Listening to Cassandra

Sandys, Frederick, 1829-1904; Cassandra

(Frederick Sandys, Cassandra; Ulster Museum)

Voting ends today in the Conservative leadership contest, ‘a curious spectator sport’, William Davies wrote recently, ‘(save for the 160,000 electors with Conservative Party membership cards) in which the first contestant to accept reality is the loser.’[1]

Neither candidate had many brushes with reality but it was hardly to be expected that they would. Their more febrile supporters are not interested in that kind of thing. For the rest of us, since the depressing facts about the overwhelming favourite—a proven liar who squandered grotesquely large sums of public money, whose views change in accordance with what his audience wishes to hear and whose only loyalty seems to be to himself—are widely known and rarely disputed, the real point of interest is how he can still command so much support and what are the real motives of those supporting him? As for what comes next – there are, there have been, many incisive and compelling pieces but their only audience, I suspect, has been among those already thinking along similar lines, who ‘follow politics’ and know something of the relevant history. And beyond that? The name ‘Cassandra’ comes to mind.

Cassandra was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba. The god Apollo offered her the gift of prophecy in return for her sexual favour, an arrangement which she agreed to – but she evaded him once he had bestowed it. Apollo supposedly then spat in her mouth, rendering the gift useless, since her predictions would never be believed. So she foresaw the fall of Troy, the fatal role of Paris, the disastrous entry of the wooden horse into the city and more – but nobody listened. Abducted by Ajax, she fell as prize to Agamemnon, bore him twins and, when taken back to Mycenae, was murdered by Clytemnestra – along with Agamemnon.

Cassandra

(Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Cassandra in the BBC series Troy: Fall of a City)

So a good many commentators may have read the runes correctly, diagnosed the sickness correctly and, in all probability, predicted the results correctly – but another god has spat in their mouths and termed them part of ‘Project Fear’.

As for the original Cassandra: there are several versions of her too – but try a taste of Anne Carson’s:

‘Bear me witness:
I know that smell. Evils. Evils long ago.
A chorus of singers broods upon this house,
they never leave,
their tune is bad, they drink cocktails of
human blood and party through the rooms.
You will not get them out.’[2]

I think she may be on to something there. Best listen to Cassandra.

 

Notes

[1] See his ‘Short Cuts’, London Review of Books, 41, 14 (18 July 2019), 9-14.
[2] Aeschylus, Agamemnon, in An Oresteia, translated by Anne Carson (New York: Faber and Faber, 2009), 54.

 

Always changing, always the same

durrell.via.theamericanreader.com .  Mansfield

‘I think that, as I say, in England, living as if we are not part of Europe, we are living against the grain of what is nourishing to our artists, do you see? There seems to be an ingrown psychological thing about it, I don’t know why it is. You can see it reflected even in quite primitive ways like this market business now—the European Common Market. It’s purely psychological, the feeling that we are too damned superior to join this bunch of continentals in anything they do. And I think that’s why it is so vitally important for young artists to identify more and more with Europe. As for me, I have joined the Common Market, as it were. But, mind you, that doesn’t qualify one’s origins or one’s attitude to things. I mean if I’m writing, I’m writing for England—and so long as I write English it will be for England that I have to write.’

(Lawrence Durrell—born 27 February 1912: happy birthday, Larry—interviewed by Julian Mitchell and Gene Andrewski, 23 April 1959,[1] fourteen years before the United Kingdom joined what was then the EEC (European Economic Community). Two years later, a referendum resulted in a 67.2% vote in favour of remaining in the EEC.)

‘I shall never live in England again’, Katherine Mansfield wrote to Sydney Waterlow, ‘I recognise England’s admirable qualities, but we simply don’t get on. We have nothing to say to each other, we are always meeting as strangers.’[2] Of course, that ‘never’ turned out to have strict limits since, less than two years after writing her letter, Mansfield was dead, at the age of thirty-four.

A hundred years on; there are still some ‘admirable qualities’ (my choices wouldn’t be everybody’s) and I shall certainly go on living in England. That ‘meeting as strangers’, though, crops up a lot just lately. Good grief, how many times can you ask the question—of the empty air or, indeed, of a Librarian—‘What is wrong with these people?’

Dore-Punishment-Sowers-Discord

(Gustave Doré, ‘Punishment of the Sowers of Discord’ (1890), illustration for Dante’s Inferno)

The end-of-pier show lurched into literature following Donald Tusk’s studied musing into a microphone as to ‘what the special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely’. Letter-writers determinedly sited the miscreants in Dante’s Inferno. I remember one suggestion that the ‘special place’ might be the poet’s eighth Bolgia or ditch, where the souls of deceivers and false counsellors are found, though I’d been thinking of the ninth one, where the sowers of discord are given a very hard time by a large demon equipped with a sharp sword. But of course, it might not be a special place at all and they may just be pitchforked in with the rest of the riff-raff.

There were people in the public sphere to be admired – but they all seemed to be under voting age – the twelve year old journalist Hilde Lysak, for instance (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/feb/24/hilde-lysak-police-officer-arrest-video) and the thousands of schoolchildren striking in protest at the feeble gestures made by the political class towards combatting climate change and environmental crisis, inspired by the example of the – now – sixteen year old Swede Greta Thunberg. The criticism of this demonstration from Downing Street and in the columns of one or two professional dimwits rather strengthened the case made by other commentators that the only adults in the room seemed to be, ah, children. The young environmental activists were acting in concert in the face of a planetary disaster. In the House of Commons, even the imminence of a national disaster couldn’t affect the posturing and squabbling and the exorbitant influence on Government policy exerted by a gaggle of fops, chancers and wide-boys.

Still, as a friend remarked to me yesterday, although the situation seems always the same it also seems to be constantly changing, a bizarre but discernible feature. So the Labour leadership has, at that familiar glacial pace, finally arrived at allowing, if not actually supporting, the idea of a People’s Vote, turning up at the party with a bottle of cheap white wine as the ashtrays are being emptied, the floors swept and the lights turned out. It could all, as they say, have been so different. But when historic opportunities come along, the relevant people need to be looking in the right direction.

 
References

[1] Writers at Work: the Paris Review Interviews, 2nd series, edited by George Plimpton ((Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), 263.

[2] Katherine Mansfield, Selected Letters, edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 199.

 

Terrible things

goya

(Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son)

A correspondent writes: ‘You will remember that Ford Madox Ford quote you often used—“Terrible things—for those to whom terrible things occur in their lives—happen in the last days of January”—and will no doubt trot it out again and try to connect it with that bloody damnable Brexit thing.’

No, Cornelius, I won’t trot it out again. Here, instead, is Edmund Blunden, the poet and prose writer, who served in France, was gassed and won the Military Cross, who died on this day forty-five years ago that. Early in his classic memoir, Undertones of War, he writes: ‘One of the first ideas that established themselves in my enquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the endlessness of the war. No one here appeared to conceive any end to it.’

Will we get to the end of this catastrophic farce—and, if we do, will it only be a beginning anyway? It’s not a comfortable or edifying spectacle, this watching your country eat its own intestines, though difficult to look away from, provoking as it does a kind of appalled fascination. There has been an avalanche of essays and articles on the theme of ‘how to break the impasse’, most managing to say nothing of much value. And with such rigidity and posturing, with so many people talking of ‘the national interest’ while actively pursuing something quite other, the signs are not promising.

milkman

Still, intelligence, imagination, tolerance, an understanding of history and knowledge of the human heart are readily available elsewhere, so thanks to – among others this month so far – Colm Tóibín, Anna Burns, Deborah Levy, Dorothy Baker and Henry James.

‘People can be extraordinarily slipshod whenever already they have made up their minds’, Anna Burns writes in Milkman, her very funny—and scary—Man Booker Prize-winning novel.

Indeed they can.