May 12, 2013 § 5 Comments
Their inspirations were Constable, the Dutch masters, Delacroix, Corot, Rousseau, Daubigny, Millet, Courbet, Boudin and Jongkind; Condorcet and the new scientific spirit; Eugene Chevreul’s theories of colour, above all; the failed revolution of 1848 and the Anglo-Prussian war of 1870; the realism of Balzac; the poetry of Baudelaire; the spirited debates at the Cafe Guerbois.
Their style: cool, impersonal, pastoral; like Flaubert, they cocked a snook at the flamboyant, fussy, self-indulgent Romanticism of lofty subjects and rich treatment, and insisted on seeing the sublime in the mundane; they represented a democratization – a petite-bourgeouisification, in fact – of taste.
Their credo: Cameras can transcribe nature. Abstraction and representation, not of reality itself, but of an artist’s experience of reality, is art.
Further, that a story or moral are not necessary for a painting. Human forms are optional. Form: not critical. Construction: not important. Lines: trivial. Objects need to be suggested, that is all – suggested by color.
Color is everything. No black, however – there’s no black in nature. Objects only have the colour that light and shadow confer upon them. Only basic colours are to be used, complementing each other, modifying one another. Colors: not mixed on palette, but juxtaposed on canvas, and mixed in our mind.
Every canvas is a careless-looking but precise arrangement of space and colour, a unique solution to a unique puzzle; the puzzle of accurately representing, in two dimensions, a moment experienced by the artist.
The moment passes, time flies and now the light is different. The shadows are elsewhere. Other colours are indicated: it is now a different moment, a different picture. Moments are hard to capture. Speed is essential, and spontaneity. Detail: not so much.
April 13, 2013 § 7 Comments
“As for the Pope of whom you speak, he must be crazy to talk of giving away countries which do not belong to him.”
- Inca ruler Atahuallpa to Fray Vicente de Valverde
The astonished natives made no attempt at resistance. But … they drew nearer the white men and inquired, why did they not stay at home and till their own lands, instead of roaming about to rob others who had never harmed them?
The story is old, and has lost its punch-line through frequent repetition. A group of illiterate, greedy, filthy, disease-ridden, common thieves from Spain show up at the doors of the Inca empire. In an outrageous act of treachery, they kidnap the Inca ruler when he graciously accepts their invitation to dine with them and arrives unarmed. They then slaughter over two thousand of his unarmed servants and nobles in a single evening. As a prisoner, the Inca ruler promises them ransom beyond the bounds of their imagination. Having agreed to these terms and taken his gold, they then try him on trumped-up charges, find him guilty without evidence, and kill him, while their priest waves his cross in the throes of religious ecstasy. They then proceed to butcher the local population, enslave the survivors, violate the women and rob the countryside on a scale unprecedented in the history of mankind.
The story is old. It doesn’t shock us any longer. When someone begins to narrate it, we recognize it from our schoolbooks, and we say, ah yes, we know all this – and we move on. Some of us will say, parroting views handed to us by others, “Surely we mustn’t judge the conquistadors by the enlightened morals of our modern age?” But their conduct would have been seen as deeply reprehensible then, as we find it today, in Ming China, Safavid Persia, Mughal India, Ottoman Turkey, Mamluk Egypt, the Mandinka empire of Mali, in every civilized country, in fact – possibly even among a majority of people in that part of Europe from whose gutters the conquistadors crawled out. A couple of generations later, the most famous Spanish knight of all time raged memorably against the dying of the age of chivalry. I’d like to believe that this death began when Francisco Pizarro and his band of savages violated laws of hospitality so ancient, universal and intrinsic to mankind that they were shared implicitly by people of all cultures from China to Peru. Don Quixote would have been shocked senseless by their behaviour. Jesus Christ, in whose name the rape of Peru was performed, would probably have been made physically sick by the sight of these barbaric acts, and he lived 1500 years before Pizarro, so do not tell me morality was different in the 16th century.
April 6, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“Literary critics make natural detectives,” said Maud. “You know the theory that the classic detective story arose with the classic adultery novel – everyone wanted to know who was the Father, what was the origin, what is the secret?”
We are assured of two things on the cover page of this book. Above the name of the book proudly scrolls the line, ‘Now a Major Motion Picture from Focus Features’. Asserted boldly and firmly below the name are the words, “A Romance”. These two lines, one on either side of the name, remind me of bodyguards who are simultaneously the jailors of the person they protect. The words ‘major motion picture’ and ‘romance’ are constraints on the reader’s imagination, and conjure up the image of a frilly, giggly rom-com romp and they do Byatt a major disservice in the process.
This is what Hollywood has done to romance. They’ve made it one-dimensional, that dimension being sentimental melodrama. Nothing else is even recognizable as a romance any more. But however much I may enjoy ranting about Hollywood, my point is different. It is that the readers who are most likely to enjoy this book are not those who are fans of major motion picture romances. Besides, Possession is somewhat more than a romance – it has many interesting things to say about feminism, for instance, and literary research; about Victorian poetry, about the interpretation of mythology. All the themes coincide in Byatt’s excellent poem based on the mythological story of Melusine. But if you forced me to slot Possession into a single genre, it wouldn’t be any of these: I’d call it a detective novel.
March 28, 2013 § 2 Comments
Most books we read have no long-term effect on us. Many don’t even have a short-term effect – we struggle to remember what they were about, the week after we put them down. It isn’t often that we read a book that changes the way we think, or view the world; in whose pages we read things that we are convinced were our own unarticulated thoughts. This is unlikely to happen to us more than a handful of times in our lives; it follows that such books are rare and precious. In my library, Thomas Kuhn’s 1960s classic belongs to that elite club.
I’ve known of Kuhn’s book for a while, largely in conjunction with the coinage of the late 20th century buzz-phrase ‘paradigm shift’. As with all consultese (I’ve written about ‘core competence’ in these pages), it is a much abused phrase, and its pretentious users have only vaguely been aware of its meaning. As a consequence of its loose usage, it has lost its meaning and gone entirely out of favour and fashion. Thus, when I started reading Kuhn, I thought I was resurrecting a historical and esoteric relic, with no relevance to our 21st century world. I was wrong.
March 9, 2013 § 3 Comments
Many years ago, when my fiancee and I were planning our honeymoon, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly we agreed on where to go. I had suggested the sleepy hill resort of Mussoorie because I’d been there once with a bunch of college friends, and because I was utterly devoid of imagination, particularly when it came to destinations for romantic getaways. I suggested it with some trepidation, because the woman I was about to marry had strong opinions, high standards and not a lot of tolerance for the staid and ordinary. Even back then, and even I, knew that Mussoorie was a boring choice for a honeymoon destination; people of my generation were doing Andaman, Mauritius, Switzerland…and so I was thrilled and surprised, in equal measure, at the alacrity with which the blushful bride-to-be agreed. She’d never been, she gushed, but she’d wanted to go there forever; and so it was decided.
Of course, there was no easy way to get there. We took the local train up to Mumbai, puffed merrily along the countryside on the Frontier Mail to Delhi; took the overnight train up to Dehradun on the foothills of the Himalayas, and finally experienced a vertiginous bus ride up to the little town hanging precariously from the mountain top. I remember that there were little boys selling salted slices of lemon at that bus stop in Dehradun. I wondered why, but not for long. When the drunken maniac at the wheel swung his creaking tin death machine from side to side at top speed, never more than a few inches from the most terrifying drop ever, I saw some of my fellow passengers – the touristy ones - turn a light shade of grey and suck furiously on their lemon slices. This was when I realized the great undocumented value of citrus fruit.
March 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
“Speak to them and find out first of all who they are.”
He asked them this, and they replied that they were Macrones.
“Now ask them,” said Xenophon, “why they are drawn up to oppose us and why they want to be our enemies.”
Their reply to this was: “Because it is you who are invading our country.”
A group of heroic men is stuck deep in Persian territory. They are nervous, leaderless, unfamiliar with the terrain, and with limited supplies and resources. They have to get back to home and safety through a thousand miles of hostile turf. Several hair-raising adventures later, they achieve this against all odds.
No, this is not the plot of a recent Hollywood blockbuster, but that of Xenophon’s Anabasis, which, by the way, is a far cooler name than ‘The Persian Expedition’, the translated title of the volume I read. It is also cooler, in my opinion, than Hollywood representations of ancient Greek action dramas.
Hollywood: I’ve seen your 300, and I raise you 10,000.
It is 401 BC, eighty years after that minor skirmish at Thermopylae and after the vastly more significant and fascinating naval battle of Salamis. Themistocles was a far more interesting personality than Leonidas anyway, and if I ever got around to scripting the sensational sleeper hit, ’Salamis’, George Clooney would get to play Themistocles, and Al Pacino would play Xerxes. But I digress. Cyrus, second son of Darius II of Persia, decides to displace his brother Artaxerxes as Shahenshah of a massive empire stretching from the Arabian Sea to the Black Sea, the Oxus to the Nile, the Himalayas to the Alps. He raises a secret army from the western fringes of that empire, from among the battle-hardened barbarians who had dealt grandpa Xerxes the biggest embarrassment of his illustrious life. The Greeks are the most fearsome and disciplined warriors in the world, but they have lately fallen to violent internecine squabbles. They are no longer a military threat to the Achmaenids as a nation, but they make wonderful mercenaries. And so, ten thousand of them – Peloponnese, Chersonese, Thessalians, Boeotians, Stymphalians and Achaeans – are recruited by Cyrus with promises of fabulous wealth, added to his Persian force, and marched from Sardis to Tarsus, through the Syrian Gates and across the Euphrates, across the Arabian desert and through Babylonia, where at last they are met by the Shah’s army at Cunaxa. The Greeks hold their own on the right flank, but Cyrus is slain while attacking his brother, and the battle is lost.
Trivia break: the word checkmate derives from Shah-mat, old Persian for ‘The King is Dead’. I’ve known this for decades, but didn’t realize how apt it is until I read this book. In the Persian version of warfare, you could outnumber your enemy, have better technology, better generals, more rested soldiers, and a better formation; and you could use all this to fight your way to a very strong strategic position and the opposing army could be on the brink of collapse; but then your stupid King could get himself killed, and then it is game over.