Tag Archives: literature

1939 – TROUBLE AT MILL

6 Aug

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WYLER’S WUTHERING HEIGHTS

The assertion that a film fails to represent a book or doesn’t do it justice is not a new one and is common, especially when a production purports to accurately portray literary provenance. The process of embellishment or the reimagining of character or plot from canonized literature often leads to a faux representation that viewers accept as a true rendering of the author’s work, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Invariably a director will apply his own interpretation to that which doesn’t require gilding. Although we’ve come to regard film as art we must not delude ourselves that they – just as novels – are written for a market in the hope of profit and not just for aesthetic purposes. Although this may sound cynical let us consider how often we’re regaled with box office receipt figures rather than accounts of artistic merit and directorial accomplishment. Such is the case with the 1939 production of “Wuthering Heights” which although can be forgiven for its technical failings due to its contemporaneous – although surprisingly award winning – cinematic ability, we cannot so easily dismiss the license that was taken by Wyler with Bronte’s novel. The film although claiming to a be “a faithful adaptation” by the New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent is nothing more than a romantic period-piece designed to elicit the most bums-on-seats in order to garner the greatest profit for Sam Goldwyn. Anybody who has read the novel will recognize instantly the flaws in the film and will undoubtedly register a deep dissatisfaction after viewing it.

“Wuthering Heights” although it contains a love story is anything but and instead is a novel of agonizing desperation, revenge and societal machination; the microcosm of a small community who represent the hegemonic traits of larger class culture. Its principal characters are of course flawed and rather than accepting that which will bring them eternal happiness are instead bent on self-aggrandizement and the destruction of those perceived to have done them wrong. The rub of course and the denouement, is the realization that which they have lost was not the fault of others but theirs alone. The character of Heathcliff as we read him in the novel and the visualization of the character in the film are worlds apart and although sharing certain traits are conspicuously different; that which we discover through the mind’s eye thanks to Bronte’s writing is manifestly absent in the visual rendering.

Heathcliff is played by Lawrence Olivier who unfortunately lacks the grit and grime one would associate with such a robust character. In recent years in other productions of the story the character has been played by men more fitting to the role; one thinks of Tom Hardy’s 2009 portrayal which was far more realistic in terms of Bronte’s descriptions. In clipped English tones “Larry” – contrary to the uneducated stable boy Bronte describes – becomes that which he accuses Linton of being; a “whimpering milk sop.” In the film it’s the “pasty faced” Linton (David Niven) who initially seems to portray a man of substance and not Heathcliff and of – continuing in the tradition of class hegemony; at least in the beginning of the film – possessing inner strength.

Bronte paints Heathcliff as an enduring soul, one who despite his once elevated position under the care of old Mr. Earnshaw submits to the despotic behavior of Hindley. He isn’t the self-reflecting, submissive stable hand that Wyler portrays, but a survivor who chooses his own destiny and eventually succeeds in his plan to destroy all who’ve treated him ill. The scene where Heathcliff slaps Cathy is plagiarized from the one in the novel where he attacks Linton when he first meets him as a boy. Successively we’re reminded in the novel how weak Linton is and yet the director chooses to reverse character stereotypes. Perhaps this was done in order to garner sympathy for the leading man who – despite which ever camera angle is chosen – has the cleanest, most carefully manicured hands of any stable hand! 

For obvious run reasons the director chooses not to show the adolescence of the characters but instead portrays them as young adults. The first meetings between Linton, Heathcliff and Cathy occur originally when they’re children. The illusions of grandeur that Cathy decides to adopt are slowly ingrained into her over the years through the obvious wealth and kindness of the residents of Thrushcross and therefore the fabrication of the ball earlier in the film is merely an expedient.  Perhaps a similar simulation of time passing as utilized in “Citizen Cain” would have been more expedient, as the viewer is left struggling to construct a realistic time frame between one incident and another. Here the characters lose significant depth as it’s the experiences they have as children that cement the animosity – particularly in Heathcliff – of their adult years.

The continuous portrayal of Heathcliff and Cathy at Penniston Crag are also beyond the scope of the novel as are their surreal declarations of love. In the novel the relationship is understated to the point where Cathy first expresses her love of Heathcliff to Nelly and not the boy. Again this lends a simpering edge to Heathcliff that is incomparable and completely out of character. Further, Heathcliff’s confession that he tried to escape to America, but instead jumped overboard, is a complete fabrication and deliberately puts the power of the relationship – in the tradition of fin ‘amors – in the hands of Cathy. When Heathcliff leaves the house he disappears into the night to mysteriously return a changed man. There are no thoughts of Cathy in his head only those of revenge. The director turns Heathcliff into an indecisive, when in the novel he proves to be a man of action and self-determination.

“Wuthering Heights” to my mind and also comparable to the writing of its author, is a mean, austere bastioned, stone building that was built to endure the inclement weather of the moors. Instead it’s revealed by the director to be a clean, well lit, orderly home. In my own imagination I envision the rooms as cramped, the house to be in disorder and in general disarray. There’s no impression of a Yorkshire farm house and instead one is cheated of imaginary creation with what is obviously a film set. Contemporary sets, thanks to the shrinkage of technology and the ability to utilize existing locations, offer a more realistic experience to the viewer. Bronte does a fantastic job of visualization in her descriptions and to have read the book and to have visited her location – if only in the mind – was far more satisfying than the faux décor of a Hollywood stage.

Everything in the movie is extraordinarily clean, from the hands of the stable boy to the farm yards themselves. Even the skies above the moor are of a perfect hue offering a surreal experience to the viewer. Rather than the claustrophobia of inclement weather, the sun ridden grasslands of northern England seem boundless juxtaposing the lives of its inhabitants – particularly within the four walls of “Wuthering Heights”- which are rather more limited. Although a willing suspension of belief is necessary to enjoy most films, the advent of realism with the popularity of color film has allowed a director to more accurately portray his own artistic vision. The choice to shoot the movie in black and white was not necessarily a good one as the portrayal of the countryside in color would have added to the depth of the movie. Instead the falling action is over shadowed; creating a shallow and lifeless environment populated by wooden figures. What was also noticeable was the attire of the actors who appear to be dressed in anti-bellum American clothes instead of the more traditional flat-capped country attire of a nineteenth century rural environment.

Because the director has chosen to make the character of Heathcliff weaker than his literary contemporary we are constantly put in a position where we can observe his inner turmoil; to perhaps understand the emotional man behind the perceived rough exterior. In particular the stable scene where Heathcliff thrusts his hands through the window in frustration is particularly poignant. Almost revisiting the sickness of Catherine at Thrushcross, Heathcliff throws himself on to a bed of straw in a dirty old stable, mirroring the frustration of his unrequited love. Rather than a man of fortitude we discover a character that has more in common with Bronte’s Linton than Wyler’s leading man. This scene of pathos fails to garner our sympathy but rather, compounds the obvious weakness of the character and showcases the sickness of love.

In all the movie fails to replicate the written word and would leave any ardent follower of Bronte disappointed and unsatisfied. Even taken outside of the novel, the story line is weak and the characters tin-cut. That it is of any worth at all is as an example in the progression of film history and the diverse representations the novel has endured through the decades. If the story of Heathcliff was based only on Wyler’s movie then he would have been nothing more than a disposable love interest and not the giant of literary history that he is. Written as a Byronic hero, Heathcliff stands head and shoulders above an ill-chosen, ill dressed, poorly accented cast, in what was clearly a studio production of a made for profit motion picture.

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MEN OF ENGLAND…

14 Jul

imagesBASTILLE DAY: July 14th 2015.

“THE PROFUNDITY OF IDEOLOGY IS IMMORTAL”

“If you find yourself in the majority , you should reconsider your position.”

Mark Twain

Men of England, wherefore plough

For the lords who lay ye low?

Wherefore weave with toil and care

The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Wherefore feed and clothe and save

From the cradle to the grave

Those ungrateful drones who would

Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

Wherefore, Bees of England, forge

Many a weapon, chain, and scourge,

That these stingless drones may spoil

The forced produce of your toil?

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,

Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?

Or what is it ye buy so dear

With your pain and with your fear?

The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps;

The robes ye weave, another wears;

The arms ye forge, another bears.

Sow seed—but let no tyrant reap:

Find wealth—let no imposter heap:

Weave robes—let not the idle wear:

Forge arms—in your defence to bear.

Shrink to your cellars, holes, and cells—

In hall ye deck another dwells.

Why shake the chains ye wrought? Ye see

The steel ye tempered glance on ye.

With plough and spade and hoe and loom

Trace your grave and build your tomb

And weave your winding-sheet—till fair

England be your Sepulchre.

P.B.S

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GOTHIC EVERGREEN

27 Jun

         

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THE RECYCLING OF A GENRE

   Shakespeare never wrote a truer word when he penned sonnet fifty nine and proclaimed, If there be nothing new, but that which is…Hath been before, how our brains are beguiled.”  In layman’s terms the Bard was indicating that there is nothing new under the sun. Although it wasn’t a literary genre that he was waxing lyrical about, it could very well have been the subject of his musings. The Gothic has been in fashion since the later part of the eighteenth century when Walpole produced the now moss covered milestone of the “Castle of Otranto.” Since then literature has been wall-papered with the tropes of Gothic to the point that one can barely watch or read anything without some facsimile of the style being inherent to the plot; dark, brooding locations populated by mysterious beings, intent on causing mischief or at least satiating a habitual blood lust. Gothic has become so engrained in modern society that it can be found in many other artistic mediums including music, fashion, art and is no longer confined to literature. One may hazard that the attraction of the style is grounded in the easily recognizable genre tropes that are appreciated ostensibly by a symbol minded audience.

            Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Stoker’s “Dracula” haven’t been out of print since they were first published in the nineteenth century and still feature among the most enduring and cherished stories. Modern versions of these same tales – although contemporarily bearing only a passing resemblance to the originals – still hold true albeit with tenuous provenance. Likewise the medium of the modern film has succumbed to this retroactive, hair-raising over-spray and has taken it a step further. By utilizing historical characters, whether literary or human, it has not only recycled but has embellished and breathed new life into them with all things Gothic. Time-worn tales that have been told and retold ad nauseam have been resurrected thanks to the supplementation of genre allusion. The addition of appropriate styling has enabled film makers to recreate in much the same way that the medieval writers were able to reimagine the ancient classics without fear of obvious repetition. Gothic trope has become an adornment with which to repackage and stylize older works in order to achieve box office success. In particular one is reminded of Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and that most elusive of villains Jack the Ripper.

            The visual medium of film is an ideal showcase to exhibit those traditional tropes of Gothic literature that are so conventional to the reader. Although imagination is a powerful tool the addition of quality illumination, professional cosmetology and a score and that would make an exorcist quail, are not without their place. It’s the Gothic that’s chorus to so many great films and undoubtedly one of the reasons for their continued success. Lightning strikes and thunder crashes; the orchestra strikes up an ominous note and immediately popcorn is forgotten and sugared drinks neglected. The visualization of the unheimlich is a powerful draw and those oligarchs of movie magic recognize its financially beneficial veneer when they assiduously apply it to celluloid. Ominous location, other worldly situations, dark and brooding moments, strange characters and the inevitable parataxis that wrong foots an audience are all part of the well-fingered apparatus of cinematic satisfaction. This doesn’t only apply to the film but also to the carefully crafted siren-song of the movie posters which predict the dark delights of the as yet unseen; supplying the necessary element of uncanny to excite willing flesh and pliable minds. Brilliantly rendered images that paint the imagination before coin has been exchanged for a tooth-to-nail thrill that’s guaranteed to suffuse the blood and raise the hackles. In the dulcet tones of that over familiar announcer whom we’re all acquainted with, “We’ll give you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!”

            Sherlock Holmes has been a part of the popular conscious since his inception in 1887 when he first appeared in “A Study in Scarlet.” Under Conan Doyle’s’ penmanship, the consulting detective went on to appear in four novels and fifty six short stories, a literary phenomenon whose extraordinary analyzing mind was the key to the character’s success. The stories where quintessentially Victorian with a modern, somewhat removed character able, by the process of deduction and his intimate knowledge of the new scientific methods, to apprehend criminals in spectacular fashion. Although representative of the period and an obvious foil to Victorian society he was never a true Gothic character, although the original inception did create a template for future adaptations. Given the popularity of the genre during the period it was written, trope exclusion would have been contrary to public appeal and so one can recognize the inclusive elements of isolation, mystery, ominous setting and high emotion. Despite being replete with Gothic codifiers, Holmes didn’t become a true Gothic character until the B.B.C. television series featuring Jeremy Brett in the 1980’s. Although many earlier cinematic and television versions were originally filmed in black and white – due to contemporary technology – this later series was deliberately filmed with vague sepia coloration that induced a deliberate sense of the unheimlich; invariably using a smog ridden city scape to enhance the atmospherics of suspense and pending doom. Consequently instead of being an accessible, although eccentric human being, Holmes was cloaked in mystery, associated with the black arts and prone to violent mood swings. The director John Hawkesworth was fond of discordant scenes and used parataxis to enhance the sense of frustration, urgency and rapid thought patterns that to the viewer where bewildering to the point of discomfort. The addition of the Gothic to completely restyle a rather flat character, whose major attributes were a quick mind, a faithful companion and a deerstalker, didn’t happen however, until director Guy Ritchie reimagined Homes in 2009. With a combination of steam punk culture and overt gothic representation the character of Sherlock Holmes was completely reborn.

            To date Ritchie has made two films both of which are steeped in Gothic imagery and allusion. Holmes is a complete man of mystery who hides form the world and who although possessed of incredible cerebral gifts has a side to him that could be described as sociopathic. Not unlike Conrad’s “Kurtz” Ritchie has alienated the figure of Holmes so that the reputation of the man is greater than the hero himself.  Isolated in 221b Baker Street he is surrounded by the ephemera of empire and foreign travel and the debris that clutters each scene is a distraction and also a precursor to the inexplicable that occurs in subsequent falling action. Ritchie’s cinema craft is so rich that one doesn’t know where to look as each object, situation or new character distracts to the degree that there is an omniscient feeling of anxiety of haste and a burgeoning sensation of the necessity for breathless flight. Holmes, rather than in London, is constantly portrayed in hostile landscapes where he is pursued by mysterious frantic figures. Attacked by adversaries who simply materialize from nowhere and with the inexplicable threat of Moriarty, Ritchie’s ability to confound and surprise are aided by the technical brilliance of camera angle and scene setting to enhance viewer sensation. This looming sense of prophetic evil is not dissimilar to the “Nellie” steaming up the Congo; shrouded in mist and surrounded by impassable jungle where at any minute absolutely anything could happen.  It is this kineticism of pending action that continually keeps an audience on its toes. The brooding atmosphere one associates with Victorian Gothic is consistent throughout his films via the medium of lighting, wardrobe and score. Ritchie is the master of metonymy where atmospherics, billowing steam and the ever present Thames fog proscribe the cinematic shorthand for impending doom and danger. The film is rich in doppelgangers, caricatured by the ability of Holmes to manipulate disguises using the “modern” technique of camouflage and period theatre craft. An obvious bumbling stooge to juxtapose the brilliance of the detective in the figure of Watson – as created by Conan-Doyle – is reversed by Ritchie who uses the character to foil Holmes’ innate ineptitude at life. The inclusion of femme fatales, arch villains and irrational momentary characterization rip the novel from the flat page and thrust it into the technicolored, moviescaped brilliance that it becomes in the hands of its director.

            Even though the legend of Jack the Ripper has grown from the true events of a nineteenth century serial killer, it is still an exquisite representation of contemporary horror. Given that the events took place during latter years of the Victorian period – the location of his crimes and the dark brooding city-scaped images of a man stalking fallen women with a surgeon’s knife – his adaptation to the Gothic is an easy transition to make. The story of those historic events has appeared in every genre of literature since and can even be found in science fiction; an episode of “Star-Trek” included a character representative of the murderer.  Unfortunately as with most early cinematic portrayals – and indeed one only has to go back to the eighties to experience the profundity of poor film craft and inadequate technology – the saturation of inept story telling tended to jade enthusiasm. The disassociation from film as medium of profit to that of an art form was necessary, along with the availability of 21st century technical ability, to bring a tired and worn tale back from the dead. Since the inherent details of the crimes were quintessentially Gothic it’s little wonder that an art-house production of the story was released. Once again the overt application of the Gothic literary genre was used to reanimate an already familiar topic.

            “From Hell” was released in 2001 by the Hughes Brothers and centers on a troubled clairvoyant police detective tasked to investigate the murders of Jack the Ripper. Immediately we have the introduction of the uncanny and the unheimlich with a man who can allegedly predict the crimes of others through his opium induced dreams. The inspector is a disparate figure set apart from society by class, ability and personal appetites and although considered by the constabulary to be a maverick, is none the less recognized as one with great ability. Shades again of the “Kurtz” figure of whom similar qualities were attributed. The inspector operates in the smog enveloped urban jungle of White Chapel where street walkers and drunks populate the far margins of society of whom little or no attention is paid. Our hero finds himself in a strange land struggling to survive despite the machinations of diabolical –although human – forces. The inspector has to reconcile duty with the dangerous aspirations of an impenetrable monarchy supported by the unseen hand of the obscure illuminati who attempt to confound him at every turn. Although fear and foreboding are used to great extent along with the most gorgeous use of the cinematic craft, it is the psychological aspect that drives the action. The director deliberately uses darkness and shadow, accompanied by unusual camera angles, to sustain a claustrophobic atmosphere necessary when portraying the Gothic.  Although we want the inspector to succeed we know that because his character is flawed and the forces he is up against are so powerful that his likelihood of success is minimal. Associated with the portents of his visions are the inevitable females in distress; prostitutes who for some unexplained  reason are slated to be murdered by the Ripper at the express desire of the shadowy hand that is truly behind the crimes. Many of the other trope codifiers are utilized including an indefatigable partner, inexplicable events and – interestingly – allusions to other Gothic writers including Edgar Allen Poe. “From Hell” has transformed itself from the traditional murder investigation story into a psychological battle between the forces of darkness and light.

            Gothic trope as is obvious from the two examples given has become an adornment with which to repackage and stylize older works in order to achieve box office success. The addition of appropriate Gothic codifiers has enabled film makers to recreate familiar stories in a new vane and thrill audiences with opulent representations of the Gothic style. The genre which has become so beloved as is apparent by its longevity and chronic metamorphoses has been translated with considerable skill from page to screen. Whether rain or knife slashed the appropriate settings of isolation, decrepitude and desperation – all inherently necessary to the Gothic – find a home in the modern cinema.

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DRACULA – Modernism and “New Woman”

12 Jun

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The “Norton” edition fails to address the plight of working class women for whom the transition to an industrialized – instead of an agrarian – economy was singularly the greatest impetus towards women’s rights. Women were very often employed in the new factories in preference to men as they were cheaper, compliant and easier to control with the economically beneficial addition of their children who were considered free labor. For the first time in the modern era, women had become principal earners and seen to be able to work alongside men or even in place of them. The so called “New Woman”in the earlier part of the century would have been a rarity indeed, given her societal subjugation and lack of access to higher education however, with the advent of the new century things were changing rapidly; women were schooled, allowed to divorce and in many cases granted the right to own property and were no longer considered the chattel of their husbands. To white-wash the entire Victorian period as a repressive society towards the feminine would therefore be disingenuous. The eighteen hundreds were a march of progression not only in industrialization and Capitalist economics but also in sexual parity.

Stoker’s women – in particular Mina and Lucy – have been androgenized and one has to question the author’s motivation? Why it is that Mina’s is the principal diary; why are we allowed to see into the minds of Stoker’s women and why are they given such broad sexual license? The principal action through much of the novel is either conducted by or associated with Mina. Why does Stoker personify a principal character as a woman when the Norton edition would have us believe they were so downtrodden and that Victorian Patriarchy was allegedly so afraid of the rise of woman? Given the period that “Dracula” was written Britain stood at the dawn of a new century with the rejection of Romanticism and the advent of Modernism. Clearly new cultural perceptions were beginning to appear – as is evident both in the poetry and literature of the later nineteenth century – and rather than viewing the suppression of women we should perhaps be receptive to their awakening during a century where women began to achieve their first vestiges of equality. Stoker from his descriptions and subjugation of the expected feminine stereotype is clearly demonstrating an enlightenment and broadness of mind that obviously wasn’t his alone. Given that “Dracula” is a novel of its period, we are perhaps misreading an enlightenment novel that had already made the switch from sexual division to the incorporation of the female and its reclassification as equal. We have to also consider the men in the novel and see how ridiculous they become when they interact with women. In all things they are committed to action and honor and societal obligation and yet when a woman is suddenly in the picture they are emasculated and revert to becoming children, blubbering simpletons or love struck buffoons. Stoker is demonstrating extremes of character, where we can clearly see that the sexes are able to perform a duality of roles and that the masculine and feminine are interchangeable. Clearly, as “Dracula” demonstrates, those traits traditionally associated with one sex no longer, at the dawn of the twentieth century, hold true.

The three vampires adopt male roles and rather than supplicant actively seek what can only be described as sexual congress with Harker. This is a no holds barred description of women as sexual aggressors. We also see the awakening of the dominant in Mina as well, who decides, despite the fact that she is “merely a woman,” to visit her sick husband and take control of his affairs. It’s thanks to her foresight and ability to work with the latest technology – the typewriter – that she is able to order man’s affairs and throw light on what had been a confusion of facts. Lucy who holds the fate of men in her hands with her several proposals is even able to dazzle and distract her suitors in death! Not only that but she also destroys that most sacred sacrament of the feminine – motherhood – when she feeds off children in her undead state. Rather than a giver of life the feminine is cast in the masculine role as a taker of life. Throughout the novel it is either the women who hold the reigns or who are given license to do so by the men who, in their company, are mere walking shadows – poor players perhaps – of what society expects them to be. This transition within sexual power play politics is undoubtedly reflective of the period in which it was written and self evident of the onset of Modernism.

DIE HARD – A VICTORIAN GHOST STORY

5 Jun

EDDY

           

Thunder cracked and lightning forked in the night sky as an incessant rain beat a diabolical tattoo off the leaded glass of Ye Olde Sheep Stealers Inn. Fog swirled among the gas lamps and, drifting slowly up from the river, muffled the cacophony and obscured the nocturnal iridescence of heavy industry; the occasional crash of the new iron-age, chorus to the rare abatements in the tempest raging overhead. The cobbles were awash and slick underfoot; the biting cold of December evident from the huddled, shrouded figures scurrying home to the warmth of hearth fires; the promise of brief respite from arduous factory shifts in decrepit tenements; the spasmodic covenant perhaps of pressed flesh.

            The Sheep Stealer was an ancient coaching inn that had stood sentinel since time immemorial. The auberge was replete with a rich and colorful history and the patrons that passed through its nail-studded doors never failed to be impressed by the tales of roundheads and cavaliers who’d plotted and planned around it wooden tables; of the highwaymen who’d escaped the hangman’s rope through its upstairs casements and of the great plot to kill King James when Guido Fawkes himself had spent a restless night underneath its dilapidated slate roof. Although a neighborhood landmark it wasn’t long for the modern world as with the new municipal transport system being ploughed through London there was little hope for its survival. In its place would come the necessary ephemera of tunnels and termini that would usher in the new age, transforming the ancient city of London into a Victorian Babylon. The modern era was expeditiously replacing all that had been familiar and in a world of a change, a beacon of nostalgia was a welcome sight to the weary traveler.

            The pot man looked up from his duties as the door swung upon. The candles guttered and the flames in the grate roared as the night air rushed into to fill the room. “Shut the bloody door before we all freeze damn you!” challenged the bar keep at the silhouette that had suddenly appeared from out of the night.

            A fire blazed in the hearth and the smell of roasting meat filled the ale house; spurious shadow creatures and shapes diabolical danced on the flaking plaster walls. The stranger rubbed his hands and gasped at the welcome warmth already beginning to drive out the aching cold that’d permeated his bones. Throwing the cloak from his shoulder and removing his hat he revealed the scarlet jacket of a soldier, the white piping that clutched at his collar and cuffs an odd contrast to the martial figure and saber slashed face that made its way to the bar.

            “A room and some food,” said the soldier throwing gold onto the counter, “and a pot of ale to wash it down with.” The innkeeper eyed the sovereign, nodded and, wiping his hands on his greasy apron, pulled a pewter mug from the rack above his head and proceeded to fill it. The soldier quickly drained it and it was immediately replaced with another.

             “Your food’ll be out in a little while Captain. Why don’t you take the weight off and go and sit by the fire and warm yourself? I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

            Two, worn high backed chairs stood in front of the hearth and as the soldier approached he noticed skeins of smoke rising above the leather head rest. As he came closer he saw that it was occupied by another man. Undaunted by the company he sat down.

            “Come far ‘ave you?” asked the stranger.

            “Far enough,” he replied noncommittally.

            The stranger stared at the soldier’s uniforms his eyes drinking in his insignia and the regimental crests on his silver buttons. “The 69th  Regiment of Foot. I was with them in Belgium at Quatre Bras back in ‘15. Bloody mess that was. Not many of us made it out of there.”

            The soldier looked up at his companion, disbelieving yet curious. “Who was your Colonel?” There were enough confidence men and tricksters on the streets and with a silver tongue and a few war stories it was easy to illicit money from drunken redcoats and so the pretense of having served the colors was an easy scam to pull.

             “McDonald . Colonel Jock McDonald. You ‘eard of him?”

            The soldier started. Who hadn’t?  Black Jock McDonald was a man of myth and legend and tales of the death-dealing mayhem he’d wrought on the Frogs that June afternoon were still told by the men of regiment. “Garn! Get out of it you old codger. You was with Black Jock?

             “Aye lad. Side by side in that field of burning corn outside of Waterloo. Shoulder to shoulder we stood, brothers to the end. Steeped in the blood of our comrades and the enemy alike we was.” The old man stared at nothing in particular and pulled on his clay pipe, the escaping smoke from his nostrils lending him an unearthly aspect as the light from the fire played upon his ancient face.

            The soldier put the tankard to his lips and drank in the rich warm taste of bitter beer, smacked his lips and contemplated the old man. Quatre Bras had been the most destructive day in the history of the regiment where nearly two hundred men had found their deaths in the space of an hour at the hands of the French. Despite the enormous body count the regimental colors had been saved and with the late arrival of the Prussians the French had eventually been repelled. June 17th 1815 was a symbol of regimental pride; a day of bloody infamy that lived on in the tales told by the new recruits and old sweats alike.

            “Quatre Bras,” mused the old man, “I remembers it like it was yesterday.” With that his eyes glazed over and he began to relate the events of that fateful summer day forty years ago.

*

            Bugles sounded and whistles shrilled as the sergeants berated the men into line abreast. The companies broke out of their columns and shook themselves into single file.

            “Move your arses.”

            “What you waiting for Jones, a bloody invitation?”

            “Look alive. The Frogs are over the hill.”

            Both the King’s and the Regimental silks whipped over their heads as the infantrymen efficiently came into line attack and proceeded to walk across the field. With bayonets fixed and muskets held at waist height they advanced to where they presumed the enemy was entrenched. Suddenly, out of nowhere, swarms of French cavalrymen appeared on their flanks. The leading scouts saw them immerge from the dead ground, screamed their alarm and, fearful of being caught in the open, sprinted back to the safety of the main body of soldiery. The French seizing the element of surprise spurred their horses, lowered their swords and, sensing victory, galloped towards the vulnerable open ranks of the British.

 

*

            “They was them armored Frogs with the blue uniforms and steel breast plates. Cuirassiers; heavy cavalry,” explained the old man. “Big men with faces full of moustache on monstrous ‘orses.” The old man became agitated, his face twitching, his hands shaking as he told his tale. “Evil bastards with long, wicked swords. Well, we was done for. Only defense against cavalry is square and we were stretched out from one ‘orizon to the next. We didn’t stand a bleeding chance.”

*

            The French crashed into the British line and turning like mackerel – their swords flashing and falling in air – swooped down on men who, although they didn’t know it yet, were already dead. Men screamed as blood drenched sabers thrust and plunged, the horses trampling the corpses and finishing the work of the men on their backs. The blood lusted cavalrymen yelled their challenges and stabbed and slashed as the madness of combat engulfed them rendering them automatons of death. The British could do nothing. Soldiers turned to face their enemy and holding up their arms in a pathetic attempt to ward of the attackers, fell to the ground; their life blood draining into a foreign soil that would be forever England.

*

            “Easy pickings we was for them Frogs. Riding field days ‘round us they were. Hundreds of the ‘orrible bastards grinning and screaming as they skewered man after man. It was McDonald who rallied us. Centre Company and the color platoon managed to square up we did, grounded our muskets and presented Sheffield‘s finest to the enemy. With our bayonets creating a steel hedge the nags wouldn’t come close and we began to fight back; shooting the riders down like ducks as they rode about us.”

             The soldier had heard the story a thousand times before but now, told by someone who’d actually fought the engagement, it took on a whole new life. He could hear the shouts and screams, taste the gun powder from the muskets and through the fog of war hear the cries and prayers of both the living and dying.

             The old man’s eyes clouded as he went on. “It was numbers game and seeings ‘ow there was more of them than there was of us we weren’t going to last long. Slowly but surely they wore us down till there were less than thirty men stood ‘round the colors. McDonald stood next to me in the front rank screaming like a bleeding banshee for the boys to hold, “Die hard 69th. Die hard.”

             The old man’s face grimaced as he remembered. “There was no chance for a man alone and the only ‘ope we had of getting off that field alive, at the rate Frogs was picking us off, was to stick together or stay until the last man fell. Any rate we was down to our last balls and if it hadn’t been for the arrival of the Prussians and old Black Jock we’d still be on that field. Say what you want about the Teutonics but on that particular day I was never gladder to see anybody.” The old man grinned and nodded. The soldier smiled back recognizing a brother in arms, one who’d endured and who’d been a part of a thin red line of heroes protecting king and country.

            The soldier lifted his tankard in salute, “Die hard 69th! Beer?”

            The old man smiled, “Aye lad I will.”

            The soldier got up and went to the bar keep. “Two ales.”

            “Two?”

            “Aye. One for me and the General over there,” he said pointing to his companion sitting by the fire.

            The bar keeper looked at him and then looked towards the fire. “You ‘aving a laugh soldier.”

            The soldier grimaced clenched his fist and brought it down hard on the wooden bar. It was bad enough that soldiering was a profession that commanded little respect, but to be disrespected to your face by some loathsome toad of a civilian went beyond the pale. “Two, he growled, “and shift your arse.”

            The man behind the counter stared at the soldier. “Think you’ve ‘ad enough lad. There aint nobody ‘ere but me an’ you, in fact there’s been nobody ‘ere all night what with this blasted weather.”

            The soldier looked back towards the two empty seats by the fire. Smoke curled in the air; the only indication that anyone, or anything, had ever been there at all.

MOTHER COURAGE – BRECHT

10 Dec

Mother Courage and the Theatre of the Absurd

BRECHT

            In America in 1947 at the end of the Second World War, a committee was formed for the investigation into un-American activities. It was claimed that America and in particular the Hollywood movie industry, had been infiltrated by Communist sympathizers and with the fear of the spread of the Soviet idealism many celebrities where put on trial for their professional lives. One such figure who was interviewed by the committee was Bertolt Brecht. Brecht was a Bavarian and an immigrant playwright who’d fled the Nazis at the beginning of the war. Ironically he’d been persecuted in Europe for anti-fascist incitement which had led to his exile in Denmark, only later to be pursued in America for alleged Soviet affiliations.

             Neither a Communist nor a Fascist, Brecht was an absurdist; a playwright who’d invented a new genre of theater that did not follow the Aristotelean model as proscribed in the Poetics. (White. 6)  Subjected to the illogical scrutiny of ideological purity he eventually left America and settled in Berlin in the former D.D.R. where he continued to pursue his craft. Although subscribing to Marxist ideology he never joined the Communist party however, did declare his support for the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. (7) Brecht in his politics as in his writing was himself absurd to the point of contradiction; a man who curiously welcomed the Socialist Ideal and the cache of the Workers’ Paradise whilst being personally sustained by the West thanks to the remunerations of his many plays. A man who claimed not to be a Communist and yet who willingly lived behind the Iron Curtain.

             The Theatre of the Absurd which is widely attributed to the modernist period was the progeny of Brecht and was much emulated during and after his lifetime.  Bertolt Brecht’s, “play style followed plots that were cyclical or absurdly expansive… [and consequently]either a parody or dismissive of realism… [as well as] the concept of the well-made play.” (White. 16)

            Mother Courage probably the most famous of Brecht’s plays is a depiction of a family struggling to survive the Thirty Years War (a conflict which initially pitted Catholics against Protestants during the seventeenth century; 1618-1648) Although historically relevant it is easy to understand how contemporary theatre has portrayed his work as analogous to the influx of Communism in Eastern Europe and the conflict of political conscience. Originally written to warn of the rise of fascism in Germany during the thirties, it has seen myriad performances globally to great acclaim. The play is said by some to be the greatest play of the twentieth century and also the greatest antiwar play of all time. Labeled as epic-theatre it includes all the absurdist’s devices that Brecht has become synonymous with. The play includes bright, garish white lighting rather than the subdued lighting contemporary audiences have become accustomed to, minimalist stage props to indicate location, live stage direction during the performance and hand held placards to insure that the audience is aware of the falling action. Mother Courage is an austere, scaffold of a play that operates in full view of the audience and juxtaposes the traditionally polished performances modern audiences have come to expect. Nothing is hidden from the audience and even the costume changes are performed on stage. Brecht was intent upon total immersion theatre where the audience was conscious the whole time that the play wasn’t just a work of entertainment or an exposition of art but a necessary, visceral interaction between the performers and the audience in order to evoke a reaction. By adding a nontraditional dimensionality to the performance Brecht expected that the audience would identify with the actors and not just their characters. Brecht wanted his audience to experience his plays rather than just observe them. By witnessing the construction of the play as well as the performance each participant i.e. member of the audience, would take away an individual experience of that which they’d seen. By purposeful construction Brecht created a very private performance in a very public space, where no two plays were exactly the same and where each performance allowed the audience to experience something fresh. This is not dissimilar to the sixteenth century street theatre of the Commedia dell’arte where, although the audience was familiar with the stock characters and their representative personality traits, each was a separate and distinct performance. This ensured that the characters and the production had longevity and the story remained vital and financially viable. Brecht borrowed heavily from a genre famous for sketch and improvisation; something he achieved with great success in the subsequent themes of his own productions.

            Mother Courage and her three children are tinkers who harness themselves to their own wagon and who drag it from battlefield to battlefield. Their poverty is abject and their only source of income is the chandlery they sell to the Protestant soldiers of the Thirty Years War. Conflict rages on all fronts and the corpses of the dead, whose only value in death is the clothing and equipment they still wear, are innumerable. Courage and her family strip the dead in order to resell it so that they, by means of war profiteering at its most meagre, may survive: albeit from hand to mouth.

            During a lull in the fighting Courage happens upon two recruiters who, looking for fresh cannon fodder to replace those already killed distract her with an offer of money in order to trick her youngest son Eilif – an anagram for life – into joining the Protestant Army. Unable to prevent what will almost certainly be the death of her son she prophetically lists the fates of all her three children. Eilif will die for his courage, her second son Swiss Cheese for his honesty and her daughter Kattrin for her kindness. The progress of the play, despite the obvious qualities that her children possess, will prove the validity of her predictions.

             The play advances by several years, as it does in each subsequent act, to another battlefield where in the pursuit of her livelihood she comes across her brave soldier son Eilif who is now a decorated hero. Reunited with her son Courage ponders the soldierly virtue of bravery and realizes that if commanders need brave men then trouble is surely on the wind. A minor character chatters about the righteousness of the campaign and how if their leaders hadn’t been ordained by a Protestant God to destroy the Catholics they would surely be accused of war profiteering. This is ironic in that everybody in the microcosm of the world of the camp followers is doing exactly that. Eilif is eventually caught by the Catholics doing that for which he has been decorated by his own side and is executed for his “courageous” deeds. Seen as an enemy by the Catholics and not as a hero, Brecht presents the paradox of one man’s freedom fighter being another man’s terrorist. Eilif is hanged in chains for his part in the war. Likewise his brother Swiss Cheese, also a member of the Protestant Army, is caught and executed whilst trying to protect the regiment’s payroll. In an act of honesty, as predicted by his mother, he too is hanged.

            Berieved of both her boys, Mother Courage finds herself alone with just her daughter in a burned out village where the wounded from the latest battle lay dying on the ground. In need of rags to stem their bleeding a commander begs Courage for some of her shirts to rip into rags to turn into bandages. Courage refuses saying that she will not part with her officers’ shirts, her most valuable merchandise, unless it is for money. Courage understands the suffering of the wounded and despite having lost her own children persists in the absurdity of survival that the shirts represent to her. Without the sale of the shirts she herself will die of starvation; an obvious paradox of who deserves to live and who deserves to die.

             In the midst of the carnage of war Courage finds love however, in order to be with a man who will save her from herself and the war, she must abandon her daughter Kattrin her only surviving child. Once again Courage is faced with the agony of decision and ultimately chooses to relinquish her love and remain with her daughter: an act of self-sacrifice in a world where nobody notices and nobody cares.

             The play ends several years after it has begun. Overrun by the Catholics whilst Courage goes to town for supplies, her daughter is witness to the advancing enemy. Climbing onto the tinker’s wagon, Kattrin sounds out a drum to warn the locals of imminent danger and for her kindness and bravery is shot and killed. Mother Courage returns to the wagon and the corpse of her dead daughter. Instead of burying the girl herself, she uses that which is most important to her and pays the local villages to do the job instead. With nobody left in the world, her children dead and her love lost, the only thing that survives is her diabolical occupation. Strapping herself into the harness of the wagon as though she were a horse, she moves forward to join up with the advancing Protestant Army. Her final words which strike deep into any audience with revulsion for war and an awareness of social subjugation are, “I must return to business.”  This is particularly pertinent and representative of indifferently turning the other cheek whilst living under intolerable, irrevocable strain. Brecht may have lived in East Germany but his message is very astute to anybody paying the least attention.

                        According to Blau, “Brecht is a polemicist… and his dialectic approach is rhetoric.”(4) This is conceivable when one considers that Brecht was the founder of the theatrical epic (Mother Courage is a performance that endures for a full three hours) and the avant-garde of modernist twentieth century political theatre. His play Mother Courage relates the story of those who participate in war, not for patriotic or selfless reasons, but for financial gain; those who paradoxically make their living from the carnage of which they themselves are victims. The symbolism is that of an ordinary woman trying to survive in an impossible situation. In order to preserve the lives of her children she must ultimately sacrifice them all to feed the war machine that sustains her own life. Rather than the epitome of conflict and courage she represents human absurdity. Brecht’s play is therefore, a polemic on war and an exposition of the tragedy of the human condition.

            Mother Courage has unusual facility in that it can be recast to suit any number of political topics. In the past the play has been used to highlight climate change, racial segregation, geo-politics and in particular anti-Soviet rhetoric. The story is a survival story that portrays the protagonist as a besieged, embattled figure. This of course can be representative of almost any conflict and accounts for both the longevity and brilliance of Brecht’s play writing. It is the method by which he portrays his subject that is the most enduring; a theatrical framework that espouses no particular ideology but which unapologetically renounces the subjugation of human freedoms.

             Mother Courage although first appearing in the first half of the twentieth Century is as relevant today as it was in 1939. Given Brecht’s own persecution at the hands of the Un-American committee in 1947, the play has come to be seen as a prophetic piece of writing similar to the dystopian novel 1984, that was published just a couple of years later in 1949 by George Orwell. Just like Orwell, Brecht realized the necessity of highlighting the dangers of totalitarianism and the ineffectuality of the individual when faced by the crushing power of overt political will. Whether an envisaged dystopia, or protracted warfare created by unseen forces in order to realize political goals beneficial to the few at the expense of the many, Brecht created an “every woman” in Mother just as Orwell created an “everyman” in Winston Smith. In Brecht’s own words, “The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.” (White. 17) This reflects Orwell’s own treatise of, “War is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is truth.”(Rodden. 5)

             Brecht despite his socialist leanings realized that no matter the quotidian politic, whether it was Capitalist or Communist, the dangers to civil liberties where very real and that everything should be done to preserve those hard won freedoms and the sanctity of human life. It is this kind of theatrical discourse that makes Brecht such a political chameleon and could possibly explain his ability to live in affability whether in the West or behind the Iron Curtain. Although espousing socialist tendency it was the rights of man which were truly at the heart of his political genius rather than ideological dogma.

Works Cited.

Blau, Herbert. Mother Courage: The Rite of War and the Rhythm of Epic. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Mar., 1957), pp. 1-10. Print.

Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and her Children. Arcade Publishing. New York. 1994. Print

Rodden, John. George Orwell: the politics of literary reputation. New Brunswick,N.J. Transactions Publishers. 2002. Print.

 

White, John J. Bertolt Brecht’s dramatic theory. Camden House. Rochester, N.Y. 2004. Print.

 

THE ART OF EQUIVOCATION AND FOURTEENTH CENTURY VICE

9 Dec

Medieval Morality Inversion

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             Nothing is more mercurial than a liberal society and the attitudes and morals of those citizens who live within it. What’s acceptable today is unacceptable tomorrow, the waxing and waning of human values seemingly as ephemeral as the moon. That being said, the sins as described by Evagrius, have not always been regarded, even during the medieval period, with the same, strict uniformity or enjoyed the same level of adherence. In fact, contemporary society would no doubt disagree with his compilation upon principal and unashamedly cite political correctness as its raison d’etre. Consequently the measure with which we weigh the sins can be reduced to their quotidian import with regard to what is expedient, how they affect society and will their abuses be tolerated? One only has to observe the imperialistic ambitions of American geo-political maneuverings in the Middle East, in what are clearly self-aggrandizing nation building endeavors, to understand this.

            The taxonomy of the sins as originally proposed by Evagrius and proliferated by Cassian were in essence, not just a tool to bring the supplicant closer to God, but to engender a lifestyle that would be convivial to all. A fail safe control mechanism that would draw the boundaries of societal acceptance, coerce appropriate behavior and allow trespassers of etiquette to be duly punished. The idea was simple enough, but actually adhering to them as the centuries have revealed, has been fraught with difficulties and excess. This is not a modern issue by any notion and one can trace the paradox of doing wrong in order to do right throughout the annals of history. This becomes clear when one probes the original meaning of some of the sins and explores how they mutated through time. The changing attitudes towards sin, especially Avarice and Wrath, are particularly conspicuous during the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Black Death which swept through Europe during the fourteenth century. By examining these deadly sins and their subsequent metamorphosis from their original intent it is possible to analyze the degree to which their meanings have changed, even to the point where instead of being considered sinful some of the tenets are now considered virtues. 

            The Seven Deadly Sins were instrumental in the medieval period to illustrate the dangers of human frailty. Not only where they a guide to life but also a means of control by which the Roman Church could exercise its power and ensure the subservience of its congregations. The priests, through the ever present threat of sinning, could literally damn a man into hell or praise him into heaven. The Church-centric world of the medieval period was the norm and church going an expectation and therefore, there would have been a familiarity by both the clergy and the lay population with the taxonomy. Imagery of the Seven Deadly Sins would have been emblazoned in the painted murals of the religious buildings they attended or they would have been a gentle reminder on the cleric’s lips as to their relevance to daily life. The sins were taught in a simplified, easy to understand format (given the dearth of literacy during the period) to the people either visually or preached from the pulpit. Despite their lack of formal education the message was abundantly clear and congregations were put in mortal fear of their souls. The Seven Deadly Sins were beyond reproach and an empirical devise with which a man could recognize his own failings and in doing so attempt to correct his human weaknesses by treading the path of the righteous. Although this was true of the period, it would appear that there was also ample wriggle-room.

            Life in medieval times was seen as an interim to heavenly reward, the afterlife being far more important than the temporal sufferings of the great unwashed. Therefore, in order to ensure one’s place on the path of righteousness, one had to abide by clerical law and pray fervently in the hope of divine intervention or suffer eternal damnation. Needless to say the system was based upon human frailty and inevitably therefore, doomed to failure. In a society that was established on the estates of being and where feudalism was the accepted hierarchy, the differences between those who had and those who had not must have been abyssal. Little wonder then that the boundaries of sin where blurred to account for these differences and manipulated according to the crisis of the moment. The fourteenth century witnessed everything from abundance to plague and starvation to war as well as religious and political upheaval. Not so different from the great state of being that shapes our own modern twenty-first century lives.

            Ownership of property and land was based ultimately on position and therefore on God’s grace. If God had deigned that one was to fulfill one’s mortal role in a particular category of the estates then one should of course accept one’s lot in life and make of it what one could. This gift from God it would appear was not enough and often those with temporal position felt that despite being divinely rewarded it was their duty in life to acquire as much as they possibly could during their lifetime. The sin of Greed being a venial sin could easily be dismissed, as power and position trumped any notion that the holding and acquisition of wealth was bad. So long as one was contrite in prayer and contributed to the Church and gave alms for the poor then the pursuit of earthly delight was reasonable if not forgivable. According to Goddard, “Research on late medieval and rural economic social history reveals that the privilege of land and money was without doubt controlled by the manorial Lords” (89) Huge tracts of land in England known as the wastes, which then constituted much of the barren moorland to be found throughout the British Isles, were jealously possessed by its then owners. Rather than wasteland, manorial lords saw the means for profit in a land which until the Norman Conquest had been in the hands of the commoners. The waste lands were part of the common heritage and were used to graze animals and to supply sundry basics such as wood. That was of course until greed reared its ugly head and the inevitable realization by the already wealthy of the immense profits to be made from them. There are countless accounts of commoners being prosecuted for using the lands without permission or utilizing the raw materials found upon it. The quarrying of material to manufacture mills stones, despite the economic boon they would provide to the local community and the tithes paid by the miller to the incumbent Lord, was punishable by death in the county of Devon. “All the furzes, heath moors, marshes, commons, ways and waste grounds,” (33) land which had been communal, now constituted pure profit to those granted tenancy by the crown. This acrimonious business was not confined between the lords and the peasants but also between the king and his barons: the question of greed eventually coming to a head at Runnymede in 1215. King John, writes McKechnie, God’s representative on earth and answerable to none other than the almighty, was malicious in both reign and taxation. (12) “ Renowned for his jealousies, wrath and avarice, he was eventually forced by those able to wield a sword against his dictatorship to sign the Magna Carta diminishing some of the powers of the crown and forever setting in motion the rights of free men.” (3) Greed and acquisition of wealth by any means was, in the opinion of the crown, a God given right despite the tenets of the Seven Deadly Sins. The king’s attitude towards them was not dissimilar to the manorial lords who regarded their gargantuan estates as theirs alone. Clearly the idea of sinning was arbitrary when it came to collecting what was “rightfully” one’s due, no matter the consequence to those affected. The acquisition of land by the crown by usurpation wasn’t halted, writes Goddard, until 1359 under the council of the Black Prince who “ensured that land given could not be retaken through right of writ.”(33) No matter the pedantic nature of the King the tenant Lords could be sure that unless forfeited by an act of treason, the land would be theirs in perpetuity. Not so the experience of the serf who had no rights under English law and therefore remained subject to the whims of the manorial lords. Clearly the distinction between sin and sinning was based on ones proximity to those “of the manor born,” and therefore the ability to eke out a life at the expense of the lord’s profits was clearly not recommended if one wanted to enjoy a full and rewarding life. Despite the veniality of the lordship’s sin and the opportunity for the serf to enjoy the eventual treasures of heaven, this would have been poor reward after suffering prosecution and even death at the hands of a land grabbing tyrant. Clearly God was on the side of the rich and the sin of greed merely a question of semantics providing that manorial justice and not heavenly truth was being applied.

            Just as with any paradoxical situation the observance of the Seven Deadly Sins lends itself to interpretation and therefore their relevance is a product of contemporary attitudes. The accidental execution of venial sins and the misappropriation of vice instead of virtue is fundamentally a narrow path to walk and one which even we, living in a supposed modern progressive society, have difficulty in avoiding. Although in retrospect we clearly see the misappropriations of the common land as theft and the punishment of the serfs as unjust, this would have been viewed quite differently by those guilty of the exploitation.  Although one could suggest, in mitigating the gross injustices visited upon the poor, that they were simply the victims of moral hypocrisy. That is to suggest that despite the manorial lords best intent to preserve what was rightly theirs, or the King his, there would still exist a conscious awareness that one was doing wrong even when acting within the law or through the supposed grace of God. This hypocrisy is apparent in the actions of the barons towards their King who held him accountable for what they themselves were committing on their own lands and to their own people. Clearly sin, at least in this instance, was in the eyes of the beholder – the peasants – rather than the perpetrators. Many of the virtues themselves could be perceived as sins and therefore digression from the higher and narrow path to Truth is understandable thanks to their ambiguity and therefore perhaps excusable under the auspices of medieval canonical law. In Prudentius’ Psychomachia he describes a battle between the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues. All individual combat is easily won by the Virtues except in the instance of one. Avarice initially takes the upper hand when his character is mistaken for Frugality rather than Avarice. It is only when the vice is discovered to be appropriating the virtue that Avarice can be defeated.

            The idea that man is beyond helping himself despite the taxonomy of the Sins is never clearer than in Langland’s parable told by the Friars when confronted by the dreamer in Piers Ploughman. When seeking the home of Do-Well the dreamer questions the notion of virtue when, “…even as the Bible says, even the just man falls into sin seven times a day.”(82) The Friars concede that mankind is afloat on an ocean that tosses and turns and though the dreamer may fall and flounder, as long as he stays within the boat, he will be saved.(83) The boat of course is an allusion to the Church and the sea, the troubles and vices of the world. Consequently admit the Friars, even the most conscientious person succumbs to sin. Newhauser writes that it only through the painstaking analysis of sin that there can be any possible recognition of guilt.(5) “Theologians were aware of the ambiguity,”(5) and despite their attempts to resolve it, moral hypocrisy remained, as Langland observes, a very real medieval concept.

            The relevance of ambiguity with regards to sinning is founded during the medieval period in political and social upheaval and the necessitating of centralized policy. Emphasis and even mutability can be found in the medieval texts and one perceives that although retribution is set in stone, the hell fire to be endured wasn’t always as hot as the priests declared. This isn’t untrue of religion itself which, insidious in nature, tends to adopt that with which a society is familiar with and usurps it for its own ends. Evidence can be found of local saints being beatified into the Catholic pantheon and even traditions and customs being adopted on a regional basis in order to make the “new” religion more appealing. Just as local customs became Christian doctrine so too the Deadly Sins were applied with an uneven hand. The perception that sin is mutable is not a recent one and is an idea that is recurrent throughout history. One often hears of Victorian values and yet we know that they were not the same as either those of the Georgians or the Edwardians. Sin is culturally relevant and therefore, is based on the period in which it is experienced or dependent upon a quotidian political climate. Often in contemporary culture, in order to accomplish certain goals, pride and greed are interchangeable as well as absolutely necessary.  Norman Cantor writes, “Through economic necessity or, as in the context of extraordinary situations such as the plagues of the fourteenth century, people are often empowered to take advantage of that which ordinarily would be beyond their scope. (12) In his book, In the Wake of the Plague, he explores the devastating effect the epidemic had on Europe and what affect the near extinction of the entire population had on the socio-political and religious way of life, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards the Seven Deadly Sins. The upheaval of contemporary living and the ensuing social chaos it created meant that nothing, as he describes, would ever be the same again; including the values of those who survived. Suddenly the boot was on the other foot and those who previously had little or no power found themselves in positions of influence. Labor was suddenly valued, food was at an optimum and the fact that the plague could kill a king as easily as it could kill a peasant leant itself to a new psychological paradigm. The serf suddenly had an opportunity to exact some kind of retribution and enact those lessons which they’d been taught so painfully well.

            The great plagues that wiped out more than a third of the population after sweeping through Europe helped to assimilate the dilemma of sin. When work was plentiful peasants were more than happy to accept a reduced wage; however, due to the untimely death of the working population the power of the medieval proletariat, as opposed to the power of the medieval bourgeoisie, became the standard.(28) Workers fomenting their new found status and their own inherent appreciation of avarice could now withhold their labor and demand higher wages, much to the chagrin of the lords who’d regularly, thanks to their own tenuous relationship with avarice, abused and underpaid them. The lack of available labor was so prolific thanks to the horrific death toll extorted by the plagues that records reveal children, women and prisoners were set to work alongside the men in order to curtail the shortage of willing hands. The rise of avarice and even the recognition by women of their previously unattributed value, thanks to the economic prosperity generated by global catastrophe, changed by definition the sex of the working class and consequently a woman’s economic value. (29) This was something that had been unthinkable, writes Goddard,  prior to the pestilence, as evidenced by the diverse labor force used to complete “Royal Works” of the post-plague period (233) The plague didn’t only bring death and disease but also moral enlightenment. Thanks to the economic pressures and demographic inequality the accepted attitudes toward sin were suddenly liable to revision. A man who had been happy with his lot was now capable of doubling his earnings and even of owning land. The pressure of labor was such that some peasants ultimately became wealthy land owners themselves (yeomen) and challenged the natural order of things. (65) Just as wealthy industrialists in the nineteenth century had challenged the birth right of the gentry, money was the new key to influence. It was money rather than blood that was asserting political and social change on what had, up until the period, been accepted as self-evident and God ordained. Men weren’t just greedy for wealth, but for position and power as well.

            Avarice and pride weren’t the only acceptable faces of revisionary sin and in a post plague period gluttony also had its part to play. Diet was a matter of class and meat was primarily, especially the likes of game, consumed by the gentry. The serfs existed on a diet of cereal and occasional dairy but were forced to farm live stock for those who ate it. The problem with livestock farming was that it was inefficient, as the animals had to graze on land which could otherwise be used for cereal. Further, the animals had to be fed from the harvest that was supposed to feed the serfs. Despite the inconstancy of harvests due to the unusually wet summers of the period the meat dishes were still required by the gentry. Rather than acquiescing to Mother Nature and accepting to share the burden of meager harvests, the gentry insisted that the forfeiture of food and consequently the malnutrition and death that followed was borne by the serfs. Once again sin was obfuscated by rank, the restrictions of piety not pertaining to all estates. Newhauser relates the story of Augustine and the “rich and aristocratic Proba” who finding herself living in grandiose circumstances and unbelievable opulence garnered by what is related as “great cruelties” questioned whether she was succumbing to the sin of Avarice. Augustine responded that “so long as she lived in abundance but distanced herself from the “riches of the heart she did not have to reject the superfluously of her surroundings.”(6) Newhauser describes how the clergy of the day had difficulty in defining sufficiency and that the Church, given the acquisition of fantastic riches over the ensuing centuries, not unlike Proba, must have been asking themselves the same question? Similarly the survivors of the plague found themselves enjoying a disproportionate advantage as well as abundance and so it is hard to moralize on their greed and avarice considering the conspicuous wealth of the estates to whom they were subject. Therefore to strip off the mask of Avarice as in Prudentius Psychomachia would be to expose the post-plague acceptability of new found affluence as a possible sin. Fortunately for the sinners they didn’t have to wait for God’s wrath but instead could look forward to extra taxation and judicial decree by a King who needed their wealth more than they did. King Richard, writes Dean, installed legislation that limited the wages of the workers as well as imposing recurring poll taxes that would force the peasants to exchange their sin of avarice to that of wrath. (119)  

            Warfare, a constant drain on financial resources, was rife during the period. If it wasn’t the French, then it was the Scottish or the Irish: bloody murder decreed by imperial expansion and the divinely ordained birthright of being English. Although God was apparently on England’s side at Crecy and Poitiers under the generalship of Edward III, the warlike activities of the Peasants Revolt in 1381 was not seen in the same religious light. Their willingness to burn, murder and pillage cast the peasants as outlaws, despite the fact that once again it was the circumvention of the sins that had caused their grievances. Avarice, however, came at a price and those who survived the Black Death didn’t have it all their own way for long. The ensuing power struggle between the factions of the “estates” as they tried to hold onto what they’d gained thanks to the ravages of the plague, with those who’d previously been manorial lords. Sinning or rather hypocrisy had once again become necessary and this time by the hand of King Richard. If he was to fill his coffers, wage war and enrich both himself and his followers then the money had to come from somewhere. Naturally the burden fell to the poor who, with little or no means, were required to staunch a crumbling monarchy. Notwithstanding his years the King took it upon himself to ignore any religious instruction he’d ever received and instead, do what he felt was “best” for the country. The negation of the sins, for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, hopefully struck him as ironic when surrounded by the angry mob at Smithfield.

            John Ball one of the leaders of the rebellion understood that in times of struggle it was men who would stand and fight who were required, not those who would quibble and quake. In order to supplant the idea of rebellion in the minds of God fearing citizens it was necessary for him to equivocate with the sins and, rather than perpetrate them, he bent them to his will and in so doing turned vice to virtue. Ball would have been aware of the ambiguity of sin just as, according to Newhauser,(5) Pope Gregory had been. Gregory noted that prodigality, avarice and inconstancy could all be juxtaposed with mercy, parsimony and flexibility (10) and likewise, Ball understood that the vice of wrath was the antithetical virtue of valor and justice. He proposed in a letter, writes Dean, that it was necessary “to stand manly together to help truth, in order that truth will help them.”(136) In short they were tired of paying taxes for foreign wars, of bearing witness to the nobles enriching themselves in spite of the peasantry and seeing their only asset, their labor, financially restricted. John Ball and his followers wished to instill the revolutionary idea that a man should be paid an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s labor; a principle that socialists throughout the twentieth century have fought and died to uphold. Thinking only to lose his chains and not his head by uniting the workers of medieval England he lists the Seven Deadly Sins in his letter and appropriates each to the royal aberration of power. In his list of seven he actually only names six. The seventh, wrath, he saved as the virtue he hoped to inspire in his followers in order to carry the day. Unluckily for John Ball the rebellion failed and the wrath he hoped to serve on the king was revisited disproportionately upon him with capital justice and royal revenge.

            Having analyzed The Seven Deadly Sins and Evagrius’ original intent to create a platform from which one could lead a principled and God-fearing life, it is possible to perceive the morality shift that has been their constant companion. The hypocrisy of which Gregory the Great wrote in defining the virtues that closely resembled the Sins was not only a medieval conundrum but also a contemporary paradox with quotidian relevance. Many of the tenets of medieval vice, just as they were then, are now seen as modern virtues.  Despite the dichotomy of immoral war we honor our warriors, applaud our self-aggrandizing governments and continue to vote for those charlatans we think will do us the most good in order to selfishly improve our own social and financial standing. Capitalism by default demands this and so we endeavor to better our international neighbors whilst scaling the dizzying heights of corporate ladders.  Brimming with self-righteousness and driven by self-obsession, we ignorantly shun those with diverse beliefs, avoid those with alien ethnicity and minimal wealth and enact just laws to ensure that the tired, poor and impoverished masses don’t sully our neighborhoods and impact our property values whilst infringing upon housing association regulations. In short, as with all compartmentalized human society, there is more than a tang of hypocrisy wrapped in faux piety and the outward sheen of virtuosity camouflages those characteristics we would rather not display. The perversion of the original taxonomy of the Sins is clearly not a modern dilemma by any notion and one can trace the ambiguity of committing sin in order to appear virtuous throughout the annals of history.

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Bibliography

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Goddard. Langdon.Muller .Survival and Discord in Medieval Society. Brepols Publishers N.v.

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