CRITIC By Johnny Rodger ‘The modern epic is a form that only retired statesmen and young emperors should attempt.’ Petronius The career of jealousy would set the least fervid imagination aflame. So why give it even the furtive glance it desires? My deliberations, believe it or not, were provoked by the City Council. No-one dares to call them a bunch of zealots, but neither can their interests be described exactly as platonic. Naturally this feeling – jealousy – and its effects are associated with love – and why not? – but in truth, even a philosopher-prince of this city would feel the weight of it dragging him down.
Order we found with adze, spear, lyre; And Argus the boatbuilder first Made it plain in a wooden scheme Shouldered by the ranks from Pelion. That ship – fifty oars fifty men – Our first form, the democratic Heroes; though some would never vote For the show of my plucking hands.
But it’s the wrong kind of love, I would maintain, which is at the root of all our discord and inconsistency. And the Fifty Men – for thus our fond tradition styles the City Council – are, in a sense, prisoners of that love. Do these men indeed represent anything other than a bunch of outcasts pressed into service by a need for crimes of passion to stir us from our barren indifference? I shall, I suppose, be required to justify such bold rhetoric by reference to history, but I suspect that most readers are, by now, entertaining a sneaking consciousness of guilt.
Adze, spear, lyre; is it not enough To charm the world into a map Of desires and needs; must divine Right, with its precise geometry Of prerogatives, lower sails And raise gallows to keep the peace? There were kings, but now there are men, The tide has turned, they’ll row with it.
Don’t let this voyage, said Jason Slip in and out of symbolism: Is it impossible to light On material sufficient For the wriest of conditions? Set store by these dry hands, they’ll draw This prow through the rocky straits, then Stuff crowns in a dazzling fabric.
Hercules Hero you’d suspect Wouldn’t plump for a wooden bench: So, after showcase trials of strength At the oars, he’d swung his club and Jumped ship: the less laborious Tasks; to handle adzes, spears, the lyre; Mere popular stuff, like women’s Work, a neat weave of technocrats.
I was the idiot of that crew. Wave on wave of royal decree Wouldn’t spin our word, I babbled, And the world turned barbarian, For a different generation – Fighters, drunkards, lovers, cowards – Misprized a shady landlubbers’ rule And sought some brilliant evidence.
Ask, had we found a city, or Again, can one find a city?
Rhetoric, after all, is a proper field of study for a literary critic like myself, so it’s hardly surprising that, when it comes to history, we are accused of certain cold-blooded political shortcomings. It is, however, convenient to our cause on a surprisingly practical level that a specific work of literature plays a legendary constitutional and symbolic role in this society. Naturally I speak here of the national epic. Its relevance to everyday life and even the current political crisis can, I think, be demonstrated. Take this excerpt:
The Argonauts Return (Orpheus, no more than 20-years-old, sings) I was the idiot of that crew: Fighters, drunkards, lovers, cowards; Sang for them in outlandish tongues, Kept their laughter and a chorus Blowing still at the same camp flames. – We lacked order? – yet here we are, A barefoot gang of delinquents Come crowing home to rule the roost.
We’d lacked order, they’d thrown us out. Go find your own city! they cried And it wasn’t for sorrow, for Who were we? Just boys who refused To found, to founder; we never found What they were looking out for us. Our fathers, we supposed, would die; But we’d drink, fight, and come alive.
One where democrats, technocrats, – A barefoot gang of delinquents – Need not slip in and out at night? The tide turned, and we rowed with it, We’ve shipped a gift of order home: All men sit on a wooden bench.
Those with a finger and eye for scansion complemented with a penchant for order will already have calculated that this excerpt represents exactly one eighth of the complete poem. Good for you – you’ll also have noticed then, that this original form has been maintained in spite of an updating of the archaic language. Okay, the poem can hardly be held to stand, in terms of literary accomplishment, alongside Homer’s Iliad – neither in its original nor its updated version. And this particular excerpt – nothing more, in fact, than a lyrical intermezzo – exposes its very failures in conception of an epic breadth and narrative form. Yet it has been said to lend pedigree to our civic life; a dimension, which by its sheer insubstantiality may, paradoxically, instil a certain self-consciously enduring and inviolable air. On the other hand, while the explicit legacy that is mapped out for us in the poem is of an ancient, humanist, classical European culture, one cannot help feeling that the dazzling effect of the possession of this golden relic on our modern day society is more akin to that of holy scripture than of classical literature. It is here, however, that things descend into farce. With each era’s rediscovery of the text for itself, and exposition of it to a new public, it takes on not only, and inevitably for a new age, a new significance, but also a reinforced mystical authority. The latest restoration, for instance, has removed the original manuscripts to dark strongrooms in the forbidden interior of our purpose-built museum, and left only the modern translation out on view in the glass-topped cabinets. But this indoor obsession (as we might call it) with securing the past at all costs is as nothing compared with the pageantry of it which we see at large. When early last century, at the dawn of modern municipal accountability, the newly inaugurated members of the City Council were dubbed the ‘Fifty Men’, then that title not only encapsulated our reverential acknowledgement and intentions as regards our glorious past, but in terms of numbers and gender specifics was also entirely accurate. It might be argued that to continue with this title nowadays, when emancipation of women and the expansion of city wards has rendered it at least empirically inaccurate, ought to be no more wayward or wilful of us than it is of those other cities who, admittedly with less pedigree than ourselves, persist in calling their own councils the ‘City Fathers’. But then the Fifty Men is still an
oddity, one that now seems only to serve as a touchstone whereby ‘conventions’ by the score are resurrected, all evidently, for the sake of consistency. The latest news in this long saga of traditional rearrangements comes to us from the construction work presently underway on the new Council Chambers. –The upholsterers and interior designers have apparently been sacked, not in the cause of the trendiest horror pleni fad for minimalist style, nor simply to cut the swelling budget, but to comply – so we are informed in a press release from the appropriate council conservation body – with the strictures of the line ‘All men sit on a wooden bench.’ It seems the only realistic response to this blind tyranny would be to break into those dark strongrooms in the dead of night armed with an HB pencil, and to mark on the original manuscript the italicised words if any in brackets after the word ‘men’. The smug precision of these mythical benches really is almost enough to make one consider conversion to Christianity! What a relief, how joyous and liberating – by sheer contrast – would it feel of a grey winter’s morning to park one’s backside on an actual cold hard pew between one’s fellow pan-drop sucking Calvinists – at least one would be amongst forward-looking exegetes there! For beside the prophet’s sunny if just as bare aspect of Christian faith as ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen’, how does our post-Christian reverence for ancestors’ works look out? – as the substance of our pedigree, our customisation to the dead? You take my point – to convert or pervert, as it were. But, hang around for a couple of 100 years, and hey presto! another Reformation will come along, rooting out one sort of fetishisation only to replace it with another. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as godless as the next novel-reader, but the business of ‘charm(ing) the world into a map/of desires and needs’ (although that’s not quite how it reads in the original) seems to me one that ought to be tackled with a deal of inspiration and foresight rather than with retrospectives. Besides, half the time the modernised and so-called restored language here is so inappropriate that we do not know in which direction, past-present-future, we are facing. We are, that is to say, quite literally being dazzled by an anachronistic candle which is burning at both ends. Take the concept ‘divine right’: this medievalism was already anomalous before some late Renaissance fatheads attempted to press it into service as a pretext for their tyranny, but it stands here as an approximation to a locution in the original regarding ancient social hierarchy which might otherwise be complex in explanation and thenceforth cumbersome to versify. Fair enough, in principle, but when it comes to the exemplary status, which in everyday practice has been granted not just to this work of literature, but specifically to ‘the restored version’, the problem becomes not only literary nor even historical, but a political one. For the perfection of this poem as a poem – that is the coherence in its language of form as prosody and content as meaning – belongs to
another age. To attempt to say these things in other words – in our words – is of course, not to say these particular things at all. But are they even particularly our words? ‘Divine right’ as a concept would have been just as ultimately inconceivable to an ancient as it is automatically contemptible to a modern; so how can such an attempt to stuff selected excerpts from the wisdom of the ages into the historical moment of one poem be anything other than tendentious? And who’s doing the stuffing anyway? I suspect that now you understand something of what I mean by the ‘career’ of jealousy. In the abstract, of course, one acknowledges a headlong passion which carries one away with it. But somewhere, imperceptibly, the tide turns, to borrow a phrase, and jealousy always rolls on from a desire for absolute possession and mastery of the object, to envy of those others who have somehow become coinvolved with that object:The literary critic becomes a politician. Hercules stomps off in the huff. But let’s not beat about the bush. The poem itself is plain enough here: ‘Don’t let this voyage, said Jason Slip in and out of symbolism’ What I’m saying is that I meant the word ‘career’ to be taken in its literal sense. Think of the Argonauts themselves, all settled physically in to the microcosm of their ‘same boat’: Hercules with his club at his feet; Argus at work with the adze on a new rudder; Jason with his spear laid out ready on the bench beside him; and Orpheus strumming away. It’s in this light that ‘divine right’ doesn’t seem such an outrage against the coherency of the poem after all. Only perhaps as a notion has it been introduced rather clumsily. So let’s put to one side for now our suspicions of any crude programmatic attempt at rabble-rousing – as if our present day citizens were somehow to be inevitably inspired by a vision of a barelegged Jason and his toga’d Argonauts as some species of proto-sansculottes. For if, in working on the poem, the concept of ‘divine right’ provided some leverage, as it were, for our updater (an office which unlike that of the Heroes in the poem has never yet been specified even in terms of number or gender) is that not because this concept encapsulates for us the essence of supreme jealousy as outlined above? And although the term has arguably been illemployed here from a tactical point of view, it does raise nonetheless the spectacle of a monarch pushed to nonviolent self-justification before subjects as a paradigm for the professional rocked in the ‘same boat’ of a democracy. Career itself is jealousy. And who, in this day and age, can claim immunity from it? There was a time when the literary critic, young and in love with the dazzling vision of a new world, leapt aboard and unhesitatingly cast their club down on deck beside the deathdealing spear of the Historian and the Politician’s diligent if oddly shaped adze. But all that was in an era – a mere brief
interlude in our long indifferent history – as full of optimism as the young Orpheus, when even local politicians were tooled up to work us all towards some universal plan. We were all invited to participate in this political project, and its scope promised the fine engineering of the constitution to benefit the welfare of the entire human race. Hurrah! It’s ludicrous now, of course, to imagine any City Councillor with real empathy for the particular struggles of peoples in other nations and continents, and nor would anyone care for a return to the petty arrogances of a one-size-fits-all political consciousness – yet what are these politicians without their grand project? They have come aboard, as it were, without any tools. Or rather, they have invited us aboard their ship, and we are their tools, for on this new voyage there is only one profession – it is rewriting our literature and recreating our history for itself – and it will not suffer anything on board to be beyond its mastery. At last you can perhaps see why I have not even bothered to name the great poet of antiquity who allegedly composed our classical epic. Naturally many of you know his name already, and if you are also aware of the doubts, disputes and controversies, which over the centuries have clouded his claim to sole authorship of that great work, then still you can be certain of one thing; that he did not write the work which is on show at the National Museum. There is no author. And by the evidence presented in those glass-topped cases, we may also declare that neither is there any poetry in this city. Indeed we ought to have a wooden sign inscribed with that last subordinate clause fixed above the ancient gate to our Old Town. I myself would batter in the nails with my very own club.