Areopagus Volume XXXVII
Welcome one and all to the thirty seventh volume of the Areopagus. I realise Valentine's Day was nearly two weeks ago, but love cannot be restricted to the 14th February alone! As Dante once wrote:
And so this week's volume is themed on the oldest theme of all: romance & love.
I - Classical Music
Francesca da Rimini: Symphonic Fantasy after Dante
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1876)
Internet problems have prevented me from uploading the music this week.
Clicking on the image below will take you to a YouTube video of the piece.
Can instrumental music tell a story? That was the question posed by the Romantic composers of the 19th century. Everybody knew that music could express emotion, but they increasingly wanted to know if it could present a comprehensible narrative without words or actors, and if it could evoke a poem, mood, event, or place.
That's how the symphonic overture, otherwise known as a tone poem, was born. What had originated as the scene-setting prelude to an opera or concerto was extracted and turned into a standalone musical genre of its own. It was surely one of the greatest inventions of the Romantic Era, as composers moved beyond the grace and simplicity of the 18th century in pursuit of greater musical freedom, with passion replacing elegance and strife sophistication. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), among the greatest of these Romantic composers, wrote several tone poems. He was inspired to write this one while travelling to Bayreuth for the 1876 debut of Wagner's Ring Cycle. On the train he was reading Dante's Inferno; that's where he came across the story of Francesca da Rimini.
She was an Italian noblewoman who lived in 13th century Ravenna. Francesca had been married off to Giovanni Malatesta as a matter of political expedience on the part of her father. But Francesca was drawn to Giovanni's younger brother, Paolo, known as Il Bello because of his beauty. Their romance started when, left alone together at the Malatesta household, he read to her from Lancelot du Lac, an Arthurian romance which tells of Lancelot's adulterous affair with Guinevere. Giovanni soon learned about their betrayal and killed them both en flagrante.
Dante places Francesca and Paolo in the second circle of hell, reserved for those guilty of the sin of lust. There, along with other famed adulterers such as Paris and Helen, they are trapped in a violent storm and buffeted by powerful winds, never able to touch the ground. In typical Dantean fashion this punishment was inspired by their sin: Francesca and Paolo had been swept away by passion.
And that's the story Tchaikovsky wanted to convey with this symphonic overture. The question is: was he successful?
II - Historical Figure
Abelard and Héloïse
History's Greatest Romance
Peter Abelard was born in France in 1079. His father served the Count of Brittany, but rather than following in his father's footsteps Abelard pursued the study of philosophy and theology. He loved arguing, and it was for this that he soon earned a reputation as the most powerful and independent voice of the 12th century. Abelard was a firebrand, full of life and vigour, often arrogant but always compelling, insistent that logical interrogation was the surest way to discover the truth:
Abelard eventually travelled to Paris and taught at the Cathedral School of Notre Dame, which would later became the University of Paris. Students and scholars came from all around France to hear, speak with, and learn from Abelard. His contemporary, Bernard of Clairvaux, feared that Abelard's ideas and methods would undermine the authority of the Catholic Church - this could have been the making of a religious revolution.
But, just when Abelard's star had reached its zenith, everything changed. A canon at Notre Dame called Fulbert asked Abelard to tutor his niece, Héloïse. She had been educated to write in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and was already renowned as a naturally gifted and strong-willed woman of extraordinary learning. Abelard accepted this post and, soon enough, the two had fallen desperately and interminably in love.
It was, we know, a relationship both carnal and spiritual - and thoroughly clandestine. Abelard stopped paying attention to his work or pupils and even wrote songs about Héloïse which were sung in the streets of Paris. A scandal was brewing. Héloïse became pregnant and Abelard sent her to live with his family in Brittany until the child, called Astrolabe, was born. Meanwhile he confronted Fulbert and told him that he wished to marry her in secret. Héloïse didn't want to get married; she saw it is a needless, worldly restriction on their unbounded love for one another. But she relented and they became husband and wife. After that, as part of a continued attempt to subdue what had become a very public scandal, Héloïse went to live at a convent in her hometown, Argenteuil. They never saw each other again.
But Fulbert wasn't happy. Whether because he was over-protective, jealous, or thought Abelard was ruining what promised to be a good life for his well-educated niece, Fulbert hired a gang of men who broke into Abelard's house in Paris and castrated him. Abelard never recovered from the shock of what had happened; he sought to live out his days in solitude, thoroughly miserable and disillusioned with the world, seeking consolation in devotion to God. He moved from one monastery to another and even tried teaching again - drawing crowds just like had before - but was met with fierce resistance from the establishment and condemned as heretical.
Héloïse, against her wishes, became a nun at the convent in Argenteuil. When it was disbanded she went to the Abbey of the Paraclete (which had been founded by Abelard himself) and rose to the position of abbess. Under her guidance it became one of the foremost abbeys in France and Héloïse one of the most important and powerful women in Medieval Europe. That is where she died and was originally buried, along with Abelard, until their bodies was exhumed in the 1790s and, later, moved to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris in 1812.
The letters of Abelard and Héloïse have survived, all written in the aftermath of the tragedy, and in them we are exposed to one of history's greatest romances. Some of their exchanges concern the business of running an abbey and others are entirely concerned with matters of scripture. But, for the large part, they discuss their former union, the tragedy that has befallen them, and the struggle to deal with it all. They disagree about exactly what happened and how it happened, always mixing censure with consolation and adoration with admonition. Running through it all is a thread of achingly deep and enduring love, both for one another and for God.
They both wrote with eloquence and erudition; these were two mighty spirits with brilliant minds and powerful hearts whose words are worthy of any great novelist or poet. Most remarkable is how these letters paint the full picture of two individual humans in all their emotional, psychological, and spiritual complexity. Few voices from history are so vivid or forceful as those of Abelard and Héloïse, nor so revealed with such intimacy. It's hard to think of many people from the past into whose minds and hearts we can see so clearly.
Héloïse knew that her duties as an abbess were compromised by her enduring love for Abelard; she should have been thinking about God, not him:
They retread old ground, as Héloïse recalls her views about why they should never have been married:
While Abelard insists that she must let go of her love for him:
And in the same breathe speaks of his undying love for her, even while straining with all his famed powers of logic to deny it and lamenting the course of his life:
Héloïse rebukes Abelard for his misery:
And Abelard calls for an end to their correspondence. He invokes theology but, one might conclude, the subtext is that it was simply too painful for him:
Héloïse accepts this:
While resigning herself to a life of falsehoods, totally unafraid of searingly frank introspection:
The sheer scale of the passion with which the letters of Abelard and Héloïse are charged is entirely overcoming. We can feel these two lovers caught between head and heart, between society and the individual, frightfully self-aware of their own shortcomings and utterly enraptured by their mutual ardor, struggling until the ends of their lives to reconcile their religious devotion with their love for one another.
It's hard to say whether Abelard and Héloïse are representative of their times - in some ways they are strikingly modern. But through their lives we learn much about the world of 12th century Europe: the power and ubiquity of the church and its institutions, the undercurrent of religious independence rising against it, the central importance of faith in this society, and the position of women within it. This was the context of their romance, one whose conditions dictated their eventual separation and from which it cannot be removed. And yet something truly universal arises out of their letters; here is a story for all time.
III - Painting
Gustav Klimt (1907)
The modern world was shaped by Vienna. Not only by Vienna, of course, but few cities have made greater contributions to the cultural, artistic, philosophical, and scientific ideas that underpin the 21st century. It was there that in 1897 a group of artists broke away from what had been the dominant artistic and architectural style of the 19th century: historical revivalism. Every building was a pastiche of Classical, Romanesque, Gothic, Byzantine, or Baroque, and every painting was made in the spirit of Raphael and the Renaissance. This group was known as the Vienna Secession, and Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was one of its founding members.
They are often considered a sub-genre of the broader Art Nouveau movement, which itself was a response to the rising tide of industrial mass-production, modern technology, and disrupted social conditions. The world was changing and art, ever a weathervane for society, needed to adapt. It was in this environment that Gustav Klimt painted The Kiss, which has since become one of the world's most famous paintings, emblematic not only of love but of the dawn of modernity and Vienna's role therein. But why does The Kiss look like it does?
You'll notice it has a rather compact composition - the bowed head of the male figure is cramped beneath the top of the painting. This went against every rule of artistic composition established in the Renaissance and dominant in Europe for four centuries. But Klimt, like the contemporaneous Impressionists in France, was influenced by the Japanese ukiyo-e prints which had been flooding into Europe; they had no such strict compositional rules.
Klimt was also inspired by the 6th century Byzantine mosaics at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, where statuesque figures are portrayed in two-dimensions over a backdrop of pure gold. Such golden backgrounds were common features of Byzantine and Medieval art more generally; saints were depicted not as walking in the "real world" but as occupying ethereal, stylised, quasi-abstract spaces of colour and pattern.
The floral patterns of The Kiss would not be out of place in the 11th century, whose Romanesque style was influenced by the non-representational art of Islam, nor on the prow of a Viking ship or in Saxon metalwork. The figures themselves, with their pastel tones and exaggerrated poses, seem to draw on the fantastical delights of Sandro Botticelli. He was one of the last great proponents of Gothic art in Italy, refusing to be drawn in by the serious realism of Raphael and Michelangelo and Leonardo. Indeed, much of Klimt's work has an allegorical atmosphere, operating not so much in the realm of scientific reality as of symbolism and hidden meaning.
Klimt drew on these myriad artistic sources but combined them into something quite new. It's astonishing how often innovation comes from looking back, building on existing traditions and reworking them into new and changing contexts. He reconciled the ancient with the modern and created something timeless. These two lovers in their fixed embrace, floating over a meadow of flowers against a backdrop of abstract gold, possess at once the statuesque solidity of mosaics and the delightful mystery of Medieval manuscripts. They seem eternal, as though they have been there forever and shall continue to embrace for all time, long after Klimt's own life or that of anyone who has ever seen it.
IV - Architectural Masterpiece
This Buddhist temple was founded and built in 1605 by the nun Kōdai-in, known affectionately as Nene. She was the widow of a samurai lord called Toyotomi Hideyoshi and it was in his memory that she had it built, with the construction paid for by her husband's successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The whole complex includes a central hall, a landscape garden, a rock garden, a gravel garden, a bamboo grove, numerous tea houses, several shrines, covered walkways, ceremonial gates, a mausoleum, and a memorial hall where Nene prayed for her husband's eternal rest; it now holds wooden sculptures of her and Hideyoshi.
Junichiro Tanizaki wrote about temples in his 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows, a treatise on Japanese architecture and its fundamental incompatibility with that of the West. His incisive analysis exposes any assumptions we might have about what architecture should be and opens our minds up to what it can be:
We can see what Tanizaki meant in the shrines and halls of Kodai-ji, where even in daylight thick shadows shroud the underside of the eaves and throw the hall's entranceway and interior into darkness.
Tanizaki writes about the power of this darkness and its centrality to Japanese architecture:
He also wrote about the subtle beauty of lacquerware and gold-leaf decoration, both of which were used at Kodai-ji. Tanizaki emphasised that they were created in and intended for the pre-modern age, when interiors were illuminated by candles or lanterns alone. Modern electric lighting, he argued, obliterates their character.
This photograph of the memorial hall rather illustrates Tanizaki's point. We can see how the glare of bright light (whether artificial or from the sun) seems to invade and destroy the delicacy and subtlety of the lacquer, becoming gaudy rather than mysterious and stark rather than alluring. All its glinting darkness, like golden stars submerged in murky water, is destroyed by too much light.
As Tanizaki rather shrewdly puts it:
In a different part of the essay he talks about the role of nature in traditional Japanese architecture:
Tanizaki thought traditional Japanese architecture aimed to reconcile itself with nature, in tune with and built to enhance its beauty, all in pursuit of tranquility and harmony. The carefully arranged gardens of Kodai-ji seem to prove him right. A different sort of beauty is brought on with every passing hour of the day, even into night, as the hills, grasses, rocks, and lanterns are exposed to changing light and darkness. In autumn the maples and pines turn red, orange, and gold, while in winter the temple and its grounds are buried beneath snow. Every season suits Kodai-ji, for it seems to change with them. Taken together the entire temple complex is a marvel - and not one, as Tanizaki concluded, that would have been possible with a different architectural heritage.
V - Rhetoric
There's an apocryphal story about the great Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki. Apparently one of his students was translating something from English into Japanese and, when he came across the phrase "I love you", translated it literally. Soseki didn't approve. He suggested a different translation:
That, Soseki thought, was a much more elegant and appropriate way of expressing one's love. The veracity of this story has been called into question, for there is no contemporary account of Soseki having ever said such a thing. Perhaps that doesn't matter. And while this story is about the sensibilities of Meiji Era Japan as much as anything else, it touches on something of real literary and rhetorical significance.
We all have a capacity to read between the lines, to use our imaginative and emotional faculties to perceive what somebody really means. In the world of cinema this quality is called subtext - where the line a character says conceals their actual meaning. Implicit rather than explicit meaning. And this is how we often speak. When somebody asks, "what did you do today?" and you respond, "not much," what we probably mean is: I don't want to talk about it. It can get much more complex than that, of course.
Subtext does have its limits, for what might be understated can easily become impenetrable and what could have been elegant can turn obscure. Straight talking has its place. But there's something beautiful about understatement, about leaving room for interpretation and knowing when something should be left unsaid. Words are often insufficient to express what we mean and can easily become a prison, especially when we try to speak directly but use the wrong ones. Fleeting feelings are trapped, perfect moments are corrupted, and we are made to express something we know is out of line with the inexpressible truth.
Subtext liberates us from the burden of words and allows imaginative power to do what they cannot. If any of you are creative writers then subtext is vitally important. It's what makes screenplays engaging and brings life to fictional characters. Next time you're writing dialogue, ask yourself, how would Soseki say this?
VI - Writing
The fourteen line sonnet is the most famous form of love poetry. It was created in the 13th century during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, whose court at Palermo was a hive of artistic and intellectual activity. From the hands of Giacomo da Lentini in Sicily it spread to Florence, where the sonnet form was consolidated by the poets of the dolce stil novo: Guido Guinizelli, Guido Cavalcanti, and Dante. Then came Petrarch in the 14th century, who perfected it, and after whom the Petrarchan sonnet is named.
It divides the poem into an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines), with the last word of each line following the rhyme schemes ABBAABBA and CDCDCD respectively. Elizabeth Barret Browning's How do I love thee is a good example. I've added letters to show how the rhyme scheme works.
The sonnet spread across Europe and reached Elizabethan England, where in the 16th century it evolved into an idiosyncratic English (or Shakespearean) form: three quatrains (four lines each) followed by a couplet with an ABAB CDCD EFEF GG rhyme scheme. Here's an example from Edna St. Vincent Millay:
Crucial to the sonnet is a shift of tone or perspective, whereby the second part responds to or concludes the first. In a Petrarchan sonnet it is the last six lines which do this, and in a Shakespearean sonnet the ending couplet. But the Petrarchan and Shakespearean forms should be seen as guides rather than definitive models which allow no departure: the tonal shift isn't always clear, and those traditional rhyme schemes are often played with.
Nor need sonnets always be about love. Wilfried Owen and Rupert Brooke both wrote sonnets about the First World War, and John Milton wrote this Petrarchan sonnet about going blind. It's also a good example of how the second part responds to the first and also of the sonnet's flexibility - notice that the octave runs into the sestet.
And that is, in brief, the sonnet. It's a poetic form people have been writing for seven centuries and one to which many a great writer has lent their voice; a powerful vehicle for romantic, emotional, political, or spiritual expression.
VII - The Seventh Plinth
The word love is very old. Its modern English form comes from the Middle English luve, before that the Old English lufu, and before that the Old German lubu. And that word came from the Proto-Indo-European leubh. We've just travelled six thousand years into the past.
There is no record of Proto-Indo-European, rather humorously abbreviated as PIE. It is a reconstructed language put together by some very clever experts. Leubh was created based on similarities between the Latin word lubet and the Sanskrit lubhyati. We know PIE existed, and we know it is from this ancient language that Spanish, English, Portuguese, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Russian, Punjabi, German, Persian, French, Marathi, Italian, and Gujarati (among many other languages) are descended.
We can't be totally sure that those who spoke the mysterious PIE meant by leubh precisely what we do by love. But the age of the word - whether referring to religious devotion, emotional attachment, or carnal pleasure - tells us everything we need to know about its centrality to the human condition. And I dare say there's something rather poetic in the fact that many modern languages still retain a word for love based on the original leubh, and one people who don't otherwise speak that language might conceivably recognise. The old idea that love transcends borders and is a universal tongue may, it seems, be true.
Question of the Week
Last week's question to test your critical thinking was:
Can religion and science be reconciled?
For the first ever time your responses were almost entirely unanimous. The difference came in how you argued it and how you defined the terms. Here's what Jim K said:
While Aleixo S looked to psychology for a way to reconcile them:
And Kevin T, as many of you did, pointed out that the question implied a conflict which may not exist:
Sarah S summed up the majority position of what/how versus why:
And here was Philip A's rather witty answer:
This week, to once again test your poetic skills rather than critical thinking, I'm challenging you to write a sonnet. It doesn't have to be about love, and nor does it need to be in the Petrarchan or Shakespearean form. I'll share as many as I can in next week's Areopagus.
And that's all
Not so long ago it was storms that I was caught in; now it's mist and endless drizzle. What better time, then, to sit by the fire and read a few sonnets? I wish you a joyous weekend and bid ye farewell.