The latest TV adaptation of Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair has polarised audiences expecting a traditional period drama. The first two episodes of Vanity Fair, co-produced by ITV and Amazon, received a mixed response on Twitter where viewers commented using the hashtag #VanityFair.
Comments seemed to broadly fall into two camps: those who admired the adaptation for its “fresh, modern take” on a period drama, and those who didn’t like what they saw as the needless modernisation of a period drama.
Interestingly, some of the features most identified as modernisations were actually from the original 1848 text: elements such as Becky Sharp throwing from her coach a dictionary she’d been given by her hated headmistress as she rode away from the school. Others took offence at Becky Sharp’s description of herself as a “secretary” – women were not secretaries at that time, one tweet protested. Meanwhile the frequent breaking of the fourth wall (Olivia Cooke, playing Becky Sharp, looks knowingly at the camera for dramatic effect) also caused a fair bit of angst.
These were not features that viewers associated with the genre of “period drama” and unfavourable comparisons were made with the popular BBC period drama Poldark (based on Winston Graham’s novels from the mid-20th century). That some viewers should so easily confuse historical accuracy with genre conventions is a striking example of the power of those genre conventions.
It is ironic, too, given that Thackeray subverted and satirised the conventions and tropes of his own time. This was true across his writing. In Pendennis, for example, a novel about the titular young gentleman making his way in London, Thackeray writes in his preface:
Perhaps the lovers of “excitement” may care to know, that this book began with a very precise plan, which was entirely put aside. Ladies and gentlemen, you were to have been treated, and the writer’s and the publisher’s pocket benefited, by the recital of the most active horrors.
In Vanity Fair, such subversions are frequent. In the first episode of the new adaptation, Becky Sharp – attempting to charm the wealthy and credulous Jos Sedley into proposing marriage – attends the Vauxhall pleasure gardens. This takes place in chapter six of the book, which Thackeray introduces satirically:
We might have treated this subject in the genteel, or in the romantic, or in the facetious manner … Or if, on the contrary, we had taken a fancy for the terrible … we should easily have constructed a tale of thrilling interest, through the fiery chapters of which the reader should hurry, panting. But my readers must hope for no such romance, only a homely story, and must be content with a chapter about Vauxhall, which is so short that it scarce deserves to be called a chapter at all.
Within the full version of that quoted passage, Thackeray offers suggestions of how the story might have been written in these different “manners”. He plays with these kinds of conventions to set up readers’ expectations, only to subvert and parody them. One of the century’s other great novelists, Anthony Trollope, wrote that Vanity Fair raised the fundamental question of “what a novel should be.” Trollope takes issue with some of the same things as modern viewers:
There are absurdities in it which would not be admitted to anyone who had not a peculiar gift of making even his absurdities delightful. No schoolgirl who ever lived would have thrown back her gift-book, as Rebecca did the ‘dixonary’, out of the carriage window as she was taken away from school. But who does not love that scene with which the novel commences? How could such a girl as Amelia Osborne have got herself into such society as that in which we see her at Vauxhall? But we forgive it all because of the telling.
Same story, different flavours
Like Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, the Victorian author of Alice in Wonderland, was also highly attuned to the way stories become categorised via genre, satirising this in an 1855 short story entitled Photography Extraordinary. Carroll’s story, presented like a newspaper article, reports an invention which literally transcribes narrative fiction directly from the human brain. Not only can Carroll’s machine “develop” a story onto paper directly from the brain, but the story can then be redeveloped into different genres. Story writing, Carroll seems to suggest, was a question of mechanically adjusting language to fit the conventions of distinct genres and meet readers’ expectations.
As 21st-century readers and viewers, we still consume media in this way. Our genres have changed – we are not likely to talk about “silver fork” novels, for instance – but our use of genres has not. If anything, we have only become more reliant on them as we create more and more sophisticated algorithms for organising our digital media.
We also risk letting our expectations shape our understanding of the past. One of the big divergences between Thackeray’s book and the ongoing adaptation is that the series’ producers have elected to depict the Battle of Waterloo. When his military characters depart for the battlefield, Thackeray lets them drift out of view, writing: “We do not claim to rank among the military novelists. Our place is with the non-combatants.”
Thackeray, in other words, is willing to disappoint and frustrate readers’ expectations – he does not feel the need to conform to expectations. It is – as the book’s subtitle warns us – a “novel without a hero” (and in its serial form, not even a novel, simply “pen and pencil sketches of English society). But, of course, to adapt for television is to adjust the story to meet a different set of expectations. In that sense, adapting Vanity Fair is a bit like churning it through Carroll’s fiction machine one more time.
A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, some see this administration as the stuff of dystopian nightmares. Trump’s apparent disrespect for truth is suspiciously similar to the manipulation of history in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. The crass, three-ring-circus texture of the current crowd in Washington recalls the degraded America depicted in Mike Judge’s 2006 cinematic farce Idiocracy. However, the English writer Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic Brave New World might provide the best dystopian gloss on our contemporary predicament.
Like most good dystopian fiction, Brave New World is not a prediction but rather a diagnosis of dangerous tendencies in Huxley’s present. One of the most striking elements of Huxley’s vision of the future involves factories in which infants are designed to perform specific social functions.
These Stepford babies are later conditioned through standardised educational practices. This motif is not primarily a cautionary tale about the potential abuse of genetic engineering. Rather, it is a commentary on existing class inequalities and the use of education to reinforce social obedience. It exemplifies the fundamental tendency of capitalism to convert humans into commodities, interchangeable and bereft of genuine individualism.
Certain aspects of Huxley’s dystopian society strikingly resemble our current situation. A lack of respect for history, a population conditioned to consume goods at breakneck pace, a tendency toward globalisation, and the pacification of individuals via an entertainment culture curated to squelch any inchoate rumblings of critical thought: all of these are hallmarks of Huxley’s and our worlds.
An illustrious family
Born in Surrey, England, in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was a member of one of England’s most illustrious intellectual families. He also went on to become one of the most important English writers of the 20th century, though he was also important as a social and philosophical commentator — and spent the last 26 years of his life living in the United States.
His brother, Julian, was a prominent biologist knighted by the queen. Aldous and Julian were the grandsons of well-known naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley, a leading 19th-century advocate for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Aldous himself considered a career in biology or medicine, though he eventually turned to literature instead.
By the time Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931, he was well established as a British novelist; works such as Crome Yellow (1921), Antic Hay (1923), and Point Counter Point (1928) arguably made him the most important English novelist of the 1920s, while also prefiguring Brave New World in important ways with their satirical treatment of British society.
A trip to the US shortly before the writing of Brave New World also contributed to Huxley’s formulation of his thoughts for the novel. (He moved there in 1937, where he would write more dystopian and utopian novels such as Ape and Essence (1948), Brave New World Revisited (1958) and Island (1962).)
History is bunk
In Brave New World, Huxley’s World State has arisen in the wake of a global war that nearly destroyed humanity. Its policies are officially driven by a desire to prevent a recurrence of this war at all costs. Stability and placidity in every aspect of life are of paramount concern. The public is protected from anything that might upset them and rock the social boat. However, the underlying goal is to ensure the smooth operation of the consumer capitalist economy and to remove any historical reminders that things might be other than they are.
Huxley presents us with the basic characteristics of his dystopian society through a loosely constructed narrative told largely from the point of view of Bernard Marx. An “alpha” who has been engineered and conditioned to be among the society’s intellectual elite, Bernard finds that his own individualist tendencies make him unable to function comfortably in this conformist society.
We are also introduced to Mustapha Mond, a “world controller” who attempts to explain to Bernard the rationale for the State’s policies, including its rejection of literature and history as sources of wisdom.
Also important to the narrative is “John the Savage.” Born biologically on a “Savage Reservation” and brought up reading the works of Shakespeare, John grows to adulthood outside the controls of the World State. He is eventually brought to London, where he finds himself so unable to fit in that he is driven to suicide.
The lack of respect for history in Huxley’s world is encapsulated in the slogan “history is bunk”. The phrase is but one of many slogan-like modules of prepackaged “wisdom” that pass for public discourse. This particular phrase is attributed in the novel to Henry Ford – the central cultural hero of the society – who was at the height of his influence at the time Brave New World was written. A true forerunner of Donald Trump (but a much better businessman), Ford is an honoured icon of American capitalism even today. Yet, he was also an admirer of Adolf Hitler and a philistine with no respect for culture.
It should thus come as no surprise that the devaluation of genuine understanding in Huxley’s imagined world includes the suppression of most of the great works of world literature. This is ostensibly done because they might trigger strong emotions. The true reason is that such works are not easily reduced to consumer commodities.
The World State is the ultimate consumer society, even if it cannot match the marketing sophistication of today’s global capitalism. Designed along “Fordist” lines, this society is devoted to economic efficiency, but only in the narrow consumerist sense of boosting sales.
Not only are individuals treated like commodities, but they live in a world that is saturated with the ethos of marketing. They are constantly bombarded by jingle-like slogans that encourage as much consumption as possible. Individuals are urged to replace rather than repair, because “ending is better than mending”.
Huxley’s vision of a World State underestimates the staying power of nationalist rhetoric, of which Trump’s “America First” agenda is but one example. Yet, amid the mad scramble to exploit all potential sources of cheap labour, we have established trade networks that extend into all the nooks and crannies of the global market.
These networks involve individuals and institutions from a wide variety of cultures. When combined with the current trend toward the globalisation of world culture, these networks are so effective that a World State seems redundant, if only in terms of capitalist business practices.
Culture is key to the functioning of Huxley’s entertainment-oriented society. The populace is numbed by happy-making drugs that have “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”.
Huxley’s future humans are fed a nonstop dose of popular culture. Designed to amuse and stupefy, this breed of pop culture neither challenges nor inspires. Content is delivered via high-tech mechanisms which foreshadow our own world wide web. Artefacts such as virtual reality “feelies” (echoing the then-new “talkies”) seem highly familiar to a modern audience. As does their effect on the general population.
In Huxley’s world, even human relationships have been made an arm of pop culture. Sexual promiscuity is encouraged and emotional attachments forbidden. Relations between the sexes are just another form of entertainment. Sexual reproduction has become obsolete. Motherhood is an unthinkable obscenity and the parent-child bond has been eliminated. These details differ from Donald Trump’s recent proposed changes to abortion regulations, but they are equally misogynistic.
Frighteningly, although the characteristics of Trump’s America differ from the World State, the differences almost all make 21st-century America seem worse than Huxley’s nightmare consumerist world, from racial hatred to a looming climate crisis.
We are not just in danger of achieving a Huxleyesque dystopia. We are in danger of blowing past it to something Huxley couldn’t possibly have imagined.
In our series, Guide to the classics, experts explain key works of literature.
Nothing about the reception of Emily Brontë’s first and only published novel, Wuthering Heights, in 1847 suggested that it would grow to achieve its now-cult status. While contemporary critics often admitted its power, even unwillingly responding to the clarity of its psychological realism, the overwhelming response was one of disgust at its brutish and brooding Byronic hero, Heathcliff, and his beloved Catherine, whose rebellion against the norms of Victorian femininity neutered her of any claim to womanly attraction.
The characters speak in tongues heavily inflected with expletives, hurling words like weapons of affliction, and indulging throughout in a gleeful schadenfreude as they attempt to exact revenge on each other. It is all rather like a relentless chess game in hell. One of its early reviewers wrote that the novel “strongly shows the brutalising influence of unchecked passion”.
Moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum claims, however, that “we must ourselves confront the shocking in Wuthering Heights, or we will have no chance of understanding what Emily Brontë is setting out to do”. The reader must give herself over to the horror of Brontë’s inverted world.
She must jump, as it were, without looking to see if there is water below. It is a Paradise Lost of a novel: its poetry Miltonic, its style hyperbolic, and its cruelty relentless. It has left readers and scholars alike stumbling to locate its seemingly Delphic meaning, as we try to make sense of the Hobbesian world it portrays.
The author remains as elusive as her enigmatic masterpiece. As new critical appraisals emerge in this, Emily Brontë’s bicentenary year, the scant traces she left of her personal life beyond her poetry and several extant diary papers, are re-fashioned accordingly.
Described as the “sphinx of the moors”, her obstinate mystery has lured countless pilgrims to the Haworth home in which she passed almost all of her life, and the surrounding moorlands that were the landscape of her daily walks and the inspiration for her writing. Brontë relinquished her jealous hold of the manuscript only after considerable pressure from her sister Charlotte, who insisted that it be published.
Wuthering Heights was released pseudonymously under the name Ellis Bell, published in an edition that included her sister Anne’s lesser known work, Agnes Grey. Emily was to die just 12 months later, in December 1848.
As Brontë biographer Juliet Barker writes, the writer stubbornly maintained the pretence of health even in the final stages of consumption, insisting on getting out of bed to take care of her much loved dog, Keeper. She resisted death with remarkable self-discipline but, “her unbending spirit finally broken”, she acquiesced to a doctor’s attendance. It was by then too late; she was just 30.
After her sister’s death, Charlotte Brontë wrote two biographical prefaces to accompany a new edition of Wuthering Heights, instantiating the mythology both of her sister – “stronger than a man, simpler than a child” – and her infamous novel: “It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of heath.”
It is that property of wildness that has compelled artists from Sylvia Plath to Kate Bush, whose 1978 hit single, Wuthering Heights, was representative of the magnetic pull of Brontë’s fierce heroine, Catherine. The novel has maintained its relevance in popular culture, and its author has risen to a feminist icon.
The elusiveness of the woman and the book that now seems an extension of her subjectivity, gives both a malleability that has seen Wuthering Heights transformed into various mediums: several Hollywood films, theatre, a ballet and, perhaps most incongruously, a detective novel. Brontë’s name is used to sell everything from food to dry-cleaning products.
Film versions have tended to indulge in a surfeit of romanticism, offering up visions of the lovers swooning atop windswept hills, most famously in the 1939 movie, with Laurence Olivier as a dashing Heathcliff, a heavily sanitised re-telling of what the promotional material billed as “the greatest love story of our time – or any time!” Andrea Arnold’s gritty, pared-back 2011 film is the notable exception; bleak and darkly violent, the actors speak in an at times unintelligible dialect, scrambling across a blasted wilderness as though they are animals.
Contrary to Charlotte Brontë’s revisioning, however, Wuthering Heights was not purely the product of a terrible divine inspiration, emerging partially formed from the granite rock of the Yorkshire landscape, to be hewn from Emily’s simple materials.
Instead, it is the work of a writer looking back to past Romantic forms, specifically the German incarnation of that aesthetic, infused with folkloric taboos and primal longings. Her tale of domestic gothic is housed in an intricately complex narrative architecture that works by repetition and doubling, at the fulcrum of which stands Catherine, the supremely defiant object of Heathcliff’s obsession.
At the novel’s core is the corrosiveness of love, with the titanic power of Shakespearean tragedy and the dialogic form of a Greek morality play. Two families, locked in internecine war and bound together by patrilineal inheritance, stage their abject conflict across the small geographical space that separates their respective households: the luxury and insipidity of the Grange, versus the shabby gentility, decay, and violence of the Heights.
A claustrophobic novel
It is a distinctly claustrophobic novel: although we read with a vague sense of the vastness of the moors that is its setting, the action unfolds, with few exceptions, in domestic interiors. Despite countless readings, I can conjure no distinct image of the Grange. But the outline of the Heights, with each room unfolding into yet another set of rooms, labyrinthine and imprisoning, has settled into my mind. The deeper you enter into the space of the Heights – the space of the text – the more bewildering the effect.
The love between Heathcliff and Catherine exists now as a myth operative outside any substantial relationship to the novel from which the lovers spring. It is shorthand in popular culture for doomed passion. Much of this hyper-romance gathers around Catherine’s declaration of Platonic unity with her would-be lover: “I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind.” Yet their relationship is never less than brutal.
What is it about their unearthly union, with its overtones of necrophilia and incestuous desire, that so captivates us, and why does Emily Brontë privilege this form of explicitly masochistic, irrevocable and unattainable love?
Brontë’s great theme was transcendence, and I would suggest that it is the metaphysical affinity that solders these two lovers that so beguiles us. The greediness of their feeling for each other resembles nothing in reality. It is hyperreal, as Catherine and Heathcliff do not aspire so much as to be together, as to be each other. Twinned in that shared commitment and to the natural world that was the hunting-ground of their childhood play, they try, with increasing desperation, to get at each other’s souls.
This is not a physically erotic coupling: the body is immaterial to their love. It is a very different notion of desire to that of Jane Eyre and Rochester, for instance, in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which is very fleshy indeed. Both Catherine and Heathcliff want to get under each other’s skin, quite literally, to join and become that singular body of their childhood fantasies. It is a dream, then, of total union, of an impossible return to origins. It is not heavenly in its transcendence, but decidedly earthly. “I cannot express it”, Catherine tells her nurse Nelly Dean, who is our homely, yet not so benign, narrator:
But surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries … my great thought in living is himself. I all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be.
This notion of the self eclipsing its selfish form seems impossible for us to conceive in an age where one’s individuality is sacred. It is, however, the essence of Catherine’s tragedy: her search for her self’s home among the men who circle her is futile. Nevertheless, Emily Brontë’s radical statement of a shared ontology grounds the eroticism between the pair so that we cannot look away; and neither it seems, can the other characters in the novel.
The book’s structure is famously complex, with multiple narrators and a fluid style that results in one focalising voice shading into another. The story proper begins with Lockwood, a stranger to the rugged moorlands, a gentleman accustomed to urban life and its polite civilisations.
The terrifying nightmare he endures on his first night under Heathcliff’s roof, and the gruesomely violent outcome of his fear sets in motion the central love story that pulls all else irresistibly to it. Heathcliff’s thrice-repeated invocation of Catherine’s name, which Lockwood finds written in the margins of a book and mistakenly believes to be “nothing but a name”, works as an incantation, summoning the ghost of the woman who haunts this book.
Emily Brontë speaks of dreams, dreams that pass through the mind “like wine through water, and alter the colour” of thoughts. If the experience of reading Wuthering Heights feels like a suspension in a state of waking nightmare, what a richly-hued vision of the fantastical it is.
Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember…
This line, arguably the most famous in the history of Spanish literature, is the opening of The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the first modern novel.
Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615, this is the story of Alonso Quijano, a 16th-century Spanish hidalgo, a noble, who is so passionate about reading that he leaves home in search of his own chivalrous adventures. He becomes a knight-errant himself: Don Quixote de la Mancha. By imitating his admired literary heroes, he finds new meaning in his life: aiding damsels in distress, battling giants and righting wrongs… mostly in his own head.
But Don Quixote is much more. It is a book about books, reading, writing, idealism vs. materialism, life … and death. Don Quixote is mad. “His brain’s dried up” due to his reading, and he is unable to separate reality from fiction, a trait that was appreciated at the time as funny. However, Cervantes was also using Don Quixote’s insanity to probe the eternal debate between free will and fate. The misguided hero is actually a man fighting against his own limitations to become who he dreams to be.
Open-minded, well-travelled, and very well-educated, Cervantes was, like Don Quixote himself, an avid reader. He also served the Spanish crown in adventures that he would later include in the novel. After defeating the Ottoman Empire in the battle of Lepanto (and losing the use of his left hand, becoming “the one-handed of Lepanto”), Cervantes was captured and held for ransom in Algiers.
This autobiographical episode and his escape attempts are depicted in “The Captive’s Tale” (in Don Quixote Part I), where the character recalls “a Spanish soldier named something de Saavedra”, referring to Cervantes’s second last name. Years later, back in Spain, he completed Don Quixote in prison, due to irregularities in his accounts while he worked for the government.
Tilting at windmills
In Part I, Quijano with his new name, Don Quixote, gathers other indispensable accessories to any knight-errant: his armour; a horse, Rocinante; and a lady, an unwitting peasant girl he calls Dulcinea of Toboso, in whose name he will perform great deeds of chivalry.
While Don Quixote recovers from a disastrous first campaign as a knight, his close friends, the priest and the barber, decide to examine the books in his library. Their comments about his chivalric books combine literary criticism with a parody of the Inquisition’s practices of burning texts associated with the devil. Although a few volumes are saved (Cervantes’s own La Galatea among them), most books are burned for their responsibility in Don Quixote’s madness.
In Don Quixote’s second expedition, the peasant Sancho Panza joins him as his faithful squire, with the hopes of becoming the governor of his own island one day. The duo diverges in every aspect. Don Quixote is tall and thin, Sancho is short and fat (panza means “pot belly”). Sancho is an illiterate commoner and responds to Don Quixote’s elaborate speeches with popular proverbs. The mismatched couple has remained as a key literary archetype since then.
In perhaps the most famous scene from the novel, Don Quixote sees three windmills as fearful giants that he must combat, which is where the phrase “tilting at windmills” comes from. At the end of Part I, Don Quixote and Sancho are tricked into returning to their village. Sancho has become “quixotized”, now increasingly obsessed with becoming rich by ruling his own island.
Don Quixote was an enormous success, being translated from Spanish into the main European languages and even reaching North America. In 1614 an unknown author, Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda, published an apocryphal second part. Cervantes incorporated this spurious Don Quixote and its characters into his own Part II, adding yet another chapter to the history of modern narrative.
Whereas Part I was a reaction to chivalric romances, Part II is a reaction to Part I. The book is set only one month after Don Quixote and Sancho’s return from their first literary quest, after they are notified that a book retelling their story has been published (Part I).
The rest of Part II operates as a game of mirrors, recalling and rewriting episodes. New characters, such as aristocrats who have also read Part I, use their knowledge to play tricks on Don Quixote and Sancho for their own amusement. Deceived by the rest of the characters, Sancho and a badly wounded Don Quixote finally return again to their village.
After being in bed for several days, Don Quixote’s final hour arrives. He decides to abandon his existence as Don Quixote for good, giving up his literary identity and physically dying. He leaves Sancho – his best and most faithful reader – in tears, and avoids further additions by any future imitators by dying.
The original unreliable narrator
The narrator of Part I’s prologue claims to write a sincere and uncomplicated story. Nothing is further from reality. Distancing himself from textual authority, the narrator declares that he merely compiled a manuscript translated by some Arab historian – an untrustworthy source at the time. The reader has to decide what’s real and what’s not.
Don Quixote’s transformation from nobleman to knight-errant is particularly profound given the events in Europe at the time the novel was published. Spain had been reconquered by Christian royals after centuries of Islamic presence. Social status, ethnicity and religion were seen as determining a person’s future, but Don Quixote defied this. “I know who I am,” he answered roundly to whoever tried to convince him of his
“true” and original identity.
Don Quixote through the ages
Many writers have been inspired by Don Quixote: from Goethe, Stendhal, Melville, Flaubert and Dickens, to Borges, Faulkner and Nabokov.
More than 400 years after its publication and great success, Don Quixote is widely considered the world’s best book by other celebrated authors. In our own times, full of windmills and giants, Don Quixote’s still-valuable message is that the way we filter reality through any ideology affects our perception of the world.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or “The Heart of Darkness”, as it was known to its first readers – was first published as a serial in 1899, in the popular monthly Blackwood’s Magazine. Few of that magazine’s subscribers could have foreseen the fame that Conrad’s story would eventually garner, or the fierce debates it would later provoke.
Already, in 1922, the American poet T.S. Eliot thought the book was Zeitgeist-y enough to provide the epigraph for his epoch-defining poem, The Waste Land – although another American poet, Ezra Pound, talked him out of using it.
Consider one final Heart of Darkness allusion, from Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Exit West. In the novel’s opening pages, a man with “dark skin and dark, woolly hair” appears in a Sydney bedroom, transported there by one of the mysterious portals that have appeared around the globe, connecting stable, prosperous countries with places that people need to escape from.
The “door”, as these wormholes are called, is “a rectangle of complete darkness — the heart of darkness”. This is a more complicated kind of Conrad reference. Here, “heart of darkness” is a shorthand for European stereotypes of Africa, which Conrad’s novel did its part to reinforce.
Hamid’s line plays on racist anxieties about immigration: the idea that certain places and peoples are primitive, exotic, dangerous. For contemporary readers and writers, these questions have become an unavoidable part of Conrad’s legacy, too.
Up the river
Heart of Darkness is the story of an English seaman, Charles Marlow, who is hired by a Belgian company to captain a river steamer in the recently established Congo Free State. Almost as soon as he arrives in the Congo, Marlow begins to hear rumours about another company employee, Kurtz, who is stationed deep in the interior of the country, hundreds of miles up the Congo River.
The second half of the novel – or novella, as it’s often labelled – relates Marlow’s journey upriver and his meeting with Kurtz. His health destroyed by years in the jungle, Kurtz dies on the journey back down to the coast, though not before Marlow has had a chance to glimpse “the barren darkness of his heart”. The coda to Marlow’s Congo story takes place in Europe: questioned by Kurtz’s “Intended” about his last moments, Marlow decides to tell a comforting lie, rather than reveal the truth about his descent into madness.
Although Conrad never met anyone quite like Kurtz in the Congo, the structure of Marlow’s story is based closely on his experiences as mate and, temporarily, captain of the Roi des Belges, a Congo river steamer, in 1890. By this time, Conrad, born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in the Russian-ruled part of Poland in 1857, had been a seaman for about 15 years, rising to the rank of master in the British merchant service. (The remains of the only sailing ship he ever commanded, the Otago, have ended up in Hobart, a rusted, half-submerged shell on the banks of the Derwent.)
Sick with fever and disenchanted with his colleagues and superiors, he broke his contract after only six months, and returned to London in early 1891. Three years and two ships later, Conrad retired from the sea and embarked on a career as a writer, publishing the novel that he had been working on since before he visited the Congo, Almayer’s Folly, in 1895. A second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, followed, along with several stories. Conrad’s second career was humming along when he finally set about transforming his Congo experience into fiction in 1898.
Darkness at home and abroad
Heart of Darkness opens on a ship, but not one of the commercial vessels that feature in Conrad’s sea stories. Rather, it’s a private yacht, the Nellie, moored at Gravesend, about 20 miles east of the City of London. The five male friends gathered on board were once sailors, but everyone except Marlow has since changed careers, as Conrad himself had done.
Like sail, which was rapidly being displaced by steam-power, Marlow is introduced to us as an anachronism, still devoted to the profession his companions have left behind. When, amidst the gathering “gloom”, he begins to reminisce about his stint as a “fresh-water sailor”, his companions know they are in for one of his “inconclusive experiences”.
Setting the opening of Heart of Darkness on the Thames also allowed Conrad to foreshadow one of the novel’s central conceits: the lack of any absolute, essential difference between so-called civilized societies and so-called primitive ones. “This, too”, Marlow says, “has been one of the dark places of the earth”, imagining the impressions of an ancient Roman soldier, arriving in what was then a remote, desolate corner of the empire.
During the second half of the 19th century, spurious theories of racial superiority were used to legitimate empire-building, justifying European rule over native populations in places where they had no other obvious right to be. Marlow, however, is too cynical to accept this convenient fiction. The “conquest of the earth”, he says, was not the manifest destiny of European peoples; rather, it simply meant “the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves.”
The idea that Africans and Europeans have more in common than the latter might care to admit recurs later, when Marlow describes observing tribal ceremonies on the banks of the river. Confronted with local villagers “stamping” and “swaying”, their “eyes rolling”, he is shaken by a feeling of “remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar”.
Whereas most contemporary readers will be cheered by Marlow’s scepticism about the project of empire, this image of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants is more problematic. “Going up that river”, Marlow says, “was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world”, and he accordingly sees the dancing figures as remnants of “prehistoric man”.
Heart of Darkness suggests that Europeans are not essentially more highly-evolved or enlightened than the people whose territories they invade. To this extent, it punctures one of the myths of imperialist race theory. But, as the critic Patrick Brantlinger has argued, it also portrays Congolese villagers as primitiveness personified, inhabitants of a land that time forgot.
Kurtz is shown as the ultimate proof of this “kinship” between enlightened Europeans and the “savages” they are supposed to be civilising. Kurtz had once written an idealistic “report” for an organisation called the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. When Marlow finds this manuscript among Kurtz’s papers, however, it bears a hastily-scrawled addendum: “Exterminate all the brutes!” The Kurtz that Marlow finally encounters at the end of the novel has been consumed by the same “forgotten and brutal instincts” he once intended to suppress.
Adventure on acid
The European “gone native” on the fringes of empire was a stock trope, which Conrad himself had already explored elsewhere in his writing, but Heart of Darkness takes this cliché of imperial adventure fiction and sends it on an acid trip. The manic, emaciated Kurtz that Marlow finds at the Inner Station is straight out of the pages of late-Victorian neo-Gothic, more Bram Stoker or Sheridan Le Fanu than Henry Rider Haggard. The “wilderness” has possessed Kurtz, “loved him, embraced him, got into his veins” — it is no wonder that Marlow feels “creepy all over” just thinking about it.
Kurtz’s famous last words are “The horror! The horror!” “Horror” is also the feeling that Kurtz and his monstrous jungle compound, with its decorative display of human heads, are supposed to evoke in the reader. Along with its various other generic affiliations — imperial romance, psychological novel, impressionist tour de force — Heart of Darkness is a horror story.
Conrad’s Kurtz also channels turn-of-the-century anxieties about mass media and mass politics. One of Kurtz’s defining qualities in the novel is “eloquence”: Marlow refers to him repeatedly as “A voice!”, and his report on Savage Customs is written in a rhetorical, highfalutin style, short on practical details but long on sonorous abstractions. Marlow never discovers Kurtz’s real “profession”, but he gets the impression that he was somehow connected with the press — either a “journalist who could paint” or a “painter who wrote for the papers”.
This seems to be confirmed when a Belgian journalist turns up in Antwerp after Kurtz’s death, referring to him as his “dear colleague” and sniffing around for anything he can use as copy. Marlow fobs him off with the bombastic report, which the journalist accepts happily enough. For Conrad, implicitly, Kurtz’s mendacious eloquence is just the kind of thing that unscrupulous popular newspapers like to print.
If Kurtz’s “colleague” is to be believed, moreover, his peculiar gifts might also have found an outlet in populist politics: “He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party.” Had he returned to Europe, that is, the same faculty that enabled Kurtz to impose his mad will on the tribespeople of the upper Congo might have found a wider audience.
Politically, Conrad tended to be on the right, and this image of Kurtz as an extremist demagogue expresses a habitual pessimism about mass democracy — in 1899, still a relatively recent phenomenon. Nonetheless, in the light of the totalitarian regimes that emerged in Italy, Germany and Russia after 1918, Kurtz’s combination of irresistible charisma with megalomaniacal brutality seems prescient.
These concerns about political populism also resonate with recent democratic processes in the US and the UK, among other places. Only Conrad’s emphasis on “eloquence” now seems quaint: as the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated, an absence of rhetorical flair is no handicap in the arena of contemporary populist debate.
Race and empire
Heart of Darkness contains a bitter critique of imperialism in the Congo, which Conrad condemns as “rapacious and pitiless folly”. The backlash against the systematic abuse and exploitation of Congo’s indigenous inhabitants did not really get underway until the first decade of the 20th century, so that the anti-imperialist theme was ahead of its time, if only by a few years. Nor does Conrad have any patience with complacent European beliefs about racial superiority.
Nonetheless, the novel also contains representations of Africans that would rightly be described as racist if they were written today. In particular, Conrad shows little interest in the experience of Marlow’s “cannibal” shipmates, who come across as exotic caricatures. It is images like these that led the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe to denounce Conrad as a “bloody racist”, in an influential 1977 essay.
One response to this criticism is to argue, as Paul B. Armstrong does, that the lack of more rounded Congolese characters is the point. By sticking to Marlow’s limited perspective, Heart of Darkness gives an authentic portrayal of how people see other cultures. But this doesn’t necessarily make the images themselves any less offensive.
If Achebe did not succeed in having Heart of Darkness struck from the canon, he did ensure that academics writing about the novel could no longer ignore the question of race. For Urmila Seshagiri, Heart of Darkness shows that race is not the stable, scientific category that many Victorians thought it was. This kind of argument shifts the debate in a different direction, away from the author’s putative “racism”, and onto the novel’s complex portrayal of race itself.
Perhaps because he was himself an alien in Britain, whose first career had taken him to the farthest corners of the globe, Conrad’s novels and stories often seem more in tune with our globalized world than those of some of his contemporaries. An émigré at 16, Conrad experienced to a high degree the kind of dislocation that has become an increasingly typical modern condition. It is entirely appropriate, in more ways than one, for Hamid to allude to Conrad in a novel about global mobility.
The paradox of Heart of Darkness is that it seems at once so improbable and so necessary. It is impossible not to be astonished, when you think of it, that a Polish ex-sailor, writing in his third language, was ever in a position to author such a story, on such a subject. And yet, in another way, Conrad’s life seems more determined than most, in more direct contact with the great forces of history. It is from this point of view that Heart of Darkness seems necessary, even inevitable, the product of dark historical energies, which continue to shape our contemporary world.
Pick up Gulliver’s Travels expecting a children’s book or a novel and you will be unpleasantly surprised. Originally published as “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts … By Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships”, it is one of the great satires in world literature.
First published in London in 1726, the Travels was a sensational bestseller and immediately recognised as a literary classic. The author of the pseudonymous Travels was the Church-of-Ireland Dean of St. Patrick’s in Dublin, Jonathan Swift. Swift wrote that his satiric project in the Travels was built upon a “great foundation of Misanthropy” and that his intention was “to vex the world”, not entertain it.
The work’s inventive narrative, exuberant fantasy (little people, giants, a flying island, spirits of the dead, senile immortals, talking horses and odious humanoids), and hilarious humour certainly made the work entertaining. In its abridged and reader-friendly form, sanitised of sarcasm and black humour, Gulliver’s Travels has become a children’s classic. In its unabridged form, however, it still has the power to vex readers.
In Part 1 of this four-part satire, Gulliver is shipwrecked among the tiny Lilliputians. He finds a society that has fallen into corruption from admirable original institutions through “the degenerate Nature of Man”. Lilliput is a satiric diminution of Gulliver’s Britain in its corrupt court, contemptible party politics, and absurd wars.
In Part II Gulliver is abandoned in Brobdingnag, a land of giants. The scale is now reversed. Gulliver is a Lilliputian among giants, displayed as a freak of nature and kept as a pet. Gulliver’s account of his country and its history to the King of Brobdingnag leads the wise giant to denounce Gulliver’s countrymen and women as “the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth”.
In Part III Gulliver is the victim of piracy and cast away. He is taken up to the flying island of Laputa. Its monarch and court are literally aloof from the people it rules on the continent below, and absorbed in pure science and abstraction.
Technological changes originating in this volatile “Airy Region” result in the economic ruin of the people below and of traditional ways of life. The satire recommends the example of the disaffected Lord Munodi, who is “not of an enterprising Spirit”, and is “content to go on in the old Forms” and live “without Innovation”. Part III is episodic and miscellaneous in character as Swift satirises various intellectual follies and corruptions. It offers a mortifying image of human degeneration in the immortal Struldbruggs. Gulliver’s desire for long life abates after he witnesses the endless decrepitude of these people.
Part IV is a disturbing fable. After a conspiracy of his crew against him, Gulliver is abandoned on an island inhabited by rational civilised horses, the Houyhnhnms, and unruly brutal humanoids, the Yahoos. Gulliver and humankind are identified with the Yahoos. The horses debate “Whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the Face of the Earth”. As in the story of the flood in the Bible, the Yahoos deserve their fate.
The horses, on the other hand, are the satire’s ideal of a rational society. Houyhnhnmland is a caste society practicing eugenics. Swift’s equine utopians have a flourishing oral culture but there are no books. There is education of both sexes. They have no money and little technology (they do not have the wheel). They are authoritarian (there is no dissent or difference of opinion). The Houyhnhnms are pacifist, communistic, agrarian and self-sufficient, civil, vegetarian and nudist. They are austere but do have passions. They hate the Yahoos.
Convinced that he has found the enlightened good life, free of all the human turpitude recorded in the Travels, Gulliver becomes a Houyhnhnm acolyte and proselyte. But this utopian place is emphatically not for humans. Gulliver is deported as an alien Yahoo and a security risk.
Wearing clothes and sailing in a canoe made from the skins of the humanoid Yahoos, Gulliver arrives in Western Australia, where he is attacked by Aboriginal people and eventually, unwillingly, rescued and returned home to live, alienated, among English Yahoos. (Swift’s knowledge of the Aboriginal people derives from the voyager William Dampier, whom Gulliver claimed was his “Cousin”.)
Politics and misanthropy
When it was published, the Travels’ uncompromising, misanthropic satiric anatomy of the human condition seemed to border on blasphemy. The political satire was scandalous, venting what Swift called his “principle of hatred to all succeeding Measures and Ministryes” in Britain and Ireland since the collapse, in 1714, of Queen Anne’s Tory government, which he had served as propagandist.
In its politics the work is pacifist, condemns “Party and Faction” in the body politic, and denounces colonialism as plunder, lust, enslavement, and murder on a global scale. It satirises monarchical despotism yet displays little faith in parliaments. In Part III we get a short view of a representative modern parliament: “a Knot of Pedlars, Pickpockets, Highwaymen and Bullies”.
Gulliver’s Travels belongs to a tradition of satiric and utopian imaginary voyages that includes works by Lucian, Rabelais, and Thomas More. Swift hijacked the form of the popular contemporary voyage book as the vehicle for his satire, though the work combines genres, containing utopian and dystopian fiction, satire, history, science fiction, dialogues of the dead, fable, as well as parody of the travel book and the Robinson Crusoe-style novel.
It’s not a book to be judged by its cover. The frontispiece, title page and table of contents of the original edition gave no hint that this was not a genuine travel account. Swift and his friends reported stories of gullible readers who took this hoax travel book for the real thing.
It is also not reader friendly. The revised 1735 edition of the Travels opens with a disturbing letter from Gulliver in which the reader is arraigned by an irate and misanthropic author convinced that the “human Species” is too depraved to be saved, as evidenced by the fact that his book has had no reforming effect on the world. The book ends with Gulliver, a proud, ranting recluse, preferring his horses to humans, and warning any English Yahoos with the vice of pride not to “presume to appear in my Sight”.
Readers might dismiss the unbalanced Gulliver, but he is only saying what Swift’s uncompromising satire insists is the truth about humankind.
In many ways Jonathan Swift is remote from us, but his satire still matters, and Gulliver’s Travels continues to vex and entertain today.
For those who have read the fragmented remains of the Greek poet, Sappho the loss of most of her poetic corpus is something to regret. With a mere two complete poems extant from nine books of verse, much is left to the imagination in the reconstruction of the output (and life) of this most mysterious of ancient poets.
In a world dominated by male voices whose view of life, the universe and everything was the loudest and most respected, Sappho’s songs were regarded as extraordinary. So revered was she that the ancients called her the Tenth Muse, and her songs were passed down over centuries, inspiring generations of poets, none of whom managed to replicate her command of metre and sensual artistry.
How Sappho managed to acquire the educational acumen to compose her masterpieces has sometimes baffled both ancient and modern scholars. Women lived quiet and controlled lives in ancient Mediterranean cultures with limited, if any, access to formal education. If there were any perceived need to teach a girl basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, it was only to equip her to run a household once she was married-off.
Even if a girl demonstrated extraordinary artistic skills, there was usually no avenue to express them, as the aspirations of women were limited to marriage and motherhood. Females who displayed a talent were normally suppressed and regarded with suspicion. Why? Because men were the artists, intellects and leaders. Ergo, for a woman to possess such qualities meant she also possessed a masculinity that set her apart from nature.
So, where did Sappho come from? What strange land or culture gave her birth and permitted her extraordinary skills to flourish? While we know little that is certain of her life, we do know Sappho was born in the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey in the late 7th Century BC. Mytilene appears to have been an enlightened society compared to other communities in Archaic Greece. Sappho’s works clearly indicate that women – at least from her privileged social standing – had access to a formal education that included training in choral composition, musical accomplishment and performance.
Her estimated birth date places her sometime after the composition and transmission of the works of the Homeric poets, which told the stories of the Trojan War and are preserved in the epics known as the Iliad and the Odyssey.
But Sappho was no epic poet, rather she composed lyrics: short, sweet verses on a variety of topics from hymns to the gods, marriage songs, and mini-tales of myth and legend. She also sung of desire, passion and love – mostly directed towards women – for which she is best known. And it is for such poems that Sappho has come down to us as history’s first lesbian.
Was Sappho a lesbian? An answer depends on how one is defined. If love of women, even in a non-sexual sense, and an exclusive focus on the needs and lives of women define a woman as a lesbian, then – yes – Sappho was a lesbian. However, if a lesbian is defined more narrowly as a woman who has sex with another woman, then evidence to define Sappho as one is harder to establish.
Of course, these two binaries are inherently artificial and without nuance. They are also ignorant of social constructionism, which insists on understanding an individual in her or his historical environment, its values, and its cultural specificities. And, in the society of Archaic Mytilene, Sappho was not defined as a lesbian. After all, the word “lesbian” was not invented until the Victorian age.
Sappho’s contemporaries were not responsible for her synonymy with women-loving. That began with the Greeks and Romans of later centuries, who tended to interpret her skill as stemming from a perverted form of masculinity, which sometimes found expression in representations of her through the lens of a hyper-sexuality. Sappho’s reputation for sexual proclivity initially linked her to passionate relations with men, which later morphed into a stronger association with women.
The Sappho mystique is further confounded by later testimonies such as the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda (or the Stronghold), which chronicled the history of the ancient Mediterranean. In one of two entries on Sappho, readers are informed that she was in love with a ferryman by the name of Phaon whose rejection of her caused her to leap to her death from the Leucadian Cliff.
This apocryphal history, which emerged in antiquity, went on to inspire artists, poets and playwrights for hundreds of years, despite the strange origins of Phaon as a figure of myth and legend. In the second entry on Sappho in the Suda, it is stated that Sappho was married, had a daughter by the name of Cleis, and was also a lover of women.
Turning to the fragments and scant number of complete poems from Sappho’s canon, there are references to her daughter, and to her close female companions – even her brothers – although the extant verses do not sing of a husband. In Fragment 132, for example, Sappho sings of Cleis:
I have a beautiful child whose face is like
golden flowers, my beloved Cleis …
Beauty, caresses and whispers
Sappho, following the poetic traditions of Archaic Greece, tended towards floral and natural imagery to depict feminine beauty and youth. Elsewhere, she evokes images of garlands, scents and even apples to convey feminine sensuality. Hers was largely a world of beauty, caresses, whispers and desires; songs sung in honour of the goddess Aphrodite, and tales of mythical love.
In Fragment 16, arguably Sappho’s most sublime poem, fortunately well preserved albeit a little tattered, her definition of beauty anticipates the maxim of the philosopher, Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things”:
Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry,
and others of ships, is the most beautiful
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
whatever a person loves.
It is perfectly easy to make this
understood by everyone: for she who far
surpassed mankind in beauty,
Helen, left her most noble husband
and went sailing off to Troy with no thought at all
for her child or dear parents,
but [love?] led her astray …
has reminded me
now of Anactoria
who is not here;
I would rather see her
lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her
face than the Lydians’ chariots and armed
Sappho’s definition of beauty – that which a person loves – privileges the individual over the community. She extends her dictum with the example of the mythical figure of Helen of Troy, renowned in antiquity as the most beautiful woman in the world. As testimony to Sappho’s unique interpretation of the story, she removes the standard figures of blame for Helen’s role in the Trojan War – Paris, the Trojan prince who abducted her or, in other versions, Aphrodite who forced her to go with him – and gives agency to Helen herself. In Sappho’s world, where love is all, it is Helen who decides to leave her husband and elope with Paris. Consequences be damned!
Sappho’s thoughts on love and desire extend to a personal reverie on a woman by the name of Anactoria. Sappho reveals that Anactoria is gone and is missed. She compares her, indirectly, to Helen and then evokes her beauty, namely her gait and her sparkling face. Sappho’s lyrics are sensual, gentle, intense. But they are also powerful, as she rejects the world of masculine warfare in preference for beauty and desire.
‘A tremor shakes me’
In another well-preserved piece, Fragment 31, Sappho evokes the sensations she experiences as a result of being seated opposite a beautiful woman:
He seems to me equal in good fortune to the
whatever man, who sits on the opposite side to you
and listens nearby to your
and desire-inducing laugh: indeed that
gets my heart pounding in my breast.
For just gazing at you for a second, it is impossible
for me even to talk;
my tongue is broken, all at once a soft
flame has stolen beneath my flesh,
my eyes see nothing at all,
my ears ring,
sweat pours down me, a tremor
shakes me, I am more greenish than
grass, and I believe I am at
the very point of death.
The power of the fragment, and indeed the meaning, are substantially derived from the Greek pronouns that denote three players in Sappho’s drama: Sappho, the man, and the woman.
The man is god-like because he can be in the presence of the woman and remain unaffected. Sappho, in contrast, is a physical, mental and emotional wreck. The fragmented condition of the piece includes a few words that indicate at least one more stanza followed.
Such was the power of Sappho’s poem that it went on to inspire various intellectuals and poets who followed her. The Roman poet, Catullus was so enamoured of Sappho’s work that he reworked Fragment 31, which he would have known in its complete form, into his own version that even rendered the original Sapphic hendecasyllabic metre into Latin [Poem 51].
Translating Sappho is no mean feat. Most of the work is in poor condition, pieced together by papyrologists to make readable texts for scholars to work from. Confronted with the Aeolic Greek of the poet, printed neatly on a page, the translator is immediately drawn into emendations, conjectures, broken lines, missing words, incomplete words, hypothetical punctuation and, in short, a philological headache.
And, after persisting, the translator is always dissatisfied. It is impossible to capture the poet’s genius in another language, especially if the translator is simultaneously striving for a metrical equivalent. Catullus, too, was a poetic genius – an artist with complete control over style, metrics and meaning – yet he was humble enough not to replicate Sappho’s words but to imitate them, to compose a response to them, to make them his own as a homage to the Tenth Muse.
But despite the hurdles and the intellectual heartache, there are rewards in recent discoveries that continue to add more words, more lines, more stanzas and sometimes even new poems to the canon. In 2004, the discovery of piece of papyrus that completed an existing fragment – thereby making a new poem by Sappho – received international media coverage. The process of repair resulted in Poem 58, which deals with the themes of youth and old age.
Sappho mourns the passing of her youth, and reminds her audience of the myth of Tithonos, one of the few mortals to be loved by a goddess. Struck by the beauty of the young man, the goddess Eos asks Zeus to permit her to take the young man to live with her eternity. But Eos forgets to ask that Tithonos be granted a second gift: eternal youth. And so, she is left with a lover she quickly finds hideous and repellent, and Tithonos is left alone, trapped in a never-ending cycle of ageing.
More and more of Sappho is emerging. In 2013, more new fragments were discovered that have assisted in reconstructing existing pieces, and bringing to light four previously unknown pieces. One relatively complete poem, Brothers Song is the most significant of the find because of its hitherto unknown status.
The piece is also important because it further develops the image of the poet as an artist whose themes extended beyond the sensual and romantic. While previously extant fragments and details in works such as the Suda reference Sappho’s brothers, the poem provides more insight into Sappho’s familial world. While the first three stanzas are missing, there are five complete ones, the subject of which is a speaker’s concerns for the safe return of her two brothers, Charaxos and Larichos from a maritime trading venture.
The discoveries of this century are testimony to the fascinating and random nature of such finds. Rather than being hidden away in obscure manuscripts in dusty archives or included in elaborate scrolls, the fragments have sometimes come from less salubrious environments.
For example, much of Sappho’s work, along with pieces from poets and writers ranging from Homer, the Greek playwrights, Plato and Saint Paul came from Oxyrhynchus – an ancient garbage dump in Egypt.
And while other pieces were preserved as quotations in more respectable formats, such as books on grammar, composition and philosophy, the 2004 poem originally came from the cartonnage of an Egyptian mummy.
Indeed, cartonnage – a plaster-like material made from material scraps, including papyri that was wrapped around mummified bodies and then decorated – has yielded rich results, Sappho’s fragments being just one example. Hopefully more garbage will be excavated to reveal more of Sappho’s poetic diamonds.
For a recent, reliable edition of Sappho’s works, see Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, translated from the ancient Greek by Diane J. Rayor, with an introduction and notes by André Lardinois (Cambridge University Press).
In a memorable scene from the classic BBC TV series I, Claudius (1976), three frightened senators are summoned to the palace in the dead of night by the emperor Caligula. Rather than being executed, they are treated to a command performance by Caligula himself, who dances before them dressed in a shimmering gold bikini.
Caligula’s midnight dance routine is the climax of a sequence of horrors and indiscretions committed by the emperor. He has his predecessor suffocated to death with a pillow, executes his cousin because of his irritating cough, and engages in an incestuous relationship with his sister (they’re both gods, you see).
These outlandish scenes cannot be ascribed to the imagination of the scriptwriter Jack Pulman or to Robert Graves, the author of the original novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, on which the series is based. The incidents are adapted from Suetonius’s On the Lives of the Caesars, a collection of imperial biographies written in Latin in the second century A.D.
Suetonius’s work describes the lives of Rome’s first 12 leaders from Julius Caesar to Domitian – hence it is best known today as The Twelve Caesars. This is the title it bears in the paperback Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Graves himself in 1957, and still in print today.
Suetonius’s unforgettable tales of sex, scandal, and debauchery have ensured that his writing has played a significant role in shaping our perceptions of imperial Rome.
The man and the work
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a scholar and intellectual who held administrative positions at the imperial court under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He was a prolific author, writing biographies of poets and orators, as well as works on topics as diverse as the games, the Roman year, bodily defects, and lives of famous courtesans.
He probably began to write the Caesars when he was Hadrian’s secretary of correspondence. However, the biographies were only published after Suetonius was dismissed from Hadrian’s service for being too familiar with the emperor’s wife.
Political expediency meant that Suetonius wisely avoided writing about Hadrian. Instead The Twelve Caesars includes the Julio-Claudians, Rome’s first imperial dynasty (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero), three short-lived emperors during the civil wars of A.D. 69 (Galba, Vespasian, Otho), and the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).
The structure of the individual biographies has often puzzled modern readers, who expect Suetonius to tell his story in a linear fashion from birth to death. Although Suetonius usually begins with an emperor’s family and upbringing, the bulk of each Life consists of an assortment of memorable, and sometimes salacious, anecdotes about an emperor’s public conduct and private life.
But this is no mere haphazard catalogue of sex and corruption. Instead, Suetonius tells his readers that he has carefully organized the stories “by categories”. These categories include the emperor’s virtues (such as justice, self-control, and generosity) and his vices (like greed, cruelty, and sexual excess).
Virtues and vices
In the second century A.D., when Suetonius was writing, there was no chance of a return to the Republic, but aristocrats still expected the emperor to behave as if he were merely the most prestigious citizen rather than an autocrat. The stories of virtue and vice in the Caesars are carefully selected to illustrate whether emperors measured up to this standard.
When Suetonius describes an emperor’s ancestors, he highlights how their qualities influenced the ruler himself. Early in the Life of Nero, the reader encounters Nero’s grandfather who staged particularly cruel shows in the arena. This helps to explain the later tales of Nero’s own savagery, because the reader would see that this vice was part of his nature.
Suetonius is fair and evenhanded in his treatment of his subjects. All emperors appear as flawed men with both virtues and vices, but the balance between them depends on the individual ruler. He even gives due credit to the notorious Caligula, who began his reign by publishing the imperial budget and showing generosity to the people. Suetonius then signals a change:
Thus far, it is as if we have been writing about an emperor, but the rest must be about a monster.
This “division” – a statement in which Suetonius clearly separates the anecdotes illustrating virtues from the vices – is a feature of several of his biographies. In Caligula’s case, it is from this point on that we read about his pretensions to divinity, his condemnation of aristocrats to hard labour in the mines, and his sexual immorality.
The tales of the emperors’ sexual habits constitute some of the most famous passages in Suetonius. He chronicles Tiberius’s sordid behaviour on Capri, detailing how he forced men and women to engage in threesomes, had children perform oral sex on him, and raped young men who took his fancy.
When the Loeb Classical Library, which features the original Latin and the English translation of classical texts on facing pages, published their first edition of Suetonius in 1913, these chapters about Tiberius’s behaviour were left in Latin because they were considered too scandalous to translate. Although they are now translated into English, these graphic tales still have the power to shock and unsettle the reader.
An emperor’s private life and his sexual conduct were fair game because they reflected whether or not he was fit to rule. The same applied to members of his family. Augustus’s daughters were praised by Suetonius for spending their time weaving in his house. (Such gender stereotypes remain with us today, if one recalls the photo shoot of Julia Gillard knitting in Women’s Weekly). When his daughter Julia flagrantly flouted Augustus’s own adultery legislation, Suetonius reports that he had no choice but to exile her. The imperial family had to set standards for the entire empire.
Man or god?
After the virtues and vices, Suetonius’s Lives usually conclude with a narrative of the emperor’s death and a detailed physical description of his body. Suetonius didn’t hold back in these passages, even pointing out that the emperor Otho sported a terrible wig to hide his bald patch (as his coinage also reveals).
He was of a good height but his body was blotchy and ill-smelling. His hair was fairish, his face handsome rather than attractive, his eyes bluish-grey and dull, his neck thick, his stomach protruding, his legs very thin…
The different body parts were supposed to indicate character traits. Nero’s blotchy skin likened him to a panther (regarded as a deceitful creature); his hair colour suggested courage; the bulging beer belly had connotations of power, but also exposed his devotion to pleasure; his feeble legs indicated both femininity and fear. Nero was thus revealed to be a contradiction.
Suetonius’s stories about the emperors’ faults and foibles exposed them as human beings. He even collected their famous sayings to shed light on their character – the famous line “as quick as boiled asparagus”, intoned beautifully by Brian Blessed’s Augustus in I, Claudius, is straight out of Suetonius.
His account of the witty sayings of Vespasian shows that the emperor frequently joked about his own economic policies:
When his son Titus criticized him for putting a tax even on urine, he held up a coin from the first payment to his son’s nose and asked him if he was offended by its smell. When Titus said no, he observed: ‘But it comes from urine.’
Vespasian emerges as a rather avuncular figure. He even pokes fun at the deification of emperors, proclaiming in the days before his death, “Oh dear, I think I am becoming a god!”
Laughing at power
But the humour of Suetonius’s Caesars is often double-edged. He tells one story about the time Nero visited his aunt on her death bed, and she lovingly remarked that she would die happy once she had the hairs from the first shaving of his beard. Nero joked that he would shave it off immediately. He then gave his aunt an overdose of laxatives to kill her off and seized her estate for himself.
Roman aristocrats reading this tale would probably have laughed, given its absurdly comic elements. But it would have been nervous laughter. For such stories reminded them of the power of the emperor. While they might have chuckled at another’s misfortune, they would have been acutely aware that one day it could be them.
Suetonius’s Caesars is thus more than a haphazard collection of gossip and scandal, but a work that sheds light on the world of the Roman aristocracy and how they lived (and coped) with their emperors. The stories of the emperors’ virtues and vices illustrates what Roman elites considered to be acceptable behaviour by their leaders.
Suetonius’s biographies also cut the emperors down to size, revealing them to be men with human flaws, rather than gods. They offered a necessary means of escapism in a world where imperial fickleness could end one’s career – or one’s life.
Recommended translation: Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Oxford World’s Classics edition by Catharine Edwards (2008).
The Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil is an epic poem in 12 books that tells the story of the foundation of Rome from the ashes of Troy. It was probably written down in Rome from 30-19 BC during the period of the Emperor Augustus.
The poem is named after the Trojan hero Aeneas, the son of Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology) and Anchises, a Trojan aristocrat. Aeneas leads the survivors from the sack of Troy through the Mediterranean, and ultimately to the site of (future) Rome. The Aeneid is therefore a classic foundation narrative.
As with other ancient epics, our hero has to remain resolute in the face of significant divine hostility. Juno, queen of heaven and goddess of marriage, despises the Trojans because she lost a divine beauty contest known as the Judgement of Paris. Venus wins the Judgement by giving a bribe to Paris, a Trojan prince who acts as judge. The bribe is in the form of Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris prefers this bribe to the bribes of the other two contestants – Juno and Minerva.
Unfortunately, Helen is already married to the Spartan king Menelaus, and so the Trojan war follows soon after. Juno takes badly her loss in the beauty contest, and hates everything Trojan, both during the war, and after. The hatred and vindictiveness shown by Juno to the Trojans anchors the whole Aeneid, and it only comes to an end in the final book.
Stealing from Homer?
The Aeneid is written in dactylic hexameters, the same metre as the two Homeric poems – the Iliad and Odyssey (although it is written in Latin, not in ancient Greek).
In many ways the Aeneid is written in emulation of Homer’s works by a poet who may have known them off by heart (that is my view, anyway). Scholars sometimes talk about the “Odyssean” Aeneid (Books 1-6, because Aeneas travels through the Mediterranean, a bit like Odysseus), and the “Iliadic” half of the poem (Books 7-12, on the theme of war in Italy).
A new reader of the Aeneid with a background in Homer can usually identify many passages that have Homeric resonances.
Indeed many readers through time have felt that Virgil is too reliant on Homer. There is a story that Virgil needed to defend himself from this charge by saying that “it is easier to steal Hercules’ club than steal one line from Homer”.
It must be stressed, however, that in Virgil’s case, we are dealing with someone who was totally immersed in Greek and Roman literature, rhetoric and philosophy – not just the works of Homer. He was an astonishingly well-read poet, and this breadth of learning is embodied in his poems. In this sense the criticism of Virgil of plagiarising Homer, or quasi-plagiarism, seems rather unreasonable.
A deserted heroine
The Aeneid’s thematic connections to earlier myth and literature come to the fore in the depiction of Dido, the queen of Carthage. Dido is the great tragic figure in the first half of the poem (notably in Books 1, 4, and 6) after a romance and sexual liaison with Aeneas.
The figure of the deserted heroine was a favourite theme in Greek myth and literature, and Virgil duly draws on it for his depiction of Dido. Such heroines included Medea, Phaedra, Ariadne, and Hypsipyle. There was also an early Roman depiction of Dido by Gnaeus Naevius (270-201 BC) in his epic The Punic War.
Thus it would be a mistake to reduce Virgil’s Dido to some kind of re-creation of Homer’s Calypso, or Circe, or Nausicaa (all from the Odyssey). Indeed, Virgil’s audience may have responded to the tragedy of Dido in the Aeneid by thinking of another North African queen – Cleopatra (69-30 BC), with whom both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony had flings. So the general point here is that the reader of the Dido books is invited to engage with many different mythical and historical narratives.
Virgil’s method of composition of his poetic works was slow and deliberate, and quite “un-Homeric” in all kinds of ways. “Homer” (ca. 700 BC) was a highly skilled oral poet who used this expertise to create his story, whereas Virgil (70-19 BC) lived in a thoroughly literate society. The pace of poetic creativity could be very slow.
The Georgics, an earlier poetic work by Virgil on the subject of agriculture (2,188 lines), seems to have been written at a rate of about one line a day. And the Aeneid itself (9,883 lines) works out to about three lines a day. Little wonder that it is so succinct and complex.
The Aeneid is certainly not the easiest read from the corpus of ancient literature. There is some evidence that Virgil wrote it first in prose, before developing the poetic version. It is also an unfinished poem, although still remarkably polished.
Even though the Aeneid is a foundation narrative where the Trojans struggle to find a new home after the destruction of their city, it is important to stress that it is also a “return” (that is, a Greek “nostos”).
Troy was founded by Dardanus, an obscure mythological hero, and, in Virgil’s poem, he did so having left from a place called “Corythus” (perhaps modern Cortona in Tuscany). The story in the Aeneid is that many generations later – after the sack of Troy – Aeneas leads his people back to Italy as a kind of “new Dardanus”.
Aeneas’s quest, then, is both a new mission to a new land and a return to the ancestral land of the first Trojan. The return journey of a hero from war was a favourite Greek mythical narrative (including the Odyssey of course). Virgil follows suit in the Aeneid, but offers a much more complex notion of the heroic “return”.
Aeneas is a very different kind of epic hero from Achilles in the Iliad and Odysseus in the Odyssey, not the least because he is imbued with a whole series of distinctly Roman values. He is a much more “religious” kind of hero – someone who makes it his business to follow the path that has been ordained for him and his people.
A characteristic epithet for Aeneas is pius (“pious”, “duty-bound”, “dutiful”). Indeed his whole quest is really to unravel the mysteries of fate, and then duly to act upon them. He tends to focus on the “greater good”, sometimes with an element of personal suffering (perhaps along Stoic lines). For instance, he deserts Dido (in Book 4) because Jupiter reminds him through the god Mercury that Italy is meant to be his fated home, not Carthage in North Africa.
The Aeneid looks back to a time well before the foundation of the city of Rome, and forward to the realities of Roman imperialism up to Virgil’s own day. The past and the future often seem entangled in all kinds of ways, and then there is the question of Virgil’s own political outlook. Is the poem designed to justify and support Rome’s imperialist agenda?
The English poet W.H. Auden was rather unsympathetic to Virgil in his poem Secondary Epic (1959):
No, Virgil, no:
Not even the first of the Romans can learn
His Roman history in the future tense.
Not even to serve your political turn;
Hindsight as foresight makes no sense.
No, Virgil, no:
Behind your verse so masterfully made
We hear the weeping of a Muse betrayed.
The Aeneid, therefore, is focused on the grand scale – on the city of Rome and its empire, its formation, and its destiny within the order of the Olympian gods. Scholars, poets and critics, often against a background of modern wars (such as WWII or Vietnam), have agonised over the question of Virgil’s own attitude to war and the Augustan imperial agenda, which receives some considerable attention at critical moments in the Aeneid.
Augustus, after all, seems to have been a generous patron of the poet, and a certain amount of text-specific adulation might have been expected. Auden certainly felt that Virgil traded in his poetic respectability (“your political turn”… “a Muse betrayed”). But there have also been plenty of others who are prepared to claim that Virgil yearns for peace, and actually undercuts the explicit patriotism about Rome and Augustus.
A violent end
The final scene of the Aeneid tends to polarise critical views on the basic thrust of the poem. Whereas the Homeric poems end in an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity, Virgil’s Aeneid ends with unremitting violence.
Aeneas’s great Italian warrior rival Turnus has been wounded in single combat, and pleads for his life on his knees. Aeneas seems to mull over an act of clemency, but in a sudden fit of rage he kills Turnus on the spot. The poem ends with a description of Turnus’s limbs going slack and his life going resentfully to the shades below.
The sudden end of the Aeneid, with such a violent turn, has proved very challenging and unsatisfying for many readers. Virgil’s own death before the final completion of the poem in 19 BC added a further element of debate. Would he have changed the end of the poem? There was also a legend that he had left instructions for his assistants to burn the manuscript of the Aeneid, should he die before its completion.
The sudden and brutal end of the poem precipitated various sequels, most famously a Supplement to Aeneid Book 12 by the humanist cleric Maffeo Vegio (ca. 1406-58). This was basically a thirteenth book of the Aeneid told in 630 lines and written in 1428.
Vegio continues the narrative where Virgil leaves off, justifying the death of Turnus, and telling ultimately of the deification of Aeneas. The presence of sequels like this indicates just how confronting and original the Aeneid is – so much that later poets needed to “normalise” it.
There is every reason to think that Virgil’s Aeneid became a classic as soon as it was written and published. And it has remained so until this day. Many parts of the Aeneid have influenced Western literature and art: especially the sack of Troy and Aeneas’ departure from it (Book 2); the tragedy of Dido (Books 1, 4 and 6); and his journey to the Underworld (Book 6).
The last of these, Aeneas’s journey into the Underworld in Aeneid 6, fundamentally influenced the poet Dante’s (1265-1321) own narrative of life after death. Virgil is his guide through Inferno and Purgatorio, which says something about the high regard of poet for poet – bearing in mind, of course, that Virgil was a pagan.
When Dante first sees the shade of Virgil he greets him in a way that could hardly be more fulsome:
Are you then that Virgil, and that fountain, that pours out so great a river of speech? O, glory and light to other poets, may that long study, and the great love, that made me scan your work, be worth something now. You are my master, and my author: you alone are the one from whom I learnt the high style that has brought me honour.
*NB Virgil’s name is also sometimes spelt “Vergil.”
So warns the inscription on the gates of the inferno, the first realm of Dante Alighieri’s celebrated work, now known as the Divine Comedy. “La Commedia”, as Dante originally named it, is an imaginary journey through the three realms of the afterlife: inferno (hell), purgatorio (purgatory) and paradiso (heaven).
It might not sound all that funny, but Dante called his epic poem a comedy because, unlike tragedies that begin on a high note and end tragically, comedies begin badly but end well. The poem indeed ends well, with the protagonist, also named Dante, reaching his desired destination – heaven – a place of beauty and calm, light and ultimate good. Conversely, the inferno is dark, morose and inhabited by irredeemable sinners.
Dante wrote the comedy during his exile from Florence between 1302 and his death in 1321. It is the first significant text written in the Italian vernacular and is written in terza rima, an interlocking three-line rhyme scheme invented by the author.
Dante set the beginning of the story on Holy Thursday, 1300, when he was 35-years-old. He alludes to being “middle aged” in the opening lines of the poem:
Halfway through our life’s journey
I woke to find myself within a dark wood
because I had strayed from the correct path.
Oh how hard it is to describe
how harsh and tough that savage wood was
The very thought of it renews the fear!
To hell, and back again
At the beginning of Inferno, Dante alludes to the apocalyptic vision of the biblical Book of Revelation. In a dark wood, three menacing beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf – respectively symbolising lust, pride and greed – prevent Dante from climbing a mountain.
As Dante despairs, the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, appears, announcing that he has been sent to guide him. They must first descend into hell, a cone-shaped crater that was caused by the fall of Lucifer.
Before beginning the journey, and in keeping with the classical epic tradition, Dante invokes the goddesses known as muses to inspire him, something he will do at the beginning of the next two books, Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Dante and Virgil must pass through nine circles of hell, in which the punishments increase in severity to match the gravity of the vices being punished. In the first circle are mythological and historical characters who died before Christianity was founded and were therefore not initiated through baptism. Lingering here are noble and virtuous characters – like Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Avicenna, Cicero, and Ovid.
In the second circle, Dante is distraught by the cruelty of the punishment he observes. There, he encounters the souls of the lustful, including the legendary Tristan and Isolde and the historical Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo. Murdered by Francesca’s husband and Paolo’s brother, Giovanni Malatesta, these two souls drift aimlessly, their bodies fused together as punishment for adultery. They are joined for eternity, inverting the biblical prescription in Matthew that “what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
In the remaining seven circles of hell, Dante and Virgil observe punishments that are so grisly that sinners are reduced to grotesque conditions. These inspired the frescoes depicting the final judgement day that the painter Giotto painted around the walls and ceiling of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
The writer Dante’s friend and compatriot, Giotto was commissioned to paint the inside of the chapel by the son of an infamous usurer that Dante identifies in the seventh circle of hell. There, men with moneybags hanging round their necks flick off flames, just as dogs shoo away insects in summer.
In the next, the circle of the fraudulent, Dante and Virgil encounter popes guilty of simony (or the selling of church services). Having inverted the moral order, they face an eternity buried upside down with their heads in the trenches. Only their legs can be seen from above, waving around frantically.
In the ninth circle, the pilgrims see the Count Ugolino chomping on the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, the punishment for treachery. In reality Ugolino conspired against his party, the Ghibellines, to bring the opposing Guelfs to power. The Archbishop later betrayed and imprisoned Ugolino with his offspring, gradually starving them to death.
Finally the pilgrims arrive at the centre of the earth, where they must scale the hairy sides of Lucifer to be able to ascend to the surface of the earth to get to purgatory, where they must be cleaned of the stain of hell. At the entrance of purgatory, an angel inscribes the letter “P” on Dante’s forehead seven times with the tip of his sword, saying “Make sure you cleanse these wounds when you are inside”. Each “P” stands for piaghe (wounds) that form from peccati (sins). Dante must work off and cleanse away each of them in the seven terraces of purgatory. As he leaves each terrace repented, the angel brushes his forehead, removing one of the letters.
Renewed and purified, Dante is now disposed to rise to “the stars”. Drawing on the writings of Saint Augustine, a woman called Beatrice, who has taken over from Virgil and guides Dante through heaven, explains that God’s creations, exiled to earth, long to return to their place of origin. Dante and Beatrice ascend through several heavens, the moon, and the planets, to the Empyrean, the heaven of divine peace. Like Inferno and Purgatorio, Paradiso ends with a reference to the stars:
Here high fantasy lost its impulse but my will and desire were already propelled, as a wheel is equally moved by the love that moves the sun and other stars.
Dante through the ages
Early commentators focused on interpreting the work as an allegory for the life of Jesus. In his Life of Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio, author of the Decameron, classified Dante as a prophet and his poem a prophecy. Humanist Cristoforo Landino (1424-98) viewed the poem as a metaphor for the soul’s journey back to God, and Neapolitan political philosopher Giambatista Vico (1668-1744) saw the Divine Comedy as a product of its barbarous time and Dante as the historian of his age, labelling him the Tuscan Homer.
More recently the Divine Comedy has inspired many creative works including art, architecture, literature, music, radio, film, television, comics, animations, digital arts, computer games and even a papal encyclical, Deus caritas est (2006), which, according to Pope Benedict XVI was inspired by the final verse of Paradiso.
It is most often Dante’s Inferno, its graphic imagery and twisted characters, that has inspired litterateurs like Chaucer, Milton, Honoré de Balzac, Marx, Elliot, Forster, Beckett, Primo Levy and Borges.
Few films have incorporated the entire epic tale. The earliest silent films, in 1911 (L’Inferno) and 1924 (Dante’s Inferno), and the first motion picture in 1935 (also Dante’s Inferno) all focused on the creatures and events of the inferno.
Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips’s multi-award winning 1990 A TV Dante juxtaposes narration by John Gielgud, electronic images and sounds, with asides by experts, such as explanations of the three “beasts” by David Attenborough. A 2010 animation and 2012 documentary focus on the horror of the inferno, while another terrifying 2010 animation is based on a video game and departs considerably from the original.
Nor must the inferno be the focus to instil fear or terror. The film American Psycho is among 33 films with no connection to the Divine Comedy that contain, collectively, 64 occurrences of the iconic phrase at the gates of the inferno: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” a phrase that still inspires dread and terror in the audience almost 700 years later.