Posts Tagged ‘Cultural history’

We had time to spare, and it was freezing out.
Early for our drawing class, we called in at the nearest welcoming door, our town church (it had heating).

This was a revelation. The church goes way back; there was even an anchoress, Joan,  in residence at one point.
https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/424534702347012134/
http://www.stmichaels-macclesfield.org.uk/

St Michael’s Church:

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The siting of the church goes back to 1220, and later, Queen Eleanor, wife of the hated Edward 1, extended the grounds. A previous post links the area (site of a Royal Forest) with The Black Prince, brother of John of Gaunt.
https://michael9murray.wordpress.com/2014/07/26/the-black-prince/

There are a number of ‘incumbents’ from that late medieval period still resident. They are in the form of funerary busts and tombs: knights, complete with faithful dog at their feet (you can strain the possibilities here, and wonder whether this was the vestigial remains of the practice of sacrificing loyal servants, to serve in the afterlife. What a chilling prospect that must have been.)

The church has on display a rare survival from pre-Reformation times. It is a Pardon Brass, dating from 1506. This was granted by the Pope, and allowed the named person in this case exemption for the price of  five Paternosters, five Aves and one Creed. Exemption? The person’s soul could be allowed 26,000 years and 26 days in Purgatory instead having to burn off their sins in the ‘down below’.
This, of course, was one of the indulgences that Martin Luther railed against.
I remember a Graham Greene short story about a modern version of this.

What caught my eye, maybe in a slightly frivolous mood among all this gloom and death, were the hairstyles of the knights on display. The period the tombs cover is 1475 to 1550.

See the always entertaining Lucy Worsley on hair:

https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/the-politics-of-hair/

Apparently one of the most used styles of the early period was the ‘Bowl-Cut’: a (largish) bowl was placed on the head, bottom of bowl to one’s crown, and all extraneous parts chopped off.
The middle double photo here shows something similar in style to that.
The first photo shows a definite Page-Boy cut, apparently a Tudor-period style. This is the  effigy of a school teacher ie a higher ranked, not a noble, man.
The next photo has an extravagant frill of hair and high forehead. Perhaps this was a later version of the Bowl-Cut, an interim style moving towards the longer Page-Boy.

 

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The middle double tomb has a woman’s style that seems now a little strange. You could almost speculate a head-binding practice at work here. But no. Women’s hair could not be shown in public – ah, the temptations of hair. The scraping back is very severe. This was, of course, for the nobles only: dignity and honour were only allowed the knighted. And why were they knighted? Anything to do with killing people, with sacking towns for plunder whilst on Crusade? Many family fortunes were made that way.

We, others, could get away with more  display, hair-style wise. The women at any rate were allowed loose displays of natural hair.
Then there was the Royal ruling on the all having to wear woollen caps. And so it went on, the stratification, coding of status, the badges of deserving and undeserving.

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Yep, he has lain his head on his helmet. And no, I don’t know what the paper under his hands says.
This double tomb is covered with graffiti, small carvings of initials and names, the latest 1992. But at the least these two have kept their noses – that is usually the first to go to the vicissitudes of time

You cannot go away without an example of the most extreme hair style for men: the 16th century flamboyant Restoration festoons of curls. All false, of course; what lay underneath was probably an itching short cut.

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Christ Church windows, and so to our drawing-class:

 

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And now I know I will never be an artist.

PS

THE HARRY STYLES EFFECT
apologies to HS

I was at that stage where my hair style staled
so let it go, and nor too fussed about the next: ‘The mussed-
bed-look! It will be back. Bound to. For good – or ill,’
I’d say. Then it reaches another ok stage, and so say:
‘Me. Yo.’ But that goes too, and the in-between bits, o,
they’re worst; there’s more of those, last longer, and they’re cursed.

I was thinking, ‘It’s all like this; it’s how the good bits call
the tune that make the less good just plain bad. And if I should
for instance, open the window, I’d watch the greasy city slide
over its shelf-life collar in its journey to its next fifteen minutes.
The slide’s continual. But what a view I got!’ Then not.
And it was time to get back to work.

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OAMENI ŞI MARIONETE/ MEN & PUPPETS by DANIEL DRAGOMIRESCU. Orizant Literar Contemporan, Bibliotheca Universalis, 2017

 This is a dual-language publication, produced by the excellent and indefatiguable Contemporary and Literary Horizon, of Romania. For their background, see:

https://revistamulticulturala.wordpress.com/

http://contemporaryhorizon.blogspot.co.uk/

Every so often a book comes along that makes you feel good to be alive. This is one of those.

The best books broaden and deepen our sense and understanding of the world. I was going to go on and write ‘and add destinations to our bucket list.’ But no, these best books have already taken us there; we feel we know the places, the people, with our hearts. The place? North-eastern and central Romania.

I feel privileged to have a copy of Men and Puppets, by Daniel Dragomirescu. The book is a collection of reminiscences, autobiographical snippets, and is well worth the time and effort in getting hold of. Elegantly presented, and on the whole, well translated, this is part of a series of books by Orizant Contemporan Literar. All are dual-language, and by writers from many countries.

Daniel Dragomirescu grew up in the north-eastern Vaslui region of Romania, in the 1950s and 60s. He writes of life from the inside; the autobiographical angle gives a necessarily limited view of the times, limited to one’s interests, activities, and to the villages and small towns of the time.

Big Politics, the State, the Eastern Bloc, are not words or concepts of everyday life. He does come up against them (A Meeting with Cerebrus); they are also, on another level, a basic part of that life. Yet they are everywhere, especially for the generations from before the War, his parents’ and grandparent’s generations. It is they who have to watch what they say.
We see the unquestioned fate of pre-War bourgeois families, in their disgrace (Sandals). All is accepted as a part of life. The State restrictions have their circumnavigations, but they can be suddenly enforced due to the arbitrariness and fickleness of officials (At the Nadovari Camp). But they are not ‘officials’, they are people one’s father might know from school, from ‘before’ – their fickleness is the fickleness of everybody, everywhere.
We read also a first-hand account of a devastating earthquake hitting Bucharest. People at their most vulnerable; we read also the hidden threats by people.

One of my favourite stories, Marilena, has its own ways of handling the hopes, passions and lost opportunities that are always with us. And this is one of the heartening aspects of the stories: how love, hope of love, arranged love that could grow into itself, are always a part of our lives, our world. These things are instantly recognisable, and they go to the core of who we are.

In the new Romania religion once again plays a major role.
This may surprise us, and yet, as Fish Borscht makes clear (to my mind the only story that doesn’t gel), religion never really went away. Even this story is full of the riches of the lived life, the times, the mind-set of the period.
The role of religion is a curious one; there are many expostulations to God, in the stories. These are post-Communist.
I wonder do they read as a little self-consciously apparent?
Are the stories part of the new movement to re-establish a continuous Romanian identity, that had just been interrupted for a time?

What becomes clear through the reading is the seamless identity we all wear and are part of: here we all are, with all our hopes, woes and lapses of understanding. The details may differ, but the responses are so very recognisable. And because we can identify, our hearts are also in these stories, as we respond to the same things they did.

The last chapter, Typewriter, brings the whole book into focus. I had begun to wonder at the book’s title, Men and Puppets. Well, here it was, spelled out.
I wrote, above, how the fickleness of officials is the fickleness of man; there is the fickleness of officials themselves, though. I also wrote of the State being just the background to people’s lives. So it was, but as they took on more responsibility, became adults, the State became a major interference in their lives. Take Ceausescu’s decree that all typewriters should be officially registered.
It smacks of a Nazi-era dictat, and it is little surprise we find a militia chief admiring Nazi-era tactics.
After the Fall of Ceausescu, the militia excuse themselves as puppets of the regime. Officials, militia, puppets, anything rather than just ordinary people.

Daniel Dragomirescu has a masterful technique. The use of the motif of his meeting with a stray dog in a cemetery, in A Meeting with Cerebrus, becomes the key for opening up the whole part of his life at that period. It is this mastery that is the secret, it works behind the scenes to bring the chapters to life.

A most enjoyable book, full of the fears, hopes, loves and doubts of lives.

I picked up a copy – limited edition – of PAVEMENT PRINTS, by Ralph McGaul, the other week.

\http://ralphmcgaul.co.uk/

The booklet consists of rubbings he made of masonry marks, and pavement markings, within a certain area of the local town. There are still parts with the old, or to be correct, older paving, and kerb stones. That is where to find them.

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This is fascinating, as a slice of material history – whether they are charting the codes of highway workers, road makers, or maintenance crews, or, as we see, more individual marks.
Local Council funding has gone through huge overhauls recently. No longer could they afford to keep up more than a cosmetic maintenance service ie cheap-sourced road repairs, and skeleton-crew highway maintenance.
Now we have again a dedicated service, with sign-of-the-times negligible identity, contactability, or ethics. This in itself charts the crisis in identity of local Councils: are they at last transparent portals of central Government ? Or do they maintain hold on local cross-Party/no-Party decision-making?
The Council that covers the area of the booklet has an almost regular place in the satirical magazine Private Eye’s Rotten Boroughs section.

These markings have, therefore, gained layers and levels of implication.

Not all in Ralph’s booklet seem to be highway markers. The centre-spread gives a pavement/kerb rubbing: P.W./JUNE 1962, and page 28, the last page, a photograph of the stone and process of record. There does appear to be a border of chiselled dots around the stone. Almost an Egyptian cartouche. The town museum carries a substantial  19th Century collection of Egyptian artefacts.
Another stone carries the message BERT/ TALKS. Another records a name: ERNEST/ bASKERVILLE (sic). All cut substantially into the stone.
Who knows what was being recorded here.

Many stones carry numerals, and here there is much variation in styles of stone carving. Some appear roughly scraped, others, for instance, aptly on page two, carries the numeral 2, within a circle. The style of this numeral is the cursive character of early 20th Century written script. Page 36 carries two examples of 2 within a circle, the upper also cursive, whilst the lower has the simple form, more Cailibri or Ariel typeface, we might say.

And so I had a go.
But by photographing the marks.
Instantly we see a change in the craft of the recording: no longer the noble dirty-handedness of the craftsman.
It can be said that essentially photographs record light, light on surfaces. The attention is diverted once more, firstly, from the subject to the craft, as in the rubbings; secondly, solely to the effect.

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I have to admit the reversed number 2 intrigues me – no, it’s not a camera glitch. The Maltese cross is from another area of town, a hidden, covered alleyway.

 

Postscript

And yet. on another level, all these images are presented as deliberately devoid of their contexts: they were intended as kerb indicators to on-pavement features. These may no longer exist.
And yet, part of me sees this as artistic license, to be able to take an image as self-sufficient, with no web of meanings, intentions, purposes: thing-in-itselfness.
I am very uneasy with this, it would seem to hold open the door to a lot of abuse, avoidance, moral vacuity.

You could, subsequently, put meanings to the marks; they would be forever transitory, and the original intention lost further under the patina of whimsical meanings. The original meanings may well be utterly banal, as the pavement signs probably were. But you can still read into them the human element, the sociological and historical reality around them.

This could imply I am averse to abstract art, but it is not so. Nor fantasy, nor language art.
A little wary, perhaps – after all, it is too easy to jump in and think This is the best thing ever. Everything is part of a relationship: abstract is only abstract because there is the non-abstract etc.
The one always relates to the others. In isolation, like refined food, refined anything, it has a capacity for a form of harm, whether ethical, or physiological, or whatever.

And if you didn’t feel This is the best thing ever, you wouldn’t be able to do it fully.
Art as a process: realising it was not The best thing ever, that There is still something/more to do, as all part of the cognitive world of being an artist.

The 2012 edition of Roadside Picnic, by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, carries an Afterword by Boris.

See my earlier review:
https://michael9murray.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/roadside-picnic/

For the book:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Roadside-Picnic-Boris-Strugatsky/dp/0575093137/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1519149548&sr=1-1&keywords=roadside+picnic

In this Afterword he describes the chequered career of the book: it was by no means a straight-forward publication. Initially the story was published, unscathed, in the Leningrad Avrora literary journal, 1971, and was then put forward for inclusion in an anthology, Unintended Meanings, consisting of two of their earlier stories, and to be published in 1972. Here the problems began.
The anthology was to be published by a company called Young Guard. The YG belief was that science-fiction literature was intended only for children and teenagers. Adult themes, and especially language, what the editors listed as ‘Comments Concerning Immoral Behaviour of the Heroes’, ‘Comments Concerning Physical Violence’, etc,  had to be eradicated. And there were 18 pages of these.
There are times, places, to negotiate, and times to stick to one’s guns.

The brothers put together a dossier of all these problems and obstacles, thinking to put it out somehow – by samizdat, if nothing else. There were months between replies to their queries, years of wrangling. Then…
Arkadi died, the Wall fell, Communism… faded away.
And the dossier became redundant. The departments, the people causing the problems, also, faded away. Perspective came in. And they all seemed little more than a plague of gnats, biting flies, blown away by the first change in the weather.

Take note, ye bureaucrats: this you are also.

The book opens with a radio interview. The person being interviewed is a Dr Pillman. He introduced the Pillman Radiant. 13 years previously had been the Visitation: 6 spots in an arc across the surface of the earth had experienced the phenomena of the Visitation. One hit Dr Pillman’s home town. It left catastrophe in its wake.
Dr Pillman extrapolated back from impact points to an area in space in the Cygnus constellation: Deneb, the main star. Except, he is at pains to point out, he did not discover this, it was actually a schoolboy, and published by a college student.

What actually do you do? the interviewer later asked  His reply is interesting: for the last 2 years he has been a consultant in the UN  Commission on the Problems of the Visit.
Roughly speaking, we make sure that no one else outside the International Institute gets access to the alien marvels discovered inside the Zones.
Couldn’t you be rather more specific? the interviewer asks.
Wouldn’t you rather move on to the arts?
Dr Pillman hedges, and also distances himself from the Visitation. Even when it had hit his home town. This is interesting.

Why is this ‘interesting’? Because his comments  and evasions make him out to be something of a policing authority. I had taken him initially as a kind of KGB man, but he turns up later as a Nobel Laureate – not the exposure for a secret policeman.
For the Soviet publishers all books for young people had to be clearly moralistic and
didactic. The story admits the existence of such agents, and the part they play in society. Did the YG editors read this as giving him the thumbs up, by having him be at pains to point out the origin of the research that he had taken credit for? Dr Pillman as a Good Citizen?
Except you cannot find a shiftier character in the book, and that is saying a lot.

This, also, sets the scene for the roles of the ‘stalkers’, who enter the Zones to collect articles for sale on the Black Market. This is a highly dangerous activity. Guards are entitled to shoot to kill.
Not only that, but the dangers of the places are beyond imagining.
The Institute has highly detailed aerial photographs to guide patrols and official collection visits. They prove useless. as we see in the book: effects are not static, they wander. Some are invisible.

Which leads to:
I was also particularly interested in another aspect of the book, the attitude to language in dealing with the unknown. There is the language of the physicists, the ‘eggheads’, and of the stalkers.
– Incidentally, this was the first time the English word ‘stalker’ was introduced into Russian/Soviet language and literature  They pronounced it ‘stulker’.

On an official collection visit to the Zone, Red, the ex-stalker and now lab aide, and his laboratory boss Kirill Panov, come across a wandering phenomenon. It is invisible; but it affects gravity in its locality, creating an extra-strong temporary force.
‘Got it. You look for graviconcentrates?’
………………………………………………………………
………………………………………………………………
They are like that, the eggheads. The most important thing for them is to come up with a name.
The next move forward they make, and Red stops them, breaks into a sweat.
Instinct. Gut reaction.
Instinct versus knowledge. Knowledge is the aerial photographs; instinct tells them if they move forward from that spot they’re doomed.
Just before this:
Over the pile of ancient trash, over the colourful rags and broken glass, drifts a tremor……. Damn these eggheads, a great job they did; ran their road down there amid the junk!
What can be seen and measured, and what cannot be. The road was plotted by markers previous teams had positioned. It was a safe route.
For a stalker there were no safe routes: each venture was a life-and-death challenge, literally. They had no maps. They went always at night (they could be seen and shot during the day), and on hands and knees, mostly, feeling, sensing, their way onward.

This also introduces the theme of the limits of knowledge: here was an alien technology that made no sense to our sciences; it wiped our knowledge off the board. Which left you with… the instincts of the stalker. Science gets you killed.
You think, ah, that’s a graviconcentrate – and the book notes how blasé the scientists become once they name a phenomenon. But it remains deadly: that is its only definite, dependable, feature.
The stalkers call it a bug trap – to be caught in that invisible, wandering, anomaly is to be squashed flat by the gravitational field. How do they know? They have seen its effects on fellow stalkers.
The scientist’s phrase merely describes; the stalker’s phrase expresses its impact.

Arkadi’s background was that of editor and writer, and Boris that of scientist. Both, highly trained and experienced in their fields. And yet to them, language could not compete with reality.
Was it that the Soviet experience had devalued the meaningfulness of words to such an extent, that they could no longer be relied on to carry content? Be careful who one talks to: communication became a nuanced trade of possible meanings.

Politically, we can read here, that the Visitation introduces something way off the Marxist-Leninist map, far away from their neat dialectics of history. We read here of highly successful cultures, civilisations, that do not owe anything to Marxist-Leninism (or Capitalism). It is… the unthinkable – in both science, and (pseudo-)scientific political theories.

As unthinkable, it is also nameless.
And Arkadi and Boris bow neither to psychological, political, nor scientific certainties here. It not a Freudian Unthinkable, nor a scientific or sociological category-without-a-name.

The artefacts obviously have a purpose to their owners, but that is at present unknowable to us.
This is reality, and neither science nor theory can cope with it, because they exercise retrospective assessments.
This is reality-in-the-field, and the human person is naked before it. In the last resort, the approach to the golden ball, the stalker must shed everything. The result of the ‘wish’ is a judgement, of a kind, on his capability to embrace his humanity.

In time, we learn, even the scientist invent their own jargon for the artefacts they handle, try to investigate. Their jargon has a wry amusement, a bleak humour. It expresses, rather than describes. It expresses their frustration with the artefacts – they can use of them, oh yes, but have no idea what their proper and original uses were. The Visitors remain as unknown in purpose, intent and being as they always did.

But this is, after all, only a sci-fi novel.

Red looks lovingly into his daughter’s eyes, they are by then perfectly round, and the iris’ now completely dark; he lovingly strokes the long golden brown fur on her face.
The indications are that she is reverting to an earlier form of evolution, due to the effects of the Zone, and Red’s constant activities there.
The bodies that emerge from the cemetery, walled by the Zone, appear to be  formed from basic organic material. They have reverted to their earlier existence, as walking, breathing bodies.
This reversion theme also crops up in the ‘episode’ Red experiences crossing the road. He loses sight of the street, the ordinary world, instead he sees everything in terms of basic shapes: cones, cubes, spheres (Cezanne would have loved it).

The last part, 4, is Red’s quest – not quite for the Golden Fleece, but the fabled Golden Sphere, which grants human wishes – is mostly in the form of internal dialogue. And the Strugatskys convey with great expertise his troubled state of mind, his struggles with himself, and for some form of clarity.
His much-loved daughter, ‘the monkey’, now has been diagnosed as no longer human; his dead father ‘lives’ with them, responding occasionally to stimulus. Both daughter and father howl into the night at times. All the neighbours have gone – they are isolated, for all the money from black-market trading. We learn how Red tried all ways to keep them, get the children to play with ‘monkey’, how his friend even tried to bribe people to stay.

What would his wish be? What is certain, is that he had no intention of coming out alive.

Only a sci-fi novel.
I do feel, though, that the undifferentiating pessimism undermines the classic status of the book. The book references Kurt Vonngegut.
Was this the first time the classic certainties of the time had been openly questioned? Is that its originality?

 

Ebook: The Spider and the Spies: The Secret Files of Stasi & Co, by Karen Margolis
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Spider-Spies-secret-files-Stasi-ebook/dp/B0758145MD/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1515355645&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Spider+and+the+Spies%3A+The+Secret+Files+of+Stasi+%26+Co%2C+by+Karen+Margolis

Karen Margolis gives here first-hand testimony of her experience of the GDR, and the Stasi State.
Some years ago, after much deliberating, she decided to apply to read her Stasi files. Their filing system was hermetic, to say the least.

It was not an easy decision.

What do you hope to find, and what do you dread?
There are always surprises, unwelcome or not. The husband of a close friend, himself close, had a quiet word: You may well find my name there.
She could not say anything to her friend, his wife.
And so the game of confidences, secrets, continues, just as it did under the system.
The stomach-churning knowledge, that blights relationships, friendships, even marriages.

And what of the ‘outing’ that was endemic for a period? To whose advantage was that? Hardened agents, with years of training and experience in emotional blackmail and manipulation, could still come out of it relatively unstuck. Transferable skills. The old tricks. And they were useful in the new Germany.
Miriam, in Anna Funder’s book, Stasiland,
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stasiland-Stories-Behind-Berlin-Wall/dp/1847083358/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515355920&sr=1-1&keywords=stasiland
found herself working under an ex-Stasi officer on a radio station, using the same tactics to manipulate people, this time the staff, as he had back then.
Also, see: The Disclosures of Respect: The Public Exposure of Stasi Informers after the German Reunification, by Juan Espindola
http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.896.3940&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Anna Funder’s book is based on her research for a radio programme. She advertised for interviews. She focussed particularly on the role of the Secret Police, the Stasi.
One of the names that came up, was a Herr Von Schnitzler. He was popularly known as Herr Von Schni, because that is how far the announcer got before being turned off. He ran a regular TV programme, The Black Channel. His programme followed airing of programmes from the West, and he sat there afterwards onscreen and pulled the programme to pieces. Many named him the most hated man on TV. You can imagine his hectoring, bigoted sneer.
How to deal with such a character in an interview. To Anna Funder’s credit she did it, she got in under his radar:
‘There was a serious attempt to build a socialist state, and we should examine why, at the end, that state no longer exists. It’s important.
He replied:
‘I noticed relatively early… that we would not be able to survive economically.’

This is important. She cites figures in the book, on East German production, and particularly on the biggest employers (‘There is no unemployment… you are seeking work’). The retreating Soviets had dismantled and shipped back what plant machinery they could, at the end of the War.
And it turns out the biggest employer in the whole of East Germany was… The Stasi.

I am not talking about the tens of thousands of informers: their remuneration was pitiful, but the managerial ranks: it was based on military lines, so the Colonels and upper and immediately lower ranks.
The biggest employer.
And their GDP?
0.
They ‘produced’, in turn, nothing.

In fact, a good case can be made for them undermining the survival and productivity of the Sate.
They demoralised, victimised, ruined lives, destroyed families, lied outright, falsified… murdered. But actually produced nothing. Unless you think an atmosphere of paranoia and continual fear a product.

The people separated the Stasi from the State: they supported the State, and hated the Stasi. They were in reality one.
When the end came it was the Stasi took the brunt, and the State officials in wealthy dachas and country houses were un-reproached. That was, after all, ‘normal.’
Peter Schneider, in The Wall Jumper,
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wall-Jumper-Penguin-Modern-Classics/dp/0141187980/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515355862&sr=1-1&keywords=the+wall+jumper
cites many examples of Easterners supporting the Eastern system, its social security, its low prices.

So when you come to the impact of this on people, it is The Stasi you think of first.
Their presence was everywhere.

Don’t let them through your door! Someone says.
– In the 1970s the response was a grim resentment, an entrenched attitude.
The 1970s were grim everywhere.
– The 1980 generation’s attitude was Ignore them. Have fun. Enjoy.
But if you didn’t let them in, they would summon you. If you didn’t go, they would pick you up at work, school, on the street.

Give them nothing.
They had meticulous details about your personal life, so much so that the notion of a private life would seem a mockery. And they had ways of manipulating you into quiescence, through shaming, robbing you of choice, free will, revealing that what you thought was basic humanity, was a construct, and so, manipulable.

Where did this information about you come from?
Ask yourself: could you bear to know? Would your life be easier, happier, not knowing? To not know is not necessarily to speculate What? and Who? but also perhaps to wonder What if not?
Peter Schneider’s character, Robert, would say that way of thinking was naive, Western. For him the State controlled every time you moved your hand to drink coffee, which coffee you drank, when you drank it, and why.

Where does the truth meet reality?
In testimony, like Karen Margolis gives here.
This is a valuable book. We still need to understand those difficult times.

Cover

Special Xmas Offer: see Amazon Kindle for details

Kindle book ready and waiting.

So what’s it about?
It is about how stories, poems, texts, were structured in a certain way from early times, and through to the present day.
The structure works as a memory system. I investigate how this structure fits into the now well-known Arts of Memory.
The book also looks at how the structuring works, and was passed down through time.

I look at twenty-plus texts from ancient times, through the medieval flowering, down to the present day.
You’d be surprised what I found.

Special Xmas Offer: see Amazon Kindle for details:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gifts-Rings-Gold-Introduction-Ring-composition-ebook/dp/B01IRPODPW/ref=sr_1_1?s=d

 

 

The writer Ted Hughes had a long engagement with Shakespeare.
Story goes, in the early 1950s, just as he was to go up to Cambridge – working-class boy makes good – he was called-up, as all were in those days, to do his National Service. He said he spent those two years in various look-out posts, reading all of Shakespeare’s works. It went on from there.

The culmination of this long engagement came first in his 1971 book, A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, published by Faber and Faber. His argument there was – ever the controversialist –  that we can appreciate Shakespeare’s poetic art as well in excerpts from the plays, as in sticking solely with the published poems.
His argument is more than borne out by the samples he gives. This is indeed an excellent book.

The part relevant to my argument here, is the postscript. This is a long essay on what Ted Hughes saw as the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, and forms the heart of what became his next big attempt on Shakespeare: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. He came to blame the writing of this as a betrayal of his/the muse, and resulting in his last illness.

In these works he came up with what he called ‘the tragic equation ’ of Shakespeare’s writing. This was all to do with the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, its psychic properties, and engagement with history.

For this blog I am just looking at a detail of that postscript, beguilingly called ‘Note,’ in A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse.

In the ‘Note’ he discusses how Shakespeare’s craft and art underwent a ‘quantum leap.’ It was a ‘quantum’ leap because it worked on the level of a new weighting of language and language use rather than big themes. He writes of how Shakespeare’s mature style used a ‘high’ word ie a usage from a lexicon outside the normal language of the audience, that was paired with a ‘low’ word, to qualify a third. He writes ‘… the new, unfamiliar, word from the ‘high’ language is balanced, interpreted and translated by an old word (or words, or image made up of old words) from then ‘low.’ In practice, this becomes usually a combination of one word of classical derivation with another of native… derivation.

He goes on to call this a ‘masterful democritisation’ of language, for ‘welding the audience into a single thing.’ He dates this change in resource of language from All’s Well That Ends Well onwards.

Here he brings in another conceptual avenue: ‘If other evidence is valid and he used a Brunoesque mnemonic system…’ Ted Hughes was hedging his bets with that  ‘If’, but it is evident he has been reading A study of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1936), Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966) by Frances Yates. All, but certainly one or two of the above.

What is it about this causes Ted Hughes to make this claim? How, he seems to ask, could Shakespeare have memorised all these new words? His answer, by using a memory system, a mnemonic. And then tying this in with the newly available books by Frances Yates on The School of Night, Giordano Bruno et al. He ties this to Shakespeares’ quoted use of tables: ‘set it down in ‘…‘tables’, or notebook…’. (p187, 1991 edition). There are a number of such references to ‘tables’ used in this way.

He gives the example from All’s Well That End Well of a line from a speech:
On the catastrophe and heel of pastime
He reads the use of catastrophe as one of Shakespeare’s new words; how is it used with the term heel, then? By reading catastrophe as  down-turn… heel then becomes, of the foot, but more, it becomes in context the image of Achilles’ heel.
Ted Hughes writes:
‘By regarding the line as a slightly modified ‘New Word’ entry in his ‘tables’, where the word to be mastered is matched with its translation and ‘fixed’ with its mnemonic image….
(page 186/7).

What do you think?

There is, of course, another explanation for that word ‘tables’, other than implying a mnemonic system of tables.

Roger Chartier, in Inscription and Erasure, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), writes of how between 1577 and 1628 a certain London bookbinders sold what were called Tables. Many examples survive, complete with bookbinder’s name and London address.
A direct reference to these can be found in Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5, lines 107-11.
They are notebooks with the added ability of being able to be wiped clean.
In effect they were the wax tablets as used in medieval times. As we see from Roger Chartier, they were still in use in Shakespeare’s time. He describes them as part of the materiality of the text.
They were small: hand-sized, and rectangular: wooden trays, usually in pairs, strapped together with leather, so they could be closed face to face to save what had been imprinted from smudging. These trays were filled with bees wax, to be marked on, written on, with a metal stylus. They could be erased with a wet cloth, allowed to dry, and used again.
Roger Chartier writes how an eleventh-century priest-poet, Baudri de Bourgueil, wrote in detail about his tablets/tables. The wax in time would become old, blackened, full of grit.
Being wax, they would also be vulnerable to temperature: cold, draughty cloisters and scriptoria  probably held ideal conditions.

By Shakespeare’s time, we read, the medium had been changed from wax to a mixture of plaster, glue and varnish (page 23, Inscription and Erasure). The ‘tables’ of this period also included in their package printed almanacs, tables, weights and measures, calendars… much like our own notebooks.

So what, then, of memory systems? You need to go back to the Hamlet reference, above. Just before that speech, comes the phrase, table of my memory.
We read in Roger Chartier, how many such Tables could be collected, and stored. Their contents were not erased, but kept for transcription onto parchment, vellum in the future. They were, in effect, stored writings: libraries.

Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium was one of the main sources for describing a memory system (though many found the descriptions confusing, incomplete). By Chaucer’s time Geoffrey de Vinsauf had dispensed with this as far too outlandish.
By Shakespeare’s time the Tables would be used for storing quotations, improving phrases, then jottings, recipes, tittle-tattle. They became known as ‘writing tables,’ or ‘table books.’
And memory systems, as part of what might be considered ‘occult’, were very much forced underground after the fall from favour of Dr John Dee, and especially in Jacobean times.

We have here, though,  the act of writing as an act of memorising. Any student will know this: the physical act of writing notes on paper aids to remembering in revision.
And yes, I did keep a straight face when I wrote that – though only just.

Behind this memory–writing equation is maybe an episode from Plato’s Phaedrus. Here, Theuth (Thoth), the Egyptian god, had invented the art of writing: using visual, drawn, images, to convey spoken words. He presented his invention to the king of all Egypt, Thamus. He refused the gift, on the grounds that it would make people lazy, not having to remember everything.

I do not know the book by Plato, and cannot tell what was made of this anecdote by Socrates. It certainly would not be left to stand alone, that is for certain.
Topic for another day.

Roger Chartier is one of the chief writers of the histoire des mentalities school of cultural history.
He writes in French, but many of his books are available in translation.
Inscription and Erasure is a book full of riches. I would recommend it very highly.