Saturday 30 September 2023

Sub Specie Aeternitatis

There'll be a burst of Shakespeariana this weekend, with a sustained echo through the rest of the year, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the "First Folio", the commemorative collection of Shakespeare's plays put together by a syndicate of friends, business partners, and fellow playwrights after his death, which preserved many plays which otherwise would almost certainly have vanished. Incredibly, that would have included the likes of Macbeth and The Tempest, now such fixtures of our western culture and the English language that it's impossible to imagine a world without them.

This celebratory effusion will inevitably be accompanied by a burst of anti-Shakespeariana, ranging from the usual ravings of "who was Shakespeare really?" conspiracy-nuts to the more rational questioning of whether the literary language of the 16th and 17th centuries is still comprehensible to today's children in classrooms threatened by collapsing ceilings, innit? It's not an altogether silly question; our language has changed and will continue to change, just as one day what had been the everyday speech of the street or the heightened rhetoric of the mead-hall became Anglo-Saxon, rendering Beowulf as incomprehensible as The Iliad.

Not having studied the Ancient Greek "classics", and lacking both the inclination and the language skills to do so, it always comes as something of a surprise to discover quite how little of the writings of well-known names from "antiquity" has actually survived. It shouldn't – after all, only an estimated 15% of Elizabeth and Jacobean plays have survived beyond a title in the Stationers' Register – but somehow you imagine that at least a scroll or two of the work of the names that haunt western culture – evocative names like Heraclitus, Epicurus, or Sappho – had been found gathering dust on a monastery shelf somewhere, in among the Christian theology, bestiaries, to-do lists, and books of recipes.

But no; at most, the work of many name-check philosophers and poets survives only as fragments or even just as quotations and references in the work of other, later writers. To the extent that the existence of some is little more than a rumour of a reputation, pieced together by scholars from hints and "Chinese whispers".

As it happens, one such scholar was my partner's grandfather, a tutor at Oxford named Cyril Bailey. In the first half of the 20th century he edited and wrote about Epicurus and his later Roman admirer Lucretius, author of De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things). I have already described how, at Christmas 2009, his pristine copy of the Aldine edition of Lucretius (published in 1515, more than a century before the first Folio!) turned up in a box of books inherited from one of her aunts (see the post Nice One, Cyril). Needless to say, this tenuous family-in-law connection has never prompted me actually to read that particular magnum opus, but it has sensitised me to passing mentions of the names Epicurus and Lucretius, much as my eye is caught by any mention of Letchworth in the news or in print, Letchworth being my father's home town, but a place in which I have otherwise no real interest at all.

From the little I have gathered about his philosophy, it seems that most of the more sensible people I have known have been instinctive Epicureans. With the hindsight of two and a half thousand years, it does seem pretty much like the application of common sense to the goal of achieving a happy, balanced life, like one of those life-hack listicles: moderation in all things, don't live in fear of what comes after death because there will be nothing, and so on. Recently, I came across an aspect of the Epicurean philosophy I hadn't encountered before, summed up in the phrase “live in obscurity" or "live unnoticed" (in Greek, λάθε βιώσας, lathe biōsas). Inevitably, there is debate about what exactly this might mean, but the gist seems to be that one should shun the political and public life, as to attract the attention of the authorities or the public was (and still is) a dangerous thing, and not conducive to the pursuit of the ultimate Epicurean goal, that happy, balanced life, one characterised by ataraxia (freedom from fear) and aponia (the absence of pain). Expressed in a more demotic idiom: keep your head down, never volunteer, and mind your own business, and you'll spare yourself a world of grief.

So-called "lazy girl jobs" and the post-Covid phenomenon of "quiet quitting" have been much discussed in recent times, and these seem like exemplary Epicurean strategies to me. That is, on the one hand to choose an undemanding but reasonably-paid job that leaves plenty of time and energy left over for friends, hobbies, or whatever, and on the other to give your job rather less than 100% of your time and energy, on the basis that some wage-slave occupation should not define or provide the meaning of your life.

Well, you'll get no argument from me on that score, you quiet-quitting, lazy-girl, present-day Epicurean slackers. As a lifelong exponent of the subtle art of remunerative and rewarding under-achievement (see the post Fail Better), I know something about keeping my head down, never volunteering, and minding my own business. You may suspect me of humble-bragging here – true, I did have a moderately successful and contented professional career, followed in retirement by a rather less successful stab at becoming an artist – but the rich, the powerful, and the ambitious have never had anything to fear from me. I was a librarian, FFS.

Yes, you say, but what about the heroes and Shakespearos? I'm reminded of the words of John Keats regarding would-be poets, which could be applied to life in general: "... it is easier to think what poetry should be, than to write it - And this leads me to another axiom - That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all". In other words, sure, give your best shot to whatever fantasy-life turns you on but, if at first you don't succeed, get a proper job. Ideally one with a decent pension attached, although these are scarcer, these days, I realise. After all, there are still plenty of useful things to do that will pay your bills without requiring you to sweat blood, lose sleep, give 110%, stay late in the office, or ultimately to suffer the slings and arrows of unfulfilled ambition. Have the courage to be ordinary.

Epicurus aside, this is an acceptance of reality that commends itself to common sense, if not to ambition, not least when you consider the likelihood of some scholar piecing together anyone's "life and works" from whatever fragments are likely to remain after the depredations of another two and a half thousand years. By then, even Shakespeare may be little more than a rumour of a reputation, pieced together from hints and "Chinese whispers", along with that irretrievable 85% of the dramatic efforts of his contemporaries.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and 
Are melted into air, into thin air: 
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, 
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, 
The solemn temples, the great globe itself, 
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on, and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep. 

The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1 

Which would be – will be – a terrible shame, won't it? But I imagine very few, in those far-off future days, will have the inclination or the language skills to make sense of even a magnificent fragment like that, written in an obscure, high-flown dialect of a dead language. So we'd better enjoy it while we can and while we still have the whole thing, luckily for us, thanks to the First Folio, four hundred years old this year.

Sunday 24 September 2023

Moth Magic

I had some fun making this latest digital collage – if you read the previous post you'll know where it started – and the result is quite pleasing, I think, in a subtle kind of way. It reminded me of various posts I have written in the (so far) 15-year life of this blog concerning my lifelong fascination with moths, so I thought I'd extract the best bits from them, and revise and combine them here in another sort of collage. It's lazy, I know, but I doubt even long-term readers [insert variation on "both of them" joke here] would have noticed if I hadn't pointed it out. The fact is, however, that some of my better bits of writing are lurking in posts more than a decade old that nobody will have read since they were originally published, and my current inclination is to dust off and polish up any that come to mind.

So, some of my earliest memories are of driving home in the dark from our weekly Sunday visit to my maternal grandparents, who lived out in a village in rural North Hertfordshire. On late-summer nights on those country lanes we'd be assaulted by a constant barrage of moths strafing the car like tracer bullets. Occasionally, a huge one would be sucked into the mighty vortex of the propellers of our Austin A40 fighter-bomber, gleam for a brief moment as brightly as the cat's eye reflectors embedded in the centre of the road, and as quickly vanish into the surrounding total blackness. Sadly, it's an experience of abundance that is now as lost in the past as listening to Two-Way Family Favourites at Sunday lunchtime on the BBC Light Programme. Or indeed the transformative imagination of my eight-year-old mind.

The newly-built council house in which I spent the first half of my young life in Stevenage New Town was backed by a venerable copse (or "spring", in Hertfordshire dialect) which had been left more or less intact, and it, too, was still bursting with insect life. Emerging from the dark of night, the moths which settled on our kitchen window would tremble with some unknowable ecstasy, and seemed like envoys from another dimension. Let us in, please let us in! We have tidings of great strangeness to impart! Needless to say, we went to great lengths to keep them out.

If they did manage to get inside, though, that ecstasy would be unleashed as fury. There is something profoundly disturbing in the way a large moth will hurl itself around a room, in the same frenzy as a fish landed on a riverbank or a cat in a sack, knocking itself to pieces in the blindness of its contradictory desire both to immolate itself and to tear itself free from its spellbound condition. Eventually, exhausted and broken, the moth would vanish from sight, and the next day the smouldering wreckage would turn up under a chair or inside a shoe: message undelivered, mission impossible.

I became fascinated by these dead husks, that – looked at closely – resembled alien spacecraft made of intricately-engineered parts, decorated with a pagan, earthy camouflage that had a satisfying harmony of colour and shape. Some even had markings in a strange, organic alphabet like the lettering that came with the transfers ("decals") of a plastic assembly kit. A magnifying glass would only enhance the wonder. Your gently exhaled breath would cause the defunct antennae and landing gear to tremble, and the hairy thorax would ripple like a tiny meadow of sun-browned grass.

The next step after wonder, of course, is knowledge. I still own the copy of The Observer's Book of Larger Moths and the two-volume Moths of the British Isles I received as end-of-year prizes in primary school. I spent hours bent over these catalogues of entomological marvels, feasting on their taxonomies of similarity and difference served up on glossy coloured "plates", in much the same way my own children would later pore over Pokémon cards. The main difference being, of course, that moths are real.

Their wonderful names alone invoke enchanted Edwardian summer nights spent "sugaring", sweeping kite-shaped nets around in the dark, and finessing captive moths into cardboard pill-boxes: Angle Shades, Clifden Nonpareil, Burnished Brass, Brindled Beauty, Silver Y, Hebrew Character, Snout, Toadflax Brocade, Foxglove Pug, Pebble Prominent, Autumn Green Carpet, Lunar Marbled Brown, Jubilee Fan-Foot... On and on and on... There are many hundreds of native moth species in Britain with "common" names alone (and about 2,500 in all), compared to the mere 60 or so native butterflies. This hidden abundance and diversity is part of their mystery, and its depletion in recent decades is a little-noticed ecological catastrophe. I suppose that unless you have experienced for yourself a drive through that nocturnal blizzard, or seen a dozen or more moths of assorted shapes and sizes clinging to an urban windowpane, you will have no idea of the devastation that has been taking place.

Inevitably, collecting followed knowledge. This is something I regret now but – like birdnesting – back then it was regarded as a normal and instructive outdoors activity, and far better than slouching around all day with a comic; you could even earn a badge in the Cubs for it. Incredibly, a ten-year-old could walk into any High Street chemist shop, demand a half-crown bottle of ether or ammonia ("for my killing bottle, please, mister"), and leave with their deadly purchase in a paper bag, no questions asked.

Our neighbours would be mystified when we pegged a bed-sheet to the washing line on muggy summer nights, together with a high-wattage lightbulb on an extension cable. The nocturnal messengers would come thick and fast, drawn out of the copse and neighbouring gardens like children to the Pied Piper's ice-cream van bell. I won't go into the details of what happened next, as I have no desire to attract hate-mail. Suffice it to say that I had made my own killing jar, relaxing box, and setting boards out of household items and balsa wood, and achieved a pleasing level of skill in the business of miniature taxidermy. [1]

That was all a very long time ago, but I still get a little charge of excitement when I see the Humming-bird Hawk-moths working our buddleia bush on September evenings, or come across a Red Underwing sheltering in the eaves of the garden shed. And my family sounded the true depths of my moth-madness when, twenty summers ago, they found me crouching in a  Brittany car-park at dusk, where twelve individuals of three species of very large hawk-moth – Privet, Convolvulus, and (I think) Striped Hawk – were feeding in a blur of wings on the municipal hydrangeas. Very nice, they said, but we're hungry, and left me squatting there, entranced, as they went to claim our reservation at the crêperie on the other side of the square.

Others feel the fascination, too, of course. Artist twins Doug and Mike Starn have produced some extraordinary photo-based images of moths, collected in their very desirable book Attracted to Light. Photographer Emmet Gowin, perhaps best known for his intimate family photographs of the 1970s and his aerial landscapes, has dedicated himself to a late-life project documenting the moths of Central and South America (his wife Edith, who features so prominently in the earlier work, is an entomologist). Two wonderful books – Mariposas Nocturnas: Edith in Panama and Mariposas Nocturnas: Moths of Central and South America, a Study in Beauty and Diversity (check out the video at that link) – have been the result. In Britain, printmaker Sarah Gillespie produces spectacular large mezzotint images of moths, also collected in a beautifully-produced book, Moth. No doubt there must be others, too, who are susceptible to their magic.

A while ago I came across Situationist Guy Debord's last film, made in 1978, called In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni. That bizarre title, I discovered, is both a Latin palindrome and a riddle, which translates roughly as "We go around in the night and are consumed by fire" (spoiler: the official answer is "moths", not "Catherine wheels" or "drunks at a Bonfire Night party"). It's well known, apparently, but something I'd certainly never come across before (a large category, admittedly). Once you start digging on the Web, it quickly emerges as a popular text within certain demographics, including makers of indie music and bearers of pretentious tattoos, most of whom couldn't tell an ablative from their elbow. So, well, why not? As a sometime moth-botherer with a little Latin I might as well make use of it, too.

1. Despite giving up the hobby in my teens, I kept my boxed collection of moths – I suppose as a reminder of a path not taken – and it followed me loyally over the years. However, I hadn't actually opened it for decades until one day in 2016. Yikes. Over fifty years most of the contents had been reduced to dust, leaving just ranks of pins and paper labels standing among scattered limbs and fragments of wing. What I'd been keeping was not so much a collection as an insect charnel house. It was clearly beyond saving, so I simply vacuumed the lot out, taking on board the Great Teaching I'd just been handed about holding on to things for too long, courtesy of the unsentimental forces of entropy. Though it was still with some regret that I chucked the box into the "mixed timbers" skip at the Recycling Centre the next day.

Tuesday 19 September 2023

The World in a Jug

Japanese haiku masters, who grasp in passing a shimmer in its impermanence and consider the frailest things to have the greatest value and the most power, are not mystics. You could not imagine calling them 'ardent', or even that they climbed mountain peaks. They remind me more of those servants, in André Dhôtel's The Man of the Lumber Mill, who suddenly see the pure gleam of a garden reflected in the silverware or crystal glasses that they are cleaning.

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by John Taylor), "Notes from the Ravine", in "And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry, 1990-2009" (Chelsea Editions 2011), p. 303.
I found this quotation transcribed in one of my notebooks, probably from someone else's blog or website, but despite the thorough sourcing of the quote itself I seem to have omitted to note the secondary source, not that it matters.

French literature has always been a blind spot in my Euro-culture, so I had some looking up to do: JaccottetDhôtel? Are those even real names? Apparently so. It turns out the work by Dhôtel is L'homme de la scierie, which I see our university library holds, as well as the Jaccottet (Notes du ravin), so if I wanted to find the original French of either text in order to verify the accuracy of the translation then I could. But, again, it hardly matters. What had caught my attention was the linking of haiku with that last sentence: servants "who suddenly see the pure gleam of a garden reflected in the silverware or crystal glasses that they are cleaning".

Why? Because that is an excellent description of a sort of photography that I enjoy. This is not a description to be taken literally, obviously – there's not a genre of photographs of scenes reflected in tableware – but in spirit: to be taken by surprise, often while doing something completely different and routine, by some oblique, ephemeral marvel that demands to be noticed and, if you are a photographer, recorded. These mini-epiphanies are never the result of a carefully planned expedition, the laying out and lighting of a still life, or the posing of a portrait, but a momentary glimpse of something perfectly ordinary transformed by light and circumstance, perhaps but not necessarily distorted and given that "pure gleam" polish by optical means: a mirror, a shiny surface, a window, or indeed a camera lens.

Inevitably, I suppose, its main proponents are Japanese: I think of the work of Rinko Kawauchi, or Masao Yamamoto. But it's something that anyone does who, in Gary Winogrand's words, photographs to see what things look like when photographed. Especially now phone cameras have added a whole new dimension of spontaneity to that enterprise.

Kitchen top, Bristol

Kitchen wall, Southampton

Of course, you can create similar surprises for yourself deliberately. Earlier in the summer I was in the kitchen, putting away the washing up, when I wondered what would happen if I took a picture through the bottom of a coffee jug. My phone gave a polite cough... Your wish is my command, master... Behold:

Hmm. So I then started taking pictures through the bottom of any transparent article that came readily to hand from the drying rack.

Interesting. A Pyrex jug or a jam jar are not things you'd want to lug around on a "just in case" basis, but might a light plastic food tray be worth slipping in a bag as a sort of filter? Probably not. Besides, for those of us unafraid to combine spontaneity with outright fakery in the pursuit of picture-making, there is always a simpler way...

All of which inevitably reminds me of this poem, an anthology favourite:
Anecdote of the Jar, by Wallace Stevens (1919)

I placed a jar in Tennessee,   
And round it was, upon a hill.   
It made the slovenly wilderness   
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.   
The jar was round upon the ground   
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.   
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,   
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Incidentally, I have only just learned, after all these years (from Wikipedia, naturally), that Dominion was a popular brand of glass jar in the USA for the preservation of fruit (not to mention the infusing of home-distilled alcohol), most notably the Wide Mouth Special, made in the, ah, Dominion of Canada.

Friday 15 September 2023

Change Your Life (Get a Head)

Monestir de Pedralbes, Barcelona

As this strange summer finally started to relax its chokehold on my urge to do anything much, and the unaccustomed stretch of idleness began to bother me, I caught myself half-hearing the words you must change your life, almost as if dictated by a voice in the wind. Which may require some explanation, if you are not to doubt my sanity.

So, just as a preliminary, how are you with poetry? It seems to make a lot of people feel awkward these days. It's certainly not generally well taught any more, at any level, which means fewer and fewer people are learning to encounter their own language in its purest, most playfully serious mode. I find this sad, not least because in many ways it was a talent for poetry that catapulted me into that category of oddballs labelled "susceptible to education (but not of any useful sort)".

Fortunately, this was not so much a talent for writing poetry—that would have been a curse too far—as for reading and interpreting poetry. Which is an idiotic talent, to be sure, but one which used to be more remunerative than actually turning out the stuff. So, had you ever needed the plumbing or wiring of a difficult poem sorting out, I was your man. I don't think there used to be a Yellow Pages section for literary interpreters but, if there was, that would have been me with the big banner advert. [1] Unfortunately, the bottom had already dropped out of the interpretation business by the late 1970s, so that's not how I ended up making a living. I did seriously consider diversifying into the theory racket, but quickly realised that I would only end up in that notorious dark wood, the straight way lost, where all theorists of the untheorisable are destined to end up, and decided to get a proper job instead.

Despite the dwindling job market for poetry maintenance, however, some actual poems do remain as key to our culture, in their quiet way, as do our more famous paintings and musical compositions, and really should be as well known. They're generally not, though, and—just to make it that little bit more difficult—they're not all written in English (in stark contrast, you rarely hear it said that paintings are rendered incomprehensible by the use of, say, French, German, or even Chinese paint). Robert Frost was undoubtedly right when he remarked that poetry is what is lost in translation, but in our increasingly monolingual anglophone world essential work is done by those intrepid armchair explorers of the broader culture who continually rediscover and retranslate foreign-language literary touchstones.

One such is the poem Archaïscher Torso Apollos ("Archaic Torso of Apollo"), composed by Rainer Maria Rilke in 1908, after nine tempestuous months spent working as secretary to the notoriously "difficult" sculptor Auguste Rodin. There are plenty of translations on the Web, if you don't do German. All of them are quite bad, unfortunately—there are interesting discussions of the translation issues here and here—but then I believe Rilke's German can be quite challenging even for native speakers.

The poem is famous for its startling closing line —"You must change your life"—which, on the face of it, looks like the sort of sententious finger-wagging beloved of the self-help and therapy crowd. But that is to miss the point, rather like fixing on "neither a borrower nor a lender be" as the key to Hamlet. At its simplest, it's an example of an ekphrastic poem ("verse on art objects"), but it invites deeper reflections on just who is looking at who in the encounter with art. Ursula K. Le Guin (yes, that Ursula K. Le Guin) said of it:
True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry and artistic renewal. The real myth is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is. You look at it and it vanishes. You look at the Blond Hero - really look - and he turns into a gerbil. But you look at Apollo, and he looks back at you.
Personally, I think she, too, half misses the point, not helped by that comparison with, of all things, a gerbil. Rilke often wrote about angels and figures from myth, and even claimed to take dictation from voices in the wind—hey, we've all been there—and it can be hard to be sure whether or not he expected us to understand them as anything more than convenient armatures or vivifying metaphors handed down to us from antiquity. If you want my interpretation of the poem, my rates are very reasonable. But, as I say, I hung up my hermeneutical hat four decades ago, so it may not be up to current specs. [2]

Parc del Labarint d'Horta, Barcelona

This poem has always intrigued me, however, ever since I first read it at school as a sixth former, and many years ago now I proposed a project to a teaching colleague in the German Department along these lines:
Hi Andrea,
At the moment, I'm still thinking about the thing I mentioned the other day and it may well come to nothing, but: what I have in mind is a project pulling together a variety of interpretive contributions from staff/students working within the University, focussing on a single poem. I suppose I have a slightly naive vision of, on the one hand, a class of German students creating visual art and, on the other, certain artists engaging creatively with poetry in a foreign language. If a viable project plan does emerge, I will try to interest either [X] at the [Y] Gallery or [...] at the [...] Gallery in an exhibition / publication. 
From my p-o-v, I'm fascinated by the way the visual and the literary interact, and the whole business of translation / transmission between languages, cultures and different expressive means. The Rilke suggested itself as a choice, partly because of its intrinsic concerns, and partly because it has been so frequently translated and variously interpreted. It also seems auspicious that you teach it yourself in your classes. Such a project would obviously benefit enormously from your linguistic expertise and insight (as you know, I do have some competence in German, but I am baffled, for example, by the various translations of "sein unerhörtes Haupt" as "legendary", "fabulous", "terrific", etc.). 
What do you think?
The project never did come to anything beyond some interesting conversations—at the time we both had children in the university Day Nursery, and it's always a relief for parents to talk about anything other than toddler-related matters—and, sad to say, that colleague has since died.

Anyway, around that time I stumbled across what I think is a brilliant rendering of Rilke's poem that seems to uncover a dimension beyond the mythological "heavy breathing" that most translators focus on. It's funny, too. It seems to have vanished from the Web now, so I've taken the liberty of transcribing it here. I hope the author won't mind this publicity.
Archaic Torso of Apollo, a Translation for Bored Children.
After Rilke, by Catherine J. Coan

eyeball ripening
in the head

candle in the chest

in and of
and in itself
and of it

did you know
you didn't know


don't think of buttcrack
here you mustn't think of it

think of the shoulders
or a waterfall

you see
a cat and a star
and an unframed frame
and here is the thing

don't think buttcrack
otherwise you'll never
beget what he meant

no snickering
this is a museum

the statues have no arms
because they fell off
from strangling stupid kids like you

do you want to be a serious poet or what

Wrapped statue in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
(protecting it from us, us from it, or us from ourselves?)

1. When I signed up for an MA in Comparative Literature at UEA in 1976 I was told of a cartoon I have never been able to track down, showing two famous pioneers of that dubious discipline standing at someone's front door in overalls, announcing, "Hello, we've come to compare the literature". So this XKCD cartoon will have to do.

2. Here are the notes on the poem by G.W. McKay in the Rilke volume of OUP's "Clarendon German Series" (1965), which were attractive, blazer-pocket sized books used as A-level set texts in many British sixth forms back in the 60s/70s:

"The subject here is not a complete statue but a torso, in which, however, the potency of an earlier, stronger culture and vision is still present. It is a poem about seeing; a power of sight has been sculpted into the statue which challenges and almost overwhelms our modern, more fragmentary vision.
line 4. i.e. the concentrated gaze which was present in the now missing head is still present in the torso.
line 14. A paradoxical way of expressing the powerful almost accusing 'otherness' of the torso: every spot on it sees the beholder of it. It has the force of an ethical challenge."

Quite helpful, and not a single mention of small rodents.

Some of you may also be reminded of a famous quotation from Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil (1886). That is: "Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he himself does not thereby become a monster. And if you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks back into you." (Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, daß er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.)

Which is not entirely irrelevant, I think. The two men are not unconnected, either: extravagant taste in moustaches aside, they even had a lover /  muse in common, the extraordinary Lou Andreas-Salomé.

Friday 8 September 2023

Annoying Noise

This picture is really annoying me. On holiday in Barcelona the truth had dawned that, while phone photography has its strengths, its weaknesses (at least, for me) will inevitably lead to poor photographs under less than ideal conditions. Even so, when we returned from Spain to Bristol we found a heatwave in progress, so for my first walk along the Avon Gorge I thought – ignoring my self-taught lesson – that I'd not encumber myself with anything more heavy than the iPhone in my trouser pocket. Along the way I encountered these two guys at the top of their climb in the Gorge, and the potential of the composition was exciting. I asked whether they'd mind if I took a quick shot, and as fast as possible tried to arrange it on a screen which was practically invisible in the ambient glare.

Later, looking at it on the phone, it appeared that I'd managed to get a good one, despite the guesswork. But... The "raw" file turned out to be unusably noisy, and the JPG had smoothed things out so much that it looked like it had been rendered with a palette knife. I have tried every trick in the book to save it, and what you see here is as good as it will ever be; which is not quite good enough, and a permanent reminder of quite what an excellent picture it coulda / woulda / shoulda been.

Compare it, for example, with this photo made a couple of weeks later with my Fuji X-T1 at almost the same spot under exactly similar conditions:

No noise, great detail and colours, excellent dynamic range, good depth of focus (yes, that is Wales on the other side of the Bristol Channel in the distance)... Now, I realise these are not necessarily the criteria a normal person would consciously apply to a photograph – indeed, I suspect most would respond more positively to the first image, whatever its perceived technical "faults" – but at some level such things must surely register in anyone's appreciation. So, what a good picture the "climbers" would have been with the photographic qualities of that second image! But: lesson learned, again.

Here is a less annoying gallery of photos taken in and around Bristol during those weeks of late summer sun:

Sunday 3 September 2023

Marès Syndrome

Should you ever find yourself in Barcelona on a hot, humid day, I suggest you make your way through the impossibly crowded Gothic Quarter to the cathedral (the real one, that is, the one with geese in the cloisters, not Gaudi's Sagrada Familia, which is a grotesque waste of time, space, and money) and nearby, around to one side, you will find a blissfully peaceful little square enclosed by ancient walls, one of those perfect places where you can sit, recover from the heat, and – if you're so inclined – daydream a little while eating an empanada for lunch. There are benches, a couple of trees, and a small fountain (turned off in this year of drought, like most Barcelona fountains, but which can only add to the magic of the place when active). The few people that do find their way there mainly pass through quietly, sensing they have entered a special space, an enclave of quiet contemplation, where some bearded bloke happens to be sitting in the shade, brushing crumbs off his shirt.

But the real reason to go there is that on one side of the tiny square is the entrance to the Museu Frederic Marès, which is probably one of the most extraordinary museums I have ever visited, and I've been in quite a few, ranging in size and eccentricity from the tiny Shell Museum in North Norfolk to the vast Hermitage in St. Petersburg (see the post Hermitageous). Generously – but also compassionately, and responsibly – if you buy a ticket to the Marès museum you also get a free return visit. Why so? Let me explain.

In recent years, a genre of TV has become established in which, in its mild version, some smug guru of minimalist living "declutters" the perfectly normal house of a perfectly normal family. In its other, more hardcore version, the impenetrably congested rooms of a compulsive hoarder are excavated, examined, and sanitised by a specialist crew. The difference being that, in the first case, the mental disorder belongs to the minimalist guru, and in the second to the hoarder. Either way, "too much stuff" is portrayed as a problem in need of a solution. There is, however, a third way, which is to be wealthy enough and sufficiently systematic (not to say piratical) in one's obsessive gathering together of stuff for it to be designated an important collection, and indeed ultimately a public service, when gifted to the nation. Examples abound: virtually all of our major museums and galleries began life as someone's private compulsion. Elias Ashmole, Hans Sloane, Solomon Guggenheim, Charles Saatchi... The list is long and distinguished, but all such "collectors" are touched with the neurosis that in humbler circumstances would lead to complaints from neighbours about vermin, strange smells, and fire hazards.

Now, as someone who has accumulated more books than is normal or necessary, I am not really in any position to point the finger, but I think it is beyond dispute that Frederic Marès was more obsessive in his collecting than most. Not content with getting hold of a few of the best examples of, say, carved statuettes of "Mother of God and Child" to be found in old Catalan village churches, he had to have them all, or at least as many as the locals (or more likely their priest) were willing to let go, which they/he seem to have been strangely willing to do, for a price. As a result, in the Marès museum there must be a hundred or so of the things, all executed to a standard specification but varying tremendously in quality from the sublime to the hilarious.

But that's just the first few rooms of the museum. Marès, it quickly becomes clear, had to collect everything of anything he could lay his hands on. At every turn in this museum there is a yet another assemblage of not-quite-identical objects, ranging from the curious – decorative fans, say, or tobacco paraphernalia – to the awe-inspiring, such as entire walls, lintels, and columns of romanesque carving removed from those same remote village churches. It is like visiting a normal museum turned inside out, with the storerooms of less than A-list, museum-grade specimens – kept for comparative, typological purposes only – all laid out on display.

It is all incredibly absorbing, but also exhausting. By the time you've explored a couple of the five floors of displays, it begins to feel like wandering through the physical manifestation of an obsessive-compulsive mind. Which is, I suppose, precisely what it is. There are not just one or two nineteenth-century cardboard theatres and sheets of cut-out characters to admire, but dozens of them; not just a select few decorative cosmetic bottles, but an entire room full of them. You like playing cards, or tarot cards? We've got racks and racks of 'em! Broadsheet ballads? Photographic cartes de visite? Ditto!

I cannot believe anyone completes the entire museum in one visit: hence the "buy one, get one free" entry tickets. It's an act of mercy. Amusingly, the attendants are constantly solicitous, particularly of us visibly older folk: "Are you OK? You don't have to do another floor, you can always come back! There is rather a lot to see, isn't there?" Perhaps visitors frequently fall victim to "Marès Syndrome", like a hyper-concentrated version of Stendhal Syndrome. What, surely not even more erotic cigarette cards? And, yikes, now a room full of creepy dolls?? It's too overwhelming... Help!

In the end we did bail out after two and a half floors, but the experience was sufficiently compelling that we did take advantage of the free second visit, just to see what might be on display in the upper floors (no real surprises there: yet more curious stuff, wholesale and in bulk, systematically arranged; I particularly enjoyed the hundreds of decorative cigar bands and matchbox tops). But situated at the very top of the museum is a small collection of Marès' own work, which – after enjoying such an eccentric bric-a-bracathon – was rather disappointingly conventional, I have to say. Best known as a sculptor, I think I was expecting him to have produced something vaguely Gaudi-esque, or maybe even as agreeably bonkers as a Kurt Schwitters Merz assemblage. Instead, there was a collection of the sort of dull, sub-classical sculptures and busts that would definitely not have been tossed onto any fascist bonfire of "degenerate art". Even allowing for the fact that Franco's regime was then at its dreary peak, it is hard to believe, for example, that this rather camp portrayal of Goya was made in 1959, not 1859:

Full-size model for bronze statue in Plaza del Pilar, Zaragoza

But, look, in another museum in another part of the city (the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya), how about this stone bust of Pablo Picasso by Pablo Gargallo, made in 1913? Now that surely is agreeably bonkers, isn't it? I wonder what Pablo P. made of it? Isn't his fringe usually on the other side?

And – who knows? – perhaps it was inspired by something like this wonderful thing in the Museu Etnològic i de Cultures del Món, which is just down the alleyway from the Museu Picasso, as it happens:

But really, I hear you ask, exactly how many museums and galleries can a person visit in one week and stay sane? Easy: in such blazing hot, stickily humid weather, as many as possible... Besides, after so many museums over so many years, I've developed complete immunity to Marès Syndrome.

Civil War posters at MNAC

Plaça del Canonge Colom
(nice shady spot for a coffee)