Posts Tagged 'henry courtney selous'

Assimilating strangeness.

Perhaps you saw or heard of a movie that came out earlier this year called Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle from a script by the noted schmaltzeur Richard Curtis.

Don’t worry if you missed it. The movie never lives up to its intriguing setup, wherein an obscure singer-songwriter gets bonked into an alternate universe where the Beatles never existed. He passes their songs off as his own, playing them at local pubs where at first they’re ignored and yelled over by indifferent yobs; but before long their greatness is recognized, and our hero shoots to Beatles-scale superstardom.

I realize it’s a romantic fantasy. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if the hero just went on getting yelled over by yobs until in frustration he gave up on the Beatles and resumed strumming his own mediocre stuff.

And yet I suspect that’s how the scenario would actually play out. In a world where the Beatles never happened, where popular music carried on evolving for another half-century unaffected by their influence, who knows what strange noises people would be listening to by now.

If by good luck the hero were as charismatic as the Beatles – and, um, he isn’t – he’d still have to overcome the disadvantage of sounding hopelessly out-of-fashion.

***

In Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence a middle-aged London stockbroker abandons his wife and children to move to Paris and take up painting. The established Bohemians sneer at Charles Strickland’s clumsy experiments, but he is as indifferent to their opinions as he is to the feelings of his discarded family and friends.

In his early years of self-exile, Strickland’s sole supporter is a fellow artist named Dirk Stroeve, who convinces a local gallery to display a few of the Englishman’s paintings. Stroeve reminds the skeptical proprietor that Monet, too, struggled at first to find buyers. The proprietor finds the parallel unsatisfactory:

“True. But there were a hundred as good painters as Monet who couldn’t sell their pictures at that time, and their pictures are worth nothing still. How can one tell? Is merit enough to bring success? Don’t believe it. Du reste, it has still to be proved that this friend of yours has merit. No-one claims it for him but Monsieur Stroeve.”

“And how, then, will you recognize merit?” asked Dirk, red in the face with anger.

“There is only one way – by success.”

Stroeve is convinced that Strickland’s genius will someday be recognized – and he turns out to be right. Merit shines through! However, Paris must be full of art lovers proclaiming this or that obscure painter a genius. Since no-one bothers to write books about the unfulfilled geniuses, only a few insiders, like the gallery owner, ever realize how many wrong predictions there are for every lucky strike.

Is it only by chance that Strickland’s paintings, and not those of one of his garret-dwelling rivals, caught the eye of some influential critic or tastemaker? Or was Stroeve right – was Strickland’s merit bound to be acknowledged eventually? We can’t see the paintings and judge for ourselves, but the narrator, when he is finally permitted by the moody artist to see them, tells us:

They seemed to me ugly, but they suggested without disclosing a secret of momentous significance. They were strangely tantalising. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyse. They said something that words were powerless to utter.

But he’s recording these impressions years afterward, by which time Strickland’s influence has diffused throughout the art world, making his aberrations commonplace, his crudities the new model of refinement. How many other ugly paintings has the narrator been strangely tantalized by, over the years, whose creators’ fame never glowed hotly enough to blast his formless impressions into solidity?

The Moon and Sixpence is loosely based on the scandalous life of Paul Gauguin. For the 1942 film version, which follows the novel fairly faithfully, the artist Dolya Goutman was hired to create Gauguinesque murals for the walls of Strickland’s cabin in Tahiti.

Here’s one patterned after Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

dolya goutman the moon and sixpence painting

Artwork by Dolya Goutman for The Moon and Sixpence.

We glimpse these murals for only a few moments, from the perspective of a doctor summoned to the bedside of the reclusive artist. Originally this scene was shown in Technicolor, in an otherwise black-and-white movie, to reflect the doctor’s awe and bemusement.

After Strickland’s death, his Tahitian mistress (in the movie, his legitimate wife; a detail altered to evade censorship) abides by his instructions and torches the cabin, destroying his final masterpieces. Maugham’s narrator isn’t surprised:

“He had achieved what he wanted. His life was complete. He had made a world and saw that it was good. Then, in pride and contempt, he destroyed it.”

***

Maugham’s unsettled reaction to Strickland’s paintings – “strangely tantalising” – reminded me of Harold Bloom, in his 1994 bestseller The Western Canon, attempting to single out the quality that elevates a work of literature to canonical status:

The answer, more often than not, has turned out to be strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.

Indulge me as I make a fool of myself attempting to argue with Harold Bloom. As I understand it, his primary contribution to the lexicon of literary criticism was “the anxiety of influence”, the theory that great writers produce great art by an “agonistic” process (“agon” being Bloom’s favourite word) of “creatively misreading” their great predecessors:

Tradition is not only a handing-down or process of benign transmission; it is also a conflict between past genius and present aspiration, in which the prize is literary survival or canonical inclusion.

So, in Bloom’s view, it’s not enough for us to pluck up some obscure minority writer of the 19th century and declare her to be canonical. The canon was built up by generations of writers grinding the works of earlier writers through their own imaginations, depositing the results in new layers of sediment which subsequent writers then sifted and rearranged.

The canon isn’t set by professors of literature, let alone by education bureaucrats; all they can do is poke around in the mound with the rest of us and argue about whether this bit of Bellow is two-thirds Dickens and one-third Whitman or the reverse.

In the above metaphor, inclusion in the mound may be decided in large part by chance. That minority writer of the 19th century might have been read more widely, might have influenced slightly younger writers, who might have passed her influence down through the years to us – but she was overlooked; maybe because people of her era were terrible racist snobs, or maybe because they just didn’t think she was very good. If a single critic had descried genius in her work, and swayed others to the same view, the mound might have taken a slightly different shape, and our notions of genius would today be subtly different.

But Bloom doesn’t care for contingency. He prefers to believe that when 17th century audiences elevated Shakespeare over his peers as the preeminent English dramatist, and that when over subsequent centuries the non-English-speaking world was gradually convinced of Shakespeare’s primacy, they were responding to some innate greatness in his writing. He dismisses as “resentment” the argument that another figure could have occupied the central place in the canon:

Clearly this line of inquiry begins to border on the fantastic; how much simpler to admit that there is a qualitative difference, a difference in kind, between Shakespeare and every other writer, even Chaucer, even Tolstoy, or whoever.

Well, maybe. As I’ve previously admitted, I have a hard time following Shakespeare at his knottiest, and am probably therefore missing a lot. But the parts that I can follow, while written in what even a dope like me can recognize as wondrously inventive English, seem nevertheless to dissipate an awful lot of their wonder in absurd plots, wearisome digressions, and prolonged anticlimaxes.

To repeat, I’m a dope. But even Harold Bloom, no dope, acknowledges the weaknesses in what he considers Shakespeare’s greatest play, King Lear:

[Edgar] maintains all his disguises long after they could have been discarded. His refusal to reveal himself to Gloucester until just before he anonymously goes forth to cut down Edmund is as curious as Shakespeare’s refusal to dramatize the scene of revelation and reconciliation between father and son. We hear Edgar’s narrative of the scene, but we are denied the scene itself.

If you haven’t read Lear in a while, Gloucester is the credulous old duffer who gets his eyes plucked out through the connivance of his wicked bastard son Edmund. His legitimate son, Edgar, a fugitive hiding in plain view as a crazy homeless guy, takes up with his father when he finds him wandering eyeless on the heath, but keeps up the crazy act even when there’s no-one else around – for no apparent reason, other than to crank up the pathos.

gloucester and edgar by h.c. selous

Edgar and Gloucester in King Lear.
Illustrator H.C. Selous, engraver Frederick Wentworth.
From The Plays of William Shakespeare, Cassell & Company, 1864-68.

At the climax of the play Edgar turns up, still incognito, and fatally wounds Edmund. His speech afterward, explaining where he’s been and what became of their father, takes up nineteen lines, concluding:

…some half-hour past, when I was arm’d:
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage: but his flaw’d heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support!
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.

So the old man died offstage, and that’s the last we hear of him.

Bloom attempts to justify this unsatisfying development as an instance of Shakespeare’s dramatic subtlety:

Perhaps Shakespeare kept the death of Gloucester offstage so that the contrast between the dying Lear and the dying Edmund would retain all of its pungency.

Look, there may be a slight gap in talent separating me from Shakespeare – but I, too, am an author. I wrote a whole novel. It took me the better part of three years, and it was unpublishable. A year later it occurred to me that I’d failed to flesh out several vital scenes, and I devoted additional weeks to revisions. It ended up just as unpublishable as before.

As Bloom mentions, Shakespeare never bothered to proofread most of his works before publication. There are two distinct texts of King Lear, which later editors mashed together into the play we’re acquainted with. If after writing Lear Shakespeare had had nothing better to do than brood over its shortcomings, he might have been inspired to do as I did: go back in and smooth over the lumpy bits. But he was busy writing Macbeth.

Probably, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, any revisions he made would have been for the better. But suppose we were bonked into the alternate universe where, rather than dashing off thirty-seven plays, [1] heedlessly flicking the finished pages over his shoulder, Shakespeare had crafted a mere dozen, pouring every ounce of his energy and concentration into perfecting each one.

In that case he probably wouldn’t have gotten around to Lear, or for that matter Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth. He’d have been too busy polishing Romeo and Juliet to an unfathomably high gleam. Audiences hungry for fresh content would have turned to some other, less fastidious author – Ben Jonson, maybe – to supply their wants, with who knows what effects on the shape and composition of the canonical mound.

High-gleam Shakespeare might turn out to be a bit of a bummer, anyway. The absurdities and anticlimaxes that strike me as byproducts of haste may after all have been deliberate choices. Even on a second look, Shakespeare might have left them untouched, and spent his time polishing away all the hijinks and rude humour that modern audiences love.

M.

1. My Collected Works of William Shakespeare, inherited from my father, contains thirty-seven plays. Since my dad’s youth five additional titles have crept into the oeuvre: two lost plays and three previously unrecognized collaborations. This is very annoying. I have elected to ignore the latecomers.

H.C. Selous, illustrator of the Edgar and Gloucester scene above, was previously featured in my post on scary pictures in Pilgrim’s Progress. I don’t seem to have mentioned Harold Bloom before, but I have written about that other curmudgeonly defender of the Western cultural heritage, Allan “no relation” Bloom.

Pictures of Apollyon.

In a story called “The Bone of Contention” from Dorothy Sayers’s 1928 collection Lord Peter Views the Body, the amateur sleuth and bibliophile Lord Peter Wimsey, visiting a dilapidated country house, naturally accepts an invitation to tour the library. The host chatters away:

“It was always rather a depressing room,” went on Haviland. “I remember, when I was a kid, it used to overawe me rather. Martin and I used to browse about among the books, you know, but I think we were always afraid that something or someone would stalk out upon us from the dark corners. What’s that you’ve got there, Lord Peter? Oh, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Dear me! How those pictures did terrify me in the old days! And there was a Pilgrim’s Progress, with a most alarming picture of Apollyon straddling over the whole breadth of the way, which gave me many nightmares.”

For years I held onto my dad’s old copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress – a cheap paperback, un-illustrated – until, a few years ago, after one final glance at the daunting slabs of text, I conceded that it was beyond the threshold of my literary masochism, and traded it away unread.

So when I came across that reference to a nightmarish illustration of Apollyon, it wasn’t my own childish encounters with John Bunyan that came rushing back, but other people’s.

In George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, little Maggie Tulliver is interrogated by an older visitor about the unfeminine reading material she’s absorbed in:

“Well,” said Mr. Riley, in an admonitory patronising tone, as he patted Maggie on the head, “I advise you to put by the History of the Devil, and read some prettier book. Have you no prettier books?”

“O yes,” said Maggie, reviving a little in the desire to vindicate the variety of her reading. “I know the reading in this book isn’t pretty — but I like the pictures, and I make stories to the pictures out of my own head, you know. But I’ve got Aesop’s Fables and a book about kangaroos and things, and the Pilgrim’s Progress…”

“Ah, a beautiful book,” said Mr. Riley. “You can’t read a better.”

“Well, but there’s a great deal about the devil in that,” said Maggie, triumphantly, “and I’ll show you the picture of him in his true shape as he fought with Christian.”

Maggie ran in an instant to the corner of the room, jumped on a chair, and reached down from the small bookcase a shabby old copy of Bunyan, which opened at once, without the least trouble of search, at the picture she wanted.

But though Maggie is too tough-minded to admit to being frightened by the pictures in her books, a bit later, while wandering alone down an unfamiliar country lane, she is oppressed by “haunting images of Apollyon … and other miscellaneous dangers.”

Eleven-year-old Jude in Jude the Obscure is similarly oppressed after he absent-mindedly stays out past nightfall:

He anxiously descended the ladder, and started homewards at a run, trying not to think of giants, Herne the Hunter, Apollyon lying in wait for Christian, or of the captain with the bleeding hole in his forehead and the corpses round him that remutinied every night on board the bewitched ship.

In this case we can verify that the young hero has unluckily been burdened with one of his creator’s childhood fears. Thomas Hardy’s wife recalled how Hardy, in old age, shared his memory of one of the few times he’d been frightened walking alone in the country:

[A]s a small boy walking home from school, reading Pilgrim’s Progress, he was so alarmed by the description of Apollyon that he hastily closed his book and went on his way trembling, thinking that Apollyon was going to spring out of a tree whose dark branches overhung the road. He remembered his terror, he said, that evening, seventy-five years afterwards.

But elsewhere (in a letter whose text I can’t find online) Hardy seems to have been explicit that it was “the picture of Apollyon fighting Christian” that had so disturbed him.

In moments of isolation, the spectre of Apollyon could disturb even sober-minded adults. In one of M.R. James’s most famous ghost stories, “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”, from 1904, Professor Parkins has just excavated a strange relic from the ruins of a Templar church and, strolling homeward along a desolate seashore, notices a mysterious figure tailing him at a distance. Luckily, the professor is immune to primitive superstitions. However:

In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people’s fancy at some time of their childhood. “Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him.” “What should I do now,” he thought, “if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it.” [1]

Deliberately or not, James has the professor slightly misremember the passage which had had such an unsettling effect on so many generations of kids. Here’s how Bunyan describes Christian’s first glimpse of Apollyon:

But now, in this Valley of Humiliation, poor Christian was hard put to it; for he had gone but a little way before he espied a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him: his name is Apollyon. Then did Christian begin to be afraid, and to cast in his mind whether to go back, or to stand his ground. But he considered again, that he had no armour for his back, and therefore thought that to turn the back to him might give him the greater advantage with ease to pierce him with his darts; therefore he resolved to venture and stand his ground; for, thought he, had I no more in mine eye than the saving of my life, it would be the best way to stand.

So he went on, and Apollyon met him. Now the monster was hideous to behold; he was clothed with scales, like a fish, and they are his pride; he had wings like a dragon, and feet like a bear, and out of his belly came fire and smoke; and his mouth was as the mouth of a lion. When he was come up to Christian, he beheld him with a disdainful countenance, and thus began to question with him.

In his memoir Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens recalls coming across this passage in Anthony Powell’s 1975 novel Hearing Secret Harmonies:

[H]e could never, even after he was grown-up, watch a lone figure draw nearer across a field, without thinking that this was Apollyon come to contend with him. From the moment of first hearing that passage read aloud — assisted by a lively portrayal of the fiend in an illustration, realistically depicting his goat’s horns, bat’s wings, lion’s claws, lizard’s legs — the terror of that image, bursting out from an otherwise at moments prosy narrative, had embedded itself for all time in the imagination.

The more vivid terrors of movies and comic books having displaced Apollyon from the nightmares of the young, Hitchens belonged to perhaps the last generation for whom a reference to that scene could summon a first-hand memory:

I put down [Powell’s] novel and was immediately back in the Crapstone of my Devonshire boyhood. … My younger brother Peter–aged perhaps eight–has so strongly imbibed John Bunyan’s Puritan classic as almost to have memorized it. (The “slough of despond,” “the giant Despair,” “Doubting Castle,” the fripperies of “Vanity Fair,” “Oh death, where is thy sting?” Can you remember when all these used to be part of the equipment of everybody literate in English? They are as real to my brother and to me as the shaggy, wild ponies on the nearby moors.) But, coming to the very decisive page that should show Apollyon in all his horrid magnificence, Peter finds that the publishers have bowdlerized the text, and withheld this famous illustration from the version made available to the under-tens. He is not to be allowed to look The Evil One in the face.

A very mid-20th-century child, Peter has no patience for those who would coddle him for his own supposed psychological safety. He pressures his father, who in turn contacts the publishers to send along the adults-only edition. At last:

[T]he day came when the unabridged version arrived, and we could both solemnly turn–with parental supervision, of course, but in our minds to protect our parents from any shock or trauma–to the color plate from hell. It was one of those pull-out pages that needs to be unfolded from the volume itself, in a three-stage concertina. And it was anticlimax defined. For one thing–Powell’s summary above may have prepared you for this–it was absurdly overdone. A lizard-man or snake-man might have been represented creepily enough, but this non-artist had hugely overdone the number of possible mutations of leg, wing, and pinion and also given Apollyon a blazing furnace for a belly. The demon’s wicked and gloating expression, looked at from one angle, was merely silly and bilious.

For the elder Hitchens brother, who would go on to become one of the world’s most famous evangelists of irreligion, the disappointment reinforces his conviction that hellfire is a laughing matter.

So what did it look like, this illustration that took up permanent residence in so many overactive juvenile imaginations?

Over at Pictures in Powell, “An exploration of the visual arts as they appear in A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell”, the curator provides an assortment of possible culprits. But it’s unlikely that all the above authors would have been frightened by the same picture. The most common result in a Google Image search for “Apollyon and Christian” is this one by Henry Courtney Selous:

chrstian's combat with apollyon henry courtney selous

Pg. 81 of the Cassell, Petter, and Galpin 1875 (?) edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
From the University of Florida Digital Collections.

…Who is too recent for wee Maggie Tulliver (or wee George Eliot) to have seen his work as a child. In any case, whichever illustration she saw must have been uncoloured. Carrying on the scene from The Mill on the Floss begun above:

“Here he is,” [Maggie] said, running back to Mr. Riley. “And Tom coloured him for me with his paints when he was at home last holidays — the body all black, you know, and the eyes red, like fire, because he’s all fire inside, and it shines out at his eyes.”

In her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan, Anne Dunan-Page refers to this episode and observes that part of Bunyan’s appeal, for his younger readers, may have been “the opportunity to colour the line-drawings”. [2]

I wonder how many rare and precious editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress have had their pages marred by the artistic additions of overenthusiastic children?

M.

1. The BBC has twice adapted “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad”: somewhat faithfully in 1968 and very loosely in 2010. Both versions strain to extend James’s economical tale to television length.

2. Confusingly, Henry Courtney Selous did two separate sets of illustrations for Bunyan’s work. Here’s his other version, from 1844, of Christian Combating with Apollyon. Maggie would have loved it: it looks like a page from a colouring book.

 


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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