Being all right, and being wrong
- Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers 1946-1989 by Anthony Powell
Heinemann, 501 pp, £20.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 434 59928 X
- Haydn and the Valve Trumpet by Craig Raine
Faber, 498 pp, £20.00, June 1990, ISBN 0 571 15084 5
Men of different generations and presumably social worlds, Anthony Powell and Craig Raine aren’t much alike as writers. But the novelist’s Miscellaneous Verdicts and the poet’s Haydn and the Valve Trumpet are both very good, solid selections of occasional writing. The five hundred pages to which they both run are mainly literary journalism, with some illuminating essays on the social-historical from Powell, and vivid side-glances at painters and painting from Raine. With all their differences, the two writers have one thing in common. Both dislike most kinds of academic literary criticism. And this antipathy can’t be disentangled from the effective virtues of their work.
It seems safe to assume that academics have as much right to discourse on books as have poets and novelists to write them. Nor do minds as able as Powell’s and Raine’s need telling that in modern society the arts depend on a current of ideas which it is the universities’ task – at least in theory – to provide and protect. The trouble comes with the theory.
Nobody could pretend that universities are at present, or were ever, especially alive with applied intelligence. In addition, we are in a difficult phase of academic literary criticism, which has the air of getting cleverer and cleverer while simultaneously moving close to pointlessness. The new quasi-theoretical modes as often as not find a use for Shakespeare or Jane Austen or T.S. Eliot by exposing them, morally or politically or otherwise, as no good. This is annoying for writers and farcical for readers.
Though sometimes plainly motivated, this effect is basically incidental. Academic life is now governed by the thesis; and a thesis is required to show an authoritative mastery of its literary subject easily converting to a stance of superiority on the part of the researcher. Moreover, such research techniques have managed almost universally to demand of all literary criticism that it have what is referred to as ‘system’. This seems reasonable. Unfortunately, what passes for system academically is often no more than mechanism, producing results painfully shallow in comparison with the real systems of high-powered human intelligence.
Defending literature now can place the liberal academic in positions which it’s not altogether ludicrous to relate to that of the trapped liberal of the Thirties, confronted by competing totalitarianisms. And those positions are inherited by university-trained writers like Powell and Raine. Both enunciate principles as congenial as they now sound dated: Powell’s civilised ‘plea for mutual tolerance among authors writing on the same subject’, Raine’s brave ‘nothing is more difficult than being open-minded.’ Any liberal reader reads and admires and sympathises with their impassioned defence of the writer as against the academic. And of course poems and novels are better and more vital than critical essays. But at the moments when both try to find a way of saying why this is so, they get curiously trapped between the philistine and the Romantic-aesthetic. Thinking about the arts is at once more important than they sometimes make it sound, and harder.
Anthony Powell’s Introduction makes a distinction between the literary and the journalistic. Speaking of himself as, for as long ‘as I can remember’, an ‘avid reader of reviews’ (and on the evidence of this book an over-forty-year-long writer of them), he discriminates: ‘the odd thing is that gifted people are often incapable of writing good ones; the hacks sometimes making a better job of it.’ It’s a valuable point. But a reader may find it difficult not to stop and wonder whether this distinguished novelist ranks himself with the gifted who can’t or with the hacks who can. A commonsensical distinction doesn’t seem to work from the inside. There is something in common between Powell’s thinking here and frequent critical reactions to his long fictional sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time. Almost invariably, Widmerpool gets treated as the most interesting and the most important character. Important he may be as a central mechanism, antithetical to the silent contemplative narrator. But this power-seeking success-hungry caricature is, in fact, far less interesting in himself than are the book’s harvest of failures, Nick’s friends whom the spinning of the wheel flings in sequence out to the edges of the action and over: Moreland, Stringham, even Macclintick.
Powell’s novels seem to inhabit a straightforward and external social world. But one of the themes his reviews return to is the fluidity of English social life, its continual shift of hierarchies. And another factor gives his fiction its peculiar uncertainties, shadows and ironies. We read only through the narrator; experience is always as solitary as it is social. Moreland remains fascinating because, in his unsecretive, entertaining way, unknown – an individual.
At the end of the sequence, the aesthetic and contemplative Nick has to face the fact that of all his old associates his most constant fellow-traveller has been the gross careerist, Widmerpool. Ironies of this kind may be allowed to affect the occasional writing too. Powell distinguishes between ‘gifted people’ and ‘hacks’. But, like Nick and Widmerpool, gifted people and hacks may be in some ways opposed, in other ways identical. The really good writer is perhaps the gifted person who can learn from the hack. Accordingly, there is a special pleasure in watching so good a novelist hacking his way, expertly if idiosyncratically, through five hundred pages and forty years of journalism. The final achievement isn’t altogether removed from a work of art.
This effect is possible because Powell is (setting aside for a moment everything Celtic in the question) an English writer. Powell and Raine come together in a peculiar and very interesting Britishness, their sense of art an English one. This is what makes both, for all their late-Romantic aestheticism, simultaneously risk the philistine in leaning backwards towards an Augustan lack of cant. (Johnson’s often misunderstood attack on the corruptive power of arrogant pretension, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money,’ is the great text for journalism. And both Powell and Raine can take on a special sharp-edged no-nonsense realism which shows them as Sons of Sam.)
Both as novelist and journalist, Powell is interested in time. Those who don’t enjoy his fictions sometimes call them ‘mundane’, a word whose meaning is parallel to that of ‘journal’ itself. Miscellaneous Verdicts is ‘miscellaneous’ in the sense that it reflects the chaos of time. Its basis (along with a few Punch pastiches and some longer social-historical essays, originally used as Introductions) is what were when first published short newspaper reviews, of around a thousand words each: a length that brings out the writer’s packed taciturnity. These short reviews are sometimes, in the case of favourite writers, run together into discussions which, spanning decades as they do, show interesting changes of feeling: an admiration of Kipling which gradually deepens and comes to see him as a great writer, a real appreciation of Hemingway (‘it is largely due to him that people are not still writing like Hugh Walpole’) which regretfully absorbs thirty years of information about his dark and difficult personality.
The collection has other things to say about Powell himself as a writer. Though he deals competently with some poets (Betjeman and Roy Fuller, Kingsley Amis and Larkin), verse isn’t really his medium. Powell responds with most certainty to those literary forms most involved with time’s randomness, its ‘miscellaneousness’: the novel, the diary, the biography. Literature is for him, to a large extent, what he calls in a Conrad essay the study ‘of human nature at close range’. And in another, speaking of Osbert Lancaster, he names ‘temperament’ as ‘the overriding element in any artist’. For all his evident if reticent romanticism, Powell is absorbed by the literary as a study of human life – a concept that goes straight back to the 18th century.
Yet this is a period which Powell isn’t interested in for its own sake. He is best on writing after about 1850. His treatment of his contemporaries is often lit up by personal acquaintance, by his capacity to put biographers right about what actually happened on social occasions. But this preference for the Victorian and the Modern breaks down at one point. Certain aspects of the English Renaissance draw him, particularly the 17th century, when a great culture was in decay. As a writer, Powell clearly loves certain heroic spirits – Burton and Aubrey are most to his mind and taste – who confronted the gigantic and ruined flux of their culture, shaping it into some kind of disciplined pattern. Thus Powell himself divides his book into four firm sections: ‘The British’, which introduces us to an older England, from Burton to Kipling; ‘The Americans’, from Edgar Allan Poe to Truman Capote, a culture as far from us in space as is the older England in time; ‘My Contemporaries’, from Ivy Compton-Burnett to V.S. Naipaul, where the richest, funniest and saddest anecdotes are to be found; and a short fourth section, ‘Proust and Proustian Matters’. In this section Powell’s interest in the social takes at one point the form of a rather dazzling disquisition on food in Proust.
A writer who quite often, for his own purposes, mimics dullness, Powell includes in this collection many things which are genuinely if quietly fascinating. All of them focus (like Proust’s food) the strange interactions and interconnections which mark our lives and literatures, experience private and public, individual and social. Telling in his opening essay, a pleasant study of Burton first written for the Radio Times, how he first discovered the Anatomy among other dusty file-copies during hours of unemployment at the publisher where he worked, he adds: ‘There are perhaps worse places to read about Melancholy than a publisher’s office.’
Some of the best moments in his fiction derive from the surprises of the relation of the arts to social convention, the whole ‘buyer’s market’. Effective and subtle surprises of this kind turn up in his journalism too. One of his favourite styles as a reviewer is that of the gruff history master. He will open a review, as if telling the boys, ‘Evelyn Waugh was born in 1903,’ ‘Alice James, born 1848, was the only sister of Henry James.’ And these decent and helpful conventions (now hopelessly out of date – a startling number of the intelligent young now know no history at all) will sometimes metamorphose inside themselves. ‘In the early Thirties, no writer did more than Peter Fleming (1907-71) to convince older people that the younger generation was “all right”.’ It is a serviceable formula, and its use couldn’t be called sardonic. But impassivity here reaches the level of art. Being ‘all right’, or being thought to be so, becomes a condition of great importance to life, but open to all ironies. The detachment of the end of this short review isn’t anything like schoolmasterly: ‘His death was all he could have desired, a right and left when grouse shooting, and his heart stopped beating before he reached the ground.’
Miscellaneous Verdicts is itself ‘all right’ in any number of different ways: its greatest distinction may be the dance which Powell made his reviewing perform for years around the idea and the fact of a writer’s rectitude. Craig Raine’s Haydn and the Valve Trumpet is as gifted and richly entertaining as Powell’s volume. But it offers one contrast in style so marked as to be almost ideal. Raine isn’t, in a sense, concerned with being ‘right’. In fact, he reveals that if a critic is good enough, he can afford to be wrong.
Being wrong is his general theme. A fine brisk essay on Joyce (‘New Secondhand Clothes’) surveys an earlier stage of the current battle over Joyce texts by stating the principle that misprints occur and don’t matter. This is true up to the point that meaning is more important than text. But Raine gives his theory more space in his opening essay. He mentions a critic who recently made the mistake of arguing that Haydn was influenced by a form of the trumpet which proved not to have been invented until after the composer’s death. Raine’s point is that, in this case as everywhere else, it’s the music that counts, not the nonsense we talk about it. Hence Raine’s choice of a title for his book which works by a kind of triumphant wonkiness. Interestingly different from the amused offhand anonymity of Miscellaneous Verdicts, the attractively nubbly Haydn and the Valve Trumpet is a short Raine poem in itself.
Raine’s tough commonsensicality, his respect for real life and for the serious ‘game’ which he takes poetry to be, and most of all the intelligence of his good-natured gusto and rage, all work together to give integrity to his arguments. Yet in the simplest possible way he can get things wrong in a manner that may dent his case just a little. The dust-jacket of Raine’s book sets his title in a box against a fine etching by Rembrandt, one perhaps even too fine to have been used to sell a book (‘there are perhaps worse places to read about Melancholy than a publisher’s office’). The inside of the jacket identifies this beautiful image as The Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors. This is a naming which Raine defends in one of his later essays, ‘At a Slight Angle to the Universe’, which rebuts sentimental linking of the artist with the child. The artist may be childlike, he suggests, only in his or her capacity to correct stale and sedate quasi-philosophies, like the young Christ in his dispute with the Doctors of the Temple; and Raine turns to the etching by Rembrandt usually known as Joseph Telling his Dreams, claiming that its true subject is that of Christ with the Doctors. If Raine had been right, there might have been even less to be said for using it as a dust-jacket: identifying critics with Jesus just must be a mistake. But luckily Raine is wrong. The subject is what it has always been taken to be, ‘Joseph Telling his Dreams’.
Rembrandt left behind at least two real treatments of the topos of Jesus with the Doctors, in each case leaving the subject iconographically unmistakable: brief but definite indications of monumental masonry show that the location is the Temple. The print on Raine’s cover is no vast stone edifice filled with Scribes and Pharisees: it is an intimate domestic interior. The old lady behind the boy is in a bed, perhaps a day-bed – you can see bed-curtains, not to mention a night-cap; she is conceivably Joseph’s mother, Rachel, who bore him very late in life (though she was actually dead by this stage of Joseph’s existence). The figure surely can’t be the young Mary, mother of Jesus, and she wouldn’t lie around in a Jewish temple anyway. The loving old man on the left isn’t a Pharisee but Joseph’s adoring elderly father, Jacob; the sullen averted faces to the right aren’t intellectuals but his embittered older brothers, soon to attempt his murder in jealous rage. And the wonderfully intent boy at the centre has the face of a poet, not of God; he is dressed not in sanctity but in the very best and most expensive possible 17th-century boy’s topcoat – the many-coloured dreamcoat, in short.
The mixture of great virtues and great mistakes is an essential part of what Raine is doing and saying. At one point, he lays down the sturdy affirmation, ‘Eliot is a poet by whom critics are judged’ – and this is certainly true. But Eliot was a critic himself, as many poets are. He goes on to argue that the general theme of Eliot’s verse ‘from first to last’ is ‘Live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.’ Even Henry James, whose novel The Ambassadors is the source of this phrase, wouldn’t have said it in propria persona: it’s odder still from Eliot.
Raine is a splendid critic of the textures of language, the ‘pidgin’ or ‘Babylonish dialect’ that each artist makes his own. On Dickens, on Joyce, on Elizabeth Bishop and John Betjeman – perhaps the best essays – he has things to say both brilliant and new. But he wouldn’t have said them, paradoxically, had he not been a critic capable of mistakes. In all his essays he brings virtues easy to class as ‘journalistic’ up to the level of the genuinely literary. He does so from a strong refusal to cut the arts out of life. ‘Poets hate the sanitised, sentimental, overly spiritual version of what they do. They always want the unpoetical.’ And: ‘If there isn’t the sustained effort to accommodate the unpoetical, poetry is likely to revert to the poetical.’ This is a poet speaking, a voice too individual to be mistakable for Jesus. But Joseph is quite good enough.
Vol. 12 No. 14 · 26 July 1990
Barbara Everett and I disagree about the subject of the Rembrandt etching used on the dust-jacket of my essays (LRB, 12 July). I think it depicts Christ Disputing with the Doctors. She believes it shows Joseph Telling his Dreams, which is the traditional interpretation. As far as she is concerned, I am simply wrong.
There are three etchings of the young Christ disputing with the elders about which we could agree easily enough. The topos, as she points out, does in every case sketch in masonry. But I believe an artist like Rembrandt would want to experiment, because, like all topoi, it is a cliché. The temple in Jerusalem, as we see from Rembrandt’s etching of Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple (Bartsch 69, Rijksmuseum), contained multitudes – money-changers, fig-sellers, a hamper of doves, a bolting calf, a dog worrying at some bones. It follows from this that I don’t accept Barbara Everett’s argument that the disputed scene is too domestic to be in a temple. It is only too domestic to be in a topos. The scene might easily be in one of the ‘uppermost rooms’ which the scribes and the Pharisees are said to love in Matthew 22:6.
Nor is the aged face of the woman an insuperable barrier to her being Mary. Christ is aged 12. Even earlier, in Rembrandt’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Bartsch 58, British Museum) and The Flight into Egypt (Bartsch 52, Rijksmuseum), Mary and Joseph are depicted as thoroughly middle-aged. Which is hardly surprising if Rembrandt was following the tradition in Mark 6:3: ‘Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ This makes at least six siblings. Ageing for the mother.
My reason for reproducing the disputed etching on the dust-jacket was that I write about it in the book – and I wanted readers to be able to check and verify. Without the original, all kinds of spurious claims might sound plausible. For instance, readers of Barbara Everett’s review will think the etching unambiguously depicts a day-bed on which is sprawled a woman in a night-cap. This is pure invention. There are curtains. They could be a day-bed. They could just be curtains. Temples had curtains: there are curtains in a similar configuration at the light source of Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple. The confidently identified ‘night-cap’ looks like a turban of sorts. Nothing associates this headgear, recurrent in Rembrandt, with sleep. Nor is the woman lying down. At the very least, she is sitting up. But nothing suggests she isn’t standing – awkwardly and anxiously peering over at her son and leaning on her husband.
Of the central figure, Barbara Everett says he hasn’t the face ‘of God’. True. He has the face of Jesus, or of Joseph. In the other three etchings of Christ Disputing with the Doctors, he hasn’t the face ‘of God’ either. It is a requirement only of Barbara Everett’s argument, not of Rembrandt’s etching.
Vol. 12 No. 15 · 16 August 1990
Craig Raine puts forward (Letters, 26 July) a new interpretation of the etching by Rembrandt which has been traditionally known as Joseph Telling his Dreams. I am glad that, in reply to my review, he has chosen to stick to his guns. Having looked at Rembrandt’s etching again – not only in the detail given on the book-jacket but in its complete form – I can’t see eye to eye with him. But I remain grateful to him for being original enough to make his readers turn, or turn again, to an image that now appears perhaps the finest of all the artist’s early prints.
Tenderly focused, the picture is also full of life: from the youth rapidly dressing himself in the room through the doorway in the upper right-hand corner (not visible in the book-jacket), to the small dog at the lower left busily giving himself what seems to be his early-morning wash-over. These vivid details are easily interpreted as part of the scene of Joseph’s telling his dreams first thing one morning to his parents and brothers. Craig Raine may find it harder to fit such domestic activities into the subject of ‘Christ Disputing with the Doctors’. His letter still doesn’t explain, for instance, why his Jesus is wearing a smart overcoat (the dream coat itself) instead of what Rembrandt elsewhere gives the young Christ in the ‘Disputing’ etchings: a kind of grandly asexual oriental nightgown. I’m quite certain that anything Craig Raine found to say about such details would be unusually perceptive. And his general insight into Rembrandt remains true. These images are as great as they are because in them religious experience becomes human and real: so much so as to leave Jesus and Joseph all but indistinguishable.
Vol. 12 No. 16 · 30 August 1990
Obviously, if everyone has always believed the disputed Rembrandt etching on my dust-jacket to be Joseph Telling His Dreams, then there are likely to be grounds for this. But, as Valéry said, ‘what has been believed by all, always and everywhere, has every likelihood of being untrue.’ For example, as evidence that Rembrandt is depicting a domestic morning scene, Barbara Everett (Letters, 16 August) says that the figure at the top right is ‘rapidly dressing himself’. Despite her careless tone, she is decidedly categorical. Fair enough. But how would the etching look if this figure were undressing himself? Exactly the same. In fact, I think the man is taking a glove from his left hand with his right, before he enters the room. ‘Rapidly’ is an unjustified Everett embellishment. The action may be hurried, deliberate or unbearably slow. Who can say?
It is symbolic of our differences that Barbara Everett should instantly suppose that he is decently buttoning up while I should imagine he is unbuttoning. It is primness, I fear, which prevents her coming up to see my etching. People fuck, shit and piss in Rembrandt etchings. The little dog licking its balls isn’t a difficulty for Rembrandt, or for me – as Barbara Everett should know, because I discuss its role in my book, though she produces it as if it were evidence I had overlooked. The dog is a greater difficulty for her: what kind of whiffling sensibility produces her eyes-averted description of the dog ‘giving himself what seems to be his early-morning wash-over’? Her Rembrandt, too, is a nervous, scholarly type, with one eye on the art critics, anxious to fulfil the requirements of the topos. Similarly, her notion that the young Christ should be depicted with ‘the face of God’ hardly squares with Jakob Rosenberg’s assertion that Titus Rembrandt was indifferently the model for Jesus, Joseph and Tobias.
A few other points: 1. How does Barbara Everett know the curtains belong to a ‘day-bed’? Has the mattress a sprung interior? 2. The ‘night-cap’ she invents is identical to the head-gear worn by Mary in the etching Christ between His Parents, Returning from the Temple (Bartsch 60, Dahlem). They are on the open road, with never a bed in sight. 3. They are also accompanied, funnily enough, by a little dog. 4. Some of the ‘brothers’ so confidently identified by Barbara Everett look old enough to be grandfathers of ‘Joseph’ and more decrepit than the Doctor she thinks is ‘Jacob’. 5. Finally, the coat on which so much of Barbara Everett’s interpretation rests, is not the dream coat. Its quality is no richer than the coat of the man on the left, or the dress of the woman on the right of ‘Joseph’. Rembrandt makes no attempt to suggest its ‘many-coloured’ quality in the ways that would have been open to him even in the colourless medium of etching. The real meaning of ‘many-coloured’ is ‘long-sleeved’. Supposing Rembrandt knew this, he makes no attempt to depict it. The sleeves are short.
Vol. 12 No. 17 · 13 September 1990
Craig Raine (Letters, 30 August) uses for his dust-jacket Rembrandt’s Joseph Telling His Dreams, titling it The Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors – thus (in my view) making it seem less good than it is; and he justifies this by the argument that ‘Titus Rembrandt was indifferently the model for Jesus, Joseph and Tobias.’ Joseph Telling His Dreams dates from 1638. Titus, the painter’s sole surviving son, wasn’t born until 1641, earlier babies surviving no more than a month or so. Titus would not have been of an age to model for Joseph, 17 in the Bible story, until (say) 1658. In 1658 Rembrandt had been painting for over thirty years; he was dead by the end of the 1660s, and Titus pre-deceased him. In those thirty years of work Rembrandt had created an idea of Jesus so consistent as to be called characteristic. Craig Raine dislikes the phrase, ‘the face of God’. I think he’s confusing my views with Rembrandt’s, as well as fusing Rembrandt’s with his own. If I had views about the face of God (and I haven’t) they’d be irrelevant. But Rembrandt did. He had an actuality that Craig Raine simply isn’t letting him possess.
Rembrandt knew the Bible better than most of his contemporaries, and made little-known stories his own, though he mediated them with an accuracy that often permits exact citation of sources. In addition, the painter created, or was willing to perpetuate, an image of Christ so consistent as to be called characteristic. Rembrandt gives his Jesus a halo or nimbus of light – not just a hint, but an explicit circle over the head, or lines radiating wide around the face and head. The familiar etching Christ Preaching, or the even more magnificent ‘Hundred Guilder Print’, Christ Healing the Sick, make the figure of Jesus a great source of light. The nimbus is regularly present, even if not invariable – it seems to depend on circumstances of pictorial background, medium and perhaps audience in ways that I just haven’t knowledge or authority to talk about. But it’s there in all the great images I can recall. This auriole, plus the long cloaking hair and beard, and the invariable swaddling uncontemporary robes (if Craig Raine finds a Jesus in overcoat and trousers I’d be happy to hear about it) all make Rembrandt’s Christ something very different from the people who surround him.
I believe the Joseph to be about Joseph because this marvellous image says so at sight – it’s entirely different from the ‘preaching’ images; and my initial reaction is deeply uninterested in what art historians have traditionally said. But to lean merely on this position would be brutally egoistic: impressions must be justified from outside the self. What Rembrandt is doing is clearly governed by system and principle, and I don’t think Craig Raine is wise to push all this aside with a cry of ‘whiffling sensibility’. In short, it matters that the boy in the Joseph lacks nimbus and robes. The reason may be that, though Christ, he is young, and as yet unauthorised by the Holy Spirit. But I think it’s because he isn’t Christ.
Craig Raine should take a look at the other two images which relate to this print. One is the Albertina drawing of 1642, Joseph Telling His Dreams to Jacob. It shows the same bedroom, from a different angle; Rachel leans from the bed, in the same posture, and Jacob’s chair is now to the right of the bed, with a child leaning against his knee. Apart from these three and Joseph, the room is empty. But the Rijksmuseum possesses the preparatory study for the Joseph etching itself, the Dutch drawing deriving from some time earlier in the 1630s. In it, the principals are grouped as in the Albertina drawing, but the room is dense with people: brothers and others.
Of this swarming roomful of people, portrayed much more brilliantly in the etching – which is superior in every way to the other two pictures – Craig Raine observes hootingly that the brothers are ‘old enough to be grandfathers of Joseph’. Yes, but Joseph’s brothers were old enough to be his grandfathers. Rembrandt has faithfully followed Scripture in making his Joseph ‘loved’ by Jacob ‘more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age.’ The painter’s Jacob, an Old Testament patriarch, is always a very old man, both dignified and tender, and he is fifty or sixty years older than his son: Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (for instance) portrays a man of eighty or even ninety alongside a Joseph who is, though a father himself, still very young. Therefore some of Joseph’s brothers would be markedly older than himself.
Raine ironically sees a Rembrandt thus faithful to sources outside himself as necessarily a ‘nervous, scholarly type’. This is an illusion: Rembrandt’s truth is heroic. Where his contemporary Poussin idealised by generality, Rembrandt struggled throughout this first half of his career to find laws through truth and realism, by preserving facts, by recording the random. A writer and critic of Raine’s gifts shouldn’t be willing to seem to despise such heroic accuracy.
The figure in the upper-right-hand corner I describe as dressing hastily, and Raine grunts loftily: ‘Who can say?’ Anyone can, who uses his or her eyes. Craig Raine doesn’t need telling by a book like Gombrich’s Art and Illusion that painters use symbols as poets use words. It is early morning in the Joseph etching (and it is the sense of solid yet luminous moment which helps to raise this image above the other two versions); and the time is early morning because the space beyond the upper archway, being lighter and brighter than the room itself, suggests full early-morning sunlight. If that space were dark, the man might seem to be undressing. He is not, as Raine proposes, taking off gloves because human beings do not raise their arms to shoulder level and extend their elbows in order to take off gloves. The man is lifting, shifting, setting in place and pulling down (all in one gesture) his waistcoat or jerkin. Because his stance is effortful and purposive, though commonplace, his posture could not be sustained long without his over-balancing. He therefore appears to be frozen in a moment of peculiarly rapid gesture.
This is perhaps the reason why Rembrandt liked to portray small children, as well as animals. A familiar drawing is the woman holding in the air a screaming and kicking child: it’s not a posture which could, in the nature of things, be long maintained. The image gives the impression of peculiar momentariness, and therefore of reality. In the Joseph etching, the man briskly pulling on his waistcoat as he moves in through the door matches the snapshot activity of the small dog washing itself in the lower-left-hand corner of the print. Craig Raine’s candid-camera manly uproar about the dog’s having private parts misses the point, I think. It’s not what he’s washing that’s important, it’s that he’s washing. Man and dog earn their place in the picture because both say ‘Morning’: this is how the Renaissance and Rembrandt use living details to illuminate laws. The rapid and self-absorbed and detached activity of both man and dog highlights the very different yet related, still communication of Joseph at the centre, telling his dreams. Light dawns from within as from without.
Craig Raine can read Dickens or Joyce wonderfully well. I think he’s just not bothering to read Rembrandt. It’s a pity. Nonetheless, it all goes to affirm Raine’s own splendid opening chapter’s argument: that critics, who are always blowing their own valve trumpets and thus making foolish mistakes, need to begin from a position of some humility.
Somerville College, Oxford
Craig Raine is getting his chiton in a twist. If he takes a look at the preparatory grisaille painting by Rembrandt (in the Rijksmuseum) for the etching in question, he will surely concede that the latter has nothing to do with Jesus. The coat worn by Joseph is clearly a cut above the average. In the painting, Leah (rather than Rachel, who had died giving birth to Benjamin) is without question reclining in the curtained bed: if in the etching she’s standing (note her right hand on her head), then I’m a cock-eyed inebriate.
Raine says: ‘The real meaning of “many-coloured” is “long-sleeved”.’ It is not. ‘Many-coloured’ is an alternative rendering of the second word in the Hebrew phrase involved (ketonet passim): its cognates in Assyrian/Arabic yield the idea of ‘brightly-coloured bird’/‘mosaic’ or (in the RSV) ‘pieces’. But another gloss of passim, plural of ‘flat of the hand or foot’, indicates a tunic reaching to the palms or soles. The whole phrase could then mean ‘a long, sleeved tunic’ (as in the NEB etc), not necessarily one with long sleeves. ‘Rembrandt makes no attempt to suggest [the coat’s] “many-coloured” quality,’ writes Raine: but why should he? The artist had many learned Jewish friends with whom he may have discussed this very point.
Joseph or Jesus? Raine is surely being perverse. The wrapt inward gaze on the lad’s face, which Rembrandt has made the focus of the etching (in the painting it is rather the coat) and over which he has taken great pains, is not of someone ‘disputing’ but of a teller of dreams – just that. The equally concentrated involvement of the elders magnetised by him bears testimony to this. As for the gang on the right (on the left in the painting, the etching being reversed), their attitude is a long way from that of the doctors in the relevant ‘disputing’ plates: some of the former exude real meanness.
The dressing/undressing/glove-removing vignette in the doorway? Does it even matter what he’s doing? He could so easily have been popped in as an aesthetic makeweight (to charge the arched space), or, more importantly, to complete the arterial curve starting at the testilinguing tyke (who’s fast asleep in the grisaille). Maybe not.
If Raine has fallen on stony ground, Barbara Everett is still right: the wayward poet has led us back to this tiny masterpiece, and that’s worth all the hoo-ha.
Vol. 12 No. 18 · 27 September 1990
Like Barbara Everett, (Letters, 13 September), I think Craig Raine is wrong to claim that the Rembrandt etching traditionally known as Joseph Telling His Dreams (Bartsch 37) is really Christ Disputing with the Doctors. My reason is this. The central figure is addressing himself principally to two people: an old man and a young, round-cheeked woman who has a book open on her knees (which I take to be her Book of Dreams). Even after we have granted Raine the benefit of every doubt (it would be useful to compare Bartsch 37 with the Rijksmuseum grisaille known as Bredius 504), we are left with the young woman, so far unmentioned in the correspondence. She is Raine’s principal problem. I think she can’t be there. No one is going to allow her to sit snugly in the centre of the Temple discussion, book in hand, and swap points of law with the doctors – either in reality or in Rembrandt’s imagination. The bed in the background is a difficulty for Raine’s thesis. The young woman and her book seem fatal.
It’s also hard not to be struck by the central figure’s close resemblance to the Joseph who is losing his cloak to Potiphar’s wife and averting his eyes from her considerable, clean-shaven vulva (Bartsch 39, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife). But Raine is right that this sort of thing proves nothing. Raine is usually right, in fact, and several of Rembrandt’s etchings – and many of his works – have deservedly lost their traditional titles. Both the old titles of Bartsch 202, Woman with the Arrow and Venus and Cupid, are notoriously mistaken. Nevertheless, I think we have here a small Haydnian valve trumpet – unless I’m riffing on Machaut’s saxophone.
Jesus College, Oxford
Craig Raine writes: Barbara Everett, Charles Morgenstern (Letters, 13 September) and now Galen Strawson have advanced many arguments in the case of Joseph Telling His Dreams versus The Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors. Some, however, are more persuasive than others.
I am quite prepared to concede the secondary point that Titus Rembrandt was born too late, 1641, to be the model for an etching which dates from 1638, but I would like to know the grounds for such a dating. Perhaps Barbara Everett will tell us. My main point still stands and her citation of images of the mature Christ preaching is beside the point. In none of the three undisputed etchings of The Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors (Bartsch 64, 65, 66) is he given an auriole. Nor does his tunic especially mark him out from the robes of those around him. His age does that. A larger point arises from this. I haven’t invented a Rembrandt in my own image: he was an earthy type even in religious contexts. In the Dahlem in Berlin, there is a large painting of John the Baptist preaching, Predigt Johannes des Täufers. The huge crowd includes, dim but unmistakable, a mother who is holding her child by the thighs so that it can shit into the river.
Charles Morgenstern is probably right about ‘long, sleeved’, as opposed to ‘long-sleeved’. My mistake comes from the 1970 edition of The New Scofield Reference Bible. However, my argument that Rembrandt makes no attempt to render the many-coloured quality of the robe is not, therefore, irrelevant. We have no way of knowing whether Rembrandt was a Hebrew scholar. ‘The artist,’ Morgenstern writes, ‘had many learned Jewish friends with whom he may have discussed this very point.’ Or not.
This brings me to Barbara Everett’s assertion that the figure in the top right-hand corner can only be dressing. Given that she refers to Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, she might be expected to remember Gombrich’s citation from Die Fliegenden Blätter of a drawing which is ‘either a rabbit or a duck’. It is on page four. Even under a magnifying glass, Rembrandt’s figure doesn’t provide us with enough visual information to justify Barbara Everett’s imaginative inventory of action and wardrobe: ‘the man is lifting, shifting, setting in place and pulling down (all in one gesture) his waistcoat or jerkin.’ The age of the men on the right of the etching hasn’t quite been disposed of by Barbara Everett either. It isn’t the discrepancy between their age and that of Joseph that worries me. It is the lack of discrepancy between the age of Jacob and the ‘brothers’, at least two of whom look markedly older than their father.
Galen Strawson’s letter raises a point of real substance – not the bed-curtains, which are ambiguous in this etching, but the presence of a woman. I don’t know how he knows that the book on her lap is a ‘Book of Dreams’ or how he knows she is there to ‘swap points of law with the doctors’. Nevertheless, even without these inventive embellishments, her very presence is a real difficulty for my interpretation. The force of this counter-argument depends on how meticulously Judaic Rembrandt thought it necessary to be in his portrait of a Jewish temple. In the undisputed etchings of The Young Christ Disputing, there are several bare-headed male figures. Not many, but enough to show that Rembrandt’s depiction was not pedantic. Christ himself is bareheaded in every case.
In addition, in The Presentation in the Temple (Bartsch 49, British Museum) and in every other Presentation there is a mingled crowd of men and women. (Not to mention a dog in the foreground, exposing itself as it scratches behind its ear.) And in The Young Christ Disputing (Bartsch 65, British Museum) there are two heads which can be plausibly read as women – a black woman and the face third from the left in the background. I think this answers his point.
Galen Strawson remarks parenthetically that ‘it would be useful to compare Bartsch 37 with the Rijksmuseum grisaille known as Bredius 504.’ (The ‘preparatory study’ referred to by Barbara Everett must mean this, too.) He clearly hasn’t seen this grisaille or he would know it is more than ‘useful’. Having now seen it for myself, I know it is fatal for the interpretation I have been defending. As Charles Morgenstern says, this grisaille, despite the odd transposition, is clearly of the same subject, whether it be The Young Christ Disputing or Joseph Telling His Dreams. In it, the curtains are the curtains of an unmistakable bed. On this, I do concede, with gratitude to all my tireless correspondents.
Vol. 12 No. 20 · 25 October 1990
Barbara Everett (Letters, 13 September) says that the dog licking its wedding tackle in the Rembrandt etching acts like a clock: Washing equals Morning. I have to point out that my dog Thumper tongues his valve-trumpet morning, noon and night. One might as well conclude (from what he is washing) that the beast is preparing for bed.