Areopagus Volume LXXVI

Areopagus Volume LXXVI

Welcome one and all to the seventy sixth volume of the Areopagus — simultaneously the closing of 2023 (I wrote it "last year") and the opening of 2024! But first, as they say, I interrupt your broadcast to make an important announcement: this will be the last Areopagus until February. There are some projects at hand that demand full attention. And so it would be a disservice to you, my Gentle and Perceptive Readers, were I to divide my attention between those projects and this beloved Areopagus. I endeavour only to give you my fullest; thus an intermission of four weeks is necessary. Fear not — the Areopagus shall return in force come the second month of 2024.

Where to begin? Tennyson can give us, I think, the feeling we need to tread these first and quaking steps out of the year that has passed, as we raise our hands to the lights of all that is soon to come:

But let no footstep beat the floor,
Nor bowl of wassail mantle warm;
For who would keep an ancient form
Thro' which the spirit breathes no more?

Be neither song, nor game, nor feast;
Nor harp be touch'd, nor flute be blown;
No dance, no motion, save alone
What lightens in the lucid east

Of rising worlds by yonder wood.
Long sleeps the summer in the seed;
Run out your measured arcs, and lead
The closing cycle rich in good.

2024 begins — and another Volume of the Areopagus in keeping...

But I want to begin this volume of the Areopagus with a word of gratitude to the people without whom none of this would have been possible — my patrons at Write of Passage, who never so much as ask me to even tell anybody that they are the ones who support my work and ensure it remains free for all. What more can I do than simply say "thank you"?

And if you want to learn to write in the 21st century then Write of Passage is the place to go; they are the world's foremost educators for writing online. You can sign up to their newsletter here and keep up to date with their courses, sessions, news, and opportunities.

I - Classical Music

The Radetzky March

Johann Strauss Sr. (1848)

Performed by The Philadelphia Orchestra
Vienna by Bernardo Bellotto (1759)

Johann Strauss Senior (patriarch of the legendary, musical Strauss family) wrote this piece after Austrian victory at the Battle of Custoza. It was dedicated to and named after Field Marshal Joseph Radetzky von Radetz, and was thus written by Strauss as a military march — intended for use during parades and suchlike. It was, as they say, a smash hit. And within a few years The Radetzky March had become something of an unofficial national anthem for Austria, much as Hubert Parry's Jerusalem is for England. Then, at some point, it was added to the set list for the world-famous New Year's Day Concert in Vienna, and has since enjoyed a reputation as suitably rousing and cheerful music for the first day of each fresh year.

And so, though I like to bring you music that you have not likely heard before, The Radetzky March is a piece with which many of you are no doubt familiar. But there's more to this story. Because it is, upon first listening, little more than a jolly marching tune, is it not? Yes — and much more besides. In 1932 the novelist Joseph Roth published a book also called The Radetzky March, named after this very piece of music. Why? He was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a centuries-old, multiethnic, multireligious, and multicultural society spread across several modern-day countries. But it had collapsed at the end of the First World War; thus Roth was writing of a lost world, represented for him (and to the characters in the book) by Strauss' Radetzky March. Roth's novel is something of a melancholy, moving, often ironic, and unsentimental but heartfelt obituary for the days of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, chronicling its slow decline over the course of several decades.

And so this jolly marching tune becomes more than merely festive — it turns into a sort of memorial to and threnody for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, its long history, its many peoples, and all it represented. Because, for all its flaws, Roth and many others realised — as 20th century Europe was torn apart by political extremism of the worst sort — that Austria-Hungary had been a place of civility, decency, and tolerance. It was, indeed, among the last of the "old world" kingdoms to fall and be replaced by modern "nation states", as we call them. Thus, as the stormclouds gathered over Europe for a second time in two decades, Roth wrote to his friend and fellow writer Stefan Zweig:

You will have realized by now that we are drifting towards great catastrophes... They have succeeded in establishing a reign of barbarity. Do not fool yourself. Hell reigns.

I, for one, have never since listened to this song in the same way since I read Roth's novel. Strange, how context can change the way we hear a piece of music and how it makes us feel.

II - Historical Figure

Elizabeth Siddal

Muse of the Ages

In these few lines I cannot hope to retell the life of Elizabeth Siddal in full. It was short but, as Montaigne said, a life is measured in its fulness rather than its length, however brief, and Siddal was a woman who lived more in a few years than most of us would dare to live in a lifetime. She was born to a working class family in 1829 and, as a young woman, caught the attention of a rebellious group of artists known only to themselves, at that point, as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These were a group of painters who, under the tutelage of the much-quoted-in-these-pages John Ruskin, sought to return art to the form it had taken before the Renaissance: hence Pre-Raphaelite. How it happened is not clear (though one romantic tale suggests Walter Deverell saw her in the back of a hat shop) but what we know is that her large grey eyes and sunset-coloured hair, in combination with her mysterious temperament, set these artists' imaginations alight: they had found their inspiration. Thus Lizzie Siddal became their muse and the main female model for many of the early paintings of William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her most famous depiction is, of course, Millais' Ophelia:

Without her, perhaps, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would not have become what it did. Their defining creed was that artists ought to paint what they see rather than, as artists in the academies were taught, to paint what they thought they were supposed to see — thus they were criticised by the establishment for their overly "realistic" and "ugly" art. Siddal, with her striking appearance and partly grave, partly angelic expression, was a world away from the idealised, conventionalised women of typical 19th century art. And so there is a strange way in which Siddal, because of the Pre-Raphaelite's paintings, has become the Medieval woman in our popular imagination, or at least in the United Kingdom.

But she was not only a model and a muse; Elizabeth Siddal was also a gifted poet and painter in her own right. It was John Ruskin who patronised her career, paying her a fixed rate of £150 per year, and encouraged and guided her work. Her paintings are similar to those of the Pre-Raphaelites: at once naturalistic and stylised, defined by vivid colour and bold outlines and affectionate Medievalism, all of it sumptuous and, despite its simplicity, peculiarly moving. One must also mention that she was the only female artist to have her work shown at exhibitions organised by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. It is difficult not to admire Siddal, a lone female painter and poet among a sea of men who, one might reasonably think, idolised her as a sort of ethereal muse and saw her as nothing else. Well, she fought to stay afloat.

Her poetry, meanwhile, speaks to the breadth of her character and the deep well of feelings on which she drew. This was, we may conclude, a person who lived her life, each moment of it, with a rare and passionate intensity, at once intellectually distant and emotionally ecstatic:

I cannot give to thee the love
I gave so long ago,
The love that turned and struck me down
Amid the blinding snow.
I can but give a failing heart
And weary eyes of pain,
A faded mouth that cannot smile
And may not laugh again.
Yet keep thine arms around me, love,
Until I fall to sleep;
Then leave me, saying no goodbye
Lest I might wake, and weep

Siddal was engaged to Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 1852. They were deeply in love and she his greatest inspiration: Rossetti painted, sketched, or wrote poetry about her in literally hundreds, if not thousands, of different works. But this happiness, this mad affection, was the relative calm before a decade-long storm of passion, complication, and tragedy. For Rossetti's behaviour was controlling and seems, in retrospect, to have bordered on abuse. In 1855, for a heap of dramatic reasons, the engagement was broken off and they hardly spoke for five years until, after a time during which Siddal had gone to study at the Sheffield School of Art, Rossetti learned that she was gravely ill. He rushed to see her and the two were finally married in 1860. But such was Siddal's frailty that she had to be carried to the church. And so though the exact nature of her illness remains unclear, we know that Siddal suffered immensely. Whether it was tuberculosis, neuralgia, or something else, she spent years of her life in physical pain and, eventually, came to rely on the drugs prescribed to ease it. This, in turn, fed her psychological troubles, not helped by the stillbirth of her child by Rossetti. It was on the 11th February 1862 that she died, apparently from an overdose of laudanum, at the age of 32. It has been speculated that Siddal committed suicide, and that any suggestion of this was buried — indeed, perhaps, evidence burned — because of the colossal social stigma it would have attracted in Victorian Britain. Thus Rossetti's final painting of Siddal was made after her death. It is called Beata Beatrix and takes its name from Beatrice, the love and muse of the poet Dante, who had also died before her time.

But the final words must be given to Siddal herself, who seems not to have demurred from musing on death, and in her own poetry once sang:

Oh grieve not with thy bitter tears
The life that passes fast;
The gates of heaven will open wide
And take me in at last.
Then sit down meekly at my side
And watch my young life flee;
Then solemn peace of holy death
Come quickly unto thee.
But true love, seek me in the throng
Of spirits floating past,
And I will take thee by the hands
And know thee mine at last.

III - Sculpture

Four Short Comparisons

It is often through comparison that we see most clearly: differences (and, sometimes, similarities) bring out what is specific and definitive about a thing, because it forces us to notice what is most obvious and also, so frequently, most important — even though these obvious traits are something we usually miss! Here, then, are four short comparisons between two or more sculptures. I shall not dig too deeply; rather, I want to ask simple questions, encourage reflection, and see what we can learn from even the briefest of investigations.

1. A Priest of Sanxingdui, the Dancing Girl, & the Warrior of Hirschlanden

Three sculptures. From left to right: a bronze statue of a high priest from Sanxingdui in China, made in 1,200 BC in the Kingdom of Shu; the so-called “Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro”, made in 2,000 BC by the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation and found in modern-day Pakistan; the Warrior of Hirschlanden, a limestone statue made in the 6th century BC by an Iron Age society in northern Europe.

They all seem to depict humans, but they are not particularly “realistic”. What do you suppose this says? Were their artists merely not competent enough to create naturalistic statues, or to carve stone or cast bronze as though it were real flesh? Perhaps! But the priest from Sanxingdui was clearly not intended to be realistic, nor the “Dancing Girl”, both of them with their elongated limbs, while the Warrior of Hirschlanden, with his huge legs, comparatively feeble torso, and contorted face, cannot either have been a serious attempt at “realism”. So why did these artists choose not to create realistic statues? That is the question here. Perhaps what interested these societies was not the outward appearance of a person, or a type of person (e.g. a priest); rather, it may have been the inner qualities of that person or type of person that they considered most important, thus explaining the exaggerated and “unrealistic” qualities used to express that inner nature – or, rather than inner nature, what that person or type of person symbolised.

2. The Bronze Doors of San Zeno and of San Giovanni

On the left are the Bronze Doors of the Basilica of San Zeno in Verona, made by two anonymous master metalsmiths in the late 11th and early 12th centuries; on the right are the Bronze Doors of the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, made in the early 15th century by Lorenzo Ghiberti and universally known as “The Gates of Paradise”, a title given them by none other than Michelangelo himself. These two works of art are made of the same material, were made in roughly the same region, and depict the same thing – scenes from the Old Testament. There the similarities end. Those masters of San Zeno were concerned, above all else, with narrative clarity. It was the truth of the stories of the Old Testament that they sought to convey. But Ghiberti, one senses, wanted to create something beautiful in its own right. Those panels of San Zeno have a certain brutality to them, a roughness that speaks of a Lombardic culture emerging from the chaos of the Dark Ages, and those of San Giovanni tell of a sophisticated civilisation full of confidence. Which of the two was more pious, however, is much revealed by the clarity of their narrative imagery. We do not admire the craftsmanship of San Zeno; we admire the Biblical truths they tell us. We admire the majesty of Ghiberti’s work; do we forget what it was supposed to show us?

3. The Age of Bernini

Here is what feels like another straightforward deduction – but one which, though gobsmackingly obvious and profoundly revealing, hardly anybody seems to mention. What statues are they which lined the halls of Medieval palaces and guarded the gates of Gothic cathedrals? What sentinels look down from the doors of Amiens, Chartres, Wells, and Lincoln? They are, all of them, either saints, angels, devils, or Biblical figures. But then something happened – the Renaissance. Thus by the time of Gianlorenzo Bernini, the single greatest and most influential sculptor of 17th century Europe, it was scenes from Classical mythology that he sculpted. Subjects which were pagan, and would once have been near blasphemous, had become popular, fashionable, admired, and revered. His Apollo and Daphne, like the rest of Bernini’s work, is of such technical mastery that one wonders if even Polycleitus or Myron could have equalled it.

But let us forget that and focus on the obvious truth here: that Europe, however Christian it was in the 17th century, was not as devoutly Christian as it had been in the Middle Ages. For whereas once the tombs of Europeans were but simple stone sarcophagi engraved at most with crosses and adorned with scenes from the life of Christ, in Bernini’s time they had become elaborate follies covered with invocations to Greco-Roman deities. Or they had, at the very least, become far more decadent, self-glorifying, and frivolous. Two tombs in the same church, at the Basilica of Saints Giovanni and Paolo in Venice, each of a Venetian Duke, tell this story of change. One is from the 13th century and the other from the 15th. They say a picture can paint a thousand words; two pictures, perhaps, can paint a hundred thousand.

4. Antonio Canova & Auguste Rodin

Antonio Canova was among the most celebrated sculptors of the early 19th century. You can see, looking back on the statues of Greece and Rome, that they were the inspiration and the model for Canova’s work. He was, after all, a Neoclassical artist. Thus his statue of George Washington (surviving as a replica made of the destroyed original) casts him as a Roman general, if not Mars himself, and every inch of this polished marble, pure as Highland hoar-frost, tells of what Washington sought to emulate and of how Canova and his contemporaries thought of themselves.

What then of Auguste Rodin, who was the sculptor – the artist, full stop, perhaps – of the late 19th century? Gone are the smooth surfaces of snow white marble; gone are the intellectual repose and languid beauty; gone is any sense of individuality, narrative, or allegory. We see a nameless human, somehow representing all humans, primordial and elemental. There, in the restlessly worked clay of Rodin’s statues, casted and enlarged in bronze, we see the culmination of the Romantic imagination. There is all feeling, all emotion, cut off from time or place, cut off from any philosophy or political agenda. It is perfectly non-rational and resolutely emotional; it is somehow the opposite of Canova’s enlightened and imperial marble. Though he wrote them nearly a full century before Rodin thumbed the clay that would become The Walking Man, these lines of Shelley could well have been composed by that man, were he but living:

But look on that which cannot change — the One,
The unborn and the undying. Earth and ocean,
Space, and the isles of life or light that gem
The sapphire floods of interstellar air,
This firmament pavilioned upon chaos,
With all its cressets of immortal fire,
Whose outwall, bastioned impregnably
Against the escape of boldest thoughts, repels them
As Calpe the Atlantic clouds--this Whole
Of suns, and worlds, and men, and beasts, and flowers,
With all the silent or tempestuous workings
By which they have been, are, or cease to be,
Is but a vision;--all that it inherits
Are motes of a sick eye, bubbles and dreams;
Thought is its cradle and its grave, nor less
The Future and the Past are idle shadows
Of thought’s eternal flight--they have no being:
Nought is but that which feels itself to be.

IV - Architecture

Espaces d'Abraxas

This is, though it looks like something from a film and was indeed used as a location for The Hunger Games, a real place. It is a housing estate called Les Espaces d'Abraxas, built in 1982 in Noisy-le-Grand, a suburb ten miles east of Paris. It was designed by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, who died in 2022 and was, if not a revolutionary architect, then a would-be revolutionary whose work may yet change the course of things.

Bofill was a Communist in his youth and fled from Spain, where he wasn't welcome under the rule of Franco — he had been arrested twice. But he returned in the end and founded an architectural firm based in a converted cement factory called La Fábrica, not far from Barcelona in his native Catalunya. And, slowly but surely, Bofill became one of the 20th century's most distinctive and unusual architects. He readily drew on Classical and Vernacular architecture, but played fast and loose with the rules to create buildings which, though rooted in the past, are distinctly modern. Some have called it playful and others, less kindly, have called it kitsch. Safe to say, at least, it isn't the sort of modernism we are used to seeing.

In the 1970s he was hired by the French government to design an estate in one of the New Towns being built around Paris. These New Towns were intended to deal with the rapid urbanisation sweeping France, and to provide decent social housing for the growing population. These Parisian suburbs are filled with several remarkable construction projects, ranging from the Tours Aillaud in Nanterre, described by one critic as "a piece of social scar tissue, gimmicky, condescending alphaville modernism", to Les Arènes de Picasso, also in Noisy-le-Grand, which is part of the New Town of Marne-la-Vallée, designed by Manuel Núñez Yanowsky.

It was into this environment that Ricardo Bofill, a rising architectural star, was brought. His stated aim was to "make an emblematic monument in a very poorly made area" and bring to the working classes the sort of architecture previously reserved for the wealthy. Bofill wanted aesthetics to be a universal possession, and for beauty to be freely available, regardless of a person's socio-economic background. The result is somehow intimidating and inspiring at the same time, sitting somewhere between Art Deco and the most imposing of Soviet edifices. It almost feels like you've asked AI to generate modern architecture as if it was built by the Romans. Whatever people have said about Bofill, nobody has ever called Les Espaces d'Abraxas boring — and that is not a trivial matter!

Les Espaces d'Abraxas is often called "postmodern" architecture — this is meant very literally. For Bofill was responding directly to Modern Architecture (in the broadest sense), which had conquered the world in the 1950s and dominated construction in the decades that followed WWII. Because it wasn't only France that was dealing with rapid urbanisation and population growth. In other countries, all around the world, it was either to Brutalism or the so-called International Style that architects turned. Or, more commonly, the huge high rise apartment blocks that now dominate the outskirts of many cities; population was rising and housing had to be provided. All of this architecture was rooted in the Bauhaus School of 1920s Germany, led by architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who later took his love of glass curtain walls and simple forms to the USA, where he designed the Seagram Building. Though, of course, the chief Modern Architect was Le Corbusier, whose designs for buildings like the Ville Savoye in 1931 inspired architects all around the world for decades. Le Corbusier's vision of an ideal housing estate was the Plan Voisin, which he proposed for Paris and was very nearly built: a set of monolithic, identical skyscrapers. That was the model that has since been almost universally adopted.

But Bofill sought to create something with real character and personality, as opposed to the rectangular blocks and whitewashed walls that defined the architecture of Le Corbusier and, by extension, so many of the housing projects that appeared between the 1950s and 1980s. And that's exactly what he did in Les Espaces d'Abraxas, despite using precisely the same modern methods and materials — concrete, steel, glass, prefabrication — as everybody else. This isn't what we usually associate with the architecture of the 1970s and 1980s, but that's what it is. Bofill was, truly, an architectural rebel.

Of course, there's a big gulf between how something looks or the intellectual concepts behind it and the experience of the people who actually live there. Like so many postwar housing projects, Les Espaces d'Abraxas has not been an unqualified success; it was nearly demolished. Still, it shot Bofill to international acclaim at the time and he went on to design many more iconic buildings around France, Spain, and elsewhere. Bofill offered an alternative to what we think of as Modern Architecture and wanted to provide genuinely uplifting, inspiring, interesting, and beautiful architecture for the people who lived in it. He was the anti-Le Corbusier, and radically opposed standard postwar principles of design.

Perhaps Les Espaces d'Abraxas failed, though that is a question only its residents can answer. If so, it is only one of many crumbling 20th century utopias, failed visions of a better world that never quite materialised, and with which the world is still dealing. But our continuing fascination with Les Espaces d'Abraxas, and the manner in which it still stands out from among the crowds of identikit architecture, suggests that Bofill achieved something special by choosing to do what was different when everybody else was doing the same thing.

V - Rhetoric

From Rome to the Land of Oz... and back!

I say again what I have said before: rhetoric, though a creation of the Ancient Greeks, is no less useful or important now than it was for the Athenian Assembly in the 4th century BC. Any memorable film quotation will — and I say this with rare confidence — almost inevitably include at least one (though usually more!) rhetorical device. There is a great deal screenwriters could, and have, learned from the works of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. Let us review a few "famous movie quotes" then, and see what rhetorical tools we find therein...

You talking to me?
~Taxi Driver

This is a rhetorical question — one which is asked without expecting an answer. This has a technical name: erotema. Robert de Niro's character is also speaking to an imaginary person; when we do that it is called epistrophe.

Bond. James Bond.
~First appeared in Dr. No

This device, whereby we repeat a word with another word between, is called diacope. Notice how it changes an ostenibsly boring line — saying ones name — into something iconic.

I'm walking here! I'm walking here!
~Midnight Cowboy
Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?
It's alive! It's alive!

Three examples of epizeuxis — the repetition of a single word or short phrase. One wouldn't expect that simply repeating a line could have such an effect, but in all three cases there is something about this doubled repetition that adds a sense of either power or pathos. The quotation from Gladiator is also, of course, an example of erotema.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.
~The Wizard of Oz

When something evidently catastrophic or momentous happens and a person downplays it, this is called meiosis. For it is quite clear to both Dorothy and the viewer that she and her dog have been swept up and transported far away by a tornado, so that when she says "I've a feeling" it is, safe to say, an ironic understatement.

This is similar to but distinct from litotes, which is where you make a statement by using a negative. The best example is saying "not bad" instead of "good". Although, usually, litotes is rather more ironic. To say, "you aren't the most punctual person I know" is really a way of saying, indirectly, that you are in fact one of the least punctual people I know.

Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.
~Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Yoda, a modern genius of rhetoric. What makes this quote so memorable? Not only its meaning — an admirable and truthful one, I dare say! — but its structure. Anadiplosis is when we begin a clause with the same word that ended the previous clause: anger to anger and hate to hate.

Patience you must have, my young Padawan.
~Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

We return to Yoda, here with his trademark inversion of word order: "patience you must have" rather than "you must have patience". A supremely simple trick which at once lends Yoda an aura of great wisdom and great age and, just as importantly, gives him a unique and memorable way of speaking. This inversion of normal word order is called anastrophe.

I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.
~The Godfather

Imagine how much less memorable, how much less sinister it would have been, had Don Corleone simply explained that he would intimidate and threaten this unfortunate chap. What we have instead is euphemism — an inoffensive or less visceral way of saying something obscene or unpleasant. Like so many of the best rhetorical devices, used properly, euphemism works because it draws on our imaginative faculties.

You don't understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. Instead of a bum. Which is what I am.
~On the Waterfront

There are a handful of rhetorical ploys in this legendary speech. It begins with ecphonesis: a short exclamatory phrase. Then we have a tricolon — three consecutive phrases, all of the same length and structure. And the whole thing taken together is an example of parataxis — where we speak in short sentences without conjunctions such as "and" or "but".

E.T. phone home.

"E.T. wants to phone home" would not have been even half as memorable, would it? An intentional grammatical mistake is called enallage. It gets our attention and makes words memorable precisely because it is wrong. Apple's "Think Different." is another famous case of enallage.

To infinity…and beyond!
~Toy Story

One cannot, by definition, go beyond infinity. This is hyperbole, then, which is when we use exaggerated language to make our point. We cannot literally go beyond infinity, but saying so expresses the scale of our ambition and hope better than a non-exaggerated phrase ever could.

If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.

Liam Neeson's monologue from Taken has surely already become one of the most well-known and parodied film quotations of all time. And there may be a rhetorical reason for that: anaphora. This is where we begin a series of clauses with the same words, in this case "I will", which gives it a rhythmic intensity. You may also notice another tricolon in action. This sort of repetition also features in those legendary lines of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." There, the repeated words ("all the") being in the middle of the clauses rather than at the beginning, the device is referred to as mesodiplosis.

What we do in life echoes in eternity.
You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.
~The Dark Knight

We end on perhaps the simplest rhetorical device of all — and yet, all these centuries later, still among the most effective: antithesis. This is when we contrast opposites within the same sentence: life versus eternity, do versus echo, hero versus villain, and live versus die. You can see how stacking up the antitheses creates a multilayered expression rich with meaning and symbolism. These contrasts also make them much easier to remember.

VI - Writing

The Gemlike Flame

I turn to Walter Pater, whom I have yet to quote in these missives. He was a Victorian art critic partially responsible for the "Decadent" movement of the late 19th century, epitomised by the likes of Oscar Wilde and the famous saying, adapted from French, "Art For Art's Sake." This was, perhaps, a movement that could only have existed in a world that was changing too much, too fast, and in a society that had become too rich, too quickly. Nonetheless, in his controversial but profoundly influential collection of essays simply entitled The Renaissance, Pater said this, perhaps summarising the Decadent Movement entire:

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist's hands, or the face of one's friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. "Philosophy is the microscope of thought." The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

Of this passage (quoted at length so you can appreciate the broader thrust of Pater's point) I would emphasise these words, from its beginning:

Our failure is to form habits.

I suppose I am drawn to think of Pater because 2023 is about to end (as I write these words, though 2024 has begun as you read them!) and thus one cannot help but reflect on what has come and gone these past twelve months. But what has this to do with writing? Well, we are bound by our habits. What begins as a curious inclination can soon become a prison, as we create a mould for ourselves — particular words, turns of phrase, lines of argument, methods, genres, formats — that is hard to escape without conscious effort. Pater reminds us that we are more than mere convention, and that we each possess the potential to become things other than what we are. We think so much about making habits — let us think, for once, about breaking them. Beacuse, obvious as it sounds, rarely do writers try this. Attempt to write in a different genre, or a different form, or on a different subject; set yourself new rules or restrictions; use new words and decide to stop using those same words you always do; write from a perspective you never before have, or adopt or a point of view with which you disagree, or one that you have never considered; try to write in a different style, or for a different audience... Who knows what may come of all this? Perhaps nothing. But, perhaps, something. Unless, like Pater says, we escape our own "stereotyped worlds", we shall never know what we might become: a hidden talent or love for poetry, essays, drama, or anything else we have never tried to write, will always remain concealed unless we break our habits and reach out for them.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

What year is it?

It may seem like 2023 has just ended and 2024 has begun... but that depends on what calendar you're using. Even time and history are a matter of perspective; there is no "objective" calendar system by which days and years are measured. Thus it is only 2024 according to one or two of the world's many different methods for calculating the date. And so, if only to remind ourselves and broaden our minds and hearts, here is the current year according to just some of the calendars used, at one time or another, by humanity. Most of these calendars do not neatly overlap with the Gregorian, and thus I have endeavoured to give the year that these systems will enter during 2024 AD.

Gregorian: 2024

The world's most commonly used dating system. Introduced in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII as a slight modification of the old Julian Calendar. It dates history from the birth of Jesus Christ. And there's no "year zero" — 1 BC is followed by 1 AD.

Holocene: 12,024

Dates history from the Neolithic Revolution, when humanity moved away from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural society and civilisation as we know it was born, which for ease is regarded as 10,000 BC — though that does, of course, make it derivative of the Gregorian Calendar.

Hebrew: 5784

Used for Jewish religious observance and ceremonial purposes. It dates history from the moment of the creation of the Earth according to the Book of Genesis.

Coptic: 1740

Used for liturgical purposes by the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt. It dates history from the Year of the Martyrs, when the Roman Emperor Diocletian unleashed a wave of violent persecution on the Christians of Alexandria.

Chinese: 4721

Used as the basis for traditional holidays such as Chinese New Year. There are several Chinese calendars, however, and 4721 is only the year according to the one that dates history from the birth of the mythical Yellow Emperor, Huangdi.

Nanakshahi: 556

Used for religious purposes in Sikhism. Dates history from the birth of Guru Nanak Dev, the founder of Sikhism and the first of the Ten Gurus.

Hindu (Kali Yuga): 5124

Hinduism has several calendars. One of them structures history by Yuga Cycles, which last 4,320,000 years and each comprise four Yugas, like world ages. The current cycle has entered Kali Yuga, which began with the death of Krishna 5,124 years ago and has 426,876 years left.

Islamic: 1446

Used to determine Islamic holidays and for other religious purposes. It dates history from the Hijra, when Muhammad went from Mecca to Medina and established the first ummah, or Muslim community.

Baháʼí: 180

The religious calendar of the Baháʼí Faith, known as the Badíʻ calendar, meaning "Wonderful." It dates history from when the Báb first started preaching.

Juche: 112

Used exclusively in North Korea. Dates history from the birth of the state's founder, Kim Il-Sung.

Japanese Regnal: Reiwa 6

This is a "regnal calendar", which means that it is dated according to the years of an emperor's reign. Each new reign is given a name; Reiwa, meaning "Beautiful Harmony", is the current era, which began when Naruhito ascended the throne.

British Regnal

Britain also has a regnal calendar which is still used for some legal purposes such as parliamentary legislation. It counts the year of a monarch's reign, followed by the monarch's name and number. So 2023 was split between "1 Cha. 3" and "2 Cha. 3".

Buddhist: 2568

Used for religious, ceremonial, and also official and civil purposes in many different countries. Dates history from the year the Buddha attained parinibbāna, although there is disagreement about when that actually occurred.

Ab Urbe Condita: 2777

The Ancient Roman dating system was based on the consuls who had served in a given year rather than being numbered. But one system, created in the Renaissance and used by classical scholars, dates Roman history from the founding of the city of Rome, referred to in Latin as Ab Urbe Condita, meaning "from the foundation of the city."

Assyrian: 6774

Technically the oldest calendar still in use, since it is based on the dating system of the Ancient Assyrians and measures history from the date of the Flood in Mesopotamian mythology. Revived in the 20th century by modern Assyrians.

Byzantine: 7532

Formerly used by the Byzantine Empire and afterwards by the Eastern Orthodox Church for several centuries. Its starting point is the creation of the universe, dated to 5509 years before the time of Jesus.

Unix Time: 1,704,067,200

Unix Time is a dating system used in computing which records how many seconds have elapsed since 00:00:00 UTC on 1st January 1970. When 2024 began 1,704,067,200 seconds has passed since that moment.


These are but a few of the manifold systems we have used, at different times and different places, to measure the passage of the years. The Gregorian Calendar is dominant at the moment, for civil purposes at least, but "this too shall pass", and one day it will replaced by another calendar. One wonders how future generations shall date their years and how they will refer to "2024"...

Question of the Week

Last year I asked you to invent a new metaphor; here were some of your attempts. If you like what you read... why not start using them?

Simon L

To be all text and no send. To be all words but no action.

Adam C

Memories are like old books on a shelf, gathering dust but holding worlds within their pages.

Femi A

"Drop my phone on my face". Sort of a lesser form of stub my toe. When you hurt yourself from a little lack of attention...

Ross J

Metaphor: screen-dumped … emotionally bereft following one or more implacable rejections - (like a person whose omnipresent smartphone lacks signal, data or power, thus destroying all interface with the world).
It was Friday, she was thrice screen-dumped and Emily was buffering helplessly: her parents were on a flight to New Zealand; her flatmate had gone into an office (to see if her job was an actual thing) and; her G.P’s receptionist had failed to acknowledge adequately the importance of her emotional support needs.


I have a mantra I say to myself when I find my mind begins to race or overthink but if I were to transform it to a metaphor it would be something like: "Reflection of your personal journey is a rear-view mirror, good to check but never to focus on."

Mark C

i came up with three but , like the sound of ones own voice , they dont seem all that good!

Ready as a doorknob
Honest as a mirror
Comfortable as a tenager with WiFi

Deborah G

Theodore was a towering palm who thrived in the bright sun, but with widely spread roots that ran shallow.

Diane V

I'm “not good enough to untie the shoe”
From John the Baptist speaking of someone greater than he. (Jesus)

ME McCabe

Hope skates on thin ice.


He'll be posting all about it (gossiping)
She's a right Tweet (gossiping)
I don't give a TikTok about her (not bothered about something)

And that's all

2023 has been among the most magical years of my life... but I won't get sentimental. Simply allow me to say, if I may, to any and all of you who have ever so much as opened one of these emails, and to all who have sent in your wonderful responses, laconic or loquacious, and to all who have sent me messages of support and critique — you have my lasting gratitude. The Future is bright, I believe, and this year of 2024 shall, Godwilling, be fruitful.

I leave you with Shelley, at once to conclude the year that has passed and set a tone, if you so choose to adopt it, for the year that is now upon us:

The world’s great age begins anew,
The golden years return,
The earth doth like a snake renew
Her winter weeds outworn:
Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,
Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.
A brighter Hellas rears its mountains
From waves serener far;
A new Peneus rolls his fountains
A loftier Argo cleaves the main,
Oh, write no more the tale of Troy,
If earth Death’s scroll must be!
Nor mix with Laian rage the joy
Which dawns upon the free:
Although a subtler Sphinx renew
Riddles of death Thebes never knew.
Another Athens shall arise,
And to remoter time
Bequeath, like sunset to the skies,
The splendour of its prime;
And leave, if nought so bright may live,
All earth can take or Heaven can give.

Until February I bid thee fare well. Exeunt.


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