Areopagus Volume LXXXII

Areopagus Volume LXXXII

Welcome one and all to the eighty second volume of the Areopagus. Last week's missive was rather a wordy affair — which is no bad thing from time to time! But, in the interests of that very time, this week's Areopagus shall be less copious in scope. Or, as Odin says in the Hávamál:

The babbling tongue, if a bridle it find not,
Oft for itself sings ill.

So, let a bridled instalment of the Areopagus commence!

I - Classical Music

Chansons Grises — 5: L'heure exquise

Reynaldo Hahn (1890)

video preview

Performed by Jacques Jensen and Jacqueline Bonneau
Moonlight, a Study at Millbank
by JMW Turner (1797)

A French mélodie, in the world of classical music, is the setting of a poem to piano music. One of the masters of this form was Reynaldo Hahn, a Venezuelan-born Frenchman whose musical youth coincided with the Belle Époque in late 19th century Paris. His career continued until after the Second World War, but it is for his mélodies, written in the years before the First World War, that Hahn is chiefly remembered. And, listening to this one, I hope you can see why. They are melancholy and elegant at once, always concise and suggestive, never bombastic. This is in line, of course, with so much French piano music of the age — the likes of Ravel, Debussy, and Satie.

The Chansons grises, meaning "grey songs", are a set of seven mélodies Hahn wrote when he was just sixteen for the poetry of Paul Verlaine. Verlaine was, apparently, moved to weeping when he heard the young man perform them. In this case we hear the fifth, L'heure exquise, meaning "Exquisite Hour". The legendary Marcel Proust — who had a romantic relationship with Hahn that blossomed in a lifelong friendship — summed up how many people felt about Hahn's work and his preternatural ability to create music perfectly suited to verse:

It is nothing less than the very life of the soul, the internal substance of language, liberated, risen up, taken wing and become music.

II - Historical Figure


Cratylus is not a man of whom I can show you a portrait or statue, for he was not particularly famous. In truth, we only know of him thanks to references in the writings of others. He was, Aristotle tells us, an influence on Plato:

For, having in his youth first become familiar with Cratylus and with the Heraclitean doctrines...

Plato even wrote a dialogue named after and featuring Cratylus as one of the speakers. In it Plato explores whether words have any natural relationship to things we mean by them. Cratylus' views on this matter were mentioned by Aristotle in his Metaphysics:

...they held these views because they saw that all this world of nature is in movement, and that about that which changes no true statement can be made; at least, regarding that which everywhere in every respect is changing nothing could truly be affirmed. It was this belief that blossomed into the most extreme of the views above mentioned, that of the professed Heracliteans, such as was held by Cratylus, who finally did not think it right to say anything but only moved his finger.

Why did Cratylus simply waggle his fingers instead of talking? Because he believed there was no relationship whatsoever between the words we use and things we think they refer to. See, Cratylus was a discipline of the great Heraclitus, who famously said:

Everything flows and nothing abides.

But Cratylus took this view to its logical conclusion and actually disagreed with his old master:

[Cratylus] criticized Heraclitus for saying that it is impossible to step twice into the same river; for he thought one could not do it even once.

Yes, Cratylus believed all things are perpetually changing and in flux, such that nothing in the world — nor anything we can think of — is fixed, and therefore that all things are beyond definition. You can see why, then, he simply waggled his fingers rather than engaging in discussion. I, for one, cannot help but feel Cratylus must have been a funny man. Among a group of philosophers who were trying their hardest to discern the internal logic of the universe, giving names to and defining all things, he flatly refused to take part and insisted that none of it made any sense. To have encountered him must have been rather frustrating, and perhaps even somewhat humbling, for those other great Greek thinkers. There is something wonderfully human about this notion — that, in the face of things too vastly complex to grasp, one can simple smile and waggle one's fingers! So for me, at least, when I find that a discussion or argument is entering the realms of pointlessness, I have started asking myself, "what would Cratylus do?"

III - Painting

Saint Jerome as Melancholy

Farrukh Beg (1615)

Farrukh Beg was born and raised in Safavid Iran, where he trained in the old tradition of Persian miniatures. These were small works of art, sometimes created as illustrations for books and sometimes as standalone pieces, which were painted on paper and compiled in albums called muraqqa. Beg left Safavid Iran and moved to the court of the Mughal Emperors in India, where he spent the rest of his career working for notable patrons like the Emperor Akbar and, later, his son Jahangir.

The beauty of this miniature is how Farrukh Beg has freshly reinterpreted something already reinterpreted several times. For this painting — with its gorgeous borders, typical of Iranian miniatures — was actually based on an engraving made in Germany by a Netherlandish engraver called Raphael Sadeler:

Its title is Dolor, meaning "melancholy", and it depicts St Jerome — who translated the Bible into Latin — in his study. Jerome was a popular subject in art, but he was more often portrayed as penitent and focussed rather than sad. Well, Sadeler's engraving was itself based on the work of Maerten de Vos, whose depiction of Jerome was influenced by the great Albrecht Dürer:

So this is a familiar scene with a long lineage, and Farrukh Beg transports it to a new location. Whereas Dürer, Sadeler, and de Vos placed Jerome a more or less Northern European Medieval setting, Farrukh Beg brings Jerome to the Mughal Empire and portrays him as a sufi, or Islamic ascetic. Many have considered this to be something of a self-portrait; Farrukh Beg was an old man at the time, having lived a long and successful — though, at times, troubled — life. Can we sense him reflecting on things past? I think so. Otherwise this painting is filled with delightful details; notice the birds in the tree — with its sumptuously stylised canopy — and the eyeglasses on the book behind Jerome. His chosen colours are vivid and super-real, and in combinations with his flattening of perspective turns this almost into a work of pure pattern. Farrukh Beg was regarded in his lifetime as an artistic genius. I think, even in this one painting, much is revealed — we can see why he earned such adulation.

IV - Architecture

Chapel del Rosario

What started in the 16th century as a Catholic reaction against the Protestant Reformation soon became a tidal wave of fabulously maximalist architecture — the Baroque. It spread from Italy to the rest of Europe and, over the course of the 17th century, became ever more extravagant. From Spain and Portugal it was then taken to Central and South America, where Baroque Architecture reached its logical conclusion.

The Chapel del Rosario in Puebla, Mexico, was built and decorated over the course of forty years — from 1650 to 1690 — at the Church of Santo Domingo. The state of Puebla is home to some of the world's finest Baroque architecture, but the Chapel del Rosario probably pips the rest to the title of its most extraordinary. Indeed, upon completion, the local Fray Diego de Gorozpe lauded it as the eighth wonder of the world.

Here, up close, you can see how the larger impression was achieved: by endless frills and fronds of gilded stucco.

And, with light cascading down from the windows of the tower, the chapel almost becomes diffused with a golden haze as sunbeams glitter on and reflect across the stucco. Hence its other nickname: La Casa de Oro, meaning "House of Gold".

So the Chapel del Rosario is absolutely overwhelming — and this was the whole point of Baroque Architecture. See, many Protestant denominations had stripped the art from their churches as part of the attempt to free Christianity from the perceived corruption of the Catholic Church, returning peoples' minds to the Bible itself — the word of God — rather than to the dictates of an earthly institution. In response the Catholics decided to lean into the very thing they had been criticised for; architecture would become a conscious part of the Counter-Reformation. By its very extravagance the Baroque was supposed to turn religion into an emotional and aesthetic force, something that one must also experience rather than merely understand intellectually. Whether it was successful or not I leave others to judge; for now, at least, we can surely say that in few places was this vision of Baroque as purely realised as at the Chapel del Rosario in Puebla.

V - Rhetoric


The word apostrophe has two, very different meanings. Normally it describes that little, floating punctuation mark which identifies a contraction or possessive. But it has another meaning, one much older — when a speaker addresses somebody who is not present, an inanimate object, or an idea.

What function does the apostrophe serve? It allows for more direct expression of one's thoughts or emotions — think how it feels to say something to a person, versus talking about them, and you shall understand why. Consider Hamlet addressing the skull of Yorick as an example of this increased emotive urgency:

Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?

Or for comparison, in Lord Byron's Childe Harold, we find him addressing the fields where the Battle of Waterloo took place. Once again, this turns what could have been a calm observation into an more forceful musation:

How that red rain hath made the harvest grow!
And is this all the world has gained by thee,
Thou first and last of fields! king-making Victory?

But apostrophe is not only for poetry; it has a major role to play in prose. The historian Thomas Carlyle was fond, among many other rhetorical devices, of the apostrophe, as here when speaking of the Middle Ages:

But at lowest, O dilettante friend, let us know always that it was a world, and not a void infinite of grey haze with fantasms swimming in it.

Here, I think, the value of apostrophe is the sense of immediacy it conjures. In short, by addressing a thing or person directly we turn our prose into conversation rather than narration — and, as human beings, we are inexorably drawn toward conversation.

VI - Writing

The Voices of Others

Tacitus, who lived and worked in the late 1st century AD, is often called Rome's greatest historian. And his Annals, which chart the early history of the Roman Empire, certainly warrant this claim; they are wonderfully told, often ironically and elusively, always concise and clear. Tacitus also had a penchant for epigrams:

The more corrupt the state, the more laws.
When a ruler once becomes unpopular, all his acts, be they good or bad, tell against him.
It belongs to human nature to hate those you have injured.
When men of talents are punished, authority is strengthened.
They [the Romans] plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.

The curious thing about this last quote, perhaps his most famous, is that Tacitus did not quite say it himself. It comes from the Agricola, a short biography of his father-in-law and governor of the province of Britain, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. But Tacitus did not say those words as a narrator; rather, he puts them in the mouth of Calgacus, a Caledonian chieftain who led a rebellion against Agricola.

This does not mean Tacitus did not believe what he said — no doubt, that he was able conceive of saying such a thing suggests he understood why somebody might believe it. Still, we can't really attribute the quote to Tacitus and claim it was one of his beliefs. This prompted me to think about how many writers have been quoted as having said and thus believed something when, in fact, they were speaking through the voice of another person, whether fictitious or historical. For example, in Les Misérables Victor Hugo has Inspector Javert say this:

Courage does not fear crime, and honesty does not fear authority.

So, did Hugo believe that himself? Perhaps not, since Javert is essentially the villain of Les Misérables. Still, he could only write those words by inhabiting the mindset of Javert and imagining what such a man — dedicated to upholding the law and serving the state — would have believed. And this is part of the very joy and usefulness of writing; it allows you to become another person and occupy a wholly different worldview. What else was Plato doing with his dialogues when he wrote from the perspective of people with whom he actually disagreed? By writing from their point of view he improved his understanding of their arguments and thus, also, of his own. This is something we can do also — and ought to. Write, like Tacitus or Hugo or Plato, from the point of view of a person you disagree with or dislike. What you learn, one way or another, can only be for the best.

VII - The Seventh Plinth

Odinic Advice

At the outset of this week's Areopagus I quoted from the Hávamál, a Norse poem composed originally in the 10th century in which the god Odin reveals some of most concisely expressed wisdom you shall ever find in writing. By way of conclusion I thought it fitting to include a few more verses from the Hávamál, once again on the topic of knowing when to say little — or, indeed, say nothing at all:

An ignorant man thinks that all he knows,
When he sits by himself in a corner;
But never what answer to make he knows,
When others with questions come.
A witless man, when he meets with men,
Had best in silence abide;
For no one shall find that nothing he knows,
If his mouth is not open too much.
(But a man knows not, if nothing he knows,
When his mouth has been open too much.)

Is this not beautifully straightforward? In just a few hundred words the Hávamál furnishes us with some splendidly relevant advice; though the Vikings are often painted as a heedlessly violent culture, their poetry tells a somewhat different story. If you have ever wanted to read Norse poetry but were never sure where to begin, the Hávamál might be what you're looking for.

Question of the Week

Last week I set you a challenge:

Write an encomium. It can be about anything, in any form, and any length. The only requirement is that you try to say something about your chosen subject that could not be said of anything else.

And these were some of your responses:

Clare S

There's a farm stand nearby that sells strawberries. Strawberries so small, and red, and sweet, and bright that they've ruined all other experiences of a strawberry. You'll be forced to look away from the lesser versions in the supermarket in disappointment verging on disgust; their muted color, their swollen bodies that promise more taste and yet provide only the vaguest hint; as if in making this particular cocktail the bartender opened the key ingredient but forgot to pour it into the glass, leaving only a trace, or a glimmer of possibility behind. Palatable but not quite right.
But back to the farmstand strawberry, which we should properly refer to as The Strawberry for it is the textbook definition of its species, never has a more exemplary version been cultivated. The Strawberry, minute in size, bursts with flavor that shouldn't rationally fit in such a small package. Its red body almost glowing from within. To an extent it's a harrowing experience, like realizing you've been looking at shadows in a cave your whole life thinking it's the real thing; you feel cheated. And so you stuff your mouth with these precious jewels until you get a stomach ache. Hours later when you're starting to wonder if it was all a dream, or if you're not perhaps exaggerating a bit, your tongue will dig out a tiny seed from in between your teeth, you'll smile, and go hunting for more.

Matthew L

Newcastle upon Tyne: an encomium

I've love travelling, but no matter how much I love to visit faraway places, my favourite place in the world will always be my hometown. So I thought I'd write a encomium about said town. To cement my appreciation. But it occurred to me, when I was deciding what to write about, that I'm not really entirely sure of what it is that I love about this city. The reason for this, probably, is that I don't fit the stereotype of a "Geordie" i.e. a Newcastle resident. I don't even really have the accent, which is instantly recognisable all over the UK. I think a sense of common identity with other residents is usually what attaches people to the place they come from. But I think, for me, it's something different.
I come from an area of Newcastle called Gosforth. People from the city tend to refer to Gosforth as "posh" and indeed it does have a fairly middle-class population. I think the perception of Newcastle, which has a reputation as a working-class area, to people who have never been is that no parts of it are middle-class, which is ridiculous obviously. And, yes, my parents did have a nice house when I was growing up. But they are hardly rich. They just saved hard because having a nice house was important to them. My Dad left school to join the army and my mam is a nurse. I never felt strange or out of place growing up in Gosforth, but things changed when I went to high school. See, I'm a Catholic and so, whilst every area of Newcastle has a Catholic primary school, there's only three Catholic high schools. This meant that I attended high school in the opposite end of the city. I was "bused" off, age 11, to the west end, where my school was, and suddenly I was surrounded by people from all over the city. And, being from Gosforth, I was quickly regarded as posh. Cue the usual high school teasing and a sudden confusion and bewilderment on my part. People often talk about being embarrassed about where they come from in a new environment because of class, but it's usually the other way around. And, of course, I wouldn't disparage the experiences of a working class 11 year-old thrust into a middle-class community and being ostracised, and of course I imagine their experience would be a hell of a lot worse than mine. I was never bullied or anything like that. I just feel like it can happen the other way, too. I spent most of my teenage years trying to avoid telling people where I lived and trying to speak with more of a working-class accent.

Now, this all probably sounds like the pathetic whinging of an entitled little brat who can't handle a bit of schoolyard patter. I don't intend for it to come across that way. I'm not complaining, obviously, just making observations. Nobody chooses where they came from, and most kids don't choose where they end up at that time in their life.

Years later I spent a long time working full-time in a McDonald's. I was working-class. I felt awkward at family parties and meeting new people when I got asked what I do. I got the fish-out-of-water perspective from the other direction. I've never really been enough of a stereotype to fit into either camp. That doesn’t bother me, but there's always going to be that feeling of not fitting in, I think, present throughout my whole life.

Now, you're probably wondering where on Earth I'm going with this. There's a song by a band I like, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, called 'Under the Bridge.' In the deeply autobiographical lyrics, lead singer Anthony Kiedis, in a description of his bitter isolation from all that he loves, laments that he feels his only friend is the city of Los Angeles, as he heads 'under the bridge downtown' to bury his misery in a cocoon of drugs and self-harm. Now, I of course am not comparing myself in this vein to Anthony Kiedis, who's had a hell of a harder paper round than little clean-cut, middle-class me and my first-world woes. The list of places where we differ is of course long, but the difference I want to address is the the role of the city in the song. Kiedis sees this as his lowest point. The city is a non-entity, essentially; it's just geography. He craves his friends and loved-ones again.

I, on the other hand, do not view my hometown in that way. When I've felt ostracised, or left out, sometimes I, too, have felt that the city is my only friend. But I've never lamented that. I'd often finish school, feeling miserable, and take some time to myself by shunning the school bus and travelling home via the city centre, the bus through the west end, where everyone viewed me as some entitled posh kid, goes past a beautiful view of the city, especially at sunset, which always made me feel welcome. Over the rooves of the houses you could see the Angel of the North, a huge statue that overlooks the city.

And then I would spend hours in the town. Bookshops were the frequent of a little nebbish like me. There's a lovely Waterstones in an old building opposite Grey's monument. In fact, if you're ever walking around Newcastle, look up once in a while. The architecture of the buildings is very pretty. It's a beautiful town centre. I never left the city for University, where I would frequently introduce myself to non-local (usually actual-posh, from down south), students as being from Newcastle only for them to be disappointed that I did not possess the novelty accent.

But the respite I've found in the parks of this city has always been nothing short of therapeutic. In my teenage years, when I went through patches of extreme isolation, I would take two buses to far-flung parts of the city because I liked the parks. And even nowadays, if I'm feeling the need for a break or the world is getting me down, the city always lifts me up. I can go to the artisan cinemas or the lovely craft beer pubs and all the other things I love, but there's a bittersweet nostalgia sometimes about just walking around this city. Whether it be a park, a street or even a shopping centre (I have a soft spot for a day out in the metrocentre). Owning a car these days means I can drive up to the gorgeous coastline too. We are blessed in this part of the world to have such beautiful geography.

I've lived in six different areas of Newcastle now, and I've always found something beautiful wherever I've been. And, most importantly, I've always felt at home. But why is that? The area I live now is nowhere I've ever been before I moved there.

When I started writing this, I didn't know, but I think I've figured out why in the process. The isolation I've felt throughout my life is born out of living in a city, and the obsession with class and status that exists in that culture. That said, the city itself retains the least-judgmental role in all this. Never has it made me feel unwelcome. And believe me it may have saved my life once or twice over the years. For Anthony Kiedis, it was an indication that he'd reached rock-bottom, for me, I think, it was a reminder that you don't need to be something you're not. I love this part of the world because no matter what anybody tells me about what my identity should or shouldn't be, it will always be mine. Perhaps the Angel of the North was a guardian angel, after all. Don't forget where you come from. It won't forget you.

Jane L

Growing up as a Catholic in a Northern town in the 1950s was a very different world from today. Mass a real mystery with the priest's back to the congregation and said in an incomprehensible language, and the truly dreaded 'Rosary, Sermon and Benediction' in the evening. Plainchant sung uncertainly, accompanied by a wheezy harmonium. Hats or mantillas for the 'ladies' and girls, who were only allowed in the sanctuary to polish the floor, and the scripture read in English by a squeaky voiced altar boy. The nuns were shrouded in voluminous folds of black - but detectable by the rattle of wooden beads, and, most fearsome of all, Father's housekeeper.
No wonder Jackie and I rebelled. Or, as much as we dared. She led, I followed. We used to pick the candle wax from the stand during the sermons, accidentally on purpose lose our mantillas, jam the pedals on the harmonium with paper, and eat hot dogs at Goose Fair on Friday. Later, we argued about Latin, about the exclusion of girls from being altar servers or anything else, about censorship and about authoritarianism.
Then came Vatican II. And suddenly fresh air and light refreshed us all. We left school and I went off to study expecting Jackie to do the same, when she - to my huge astonishment - entered a large teaching order. I shall never know how she stuck it, but stick it she did and when I was a VSO in Africa, Jackie finally went off to complete her higher education.
By that time I was married and we had a little yellow Lotus Élan. Jackie, full of fun as ever, used to phone us regularly and ask my husband to take her for the fastest drive he could, round as many hairpin bends as possible. The sight of Jackie's veil flying in the wind was memorable.
Now Jackie's teaching career was short lived. She had so much sympathy with the naughty boys and girls that she couldn't keep good order and discipline and her Superior sensibly removed her from the classroom and put her in charge of what was colloquially known as a 'Naughty Girls' Home' - a probation hostel. She was hugely successful here and at that point deposited her veil and black frock in the bin as the girls told her it was horrible and scary.
Eventually, with reorganisation, the hostel closed and Jackie felt called to spend time as a worker nun. With the blessing of her Superior and the Bishop, she went to work in a hosiery factory. She shared a house with a woman Anglican Priest and two Quaker women. Only the Managing Director of the group knew of her religious status. She said that it was a truly life changing experience, understanding the huge difficulties faced by poorly paid female factory workers, the domestic violence, the economic hardships and daily struggles.
One day one of the women lost a finger on the machines as a consequence of cost cutting and no finger shields fitted on the machines. Jackie stood up for the women, involved the Union and the H&S authorities and generally created a fuss. She was called into the office of the manager who was very angry.'I know who you are' he shouted.Jackie was devastated as she had been promised total discretion. 'Really' she said.'Yes' he replied. ‘You're a Communist.’
Never had she been so relieved. And the finger guards were fitted.
The factory then amalgamated with another and this time Jackie went to work as an Air Stewardess with Easy Jet. Again, living the life of a vowed sister in the workplace. She 'retired' from there at sixty and at her leaving do the pilots and staff had ordered a huge cake with a picture of a flying nun in moulded icing and the inscription:‘Nearer my God to thee' on the top.
She now runs together with an ecumenical team, a hostel for trafficked women in a secret location. Her great love for humanity, in all its messy manifestations is shining as ever in yet a new challenge.
She is a woman with a huge heart, a fierce determination to fight injustice and huge fun to be with.
I am proud to be her friend.

Jackie F

My encomium to the cat:
The perfect killing machine
to prey smaller than a breadbox
that can only hold one loaf.
Scared only of the vacuum cleaner,
it prowls the counterslooking for objects --
preferably breakable --
it can push to the floor
while looking innocent and adorable
and asking whether it cannot
haz cheeseburgers after all.

And for this week's question to test your critical thinking...

What is the real meaning of "success" in life?

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.

And that's all

As Odin advised, in silence I shall abide — one word remains only to be said: farewell!


The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor

A beautiful education.

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