I suddenly found myself on the curtain, an actor, posturing and making futile gestures.

(…) I tried to avoid you too, Scarlett. You were too full of living and too real and I was cowardly enough to prefer shadows and dreams.”

 

            He is, in his own thoughts at least, bold enough  since, alone of all the Southerners (apart from Rhett Butler), he not only does not believe in the war aims but actually disapproves of war altogether. Melanie, the only person who understands him, says at one point

 

 “He thinks the war is all wrong but he’s willing to fight and die anyway, and that takes lots more courage than fighting for something you think is right.”

                                                                                       

                                                                                                        (GWW p. 230)

 

            This is well said and puts Aunt Pitty in her place decisively. All this, along with his distaste for Scarlett’s business methods and his surprising admission late in the book that he actually intended emancipating his slaves once his father died, make Ashley a deep and problematical character torn by moral dilemmas, exactly the sort of character modern writers are especially fond of, male novelists anyway. 

            What is damning about him is that he is no survivor, and he happens to be living in an era when the qualities of the survivor, not the gentleman or the philosopher, are what the time and place require. Instead of confronting the present, he relapses into nostalgia mixed with self-pity. As Grandma Fontaine puts it :

 

“Ashley was bred to read books and nothing else. That doesn’t help a man pull himself out of a tough fix, like we’re all in now. From what I hear, he’s the worst plough hand in the County!”       

                                                                                         (GWW p. 678)

 

            Scarlett O’Hara’s passion for him is the pointless and self-defeating attraction of opposites, it is certainly not love in any positive sense. She is interested in him because he is different and because he eludes her  — “The things about him she could not understand only made her love him the more” (p. 29). But her aim is to reduce him to her level, not to raise herself to his. When her father says

 

“‘Now, Puss, tell  me true, do you understand his folderol about books and poetry and music and oil paintings and such foolishness?’

‘Oh, Pa,’ cried Scarlett impatiently, ‘if I married him, I’d change all that!”

                                                            (GWW p. 37)

 

            By a ludicrous mismatch the incarnation of Will falls in love with the incarnation of the World as Idea, and vice-versa. Scarlett, like all characters from the Will side, has neither self-knowledge not understanding of other people and can only justify her obsession with Ashley by deceiving herself, or trying to, that ‘underneath’ Ashley is not like that. Ashley, however, the observer of life and sound psychologist, has no contrary illusions about Scarlett whom he recognizes as the incarnation of Will in its negative and positive aspects.

            In the portrait she gives of Ashley Wilkes, Margaret Mitchell is in effect attacking the philosophic position taken by Schopenhauer and by Pythagoras in the Olympian Games passage. Ashley is a genuine philosopher up to a point, he does see through the prejudices of the society around him, he is by temperament an observer rather than an actor and is free from both humbug and ambition. He even makes a succinct statement of his view of life, a view that the ancient Greek philosophers would have wholeheartedly approved of : “You see, Scarlett, I’ve never wanted to get anywhere at all. I’ve only wanted to be myself” (p. 900).   

 

            The problem is that Ashley is not resigned in an inspiring way, he is more disheartened and demoralised than truly resigned. His favourite tone is the elegiac and it comes too easily to him, rapidly turning to self-indulgence. Even Scarlett, in her last tête à tête with him, starts getting sucked into his all-enveloping Southern nostalgia. But then — rightly for once — she breaks out of it

 

“ ‘But why are we talking like old people talk?’ she thought with dreary surprise. ‘Old people looking back fifty years. And we’re not old!’ ”

                                                         (GWW p. 902)     

 

            This is a point scored against the Schopenhauerian view of life : it is an old person’s view, and that limits it severely.

 

Rhett Butler

 

a more successful foil for Scarlett O’Hara is Rhett Butler, an ambivalent and attractive figure, poised halfway between the World as Will and the World as Idea. He also is a survivor and even goes further than Scarlett — because he can afford to — in despising the Southern gentry with their absurd pretensions and ludicrous morality.   He participates up to a point in the ‘Olympic Games’, Southern gentry style — he is a good shot, a good poker player and belatedly even fights in the war  — but he is also an unscrupulous money-maker who gets on perfectly well with the Yankees. In effect he flits between all three categories of the Olympic Games simile, is now participant, now businessman, now observer, and he is more or less at ease in each role, which is a considerable achievement.

            He is philosophe and observer enough to see, what the Southern gentry cannot, that their own struggle against the Yankees is just another episode in the endless human struggle for existence, and that the collapse of their world is not the collapse of the world. Only two persons do in fact realize this, making them the only two ‘knowing’ persons in the book, Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes, and although they are rivals and dislike each other they know they are of a kind, while the rest of the Southern gentry are of another type entirely — an inferior type. Right at the end of the book, Scarlett turns against Ashley and calls him a “helpless, poor-spirited creature, for all his prattle about truth and honour” (p. 1002) but, to her surprise, Rhett won’t have this

 

“ ‘No,’ said Rhett. ‘If you must see him as he is, see him straight. He’s only a gentleman caught in a world he doesn’t belong in, trying to make a poor best of it by the rules of the world that’s gone.’”

                                                         (GWW  p. 1002)    

 

            But whereas knowledge of the way of the world is a handicap for Ashley, in Rhett Butler’s case it helps him to accommodate himself to changing social realities : Southern gentry or Yankees, in the last resort it’s all down to self-interest, making money, attaining status, in a word to Will. For Ashley, knowledge impedes survival, for Rhett it improves his prospects in life.   

            But not only does Rhett Butler distance himself from the people around him, but from society as a whole : he views the whole world with sceptical, but not narrowly self-interested, eyes. He is the sceptic who has seen the limitations of scepticism. Not only does he have sincere respect for Melanie, and, to a lesser extent, one or two of the other ladies in Atlanta, but he actually matches his feelings with actions, by discreetly supplying them with money. He is fond of children and treats women, notably Scarlett, a good deal better than they deserve. He is not the seducing Vicomte  from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He falls under the spell of Scarlett not just because of her femme fatale persona, but because he recognizes a person who is his superior in worldliness and ruthless self-interest : she is a force of nature in a sense in which he is not. A romantic who does not dare to speak his name, he shows his ‘true’ character by enlisting in the Confederate Army when the war is lost, and by remaining true to his infatuation with Scarlett right up to the end, despite having every reason to dislike her.

 


 

Melanie Wilkes

 

melanie wilkes is Scarlett O’Hara’s most formidable rival precisely because she does not see herself as a rival at all. One could call her a successful representative of the World as Idea, inasmuch as this is feasible. Whereas Ashley is contemplative at the wrong time and the wrong moment, Melanie Wilkes, though a natural ‘observer’ on the scene of life (because of her lack of ambition) is capable of being extremely energetic when circumstances require it. Not only does she applaud Scarlett for shooting the marauder, but she helps her dig the grave and conceal the body.

            Melanie Wilkes is the ‘exception that proves the law’ inasmuch as she is a character who has very little going for her, who is perpetually confronted with one misfortune after another and yet who is nearer to being happy than anyone else in the book.  “Such an unworldly face, a face with no defences against life”, Rhett says of her. It would seem that it is precisely this defencelessness that is her protection : she is certainly not ‘knowing’ — Scarlett despises her for being so easily hoodwinked — but she is trusting and, oddly enough, this trusting nature of hers wins out because everyone likes her.

            She is not easy to characterise in terms of the three Pythagorean categories though clearly more of a bystander than a main actress. She has enough willpower and vitality to stop herself lapsing into the helplessness of her husband, indeed it is this aspect of her which responds to Scarlett whom she sees as Will in the ‘good’ sense.  Though reduced by the author almost to the status of a minor character, Melanie Wilkes is a considerable creation, since she is  a ‘good’ person who is actually likeable and, up to a point, even holds her own, by a combination of naivety and good sense, against someone who is the opposite of good, Scarlett O’Hara.

 


"War and Peace" Chapter 2 Three Novels of Love and War : War and Peace

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