Category Archives: Written for the fun of it.

Legacy of Kain Retrospective: Soul Reaver

 

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Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver was released in Autumn 1999 for the Playstation, PC, and later Dreamcast. At the time it was roundly described, accurately of course, as a sequel to Silicon Knights’ Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain (1996), but for mainstream gamers it might as well have been a new IP, so obscure was Blood Omen at the time and so different Soul Reaver seemed in comparison. Original developer Silicon Knights had tentative plans for a sequel of their own, but Crystal Dynamics, who helped finalise the original game, were also developing Kain 2 themselves. The intricacies of the subsequent litigation between the two companies have been largely secretive even to this day (Neogaf and LoK community legend Divine Shadow/MamaRobotnik has written a detailed post surrounding the various battles between the two studios) but the pertinent fact is that Crystal Dynamics were eventually given control of the series by the courts and the freedom to commence with a new Kain game.

Having been shepherded into existence at Silicon Knights by Denis Dyack and Ken McKulloch, the new creative figurehead for Kain 2 would be Amy Hennig, an English graduate and film enthusiast who had turned her talents to videogames in the late 1980’s. Hennig was part of Crystal Dynamics when they had paired up with S.K. to finish Blood Omen, so she was already well-versed in Nosgoth when the mantle was, so to speak, passed on to her. Seth Carus, another of Soul Reaver’s lead designers and writers, had also polished the scripts for Blood Omen.

At the time Hennig was already busying herself with a novel game idea of her own: a third-person action/puzzle solving game called ‘Shifter’ where the undead lead character could alternate between the worlds of the living and the dead. The higher-ups asked Hennig to adapt this embryonic idea to the Kain series, causing some consternation, but she and her small team mapped out and plotted what would eventually blossom as Soul Reaver.

“The original idea,” Hennig explained in 2012, “was very loosely inspired by the rebellious angels of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The spiritual structure of the world was based on the philosophy of Gnosticism, the belief that the cosmos is ruled by a malevolent ‘pretender’ god, that humans are prisoners in a spiritual lie, and that mankind’s struggle is a fight for free will in the face of seemingly insurmountable Fate.” Indeed, the names of Kain’s lieutenants –and the game’s bosses– all derive from fallen angels and other agents of Heaven or Hell: Dumah, Zephon, Turel, etc.

“Like all games, Blood Omen had its share of technical shortcomings – what made it memorable (and what inspired such a loyal fan following) were its original storyline, complex characters, high-quality writing and voice acting, and its fresh approach to vampire mythology. These are the aspects we want to perpetuate as we carry the Kain franchise into the future.”
~ Amy Hennig, Gamerweb, 2000.

I first encountered Soul Reaver sometime in 1998 when a short trailer (below) was included with an issue of Official UK Playstation Magazine. I recall being drawn to its look and feel – the only games that seemed to have the same tone were the two Resident Evil installments available at the time (halcyon days, they were) and 1998’s Metal Gear Solid. The same magazine later issued a demo of the Sunlight Glyph area which I played repeatedly, intoxicated by what it promised to offer: a player character utterly unique in both design and personality; multiple spells that weren’t bogged down in fantasy wizardry; steampunkish weaponry and locales; monstrous and inventive enemies; and a plane shifting and health replenishment system that was completely innovative at the time. Not only that, but unlike practically every other game at the time (and in an extreme contrast to Blood Omen) Soul Reaver had no loading times between rooms or levels; instead, the map streamed ahead of time, disguising load times and making sure the player’s immersion was not interrupted. Easy to overlook now, but nearly revolutionary at the time.

Storywise, Blood Omen had circulated around a world-in-jeopardy scenario and explored themes of perdition, martyrdom, madness, and the consequences of time travel. It even managed to turn a subplot and what seemed like ancillary material (that is, the rise of the Nemesis and the attendant apocalyptic prophecies, not to mention the whisperings of human possession and demon worship) into a clever springboard for its genocidal third act. But while the first game examined notions of redemption and damnation, Soul Reaver was a straight up revenge story.

But what, in the interest of clarity, has happened in the long interim between the two games? Kain, having refused to sacrifice himself for the supposed good of the world, ensures the collapse of the Pillars of Nosgoth and raises six lieutenants from the grave. They provide him with an army, and the conquest of Nosgoth begins. After a series of wars they eventually defeat humanity, pushing them into the fringes of Nosgoth or into walled citadels entrenched within mountain passes. Slaves construct the Sanctuary of the Clans around the ruins of the Pillars, and the Balance Pillar is fitted as Kain’s throne. Unfortunately, the empire soon becomes bored and decadent.

Concept artist Daniel Cabuco speculated that amongst the clans “Lust for power, hubris, greed and jealousy would cause them to begin plotting against each other … As the empire fell apart, outright war would occur between clans, and Kain would simply wash his hands of them all … I really think of it like the Roman Empire, with Kain as a Caesar. As long as they had a unified enemy, they acted together. Once that threat ceased, they fell upon each other in a mad grab for power.”

A thousand years after Blood Omen the vampire Raziel, Kain’s first-born lieutenant, has the “honour” of surpassing his master in evolutionary terms, having sprouted a set of bat-like wings. In LoK long-lived vampires enter brief stages of pupation from which they emerge, in Raziel’s words, “less human and more… divine.” Raziel, for having the temerity to enter a state of change before Kain, is swiftly condemned to death in an apparent fit of jealously. The wings are torn from his back, leaving only a ragged patagium, and he is thrown into the “swirling vortex of the Abyss” by his brothers-in-arms — only to be resurrected at its bottom by a mysterious ‘Elder God’ who instructs him to eliminate his former master and brethren and return their souls to the Wheel of Fate so that Nosgoth may be restored once again.

It is really worth checing out the game’s opening FMV. I distinctly recall game store displays playing it repeatedly and catching eyes, and it’s short, punchy and exciting to this day and is also an excellent demonstration of not only the game’s visual designs but the excellent score by Kurt Harland:

Raziel emerges to discover that in the centuries between his execution and resurrection the vampire empire has collapsed. He learns that the corruption of Kain’s soul by Nupraptor has been passed down to his vampire descendents, like a form of Original Sin, and they have long devolved into creatures whose cognizance is barely above that of animals. Any organisation among their ranks has long collapsed, allowing some plucky vampire hunters to venture into the various clan territories to pick off fledglings or to engage in skirmishes with the elder brutes. The victory of the vampires was ultimately pyrrhic and it seems the beleaguered humans are too few to ever overwhelm their oppressors and reclaim Nosgoth. Raziel himself has undergone transformation: no longer a Lestat-esque beauty, his body is warped and emaciated and, unlike our favourite hematophage, Kain, he now has to devour the souls of his enemies to sustain his life. It is, he boasts, “an even darker hunger.” Driven by rage and further emboldened by an inflating self-righteousness, Raziel seeks out his vampire brothers and former master to slake his thirst for their souls.

The game elects not to dwell on either the events of Blood Omen or the centuries of history that predate the introductory FMV. Instead, the player is thrust into Nosgoth and must slowly acclimate to that world. Helpfully, so too must the main character, having emerged from a spell in the underworld to a new, tumultuous era in Nosgoth’s history. The Pillars of Nosgoth, the hub of the first game and the series as a whole, do not take primacy in the plot and at this point in Raziel’s quest the state of the world barely figures into his desire to revenge himself on Kain and his brethren. In terms of character development the game leaves him practically where he began: desperate to kill Kain to whet his fury. Kain’s motivations are not elaborated on and we, through the prism of Raziel, assume that he is purely nefarious. This was not to Soul Reaver’s detriment – by remaining so bloody-minded the game allowed newcomers to the series (who in 1999 were the great majority of players) to comfortably settle into Nosgoth and sop up its tangle of mythology and history.

While the game decided to pare down the storytelling (at least for this instalment) the characters were no less effective. Kain was already wonderfully drawn in the first game, but the sequel would have to bring him back in a way that felt true to his incarnation in Blood Omen and as though a millennium of experiences had been infused into the character since players last met him. There was not much in the way of dialogue to convey this (again, in this instalment) but Daniel Cabuco’s design for Kain hits the money – it is immediately evocative and innovative: the ‘crown’ adorning his head and the hard lines and scars tracing his body. It is strange — I had never encountered the character before Soul Reaver, and yet the design felt right. Having played Blood Omen and returned to Soul Reaver, the effect has not diminished in the slightest, but has instead been bolstered. Those involved in bringing Kain to life can rest easy. Simon Templeman again provides his vocal chords and though he only gets two brief speeches he again channels Kain’s power and haughtiness. Ariel, the spirit of a murdered Balance Guardian and Kain’s advisor from the first game, also returns, with Anna Gunn (of Deadwood and Breaking Bad fame) lending her voice yet again.

Raziel is another wonder. His design remains unique to this day, almost sixteen years and two ‘console wars’ and a whole lot of here-today gone-tomorrow IPs since his debut. His voice was provided by Michael Bell, who may be familiar to fans of the Transformers and Rugrats cartoons or perhaps Metal Gear Solid aficionados, and who is generally soft-spoken as Raziel but can lace his voice with indignation and rage and sorrow and even awe like no other (I love lines like his furious ‘Damn you, Kain! You are not God!’ and his sinking ‘My God…’)

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Another pivotal character in the series, the Elder God, first appears here as a disembodied voice, though in later games he manifests as a mass of tentacles rooted throughout the Underworld and other subterranean environments. Appendages aside, his other notable features are his eyes -giving Argos of Greek lore a run for his money- and his stentorian voice (omnipresent and yet sourceless), which was provided by magisterial British actor Tony Jay (1933 – 2006).

Jay manages to give the Elder God a multitude of inflections: he can spur Raziel on with a fiery proselytisation; he can quietly threaten or dismiss or mock and he can bellow with rage. The Elder God develops as an antagonist throughout the series but his omnipresence in Soul Reaver can almost feel like a comfort: every death in the spectral plane sees you saved from annihilation and teleported back into his bosom, and he is constantly at hand to provide Raziel with directions and context about the current era. Soul Reaver 2 raises and explores the notion that such directions serve only to further the Elder God’s own goals rather than Raziel’s, and that the context he provides is ultimately prejudiced. But for Soul Reaver, the Elder God is unquestionably your advisor and ally.

Nosgoth itself oozes personality: whereas Blood Omen was indebted to typical European medieval fantasy for its look, the designers here successfully amalgamated steampunk, post-apocalypticism, and traditional medievalry into the world’s environments. It is also successful in implying a deeper backstory through its level design. Areas like the drowned abbey, the Dumahim city and the silenced cathedral all have unspoken backstories that hint at more fortunate times. The abbey and cathedral were once obviously religious hubs and sanctuaries, and the ruined city of Dumah an imperial capital (Dumah’s throne room is desperately ornate – compare it to Kain’s throne at the Pillars and you can see how highly the former prizes himself.)

Speaking of Dumah, the bosses (Raziel’s devolved vampire kin: Turel -absent from this game-, Dumah, Rahab, Zephon and Melchiah) are commonly acknlowledged as being one of the game’s strongest elements in terms of both design and function. They are still, in my opinion, some of the most evocative bosses of the last few console generations, from Melchiah’s Jabba-if-he-were-constituted-from-corpses look and Zephon’s Alien Queen-ish form. The game is essentially built around the bosses, with Raziel’s task being to reach them one-by-one, overcome a puzzle that allows the player to kill the boss, absorb their souls for new abilities, and then move on. By working this way the player always has a goal, and each new area and boss is regular enough (separated by a couple of hours of gameplay, for a first-timer) that it’s hard to lose track of what you’re doing (Soul Reaver 2 in comparison tended to meander). It also helps that defeating each boss unlocks useful new powers (phase through barriers, wall climbing, swimming, telekinesis, etc.) that encourage further exploration of Nosgoth: there are a host of glyph spells that you needn’t ever come across to complete the game that are hidden throughout secret tunnels and play areas.

The different stages of the game are not simply ‘level 1’ or ‘level 2’ but distinct areas and scenarios in their own right with their own histories and unique design elements – the arabic-inspired architecture of the Sanctuary of the Clans, the corrugated industrial structures within Melchiah and Dumah’s dwellings, the pipes and mortar and webwork of the silenced cathedral, and on and on. Occasionally you can find etched murals or headstops or corbels depicting bearded figures – designs that are purely decorative but fire up the imagination with long-lost human saints, demons and chthonic beings. Nosgoth is infused with history, much of it lost or forgotten. Finding the tumbled remains of Nupraptor’s Retreat, one of the first and most memorable locations from Blood Omen, is a particular treat.

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Soul Reaver, like other titles in the series, was not short on ambition. Not only were multiple story threads truncated or cut, but entire areas and bosses were, too. Mama Robotnik provides an extensive overview of deleted material in Soul Reaver May Have Been the Most Ambitious Game Ever, and for perusers with more time on their hands The Lost Worlds has long been the go-to resource for deleted LoK materials. The consensus seems to be that while fans would love to see more deleted material from the game, like its original ending, the rush to release it allowed Soul Reaver 2, which arguably contains the series’ most mindbending and satisfying story since Blood Omen, to emerge.

In 2008 Legacy of Kain creator Denis Dyack spoke to 1UP about the appropriation of intellectual properties and the effect he believed this had on the integrity of the IP: “As soon as you take something away from an author, ” he said, “you’re immediately diluting it, and you’re hurting the industry. As an example, I’ll talk about Legacy of Kain. We created the first Legacy of Kain. We came up with all the content, all the story, but in the end we moved away from that series. Crystal Dynamics tried to take it over. A lot of people liked [Soul Reaver]. But if you look at Legacy of Kain where it is right now -so diluted, so dysfunctional as a property itself, it’s pretty much gone in a completely different direction than we would have ever taken it.”

“When we were doing Legacy of Kain, we had a lot of research into vampire mythology and a lot of ideas on where we were going. Crystal Dynamics merged in this entirely different game that had nothing to do with the series and then slapped the IP on it, and that’s where Soul Reaver came from. That was just a weapon in the game. Even if the developer’s good, and I think Crystal Dynamics is not a bad developer, you get this dilution of the content, because the original author is gone.”
~ Denis Dyack

I feel that Dyack is certainly correct about diminishing returns and the dysfunctionality of the series after a point, but I also feel that for all of the Legacy of Kain series’ hampered ideas and hobbled concepts (imposed on Crystal Dynamics by a mixture of budgetary and time limitations rather than any sort of malfeasance or incompetence) the sequels managed to expand upon the premise of Blood Omen with very, very few narrative missteps. In terms of adding to the mythology, the Crystal Dynamics games are an embarrassment of riches, and Soul Reaver proved that Hennig and her team could not only carry the series but build something worthy upon its foundations too.

And then, two short years later, there was Soul Reaver 2

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Three Perspectives on Poetry (and What It Is… or Isn’t)

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“Great poets are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come by observation of themselves; they have found within them one highly delicate and sensitive specimen of human nature, on which the laws of emotion are written in large characters, such as can be read off without much study.”
John Stuart Mill, What Is Poetry? 1833

So says Mill (not a poet himself) in his analysis of poetry. To Mill, poets are men and women forged almost purely of introspection, of cloistered self-study. “Other knowledge of mankind,” he continues, “is not indispensable to them as poets”. Poetry is, after all, “the natural fruit of solitude and meditation”. Whilst Mill makes some fine points about how poets approach their work, and finer points about art-as-artistry and art-as-commodity (or perhaps, ‘art-as-commodity-isn’t-art’), and although he makes it clear that poetry is not limited to verses and stanzas but can be found in music, painting, sculpture and architecture, his notion of what a poet actually is seems both expansive (they can be artists, actors, etcetera) and restrictive (they are purely introspective beings). He seems to be telling us that poets, in all of their forms, are intrinsic supermen, capable of great artistic achievement by will alone.

Whilst at it Mill, a great philosopher and humanitarian in his own right, also takes an unfair shot at novel readers (“the shallowest and emptiest [of people]”), dismisses the French (“the least poetical … the vainest… and the least self-dependent [of nations]”) and implies that epic poetry, such as the work of Homer or Virgil or Dante Alighieri, is not really poetry at all. His reasoning for the latter isn’t clear, but he does explain that artwork created with an audience in mind will ultimately be lacking. To demonstrate, he uses a stage metaphor: “The actor knows that there is an audience present; but, if he acts as though he knew it, he acts ill.” This he applies to all the arts.

At first glance, it seems fair enough; but considering that Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel on a commission (it’s been said he was even strong-armed into creating it) would Mill tell his readers that there’s no poetry or true artistry behind the paint? He does concede that, “That [such work] should be poetry, being [created] under such purposes, is less probable, [but] not, however, impossible.” This admission comes with a disclaimer: the performing poet/artist/actor must never be “tinged” by the “desire of making an impression upon another mind”.

Austrian-Bohemian poet Rainer Maria Rilke was at odds with Mill’s definition of a poet and his poetry, defining them instead as the result of immersing oneself in the world: “You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime,” he says, “and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines,” (thankfully, Rilke did not wait until his latter years to write anything, though his best work, the Duino Elegies, did come forth in a burst of creative spontaneity in his middle age.)

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke continues, in opposition to Mill: “For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough) – they are experiences.” He sums up the ingredients for making poetry as:

For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gestures which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighbourhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained … to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars – and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labour  and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and scattered noises. And it is not yet enough to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.”

Rilke’s explanation, unlike Mill’s, does not gloss over the process of turning the interior of oneself into a poem. Mill seems to suggest that poets are these intrinsically talented people who can disappear inside themselves and produce great insight upon returning. To Rilke, a poet is not a closed system, he does not merely read off the wall and report what he has seen. A poet actively, painfully and blissfully lives in the world, and it in him.

Thousands of years before both Rilke and Mill, another philosopher, Plato, set his critical sights on poetry. In Book X of The Republic he argues that poets merely mimic reality, and the readers of poetry absorb this mimicry and mistake it for reality, before going on to propagate these illusions. Thus begins a spiral of imitation breeding imitation, with each iteration potentially wandering further from Truth.

“When we hear persons saying that the tragedians, and Homer, who is at their head, know all the arts and all things human -virtue as well as vice, and divine things too, for that the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject, and that he who has not this knowledge can never be a poet- we ought to consider whether here also there may not be a similar illusion. Perhaps they may have come across imitators and been deceived by them; they may not have remembered when they saw their works that these were but imitations thrice removed from the truth, and could easily be made without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances only and not realities?”

Plato sarcastically adds: “Or, after all, they may be in the right, and poets do really know the things about which they seem to the many to speak so well?” He goes on to conclude that “all these poetical individuals, beginning with Homer, are only imitators; they copy images of virtue and the like, but the truth they never reach.”

Michelangelo Buonarroti, the sculptor of David and painter of the Sistine Chapel, said that “the true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection,” though he was never troubled by it, as is Plato, who continues: “The poet is like a painter who, as we have already observed, will make a likeness of a cobbler though he understands nothing of cobbling; and his picture is good enough for those who know no more than he does, and judge only by colours and figures.”

Plato then explains that the poet, along with that other great imitator, the painter, would have no place in his titular republic, because he “implants an evil constitution” upon the populace. Rather dramatically, he threatens that if the rulers of the Republic “allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind … pleasure and pain will be the rulers in our State,” (Plato’s student, Aristotle, may have been less of a killjoy ruler: “Poetry and politics,” he said, “do not have the same standards of correctness.”)

Though Plato does express legitimate concerns, in that many people are happy to take fiction as fact, no matter how ludicrous the depiction –imagine Birth of a Nation was the sole artifact of mankind after a hypothetical apocalyptic scenario, and what that could lead our successors in this world to think of us– he brands poets and artists as being guilty of nourishing irrationality; worse, they enslave their readerships to the baser parts of themselves and distance them from reality. It’s rather ironic that Plato presents his philosophy through his own stylised version of his teacher, Socrates, and that what we know of the latter comes almost entirely from the former.

Most would agree that Plato’s ‘imitation’ of Socrates is preferable over the void that his absence from the dialogues (and thus, history) would leave — and taking a small step away from the Truth ain’t all that bad after all.

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail and its Arthurian Antecedents

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the story of a divinely-appointed king, his initial quest to recruit followers for his court, their ordination from God, their battles against enemies both domestic and foreign, human and otherworldly, and an adventure that will test their mettle and put the codes of chivalry and chastity on trial. There are also some jokes.

Despite the film’s farcical quality scholar Norris J. Lacy admits that “There exist well over 100 Arthurian films, but a good many professional Arthurian scholars readily acknowledge that, in their view, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the best of them.” John Aberth makes the same admission, writing that it remains “the best interpretation of both the history and the legend of King Arthur.”

The film earned such a vaunted reputation by remaining faithful to Arthurian and medieval literature despite its reams of absurdity and apparent non-sequitur. Even the animated interludes, drawn by co-director Terry Gilliam, reference and borrow imagery from medieval texts like The Book of Hours. The film’s tone avoids mystical treatments like Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and instead shares more common ground with Mark Twain’s irreverent A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. A passage from the book can almost be read as a synopsis for the movie itself:

The boys all took a flier at the Holy Grail now and then. It was a several-years’ cruise … though none of them had any idea where the Holy Grail really was, and I don’t think any of them actually expected to find it, or would have known what to do with it if he had run across it […] Every year expeditions went out holy grailing, and next year relief expeditions went out to hunt for them.

The opening tells us that the film takes place in 932 A.D., five centuries too late for a historical treatment of Arthur and centuries too early for Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, or Sir Thomas Malory. The film elects not to mention, let alone focus on, the familial relations between the Knights of the Round Table or the internecine conflicts between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. In fact there is no Guinevere at all. Co-director Terry Jones reveals in the director’s commentary that “In most of the Arthurian legend, they’re actually told in the 14th century about the 10th century, so really the period of the film is 1350s or something like that.” This allows for a fair amount of anachronism but, as it demonstrates with its conversations about coconuts and swallows, plus the inclusion (and swift removal) of ‘A Famous Historian’, the film is not concerned with the pedanticism of actual logic or history. Holy Grail instead occupies a mythological rather than historical space; where great tracts of England lie undiscovered, where each village and castle is isolated unto itself, and where literally every hill, plain and gully is flooded with rolling mist. It is, in effect, the Middle Ages of the common imagination.

In one of the first scenes King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his squire Patsy (Terry Gilliam) ride alongside a peasant called Dennis. Arthur asks who the lord of the nearby castle is, but Dennis, an apparent Marxist, questions Arthur’s legitimacy as king. Aberth writes that

The joke is that some medieval historians, such as R.H. Hilton, C.H. Brennen, and Guy Bois, really do apply Marxist theory to the Middle Ages […] Monty Python is only carrying to extremes the misguided attempts of Marxist scholars to impose their thoroughly modern historical models on the medieval past, where Dennis’s obnoxiously combative jargon would sound just as foreign as in a medieval film.

Another joke, parrying with Dennis’ anarcho-communist diatribes, is the apparent ignorance of his fellow peasants, one of whom enters the frame by crawling through the mud and calling, “Dennis, there’s some lovely filth down here!” Python regularly exploit as much lunacy as they can by pairing up absurdities and juxtapositions that both play on and defy audience expectations. Dennis’ “See the violence inherent in the system!” is not merely a mockery of twentieth century protest but a winking critique of a very real ‘might is right’ ethos that can be found in the literature. As Merlin advises the young Arthur in Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur: “Come out boldly and speak with them, and spare them not, but answer them as their king and chieftain, for ye shall overcome them all, whether they will or nill.” Despite the apparent conclusiveness of Arthur’s kingship and divine sponsorship, he has to fight many battles and wars to quell any objection, starting with King Lot and his men:

King Arthur on horseback laid on with a sword, and did marvellous deeds of arms … Sir Arthur turned with his knights and smote behind and before … Then he drew his sword Excalibur … And therewith he put them aback, and slew much people.

As hysterical as Dennis’ sloganeering sounds, there is real criticism to be made behind the laughter, so long as it remains, in true Python style, behind the laughter. Dennis and his partner later cameo during ‘The Tale of Sir Robin’, and can be overhead bickering: “Oh Dennis, forget about freedom. What about that mud?”

In the next scene Arthur encounters a black and green knight battling near a small river crossing. The Black Knight skewers his enemy and Arthur approaches, congratulating him for his prowess. The Knight makes no response except to deny Arthur passage. Scenarios such as this were popular in the 14th century, where knights would engage in a pas d’armes with other wandering warriors. The pas d’armes “was an aristocratic game”, the purpose of which was “to give the individual knight a formalised means of earning ‘worship’, that is, honour,” but it could take on deadlier forms, as it does here. The outrageous violence of the scene mocks the dismemberments and spurting blood from Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, released the year before, but also honours the brutality of medieval literature. For example, the end of Chrétien de Troyes’ Lancelot or The Knight of the Cart features a bloody battle between Lancelot and Meleagant, the action of which is reminiscent of Arthur’s battle with the Black Knight:

[Lancelot] gives him a great hard blow past his shield directly onto his mail-clad right arm, severing it at a stroke. Feeling the loss of his right arm, he declared that Lancelot would pay dearly for it […] He runs towards him, trying to grapple with him.

Lancelot quickly puts the stubborn Meleagant out of action by cutting off his head, though Arthur’s dismembered opponent is defiant even after Arthur has rode off.

Arthur eventually gathers his band of knights, including Sir Bedevere (Terry Jones), Sir Lancelot the Brave (John Cleese), Sir Galahad the Brave (Michael Palin), and Sir Robin the not-quite-as-brave-as-Sir-Lancelot (Eric Idle). They stumble upon a castle where they are harangued by the French guards upon the battlements. This scene with the French taunters references not only the historic and military rivalry between England and France but also the shared responsibility in shaping the legend of King Arthur himself, since staples of the Arthur canon, such as Camelot and Sir Lancelot, were inventions of de Troyes. The French were also the creators of the Grail legend in relation to Arthur, with it first appearing as a device in literature in Perceval, the Story of the Grail by de Troyes. It is only fitting that they “already have one” of their own, and also appear as the castellans of Grail Castle in the finale.

After the Knights of the Round Table split up to seek the Grail the film processes each of their stories in the style of book chapters before rounding them up again for the final approach towards the Grail’s alleged location. The first of these chapters is ‘The Tale of Sir Robin’, which follows the knight as he travels through a forest with his favourite band of minstrels. They pass a signpost pointing to ‘Camelot’ in one direction and ‘Certain Death’ the other. In the literature leaving Camelot to go questing is always greeted with fanfare and some sorrow – the questing knight will inevitably come into great danger, and if he can persevere then glory and acclaim will be his. If not, then he is merely another corpse to be added to the piles littering the Arthurian landscape. Sir Robin’s minstrel acknowledges this danger in his song:

He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp,
or to have his eyes gouged out and his elbows broken,
to have his kneecaps split and his body burned away,
and his limbs all hacked and mangled, brave Sir Robin!

Robin is an invention of the film, having no direct precursor in Arthurian canon. As the film establishes earlier, he is a coward whose only fame stems from having “personally wet himself at the Battle of Badon Hill”, some four hundred years before the chronology of the film, and having almost “stood up to the vicious chicken of Bristol” (tellingly, Sir Robin’s sigil itself is a large chicken). Though the other members of King Arthur’s troupe are at times feckless (“Run away!” being a repeated line throughout) Sir Robin is the most spineless of the lot. As Chrétien reminds us in his tale Yvain, cowardice is a cardinal sin for the ordained knight: “There’s no valour in a man who fears too much.”

Hapless Sir Robin.

Hapless Sir Robin.

In his segment Robin and his band cross paths with a three-headed giant who demands that they halt and state their purpose. His minstrels answer for him in verse (“to fight!”) but are told by a shaken Robin to shut up. The hilarity comes from the obvious dichotomy between the minstrels’ song and Robin’s actual cowardice, but there’s also a point to be made about the reliability of the oral legends when contrasted to a knight’s actual prowess, especially when said tales and songs depicted their heroes as veritable supermen. Robin is obviously pompous and in love with his own legend, which is quickly and publicly dismantled. The encounter with the giant is likely derived from Chaucer’s likewise heckled Sir Topaz, a bumbling knight mentioned in The Canterbury Tales who “had got to fight a monstrous giant whose heads were three,” though the battle itself consisted of the knight being chased off by his adversary:

Sir Topaz beat a quick retreat;
This giant pelted him thereat
With stones from a terrible sling;
But he escaped, did Childe Topaz,
And it was all through Heaven’s grace,
And his own noble bearing.

Terry Jones, in his book Chaucer’s Knight, wrote that he had started studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1972, shortly before writing for Holy Grail began. The unfortunate Sir Topaz found himself (or elements of himself) transposed into the movie. The minstrels’ song follows the same pattern as Chaucer’s text, ironically singing enthusiastically of Robin’s “brave retreat.”

Brave Sir Robin ran away, bravely ran away, away,
When danger reared its ugly head he bravely turned his tail and fled,
Brave Sir Robin turned about, undoubtedly he chickened out,
bravely taking to his feet he beat a very brave retreat,
Bravest of the brave, Sir Robin!

In ‘The Tale of Sir Galahad’ we find Galahad the Chaste being lured into Castle Anthrax, which just so happens to have a “Grail-shaped” beacon. Inside he finds a score of young girls “between the ages of sixteen and nineteen-and-a-half” whose retinue, he is informed, consists of “bathing, dressing, undressing,” and “knitting fuzzy underwear”. The women flock to Galahad and insist he rest and succumb to their massaging. The chaste knight at first resists and then relents before being ‘rescued’ by Lancelot. John Cleese relates in the DVD commentary that he felt the Galahad segment was more focused on technical proficiency (cinematography, lighting,) than communicating a good joke, but every component of the scene has an analogue in Arthurian literature, making for subtler hilarity. After all, ‘Castle Anthrax’, as far as names go, is no more on the nose than the ‘Castle of Evil Adventure’ featured in Yvain. The scene itself pokes fun at such a well-known aspect of medieval lore (Christian and knightly vows of chastity) that viewers who are not students of Arthurian literature may not get the references, but they will understand the jokes.

The maiden in the castle trope is recurrent in medieval literature, as are chaste knights being beset by voluptuous women, and its history can be traced to Irish tales like the 8th century legend The Voyage of Bran. In Malory we have Sir Percival’s encounter with the disinherited lady of the ship who gets him drunk and undressed with the offer to “do with me what so it please ye” (the sight of the Cross on his pommel causes him to relent). The trope plays a central role to the Green Knight’s plot in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where Gawain is beseeched to make love to the Lady of the Manor “while my husband’s far from home.” Gawain’s resistance is described as being akin to combat, he “parried so well that he seemed without fault.” In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal the titular character experiences the kind of delicate hospitality that Monty Python are specifically lampooning:

Damsels in rich clothing and lovely of person arrived, as befitted courtesy’s ways. They washed and quickly smoothed away his bruising with white, soft hands. Indeed, there was no need of him to feel he was in foreign parts, orphaned though he was of wit. Thus he endured pleasure and ease, paying little for his folly with them […] I believe they would willingly have looked to see whether anything had happened to him down below.

The same treatment is doled out on Yvain in Chrétien’s The Knight with the Lion:

But now hear how, and with what kind of welcome and hospitality, my lord Yvain was given lodging. All those in the garden leapt to their feet the moment they saw him, saying: ‘”Come over here, good sir!” […] I do not know if they are deceiving him, but they receive him with great joy and give the impression that they are delighted for him to be very comfortably lodged.”

Chrétien adds that even the lord’s daughter “completely disarms him, and not the least of her attentions is to wash his neck and face with her own hands.”

This segment’s joke and Arthurian critique is arguably the most obvious in the entire film. In the literature women are the instruments of either salvation (if they can be rescued) or damnation (if they don’t need to be, in which case they are a source of division and licentiousness). “But it’s no wonder if a fool should lose his senses and be brought to his downfall through the wiles of women,” Gawain explains in Green Knight, adding that even “the noblest of old, attended by good fortune” were misled and led to ruin by women: Adam by Eve, Samson by Delilah, David by Bathsheba.

In ‘The Tale of Sir Lancelot’ the lord of the rickety Swamp Castle is foisting his unwilling and meek son Herbert into marriage with Princess Lucky so that he may inherit her lands. There is no superlative courtly love here, merely politics and gain. The architectural nightmare that is Swamp Castle alludes to Vortigern’s tower as described by Geoffrey of Monmouth: “However much they built one day, the earth swallowed up the next, and such a way that they had no idea where their work had vanished to.” Herbert manages to send a plea for help (via arrow) that reaches Lancelot (via the chest of his servant, Concorde.) Lancelot, exhilarated by the opportunity to save what he reckons is a helpless maiden, is so caught up in his excitement that he is driven to avenge Concorde, even if he does not need avenged.

Lancelot: No, no, sweet Concorde, stay here! I will send help as soon as I have accomplished a daring and heroic rescue in my own particular…
Concorde: Idiom, Sir?
Lancelot: Idiom!

Of course, the rescue is no more than an unrestrained slaughter, with Lancelot swinging his sword and rappelling through the castle like Errol Flynn. The entire skit is a jab at Arthurian literature’s portrayal of heroism and machismo, where knights trawl the landscape eager to, as Calogrenant relates in de Troyes’ Yvain, “put my prowess and courage to the proof”. Lancelot and his ilk, the film says, cannot exist but as an archetype, blithely cutting his way to glory. “I’m afraid when I’m in this idiom I sort of get carried away,” he offers as way of apology, though Herbert’s father’s anger is allayed by Lancelot’s standing as a knight from Camelot (“Very good pig country!” again spoofing the supposed medieval predilection for grime.)

The segment has a correlation in a chapter from Le Morte d’Arthur, which has Lancelot rescuing maidens from the grasp of two giants: “Then Lancelot went into the hall, and there came afore him three score ladies and damosels, and all kneeled unto him, and thanked God and him for their deliverance.” Cleese’s Lancelot clearly expected the same scene to greet him. Unfortunately, he finds Herbert rather than a helpless woman (one of the only notable women present is the unlucky Princess Lucky, whom Lancelot kicks in the chest.) Mistaken identity is also a source of humour in Malory, where a sleeping Lancelot is mistaken for the lover of Sir Belleus, who “laid him down beside Sir Launcelot, and took him in his arms and began to kiss him. And when Sir Launcelot felt a rough beard kissing him, he start out of the bed lightly, and the other knight after him.”

Another association between the scene and the literature is found in Chrétien, where Yvain chases down and mortally wounds the lord of a castle and is subsequently hounded by his angry servants. Yvain’s declaration that “they’ll never kill me, nor shall I be captured by them” is reflected in the film by Lancelot’s boisterous attitude and second violent outburst. When Yvain spies the dead lord’s wife he quickly falls in love. Luckily, the widow also has a pressing concern to remarry and is convinced to wed her husband’s killer to tie her estates to a strong and renowned warrior. Chrétien writes that the lady “proves to herself that there is justice, good sense and reason in the belief that she has no right to hate [Yvain].” When this line of argument is transposed to Prince Herbert’s grasping father the callousness is preserved but has a new sense of hilarity. When the lord beseeches the wedding guests to spare Lancelot he does so by appealing to their deference for his social status: “This is Sir Lancelot from the court of Camelot, a very brave and influential knight!” But the reality is that respect is not given for its own sake; the lord of Swamp Castle has aspirations of his own, and dashing knights are not often easily separated from murderers.

With the Round Table reunited, they travel further north to seek the Grail, where they meet the pyromaniac Tim the Enchanter, who substitutes for Merlin. Tim is, despite his everyday name, a throwback to Arthur’s Celtic roots. Tim is heavily bearded, clad in rags and wears a headpiece that evokes Celtic horned god Cernunnos. Merlin himself is believed to have been based on a Welsh seer called Myrddin, who after the death of his lord in battle “was so horrified by the slaughter that he went raving mad” and “fled to the Caledonian Forest in the Scots Lowlands, where he lived for years as a ‘wild man of the woods’.” Tellingly, Cleese plays Tim with a rolling Scots accent.

Tim leads them to the Cave of Caerbannog, where they battle a killer rabbit, which is not so ludicrous an enemy when compared to Cath Pulag, a ‘clawing cat’ of Welsh and Continental folklore that fought Arthur and, in non-Galfridian legends, actually succeeded in killing him. After passing through the cave (where they are saved from the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh by a fortunate deus ex machina) and crossing the Bridge of Death, only Arthur and Bedevere remain to storm Grail Castle. Unfortunately, they are arrested by the police in the process for the murder of ‘A Famous Historian’, perhaps representing the crime of being silly and irreverent towards the source material.

The ever-beleaguered Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

The ever-beleaguered Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

The ending is fittingly absurd, but it also says, perhaps serendipitously, that the Holy Grail is, as it is in the literature, ultimately unattainable, destined to always be sought after, and its presence on Earth only transient. Python, consciously or not, mimicked the conclusion of de Troyes’ The Story of the Grail by simply not having one.

If the film can be said to have a ‘mission’ (other than laughs) then it is to play on the expectations of its audience. Characters that are meant to represent the height of chivalry and bravery are exposed as a gang of bumbling and violent fools. And while Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Arthur is “an idealised medieval ruler, a skilful general and a ferocious fighter, proud, impetuous, ardent and inspiring,” Graham Chapman plays him as an easily exasperated and numerically-challenged man whose status as king is not only slighted, but largely unrecognised. Likewise we are introduced to peasants who literally roll and toil in the mud but are also capable of complicated political discourse. Not only that, but the people inhabiting the film are also quite physically hardy too, far removed from the common perception that they led soft, short and atrophied existences. After all, two repeated lines of dialogue are the knights’ cowardly exclamation to “Run away!” and the reassuring “I’m getting better” of the peasants. Co-director and Python troupe member Terry Jones remarks in the DVD commentary that “I think, in the modern twentieth century, we like to believe that the Middles Ages was like that, so, when we showed it, a lot of critics said, ‘Oh, yes. Really authentic looking.’” The contradictions between what we assume to be the reality of the Middle Ages and what the film depicts is a running gag throughout.

Arthurian literature makes a perfect subject for a comedic interpretation because it cannot be read today without an unintended sense of knowing amusement sometimes creeping in. After all, it depicts a world where knights strut like peacocks, where peasants unquestioningly defer to their ‘betters’, where monsters exist to be vanquished and maidens flock to their rescuers. But this romantic view of the age of Arthur never existed in reality, and its outlandishness is both exposed and further spoofed by Monty Python primarily by depicting the literature as faithfully, and cheekily, as they can.

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Within and Without the Hall: Anglo-Saxons in Exile

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The mead hall was not merely a place of retreat from a hostile world but was also the foundation and fulcrum of Anglo-Saxon life – for in addition to obvious benefits such as warmth and safety it was also a hub of group solidarity, where tribute was made and the bonds between lord and vassal were sealed and sustained.

Anglo-Saxon hall society had its roots in barbarian Europe where bonds of kinship were strongly encouraged and enforced. Tacitus noted in his book Germania that men were “bound to take up the feuds as well as friendships of father or kinsman,” and it was considered “impious to turn any man away from your door.” Gift-giving was also a highly cherished tradition: “The leaders take peculiar pleasure in gifts from neighbouring states, which are sent not only by individuals, but by the community as well.” In these societies, as well as in their Anglo-Saxon descendants, homage and condemnation were public, never private, affairs.

In such communities certain laws or customs were expected to be obeyed above all else. Internecine violence within the king’s circle was so repellent an idea that its accompanying punishment was severe – more severe, in fact, than those penalties meted out to anyone who happened to brawl within a holy place such as a monastery. The law code of King Ine of Wessex (composed circa 688 – 695 A.D.) demanded that:

If anyone fights in the king’s house, he shall forfeit all his property, and it shall be for the king to decide whether he shall be put to death or not […] If anyone fights in a monastery, he shall pay 120 shillings compensation.

The importance of keeping the peace in the hall was so vital that King Alfred transplanted Ine’s law regarding the issue, almost verbatim, into his own law codes of the ninth century. De duodecim abusivis saeculi, an anonymously authored tract that originated in 8th century Ireland, lays out twelve social and political ‘abuses’ that kings and their subjects were to be aware of. The tract frowns upon “the young man without obedience”, highlighting the importance of respect between elders and youths (or between ranks), and it also disapproves of “the rich man without almsgiving”, which stresses the importance of putting wealth to good and generous use. Additionally, the article abhors “the lord without strength” and “the unjust king”. It was the king’s duty to secure the safety of his people and to see them amply rewarded for their loyalty – or punished for their disobedience.

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I, wretched and sorrowful,
on the ice-cold sea
dwelt for a winter
in the paths of exile,
bereft of friendly kinsmen
~ The Seafarer.

For those living under the protection of a hall and its lord, life was not only potentially prosperous but given heterogeneity as well. In poems like Beowulf warriors introduce themselves as the descendants of great soldiers and as the inheritors of great halls and legacies. The best that kings and warriors could hope for was that their reputations would survive even after their own lives or immediate glories had passed. Beowulf demonstrates to the reader how a good reputation can merit a king in troubled times by telling us that Hrothgar, despite being unable to stop Grendel, is still considered a good king because of his adherence to kingly manners. But unjust men, whether they were thegns or even rulers, like the historical Sigeberht of Wessex, could be deposed and driven from their lands for their iniquitous behaviour.

Such castaways and wanderers were social detritus and were to be treated with suspicion, even according to law. The law code of Wihtred of Kent demanded that “If a man from afar, or a stranger, quits the road, and neither shouts, nor blows a horn, he may be considered a thief, [and as such may] be either slain or put to ransom.” This law was also enforced by Ine of Wessex at roughly the same time.

For Christian soldiers the outcome of unlawful and shameful behaviour was especially stark due to its theological implications: Satan had been damned for his attempt at supplanting God, Adam and Eve were banished for their disobedience and Cain made an outcast and branded for the murder of his brethren. In the poem Christ and Satan the devil himself, the original exile, bemoans that “I shall not be allowed to enjoy a more promising home, neither city nor palace.” Linked to cowards and usurpers, demons and devils, an exile carried nothing but negative connotations. In Beowulf, they are literally monsters: the warped progeny of Cain as well as a dragon.

The precise physical nature of Grendel and his mother have been a point of contention for many years: are they monsters, or merely monstrous? But there is one aspect of their nature that is unambiguous, and that is their status as exiles. Beowulf makes it clear that the many ills and malevolent spirits in the world result from Cain’s murder of Abel and his subsequent banishment:

Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.

Grendel’s fury is instigated by the circumstances of his wretched existence, “he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters,” a condition of living which makes “the harp being struck and the clear song of a skilled poet” utterly abhorrent to his ears. The fact that Grendel cannot be tied to any one homestead or hall, the mere fact that he is a homeless wanderer, inspires fear in the Danes upon whom he preys: “young and old were hunted down by that dark death-shadow who lurked and swooped in the long nights on the misty moors; nobody knows where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.”

When Hrothgar relates to Beowulf the rumours of Grendel and his mother much of the horror is concentrated not so much on their deeds or appearances, but where they dare to roam: “They dwell apart among wolves on the hills, on windswept crags and treacherous keshes, where cold streams pour down the mountain and disappear under mist and moorland.” These creatures live and lurk on the periphery of civilisation, they are the ongoing survivors of a bleak and hostile world who have rejected or been rejected by all the pleasures of the hall. They suffer greatly from the absence of company and direct their fury upon the lucky and loyal retainers inhabiting Heorot. To the Anglo-Saxon mind, an exile was not only a damned spirit but a condemnatory one that would blame and wreak his misfortune on others if encountered.

‘Where has the horse gone? where is the rider? where is the giver of gold?  Where are the seats of the feast? where are the joys of the hall?  O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!  O the glory of princes! How the time passed away, slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!’

‘Where has the horse gone? where is the rider? where is the giver of gold?
Where are the seats of the feast? where are the joys of the hall?
O the bright cup! O the brave warrior!
O the glory of princes! How the time passed away, slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!’
~ The Wanderer.

But the loss of the hall and kinship with other men was deeply felt by the outcasts. Grendel and his mother lurk in an underwater, twisted facsimile of a hall, replete with “hall-roofing” to fight off the water current and a hoard of weapons and treasure. The dragon also dwells in such an environment, an ancient barrow laden with treasure, but he is a stowaway who has assumed ownership of the tomb and its riches. When he attacks the countryside due to the theft of one of his treasures we see that he is powerful and gluttonous, a monstrous counterpart to the worst of human corruption.

One of Beowulf’s other outcasts is not a beast, but the lone survivor of a destructed race. It is this last man who deposits his peoples’ “rich inheritance” in the barrow that the dragon later claims as his own. After burying the treasure hoard this “forgotten person” wanders the earth until his own death:

And so he mourned as he moved about the world,
deserted and alone, lamenting his unhappiness
day and night, until death’s flood
brimmed up in his heart.

The language here evokes a solitary life as a slow drowning. Dying alone in the wild was an ignominious end for a warrior.

But sometimes fear presents a greater argument than honour, and warriors lose their mettle. At the climax of Beowulf the titular hero’s own war-band struggles to keep brave during their fight with the dragon and eventually flee:

No help or backing was to be had then
from his high-born comrades; that hand-picked troop
broke ranks and ran for their lives
to the safety of the wood.

Only one, Wiglaf, resolves to stay and fight. The text notes that “in a man of worth the claims of kinship cannot be denied.” After the battle ends the cowardly warriors (or as the text designates them, “battle-dodgers” and “tail-turners”) shamefully return to the field, and Wiglaf declares that foreign invasion will be imminent “once princes from beyond get tidings of how you turned and fled and disgraced yourselves. A warrior will sooner die than live a life of shame.” We can deduce that abandoning the king or comitatus was considered not only a crime against individual members of the group but against the group, and nation, as a whole. Cowardice was a grave offence, and a coward’s lingering presence in a comitatus or hall would not only shame the group but potentially endanger it as well. Warriors in disgrace were obviously feared and hated whenever they came across honourable men.

The bleak and embattled mindset of an exile was often expressed in poems known as elegies; among them are poems like The Seafarer and The Wife’s Lament. Elegies such as these take place nowhere and are narrated by no one – that is, there is no firm geographical locale indicated in the texts, and the characters refuse, or simply neglect, to identify themselves.

However frustrating this may be for a more historically-minded reader (or for those simply wanting to expand upon the narrative and its circumstances) this absence of localisation and identification adds to, rather than detracts from, the sense of being cast adrift in an impersonal and uncaring landscape. It is not surprising that poems such as The Seafarer, which contains no identifiable narrator or any specific seascape, are often thought of as psychological or even allegorical pieces. Critics like John C. Pope, writing in his essay ‘Second thoughts on the interpretation of The Seafarer’, assert that it “is no wonder” that the poem “at its conclusion should allow the literally conceived pilgrimage of the speaker to suggest the broader idea of allegorical pilgrimage.”

That the icy froth and spume could be figurative language denoting an elegiac psychological bombardment is not dissimilar from the use of storms, hail, rain, and thunder as metaphors for battle or weaponry in other Old English texts (for example, arrows are described as raining down in “showers” in Judith.) The Exeter Book’s third riddle speaks of clouds that “do combat” and also portrays lightning as “death-spears” and “a whistling weapon”. There’s no doubt that the outside world was often seen as a brutal and ever-present enemy to be contended with -an army of natural forces whose battlefield was everywhere- and that this assault took place in the mind as much as it did on the body.

"So this middle-earth, a bit each day, droops and decays." ~ The Wanderer.

“So this middle-earth,
a bit each day,
droops and decays.”
~ The Wanderer.

There was one social group that rejected hall society and the practice of ring-giving and instead embraced exile, and that was the monastic orders. The practice of holy eremitism was not as old as Europe’s warrior society, but it did have a long and storied tradition with its own legends and, eventually, literature.

One of the earliest hagiographies of a saintly hermit was that of Martin of Tours (316 A.D. – 397 A.D.), written by Sulpicius Severus during Martin’s lifetime. Martin had left the Roman Army as a conscientious objector and settled as a hermit in Poitiers, France, gathering around himself a devoted group of followers who committed themselves to an ascetic life. Severus’ biography became “an immediate best seller” that “became a model for an immense flood of ‘Saints’ Lives’, popular literature published in Gaul and Britain during the next several centuries.”

The lives of many future saints followed the same guiding principles of Martin as outlined by Severus: the rejection of the world and its wealth, self-imposed exile and frugal living. Soon many hagiographies were borrowing miracles and events from their predecessors with little or sometimes no alteration. 

Their aim was to get away from the ‘society of man’, to live alone with a few companions in caves or ‘desert wildernesses’ […] The saints did not set out to reform society. They gave it up as an evil to avoid.
~ John Morris, The Age of Arthur, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973)

The burgeoning popularity of monasticism among the holy orders (and even among the common folk who felt beleaguered by widespread strife and war) eventually brought paradox to the movement: hermits found themselves settling into the hills and caves of Britain with other hermits, forming small societies in the process. Michael Swanton, in his chapter ‘An Assured Heroism’, noted that “By the end of the seventh century monasticism was well established and even regally endorsed among the Anglo-Saxons as a socially acceptable mode of life.” John Morris writes in The Age of Arthur that:

Place names attest the scale of the movement and its locality. Sixth-century Latin usage calls the monastery claustra, enclosure, whence comes the English word ‘cloister’. Its equivalent in Welsh was llan, whose literal meaning is ‘enclosure’. Well over six hundred Welsh towns and hamlets bear the name Llan.

Gerald of Wales, on his tour of the country in the twelfth century, wrote of the abbey church Llanthony, “originally founded by two hermits, in honour of the eremitical way of life, in solitude and far removed from the bustle of everyday existence.” Social approval had done much to enlarge and institutionalise the monastic lifestyle, though this, as church luminaries like Gerald complained, would eventually serve to undo many of its positive and holy aspects. The brothers at Llanthony had struggled for generations to keep society from invading their solitude, and were:

greatly distressed when it began to be endowed with land and church benefices […] In their desire for poverty, they refused many offers of manors and churches in those early years. Situated as they were in the wilderness, they refused to permit the overgrown recesses of the valley, where it widened out into an impenetrable wood, ever to be cleared or levelled off to make an open meadow, for they had no wish to abandon their eremitical mode of life.

The hermits found themselves resisting well-intentioned lords and kings who attempted to bequeath gifts upon them. However the nobility valued it, the old practice of ring-giving was abhorrent to the monks. It could only invite sin. “There in Gloucester men strive for earthly possessions, “ writes Gerald, “but here in Llanthony let them rather turn their minds towards the promise of eternal bliss. There let them enjoy the company of mortal men, but here let them prefer the concourse of angels.”

In Anglo-Saxon Christian literature the fraternising and frolicking that occurred in the hall were also looked upon with disdain. When the heroine of the Biblically inspired Judith enters Holofernes’ tent she looks at the drunken warriors with scorn. Though words like “gold-giving” are used to describe Holofernes, the text displays none of the admiration and awe that we might expect due to a “powerful man” and “lord of heroes”. Instead it is clearly stated that the cavorting and drinking have made the warriors careless and foolish:

[Holofernes] drenched his retainers with wine until they lay unconscious,
the whole of his troop were as drunk as if they had been struck down
in death,
drained of every ability.

There are similar insinuations in Beowulf, where Unferth’s belligerence is attributed to drunkenness, and the poem does not fail to remind readers that the fate of Heorot is tied directly to its grandeur and the jealousies of those inside and outside its doors.

Both self-exile and the apparently disparate notion of a comitatus-themed community eventually reconciled themselves and came together in the form of the chivalric Christian Knight who leaves his band of brothers and goes into the misty and mysterious landscape, alone, to pursue a holy quest. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight there are positive depictions of revelry in King Arthur’s Court, rather than the ominous forebodings and disapproval present in other Christian works.

It was fine to hear such glorious commotion:
lively uproar all day and dancing at night,
the sheerest indulgence in dance hall and bedroom
by the ladies and lords, whatever whim took them.
With all worldly pleasures they dwelt there together:
the most famous knights in all of Christendom
[…]
It would be hard nowadays
to find such fellowship.

Gawain tells us that the carousing at the court is not only bawdy and abundant, but also represents a golden age for chivalry and Christianity. When Gawain starts to leave for his journey in search of the Green Knight all of Arthur’s court sees him off with sadness: “Much deep sorrow was felt in the hall, that one as valued as him should go on this quest.” Many tales of the saints describe how crowds wept whenever they took their leave. The Anonymous History of Abbot Ceolfrith detailed that “As the ship sailed across the river, he looked towards the brothers mourning his departure and heard the sublime sound of their song mixed with grief.”

"The son of nobles crossed over The steep stone cliffs,  the constricted climb, a narrow solitary path,  a course unknown..." ~ Beowulf.

“The son of nobles crossed over
The steep stone cliffs,
the constricted climb,
a narrow solitary path,
a course unknown…”
~ Beowulf.

Similarly Gawain, like all holy or disgraced nomads before him, ventures out and finds the world unkind:

He struggled up cliffs in godforsaken regions,
as, far from his friends, he wandered as a stranger.

Separated from his band of fellow knights, Gawain is isolated in a world that will grant him no respect or quarter on account of his honour and title. Again, as in earlier literature, the natural world is constantly harassing and threatening our lone wanderer: “At every ford and stream that the warrior passed, it was rare if he found no foe to face him.” However, like the self-exiled saints, Gawain has God to protect him from the harshness of nature: “If he hadn’t been alert, and helped by the Lord, he would certainly have went to his death.” God had certainly intervened to help his most blessed of subjects before. In Bede’s Life of Cuthbert the saint is given a loaf of bread, ostensibly from God, when he is in need. Afterwards Cuthbert resumes his journey without fear of hunger:

now that he knew he had been fed in his solitude by Him […] His eyes are ever on them that fear Him and hope in His mercy, so that He may, in the words of the Psalmist, ‘snatch their souls from death and feed them in time of famine.’

Eddius Stephanus’ Life of Wilfrid gives another example of Divine protection:

So Wilfrid and his companions left their native land and set off in exile for the kingdoms of the south. God, who does not leave his saints to endure alone, sent a kind-hearted man to meet them on their way.

To be stripped of one’s titles and honours, to be sent from the warmth of the hall, or to falter in allegiance during the thick of battle, was more terrible than death – but only for a few. Later Christian saints welcomed the wilderness, loneliness and limerance. They saw themselves as divorced from the pleasures and temptations of the hall; they walked not with men but were companioned by choruses of angels. After centuries of co-mingling the two modes of life found themselves reconciled in the form of the lone Christian Knight, a man loved by many but sometimes accompanied by few: he could find glory alone as well as among a brotherhood.

Art by Zdzisław Beksińsk

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G. Bernard Shaw meets Rilke & Rodin

A few days ago Rodin began the portrait of one of your most remarkable authors, which promises to become something quite extraordinary...Letter of Rainer Maria Rilke, April 9th, 1906.

“A few days ago Rodin began the portrait of one of your most remarkable authors, which promises to become something quite extraordinary…”
Letter of Rainer Maria Rilke, April 9th, 1906.

The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw managed to impress the young Rainer Maria Rilke merely by sitting before the former poet’s idol and master, Auguste Rodin. “He stands excellently,” Rilke gushed in his letters, “with an energy in his keeping still and with such an absolute giving of himself to the hands of the sculptor.” Rainer, though a background figure at the time, and positively Lilliputian in reputation compared to the eminence of Shaw and Rodin, practically flung himself headlong into their graces. That’s not to suggest that he was sycophantic; merely, naturally, that this young Bohemian wanderer was excited to find himself in orbit with two of the century’s greatest minds and hands. “This personality of Shaw’s,” Rilke continues in his letter, “and his whole manner makes me desirous of reading a few more of his books … would sending me a few of his books be justified if I say that I am hoping to write a little thing about him?”

“Rodin had no interests outside his art,” Shaw later said. “He was the most painstaking sculptor I have ever met. I gave something like thirty sittings, in as many consecutive days, at his studio in Meudon. Rodin took a large number of profiles, adjusting my face by a fraction of an inch for each—spinning my head round by degrees. He took an immense number of measurements and made so many pencil marks on the clay that he used up three pencils before the sittings were over … Somewhere near the thirtieth day I asked him when the bust would be finished. ‘Finished?’ he said in surprise; ‘why, I have hardly begun!'”

“Yesterday,” Rilke wrote in a letter dated April 19th, “he seated Shaw in a cunning little child’s armchair (that ironic and by no means uncongenial scoffer was greatly entertained by all this) and cut off the head of the bust with a wire.” Rilke added that, rather than being perturbed by the sight of his effigy being cut into pieces, “Shaw, whom the bust was already remarkably like, in a superior sort of way, watched this decapitation with indescribable joy.”

“Rodin was a passionate collector of pebbles. He would go out to the beach, or into the street, and pick up any pebble presenting in his imagination a resemblance to human features. He also collected large pieces of rock, and for the same reason. At first he accommodated these treasures in glass cases in his own house, then, when the collection grew too big for that, he rented a separate building for them. It was a sign of the highest favour on the part of Rodin to present someone with one such pebble or piece of rock.”
~ George Bernard Shaw.

Shaw continued: “From the clay model he made two casts, one in marble and one in bronze. The bronze one is in my possession, while the marble one is in Dublin. For some unfathomable reason my friends and admirers have covered this marble bust with their pencilled signatures.”

Of Shaw, Rilke concluded that he “is a man who has a very good way of getting along with life, of putting himself into harmony with it … Proud of his works, like Wilde or Whistler, but without their pretentiousness, proud as a dog is proud of his master.”

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The City of Light (and Lunacy)

Rainer Maria Rilke

“I have a notion that, at big fires, a moment of extreme suspense can sometimes occur, when the jets of water slacken off, the firemen no longer climb, no one moves a muscle. Without a sound, a high black wall of masonry cants over up above, the fire blazing behind it, and, without a sound, leans, about to topple. Everyone stands waiting, shoulders tensed, faces drawn in around their eyes, for the terrible crash. That is how the silence is here.”

So says the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his 1910 semi-autobiography, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The topic of his trepidation is the city of Paris, where he stayed for an extended period of time at the opening of the twentieth century as a secretary and pupil to the sculptor Auguste Rodin.

Rilke found the City of Lights to be a dark, disconcerting place -the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow- far removed from the romantic imagery of riverside cafes and the white stainless marble of the Arc de Triomphe and the majesty of Tuileries. From behind the guise of the titular Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke saw a maze-like Paris slick with grease and full of air that reeked of iodoform; the buildings sat in a state of half-collapse (on one, missing an exterior wall, he saw all the wallpaper of various apartments stitched together like a concrete patchwork quilt); trams and other vehicles congested the roads and rang their bells; and citizens with worn, cracked, dirty faces walked to and fro, to and fro, in streams of flesh and rags. The Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, the oldest hospital in the city, fascinated him – “In the days of King Clovis, people were already dying in some of the beds. Now they die in five-hundred and fifty-nine of them. It is a factory production line, of course…” Over all this pell-mell loomed the long dead neck of the Eiffel, a heap of gun-grey metal sticking out of the landscape like a thorn.

Rilke’s reason for staying in Paris was primarily economic, but another reason was that he sought inspiration. A couple of years before his arrival in Paris, he wrote to the famed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (who he had famously visited in 1899) from Germany, asking time and again for writing tips. Tolstoy’s reply was succinct:

“Write!”

The young poet found himself wandering through Europe in search of something transformational. He arrived in Paris on September 1st 1902, and it was in Rodin, not a writer, not a poet, that he found his inspiration. He wrote to his friend Lou Andreas-Salome, with whom he had visited Tolstoy:

“I still lack the discipline, the being able to work and the being compelled to work, for which I have longed for years. Do I lack the strength? Is my will sick? Is it the dream in me that hinders all action? Days go by and sometimes I hear life passing. And still nothing has happened. Still there is nothing real about me.”

Later, he wrote again to Lou:

“It is becoming apparent to me that I must follow him, Rodin: not in a sculptural reshaping of my creative work, but in the inner disposition of the artistic process; I must learn from him not how to fashion, but deep composure for the sake of the fashioning. I must learn to work, to work, Lou, I am so lacking in that! … Somehow I too must manage to make things; written, not plastic things, realities that proceed from handwork.”

“What inspired him about Rodin was how hard he worked,” noted Robert Hass. “Rilke’s idea of art had been based on the symbolist myth of solitary inspiration, in which an artist was a passive receptor of intimations of large spiritual realities. But Rodin made things, worked hard for long hours with a great concentration of energy.”

Rodin’s approach to art and work would inspire Rilke (“any kind of work delighted him: he worked even during meals,”) but the city itself disquieted him somewhat. His very first impressions were serene. On September 5th, 1902, just four days into Paris, he wrote to his wife Clara, “I went with Rodin into the garden, and we sat down on a bench which looked out wonderfully over Paris. It was still and beautiful.” By New Years Eve of the same year, he wrote to a friend: “I really wanted to tell you about Paris. Dear Otto Modersohn, stick to your country! Paris is a difficult, difficult, anxious city … one must suffer from the cruelty and confusion of the streets and the monstrosity of the gardens, people, and things. To my anguished feeling, Paris has something unspeakably dismaying. It has lost itself utterly, it is tearing like a star off its course towards some dreadful collision. So must the cities have been of which the Bible tells that the wrath of God rose up behind them to overwhelm them and shatter them.”

Paris had fallen in Rilke’s esteem, from a “great city”, to a Sodom or Gomorrah.

“One goes through smells as through many sad rooms… And what people I meet… almost every day: fragments of caryatids on whom the whole pain still lay, the entire structure of pain, under which they were living, slow as tortoises… and under the foot of each day that trod on them, they were enduring like tough beetles… twitching like bits of a big chopped-up fish that is already rotting but still alive… Oh, what kind of a world is that! Pieces, pieces of people, parts of animals, leftovers of things that have been, and everything still agitated, as though driven about helter-skelter in an eerie wind, carried and carrying, falling and overtaking each other as they fall.”

It’s hard to see Rilke’s Paris today. Even with all our high-school lessons about Robespierre’s short, bloody reign, it’s still difficult to comprehend that this was a city that once slaked its thirst for revolution on the blood of the bourgeoisie  before the movement ultimately cannibalised itself, capitalising ‘terror’ along the way. The city’s loose relationship with sanity was most notably announced to the world in the aforementioned Revolutionary Age; later, the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, an eminent expert on neurosis and a teacher to Sigmund Freud, would conduct landmark studies into hypnosis and hysteria at the city’s Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital. This hospital originally served Paris as a gunpowder factory, then as a prison for prostitutes, and then a madhouse where, during the revolutionary riots of 1792, it was stormed and twenty-five women were dragged from their cells and massacred outside its doors.  The Hospital’s gardens, according to one lithograph, teemed with those overcome with megalomania, dementia, acute and erotic mania, and melancholia, (modern day patients have included Michael Schumacher, Jacques Chirac, Gérard Depardieu, and the fatally wounded Diana Spencer – we can infer that Salpêtrière’s wards and gardens are now noticeably quieter.) “I am in dread of all these hospitals everywhere,” Rilke wrote. “You suddenly sense that in this vast city there are legions of the sick, armies of the dying, whole populations of the dead.”

“And all these people,” Rilke continued in his letters, “men and women who are in some kind of transition, perhaps from madness to health, or perhaps into madness; all with something infinitely delicate in their faces, a love or knowledge or joy, as if it were a light burning just a little dimly and fitfully, which could surely grow bright once again if only someone were to see and help… but there is no one who does…”

But Paris, during the Second Industrial Revolution, or the so-called Age of Synergy, was host to all manner of visiting visionaries who came, saw, and lost their minds in the jumble. One of Rodin’s lovers, the sculptor and artist Camille Claudel, lost her mind in 1905, destroyed a great deal of her own work, developed a persecution complex and accused Rodin himself of stealing her ideas and even of conspiring to kill her. Eventually, she sequestered herself away from the public, and then spent the last three decades of her life in an asylum.

The young Arthur Rimbaud, nicknamed the “infant Shakespeare.” Rimbaud didn’t find himself maddened by Paris, rather the reverse.

Poet and l’enfant terrible Arthur Rimbaud made Paris his playground in the 1870’s. In addition to teetering around drunk and high, he stripped naked in front of his neighbours; wiped his backside with the inventor Charles Cos’ journals; attempted to stab the journalist and satirist Etienne Carjat with a sword-cane; and, allegedly, ejaculated into the musician Ernest Cabaner’s milk whilst the pianist was out of the room. On his first ever trip to Paris, Rimbaud in fact found himself in trouble the moment his train pulled into the station “Arrested getting off the train,” he wrote to an old teacher in 1870, “for not having a sou and owing the railway thirteen francs.” By 1872 he was playfully writing his return address on letters as ‘Parashit’, giving us some small indication of his feelings regarding the Capital, (though it should be noted that the young Rimbaud displayed an irreverent attitude towards almost everything he encountered.) Still, he found time to appreciate the beauty of the city, though his anecdotes are a strange alchemy of poetic peacefulness, hedonism and frustration:

“Last month, my room in the rue Monsieur-le-Prince looked out on a garden in the lycée Saint-Louis. There were enormous trees under my narrow window. At three in the morning, the candle goes pale: all the birds call out at once in the trees: it’s over. No more work … At five [am], I went down to buy some bread: that’s the time. The workmen are on the move everywhere. For me, it’s time to get drunk in the wine-shops … I don’t see the morning, I don’t sleep, I suffocate. And that’s it.”

Still, Rimbaud fed on the city’s mad energy, and found the countryside intolerable. Whilst visiting the Canton d’Attigny he wrote: “I’m abominably hard up. Not a book, not a bar within range, not one incident in the streets. What a horror the French countryside is.” Rimbaud retired from poetry and literature at the age of twenty, then became a travelling vagabond, a circus traveller, a soldier in the Dutch Colonial Army, a déserteur, a quarry foreman, a trader and a gunrunner. He traded weaponry -and debts- with King Menelik II of Abyssinia (later, Ethiopia), complained about the country, the indigenous tribespeople, the Africans, the English, the French, the European winters, his business partners, his wages, his health. “I’m past thirty,” he said in one letter to his family, “and have had a pretty bad time, and I can’t see that that is going to end, far from it, or at least that it’s going to end by getting any better.” This could have been prophetic: the ex-poet contracted rheumatism and an inflammation in his right leg that caused him incessant pain. “I’ve become a skeleton,” he said, “I scare people. My back is all raw from the bed; I don’t sleep for a minute.” Rimbaud returned to France, and his leg was amputated on the 24th May, 1891. “Death would have been preferable,” he stated, before admitting: “However stupid his existence may be, man still clings to it…”

In 1891, Rimbaud’s sister wrote to their mother: “Here we have a poor boy (Arthur) who is slowly leaving us, his life is a matter of time, a few months perhaps … he weeps over the present in which he suffers cruelly, he takes me in his arms sobbing and shouting and begging me not to abandon him … On waking, he looks out of the window at the sun, which is still shining in a cloudless sky, and begins to weep, saying that never again will he see the sun outside. ‘I shall go under the earth,’ he says to me, ‘and you’ll be walking in the sunshine!’ And that is how it is all day long, a nameless despair, an everlasting lament.”

Rimbaud, wasting away in a Marseilles hospital, dictated one last letter on November 9th, 1891, and died the next day with, as his sister wrote, “all his paralysed, mutilated, dead limbs around him.” He was thirty-seven years old. Probably the most insane thing about Rimbaud was not his European antics and early, incendiary poetic career, but that he gave it all up and without nary an explanation.

Some years after Rimbaud’s demise, and a few years before Rilke’s arrival in Paris, came the Swedish author, painter and playwright, August Strindberg. Strindberg, like Rilke, recorded his experiences in a semi-autobiographical work, written between 1896-7 and ominously titled The Inferno. “There was some talk of putting me into an asylum because of my tragedy,” Strindberg wrote to Friedrich Nietzsche, referring to his 1887 blasphemous work, The Father (the correspondence between the two writers would come to an abrupt close in 1889 when Nietzsche, of course, lost his mind). The content of The Inferno seems like an appeal to be sectioned.

According to this work, Strindberg spent his time in Paris, also like Rilke, as a tortured, aimless flâneur, and his experiences were marred by paranoia, hallucinations, misogyny, misanthropy, and quixoticism. What Carl Jung would simply term synchronicity (or most of us would dismiss as coincidence) Strindberg saw as either divine or infernal intervention. There were ‘Powers’ at work, diverting or driving his destiny from beyond the thin curtain of reality. At first these coincidences, or interventions, were benign. He frequently saw his initials, and those of his absent wife, inscribed or painted on walls and gates. Later, he reads a work by Mathieu Orfila, in which he suspects he has found the key to “lay[ing] down the formula for sulphur,” (at this time, Strindberg is striving to become an accomplished alchemist.) Later, in a churchyard at Montparnasse, he stumbles upon a statue of Orfila, and then, “a week later, passing through the Rue d’Assas, I stop to admire a house which looks like a convent. A large shield on the wall informs me that it is ‘Hotel Orfila’. Again and again, Orfila!”

August Strindberg, circa 1891.  Amateur alchemist. "I haven't a sou left, and my tobocca and postage stamps run out. Then I rally my willpower for a last attempt: I will make gold ... I manage to borrow some money and procure the necessary apparatus: an oven, smelting-saucepans, wood-coals, bellows, and tongs. The heat is terrific and, like a workman in a smithy, I sweat before the open fire, stripped to the waits. But sparrows have built their nests in the chimney, and smoke pours out of it and into the room."

August Strindberg, circa 1891. Amateur alchemist. “I haven’t a sou left, and my tobacco and postage stamps run out. Then I rally my willpower for a last attempt: I will make gold … I manage to borrow some money and procure the necessary apparatus: an oven, smelting-saucepans, wood-coals, bellows, and tongs. The heat is terrific and, like a workman in a smithy, I sweat before the open fire, stripped to the waist. But sparrows have built their nests in the chimney, and smoke pours out of it and into the room … not a grain of gold is there, and I give up my effort.”

Later delusions were slightly more antagonistic: Stindberg imagines that an American artist friend is in fact a doctor who has fled the United States, and seeks to catch him out. An old rival comes to Paris solely to destroy him. He visits another old friend who Strindberg has inadvertently slated in one of his books and, persecution complex and paranoia in full sway, he imagines that this friend is out to “interfere with my destiny.” This friend’s brother and sister later lose their minds and, a year later, the brother kills himself – to which Strindberg can only gloat: “three distinct blows descended on the head of this man who had wished to play with lightning.” Again in Paris, he sees the shape of Napoleon and his marshals forming on the cupolas and cornices of buildings. A cushion in his room takes on the appearance of a sculpted head.

One evening, upon returning home, “I discover in the half-shadow of the alcove where my bed is, what looks like a gigantic Zeus reposing on it.” At another point, when walking through a town on the outskirts of Paris, he comes across, in an alley, a suited knight, sessile and protruding from the ground. This knight points out to Strindberg more elemental properties to aid him in his alchemy.

All of this from a man who claimed that “I have never been plagued by visions,” but who then bookends such a statement by describing his many visions of historical figures, dreaded associates, and even demons – by the point the latter appears, Strindberg is so assaulted by visions that he can no longer be surprised: “I am greeted on my return by a mediaeval demon, a devil with a horned head and other appurtenances. I was not at all frightened; it looked so natural…”

“I edify myself by reading The Book of Job, and arrive at an ever clearer conviction that the Eternal has handed me over to Satan to be tried. This thought comforts me again, and suffering seems to be a mark of confidence on the part of the Almighty.”

Rilke also spoke of reading the Book of Job within his first few months in Paris. In July 1903 he wrote: “And often before going to sleep, I read the thirtieth chapter in the Book of Job, and it was all true of me, word for word.” The two even shared anxiety over their hotel neighbours. Strindberg wrote in The Inferno:

“My curiosity is aroused by a stranger who has taken the room on that side of mine where my writing table is placed. The Unknown never speaks; he appears to be occupied in writing on the other side of the wall which divides us. Curiously enough, whenever I move my chair, he moves his also, and, in general, imitates all my movements as though he wished to annoy me … If I prepare to go to sleep,  he also prepares to go to sleep … when I lie down in bed, I hear him lie down on the bed by my wall. I hear him stretch himself out in parallel to me; he turns  over the pages of a book, then puts out the lamp,breathes loud, turns himself on his side, and goes to sleep. He apparently occupies the rooms on both sides of me, and it is very unpleasant to be beset on two sides at once.

Rilke, in the guise of Brigge, wrote in his Notebooks:

“There is a creature that is perfectly harmless if you set eyes on it; you hardly notice it and quickly forget it. Should it somehow get into your ears unseen, however, it begins to evolve, and hatches, as it were; there have been cases where it made its way into the brain and flourished there, with devastating effect, like the pneumococci in dogs that enter by the nose.
This creature is your neighbour.
Now since I have been living like this in various places, on my own, I have had countless neighbours, above and below, to the right or the left, at times all four at once. I could simply write the history of my neighbours; that would be a life’s work.”

One can almost imagine these three poets -existentialist, libertine, and madman- as neighbours, cell-mates, jammed into the building’s capillaries, their ears to the walls, each one hunched over their writing desks and contemplating and scorning the other…

August Strindberg left Paris and recovered from his lapse of sanity, and his famed and celebrated career continued until his death, presumably from stomach cancer, in 1912.

Arthur Rimbaud, as noted, renounced his vaunted poetic career -and Europe- and fulfilled a variety of roles within a Colonial administration in Africa. After contracting an inflammation in his leg that was later diagnosed as cancer, Rimbaud’s limb was amputated, and he floundered for the short remainder of his life. He died, paralysed and in physical ruin, in 1891. He remains regarded as a boy genius. His epitaph reads, Pray for him.

Rainer Maria Rilke, after the publication of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, wrote his poetic masterpiece, Duino Elegies, which he pieced together between 1912 and 1922. He was visiting Germany when the Great War broke out, and his belongings in Paris were all auctioned off. He was drafted and worked as a clerk in the War Records Office. After the war he returned to his life as a poet. Rilke, who wrote in his Notebooks that “in sanatoriums … people die so readily and with so much gratitude towards their doctors and nurses,” died, open-eyed and in the arms of his doctor, in a sanatorium on December 29th, 1926. The cause of death was leukaemia. His epitaph reads, Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight of being no one’s sleep under so many lids.

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