Monday, 30 December 2013

The ten laws of Bond

Even though (as Skyfall, the latest Bond film tells us) James Bond is over fifty years old in film terms (and even older as a written character), he is much older than that. Bond is simply the latest incarnation of the medieval knight of courtly love. His job is to favour the poor and oppressed, rescue damsels in distress, and restore justice. At least, that is the kind of things he does – truth is, he varies a bit from film to film and from novel to novel. I haven’t noticed him saving old ladies  - although he does comfort Judi Dench, she is after all his boss and social equal, and Bond’s care and concern does not extend to the poor. In this respect he is the exact mirror of the medieval knight.

Perhaps the best way to summarise Bond is to attempt to compile the laws of Bond, just as Andreas Capellanus (Andre the chaplain) did back in 1184 when he formulated the 31 rules of love (in his Tractatus de Amore). Here, then, are the ten laws of Bond:

Friday, 20 December 2013

Cobbett the curmudgeon

Anyone who has ever read E P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) will come away from that book with a determination to read more about, and more written by, the main characters in Thompson’s drama: Samuel Bamford, Francis Place, William Lovett, and probably the best known of all, William Cobbett. Unlike the others mentioned, Cobbett is still remembered for a specific title, Rural Rides. Many years after reading Thompson, I finally got round to Cobbett. Rather than Rural Rides, I encountered a copy of his autobiography, wonderfully subtitled “The Progress of a Ploughboy to a Seat in Parliament”.

The first surprise was that there is no real autobiography of Cobbett. For a man who wrote so much, you would expect at the very least he would write the story of his astonishing life. That he did not is quite revealing. He always intended to write it, and the subtitle is Cobbett’s own, but the demands of journalism and other books always took precedence, so William Reitzel, the editor, assembled biographical sections from Cobbett’s other writings. This method proves workable, in that Cobbett seems to have written something about most periods of his life, but the result I found somewhat incomprehensible. It soon becomes clear, as Cobbett reaches adulthood, that the reader is only given part of the story. Partly the problem is that Cobbett did not assemble the sections here collected with an overall structure, and partly, perhaps mostly, because Cobbett was such an opinionated curmudgeon that although he had no difficulty writing polemical tracts and even whole books of argument, he was not particularly good at describing dispassionately a life that ended with him not on speaking terms with anyone in his own family. You get the impression, not admittedly from the autobiographical writing, but from Richard Ingrams’ marvellous The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett (2006), that Cobbett was not an easy man to live with. Having read both Cobbett and Ingrams, I think you start to get an idea of the man’s strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths there are without doubt. Cobbett was clearly a wonderful journalist, able to seize on a theme and exploit small details of his victims’ case or even their appearance, and by repeating these details mercilessly, turn them into figures of fun. Thus, defending Queen Caroline against the campaign of persecution against her by the Government, Cobbett writes an open letter to Canning:

She has been pursued by a spirit of persecution of the lowest and yet the most malignant description. A nasty, envious, jealous, grudging, bitter, venomous, grovelling, hate-engendered, soul-degrading spirit seems to have hunted her spirits as the dark and deadly minded polecat pursues the traces of the pheasant or the hare. [Letters to Grenville, 1819, quoted by Ingrams]

Queen Caroline was by no means blameless in this affair, but Cobbett’s relentless focus on those who condemned her produced an upsurge in feeling to defend, as depicted here, a poor woman who had been wronged. By focusing on a part rather than the whole, Cobbett succeeds in turning the argument around. It is not surprising that he successfully defended himself against a charge of seditious writing.

But Cobbett’s defects! Most importantly, Cobbett depicted himself as a simple agricultural labourer, and never really recognised the Industrial Revolution. He remained throughout his career a monarchist, a kind of radical Tory, a man who would happily put the clock back to a mythical pre-lapsarian agricultural paradise that can never have existed. As Stefan Collini pointed out, Thompson is not averse at times to this kind of wish-fulfilment. Then, if you add the quirks and oddities that seem to be peculiar to many self-made men: Cobbett’s obsessions about potatoes, paper money, Lord Brougham, and getting out of bed late, as well as his monstrous egotism, are enough to convince me that his family was completely justified in breaking off relations with him.

So a fascinating story, and an astonishing man, but Cobbett should be enjoyed for his polemics and for his striking phrases, not for his very partial and unstructured thinking, and certainly not for his autobiography.

Note: astute readers will notice that no travel was involved in the writing of the above post. However, Cobbett was a great believer in going to see things for himself, so I feel entirely justified in including the life of a traveller in this blog, even if I never got out of my armchair in my reading of him. I was with him everywhere he went, in the United States, in Ireland, yes, even in Farnham, his birthplace (where I stood respectfully in front of what was The Jolly Farmer pub, owned by his father).

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Abbeville and Ruskin

Abbeville is the saddest sight in the world. You come to visit the church of St Wulfram, so admired by Ruskin, and what you notice first of all is that everything else in the centre of town around the church has been rebuilt, in a rather drab 1950s non-imposing, nondescript style. It makes the contrast with the church all the more stark. The church remains, but the rest of the town was flattened by bombs. Amazingly, St Wulfram's survived.

Not that it had ever been finished. The church itself has a very strange shape. There are a few bays of the nave, and a magnificent facade, but the choir seems to be almost an apology, and the church is truncated with a vengeance. Inside, you read that bombing in 1940 took the roof off and much else. So it's amazing that there is anything standing from the church at all.

Is anything left of the church that Ruskin admired? What exactly did Ruskin admire about Abbeville? As often happens, it isn't so easy to work out just what it is that Ruskin got excited by. It is clear that Ruskin loved Abbeville. In Praeterita, for example, he talks about his visit there in 1835, with his parents:

In this journey of 1835 I first saw Rouen and Venice [...] nor could I understand the full power of any of  those great scenes till much later. But for Abbeville, which is the preface and interpretation of Rouen, I was ready on that 5th of June, and felt that here was entrance for me into immediately healthy labour and joy.

181. For here I saw that art (of its local kind), religion, and present human life, were yet in perfect harmony. [...] Outside, the faithful old town gathered itself, and nestled under their buttresses like a brood beneath the mother’s wings; the quiet, uninjurious aristocracy of the newer town opened into silent streets, between self-possessed and hidden dignities of dwelling,
[...] I never, to my knowledge, wasted an hour in Abbeville or Rouen, and the Seven Lamps and Stones of Venice, which were the direct outcome of my work in them, are
securely right and useful.”

The commercial square, with the main street of traverse, consisted of uncompetitive shops, such as were needful, of the native wares: cloth and hosiery spun, woven, and knitted within the walls;

My most intense happinesses have of course been among mountains. But for cheerful, unalloyed, unwearying pleasure, the getting in sight of Abbeville on a fine summer afternoon, jumping out in the courtyard of the Hotel de I’Europe, and rushing down the street to see St. Wulfran again before the sun was off the towers, are things to cherish the past for,—to the end.
Here it seems that Ruskin enjoyed the sincere simplicity (as he saw it) of a a provincial town - nothing to do with art history. Exactly what it is that Ruskin admired in the church of St Wulfram is barely mentioned, although a letter is quoted by Cook and Wedderburn in the Library edition. In the letter Ruskin compares the dullness of the carving at Salisbury with the flamboyance of St Wulfram:

“It is most fortunate that I have come here,” he writes home from Abbeville (Aug. 8, 1848), “straight from Salisbury—not even blunting at Winchester the severe memory of that Gothic; for much as I admired Abbeville porch before, it comes upon me now in such luscious richness,—so full, so fantastic,—so exquisitely picturesque that I seem never to have seen it before.”

What can be seen at Abbeville today is mainly the exquisite wooden carved main door, in glorious Renaissance perspective, as well as two Renaissance sculptures inserted with a different stone onto the Gothic facade. What is clear is that neither of these things is at all Gothic:

Nor is either of these works of art mentioned by Ruskin. He's probably too busy looking at the "uncompetitive shops, such as were needful", indulging in his irrelevant and misguided views of peasant life, and at the same time concentrating on the Gothic he wanted to see and ignoring the Renaissance.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

What was so special about the Dutch 17th century?

It all started when Jane asked why the Dutch painted such amazing pictures in the 17th century. The pictures referred to are the "genre" paintings (italicised, because there is no better word to describe them, although no definition I know that is not slightly disparaging). I haven't yet answered the question, but, as often happens, I've come up with a few potential answers to different questions. Jonathan Israel has published extensively in this area and he should know a thing or two. So I noticed a recent review by him with interest. What claims did he make for the 17th-century United Provinces?

Friday, 19 July 2013

Going Dutch: the book

I'm sorry, Lisa, but if you are going to write a book that attempts to engage my sympathies, in a word, if you are going to try to persuade me with your writing, then I reserve the right to notice how my sympathies are being manipulated. In my last post I pointed out how the effect of the writing, which was often powerful and engaging, was severely diminished by the appalling copy editing of the book. But today let's look at the content itself. Here too I am uncomfortable with the basic premise of the book, I'm afraid to say.

Now, I'm no expert in 17th-century Dutch history, or English history, for that matter, but given that Ms Jardine's chosen subject is the relation between the United Provinces and England, would it not be an idea to consider the relationship between Protestantism and Catholicism, between supporters of monarchy and supporters of republicanism, during this period? The Netherlands appears amazingly to have jumped from republic to monarchy with surprising ease during this period, while England was switching (perhaps more painfully) back and forth at the same time. Yet in this book we seem to be locked in a study of royalism, even unthinking royalism. We examine the royalist exile courts in The Hague. Our guide is Sir Constantin Huygens, who describes the future Charles II in 1654 as "the King of Great Britain", to the displeasure of at least one of his correspondents. That sounds pretty royalist to me. Yet Sir CH managed to have a senior role to both the Statholder of the Dutch Republic and immediately afterwards to William II - sounds a bit like Talleyrand to me, quite an achievement, to serve both masters with fundamentally different principles. How did he manage it? Does Ms Jardine examine this flexibility of attitude on the part of Huygens? Apparently not.

There is another intriguing story that I think this book misses. I started reading this book because I had been reading about 17th-century Dutch art. It doesn't take long when looking at Dutch art of this period to notice an interesting opposition, or at least contrast, between two concepts of art in the Dutch Golden Age. These two concepts seem to have co-existed. One of them was the classical, Italianate tradition represented by Rubens in Antwerp (significantly in the Spanish Netherlands). The other, less dramatic, but no less powerful, is what is feebly referred to as Dutch "genre" painting of the United Provinces. If you want to over-simplify it, the first school has the bodies big and buxom, while the second has the bodies much, much less imposing (or even non-existent), and seen within an interior or a landscape where the "background" is as important as the actors. This second school had no real equivalent in Italy; perhaps no equivalent elsewhere in Europe. Yet these paintings were popular, and the artists well-known. Jardine does not seem to be concerned about the possible political implications of the two schools. Were the Italianate paintings monarchist while the genre paintings were republican? It seems a theory worth investigating, at least. But in this book, it seems a matter of no concern. Commissions for big pictures, both in England and in Holland, are always Italianate  - not suprising that the English court taste appeared to be for classical (Van Dyke, Rubens), but suprising that the republican United Provinces looked for the same kind of thing when decorating big town halls in Amsterdam and The Hague. There are some mentions of the genre paintings; but overall I feel it is a topic that has been missed in a general haze of royalism that envelops this book. This is not a serious examination of forms of government in early modern Europe; this is the 17th-century equivalent of the Financial Times weekend edition, an uncritical and unquestioning close-up of the rich nobility at play.

In fact the book appears to be written in an apologetic tone for the court party of both countries. It is a strange perspective, a bit like that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, since we readers understand so little of what is really going on. I know this is not a straight account of political history, but there are those (e.g. Jonathan Israel) who make the grand claim that the United Provinces was the seedbed of the Enlightenment, the most advanced liberal state in Europe in the 17th century. If it was, I don't get the feeling from this book.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Going literally Dutch: the editing

Lisa Jardine's well-produced book Going Dutch (HarperCollins) looked appealing the moment I saw it in the bookshop. It has an elegant cover. It is printed in full colour throughout, and to prove the point, it has a different coloured rule for each page per chapter. Not that such a feature would influence me, of course.

The book opens tremendously well, with the 1688 invasion of England that is never referred to by the British as an invasion. I knew little about the details, and Jardine captures the reader's attention by jumping in at the most dramatic point in the story. I have no problems with the author's jumping around chronologically if it helps the drama of the telling. But now I am around half way through the book, I am starting to notice a few places where the manner of the delivery and presentation are starting to become annoying.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The paradox of Latin in the Middle Ages

Vincenzo Foppa, Young Cicero Reading

The Latin of the medieval Church was thus born with a double character. It bound the universal Church intimately together ... but simultaneously preserved writings potentially corrosive of Christian belief. ... The more assiduously a young cleric read Cicero to polish his language for Christian ministry, the more exposed he was to pre-Christian thought. 

Alexander Murray, review in the TLS of Ronald Witt The Two Latin Cultures and the Foundation of Renaissance Humanism in Italy (Cambridge, 2013)

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Ancient rhetoric

The Greeks got there first. We think we know how to write a piece of propaganda, or how to plan a speech. But the Ancient Greeks had a clearly set-out sequence for how to arrange such a piece. A speech comprises six stages:

  1. exordium
  2. narratio
  3. divisio
  4. confirmatio
  5. confutatio
  6. peroratio
What do these stages mean? Any educated Hellenic Greek could have told you. I have no idea. 

A literary composition would have five sections:
  1. inventio
  2. disposition
  3. elocutio
  4. memoria
  5. pronuntiatio or actio

All this is according to Brian Vickers, in the TLS of 5 October 2007. But he doesn't tell us where he got these terms from.