Tuesday, July 26, 2016


[Image source: http://www.utsidan.se/albums/viewpic.htm?ID=40154 . Photo, by Öhrnell, of Lappspira (Pedicularis lapponica).]

No further posts here, in all probability, for the next week and a half. I'll be in the fells!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Douglas Hyde: I Believed (1950)

Subtitled, The Autobiography of a former British Communist.

Douglas Hyde resigned from the Communist party in 1948, some twenty years after joining. He also resigned from his job at the Daily Worker, where he had been News Editor (Bill Rust was Editor) for most of the eight years he had worked there. Hyde and his wife had converted to Catholicism of a conservative kind (he was drawn to the neo-medieval Distributist movement that began with Belloc and Chesterton). A couple of years later, true to his campaigning and journalistic instincts, he wrote I Believed, a book aimed squarely at Middle England and intended to supply it with an understanding of British Communism on the know-your-enemy principle.

It will come as no surprise that Hyde’s name does not featurely largely in pro-Communist histories (his book was immediately exposed as treacherous lies). But one doesn’t have to be a Communist to view the book’s narrator with certain misgivings; somehow, politicals of all colours have succeeded in making us queasy about turncoats – the word is deeply pejorative, yet what other term is there?   

Hyde himself as a Distributist is almost laughably true to his character; an instinctive journalist and campaigner, used to making enemies, and capable of arguing himself into incredible positions.

I had believed that Catholic culture had been outgrown at the time when the new economic system of capitalism had broken the fetters of feudalism, that it could all be explained in terms of economics. But had men outgrown it? There appeared to be a convincing case for saying that it was not outgrown but that there had been an attempted murder which had not quite succeeded...

(Hyde’s favourite books had always been Chaucer and Langland. They had once taken their places “quite naturally at the side of Morris’s Dream of John Ball, Marx’s Das Kapital and Lenin’s The Proletarian Revolution “, but now they led him in a different direction.)

Anyway, we appreciate unreliable narrators, and these misgivings about the author only add to the absorbing interest of his book. The credibility of Communism was at its apogee. When Hyde joined up, the Paris Commune was still within living memory, the October Revolution was recent, and very soon there would be Communists running Madrid and Anarchists running Barcelona; the overthrow of capitalism in Europe was something that could happen.

And superficially the Red tide was still running when Hyde left, since the end of the war meant a host of new Communist nations in Eastern Europe.  When the International appeared to be reborn as Cominform in 1947,

The Parties invited to the initial meeting had been those of Russia, France, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Rumania. They were those which were already ruling Parties or those which Moscow thought would soon be so.

Hyde’s change of creed clearly didn’t mean a change of everything. And, especially in the early chapters, one senses that while writing them Hyde re-vivifies his erstwhile beliefs. He is still full of admiration for Communist directness, organization, opportunism and power to mobilize ordinary working people.

At great London meetings men and women were throwing on the platforms their wedding rings, pitiful little heirlooms or everything they had in their wallets at the time. Our political opponents, who charged us with faking these things, most foolishly under-estimated the depth of feeling we had succeeded in creating. 

His accounts of e.g. the successful takeover of a local Labour party in Surrey, of illegal preparations for the national underground Press organization (during the ban on the Daily Worker early in the war), of passing secrets to Russia, and of on-the-spot reporting of the V-1 blitz, are exciting, sympathetic and often tinged with pride.

The deepest of his beliefs had perhaps never changed. The book registers a continuing distrust, sometimes rising to condemnation, of his new book’s new audience.   

They went over so frequently that suburban Bristol began to yawn and Chief Sub-Editors with news sense told their underlings: “Just one paragraph and a small head ­– it’s only another gone over the top.” Once four unemployed pooled all they had to hire an old car, then drove it straight through the railings and over the cliffs, and the Sea Walls hit the headlines again for the moment.

But the “comfortable” folk in the district where I lived felt secure enough in the main and their sense of comfort was heightened, if anything, by the sound of jobless Welsh miners singing, unceasingly, for pence in the street outside, the inevitable “Cwm Rhondda”, “Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more”. Then, in little groups on the Downs at night, the younger miners joined with the local communists to sing “Watch and pray, live on hay, you’ll have pie in the sky when you die.”

The professional Communist’s contempt for fellow-travellers, those sympathisers who lacked the moral courage to join the Party outright, is something that Hyde can transfer wholesale to his new position. Or consider this, about those “sensitive intellectuals” (Hyde sounding like Kipling here) who were troubled by the sharp switch of Communist policy at the time of the Soviet-German pact.

Their attitude was summed up in a letter I received from a well-known poet who, after being drawn to the Party because of its anti-fascist propaganda, wrote: “A plague on both your uncles, Uncle Joe and Uncle Adolf” – then disappeared into an ivory tower from which he has never since emerged.

“Emerged” suggests (naturally enough) a media-oriented view of human behaviour. Hyde never changed his mind about contempt for the “ivory tower” and he uses the phrase again, in vastly changed circumstances, to explain why as a Catholic convert he could not retire into one, but must now write this book. 

This reminds me that the book-jacket quotes a review by Stephen Spender in The Spectator, perhaps not one of his best-known texts:

Alas, this book goes a long way to justify the Red scares emanating from America. No one can read it without realising one simple fact: that no true Communist has any interest at heart except the party line emanating from the Soviet Union.

Hyde’s account of Communist thinking is more complex than that.

Communism is necessary and desirable above all else. The fight for communism stretches across the world, which is divided by the two opposing classes and not vertically by different races and nations. In fighting for a communist Britain I am fighting for a better Britain and for the destruction of all that is rotten and decadent. In that fight I have the assistance of all who are operating on the same world front against capitalism. My desire to make my country communist therefore makes me an internationalist.

But at one point in that world front there is a whole nation on my side, a great State, the U.S.S.R., where a strong-point has been established, around which all future battles will tend to turn and without which any other, local victories must fail. At all costs, therefore, Russia, bastion of communism, must be defended.... Who attacks Russia attacks my hope of a communist Britain. In helping Russia “with all the means at his disposal and at any price”, therefore, the British communist is working for a better Britain, the French communist for a better France, and the Icelandic communist for a better Iceland. He is, in his own eyes and that of his Party, the super-patriot. ....

The Soviet-German Pact therefore in August 1939 did not trouble the trained Marxist at all. The Soviet leaders had a responsibility to the working-class of the world to defend the U.S.S.R. and could, if necessary, for this reason make an alliance with the devil himself. ...

It was this last part that the sensitive intellectuals had trouble with. The foregoing argument is not meant sympathetically by the post-Communist Hyde, who intends his ironic glance at the pretensions of a “super-Patriot”, but in fact it retains its logical force. In civil war, loyalty to a Nation ceases to supply a normative guide to behaviour. The Communists projected a real civil war in every capitalist state, but they were already engaged in a mental and emotional civil war within themselves; therefore national loyalty was a mental weakness which meant nothing more than subservience to the present crop of robber-barons and their troops. But the argument extends much wider than Communism; few people today would want to think of themselves as Nationalists or believers in a Hobbesian “law and order at any price”. So what exactly are the grounds for our de facto civil obedience?

It’s easy to see, however, how Hyde’s lifelong love for Somerset Gothic churches, apparently so trifling, led to hairline fractures that slowly but eventually shattered his Marxist credo. (Perhaps he should have talked it over with Alan Mitchell, the strongly left-wing expert on the show-piece trees of Britain’s great estates.) 

Communism justified free love (defying “outworn, bourgeois conventions”) but this is something that Hyde never seems to have felt much enthusiasm for (of course, this could be the Catholic speaking, or perhaps he thought that any kind of defence just wouldn’t play in Middle England). Hyde’s (and his colleagues’) attitudes to women were, in fact, fairly unreconstructed:

Go to any Communist Party Congress and watch the hard-faced women who go to the rostrum. The hatred which the Party kindles and uses is often quite shockingly apparent in eyes as hard as those of a Soho prostitute and lips as tight as those of a slumland money-lender...

“We get women in the Party, and they are all right for just as long as they remain obscure,” one Political Bureau member complained to me, “but within twelve months of our turning them into Marxists they are about as attractive as horses.”

The Party aims by its training to produce “men of steel”. But “women of steel” attract neither other women nor even the men of steel themselves... Thus, the working-class housewife or the fresh young girl who comes into the Party is at once the centre of attention... She is useful for breaking down the suspicions of other women and so is seen as an effective “front”, and at the same time she is a welcome relief from the steely, hard-faced, betrowsered women who have made their way to the top and who are, in Party parlance, so utterly unbedworthy.

[Unattractiveness of senior females]  is general enough to be a matter of concern to the Party leaders and even from time to time to feature on agendas as a problem to be solved. ...

But I want to quote some sentences, finally, about the attractions of Communism, without which there would have been no book and nothing to write about. This was in Bristol in the late 1920s.

As I watched and helped to lead each demonstration of unemployed, my feelings were a compound of both anger and pity. As I saw them trampled under the horses’ hooves during baton charges, or tugging with bare hands at paving-stones in their search for ammunition to be used against the police, hope and pride would mingle with my anger. Each man who disappeared between warders from the court-room into the cells added to my own hatred of the capitalist system and of the capitalist class, and strengthened my revolutionary determination. ... We sang of the revolution,, dreamed of it, fought for it, studied for it, worked for it and, often enough, suffered for it too.

As the economic crisis deepened, the poverty, and the vast scale of that poverty, appalled me. .... When the Daily Worker began to appear, the unemployed queued at the “bomb shop” in the Horsefair in order to be able to read it free of charge. And the Bristol demonstrations, riots and prosecutions featured more and more in its columns. ... The strength and influence of the Communist Party cannot be gauged in times of normalcy, when democracy is working smoothly. ... The real test is in time of crisis. The crisis had come and we were proving our ability to lead as trained Marxists should.

Hyde's switch from Communism to Distributism was not quite so perverse as it may seem. William Cobbett had long ago shown that pre-Reformation rural labourers were far better provided for than their grossly oppressed descendants in the nineteenth century. Socialists and neo-mediavalists recognized a common enemy in Protestant capitalism.

[After writing I Believed, a best-seller, Hyde slowly became disillusioned with Catholicism. For many years he was a foreign correspondent in parts of the third world. In the later part of his life he was an undogmatic socialist campaigning for issues of justice worldwide. He died in 1996.]  


Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ylva Eggehorn: Europe's Grandchildren (1985)

Ylva Eggehorn is these days perhaps best-known as a hymn-writer. She was active in the early years of the Jesus movement in Sweden, around 1970.

Like most Swedes who achieve a certain prominence, she is also a poet and a newspaper columnist, at least she was back in the 1980s when the impressive articles collected in this book were written. By then she had become a sort of  unofficial voice for younger Christians in Sweden.

These articles represent, as the rear jacket explains, her own journey from 1960s internationalism to an increased focus on "Europe". This was Europe as a historic cultural entity, the Europe of cathedrals and art and science. The Europe that had been idealistically embraced by dissidents in the East (in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia...), yet was forgotten and neglected by an americanized gum-chewing youth in Europe's capitalist nations. Eggehorn, you might surmise, was becoming nostalgic for "Christendom", for Catholic fiefdoms like the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. (See "Att dö för Europa" / "To die for Europe", 3rd March 1984.)

Eggehorn's book precedes, of course, the break-up of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. The story of Lech Walesa's Solidarity was unfolding as she wrote. The struggle against Communism was a prime focus for Christian activism of the time, as were the debates about abortion legislation in the West. In both spheres Christianity stood against materialism, variously understood.

Some of our own preoccupations of more recent times are, of course, conspicuously absent, not because of anything about Eggehorn or her position but just because things have changed a great deal since the 1980s.

She rarely mentions the EU, which Sweden joined only on 1st January 1995.

She didn't yet see Europe's populations in the multi-ethnic terms that we do today, and she scarcely mentions the Islamic world, now the focus of so many of our fears and hopes.

And her book pre-dates, of course, the dramatic resurgence of the Far Right across the western world that now threatens such civilization as we still have.


Eggehorn's Christian thought is strongly anti-relativist, defensive of the objective reality of moral values and of a definite Christian conception of the human.

The poet Lars Gustafsson, who I've written about a couple of times recently, makes an appearance here:

Lars Gustafsson skrev i en stor artikel i BLM [Bonniers Litterära Magasin*]  förra året, att paradigmet "människan" saknas i vår moderna vetenskap -- det är faktiskt ofint att ens efterfråga det. Aspekter på människans liv -- sociologiska, biologiska, ekonomiska och andra -- går att studera, men att fråga efter helheten, att söka ett paradigm för människan, anses ovetenskapligt, skriver Lars Gustafsson. Han tillägger dock i slutet av sin artikel att man med fog måste misstänka den moderna vetenskapen för att ha en alldeles speciell avsikt med att betrakta frågan "vad är en människa?" som i princip omöjlig att besvara eller som ointressant för forskarna. Och han tror att den moderna institutionella vetenskapen snart kommer att "tvingas ut ur sin objektiva förklädnad."

Vems intressen de här gagnar och vad vi kommer att få bevittna, säger Lars Gustafsson ingenting om.


Lars Gustafsson wrote, in a long article in BLM [Bonniers Literary magazine*] last year, that the paradigm "Man" is missing from modern science -- it is indelicate to even ask about it. Aspects of the life of Man -- of his sociology, biology, economy and so on -- those things are rightly the objects of study, but to ask about the totality, to seek the paradigm "Man", is considered unscientific, says Gustafsson.  At the end of his article, however, he adds that one may have the suspicion that modern science has particular reasons for defining the question "What is Man?" as intrinsically impossible to answer and not of interest from a research point of view.  And he thinks that modern institutional science will soon be "forced to abandon its guise of objectivity".

Gustafsson doesn't say whose interests this might benefit and what we will then be witness to.

(From "Den utbytbara människan" ("The interchangeable man" - 13th February 1981)

I guess you could say this is Eggehorn co-opting Gustafsson's sceptical and speculative humanism in order to brandish it as Christian accusation.

*NOTE:  Bonniers Literary Magazine, commonly called BLM or "Blemman" (The Pimple), was a Swedish literary periodical published between 1932 and 2004, when it finally expired after years in the doldrums; it was down to 1,300 subscribers and was published only four times a year. (Its final editors were Kristoffer Leandoer and Aase Berg.)

By this time it had already had one recess, beginning in 1999, and was mourned as the relic of a more ample and slower-moving time, as in this article for Aftonbladet by Arne Johnsson: http://wwwc.aftonbladet.se/kultur/9912/14/aj.html .

In its glory days, for instance when Gustafsson himself was editor (1962-1972), it was published ten times a year: basically a monthly, but with the usual expedient of a "summer special" to cover the blessed period when Swedes stop work and head for their summer cottages.


The article "Vems fred?" ("Whose peace?" - 19th February 1983) shows the strength of Eggehorn's internationalist heritage: here she points out that the peace we hope to enjoy in the comfortable west often means suffering, and therefore conflict, in other parts of the world.

The article argues thus: when we pray for "world peace" what we actually conceive is peace for us privileged westerners (as above). Is the concept of "world peace" even coherent, if peace for one part of society means misery for another? The only coherent concept is "God's peace". Pray for that, and you know you can't be wrong.


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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Brigid Brophy: Black Ship to Hell (1962)

Brigid Brophy, photo by Jerry Bauer

The urgency of Brophy's writing springs essentially from this: she accepts Freud's account of the death wish as a fundamental truth about human nature, at any rate in modern times; then combines that fact with the existence of weapons of mass destruction: we all basically wish to destroy everything, and now we have the means, so we will. This leads to (among other things) a violent assault on religion - based not so much on its claims being untrue (that's merely a given) as on denying that religious belief can ever be sincere or morally unreprehensible - these are formidable, in-your-face polemics and I'm shaken and impressed. And yet it isn't difficult to see why her books aren't in print any more. Brophy's passionate admiration for Freud leads to many pages of unparticularized generalities like this, sampled in mid-torrent:

She [the prostitute] has, in fact, improved on the tragic conception of fate by adding to it the numerical idea of chance. The male sex is a lottery, in which the prostitute has bought the highest possible number of tickets. Any one in her holding may be the winning number, the father she is seeking; but since no one knows which is he, it is the series as a whole which becomes the object of her sexual and aggressive desires. For the prostitute, every professional act of intercourse is an act of incest and, at the same time, an attack on her father. In exercising her profession, she gratifies her incestuous wish (and its murderous companion), yet the fact that it is a game of hazard allows her to plead not guilty to incest. Just so, if one member, no one knows which, of the firing squad has drawn a blank cartridge, all may feel innocent of the killing but the execution none the less gets done. The same psychology is manifest in the very usage of modern European languages, where the plural you, vous, sie is a politer way of addressing one person than the singular thou, tu, du. ...

This jostle of ideas is dazzling, but I feel like it was even more dazzling to write than to read. So much seems to be being forcefully asserted, (and yet, in a sort of mode that suggests that it isn't really being asserted), and it's so heavily bolstered by impatient logical expressions like "just as", "of course", "in fact", that I keep wanting to call out: Hold on there! Just let me get it straight, what (or who) actually are we talking about right now? Are you claiming that every prostitute... ? In what useful sense is this an account of prostitution (or warfare, or education, or artists, or elections..)? This was a fashionable style of its era - displaced at some time in the 1980s by the style of theory (revulsion from the post-Freudian style when I was at university led to me wrongly supposing that this was also how Freud himself must have written, thus putting off discovery of my own passionate admiration for Freud for a further twenty years). The passing of time reveals violently hostile contemporaries to share as much as they disputed - Brophy often reminds me - at any rate, so far as her language strategies are concerned - of C.S. Lewis in his populist defences of Christianity (another blatant misuser of "in fact", "of course", etc). Both made, in passing, exactly the same unanswerable protests about the practice of vivisection - protests that were complete failures and now excite surprise; in our own time intellectuals are conspicuously silent about this, it is only the emotive masses who think there is something not quite right about what is euphemistically known as animal testing.* (More generally, Brophy also reminds me a lot of Germaine Greer - the same enormous learning and the same admirable assurance of being able to cut through it to what other learned people don't see at all.)

*This may be changing at last. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2018/04/05/raised-by-wolves/ .

The Vile Vivisectors, painting by James Ensor (1925)

Obituary of Brigid Brophy (1929 - 1995): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-brigid-brophy-1595286.html . Her successful decade-long battle for PLR, and multiple sclerosis, greatly shortened her literary career. She was a fan of George Bernard Shaw. I've now found a copy of her novel The Snow Ball (1964) [in a charity book exchange in the Trowbridge branch of Sainsburys] , so watch this space.


Friday, July 15, 2016

Ken Edwards

I've just published some prose pieces by Ken Edwards on Intercapillary Space:

Seven pieces from a book with no name :



Coincidentally, three days ago Ken wrote this blog post to register the passing, after 23 years, of Reality Street, his publishing concern.

"I never meant to or really wanted to become a publisher, let alone be known primarily as one."


It will be hard to avoid that reputational fate, given that the press's 67 publications include many of the essential texts of British experimental writing over that period. (Including, for instance, the books by Carol Watts, and Out of Everywhere 2, that I'm currently writing about.)


But maybe the end of Reality Street will be a chance to perceive him in his own right as a quintessential creative force within the UK experimental field.

Here's one of the pieces I just published:

History of a thought

What is the history of thought? This is too hard a question. Try again. What is the history of a thought? Even more difficult. A thought is elusive. We know that much. Where did it come from? Unknown. A thought cannot be grasped. Its progress cannot be tracked with any certainty. Its genesis is therefore even less certain than its present status. What was there before the thought? If there was nothing how then did the thought originate? How could it originate? And what thereafter? How does the thought persist? Who is doing the thinking? How can we address this question? There is a narrative to a thought but it is too hard to capture. It mutates too quickly. It moves at the speed of thought. Tracking it is tricky even when it maintains its coherence. But what if it lost coherence? What if it went elsewhere? What if it became distorted and therefore entered the realm of dream or even nightmare? And what if it were then taken up and acted upon? That doesn’t bear thinking about. But everything must run its course. Let us suppose therefore that before too long the thought is gone. It has vanished. Does the thinker then persist? Who is it who thought and then ceased thinking and does the thinker continue to exist after the thought has run its course? But has the thought really finished? Is it complete has it reached its terminus its estuary its final horizon? What has become of it? And if on the other hand still incomplete if without resolution then does the thought have a future and who will think it through? What is its future? We don’t know. So we are no wiser. We don’t even know that. This requires further thought. It’s time to think again.

And here's Ken in 1979, found in vol 1 of his Reality Studios magazine:


Some pages from TILTH
: a garden journal in progress

 . . . .

Soil rich & limey
I break it up a little

at right angles make a shallow drill
or use the head hold the handle
until the soil is quite fine
by pressing the rake in this raking
to remove surface stones
mark where each row handle into the soil
this depression of the rake to make
along the line of the rake at a low angle
with the garden line if the rake is held
the surface is liable to the ground
of seeds is to be sown
to become wavy instead of level at a steep angle
in one direction and then rake first
rake over the bed

Foxes come down from the railway embankment
I saw one dead in Cuckoo Wood it was pinned
between the eyes grey & ghastly          We skirted
burnt gorse & past Orange Court found
the Farnmborough road & thence back
to Lower Green Farm the masts
of TV aerials shinning through the brushwood

ten miles from the Crystal Palace

 . . . .

Forty years makes a big difference to the writing, but I feel I can see a continuity in perspective, intent, and attention.

In the valedictory piece, Ken says this:

Anyway … that’s all done now. I have increasingly felt over the past couple of years that I no longer had any enthusiasm for the publishing, and, at the dawn of my old age, wanted to put my energies back where I began – into my writing. I’ve done my bit as a publisher. Also, I want to put on record that poetry as such is not in fact the biggest thing in my life. Most contemporary poetry I read bores me. I know that’s a bit like Glenn Gould when he said “I don’t like the sound of the piano that much.” I can relate to that. I’ve always thought of myself not as a “poet”, whatever that is, but a “writer”. I am interested in new writing, writing that breaks boundaries, which might be poetry.

And as for the poetry scene, it no longer energises me. Perhaps because I’ve been out of London for 12 years. Perhaps because the British avant-garde scene seems to have run its course, and has retreated behind the boundaries of academia. Or that’s how I perceive it today. Poets subverting expectations of what a poem should be, and telling the world the theory of how they do it seem to be two a penny now. It looks like a career move sometimes.

[NB Since he left  London he lives, much to my envy, in Hastings Old Town.]

. . . .

This preferment of "writing" over "poetry" seems like a good way of expressing what is essentially experimental about experimental writing.

I can't necessarily share the implied ciriticism of recent poetry. Being such a latecomer, this is the poetry that I know and have enthused about. And yes, Lisa Samuels, Carol Watts and Andrea Brady (for example) are all academics.

Has something got lost, as Ken argues, with the collapse, or erosion anyway, of avant-garde writing from the streets? It certainly has, though I couldn't easily define it.

Some direct and uncorrected quality of vision - I'm thinking of Bill Griffiths now. Or Maggie O'Sullivan. Though, of course, one went to the Royal College of Music and the other made programmes for the BBC. So "from the streets" is a relative notion here!

And for much of its history the British Poetry Revival did always have an eye to academia for sustenance and attention. As Steve Willey and others have noted, Bob Cobbing's art was very consciously a series of engagements with institutions. Cobbing wasn't an academic, certainly not, but he wasn't sailing to Avalon either (vague memory of VDGG's "Refugees"), he was very much aware of academic networks and their opportunities. And he knew he was making history as academics would write it.


Here, by the way, is Billy Mills' excellent review, published yesterday, of the three volumes of Bill Griffiths' wrtings published in recent years by Reality Street:


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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The ragworts of Shaw Forest Park

This is Common Ragwort, which is the Senecio jacobaea of my formative years, but now renamed Jacobaea vulgaris.

(Jacobaea - ragworts - have been split from Senecio - groundsels -, following molecular analysis).

I took these photos at Shaw Forest Park, Swindon, on 11th July 2016. They made a strangely glorious sight that evening, on the mound above the old landfill.

So strange, that when I was looking at these photos afterwards I decided they must be a species less familiar to me, Hoary Ragwort (J. erucifolia). But the experts queried this when I put them on the Facebook Wild Flower Group; apparently J. erucifolia is not even in flower yet.  And a re-visit has convinced me that they are indeed J. vulgaris, though my eye and camera had picked out the least typical individuals.

I'm not sure if anyone else will be able to see what I mean: the space in the open corymb, the long ray-florets, the thin scanty leaves and and beetroot-red stems were the main components. All of these, however, seem to be within the range of Common Ragwort variation, so I'll set it down to biodynamic factors, or maybe some unusual edaphic challenges in the location.

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Above Wroughton

Yellow Oat-grass (Trisetum flavescens) and Crested Dog's-tail (Cynosurus cristatus)

These are some pictures from a midsummer evening ramble (23rd June 2016) on an unremarkable  part of the Marlborough Downs, just above Wroughton. (Close to the Science Museum Large Object Store at Wroughton Airfield.)

Above, a semi-native meadow with Yellow Oat-grass (Trisetum flavescens) and Crested Dog's-tail (Cynosurus cristatus).  I think it also had Meadow Fescue, but I didn't realize what I had seen until afterwards (I supposed it was Tall Fescue) so I didn't photograph it.

Patch of Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum)

A patch of Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum). Detail below. If you zoom in, you'll see the spike-like racemes and the distinctive stem-nodes, appearing white. 

Patch of Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum) - detail

Spikes of Tor-grass (Brachypodium pinnatum)

Spike, or raceme? As the spikelets have no pedicels this ought to mean  that it's a spike, but it doesn't really look like a spike. I know that's not a very scientific statement.

Tor-grass is disliked by many ecologists, even though it's a native grass. Its recent spread in chalk grassland is clearly related to intensive farming and the increased nitrogen in the soil. In these conditions it becomes highly invasive, driving out the rich variety of species in our traditional chalkland flora.

More information about this:


Hairy St John's-wort (Hypericum hirsutum) coming into flower

Here's a plant I never tuned into before, Hairy St John's-wort (Hypericum hirsutum), just coming into flower. Apparently it's fairly common across most of England. The numerous black glands on the sepals attracted my attention. The hairy stems and leaves are diagnostic. I looked for "perforations" in the leaves, and it did appear to have some, though scanty and extremely minute, compared to what I've seen before in H. perforatum.

Leaves and stem of Hairy St John's-wort (Hypericum hirsutum)

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Friday, July 08, 2016

Carol Watts, Occasionals (again)

Charles Alexander's useful review of Occasionals:


Today is the 8th of July. Consultation of Occasionals shows that it has two poems for this day, like a Brahms pairing.


The first poem (springcuts XIII)is preoccupied with darkness on a bright day. Some are out in the sun, gardening ("Took off his shirt to grow a bed.").

Yet. "When voices are dark from open windows"... "the dull kick of resignation".

Coming into focus:

All you have to say to me. A woman
is speaking, where pain is. Domestic
it comes in shades of eavesdropped.
Lack, of light.


The second poem (springcuts XIV) isn't without pain, either. In the first half, we circulate memories of thngs lost, maybe only imagined. (Hopkins' "Binsey Poplars" in the offing.)

In the second half, the poem focusses on a childhood memory. Of the gang throwing stones at an unpopular girl. The poet comments:

Loyalties, I was silent but. This was virtue,
to stick by in a stoning.

And she notices that the cruel girl seemed brave when stoned, with a scar on her lips.


Thursday, July 07, 2016

F O T O, poems 91 - 100

Moon over a distant Indalsälven

[Image source: https://plus.google.com/s/Indals%C3%A4lven/posts . Photo by Anders Lundh.]

91. (Indal where we swam)

Trees on a promontory. Around us the great river
massed, penned in by the great dam.

Someone lit a fire here once. We talked quietly
(it was afternoon), ate crisps, prepared to swim.

92. (In the river)

I am in the middle of Indalsälven, and the world.
The huge embrace of water is not clammy, it is complete.

I trod against the suck damwards...  or else I ransacked
the still, big surface; with joy in escaping and in doing it.


93. (Smiling in shadow of the bank)

A double dragonfly crackled in the reeds.
Chest-deep, my toes nibbled at the sloppy stones,

my mind still swimming. How soon to swim back into the light,
and be only my limbs again, local in the horizons!

94. (It’s freezing!)

The breath that ought to be in you is all
flown to the four winds, and you can’t get it back,

climbing in panic water and earning in gasps
a pinch of noise to tell me it needs a shriek.

95. (Sitting in the river horse-fly)

Wet skin looks untouchable, unscented:
the broms-noise stopped. Ouch, you joined the foodchain!

Rueful and laughing, that the broms slapped down so instantly
and got you. You snapped your towel, complaining. 

96. (Reflecting trees and sky)

Dammed up, the river spreads. On its surface
my vision flew back, reversed and crossed with ripples,

the aspens stepping down upon their tops,
the skyline cracked, the sky charged with the invisible.

97. (Flower-wreath on my head)

I am a fool, but picked flowers were always a crown
for tables or for hair. Passed from hand to hand, too.

That was the start of culture, but not those immortal monuments
we have tasted since. Just now, for me and you.  

98. (Playing mouth-organ in hammock)

Why should you, up there in denser and softer darkness,
mother me, bow to me, you childhood trees?

I’ll die with you, I promise. Those who can live with it,
those survivors, may they keep fit on our ashes!

99. (Swinging in hammock)

Adrift... adrift... big bird crisscrossing the moon you seem
a fixture, like the slow grey liverwort on the rock

where I sketched it yesterday. After packing, you slipped out to seem.
But soon, we’ll matter less than your lost sock.

100. (Sunset behind trees)

The sky rustled, smeared by the wind.
In our absence small yellow leaves would spiral;

the train sped through forests, a directory of trees.
We crouched on our bags, amusing a tearful child.


Back-story: Poems 91-97 The walk pauses for a swim in the Indal, just above the dam at Hölleforsen. 98-99 Final evening at the cottage. 100 Departure: the train south (from Sundsvall towards Stockholm).

Poem 98 refers to a poem by Edith Södergran.

When this sequence was written (1998-2002), each poem was linked to one of the 100 photos in a holiday album. Originally, I intended to write the poems into the album itself, like captions. But as time went by the poems became a public art and when I presented them I replaced the photos with brief explanatory titles in brackets. The missing photos, I hoped, would operate as a concealed presence whose form the reader can discern sometimes distinctly, sometimes more faintly.

The images accompanying these 2016 blog posts are unrelated to the original photos: they are taken from current internet sources.


Poems 1 - 10

Poems 11 - 20

Poems 21 - 30

Poems 31 - 40

Poems 41 - 50

Poems 51 - 60

Poems 61 - 70

Poems 71 - 80

Poems 81 - 90

Poems 91 - 100

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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

William Shakespeare: Othello (1601-02?)

Othello and Iago

[Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Othello_and_Iago.gif . 1901 illustration from a Philadelphia edition of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.]

I wrote about King Lear before.

Spenser's chronicle of Lear, describing the king "Too truely tryde in his extreamest state", could have already been percolating in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote Othello's self-description:

   one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex'd in the extreme ...

Both are plays of suffering. In Othello, the titular hero's suffering begins in III.1, after two acts of patient preparation by Iago. The suffering Othello murders his beloved under a misapprehension and then kills himself. Othello is the most painful of Shakespeare's tragedies, A.C. Bradley said (1904), and I agree with him.

It may not be absolutely his "greatest" play but it is without doubt one of his most astonishing achievements. It's unique: no other play is like Othello; and it's perfectly achieved; and it matters.

In Lear the steadily mounting suffering is brought forward to the early part of the play. Shakespeare wanted to see where this pitch of suffering led, if it didn't culminate in suicide. The answer was the cosmic expressionism of the mad scenes. [Bradley's Note R points out that most of Lear's reminiscences of Othello occur in the first two acts.]

Modern editors have increasingly favoured Alfred Hart's 1935 claim that the bad Q1 of Hamlet evinces knowledge of Othello. That would place the composition of Othello in 1601-02, earlier than has often been supposed. This brings Othello interestingly close to Twelfth Night: Orsino and Othello, we see, are both rhetorically-inclined lovers with more than a touch of egotism. And Troilus and Cressida: another play in which idealized love crashes and burns. (What, we can imagine Shakespeare wondering, if Cressida had been innocent all along and Troilus had only thought he'd seen what he saw in the Greek camp?)  [A point already made, I discover, by Sternfeld in his book about music in Shakespearean tragedy.]

By the same token, this earlier date for Othello moves it further away from Lear. Yet the way these two plays begin have profound connections too. In each of them the tragic hero is at the summit of his achievement. And each celebrates his triumph by orchestrating a public scene with a touch of self-dramatizing flamboyance.  (What, we can imagine Shakespeare wondering, if Desdemona had not played her part before the council in quite the way Othello was hoping?)


F.R. Leavis' 1937 attempt to unseat Bradley by emphasizing Othello's faults, which leads him to the absurd remark that Iago is only a device, is not one of his triumphant essays. But it has some very good things in it. Many of those good things were already latent in Bradley, if Leavis had done him the justice to read him seriously, rather than to smear him with "comic solemnity" and the absence of even "moderate intelligence", etc.

What Leavis especially disliked - and you can't blame him for this - is Bradley's assertions that e.g. "both Desdemona and Othello show themselves at their noblest just before death" or  "and love and admiration alone remain, in the majestic dignity and sovereign ascendancy of the close. Chaos has come and gone; and the Othello of the Council Chamber and the quay of Cyprus has returned, or a greater and nobler Othello still. As he speaks those final words in which all the glory and agony of his life -- long ago in India and Arabia and Aleppo, and afterwards in Venice, and now in Cyprus seem to pass before us, like the pictures that flash before the eyes of a drowning man, a triumphant scorn for the fetters of the flesh and the littleness of all the lives that must survive him sweeps our grief away, and when he dies upon a kiss ..."

The worthwhile, the important, subject of disagreement between them is the validity of this Victorian-inflected conception of heroism.

Leavis pretends that the difference is about literary methodology, i.e. Bradley's supposed tendency to treat Shakespeare's characters as real people, instead of focussing on the "dramatic poem". Actually it's Leavis himself who makes the worst blunder of this sort, by inferring Othello's gross susceptibility to jealousy from the fact (Leavis treats it as a fact in the story) that it takes only 70 lines to convert him from besotted contentment to smouldering jealousy.

The same stricture applies, in part, to one of Leavis' strongest cards, Othello's self-dramatization. For here Leavis doesn't take any account of Othello being, in fact, a drama; I'm not persuaded it's always straightforward to distinguish the way that drama tells stories from unique aspects of the character Othello's personality. And I think Leavis is a little naive - perhaps draws back from Eliot - in seeming to assume that self-dramatization is a distinct and culpable personality trait as opposed to something that nearly all of us do in public. In this area, too, we need to go a bit deeper.



          That you shall surely find him,
Lead to the Sagittary the raised search,
And there will I be with him. So, farewell.

- - -


                   I do beseech you,
Send for the lady to the Sagittary,
And let her speak of me before her father: ...

Discussion in Rodney M. Baine's 1939 note in the Shakespeare Association Bulletin (Vol 14 no 4 (Oct 939), pp. 226-31.  (Among more infantile Shakespeare scholars this is commonly known as the Baine's Note.)

The choice in 1939 came down to two options, really. (The third option, that the Sagittary referred to an area of the Venice Arsenal, had already been demolished when the statue of "Mars the Archer" was shown to post-date Shakespeare's play.)

1. Shakespeare made up a plausible name for an inn. "Sagittary" probably means Centaur, as it does in Troilus and Cressida. There is an inn called the Centaur in the Comedy of Errors. (This is the orthodox view, defended by Baine.)

2. Shakespeare had somehow heard of, remembered or even visited a street in Venice called the Frezzaria, named (apparently in the 15th century) after the arrow-makers whose ateliers clustered there. He or his intermediate source transformed the name into its Latinate equivalent "Sagittary" (proposed by Violet M. Jeffery in 1932).

Calle Frezzeria (Venice)

[Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frezzeria.jpg . 2009 photo by "L736E".]

The choice to be made here reflects other decision-choices about Othello. It's a marvellously grounded play, but to what extent is this solidity testament to Shakespeare's visionary imagination, and to what extent is it founded in real knowledge of Venice, Venetians, Moors and Cyprus?

A complexity, maybe, is that the events on which Othello is based took place semi-recently. The Turks had finally succeeded in capturing Cyprus in 1570-73, as all Europe knew.  Giraldi Cinthio's tale "Un Capitano Moro" was in Gli Hecatommithi (1565), and some details may be based on an actual crime, though there's a strong element of folk-tale too. It's in this latter connection that Cinthio appears to moralize over the unwisdom of Disdemona's decision to marry a Moor. In the folk-tale world, xenophobic and conformist, it's always a bad plan to get involved with the Other.


Shakespeare's transformation of his Othello-source has a lot in common with what he did previously in Hamlet and afterwards in Lear.

The principal change he made, from which all else follows, is omitting the Ensign's (Iago's) failed attempt to seduce Disdemona, and accordingly eliminating his motive for taking vengeance, not on the Moor (Othello), but on Disdemona. Those two popular Bradleyan conundrums, the problem of Iago's motives and the problem of Hamlet's delay, each arise from Shakespeare's alterations to his source. In the case of Hamlet this alteration - to make the murder of Hamlet's father a secret rather than an avowed act, thus eliminating the very clear reason for Hamlet's/Amleth's extreme circumspection - ; this may not have been Shakespeare's own doing, it may have already happened in the ur-Hamlet possibly written by Kyd. But in the case of Othello we don't have this extra complexity to contend with.

The alteration of the source in this case is very understandable in practical terms. According to Cinthio, the Ensign's attempt to seduce Disdemona passes unnoticed by her. Nevertheless, the Ensign develops a vengeful hatred against her. It's a story-line that's both difficult to stage and difficult to credit. But Cinthio was driven to it because if Disdemona had known anything about the Ensign's designs on her honour we'd want to know why Disdemona never mentioned it to her husband; which was quite out of the question; it would destroy the Ensign's credibility and, indeed, sign his death-warrant.  In Cinthio, as in Shakespeare, the terrible interest of the plot crucially depends on no-one having the least inkling of the Ensign's/Iago's villainy. But criminals who have clear motives are usually all too guessable. So to get round this difficulty, Cinthio supplied a secret motive, at least cursorily, in the form of the old cliché of disappointed love.

Shakespeare does without this secret motive; he does without any clearly-stated motive at all; which is actually much more credible psychologically. Iago poisons Othello's mind, but his own mind is poisoned already. And Shakespeare makes the target of his inexplicable hatred not Desdemona (whom Iago coldly sacrifices without any indication of rancour) but Othello. At least, mainly. To some extent you could say that he delights in destroying the relationship itself ("Oh, you are well tuned now..."). To some extent he delights in bringing down and almost killing Cassio. If you want a single word to explain Iago you wouldn't go far astray with "envy". But as all medieval preachers knew, envy is the deadly sin that least likes to become aware of itself. And honest, plain-spoken Iago is somewhat less than plain and honest when it comes to facing up to his own motives.

That said, Iago really doesn't appear to have strong personal reasons for killing Desdemona (like everything else in the story, this has been disputed), but he does care very much about destroying Othello. I'm sure everyone agrees that this is a plot-improvement, but it does have one slightly strange consequence. For Othello to be truly destroyed, he needs to discover that he's been duped into murdering his innocent love; but Othello can only make this discovery when Iago is unmasked. So in a way Iago sacrifices his own life to his act of pure evil. (I return to this point later on.)

In both Shakespeare and Cinthio, Desdemona is totally innocent: both morally, and in the sense of being quite unaware of Iago's nature. She cannot protect herself; in fact Iago consciously uses her innocence to condemn her in Othello's mind. In the same way, he destroys Othello by playing on aspects of his personality that are in themselves good and innocent (for example, an unsuspicious nature and a soldier's unhesitating ability to make tough decisions).

Cinthio's is a nasty story but it isn't a tragic story, because the Disdemona who is bludgeoned to death is an unwitting victim. When Shakespeare transforms the story into the destruction of Othello, a destruction that is his own act, a destruction of which he is made conscious, then the story becomes tragedy. Othello is different from Cinthio's Moor. Shakespeare ennobles him, but also makes him solely responsible for killing the woman he loves.

It's an unusual tragedy, however, because it's of the essence that Othello is duped. People being tricked and jumping to wrong conclusions, the audience understanding more than the characters do... these motifs are normally the stuff of comedy, not tragedy. Rymer's condemnation of the play as a "bloody farce" alludes to this feature (leaving aside the less pleasant aspects of Rymer's view). And in a way this extremely dark play does have some interesting connections with Troilus and Cressida, a play, it now appears, that may be close to it in date of composition.

Sidney Poitier refused to play Othello in the 1960s, saying "I cannot go on stage and give the audience a black man who is a dupe". Hugh Quarshie, likewise, argued that the play had racial stereotyping built into both its original design and its subsequent performance history. This is undeniable, and the fascinating history of casting and performing Othello, recounted by Ayanna Thompson in the revised 3rd Arden edition, leads to no simple conclusions.


The glamour of the foreigner

[Image source: http://janmarsh.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/moroccan-ambassadors.html]

I was chatting recently to my sister and her partner about their experiences teaching in Japan a few years ago,. (Something they both did for a couple of years, via the  heavily sponsored JET programme. This was before they met each other; when they did, it gave them something to talk about!)

Both testified to the enormous interest, amounting to fascination, that their presence aroused among the rural Japanese. At first this constant gazing, crowding round and longing to touch their hair or compare heights seemed oppressive and even scary.

But as time went by, they got used to it. So used to it, indeed, that when they returned to the UK a funny thing happened. They got culture-shock in reverse. Arriving at a pub or a party, they unconsciously donned a celebrity smile and an aura of "Well HELLO there! Let's get this party STARTED!"  And the off-hand way they were greeted made them feel a little put out. 

I'll accept that it's a bit different if you're a slave or a refugee or oyster-picking for a ganger, but there is a kind of built-in glamour to being a foreigner in a foreign land. You are living life. You are out there. Your experiences are potentially worth writing about for the folks back home. Your brain lives in the present, kept active by the stimuli of new sights and sounds. 

I was thinking about this in connection with Othello.


There's no evidence that Shakespeare ever left England. He had travelled, indeed. From Stratford-upon-Avon to London. In those days, that was quite a long way. 

He had surely seen people from other races. Even in those days, London was a cosmopolitan city. Travellers were starting to have black servants. It's even been suggested that the Dark Lady might have been a woman of colour. Still, the sight of people from other races hadn't yet lost its novelty value. The painters of Shakespeare's time - e.g. Rubens - manifested huge interest in the Africans, Arabs and Asians they came across. Clearly Rubens was not alone. Shakespeare too must have joined the crowd clustering eagerly around these strange phenomena. It must have been just like the Japanese country people surrounding an English (or Irish) teacher. 

All the same, Shakespeare, writing about the Moor Othello in Venice, was mainly working from his own imagination. There was already a tradition of dramas about non-Europeans, from Tamburlaine  to The Battle of Alcazar to Titus Andronicus. In the latter, Aaron is a Moorish foreigner in Rome. Shakespeare himself was the co-creator, along with Peele. Aaron is an out-and-out villain, but here already Shakespeare begins to think about what it means to be a foreigner in service. His imagination told him most of what he needed to know. Aaron was valuable, Aaron was cleverer than his native colleagues, but Aaron was an outsider, he was never secure. 

Nearly a hundred years later, in 1693, Thomas Rymer poured scorn on the notion that a "Blackmoor" could ever end up being a leading general of the Venetian republic, but I'm not convinced that Rymer knew what he was talking about. Cinthio, writing for a sixteenth-century Italian audience, makes his Moor a captain in Venice and says he married a well-born Venetian lady. The story he tells depends upon this being out of the ordinary but certainly not beyond belief.

What Rymer's note testifies to is the dramatic growth in feelings of disgust towards people of colour, as a direct consequence of enslaving them and treating them like beasts. (As everyone now knows, humans tend to demonize those they have wronged, not those who have wronged them.)

In Cinthio's and Shakespeare's day this racism was still in quite an embryonic phase, compared to the visceral feelings evinced later by Rymer and Coleridge and well described by Bradley.

Early theatrical tradition (confirmed by Iago's insults in Othello) seems to have presented Moors as looking more like sub-Saharan Africans than Mediterraneans. Yet Shakespeare very likely had encountered the embassy from Morocco that arrived in London in 1600 and stayed 6 months. Its chief was "Abdul Guahid" (Abd el-Ouahad ben Messaoud), shown in the impressive portrait above. The term "black" had a much wider currency in Shakespeare's day than it did in later, more race-conscious, times: Europeans with dark hair or complexions might also be described as "black".


Perhaps none so colourful as Othello, but Shakespeare would also have known many examples of top professionals, especially military ones, who took service in the pay of a foreign master.

In such service, it was axiomatic that you adopted the religion of your foreign master. Few people yet believed that religion was something for the individual conscience to decide.

That's why Othello appears as a Christian, though an angry Brabantio calls him a heathen.

And Othello is proud of being able to say things that are just what a Venetian would say ("What, are we turned Turk...?").


But Othello is a foreigner. He's a glamorous one. And at the beginning of the play, he's euphoric with the growth of his prestige in a foreign country, his indispensable services to the state, a triumph now topped off by his marriage to the much younger Desdemona, a beauty from the Venetian aristocracy. 

Such inner joy, such self-satisfaction, is something that we envious human beings are extremely sensitive to. It's not the least of reasons why foreigners are often disliked.


The UK has recently had a referendum about this. The question on the ballot-paper, or at least the question that most people chose to answer, was:

Do you want any more foreigners in your neighbourhood? 

__ YES     __NO 

For most people in Britain the answer was, as it always has been, a resounding No. Since we're being given the choice, let's eliminate foreigners. Let them go back where they came from. Life is primarily about our own survival. About preserving the only land we know for us and our children. 

For young, educated, confident, middle-class, high-earning people, the answer was Yes.  They found that they related well to the educated, confident foreigners they met with. These foreigners proved on the whole to be better employees and more like-minded pals; they worked harder, were more intelligent, more aware of the wider world, more switched on, and had more interesting backgrounds. The clever British achievers had aspirations to being foreigners themselves one day. 

Indeed, the clever British achievers felt a lot more comfortable among foreigners than with their own traditional class enemies, those surly curmudgeonly working classes who despise aspirational people, their fakeness and their insincerity.  Anyway, I digress. 


In the opening act of Othello, it's clear that Othello's euphoric foreignness will make enemies. In fact, he's so confident, so high on life, that he doesn't even care all that much what other people think. 

We don't need to see or hear Roderigo and Brabantio to know that surrounding Othello there's going to be a lurking xenophobia. 

Because if foreignness is glamorous, then the non-foreign populace will experience envy. Envy, as always, disguises itself as something else. Hey presto, xenophobia.

Othello is glamorous. We know this because we know that Desdemona falls for him and besides we see him in action, his charisma and authority irresistible in the first two acts. Othello presents himself as an old bloke who has long outgrown any feelings of sexual passion, but we mustn't take that too literally. Certainly he is middle-aged, a man with a lot of history behind him, and significantly older than  Desdemona. But this not-too-serious talk of age is also a way of expressing another feeling: the feeling that he has really "made it" in his career. That the marriage to Desdemona is the crowning glory, his ambitions have all been achieved, he can be an elder statesman. 

What about Iago? Is he xenophobic? He certainly talks like he is, but mainly to manipulate Roderigo and Brabantio. Iago might be too smart to actually fall for this crude racist talk himself. But he is, very definitely, consumed with envy. Of the supremely successful Othello. Also, of the handsome and well-educated Cassio. And he's deeply cynical about Desdemona and all such high-born dames; I believe he genuinely does think that she'll soon tire of her Moorish frolic, and move on to a dashing chap like Cassio.

The one thing that he doesn't imagine is that Desdemona would ever see anything in him, Iago. (The buried plotline of Cinthio's story resonates here.) 

He's right. Actually no-one sees anything in Iago. "Honest" Iago is a tool. Everyone talks to him and everyone relies on him, but no-one cares about him. Go and fetch the luggage, Iago, there's a good fellow. 

So Shakespeare's imagination drove Cinthio's story deeper until it touched on two of the oldest hatreds of them all: the foreigner, and the class beneath you (or above you). Come to think of it, Othello manifests quite a bit of the third ancient hatred too: hatred of women. 

It's depressing to think how vigorous all these hatreds still are today. 


A prescient essay by Umberto Eco on the eternal fascism, or Ur-Fascism, first published in 1995:

(Features 5,6,7 being particularly interesting to me in the present context.)


I want to come back to something I said earlier, that for Othello truly to be destroyed, Iago must be unmasked, and thus Iago in a sense sacrifices his own life to his act of pure evil. 

What I think it's necessary to add is that by this late stage of the play events have outrun Iago's original scheme. In particular, he never originally intended or envisaged that Othello would carry out an honour-killing. (I think Bradley said this too, it's certainly not a new thought.)

This might seem a trivial point to make and it's certainly not something that anyone worries about while watching the play. And there's no doubt that, once it becomes clear to Iago that Othello intends to kill Desdemona, he's willing, as I said before, to coldly sacrifice her. 

However, it has some importance from two points of view. 

The first relates to Iago's own character. What he sets out to do, in the early part of the play, is to make Othello suffer; to "wipe that smug grin off his face", as people who feel like Iago like to put it. He intends to destroy Othello's peace of mind and to wreck his delight in his new marriage, the crowning glory of his career. But Iago seems to imagine that the outcome for Desdemona will simply be an estrangement; Othello will put her aside, making her available once more for potential lovers like Roderigo or Cassio.


The second point to emphasize is that the honour-killing originates exclusively with Othello, the outsider. Though it's Iago who suggests the means and the place. 

What did Shakespeare and his audience think of honour-killing? In our time the predominant view is that it is unvarnished murder combined with the worst kind of domestic abuse. But I don't think it was thought of quite that way in Shakespeare's time. There are other other honour-killings in Shakespeare, actual or potential. Titus Andronicus kills his disobedient son and his maimed and raped daughter, but nothing in that play is morally normative, so it doesn't shed much light on the question. In Hamlet, Hamlet kills his uncle and the threat of killing his mother is palpable, at any rate to her. In Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness (acted 1603) - based on an Italian novel - , Frankford considers killing his adulterous wife, and speaks as if he thinks he has the right to do it, though in the event he draws back from this.

Honour-killings in Christian Europe did take place in reality. (Indeed, what were the executions of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, but honour-killings?) But they were rare and archaic in Shakespeare's time and country, more something in books and plays than something actually done. Augustus had  allowed it in the Lex Julia;  killing adulterous wives was also permitted in the Code Napoléon of 1804, leading to relative leniency in the law-courts of France and French colonies. There was a long tradition of honour-killing in Mediterranean Europe, which Shakespeare may have been aware of.  (For example the death, in 1546, of Isabella di Morra.) It was a behaviour associated especially with the nobility. In Lope de Vega's Peribañez (written c. 1604-08) the story is concerned with whether a commoner should have the right to defend his honour (in this case by killing his wife's would-be seducer) -- not an honour-killing (which means killing someone in your own family - overwhelmingly the victims are female), but a somewhat parallel situation. 

I think the reality of drama and its larger-than-life figures, then as now, is that the audience had a slightly different ethic for story-characters than for people in real life. Just as audiences accept or used to accept John Wayne or Clint Eastwood executing summary justice on dozens of people in a way that we'd find deeply problematic outside the frame of a movie. Honour bulks large on the stage. So Shakespeare's audiences might accept, or even expect, a tragic hero who values honour before everything and who might proceed, as Othello does, "to this extremity". Still, the examples of Hamlet and A Woman Killed with Kindness suggest that the potential justice of honour-killing was only accepted, even on stage, in a theoretical way. If you wanted to retain some sympathy for your hero, you made him draw back. 

Anyway, Othello presents a devastating case against honour-killing; though really, I should add that this is not very like a normal honour-killing in the cultural sense, because Othello is acting as a lone agent, he has no family and isn't thinking of family shame. He does, however, borrow some of the supposed sanctity. He uses high-sounding terms about sacrifice, a sacred vow, and "the cause" when it's apparent that it's nothing but a passion for violent revenge that's driving him  (e.g III.3.391, 434).  He's more mad than honour-bound. (It's perhaps rather surprising that he delegates the killing of Cassio to Iago, but this comes from Cinthio. and compare Cymbeline, where Posthumus tries to arrange for his manservant to execute his supposedly unfaithful wife.)

The killing is not beautifully controlled and formal and stately as in Othello's imagination. It's a thoroughly ugly business, with Othello obsessed with his wife as whore. At first he maintains his pose of sad justice:

I would not kill thy unprepared spirit,
No, heaven forfend, I would not kill thy soul.

It isn't what he's said before, and the pose doesn't last.  When Desdemona doesn't prove as accommodating to the role of confessing whore as he wants her to be, his fury returns. 

O perjured woman, thou dost stone my heart
And makest me call what I intend to do
A murder, which I thought a sacrifice. 

In the end he cancels his earlier promise to let her pray. No magnanimity, he has to act now, does the deed in a rage, and not cleanly. He has to strangle her twice. 

But Othello thinks, at least with one part of his clearly disturbed mind, that he's justified. 

O, I were damn'd beneath all depth in hell
But that I did proceed upon just grounds
To this extremity.

Afterwards he tries several times to explain this, first to Emilia. In her first horror she responds with racism - he "the blacker devil", and this the outcome of Desdemona's "most filthy bargain". Later she merely deflates him, he becomes merely "The Moor" who has "killed my mistress". 

Then, pathetically, he still attempts to speak in terms of the honour-killing to Montano and Gratiano:

"I know this act shows horrible and grim... 'Tis pitiful, but yet Iago knows ..." But this is all swept away by Emilia's revelations. For her Othello is now, most deflating of all, a simpleton. 

O murderous coxcomb, what should such a fool
Do with so good a wife?  (V.2.231-32)


Such is Shakespeare's incomparable cultural status, that a story such as this is, unfortunately, is certain to have given rise to racial and cultural stereotyping, of Moors and black men alike. (The stereotyping occurs when people generalize from the only story about a Moor that they're familiar with.)


Of all Shakespeare plays Othello has one of the best-known, most exciting and most unbearably gripping of stories.You might imagine, then, that commentators and directors would leave that story alone to work its dire magic.

In fact, the opposite has been the case: the more a story is pondered, and the more it's acted, the more we become driven by a restlessness, a longing for some new twist, a longing for the story to change. Who doesn't have their own personal take on Othello?

Harold Bloom thought he saw that Othello and Desdemona didn't get the chance to consummate their marriage, and that this was an important part of the plot, motivating some of Othello's insecurities. This was a most irresponsible abuse of Shakespeare's double time. We're supposed to ignore the double time (as of course we do) when accepting Iago's insinuations as plausible, but to take the same double time with forensic literalness when it comes to supporting Bloom's extra-textual speculations. Othello is supposed to credit the suggestion that his wife has slept with other men at the same time that he knows he hasn't even had time to sleep with her himself. (To my mind, Othello's response to Iago's "Are you fast married", in Act 1 Scene 2, implies that the marriage has already been consummated when the play begins.)


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