Medieval and Renaissance Artefacts in the Wyvern Collection

[© 2021 Thames & Hudson]

The Wyvern Collection of Medieval arts and crafts is one of the best-quality collections in the world. It is one of the largest in private hands. This book is the fourth volume in the catalogue raisonné of the collection. Including the 210 entries in this volume, the total number of entries in the series is 744 so far. Further volumes are under preparation.  

Fittingly, the first item described is a chrismatory, a receptable for chrism (blessed oil used in liturgy). The small casket was made by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen around 800 and is extremely rare. It has been altered several times, mostly in ancient times. It probably came through the dissolution of the French ecclesiastical institutions during the French Revolution. Like all of the artefacts in the collection, they show signs of wear and repair. Gemstones have frequently been pried off.    

The enamels – largely from Limoges, a centre of enamel production during the Medieval and Renaissance periods – present us with an in-depth selection of the high-end pieces produced for churches and private commissioners. The precious materials used demonstrate the importance of this type of work to the Limoges painters. The grisaille panels of the 1530-45 are striking. A Flagellation of Christ (c. 1550-60) is near grisaille, with only the flesh tones lightly tinted and the bloody wounds of Christ stark crimson. Small enamelled panels have come from objects that were broken up, with the silver or gold being melted down. The depth of the collection allows us to see how these parts would have been combined.   

Reliquaries feature in this catalogue. Reliquaries are elaborate containers designed to hold small fragments associated with the lives of holy figures (Christ, the Holy Family, saints), including precious metals, gems and exotic materials – such as tropical shells, coral and other curiosities. Inset enamelled panels are common in the reliquaries in the Wyvern Collection. Plaques with religious scenes were made to adorn book covers. Another outstanding treasure is a plaque showing the incredulity of St. Thomas encountering the risen Christ, made in enamel and silver in Abruzzo, c. 1430-40. Flowers are in silver and vines are of twisted silver wire.  

[© 2021 Thames & Hudson]

These paxes, pyxes, chrismatories, reliquaries, monstrances, chalices, censers, incense boats, crosses and other liturgical objects form a veritable survey of the most traditional of Christian spiritual metalwork. There are non-Christian artefacts, such as brooches, rings, cups, horns, tiles, dishes and plates. An oddity is a letter from Edward III granting fishing rights to the Earl of Cornwall, no doubt preserved because of the elaborate giant royal wax seal. There are some handsome helmets with gilding. The artisans who worked to decorate armour were those who would have worked on the type of liturgical objects in the Wyvern Collection.   

Perhaps the most remarkable pieces are the stained glass from the South Netherlands, c. 1490-1530, painted contemporaneously with Bosch. These are small roundels are of religious scenes, painted with exquisite care and skill. Another fine piece is a salt well (c. 1560-70) from the workshop of Pierre Raymond is in grisaille enamel with gilding and is decorated with various animals on its sides; there is a pelican in the shallow rounded well. Most of the objects came from central and northern Europe.

The publication is thorough, with detailed descriptions, bibliographies and provenance for each artefact, with moderate or large colour illustration, some with multiple views. Scholars have been consulted to identify origins and materials and the commentaries describe the notable features and functions of artefacts. Bibliographies and auction backgrounds for each entry allow researchers to trace ownership and follow the scholarship. The book is sumptuously produced, with high-quality printing, generous size and a cloth hardcover binding. This volume will appeal to collectors, auction houses, historians and specialist libraries.

Paul Williamson, The Wyvern Collection: Medieval and Renaissance Enamels and Other Works of Art, Thames & Hudson, 2021, cloth hb, 480pp, 400 col. illus., £65, ISBN 978 0 500 02456 0

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Robespierre: Incorruptible or Tyrant?

Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is a new book on the revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794). Written by prominent French intellectual Marcel Gauchet (b. 1946), it presents a personal view of the problem of Robespierre. For the supporter of humanism and secularism, Robespierre is both a hero and villain, embodying the best and worst of human nature. Rather than a biography that mines primary sources, Gauchet’s book traces Robespierre’s actions during the Revolution. Even today, Robespierre has supporters (who consider him a misled pioneer of human rights) and detractors (who view him as a reckless, paranoid autocrat).

Gauchet is a philosopher, professor of social sciences and prolific author. Gauchet comes at the subject as a moderate Socialist with liberalist tendencies. (By British standards, he would be considered a left of centre.) In the introduction to Gauchet’s book (originally published in 2018), David A. Bell and Hugo Drochon frame Gauchet’s argument. They give biographical sketches of Robespierre and Gauchet to inform non-French readers about background. The translation reads well but the decision not to translate long titles of speeches and pamphlets will vex non-Francophones.

Well-educated (as a lawyer), intelligent and hardworking, Robespierre was a member of the Legislative Assembly when the Revolution commenced. He was initially a principled liberalist, arguing for a constitutional figurehead monarchy, the extension of the franchise and ending capital punishment. He was a tireless advocate for acceptance of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Initially an unimportant figure, Robespierre’s eloquent speeches attracted admiration. Part of the Montagnard faction in the newly elected Convention in 1792, Robespierre became ever more extreme.

By the spring of 1793, Robespierre was at the head of the Committee of Public Safety, the new Republic’s government. He used his legal training and oratorical skills to justify the Terror, during which over ten thousand were executed as counter-revolutionaries after show trials. According to Robespierre, the torrential bloodletting and curbs on freedom were only ever extraordinary measures, temporary, contingent and regrettably necessary in the face of counter-revolutionary activities domestic and foreign. When Robespierre’s accelerating regime of fratricide was on the verge of threatening virtually every member of the Convention, the members turned on him. Denounced and arrested, Robespierre was sent to the guillotine on 10 Thermidor, Year 2 (28 July 1794).      

The legacy of the French Revolution (in France) was the establishment of a secular state, institution of democracy, the supremacy of humanism as a national value, the enforced fusion of the wishes of individuals with the intentions of the state and the authority of the state to control and kill citizens in the furtherance of its continuation. Robespierre’s intentions were utopian and it is precisely because they were impossible that the failure to implement his policies in practice led to violence. When an ideologue encounters opposition, it is merely a test of his resolve and his enemies are the enemies of the people and it is in the name of the people that the ideologue will put to the sword their enemies.

This quote shows Robespierre at his most trenchant. “There are now only two parties in France, the people and their enemies. All these rogues and scoundrels, who eternally conspire against the rights of man and against the happiness of all peoples, must be exterminated. […] There are only two parties, one of men who are corrupt, the other of men who are virtuous.” Here we have the cry of the political radical throughout the ages, echoing unchanged.

Gauchet has precepts which – while it would be insulting to describe as unexamined – verge on the banal. The Revolution was terrible because of the bloodshed but the establishment of democracy was worth it. (“The truth is that the ends were just and the means were horrifying.”) Was it? There are strong arguments against democracy (as presented in my article here), and Gauchet’s blithe assumption asks too much of a critical readership. French monarchists and staunch Catholics actively opposed democracy until the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

Robespierre was no atheist. His promotion of the Cult of the Supreme Being – an abstraction of rationalism, scientism or humanism, call it what you will – was not the act of a cynical atheist but the act of a believer. His own need for religion led him to found a state religion, in order to unify people and provide a spiritual justification for the radical social changes wrought by the Revolution. Robespierre (according to Gauchet) probably had to force through the decree of the worship of the Supreme Being despite the hostility or scepticism of the Committee for Public Safety. It was the deep antipathy of the Convention towards that decree that sparked Robespierre’s show trials of moderates, which frightened and angered members and led to his downfall.  

Gauchet finds much to admire in Robespierre: his opposition to slavery, his championing of the common man, the support for human rights, his brilliant speeches. Gauchet, as a centrist, perhaps predictably considers Robespierre neither “saint or the demon that he has so comprehensively and so complacently been made out to be. The roles of heroic martyr or bloodstained monster in which most historians have tried to confine him are of little use in discovering who he was and what his life meant.”

Gauchet interprets his subject as driven by circumstances. He was made by 1789 and was transformed into an extremist by the storming of the Tuileries Gardens on 10 August 1792. Gauchet rejects interpretations that dig into Robespierre’s biography or attempt to provide a psychological explanation to his actions. The result is that Gauchet’s Robespierre can seem like mechanical soldier, walking implacably in any direction into which he is set, like a chattering automaton without free will.

Gauchet (and modern French intellectuals) erroneously divides people into those who revile Robespierre for his murderous callousness but admire his ideals and those who regret his excesses but consider his aims and achievements ultimately worth the price. There is a disregarded third group – those who reject the values of the French Revolution. Ultimately, Robespierre can only seem heroic if you consider his values worthwhile and his values definitely are contestable.

Gauchet’s Robespierre sets out the autocratic and liberal facets of his subject but it goes no further because Gauchet cannot see further, with one exception. Gauchet writes something insightful when he describes Robespierre’s fatalism before his removal from power. Robespierre’s religious devotion to the cause of the emancipation of the French people had a martyr-like quality. “Ultimately, self-abnegation, the surrender to something greater than oneself, could be motivated only by the conviction that by acting in this way one could once more act in accordance with the design of the supreme arbiter of all things. In the absence of a shared recognition of some higher authority than man, there could be no justice among men.”

Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most is, notwithstanding the limited perspective of the author, an accessible current-day overview of a pivotal figure in French history.

Marcel Gauchet,  Malcolm DeBevoise (trans.), Robespierre: The Man who Divides Us the Most, 3 May 2022, Princeton University Press, cloth hardback, 200pp + xxii, £28, ISBN 978 0 691 21294 4

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit http://www.alexanderadams.art

“Buccaneer of the Antarctic”

“”Men go into the void spaces of the world for various reasons. Some are actuated simply by a love of adventure, some have the keen thirst for scientific knowledge, and others again are drawn away from the trodden paths by the ‘lure of little voices’, the mysterious fascination of the unknown. I think that in my own case it was a combination of these factors that determined me to try my fortune once again in the frozen south.”

Shackleton’s Antarctica, Ernest Shackleton, The Folio Society (£195)

“Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) is one of the great figures of British history. The Irish-born British Antarctic explorer was calm under pressure, stirringly brave, financially impecunious and hugely loyal — a true buccaneer born into an Edwardian era, when radios, cars and aircraft were making exploration a technological business. Shackleton was not just the end of the line of Captains Cook, Ross and Franklin; he was the last British buccaneer, taking to the high seas in search of unseen shores. He risked his life but was fiercely devoted to the welfare of the men under his command. His boundless optimism (fettered by shrewd calculation) lifted all. To commemorate the death of Shackleton, the Folio Society has published a handsome new boxset. Shackleton’s Antarctica collects The Heart of the Antarctic (1909) (in two volumes) and South (1919) reprinted in full.

“On Shackleton’s first journey south, he served on the Discovery, which was to explore the undiscovered continent of Antarctica over two seasons, from 1901-3. The commander was Robert Falcon Scott. The pair did not get along; Scott’s strict naval discipline and mood swings left many of the team uneasy and discontented….”

Read the full review at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/buccaneer-of-the-antarctic/

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

The Phoenicians

The latest addition to the series on lost civilisations by Reaktion Books is a book on the Phoenicians. Phoenician civilisation flourished from roughly 1200-332 BC along the Levant coast, principally along the modern-day Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian/Israeli coast. Vadim S. Jigoulov, lecturer at Morgan State University and Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, provides the general reader with a history of Phoenician history from prehistoric times to its final demise in 332 BC, with the conquest of Tyre by Alexander the Great. Carthage, the great city in Modern Tunisia, was extinguished as a distinct military and cultural outpost of the Phoenicians in 146 BC by Rome in the Third Punic War. Language, art, religion, coinage, trade and seacraft are given their own sections.

The author points out that the Phoenicians did not have a single civilisation but rather a group of poli (city-states) that pursued individual interests and shared a common language, alphabet and culture without a single monarch or central authority. The Phoenicians did not seem to see themselves as a single unified nation and it seems others did mainly for ease of reference, though certain poli had special links with other nations and foreign cities. It may be that the limited area of cultivatable land meant that a growing population had to seek income from foreign travel, hence the rise in maritime activities. (A Phoenician expedition is supposed to have circumnavigated Africa.) The search for resources also drove Phoenicians to found trading and production ports around the Mediterranean. This book outlines the sites of Phoenician population.

The city-island-ports of Arwad and Tyre protected the coast and the mountains provided some protection from the interior of Near Asia. Sidon and Byblos were also significant centres. Phoenicia came into existence due to the exploitation of natural resources of timber (principally cedar), tree resin, olives (and olive oil) and wine. Phoenicia’s access to the sea and its production of raw materials and manufactured goods made it an advantageous tributary. It seems that the Assyrians were content to allow the Phoenicians autonomy once a tribute was regularly paid. (When the Persian Empire rose, a similar pattern continued.) The decline of Assyria apparently drove the Phoenicians to be more active as traders, particularly in the Western Mediterranean and Egypt. The ties were such that Phoenician royalty were sometimes entombed in sarcophagi made in the Egyptian style, as found in the tomb of Tabnit, king of Sidon, early 5th Century BC. Trade with the Greeks and the islands exported Phoenician goods and coinage. Although the Phoenicians did set up coastal colonies, they were not an imperial power. The degree of trade and expertise in maritime travel meant that the Phoenicians were known in the region from an early time.

A chapter on coinage assesses what we can glean from numismatics. For a trading nation, the Phoenicians adopted coinage late, in the mid-5th Century BC – 150 years after the Greeks and Persians. Jigoulov’s estimation is that coinage was adopted from the Greeks to ease transactions between Phoenician poli. Commonly, payment was made in ingots of silver and gold. Coins were more valuable than the raw metals, thus was lighter to use and easier to handle than ingots between citizens of different poli. Other reasons are discussed. The plausible reason that coins were used to pay rowers and mercenaries has been disfavoured because little Phoenician coinage has been found in the Persian interior, suggesting the coins circulated mainly between coastal cities. Experts read the iconography, weights/denominations and distribution to infer facts about the society’s economics and the way the rulers intended to project power, allegiance and deference. A Tyrian coin featured a dolphin and a murex shell. Murex was the crustacean that produced the dye that made Tyrian purple that made the city rich and renowned. Sidonian royals sought to affirm their allegiance to Persia by adopting common standards and symbols.

The Greek alphabet was developed from Phoenician, as the Greeks themselves noted. It is assumed that the widespread use of the easy-to-follow-and-use Phoenician script throughout the Mediterranean Sea region led to its adoption by different peoples. Over 10,000 inscriptions in Phoenician and Punic have been deciphered but longer writings have proved elusive. Disagreement regarding the rate of literacy among Phoenicians continues; writings that have survived tend to be legal or commercial in character. The author suggests that common people may have understood little more than numbers and common signs, with merchants restricting their writing to accounts, records and agreements. Although libraries of Phoenician writings did exist, it seems that these writings on parchment, papyrus or other organic supports have not survived and were not transmitted through copying by other civilisations. Thus, although we have written accounts of the Phoenicians, they come mainly from the Greeks and Romans. References acknowledge the trading influence and maritime accomplishments of the Phoenicians, but tend to characterise this merchant race (as encountered in trade) to be untrustworthy and oath breakers.   

On Jewish literary sources (Biblical and non-Biblical) the author writes: “Though not devoid of ideological bias, they nevertheless point out the core qualities associated with the Phoenicians – their skills in maritime navigation, trade and their ability to manoeuvre the political landscape by making treaties with other royals. In treating Tyre and Sidon as independent city-states, the ancient Jewish writings also offer a unique Near Eastern, as opposed to Mediterranean or Homeric, view of Phoenicia and the Phoenicians.”[i] It seems that the Sidonians acted as envoys and delegates between their Persian overlords and the Athenians. Sidonians resident in Athens were accorded special status and exempt from a common tax there.  

The gods of Phoenicia had different levels of devotion in different poli. The main gods were: Astarte (or Inanna and Ishtar), consort of Melqart, goddess of procreation and sexuality, most venerated in Sidon; Eshmun, god of healing and well-being; Melqart, god of death and resurrection, worshipped in Tyre; Baal (judge and god of weather and the natural cycle), Baal Shamem (god of seafaring) and Baal Zaphon (god of storms) were sometimes considered separate entities; Baalat Gubal, who was consort of Baal, worshipped in Byblos; Baal Hammon and his consort Tanit (protector of Carthage and guide to sailors), were worshipped in Carthage (potentially through the sacrifice of children). Lack of written records and the brief character of inscriptions mean information on Phoenician religion is sparse. Temples have been overbuilt or converted. Later accounts describe Phoenician priestesses as shaven headed, barefoot and celibate. Common ritual worship included feasts, drinking, processions with musicians and burned offerings. It seems the afterlife was a staple of the religion, with offerings left in tombs to accompany the dead to their afterlife – practices that seem close to those of the Egyptians.

It is thought that there may have been Phoenician influence on the architecture and technical aspects of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, as we are told that Phoenicians provided at least bronze fittings for it. There is also an absence of icons, which suggests that although the Bible mentions worship of Baal and sometimes statues to him, aniconism may have been a feature of Phoenician religion and that this may have influenced the Judaic prohibition of icons.

For a nation of traders, travellers and artisans – a nation with a distinctly diffuse and undirected character – the cultural production of the Phoenicians is difficult to summarise, understandably. Artistically and architecturally, Phoenicia was mixed, with tendencies towards “syncretism, eclecticism and multiculturalism”.[ii] This can be seen in the coinage. “In terms of iconography, Byblian coinage was syncretistic, as it frequently featured Egyptian, Greek, Sidonian and Persian images.”[iii] The borrowings came from the schools of the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians. The destruction of Carthage and overbuilding of other Phoenician poli has eradicated much of the architecture and the literature (whatever that may have comprised of) has been lost. Being in centres of continuous occupation has meant that archaeological sites have been compromised or are now inaccessible.

Phoenician artefacts found abroad are hard to classify as they display multiple influences and iconography. The pottery is often classed as mediocre, comparatively, and it seems that there was a class stratification, with the rich using metal vessels (often imported from Greece and Cyprus) and the poor using crockery that imitated the metal objects. Domestic and ritual vessels were not differentiated. Phoenician glass production was a major contribution to Mediterranean culture and a source of income for Phoenician cities, especially Sidon. Engraved and embossed silver platters and bowls were highly prized abroad but it is unclear where and why these were produced. It may be that the Phoenician style became imitated and diffused, because few have been found at Phoenician sites. Relief carvings in ivory were used for decoration and displayed strong Egyptian influence and apparently went into decline when ivory supplies petered out as Syrian elephant herds were depleted.

Terracotta figurines were cheap and commonly used in Phoenician settlements. Often associated with domestic worship, these figures and reliefs were sometimes crude. Some are decorated with metal insets and overlays. Of all the figurative art, these terracottas are the most original and indigenous of the products of Phoenicians. Several remarkable and powerful masks are reproduced in this book. Local sandstone and limestone is easily eroded, so many statues have not come down intact. Imported Greek marble was used for high-status statuettes and sarcophagi, which show a high degree of craftsmanship (albeit with little originality) and much Egyptian influence.

Overall, The Phoenicians is a clear, up-to-date and balanced assessment of one of the less known great civilisations of the past. It has maps, photographs of objects and recreation illustrations. Suitable for anyone keen to understand the basics, become familiar with current historical debates and comprehend Phoenicia in relation to historical rivals and partners.

Vadim S. Jigoulov, The Phoenicians, Reaktion Books, November 2021, hardback, 248pp, 23 mono/39 col. illus, £15, ISBN 978 1789 144 789

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


[i] P. 78

[ii] P. 40

[iii] P. 105

Reportage from the Weimar Republic

“Berlin is a young and unhappy city-in-waiting. There is something fragmentary about its history. Its frequently interrupted, still more frequently diverted or averted development has been checked and advanced, and by unconscious mistakes as well as by bad intentions; the many obstacles in its path have, it would seem, helped it to grow. The wickedness, sheer cluelessness, and avarice of its rulers, builders, and protectors draw up the plans, muddle them up again, and confusedly put them into practice.”

Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was one of the most successful journalists of the Weimar Republic, Germany, 1918-1933. He was born in Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a Jewish family. He studied at Vienna University before he served in the army from 1916 to 1918. After a spell as a journalist writing for left-wing publications in Vienna, he moved to Berlin 1920. It was there he became one of the highest paid journalists in Germany. Roth continued to work as a journalist, essayist and novelist in Berlin until 1933, when the assumption of power of the National Socialists put in peril the livelihoods and security of Jews. He then moved to Paris, writing up until his death in 1939.

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-33 and The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars are collections of Roth’s journalism, principally set in Germany. The period 1918-1939 was hugely important in European history, thick with the reverberations of the Great War and the rise of major political mass movements. The Weimar Republic is synonymous with the fragility of liberal democracy, the struggle of the population to live in straitened times, political factionalisation, governmental turbulence, female emancipation, manic hedonism and cultural decadence. There was a great flourishing of culture but not all of it healthy, as befitted a period when there was a great loosening of moral standards in the wake of the financial, commercial, military and social standards following the collapse of Germany in the Great War. Roth was witness to elements of this.

What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-33 consists of articles written for three different Berlin newspapers between 1920 and 1923 and then articles in the Frankfurter Zeitung up until his departure from Germany. Roth’s subjects range from the specific to the general. He visits the Jewish quarter in Hirtenstraße, off Alexanderplatz, to observe the street life. The mixture of Western and Eastern Jews catches Roth’s eye, as does the juxtaposition of legal and illegal trade and the fluid boundaries between business and social communication. “It was a hot day. All the doors were open, as were many windows. There was a reek of onions, fat, and fruit, of infants, mead, wash, and sewers.” In a nearby boarding house 120 Jewish refugees from the East are accommodated. They comprise a fraction of the 50,000 Jews from the East who moved following the Great War. He writes of the tension caused by the influence of foreigners. The German authorities face a dilemma: allow these immigrants the right to work and they will not leave (despite being largely unwanted and having few employment skills); if refused the right to work, the immigrants may leave but they may also turn to crime. In a 1933 article, Roth reflects on the rise of the Nazis, stating that their anti-Semitism was simply an extension of Prussian authoritarianism and that Christianity too was an associated target for Hitler’s new regime.

Roth went to dive bars in search of characters and stories. He found shivering prostitutes by the stove, toothless, their pimp nearby with a mouthful of fixed teeth (a treasure chest, not a mouth”). He describes the squalor and air of aimless time-filling in twilight venues with worn out whores, scarred veterans, professional housebreakers and foreign hucksters on the make. There are pairs who work as electric lightbulb thieves. One climbs on the other’s shoulders and unscrews lightbulbs from the entrance lobbies of West End houses. They then sell the bulbs to electricians. The working-class are so poor the burn fallen leaves in their stoves. It reads like Alfred Döblin’s underworld novel Alexanderplatz, Berlin or the satirical prints of George Grosz.

Roth visits a homeless shelter off Prenzlauer Allee. “Naked iron bedsteads, wire-mesh beds for penance. Every homeless person is given a think blanket of papery stuff, which admittedly, is clean and disinfected. And on these beds they sit and sleep and lie, the homeless people. Grotesque-looking figures, as though hauled from the lower depths of world literature. People you wouldn’t believe. Old graybeards in rags, tramps hauling a motley collection of the past bundled up on their crooked backs. Their boots are powdered with the dust of decades. Middle-aged men, with sunburned faces chiseled by hunger and toughness. Young fellows in baggy pants, with eyes that look at you with a mixture of fear and confrontation. Women in brown rags, shameless and shy, curious and apathetic, quivering and resigned. A hundred of them to a room. Women, grown men, and youths kept apart.”

Sometimes the respectable and the underworld mingle. Before the war, steam bathhouses were places for drinkers to rejuvenate themselves in the small hours before a day’s work. By 1920, when they re-opened after the resumption of reliable coal supplies, they became dosshouses for tramps unable to find shelter. “The grotesque spectacle of a hot room at night, containing sixteen naked homeless people, trying to sweat out the soot and coal smoke of a train journey, gives rise to a positively infernal range of interpretations. A series of illustrations, say, to Dante’s journeys in the underworld. […] I don’t know if people in hell look as ridiculous as they do here. […] I have a feeling that the witching hour does something to exacerbate the already intrinsically comical condition of nudity. It’s such a bizarre notion that between midnight and 2 A.M. there are people being steamed.”

The nameless dead are the subject of a vivid passage of description. “These dead people are ugly and reproachful. They look as they did when they were first found, mortal terror on their faces. […] Their death agonies keep their eyes half open, the white shimmers under their eyelids. […] The drowned bodies are puffed up and slime encrusted, they resemble badly mummified Egyptian kings. The crusts on their faces are cracked and split like a poor-quality plaster cast. The women’s breasts are grotesquely swollen, their features contorted, their hair like a pile of sweepings on their swollen heads.”

In less potent pieces, the traffic congestion of Berlin is described, the debate over abolishing trams – something that happened in West Berlin after 1945 but not in the East – is outlined, as are the pleasures of apartment watching from an S-Bahn train window. Many scenes revolve around Kurfürstendamm, the broad boulevard that was the centre of retail, entertainment and café culture in pre-division Berlin. Roth is fascinated by the bustle and human collisions in this street, regarding it with sardonic but affectionate eye. “A restaurant is a little piece of America, a café of France. Of course it looks nothing like New York or Paris, but it awakens a little echo of this or that. In their modesty the places think of themselves as successful copies, but in fact what they are is botched originals.”

There an elegy for Berlin’s last panopticon, which closed in 1923 and its contents and furnishings sold off in auction. The panopticon’s collection of curiosities (stuffed animals, skeletons, minerals, ethnographic oddities) and waxwork figures of notable personages – barely one step above a travelling curiosity show – was no match for the dazzling and daily-changing delights of the cinema theatre. Roth is aware that it is the end of an era. Characteristically, he cannot help noticing the inherent absurdity of the panopticon, even as he regrets its passing. “A wax mass murderer  is comical. But a wax Rothschild is also ridiculous. The medium has robbed the one of his gruesomeness and the other of his dignity.” One special curiosity is an account of a variant of the dance marathon spectacles made popular during the Depression. This Berlin variant is the six-day cycle race in a velodrome – an endurance spectacle more than a sporting contest – and it is dated 1925, a full two years after the first period of hyper-inflation afflicted Germany and also before the Great Depression. It is notable that such a humiliating spectacle was held and attended during a time when abject poverty was less prevalent. Perhaps that says something of the national character or the nature of Berlin. Roth observes the packed crowd, the barking of dogs and cries of spectators, the ripples of amusement and aggression in the auditorium. He sees the police preventing crushes and he sees pickpockets working the attendees.

Monotone illustrations – one for each article – shows a photograph (or drawing or poster) from the period, capturing a distinct and brief era in the life of Europe’s most rapidly changing metropolis.

Although based in Berlin, Roth travelled to France, Poland, Italy, Austria, the USSR, Albania and other countries. The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars is a selection of articles set outside Berlin. Roth visits the German coasts to document the impact of Hamburg’s Gold Mark currency (a foil for hyper-inflation), immigrants leaving for the USA and the delights of coastal resorts. Roth talks to inhabitants of the Ruhr Valley during mass unemployment and hears of desperation.  

There is greater variety in The Hotel Years than in the former book. There are reports of incidents and crimes. Roth tells the tale of Rose Gentschow, a 33-year-old prostitute addicted to morphine, whose modus operandi was to drug and rob clients. She worked Potsdamer Platz, a centre of traffic and commuting. One night she put too much morphine in a mark’s drink and he fell off his bar stool, dead. She put on trial for homicide. Roth does not write the outcome of the trial.  

Of Fascist Italy, Roth writes in 1928 that it was a police state, with draconian powers for law-enforcement agencies and mandatory carrying of identity papers. Foreign travel was limited by restricting the number of passports issued and heavy fines for anyone crossing the national border illegally. The category of a “citizen of ill repute” imposed the burden of surveillance and restricted opportunities. Roth does not outline what caused a person to fall into such a status – presumably acting in an anti-Fascist manner – nor does he intimate how common such persons were. All this contrasts with a common view of Fascist Italy as relatively relaxed socially.

The tours of the newly formed USSR are not as enlightening as one might like. There are a lot of tales of Russian train inspectors and customs officials, relying on Roth’s personal encounters. The best of the pieces is when Roth gets away from trains, border guards and ferries and gets into a truly distinct place. That article is set in Astrakhan. Flavoured by an albeit the easily appealing exoticism of the Orient, it is memorable and observant. “To be dressed for Astrakhan means wearing long hooded dust coats, like the horses. In the dimly illuminated night you can see ghosts being driven around by ghostly horses. […] Astrakhan has a technical college, libraries, clubs and theatres. Ice cream under a swaying arc lamp, fruit and marzipan behind bridal gauze. I pray for an end to the dust plague. The next day God sent a cloudburst. The ceiling of my hotel room, pampered by so much dust, wind and drought, promptly fell to the floor with shock. I hadn’t asked for as much as all that.”

Wherever Roth is, he finds a pungent image or crafts a startling phrase. In Tirana, “the women are quiet as wild beasts and unresponsive as the dead.” A sequence of articles cover the experience of staying at a typical hotel and the various individuals who fulfil different roles there: the concierge, the manager, the chef, the waiter, the maid. In a comic sketch, Roth describes the fearful effort of retrieving and replacing a heavy suitcase “that weighed more than I did” on an overhead luggage rack, for the benefit of an elegant woman. All the while he struggled to make the labour look as effortless as possible.

Is the comparison between Roth and George Orwell (as reporter) appropriate? Roth is certainly more a social commentator, humourist and street watcher than analyst or investigator. Hard figures are rarely found in these pieces. They were, of course, written for feuilletons (a newspaper section with commentary, sketches and cultural content rather than current events or hard news) and they have that quality of the eye in the street or the anecdotes of a flâneur, albeit more verifiable and grounded in social context. Roth shares some qualities of lightness, wit and curiosity with Billy Wilder (my review here). Readers may be a touch disappointed at the absence of quoted testimony of subjects and that the accounts are fairly short – mostly 800-2,000 words long. Some will hanker for a longer treatment, as Orwell gives in his books of reportage.

In terms of page count, The Hotel Years is better value, but What I Saw (with its single topic of Berlin and its inhabitants) is more focused as a reading experience and has illustrations, which the former book lacks. Both books have indices. Both books are good reading and recommended for anyone wishing to get a flavour of inter-war Europe, especially the Weimar Republic.

Joseph Roth, Michael Hofmann (trans.), What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-33, Granta, 2003, paperback, 228pp, £9.99, ISBN 978 1 84708 197 1

Joseph Roth, Michael Hofmann (trans.), The Hotel Years: Wanderings in Europe Between the Wars, Granta, 2016, paperback, 268pp, £9.99, ISBN 978 1 78378 128 7

Special thanks to RG and JMA for the donation of these books. To fund a review visit this page.

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To view my art visit www.alexanderadams.art

“Fernando Pessoa, Shadow of a Ghost”

“If, after I die, they should want to write my biography,

There’s nothing simpler.

I’ve just two dates – of my birth, and of my death.

In between the one thing and the other all the days are mine. […]

– ‘lf, After I Die’, Fernando Pessoa writing as Alberto Caiero

“He led a respectable life. He wore smart clothes to the office. He wrote and translated material, sometimes with a flourish that belied his extramural activities. He was courteous and a touch playful, a bachelor in his thirties. He was given to using spare time to write at his desk. At the end of the work day, he would put on his hat and raincoat and walk through the capital’s streets, thinking of his latest project. Perhaps he would go to his usual café, where he would see friends. They admired him as a writer, appreciating his abilities, chiding him for his perfectionism. He published a little but they knew he wrestled with larger work which was not made public, even to them. When he died he was mourned by his friends and his readers but they did not realise what a giant he had been. In time, he would come to define their whole nation.

“This could be a description of Franz Kafka but it is not. American Richard Zenith is a leading authority on Fernando Pessoa. He has edited and translated Pessoa’s writing. Living in Lisbon, Zenith inhabits Pessoa’s home city, relic of a glorious age and scene of an inexorable decline. It is a testament to Zenith’s devotion and ingenuity that he has managed to produce a 1,000-page biography of a figure whom he describes as ‘fanatically private.’ There is no autobiography; there are few revealing letters; the most informative ones are the drafts and unsent (mostly unfinished) letters he kept. There were no direct descendants. There are three diaries with short factual entries that together cover a total of over half a year. Zenith describes the interviews and memoirs of those who knew Pessoa as uninformative – or at least informative on how reserved the subject was. Pessoa was well aware of this and seemed to have actively participated in this occlusion. He was much given to self-reflection and intimations of both immortality and obscurity….”

Read the full review on The Brazen Head here: https://brazen-head.org/2021/12/27/fernando-pessoa-shadow-of-a-ghost/

Thomas Carlyle’s “Latter-Day Pamphlets”

Thomas Carlyle, Latter-Day Pamphlets, vol. XX, Chapman & Hall, 1850/1898

This is a brief review of one book by Scottish historian, biographer and journalist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881). Latter-Day Pamphlets (1850) is a collection of journalism and political pamphlets from 1850. It is dominated by Carlyle’s negative responses to 1848, the year of revolutions. “One of the most singular, disastrous, amazing, and, on the whole, humiliating years the European world ever saw.” This is a review of the unabridged reprint of 1898.

“The Present Time”

In “The Present Time”, Carlyle surveys the state of Europe in 1850. He blames the reforming Pope for providing tacit endorsement for revolutionary initiatives of 1848 – or at least not attempting to divert the situation beforehand. “Everywhere immeasurable Democracy rose monstrous, loud, blatant, inarticulate as the voice of Chaos.” Carlyle bemoans the insistent imposition of democracy regardless of the wishes of the populations of Europe. He compares the futility of voting to the institution of democracy in a ship upon a dangerous journey, which is prey to indomitable forces beyond the control of sailors and officers. Democracy on a ship creates a phantasm captain, when the lives of the men and success of the mission depends on a real captain, writes Carlyle.

Democracy is a false idol. “That the grand panacea for social woes is what we call ‘enfranchisement,’ ‘emancipation’; or, translated into practical language, the cutting asunder of human relations, wherever they are found grievous […]” Carlyle sees the axiom of democracy as a root for undermining social stability and standards. “Cut every human relation which has anywhere grown uneasy sheer asunder; reduce whatsoever was compulsory to voluntary, whatsoever was permanent among us to the condition of nomadic:- in other words, loosen by assiduous wedges in every joint, the whole fabric of social existence, stone from stone; till at last, all now being loose enough, it can, as we already see in most countries, be overset by sudden outburst of revolutionary rage; and, lying as mere mountains of anarchic rubbish, solicit you to sing Fraternity etc. over it, and to rejoice in the new remarkable era of human progress we have arrived at.” As a traditionalist, Carlyle believed that destruction of existing social structures in the name of progress would have dire consequences for the future. He concludes the article on the topic of the indigent Irish, for whom he has little sympathy.

“Model Prisons”

In “Model Prisons”, Carlyle recounts a visit to a new prison of the scientific type – clean, efficient, well appointed. Carlyle is impressed by the results but doubts the reforming spirit that animates the creation of these new model prisons. He casts aspersions on prison reform, calling reformers egotists, who bribe by offering “cheap bread to the cotton-spinner, voting to those that have no vote, and the like”. He sees sin and indiscipline as the cause of crime, not inequity. “Fraternity, in other countries, has gone on, till it found itself unexpectedly manipulating guillotines by its chosen Robespierres, and become a fraternity like Cain’s. Much to its amazement!” Carlyle sees the vaguely worded causes of fraternity and equality as liable to corruption and (when given leave by secular reformist leaders) the humanitarian as the greatest executioner of fellow man in the name of fraternity. Only the objective laws of God resist manipulation, in Carlyle’s view. His evidence is the course of the French Revolution, with its frenzy of high-minded scientifically-facilitated butchery.

Carlyle tackles the basis of the prison-reform platform. “Not the least disgusting feature of this Gospel according to the Platform is its reference to religion, and even to the Christian Religion, as an authority and mandate for what it does. Christian religion? Does the Christian or any religion prescribe love of scoundrels then? […] This is the rotten carcass of Christianity; this malodorous phosphorescence of post-mortem sentimentalism.”

In his introduction, H.D. Thrall faults the collected texts as weak in argumentation – “[…] as journalism they are ineffective they are too long, too discursive, too unpractical. They deal at once too much in generalities and too little […]” “Model Prisons” is a prime example which tends to confirm Thrall’s reservations. Carlyle turns some fine phrases but his argument is not sharp. Despite the force of the resistance and its potential correctness, this essay is not an adept performance. Emotion and righteousness get the better of its author. This essay is a contemporary response to Howard’s prison-reform movement and is evidence of opposition to that – a views that is generally lacking from school history coursebooks.

“Downing Street”

In “Downing Street”, Carlyle takes aim at the Colonies Office – its inefficiency and cost. “[…] [Great Britain] has in fact certain cottons, hardwares and such-like to sell in foreign parts, and certain wines, Portugal oranges, Baltic tar and other products to buy; and does need, I suppose, some kind of Consul, or accredited agent, accessible to British voyagers, here and there, in the chief cities of the Continent […]” He ponders on the nature of officialdom and big government. “What these strange Entities in Downing Street intrinsically are; who made them, why they were made; how they do their function; and what their function, so huge in appearance, may in net-result amount to, – is probably known to no mortal. The official mind passes by in dark wonder; not pretending to know. The official mind must not blab; – the official mind, restricted to its own square foot of territory in the vast labyrinth, is probably itself dark, and unable to blab. We see the outcome; the mechanism we do not see.”

He states that the vices of government are inefficiency and inappropriateness of its work. “These are the two vices that beset Government Offices; both of them originating in insufficient Intellect, – that sad insufficiency from which, directly or indirectly, all evil whatsoever springs! And these two vices act and react, so that where one is, the other is sure to be; and each encouraging the growth of the other, both (if some cleaning of the Augias stable have not intervened for a long while) will be found in frightful development. You cannot have your work well done, if the work be not of the right kind, if it be not work prescribed by the law of Nature as well as by the rules of the office. Laziness, which lies in wait round all human labour-offices, will in that case infallibly leak in, and vitiate the doing of the work.” Carlyle foresees doom in the mounting institutional and personal failures of government departments. “A class of mortals under which as administrators, kings, priests, diplomatists, etc., the interests of mankind in every European country have sunk overloaded, as under universal nightmare, near to extinction; and indeed are at this moment convulsively writhing, decided either to throw off the unblessed superincumbent nightmare, or roll themselves and it to the Abyss.”

Carlyle damns the government as led by those with no vision and commanded by lieutenants who are stupid. Carlyle vacillates between siting the faults of the government in its form and in its officers. Stupidity and “want of wisdom” are the disease that infects government. He suggests the cure would be individuals of greater human intellect. The contradicts Carlyle’s contention that democracy appoints a phantasm captain in place of a real captain. Carlyle does suggest that any secretaries should be competent and not necessarily elected. He imperfectly advocates the great man as the appropriate figure for the role of absolute leader. The argument (regardless of merit) is not clearly set out.

“The New Downing Street”

This is an extension of the previous essay, presenting a manifesto for revitalisation of government by proposing a new Downing Street. It takes up the point that officials at every level lack sufficient quality; democracy impedes the recruitment and promotion of men of ability and intellect; this is a common blight across Europe. England, newly acquired of an empire, needs to summon kings to lead it or it will fall into decay. “No person or populace, with never such ballot-boxes, can select such man for you; only the man of worth can recognise worth in men; – to the commonplace man of no or of little worth, you, unless you wish to be misled, need not apply on such an occasion.”

It begins as a better essay than the previous one, (in part) because it builds upon the incomplete foundations of the previous essay. Compared to the previous essay, this dwells more on positive changes that could be made – albeit general in character. Carlyle sets out his new Downing Street as a counter to “needless expenditures of money, immeasurable ditto of hypocrisy and grimace; embassies, protocols, worlds of extinct traditions, empty pedantries, foul cobwebs […]” The author mingles reform with wholesale change, leaving the reader somewhat unmoored, unclear about what remains of the familiar system and what is cut from whole cloth.

Carlyle lapses by recommending the creation of an education ministry. Surely, knowing the weaknesses of government and the weaknesses that government spreads, giving such an institution say in the education of children could only lead to spreading of mediocrity, complacency and the inculcation of supplication to secular authority. He touches on foreign wars, pauperism and literature, trailing off into random reflections.  

“Stump-Orator”

Carlyle discusses oratory as an art. Speech is divine and “like the kindling of a Heaven’s light” but if the speaker is not ennobled by righteousness, it is better for him to remain silent.  Silence is a necessary accompaniment for great speech. Great speech can be mimicked by persuasive ignoble speech; such deception makes ignoble speech deplorable because it imitates the best of man’s efforts. In Carlyle’s time, there has been a lack of excellent public speech. Carlyle takes a poor view of the political orator of his day. “A mouthpiece of Chaos to poor benighted mortals that lend ear to him as to a voice from Cosmos, this excellent stump-orator fills me with amazement. Not empty these musical wind-utterances of his; they are big with prophecy; they announce, too audibly to me, that the end of many things is drawing nigh!”

Carlyle charts the debasement of oratory to a too liberal imparting of the art to people who use it for debased purposes. Speech – like a currency – has been debased because the speakers cannot back their words with virtue or truth. “Alas, alas, said banknote is then a forged one; passing freely current in the market; but bringing damages to the receiver, to the payer, and to all the world, which are in sad truth infallible, and of amount incalculable. […] The foolish traders in the market pass it freely, nothing doubting, and rejoice in the dextrous execution of the piece: and so it circulates from hand to hand, and from class to class; gravitating ever downwards towards the practical class; till at last it reaches some poor working hand, who can pass it no further, but must take it to the bank to get bread with it, and there the answer is, “Unhappy caitiff, this note is forged.””

Democracy has damaged the efficiency of the offices of state because those who rise in power are the best talkers, not necessarily those best at the work. This also leads to distortion of speech and debasing of oratory because it is done for reasons of status and advancement. This is the most persuasive and carefully argued of the pamphlets.

“Parliaments”

In this essay Carlyle sees the advent of anarchy through parliamentary means. Actual anarchy “cannot be distant, now when virtual disguised Anarchy, long-continued and waxing daily, has got to such a height;” the only way of avoiding this is complete change in governance. Only a king can enact the wishes and needs of the people. Carlyle discerns that Parliament is no longer adviser to the King but actually sovereign. “[…] our British Parliament does not shine as Sovereign Ruler of the British Nation; that it was excellent only as Adviser of the Sovereign Ruler; and has not, somehow or other, the art of getting work done; but produces talk merely, not of the most instructive sort for most part, and in vortexes of talk is not unlike to submerge itself and the whole of us, if help come not!”

Carlyle posits a law of parliamentary democracies that incorporate a mass media. “That a Parliament, especially a Parliament with Newspaper Reporters firmly established in it, is an entity which by its very nature cannot do work, but can do talk only, – which at times may be needed, and at other times again may be very needless.” In all areas of important business, Carlyle advises “[…] That every man shut his mouth, and do not open it again till his thinking and contriving faculty have elaborated something worth articulating.” This is the very opposite of how parliaments – conscious of the reception of its words on the general public through the media – function. Carlyle’s sees that ruin comes when – aside from making money – the nation takes nothing seriously and thereby degenerates. “[…] the Nation […] is no longer an earnest Nation, but a light, sceptical, epicurean one, which for a century has gone along smirking, grimacing, cutting jokes about all things, and has not been bent with dreadful earnestness on anything at all, except on making money each member of it for himself […]”

He notes that only two parliaments succeeded: the National Convention during the French Revolution, and the Long Parliament of the English Civil War. Yet, once again, Carlyle sees only folly in relying on the wisdom of crowds. “Your Lordship, there are fools, cowards, knaves, and gluttonous traitors true only to their own appetite, in immense majority, in every rank of life; and there is nothing frightfuler than to see these voting and deciding!” He argues against the freeing of slaves because then how can enfranchisement be denied to freed slaves, and, by so doing, is not the vote of the ignoble man as weighty as the vote of the noble man? By counting all men equal and submitting to their collective decisions, nations are brought to folly – brought as low as the appetites and vices of their electorate.

“Hudson’s Statue”

With the renewed proposal to erect a statue to Cromwell, Carlyle considers public statuary. As one might expect, he finds the statuary of his own age wanting. “Poor English Public, they really are exceedingly bewildered with Statues at present. They would fain do honour to somebody, if they did but know whom or how. Unfortunately they know neither whom nor how; they are, at present, the farthest in the world from knowing! They have raised a set of the ugliest Statues, and to the most extraordinary persons, ever seen under the sun before.” Carlyle satirises the folly of idle foolish men combining their twenty-pound notes and burning them to summon a brazen idol to a great Somebody, not caring who this Somebody is nor what he might have down to deserve a statue – especially in an age that had not yet marked the life of one of Carlyle’s Great Men, Oliver Cromwell.

George Hudson (1800-1871), the railway magnate who was (shortly before Carlyle’s essay was written) revealed to have engaged in fraud. Carlyle sees Hudson as the typical wealthy Somebody that the English raise statues to, oblivious to his conduct. He was elected an MP after this scandal and thereby gained immunity from being imprisoned for debt. When he lost his seat, he had to flee the country to avoid prison. He only returned once imprisonment of debtors was abolished. As it happens, no statue to him was erected but his contributions were marked in street names. Carlyle uses topical satire to reinforce his points about the decline in moral and civic standards of his day. Lively but overlong.

“Jesuitism”

“Jesuitism” is a reflection on the cult of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and the Jesuits, chief enforcers of the Counter Reformation. As a Protestant, Carlyle sees the beatification of, and praying to, Ignatius as being against (or in ignorance of) the will of God. Ignatius “has done more mischief in the Earth than any man born since.” He casts aspersions on Ignatius’s origins as a soldier, “distinguished, as I understand, by his fierce appetites chiefly, by his audacities and sensualities, and loud unreasonable decision, That this Universe, in spite of rumours to the contrary, was a Cookery-shop and Bordel, wherein garlic, jamaica-pepper, unfortunate-females and other spicery and garnishing awaited the bold human appetite, and the rest of it was mere rumour and moonshine […] That the Cookery-shop and Bordel was a magical delusion, a sleight-of-hand of Satan, to lead Ignatius, by garlic and finer temporal spiceries, to eternal Hell […] ” Carlyle characterises his subject’s abandonment to sensuality as a jumble of intemperate stuffs that inflame rather than satiate human desire. He calls Ignatius a “detestable Human Pig”.

Carlyle decries the work of the black-clad Jesuits, who continue Ignatius’s work to his day. He writes that falsity of speech leads to falsification of all things. The fine arts are condemned wholly as harbingers of falsehood. “The fact is, though men are not in the least aware of it, the Fine Arts, divorced entirely from Truth this long while, and wedded almost professedly to Falsehood, Fiction and suchlike, are got into what we must call an insane condition […]” He ties falsity in public life, religion, the arts and politics in this final pamphlet, combining his concerns in a single lament for the decline of morals.

Carlyle’s book covers democracy, prisons, bureaucratic overreach, the overweening state, public conduct, observing civic and moral standards – and see those subverted – all of which are vital issues today. In the grand denunciations of degradation, we can find prefigured our own concerns. However prolix and meandering Carlyle’s style can be in these pamphlets, his points have the emotional pathos of deeply held convictions and the moral seriousness of a man concerned about the fate of his nation. Many of his arguments still carry weight.

Latter-Day Pamphlets on the Gutenburg Project website

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

The Ancients on Farming

How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land is the latest addition to the Princeton classics library. It gathers writings by different authors. Editor and translator M.D. Usher writes, “A unifying element is provided for in the choice of selections, which focus on Greek and Roman attitudes, dispositions, and reflections on what it means to live, work, and think in a landscape.” He has focused on general arguments and discussions of the benefits of country life, as opposed to any technical information, which is to be found in instruction manuals written by the ancients. As more and more people notice the deracinating effects of urban life – crime, alienation, stress, lack of privacy, absence of trust – so the interest in rural life burgeons.

The authors selected are Hesiod, Plato, Lucretius, Varro, Horace, Longus, Columella, Pliny the Elder and others, including anonymous authors. Verse is mostly rendered as prose, though the original text is presented in metre. Short introductions and notes help to explain oblique references or backstories to these excerpts.

Hesiod writes of nature not waiting for man and that the imperatives of weather, season and growing cycle act as foe to sloth. He notes that competitive spirit pits farmer to match or exceed his neighbour, quoting the proverb, “Potter vies with potter, carpenters with their kin;/beggar rivals beggar, and bard begrudges bard.” Although he does counsel amity between neighbours. On frittering away one’s energy on distractions, Hesiod enjoins his brother:

Take these matters to heart. Do not let the Strife that delights in evil keep your heart from work while you attend hearings and gawk at disputes at assembly. If a man does not have a good year’s livelihood stored indoors, harvested in due season – Demeter’s grain, what the Earth brings forth – he has little concern for disputes and assemblies. Once you’ve sated yourself on that, go right ahead and advance your disputes and conflicts in your quest to acquire another man’s goods.

Elsewhere, Hesiod tells of eternal truths, that are just.

For such [righteous] people, the Earth produces life aplenty: in the mountains, the oak produces acorns on its branches, and bees in its trunk; their woolly sheep are weighed down, heavy with fleeces; their wives birth children that resemble their parents, and they thrive with good things all of their days. They do not embark upon ships: rather, the grain-giving land produces their crops.

Note Hesiod’s implicit criticism of itinerant merchants seeking foreign goods (the travelling traders) and his suggestion about the unfaithfulness of individuals living outside of nature’s allotted roles, which are implicitly good because they work. A man in harmony with nature prospers; his wife bears his children; he has no need to travel or trade abroad. It is the city life and foreign travel that lead to strife and imbalance between men, between husband and wife and between man and nature.   

Plato suggests (in his The Republic) how a city is organised by specialists in each field serving the community as a whole, working more efficiently and co-operatively. Virgil’s Georgics are the greatest surviving idyllic (or bucolic) odes of the Romans. His presentation of the farmer’s lot is partial. “Meanwhile, his sweet children hang upon his neck for kisses. His household is wholesome and guards its integrity. His cows come into milk with udders full, and the goat-kids grapple with one another, horns opposed, on the cheerful lea. The farmer himself observes a holiday, sprawled on the grass.” Later, Virgil has his Bacchanalian farmers throwing javelins and wrestling each other.

Horace locates the content farmer as his own man, far from controlling external influences. “Happy is he who, far away from financial affairs, works his ancestral lands, using oxen he owns, as did people of old, wholly debt-free.” He avoids war, the sea and the wiles of politicians. For the ancients, the farmer is a natural aristocrat. (Musonius Rufus declared farming was a pursuit conducive to philosophical reflection.) The farmer is detached from the mob; he is steward of the land. He must distain the vagaries of man to work at the pace of nature. He labours and his family and slaves labour beside him. He protects and feeds others in return for their loyalty and diligence. He is not elected and is deposed only when he fails in his duties as steward and provider, according to natural law. He raises his sons to follow the wisdom he learned from his father. The sons inherit because they are trained to inherit and to farm, forming a sacred chain of tradition.

Columella execrates the rise of the gentleman farmer, who owns a large farm that depends upon slave labour. The absent landlord loses touch with the reality of plants, animals and tasks entrusted to employees. He notes that the industrious wife of previous eras, who shared in the farmer’s wealth and contributed to the standing of the farmstead and the family, had fallen into indolence and luxury when the farmer becomes wealthy. “These days, however, most women are awash in luxury and idleness to such an extent that they don’t deem even the supervision of wool-making a worthy endeavor and find home-spun garments loathsome. Perversely, the clothes that please them most are those that cost a fortune, amounting almost to the value of a whole estate.”

Once again, we encounter an academic fretting over gender bias and slavery in ancient sources. One would have thought that as historians, selectors would welcome and preserve the differences of the ages recorded in ancients’ words, rather than offering propitiatory apologias. One suspects that selectors are more worried about the grumbling of progressive professors than any outcry by general readers, the latter of whom do not expect the past to mirror the concerns of today’s elites. M.D. Usher has nothing to apologise for and the ancients need no apologies proffered on their behalf. The ancients had – astonishingly – different biases to those of modern academics. Selectors and translators, let the authors speak frankly and credit readers with the judgment to evaluate their own responses to the ancients.    

Princeton University Press does us all a good service by publishing these selections and keeping the classics alive for us. How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land is a highly enjoyable selection and will be avidly read by idealistic communalists and traditional conservatives leaving for the countryside – and by all of us who wish they could do the same.  

Various, M.D. Usher (trans., intro.), How to be a Farmer: An Ancient Guide to Life on the Land, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardback, cloth spine, 272pp, Greek/Latin/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 0 691 21174 9

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art


Aristotle on Innovation

It is said that the Greeks were reluctant to innovate. The prime example given is the steam engine (aeolipile) of Hero of Alexandria. It was a steam turbine, where steam from a boiler was fed into a ball on pivots; the ball had vents for the steam, the ejection of which caused the ball to rotate. It was treated as a novelty and a feat of ingenuity but never used by the Greeks to do any practical function. Yet, when we look at the architecture and art, we can see small constant refinement in methods and tools. The changes in language and ideas over the centuries show curiosity and openness, even if the technology remained fairly stable. While scientific and philosophical ideas developed rapidly in Greece, we find evidence that innovation is different from science. Innovation is tinkering; it is the spotting of certain phenomenon and characteristics of materials or mechanisms and adapting and combining those into new machines or procedures.

The question of change applies in all fields. Innovation in the field of weaponry can allow a city to defeat another. Innovation in agriculture may lead to better harvests or the cultivation of previously unproductive land. Innovation in the way a city is governed can lead to discord and instability. Innovation in religion may lead to heresy and collapse in faithful observance. Change in itself is neither good nor bad though it may do good or bad.     

In the latest selection from the classics, published by Princeton, Armand D’Angour has selected, translated and introduced texts by Aristotle (384-322 BC), Athenaeus of Naucratis (c. C150-250 AD) and Diodorus Siculus (c. 90-30 BC).

Diodorus is quoted on Dionysius of Syracuse assembling a uniform army and attracting armourers of the highest ability. Aristotle is quoted on the subject of change, criticising the proto-socialism of Socrates and authoritarianism of Plato. He suggests that citizens be able to own personal property and guard the privacy of their families, allowing that some common property (such as land) may be shared to mutual benefit. Aristotle sets out the foundations of liberalism: “A state is not made up only of many people, but of a variety of kinds of people; a state cannot simply be constituted of similar individuals. It’s not like an alliance, whose usefulness depends simply on numbers, not on different kinds, of men.” He refutes common ownership of everything but leaves open the door to a fragmented society, where factions compete for power and favour. This extract from Aristotle’s Politics (book 2) will make interesting reading for those interested in finding a balance between common good and private autonomy.  

The most famous anecdote from Greece is of Archimedes solving the problem of how to calculate the amount of gold used in the creation of a crown. The complexity of the form (and the possibility of hollows) meant that it was difficult to ascertain how much gold had been used in the object and whether it had been adulterated with other metals. Archimedes sank into his bath and saw his body displaced water and he realised that displacement and weight could be used to determine the mass of the crown. This could then be compared to the weight of pure gold of an established volume – to be multiplied up to the volume of the crown. Any discrepancy would indicate the use of non-gold in the crown, thus revealing any deceit on the maker’s part. Comprehending the solution, Archimedes arose from the bath, yelling “Eureka!” (Gr: I have it!).

Archimedes was a naval architect. From Moschion (via Athenaeus) comes an account of Archimedes designing the Syracusia, a warship for Hieron Syracuse. “Hieron arranged for wooden pegs, belly timbers, rib timbers, and whatever material was needed for other uses come partly from Italy and partly from Sicily. He procured esparto from Spain for cables, hemp and pitch from Rhone valley, and other necessary materials from many different places.” He outlines the elaborate construction, including bronze rivets, later sheathed in lead to protect them from corrosion. Archimedes used a windlass of his own design to get the ship into the sea. The huge vessel had space for multiple levels of oarsmen, a garden, library, gymnasium, a fish tank and temple with a stone floor. The ship was a warship, and had battlements, watchtowers, grappling hooks and a baluster. An Archimedes screw was the bilge pump. Hieron gave Syracusia as a gift to Ptolemy II of Alexandria. It was the only voyage it made.   

Diodoros describes the innovative tactics that allowed the Thebans to defeat the mightiest army in Greece at the Battle of Leuctra. Due to general Epaminondas’s uneven distribution of forces in his line, the Spartan phalanx was twisted – one side advancing fast and the others held back. Out of position, the Spartans were attacked from behind, breaking their formation. “Epaminondas’s corps pursued those fleeing, cutting down in large numbers any who resisted, and gained for themselves a most glorious victory. For since they had engaged the strongest of the Greeks and, though fielding a smaller force, had miraculously overcome many times their number, they won a great reputation for their heroism. The highest praises were accorded to the general Epaminondas, who chiefly by his own valor and by his brilliant strategy had defeated in battle the hitherto invincible leaders of Hellas.”

The short introductions are handy guides and the choice provides a broad range of aspects to innovation. The quoted texts are given in English and the original Greek; the other material is in English only.

Aristotle, Armand D’Angour (trans., ed.), How to Innovate: An Ancient Guide to Creative Thinking, Princeton University Press, 2021, hardcover cloth spine, 138pp + xxi, Greek/English text, $16.95/£12.99, ISBN 978 069 121 3736

© 2021 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

“Getting Creative with History”

“From the first charcoal drawings on cave walls, to Rachel Whiteread’s Turner Prize-winning cast of a house interior, Creation attempts to chart the nature of artistic creativity worldwide. It is a comparative anthropological study of what creativity means within a differing but constant construct: society. The book offers a chronological survey of fine art, applied art and architecture, in that order of emphasis. We visit the highlights of major civilisations, respectively the Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Olmec, Mayans, Aztecs, Greek, Romans, Indians and others. Then we return to Europe for the majority of the remainder of the book.

“Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation — tracing the course of European culture from ancient Greece to the 20th century — was considered an encyclopaedic achievement. This is by some measure even more ambitious. Curator and cultural historian John-Paul Stonard takes us to ancient China, the lost civilisations of Central America and modern and prehistoric Africa, whilst also featuring art of Western societies from the medieval to modern era. Surely, Stonard is setting himself up for failure….”

John-Paul Stonard, Creation: Art Since The Beginning, Bloomsbury, 2021, hardback, 464pp, fully illus., £30, ISBN 978 1 4088 7968 9

Read the full review here: https://thecritic.co.uk/getting-creative-with-history/