Monday, February 29, 2016

Wanderings through the Mark Brandenburg

Reading the new translations of Walter Benjamin's radio broadcasts, made between 1929 and 1932, you are aware of how quickly the world in which they went out would disappear.  The final set of programmes about the catastrophes of history now seems to point towards the disaster that would shortly engulf Germany and eventually Benjamin himself.  The broadcaster was, in Benjamin's imagination, a guest in people's homes but, as Peter Conrad wrote in his review of Radio Benjamin, 'when the Nazis took control of Germany’s airwaves, such polite protocols were suspended.  A welcome guest no longer dispensed sage advice or told cautionary stories; instead, one man harangued a crowd, shouting tirades at top volume.'  How many Berlin Youth Hour listeners, you wonder, would grow up to fight in the Wehrmacht ten years later?  
The programme I want to highight here, 'Fontane's Wanderings through the Mark Brandenburg', begins with the idea that the landscape surrounding the city was 'discovered by the youth of Berlin'.  This Wandervogel movement would soon be outlawed, along with other groups distinct from the Hitler Youth.  However, as its title indicates, the main subject of Benjamin's broadcast was not these young walkers, or the wider groups of Bündische Jugend.  What he proceded to talk about was a remarkable topographical project, conceived one day in 1858 on Loch Levan in Scotland, by Theodor Fontane.
'In the middle of the loch lies an island, and on the middle of the island, half hidden behind ash trees and black firs, rises an old Douglas castle, the Loch Levan Castle of song and legend.  On returning to land by boat, the oars rapidly engaged, the island became a strip, finally disappearing altogether, and for a while, only as a figure of the mind, the round tower remained before us on the water, until suddenly our imagination receded further into its memories and older images eclipsed the images of this hour.  They were memories of our native land, an unforgotten day.  It was the image of Rheinsberg Castle that, like a Fata Morgana, hovered over Loch Levan...'
In that moment Fontane realised that the landscape made famous by Walter Scott was really no more beautiful than the sandy terrain of his native Mark Brandenburg.  And so he began his wanderings, selecting material to write about like 'a walker picking individual ears of grain'.  In 1860 he wrote to his friend Theodor Storm that the result might run to twenty volumes; in the event it was published in five, between 1862 and 1889.  The result was, as Benjamin told his listeners, 'far more than tedious descriptions of landscapes and castles, these books are full of stories, anecdotes, old documents, and portraits of fascinating people.'  It is not hard to imagine this appealing to Benjamin.  It sounds as if it would be enjoyed by English readers too if a modern selection were published, perhaps by an editor/translator looking, like Benjamin, to illuminate our understanding of culture and social change.  Although Fontane's novels have appeared in English (Before The Storm is one of my father's favourite books), I've not come across a translation of the Wanderings through the Mark Brandenburg, either in full or abridged form.

Carl Blechen, Rural Landscape in the Mark Brandenburg, c. 1831-8

Benjamin concluded this broadcast with his own description of the broad, expansive landscape of the Mark - quoted below again in the translation by Lecia Rosenthal - and some verse by Fontane that hardly needs to be translated.
'Its sandy, marly soil does not lend itself to strong shapes; however, one is occasionally surprised to come across a steep precipice, or a gorge ripped into the earth.  But the plain of the Mark, with its birch forests and cast acres of fields stretching to the horizon like a broad sea of gray and green, is the landscape's most beautiful feature.  It is so shy, subtle, and unobtrusive that sometimes, at sundown, on the water amid pillars of pine, you think you're in Japan, and other times, in the limestone hills of Rüdersdorf, you imagine yourself in the desert, until the names of the villages here call you back to reality.  Fontane strung some of these names together in a few light and airy lines, which we close with today.

And on this tapestry's flourishing seam
the laughing villages prosper and teem:
Linow, Lindow,
Rhinow, Glindow,
Beetz and Gatow,
Dreetz and Flatow,
Bamme, Damme, Kriele, Krielow,
Petzow, Retzow, Ferch am Schwielow,
Zachow, Wachow and Groß-Behnitz,
Marquardt-Ütz at Wublitz-Schlänitz,
Senzke, Lenzke and Marzahne,
Lietzow, Tietzow and Rekahne,
And lastly a garland of lively haunts:
Ketzin, Ketzür and Vehlefanz.'

Landscape view in the 1986 TV adaptation
Theodor Fontane, Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg

Footnote: Michael Rosen's excellent programme on the Benjamin broadcasts can be heard on the BBC archive.  Although he doesn't explore the countryside of the Mark Brandenburg, he visits the Benjamin archive in Berlin and locations described in the original programmes .

Monday, February 22, 2016


 Ambrosius Holbein, The Island of Utopia, 1516

2016 marks the five hundredth anniversary of Thomas More's Utopia.  The book has little in detail to say about Utopia's topography, although we are told that it was once a peninsula, before a channel was cut through the isthmus connecting it to the mainland, creating a crescent shaped island that is like one great harbour.  The land itself is not especially fertile but the Utopians make good use of their natural resources and enjoy their communal gardens.  In his introduction to the Penguin translation Paul Turner provides an amusing overview of utopian and dystopian literature, from the vision of paradise in The Epic of Gilgamesh  to recent novels by Huxley, Orwell, Evelyn Waugh and Mary McCarthy.  More's chief model was Plato's Republic, in which Socrates describes his ideal state.  It is in Plato's Critias however, that he imagines an actual location for a utopian society: the island of Atlantis, formed of concentric rings with springs that provide both hot and cold water.  Before Plato, Paradise was imagined in the form of Elysium, which Homer located on the western edge of Earth. Turner writes that in The Odyssey 'the description of the Elysian Fields stresses chiefly the superb weather-conditions; but Lucian, completing the picture later, represents Elysium as a luxurious holiday-camp, with honey and scent laid on, permanent background music provided by nightingales, and self-filling wine glasses.'

Ambrosius Holbein, The Island of Utopia, 1518

The first edition of Utopia came with a sketch-map of the island by Hans Holbein's elder brother Ambrosius.  However a slightly different version appeared in 1518, within a book devoted to the work of More and Erasmus that had engravings by both of the Holbeins.  In this new version the ship's position in relation to the island makes it resemble a skull, slightly reminiscent of the famous anamorphic skull in Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors.  There is an interesting article on this in the British Dental Journal which suggests that Erasmus may have suggested a memento mori design as a pun on More's name.  At first I thought special dental techniques had been used in this research and that there might have been something uniquely interesting about the 'ship of teeth'.  However, the article is actually an excursion into art history by a practising dentist whose 'experience in dental radiology' heightened his perception of concealed anatomical structures.  It is a striking idea that the particular viewpoint dentists habitually have of our upturned faces may lead them to read landscapes differently (not what Woody Allen had in mind I think when he wrote 'If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists').  The Utopians may have had need of dentists, as their meals ended with a great variety of sweets and fruits.  Dentists are not mentioned explicitly but Utopia has a plentiful supply of medical equipment, experienced doctors and sympathetic nurses, so that 'practically everyone would rather be ill in hospitals than at home.'

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Rainbow Mid Life’s Willows

Ian Nairn once described the view from 'decent quiet Duquesne Heights onto the roaring heart of Pittsburgh' as the epitome of terribilità.  If he were there today, half a century later, he could look across to the city's cultural district, where the Wood Street Galleries are hosting an exhibition of British landscape art.  Pastoral Noir is curated by Justin Hopper who grew up in the city but now lives over here, in Suffolk.  He has been responsible for some interesting recent experiments in the fusion of image, sound and text on themes of place and memory.  In 2014 he recorded Ley Line, 'a series of poems based on walks in Pittsburgh along a fabricated ley line connecting the central church with a handmade shrine to the Virgin Mary overlooking the river - passing, on the way, the house in which Andy Warhol was built and the one in which Keith Haring lived, as well as many local and personal landmarks.' These pieces were 'bookended by two poems based on Anglo-American folk songs found in both Sussex and Appalachia, read by myself and Shirley Collins' and there was music too by The Belbury Poly and Host Skull.

Justin has now sent me his new album, 'I Made Some Low Inquiries', which again combines words and music and draws connections between the old weird American and English folklore.  Its title is a line in an old song that Almeda Riddle recorded under the poetic title 'Rainbow Mid Life’s Willows' for Alan Lomax and Shirley Collins, during their field recording trip through the South in 1959.  Justin's texts also draw on stories told to George Ewart Evans, poems by Seán Ó Ríordáin and the writings of French psychogeographer Jacques Réda.  You can see in the video clip below how this sounds with musical accompaniment from Jem Finer, Susie Honeyman of the Mekons and others.  Justin has a great voice for spoken word performance - from an English perspective his American accent sounds neutrally classless, not immediately identifiable either with those who live and work on the land or those who own, walk over and contemplate it.  Folk music always raises awkward questions around our position as listeners, our yearning for authenticity and lost connections with the land.  But Justin is prepared to risk romanticising a singer like Almeda Riddle in order to convey some of the emotional intensity, the terribilità, in her songs...   
'Throughout Collins’ and Lomax’s recordings one pictures oneself at the scene hearing these men and women sing, an act so normal to them as breathing and yet an act of alien beauty to the visitor.  It is, of course, wrong to produce an ‘other’ of one’s subject.  But this Ozark songstress is alien – not in place, but in time.  Hers is a song of the landscape – an intersection of history and now, of weather and sorrow.  It is untranslatable, and yet, here, we attempt to translate it. It is a song worth imbibing – despite its powerful, uncanny taste.'

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Coast of Bohemia

Joseph Wright of Derby, Antigonus in the Storm, 1790-2

On Tuesday we went to see The Winter's Tale at the atmospheric, candlelit Sam Wannamaker Theatre.  I am sure I was not alone in looking forward to seeing how the director dealt with Shakespeare's most famous stage direction: 'Exit, pursued by a bear'.  When it came, this scene played out in near darkness, rightly leaving a lot to the imagination.  This worked well not just because it must be hard to convincingly stage an unexpected bear attack, but because the pursuit takes place on the non-existent desert shoreline of Bohemia.  Perhaps we are not meant to try too hard to picture the surrounding landscape.  Nevertheless, I love the way Joseph Wright has endeavoured to imagine this scene as it might actually have occurred, depicting the rocky beach where Antigonus was pursued and met his grisly end, 'torn to pieces with a bear.'  This painting is in Ontario where it has been shown alongside sound machines traditionally used in 18th century theatre productions, one imitating the wind (canvas passing over wood) and the other rain (beads rotating in a drum.)

Much speculation has gone into Shakespeare's setting for this part of the play.  Some historians have thought he cannot have meant Bohemia and was referring to somewhere else - Apulia, perhaps, or Bithynia.  Others have pointed to the play's source (Robert Green's pastoral Pandosto) which also refers to Bohemia's coast, or have explained it in terms of the political advantage in siting the action in the country of an ally of James I.  But pastoral has never been at all realistic and Shakespeare probably felt as free to imagine 'Bohemia' as his contemporaries would Arcadia.  This is not the only point in the play where reality and fantasy fuse: the actual Renaissance artist Giulio Romano is referred to as sculptor of the statue of Hermione that miraculously comes to life (Giulio was a painter, not a sculptor).  Shakespeare's Bohemia reminds me of another mythical place that I wrote about here before, Kafka's Amerika.  Kafka created a version of that distant continent that was a kind of 'exploded Bohemia'; Shakespeare's coast of Bohemia is similarly a country drawn out of dreams and desires (Kafka on the shore, one might say).

Gelett Burgess, A Map of Bohemia, 1896

In A Time of Gifts the young Patrick Leigh Fermor, walking alone along the Danube near the southern edge of old Bohemia, thinking of The Winter's Tale, dreams up his own theory.  'As I marched downstream, inspiration struck.  'Coast' must originally have meant 'side' or 'edge', not necessarily connected with 'sea' at all!  Perhaps this very path was the Coast of Bohemia - at any rate the Coast of the Forest: near enough!'  Remembering the plot, he imagines a route for Antigonus: sailing from Sicilia to Trieste, overland to Vienna and then up the Danube. 'The ship, running into terrible storms, probably among the Grein whirlpools, founders.  Antigonous, the old courtier, scrambles ashore, - perhaps just under the castle of Werfenstein!' The bear would have emerged from the forest and Act IV's sheep-shearing festivities might have been celebrated in one of the nearby farms.  It is a wonderful moment of creative excitement... followed by crushing disappointment when he arrives at Vienna, checks the play text and realises that Shakespeare's didn't actually use the word coast at all:

SCENE III. Bohemia. A desert country near the sea.  

Later, unable to give up on his speculations, Leigh Fermor has a second moment of jubilation after an afternoon spent in his host's library searching for connections between England and Bohemia.  'The windows of the flat looked down on the whole of Prague.  Towards the end of my search, the pale sun had set among those silver and purplish clouds and at lighting-up time all the lamps of the city had leapt simultaneously to life.'  His host suddenly has an idea and takes down a history book.  It explains that Bohemia did briefly have a coastline, when its territory extended to Dalmatia.  Celebratory drinks are poured in a mood both victorious and valedictory, as the young literary detective is set to leave Prague and head off again on his slow journey to Istanbul.  Years later, writing the book, Leigh Fermor looks back on all this with the knowledge that Shakespeare's comedies always have an imaginary topography...
'Woods and parkland on the Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire borders, that is; flocks and fairs and a palace or two, a mixture of Cockayne- and Cloud-Cuckoo- and fairyland with stage mountains rather taller than the Cotswolds and full of torrents and caves, haunted by bears and washed, if need be, by an ocean teeming with foundering ships and mermaids.'

Monday, February 08, 2016

Tall Mountains and Flowing Waters

In an earlier post, 'Clouds over the Xiao and Xiang Rivers', I discussed landscape imagery in Song dynasty music for the qin (Wade-Giles: ch'in).  The ch'in, a type of zither but sometimes confusingly referred to as a lute, is the great instrument of Chinese history, played by scholars, emperors and poets.  There was T'ao Yüan-ming for example, whose fondness for it, along with books and wine, I once referred to here (T'ao was the founder of 'fields-and-gardens' poetry).  Indeed, 'T'ao was ultimately so imbued with ch'in music that he removed the strings from his instrument, writing that "I have understood the deeper meaning of the ch'in, why should I need the sound of the strings?"  This may help to explain why certain inaudible effects executed on the ch'in are admired, as both the performer and the educated listener can imagine the sounds even when they cannot hear them.  T'ao's statement also provided an excuse for later scholars who owned an instrument but could not play it.'

 Uragami Shunkin, A Portrait of Uragami Gyokudō, 1813

This quotation actually comes from a book about a Japanese ch'in player, Uragami Gyokudō (1745-1820).  In Tall Mountains and Flowing Waters: The Arts of Uragami Gyokudō, Stephen Addiss covers not just his music, but also Gyokudō's poetry, calligraphy and landscape painting.  It was music that came first though, as Minagawa Kien made clear in the preface to a collection of Gyokudō's poems, suggesting that this ability on the ch'in enabled Gyokudō to evoke the 'craggy and vast'.  In this he resembled the ancient Chinese ch'in player Po Ya, who could convey in his music the qualities of 'Tall Mountains' and 'Flowing Waters'.  Kien was referring here to a story in the Taoist text Lieh-tzu that became proverbial as an example of the understanding between friends.  Po Ya's friend Chung Tzu-ch'i was so in tune with his mind and music that he always knew what Po Ya was thinking when he played.  When Chung Tzu-ch'i died, Po Ya broke the strings of his ch'in and never played again.

Uragami Gyokudō, Snow Sifted Through Frozen Clouds, c. 1810

Gyokudō epitomised the bunjin ideal: an amateur artist who painted 'without knowledge of the six laws', who loved to play the ch'in but did not 'know the rules', who read for pleasure and detested scholarship.  Nevertheless it is easy to imagine that as the years went by his daily work as an official would have been increasingly tiresome.  In 1794 political circumstances prompted him to resign and devote himself entirely to the arts.  He seems to have had no regrets.  In 'Shutting My Gate, I Play the Ch'in' he writes of having left his concerns behind.  In another poem he finds that 'fifty years have passed / like a whistle in the wind,' and now 'among the short-tailed deer, / I strum my ch'in.'  Elsewhere he describes  himself like a figure in a painting: an old man playing his instrument as night deepens, illuminated by a moon above Dragon Mountain.   Or he can be found listening to the autumn wind in the forest trees and chanting his poems to the accompaniment of a waterfall.
You ask the plan of my life?
At roof's edge a strip of clouds,
inside the walls a ch'in.

Stephen Addiss performing 'Hito - Man's Nature' by Uragami Gyokudō

Friday, February 05, 2016

Study of Rocks and Trees

The Regional Book by David Matless was reviewed back in October by Ken Worpole on his New English Landscape blog.  He summarises it as 'a gazetteer of 44 Norfolk places, each described in telegraphese, halfway in style between Pevsner and the poet Roy Fuller.'  The book's style is indeed unusual, its highly abbreviated sentences reflecting the flatness of the landscape described, its cadences often reminding me of crossword clues.  Rather than discuss the book as a whole and risk repeating what Ken says, I want here to mention just one of the entries, on Norwich Castle Museum.  It's hardly a representative location but the section begins like others, with a spatial location and succinct description: ‘Ten miles from the Bure, one from the Wensum, on a Norman mound. The region on display in paint and diorama.’ A list of local subjects treated in the museum's paintings it terminates thus: ‘Studies in landscape, Langley’s scrutiny: uninventable.’ The solution to this cryptic reference can be found towards the end of R. F. Langley's wonderful journals (Helen MacDonald's desert island book).  Matless is referring to an entry for August 2005, when Langley stopped and studied the Museum's paintings with the kind of long, close attention I've written about here before.

What Langley most admired were the watercolours of John Middleton (1827-56), particularly a Study of Rocks and Trees.  'The left side is ghosted in, a rising track, the right an equally hinted slope falling away with sky open behind it.  The foreground is out of focus rocks and clitter, done with the slightest washes and touches.  The centre is thus presented as altogether important, with the feeling of air around your head as you look at it, space where you are not looking.’ He describes the knots and gnarls and bulges of the trunks, patches of lichen found by the sun and branches twisting in unpredictable ways.  ‘Shadows jink over the individuality of irregularities.  The whole is done without any mess, everywhere with flair.’ Langley, writing of Middleton in a way that could easily be a description of his own prose and poems, finds that ‘nobody else has done the looking that was involved like this.  A study.  Indeed.’  Nothing else in the gallery that day had quite this quality of an actual place found, unique and ‘uninventable’.  The tree Middleton painted is a kind of challenge to the way we experience art and landscape.  ‘It makes fools of those who pass down the corridor with only a glance, as it does those who stroll down the lanes without being brought to a stop.  Seeing it like this must matter.’

The cover of the book is a drawing made by the author in 1962
(I cannot find an image of John Middleton's painting, but this looks to have ths same uninventable quality)