Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Rereading "Crime and Punishment": a personal exploration

This blog has been dominated so far by amateur art criticism, accidentally so in that two interesting exhibitions happened to come along at the same time to galleries near my home. Since nothing else is likely to open now before Christmas, here’s a change of tack.

I first read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment  in 1979, when I was barely 20. I only returned to it about a fortnight ago, with 32 years’ more life and a great many additional books behind me. I’ve often reread things which affected me when younger,  discovering in them ideas I’d been in no position to appreciate first time around, owing either to a lack of experience or the paucity of imagination that often afflicts those who have yet to find or reconcile themselves to a perspective on the world. Sometimes it’s almost as though it were an entirely different book from the one I remembered. My revisiting of  Crime and Punishment  is a good example of both types of experience. It’s not the first instance, but it’s the first I’ve thought to write about in a semi-public forum. Perhaps that, too, says something about me.

The novel I remembered was the story of the student dropout Raskolnikov, living in squalor in 19thcentury St Petersburg, who conceives the Nietzschean idea that murder might be justified if it furthers the will and ambition of a superior man, citing what was then the near-contemporary example of Napoleon Bonaparte. To test himself he dispatches, brutally, with an axe, an elderly pawnbroker whom he despises for her avarice. There is business involving Raskolnikov’s mother and sister – decent but innocent bourgeois folk from the provinces – and a ‘tart with a heart’, the unwilling prostitute Sonya, who preaches religion at him. Raskolnikov is eventually caught out by the psychological acuity of examining attorney Porfiry Petrovitch, who plays on his guilt and extracts a confession. Raskolnikov is sent to Siberia, where he undergoes a religious epiphany and is saved. The End.

Now I suppose it’s pretty obvious that one impoverished, egotistical student living in a capital city for the first time away from his folks is going to be immediately impressed by the tale of another in the same position. A scepticism about conventional morals, and a desire for the decisive existential act are, I’d guess, pretty commonplace in such cases. Add to that the encounter with individuals from worlds he has never previously entered, and a nascent unease about the validity of his self-justifications, and  Raskolnikov – as remembered – might  well seem to any reasonably-educated, directionless young man a fairly accurate portrait of himself.  Leaving aside for a moment the greater part of the novel – say 500 pages – which unfolds between the murder and the confession, I was therefore more than a little disappointed by the apparent submission of the imprisoned hero to what I thought I was supposed to take for Divine Grace, but which at the time felt more like The Establishment. I was, after all, one of those who cheered for  Camus’s Meursault at the end of L’Étranger.

But on rereading the book, there was the small matter of those forgotten 500 pages. Crime and Punishment is, among its more obvious attributes,  a hefty 19th century novel,  which fact brings me to my initial impetus for picking it up again. In Claire Tomalin’s recent biography of Charles Dickens I came across an anecdote of which I’d previously been unaware, that  Dostoyevsky met Dickens in 1862, expressing  to him great admiration for his work, which he claimed to have read in prison. This was an unexpected conjunction. In the 1970s Dickens was out of fashion among  younger British literary aspirants, perhaps as a result of the Leavisite Diktat of thirty or so years earlier which relegated all but Hard Times to the Second Division in FR’s League of English Novels, compounded with the rise of an international  Marxian and Structuralist criticism which contrived to ignore him almost entirely while drawing English attention to other, continental European writers.  Set against the lowlife and intrigue of pre-Revolutionary Russia, with its violence, class-politics, alcoholism and philosophy, the caricature Dickens of Pickwick, Tiny Tim and the Artful Dodger exercised little superficial attraction. To learn, therefore,  even at a remove which had enabled me to take a somewhat more rounded view of Dickens, that the Russian had regarded the English author as a master, was grounds in itself for revisiting Dostoyevsky, if nothing else to see what correspondences could possibly exist.

 Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Well, there are plenty. Between the murder (or rather, murders, since Raskolnikov also kills the pawnbroker’s entirely inoffensive sister – something else I’d forgotten) and the confession, the novel sets out a drama of contrasting and complementary ‘crimes’ perpetrated by a cast of vividly-drawn characters, all linked in some way to Raskolnikov, and whose ultimate fate or ‘punishment’ might be interpreted as unintended consequences of  his action. Certainly, they enable him to be seen, and to see himself – albeit unwillingly – in a context broader than simply that of the lone existential individual he evidently believes himself initially to be. I use the term ‘drama’ advisedly, since there is a certain staginess  about the way these characters suddenly come into Raskolnikov’s orbit and accompany him through a series of perambulations between rooms in the city, and there is almost certainly something of a ‘state of Russia’ purpose in Dostoyevsky’s crowding of them all together into such a narrow circle and compressed timescale – not unlike, for instance, the Dickens of Little Dorrit.  The dramatis personae  are perhaps not so overdrawn as some of Dickens’s memorable figures, and with the exception of Porfiry Petrovitch  do not repeat themselves quite so often in order to make sure the reader is absolutely clear where they stand, but there’s a flamboyance of utterance if not of physical description that renders them so brightly that I’m astonished I retained so little of them, even over three decades. One sees and recalls what one wants to see and recall, I suppose – or what one can, given one’s own resources.  For the most part, these are remarkably sophisticated psychological portraits, but perhaps it isn’t really surprising that a twentysomething  middle-class boy with pretensions to intellect couldn’t immediately appreciate that. Raskolnikov doesn’t.

Thus Marmeladov, the civil servant who has drunk away his prospects, effectively abandoned his family, and is encountered railing against himself in a grog-shop, swearing abstinence and reform should he be given a chance, then slipping right back into drunkenness as soon as that happens, might well appear a grotesque, an unbelievably stupid and unprincipled man, if he were not the exact type of every alcoholic I’ve ever encountered since I learned anything about alcoholism. He’s an addict, a sick man who knows he is sick but has no conception of a cure, and who sees all too clearly the end that awaits him – a senseless, booze-related death that will leave those who love him hopeless as well as destitute. There is nothing he nor anybody else can do to help him. Raskolnikov tries – this before the murders, even while he is still toying with his Napoleonic fantasies – but his act of kindness in giving Marmeladov what little money he has only leads to a further binge, leading ultimately to his squalid demise. Raskolnikov’s subsequent additional generosity to his widow, Katerina Ivanovna, has still further, unforeseeably disastrous consequences.

The vain Luzhin, a wealthy middle-aged man who is introduced as the fiancé-of-convenience of Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, believes he can buy gratitude and affection from those less well-off than himself. But we are allowed to see the insecurity that motivates his attempts to manipulate others into compliance with his wishes, so again a figure who might well have been presented as a caricature of wickedness is permitted a psychological depth beyond his actions. He has already betrayed himself with his statement that he would prefer to have a socially ‘inferior’ wife who is totally dependent on him, and the repulsion this engenders in Raskolnikov, and the righteous indignation this latter evinces, even while he is increasingly aware of his own criminality, forces Luzhin into a corner from which he unsuccessfully contrives to escape by cynically attempting to frame the hapless Sonya for theft. Exposed, Luzhin flees, but the only consequence of his trying to inflict lifelong torment on his victims to satisfy his own vanity is a brief humiliation before a group of people with whom he need have no further dealings. There is certainly a moral crime, but no real punishment.

Svidrigailov, Dunya’s would-be seducer, is a monster. I don’t think I really appreciated  this when I first read the novel, but he is clearly, in contemporary terms,  a rapist and paedophile. How much such terms would have been distinguished from the stock categories of ‘libertine’ or ‘rake’ at the time of Dostoyevsky’s writing is perhaps a moot point, and working originally with a somewhat stylised template for the conventions of the 19th century novel I cannot honestly say I noticed, but he shares what is now a well-established pathology among such people in confidently blaming his victims for ‘inciting’ his crimes against them. The nightmares which attend his last night before he shoots himself make explicit a kind of  self-awareness.  The twin catalysts for his suicidal despair are Raskolnikov’s refusal to be blackmailed by him (Svidrigailov has overheard his confession to Sonya), and Dunya’s resistance to attempted rape, their combined effect being to expose to him his own moral bankruptcy.  News of his suicide is then the final ‘push’ which impels Raskolnikov to admit his own crimes to the police. Thus once more there is a complex play of cause and effect, and the generation of one kind of good from what might equally be seen either as a good or an evil event. We are certainly given no authorial help as to how these incidents are intended to be interpreted, and there is no  sudden epiphany either for Raskolnikov or for the reader.

As with Dickens, the women characters are less well-realised than the men: they are either mad, or quite exaggeratedly virtuous. Katerina Ivanovna is already unhinged by her husband’s fecklessness, and becomes completely deranged following his death and her family’s eviction from their lodgings;  Raskolnikov’s mother, Pulcheria Alexandrovna, begins as an innocent abroad and sinks into a vague insanity following his conviction; even the jointly-murdered pawnbroker’s sister, Lizaveta, is described as having been ‘simple-minded.’  It is true that Dunya has enough about her to train a gun on her assailant Svidrigailov, but she cannot bring herself to shoot him, while Sonya, driven to prostitution in order to support her abandoned family, takes refuge in a passive religious faith.

There is, therefore, a lot going on in my ‘forgotten’ main bulk of the novel. And yet, if one concentrates on Raskolnikov’s internal dilemma, as I did all those years ago, it is just about explicable that this whole block of narrative might be set aside as secondary to his existential  plight. For all the examples of human turpitude, self-deception, sin, guilt and exposure with which he comes into contact, none of these directly affects his attitude to his own crime nor, apparently, his decision to turn himself in. Porfiry Petrovitch has rumbled him, and quietly pointed out that his only options appear to be suicide or submission to the law. He has also raised some interesting points, arising out of the housepainter Nikolay’s false confession to the murders, about a fanatical streak in the Russian character which makes individuals want to suffer, perhaps in imitation of Christ. This is, of course, another self-deception, but it is both counterpointed and emphasised by the way in which the arch-sufferer and potential religious fanatic, Sonya, pursues Raskolnikov to the police station, like some kind of Hound of Heaven,  to ensure that he comes clean. Raskolnikov himself does not really know why he has confessed. He has called the dead pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, a ‘louse’ until the very end; he has contemplated escaping to America; he himself has no religious scruples, and his (pseudo-)philosophy of ‘permissible’ crime does not appear to have been confounded in his own estimation. Perhaps he simply should have considered the fate of his hero, Napoleon, and contemplated what happened to him when he took on Russia…

But this is not quite the final word. Various mitigating factors are discovered at Raskolnikov’s trial (introduced rather too conveniently, in my view) which leads to a relatively short sentence of penal servitude in Siberia (à propos, was there not a death penalty for murder in Russia in those days ?)  Sonya, of course, follows him there. Raskolnikov does undergo some kind of change while in prison, but I was wrong in assuming that this is necessarily a religious conversion. He appears finally to have fallen in love with Sonya, and this may involve also a spiritual dimension, or lay the ground for such, but Dostoyevsky is emphatically unforthcoming about this. Raskolnikov’s story remains ambiguous to the very last.

So what do I learn from all this ? FR Leavis, whom I cited above, was a prominent scholar and critic who believed that great novels have ‘moral seriousness’ and should be capable of changing their readers.  Crime and Punishment is undoubtedly a morally serious work, and I hope I’ve demonstrated that it had a significant effect on me as a youth; but the effect it has had on a second reading in middle-age has been quite different. Then, it was the relationship of the solipsistic individual to the world and its moral codes and conventions which struck me as important; this time it has been an exploration of the ways different people fill their lives with self-deceptions, contradictory codes of conduct, opportunism and manufactured meanings as bulwarks against the unknowability of our ends. If I’m spared to read it again in old age, I will probably derive something still more from it, appropriate to the state of knowledge and - I hope - wisdom I will have reached. Leavis was partially right: great books change us, but we also change them as we bring our own experience and ability to make distinctions to bear on them.

 Which brings me to a concluding conundrum. Unless a book is worth rereading, it probably isn’t worth reading once. Discuss. 

In 1979 I read the Penguin Classics edition of "Crime and Punishment" (1979; translator: David Magarshack.) In 2011 it was the Golgotha Press "Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky"  for Amazon Kindle (2010; translator not listed.)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Monumental presence: Clare Woods, “The Unquiet Head,” at the Hepworth, Wakefield

The Balance (detail)

Clare Woods has been busy this year. Even if the 14 paintings in her current Hepworth exhibition, “The Unquiet Head”, represent her entire 2011 output, then it’s a major achievement. Apart from anything else, five of them are enormous.  The title, a play on the way the massive eroded heads of her subject, Brimham Rocks in North Yorkshire, seem to exert  a mythic influence on the questing human mind, recurs and echoes throughout, underlined by punning titles for the individual pictures. The mass and mystery with which she deals are clearly incarnated in her unusual choice of media, oil and enamel on aluminium panels.

 Brimham Rocks

                Being at the Hepworth, the exhibition aims to bring out the sculptural angle in Woods’s work.  Making imaginative use of small pieces by Paul Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Barbara Hepworth herself, the gallery  provides an introductory group of precedents and inspirations in a vestibule to the first room – an instructive and helpful device. Thus Piper’s “Cascade Through Tunnel, Hafod” finds its echo in Woods’s “Hollow Face”; Sutherland’s semi-abstract “Devastation 1941, City: Fallen Lift Shaft” is further abstracted in “Funnelled Hole.”  Hepworth’s “Rock Face” is self-explanatory as a preface to the mythico-geological preoccupations of the five giant Woods works to come in the second and third rooms.

 Funnelled Hole

The smaller paintings in the first room serve as a low-key introduction to some of Woods’s techniques. Two trios, “The Balance” and “Idle Idols I-III,” portray human heads as dense masks, two-dimensional but for the solidifying contrasts of bright – in some cases fluorescent – foreground colour against sombre, blended backgrounds. The former  is a triptych demonstrating, literally, an ‘unquiet head’, moods playing across it from panel to panel. The second is more in the nature of three variations on an uneasily jokey theme. The ‘unnatural’ palette, combined with rough lines, flamboyant detail, and the flat, shiny way in which the oil pigment lies on metal,  denature the ostensible figurative content of their subject.

 The Bloody Kernel

Two rooms lead off either side of the first. In one, three wall-height studies of aspects of the Brimham Rocks are each built up from an interlocking series of painted panels. “The Bloody Kernel” is a monumental presence hinting at a double-faced Janus-head rising away from the viewer. Horizontal strokes of colour against its black body  create a complex show of abstract detail out of the implied striations of eroded rock.  Slight disjunctures between the painting of constituent panels produce a collage effect, in turn hinting at a Cubist shift in perspective and angle of vision.  “Hopes, Noes” splits another monolith with a volcanic eruption of vivid broad brushwork, rendering the main form uneasy on its dark plinth, the controlled use of tones balancing the conventional solidity of rock against  the dynamism of the acts of seeing and painting. “Tragic Head” is a group of forms suggestive once more of human heads, one brooding presence dominant, the whole assembled from the most disjointed collage of not-quite-lined-up panels in this group, unity achieved by a tension between the movement of each and the complex detail around the base.

Hopes, Noes

Mistaken Point (detail)

The exhibition’s centrepiece is probably the two 10.5m-long panoramas, each assembled from six square panels. “Mistaken Point” and “The Intended” are companion-pieces giving sweeping views of the subject rock-formation – the former closer in, the latter more detached,  the wordplay in their titles implying different ways of understanding based on proximity and position. The pieces’ respective dominant colours are both contrasting and complementary. “The Intended” reprises and expands the monolithic head-motif in some of the pieces already discussed, while “Mistaken Point” reproduces, poignantly, what appears to be an isolated, possibly misspelt graffito inscribed in the rock and almost certainly having outlived its author: ‘ADREW 1923.’ It is perhaps this kind of telling detail which, accentuating and highlighting the huge, vague, major forms, gives the work in this show its vividness, humanity and power.

The Intended

“The Unquiet Head” is at the Hepworth, Gallery Walk, Wakefield until 29th January 2012.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Fresh fruit, the law, flying cameras, melancholy and menace at the Henry Moore Institute

“United Enemies – The Problem of Sculpture in Britain in the 60s and 70s” is a small, densely-packed exhibition of work by 50+ artists of that period, which examines the creative tension and productive relationship between traditional ‘made objects’ and more conceptual versions of sculpture being produced at the time. Floorstanding and smaller tabletop pieces appear between walls hung with photos of sculptural events, plans, and documentary ideas, the viewer being invited to compare and contrast, and to respond to three thematic ‘provocations’  -  ‘Manual Thinking’, ‘Standing’ and ‘Groundwork.’ I don’t propose to address these last, principally because, on one initial visit, I wasn’t able to make anything of them. This may change, however, if and when  I return. For the moment I just want to comment on five individual works in different media which made an immediate impact, each for different reasons. Where I’ve been able to find photos I include them as illustrations, but of course would urge anyone who’s interested to get down to the HMI him- or herself and see the real, complete thing.

1.       Roelof Louw: “Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges)" (1967)
Exactly what it says in the subtitle – about 5 feet high, square-based, and very, very orange. It’s real fruit, and scents the entrance-lobby most enticingly. I was wondering why it was flattened and a bit irregular at its apex, until I read in the exhibition pamphlet that visitors are encouraged to take and eat its components as an element both of audience-participation and the work’s physical interaction with its environment. Missed a trick there, then.  I suppose it could be said, 44 years on, that this organic/architectural dichotomy or trompe l’oeil is a bit obvious, and I’m sure that in 1967 some folk muttered “I could get that down my local greengrocer’s if I wanted it”, but although it may have lost some of its shock-value (something I don’t set much store on in art anyway) it’s still striking, delightful in a physical way, and, literally, fresh. A propos of which, I wondered if the oranges were all brought into the gallery in protective crates by a specialist transport firm, or did the curator give one of the junior staff members  a handful of carrier bags and the instruction to get down to Kirkgate Market and buy 6,000 Jaffas ?

2.       John Latham: “The Laws of England” (also 1967, I think)
A bit of a period piece, but, having just completed two years of legal studies, one that’s close to my heart. Latham was notorious for his anarchistic disrespect for books as fixed, didactic objects, and in this piece of 60s countercultural mischief he goes for the Establishment jugular in a witty, though slightly disturbing manner. Two volumes of Lord Halsbury’s eponymous compendium of jurisprudence have been somehow sealed, drilled, and then filled with a brown plastic foam which spurts back out of them, slithering, dripping and clotting down their sides and onto the work’s base like wax, shit, or some kind of corrupted vital sap. The political intent isn’t difficult to discern,  and the finished object is explicitly a mess – the authoritative straight lines of the books’ board covers, their magisterial gold-blocked spines distorted and obscured by a quasi-organic execrescence which nevertheless proceeds from their contents. Do we value books as objects in themselves ? For what they stand for ? For what they contain ? And what do they contain ?

3.       John Hilliard: “Describing a Trajectory – The Camera as Projectile” (1971)
The second of three Johns in this mini-review. One of a series of photomontages in which a camera was apparently thrown through the air with its shutter motordrive running. To the left of the field a print showing two men in front of a generic  50s-modernist building (possibly the old Bretton Art School, but could be just about any municipal or educational establishment of the period), surrounded by trees. The man on the right is apparently tossing something five yards or so to the one on the left, who is braced to catch it. There is actually nothing in the implied trajectory of the thrown object. To the right of the field, six frames which we infer from their blurred content were taken by the flying camera as it span through the air between the men – windows of the building, tree-boughs, sky, etc.  What is the ‘object’ of the work – the camera, the content of the reproduced frames, the trajectory itself, or the montage on the wall ?  What is the position of the viewer in respect of any of these ?  Given the nature of their production, can these images be said to be integrated, or can they only be random ? What is the sculptural content – the fixed frames, the path of the trajectory, the movement through the trajectory, all or none of these ? From a certain point of view, this piece stretches the concept of ‘sculpture’, and must be seen in the context of a number of contemporary photographic experiments with the human body in landscape, such as those of Bruce McLean, also represented at this exhibition.

4.       Gilbert & George: “The Sadness In Our Art” (1970)
In some ways the antithesis of the Latham piece discussed above, this small case of three or four  (I can’t remember which) overlapping leaves of brittle, charred, stained, printed paper has real humanity about it. The content – a letter, some lines of verse, a picture, some nonspecific text  – is virtually indecipherable, and sits behind its glass melancholically, like something that was of intense personal significance once, but is now unreachable. Its  very smallness gives it an intimate feel, and its vulnerability to age and flame accentuates its physicality and transience, and by extension the transience of everything we might try to create or preserve. It has what I can only call ‘charm’, a kind of warmth and recognisability. The title is wry, but not ironic. This is one of the few pieces in the exhibition which appears to go beyond a purely formal statement.

5.       John Davies: “Three Figures – Two Standing, One Kneeling”  (1971)
The obvious standout exhibit in this show, arresting from the moment you walk into its presence,  an automatic response to the apparent familiarity of its three lifelike, male human forms, frozen into a tableau indicative of menace and potential violence.  A middleaged man stands on a chair, staring down at an older figure who kneels before him between two more chairs, bowed head crowned with a kind of dunce’s cap. Slightly behind the standing man, a younger upright figure looks on from floor level, his eyes watchful and collusive. All three are dressed in suits and ties, the initial impression that of a scene from one of Harold Pinter’s early plays got slightly out of hand or brought to the implied conclusion of its power-relations. Some sinister ritual or relationship is plainly being enacted here. As you draw nearer you realise, however, that something more than the assumed narrative is amiss. What looked initially like a heavy moustache on the chair-standing man is in fact a pair of small bird’s wings, folded over the place where his nose should be. What might have been a conical dunce’s cap is flattened at the top, subverting easy symbolism. The colour and pattern of the shirts and ties are not part of any clothing fabric, but in fact heavily-worked pigment  on resin. The join between the figures’ scalps and hat or hair is raggedly painted. This is a consciously-made sculpture, not an attempt at naturalism with mannequins. At the same time, it wouldn't have the same impact if it were, e.g., cast or carved – the play between ‘realism’ and artifice is essential to its function. And standing further back, as you watch another visitor examining  the figures close to, you realise that you have just inserted yourself into the story and are somehow implicated in whatever it stands for.  A visceral and disturbing work, the more so because of the way it operates on the scale and shape of the human body, drawing  you unwittingly into its static, unresolved drama.

“United Enemies” runs till 11th March 2012 at the Henry Moore Institute, The Headrow, Leeds.