In praise of Brigid Brophy

John Bayley

  • Baroque ’n’ Roll by Brigid Brophy
    Hamish Hamilton, 172 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 241 12037 3

In his recent book Reasons and Persons the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit is inclined to decide that persons have no existence, and that the motives to morality are for that reason clearer and more cogent. So-called personality is a matter of self-interest: bees in a hive have no moral problems. Examining their own world and using their own vocabulary, empirical and linguistic philosophers quite naturally and rightly come to such conclusions. Hume could perceive only a bundle of sensations, and Parfit finds in himself only a quantity of experiences. Death is that much easier to accept, because it is simply a matter of there being ‘no future experiences which will be related in certain ways to these present experiences’, and personal self-interest easily becomes ‘rational altruism’.

Such conclusions have been reached, though less consciously, ever since churches and parties were invented; and, further back still, the Parfit state is the natural life of the tribe. The Japanese, with their concept of amae, still live it: for them, the idea of personal identity is virtually meaningless. Most religions, secular or spiritual, tend to go along with this, though Christianity, by a remarkable balancing act, stresses that love does the trick: by losing yourself in it, you find yourself. Perhaps this is because the Christian religion is based on a story, a work of art, a novel subject to many interpretations. Could it be that personal identity is only discovered by means of stories and novels, and that this is why philosophers, who seldom or never read them, have been unable to find it?

We read therefore we are. The idea is suggested to me by Brigid Brophy’s essays, which constitute one of the strongest proofs of personal identity I have ever come across. If a real person is not here, where is a person to be found? She writes therefore she is, and to receive such an impression, so clearly, is very uncommon indeed. The style is the man is not the kind of observation that would fit into the Parfit thesis, and can indeed appear fatally ambiguous. Mozart has style, and Shakespeare has style, but where is Mozart, where is Shakespeare? The same applies to much great art, and perhaps particularly to the baroque art to which Brigid Brophy is so greatly drawn. With their amiable curlicue pun for a title, the linked essays on baroque which conclude her book are as fascinating as they are informed, and every sentence creates the author, on the one hand, while illuminating the spirit of baroque, on the other. The combination is rare, in every sense, and reveals what all its most devoted clients know by instinct: that art is both communal and personal; that it tells us we are individuals at the same time that it transcends individuality. Art encourages us to become ourselves while reminding us it is something else.

The paradox is brilliantly explored in Brigid Brophy’s reflections on a picture story of Titian and Shakespeare. The play on personality here, and its metamorphosis, is shown to be literally enchanting. Titian’s Venus and Adonis, painted by him with the Danae as a pair of poesie for Philip II of Spain, was sent to England in preparation for his marriage with Mary Tudor. Could Shakespeare have later seen engravings of it? Very possibly. More significant still, however, is the probability that he knew, either by report or in engraving, of Titian’s two superb Diana paintings, also done for Philip – The Trial of Callisto, and Diana surprised by Actaeon – now on loan from the Duke of Sutherland to the National Gallery of Scotland.

Brigid Brophy engagingly observes that Titian ‘had several times before been on the verge of inventing the baroque, most notably in Bacchus’s great joyful and athletic leap from his chariot in the Bacchus and Ariadne in the National Gallery’. She is sure that the two Diana paintings show Titian’s final accomplishment of the style ‘as an idiom for the visual arts’, and specifically as a means of representing the architecture of bodies or of buildings, exploding in dramatic collapse or subjected to the slow processes of time. There is certainly something both explosive and exceptionally deliberative about Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’, as if the poet were following out, and almost too conscientiously in terms of verbal syntax, what is essentially a pictorial style. But Titian’s Dianas, in conjunction with Ovid, may have offered a challenge to Shakespeare in terms of the goddess’s personality. According to Ovid, poor Callisto was betrayed by the very sexual tastes which Diana, ‘a kind of lesbian gym-teacher’, encouraged in her following, for cunning Jupiter had disguised himself as Diana when he made his advances to her.

Jealous Juno turned Callisto into a bear and her son by Jupiter hunted her when he grew up, but the father of the gods forestalled matricide by turning mother and son into constellations, the Great and Little Bear. Yet perhaps Diana herself did not get away with it? At the beginning of the passage in Metamorphoses where Actaeon blunders onto the bathing scene (a scene, as Brigid Brophy points out, which Titian represents as a stage, with players and properties), Ovid gives Diana one of her rarer titles, Titania – a reference to her Titan-born ancestry. In Shakespeare’s Titania Diana reappears as a different personality, the cruel gym mistress changed into a sulky spouse, jealous of her husband’s amours. Shakespeare knew well what metamorphoses occur in daily life, and how unexpected and incongruous fates lie in wait for touch-me-not persons. Diana-Titania falls helplessly in love with a comic version of the very young man whom she had cruelly enchanted with the stag’s head and horns. Bully Bottom, monster of the comic baroque, becomes the creature she dotes upon.

Thus the baroque acts both to fantasise the personal and explore, in the most searchingly realistic way, the human personality. How could the Church have permitted the Cornaro chapel, in Santa Maria della Vittoria at Rome, to have become metamorphosed in the 1650s ‘into a silent opera house permanently displaying a spectacle which, in a symbolism too transparent to be refused or refuted by the most non- or anti-Freudian, consists of sexual intercourse’? The answer, as Brigid Brophy says, is that the baroque literary imagination had an extraordinary power of penetrating religion with the humanly personal, just as it could penetrate mythology with the psychological. The literary imagination not only gives no offence but can only be understood in terms of its own intuitive underlife. In our depersonalised age a statue – no doubt non representational – representing a figure in rapture being penetrated by another figure, could only mean one thing. Parfit man, that assemblage of experiences, can only experience one thing at a time, because he has no personality in which to conjoin them.

Personality, in other words, can move simultaneously in many dimensions, and baroque does the same. On the vaulted ceiling of the Cornaro chapel the painted figures of angels disport themselves in clouds composed of plaster. Quoting Howard Hibbard’s Penguin book on Bernini, Brigid Brophy remarks that the appearance is exactly as if one of them had descended to the altar and there become a three-dimensional marble figure who, holding his lance ‘as fastidiously as a fork at a buffet supper’, thrusts it into a rapturous St Teresa. ‘Bernini’s baroque lack of fear of the literal import of religious imagery’ raises the question of St Teresa’s own realisation of the matter. Her description of the moment of bliss is just as explicit as Bernini’s tableau, and confirms the suspicion that sexual awareness is born in the head and in literature, not in physical experience. ‘In disguise from both herself and the church St Teresa’s autobiography was not the pattern of saintliness it passed for, but a classic account of the pattern of the developing literary imagination.’ Forbidden by her father to read novels, and later by a father confessor to read anything but Latin, Teresa took to conversing with God, who, in a delphic observation she did not understand when he first made it, promised her ‘a living book’. From then on, she began to experience rapturous visions, and indeed made a book. Her visions, as Brigid Brophy shrewdly says, were the result ‘not of sexual but of literary frustration’. Charlotte Brontë and Jane Eyre were to come out from under her cloak in time, as Dostoevsky says that Russian literature came from under Gogol’s overcoat.

The section on baroque is a little – indeed not so little – masterpiece, packed with insights and concluding with the happy suggestion that the song from Purcell and Dryden’s King Arthur, or the British Worthy: A Dramatick Opera would be the most acceptable substitute for our present National Anthem.

Fairest Isle, all Isles Excelling,
  Seat of Pleasures, and of Loves;
Venus, here, will chuse her Dwelling,
  And forsake her Cyprian Groves.

Of course the government of Cyprus might be less than pleased by the change. And Brigid Brophy may not know that the Church of England has in some degree adopted her suggestion: ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’, composed by a Victorian bishop to Purcell’s tune, is one of its most spirited hymns. As a personal critic, in the best sense, she would be content to share a patriotic baroque fantasia with a cheerful ecclesiastical song of praise. No lover of the baroque would grudge St Teresa her visions, her belief, and her glorious sense of divinity, as well as the literary imagination that went with them. The baroque personality, like the Irish bird, can easily be in two places at once.

The shorter pieces in this book are equally fascinating. There is Mozart as a letter-writer, and Mozart with Da Ponte and with Jane Austen; an essay ‘In Praise of Ms Navratilova’, and another doing the same for Lodge and Shakespeare. These ‘Reflections and Reviews’, some of which appeared in the London Review of Books, include a brilliant piece on Murasaki and Fanny Burney, and an analysis of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and its conclusion by Leon Garfield, coming up with the intriguing suggestion that Dickens – who can tell what the unconscious of that great novelist may have got up to? – made John Jasper more in love with Edwin than he is with Rosa. I also much enjoyed the essay on Lady Morgan, known as ‘Glorvina’ and author of The Wild Irish Girl (the title is ironic – the girl was an animated and cultivated bluestocking), and its guess that Jane Austen, who thought poorly of the novel, may have had Glorvina in mind when she created Mary Crawford a few years later in Mansfield Park. Byron thought Glorvina ‘fearless’, which Mary Crawford certainly is. Mary, like Glorvina, is a notable harp performer and full of charm, even of ‘warmth’, qualities much in vogue in Regency circles and associated with Tom Moore and the fashion for Irishness – sedulously cultivated by Lady Morgan – as for Scotchness. Jane Austen was impressed by neither Glorvina nor Robert Burns, championing instead that model of quiet English moral sobriety Fanny Price.

Brigid Brophy’s funniest piece is on fish, that silent persecuted majority, whom even hostesses who are delighted to provide a vegetarian meal (‘Oh, by the way, you do eat fish don’t you?’) persist in regarding as a vegetable. A member and strong supporter of the Labour Party, Brigid Brophy none the less cannot help being amused, and indignant, at a section of its campaign document, ‘The New Hope for Britain’, which assures us that ‘Labour will also provide for wider use of the countryside for recreational purposes, such as angling.’ ‘What has destruction to do with any form of creation, including recreation?’ she pertinently observes. The matter of foxes and fishes (coarse fishes, that is) is, of course, one of divisiveness. It may seem natural and proper to take it from the fox killers and give it to the fish killers, although the ordinary working person on the canal bank is surrounded by almost as much elaborate and expensive equipment as the class enemy on horseback. But in politics style is all.

The most moving essay is the ‘Fragment of Autobiography’ which opens the collection. To observe one’s symptoms – in this case, the advance of multiple sclerosis – and one’s medical experiences for the benefit of others is a service rarely performed. Brigid Brophy does it with humour and stoicism, and in addition performs the almost impossible feat of thanking her husband and friends for all they have done for her, without seeming to be going through the routine motions. That is as much a personal triumph as is her always creative criticism.