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This report is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.The Pebble Chance
One night in Rome, which is to say, not fully a week ago, I lay awake, my thought ensnared upon a spray of sculpted marble leaves. And there, trapped as it were, I peered through the gaps between the leaves into creamy white space, feeling all the while a sense of growing disturbance. At last sleep freed me, at about five or so, after which I had one of the worst nightmares of my life. I will not say what it was, other than it shall remain in the locked cabinet of the unspeakable.
When I enter upon one of these mental loops usually it is a strand of music that keeps me awake, sometimes a single bar played over and over, and there is no remedy for it, not even listening to another, vastly different, tune. There's no saying which music it will be, although invariably it is something whose effect is circular, feeding constantly into itself, such that I am trapped inside the piece, one of Björk's aural landscapes, for example, the barcarolle from Les Contes d'Hoffmann or, worse still, the Liebestod in Tristan und Isolde, in which event, when Teutonic sex and Teutonic death entwine, I'm in deep trouble. Melody, malady. This time, most unusually for me, it was a visual image that wouldn't quit me - the laurel leaves sprouting from the fingers of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's Daphne, part of the sculpture called Apollo e Dafne. Admittedly I had not known of its existence, which is tantamount to confessing an ignorance of the Mona Lisa or Ovid or Shakespeare. When, earlier that day, I came upon it in the Villa Borghese I couldn't tear myself away and when I went to bed that evening it was with me still, or, rather, what stayed with me was a spectre of marble leaves.
The story of Apollo and Daphne is, of course, most famously versified in Ovid's Metamorphoses where Daphne, fleeing Apollo's advances, escapes by turning into a laurel tree, which in the Greek language still bears her name, but it is probable that Bernini drew his inspiration from a secondary, fuller, telling of the legend, Giambattista Marino's poem Dafne, published in 1620, two years before he began work on his sculpture. Apparently the skilful prosodic unfolding in Marino's eclogue is closely followed in Bernini's sculpture. I've never been sure about these arguments though, because I don't think creative osmosis is anywhere near as direct as critics would have us believe. The object of influence is usually at a single, if not a double, remove. Originally the sculpture, which was never meant to be viewed fully in the round, was placed against a wall, close to the door, so that one approached it from the side, seeing first the material flowing behind Apollo, suggestive of the great speed at which he moves, and then, as one walked to the front of it, the bark of the laurel tree closing over Daphne's lower anatomy, forever sealing her from Apollo's sexual advances. The transformation is completed in the circumnavigating observer's eyes. And there the couple remain, in a split second of frozen time. Whatever the purists say, I am not overly bothered by the sculpture being in the middle of the room. I appreciate getting a peek at the motor that drives the engine. The flowing lines of the sculpture are diabolically simple, such that their execution verges on the impossible. Bernini, only twenty-three when he started work on it, appears to have invited upon himself every challenge the medium could offer and then, after having pushed fully against the limits of the physically possible, he never again attempted another sculpture on the same scale. I can only imagine that Apollo e Dafne was produced in a state of terror and elation, for a single slip of the chisel would have wrecked the whole. Consider, for example, the weightlessness of Daphne's flowing hair, what an incredible feat that is. So fine is the execution, in fact, that almost immediately one takes it for granted. The whole burden of the sculpture seems, at first, to rest upon Apollo's right foot while Daphne's almost fully naked body is boosted into space, held back only by Apollo's hand upon her belly. Daphne's fear is such that she does not yet notice she is turning into the tree, and Apollo, although his face registers the shock of what he sees, is still physically caught in the ardour of the chase. What we see in his face is not lust anymore, but the surprise of one who sees into eternity more deeply than he'd care to. The Greek gods, splendid company though they were, were fundamentally shallow creatures. One has to applaud Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Bernini's early patron, for having admitted so much pagan atmosphere into his house.
Sleepless in Rome, why did my thought not settle instead on the terror in Daphne's face or on the tragic sense of loss in Apollo's? Why on this finely chiselled fingering into leaves? And now, dwelling upon the hallucinogenic qualities of the work, every element of which Bernini willed into place, it strikes me that in order to have seen those leaves, from that particular angle, I would need to have been raised three or four feet above the floor and positioned about six inches away from the marble. Who, though, does not fly at times?
Some years ago, I had been to the spot where, allegedly, Apollo's pursuit of Daphne took place. The gardens that to this day bear her name are a few miles south of Antakya in the Hatay province of Turkey. Antakya is the ugly offspring of Antioch, the city fabled once as `the fair crown of the Orient'. I caught a dolmus from there to Daphne. There is a local legend concerning the origin of these gardens. When Daphne made her escape, Apollo, in his grief at the loss, shot all his arrows, an act psychologically odder than one might first suppose. The tip of one, with his name on it, embedded itself in the earth. When hunting in these parts, the Macedonian Seleucus found the arrowhead or rather his horse did when it churned the soil with its hooves. After reading the inscription Seleucus dedicated the area to Apollo, planted a cypress grove, and built a temple near the spring in which the oracle of Apollo was supposed to reside. As the grove of Daphne was considered sacred it served also as a sanctuary to debtors, criminals and runaway slaves. They could not be touched within the tenmile circumference of the grove. And it was in these gardens where, much to the disapproval of the Christian orator, Chrysostom, and the pagan orator, Libanius, that the inhabitants of Antioch took their pleasure. So infamous did those gardens become, as a place for free sexual licence, the city nearby was sometimes mockingly referred to as `Antioch near Daphne'. (Could it have been a breeze moving through the branches or something else?) In 351, Caesar Gallus, in an effort to combat paganism, had the remains of Saint Babylus, Bishop of Antioch, who had been martyred almost a hundred years earlier, moved from the Christian cemetery at Antioch to a spot in Daphne near the Temple of Apollo. (This, incidentally, is the first recorded instance of a saint's translation.) Julian the Apostate, whose shortcomings were magnified at the expense of his many virtues, sought to reverse the Christian tide. When, in 362, he came to Daphne he was informed of `bodies' in the neighbourhood, whose presence `blocked' the oracle. After a purification ceremony, the relics of Saint Babylus were moved back to Antioch, his stone coffin escorted by Christians singing from Psalms 97.7: `Confounded be all they that serve graven images, that boast themselves of idols!' (This, presumably, is the second recorded instance of a saint's translation.) Julian then ordered the restoration of the Temple of Apollo at Daphne. When he went there to celebrate, expecting much pomp and circumstance, all he found was one priest (pagan, of course) together with a goose that he had fetched from home for sacrifice. A contemporary describes Julian's eyes as being at once terrible and full of charm.
Daphne is today a pleasant spot, and although much of the area is given over to cafés all one need do is close one's eyes and listen to the sound of natural springs, the same that lulled the Antiochenes. A sound of melancholy Turkish music fills the air where once there were Roman, then Arabic, refrains. I left in the branches of a laurel tree, perhaps the very one that Daphne had turned into, or a descendant of the same, some verses written by a friend of mine, who, unable to move any distance from his bed, desired that I should leave them there. Almost every wish of his is a dying one. Such is their number, though, and so rarely are any of them realised that they will ensure, I hope, his survival for a long time to come.
A fox peers through the window of the room in which I write. No metaphorical creature, it comes presumably from somewhere along the Thames, where there are quite a few of them these days, city foxes, so brazen they slink right past one, cheeky swine. This specimen would need to have crossed busy traffic to get here. Moreover, access to the backs of these houses is not easy nor can there be any particular object in slipping through barricades. The garbage goes out front, the squirrels stay in the branches, and the cats keep their distance. I can't imagine what it is doing for sustenance, although I suspect the lady next door, a veteran of the Soho sex club scene, is putting out scraps of some kind or even something more toothsome. Anyway, it is the same fox that gave a sickly cry the night I got back from Rome. The sound apparently is that which a vixen in heat makes. I dimly recall a line from Janáček's opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, about how he who partakes of a fox's tongue becomes invisible, which is how I feel in relation to the silhouette outside. I may as well not be here for all it cares. I wonder what the purpose of its visit is and, if it's true all things have a purpose, whether it has anything to do with this prose.
Another kind of disturbance comes, a more sober one, which, I believe, may be connected to my own continuing poetic silence. I have been waiting for a breeze, an unbidden factor, a gondola painted in red and blue stripes. Would that it were true, what friends say to me, that I must be secretly composing verses. Admittedly my inclination is to say nothing at all that would persuade them otherwise: I should like to believe something is going on inside me, if not actually on the page, a mustering of creative forces. What is the writing of this prose but an attempt to plug the holes poetry's absence makes? I do not especially want to put myself on centre stage here, but I begin to wonder whether this, and by this I mean my poetic silence, is not connected to my deeper fear that our civilisation is acting upon a suiciding principle and that, in the face of this, in the same way others might doubt the efficacy of prayer, I call into question the apotropaic powers of verse. Did seeing the Apollo e Dafne and, later that night, as though sent to torment me, its sculpted leaves, not reinforce a sense of crisis in me? Was Bernini not cushioned by certainties, which peevish minds would now dismiss as the arrogance of his age? And have we not swapped bigger for smaller absolutes, so that all the world has left in its cupboard now are weak ironies and surrogate moralities? A friend rumbles me, reminding me that poets of all ages have spoken of and despaired of the depredations of their times. What I am looking for, he tells me, is an easy way out whereas, really, what I need to do is probe deeper and to touch, even obliquely, whatever is consuming me. I struggle against my own reluctance. I cast about for a missing word, one that will shift the onus from civilisation's discontents onto mine, and which will allow me to quit the stage with a modicum of grace. And then, hearing my friend's scolding yet kindly voice, suddenly it sails into view, the word I had been looking for. Paralysis, then mental, spiritual. A brilliant critic, Walter Jackson Bate, speaks of `the burden of the past' although I wonder if that phrase ought not to be accompanied by `the burden of the future', the millstone in the brain that comes of too much knowledge. The scientists say all is finite, which is what the Qur'anic inscription on my wall says, which I purchased from an elderly calligrapher in Damascus. The best reeds, he told me, came from the marshes in Iraq, which now a tyrant had destroyed along with its people. This same man was working on a calligraphic computer image. A shudder runs through this prose. Will nothing survive? One day even those marble leaves, signifying, as it were, a wink of eternity, will shatter into a thousand pieces. And the Eternal City itself will collapse. I wonder, then, how, between the burdens of past and future, one is supposed to be able to move. Surely, though, I am mistaken in my doubts - to produce a line is, in a sense, to purge oneself of uncertainties, or, to put eternity in its proper place, to situate past and future within the now, which is what the mystics teach us. Still I wonder if I am not right to be wrong, whether wrongness is not a means of getting at what's true.
What became of the ancient gods? At the time of their demise, in people's minds were they like snuffed candles or did they flicker for a while? I suspect they were kept mentally in reserve just in case God, God in the singular, that is, failed to be anything more than a passing phase. It could be, of course, that, once demoted to the commonplace, the gods simply had to amuse themselves. When I left the Villa Borghese, heading in the direction of the Via Veneto, I found them, at the very edge of the grounds, a group of elegant, regular, white-haired Roman gods playing the ancient game of boules although, this being Italy, they were not playing boules at all but bocce. Same game, same rules. The beauty of the game lies in the fact that so much depends upon the wedding between skill and chance. One must seek to absorb within oneself the irregularities of the world's surface so that, when pitched with intelligence, one's ball might come as close as possible to the cochonnet or, this being Italy, the pallino. A tiny pebble can alter its course. The direction in which the ball then goes may be the wrong one equally, it may be the right. There is, I believe, an element of the religious in the game - the penalty for even the smallest misdemeanour is harsh, a player may be sent into exile, and because strict observance of the rules is required, and, with it, as in prayer, much concentration of mind, one must not disturb the atmosphere. That afternoon in Rome, storm clouds gathering in the skies, the players - the gods, I mean were artists making what they could of their givens, their materials, while, at the same time, vying for the kindly attentions of the Muse. Suddenly one of them, who I think may have been Jupiter, aware, perhaps, that the weather was about to change, took a bold gamble. Somewhat ostentatiously he threw the ball overhand so as to effect the necessary spin for the drop shot that in French is called la portée and for which, alas, I do not have the Italian. As the curve of his ball cracked down hard upon the curve of another, simultaneously he performed a pirouette, that is, he did so before he knew what the result was, and, with one arm raised, a finger pointing to the clouds above, and with a grace impossible to describe, for just for a frozen second or two, his stout but not at all plump body was boosted into space. Apropos of the above, I have just finished editing a series of conversations I recorded with the poet Christopher Middleton, much of which is given over to the process of writing, and there is one passage in particular in which he speaks of the wedding, in language, between skill and chance:
And you try things out. It looks final when you've got it out there, but, while you are composing, the intrusion of this unbidden factor is an odd thing out of the blue and you get stuck, wherever the blue is, for a word nudges its own way into position. You know it's wrong, but it's getting in the way for another one and then finally the right one, unbidden, nudges that other one out of position and there you are, you have it, though you couldn't have excogitated that word, but it's somehow seeking company with the others because it is anomalous in their company, normally, but under these conditions it belongs there with them and often, I think, it's the musical or quasi-musicaI, the phonic qualities of the whole ensemble which, as it were, welcome that one missing word into the company of the others.
Suddenly they are interchangeable, the one word nudging another out of position and the random shot, the wild particle that surely is more than just a fluke. It is the breeze one has been hoping for, which will make one's boat move. And it's what makes marble flesh, the fur on an animal's back rise. Oh, and I have seen that Roman before, in some painting, I believe, but I can't remember which one. All I can say for sure is that in it he is seen from behind, leaping upwards, his solidity not a hindrance. As with Apollo and Daphne, time has not caught up with him, and, without his yet knowing it, a redundant god brings into play art's unbidden swerve.
Palavers - Christopher Middleton in Conversation with Marius Kociejowski, together with Nocturnal Journal, will be published by Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4LD in September 2004.
This report is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.