07 December, 2007


Five-minute chat with the great S. C. at the Library today. I'm terribly fond of him; perhaps I've never met anyone quite so impressively an und für sich. And wie große Unzufriedenheit! If at 80 I have an iota of his sublime old Britishness and quiet disenchantment, I'll have done alright for myself. He talked about some debate on Monday, What Happened to the Avant-Garde?, with A. S. Byatt ('the ugly Duchess'), Gabriel Josipovici ('very boring') and the ghost of Julian Bell ('nephew, is it, of Virginia Woolf? Anyhow, they were all fucking each other'). I've never read Byatt, and only Josipovici's introduction to Beckett's Trilogy, which struck me as bland and smug, a ride with latex gloves on the tails of modernism, haut et fin, well-set and printed immaculately, a paragon of our literature. I said I thought S. should know more about the avant-garde than any of that lot, so generous with their opinions; but apparently he'd declined to involve himself in the debate. Byatt, he said, had made free with Matisse's dictum that art should be like an armchair, very pleasurable, which seemed contemptible to both of us, though not at all unsuited to 'the most vapid of the twentieth-century masters', as Brian Sewell put it. 'She's rather like a big armchair herself', remarked S., wistfully, under his fat beard.


On the weekend, when I should have been blogging working, I read Matthew Arnold's essay on translating the Iliad, in which he swings round with an easel's jawbone, laying waste the pretensions of the Philistine hordes. Between Francis Newman and Homer is a 'cloud of more than Egyptian thickness', and as for the wretched William Cowper,
To suppose that it is fidelity to an original to give its matter, unless you at the same time give its manner; or, rather, to suppose that you can really give its matter at all, unless you can give its manner, is just the mistake of our pre-Raphaelite school of painters, who do not understand that the peculiar effect of nature resides in the whole and not in the parts.
From these lofty swipes and jabs arise in great clouds the nit and grit of words, phrases, metres, rhythms, Greek and English, a welter of language, pronouncements of taste. I approve of Arnold: he will get his fists dirty, even if he keeps his nose retroussed. He can talk of nobility, of the 'plain and direct'; but also of Homer's ha deiló over against Chapman's poor wretched beasts. Something of this has been lost with Modernism, and especially with the resenters. We have relinquished all confidence in our pronouncements. It is because we are no longer of interest to others: only our words. Literary language is no more informed by charisma; so it is no wonder that writers should now be the dullest bunch—nice, 'controversial', it matters little. I don't think we want to piece together a person from his written words any more: that 'person' is another idol of the cave, another icon to be clastised.
I advise the translator to have nothing to do with the questions, whether Homer ever existed; whether the poet of the Iliad be one or many. . .
For Arnold, in the face of the philologists, the sceptics, who would later herald the Death of the Author, Homer exists, for the sake of argument, and moreover he is noble, which we know because his poems are noble.
"It is very well, my good friends," I always imagine Homer saying to them: if he could hear them: "you do me a great deal of honour, but somehow or other you praise me too like barbarians." For Homer's greatness is not the mixed and turbid grandeur of the great poets of the north, of the authors of Othello and Faust; it is a perfect, a lovely grandeur.
Perhaps we should not so well be asking, with such pitiless conceit, What happened to the avant-garde?, as if literary creativity were a force that spent itself out forever in 1973 or 1989, as if the oracles had ceased, but rather, How can we recover from the avant-garde? After an era that conflated artistic change and technological progress, what have we left to say?


It gets dark earlier and earlier; the sun at one is already setting. I have taken to wearing a smoking-cap of dark green velvet with gold embroidery, kindly donated, though I was sad to learn that it has no more exotic name than smoking-cap. The snivelling pedants who fill up Call my Bluff and the OED with words like zarf and ceiba have fallen down on the job this time.

London is still Victorian in places. Borough Market after the library shuts, just to find a gobbet of Boerenkaas for a Dutch friend's birthday; I contemplate ostrich, ripe Caerphilly and Basque pork, proffered by rosy-cheeked youths in aprons and padded jackets. On the way home I try to make 'Boerenkaas' rhyme with baas and haas for a poem, in vain. A tinge of pleasure, offsetting the neon and sodium of dreadful night, afforded by the new St. Pancras, the glory of Victorian rail. The vaunted 'longest champagne bar in Europe' turns out to be a rather small champagne bar coupled to a seating-area inexplicably extended across the length of the concourse. And naturally, they couldn't carry out the restoration without adding a hideous statue to dazzle the Continental snobs. Unsworth's, just across the street, is finally going out of business, or so they say on the grapevine, so I popped in and picked up a knock-down Thoemmes reprint of Robert Chambers' Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, first published only 17 years before Arnold on Homer. Here's Chambers on the orbit of Uranus:

There is some profound comfort about this prose; no matter how recondite the subject, the style never loses its éclat, its colour, and the mind's eye is always half set on the Old Testament. Darwin whinged about the book's science, even more so after it was attributed to him (among others) by the popular press. When I consider Chambers and Arnold, Hood and Browning, Kingsley and Spencer, and all the rest, I wonder why 'Victorian culture' makes us think only of Dickens, Tennyson and Millais. How much have we forsaken?


Lily Roth said...

My dear Mr. Roth,

While I certainly agree with you re: Dickens and Tennyson, I am not so sure about Millais. I find that many people are all too ready to lump Victorian art together in a untidy and disconnected heap. I don't know that people really know what they mean by "Victorian" art.

One comment I've heard far too often is that Pre-Raphaelite maidens are "ethereal". It drives me crazy. Aside from Rossetti's amazonian, goitered women and the muscular, androgynous maidens of Burne-Jones, the PRB women in art are fairly sturdy creatures...particularly when compared with modern standards of model feminine beauty, which seems to celebrate the pre-pubescent thin hairlessness of a girl rather than the mature figure of a woman. I think people tend to project much Bloomsburian modern scorn on the Victorians without much knowledge of any actual Victorian art.

Your humble & obed. servant,
Mrs. Lily Roth

Anonymous said...

The dexter and sinester parethetical comments appear reversed (regarding the supporters of the shield for the water works). Remember, "dexter" always refers to the *bearer's* right -- the viewer's left.