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"...