Jair Bolsonaro

Jair Bolsonaro by Daryan Dornelle, 2016

I hope readers will forgive a fairly lengthy digression before we proceed to the vexed question of the President of Brazil.

One of the most interesting books I’ve ever looked at – I do not exaggerate – is National Anthems of the World (Orion: 10th Revised edition, 2002). This 624-page masterpiece, first published in 1960, contains the lyrics and music of all known national anthems. You could say that it is a rich and finely-grained celebration of cultural diversity. Alternatively, you could say that all the folly, delusion, vanity, hypocrisy and arrogance one might associate with pedlars of national pride and identity are laid bare in its pages. The truth lies somewhere in between. Though I tend to the less charitable view, I mean no disrespect for the book’s editors, W. L. Reed and M. J. Bristow, who have created and sustained, through ten editions, a breathtaking work of scholarship. Get the book, and if you can’t sing and play the piano, find someone who can. There is an enthralling armchair adventure in store. When it takes you to South America, you will notice a marked Italian influence – highly entertaining echoes of Rossini and Verdi abound in these unashamedly martial and triumphalist tunes. The anthems of Peru, Venezuela and Uruguay are good examples. For the dictator, all provide perfect background music for smoking cigars, making love, dressing up and raiding the national exchequer, prior to one’s inevitable imprisonment or assassination.

Turning to Brazil, its anthem was composed by Francisco Manuel da Silva in 1831. We all know the tune – a cheerful Rossini-like march. Since Brazil almost always goes a very long way in the FIFA World Cup, the anthem is played more often than those of most other countries.

The lyrics, however, are less widely known to non-Latin Americans. At first glance there are few surprises amid the predictable recital of anodyne references to the beauties of land and people. One thing, however, does stand out – a jewel set with paste. In the second stanza, we learn that “Teus risonhos, lindos campos têm mais flores” (thy [Brazil’s] smiling, pretty prairies have more flowers), immediately followed by a line from Antônio Gonçalves Dias: “Nossos bosques têm mais vida” (Our forests have more life). This is from Gonçalves Dias’ poem Canção do exílio (The Exile’s Song), one of the best-loved poems in Brazilian romantic literature, written when the poet was away in Portugal, studying law, homesick for his native land. Gonçalves Dias acknowledged his debt to Goethe by supplying the first verse of Mignon as an epigraph – “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühen” (Know you the land where the lemon trees bloom…), etc.  Here are the first two verses of Canção do exílio, where the line quoted in the national anthem can be seen in its original context. Much is lost in translation, so if you don’t know Portuguese, have a suitable Brazilian recite the original while you look at the English.

Minha terra tem palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.
As aves que aqui gorjeiam
Não gorjeiam como lá.

Nosso céu tem mais estrelas,
Nossas várzeas têm mais flores.
Nossos bosques têm mais vida,
Nossa vida mais amores.  
My land has palm trees 
Where the thrush sings.
The birds that sing here
Do not sing as they do there.

Our skies have more stars,
Our valleys have more flowers.
Our forests have more life,
Our lives have more love.

You could be forgiven for wondering what any of this has to do with Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, until you pause to consider the vandalism he has inflicted on this beautiful country – on its valleys, forests and lives –since he came to office in January 2019. As to the valleys and forests, his cynical stewardship to date has resulted in the loss of over 3,700 square miles of the Amazon jungle. His scaling back of federal agents in remote areas, coupled with his contempt for national and international environmental programs, has turned the rainforests into an Eldorado for (largely illegal) loggers, ranchers and miners. As to “nossa vida”, the “lives”, his disgraceful conduct during the Covid-19 emergency has made even Donald Trump seem tolerable in comparison. Indeed, his public utterances have been consistently more offensive than those of the Pussygrabber. But enough commentary. Let the President speak for himself. Here are some representative examples of the wisdom of Jair Bolsonaro. As you read them, try to imagine why some if not all of the utterances, repulsive though they are, might attract rather than repulse a significant number of people in any given electorate.  

On Covid-19 fatalities (this back in April): “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do? My name’s Messiah, but I can’t work miracles.”  On the Amazon: “The interest in the Amazon isn’t in the Indian or the fucking tree, it’s in the mining.” On the benefits of child labour: “Look, working nine, ten years old at the farm, I was not harmed at all. When a nine-year-old, ten-year-old goes to work somewhere, it’s full of people there.” On the merits of straight as opposed to gay sex tourism, as it relates to family values: “Anyone who wants to come here to have sex with a woman, feel free. But we can’t let this place become known as a gay tourism paradise. Brazil can’t be a country of the gay world, of gay tourism. We have families.” On the necessity of not being an indiscriminate rapist: “I would never rape you, because you don’t deserve it…” (this to federal deputy Maria do Rosário, at the Chamber of Deputies, in 2003; he later clarified his position: “I’m not a rapist, but if I was, I wouldn’t rape her because she doesn’t deserve it.”). On parenting, specifically what to do if one’s son turned out to be taking drugs: “I would beat him. You can be sure of that. If acting with energy is torturing, he’ll be tortured.”  “On the correct measure of tolerance towards homosexuality: “I will not fight against it nor discriminate, but if I see two men kissing on the street, I’ll beat them up.” On being a tolerant husband: “I never hit my ex-wife. But many times I wanted to shoot her.” On the penal system:  Brazilian prisons are wonderful places … they’re places for people to pay for their sins, not live the life of Reilly in a spa. Those who rape, kidnap and kill are going there to suffer, not attend a holiday camp. Are we obliged to give these bastards [criminals] a good life? They spend their whole lives fucking us and those of us who work have to give them a good life in prison. They should fuck themselves, full stop. That’s it, dammit!” On the consequences of legitimizing same-sex marriage: “It’s a mess. The next steps are the adoption of children and the legalization of pedophilia.”

After all that, perhaps the best that can be done is to revisit Canção do exílio, this time the full version.

Minha terra tem palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.
As aves que aqui gorjeiam
Não gorjeiam como lá.

Nosso céu tem mais estrelas,
Nossas várzeas têm mais flores.
Nossos bosques têm mais vida,
Nossa vida mais amores.

Em cismar, sozinho, à noite,
Mais prazer encontro eu lá.
Minha terra tem palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.

Minha terra tem primores
Que tais não encontro eu cá;
Em cismar – sozinho, à noite –
Mais prazer encontro eu lá.
Minha terra tem palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.

Não permita Deus que eu morra
Sem que eu volte para lá;
Sem que desfrute os primores
Que não encontro por cá;
Sem que ainda aviste as palmeiras
Onde canta o sabiá.
My land has palm trees 
Where the thrush sings.
The birds that sing here
Do not sing as they do there.

Our skies have more stars,
Our valleys have more flowers.
Our forests have more life,
Our lives have more love.

In dreaming, alone, at night,
I find more pleasure there.
My land has palm trees
Where the thrush sings.

My land has beauties
That cannot be found here;
In dreaming – alone, at night –
I find more pleasure there.
My land has palm trees
Where the thrush sings.

May God never allow
That I die before I return;
Without seeing the beauties
That I cannot find here;
Without seeing the palm trees
Where the thrush sings.

The Tulsaloser Shuffle: Donald Trump’s Walk of Shame

From: The Walk of Shame, by Mira Moshe, Nicoleta Corbu, Nova Science Publishers, 2015
“The term “walk of shame” is deeply rooted in the idea that shame is a difficult emotion stemming from a feeling of inferiority or social discomfort, which causes a person to wish to disappear, become invisible, be “swallowed up by the earth”. However, sometimes exactly at such a moment of disgrace, individuals are publicly exposed to the full extent of their misery and must walk “the walk of shame” witnessed by family, friends and acquaintances. Shame, considered by some to have genetic origins, is an integral part of social circumstances and settings in accordance with a set of values, patterns of thought and the individual’s physiological make-up. Shame is the result of familial, social and media processes. Thus the walk of shame does not take place privately behind closed doors, but on city sidewalks, in the workplace, in newspaper columns and on television and computer screens. It is not surprising, then, to discover that the tremendous power of shame has expropriated it from the individual’s control in the private sphere to the public sector, creating a collective punishing mechanism whose goal is to warn against undesirable behaviour. Indeed, a person’s public humiliation is a form of punishment, a negative sanction leading to disgrace, debasement and mortification. This book discusses the walk of shame from a cultural perspective, focusing on contexts, strategies, images etc., that reveals the many facets of a controversial concept.”

Boris Johnson: a classical commentary

I never really saw the point of Brexit, hard as I tried. Our position in Europe was, for me, a classic case of having one’s cake and eating it. Despite the greatly exaggerated bureaucratic and legislative tyrannies of Brussels, we always maintained a more than sufficient measure of national identity. We have the Queen, the Changing of the Guard, Lord Lieutenants in every county, our own coinage, cheddar cheese, vindaloo curry, Simon Cowell, Banksy, the Kennel Club, the Church of England and William Shakespeare. And if these blessings ever seemed insufficient, we had an exotic continental mistress in the person of Europe, always there with a ready embrace – and a comparatively low-maintenance one at that, if we consider the benefits and uplift she conferred. Whether you were a holidaying ruffian, hell-bent on beer-fueled pillage on the Costa Blanca, or a limp-wristed Hampstead liberal, randy for the rococo delights of Vierzehnheiligen, ‘Welcome!’ was always writ large on the doormat of Europe. However, 17.4 million Britons – a formidable think-tank of foreign affairs specialists, historians and economists – voted us out of the EU. The people were of one mind (if that). So here we are, with Boris at the helm – and here he is (a few years ago now) delivering a bravura recitation, in the original Greek, of the opening passage of The Iliad:

It was an excellent dramatic performance as well as being an impressive feat of memory, though Johnson had forgotten line 8, Τίς τ’ ἄρ σφωε θεῶν ἔριδι ξυνέηκε μάχεσθαι – who of the gods brought these two together to fight? It is a line he may well have momentarily recalled during his contest with Jeremy Corbyn, thanking the gods for having sent him such a pushover of an opponent. It is easy to see how Johnson won the hearts and minds of the people. The unimpeachable Corbyn, despite his many virtues, came across as the kind of dusty, vaguely Marxist lecturer one might expect to find on one of Britain’s more lacklustre campuses. Johnson, the affable and polished Old Etonian, appeared in triumphant contrast. His to-hell-with-it patrician persona was as appealing to the masses as it was to the gaggle of upstarts and wannabes who populate the Conservative Party. Charm and humour – his strongest suits and Corbyn’s weakest – go a long way in Britain. And now, Brexit done and dusted, he has to deal with Covid-19. I should think that when he was ill with the virus, he might well have called to mind a few of the lines he recited on ABC that happy day in 2013. This is Alexander Pope’s translation:

Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated hour
Sprung the fierce strife, from what offended power
Latona’s son a dire contagion spread,
And heap’d the camp with mountains of the dead.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. Given Johnson’s classical background, his enemies might be tempted to consider hubris as the possible cause of his eventual downfall, if or when it happens – the overweaning pride and ambition that leads to the hero’s destruction in Greek tragedy. On balance, looking at Covid-19, I think his inbuilt banana skin will prove not to be hubris, but more likely akidía (general carelessness) or aphulaxia (carelessness in the sense of failure to be on guard or watchful, a concept that crops up in Xenophon and other earnest authorities, when they address matters of governance and responsibility). Johnson is not a character out of Greek tragedy. If anything, one could more readily imagine him in an Aristophanic comic setting. For me, his genial public appearances always call to mind the late and tipsy arrival of Alcibiades in Plato’s Symposium, livening up what had become a rather over-intense intellectual dinner party. And the Prime Minister will certainly recall the fate of Alcibiades, whose carelessness at the battle of Notium cost him his career.

It is a good thing Johnson recovered from Covid-19 – not just for him and his family (which goes without saying) but for the nation at large. One dreads to imagine what unlovely cabal would be running the country now if he hadn’t.

Making America Misogynistic Again

Saint Hoax is a pseudonymous Syrian artist who replaces the slogans on vintage ads with real-life utterances by the President of the United States. Here are two representative examples. To see the rest, click on Roisin Lanigan’s excellent piece about the Saint Hoax project, Making America Misogynistic again. Leaving aside the Trump issues, I’m also intrigued by the guy in the Milwaukee Schlitz advertisement (above). What the hell is he up to? And by what unrelenting campaign of domestic tyranny did he manage to install all that equipment?

Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book

Here are some excerpts, some amusing, others downright inflammatory, from The Ladies’ Guide to True Politeness and Perfect Manners; or Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book (Philadelphia: Petersen, 1864).

On Champagne…

On no consideration let any lady be persuaded to take two glasses of champagne. It is more than the head of an American female can bear. And she may rest assured that (though unconscious of it herself) all present will find her cheeks flushing, her eyes twinkling, her tongue unusually voluble, her talk loud and silly, and her laugh incessant. Champagne is very insidious; and two glasses may throw her into this pitiable condition.

Advice for women authors…

Do not use blue ink; for if any part of your manuscript should chance to get wet, there is a risk of the blue ink being effaced or obliterated by the damp, so as to render the writing illegible; and this has frequently happened. In commencing a manuscript, write the title or caption in large letters, at some distance from the top of the first page; and if you are not anonymous, put your name a little below the title. Then begin the first line of the first paragraph, several inches distant from the left-hand side, or margin. In this manner commence every paragraph. The length of the paragraphs may be regulated by the time when you think a pause longer than that of a period or full stop may be effective; or to give the reader an opportunity of resting for a minute; or to denote the commencement of another subject. In writing a dialogue, begin every separate speech with a capital, and commence each speech on a new line, and at some distance from the left-hand margin. Also mark the beginning and end of every speech with double commas. If the names of the speakers are given at the commencement of every speech, write those names in large letters, putting a dot and a dash after them. All these arrangements are the same in writing as in printing. If you are, unfortunately, not familiar with the rules of punctuation, refresh your memory by referring to them in a grammar-book. They must be strictly observed; otherwise your meaning will be unintelligible. Always remember that every period or full stop, and every note of interrogation, or of admiration, must be followed by a capital letter, beginning the next word. Dashes, particularly in a dialogue, add much to the effect, if not used too lavishly.

Do not lose your temper…

When a woman abandons herself to terrible fits of anger with little or no cause, and makes herself a frightful spectacle, by turning white with rage, rolling up her eyes, drawing in her lips, gritting her teeth, clenching her hands, and stamping her feet, depend on it, she is not of a “nervous”, but of a “furious” temperament. A looking-glass held before her, to let her see what a shocking object she has made herself, would, we think, have an excellent effect. We have seen but a few females in this revolting state, and only three of them were ladies—but we have heard of many. When the paroxysm is over, all the atonement she can make is to apologize humbly, and to pray contritely. If she has really any goodness of heart, and any true sense of religion, she will do this promptly, and prove her sincerity by being very kind to those whom she has outraged and insulted—and whose best course during these fits of fury is to make no answer, or to leave the room.

Rules for conversation with men…

Generally speaking, it is injudicious for ladies to attempt arguing with gentlemen on political or financial topics. All the information that a woman can possibly acquire or remember on these subjects is so small, in comparison with the knowledge of men, that the discussion will not elevate them in the opinion of masculine minds. Still, it is well for a woman to desire enlightenment, that she may comprehend something of these discussions, when she hears them from the other sex; therefore let her listen as understandingly as she can, but refrain from controversy and argument on such topics as the grasp of a female mind is seldom capable of seizing or retaining. Men are very intolerant toward women who are prone to contradiction and contention, when the talk is of things considered out of their sphere; but very indulgent toward a modest and attentive listener, who only asks questions for the sake of information. Men like to dispense knowledge; but few of them believe that in departments exclusively their own, they can profit much by the suggestions of women. It is true there are and have been women who have distinguished themselves greatly in the higher branches of science and literature, and on whom the light of genius has clearly descended. But can the annals of woman produce a female Shakspeare, a female Milton, a Goldsmith, a Campbell, or a Scott? What woman has painted like Raphael or Titian, or like the best artists of our own times? Mrs. Darner and Mrs. Siddons had a talent for sculpture; so had Marie of Orleans, the accomplished daughter of Louis Philippe. Yet what are the productions of these talented ladies compared to those of Thorwaldsen, Canova, Chantrey, and the master chisels of the great American statuaries. Women have been excellent musicians, and have made fortunes by their voices. But is there among them a Mozart, a Bellini, a Michael Kelly, an Auber, a Boieldieu? Has a woman made an improvement on steam-engines, or on any thing connected with the mechanic arts? And yet these things have been done by men of no early education—by self-taught men. A good tailor fits, cuts out, and sews better than the most celebrated female dress-maker. A good man-cook far excels a good woman-cook. Whatever may be their merits as assistants, women are rarely found who are very successful at the head of any establishment that requires energy and originality of mind. Men make fortunes, women make livings. And none make poorer livings than those who waste their time, and bore their friends, by writing and lecturing upon the equality of the sexes, and what they call “Women’s Rights.” How is it that most of these ladies live separately from their husbands; either despising them, or being despised by them? Truth is, the female sex is really as inferior to the male in vigour of mind as in strength of body; and all arguments to the contrary are founded on a few anomalies, or based on theories that can never be reduced to practice. Because there was a Joan of Arc, and an Augustina of Saragossa, should females expose themselves to all the dangers and terrors of “the battle-field’s dreadful array.” The women of the American Revolution effected much good to their country’s cause, without encroaching upon the province of its brave defenders. They were faithful and patriotic; but they left the conduct of that tremendous struggle to abler heads, stronger arms, and sterner hearts.

On table manners…

We have seen a young lady, at a very fashionable house in one of our great cities, pull a dish of stewed oysters close to her, and with a table-spoon fish out and eat the oysters one at a time; audibly sipping up their liquor from the said dish. We have seen a young gentleman lift his plate of soup in both hands, hold it to his mouth and drink, or rather lap it up. This was at no less a place than Niagara.

When on board ship, take care to learn nautical terminology…

A young lady should improve the opportunity of learning the names of the principal parts of the ship. It is a silly boast at the end of the voyage, (and yet we have heard such boasts,) to say that you do not know the fore-mast from the main-mast; and that you have no idea where the mizzen-mast is, much less the bow-sprit. And even if a fair damsel should be able to distinguish the fore-topsail from the jib, and to know even the flying-jib, and have learnt the difference between the compass and the quadrant, and the log-line and the lead-line, we opine that “the gentlemen” will think none the worse of her; to say nothing of the satisfaction it will afford herself to listen with some comprehension to talk concerning the ship, and to read understandingly a few of the numerous excellent novels that treat of “life on the ocean wave.”

Johnson versus Gibbon

Johnson by Reynolds
Gibbon by Reynolds

The dramatist and theatre owner, George Colman the Elder, recalls meeting Johnson and Gibbon: “The learned Gibbon was a curious counter-balance to the learned (may I not say the less learned) Johnson. Their manners and tastes, both in writing and conversation, were as different as their habiliments. On the day I first sat down with Johnson in his rusty brown suit and his black worsted stockings, Gibbon was placed opposite to me in a suit of flowered velvet, with a bag and sword. Each had his measured phraseology, and Johnson’s famous parallel between Dryden and Pope might be loosely parodied in reference to himself and Gibbon. Johnson’s style was grand, and Gibbon’s elegant: the stateliness of the former was sometimes pedantic, and the latter was occasionally finical. Johnson marched to kettledrums and trumpets, Gibbon moved to flutes and hautboys. Johnson hewed passages through the Alps, while Gibbon levelled walks through parks and gardens. Mauled as I had been by Johnson, Gibbon poured balm upon my bruises by condescending once or twice in the course of the evening to talk with me. The great historian was light and playful, suiting his matter to the capacity of a boy; but it was done more suo—still his mannerism prevailed, still he tapped his snuff-box, still he smirked and smiled, and rounded his periods with the same air of good-breeding, as if he were conversing with men. His mouth, mellifluous as Plato’s, was a round hole nearly in the centre of his visage.”

“…but what were they actually like?” 2. David Hume

David Hume by Allan Ramsay

From Eminent Scotsmen: “Lord Charlemont, who at this period met with Mr. Hume at Turin, has given the following account of his habits and appearance, penned apparently with a greater aim at effect than at truth, yet somewhat characteristic of the philosopher: ‘Nature, I believe, never formed any man more unlike his real character than David Hume. The powers of physiognomy were baffled by his countenance; neither could the most skilful in the science pretend to discover the smallest trace of the faculties of his mind in the unmeaning features of his visage. His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide, and without any other expression than that of imbecility. His eyes vacant and spiritless; and the corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman than of a refined philosopher. His speech in English was rendered ridiculous by the broadest Scotch accent, and his French was, if possible, still more laughable, so that wisdom most certainly never disguised herself before in so uncouth a garb.’”

David Hume on himself: “To conclude historically with my own character. I am, or rather was (for that is the style which I must now use in speaking of myself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiment); I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions. Even my love of literary fame—my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments. My company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well as to the studious and literary; and as I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them.”

From Lockhart, Peter’s Letters. “The prints of David Hume are, most of them, I believe, taken from the very portrait I have seen; but of course the style and effect of the features are much more thoroughly to be understood when one has an opportunity of observing them expanded in their natural proportions. The face is far from being in any respect a classical one. The forehead is chiefly remarkable for its prominence from the ear, and not so much for its height. This gives him a lowering sort of look forwards, expressive of great inquisitiveness into matters of fact and the consequences to be deduced from them. His eyes are singularly prominent, which, according to the Gallic system, would indicate an extraordinary development of the organ of language behind them. His nose is too low between the eyes, and not well or boldly formed in any other respect. The lips, although not handsome, have in their fleshy and massy outlines abundant marks of habitual reflection and intellectual occupation. The whole had a fine expression of intellectual dignity, candour, and serenity. The want of elevation, however, which I have already noticed, injures very much the effect even of the structure of the lower part of the head…. It is to be regretted that he wore powder, for this prevents us from having the advantage of seeing what was the natural style of his hair—or, indeed, of ascertaining the form of any part of his head beyond the forehead.”

These excerpts, and the ones that will follow in future “…but what were they actually like?” blog posts, are from Word Portraits of Famous Writers by Mabel E. Wotton (London: Bentley, 1887), It was a clever anthology, well reviewed, incidentally, by Oscar Wilde in the Pall Mall Gazette. Mabel Wotton (1863-1927) was an interesting writer, best known for her feminist novels, that found their place in the “New Woman” school – a term coined by the Irish writer, Sarah Grand, to embrace novels written by women of independent and radical outlook. Wotton was a close friend of Israel Zangwill, who introduced her to the publisher John Lane.

“…but what were they actually like?” 1. Elizabeth Barrett Browning

“She is little, hard featured, with long dark ringlets, a pale face, and plaintive voice, something very impressive in her dark eyes and her brow. Her general aspect puts me in mind of Mignon,—what Mignon might be in maturity and maternity.”—Sara Coleridge, Letters, 1851.

“Dined at home, and at eight dressed to go to Kenyon. With him I found an interesting person I had never seen before, Mrs. Browning, late Miss Barrett—not the invalid I expected; she has a handsome oval face, a fine eye, and altogether a pleasing person. She had no opportunity for display, and apparently no desire. Her husband has a very amiable expression. There is a singular sweetness about him.”—Crab Robinson, Diaries, 1852.

“My first acquaintance with Elizabeth Barrett commenced about fifteen years ago. She was certainly one of the most interesting persons that I had ever seen. Everybody who then saw her said the same; so that it is not merely the impression of my partiality, or my enthusiasm. Of a slight delicate figure, with a shower of dark curls falling on either side of a most expressive face, large tender eyes, richly fringed with dark eyelashes, a smile like a sunbeam, and such a look of youthfulness, that I had some difficulty in persuading a friend, in whose carriage we went together to Chiswick, that the translatress of the Prometheus of Æschylus, the authoress of the Essay on Mind, was old enough to be introduced into company, in technical language, was out.”—M. R. Mitford, Recollections of a Literary Life. 1835.

These excerpts, and the ones that will follow in future “…but what were they actually like?” blog posts, are from Word Portraits of Famous Writers by Mabel E. Wotton (London: Bentley, 1887), It was a clever anthology, well reviewed, incidentally, by Oscar Wilde in the Pall Mall Gazette. Mabel Wotton (1863-1927) was an interesting writer, best known for her feminist novels, that found their place in the “New Woman” school – a term coined by the Irish writer, Sarah Grand, to embrace novels written by women of independent and radical outlook. Wotton was a close friend of Israel Zangwill, who introduced her to the publisher John Lane.

Wilhelmine, Margravine of Baireuth

Oscar Wilde reviews the Memoirs of WilhelmineMargravine of Baireuth. He quotes extensively from the book, highlighting some rather alarming episodes featuring Wilhelmine’s father, Frederick I of Prussia.

The Princess Christian’s translation of the Memoirs of WilhelmineMargravine of Baireuth, is a most fascinating and delightful book.  The Margravine and her brother, Frederick the Great, were, as the Princess herself points out in an admirably written introduction, ‘among the first of those questioning minds that strove after spiritual freedom’ in the last century.  ‘They had studied,’ says the Princess, ‘the English philosophers, Newton, Locke, and Shaftesbury, and were roused to enthusiasm by the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau.  Their whole lives bore the impress of the influence of French thought on the burning questions of the day.  In the eighteenth century began that great struggle of philosophy against tyranny and worn-out abuses which culminated in the French Revolution.  The noblest minds were engaged in the struggle, and, like most reformers, they pushed their conclusions to extremes, and too often lost sight of the need of a due proportion in things.  The Margravine’s influence on the intellectual development of her country is untold.  She formed at Baireuth a centre of culture and learning which had before been undreamt of in Germany.’

The historical value of these Memoirs is, of course, well known.  Carlyle speaks of them as being ‘by far the best authority’ on the early life of Frederick the Great.  But considered merely as the autobiography of a clever and charming woman, they are no less interesting, and even those who care nothing for eighteenth-century politics, and look upon history itself as an unattractive form of fiction, cannot fail to be fascinated by the Margravine’s wit, vivacity and humour, by her keen powers of observation, and by her brilliant and assertive egotism.  Not that her life was by any means a happy one.  Her father, to quote the Princess Christian, ‘ruled his family with the same harsh despotism with which he ruled his country, taking pleasure in making his power felt by all in the most galling manner,’ and the Margravine and her brother ‘had much to suffer, not only from his ungovernable temper, but also from the real privations to which they were subjected.’  Indeed, the picture the Margravine gives of the King is quite extraordinary.  ‘He despised all learning,’ she writes, ‘and wished me to occupy myself with nothing but needlework and household duties or details.  Had he found me writing or reading, he would probably have whipped me.’  He ‘considered music a capital offence, and maintained that every one should devote himself to one object: men to the military service, and women to their household duties.  Science and the arts he counted among the “seven deadly sins.”’  Sometimes he took to religion, ‘and then,’ says the Margravine, ‘we lived like Trappists, to the great grief of my brother and myself.  Every afternoon the King preached a sermon, to which we had to listen as attentively as if it proceeded from an Apostle.  My brother and I were often seized with such an intense sense of the ridiculous that we burst out laughing, upon which an apostolic curse was poured out on our heads, which we had to accept with a show of humility and penitence.’  Economy and soldiers were his only topics of conversation; his chief social amusement was to make his guests intoxicated; and as for his temper, the accounts the Margravine gives of it would be almost incredible if they were not amply corroborated from other sources.  Suetonius has written of the strange madness that comes on kings, but even in his melodramatic chronicles there is hardly anything that rivals what the Margravine has to tell us.  Here is one of her pictures of family life at a Royal Court in the last century, and it is not by any means the worst scene she describes:

On one occasion, when his temper was more than usually bad, he told the Queen that he had received letters from Anspach, in which the Margrave announced his arrival at Berlin for the beginning of May.  He was coming there for the purpose of marrying my sister, and one of his ministers would arrive previously with the betrothal ring.  My father asked my sister whether she were pleased at this prospect, and how she would arrange her household.  Now my sister had always made a point of telling him whatever came into her head, even the greatest home-truths, and he had never taken her outspokenness amiss.  On this occasion, therefore, relying on former experience, she answered him as follows: ‘When I have a house of my own, I shall take care to have a well-appointed dinner-table, better than yours is, and if I have children of my own, I shall not plague them as you do yours, and force them to eat things they thoroughly dislike!’

‘What is amiss with my dinner-table?’ the King enquired, getting very red in the face.

‘You ask what is the matter with it,’ my sister replied; ‘there is not enough on it for us to eat, and what there is is cabbage and carrots, which we detest.’  Her first answer had already angered my father, but now he gave vent to his fury.  But instead of punishing my sister he poured it all on my mother, my brother, and myself.  To begin with he threw his plate at my brother’s head, who would have been struck had he not got out of the way; a second one he threw at me, which I also happily escaped; then torrents of abuse followed these first signs of hostility.  He reproached the Queen with having brought up her children so badly.  ‘You will curse your mother,’ he said to my brother, ‘for having made you such a good-for-nothing creature.’ . . . As my brother and I passed near him to leave the room, he hit out at us with his crutch.  Happily we escaped the blow; for it would certainly have struck us down, and we at last escaped without harm.

Yet, as the Princess Christian remarks, ‘despite the almost cruel treatment Wilhelmine received from her father, it is noticeable that throughout her memoirs she speaks of him with the greatest affection.  She makes constant reference to his “good heart”’; and says that his faults ‘were more those of temper than of nature.’  Nor could all the misery and wretchedness of her home life dull the brightness of her intellect.  What would have made others morbid, made her satirical.  Instead of weeping over her own personal tragedies, she laughs at the general comedy of life.  Here, for instance, is her description of Peter the Great and his wife, who arrived at Berlin in 1718:

The Czarina was small, broad, and brown-looking, without the slightest dignity or appearance.  You had only to look at her to detect her low origin.  She might have passed for a German actress, she had decked herself out in such a manner.  Her dress had been bought second-hand, and was trimmed with some dirty looking silver embroidery; the bodice was trimmed with precious stones, arranged in such a manner as to represent the double eagle.  She wore a dozen orders; and round the bottom of her dress hung quantities of relics and pictures of saints, which rattled when she walked, and reminded one of a smartly harnessed mule.  The orders too made a great noise, knocking against each other.

The Czar, on the other hand, was tall and well grown, with a handsome face, but his expression was coarse, and impressed one with fear.  He wore a simple sailor’s dress.  His wife, who spoke German very badly, called her court jester to her aid, and spoke Russian with her.  This poor creature was a Princess Gallizin, who had been obliged to undertake this sorry office to save her life, as she had been mixed up in a conspiracy against the Czar, and had twice been flogged with the knout!

The following day [the Czar] visited all the sights of Berlin, amongst others the very curious collection of coins and antiques.  Amongst these last named was a statue, representing a heathen god.  It was anything but attractive, but was the most valuable in the collection.  The Czar admired it very much, and insisted on the Czarina kissing it.  On her refusing, he said to her in bad German that she should lose her head if she did not at once obey him.  Being terrified at the Czar’s anger she immediately complied with his orders without the least hesitation.  The Czar asked the King to give him this and other statues, a request which he could not refuse.  The same thing happened about a cupboard, inlaid with amber.  It was the only one of its kind, and had cost King Frederick I. an enormous sum, and the consternation was general on its having to be sent to Petersburg.

This barbarous Court happily left after two days.  The Queen rushed at once to Monbijou, which she found in a state resembling that of the fall of Jerusalem.  I never saw such a sight.  Everything was destroyed, so that the Queen was obliged to rebuild the whole house.

Nor are the Margravine’s descriptions of her reception as a bride in the principality of Baireuth less amusing.  Hof was the first town she came to, and a deputation of nobles was waiting there to welcome her.  This is her account of them:

Their faces would have frightened little children, and, to add to their beauty, they had arranged their hair to resemble the wigs that were then in fashion.  Their dresses clearly denoted the antiquity of their families, as they were composed of heirlooms, and were cut accordingly, so that most of them did not fit.  In spite of their costumes being the ‘Court Dresses,’ the gold and silver trimmings were so black that you had a difficulty in making out of what they were made.  The manners of these nobles suited their faces and their clothes.  They might have passed for peasants.  I could scarcely restrain my laughter when I first beheld these strange figures.  I spoke to each in turn, but none of them understood what I said, and their replies sounded to me like Hebrew, because the dialect of the Empire is quite different from that spoken in Brandenburg.

The clergy also presented themselves.  These were totally different creatures.  Round their necks they wore great ruffs, which resembled washing baskets.  They spoke very slowly, so that I might be able to understand them better.  They said the most foolish things, and it was only with much difficulty that I was able to prevent myself from laughing.  At last I got rid of all these people, and we sat down to dinner.  I tried my best to converse with those at table, but it was useless.  At last I touched on agricultural topics, and then they began to thaw.  I was at once informed of all their different farmsteads and herds of cattle.  An almost interesting discussion took place as to whether the oxen in the upper part of the country were fatter than those in the lowlands.

I was told that as the next day was Sunday, I must spend it at Hof, and listen to a sermon.  Never before had I heard such a sermon!  The clergyman began by giving us an account of all the marriages that had taken place from Adam’s time to that of Noah.  We were spared no detail, so that the gentlemen all laughed and the poor ladies blushed.  The dinner went off as on the previous day.  In the afternoon all the ladies came to pay me their respects.  Gracious heavens!  What ladies, too!  They were all as ugly as the gentlemen, and their head-dresses were so curious that swallows might have built their nests in them.

As for Baireuth itself, and its petty Court, the picture she gives of it is exceedingly curious.  Her father-in-law, the reigning Margrave, was a narrow-minded mediocrity, whose conversation ‘resembled that of a sermon read aloud for the purpose of sending the listener to sleep,’ and he had only two topics, Telemachus, and Amelot de la Houssaye’s Roman History.  The Ministers, from Baron von Stein, who always said ‘yes’ to everything, to Baron von Voit, who always said ‘no,’ were not by any means an intellectual set of men.  ‘Their chief amusement,’ says the Margravine, ‘was drinking from morning till night,’ and horses and cattle were all they talked about.  The palace itself was shabby, decayed and dirty.  ‘I was like a lamb among wolves,’ cries the poor Margravine; ‘I was settled in a strange country, at a Court which more resembled a peasant’s farm, surrounded by coarse, bad, dangerous, and tiresome people.’

Yet her esprit never deserted her.  She is always clever, witty, and entertaining.  Her stories about the endless squabbles over precedence are extremely amusing.  The society of her day cared very little for good manners, knew, indeed, very little about them, but all questions of etiquette were of vital importance, and the Margravine herself, though she saw the shallowness of the whole system, was far too proud not to assert her rights when circumstances demanded it, as the description she gives of her visit to the Empress of Germany shows very clearly.  When this meeting was first proposed, the Margravine declined positively to entertain the idea.  ‘There was no precedent,’ she writes, ‘of a King’s daughter and the Empress having met, and I did not know to what rights I ought to lay claim.’  Finally, however, she is induced to consent, but she lays down three conditions for her reception:

I desired first of all that the Empress’s Court should receive me at the foot of the stairs, secondly, that she should meet me at the door of her bedroom, and, thirdly, that she should offer me an armchair to sit on.

They disputed all day over the conditions I had made.  The two first were granted me, but all that could be obtained with respect to the third was, that the Empress would use quite a small armchair, whilst she gave me a chair.

Next day I saw this Royal personage.  I own that had I been in her place I would have made all the rules of etiquette and ceremony the excuse for not being obliged to appear.  The Empress was small and stout, round as a ball, very ugly, and without dignity or manner.  Her mind corresponded to her body.  She was terribly bigoted, and spent her whole day praying.  The old and ugly are generally the Almighty’s portion.  She received me trembling all over, and was so upset that she could not say a word.

After some silence I began the conversation in French.  She answered me in her Austrian dialect that she could not speak in that language, and begged I would speak in German.  The conversation did not last long, for the Austrian and low Saxon tongues are so different from each other that to those acquainted with only one the other is unintelligible.  This is what happened to us.  A third person would have laughed at our misunderstandings, for we caught only a word here and there, and had to guess the rest.  The poor Empress was such a slave to etiquette that she would have thought it high treason had she spoken to me in a foreign language, though she understood French quite well.

Many other extracts might be given from this delightful book, but from the few that have been selected some idea can be formed of the vivacity and picturesqueness of the Margravine’s style.  As for her character, it is very well summed up by the Princess Christian, who, while admitting that she often appears almost heartless and inconsiderate, yet claims that, ‘taken as a whole, she stands out in marked prominence among the most gifted women of the eighteenth century, not only by her mental powers, but by her goodness of heart, her self-sacrificing devotion, and true friendship.’  An interesting sequel to her Memoirs would be her correspondence with Voltaire, and it is to be hoped that we may shortly see a translation of these letters from the same accomplished pen to which we owe the present volume.

William Lyon Phelps on Russian literature

Here is an illuminating excerpt from an essay on Russian literature by William Lyon Phelps (1865 – 1943). Given the somewhat disparaging remark he makes about early American literature, it should be remembered that Phelps was himself an American. Indeed, he has the distinction of being the first professor at an American university to teach a course on the modern novel. This was during his tenure at the Yale, where his conservative colleagues were hugely disapproving of such a ‘lightweight’ initiative. He felt obliged to discontinue the course in the wake of unwelcome media attention, though his adoring pupils persuaded him to teach it privately on an extra-curricular basis. Phelps lived on his wife’s family estate near Lake Huron – he renamed the mansion The House of the Seven Gables, after a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Phelps was clearly quite a character. He built an 18-hole golf course on the estate. He also played baseball, and had a radio show.  

At the start, we notice a rather curious fact, which sharply differentiates Russian literature from the literature of England, France, Spain, Italy, and even from that of Germany. Russia is old; her literature is new. Russian history goes back to the ninth century; Russian literature, so far as it interests the world, begins in the nineteenth. Russian literature and American literature are twins. But there is this strong contrast, caused partly by the difference in the age of the two nations. In the early years of the nineteenth century, American literature sounds like a child learning to talk, and then aping its elders; Russian literature is the voice of a giant, waking from a long sleep, and becoming articulate. It is as though the world had watched this giant’s deep slumber for a long time, wondering what he would say when he awakened. And what he has said has been well worth the thousand years of waiting.

To an educated native Slav, or to a professor of the Russian language, twenty or thirty Russian authors would no doubt seem important; but the general foreign reading public is quite properly mainly interested in only five standard writers, although contemporary novelists like Gorki, Artsybashev, Andreev, and others are at this moment deservedly attracting wide attention. The great five, whose place in the world’s literature seems absolutely secure, are Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi. The man who killed Pushkin in a duel survived till 1895, and Tolstoi died in 1910. These figures show in how short a time Russian literature has had its origin, development, and full fruition.

Pushkin, who was born in 1799 and died in 1838, is the founder of Russian literature, and it is difficult to overestimate his influence. He is the first, and still the most generally beloved, of all their national poets. The wild enthusiasm that greeted his verse has never passed away, and he has generally been regarded in Russia as one of the great poets of the world. Yet Matthew Arnold announced in his Olympian manner, “The Russians have not yet had a great poet.” It is always difficult fully to appreciate poetry in a foreign language, especially when the language is so strange as Russian. It is certain that no modern European tongue has been able fairly to represent the beauty of Pushkin’s verse, to make foreigners feel him as Russians feel him, in any such measure as the Germans succeeded with Shakespeare, as Bayard Taylor with Goethe, as Ludwig Fulda with Rostand. The translations of Pushkin and of Lermontov have never impressed foreign readers in the superlative degree. The glory of English literature is its poetry; the glory of Russian literature is its prose fiction.

Pushkin was, for a time at any rate, a Romantic, largely influenced, as all the world was then, by Byron. He is full of sentiment, smiles and tears, and passionate enthusiasms. He therefore struck out in a path in which he has had no great followers; for the big men in Russian literature are all Realists. Romanticism is as foreign to the spirit of Russian Realism as it is to French Classicism. What is peculiarly Slavonic about Pushkin is his simplicity, his naïveté. Though affected by foreign models, he was close to the soil. This is shown particularly in his prose tales, and it is here that his title as Founder of Russian Literature is most clearly demonstrated. He took Russia away from the artificiality of the eighteenth century, and exhibited the possibilities of native material in the native tongue.

The founder of the mighty school of Russian Realism was Gogol. Filled with enthusiasm for Pushkin, he nevertheless took a different course, and became Russia’s first great novelist. Furthermore, although a melancholy man, he is the only Russian humorist who has made the world laugh out loud. Humour is not a salient quality in Russian fiction. Then came the brilliant follower of Gogol, Ivan Turgenev. In him Russian literary art reached its climax, and the art of the modern novel as well. He is not only the greatest master of prose style that Russia has ever produced; he is the only Russian who has shown genius in Construction. Perhaps no novels in any language have shown the impeccable beauty of form attained in the works of Turgenev. George Moore queries, “Is not Turgenev the greatest artist that has existed since antiquity?”

Dostoevski, seven years older than Tolstoi, and three years younger than Turgenev, was not so much a Realist as a Naturalist; his chief interest was in the psychological processes of the unclassed. His foreign fame is constantly growing brighter, for his works have an extraordinary vitality. Finally appeared Leo Tolstoi, whose literary career extended nearly sixty years. During the last twenty years of his life, he was generally regarded as the world’s greatest living author; his books enjoyed an enormous circulation, and he probably influenced more individuals by his pen than any other man of his time.

In the novels of Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi we ought to find all the prominent traits in the Russian character.

It is a rather curious thing, that Russia, which has never had a parliamentary government, and where political history has been very little influenced by the spoken word, should have so much finer an instrument of expression than England, where matters of the greatest importance have been settled by open and public speech for nearly three hundred years. One would think that the constant use of the language in the national forum for purposes of argument and persuasion would help to make it flexible and subtle; and that the almost total absence of such employment would tend toward narrowness and rigidity. In this instance exactly the contrary is the case. If we may trust the testimony of those who know, we are forced to the conclusion that the English language, compared with the Russian, is nothing but an awkward dialect. Compared with Russian, the English language is decidedly weak in synonyms, and in the various shades of meaning that make for precision. Indeed, with the exception of Polish, Russian is probably the greatest language in the world, in richness, variety, definiteness, and elegance. It is also capable of saying much in little, and saying it with tremendous force. In Turgenev’s Torrents of Spring, where the reader hears constantly phrases in Italian, French, and German, it will be remembered that the ladies ask Sanin to sing something in his mother tongue. “The ladies praised his voice and the music, but were more struck with the softness and sonorousness of the Russian language.” I remember being similarly affected years ago when I heard King Lear read aloud in Russian. Baron von der Bruggen says, “there is the wonderful wealth of the language, which, as a popular tongue, is more flexible, more expressive of thought than any other living tongue I know of.” No one has paid a better tribute than Gogol:–

“The Russian people express themselves forcibly; and if they once bestow an epithet upon a person, it will descend to his race and posterity; he will bear it about with him, in service, in retreat, in Petersburg, and to the ends of the earth; and use what cunning he will, ennoble his career as he will thereafter, nothing is of the slightest use; that nickname will caw of itself at the top of its crow’s voice, and will show clearly whence the bird has flown. A pointed epithet once uttered is the same as though it were written down, and an axe will not cut it out.”