The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The Literary Journals

Posted on: February 8, 2007

Huzzah! Settling back into my routine Wednesday readings re-energised my journal blogging intentions. The February 2nd issue of the TLS featured a lively portrait of Kingsley Amis whose biography, written by Zachary Leader, is reviewed by Clive James. He admonished other critics for fixing their moral lenses on his sex life while ignoring his literary achievements. He rightly asserted that is only because of the latter that one holds any interest in the former, therefore that should take prominence. Then he employed a great deal of words to discuss Amis’ sex life, albeit in relation to his novels. I breathed a sigh of relief when he moved on to to Amis’ alcoholism and how that affected his writings and personal relationships.

Elizabeth Archibald reviewed Caroline Larrington’s King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition in the article “Magic School”. Larrington’s aim is to analyse what kind of magic the selected women use and how they use it and the “power of words” to be independent and autonomous. The book focuses on Morgan and her different literary manifestations as a “muse-like” figure in the Island of Apples, unrelated to Arthur (Viti Merlini c 1150 by Geoffrey of Monmouth) , to her first appearance as his sister in Draco Normannicus (1168). She notes the two kind of magic, one of which was acceptable (natural science) and the other which was not (demonic); in one tale (which I’ve forgotten) a nicer depiction of Morgan had her going to a convent where she learnt astrology which included astronomy. Other chapters are devoted to the medieval and Victorian Vivien, as well as other figures like Morgause and the Lady in the Lake. She also covers visual art inspired by Arthurian myth. One of Larrington’s conclusions is that women had to operate outside of family and courtly society in order to become or remain autonomous; characters who accepted the traditional roles of mother, daughter or sister were passive.

Archibald spotted a contradiction in Larrington’s critique of Morgan. At one point she presents her a “proponent of intimate life and home” then later says she is deemed to “unnaturally powerful”. First she is seen as a good representative of the intellectual but her motivations for working against Arthur and Camelot are petty. Archibald would have liked to see more written on the characters classical and Celtic predecessors and noted that general readers may find the balance of attention given to obscure texts vs modern films and texts unsatisfactory. But there are woven properly into the text with special mention given to Mercedes Lackey’s Mists of Avalon, described as the first influential work to have Morgan at the centre of the Arthurian narrative, battles occurring off-stage.

There were two Classics pieces. “The general’s art” written by Mary Beard covered a collection of essays on Roman militaristic art titled Representations of War in Ancient Rome, edited by Sheila Dillon and Katherine E. Welch.  (A book I considered purchasing until I saw the price tag. Damn.) It is commonly known that the military was a large part of the Roman identity at the time. Art was a way for leaders to make more immediate their victorious campaigns that often occurred miles away from citizens in the city; and it was a means to convert these into political currency. The rams of defeated enemy ships were displayed on the rostra. Captured enemy weaponry was displayed on the houses of generals, ideally to hang there forever, though Beard noted this was hardly the case. Pompey the Great built the first permanent theatre and linked it to porticoes and parks in which looted art was displayed.

Beard concludes that the book is an “engaging, well-illustrated and timely” essay collection with a few problems. The definition of what works should be considered Rome’s “art of war” is “capacious”: it’s in danger of categorising everything funded by Rome’s military victories as such. The analyses of the difference in style showed in the war on the Trajan and Marcus Aurelius columns is not quite persuasive. The art on Trajan’s columns features more decorous behaviour during war, particularly to women and children compared to Marcus’ column on which the army is depicted as nastily brutish. Paul Zanker argues that the difference stems from the different emperor’s aims. Trajan’s intention was to secure a regular province, to engender peaceful co-operation. Marcus sought to squash a barbarian enemy. Dillon finds this “realist” assessment too easy and Beard agrees: both wars were likely conducted in equally brutish fashion. Instead she supposes that it is a difference of message for the Roman viewers. Trajan’s reign came after the chaos of the Four Emperors so he wants to appear more disciplined and wholesome, engaging in such productive activities as bridge-building. Marcus wished the emphasise the male imperial power, with the savage acts on women and children pushing home to the point that his conquer of the barbarians continues in the second generation. Beard thinks this impressive but wonders at its veracity in light of the fact that the art on the column is practically invisible from the ground.

The overall harsh judgement of Ancient Rome found in the essays is also a flaw Beard finds. The Greeks are compared ever favourably to the Romans and the latter are portrayed as a homogenuous group, unequivocally support of the military ideals. No space is given to the group of subversive Latin poets and barely more than that to Tacitus, who voiced scathing criticisms on such values. Even the “Dying Gaul” sculpture, for a time displayed in Julius Caesar’s gardens, showed a noble figure, the respect given by the artist indicative that the Roman populace was not the monochramatic one portrayed.

Helen Morales’ “Sing, o cineaste” provoked quite a few laughs, all owed to Troy: from Homer’s Iliad to Hollywood Epic, edited by Martin Winkler, another essay collection. The blurb declares it “the first book to examine systematically Wolfgang Petersen’s epic film ‘Troy'” as if, Morales notes, someone expects there to be many more, when the existence of this one is a surprise. The film’s critical defenders are a treat. Dare you opine that Bradd Pitt and Eric Bana cannot act'”There is no rational basis for that judgement” harrumphs Jon Solomon’. Do you think Homer, Petersen’s equal? Another would agree: ‘”Both used their imagination and their storytelling skills,” observes Mandred O. Korffman with banal illogic’.

But it isn’t all snorts and laughter. An interesting point made by some was that the rewriting of myth was a tradition spanning back ages, from eyewitness accounts from different cultural perspectives and the expansion of the romance plot (Dictys of Crete, Dares of Troy) to Lucian’s satirical “Dream” (although can a satire count?), making film critiques on “Troy”‘s lack of accuracy “pedantic”. Still, Shabudin’s essay showed that the official website itself described the film as being “based on fact”, complete with “An Historical Primer” that contextualised Iliad in the Bronze age and discussed Troy excavations in Modern Turkey. (Messageboard participants complained that this made the film seem “educational” so the marketing folks stuck to promoting Pitt’s hot bod.)

Here’s an image I liked, one Morales used to describe how the crochety academics presented themselves in the essays. “Wrinkler emerges as the discipline’s Thersites, a worthy soldier, rudely thrusting popular culture upon an army of classicists who wait poised to strike him about the head with the sceptre of traditionalism.” However she claims that most Classics departments in the US and the UK have reception studies and courses on Classics and pop culture studies “mushroom like Starbucks” although Wrinkler and the contributors significantly helped to start this trend.

Last, I eagerly approached “Incense in translation” by John Wade which reviewed The Oxford Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: A Worldwide Survey. I was raised as an Anglican. Sadly, there was no mention of the Caribbean in the article at all, although a quick check for the book’s table of contents revealed that someone gave a crap about the Province of the West Indies. Every other Commonwealth region with a significant Christian population was mentioned. Maybe TLS contributors are forbidden to refer to countries outside of Europe (except the USA, of course, and Africa but only tangentially) unless it’s a “special issue” (like the January 26th release on Islamic culture). Anyway Wade made it sound like a good read. The text highlighted the comprehensiveness and accommodative nature of the liturgy, as well as the exceptional poetic quality and resonance of Thomas Crammer, who authored the first Book of Common Prayer. That text was used for centuries but was inevitably adapted to a more modern tongue, as Crammer would have supported, having said that the liturgy should always be written in the people’s tongue.

1 Response to "The Literary Journals"

[…] herself is a wonder to behold. I remembered one of the conclusions I drew from a TLS review and thought it definitely applied to Banti in the 17th century: “One of Larrington’s […]

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