‘The evil in the air was corrupting everybody’: Gamel Woolsey, ‘Death’s Other Kingdom’

When I was studying Spanish at school back in the late 60s, my teacher, who then seemed to me an old man, but who was probably younger than I am now, used to beguile us all with his misty-eyed reminiscences of his youthful days in 30s Spain, which seemed to be spent bathing in icy mountain pools and eating delicious peasant food in country inns. Gamel Woolsey’s autobiographical account of her experiences of the outbreak of Civil War in Andalucía in 1936, and in particular the beginning of the attacks on Malaga, belongs to that same era, when the pastoral tranquillity of the country was shattered irrevocably.

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

My copy is in the Virago Travellers series

Published in 1939, Death’s Other Kingdom is a lyrical and deeply personal record of her feelings and perceptions as the rugged but idyllic village life she shared in Churriana, just outside Malaga (now absorbed into its post-tourist-resort urban sprawl) with her husband, the Hispanist author Gerald Brenan, turned into a nightmare the morning she woke to the news of Malaga burning ‘under a pall of smoke’.

The opening chapter beautifully evokes that pre-war idyll:

It was the most beautiful day of the summer…The sky at dawn was cloudless and the ‘pink band’ of the tropics, the band of rosy light which ascends the sky from the horizon at twilight, rose to the zenith and faded into the growing light. Then the sun rose suddenly with a leap into the air: the long hot southern day had begun.

 It’s a world of placid serenity, when the Brenans did little more, in the summer heat, than ‘bask in the day like lizards, in the shade of the high white garden wall’ which surrounded their big old house with its walls ‘four feet thick’, and its huge garden, ‘gay with bright flowers, immaculate and cool in any weather.’

She describes the place with sensual, poetic fervor:

I always loved waking in Spain. The sun fell in stripes from the slatted shutters on the red and white diamonded tiles of the floor. Noises from the street below floated up; the pattering feet of the milk goats sounded like rain drops…

 More sounds rise up: the ‘melancholy call’ of the fish sellers ‘their hampers full of fresh fish just coming up from the sea on their lean donkeys’ — Sardinas and boqueronis – ‘the food of the poor, the cheapest of fishes.’ Then come the cries of the vendors of ‘grapes fresh and plump’, tomatoes and ‘pimientos gordos’, ‘melons, lettuces and plums, squashes, peaches and pumpkins were passing, a perfect harvest festival going by on donkeys.’

This is the dominant tone of the book: Woolsey’s profound sympathy for village life and the desperately poor rural inhabitants of these remote mountain and coastal pueblos. There are affectionately vivid portraits throughout the book of the Brenans’ domestic staff: Enrique, ‘a gentle, charming young man’, their passionate gardener, and his mother María the ‘severe’ and crotchety but ‘devoted’ cook-housekeeper and her daughter, a ‘melancholy widow’ called Pilar, whose brief experience of romance is cruelly and violently ended, leaving her in sad solitude again.

Woolsey evokes a now largely vanished rural Andalucia:

For a village in Spain is a unity; its inhabitants are like members of a clan, they have a close and indissoluble bond. ‘My village’ is constantly in the mouth of a Spanish countryman. It is more than ‘my country’.

 The villagers view with deep suspicion anyone from a different village, no matter how close; as for the nearby town of Malaga – it’s seen as the abode of evil people.

But when Malaga is set on fire and the air-raids begin, the peace is shattered. Lorries thunder by constantly:

The young men wave their pistols and throw up their clenched fists in a gesture of triumph.

 All is confusion. The ‘Revolution from the Right’ is countered by a ‘Revolution of the Left’. Rumours fly rapidly. Everyone is fearful, most especially of ‘El Tercio’ – the seasoned Foreign Legion ‘worthy of Lucifer’, and its most feared contingent, the Moors, the expectation of whose arrival ‘ran like a cold wave of horror through the countryside’. Patrols enter the house and the countryside looking for enemies. Arrests and imprisonments are commonplace, and summary executions and brutal reprisals from both sides terrify the people. Former friends become mistrustful enemies. Irreparable fissions form in the village’s life. The Brenans are protected from the worst atrocities by their foreignness – Gerald flies a Union Jack over the house and this acts like a lucky charm. But many of their neighbours and friends are less fortunate.

There are vivid descriptions of their visits to Malaga to see for themselves the terrible destruction wrought by the newly erupted Civil War. There are rueful touches of humour: they meet an Englishman in Malaga who regales them with tales of the night the houses around him were torched:

But I suppose it seems worse for British subjects to lose their luggage than lesser races their lives.

 

Most of the narrative relates with grim impartiality the catastrophic impact of the war on the people. A kind of madness grips the civilians, who indulge their ‘uglier instincts’ and take malicious pleasure in spreading stories of atrocities. It’s the ‘pornography of violence’ as she memorably puts it. ‘Hate is the other side of fear’, she suggests, ‘and it was horrible to see and feel this hate-fear rising around us like a menacing sea.’ The people are gripped by the ‘suspicion and bitterness’ that ‘thrive on fear’; ‘the distrust of Spaniards for other Spaniards is bottomless’.

The strangest section of the book is devoted to the Brenans’ providing refuge in their house to the aristocratic family from whom they’d bought it. Well-known supporters of the Falangists, they were in mortal danger if they stayed on in their own estate near the airport, so they accept the offer of a hiding place for their entire family and retinue. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous gesture of generosity, and would have cost the Brenans their lives, foreigners or not, if their guests had been found by the vengeful workers who searched for them and any other Franco supporters. Our sympathies are hardly engaged when Don Carlos, the head of the family, dances with glee on the Brenans’ rooftop as he watches Malaga burn in a fascist air-raid.

Gamel Woolsey (1895-1968) was an interesting character. Born Elizabeth Gammell (her mother’s maiden name; she later shortened it to Gamel and dropped her first name) Woolsey to a wealthy South Carolina plantation owning family, she was brought up with a sense of morality and virtue that are so apparent in this memoir. Her aunt was the author of the Katy books, Susan Coolidge, whose real name was Sarah Chauncey Woolsey.

She had an affair with a member of the literary Powys family, Llewelyn, whom she followed  to England in 1929, settling in Dorset to be near him. There she met Brenan (1894-1987), and left for Spain with him where they settled as man and wife. He had been a member of the Bloomsbury group, and had been romantically involved with Dora Carrington; Gamel was pursued by the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Leftist in politics, Brenan had served as one of the youngest British officers in WWI. His terrible experiences there explain some of his responses to the brutal behaviour of some of their Spanish neighbours when the Civil War broke out, and his determination to help the oppressed, whatever their politics or religion.

In Spain they were visited by a stream of eminent artists, including Virginia Woolf, the Partridges (Frances wrote the Introduction to my Virago edition of DOK), Hemingway and V.S. Pritchett.

The book’s title is taken from T.S. Eliot’s Dante-influenced poem ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925):

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom

Remember us – if at all – not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

The stuffed men…

 ‘Death’s other kingdom’ is one of three of death’s kingdoms in the poem, and it relates to that heavenly zone entered by those who have left behind a state of spiritual nothingness (in hell or purgatory) and entered into an enlightened state of knowledge where they are capable of seeing the inner truth. The hollow men are those who fail to reach such heights. Eliot was one of Gamel’s favourite poets (she was primarily a poet herself, though she published very little verse or prose in her lifetime), and the line’s significance for her memoir is apt: it could signify the higher truth to which she felt those who experienced war should aspire, rather than the hypocrisy, lies and deception that so many around her (the hollow men) wallowed in when hostilities broke out, who lost sight of their morals and values.

 

Vision animates: John Harvey, ‘The Poetics of Sight’

John Harvey, The Poetics of Sight. Peter Lang, Bern, 2015. Paperback, 309pp. (Cultural Interactions: Studies in the Relationship between the Arts, 25)

I have recently written here about the excellent literary-cultural studies by John Harvey of the colour black and here about clothes. Last year I included several pieces on his novel about Ruskin, Millais and Effie Gray, The Subject of a Portrait.

Harvey Poetics bk cover Lang siteThe Poetics of Sight is ‘an intermittent history of culture’s “visual turn” through the last four hundred years’, during which time the subject of sight itself has become, until quite recent years, of primary literary and artistic concern. This book is mostly about the visual life of poetry and prose fiction and ‘about the poetic life of pictures’. Writing within the tradition of comparing pictures with poetry – ‘Ut pictura poesis’ – that stretches ‘from Horace to Hagstrum’, Dr Harvey focuses on the hitherto relatively neglected ‘human sense of sight’ in this debate, and in particular on the concept of the ‘visual metaphor’.

 

In his Introduction he mentions how memories (like dream images) are often ‘momentary and fragmentary’ – the Proustian epiphanies of memory evoked initially by that novelist’s famous childhood madeleines, but then more revealingly by paintings and visual representations in the sequence of novels.

Neuroscientists point out, Dr Harvey explains, how our way of seeing isn’t static but ‘saccadic’: our eyes dart here and there over what we perceive in order to create and maintain an understanding of what it is: this enables us to identify what we see. This is a consequence of evolution – it’s of great advantage to a predator (or predator’s target) to be able to distinguish quickly and accurately what’s dangerous from what’s edible.

In a short review I can’t possibly do justice to the detailed and scrupulous consideration Harvey gives to a wide range of visual and literary artefacts; his analysis, to give just one example, of Titian’s paintings of Venus – two of the nine colour plates in the book; there are 36 monochrome illustrations — is inspiring – though I’d recommend accessing the images online: it’s helpful to be able to zoom in on the details he assesses.

He begins with a chapter on Shakespeare’s ‘visual imaginings’ and the pictures by artists inspired by the plays. Then he turns to the uneven art of Blake, with its ‘element of wilful deprivation’ which is ‘a challenge to taste at any time’ as he strove to ‘keep his vision pure and Eternal’– but which is, at its best, sublime, like Blake’s best poetry.

Here we encounter one of the most interesting recurring themes in the book: the role of the metaphor in art. It is part of Blake’s extraordinary and eccentric genius that he ‘makes the poetic part of visual art stronger and easier to see.’

In his next chapter Harvey carefully examines the ‘migrations of satire’s scurrilous muse [wonderful phrase!] back and forth between visual and verbal art’, with attention to such figures as Gillray and Cruikshank, Pope and Dryden. Here too the ‘slow historic change’ involved the ‘visual or the pictorial “turn”’ that satire took over the centuries, in line with the growing fashion for the ‘picturesque’. When the fashion for satiric verse died out, it re-emerged in the novel, and subsequently in film.

For me the most interesting sections of the book are those which deal with the novel (and there’s a superbly perceptive chapter on ‘metaphor and modernism’, and the ‘double metaphor’ of visual representation in the flat two-dimensional plane of a painting or photo).

The early novelists ‘saw no reason to tarry over a sight unless it was remarkable, and in reading them one’s auditory imagination is at least as busy as one’s visual imagination.’

It’s only in the early nineteenth century that the novel ‘opens its eyes and aspires to a continuous visualization.’ Harvey shows how Austen pays little attention to the visual compared with Dickens, Thackeray and the high Victorian novelists, about whom he writes with subtlety, authority and insight: he moves from fictional landscapes in words to the importance of portraits on the walls of fictional characters’ houses – initially those of the aristocracy, then increasingly in those of the bourgeoisie. The wealthy figure in the portrait intimidated its viewer with its complacently land-owning gaze.

Dr Harvey has published extensively on the illustrations in Victorian literary works, and it is not surprising that he is particularly strong on this topic here – Dickens’s illustrators’ achievements, for example, are explored for their symbiotic relationship with the narrative. But it’s not an academic study for its own sake: he is able to show how they reflect the growing interest of novelists in the concept of watching and seeing, and of related themes like clairvoyance and blindness, light and dark (literal and metaphorical):

Because Dickens’s feeling is more laden his visual details work as emotional metaphors.

George Eliot, we see, is acutely sensitive to the ‘the physique’ and the body of her characters, a visual awareness he calls ‘the classic optics of the novel.’

The modernists became uneasy with this highly realist visual approach, both in painting and its sister art, literature. The move from impressionism through to abstract expressionism is traced alongside the novel’s development, which began to show more affinities with the metonymy of photography and film than with painting (‘I am a camera’), with movement, a ‘visual dynamic’ found, for example, in Harvey’s analysis of Virginia Woolf’s work, where the ‘point of view’

dances from consciousness to consciousness in an almost cinematic way, swooping and zooming, tracking one person till they pass another when all the individuals are themselves in motion, while also slipping rapidly between outward sight and inner picturings.

As I did with his other non-fiction works, I particularly liked Harvey’s ability to argue his case in lucid, elegant prose, as I hope the extracts I have briefly quoted so far indicate. Notice his wittily revealing (nuanced, not ostentatious) use of visual metaphors in his exposition (the novel ‘opens its eyes’; POV ‘dances’; Dickens’s ‘laden’ feeling), for example. And there’s his usual mastery of prose rhythm and the well-turned sentence to express his argument with considered authority.  His scholarship is judiciously deployed.

He’s especially good at showing how writers ‘examine the nature of memory and time’; this resulted in the most recent generations of writers favouring the present tense. Given our tendency in real life to look with ‘fugitive, almost subliminal glimpses’ at the world around us, in literature this results in ‘durable, examinable’ public forms. The Poetics of Sight doesn’t explore the short stories of Raymond Carver, but I find this American writer is a master of the narrative of glimpses, the sideways look or oblique point of view, what in this book is called ‘fiction’s long tradition of indirect visualization.’

I’d be interested to see a lengthier account by Dr Harvey of Henry James’s place in this discussion of art and literature: there are a few tantalising glimpses that whet the appetite for more.

For now, I commend this book to you: it’ll change the way you read.

 

Mine was a review copy sent by the publishers, from whose website the image of the book’s cover is taken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our appearance is our reality: John Harvey, ‘Clothes’

I wrote recently HERE about John Harvey’s two fascinating studies of the colour black, and HERE about his novel The Subject of a Portrait, about the love triangle involving John Ruskin, Effie Gray and the artist Millais. Clothes is part of a series of philosophical studies by Acumen Publishing ‘on matters of life and death’, and in particular on the question: ‘How should we live?’ Other titles include ‘Death’, ‘Sex’ and ‘Work’.

 

Harvey ClothesIn this characteristically energetic, accessible and entertaining short study, Dr Harvey deploys his considerable scholarship and intelligence on a topic that concerns us all – no matter what our attitude to what we wear. Whether we choose designer labels, functional casual or work wear, or power suits, our clothing is ‘an outer envelope’ that we can ‘select and manipulate’ to make a statement about how rebellious, conservative or ‘on trend’ we are. It indicates – even more than our naked skin can – ‘many allegiances, sensitivies and foibles.’

 

Clothes can even be a matter of life and death, as the introductory chapter indicates: two young goths were beaten to death in a Lancashire park, simply because of their outlandishly distinctive look. Military uniforms enabled soldiers to identify who to kill or not, who to salute or not.

Our clothes represent a metaphor for ‘misrepresentation’ – they ‘can be treacherous companions’, his argument begins, because ‘they touch us closely, because they touch our skin.’ Our ‘recurring mistrust’ of them has recurred throughout history, and has exercised philosophers since the time when Socrates deprecated “women’s adornment” and advocated extreme simplicity in garb. In Christian thinking, nakedness and the need to cover it to hide our shame is a theme introduced in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve.

Drawing upon his scholarly research into visual art and its relationship to our literature and broader culture, Dr Harvey explores works as diverse as Titian’s ‘Sacred and Profane Love’ and literary texts; Shakespeare was much concerned with dress and its physical and metaphorical power. George Eliot and Dickens are also cited for their treatment of characters’ dress.

We are ambivalent about clothes, he argues, for they are ‘dangerous things’, often a ‘metaphor for hypocrisy’; what other people wear can take us in, deceive us, until we discover what they are like under this second skin, this body mask or disguise. Clothes are part of our perpetual performance in the world. We dress for ourselves and for others: the ‘sense of an audience’ is important.

Apart from material he’s discussed in a slightly different context in his books on the colour black, such as the contrast between puritanical plainness in costume in some periods of western history and foppish dandyism in others, there’s much that’s new here. There is, for example, the Liz Hurley of the 20s, Rita Lygid, who designed and wore the first backless dress and caused a scandalous success.

What I particularly like about Dr Harvey’s studies is the way he communicates his formidable range of literary and artistic knowledge with an intelligently readable, often witty prose style. For example, he has a way with metaphor:

When we put on clothes we sheathe ourselves in a social shadow: an ethos, an ethic, that guides and limits.

 I also liked this on a design by couturier Jean-Paul Gautier, expressed as wittily as the garment it describes:

When he is not clowning, still there is wit, as when he lets a tight-waisted dress of aluminium-ish silk flare out extravagantly over a froth of flounced chiffon petticoat with a little the look of a washing machine exploding.

He has a good ear for sound patterns, rhythms and linguistic symmetries, as those extracts I hope show; but he also has a subtly prompting, guiding voice. He has that rare gift: the ability to make the familiar strange and new. But I never felt he was lapsing into academic-speak. On the ‘issue of shoulders’, to take an example of his cheerfully discursive tone, he points out that men’s fashions have tended to bulk them out and cover them up, whereas for women’s fashion this is an equally ‘sensitive issue’ for different reasons: John Singer Sargent’s famous portrait of ‘Madame X’ caused a ‘furore’ when it John_Singer_Sargent_(1856–1925)_Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_1883–84was first exhibited around 1900 because ‘one slender strap’ was ‘hanging down off the shoulder’:

The strap was scarcely more than a thread, but loosening it was a step too far, and Sargent was required to mend the portrait, and replace the strap. Only later still could shoulders be wholly naked.

There’s much more detail in this book than I can hope to summarise here. Briefly, he looks at the the history, materials, functions and aesthetics of clothes, and the way we use them to ‘be ourselves’ or ‘be someone else’ in order to avoid exposing our ‘private self’ to the public gaze while revealing different “sides” of ourselves ‘deliberately or quite unconsciously’, as he suggests in another elegantly balanced aphorism:

clothes may help us to possess our soul, and we may place our soul within the clothes.

Clothes enable us to innovate or conversely to follow the herd, by conforming to fashions of the day or team to which we belong (I notice most of my teenage female students now favour a torn gash across both knees of their jeans).

As in his other books Harvey explores the differences between the relatively uncovered or exposed, colourful and extravagant look of women’s fashion compared with the more sober, suited, buttoned-up (in every sense) male costume. Young fashions versus old, politicians, soldiers (especially the ruthlessly fearsome black-clad SS) all present various degrees of individuality and uniformity, power and powerlessness.

Politically and socially, then, clothes tend to be mass-produced (often by sweat-shop exploited labour) and enable us to express our individuality but also to group ourselves. They can exhibit modesty, and ‘protect us from temptation as they protect us from the cold’, constituting a ‘moral fence, enclosing our sinfulness and frustrating the desires of others’. Of course, they can also, paradoxically, enflame them, and play a key part in our search for a sexual partner.

As the text on the book’s cover says, by being aware of the role clothes play in our lives, we can come to know and better understand who we are.

John Harvey, Clothes. Acumen Publishing, Stocksfield. 2008. Paperback, 134 pp. Copy supplied by the author.

Apart from the piece on this blog about John Harvey’s studies of the colour black cited above, there are these two pieces from last year: this one, in which the author of the novel The Subject of a Portrait discusses in a guest post the ways in which he treated his historical theme, and its relationship with the film scripted by Emma Thompson which came out shortly after his novel’s publication. There’s also this piece by guest writer Michael Flay, proprietor of the independent imprint Polar Books, which published the novel.

Photo of book jacket my own; ‘Madame X’ in public domain via WikiCommons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

John Harvey on the Colour Black

Men in Black, Reaktion Books, London 1995

The Story of Black, Reaktion Books, London 2013

 Even when brilliant, rich, powerful women have worn magnificent black in the past, they have usually needed the pretext of mourning to do so. And what has seemed to me a curious point of interest for study is the way which, through time, the use of this colour – the colour that is without colour, without light, the colour of grief, of loss, of humility, of guilt, of shame – has been adopted in its use by men not as the colour of what they lack or have lost, but precisely as the signature of what they have: of standing, goods, mastery…It relates to the relations between people in society, and to the relations between men and women; and to the way in which people display externally what in some ways is a ‘dark’ interior of human motivation.

 

This is John Harvey in his introduction to the first of these two fascinating studies of the colour black. In Men in Black he goes on to examine how and why black became the default colour of dress for men, associated with the world of work and professional dignity, contrasting with women who tended to wear white (or various other hues from the colour spectrum) – often in ‘vicarious display by men’; most jobs were ‘closed to women’. The period of black dominance in clothing for men dates largely from the early nineteenth century until shortly after the First World War.

 But both black and white are colours of denial; and what they deny is colour.

Thereafter it became the colour of Chanel’s little dress. In the 1930s it represented for the fascists the ‘most complete and intense way of marking off a group of people from the polychrome ordinary mass’. Himmler, the head of Hitler’s terrifying SS, admired ‘the disciplinary principles on which the Jesuits were organized, and was called by Hitler his Ignatius Loyola.’ More recently it has become the colour of rebellion and youth, from bikers and beatniks to punks, goths and emos.

John Harvey, Men in BlackAlthough men have in the past of course worn all kinds of colours, these books trace the reasons for the shift to sombre black clothes, with a focus on the representation of black in art and literature. Baudelaire is quoted as saying of the frock-coat:

 ‘Is it not the inevitable uniform of our suffering age, carrying on its very shoulders, black and narrow, the mark of perpetual mourning? All of us are attending some funeral or other.’

He also remarked that ‘a uniform livery of grief is a proof of equality’; as Harvey points out, ‘For Baudelaire, black, like death itself, was a leveller.’

John Harvey, The Story of Black These are scholarly but lavishly illustrated works and furnished with copious academic notes, but as that opening extract I hope shows, the texts are written in highly engaging prose, with carefully modulated, elegant sentence structure and, despite the formidable erudition, an accessible style and enthusiastic tone that encourage the reader to devour the text greedily.

Both books are packed with well-researched detail. As Dr Harvey is a literary scholar there is not surprisingly an emphasis on the literary aspects of the significance of the colour black: there are long sections on Victorian literature in particular, with perceptive accounts of Dickens’ dark cities and their inhabitants, and, for example, the saturnine characters in Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.

Last year I reviewed John Harvey’s excellent novel The Subject of a Portrait, which is about the relationships between John Ruskin, his young wife Effie Gray, and the artist Millais, with whom Effie fell in love. There are supplementary posts by Michael Flay here and by Dr Harvey himself here (where he discusses his novel in the light of the film ‘Effie Gray’, about this triangle of Victorian characters, that was about to be released at the time of the post). Ruskin believed that the Victorian climate was changing as a result of a malignant ‘plague-wind’ of darkness, and that this ‘moral gloom’ was connected with the pollution – real and metaphorical – of industry, and in turn with ‘blasphemy’, ‘iniquity’ and social injustice – and Empire. Victorian morality was founded upon inequality and fear, and on ‘a terrifying faith’. On p. 169 of Men in Black the Millais portrait of Ruskin that features on the cover of Harvey’s novel is again reproduced. This is what he says about it:

 Ruskin is keen but cold like the water, and indeed was himself so damaged by strains of the most intimate British asceticism that he was unable to be a husband to his wife…There are elements of personal pathology in Ruskin’s obsession with the plague-cloud, as possibly there are in Dickens’s darkness: but their pathologies were of their culture, involving as it were ethical injury, and sensitized them to a greater pathology.

 

Elegantly and eloquently expressed. I particularly like that phrase ‘ethical injury’: it sums up succinctly the personality of the enigmatic Ruskin.

I was surprised to discover in Men in Black that dandies like Beau Brummel tended to favour tight-fitting, well-cut black clothes rather than peacock displays, at least at night.

What I found so interesting about these two books is that they take a topic as mundane as the colour black – one which I for one had never really paid much heed to; it’s rather like what’s been said about Jane Austen’s novels: she doesn’t mention the domestic arrangements of the country houses in her fiction because the maids are taken for granted, invisible. That’s how I was with the colour black. These books have enlightened and enthused me.

In Men in Black we learn that dandyism ‘played with discipline, and self-discipline, and the style was, not surprisingly, popular with the military’ – Brummel had been a captain in the Hussars (what a splendid name), and Wellington was thought a dandy.

 Wellington in turn had to reprimand the officers of the Grenadier Guards for riding into battle, on a day of foul weather, with their umbrellas raised.

 

There are sections on black as the colour of ‘self-effacement’, especially in religious contexts – although Christian priests had originally tended to wear white. Nevertheless black gradually became the predominant colour of dress for ascetics, hermits, then monks, friars, Jesuits and priests:

 A perfection of self-denial may make one holy, a person to be heeded with reverence and awe: and black, as the colour of power over oneself, has come to be associated with impressive, intense inwardness.

 

Another felicitously expressed sentence.

Then black is associated with the melancholy lover, and with melancholy in general – the ‘black bile’ of the ancient lore of the bodily ‘humours’; Hamlet is a key figure here (‘a man whose black clothes, finally, are the dress of his dark ontology’) and Robert Burton’s encyclopedic Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621.

Black also became the colour favoured by merchants, especially Calvinist Protestants in the London business community; ‘pious asceticism’, as Weber suggests, is connected with capital. Also, perhaps, it was associated with trustworthiness, fair dealing: ‘Black is serious and means business’ –

 But black is a paradoxical colour, ostentatious through the show it makes of renouncing ostentation. The man in black can sidestep the social staircase because he seems to take his stand on a moral stair instead, and indeed to take the high ground precisely through humility.

 

Other areas explored by Harvey include black as a skin colour, and social/literary attitudes to ‘négritude’ – in Othello, for example. Devils (and the devil), of course, were also frequently depicted as black.

The extracts I have quoted are an indication of the elegant lucidity of Harvey’s writing, as well as of his capacity for conveying a great deal of information in a manner that is as rewarding as a well-written, pacy novel.

Men in Black concludes that the social significance of black is polysemous, ‘because all statements made by clothes are ambiguous, and even one colour will have different meanings’; but the dominant meaning of the widespread use of black could be that it

 is associated at once with intensity and with effacement: with importance, and with the putting on of impersonality. Alone or in ranks, the man in black is the agent of a serious power; and of a power claimed over women and the feminine. Black may be a shadow fallen on the feminine part of man.

 

I’ll conclude by stating that The Story of Black covers much of the same ground as the earlier book, but with very little repetition and a host of different material, and a closing section that looks at some developments in the world of art in the last few years. Both books belong to a series produced by Reaktion that use copious illustrations as the basis for historical analysis.

I’d recommend these texts to anyone with even a passing interest in literary, artistic/cultural, social, political or philosophical history.

Book Review: Oliver Sacks, ‘The Mind’s Eye’

Dr Oliver Sacks

Dr Oliver Sacks

‘To what extent are we the authors, the creators, of our own experiences?  How much are these predetermined by the brains or senses we are born with, and to what extent do we shape brains through experience?’

Dr Oliver Sacks is Professor of neurology at NYU school of medicine, and author of ten previous books of case studies of his patients before The Mind’s Eye was published in 2010, the most famous being The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985) and Awakenings (1973) – which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film in 1990.

His field is the nature of the human mind and brain.  His genius is for writing about his patients’ problems in short essays that read like stories by Chekhov (another clinician).  His compassion and empathy are palpable, and we rarely feel he’s intrusive or exploitative of the people he writes about.

In The Mind’s Eye his specific topic is vision and perception.  ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite’, wrote William Blake in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”.  Here in seven case studies Sacks explores how we see, how our brains make sense of the images relayed there, and how astonishingly resilient, versatile and flexible our brains are when something goes wrong with our visual systems, either through disease or other trauma.

Of particular interest here are Sacks’ patients who were gifted artistically.  There’s the concert pianist Lillian Kallir, whose agnosia caused her to lose the ability to read musical scores, even to recognise objects or representations of them.  In a remarkably sensitive chapter Sacks shows how she developed the compensating capacity to memorise musical pieces and reinterpret them without a score; he argues that although our anatomy is vulnerable to disease and damage, we’ve evolved the resilience to tap into other areas of the brain when parts of it which govern visual perception are impaired and re-learn or activate other ways of coping with deficits.

That’s what makes these studies so exhilarating; we feel desperately sorry for the sufferers Sacks describes, like the novelist Howard Engel, who suffered a stroke and lost the ability to read (strangely he could still write), but uplifted by their courage and resilience.  Engel learned new ways of producing texts.  His problems never went away, he said, ‘but I became cleverer at solving them’.

What gives this book a more personal, deeply poignant edge is the sections in which Sacks relates his own visual problems.  He suffers from acute face blindness: he fails to recognise people he knows well.  Sacks’ self-deprecating wit is often evident: he describes a scene when he turned to his reflection in a restaurant window to groom his beard, only to find that the distinguished face he took for his own was that of a fellow diner, dismayed to see Sacks staring fixedly at him and smoothing his beard.

When Sacks is diagnosed with cancer in his right eye he loses stereoptic vision, which leads him into a fascinating exploration of how we make sense in our cerebral cortexes of the images they receive, trustworthy or not.   Sacks’ humanity and empathy for the sufferings of others, so evident in the rest of this book (and his other works) becomes here a raw, visceral terror.  Now he’s on the other side of the clinician’s desk he reveals his own frailties and abject fear of death, ageing and dissolution.  These sections are almost unbearable to read in the nakedness of his portrayal of the human condition: we are all ‘bare, fork’d animals’.

But the reader comes away from this book feeling exalted rather than depressed.  Sacks contemplates with honesty the spectre of mortality; his gaze doesn’t flinch, even when he feels existential panic.  It’s that moral gaze, the perception of what it is to be human, rather than a neurologist’s analysis of synaptic processes, that raises this book into the levels of literature.

For example, there’s the blind man who lost even the memory of vision, but he acquiesced with ‘joy’ to his condition.  ‘Blindness became for him “a dark, paradoxical gift”.  This was not just “compensation”, he emphasized, but a whole new order, a new mode of human being.’

Science fact is surely stranger and more hallucinatory in the visions it provides than science fiction.

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[This piece originally appeared at the Blogcritics site on July 13.]