My previous post was about Italo Calvino, and in particular his essay on the ‘literature machine’. If all writing is ‘simply a process of combination among given elements…merely the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions’, then it should be possible for a program or machine to play with the permutations and transformations in language in a kind of ‘combinatorial play’, and thus generate new texts.

Since writing that piece I’ve come across the concept of VOLVELLES.

A good detailed scholarly account of them and their historical evolution, with illustrated examples up to Led Zeppelin’s 1970 album cover artwork, is at Archbook: Architectures of the Book, by Michelle Gravelle, Anah Mustapha, and Coralee Leroux; here’s a more concise account from Wikipedia (hyperlinks and footnotes removed):

A volvelle or wheel chart is a type of slide chart, a paper construction with rotating parts. It is considered an early example of a paper analog computer. Volvelles have been produced to accommodate organization and calculation in many diverse subjects. Early examples of volvelles are found in the pages of [books on astronomy and astrology]. They can be traced back to ‘certain Arabic treatises on humoral medicine’ and to the Persian astronomer, Abu Rayhan Biruni (c. 1000)… The most ancient example of a simple volvelle was the pentagram from Hammurabi’s day that has become the symbol of witchcraft [the Venus volvelle].

Badische LandesBibliothek, Codex St Peter perg. 92, f. 11v

Badische LandesBibliothek, Codex St Peter perg. 92, f. 11v; Lull/Llull on the left

The father of Western ‘combinatory text generation’ is often said to be the Majorcan writer-philosopher and Franciscan, Ramon Llull (c. 1232-c. 1315; his name is usually anglicised to Lull), who is said to have used Arabic astrological lore – and the related device called a zairja – in forming his Ars combinatoria. An academic account of Lull’s Art and related arcane systems is given by Janet Zweig in her paper: ‘Ars combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art and the Computer’. She explains that Lull used letters of the alphabet as ‘symbolic notation for the Divine attributes; the letters are placed on revolving wheels and can then be mechanically combined with other data’ in order to ‘prove systematically the reality of universal Christian truths’. It is thus a ‘prototype of an expert system’ that requires ‘a user or “artista”, who can mobilize the structure to apply it to scientific questions’.

The 8vo website cites an essay on Lull’s ‘Thinking Machine’ by Borges, who featured in my last post on Calvino; he says that Lull’s terms are in need of updating, and 8vo adds:

In a sense that had already happened by the end of the 16th century: by Agrippa’s time, Lull’s combinatory art had already blended with poetic practices dating back the 4th century - centos comprised of cut and pasted fragments from poems and chance operations as with bibliomancy - and updating it to suit the latest tastes. Poetic ‘machines’ were used to piece together syllables into words, words into verse, proving that computer-generated poetry isn’t just a child of the 20th century.

On an ingenious site which is itself a kind of e-volvelle, requiring the reader to click squares on a grid to access the e-folios of text, Whitney Trettien (‘Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: an Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms’) has some arcane and fascinating additional data:

Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897), [can be] imagined as a metonym for his multivolume, combinatorial Book, Le Livre. A radical experiment in design and typography, Un coup de dés privileges form over content — or rather, form as content, such that blank spaces, typography and the material folds of the book, rather than semantics, generate what Mallarmé calls “prismatic subdivisions” of meaning on the page. This unusual use of the book’s architecture leaves the reader, rather than the writer, to cull and combine these scattered fragments of text through multimodal acts of association; thus the reader — Mallarmé prefers the word “operator,” etymologically linked to “work,” oeuvre, from the Latin opus — becomes an (inter)active participant in the poem’s construction. (Footnote omitted.) …Like the four hands floating around Harsdörffer’s Denckring — like manicules — like the reader’s hand spinning the discs — like the finger that points and clicks — the hand will cut up the hand that recombines. The coherent abstraction of a textual icon, dismembered from its body, reconnects through the process of an embodied hand that moves, spinning a web of combinations.

As William Burroughs wrote, cut-ups are “experimental in the sense of being something to do.”

This site has extensive and erudite sections on Permutational Poetry, like Mallarmé’s (or one could add the Fluxus artist Emmet Williams, cited by Zweig). Raymond Queneau, founder of Oulipo, as noted in my previous post, in 1961 published Cent mille milliards de poèmes; each page contained a rhymed sonnet. The separate lines of the pages could be peeled back and recombined into an almost infinite number of new poems, as the title indicates (online versions can easily be found). Members of Oulipo (and Alamo, which arose from it) used artificial constraints and generating systems to produce literary works – Zweig gives other more recent examples, such as Charles O. Hartman, who distinguishes between text generators which start with a corpus of vocabulary with no source text, and those which rearrange vocabulary from an existing text; she also cites manipulators of hypertext and the French group LAIRE and other ‘new media poets’.

From Lull's Ars magna

From Lull’s Ars magna

Leibniz’s Alphabet of Human Thoughts incorporates ‘his notion of a mathesis universalis — a method of generating, with mathematical certainty, the answer to any philosophical question’ (Trettien). In 1666, at the age of twenty, Leibniz defended his Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, in which he explores Ramon Llull’s ars magna, or his combinatorial art — a subject tackled by many thinkers of the period, including Johann Heinrich Alsted and Athanasius Kircher. Like Lull himself, Leibniz ‘explores the art of combination not simply as mechanical means for permuting discrete elements, but as system for logical discovery…Both poetry and philosophy become not product but process — a system, mechanized in a set of nesting paper wheels, whose very existence instantiates its combinatory possibilities (Trettien)’. In 1694 he produced the Stepped Reckoner: an early paper form of calculator.

Trettien’s section on Materiality of Letters provides a linguistic-historical perspective on the likes of Comenius, Kircher (especially his Polygraphia, 1663) up to the present day (Chomsky and co.)

From here it’s a short step to the Kabbalah, the symmetrical strings of DNA, carbon atoms, Big Bang cosmology and mathematical  Set Theory.

From the 18C on volvelles tended to be used less for mystical or universalist purposes, and more as systems for ‘symbolic logic, semantic invention or pure process and play’ (Zweig), as in musical dice games, or the ballet dancers with cards referred to by Trettien. ‘Music, with its abstract notation, lends itself directly to recombinancy’ ; John Cage in recent years produced recombined musical elements and computer-generated recombined written texts (Zweig again).

I Ching (Taopage website)

I Ching (Taopage website)

Zweig also points out that the I Ching is a divination system based on ‘a binary system and chance operations, developed in the first millennium BC.’

Zweig also cites the parody of such systematic engines in Gulliver’s Travels (pt 3, ch. 5), in which Gulliver visits the Academy at Lagado. Some 500 ‘projectors’ engage in all kinds of crackpot schemes, among which is an imaginary ‘permutational machine’ for improving ‘speculative knowledge’, whose inventor is possibly a caricature of Leibniz or Lull. The device consists of a frame holding blocks:

The Lagado Machine in the Grandville 1838 text of 'Gulliver's Travels' (from VoyagesMecaniques website)

The Lagado Machine in the Grandville 1838 text of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (from VoyagesMecaniques website)

It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”  (From website of LiteratureProject.com)

An online Lagado Engine based on Markov models (whatever they are) can be found here; it can be used to generate new text from old, just like the one Gulliver witnessed in 1726. The 8vo website points out that the ‘random babbling’ generated by such an engine is an early example of what came to be known as the Infinite Monkey theorem: “that a half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce the works of Shakespeare” – traced by Borges in his essay “The Total Library”. This website gives a clear and informative account of volvelles and the development of ‘paper computing’, with some excellent illustrations.

Search Twitter with #volvelle and plenty more examples pop up, like this from a 1490 astronomical calendar, probably made in London:

BL MS Egerton 848, f. 22 (from BL website)
BL MS Egerton 848, f. 22 (from BL website)








Finally, among the many early printed examples readily found online, came this image (fortuitously, just now) from Lambeth Palace Library’s twitter feed (@lambpallib; website lambethpalacelibrary.org; this is the library and record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury/Church of England Record Centre): a volvelle from an edition of Cosmographicus (Antwerp, 1529), once owned by Abp Thomas Cranmer:

Lambeth Palace Library volvelle from 'Cosmographicus'

Lambeth Palace Library volvelle from ‘Cosmographicus’

Cosmographicus Liber (Cosmographia) by Petrus Apianus was first published in 1524. Apianus (1495-1552), a mathematician, printer and instrument maker, studied cosmography and mathematics in Leipzig and Vienna. This book, a layman’s introduction to the science of the time, had little original content and was based largely on Ptolemy. Among other subjects, it describes planetary motion and terrestrial geography, techniques for celestial navigation with mathematical instruments, telling time, and measuring distances. It contains many woodcut illustrations, including moveable stacked illustration plates called volvelles, which could be manipulated to make calculations. (The History and Future of the Book website has several more splendid colour illustrations from the book, including volvelles.) A first edition at the Smithsonian Institution Library can be consulted online at Archive.org here; it too has (monochrome) illustrations, eg at col. 63.

Humans have always yearned to create a systematic engine to facilitate our access to all knowledge; George Eliot’s desiccated scholar, Casaubon, is a salutary reminder that a Key to all Mythologies is a delusion; but that doesn’t stop us striving to produce a Literature Machine. As Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi story has it, when Tibetan monks compute the last of the 9 billion permutations of the names of God, the universe ends.

And there I’d better stop, for the permutational possibilities of this topic are surely infinite: we’ve gone from witchcraft, mystical-arcane computing and astrology to Led Zeppelin. Sometime soon I’d like to turn to another Calvino-related topic: the French group of avant-garde writers called Oulipo.

Unless stated otherwise, all images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Italo Calvino and the Literature Machine

Italo Calvino: 1923-1985

In my last post I mentioned taking down from my much-reduced bookshelf space (builders at work) Italo Calvino’s collection of essays The Literature Machine (Vintage, 1997), translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh. In the first Part he writes about literature in general, especially in relation to narratology, structural(ist) linguistics/semantics/semiology, the ‘intellectual scorn’ of the Collège de Pataphysique and its offshoot of mathematical/mechanic literati the Oulipo, founded by Raymond Queneau – an avant garde group which he was invited to join when he was in Paris in 1968. His own work had veered dramatically away from the realist tradition of fiction to which he adhered in his earlier works. I hope to write in more detail about Calvino’s literary achievement in a later post.

Calvino interviewed by L. Salori for RAI, 1958

Calvino interviewed by L. Salori for RAI, 1958

He also writes here on literature and philosophy, as a projection of desire, on comedy, eroticism and fantasy, on the putative audience for whom authors write, on ‘levels of reality’ and on politics (having fought against the fascists in Italy during WWII and joined the CP, he left it in 1957 in a reaction against the Soviet invasion of Hungary the previous year, and the revelations of Stalin’s excesses).

Part Two opens with the famous essay ‘Why Read the Classics?’, in which he defines a classic as ‘a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’, which is rather more pertinent than Mark Twain’s (admittedly funnier )‘a book that everyone wants to have read, but no-one wants to read’. He ends with this fine quotation from the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-95) to illustrate his point that classics shouldn’t serve any particular ‘purpose’:

While they were preparing the hemlock, Socrates was learning a tune on the flute. ‘What good will it do you,’ they asked, ‘to know this tune before you die?’


(Interesting that ex-communist Calvino should cite this former admirer of Hitler – although Cioran did after the war recant his pro-fascist views). The rest of Part Two deals mostly with individual authors and texts: The Odyssey, Ovid, Candide, Balzac and the city, Stendhal, etc.


Labyrinth at Tintagel, Cornwall

Labyrinth at Tintagel, Cornwall

But I should like to return to the opening essay, ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’. After discussing the evolutionary development of literary critical theory, he considers the ways in which groups such as the anarcho-literary Oulipo artists (mentioned above) utilise mathematical patterns and self-imposed constraints when generating literary texts. I intend posting about this in more detail in a later piece.

The next logical step, he suggests, is to create computer programs that are capable of literary production. Not random text generators (there are plenty of these around online now) which work on the principle of ‘destructuralization of form’; what he posits is a need for ‘the production of disorder’, a program that reacts against its ‘preceding production of order’. Such programs would reject traditionalism and ‘propose new ways of writing’ – the Romantic notion of ‘inspiration’, the individual poet’s Coleridgean ‘afflatus’, the intuitive impulse arising from … where? The unconscious? Who knows. We need for the figure of the author (‘that spoilt child of ignorance’, Calvino calls him) to disappear, and to privilege that of the reader, who will know ‘that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works’.

If his reader, he continues, is suspicious of his motives in consigning the inspirational poet-author to the bin, he’d respond that all writing is ‘simply a process of combination among given elements’. If it’s ‘merely the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions’ isn’t this too restrictive? Literature constantly tries ‘to say something it cannot say, something it does not know, and that no one could ever know’. Such statements have never been arranged with the words in that particular order before. So the struggle of literature is ‘a struggle to escape from the confines of language’- the ‘call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary’.

Lit Machine coverThis takes us into the territory of myth and ritual, and taboos, the ‘ban on mentioning something’ – certain names or prohibitions. Literature constantly pushes against these boundaries of what can’t be said, ‘to an invention that is a reinvention of words and stories that have been banished from the individual or collective memory’.

Literature redeems these forbidden territories, giving voice to what’s remained unexpressed in ‘the social or individual unconscious…The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts’. The Surrealists found a means of using word and image association to find an opposing rationale to intellectual logic.

This leads Calvino to an exploration of Ernst Kris’s development of Freud’s study of word-play as a ‘possible aesthetics of psychoanalysis’. Puns and  jokes derive from playing with permutations and transformations in language, from ‘combinatorial play’. By way of such combinatorial mechanisms a new combination is arrived at with ‘an unexpected meaning or unforeseen effect which the conscious mind would not have arrived at deliberately’. This is ‘an unconscious meaning, or at least the premonition of an unconscious meaning’. This shock of novel meaning ‘occurs only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and society’; the outcome should be ‘a terrible revelation: a myth’, to be recited in secret, and stumbled upon only by ‘playing around with narrative functions’.

Borges (left) with fellow Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato in 1975

Borges (left) with fellow Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato in 1975

From here it’s a short step to the labyrinthine narratives that Borges inherited from ancient sources, such as the Chinese-box narrative-within-a-narrative. Such literature does not enlighten the reader: we are disorientated by it, our world is defamiliarised. By experiencing bewilderment we are able to liberate ourselves from it. A labyrinth is designed to be entered into with a view to becoming lost. By reconstructing its plan we destroy it. Literature thereby becomes a means of demonstrating that ‘the world is essentially impenetrable, that any communication is impossible.’ The labyrinth becomes ‘a facsimile of the world and of society’ (Enzenberger).

The combinatorial mathematical game acts as ‘a challenge to understand the world or as a dissuasion from understanding it’. The reader’s role is therefore decisive: ‘It is up to the reader to see to it that literature exerts its critical force, and this can occur independently of the author’s intentions’. Elsewhere, I suppose, this is what is known as the Intentionalist Fallacy.

There is a manic elegance in this surreal or labyrinthine logic. It’s found in so much of the fiction of the later 20C, from Kafka to Beckett, Borges to the stories of Barthelme and Coover, and ultimately in Pynchon and, perhaps, DeLillo.

In a later post I shall examine more closely this notion of mechanical constraints as a mechanism for aiding (by constraining) the author in generating texts; after all, what could be more artificially limiting than composing a traditional Shakespearean sonnet, with its strict metre, rhyme scheme and stanzaic pattern? On the other hand, is omitting from your novel all words containing the letter ‘e’ a particularly sound idea? All literary texts involve some element of willed omission and selection…

Endnote: The New York Times started a column in 2011 called ‘The Mechanic Muse’, which focuses on issues related to those raised by Calvino and Oulipo; the inaugural essay in the series by Kathryn Schulz (24.06.11) profiled the ‘distant reading’ project (a deliberate reversal of Leavisite ‘close reading’ discussed in my previous post) of Franco Moretti at his Stanford Literary Lab. Link here.)

(Images in the public domain via WikiCommons)

The function of criticism: to be ‘a trifle temperamental’.

This has been a rather disruptive few weeks as building and repairs were carried out on the house. As a consequence a couple of pieces I’ve been pondering for blogposts have had to be put on ice, including one on a volume of stories by Cees Nooteboom which I recently finished reading. So here are a few literary morsels which I hope will whet the appetite for more substantial fare in the near future…

With the painters and plasterers working indoors I had to stash most of my books away in boxes, limiting what was accessible to me to a few random texts. The other day, having finished the Nooteboom, I could find nothing that took my fancy from the few titles still on my last available little shelf, except for an old paperback Peregrine copy of F.R. Leavis, The Common Pursuit, and Italo Calvino’s essays in a collection called The Literature Machine, first published in Italian in the early 80s, and published by Vintage in paperback in 1997.

N Curry Jul 14 025My literary training in the 70s, first at A level then as an undergraduate, was very much in the Leavisite ‘close reading’ tradition – those who’ve read any of these posts may well recognise the approach. I know it’s no longer fashionable, but it’s the one I’m comfortable with. When I carried out postgrad research into medieval hagiography at Leavis’s old college, Emmanuel, in Cambridge in the 80s the structuralists were in the ascendancy, and I found some aspects of their work of interest, as we shall see when I turn to Calvino in a future post.

This battered old Peregrine book was first published by Penguin in 1962 (but the essays in it first appeared in Leavis’s review, Scrutiny, a decade or so earlier; this edition is dated 1969). I first encountered it at Bristol University in the early 70s, when required to read the seminal essays on Milton, Swift, Pope and Shakespeare (among others scrutinised in the volume).

What caught my attention as I started re-reading it last week, not having looked into this text for several years, was the preface, where Leavis explains the source of its title: it’s taken from T.S. Eliot, The Function of Criticism, and his passage about the ‘quiet corroborative labour’ which the serious and objective critic should strive for in debate with colleagues and ‘fellows’ in ‘the common pursuit of true judgement’. Unfashionable, maybe, but those words still resonate for me.

The other passages I’d like to reproduce here remind me that FRL’s reputation as being a humourless curmudgeon is unmerited. His epigraphs include this from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Goodbye to All That:

At the end of my first term’s work I attended the usual college board to give an account of myself. The spokesman coughed and said a little stiffly: ‘I understand, Mr Graves, that the essays that you write for your English tutor are, shall I say, a trifle temperamental. It appears, indeed, that you prefer some authors to others.’


In one of two epigraphs Leavis includes from the letters of Henry James there’s this, to WD Howells:

From the website of The Leavis Society

From the website of The Leavis Society

They are, in general, a sort of plea for Criticism, for Discrimination, for Appreciation on other than infantile lines – as against the so almost universal Anglo-Saxon absence of these things; which tends so, in our general trade, it seems to me, to break the heart.

If ‘our general trade’ – those of us who have the temerity to offer our critical judgements in places like this blog, and those who read and comment on them – is Discrimination and Appreciation applied to our careful readings of literary texts, then gods stand up for bastards, as Edmund so succinctly puts it in King Lear. Why shouldn’t lit crit be ‘practical’? What’s so terrible about being discriminating, provided it’s done in a spirit of probing, honest scrutinising corroboration with one’s fellow critics and readers?




Holy Unmercenaries/Agioi Anargyroi, pt II

Royal Soc. of Medicine coat of arms, Cosmas and Damian supporting

Royal Soc. of Medicine coat of arms, Cosmas and Damian supporting (from the RSM website): see penultimate paragraph below

In my last post I wrote about the Agioi Anargyroi – the Holy Unmercenaries -  saints and martyrs who performed charitable works, usually as physicians, but who accepted no payment for their services. This antagonised the local pagans, who persecuted them and finally executed them – but not before extraordinary miracles were witnessed, such as surviving gruesome tortures and thwarted attempts to despatch them. The last members of this cohort are my favourites, not least because one of them provides the name for one of the spookiest characters ever to appear on film, in the ‘Omen’ series – the twin brother physician-saints, Cosmas and Damian, who died c. 287:


STS. COSMAS and DAMIAN were brothers,

Fra Angelico, Sepulchring scene, c. 1438-43

Fra Angelico, Sepulchring scene

and born in Arabia, but studied the sciences in Syria, and became eminent for their skill in physic. Being Christians, and full of that holy temper of charity in which the spirit of our divine religion consists,

The saints illuminated in the Heures d'Anne de Bretagne, a 16th century book of hours, showing Cosmas and Damian with their usual attributes of medical instrument and jar, symbolising their dispensing cures as physicians

The saints illuminated in the Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, a 16th century book of hours, showing Cosmas and Damian with their usual attributes of medical instrument or jars, symbolising their dispensing cures as physicians

they practised their profession with great application and wonderful success, but never took any fee. They were loved and respected by the people on account of the good offices received from their charity, and for their zeal for the Christian faith, which they took every opportunity to propagate. When the persecution of Diocletian began to rage, it was impossible for persons of so distinguished a character to lie concealed. They were therefore apprehended by the order of Lysias, Governor of Cilicia, and after various torments were bound hand and foot and thrown into the sea. (From the online version of Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed. [1894] entry for Sept. 27, their feast day or ‘dies natalis’ – day of rebirth into heaven – in the Roman calendar until 1969, when it was moved to the 26th. The whole group is commemorated in the Eastern church in the Synaxis of the Unmercenary Physicians on the first Sunday in November. It celebrates three pairs of saints with this name, with feast days on 1 July, 17 October and 1 November.)

Martyrdom of Cosmas, Damian and brothers, N. French altarpiece, c. 1480, Brooklyn Museum

Martyrdom of Cosmas, Damian and brothers, N. French altarpiece, c. 1480, Brooklyn Museum

A longer version of their legend full of supernatural wonders (eg when the pagans try to stone the brothers to death, the stones recoil and hit the throwers) and  with a typically fanciful etymology of their names (more allegorical and edifying than linguistically accurate)  is found in the hugely popular hagiographical compilation Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine, c. 1260. This legendary survives in nearly 1000 MSS and was soon translated into most European languages; one of Caxton’s first printed books was an English version, ‘The Golden Legend’, of 1483. The 1900 translation by F.S. Ellis can be consulted here.

Fra Angelico, saving of Cosmas and Damian, 1438-43

Fra Angelico, saving of Cosmas and Damian


The legends of Cosmas and Damian (eg by Voragine) include claims that their benevolence even extended to their treating sick animals, as well as people such as this woman:

Fra Angelico, Healing of Palladia, c. 1438-40

Fra Angelico, Healing of Palladia

Once, the saints were summoned to a grievously ill woman named Palladia, whom all the doctors had refused to treat because of her seemingly hopeless condition. Through faith and through the fervent prayer of the holy brothers, the Lord healed the deadly disease and Palladia got up from her bed perfectly healthy and giving praise to God. In gratitude for being healed and wishing to give them a small gift, Palladia went quietly to Damian. She presented him with three eggs and said, “Take this small gift in the Name of the Holy Life-Creating Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Hearing the Name of the Holy Trinity, the unmercenary one did not dare to refuse.

When St Cosmas learned what had happened, became very sad, for he thought that his brother had broken their strict vow. On his deathbed he gave instructions that his brother should not be buried beside him. St Damian also died shortly afterward, and everyone wondered where St Damian’s grave should be. But through the will of God a miracle occurred. A camel, which the saints had treated for its wildness, spoke with a human voice saying that they should have no doubts about whether to place Damian beside Cosmas, because Damian did not accept the eggs from the woman as payment, but out of respect for the Name of God. The venerable relics of the holy brothers were buried together at Thereman (Mesopotamia). [From the Orthodox Church in America website, entry for Cosmas, possibly one of the other, synonymous physician saints – hagiography isn’t always a precise science.)

Another popular feature in the miraculous stories recounting the twins' thaumaturgical powers is this one:

Leg-grafting miracle, German, 1515

Leg-grafting miracle, assisted by angels German, 1515

Felix, the eighth pope after S. Gregory, did do make a noble church at Rome of the saints Cosmo and Damian, and there was a man which served devoutly the holy martyrs in that church, who a canker had consumed all his thigh. And as he slept, the holy martyrs Cosmo and Damian, appeared to him their devout servant, bringing with them an instrument and ointment of whom that one said to that other: Where shall we have flesh when we have cut away the rotten flesh to fill the void place? Then that other said to him: There is an Ethiopian that this day is buried in the churchyard of S. Peter ad Vincula, which is yet fresh, let us bear this thither, and take we out of that morian’s flesh and fill this place withal. And so they fetched the thigh of the sick man and so changed that one for that

leg-grafting, alternative version, attrib. to Master of Los Balbases c. 1495, after Alonso de Sedano, Wellcome Library, London

A verger’s dream: leg-grafting, alternative version, attrib. to Master of Los Balbases c. 1495, after Alonso de Sedano, Wellcome Library, London

other. And when the sick man awoke and felt no pain, he put forth his hand and felt his leg without hurt, and then took a candle, and saw well that it was not his thigh, but that it was another. And when he was well come to himself, he sprang out of his bed for joy, and recounted to all the people how it was happed to him, and that which he had seen in his sleep, and how he was healed. And they sent hastily to the tomb of the dead man, and found the thigh of him cut off, and that other thigh in the tomb instead of his. (From the Ellis edition of ‘The Golden Legend’ online, cited above.)

Their brothers Anthimus, Leontius, and Euprepius are reputed to have been martyred with them. The twins’ relics were

Fra Angelico, Healing of Justinian, 1438-40, Museo di San Marco, Florence

Fra Angelico, Healing of Justinian

translated to the city of Cyrrhus in Syria, and a number of miracles were said to have been effected by them. The emperor Justinian I (527-65) was cured of illness through the intercession of these saints, and in gratitude he restored the city, dedicated it in their name, and re-translated their relics to Constantinople. There he built a sumptuous church also in their name.

Pope Felix presents the basilica to Cosmas and Damian

Pope Felix presents the basilica to Cosmas and Damian, Tuscan school, early 1600s

The veneration of these important Unmercenaries is also attested by the rededication of the Bibliotheca Pacis in Rome as the basilica Santi Cosma i Damiano by Pope Felix IV (526-30). The sixth-century frescos in this church survive today.

Munich shrine

Munich shrine

Fra Angelico, Martyrdom of Cosmas and Damian

Fra Angelico, Martyrdom of Cosmas and Damian

Skulls reputed to be those of Cosmas and Damian were translated in the tenth century from Rome to sites in Germany and subsequently in 1581 to a convent of Nuns of St Clare in Madrid. In 1381 the bishop of Bremen is said to have miraculously rediscovered their skulls – a duplication not unprecedented in the cults of relics of saints (the medieval Catholic church provided convenient explanations for such anomalies), and an elaborate shrine to house them was constructed in 1420. It’s now on display in Munich. Yet another pair of skulls said to have been found in the fifteenth century was enshrined in Vienna cathedral.

Fra Angelico, San Marco altarpiece: Cosmas and Damian kneel in foreground

Fra Angelico, San Marco altarpiece: Cosmas and Damian kneel in foreground

Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder commissioned the Dominican friar Fra Angelico to paint an altarpiece for the church and monastery of San Marco, which was rededicated to Cosmas and Damian, as well as to St Mark; it was completed some time between 1438-43. The central panel is a portrait of the Virgin and child surrounded by saints; Cosmas kneels in the foreground left looking out at the viewer, and is said to be a likeness of Cosimo himself, while Damian kneels alongside him to the right. There were nine predella panels

Fra Angelico: Cosmas and Damian before Lisius

Fra Angelico: Cosmas and Damian before Lisius

depicting scenes from the twin saints’ legend; two of them are still in what is now the San Marco Museum, the others are in the Louvre and elsewhere. Some are incorporated into this blogpost.





Statue of St Cosmas, W front Salisbury Cathedral

Statue of St Cosmas, W front Salisbury Cathedral, a Victorian restoration of dubious attribution

There are many churches dedicated to Cosmas and Damian across the world, but only five in England:

Blean , church of St Cosmus [sic] and St Damian, and Challock, both in Kent, probably dedicated through association with the saints’ popularity at nearby Canterbury Cathedral, which in the fourteenth century possessed a feretory containing relics of the twins;

Keymer, Sussex;

Sherrington, Wiltshire, Church of St Cosmo [sic] and St Damian;

Stretford church

Stretford church

Stretford, Herefordshire.

Their cult never seemed to catch on in England, though there were relics in the cathedrals of Canterbury (noted above), Salisbury and elsewhere. For a full scholarly account of the English cult and the five churches above, with reference to iconographical and other representations, see the account here by Leslie G. Matthews. He points out, for example, that they appear in several gilds’ and associations’ coats of arms: Barbers, Surgeons, etc. When thirteen societies amalgamated into the Royal Society of Medicine in 1907, its coat of arms depicted the two saints as supporters – the physician Cosmas (dexter) holding an albarello (an apothecary’s medicine jar), and the surgeon Damian (sinister) holding a surgical instrument (image at the start of this post).

In the church I visited in SE Cyprus dedicated to the Agioi Anargyroi, and which inspired these two blogposts, I neglected to take any pictures of the icons of the saints, so I’ll have to rely on the online examples reproduced here, all in the public domain via WikiCommons except for the coat of arms, from the RSM website.

Painted apse ceiling of the church of Cosmas and Damian, Rome, 7th century

Painted apse ceiling of the church of Cosmas and Damian, Rome, 7th century







From the Menologion of Basil II, c. 1000, Byzantine MS

From the Menologion of Basil II, c. 1000, Byzantine (Constantinople), one of 430 illuminations of saints in this liturgical synaxary and calendar, MS Cod. Vat. gr. 1613, probably the first of two volumes, second now lost


Snakes, martyr medics and holy shrinks. The Holy Unmercenaries, Agioi Anargyroi

This summer I had a short holiday in SE Cyprus, near to where I’d lived as a child when my dad was stationed there during his army days. I can barely remember that time, apart from attending my first primary school, eating watermelon grown in our garden, and falling into a lime-pit…

I was intrigued by the name of a small church I came across: it was dedicated to ‘Agioi Anargyroi’. I knew from my postgrad research into medieval English hagiography that the first element was Greek for ‘saints’ or ‘holy men’, but had to look up ‘Anargyroi’.

Icon of Sampson the Hospitable

Icon of Sampson the Hospitable

It means ‘Holy Unmercenaries’.  The epithet is applied to a group of saints who performed charitable works, usually as Christian physicians treating the poor and vulnerable, but without taking any payment for their services.

First I’d like to consider the central structure and themes of these legends, which are all essentially similar. The polar opposition between the representatives of Christianity and paganism is clearly dramatised in these narratives, which are didactic and salutary rather than biographical. Their purpose is to edify the faithful who read or hear them (Latin ‘legenda’ means ‘to be read)’: these Acta (legends of the early Christian martyrs) and Lives of Saints would have initially been read aloud in monastery refectories or church services, and later in private devotion. The misguided forces of evil and paganism are seen defeated by the superior forces of Christianity, embodied in the saints. By suffering martyrdom (‘martyr’ is Greek for witness) the saints symbolically transcend persecution and suffering and are ‘crowned’ through their ultimate sacrifice (so-called ‘red martyrdom’; Jesus can be seen as the archetype). After the early centuries of persecution, when Christianity became the state religion, witness was enacted through acts of extreme asceticism and eremitism, as seen in the stories of the Desert Fathers (and Mothers, like my own research subject, Mary of Egypt) – known as ‘white martyrdom’.

The Unmercenaries’ legends follow a similar narrative pattern to the Acta: the protagonists set up unpaid charitable or medical practice in the face of local opposition by pagans, are arrested, taunted and tortured in an attempt to force them to apostatise. They heroically survive various gruesome methods of attempted execution, or divine intervention thwarts the attempts (the iconographical attribute of St Lawrence is a griddle, on which he was being roasted; in a rare example of dark hagiographical humour he told his tormentors that he needed turning over – he was done on one side…) often resulting in the conversion from paganism to Christianity by some of the impressed onlookers. Their acta are commemorated thereafter by the faithful on the anniversary (or ‘feast day’) not of their birth but of their death, which is seen as a rebirth .

This in a way is the underpinning dynamic of the narrative trajectory of heroes in much popular secular fiction, from Harry Potter to The Hobbit: overcoming daunting powers of darkness and tricky deception, trial and temptation to emerge transformed and delivered at the narrative’s end. It’s also the template for many traditional tales and fairy stories.

The Holy Unmercenaries include:

Zenaida (or Zenais) of Tarsus (in Cilicia, modern Turkey) and Philonella (feast day

Zenaida and Philonella

Zenaida and Philonella: Menologion of Basil II, c. 1000 AD

Oct. 11), sisters who were the first Christian physicians after the evangelist Luke, possibly related to the apostle Paul. They lived an ascetic life in a cave near Demetriada, Thessaly, a region known for its shrines to Asclepius (Aesculapius to the Romans), the Greek god of medicine, who like his father Apollo bore the epithet ‘Paean’ (healer), and was father of several daughters who were personifications of aspects of healing, such as Hygieia (hygiene) and Panacea (universal remedy). He was trained in the science of medicine by the learned and cultured centaur

Chiron and Achilles

Education of Achilles by Chiron: fresco from Herculaneum, Mus. Arch.-Naz., Naples

Chiron – a wonderful kourotrophic character (usually in early coroplastic iconography a nurturing/nursing maternal deity; Hathor is an Ancient Egyptian example  – the Madonna and child is the archetypal Christian equivalent), mentor and tutor to numerous Greek culture heroes such as Achilles and Jason, even Heracles – to whom (Chiron) I intend to return at a later date in a blogpost about the battle of the Lapiths and the centaurs – the centauromachy! His image decorates the cap badge of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and the labels of Rémy Martin cognac bottles: versatile creature.

The term ‘Theraputae’, a Latinised version of the Greek, signifies servant or worshipper of a god (one of the first was Hippocrates). Those who attended on Asclepius in a temple or other building dedicated in his name, known as an Asclepieion, transmitted the god’s healing powers through unusual rituals – anathema to Christians, who saw these as pagan superstition. People suffering from medical ailments would spend the night in wards in an Asclepieion where the non-venomous Aesculapian snakes roamed

Asclepius with his rod

Asclepius with his rod

(can snakes ‘roam’?) freely. The rod of Asclepius – a stick with such a snake entwined – is still the symbol of medicine. The caduceus has two snakes, and has become mistakenly associated since the nineteenth century with medicine. It was the symbol of Hermes or Mercury, and is therefore connected with eloquence, communication and commerce and, by extension, thieving and trickery; this image features in the cap badge of my brother’s old army regiment, the Royal Corps of Signals, to indicate their area of expertise.

Hermes with caduceus: cap badge of the Royal Corps of Signals

Hermes with caduceus: cap badge of the Royal Corps of Signals

Asclepieion inmates were encouraged to report to the theraputae the nature of their dreams, the interpretation of which formed the basis for the rituals of healing treatment. In some Asclepieions sacred dogs were deployed to lick the wounds of the sick. It’s not surprising that the Unmercenaries deprecated such rituals, although Freud would doubtless have no problem with the interpretation of dreams as a basis for therapy.

Physicians in this region charged extortionate fees in treating their rich patients. As in all of these legends of the Unmercenaries, the sisters upset the pagan rivals by administering their healing free of charge, and according to some versions of their story were stoned to death as a consequence. Zenaida went on, interestingly, to specialise in psychiatry, especially the treatment of clinical depression. A holy shrink…

Hermione: Menologion of Basil II

Hermione: Menologion of Basil II

Hermione, a Palestinian of the first century AD, feast day Sep. 4, founded a free clinic in Ephesus. (Hermione, like St Lawrence, was seared on a griddle; she was then boiled in oil in a cauldron, but felt no pain). Her legend has a variant of the topos often appended in martyr narratives: the two servants sent to behead her outside the city begin their task without giving her time to pray. Consequently their hands wither, rendering them incapable, they repent and convert to Christianity, and are happily martyred along with her.

I’ll skim over the next few in order to focus next time on Cosmas and Damian. The narrative elements outlined above are found in most of these legends:

Tryphon: Serbian orthodox icon

Tryphon: Serbian orthodox icon

Tryphon of Phrygia (modern Turkey, died c. 250, feast day 10 Nov.) is the patron saint, among other things, of gardeners and winegrowers, and he is invoked, like most of these Unmercenaries, to counteract the destructive forces of nature, either visibly in the form of pests like locusts and rodents, or invisibly as disease or clinical malady.

Pantaleon (or Panteleimon in the east: his name means ‘mercy for everyone’) is invoked against the usual unwelcome suspects (locusts, headaches, consumption,accidents – and loneliness), but

Panteleimon: icon from St Catherine's monastery

Panteleimon: icon from St Catherine’s monastery

he is also, strangely, patron of midwives and livestock; he’s said to be a helper of crying children. Useful to know. He’s one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, who became particularly popular during a Rhineland outbreak of Black Death in the fourteenth century. The sailors who mutinied on the Russian battleship Potemkin in 1905 renamed the vessel after him.

The cohort is completed by Thalalaeus (d. 284, another Cilician martyr) and the ‘thaumaturgoi anargyroi’ (wonderworker unmercenaries) Cyrus and John (d. 304 or

Cyrus and John: Menologion of Basil II

Cyrus and John: Menologion of Basil II

311); they are invoked by the faithful who have trouble sleeping. Sampson the Hospitable (died c. 530) was particularly venerated in Russia (and had a St Petersburg cathedral dedicated in his name) after Peter the Great defeated the Swedish in the Battle of Poltava on his feast day, June 27, 1709.

That leaves my favourites: Cosmas and Damian, about whom I shall post soon, in order to keep this piece down to manageable proportions.

As always, images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Poem Coupon. Micro-fiction in Blink Ink

Poem Coupon

A poet goes grocery shopping at his local supermarket.  When it’s time to pay he takes from his wallet a poem coupon that entitles him, it says underneath the poem, to a discount and extra Nectar points, and hands it to the checkout man.

The man passes the poem over the thin red beam that shines through the checkout’s glass panel.

‘Sorry,’ he says.  ‘It doesn’t scan’.

This micro-fiction piece was published 08.06.14 in a pamphlet by Blink Ink, purveyors of ‘succinct fiction’, in hard copy only. Note: Nectar is a customer loyalty card scheme in the UK.

Flash fiction: L’Amant vert

L’Amant vert

We were in the bar of the business-colonial hotel in the bombed-out city. It was nearly Christmas.  A noisy group of men in suits was eating food from a long buffet table at one end, drinking beer and bragging competitively.

The barmaid had a nasty bruise on her neck.  When I ordered our drinks I asked her what had caused it.  ‘Kids’, she said (‘Keeds’).  She said she was from Georgia.

X and I sat at a table at the less raucous end of the room. The chairs were faux-leather, intended to look impressive.  A flat-screen tv on the wall near our rosewood-veneer table was tuned to Sky news but with the sound muted.  Disasters scrolled in an endless loop across the foot of the screen.  We drank our pints.

‘I was thinking of doing a story about a lovelorn green parrot, like ‘The French Connection’ without the drugs’, I said. ‘Or the cops. Or New York.’

‘Sounds ok’.

‘Yeah, I’ve been reading Jean Lemaire de Belges.  He wrote this thing called ‘Epîtres de l’amant vert’.

‘So the green parrot writes letters’…

‘Kind of.  Jean Lemaire was this poet-rhetorician at the court of Margaret of Austria, the Duchess of Savoy.  Early sixteenth century. He wrote the poems when she left on a visit to her homeland in Germany.  It was his symbolic way of conveying his grief at being separated from her, and to demonstrate his grateful dependence on her patronage’.

‘So he wrote this as if he were a parrot? Did she buy it?’

‘Nobody knows, but the parrot certainly did.  He got eaten by a dog.  Before that he announced he’ll commit suicide because of fin amour, his unrequited passion for his first duchess’.

‘This parrot fancies the duchess Margaret?’

‘No, really, it kind of works.’

‘How does he manage to compose epistles when he’s dead?’

‘It’s fanciful, true. In the second part he writes about his post-mortem visit to a kind of avian champs Elysées.  And the colour green is a late medieval emblem of erotic passion, hope and so on.’

‘But he’s a green parrot’.

‘Exactly.  Even more important, he’s not of noble birth, so his love is doubly doomed; even the devouring dog is of more exalted parentage.  And when the duchess is widowed, the parrot expresses a desire to be transformed into the mourning plumage of a crow or raven’.

‘Sycophant. Are you suggesting this is an allegory?’

‘Yes.  The court poet lives in a constant state of uncertainty: will he fall out of favour?  By portraying himself as a hopelessly inept lover he intends to ingratiate himself with his fickle patron with a combination of wit and pathos.’

‘Usually works’.

‘This parrot is a polymath.  He can talk in four languages.  He can communicate with humans: a rara avis.  Runs rings round the Maltese Falcon.  He does a Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and writes an election de son sepulchre’.

‘Pound took that line from an ode by Ronsard’.

‘Hence the French connection. Bit tenuous, perhaps.’

‘I’m not sure anyone will want to read about a late medieval lovesick multilingual Belgian parrot’, said X, turning to lip-read the football news on Sky.

Hiroshige (1797-1858): Green parrot on a branch with flowers (c. 1828-32). Wikimedia Commons image from Brooklyn Museum

Hiroshige (1797-1858): Green parrot on a branch with flowers (c. 1828-32). Wikimedia Commons image from Brooklyn Museum

Sexuality, repression and aestheticism: John Harvey’s ‘The Subject of a Portrait’

The Subject of a Portrait: a Novel by John Harvey. Polar Books, Cheltenham: 2014.

The Subject of a Portrait

John Harvey

John Harvey (photo: Emmanuel College website)

Apart from being the author of three previous novels, John Harvey (not the homonymous author of the Charlie Resnick crime novels) is a distinguished academic: he’s University Reader in Literature and Visual Culture at Cambridge, and a Life Fellow at my old college, Emmanuel. This interest in the ways in which visual art and fiction intertwine is reflected in this novel, and in his two books on the socio-cultural and literary significance of the colour black.  Men In Black (1995) explores the meaning of clothing and colour, and in particular the way that Victorian men’s clothing went dark, reflecting the constraint and self-abnegation of that period. He explores how Dickens and Ruskin (subject of the novel under discussion here) assessed its ‘paradoxical aspects of repression and self-assertion’. The Story of Black (2013) develops this theme in broader symbolic terms, including aesthetically and sexually.

John Ruskin: self portrait, 1861

John Ruskin: self portrait, 1861

I mention this background because The Subject of a Portrait is deeply concerned with the repressed and conflicted consciousness of the eminent Victorian critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900), the eponymous Subject of the Portrait by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais (1829-96). The novel is about the famous love triangle involving Ruskin, his younger wife Effie (1828-97), and Millais.

Effie Gray had been born in the Scottish house where Ruskin’s grandfather had committed suicide – an event that is portrayed in the novel as a dark foreshadowing of the catastrophe of her marriage to Ruskin, which took place in 1848 – the same year that Millais founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with his friends Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Millais met her in 1852, when she posed for the figure of the doughty Scots wife in his painting ‘The Order of Release’.

Millais in 1854

Millais in 1854

The story is well known and frequently filmed, dramatised on stage and on radio, as well as forming the basis of a number of previous works of fiction by, among others, Emma Donoghue (the story ‘Come, Gentle Night’, in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, 2002, recounts the disastrous wedding night, when Ruskin was apparently repelled by Effie’s physical form, which differed from that of the classical statues which represented his ideal of female beauty). The marriage was annulled in 1854 on the grounds of non-consummation and Ruskin’s ‘incurable impotency’.

Events came to a head when the three, accompanied initially by Millais’ brother William, undertook a trip to the Trossachs (around 1853) where Millais had been commissioned by his patron Ruskin to paint his portrait. As Millais notices the strains in the Ruskins’ marriage and the husband’s high-handed treatment of his young wife, he falls in love with her, and she responds to his growing ardour. As noted just now, she tried to seduce John into a full sexual relationship (‘Make me your wife’, she urges him), but he is repelled by her advances and nakedness. His rejection is portrayed with chilling fervour by Harvey: ‘He drew back, as though a serpent crouched there’. When she asked him what was wrong with her, ‘He said in an odd, soft, mealy voice, “It is how you are made”’. When she shows herself hurt and confused, he describes her as his ‘curse’, she is ‘mis-formed, and mad’. When he confesses to a mysterious ‘vice’ of his own, it is her turn to feel a ‘spasm of revulsion’, and she spurns him, dispatching him from her room. He flings a last venomous insult at her: ‘scorpion’. When he has gone she realises he is dead to her as a husband, and she belongs to Everett.

Millais, The Highland Lassie, c.1854, Delaware Art Museum, seems to be a portrait of Effie

Millais, The Highland Lassie, c.1854, Delaware Art Museum, seems to be a portrait of Effie

Earlier she had admitted to Everett that she was still a virgin after five years of marriage: ‘”John does not like children. He calls them bits of putty. He says their eyes are like rat’s hair…We live like angels…It is John’s wish. He wants my figure not to spoil…”’ John’s confused sexuality is thus revealed as the novel progresses: his preference is for pre-pubescent girls, although there are glimpses of a homoerotic feeling towards Everett which he disguises as another ‘angelic’ ardour.


The second part of the novel deals with the aftermath of the Scottish trip, when the Ruskins returned to their Herne Hill marital home in London, and their marriage collapsed. Effie is aided by her friend Lady Eastlake to gain the legal annulment that freed her to marry Millais a year later, in 1855.

The story is summed up in the striking cover image, of Millais’ unfinished portrait of Ruskin (shown in my picture at the start of this piece). As the narrative shows, his method was to paint in the background of portraits in photographic detail, leaving the outline of the figure blank, a ‘white silhouette’ to be filled in later, in this case in London, as the novel shows. The scenes in Millais’ studio where Ruskin visits him to pose are painfully realised. Ruskin adopts a range of humiliating tactics, acting as the outraged innocent husband, betrayed by his protégé (even though Millais swears that although his love for Effie is reciprocated, they did not have a sex during the Highland trip), and then suggesting the three of them enter into a triadic relationship. Millais becomes increasingly angry and frustrated with his patron’s bizarre, mercurial behaviour, and angrily rebuts this offer. Harvey astutely refrains from judging Ruskin, and by showing his occasional self-disgust and shame reveals him as a fallible human, rather than a monstrous stereotype of Victorian perversion. When he faces crises in his marriage or dealings with Millais Ruskin slips revealingly into mincing baby-talk and infantile behaviour.

Millais, The Order of Release, 1853

Millais, The Order of Release, 1853; Effie Gray posed for the figure of the Highland wife, saving her rebel husband from the British

The novel is written in a style that verges on pastiche of the high Victorian prose style, but which, like Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, includes touches of modernity that remind us that it’s a modern sensibility behind the prose, as I hope the extracts I have quoted so far indicate. (There are occasional lapses into modern idiom, as when Everett’s brother asks him about his marriage plans with Effie: ‘”Next summer, right?”’ But perhaps this was an 1850s  usage after all? Maybe a specialist in Victorian linguistic style could clarify.) Presumably Harvey has used the letters and other documents available, such as the book by Millais’s grandson William Milbourne James, The Order of Release: The story of John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais (1943), based on the letters of the three characters. The dialogue in particular has the ring of authenticity in its register and idiom.

Effie Ruskin

Effie Ruskin

As I read it first time, I was surprised by the plot’s romanticism: the yearning, passionate love that grows furtively then increasingly openly between Effie and Everett is represented in touching detail. What prevents the novel from straying too far into sentimentality is the sobering, baleful presence of the repressed, tormented figure of Ruskin. He is portrayed as sexually a complete mess. He’s tormented by phallic nightmares of snakes. In Scotland Effie is perturbed by his liaisons with a dodgy figure who turns out to be a supplier of the pornographic images of ‘maids’, like the nine-year-old hotel maid whom Ruskin admits he is ‘half in love with’. Effie recalls that she was only twelve herself when she first met him, and he idolises her little sister Sophie. His response reveals his nature: ‘”I’m so old I can’t tell these things. But that is the age where beauty dwells, we spoil as we grow big.”’

Later, in a passage of interior monologue from Ruskin’s viewpoint, he reflects how even Millais has lost his allure, now that he had passed the age of being ‘maiden-fair’; he now ‘had the un-sweet voice of a man.’

 Soon he would be – the male beast. Oh, animality – the pink stick of a dog in the street, two flies on a pane, the stallion rammed into the dripping mare. But away with brutishness. The perfect beloved must be young and new, delicate-fresh from the Maker’s hand. The tiny body not yet awake, perfect in shape – a fine gold down just appears on her lip. Lower, there is Heaven’s gate: he must never approach it.

Ruskin, in this portrayal by Harvey, emerges as asexual rather than nympholeptic, homosexual or a paedophile; his parents seem (as Larkin would agree) to be partly responsible for arresting his sexual development at a pre-pubescent stage of his own: he is not so much sexually attracted to little girls, as sexually repelled by adults.

Millais, Blind Girl

Millais’s lush style is apparent in ‘The Blind Girl’, 1856; Harvey’s novel relates the scene in which Millais sees this girl, who has a profound impact on him

The Subject of a Portrait is a subtle, engaging and intelligent exploration of some of the iconic figures of the Victorian literary and artistic period. We are familiar with the notion that the Victorians were a strange mixture of sexual repression and prurience; this novel brings to life these contradictions with style and great narrative skill. The characters of Millais and Effie are far from romantic stereotypes; their passion is depicted as convincingly as Heathcliff and Cathy’s. But it’s the strangely sympathetic portrayal of the monstrous innocent Ruskin, with his angels and demons in constant conflict, that dominates the narrative and lingers in the memory.

As I reach the end of this piece it occurs to me that this novel has much in common thematically with the Henry James’s story that I wrote about here recently; both ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ and this finely tuned novel by Harvey deal with the curious Victorian blurring of sexuality, repression and aestheticism.

(All illustrations are in the public domain; cover photo my own)

The finished portrait of Ruskin by Millais

The finished portrait of Ruskin by Millais



Nighthawks: a piece of flash fiction

This 450-word piece was published on 22 June last year for Flash Fiction Day on the official website, FlashFlood. It’s called ‘Nighthawks’. I like doing these sort of ‘talking heads’ dialogues; the flash fiction mode seems to lend itself to that form. Hope you like it.

Chordeiles Henryi: common nighthawk

Chordeiles Henryi: common nighthawk

Zinna comes to bed wearing a gumshield.

‘What the hell is that?’ I ask.

‘It’s my teeth-whitener’, says Zinna.  ‘It’s to whiten my teeth.  I got it at the dentist this morning.’

‘But your teeth are perfectly white’.

‘No, they’re…ivory.  I want them to be pearly white.’

‘You won’t start glowing in the dark will you?’

‘No, of course not.  It’s a very subtle process.  Clinically proven, said James.’

‘You won’t turn out like what’s his name in ‘Friends’, you know, Ross?’

‘Nothing like that.  It’s all tested scientifically.  It takes out the stains and, well, whitens the teeth to a perfect smile.’

‘That’s against nature,’ I say.  ‘Nature makes our teeth the colour they should be.  It’s like, I don’t know, black people whitening their skin.  Michael Jackson.’

‘Don’t be melodramatic.’

‘I’m not.  You’re Jacksoning your teeth.’

‘No, I’m not’, says Zinna.

‘You’re doing a tooth-job.’

‘Now you’re being insulting.’

‘Do you have to wear that gumshield all night?’


‘It’ll be like sleeping with a prop forward.’

‘What’s a prop forward?’

‘Do you have a sponsor’s name on the shield?’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Is this what all those syringes are about in the fridge?’ I ask.

‘Yes.  They’re all part of the whitening process.  I have to squirt the solution on before I wear the gumshield.’

‘I thought you’d become like a junkie or something.’

‘There aren’t any needles.  Just the syringes.  And the fluids taste disgusting.  Like fish spit.’

‘That’s what threw me.  You keep the needles someplace else, don’t you?  I may be wrong; I’m not up on drug culture.’

‘It’s nothing to do with drugs,’ says Zinna, turning off her bedside light.  ‘As you well know.’

‘Do I?’

‘Of course you do’.  She turns abruptly away from me.  ‘You just don’t like it that I went ahead and paid for this process without consulting you.’

I adopt a tone of mortified innocence: ‘You don’t have to consult me.’

‘I know.  That’s why I went ahead and did it.’

‘You might at least have mentioned it, though.’

Zinna turns over to face me again.  ‘What?’

‘The teeth.  The nuclear fission on your teeth.’

‘Don’t exaggerate.  It’s a natural, toxin-free procedure.’

‘What if you get cancer from the fallout?’

‘Ridiculous.’  She turns over, away from me again.

‘Sex is out of the question now, I suppose?’ I ask.

‘Was it ever in the question?’

‘It’s not very attractive.  The gumshield.’

‘It will be.  Bit like a teenager’s brace.’

‘Who’d snog a teenage brace-wearer?’

‘You did.’

‘You weren’t wearing a brace.’

‘I wasn’t referring to me.’

‘How could you know that about me?’

‘You have no idea how much I know’, she says.

‘The Author of Beltraffio’: final part of the critique

My last two posts were about ‘The Author of Beltraffio’. In the first I wrote about the ironic significance of characters’ names in the story and how this indicated the relationships between those characters – notably the central erotic triangle of the eponymous Author, Mark Ambient, and the two rivals for his attention: his wife, Beatrice, and the American narrator – a callow 25-year-old, and a disciple of this Master of aesthetic literature. In the second I began examining James’s literary technique: the dual narrative perspective which created an ironic gap between the young narrator’s unreliable perceptions and those of his older, wiser self – who may also be less reliable than he thinks:

In looking back upon these first moments of my visit to him, I find it important to avoid the error of appearing to have understood his situation from the first, and to have seen in him the signs of things which I learnt only afterwards. This later knowledge throws a backward light…[my italics]

Let’s now continue with the question I finished with last time: how to understand the central theme of the story.

Symonds in 1889

Symonds in 1889: picture for Whitman

The answer is found, I think, in its origins. In his notebooks James wrote that the germ of the idea came via Edmund Gosse’s portrayal of John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), one of the group of aesthetic writers which included Pater, Wilde and Swinburne.  Symonds’ wife, he claimed,   disapproved of her husband’s work and homosexuality. Ambient is said by our young narrator to have been ‘saturated with what painters call the ‘feeling’ of that classic land’ (Italy), which he ‘understood’ profoundly. He’d set several of his novels there. The title of Ambient’s masterpiece may well have been inspired by the Italian high renaissance artist Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466/7-1516), who worked in Leonardo’s studio. His would be an apt name for such an aficionado of this period’s art to use.

Boltraffio: Portrait of a Lady

Boltraffio: Portrait of a Lady

The narrator, before meeting Ambient, had spent the winter there: ‘Italy opened my eyes to a good many things, but to nothing more than the beauty of certain pages of the works of Mark Ambient’, he says.  As Italy was associated with (homo)sexual tourism at the time, this passage, and the emphasis on Ambient’s Italianism, appear to support the interpretation that the root cause of Beatrice’s fierce hostility towards her husband, and obsessive desire to keep him from contaminating their son, arises from similar causes to Mrs Symonds’: she knows of Ambient’s sexuality, and is terrified that he will ‘poison’ Dolcino with this ‘contagion’. This language seems, as we saw in my previous two posts, too strong to be explained simply as an aversion to her husband’s literary aesthetic.

As we saw last time, Ambient describes their opposing viewpoints as ‘the difference between Christian and Pagan. I may be a pagan…She thinks me, at any rate, no better than an ancient Greek.’ Symonds wrote extensively about Italian art and culture, and on ‘Greek love’ and ethics – he was an unusually outspoken advocate of homosexual attachments.

By employing this ‘ingenuous’ and adoring young American as the refracting lens for such a doomed family drama, James is able to show the underlying origins of the ‘discord’ between Ambient and Beatrice without ever explicitly naming this taboo subject. This would also account for Beatrice’s hostility to the narrator himself. He’d told her of his admiration for her husband: ‘He likes being admired’, she replies enigmatically. He replies that Ambient has ‘many worshippers’. ‘Oh yes’, she retorts, ‘I have seen some of them’, and he finds it ‘strange’ that ‘she was not in sympathy’ with her husband, but dismisses this half-perception as not ‘important’ at the time; on the contrary, it simply encourages him to become more ‘gushing’ and rapturous. He describes her as looking at him as if he were ‘peculiar’; he dimly perceives that she thinks him ‘rather young’, but that ‘people usually got over that sort of thing.’ She declares that she is different from her husband; ‘If you like him, you won’t like me.’ He thinks her ‘positively disagreeable; delicate and proper and rather aristocratically dry’. He becomes patronising and aggressive, and goads her by asking about what her husband is working on at the time. At this point the older narrator comments sardonically: ‘I have every reason now [my italics] to know that she thought me an odious person.’ This sounds like jealousy.

There are frequent uses of terms from the semantic field of perception: ‘You Americans are very sharp,’ said Ambient. ‘You notice more things than we do.’ This may have been meant sincerely by Ambient, but in the context of James’s dual-perspective narrative, it’s clearly ironic, ambiguous, even comically self-deprecating.

More on the ambiguities of ‘seeing’ in the narrative: Ambient is shown reading a Sunday paper – the Observer; the narrator ‘watched’ Beatrice, who had expressed her vehement antipathy towards her husband to him earlier, taking lunch with her husband with apparent ‘good grace’, showing few of the ‘signs’ (again!) of the ‘fanatical temperament’ he suspects her of harbouring – though he goes on, unsympathetically, to describe her ‘air of incorruptible conformity, her tapering, monosyllabic correctness’ which show with ‘a cold, thin flame’. At first he says she ‘looked’ like a woman of few ‘passions’, but if she did have one he supposes it would be ‘Philistinism’ – she’s the ‘angel of propriety’. ‘I saw, more than before,’ he adds, that she was ‘delicately tinted and petalled’ like a plant. Once more, this reads like the spiteful account of a romantic rival. She’s not even perceived by him as fully human; she’s bloodless, vegetable, decorative only, like a corsage, a portrait by Gainsborough, undeserving of the great Master, Ambient (whereas he, of course, would appreciate him and accord him the homage and devotion he merits.)

In a brief moment of rare perspicacity the narrator then sees Ambient as ‘a little of a hypocrite’ for this apparent docility at table, but he quickly explains away this perception. We saw above how another aspect of Ambient’s hypocrisy has already been hinted at but not apparently accepted by the narrator. That the narrator himself at this point might also be perceived as hypocritical is a possibility that the narrator refrains from considering.

Later he ‘suspected’ but ‘afterwards definitely knew’ that Beatrice had ‘taken a dislike’ to him: she thought him an ‘obtrusive and even depraved young man, whom a perverse Providence had dropped upon their quiet lawn to flatter her husband’s worst tendencies.’ She tells Ambient’s sister Gwendolen that she had rarely seen her husband ‘take such a fancy to a visitor’, and ‘measured, apparently, my evil influence by Mark’s appreciation of my society.’  Is this another reference to the narrator’s adulation of his author-master’s artistry, or to a sexual attraction which Beatrice has jealously perceived?

DG Rossetti, Beata Beatrice, c.1864-70

DG Rossetti, Beata Beatrice, c.1864-70

This ‘consciousness, not yet acute’, is partially clarified at the story’s conclusion, after the tragic climax, when the older narrator reflects on what has happened. The crisis is precipitated by the narrator’s urging Beatrice to read the manuscript of Ambient’s work in progress, which the author had earlier lent to him. Gwendolen tells him that the crisis with Dolcino came after Beatrice had unaccountably read the pages, by ‘an author whom she could never abide.’ He agrees it was ‘a singular time for Mrs Ambient to be going into a novelist she had never appreciated’, on the recommendation of a young American she ‘disliked’. He ingenuously describes his younger self picturing her ‘turning over those pages of genius and wrestling with their magical influence.’ When the tragedy duly comes, Gwendolen tells the narrator Beatrice ‘sacrificed’ the boy: ‘The book gave her a horror, she determined to rescue him – to prevent him from ever being touched.’ He thinks it ‘dreadful’ to see himself figuring in this story of hers ‘as so proximate a cause…I saw myself to woefully figure in it.’ With this rather Gothic language the young narrator finally permits us a glimpse of the culpable (treacherous?) role he played in destabilising the Ambients’ marriage. Or is he simply a catalyst – bringing about the inevitable fracturing of relations between a couple married only in name? This seems unlikely, given that this requires the sacrifice of the angelic Dolcino. But he in turn can be seen as another object of the narrator’s jealousy – the embodiment of the physical, heterosexual bond between Ambient and Beatrice. Then again, how do we interpret the narrator’s lyrical, swooning accounts of the boy’s ethereal beauty, if he is so jealous of him?

Other possible interpretations arise. This is the first of several James stories in which a writer or artist plays a central role, and in Ambient’s long discussions with the narrator about the aesthetics of fiction he adumbrates some of the arguments in his extended essay on such principles in The Art of Fiction, published just months after this story. Although James’s position is very different from the posturing ‘art for art’s sake’ faction’s (as represented in part by Ambient), his is nevertheless a plea for high ideals and artistic freedom in the craft of fiction. And his work, written in accordance with those ideals, though popular, didn’t sell well. He was impelled to produce more crowd-pleasing fiction – a compromise which must have rankled. He was also scathing about the purveyors of low-brow, mass-market fiction which sold far better than his own.  The central triangle in this story can therefore be seen as a melodramatic representation of the tensions between high literary art (‘Beltraffio’ ) and the moralist repugnance it elicited in a philistine, puritanical and hypcritical reading public – represented here by Beatrice. As for Gwendolen: she could stand for the poseurs and hangers-on in the Aesthetic movement – the wearers of the moody garments and owners of the soulful, husband-seeking eyes.

The narrator says near the story’s end,

And, à propos of consciences, the reader is now in a position to judge of my compunction for my effort to convert Mrs Ambient.

Who, though, is ‘converted’?  The story ends with the ambiguous disclosure that, shortly before her death, she even ‘dipped into the black Beltraffio.’ James seems to be inviting us to accept the narrator’s inference that she is the one who’d been ‘converted’ by her child’s death (and by inference her husband’s aestheticism: she regrets preferring her son should die than be contaminated by his father); I have tried to show how the dual narrative perspective in the story, however, indicates otherwise. She was surely just proving to herself that her assessment of her husband as a malign, perverse influence on her little boy because of his sexuality was justifiable, and would be confirmed in this other book, his ‘masterpiece’.

As with Pip’s younger narrator, James’s young American’s imperfect perception of the scenes he finds himself caught up, and his myopic, partial presentation of the events he witnessed, presents us with an invitation to share his misinterpretations and vanities, with just the occasional ironic hint from the older narrator to encourage us to see through these ingenuous misinterpretations and possibly deliberate evasions. James’s narrative resists lending itself to a definitive interpretation of events: full knowledge is elusive. It’s probably too simplistic to see the story as just a representation of suppressed homoerotic impulses and feelings. James seems to thwart our efforts to decode the story’s signs, and the disorientating narrative voice, with its shifts in mood and tone (from social-satiric comedy to macabre psycho-sexual melodrama), in focalisation and narrative authority, draw us as readers back into the story’s own self-reflexiveness.

It’s for these subtleties of narrative technique, structure and ambivalence that I feel this story ranks higher in the literary canon (and James’s own) than some commentators would place it.

All pictures are in the public domain via WikiMedia Commons