Tuesday 22 March 2011

Deflowering a Virgin in front of Witnesses

The Prince's Person by Roger Peyrefitte
I've just stumbled across this in the 'Modern Literature' section of the Oxfam bookshop in Kentish Town; a remarkable bit of gossipy historical smut by the flamboyant French gay rights campaigner Roger Peyrefitte (1907–2000), in a cheap 1966 paperback edition. I won't bother reviewing it for you. Here's the blurb on the back cover:

The most bawdy, most ribald true story you'll ever read.
Was 16th Century Italy's young Prince of Mantua impotent? His pre-marital antics seemed to indicate a rampantly priapic nature – but in that case how was it that his teenage wife was still a virgin? Relatives on both sides were outraged. The Catholic Church was scandalised. The succession of the Dukedom of Mantua looked to be in serious danger. Something had to be done. Arrangements were made. The Prince was to prove himself.
By deflowering a virgin – in front of witnesses.

And wow, it is indeed a page-turner, packed with historical details, crude double entendres and unrestrained anti-Catholic merry vitriol. I'll lend it to you when I've finished it. Here's how it begins.

At the back of the book, there are adverts for a couple of other books in the 'Panther Fiction' series. This one especially caught my eye:

Stephen Schneck

J. Spencer Blight, 'the fattest man in America', presides over 'six floors of rooms to let and enough beds for nearly every bug'. To while away the night hours he reads pornography and ruminates on his years with his beautiful, impossibly corrupt wife, Katy. What years they'd been! What games they'd got up to! . . . 

'Mad entertainment' Sunday Telegraph
'Scenes of preposterous depravity' The Guardian
'A roaring success' Daily Mail

Not bad review quotes, eh? I'm inclined to hunt a copy down. Also at the back of the book, there's the following list of other authors published by Panther Books: Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, Alan Moorehead, Nicholas Monsarrat, Chester Himes, James Jones, Erich Maria Remarque, Len Deighton, Saki, Jack London, James Hadley Chase, Georgette Heyer, Violette Leduc, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Hans Habe, Marquis de Sade, Doris Lessing, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Louis Auchincloss, J.G. Ballard, Henry Williamson, Vladimir Nabokov, Fernando Henriques, John O'Hara, Howard Fast, Hubert Monteilhet, Julian Mitchell, Agnar Mykle, Simon Raven, Marcel Proust, John Rechy, Gore Vidal, John Barth, Alan Williams, Bill Naughton, John Horne Burns, David Caute, Ivan Turgenev, Colin Wilson, H.P. Lovecraft, Rachel Carson, Jerzy Peterkiewicz, Curzio Malaparte, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Denise Robins.

What a line-up. Wouldn't you like to have been a publisher in the 1960s?

Monday 21 March 2011

A Boring Post about a Boring Painting of a Boring Thing

If I find myself alone with time to kill near Charing Cross, I often pop into the National Gallery for a few minutes and look at a couple of paintings. Being brought up on photographic images, we often make the mistake of reading paintings as though they claimed to represent reality in the same way that photos do. And it's often through the details extraneous to the main subject – the stuff in the background, a fleeting gesture or play of light, an accidental, unposed moment – that photographs assert their claim to 'truth'.

But in painting – at least, until the birth of 'modern art' with the French realists and impressionists, which coincided the birth of photography – nothing is accidental. Even when the painting is done directly from a model, the exact composition is something completely unspontaneous and the details are as significant as the overall subject. Every inch of the canvass is contrived and predetermined, entirely 'unreal', if you like. It's worthwhile – and pleasant – to throw off your twenty-first-century perspective and to flex your observational muscles by delving into a painting's contrivances (though, oddly enough, now that Photoshop is ubiquitous, the notion of photographs supplying an unaltered account of reality is out of fashion, and a whole generation is growing up with much keener critical eyes than those of their parents).

In Room 18, which contains mid-seventeenth century French paintings, near the spectacular portraits of Cardinal Richelieu, there hangs my candidate for the most boring painting in the National Gallery. It would normally have bypassed my eye muscles, but something about it must have struck me as odd. Here it is:

Allegory of Grammar (1650), Laurent de La Hyre

Its subject matter is both nebulous and uninspiring, its composition clumsy yet static, its execution flawless and banal, and its style unoriginal – a sort of sub-Poussin classicism without anything in the way of poetry about it. Allowing that Laurent de La Hyre wasn't bad at perspective, we must assume that there is a compositional reason why the foreshortening of the figure's left arm looks so odd, but God knows what that might be, and anyway, who cares? The explanatory notes for this painting are so vague as to remove any last vestiges of intrigue it might yet invoke:
This is probably one of a series of half-length female figures of the seven Liberal Arts* which once belonged to Gédéon Tallemant (1613–68), apparently painted for his house in the Rue d'Angoumois, Paris. The pictures vary in size, and all are dated 1649 or 1650.

Grammar is here personified as a woman. The essence of this art is explained in the inscription, which may be translated as 'A meaningful and literate word spoken in a correct manner'. A second series of the Liberal Arts, also by La Hyre or a member of his studio, may have existed in Rouen; and a total of ten paintings of these subjects survive today. An identical version, perhaps from the Rouen series, is in Baltimore (Walters Art Gallery).
It is 'probably' one of a series (although it might not be), and just in case you thought you could imagine them all handsomely arranged in identical frames along a corridor or library wall, we learn that they're all different sizes, with no clue as to whether this one is one of the bigger ones or smaller ones. There 'may' be more similar paintings, by him or by someone else, that also exist, at least one of which is exactly the same. Seldom has an explanatory panel cast more shadow over an already dull image. Art history will not help us here. We have to look at the painting.

The figure of Grammar is a woman – an utterly featureless, generic classical matron – watering a plant. The flowers look like violets. If the violets are being fed by grammar, then presumably they represent the young student, part of whose education will include a dose of grammar. Violets sometimes symbolize humility, and this student is planted in a very humble vessel. It looks like an bog-standard B&Q terracotta plantpot. I suppose this represents the uncultivated mind that will benefit from a grammar education – the so-called empty vessel. The other plant, which has either just been watered or is about to be watered, is a poppy, a wildflower. Odd that, as wildflowers don't need watering. But of course, it never will be watered, because the artist has caught the moment when the violets are being watered. They are to be watered in eternity. Every time you come back to this painting, the water will continue to pour down on the poor violets, which look like they're being drowned by Grammar. To emphasise the point, the water is shown leaking out of the bottom of the cheap plantpot. As an advertisement for Grammar as part of an education, it is a bad one. The flowers will certainly die if they're overwatered like that.

The other plant life in the painting are the mature trees seen through the window behind the figure of Grammar, in the upper right corner separated off by the diagonal element formed by her left arm (ah, that's what it's for!). They're placed in contrast to the young fragile plants being reared by grammar. Is this robust vegetation what a young violet can aspire to, after years of applied study? That doesn't make sense. A violet can never grow into an oak tree, no matter how much grammar it manages to soak up. Besides, these trees are uncultivated. They, like the poppy, thrive perfectly well on what rain provides. They don't need watering. It's not looking good for our sad little B&Q violets. Grammar will stunt them; other plants thrive without it. If this is what Laurent de La Hyre is saying about Grammar, he's subverting one of the Seven Liberal Arts, and potentially undermining the serious intent of the whole series.

The clincher is in the inscription: 'A meaningful and literate word spoken in a correct manner', in Latin 'Vox litterata et articulata debito modo pronunciata'. But the words meaning 'in a correct manner', 'debito modo' are seen backwards, where the strip of cloth folds back on itself. Oh yes. When the words that mean 'in a correct manner', or 'in the right order' are the ones shown backwards in the wrong order, we must deduce that Laurent de La Hyre means for us to read this painting back-to-front. This Allegory of Grammar carries a secret, ironic, anti-grammar message. Let students express themselves naturally, this painting says, rather than smother them in rules that will stifle their growth.

Well, I'd like to see the other pictures in the series, to see if they subvert their subject matter in similar ways. It's always enjoyable to discover a hidden meaning that contradicts the stated one. There are plenty of these hidden meanings to be found, not just among the boring paintings in the stuffy old National Gallery, but among the visual and written material that surrounds us on a daily basis, perhaps even in this blog if you look hard enough ...

* The Seven Liberal Arts, as described by Martianus Capella in the 5th century AD, represented the pillars of medieval educational system, the equivalent of today's 'three Rs'. They were: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Astronomy and Music.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Psalm 47

I've been listening to this piece of music a lot lately. Psalm 47 'Gloire du Seigneur' Op. 38 by the French composer Florent Schmitt:

Also, listen to parts two and three. If I'm going to be completely honest about it, I'm not sure whether I love or hate this piece of music. One thing's for certain: it's impossible to be ambivalent about it. This is the sort of music that grabs you by the heart or by the throat – either way, it makes it hard to breathe. I walk down the road with it up loud in my earphones, and it's exhilarating, energizing. My pulse races, I break into a skip, I can sense the elements around me and the spinning planet, and tears appear at the corners of my eyes. It's like the musical equivalent of licking a 9V battery.

Psalm 47 was written in 1904, and sounds like it. For its sheer grotesque, bombastic, unrelenting pomposity posing as 'grandeur', I loathe it. The music itself is both sensual and inhuman. It seems drenched in the machine-forged passions of twentieth-century totalitarianism – more Nuremberg Rally than Cherubic Choir. Barbaric. What an astonishing thing to love a god or an ideology with such passion that you would sacrifice your very last trace of individuality in order to lend your lungs to be part of the million-strong chorus.

'Paradiso', from Dante's Divine Comedy, illustratred by Gustave Doré in 1866.

The lyrics are of course a bit scary . . .

Psalm 47
1 O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
2 For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.
3 He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet.
4 He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whom he loved.
5 God is gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding.
8 God reigneth over the heathen: God sitteth upon the throne of his holiness.
9 The princes of the people are gathered together, even the people of the God of Abraham: for the shields of the earth belong unto God: he is greatly exalted.

'Who would live in a house like this?'
. . . but it's not the religious content of the words that bothers me. The music itself feels quite irreligious, it has a primitive, pagan quality to it – it was a big influence on Stravinky, who'd be writing The Rite of Spring a few years later – as well as a defiantly Modern spirit. Florent Schmitt's paradise is illuminated not by candlelight but by countless electric bulbs. It evokes the New Tower of Babel in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. And yet every time I listen to it, I'm won over by its ballsy chromaticism. I admire the sheer over-the-top nerve of building such a vertigo-inducing skyscraper of tonalities.

For all his avant garde ambitions, it must be admitted that Schmitt's aesthetic has closer affinities to the mystical Wagnerian tradition of the previous century than to the experimentalism or expressionism of the new one. And perhaps its special appeal derives precisely from its unusual place in history. It's an absurd piece of music. It's scary. It's hilarious. It's clever. And it prosthelytizes with ludicrous, dazzling optimism.

Friday 4 March 2011

Idiolectical Cunninasus OR Sex, Lies and Noses

I’m rewatching the spectacularly good and amazingly dated A Very Peculiar Practice (1986–8), an early success by Andrew Davies. Episode 5 of the first series opens with body language expert Lyn Turtle in bed with Dr Stephen Daker (played by Peter Davidson in his first post-Who role), talking about ‘sexual idiolects’:
Lyn: You know when you were at school...?
Stephen: What?
Lyn: Did you have to read all those Shakespeare plays and things?
Stephen: One or two.
Lyn: You know, where the blokes are after the wrong girls, or wise Duke of something slips another girl into bed with him in the dark and he can't tell the difference.
Stephen: I don't think anything like that happened in Julius Caesar.
Lyn: No, but the point I'm making is: Shakespeare was a wally. Everyone is totally different like that. I'd know you anywhere. In total darkness in a split second. It's like an idiolect. Do you know about idiolects?
Stephen: No.
Lyn: Well,  quite a lot of people can share the same dialect, but no two people speak exactly the same. In that respect, we're all unique. Good, eh? We've all got our own idiolect.
Stephen: Yes, I see.
Lyn: Well, I'm a body language person and, er, no one's ever done sexual idiolects.
Stephen: But you're going to.
Lyn: Hmm. Dead difficult. Much easier to experience than describe. 
Stephen: Yes, I do see that, Lyn.
Lyn: It's you that's made me think of it. I dunno: being with you, it's, erm, it's like listening to you. I mean it's like listening to you.
Stephen: Is that all right?
Lyn: Yeah, of course it is. What's the matter?
Stephen: Nothing, really. It's just that, occasionally – I mean, don't get me wrong, I feel amazingly lucky and grateful and all, and I am – it's just that, now and then I feel like, well, one of those smoking beagles.
Lyn: An experimental subject...?
Stephen: Well, yes.
Lyn: We're all experimental subjects, Stephen.
Stephen: ... in life's cruel laboratory. That's the sort of thing Jock says.
Lyn: Hey, listen you! I was trying to tell you you're special.
Stephen. Oh.
Lyn: I'd say more, only it's against the rules.
The connection Lyn makes between sex and idiolects – and specifically the deception of the wrong person slipping into someone's bed in the dark – got me thinking. 

A swordsman and a lover.
I’ve always been anxious that when Christian climbs up to the balcony to be with Roxane, Cyrano de Bergerac has written cheques Christian's arse can’t cash. She is seduced by Cyrano's poetic idiolect, his unique and distinctive use of language, but can Christian's performance possibly match the build-up? Cyrano allows him one kiss from her – apparently satisfied that, were it not for his nose, it would have been him up there – before the plot intervenes. But does he really think Roxane wouldn't have been able to tell the difference? There is more at play here than mere poetry, but he refuses to admit it. He is not deceiving just Roxane, but also himself, and he maintains the lie until the end of the play, ultimately failing to become a real hero. It is astonishing how oblivious he is of how much he has to offer Roxane sexually, and she has no idea what she's missing. Cyrano's poetry and sexuality derive from the same outsized extension of himself: his 'panache'.

What happens next?
Pinocchio's linguistic idiolect is also founded on lies, and specifically self-deception, which is so powerful that he will actually become an ass before he becomes a real boy. (And, whereas in the Disney film he is a naïve innocent who become corrupted, in Carlo Collodi's original novel he is dishonest and psychopathic by nature. One of the first things he does is to kill the talking cricket with a hammer.) It was inevitable that film-makers would want to explore the sexual aspect of this unique idiolect, the most famous examples being The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (dir. Corey Allen, 1971) and Pornocchio (dir. Scotty Fox, 1987). Yet the little wooden boy is as much in denial about his sexuality as Cyrano is. He cannot acknowledge that his nose is growing, as to do so would implicate him in a Cretan (Epimenides) paradox. The statement 'My nose is growing' cannot be true. It must be false, because true statements do not cause his nose to grow.

Ken Campbell's Pigspurt is another story principally about lies, nasal sex and self-actualization. In the final act, when KC meets 'God', he fears punishment first for his dishonesty in introducing lies into his stories, and then for his life of coitus proboscidalis. 'God' simply makes fun of him, 'cruelly impersonating my accent' (i.e. his idiolect). 'You were always invited up, weren't you?' he says, and, in likening KC to Christian, who gets his kiss, rather than the tragic, self-deceiving and idiolectic Cyrano, who dies unacknowledged, he is making fun of KC's naïvity. For 'God', life is about what you do, not in the truth of how you tell it. Uniqueness is incompatible with uttered truth. (Life is in the dashes – the connections between utterances – not in the full stops.)

These three examples from cunninasal literature tell us something about our idiolects. It is difficult to become completely aware of them by ourselves. It is impossible to hear (or feel) ourselves the way others do, and as long as our idiolects remain mysterious to us, they will remain instruments of self-deception. (Dan Mintz explains this revolutionary masturbation technique: rather than sit on his own hand so that it feels like a stranger is jerking him off, he sits on his own dick so it's like him jerking off a stranger.) In other words, we must 'find our own voice', which is far from easy. It is particularly unnerving to listen to a recording of your own voice, or, in KC's case, to catch glimpse of your own arse in the mirror. Similarly, it requires a singular effort to become aware of your own nose, which sits invisibly in plain sight, at the centre of your field of vision, your entire life. Stumbling on the key to your own (sexual) idiolect is the first step in unravelling your own inherent self-deception and unscrewing language itself. And that is the quickest route upwards and inwards to... 'God'.

PS Afterthought: I'm surprised there's nothing nasal about Lyn and Stephen's relationship in A.V.P.P. Perhaps I need to look again, more carefully (Julius Caesar's nose?). I also need to reread the Nikolai Gogol short story.