Friday, February 24, 2017

Invasion of Wool....

Above is part of my last crochet work - a scarf - that appears to have become a cat blanket  The crochet is progressing, but has been put on the backburner for a while, as I get on with other tasks. However, the town itself has gone wild for wool, with various knitting and crochet classes springing up in the public libraries, along with exhibitions of all types.

This is great, as invasions go...

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Wife of Bath and Company... in the Streets of Canterbury with Geoffrey Chaucer...

On my trip to Canterbury at the end of year, I was delighted to see the marvellous statue that had just  been set in the High Street in the city centre to commemorate the great poet; Geoffrey Chaucer. As ‘father of English literature’ (c. 1343 – 1400), his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales marked a new era in writing, and as such has been a staple of students’ set classics ever since. It was during A-level study that I first encountered The Wife of Bath, with the meandering prologue and tale told by the gap-toothed, garrulous old goat in question, in response to the eternal question ‘What do women really want ?’ If Sigmund Freud had not been able to nail that one, why would some aged harridan from the Middle Ages have the answer?

For my seventeen years, Alisoun did indeed strike me as a rambling woman of advanced years (forty!!), embarrassingly red-blooded, if not plain rampant. Her 15th century slot on the historical timeIine made her obsolete and irrelevant. I probably wished that she had taken herself off to a nunnery and left all us in peace rather than setting off to Canterbury with a motley crew of fellow pilgrims. However, the new statue made me go back to The Wife of Bath to reassess her, and the work itself, from whose pages she still springs out with the strangest vitality, some 600 years on. In the same way, she and the other characters burst out of the bas-relief of the plinth of the statue, overseen by the imposing figure of their creator, Chaucer himself.

Incidentally, the two parts of the final statue are the work of two separate sculptors; Sam Holland and Lynne O'Dowd. The 14th century author stands as if ready to welcome the pilgrims as they arrive, pointing them in the direct of the inn. Sculptor, Sam Holland, emphasized his desire "to imbue the sculpture with the man's characteristics: stoutness, wit, modesty and humanity. Looking at the figure straight on he appears dignified and wise but by walking round the figure it is possible to see a wry smile appear on the right-hand side of Chaucer's face, indicating perhaps his greatest trait - a sense of humour." What I appreciated the most in both the plinth and statue was that the facial details and expressions do not seem too ‘modern’ and really do conjure up (what I take to be) the mood of the Middle Ages. This is no mean feat since the majority of the characters have been modelled on present-day personalities with a Canterbury connection.

The same observation of blending into the spirit of other eras cannot surely be said of the statues of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, set alongside the other figures of past archbishops, queens and kings on the Western façade of Canterbury cathedral in 2015. In spite of the mastery of the material and clever craftsmanship, these two look hopelessly, comically out of place with their contemporary aspect, that no amount of regalia, draped robes and garters can offset.

Back to the story… . The telling of tales was a litarary form that coud be traced back to Boccaccio's Decameron, which Chaucer would have encountered during his career. However, in order to gather a selection of characters from differing social backgrounds and status, Chaucer came up with the novel idea of using a pilgrimage. As they head for Canterbury, seeking benediction at the shrine of "the holy blissful martyr," St. Thomas à Becket, the pilgrims entertain each other. Thus acting as raconteurs, they give accounts of their thoughts, morals and experiences through tales, in the hope of winning the prize for the best story-telling. We listen in to the observations made during and through these tales, witness the interactions of the players and note their behaviour, accompanied all the while by the narrator himself. This key figure, not be mistaken for Chaucer himself, makes the acquaintance of this mixed bag of characters as he too sejourns in the Tabbard Inn, Southwark, London. Canterbury Tales is indeed the narrator’s tale of the event and as such, encompasses those tales told during the journey in this frame narrative. Sadly, Chaucer died in 1400, well before the completion of the final work so we lack many of the tales, notably from the account of the return trip. Nevertheless, from the work as it stands, we gain a curiously human insight into historical and sociological aspects of life and times at the end of the Middle Ages. This is despite the fact that such works can be demanding for the modern reader, accustomed as we are to easily-digested texts that generally take the form of the novel. Today, we are no longer familiar with the biblical and mythological references to which some of the well-versed pilgrims allude freely in the Tales. Furthermore, even if Chaucer wrote in the vernacular (ie not in Latin, French or Italian) favouring the speech of the ‘common people’, his language is Middle English. Following the text in its orginal form may be somewhat problematic.

Differences in pronuniciation, the use of archaic language and the structure of a text set out in a rhyming stanza form - the iambic pentameter – are challenging. And yet, regardless of these initial ‘obstacles’, we are not lost. On the contrary, we find aspects of ourselves in this account. Part of the art and charm of the Canterbury Tales is that we can still relate to this odd crowd of idiosyncratic beings, with all their muddle of qualities and multitude of short-comings. And none, perhaps, appeals to us quite as much as the Wife herself…

The Canterbury Tales is the unfinished story of the ultimate road trip. Chaucer’s individuals are thrown together; representatives of the aristocracy, aspiring to be nobles, are accompanied by figures from the church, alongside those from commercial ‘mercantile’ backgrounds, in addition to clerical intellects, craft guildsmen, the virtuous poor and finally the immoral lower class. Despite these distinct social categories, gone is the feudal structure with its set estates that created a quasi caste system. Society had been divided into three groups ; the first estate - the clergy (‘those who pray’) ; the second - the nobility (‘those who enter battle’ eg the knights) and the third - the peasantry and commoner (‘those who toil’). Such divisions had been slowly eroded over the late Middle Ages as demographic, economic, social and intellectual changes remodelled the country. Factors for this were both negative and positive in nature. They included the Black Plague (from 1348 onwards) that decimated swathes of the serf population and the clergy alike, years of famine brought on by incessant rain, Holy crusades which opened up new trade routes, thus introducing unfamiliar commercial goods, fields of culture and science and, finally, new centres of learning and intellect – with the founding of many universities. In addition, evolving laws, charters, concessions and taxation systems meant that the populace gradually became aware of their condition. Increasingly, they sought to obtain rights to rid themselves of the stranglehold of serfdom. Individual peasant revolts may have been crushed, but the widespread Peasant Revolt of 1381 demonstrated that the tide was slowly changing away from servitude. Except for womenfolk, that is….

Women were indeed in a category of their own. Born into the the second or third estate, as members of aristocracy or humble peasantry, they were even able to enter the church and thus become part of the first estate, just as men could. Unlike them, however, medieval women were also set into one of three additional estates that would reflect their feminine condition as either virgin, wife or widow. Whichever feminine estate a woman belonged to, she would unfaillingly be regarded as a potential ,or very real, source of danger and/or aggravation to men. The Church’s teaching and dogma presented the female as a tauntress, ready to lead the unwitting male away from his devote Christian vocation. Misogyny was widespread in common social mores and practices, and had been for centuries. It was quite normal to beat a woman to submission, to goad her into subservience, mocking her perceived inferiority as the weaker sex, vilifying her wanton or shrewish ways, correcting her incessant gossip, nagging or unruly temper with further physical punishment. Should the usual means of correction fail, the menfolk could always resort to the ‘ducking stool’ to calm unweilding behaviour, or the ‘scold’s bridle’ to silence an untamed tongue.

As a highly-skilled seamstress, the Wife of Bath belonged to the middle class of society. However, her knowledge, wide experience as a well-travelled pilgrim, a certain savoir-faire and plain savviness give her ease and assurance amongst the higher social ranks. She is in no way intimidated by any of her fellow travellers; she wends her way through society, and puts in their place anyone who questions her rightful position. In her ability to move with sovereignty, she perhaps recalls Chaucer himself, whose ascent in social circles through his public position and official appointment to the royal court of King Edward III led him to frequent many important figures in London and the Continent in spite of his status as a commoner. Both author and his creation, the Wife, are free but not born equal to those around them, yet this in no way hinders them.

Married off at the age of 12, the Wife was not long a virgin. Having been in wedlock and mourning five times, she has continually wavered between the feminine estates of wife and widow. And she is not resistant to the idea of a sixth wedding, on condition that the terms of marriage be favourable to her good self. As she states clearly to her fellow-travellers, she refuses any form of spousal subjugation, unless it be that of the husband! This argument is the whole basis of her prologue and is further demonstrated in her tale. Not surprisingly, her thesis is deemed reprehensible, notably by the Clerk and the Parson, since it goes against the teachings of the church and is thus not only scandalous but also heretical. To the whole gathering, the Wife, with her red-stockinged garb, immodest wimple and hat, unruly manner and quick-fire responses is most surely a scarlet woman. Offset against the demure, genteel person of the The Prioress, the Wife comes into her own. Whilst Madame Eglantine believes that ‘Love conquers all’, the Wife has made it her mission to conquer over male supremacy in marriage. She is unaffected by the criticism she duly incites. If she listens to the traditional arguments put forward by the church and common opinion, it is only to better refute them. Moreover, her deafness is quite literal since her fifth,and favourite husband beat her after she attempted to burn his anti-feminist texts. Ironically, a certain degree of the mauvaise foi, hypocrisy and injustice that are characteristic of men’s treatment of women, is present in the Wife’s reasoning and argumentation. Perhaps the cleverest aspect of her portrait by Chaucer is that he demonstrates how she too is fully willing to use coercion and to employ any wily tactics for personal gain, regardless of the fact that, in so doing, she may be just as unscrupulous or plain tyrannical as the average misosynist. She deploys her weapons of feminine charm, using her physical attributes and devious words to bring any male to his knees in submission "For we are given such keen wits at birth, to cheat and weep and spin". Yet as she does so, she validates, to a certain extent, some of the misogynistic warnings of female cunning and treachery. Her acknowledged equestrian skills have likewise been used to master any recalcitrant husband, so that he yields "the full bridle in (my) hand" and until that moment of capitulation the Wife will be "the whip". She proudly states that the for any non-compliant husband "By God, I was his purgatory on earth… they were glad to surrender, as their best option". She has the ability to recognise human flaws and frailities in either sex, set alongside a capacity to give as good as she gets, and the will to get what she desires; power and sex. That the latter were typically male aspirations makes the Wife of Bath all the more captivating and often comic as she beats the menfolk at their own game !

                                    "My feelings come from Venus and my heart
                                      Is full of Mars; for Venus did impart
                                     To me all of my lecherousness and lust,
                                     And Mars gave me a hard and sturdy crust."

The Wife’s exposition of her theories, as set out in the prologue, draws shocked reactions. She launches into a defense of her right to remarry, using preemptive force in citing the Apostles, making references to the Bible and notable sources of misogynist argument - St Jerome and Theophrastus – before these can be used against her. She skillfully beats the opposition with its own weapons! Indeed, the Wife had already perfected this technique in mariage. The first three husbands had been sufficiently old and malleable, however the last two required new tactics in order to bend them into shape. Husband no: 4 was given a taste of his own bitter medicine – using jealousy to bring him to heel - whilst youthful husband no: 5 was rendered docile by fear of the consequences of his own violence towards her. The fellow pilgrims listen with interest, but recoil as she continues her speech, with the Pardoner voicing fears of entering matrimony again "I'd rather not get married, not this year".

Yet mariage is indeed a subject in which the Wife is a self-proclaimed expert and the trials and tribulations that she has experienced (and brought about) have given her the absolute authority in her field of expertise. According to her, nowhere is celibacy enforced and she certainly has no intention of remaining chaste – "May Christ Jesus send us husbands meek, young and fresh in bed…". Furthermore, virginity and abstinence may well be advocated by holy texts, but are not commanded and she proclaims heartily that "In wifehood I will use my instrument as freely as my Maker has it sent". Her lusty eagerness to use her "blessed" organ is matched by her insatiable hunger for power. Mere female emanicipation from male dominance is not enough for this wife; she alone will be laying down the law, calling the shots, holding the reins, gaining the upper hand. She puts forward her argument that this is the key to a successful mariage and sets about proudly demonstrating how domestic harmony was reached in her household "when I had by all my mastery thus gained for myself all the sovereignty".

From here, the Wife embarks on her tale, which proves to be a further means to drive the nail home. A tale of chivalry is given a new twist as a knight pledges allegiance to his liège in King Arthur’s court. Having ravished a maiden in the most unchivalrous manner, this "lusty liver" must face the death penalty. However Queen Guinevere intervenes and is granted the right to decide his fate. And as she takes full command of the situation, the tone of the tale is quickly established… .The queen sends the disgraced male on a year-long quest to find the answer to the question that she herself sets; What is the thing that women most desire? Having used brute male force against a woman in rape, the hapless knight is now at the mercy of the womenfolk, ready to use their claws against him, like cats playing with a mouse. Not for nothing is a female cat called a queen…

Not surprisingly, the knight’s search proves to be fruitless. He gathers responses that seem futile and inappropriate, but as he treks back to court he encounters an old hag who claims to have the answer. On arrival at court, he duly honours his duty to queen and court and indeed his reply to the initial question satifies all present. Sovereignity and mastery over the husband are the solution and for safe measure, the knight also implores the queen "Do as you wish; I am here at your will".
Yet the knight has not learnt to heed his own words or to honour the debt that he owes the old, lowly, ugly woman; to take her as his wife. Paying lip service is not enough here and so he is forced to betroth the "loathly lady" against his will. With reasoning and arguments that do justice to the Wife’s own line of defense, his aged wife presents her case at length, and finally offers him a choice. He may have her as a beautiful, yet flighty, unfaithful wife, who will cuckold him repeatedly, or as she is, dutiful, devoted yet physically repellant. By this stage, the young man is perhaps at a loss for words, or is at his wit’s end and decides to let her decide for him – uttering "I put myself into your wise governance" .In so doing, he has most certainly made the right decision. His declaration that "it is sufficient to me to please you" not only greatly pleases his spouse, but the Wife of Bath too since it convienently echoes her wish for "Freedom to do exactly as we please, with no one to reprove our faults and lies". In reward for his wisdom, the hideous old crone is magically transformed into a beautiful, adoring, virtuous young woman. In true fairy-tale fashion, we assume that husband and wife live happily ever after, on condition that he give in to her whims and will and thus satisfying the wishful thinking of the Wife of Bath herself…

The answer to the queen’s question still eludes most people. What do women want the most? I think it must be easier to define what individuals of either gender do not want, and then indeed hope for the freedom to be able to change our minds over what we do want, without reproach and repercussion.

Finally, an animated version of the Wife's tale...

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A Solitary Satyr in the Streets of Reims - Les Bacchantes d'Euripide...

I caught sight of this figure from the corner of my eye during my driving lesson but I didn’t dare lift my gaze from the road ahead and thought it was the sculpture of the devil, bursting out from the façade ! That probably says a great deal about my state of mind when behind the wheel, as I still go into freaky panic mode at unpredictable moments. As the road in question is just perpendicular to my street, I tracked down the building to have a better look. Although the character is less diabolical than initially thought, the statue itself seemed to be quite mysterious. This jovial-looking character is set on the angular façade of this post-First-World War building. Like Atlas, it appears to prop up the balcony, yet does so with ease and merriment, surrounded by the vine leaves and grapes. The latter are an obvious allusion to some form of bacchanalia – the ancient Roman festivals that were characterized by boisterous, drunken revelry, and also to the status of Reims itself, at the heart of the champagne region. Why this particular figure had been chosen to decorate modest early-20th century architecture was not apparent. However, as it turned out, the name of the street, Rue Geruzez, was an indicator for the choice of theme.

The building is one of a great many that were erected during the Reconstruction de Reims in the aftermath of the Great War. In this case, the date is clearly indicated as 1924. At this period of rebirth many ambitious social housing schemes - les cités-jardins - were realised. These were destined to accommodate the citizens who had fled Reims during the war years and had found themselves homeless on their return. Many of these quarters still exist today, and their bands of garden and park-squares offer welcome greenery in an ever-expanding urban landscape. Furthermore, there was a certain recherche in the aesthetic design and decoration of this post-war architecture ; much of the work was carried out by men ‘de l’art’. Thus Reims has numerous Art Deco buildings and an ecclectic selection of façade work that means that it really is worth your while to look up as you stroll around the city now, just as much as when these were first unveiled. Unfortunately, such extensive programmes came at a cost. By 1926, the budget could no longer support such demand and construction came to an abrupt end. The inscription Cité Normand, on the façade here, refers to one of the several quarters built for the workers employed in the local factories around the canal area. At first, I wondered if ‘Normand’ referred to the style of architecture that figures on the seaside resorts in Normandy, for example, but in fact, it simply comes from the name of the entrepreneur. Much of the original architecture in this part of town has been lost or altered greatly. The two streets of which this façade forms the corner are a joyless affair. There are non-descript rows of houses that may or may not have been attractive once upon a time, before being stripped of their original features. Then there are the series of blocks of flats, not unlike the one that I live in, that continue to sprout up out of the concrete. Therefore this building, with its last fine Art Deco details, really is a little treasure, set in a 21st century sprawl.

As many of the streets in Reims, this one bears the name of a once well-known writer. In this case, it commemorates the literary professor, Nicolas Eugène Geruzez (1799-1865), born and bred in Reims itself. The satyr we see on the street corner is a reference to one of his works, Les Bacchantes d’Euripide (1832), which offered an analysis of the ancient Greek tragedy of the Athenian playwright. The central figure of the play was Dionysus, god of Greek mythology, also known as Bacchus. Today, we generally think of this figure as a portly, jovial type, draped in animal skins and ivy, ever content to slug back his wine, like a rather inebriated version of Father Christmas. In the same way, his attendants, like this half-man, half-beast, generally look quite amenable too – this one certainly does, with his broad smile. However, the origins of this god are somewhat darker, linking him to the wild, the weird and the wanton. The worship of Dionysus involved rituals that were performed by the ecstatic, intoxicated revelers of the thiasus – his retinue. This was largely composed of bearded satyrs, such as this one, and female attendants, known as the bacchantes or maenads – literally meaning the ‘raving ones’. These would all participate in the Bacchic festivals during which wine would flow freely. The creativity, free expression, mystic revelation, enthusiasm and enjoyment that such limitless imbibing favourised soon veered to something far shadier. Unfettered follies led onto madness, instinctive drives brought brutal acts and excited singing and dancing would slide into frenzied chanting and transe-like states. Far from being gently-flowing female figures praying in marble temples, the bacchantes were bloodthirsty hunters, running wild in the woods, ready to slaughter their prey and devore their quarry raw.

Les Bacchantes d’Euripide demonstrates the duality of human nature as we observe the two facets of Dionysus. Within the play, the cultivated, mystical ‘human’ attributes of the protagonist cohabit with the raging, feral, ‘animal’ aspects. Dionysus is described by the chorus as god of festivity and creativity, yet he appears as a character on stage, driven by ‘mortal’ weaknesses, of anger and desire for revenge. Indeed, he represents duplexity and polarity on many levels. If the free, creative, spiritual qualities of the individual are fully repressed, this will thwart his growth. However, should the untamed, limitless and licentious be given free rein, this will lead to debasement and debauchery. The play of opposites needs to be balanced ; one cannot outweigh the other for extremes will always bring havoc. Throughout the play, we see the intertwining of what is godly and/or human; beastly and/or divine; masculine/feminine; virile/impotent; real/irrational; authoritarian/anarchic; blind/clear-sighted.

Dionysus has come to wreak vengeance upon family relatives, in the place of his birth, Thebes. King Pentheus of Thebes and Agave, Pentheus’ mother, will be made to pay for their slanderous remarks about his line of descent. They deny his divinitiy and yet his blood line links him to Zeus, king of the gods, and a mortal mother – Semele – the sister of Agave. Dionysus survived the rage and wrath of Hera, Zeus’ wife, who wished to eliminate this living proof of her husband’s infidelities. Having being ripped to shreds by the Titans, at Hera’s request, Dionysus was brought back to life, and was born forth from Zeus’ thigh. He was then raised by mountain nymphs and centaurs, which helped him forge a bond with the magical and mystical and to follow the natural cycles of life and death. Dionysus was indeed one of the few gods who was able to bring back the dead from Hades, the Underworld and moreover, creation and rebirth are symbolized by his symbol; the vine plant.
The unwielding refusal of Pentheus to accept Bacchic festivals in Thebes, and thus his blunt rejection of Dionysus as a god leads the revengeful deity to take action. Like a strange Pied Piper, a disguised Dionysus lures the womenfolk into Mount Cithaeron to devote themselves to a cult in his honour. Similarly, the king’s dogged adherence to masculine politics in order to crush this flouting of his authority represents the suppression of his own femininity and leads to his own destruction at the hands of the ultimate female figure; his very mother. The voyeuristic desire to watch the activities of the Bacchantes, including Agave herself, render Pentheus blind to his own reality and unable to see ahead. His retentive nature has given rise to impulses that drive him towards irrational, insane behaviour. Had Pentheus been more flexible, less extreme in his stance, he would surely have survived, but through dramatic guise and performance, Dionysus plans to teach him a lesson. Here indeed is the art of Dionysus being played out to the full, as he toys with the fate of Pentheus, staging the king's death as a ritual sacrifice of the Bacchantes. As we follow Euripides’ tragic play, we too are taught a lesson through watching this god of the theatre as he acts out his life role. To quote this playwright from another of his tragedies, Medea, “Not too little, not too much: there safety lies.” In response to Pentheus' refusal to lessen his tight grip over the status quo, Dionysus meted out the most extreme of punishments; death by the person who had initially given life; Agave. Yet surely Dionysus' cruelty is another proof of the dangers of the extreme? Cadmus - the father of Agave and Semele - remarks to him "We have learned. But your sentence is too harsh". The sentence does not just concern the 'punished', but the 'punisher' too. Slaughter affects the prey and the hunter. It is not clear if Dionysus himself has learnt to read the full significance of his behaviour. It is left to Cadmus to conclude that "Angry gods should not act just like humans." Dionysus seems to have employed the full extremes of the polar opposites within him - he has indeed used his ultimate god-head to wreak havoc in order to satify his mortal emotions.

Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Greek mythology is how relevant its observations on human nature still are today. How little Man has changed over the centuries. I just can’t work out if that is tragic or comic!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Birds Aflame - Bright Poinsettias...

These beautiful blooms are variations of the ubiquitous, traditional form of Poinsettia - that is variously referred to as Winter Rose, Étoile de Noël, Lobster Flower Plant, Mexican Flame Leaf. It is generally seen in the bright, eye-burning red and fuschia shades that are so intense that my camera simply cannot capture them, I invariably end up with a blurred pink that does the plant no justice whatsoever; hence the absence of 'flames' here.... Furthermore, the sight of those cheery, ruddy leaves, with or without glitter, throughout the whole Christmas period usually leads to a Poinsettia satiation point, The eye refuses to register the flower anymore and in so doing is blind to its real beauty.

What we might assume to be petals, are in fact 'bracts' - specialized leaves. Just as the colouration varies widely on these bracts, so too does the shape. Far from being the uniform brick red, with leaves fanning out in regular formation, the Poinsettia may be variegated, flecked,or splashed with a range of different of colours that burst out in an assortment of forms. What I found even more magical than the bracts themselves, were the intricate 'cyathia' that are at the centre of this crown. These are yet more false flowers, and form part of the misleading inflorescence of the genus Euphorbia to which the Poinsettia belongs.

The Poinsettia has become part of our festive Western culture, often a staple of many a sentimental Christmas-card scene, along with burning candles and cosy household hearths and snowy landscapes. However, its origins are far more exotic. The Cuetlaxochitl - "plant of Mexico City" was highly valued by the Aztecs who cultivated it for its medicinal qualities, use in dyeing material and, of course, its beauty. The last of the Aztec kings, Montezuma, fully appreciated the Poinsettia, as he did that other festive fixture; chocolatl. 
Finally a video with an extract of a Classical piece that couldn't be more English - any excuse to use it! The Lark Ascending....

Monday, January 16, 2017

Sunrise, sunset Civilisation?

I had the opportunity to watch a number of Werner Herzog's films and documentaries over the holiday period, and many of these provided moments of marvel during a not-so-merry-or-marvellous Christmas! Herzog has a deep appreciation of the Earth and its inhabitants and presents such a humane, yet no-nonsense, unsentimental view of Man and beast alike. I really do think of him as a genial genius; one who appears just as willing to voice concerns and considerations about Life as he is to lend his voice, with its distinctive accent and precise, Herzog-unique intonation, to TV shows such as The Simpsons.
Any supposed boundaries between film and documentary, fiction and fact, appear blurred in Herzog's work as recurrent themes thread their way throughout, The forces, fascinations and fears that drive the vision of the film-maker/documentalist are the same that frequently obsess his protagonists. Directly, or indirectly, there is the depiction of Man's steely will to achieve against all odds, to break free from pre-determined rules, to throw off the constraints that life imposes, namely those of the greatest law enforcer of all, Nature. Man may wish to fly - The Great Ecstasy of  Woodcarver Steiner (1974) - just as Herzog had himself sought to do during his ski-jumping days. However, the length and duration of  any flight will be set and challenged by natural limits, not least the laws of gravity. Any elevated, quasi-spiritual endeavour will invariably hit the buffers at ground-level, with greater or lesser impact. Man can never outdo Nature, but will never abandon the mission to do so. Just like infamous rages of Herzog's leading role actor, Klaus Kinski, Man's megalomaniac ragings may be taken for the wrath of God, but will inexorably be silenced by the impassive, implaccable authority of Nature as in  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). Whatever the human enterprise, the forces of Nature will close ranks and crush the recalcitrant being with the greatest indifference, in scenes of monstrous beauty.

Perhaps the art of film allows Herzog to inch up to the very brink of all these boundaries as the filming and content intertwine to create another narrative, both literally and figuratively, as in Fitzcarraldo (1982) or Into the Inferno (2016).
The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) seems to cross the abyss of time with Paleolithic cave paintings that were created 32,000 years ago. Looking at these, the boundaries of time seem to be momentarily lifted. Situated above the meandering river of the gorges in the Ardèche region of France, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in the limestone cliff  had lain undiscovered until 1994. The collapse of rocks had obscured the entrance to what the BBC referred to as the  "prehistoric Sistine Chapel", effectively sealing off this stone vault, and thus preserving cave art that pre-dates the paintings of Lascaux - formerly the reference in such painting.

Although carbon dating has indicated that an interval of some 2,000 years separated some of the painting in the Chauvet caves, the work was carried out in the same style, using similar techniques. Animals that were commonly hunted - horses, reindeer and cattle -  vie for space alongside predatory beasts such as lions, rhinos, bears etc. We are thus offered a glimpse of the ancient ancestors of creatures commonly associated with modern animal husbandry today, running aside those we only ever see in the enclosed spaces of zoos or in remote wildlife reserves.

The most moving aspect in these paintings is the artistry in the animals' expression and posture. Just looking at the varying position of the horses' ears or the snarling jaws of the lions, you can sense the very essence of the beast. We feel the artists' effort to convey this, and their endeavour to communicate it to us. And indeed, here we are, millions of years later, fully able to recognize the animal depicted on the cave walls and yet are left without the slightest notion of the person who created this work. Just how primitive was primitive man? We can feel the undeniable 'horseyness' of the Przewalski's equines, but can we feel the 'human' in their artistic creators? Do these painted creatures appear more familiar to us than their artistic creators? Would we consider these men to be just as bestial as the wild beasts they portrayed?

Perhaps we cannot feel the common human ground that links us back to these ancestors of modern Man, beyond a shared desire to depict and communicate through art. Is creativity, and representative creation - the Arts - one of the foundations of human civilisation, perhaps as much as human emotion? If such a real-time encounter were possible, would these ancestral artists be able to meet and exchange with their artistic descendants today, using creativity as common domain?
Finally, if they were capable of such fine skill in such brutal times, what would they be able to achieve today, given the tools and gadgetry we freely dispose of? Furthermore, given this Millenium's breath-takingly extensive, ever-expanding access to information, education and entertainment, is our intelligence, creativity and culture growing exponentially?

While pondering over this question and busily teletransporting artists backwards and forwards throughout the millenia, in my mind, I remembered the film that I had loved as a child - The Time Machine. Actually, it was the shop window scene that caught my attention at the time, rather than the more important considerations of the film...

 H G Well's gloomy dystopian view of the future civilisations underlined concerns that had already preocupied the great late Victorian thinkers for some time; namely decadence and degeneration. Charles Darwin had elaborated the theory that Man's progress was "no invariable rule", and that a downward evolutionary path could be envisaged, given suitable conditions. Well's image of "humanity on the wane" in The Time Machine is the precursor to the "Sunset of Mankind", when human form ultimately gives way to butterfly and crab-like shapes.

In Well's civilisation of AD 802,701, Man's descent is portrayed by the decadent existence of the disappated Eloi. The Time Traveller stumbles upon this beautiful, torpid race which, freed from the ardours of labour and productivity, languishes in a life of idle, meaningless pursuits. Lack of mental and physical exertion has engendered an anaemic, insipid species which seeks nothing beyond simple enjoyment and ease, frivolity and facility. The traveller draws the conclusion that “Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness." Mankind does indeed define and maintain itself through struggle and effort; civilisation cannot grow from simple indolence and inactivity. Basic curiosity and enthusiasm have been stifled in the feeble and effete Eloi. In this futuristic garden of earthly delights, all forms of vitality have been made redundant. Proof abounds here in this nightmarish paradise that creative and intellectual stagnation has resulted in decay. The fruit born to this garden of Eden is rotten. -  “I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide.”

Perhaps this cultural self-dealth was more alarming to the Traveller than the actual killing of the Eloi, ever-vulnerable to the marauding Morlocks for whom they serve as fodder. The perceived superiority of the civilised, chattering Eloi over the bestial, grunting Morlocks is soon swept away. These privileged Haves - the Eloi - fall easy prey to the brutish, lurking predators that toil for them, Moreover, the power system at play is not all that it seems since this is a relationship of co-dependency between the 'civilised' Eloi and these base Have-nots (being devoured by the other party cannot really be described as being of mutual benefit; the definition of symbiosis!). In this manner, laws of natural authority and ascendance are overturned; civilisation  does not necessarily lead to a civilised society.

Well's fin-de-siècle vision presents the inherent dangers of an over-civilisation that leads to its own decline and ultimate demise. This image of entropy is complete; the transformation, or turning away from ordered to disorder, formed to formless, as the degradation of mass and energy leads towards a state of statis and homogeneity. The traveller disparingly acknowledges this entropic society. He exhibits exasperation at this indolence, and disgust at the general indifference towards the cultural and intellectual achievements of earlier civilisations, his own included. The future has failed to deliver the ascent it had promised for civilised Man.

All that lead me to think about where we stand today. Huge advances in technology have brought about social, cultural, intellectual seachanges over the past few decades, sparking a revolution just as momentous as the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. The transformation of communication has had an unprecedented impact on the way we lead our lives, our very conception of life itself, and our expectations thereof. We may witness the sun rising over a new connected era, that will certainly herald a braver new world. But how far will it be a better. more civilised one?  Will this lead to a further disconnect from the elements that are fundamental to existence - Nature itself, for example? Or others that form the basis of civilised society - considerate behaviour and tolerance? Smartphones have given rise to a global population of chatterers and twitterers, constantly communicating. But what are we saying? Is this bringing us closer to one another? Won't these twitching fingers, continually darting over screens in the search for sensation, stimulation and simulation have ever-less time for other activities?
I don't know the answers, but I know of someone who asks the appropriate questions concerning this brave, new digital world in his 2016 film Lo and Behold..... Werner Herzog! He has taken us from the obscure, hidden world of the Cave of Forgotten Dreams to the glaring, globally-accessible networks that feed the "Reveries of the Connected World"...

Friday, December 30, 2016

Mist and Ice for the End of the Year...

Mist and icy, powdery dust have descended, leaving everything blurred and yet strangely crisp. Winter has started to set in, with its cloaks of frost and ice that transform everything. Just as the freezing temperatures catch our breath and slow down our pace, the beauty of the frozen landscapes forcibly draws our eyes to take in and reconsider our surroundings. Familar, chartered territory suddenly acquires a slightly different form, an additional layer of reality that emerges independent of us.This reminds me of the thought processes and reflection that accompany this period, as we take stock of the year coming to an end before stepping out into the new. Like pristine, winter snow, we welcome the New year with excitement yet a certain amount of trepidation. We marvel at the beauty of the possibilites in front of us, but are wary of the risk of black ice lurking beneath the bright, untainted surfaces and we fear the reappearance of the dark shadows from the past that may shroud the future.

There are a number things I would like to change in my life, or Life in general, but obviously there is a limit to what I can actually achieve to make any kind of difference. I suppose what is required is a certain wisdom to understand the force of the 'butterfly effect' so as not use perceived or real powerlessness as an excuse to do nothing whatsoever. There is usually something that can be done, through the accumulation of small acts, either performed by one sole individual, or many. That may call for a great deal of steely determination, plain doggedness or simply 'stick-to-itiveness' (yes, that word actually exists!). Then after that, a certain clarity of mind to admit that if these plans for change continually come unstuck, you may need to turn in yet another direction.

I think I have reached that crossroad. I cannot change things going on around me and I do not want to live with these so I need to change myself, one way or another.... Although trekking off into the horizon sometimes seems pretty tempting, it isn't really an option, so I'll just have to work on myself. Mind you, I have resumed my driving lessons, so you never know!

           However, here's Joni Mitchell with Urge for Going.

                                 I awoke today and found
                                 the frost perched on the town
                                 It hovered in a frozen sky
                                 then it gobbled summer down
                                 When the sun turns traitor cold
                                 and all the trees are shivering in a naked row
                                 I get the urge for going
                                 But I never seem to go
                                 I get the urge for going
                                 When the meadow grass is turning brown
                                 Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

                                  I had me a man in summertime
                                  He had summer-colored skin
                                  And not another girl in town
                                  My darling's heart could win
                                  But when the leaves fell on the ground
                                  Bully winds came around
                                  Pushed them face down in the snow
                                  He got the urge for going
                                  And I had to let him go
                                  He got the urge for going
                                  When the meadow grass was turning brown
                                  Summertime was falling down and winter was closing in

                                  Now the warriors of winter
                                  They gave a cold triumphant shout
                                  And all that stays is dying
                                  And all that lives is gettin' out
                                  See the geese in chevron flight
                                  Flapping and racing on before the snow
                                  They got the urge for going
                                  And they got the wings so they can go
                                  They get the urge for going
                                  When the meadow grass is turning brown
                                  Summertime is falling down and winter is closing in

                                  I'll ply the fire with kindling now
                                  I'll pull the blankets up to my chin
                                  I'll lock the vagrant winter out and
                                  I'll bolt my wanderings in
                                  I'd like to call back summertime
                                  Have her stay for just another month or so
                                  But she's got the urge for going
                                  So I guess she'll have to go
                                  She gets the urge for going
                                  When the meadow grass is turning brown
                                  All her empire's falling down
                                  And winter's closing in.
                                  And I get the urge for going
                                  When the meadow grass is turning brown
                                  And summertime is falling down.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Vessels of Mind and Matter...

Towers of Canterbury cathedral
When the opportunity came up to return to Canterbury earlier this week, I knew where I would be heading... There is only so much shopping I can do before reaching the point of thinking there must be more than this and realising that I have crossed the commercial saturation threshold.
I have never had the slightest religious beliefs or leanings of any sort whatsoever, but the need to gather thoughts and recover the basic senses seems to be growing on me. This is even more apparent at Christmas when this frenzy of buying and accumulation leaves me wondering if that's all there is. Not, of course, that I consider myself somehow 'above' all of this, as I do relish a good old shop but commercial binging is like gorging on junk food on a long-term basis. Just like our cupboards, our minds are being clogged up by this drive to purchase ever more clutter. Given our burning desire to spend, spend, spend, Plutarch's remark that "The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." starts to take on an ironic tone.

To counter this desire to acquire stuff, the French notion of recueillement seems increasingly appropriate. Whilst the verb recueillir means to collect and gather, the reflexive form se recueillir refers to acts of simply drawing together one's thoughts or gathering in actual spiritual contemplation. For many, the obvious setting for any form of recueillement would perhaps be a religious edifice, but nature offers the same opportunity. In such a place or space, we are contained in something bigger and far more enduring than ourselves and our greedy mortality.

Mural plaque from the gardens in the cathedral grounds.
Even without the religious dimension that derives from the belief in a faith, old edifices play a vital role on so many levels. Through their sheer age alone, they have a force and size, spanning the centuries, vessels of the past to the present day, showing the aspirations of us mere humans, tripping along the streets of time, in weakness and strength. We are constantly reminded of our unique, all-too-human condition; reaching upwards, but still rooted in the profane.

From the cathedral gardens...
On display in the crypt of the cathedral is a piece of artwork by the modern-day sculptor, Antony Gormley. All cameras were banned, so no photos here, unfortunately. 'Transport' is suspended from the vaulted ceiling above the site of the first tomb of Thomas Becket, martyred archbishop and "troublesome priest" under Henry II's reign. Murdered at the altar of the cathedral in December 1170, Thomas Becket was slain for his faith and the old iron nails of Gormley's work indeed recall the nails of crucifixion. These were actually taken from the lead roof of the transept following restoration work and quite literally give body to an artistic venture that seeks to convey the evocative. The 2-metre-long work hangs from a single support and the modernity of the stark, yet ephemeral floatiing form creates a strange impressive in a site that is over 800 years old. These ancient nails form the body of this human effigy so that it resembles a voodoo doll, solely composed of the pins that have pierced the body. This bodily 'container' is less, yet more than a body in 3-dimensional volume. The artist wrote that "The body is less a thing than a place." and I liked this harmony of body and building - as vessels intertwined and interchangeable. "Through it (the body) come all the impressions of the wider world and all other bodies in space; palpable, perceivable and imaginable."  The title of the piece, 'Transport', transmits the sense of constant movement through this place of "prayer and creativity" the passage of time in space, what is infinite and finite.

All in all, I couldn't have had a better day...

Holly in the grounds.