rodin and the ancient greeks, & the iliad

rodin and the ancient greeks

i didn’t realise that rodin spent a lot of time in london, and that he kept visiting the british museum to see the elgin marbles and other greek sculpture; it seems (at least according to the bm’s materials (but see this for a plausibly cynical alternative)) that this was his primary source of inspiration

setting his and the greek pieces side by side was clever: you could really see how he had developed his own forms from theirs, particularly the headless and limbless torsos:

(and it was stimulating in itself to see some of the elgin marbles out of their normal setting; made you see them afresh)

and it’s an interesting parallel that rodin’s own source for most of his later works (except the burghers of calais?) was his own work – the architectural la porte d’enfer (the gate of hell), as that’s what the parthenon sculptures were – figures on a building:

but the greeks’ work was triumphalist, rodin’s the opposite: he showed us our despair, our regret at what we have done – the thinker is the clearest example, not (as popularly thought) a model of calm rationalism, but a picture of fist-munching agony – think talking heads’ “my god! what have i done!”

and the burghers of calais shows suffering in a variety of individualised forms; and represents a development from the thinker, from suffering as brute agony to suffering as a stimulus to those things which dignify our existence (this is top material, I am sure, for the how they are related section below); the burghers, in their individual poses and expressions of grief and strength-in-grief, are inspirational exempla of courage and willing self-sacrifice (they offered their own lives up to save their city)

but if we’re talking about suffering and expression (and i think we are), the biggest surprise of the night was a 2,500-year-old sculpture of a horse’s head: that of one of the pullers of the chariot of selene, the moon goddess; tucked into the low corner of a pediment, its body beneath the horizon, and its jaw hanging over it, this exhausted steed’s face (for face it is) made me gasp

the iliad

the iliad (samuel butler)

every time i read it, and particularly when it’s from start to finish, unlike my usual focusing on the prescribed books in class, there’s more:

(by book) [these are really just notes for myself]

i: how much Ag’s behaviour stems from menelaus’ loss of helen and his of iphigenia: chryses approaches BOTH brothers, Ag keeps Chryseis so as not to be like his brother, and to keep an Iph-replacement

ii: Zeus has gone to bed with Hera, OK, but he CAN’T SLEEP, and pretends to the dream that Hera is onside

trojan catalogue tells us the dates of some (e.g. two killed in the river by achilles), but ends with a brief mention of sarpedon & glaucus – no hint of book 16

iii: how the poem starts and ends with a trojan in fear of a greek (and hector upbraids paris, but then does the same)

helen ALREADY KNOWS of the duel before Idaeus tells Priam

v: anchises had secretly let his mares get pregnant from laomedon’s stallions, just as his affair with aphrodite

viii: diomedes is, as hector in 6/22, worried that turning back would bring him shame, but he then takes nestor’s advice that in reality his reputation is too strong to be thus damaged – hector isn’t as wise

ix: we see from ag at the start why homer had him say similar things at the start of ii – but this time he’s serious

xiii (and the flyover books in general): lots of discussions of heroism, bravery, the gods – they’re aware of how important it is to have the gods on their side

p208 brilliant trick – we’re made to enjoy battle and then realise…

xvi: arming of myrmidons – how a girl’s (loss of) virginity doesn’t seem important

xvii: glaucus has a go at hector rather like achilles at agamemnon

xviii & xix: the biggest change, and homer deliberately expands achilles’ grief to include all the greek women and men

xxii: hector’s error caused the deaths of many trojans, as achilles’ patroclus

xxiii: ?meriones mocks odysseus for having athene help him as a mother – dig at achilles?

as a whole

it’s just the little touches (as noted sometimes in the notes above), the brilliant foreshadowings, the builds, the characterisation from reading-between-the-lines (like agamemnon’s telling off the noisy audience at the start of his speech in xix); so often you have to notice what isn’t said, who isn’t there, to appreciate fully what this brilliant mind is saying to us

i honestly think it’s like vegetable curry: i could consume it every day for the rest of one’s life and never want other sustenance

How they are related

In Book XVIII Achilles, desperate to get back to the battle to avenge his lover Patroclus, by killing Hector, receives new armour from his divine mother Thetis. As he mounts his chariot, he makes a little speech, whimsically it first seems, to his horses, sarcastically telling them to bring him back safely from the fight – unlike their failure to protect Patroclus. The horses are, however, as we were told earlier, immortal, and are granted the power of speech: ‘Patroclus’ death’, they claim, ‘wasn’t our fault; and, Achilles, you too will be brought down soon’. ‘Bring it on’, replies Achilles, and sallies forth to kill Hector, and, in so doing, hasten his own death. But Hera then quickly removes the horses’ speech-faculty, as it’s not really right. Jasper Griffin makes much of this episode, stressing the Homeric exceptionalism of his refusal to populate his epic with Narnian talking animals. Yet the Parthenon sculptor seems to have given his all in portraying the suffering and exhaustion of Selene’s horse.

Rodin does even more than Pheidias and his school in showing the suffering implicit in existence, and, in The Burghers of Calais, shares with Homer an insight into humans’ ability not to be crushed by adversity, but can alchemically turn it into spiritual gold. La porte d’enfer’s palette of agonies, so often recycled by its sculptor over his career, eventually produces The Kiss.

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luisa miller & ordeal of innocence

luisa miller (live from the met, south woodford odeon)

even my dad hadn’t heard of this opera by verdi; and the english surname of its heroine certainly feels unusual in this italian-language melodrama with a count and a guy called rodolfo; it had a touch of the “life of brian” name-bathos (bathonomy?)

it was also nice not knowing the plot, but that’s something verdi seems to expect anyway, as he drops confusing hints in earlier only to be resolved later – e.g. the allegation that rodolfo is the count’s son – which count? and so what?

but the story is great (if, as with così fan tutte, predicated on the tensions thrown up by fathers and husbands owning their women, or, more charitably, tensions between such a world and a more enlightened one), and, it was, dear reader, some way through what was probably act 2, when i had a strong feeling that finally i understood what opera was about; opera took longer to get used to than rothmans or guinness did as a young man (and the feeling passed as rodolfo launched into passionate lament after lament: too much of me wanted him to get over it)

but the met presentations are amazing – gushingly camp interviewers, chats with the stars as they rush panting off stage (including the charming and wise placido domingo), and intervals filled with half-light footage of vast sets being roped or wheeled into place – again like the cartoon architecture in the life of brian

ordeal of innocence

a three-part agatha christie with good old bill nighy and others; a wealthy adopting couple’s family falls apart when the horrible mother is murdered – gradually we learn how everyone had a motive (she was so horrible), and how the main suspect (the wildest of her adopted children), who died violently in prison, was probably innocent

of course it was her husband, whom i suspected at the start as he’s the one who rushes in when the maid screams; ok – i was lucky – but the neatest whodunnits bring it back to someone you see at the start but then are manipulated to discount

How they are related

Family dramas with a paterfamilias the main culprit – so far so similar. But the family Agatha Christie constructs are all unsympathetic, or rather all dysfunctional; Verdi’s are generally goodies or baddies. What’s more interesting is the similar tensions between the ‘high-ups’ and the ordinary folk: Verdi’s drama comes from the socially unacceptable love between the Count’s son and a non-aristocratic woman; Christie’s wealthy family in their mansion are undone by the persistently honourable young man who had an alibi for the prime suspect – too late, but his refusal to go away provides the little jabs which stir the hornets’ nest.

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wittgenstein’s poker & patience (after sebald)

wittgenstein’s poker

a meeting of the moral sciences club in king’s college cambridge in 1946, where, allegedly, wittgenstein brandished a poker threateningly at karl popper: not much material for a book, you might think – but not so, dear reader, for in this meeting lie the two rival approaches to the primary question of 20th-century philosophy

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selma & gandhi

selma

a film i hadn’t seen when it came out, but was prompted to by some ministry at quakers; this also led to gandhi the following night – a film i’d meant to see but hadn’t

what struck me most was the shocking violence, and the shocking attitudes, which took place (and persist) in the richest country on earth in my lifetime; but also a surprise was the number of liberals, pre-vietnam, who were prepared to travel, demonstrate and risk violence

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the age of anxiety and the lobster

the age of anxiety

(‘Liam Scarlett sets Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no.2, ‘The Age of Anxiety’, inspired by W.H. Auden’s epic poem’ more)

on a bill between two other pieces; we watched the first and bunked the third: dance without a story, unlike music, does very little for me beyond an appreciation of the dancers’ athleticism and training – this evening’s first piece confirmed my philistinism

but the auden is amazing: four people meet in a bar, get drunk, go back to one of the group’s flat, and, after some failed half-hearted sexual attempts on each other, depart in the morning with hangovers; the choreography makes crystal clear (though in ways i can’t verbalise) such subtleties of character, of action, and of changes in the group’s emotional temperature; the final scene, where one of the group dances away into the new york sunrise, is profoundly memorable (though i’d forgotten it from the first time i saw it a few years ago: ask me in a few years’ time)

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così fan tutte and a portrait of the artist as a young man

così fan tutte

(live from the met at the odeon south woodford)

as with tosca, i was surprised, and pleased, at the level of dark, serious stuff, but this time more so, as superficially it’s a comedy

spying on their women to settle a wager on whose is the most faithful opens all sorts of unpalatable doors – plugging in to a tradition which goes back to livy: lucretia, sextus’ rape, brutus’ expulsion of the tarquins and the birth of the roman republic

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lauren scott and the seahorse, by chris jones, and trip to windsor and eton

lauren scott and the seahorse

(a teenager novel self-published by a friend)

a fantastic first chapter – a gripping opening, strongly establishing the futuristic london, and pulling my eyes along the lines of the page as the chase became intense; you knew roughly the violent way in which it would end, but that wasn’t a problem; you didn’t know why he was so desperate to reach someone with something before ‘they’ got him

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