Women of Trachis, by Sophocles

Last week I read Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine, a drama retelling the Oedipos myth, which is of much wider breadth than Sophocles’ Oedipos Tyrannos (it begins with the business of the Sphinx), though I couldn’t help wondering what the point of Cocteau’s effort was. His essential concept, of the Infernal Machine, is that of the fateful machinations of the plot as it works itself out to Oedipos’ destruction – and this is frankly much better done in Sophocles’ version.

Woman of Trachis in this sense I find very similar to Oedipos Tyrannos: it contains that the same ideal tragic plot, where a character acts sincerely and innocently without understanding the terrible consequences their actions are going to bring about. Not merely once but twice does Sophocles play the trick: with Deianeira’s giving of the fatal cloak; and with Hyllus’ blaming his mother for her evil actions when she is innocent.

I find myself wondering a few things. Is there dramatic irony in Women of Trachis (and is there in Oedipos Tyrannos)? I’m not so sure. – Women of Trachis is perhaps more useful in this respect, because at a guess you, like I, don’t already know the story – and it is this foreknowledge, not the playwright’s art, in Oedipos Tyrannos, which creates any dramatic irony (or so I suppose, without actually re-reading). Instead we learn of Deianeira’s error at the same time Deianeira does – at the same time our chorus, the Women of Trachis, does – and so the dramatist leads us into those feelings of empathy and sympathy which we might say are the basis of the tragic art.

And what of the gods? I find myself frustrated that my favourite E.R. Dodds essay on the subject has disappeared seemingly for good behind paywalls, because I’d have liked to have reminded myself what his argument was here (I just remember I didn’t feel I quite agree with it); but like Oedipos Tyrannos, Women of Trachis has the relation of men and gods very much in mind, particularly in the last scene between Heracles and Hyllus, which otherwise seems like something of an appendage to the main play. I don’t find any of it though so different to what I already expect of Sophocles, and of the ancient world in general: that the gods certainly work in mysterious ways, but that isn’t to suggest like later Christian thought, that they have our good in mind when they do so.

So Hyllus ends the play, addressing the chorus:

Women of Trachis, you have leave to go.
You have seen strange things,
The awful hand of death, new shapes of woe,
Uncounted sufferings;
And all that you have seen is God.

Cicero’s Pro Caelio (and some Catullus)

Cicero may have been a pompous self-important ass, but he was also the world’s greatest rhetoricians, and the incandescent brilliance of his forensic oratory is often both mesmerising and amusing.

I was lead to the Pro Caelio while contemplating Catullus’ Poem 58 (surely one of everyone’s favourites!):

Caelius, our Lesbia, Lesbia herself,
That Lesbia, whom Catullus loved
More than himself and all his friends,
Now on street-corners and down back-alleys
Jerks off the grandsons of great-hearted Remus.

Now if we follow tradition in identifying Lesbia with Clodia, then it seems reasonable to identify Caelius here with the Caelius Rufus of the Pro Caelio (though some have denied it), who also had an affair with Clodia, which is largely the subject of Cicero’s speech. So what light, I wondered, might the Pro Caelio shed on this mysterious woman? – And how does this match Catullus’ portrayal? And how did Roman society work anyway in the late Republic? Who knew who, and what side was everyone on?

Cicero is defending Caelius Rufus on two charges: a) that during his affair with Clodia, he borrowed gold off her in order to pay some slaves to murder a certain Dio of Alexandria; and b) that he attempted to procure poison in order to murder Clodia. Roman society had no concept of state prosecution; all cases were private matters and therefore prosecution tended to be politically motivated (by which I probably mean, helpful to prosecutor’s / defender’s reputation; beneficial in establishing the right political connexions – least of all any concept of public service). Cicero maintains that these charges are nonsense (he certainly makes a masterly case, but then he would make it seem that way), and that in fact the prosecution, instigated by the Clodii faction (the notorious Publius Clodius himself is one of the prosecutors), was only brought about because Caelius Rufus has been prosecuting them over some other matters (against his advice, Cicero adds, no doubt because in defending Caelius he doesn’t want to alienate those he’s defending him against, who are probably also at times useful friends and allies). Anyway, he makes his case, which includes a great farcical scene in a bath-house, and wins.

It’s only in the latter part of the speech that he actually gets to these issues however; a lot of the early part of the case is basically concerned with the character of young Caelius Rufus, whom the prosecution seemed to have characterised as something of a skirt-chasing hell-raiser; to which Cicero responds that there’s nothing wrong with this – in moderation; – we were all a bit like this when we were young; and anyhow, Caelius is just a nice boy who’s been led astray by an evil woman – which leads him to his extended character assassination of Clodia.

He starts upon Clodia (as he says) gently, in order to build her character in his audience’s mind (not, of course, that they wouldn’t have known her anyway). First he brings in one of her famous dead ancestors, to wonder why it is she was acquainted with this Caelius Rufus at all since he wasn’t related to their family, and has him bang on about the historic virtuousness of the Claudii and the Metelli (into which latter family she’d married; – they were serious aristocracy the Metelli, not of course that the Claudii weren’t) (“Was it for this that I broke the treaty which was concluded with Pyrrhus, that you should every day make new treaties of most disgraceful love?” moans her ancestor). Then he takes on the guise of her younger brother for much the same effect, before coming out with this quiet breath-takingly brazen piece of rhetorical imputation:

I am not saying anything now against that woman [Clodia]: but if there were a woman totally unlike her, who made herself common to everybody; who had always some one or other openly avowed as her lover; to whose gardens, to whose house, to whose baths the lusts of every one had free access as of their own right; a woman who even kept young men, and made up for the parsimony of their fathers by her liberality; if she lived, being a widow, with freedom, being a lascivious woman, with wantonness, being a rich woman, extravagantly, and being a lustful woman, after the fashion of prostitutes; am I to think any one an adulterer who might happen to salute her with a little too much freedom?

Later on in the speech, once Cicero feels the audience knows their woman, he’s quite happy to call her a whore and a prostitute without any such formalities of deceit, as if this was what everyone knew all along.

Let’s put it slightly differently however: she was a woman who used her beauty to sleep with young men she fancied, until she got bored of them and dumped them. Isn’t this exactly the arc of Catullus’ poetry about her / his relationship with women in general? Usually, it seems to me, Catullus is frustrated in love. But still I don’t think we should take Catullus’ poems in the manner of a verbatim account, just as we shouldn’t believe Cicero when he suggests Caelius Rufus was an innocent dupe whom Clodia was leading astray; I’m sure they both knew perfectly well what kind of person she was from the beginning; and so I’m inclined to read Catullus’ poem as written by a lover pretending to commiserate with another lover about a revelation of the true nature of the woman they both love when in fact both of them were perfectly aware of this in the first place, laden at the same time with a feigned vituperative bitterness.

Catullus also wrote a poem about Cicero (poem 49), which is open to almost any interpretation:

Most eloquent of the grandsons of Romulus
As many as are or ever were, Marcus Tullius,
And as many as there ever shall be,
The greatest thanks to you gives Catullus,
The worst poet of all –
As much the worst poet of all,
As you are the best patron of all.

Again, we sense some sarcasm in this poem. No doubt Catullus doesn’t believe himself the worst poet of all (that was more like Cicero’s crown, with his famous epic about his own consulship and how he defeated Catiline); but what is implied about Cicero’s patronage? What does the poem really mean? And is the any significance in him talking of the grandsons of Romulus (Romuli nepotum) here and the grandsons of Remus (Remi nepotes) in the poem? Is there a connexion between the two poems? Are they even connected to the Pro Caelio? Cicero was certainly a patron to Caelius Rufus. And he wasn’t a grandson of Romulus – both Cicero and Catullus were outsiders in Roman society.

In the end, Catullus just drives you mad.

(I know you want to ask: does Cicero go on at all about Catiline in the Pro Caelio? Yes; yes he does. But it’s not his fault. You see, the prosecutors – I imagine, for a laugh, because they knew Cicero would be defending the case – alleged that Caelius was a great friend of Catiline’s and a party to his conspiracy).

Lucrezia Borgia, by Ferdinand Gregorovius

Now my view of Lucrezia Borgia was that she was an evil woman who poisoned people; but according to Gregorovius, this wasn’t the case at all; it was all just anti-Borgia propaganda. A lot of people, for various reasons, just didn’t like the Borgias. In fact, as Gregorovius argues, aside from being the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI (aka Rodrigo Borgia), Lucrezia Borgia was, as a person, pretty much an insipid non-entity. (I imagine her a bit like Princess Diana: less beautiful than her admirers make out, not quite as intelligent – although Gregorovius does let me down a bit by claiming she probably never did have an affair with the poet Pietro Bembo). Which is, of course, a bit of a problem if you’re writing a biography of her.

Another problem Gregorovius has is that there’s not really much information available about her life, which leads him, for her childhood and education, to recount instead what a typical childhood and education for someone of her background (illegitimate daughter of a pope) might have been. Also, it means he really goes to town on that one moment in her life which is well-sourced: her marriage into the Ferrarese Este family: – pages and pages and pages of it, full of eye-witness accounts about what people were wearing and letters sent to and fro wrangling over the nature of the dowry.

There is no doubt a truth in this, in that, in keeping with the position of most women of her time, this marriage was the only significant event of her life; and that otherwise she lived almost entirely in the shadow and under the control of the two men of the family: her pleasure-loving father Pope Alexander, and her psychotic brother Cesare, who one feels at times are living the real story off in the distant foreground, arranging her marriages for her, dissolving them again, and occasionally murdering people (sometimes, the very people they’ve recently married her to) and instigating wars; although it does serve as a good record of the shifting fortunes of the leading Italian families.

At least Gregorovius has done his research, digging about in Italian archives, which I take to have been a novel means of historiography back then (1870s?) and associate largely with c19th German scholars (in terms of ancient history in particular Theodor Mommsen, who was forever collating disparate information); sometimes perhaps not practised otherwise in the preparation of history since the days of Herodotus.

I might next have a go at the apparently far more idiosyncratic Chronicles of the House of Borgia, by that literary eccentric Frederick Rolfe.

Ovid’s Fasti – New Year’s Day

I forgot to mention, one of my ideas for this year was to read Ovid’s Fasti. I actually conceived the idea for this last February, but since the Fasti was intended to consist of twelve books representing the seasons of the year (though Ovid only wrote the first six – or, at least, only six survive), I decided to wait till we got back to January again so I could read it a month at a time.

I don’t know much about Ovid’s Fasti other than it’s about the Roman calendar, explaining the significance of all the dates in the year and the festivities which accompany them. I suppose that doesn’t appeal much to a modern audience – rather in the same manner as Virgil’s Georgics.

Here is Ovid’s intent, explained in typically concise fashion in the first line:

tempora cum causis Latium digesta per annum

Events with their causes arranged throughout the Latin year

With what I take to be a more subtle motivation slightly further down:

Caesaris arma canant alii, nos Caesaris aras

Others sing Caesar’s arms, we Caesar’s altars

So this is a book not representative of the civil wars which culminated in the rule of Augustus, as for instance the arma virumque of Virgil, but of the subsequent peace.

Ovid begins with a dedication to Germanicus, then discusses why Romulus foolishly started with only ten months (apparently to fit in with the term of pregnancy – scilicet arma magis quam sidera, Romule, noras – truly you knew arms more than stars, Romulus), but Numa added another two months at the beginning of the year, the first of which was January.

Ovid then digresses about the existence of lawful (fas) and unlawful (nefas) days (i.e. days on which you can and cannot transact business), all of which reminded me very much of the Heian Japanese who allowed a similar superstitious obsession to determine their lives. Apparently it is not the Ides you should beware of (or the Kalends or the Nones) but the day after, which was defined as ater – that is, “black”, just as we define days of particular calamity in the stock market.

One thing we shall particular look out for reading Ovid is the variety of ways he manages to introduce what we’re thinking is otherwise going to be a tedious list of events. So for January, he has the god Janus appear to explain who he is (me Chaos … vocabant – they call me Chaos), why the year doesn’t begin with spring instead (because the real turn of the year is the winter solstice), why New Year’s Day is not a holiday (because you should start as you intend to go on, and not in idleness), why we wish one another a Happy New Year (sympathetic magic – if we say it, so it will be), why we give people honey and sweet dates on New Year’s Day (sympathetic magic), why we give people small coins on New Year’s Day (sympathetic magic).

Which is as much as he says about the first day of the year, so for now is where we shall stop (this is about a third of the way through the first book already; he’s going to pick up the pace over the rest of January).

I am reading this in an 1899 edition with typically schoolboy commentary (on the basis of a schoolboy’s ability in the late c19th) but no facing English translation, so requiring me to think a bit more than usual, which is good. Ovid is reasonably easy Latin, I find.

As usual, reading Latin at times causes me to reflect on the meanings of words in English. So today I contemplate the word difficilis, which gives us the word “difficult”, which in Latin has its opposite in facilis, from which we get not “facult” (though of course we have “faculty”) but “facile”; but “facile” isn’t really the opposite of “difficult”, “easy” is. “Facile” has other connotations. English really is such a strange mishmash of languages.

Whither Blog 2017?

Whither, indeed – for in 2016 I managed a grand total of 9 posts on this blog, which coincided, though was not wholly caused by, a large drop in books read (I couldn’t say exactly how many, since I’ve stopped keeping count); but recently I find myself undergoing a reversion, a relapse into literature, so I thought really I should get back to writing more posts. Yet the problem I think with the posts I’ve written of late is that they’ve taken too much the form of book reviews, and I’m not sure I’m any good at book reviews, and this dispirits me somewhat. So I was thinking I would write them instead in a rambling form of stream-of-consciousness, taking into account spurious matters such as my mood at the time, my predilections, how my thoughts provoked by the book evoked other books, all that sort of thing, and by so doing hoping to approach a closer approximation of my experience of reading. Well, we’ll see how that goes. My better posts, I’ve always felt, have been my more unorthodox.

And since I’m just going to ramble, I thought I might impose another kind of order on my posts, and publish them specifically every Sunday and Wednesday (although I can’t as yet contemplate producing 104 posts in a year).

What am I going to read? – As usual, anything that happens to take my desultory interest. But we’ll start off with some of the German literature left over from last year. In fact, we’ll start off with Ferdinand Gregorovius.

The Arrow of Gold, by Joseph Conrad

There’s those Conrad works which people read and write about and study at school and copies of which you can easily come across in nice Penguin Modern Classics editions in any bookshop you walk into (Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Victory, Under Western Eyes etc.), and then there’s those works by Conrad which nobody ever talks about and copies of which you’ll never come across unless you look quite hard, usually in secondhand shops, and will only be in editions from the 70s or earlier (The Inheritors, Romance, The Nature of a Crime, Suspense, and The Arrow of Gold).

This is actually my second attempt to read The Arrow of Gold – or, as I’m inclined to see it, my third, since there was such a large gap even in this attempt, slightly under halfway through, at which point I’d put the book down and was uninclined to pick it up again. Let’s just say, there are problems in the first half of this novel, some of which are retained right through to the end. For a start, it’s got a first person narrator; and Conrad at times finds himself ill-at-ease, it seems to me, with the concept of manhandling him into scenes in which he does not belong. But the main issue was I just didn’t know what Conrad was going on about half the time; and this led to the suspicion that Conrad had no idea what he was going on about either: that in some way he hadn’t really thought it through. Critics at the time seem to have been of a similar belief, since Conrad mentions some of this in his introductory Author’s Note, “Suspicion of facts concealed, of explanations held back, of inadequate motives. But what is lacking in the facts is simply what I did not know, and what is not explained is what I did not understand myself, and what seems inadequate is the fault of my imperfect insight”. The whole thing seems very confused. There are long conversations, I seem to recall, in which I really had very little idea what anybody was talking about.

But in the second half the story becomes much clearer and easier going. Basically it’s about this young man (the narrator) who becomes infatuated with a woman, whose nature is to infatuate men and who is a strong supporter of the Carlist cause – this, all the while, taking place in France, so that we are in that familiar story-ground of the Spanish (and supporters from other nationalities) in exile in France which forms the backdrop to many a later Spanish Civil War story. The young man thus starts running guns on behalf of the Carlist cause, but really just because he is in love and without the least political conviction, all the while staying as a guest in a house run by the woman’s sister, who is her diametric opposite, a religious fanatic who sees her sister as the devil. It is the portrait of these two sisters that is in truth the best of the novel.

Anyway, the story rumbles on amiably enough, before coming to a reasonably unsatisfactory conclusion. The arrow of gold of the title is a hair-piece worn by the woman, which has some obvious symbolic meaning but in keeping with the novel I couldn’t really decide what the meaning was. I know if I had York Notes to explain it to me, I’d be in a moment aghast at my own lack of comprehension.

Anyway, an interesting mess. I might read Romance next.

Ingrid Caven, by Jean-Jacques Schuhl

I was sitting watching the opening credits of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The American Soldier and noticed the name Ingrid Caven on the screen, and I thought to myself, I’ve got a book called Ingrid Caven by some French writer – part of that project I had once to read some of the winners of the Prix Goncourt; – I wonder if there’s a connection. So I dug it out of my pile of books and started reading it.
It turns out she was a German singer, who occasionally worked as an actress, and who was Fassbinder’s muse – she even married him (seriously, I’d always thought Fassbinder was gay!) – and then later also was Yves Saint Laurent’s muse. So we have this tale of her life, from being a little girl in Hitler’s Germany and serenading the troops, to becoming a famous singer and actress and hanging round with Fassbinder and Yves Saint Laurent and other celebrities in that sixties and seventies world of film-making and fashion and drug-taking (with occasional brushes with the Baader-Meinhof gang) in Germany, in France, in New York – a world which can’t help but fascinate; – and Schuhl is for the most part such an attractive writer – just along the lines Obooki likes: all nice long flowing jumbled sentences and human insight; – thinking again, here’s another writer who deserves to be better known; – the structure of the book all a jumble too, jumping about here and there in her life; going round in circles; and it is only towards the end – or maybe halfway through – that you start thinking, I’ve read all this before, this novel really isn’t getting anywhere anymore and maybe it could have done with being cut by half (it’s only 240 pages); Schuhl just doesn’t know where to stop.
But at times thinking too, what is all this? The life of Ingrid Caven, a real person, who meets other real people; so where is Schuhl getting all this information from – not merely the things that happened to her, but her thoughts and reflections on them, the causes of her personality; really quite intimate things. Is he just making all this up? The novel is told from the point of view of someone called Charles, who is now Ingrid’s lover – her companion – who has replaced Fassbinder and Yves Saint Laurent; but there’s not much to this Charles character in comparison – one wonders why she’s taken up with him; he seems outside it all, an onlooker; – and it is only in the last part that Schuhl lets it slip that he is Charles; that he is Ingrid’s companion in reality – in a post-modern postscript which otherwise adds little to the foregoing.
But I did enjoy it for the most part, especially as per the beginning of this post, because I’m gradually making my way through all of Fassbinder’s films at the moment.