Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Age of War

The twentieth century may have been the first to be dreaded even before it arrived; for every imagined progressive force, there was an unequal and opposite reactionary force; almost overnight, the stage darkened. Some have argued, in fact, it had already begun in 1889, the year Nietzsche went mad and Hitler was born. Some sense of doom often precedes the dawn of a new century or millennium, but this time it seemed different, and it was: the new century would bring war, death, and genocide on a scale hitherto unimaginable; it would witness the despotism of Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Pol Pot, and Jorge Rafael Videla Redondo; it would see the emergence of nations from oppressive colonial regimes hurled into far worse ones; it would see the invention of the ultimate weapon of destruction: the nuclear bomb.

One could list a number of other things that were actually quite good about this century -- Penicillin, the Polio vaccine, manned travel to the Moon, the Civil Rights movements in the United States, and microwave popcorn -- but that would be beside the point. The fortunate are not always happy, nor are the poor necessarily miserable; the texture of lived experience owes something, but not everything, to its material conditions. Our feelings often cathect toward moments and symbols that seem to bring us together or tear us apart, and at these untimely interstices we are gathered for a moment, so that literature and the arts may take our picture.

There were a number of such moments in the early years of the twentieth century: one thinks of the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901, the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912, and the opening battles of WWI in 1914. In literary and cultural terms, there's the first issue of Wyndham Lewis's Blast!, the 1913 Armory Show, the serialization of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1914-15, and the "Great War" itself, which permanently altered the careers of many writers, both those who survived (J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon) and those who didn't (Wilfred Owen, W.N. Hodgson, Rupert Brooke). And then there were those who survived physically, but were shattered, such as Ivor Gurney.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Yeats & Co.

One of the little ironies of twentieth-century 'British' literature is that most of the best of it was written by people who were born outside of Britain, places like Bombay, Dublin, Cape TownBloemfonteinOgidi, AbeokutaBerdychiv, and even (in the case of adopted Brit T.S. Eliot) St. Louis, Missouri. And the first harbinger of this shift from the purported center of Anglophone writing was, without doubt, the 'Irish Literary Renaissance' that had its origins in Dublin in the 1880's and 1890's. Ironically, the first wave of this movement sought to restore Irish Gaelic language and culture; its leaders, such as Douglas Hyde and his Gaelic League, scorned English as the tongue of the oppressor. At the same time, however, a small and loosely affiliated group of writers in Dublin were starting to establish a national literature and theatre in English; among their numbers were the poet George William Russell (known as Æ), the playwright John Millington Synge, along with James Stephens, Ella Young, Lady Gregory, and George Moore. Yeats, a brash young poet, was among the first to gain wider recognition, and in fact after a relatively brief period when he was active in Dublin's Abbey Theatre, spent most of the rest of his life in London. His early poems were steeped in the old Irish tradition, beginning in 1889 with The Wanderings of Oisin (a sort of Irish 'Ancient Mariner') and evocations of traditional ballads ("The Song of the Wandering Aengus")  In his middle years, he dabbled in occultism, joining the somewhat infamous Order of the Golden Dawn (which counted Aleister Crowley and S.L. MacGregor Mathers among its members) and becoming enamored of Wyndam Lewis and the "Vorticist" movement. He captured the spirit of Irish resentment ("An Irish Airman Foresees his Death") and memorialized the Irish rebellion with "Easter 1916." His poetry continued to evolve throughout his career, culminating in the rich, dark, ironic modernism of "Sailing to Byzantium," "The Second Coming," and "The Circus Animals' Desertion." By the end of his life, Yeats could be seen to represent a new efflorescence of lyricism, something not known in English since the Romantics, and not -- alas -- heard much since.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Jekyll and Hyde

Since its first publication in 1886, "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" has never been out of print. Stage adaptations began the next year, 1887, and the first film version was released in 1910. By one count, there have been 123 film versions in all. In both stage and film versions, the same actor is traditionally cast in both roles, and the high point of the drama is the "transformation scene" in which Jekyll becomes Hyde. Happily, many of these are now available on YouTube; you can see the earliest surviving film version from 1912, along with the performances of Frederic March, John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Boris Karloff, and even Bugs Bunny.

It's too bad, though, that nearly every version of this story has Mr. Hyde physically looking monstrous. The stage transformations, of course, relied more on the actors' ability to manipulate their expression, stance, and movements, but nearly every film gives Hyde fangs, hair, and a hunchback. This misses the whole point of Stevenson's story, which is that Hyde's "deformity" was inward; no one who saw him could quite put their finger on why his appearance made them suddenly want to kill him. Simply put: Mr. Hyde walks among us, or perhaps within us, and there is no sure way of detecting the transformation from the respectable to the detestable.

Perhaps we all have "secret selves." After all, we're social creatures, and there's no reason we should act or feel the same when we are in different company, or by ourselves. But the million small acts of repression required to shape our social identities can't help but have some effect on our psyche. These repressed thoughts may surface briefly in dreams or nightmares, may spur the creativity of artists. Indeed, some performers, such as Marilyn Manson, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Ghoulardi, or the Gravediggaz, have made careers out of wearing their horror on their sleeve. We can then be reassured when we see that, off stageand out of makeup, these performers are "nice" people -- but what of the reverse? What of those who, though outwardly nice, respectable citizens, are leading double lives, in one of which they are cheating on their partners, betting on dogfights, frequenting prostitutes, or gambling away their life savings?

So perhaps Jekyll and Hyde are, more or less, symptoms of civilization, a double metaphor for what we must all do to survive in a world of pressures and performances. The common view is that the Victorian society of Stevenson's day was far more restricted and repressed than ours; no wonder such men created monsters! Or are we just as repressed, perhaps even more so?

Is Jekyll and Hyde a story for its time, or for all time? What parallels do you see between the psychological world it presents and the world of today? How far from us, in 2014, is that decrepit old house with its mouldering green door? And who of us has the key?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Crystal Palaces

The image at left appears to be something quite impossible: a lovely modern colour digital photo of London's Crystal Palace, even though this great edifice -- first erected in 1851 -- burned to the ground in 1936! But in fact, we are deceived; it is a lovely modern photo of the Dallas Infomart, a latter-day glass palace whose architect quoted the original almost too literally -- it is even equipped with Sphinxes and a "Crystal Fountain" -- and it is also experiencing a high vacancy rate in the current recession. Nevertheless, it is testimony is clear: the influence of these Victorian pleasure palaces is enduring, even in so un-Victorian a place as the humid environs of Dallas. Indeed, even in our own area -- Reservoir Ave. in Cranston -- there is a modest replication of this design.

The other sort of Victorian leisure-ground is here as well -- many of the designs and purposes of Vauxhall-Gardens, Spring Gardens, Cremorne Gardens, Regent's Park, and other such outdoor festival-grounds are here in our own Roger Williams Park. Like them, RWP has artificial lagoons, a Bandstand, a Casino (though non-functioning in that sense), a Japanese Garden, a large Greenhouse, and a carousel/children's park. So perhaps we should go a-wandering through our own back yard, even as we imagine what it might have been like to see the lighted trees of Vauxhall some summer's evening in the 1850's .... surely our impulses are not that much different from our Victorian forebears? Nevertheless, having stood amidst the ruins of the Crystal Palace, the strongest feeling I had was that here was born, and here died, a great and gilttering glass dream -- one that, in fact, we have never ceased to hold. When we go to Disney World, Universal Studios Theme Park, or other such venues, it is to latter-day versions of the Palace that we go once again.

And when we go, of course, we know that the experience of any such "theme" park is largely a matter of artful deception. In one of his early journalistic pieces, Charles Dickens remarked on a visit to Vauxhall Gardens by Day -- and noted how, with the plain light of the sun upon them, all of the magical wonders of the night were revealed to be tawdry, painted, even dilapidated wonders. Another attraction of the Gardens -- late night drinking -- remained, in the end, almost its only source of appeal, and as the area around the Gardens grew more densely populated, neighbors grew more volubly irritated with the wandering late-night drunks, crime, and vandalism that came with it. The Gardens closed permanently in 1859, and the area was converted into commercial streets and housing estates.

In 2004, the Crystal Palace was featured in the anime steampunk classic, Steamboy; although the date was switched to 1866 and the Palace strangely removed to the banks of the Thames near Greenwich, the exterior and interior details were kept remarkably accurate. I have also put together a reference article about the palace, and the University of Virginia offers a stunning 3D model of the original structure.

It's hard to say just what the Crystal Palace stands for, or what sort of development in more recent times it most foreshadows. The lateral truss system used in its ironwork features in innumerable buildings today -- just about any WalMart or Home Depot ceiling, to name two -- and one could see it as a harbinger of the era of enclosed shopping malls. But one could also see it as a sort of horizontal skyscraper -- indeed one of the plans for rebuilding it after Hyde Park called for it to be remade into a glass tower! There is even talk of a plan to rebuild the palace on its original site.

Is there a building of similar significance today? Or where do you see the legacy of this great Crystal Palace?

Friday, October 10, 2014


Panoramas were the original mass medium of their day, and along with various battles, views of cities, and historical subjects, the "Frozen Regions" were among their most popular subjects.

The public fascination with somehow seeing the Arctic regions was an almost constant feature of the nineteenth century. A massive panoramic canvas of an 1818 voyage in search of the pole drew enormous crowds to Henry Aston Barker’s panorama building in London’s Leicester Square, where the poet John Keats was among its fervent admirers. Writing to George and Georgiana Keats in 1819, he declared, “I have been very much pleased with the Panorama of the ships at the north Pole, with the icebergs, the Mountains, the Bears, the Walrus, the seals, the Penguins, and a large whale floating back above water. It is impossible to describe the place.” The explorer Sir John Franklin, whose likeness featured in the painting, found his association with it more nerve-wracking than complimentary, confessing to a his sister that “I shall not venture to approach very near Leicester Square, for fear the passers-by should say, ‘There goes the fellow in the panorama.’”

In these massive public canvasses, poet and explorer, daydreamer and day-laborer found curious common ground amongst the massy bergs. In 1850, Dickens, writing in his "Booley" persona of a later Arctic panorama at the same venue, lamented the absence of Eskimos, but noted among his fellow-viewers “two Scotch gardeners; several English compositors, accompanied by their wives; three brass-founders from the neighborhood of Long Acre, London; two coach-painters, a gold-beater and his only daughter, by trade a staymaker; and several other working-people from sundry parts of Great Britain who had conceived the extraordinary idea of ‘holiday-making’ in the frozen wilderness.” By rendering what had been remote so vividly and dramatically visible, Arctic panoramas, as well as large easel paintings, seemed to extend the democracy of vision to the most remote regions of the world, inviting their viewers to see themselves as explorers, and the globe itself as their rightful domain.

In addition to these massive, "great circle" panoramas, England was rife with so-called "moving panoramas," long canvasses on rollers in which the view progressed from one place to another; among the most popular was Banvard's virtual "trip" up and down the Mississippi River (also parodied in Dickens's "Booley" piece above). Here in Providence, we're fortunate enough to have one of the few surviving original 19th-century moving panoramas, depicting Garibaldi's campaign in Italy; the Brown University Library has now put a digitized version online. There's also a reconstructed panorama, "The Grand Moving Mirror of California," which appeared in Los Angeles a few years ago.

Is there anything like them today? I think so. If you saw the Everest movie at the Imax cinema at Providence Place, you were offered much the same kind of immediacy of view, in the same kind of mixed and middling company. If you watched a documentary on the National Geographic or Discovery channels (or perhaps watched a polar episode of NOVA), or visited a planetarium at a science museum, you too were invited to let your eyes do the discovering. We may think ourselves more sophisticated than our Victorian ancestors -- but are we? It seems to me we are still willing to pay good money just in order to view scenes that "take" us to places we may never, on our own, be willing or able to visit.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

London Metropolitan Police

The very idea of a "police force" in the modern sense was in every way a Victorian invention. In London in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, crime was fought by an unwieldy array of forces: parish officers (beadles), private night watchmen, and the infamous "Bow Street Runners," whose principal job was apprehending persons wanted on charges to ensure their appearance in court, but who did little or nothing of what we'd conceive of as "patrolling."

The force behind this force was British PM Sir Robert Peel, whose name gave us two popular early nicknames for officers of the police he established ("Bobbies" and "Peelers"). IN 1829, in the Police Act, he set forth a clear set of guidelines for these officers, which became known as Peel's Principles. He also established that office of Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who reported directly to the Home Secretary, which secured the force from local influence. A "Detective Department" was not formed until 1842; this eventually evolved into the Criminal Investigations Division, or "CID," popularly known for its headquarters as "Scotland Yard." The police, generally, came from the working classes, and few had any formal education of any sort; many were from the countryside, and their first sight of London was their first day "on the beat." They worked without the comfortable air of professionalism we might imagine for them, and without much in the way of scientific or forensic support (an in-house crime laboratory was not established until 1935!).

"Inspector Bucket" in Bleak House is widely believed to be based on Chief Inspector Charles Frederick Field, an acquaintaince of Dickens about whom he wrote in Household Words on several occasions.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The London Poor

The poverty of Victorian London was, though not unlike in kind from poverty elsewhere, unique in its concentration, its ubiquity, and its endless variety of cruelties. As documented by Henry Mayhew, the London poor engaged in so many endeavors to sustain themselves, that there were literally thousands -- mostly children -- who specialized in one or another 'profession' such as collecting dog droppings (referred to as "pure"), dragging the mud of the Thames at low tide ("mudlarks"), or sweeping the filth from the streets so the "better sort" could cross unsullied. Street-vendors sold every many of goods from coffee and tea to ballads and oysters. Those working on the streets offered entertainments as well -- Punch-and-Judy, the Chinese Shades, and even a street-exhibition of views of the Moon via telescope. The poor, however poor they were, also had at least some entertainments of their own, among them the raree-show and the "penny gaff" -- the latter a sort of tawdry theatre full of obscene songs and guffawing, often set up in an empty storefront on a short-term basis. Mayhew's description of his visit to one is hilarious for his breathless condemnation of all he sees and hears -- but in the case, as with others of his hundreds of columns for the Morning Chronicle, he figuratively held his nose in order to obtain the first-person accounts of the darker corners of London which had become, oddly, a source of entertainment for his middle-class readership.

In Mayhew's final volume, he took on the uncomfortable subject of prostitution -- shielded by euphemisms, but nevertheless quite detailed -- and backed with statistics broken down by parish and district. In an era when, at public theatres such as Covent-Garden, there were two cab-ranks -- one for gentlemen going home with their wives, one for those electing other company -- Mayhew's work claimed a curious kind of precedence, lifting the veil on night life without necessarily laying the problem at the feet of those men of the seemingly "respectable" classes whose patronage kept the business thriving.