Wilde’s Inferno: Reading Dante in Reading Gaol

I have just finished reading the 200 or so pages of the recently (well, fairly recently) published Penguin edition of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and other prison writings (mostly letters), edited by Colm Toibin. It has been a harrowing, serious and affecting read, which though at times a little repetitive, is nonetheless punctuated by plenty of purple passages of searingly beautiful prose.

De Profundis accounts for the main body of the book’s text. It takes the form of a letter addressed to Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie). Bosie is upbraided throughout the letter for his callousness, frivolity and duplicity over the course of his relationship with Wilde, who himself emerges as a deeply forlorn and tragic figure from his own extended and damning description of Bosie’s behaviour.

The received wisdom is that the letter cannot be read as an accurate account of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie (since it contains, apparently, too many petty, foolish and untrue accusations). What is remarkable about the letter, Toibin thinks, and what makes it (in his estimation) Wilde’s ‘greatest piece of prose-writing’, is the ‘change it marks in Wilde’s imaginative procedures’: the ‘high priest of flippancy and mocking laughter has set himself suddenly and shockingly against shallowness’.

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I am far too unread in Wilde to be able to concur with confidence that the serious tone of De Profundis is indeed entirely out of keeping with the tone he had adopted in his previous writing. It is certainly true, though, that De Profundis repeatedly takes aim at shallowness: Wilde at one point produces the memorable aphorism that shallowness is ‘the supreme vice’.

Something that struck me as I read what Wilde had communicated to the outside world during his two year stay in prison was the extent to which he knew he could find in reading books a source of deep consolation while confined in his cell. For his first few months in prison, however, reading had not been possible. This must only have served to sharpen his sense of how empty life could be – and must have been – without it (particularly, of course, within the confines of a small cell and over a course of hard labour).

In a letter sent after 13 months of imprisonment, Wilde wrote to the Home Secretary (no less) that one of the chief causes of the mental suffering he had experienced in jail had been the lack of ‘suitable or sufficient books, so essential to any literary man’. The ‘physical privations’ of jail, he continued, ‘are as nothing compared to the entire privation of literature to one to whom Literature was once the first thing of life’.

A subsequent letter, written 4 months later, indicates that Wilde had, as a result of his initial letter, been granted access to some new books in the now somewhat replenished prison library (he had complained to the Home Secretary of his dissatisfaction with the existing stock). What he liked to do when reading the books that gave him satisfaction, he wrote to a friend, was to take notes from them, copying lines and phrases from poets that spoke to him.

So what sort of reading might a master literary craftsman turn to when at his lowest ebb? Wilde had been able to exert an influence here: when writing to his contacts outside jail, he had given an indication of the sort of book he wished to have accessible to him in the prison library.

Of all the things he chose, the book that stands out before all others as the most important source of inspiration for the incarcerated Wilde is Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Indeed the very title of Wilde’s De Profundis itself contains a possible allusion to this text. In the Inferno (the first part of the Divine Comedy), Dante had depicted himself going down to the depths of hell, accompanied by his guide, the Roman epic poet Virgil. Wilde implies that this is a journey he too (like Virgil and Dante) has had to make.

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Botticelli’s depiction of Dante’s Inferno

In what ways does Dante speak to Wilde? Part of the answer here is that he speaks to him through the medium of epic poetry, which – by its nature – is a serious, weighty and grand form of writing. What kind of consolation can such writing offer? Without wishing to rely too heavily on my own pretty sketchy knowledge of The Divine Comedy, and indeed of Wilde, I want briefly to hazard an answer to these questions, as I think Wilde gives a profound illustration of how epic poetry, written in the classical tradition, can speak to the heart of the individual.

As I have mentioned, it seems to me that in De Profundis, Wilde seems very clearly to invite his reader(s) to see that he has taken the same sort of route as that which Dante himself follows in the Divine Comedy. He has passed through the depths of personal hell. And, with Dante somehow guiding him, he has managed to find the route upward toward a kind of spiritual awareness. This awareness has consisted in a dramatic and apparently newfound understanding of the reality and personhood of God through Christ (in a way roughly analogous to Dante’s experience in paradise in the final section of the Divine Comedy).

The first mention of Dante in De Profundis introduces a paradox. Wilde refers to how Walter Pater’s (then recent) book Renaissance had posed a problem to his pre-existing understanding of Dante. Pater mentions in his book that Dante encounters in a very lowly situation in the inferno (i.e. hell) those who wilfully live in sadness. To dwell sustainedly on your own misery, he sees, is to wallow in the darkest pits of the damned. And yet, notes Wilde, this Dante who condemns self-pity is the same Dante who says that ‘sorrow remarries us to God’. How could it make sense, in this light, for Dante to be so harsh to those ‘enamoured of melancholy’ in hell, Wilde wonders.

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Walter Pater, the literary critic, whose writing provided Wilde with food for thought while he was in prison

Wilde does not proceed to offer a neat resolution to this apparent quandary, but subsequent sections of his letter reveal that he has found a way to see through it. For Wilde, as for Dante, in order to find God one must find him through a spiritual journey which passes through the darkest and most harrowing depths of sorrow. In the phrase of St John of the Cross (who was influenced, like Dante, by the theology of St Thomas Aquinas), one must experience the dark night of the soul. Dante depicts this in terms of a physical journey, through hell initially, via purgatory, through (finally) to paradise. But Dante’s text can equally be read as an allegory: it is a story of the stages a human soul must move through in order to establish a relationship with the divine.

Wilde has come to feel (under the special influence of Dante in particular) that sorrow is not the final word in truly lived human experience (even in jail), even if it is a vitally important component of it. Like Dante, he thinks that it does however deserve sustained attention – and he accordingly offers an arresting, melodic and sombre meditation on the subject in which Sorrow, capitalised, acquires a dramatic and hypostasised personality all of its own.

‘Behind Joy and Laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask…there is no truth comparable to Sorrow. There are times when Sorrow seems to me to be the only truth. Other things may be illusions of the eye or the appetite, made to blind the one and cloy the other, but out of Sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain…more than this, there is about Sorrow an intense, an extraordinary reality…for the secret life is suffering, It is what is hidden behind everything’, he writes.

Wilde’s heartfelt depiction of the nature of Sorrow, I think, can be seen as a reflection of all that is most harrowing not only in Wilde’s own personal and spiritual experience (but in Dante’s Inferno too – the ‘city of weeping’, of ‘eternal sorrow’, of the ‘lost people’).*

Wilde proceeds from here in what might seem (particularly if Dante’s likely influence is not appreciated) a surprising direction. Having linked Sorrow to Truth, he then links it to Beauty and to Love, before alluding briefly to the problem of evil (or, more precisely, to the problem of pain).

He had previously thought, he says, that suffering proved that God did not love man, and that wherever there is sorrow, the whole face of creation has been marred. ‘Now it seems to me’, he says, ‘that Love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world…if the worlds have indeed been built out of Sorrow, it has been by the hands of Love, because in no other way could the Soul of man for whom the worlds are made reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but Pain for the beautiful Soul’.

A few lines later, he reveals that these insights have helped to generate in him a ‘new life, as through my love of Dante I sometimes like to call it’.

I do not think I share Wilde’s sense that by developing a sufficiently tragic and romantic sensibility, one can begin to come to terms with the problem of evil. I do share his view, however, that by acquiring such a sensibility, one can begin to approach in new light the figure of Christ – as he does at length in several rich, lyrical and beautifully rendered paragraphs over the subsequent pages of De Profundis. Rather than summarise these pages here, I will simply recommend them as wonderful (and provocative) reading.

Wilde’s encounter with the figure of Christ, as outlined in those pages, is facilitated not only by Renan’s Vie de Jésus (among several other significant texts). It also relies heavily, I think, on his engagement with Dante. It is not just that Wilde quotes directly from Dante’s description of his journey through purgatory to add colour to his description of Christ (who, he says, saw that the soul of each person should have the ‘manner of a child who laughs and weeps and behaves childishly’).**

It is also that, in order to arrive at his contemplation of the personality of Christ in De Profundis, Wilde has first had to confront and move through the depths of his despair and degradation – both in terms of the humbling vicissitudes of his relationship with Bosie, but also in terms of his experience of desperation and sorrow while in jail. This sense of somehow moving from a personal nadir of sorrow and deep anguish, all the way through to a dramatic personal and spiritual communion with God through Christ, establishes Wilde on precisely the same trajectory as that represented by Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy.

But there is a further connection. In the Divine Comedy, as has already been mentioned, Dante encounters Virgil, who becomes his guide through his journey to hell (and beyond). In a similar way, I think, Wilde – despite not writing within the same tradition of epic poetry – manifestly considers Dante to be his foremost literary and spiritual guide, as he moves through the darkest depths of despair, and (somehow) beyond.

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Dante, accompanied by Beatrice, ascending to the sphere of the sun in Paradise, as depicted by Giovanni Di Paolo

I mentioned in a previous post, which considered the dynamics of the interaction between Aeneas and Dido in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, that one important feature of epic poetry is that it can help to nurture in attentive readers a sensitive, thoughtful – and, above all, humane – approach to human dialogue and human relationships. Wilde’s reading of Dante reveals a further area in which epic poetry in the classical tradition can be seen to have something profound to say to its readers, even centuries after the event of its composition: in the context of spiritual awakening.

*Inferno 3:1-3.

**Purgatorio 16: 86-7, trans. C. Sisson.

 

The ‘cives’ of the Admiralty Arch

I have been doing some walking around the streets of London over the past few days, trying to keep an eye out for new things on some familiar routes. Maybe I hadn’t been paying much attention the last few times I’d passed it, but I noticed yesterday that the area surrounding the Admiralty Arch is under construction.

The arch is in a formidable location, just off Trafalgar Square at the entrance to the Mall (the thoroughfare specially designed for ceremonial parades going straight up toward Buckingham Palace). As an architectural monument, the arch is quite something. It is in fact comprised of three separate arches and a large building which straddles them (as pictured below).

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Constructed in the first decade of the twentieth century during the reign of Edward VII, the arch was designed by the prolific architect Sir Aston Webb. The arch was used for a long time as an office for the admiralty. My research tells me that under New Labour, it became a home for the Cabinet Office. In 2011, as part of the Conservative government’s public spending cuts under David Cameron, the Cabinet Office stopped using it and the arch was put up for sale on a 125 year lease.

The winning bidder – a Spanish real estate developer –  has begun the process of transforming the arch into a plush Waldorf Astoria hotel. It’s of course easy to understand why a property developer would want to snap up the arch: its views and prime location alone will no doubt make for a stunning hotel experience once it’s up and ready. And how many hotels can there be that are also architecturally imposing public monuments?

Perhaps the most characterful features of the arch are two matching sculptures – one of Navigation, one of Gunnery (pictured below: note the cannon in her lap) – which are built into its Mall-facing facade.

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What caught my attention as I walked past the arch, though, was its Latin inscription, which can be translated as follows: ‘In the tenth year of King Edward VII, for Queen Victoria, his most grateful citizens [built this arch] 1910’. A word features in the Latin of the inscription – ‘cives’ (citizens) – that surprised me.

For London’s inhabitants and for parliament, it had long been customary to speak of themselves as (royal) subjects, not citizens. It took twentieth century statutory developments, culminating in the British Nationality Act of 1981, effectively to supersede this custom. The fact that the arch’s inscription is in Latin, and the fact that Latin doesn’t have a neat translation for the English ‘subject’, explains why ‘cives’ was used on the arch. Since the time of Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, it transpires, the English ‘subject’ had sometimes been translated to Latin using ‘civis’.* For this inscription, other alternatives could feasibly have been preferred, however: ‘populus’ (people), for instance.

What’s interesting to me is that the arch’s use of Latin – far from being a backward-looking feature – in fact anticipates a legal development (the widespread adoption of the language of citizenship) which only becomes enshrined in law decades later.

When shifting to a more thoroughgoing legal adoption of the language of citizenship in 1981, parliament effectively replaced a term – ‘subject’, which did not feature in the legal lexicon of the ancient world – with a central legal category of ancient Rome. This ancient Roman category represented a way to achieve a legal advance.

Do any other London monuments use the (Latin) language of citizenship in this same unwittingly prophetic way? I imagine some others must, though my internet searches have turned up nothing so far.

*Conal Condren, The Language of Politics in Seventeenth Century England, p.98f.

Talking through Dido: the failure of forthright tenderness in Aeneid 6

When Aeneas catches sight of the ghost of Dido, his abandoned lover and the former Queen of Carthage, amongst a group of shades he passes on his journey into the depths of the underworld, he stops to try to talk to her. The conversation does not get off the ground. Hearing Aeneas speak, Dido shows no emotion in her facial features, which are left ‘unmoved, like hard rock’. This is in spite of the fact that we know ‘her mind is burning’. When Aeneas finishes speaking, she avoids all eye contact, staring at the ground, before retreating back into the shadows without saying a word.

Aeneas’ attempt to start a conversation with Dido is a striking failure, not least because Dido’s ghostly reticence stands in stark contrast with the outspoken, though increasingly troubled figure whom Aeneas has known in her earthly life. When he last saw her, she was in a state of furious indignation and deep melancholy at his impending departure from her kingdom. She had certainly had things to say to him previously. Why are things different now?

One reading of her response (or lack of response) to Aeneas in the underworld is that, in light of the devastation he has caused her (devastation which seems not entirely to have subsided), she really has nothing to say to him anymore. Coming face to face with him here perhaps gives Dido an opportunity to show Aeneas that she is now in a new state of mind, detached from the emotions which brought about her premature death. She is showing him that she has moved on from her state of earthly passion; that she has cried more than her share of tears for this man; and that she has perhaps found some peace of sorts in the company of the shade of her prematurely deceased husband Sychaeus (whose presence she seems to retreat toward).

Despite being plausible enough as far as it goes, for me this reading of the meeting of Aeneas and Dido in the underworld misses much of the richness and subtlety of Virgil’s presentation of their encounter. I think we can read more deeply into the dynamics of their responses to one another by looking carefully at the tone Aeneas adopts in his address of Dido and focussing on this as the likely cause of her response to him. Dido’s body language and withdrawal from Aeneas may best be seen, I think, as an implicit rejection – above all – of his tone, and the buoyant self-confidence and forthright and assertive, yet seemingly well-intentioned tenderness, it conveys.

If this is correct, one can perhaps imagine Aeneas’ words not only passing literally through Dido’s ghost, failing to register a physical impact on a phantasmagorical entity now bereft of its mortal existence. One can also imagine him talking through her, in the sense of missing the mark: missing the mark, that is, insofar as he adopts an emotional and rhetorical pose which falls well short of the kind of delicate sensitivity which an appropriate handling of this interaction would have involved.

Aeneas has entered the underworld to try to find his dead father Anchises. His motive is not simply that of a devoted son. He wishes to benefit from his father’s wisdom and foresight. He will rely on these to strengthen him as he strives to find a new homeland for his band of refugee Trojan warriors. His quest for a new home is not simply about finding appropriate land to settle. It is shown by Virgil to link profoundly to the story of the foundation and future greatness of Rome, not least insofar as Aeneas – despite being a Trojan hero – is made to embody many of the paradigmatic virtues of first century BC Augustan Rome.

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Aeneas in the Underworld, by Rubens

Part of Aeneas’ problem is that he is so deeply caught up with the serious business of being the hero, leader of men and all-round man of action and adventure that he is. Virgil tells us that Aeneas addresses Dido with ‘sweet love’ in his voice (6.455), but just how much sweetness is this Odyssean swashbuckler capable of?

‘infelix Dido’ (‘unhappy/unlucky Dido’), he begins. This is a phrase which echoes other passages in the Aeneid, but it doesn’t obviously stand out for its sweetness, nor does it speak volumes for Aeneas’ capacity for sensitivity. Dido may indeed be unhappy, though why mention it – especially given that he himself is right at the root of this unhappiness?

He proceeds to ask two questions. The first aims to clarify whether Dido did indeed meet her death with a sword. The second asks if he himself had been the cause of her suicide. Aeneas immediately confronts Dido, then, with two of the most traumatic details of her existence. And, what’s more, he asks with a self-interested tone. Was Aeneas, by any chance, on her mind as Dido experienced her deepest moments of desperation?

One can understand Aeneas’ curiosity, perhaps, but why does he need to know this as a matter of urgency? One might even suggest that it is more than a bit cumbersome and unthinking of him to ask the question at all. He is rather like the person who, although he may have well-meaning concerns for an individual on his mind, just can’t help leaping into a conversation by voicing these concerns directly and straightaway, quite without regard for the emotional turbulence that doing so may cause the other party.

Aeneas continues by protesting that he didn’t want to leave Dido when he did (‘invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi’: ‘I left your shores unwillingly, O queen’). This is not exactly new information. He has already told Dido, right on the brink of his departure from Carthage, that he is not leaving of his own accord. Here he seems to assume that she simply didn’t believe him first time round.

So now he uses emphatic words in a dramatic tricolon to promise that it really is true: ‘by the stars, by the gods and by whatever kind of faith exists within the depths of the earth’. But even if (on a charitable reading) Dido may now be better convinced of something she wasn’t before, what should this matter now? The deed has been done: Aeneas seems more concerned to justify and perhaps exculpate himself to Dido, than he does to empathise seriously with her feelings during her desperate last moments of life.

He then tells her that he cannot believe that such great grief was caused to her by his leaving Carthage. Clearly he was not paying sufficient attention during her extended emotional outpourings in Book 4. While speaking of her distress, Dido had pointedly referenced her own mortality, even claiming she was ‘going to die’ at one point (4.307). Has Aeneas simply forgotten this? Was he himself too distressed to register it when he heard it first time round? Or was he, rather, just insufficiently sympathetic to Dido’s pain properly to grasp it, being rather too focussed (for instance) on his own divinely ordained prerogatives to recognise it?

Toward the end of his speech, Aeneas issues a pair of direct commands, telling Dido to ‘stop’ and instructing her not to remove herself from his sight. Rather than telling her so abrasively what to do, could he not have implored her with soothing words, gently inviting her to share some words with him? The direct language Virgil employs helps, I think, to underscore the fact that this Aeneas is inescapably a forthright man of action who is used to commanding others with a strutting confidence. A less forthright (and more effective) approach would, perhaps, have involved a more delicate appeal to the sensibilities of his tragically jilted lover.

It is a commonplace to point out that Virgil’s Aeneas, as a prototypical Roman, simply tramples over the Carthaginian Dido in a way that represents the later Roman trampling of Carthage itself in the Punic Wars.* Aeneas stands for Rome, then, and Dido for Carthage. Many readers of Virgil sense that he is profoundly alert to the darkness and tragedy of military conquest and (specifically also of) Roman imperialism. In my opinion, Aeneas’ speech to Dido in the underworld sustains this reading. Through Aeneas, Virgil conveys something of the tactless bluster of the conquering Roman mentality, as it comes face to face with the tragic queen it has (seemingly unwittingly) brought to ruin.

TS Eliot found in Aeneas’ address of Dido in Book 6 something rather different from what I find here. For Eliot, Aeneas’ words disclose ‘civilised manners, and a civilised consciousness and conscience’.** Many other readers have found something similar, and some have admired Aeneas for his emotional articulacy in the passage, finding in him something approaching an exemplary figure who plainly and directly speaks his mind in a difficult interaction. My own reading challenges this view, which to me seems altogether too tidy and clipped. Even if Aeneas has to leave Carthage to fulfil his destiny, he still manages to get things wrong with Dido in the way he talks with her, I suggest.

Book 6 of the Aeneid, with its account of Aeneas’ descent into the underworld, enjoyed an extended afterlife as an inspiration for medieval and early modern Christian imaginings of hell. Both Dante and Milton made features of Virgil’s account central to their own epic poems.

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Virgil and Dante in Hell, by Delacroix

Contemporary readers are unlikely to look to Virgil as a resource when trying to picture any possible life after death. But Virgil’s characters, and his art as a storyteller, may still hold lessons not only for how to think about human relationships, as I have explored here, but (also, among other things) for contemporary attempts to do theology.

It is a truism of many such attempts in recent Christian writing that God is a God of love who can somehow be found through the experience of love in human relationships. As a rich resource for helping people to think through the meaning of sensitivity, sympathy and love in their relationships, Virgil’s writing could arguably be as instructive to this sort of theology now as it was in stimulating the religious thought and experience of medieval Christianity.

*For example, Bruno Currie, Epilogue, in Epic Interactions: Perspectives on Homer, Virgil and the Epic Tradition, pp. 351-2.

**TS Eliot, What is a Classic? p. 20

The featured image is a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder of Aeneas with the Sibyl in the underworld.

Must Criticism be Constructive?

There has come into being a widely held view, writes the philosopher Raymond Geuss, that ‘merely negative’ criticism is somehow defective or inappropriate. It’s not so much that I constantly come across enjoinders about the need to be constructive in my life as an educator. It’s more that I sense it’s just generally pretty well assumed – both by myself and my colleagues – that if we’re going to be critical of a pupil’s behaviour or work, then constructive criticism (insofar as this is possible, and in whatever way we care to offer it) is the best way to go.

What, after all, is the alternative? For any educator to refer to a ‘non-constructive’, ‘deconstructive’, or ‘destructive’ criticism they had just made of a pupil or their work would likely provoke misgivings. Aside from being rather unlovely phrases (is ‘non-constructive’ perhaps the least worst?), each of them suggests the kind of negativity whose supposed defectiveness Geuss highlights. For teachers, being negative might involve offering the sort of comment that is not calculated to build up, inspire or encourage; that does not aim to offer any kind of praise at all; and that is concerned only to illustrate shortcomings or problems.

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I want to suggest three possible contexts in which, contrary to popular wisdom, criticism of a negative sort can make good sense. The first two will, I think, seem reasonably uncontroversial; the third, perhaps, less so. In each context it would be a mistake to assume (despite appearances) that the negative framing of a criticism – and its consequent lack of ‘constructive’ emphasis – is the end of the story. Behind any given ‘non-constructive’ criticism (at least, that is, along the lines considered here) lies a hidden positive intent.

First, simple rule enforcement. The tie is not on; the shirt is untucked; the mobile phone is out; the teacher is being talked over; the chair is being rocked on. And so forth. Simple negative direct commands in such cases can be just that: negative. There’s nothing encouraging, uplifting or inspirational about telling a child to stop pushing into the lunch queue. Aside, that is, from a hidden positive intent: everyone will likely stand to benefit in some way from the relevant rule being followed; the child needs to learn about how to behave respectfully within a community. This point stands also in respect of more serious disciplinary matters.

Second, a sustained lack of effort. I think there must come a point when an alternative to positive encouragement and gentle supportiveness (most teachers’ default setting) is required in such a scenario. This need not take the form of the old-fashioned rollicking, but it could certainly involve pointing out repeated sloppy mistakes, false promises, opportunities missed, or a generally poor attitude – and doing so pretty pointedly. The general intention behind the criticism here will of course be to make clear that the individual in question could and should be doing a lot better. It needn’t follow, though, that an explicit statement to this effect is required. Leaving the point implicit might in fact have more of an effect.

Third, and finally, in the context of a given piece of written work that just doesn’t measure up (even though some effort may have been made and at least some marks have been awarded). This might seem controversial territory. Shouldn’t the point here be to build on what’s gone well and to suggest ways to address the less good bits? I wouldn’t at all wish to rule out the validity of approaching things in this way a good deal of the time – not least because I do just this myself! At the same time, however, I think something can also be said for adopting a more steadfastly negative line.

Sloppy errors of fact, culled from a notoriously unreliable source, that are presented without much care or thought in the context of an essay might deserve a negative response. So too might an assignment which has clearly been completed in a rushed or haphazard manner. So also work which simply sets down on paper a collection of irrelevant comments (or, for that matter, a slapdash summary of what a pupil happens to know already about a particular topic) which don’t engage with an essay question that’s been posed.

In each of these cases, a resolutely negative response often seems to me justified. I hope this doesn’t just show that I’m making good headway on the path toward an increasingly irascible old age. As already mentioned, the motivation underlying a negative criticism, even in this third category, can remain a positive one. Albeit implicitly, such criticism can make the point that better work could and should have been produced; that high standards need to be met and are attainable. Better this, surely, than airy comments that don’t take the trouble to pinpoint the clear shortcomings in a poor piece of work. Or a saccharine avoidance of any kind of reprimand. As long as praise is (or is known to be) forthcoming when exacting standards are met, it makes sense to employ the judicious use of negative feedback when they aren’t.

Completing any challenging assignment (particularly in arts and humanities subjects) ought to be, at least in part, about helping pupils to find their own voice, to wrestle with tricky and even intractable questions, and to read and write with clarity and insight. Negative criticism is a way of trying to jump-start this process. If a pupil is producing work that doesn’t offer anything by way of critical questioning, thinking outside the box, or self-aware thoughtfulness, the jolt of some negative criticism can offer a useful means of redress.

Bassani’s Etruscans

Language, writes Christopher Hitchens, is the magical key to prose, as much as to poetry. From the magic of the recent English translations of the Ferrara sequence of novels by Giorgio Bassani,* I can only assume that there was a great deal of enchantment in Bassani’s original Italian prose. Certainly, the haunting (haunted?) prologue of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which was first published in 1962, has stayed etched in my thoughts since the day I read it a couple of months ago.

Partly, I think, this is because it touches upon some of the ancient historical scenery around the city of Rome, including – for instance – the Etruscan archaeological remains at Cerveteri (remains about which I know very little). But the passage has mainly stayed with me for a different reason: the luminous way in which it combines topographical description with philosophical reflection about the historical longue durée.

By doing this, Bassani manages to place a subtle melancholy frame around the harrowing events he goes on to describe. He uses historical memory, then, as a way to achieve perspective and to infuse sadness – but also (beautifully) to demonstrate the continuing possibility of an innocent kind of hope, as we witness the exuberance of a young girl’s attempts to grapple with moral questions while engaging in serious historical thinking for what seems like the first time.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis follows the fortunes of some young, upper crust members of the Jewish community of Ferrara in the late 1930s. The youngsters in question have a fondness for literature and discussion, for food, wine and tobacco, and for game after game of summer tennis (singles, doubles, whatever). Against this background, the marginalisation of the Jewish community that is going on in Ferrara over the course of this period, particularly as a consequence of Mussolini’s Racial Laws, gradually impinges in various ways on the characters.

Despite this descent, Bassani wants to show that the atmosphere among his characters of tender young love, carefree innocence, and coming of age discussion had not (yet) been destroyed during this time. He does this by revealing a tremendous level of poignancy, sensitivity and intimacy of feeling among his characters, the effect of which is to keep the reader focussed mainly on the contours of the personal relationships being described: the gathering political clouds which cast their increasingly ominous shadow over the ‘big picture’ landscape of the period are for their part kept mostly out of focus.

In the prologue of the story, Bassani’s characters experience the Italian landscape as a theatre of memory while out on a family day-trip. Driving toward the Etruscan necropolis at Cerveteri, not far from Rome, a discussion ensues among the passengers, the youngest of whom – Giannina – asks: ‘In the history book, the Etruscans are at the beginning, next to the Egyptians and the Jews. But Papa, who do you think were the oldest, the Etruscans or the Jews?’ A tricky question for poor Dad, who understandably deflects it – and fortunately for him an attractive double row of cypresses provides a welcome temporary distraction through the window.

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Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri

The conversation lulls. Before long, though, another question breaks the silence: ‘Papa, why are old tombs less sad than new ones?’ This time Dad feels confident enough to offer what seems like a competent enough answer: ‘Well’, he says, ‘the recent dead are closer to us, and so it makes sense that we care more about them. The Etruscans, they’ve been dead such a long time – it’s as though they’d never lived, as though they were always dead’.

A pause. ‘But now you say that’, young Giannina gently responds, ‘it makes me think the opposite, that the Etruscans really did live, and that I care about them just as much as about the others’.

This remark, it turns out, sets the tone for the family’s whole visit to the Etruscan necropolis. It allows them to wonder with open minds not just about the Etruscans’ tombs and burial practices, but about the passage of time, and about the fate of this archaeological site which had survived ever since the time when ‘Etruria, with its coalition of free, aristocratic city-states, dominated almost the entire Italian peninsula’. In time, ‘new civilisations, cruder and less aristocratic, but also stronger and more warlike’ had held the field and the Etruscans slid into insignificance.

In the end, the narrator asks, what does this all matter? No direct answer to this question – which turns out to be rhetorical – is ventured. Instead, we are whisked away (not by car, but in our narrator’s imagination), from Etruscan Cerveteri, all the way back to his childhood Ferrara, to its grand old Jewish cemetery – and to the scenes of his youth which unfolded there.

Bassani’s juxtaposition of the Etruscan and Jewish burial grounds enables him to suggest an implicit if ever so slightly unnerving parallel between the two. Both burial grounds – if imaginatively engaged with – present a silent face of Italian history. And whereas his own memories in one of them are fresh, so that he can give voice to them, much in that old world has now gone.

In recalling memories of the recent Jewish past, even while doing so in glorious and complex richness and colour, it seems to make sense to this narrator to set them somewhat in context against the grand and merciless sweep of the peninsula’s wider history. In this way, Bassani hints with gentle knowing that he would like us to broach  the tragedy of the Jews of Ferrara in this story with the unforgiving laboratory of history as our backdrop.

  • The novels have been translated into English (beautifully) by Jamie McKendrick.

Theseus the Democrat

Just as modern theatre, film and costume drama can contain elements of anachronism, whereby storylines are adapted and/or jazzed up to produce a contemporary resonance (or provocation), so the same could be true of the very earliest theatrical productions in fifth century Athens. A good example of one such anachronism occurs in Euripides’ Suppliants, a play first performed in 423 BC.

The play itself tells a largely sorry story. The king of Thebes, Creon, has refused burial rites to warriors from another city, Argos, who have been slain outside his city gates. The families of the dead warriors (the ‘suppliants’ of the title are their mothers) are distraught. They regard a third party, Theseus – the king of Athens, as the only figure who might be able to prevail upon Creon to change his mind, so they approach him and ask him to do so. Theseus agrees to do so but is unsuccessful and, with Creon thoroughly stirred up, battle between Athens and Thebes ensues. Theseus’ Athenians successfully overpower Creon’s Theban army; we then learn that Theseus manages to recover the corpses of the slain warriors. Theseus receives the gratitude of the warriors’ relatives and the lasting respect of Argos: the Argives promise that, in recognition of Theseus’ accomplishments on their behalf, they will never attack the city of Athens.

The plot of the play plays out in mythical pre-history. The remote past of Athens seems to have been a topic of some fascination to the city’s fifth century inhabitants: this was a past in which they could find, among other things, their bearings in the present. What better way for a playwright to evoke this past for a fifth century audience, then, than to present it in ways which addressed matters of contemporary (fifth century) relevance?

Euripides self-consciously adopts just this approach in the Suppliants. The clearest case in point is an interaction between Theseus and a herald who has been dispatched by Creon from Thebes. The central matter at issue in this interaction is the topic of democratic governance – and herein lies the anachronism.

Democracy was a relatively recent development for the Athenians of the 420s BC. The central practices and institutions of what would only later come to be called ‘democracy’ had been a staple feature of Athenian politics only since the reforms of Cleisthenes in the late 6th century BC. Certainly the earlier figure of Solon also stands tall in what would turn out to be the Athenian move toward democracy. But Cleisthenes (depicted below) was the really decisive figure. All of which is to say that, in the context of the mythical pre-history that is depicted in the Suppliants, democracy is but a figment of the fictive world Euripides recreates for his audience.

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In suggesting that Theseus, king of Athens, stands for democracy, Euripides is creating not just an anachronism but an additional awkwardness. For is not Theseus a king? And isn’t fifth century Athenian democracy characterised precisely by its lack of (autocratic) monarchy? This self-evident wrinkle is not something that Theseus’ Theban interlocutor aims to exploit, in spite of the fact that Theseus himself surprisingly argues along the following lines:

‘There’s no heavier burden for a city to bear than a monarch. To begin with, a city like that has no laws that are equal to all its citizens’.

And this from a monarch, no less! Clearly, in the Euripidean vision of early Athens, things are a bit complicated and can involve a degree of doublethink on the part of its democratic monarch.

In any case, inserting a debate about the pros and cons of democracy into the Suppliants allows Euripides both to rehearse arguments for democracy and to air scathing criticisms of it. To what extent the playwright himself sympathises with these criticisms, we are left to wonder.

For the Theban herald, one noteworthy danger of democracy is that it can slip into the control of the eloquent but self-serving trickster. A democracy may have

‘men who speak well but who then destroy everything…men who [then] lie to hide all the damage they’ve caused and with those lies escape justice’.

Democracies, he continues, should be criticised for three further reasons. First, they are ruled by ‘mindless herds’. Such herds rush to quick decisions, where it is self-evident that patience and wisdom are required.

Second, many citizens of democracies are far too occupied with mundane affairs and staying economically productive to take a serious interest in governing their city. It is inefficient and unnecessary that such citizens should have a serious political role.

And third (a most objectionable complaint by modern standards), there is the ‘problem’ that humbly born citizens may rise – on account of their capacity to make eloquent political speeches – and surpass even a city’s nobles in their political influence.

Theseus’ response to these arguments is to dismiss them as ‘irrelevant little words’, without in fact directly countering any of them. Instead he extols what he presents as democracy’s attractions.

These include the equal treatment of rich and poor alike before the law; the right of the poor man to speak up in his own defence; the right of any citizen to air ‘good ideas for the city’ to see if he can gain praise for them; and, finally, the opportunity for everyone to flourish and thrive in pursuit of excellence, without fear of offending the ego of an envious autocrat. Under an autocracy, he avers, will not a man’s daughters be always at risk of being involuntarily co-opted into a relationship with a ruling figure? Will not his sons always be at risk of being culled?

It bears repeating that these words are spoken not just anachronistically, but by a monarch. This was an awkwardness Euripides was clearly ready to put up with when writing the play. The debate between Theseus and the herald, with its contemporary fifth century political slant, would certainly have registered with his audience.

Speaking to the deep-seated ideas and thoughts of this audience mattered: for each play Euripides wrote was designed to impress a panel of fellow citizen-judges, with the fundamental aim of winning an annual competition. And ‘doing politics’ in an interesting way, as the devisers of many modern-day productions can surely attest, is one well-trodden route to attracting the plaudits you seek.

  • the featured image is of a 6th century kylix (wine cup) which illustrates Theseus slaying the Minotaur.

Oakeshott on Classical Education

In his 1975 essay, ‘The Place of Learning’, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes the character and influence of the study of Classical antiquity in the Renaissance (and thereafter) in the following terms: learning, he says, came to be ‘identified with coming to understand the intimations of a human life in a historic culture…[and] with the invitation to recognise oneself in terms of this culture. This was an education which promised and afforded liberation from the here and now of current engagements, from the muddle, the crudity, the sentimentality, the intellectual poverty and the emotional morass of ordinary life’. Oakeshott then adds: ‘And so it continues to this day…the torch is still alight and there are still some hands to grasp it’.

To state the obvious, there is a rather negative tone to this summary (not least in its rather glum final image of a dying torch being passed among a few dwindling hands: I hope this image, in particular, is quite wrong). Oakeshott’s words seem to betoken, above all, a profound disappointment with the present: indeed, the need for ‘liberation’ from the present seems, for him, to be the very thing that most underscores the benefits of a Classical education. And Oakeshott seems to assume that, when encountering Classical antiquity, pupils will inevitably find ‘a culture’ which produced the very opposite of muddled thought, crudeness, sentimentality, intellectual poverty and so on.

This is too optimistic. While it is true that the best of ancient writing can indeed offer much that is lucid and intellectually fascinating, this is by no means always the case: moreover, ancient writing can certainly be both crude and sentimental! There is also the issue of Oakeshott’s collapse of the markedly different (and internally diverse and ever-evolving) civilisations of Greece and Rome into the simple phrase, ‘a historic culture’. Certainly, this is a phrase that could – should – have been formulated more judiciously.

And yet. There is nevertheless, I think, an important truth which Oakeshott manages to give voice to in the words quoted above, even if he does so in a muffled way. The truth in question concerns the vital role of Classical study in opening up space for perspective – perspective which may allow ‘liberation from the here and now of current engagements’, as he puts it. This sort of perspective, argues Oakeshott, is important not only for students, but for the ‘civilisations’ of which they are members. It is a crucial ingredient, as Oakeshott saw it, of liberal learning.

As he puts it in his 1965 essay, ‘Learning and Teaching’, ‘to initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available much that does not lie upon the surface of his present world….much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. To know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance’.

Here Oakeshott is unquestionably on strong ground and he builds toward a provocative, if perhaps somewhat melodramatic, conclusion: ‘To see oneself reflected in the mirror of the present modish world is to see a sadly distorted image of a human being; for there is nothing to encourage us to believe that what has captured current fancy is the most valuable part of our inheritance, or that the better survives more readily than the worse’. In a number of respects, I think, this must be right.

The implications for teaching, he suggests, are clear: ‘the business of the teacher is to release pupils from servitude to the current dominant feelings, emotions, images, ideas, beliefs and even skills’. Doing so is not about ‘inventing alternatives’ but about ‘making available something which approximates more closely to a whole inheritance’.

The point being made here, then, is that a major aim – maybe the major aim – of teaching should be about allowing pupils space to gain a sense of perspective on their contemporary situation by allowing them to get to know the past (interestingly he is keen to exclude any kind of futurology from this process). In getting to know surprising or even mundane truths about what was, what could plausibly have been, and (by implication) what could still be, pupils are better able to appreciate contingencies and to think freely.

Nonetheless, Oakeshott is wary of offering unguarded optimism about the consequences of developing this sort of capacity. Learning of the sort he recommends does not, he insists, deliver a ‘clear or unambiguous message; it often speaks in riddles; it offers us advice and suggestion, recommendations, aids to reflection, rather than directives’.

Elsewhere he writes that ‘the engagement of liberal learning involves becoming aware of one’s intellectual and cultural inheritance not as a stock of information or knowledge to be absorbed and applied, but as living traditions of intellectual inquiry and understanding to which the learner is invited to contribute’. Liberal learning, he maintains, is about ‘learning to speak with intelligence the great languages of human understanding—science, philosophy, history, and art—in order to gain greater self-knowledge as well as to participate in the ongoing “conversation of mankind’.*

This perspective chimes directly with quite a lot of what I try to achieve and emphasise in my classroom. In a number of ways, I think, it neatly summarises what studying Classics – and, from what I can see, the humanities more generally – is like.**

*For a fuller outline of Oakeshott’s views on liberal education, there is a useful discussion here.

**Having said this, I find much of Oakeshott’s writing on the subject of education (collected together in a book, The voice of Liberal Learning, edited by Timothy Fuller) quite opaque. His analysis is often expressed in pretty general terms: for example, in relation to the above, the reader is left to wonder to what extent he thinks study in different fields like poetry, history, art, philosophy and so on succeeds in delivering his desired outcomes. The whole discussion proceeds at quite an abstract remove. And, as mentioned above, his tone can be pretty pessimistic, while his prose is sometimes quite dense. In spite of all this, he can be refreshing to read, not least because he is prepared to make unfashionable arguments.