Thursday, July 20, 2017

Italy and the Vatican examined..... The Vatican Diaries: A Behind-the-Scenes:Look at the Power, Personalities and Politics at the Heart of the Catholic Church by John Thavis Viking, 321 pp., $27.95, Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo by Tim Parks Norton, 261 pp., $25.95,


Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum Photos
A train in Gravina, Puglia, Italy, 1991
1.

An ophthalmologist visiting an exhibition of the artist Chuck Close spotted what he suspected was a serious condition in the eye of one of the subjects of Close’s larger-than-life, hyperrealistic portraits. The doctor left a note for the artist to urge the subject, Close’s own father-in-law, to have a checkup. Sure enough, Close’s father-in-law did have the condition that the doctor had observed. On reading about this incident, I immediately felt that it was a parable about journalism. In observing carefully and rendering detail closely, we may convey more meaning than we know.

Something of this spirit appears to animate two new books by writers who have spent most of their adult lives in Italy. Superficially at least, John Thavis’s The Vatican Diaries and Tim Parks’s Italian Ways have little in common. While both are set entirely in contemporary Italy, they describe two very different countries. Thavis, who was the Rome bureau chief for the Catholic News Service from 1996 until 2012, is concerned almost exclusively with the goings-on in the 110 acres occupied by the Vatican state in Rome, while Parks has written a book that chronicles his experiences riding the Italian train system, only occasionally mentioning the Catholic Church in his almost three hundred pages.

Yet both Thavis and Parks—extremely experienced and knowledgeable writers who have each spent approximately thirty years in Italy—have quite consciously resisted the temptation to write a big summation book about their chosen subjects. Rather than writing an “Inside the Vatican Today” book that tries to assess where the Catholic Church stands at the beginning of its third millennium, Thavis has written a series of narrative chapters that capture one or another aspect of life within the Vatican—one about the bell ringer at St. Peter’s basilica, another about an archaeologist’s search for the tomb of Saint Peter, a third about the efforts to canonize the controversial Pope Pius XII, who ruled the church during World War II. “Journalists tend to focus exclusively on the Vatican’s power and its institutional impact,” Thavis writes on his website. “I wanted to chronicle the human side of the Vatican—warts and all—that makes it such a fascinating place.”

Similarly, Parks, a novelist and essayist who has lived in Verona for the past thirty years, offers a portrait of Italy as seen from the country’s railway system, and not a big “Whither Italy?” book. Toward the end he offers a kind of apologia for his method in a conversation he has at a dinner with a group of Sicilians who question his decision to write an entire book about Italian trains. “All Italy,” he tells them,


could be teased out from this [evening] if we examined it carefully, the clothes you are wearing, the way you’ve laid the table, the pleasure taken cooking, the wineglasses…. So if you’re stupid enough to want to write about a country, a people, the problem is where to start. You could start anywhere, because everything they do manifests that spirit…. You don’t want to write a book about a whole country… because there’s so much, and the secret is always in the details, and the way one details calls to another in a kind of tangle.

In both cases, the stories the authors tell yield considerable satisfaction and riches, wonderful scenes and quotes, and shrewd larger insights extrapolated from seemingly small moments. But their small-scale approaches also produce moments of frustration in which we long for an occasional aerial view so we can fit what they find into a larger landscape.
2.

Thavis writes in his introduction that the Vatican


is a culture founded on hierarchical order, but swamped in organizational confusion. It is a culture in which the pope is considered immune from criticism, yet often is kept uninformed about the details of important decisions. It is, in theory, a culture of confidentiality—yet it leaks like a two-thousand-year-old boat…. I discovered that, despite its institutional façade, the Vatican remains predominantly a world of individuals, most of whom have a surprising amount of freedom to operate—and, therefore, to make mistakes.

The book begins with the election of Pope Benedict XVI but Thavis decides to tell it from a different angle. He ignores the conclave in 2005 that turned Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger into the pope and the reasons for and meaning of that choice—the more conventional move of a Vatican correspondent. Instead, he describes the election from the point of view of the bell ringer of St. Peter’s, Giuseppe Fiorucci. The massive bell that normally announces the election and death of the pope failed to send the news to the expectant crowd in St. Peter’s Square because someone forgot to alert Fiorucci, and he refused to sound the bell even when implored to do so by a Swiss Guard because the order had not come from the right person. Thavis’s point is that the Vatican is a supremely human institution and when someone fails to do his job, things break down—a point he could have made in a few pages, and not twenty-five.




Similarly, the second chapter gives us an overdetailed chronicle of life on the papal airplane, a kind of “Boys on the Bus” Vatican style. We are told too much about groggy early morning arrivals and the journalists’ repeated battles to get around their Vatican minders. But gradually, Thavis hits his stride and the patient reader is rewarded with many fresh insights. “One of the great ironies of traveling with the pope is that, because of the practical difficulties of moving us to and from his venues, we’re often the only people who can’t see him,” he writes, describing the highly manufactured nature of much Vatican reportage. The journalists often watch the pope on television away from the actual event.

Thavis reveals that in order to avoid embarrassing incidents the Vatican repeatedly altered and airbrushed Pope Benedict’s extemporaneous comments with journalists when it released transcripts. “Vatican officials justified it on the grounds that the pope’s Italian might need cleaning up,” he writes. “The idea of a midlevel bureaucrat fine-tuning Pope Benedict’s language may sound strange, but it reflects a deeply entrenched conviction that the actual words a pope pronounces are not definitive until the ‘official version’ is published.”

The chapter ends with a sad and telling incident in which Pope Benedict travels to Jordan and moves with a large entourage to the banks of the river where the first Christian baptisms were performed. Some of the journalists and photographers were expecting to see the pope performing a baptism near where Christ asked John the Baptist to baptize him, or at least to observe the pope’s reaction to the place. Instead, nothing. “Incredibly, the convoy began moving again,” Thavis writes. “It was over. The pope came all this way and never got out of his golf cart. Never approached the water. Never moved into position for a photograph.”

The episode is revealing of one of Pope Benedict’s chief difficulties as pope: an introspective theologian, he did not really enjoy the public part of his job, as had his predecessor, Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II. In an era in which the church depends increasingly on modern media, Benedict came across as exceptionally shy and awkward in communicating with the wider world.

Thavis dedicates a chapter to the horrific story of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ religious order, and a sexual predator and fraud of the first rank. Maciel won the full support of Pope John Paul II because of his astonishing success at raising money and attracting new seminarians in an era of declining vocations. The pope chose to overlook that Maciel accomplished this by using the most unchristian of means: manipulating wealthy families and using tactics of isolation, intimidation, sexual abuse, and mind control much more suited to a personal religious cult than the Catholic Church. With no accountability and virtually total control of the Legion of Christ, Maciel forced his recruits to make a secret vow of silence: “No professed religious should ever externally criticize either by word, in writing or by any other means, any act of governance or the person of any Director or Superior of the Congregation.”

The account invariably owes much to the work of Jason Berry and Gerald Renner, authors of Vows of Silence. But Thavis adds something new by describing how the officials at the Vatican managed the scandal. “John Paul,” he writes, considered the Legionaries


the future of the church, the engine that could power his cherished “new evangelization.” …Even some Vatican officials now thought John Paul’s unquestioning support for the Legionaries of Christ had been reckless. He had personally ordained their priests, visited their university, brought them into important Vatican offices and, shortly before he died, given them control over an international pilgrim house.

Despite the accumulation of evidence of Maciel’s predatory and criminal behavior, he continued to have powerful defenders in Rome. As Cardinal Franc Rodé, who monitored religious orders for the Vatican, told Thavis: “If there’s anything dynamic left in the church today, it’s them!… They have the talent, the ideas and the means to carry them through.”

The case, as Thavis writes, “highlighted the failings of Pope John Paul II,” both in the handling of sexual abuse cases as well as in allowing the growth of highly secretive and unaccountable religious orders. “Under John Paul II, it had been unthinkable to criticize the ‘new’ religious orders and movements that had flourished in recent decades but that often operated with a hidden agenda in a cultlike climate of secrecy.”

Clearly, the Maciel story needs a more thorough analysis. Can this support of Maciel be mainly attributed to a misperception by Pope John Paul II, which was then corrected discreetly by Benedict, his more clear-eyed successor, who removed Maciel from his position and ordered him to spend the rest of his life in penance? A more systematic analysis would insist that the Maciel affair revealed deeper failings in the modern papacy, beginning with the monarchical, infallible papacy established by Pius IX.* John Paul II wanted to restore hierarchical authority and doctrinal orthodoxy within the church. Because Maciel unswervingly appeared to back the same kind of unquestioning loyalty, he was allowed to keep unchecked sway over his own order. Moreover, the scandal raises issues well beyond a particular papacy. As one of Thavis’s sources says: “We have a two-thousand-year history of not airing dirty laundry. You don’t really expect that to change, do you?”

Thavis raises the question but doesn’t attempt to answer it. In fact, the pressures of modern media, the Internet in particular, have forced the Vatican to abandon some of its traditional reticence and to at least acknowledge the idea of transparency. The sexual abuse scandals in several countries have made it clear that it is no longer possible to keep the dirty laundry out of public view. Now that groups representing sexual victims, plaintiffs, lawyers, and journalists from around the world can share information, scandals that were once kept local can no longer be hushed up.IsIan Berry/Magnum Photos
Swiss Guards on duty at the Vatican, 2013

The Vatican’s difficulties in dealing with the Internet age became painfully evident in the clumsy attempt by Benedict XVI to heal the rift with the breakaway Society of Saint Pius X, the traditionalist group founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who wanted not only to keep the Latin mass but to reject practically all the changes of the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul excommunicated Lefebvre when, acting on his own, he ordained four bishops in 1988. Thavis writes a fascinating chapter about the “cat and mouse” game involved in trying to bring the “Lefebvrites” back into the fold during the Ratzinger papacy.

Within hours of Benedict lifting the excommunication from the rebel group, the story broke of a recent interview with one of the Lefebvrite bishops, Richard Williamson, in which he denied the Holocaust. An elementary Google search would have revealed a string of hateful statements by Williamson going back many years. The pope acknowledged the Vatican’s failure:


I have been told that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news.

The questions posed by the reconciliation with the Lefevrites raise even more disturbing questions that Thavis prefers not to explore. How could Darío Castrillón Hoyos, the cardinal who was negotiating and meeting with these hard-line dissidents, not know with whom he was dealing? After all, he had to keep track of only four bishops ordained by Lefebvre. In 1989, it was discovered that Lefebvre had helped hide Paul Touvier, a French war criminal who had helped to deport Jews under the Vichy regime, for nearly a decade. Was it really so surprising that one of Lefebvre’s bishops should be a Holocaust denier and anti-Semite? Perhaps more importantly, what does this tell us about the quality of leadership in the College of Cardinals and the way in which they are selected?

The last few chapters of Thavis’s Vatican Diaries are perhaps the strongest. He has an excellent chapter on “Sex” and the Vatican as well as a quite moving final one on Benedict XVI. These chapters make fascinating reading and often contain penetrating insights, but Thavis’s picture of the Vatican mainly as a series of individuals leaves unanswered many larger institutional and doctrinal questions. Is the Vatican’s highly informal, medieval-style governance adequate in today’s world? Can priestly celibacy and the ban on the ordination of women survive what has often been described as a worldwide crisis in priestly vocations? Is the hard line established by John Paul II and continued by Benedict necessary to hold the church together, as they seemed to believe? Can it be reversed without causing a deep split in the church? What are the opportunities for change and reform available to the new pope, Francis I? The wealth of Thavis’s sources and the nuances of his understanding of the Vatican are so impressive that one hopes he will want to take on some of the larger issues his fascinating stories raise.
3.

Tim Parks’s Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo has many of the same virtues and defects as Vatican Diaries: charming and fascinating anecdotes, scenes, and observations, together with an excess of detail and smallness of scope that sometimes feels narrow. Like Thavis’s book, Italian Ways has trouble finding its narrative groove but picks up speed and power. Early on, Parks spends many pages describing his frustration as a regular commuter between Verona and Milan. He recounts in painstaking detail the infinite complications of trying to buy a year-long pass for a regional train while also trying from time to time to buy supplements for the fast intercity train without wasting too much time waiting on long, slow lines. We learn more about the intricacies of Trenitalia’s complex fare system than we ever wanted to know:


To recap, then, while in the past one had maximum flexibility for price X at the slight risk of not finding a seat, something you could nevertheless sort out if you knew you were traveling at a busy time by adding a reservation for price X+Y, now you always pay X+Y and always have a seat but no flexibility unless you pay price X+Y+Z, when you have your seat and a little flexibility, but nothing like what you had years ago just paying X.

Too often, the narrative seems to concentrate on pet peeves that a frustrated commuter might accumulate over the course of many years. There are too many passages like the following from a railway station café:


All this stuff was going through my head when an elderly man who sat heavily on the chair beside me was emitting a smell so powerful that I stood up at once and took my cup and remaining crumbs to another table, where two students were amazingly finding the energy to kiss and fondle at seven o’clock on a freezing Monday morning. I wondered for a moment if I should check the departures board again—for there is no information inside the bar, no announcements, no screens—but I had plenty of time.

And yet, Parks is right that there are important and revealing larger insights in some of his details. The Italian train system reflects some of the deep contradictions that Italy is facing in trying to balance the larger public good with the pressures of reducing its national debt. Unlike Great Britain and the United States, Italy has never asked its train system to make money or even break even. It regards this capillary network of trains reaching into almost every small town as a service that is worth paying for. When he was in power, Mussolini made regional trains extremely accessible and inexpensive, one of his strategies for building consensus without political freedom.

To this day, as Parks points out, you pay only several dollars for travel that would cost several times more in many other countries. At the same time, facing a national debt that has forced the country close to default, Trenitalia is under pressure to improve its balance sheet; it does so by jacking up costs on the newer, faster trains, creating a bifurcated system—leading both to the double fare system that drives Parks nearly mad as well as reflecting the growing inequalities of Italian society as a whole.

As Parks writes, it is not coincidental that Italy began its push for unification in the 1840s and 1850s as trains began to physically connect parts of the country that had previously been several days’ travel apart. Railroads, Parks tells us, forced Italian cities to synchronize their clocks, and other cities placed themselves on Rome time in 1866, four years before Rome was actually joined to a unified Italy. Thus railways and their timetables had already unified the country before it became a political reality.

Particularly interesting is Parks’s experience of traveling by train through southern Italy, a part of his adoptive country he knew very little. Perhaps because he has set off on an adventure he is less cranky and his book has the tone of a picaresque tale. The conversations of his fellow travelers offer us something of the life of contemporary Italy: the lively and slightly invasive behavior of his compartment-mates who manage to create the sense of a traveling community among strangers.

Parks travels south initially on the fancy new (more or less) private train known as Italo—one manifestation of the ways Italy is being pushed by the European Union to introduce more competition into some of its monopolistic markets. But as Parks shrewdly observes, the competition is limited: Italo is not allowed to stop at Rome’s main train station and even in the peripheral station where it does stop, the national Italian train agency has erected a fence that forces Italo’s travelers to take a very roundabout route from the station’s entrance to the train platform.

As Parks’s trip descends below Naples the speed and quality of the trains drop dramatically, reflecting the substandard public services of southern Italy. He has to take a bus in Sicily because train service there is extremely spotty and inconvenient. “Perhaps an efficient train system requires the presence of a strong central state determined to integrate all areas of a country into its communications network,” Parks observes. “The absence of state authority that has allowed the Mafia to flourish runs parallel with the weakness of the train service.”

Parks’s minute account of his train experiences is based on the premise that “all Italy could be teased out” from any small detail, “if we examined it carefully.” He is certainly correct that some of Italy’s train system is a metaphor or reflection of the country itself. But there is too much that is missing from this picture—politics and historical analysis in particular. The rules and folkways of Italy’s train system have always been arcane and irrational and yet this doesn’t help us understand why the country seems at such a point of crisis now rather than thirty or forty years ago. Italy’s economy has shifted downward from one of the world’s fastest-growing between the late 1940s and the 1980s and has had virtually zero growth for about a decade. What has changed? Millions of young Italians can’t find decent full-time jobs and are leaving the country, deciding that Italy holds no future for them. Italy’s birthrate is one of the world’s lowest and its population is set to decline significantly during the next thirty years unless it compensates with mass immigration (as it has begun to do), and yet it is unprepared for such a large-scale demographic shift.

After World War II Italy achieved a degree of shared prosperity that was unprecedented in its history, allowing the country to enjoy both a high material standard of living and a great deal of security (job protections, generous unemployment benefits, and free health care and education), while leaving intact many idiosyncratic yet often inefficient national habits and institutions—millions of small stores, often run by families, with beautiful products but impossible hours and high prices, as well as Parks’s cheap regional train system. And yet this equilibrium is now at risk of falling apart. Here and there in Parks’s book we can glimpse some of these forces at work, but they do not add up to a full and satisfying portrait of Italy at this singular juncture. Yet that is not the book that Parks chose to write and so we should enjoy Italian Ways for the pleasures and surprises it does provide, particularly his sense of the Italians he comes to know on one train after another.


*

See, for example, Garry Wills, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners,” The New York Review, April 8, 2004.

Sea Monsters , Witches and Wicked Bodies......Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet Van Duzer London: The British Library, 143 pp., $35.00 (Distributed in the US by the University of Chicago Press); Sea Monsters: A Voyage Around the World’s Most Beguiling Map by Joseph Nigg University of Chicago Press, 160 pp., $40.00; Witches and Wicked Bodies Catalog of the exhibition by Deanna Petherbridge. National Galleries of Scotland, 128 pp., £14.95 (paper) ( for an exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, July 27–November 3, 2013; and the British Museum, London, September 2014–January 2015)


James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis
A sea monster from the ‘Carta Marina,’ the map of Scandinavia and Iceland produced between 1527 and 1539 by Olaus Magnus, the archbishop of Uppsala, after his exile to Danzig

In “The Tale of ’Abd Allah of the Land and ’Abd Allah of the Sea” from the Arabian Nights, a poor fisherman fails day after day to catch anything but at last, in answer to his ever more desperate prayers, he feels something heavy land in his net. Joyfully, he hauls it up, only to find a merman, who begs for mercy—and for fresh fruit and vegetables, which are greatly lacking under the sea, he tells his captor. He promises that if the fisherman will bring him the produce and then release him back into the water, he’ll return with lavish recompense. ’Abd Allah of the Land doesn’t believe him, but lets him go anyway out of the goodness of his heart.

But this is a fairy tale, and so the merman will keep his word and rise again from the depths with basketfuls of fabulous gems from the sea bed—pearls and coral and chrysolites and other precious minerals—for his deliverer. Fruitful exchanges continue between them, and eventually, ’Abd Allah of the Sea invites his earthly friend down into the underwater world where, he tells him, he lives in one of many fine and diverse marine cities, each with its own society and culture. The fisherman protests that he will choke on seawater and drown. But the merman has a remedy: a powerful grease from a monstrous and terrifying fish called a dandan: “It is larger than any animal you have on land and were it to come across a camel or an elephant, it would swallow them up.”

The dandan’s liver—or in some versions of the tale its blubber—exudes a potent ointment that “looked like cow’s grease, golden yellow in colour, with a clean smell.” The substance is indispensable to mer-people for their own survival under the sea, but they cannot harvest it without human help. The monster is ferocious and deadly and voracious for flesh, mer- and other; however, it has a fatal flaw: it can’t abide the sound of a human voice. As the great fish approaches, intent on devouring him, ’Abd Allah of the Land must cry out. The mighty dandan will then keel over and die, and ’Abd Allah of the Sea will be able to harvest the precious secretion.

And so it comes about.

Now properly smeared all over in the wonder grease, ’Abd Allah of the Land is given a full tour of the extensive settlements, where different peoples and creatures dwell under the sea. He learns in amazement of the symbiosis between fish and humans, and then finds himself collected by the sultan of the sea for his cabinet of curiosities. When the merman’s mermaid daughters laugh at the fisherman for being “tail-less,” he’s hurt, and wants to go home and eat something besides raw fish; he is also affronted that the mermaids go about in the water bare-breasted and bare-faced, and speak their views so uninhibitedly. So he leaves the world under the sea.

This kind of fairy tale, as it brings the speculative imagination to play on surmises and glimpses of undersea conditions, strikes notes of delightful preposterousness. Much of the lore surrounding sea monsters exhibits the same wonderful mix of fantasy and observation, in which one can catch glimpses of whales and their valuable products, the vast lacy architectures of coral reefs, marine ecosystems, and pearl fishers’ experiences, all mixed up with sheer fancy. Several of the maps explored in these vivid studies by Chet Van Duzer and Joseph Nigg illustrate, for example, the unfortunate sailors who camp on a colossal fish they mistake for an island: they’ve made a landfall on its back and built a fire to cook themselves a meal, but when the beast feels the heat of the flames, it rouses itself and dives, taking the heedless picnickers to their death in the deeps.

This cautionary tale was so popular that the island-monster was given its own name: aspidoceleon, after its resemblance to a shield turtle, and the scene is widely illustrated and told—in the Romance of Alexander, the tale of Sindbad, and in the legend of Saint Brendan, in which the medieval monk glosses it as a warning that too much pleasure-loving idling and dalliance in this world will take you down to hell (see illustration below). Like other monster stories the aspidoceleon envisions a horrible—comically horrible—possibility, and issues a warning; but above all , it belongs to the literature of astonishment—mirabilia, in Latin, or ’ajaib, as in the Arabian Nights, and its tellers aim to astonish and delight.

The status of monsters is never stable: Are they fact or are they fiction? It is a question that early modern mapmakers do not answer. The two ’Abd Allahs reflect the theory, found in Pliny’s natural history, that “anything which is produced in any other department of Nature, may be found in the sea as well.” This fantasy proved convincing to many, although in the thirteenth century Gervase of Tilbury, mindful that sea creatures need to swim, added a touch of hybridity:





There is no form of any creature found living among us on dry land whose likeness, from the navel upwards, may not be observed among the fish of the ocean off Britain.

The terms sea horse, sea cow, and sea lion still enfold this dream of parallel plenitude, while in the past the catalog of sea creatures included every species: sea snakes, sea pigs, sea hares, and the appealing sea mouse that, according to Pliny, helps whales to see where they are heading by parting the heavy brows above their eyes.

While Chet Van Duzer, in his authoritative, wide-ranging study, and Joseph Nigg, who concentrates his full attention on the masterpiece made by Olaus Magnus between 1527 and 1539, strive to distinguish fantasy and reality in their accompanying texts, the pictures have such living presence (that quality of enargeia, the Greek ideal of vivid, hallucinatory representation) that the possibility of any monster—whale or dragon—remains just as likely as it is unlikely. And it must be said that their unlikelihood adds to the pleasurable curiosity such stories excite and feed, the delight in disagreeable and frightening things that Aristotle puzzles over toward the very beginning of the Poetics.

Both these sumptuously produced volumes about sea monsters place maps at the heart of scientific marine inquiry; the mapmakers attempted accurate documentation and measurement of land masses and coastlines but fill the surrounding seas with marvelous, terrible, and colossal fishes, serpents, sirens, and other creatures from the populous mythological cast—besides sea pigs, sea snakes, and sea horses, they include tritons, sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, the kraken, the remora, the grampus, the prister, each of them colossal, singular, and fearsome.

At the unknown beginnings of the world, gigantic monsters embody chaos and emergence, in Babylonian myth as well as in the fabulous classical zoo that Hesiod set down; he traces our anthropomorphic forebears—the Titans and Cyclopes and Olympians—back to terrifying gorgons and dragons and sphinxes. John Boardman has argued in his book The Archaeology of Nostalgia (2002) that the Greeks were attempting to make sense of dinosaur bones they found in the landscape, and he convincingly compares the bone-white sea monster on a vase, lurking in a cave and ready to pounce on Hesione, with the fossil skull of a Samotherium, or Miocene giraffe, such as was found around Troy.

But rational conjectures of this kind, however entertaining, don’t explain the whole activity of the monstrous imagination, which revels in excess and assemblage; tricephalous and multilimbed, with arthropod and reptilian features such as ruffs, tusks, fangs, tentacles, and jaws, many of these primordial monsters are hybrids defying nature. They belong to dark places, those underworlds under land and sea—volcanoes, ocean abysses—because they embody our lack of understanding, and mirror it in their savagery and disorderly, heterogeneous asymmetries of shape. For this reason, at the same time that Olaus Magnus was making his marine map, artists conjured extremes of physical monstrosity to convey spellbound states, in which perverse desires are spoken and thrilling moral transgressions follow.

The artist and art historian Deanna Petherbridge, with her selection of mostly printed images for the exhibition “Witches and Wicked Bodies,” explores how some of the most powerful artists—from Dürer to Goya, Jacques de Gheyn to Fuseli—combine and recombine grotesque medleys of limbs and disfigure and exaggerate aging female bodies to express the terrors of witchcraft. These expressions of monstrosity stigmatize the flesh, especially old women’s, while also appealing to the viewers’ appetite for thrilling perversity; rather like modern British tabloids, lurid scenes of other people’s sins—night-flying and Sabbath orgies—are titillating even while they purport to condemn. (In the case of Goya, the targets are many, ferocious, and tragic.)

Monsters still fascinate precisely because they express what might lie beyond the light of common day. And as in the case of Goya’s dream of reason, the fear and awe monsters inspire can’t entirely be dispelled by enlightened investigations, neither in the past nor today. The ocean swirls in a condition of mythopoeic duality: it is there, it covers two thirds of the world, it is navigable and palpable and visible, but at the same time, unfathomable, stretching down in lightless space and into the backward abysm of time where every fantasy can be incubated.

Both Chet Van Duzer and Joseph Nigg explore maps as maps, with monsters as the decorative—and instructive—elements in the mapmakers’ repertory, and both bring the story into the present, showing how “the geography of the marvellous” has deeply imprinted the collective imagination and has naturalized ancient sea monsters through different media, including video games. Neither author widens out into relations with the Zodiac or cosmology, or dwells on the mythology of shape-shifting Proteus or the terrifying Old Man of the Sea, nor do they linger on the rich fairy-tale lore of undines and selkies.

Nevertheless, they prove the case for the maps’ importance to the continuing life of myth and, above all, to the present vogue for fantasy in film and fiction. Moby-Dick, the giant squid and other sea monsters in Jules Verne, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and even the computer-generated mask of glaucous, waving, suckered tentacles that the actor Bill Nighy is condemned to wear in the role of Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest reveal the near-indestructible longevity of the marine world picture that was crystallized by early cartographic visionaries. It’s also significant that both the volumes under review exemplify a new rich phase in the history of book production: digital magnification and reproduction have made practicable marvelous close-up details from every moment of the maps’ journeys, while the jacket of Nigg’s study unfolds into a full-color poster of Olaus Magnus’s masterpiece, mapping his native Scandinavia.

Olaus Magnus was the Catholic archbishop of Uppsala, who was ousted from his cathedral by the Swedish Reformers and took refuge in Danzig, and he may have been inspired by nostalgic pride in his lost homeland. He truffled the northern oceans with dozens of colossal and polymorphous mythic monsters, as if laying out a deluxe box of chocolates with glorious flavors and varieties, emerald green and crimson, frilled and bulbous, toothy, barbed, and serpentine. In 1555, he went on to add a learned commentary, in which he melded together classical fable and science, lore from bestiaries as old as the Sanskrit Panchatantra, dating to the third century BCE, with observations gleaned from Aristotle, Pliny, and the anonymous Hortus Sanitatis.Bridgeman Art Library
‘St. Brendan and his monks celebrate Easter mass on the back of the giant whale Jasconius’; map by Honorius Philoponus, 1621

Chet Van Duzer’s study begins with the first mappaemundi in antiquity and the early Middle Ages; the author is an encyclopedic scholar of historical cartography, with a magisterial command of comparative knowledge and scrupulous attentiveness to detail, noticing the slightest drollery drawn in the waves. By contrast, Nigg shows a juicier interest in the myths and stories, and provides a useful, gleeful “sea monster key.” (“ZIPHIUS, a horrible sea monster that swallows a black seal in one bite…. ROSTUNGER…somewhat like a sea calf. It goes to the bottom of the sea on all four of its feet, which are very short.”) He also quotes most entertainingly from the anonymous 1568 English translation of Olaus’s commentary, which reads like a cross between Thomas Browne’s Pseudoxica Epidemica, an invention from Borges’s library of Babel, and a recovered gnomic relic of Middle Earth:


And not onely may we understand by sight that there are Images of Animals in the Sea, but a Pitcher, a Sword; Saws and Horses heads apparent in small Shell fish, Moreover you shall find Sponges, Nettles, Stars, Fairies, Kites, Monkies, Cows, Woolves, Mice, Sparrows, Black-Birds, Crows, Frogs, Hogs, Oxen, Rams, Horses, Asses, Dogs, Locusts, Calves, Trees, Wheels, Beetles, Lions, Eagles, Dragons, Swallows and such like: Amongst which, some huge Monsters go on Land and eat the roots of Trees and Plants: Some grow fat with the South wind; some with a North wind blowing.

The monsters teeming in the seas of Olaus’s lost native land, Nigg proposes, might have been aimed at warning off trespassing fishermen—monsters usefully policing the sea roads. This would account for the huge spouting creatures in Scandinavian and Icelandic waters, but the rest of the teeming bestiary displays that fabulist Catholic sensibility that the Protestants deplored as aberrant, and the archbishop’s entry on Sea Swine allegorizes the monster as the Protestant heresy: “the eyes on its scaly body their temptations…and its dragonlike feet the evil that they spread throughout the world.”

The word “monster” encloses a memory of monstrare, to show, as in “demonstrate,” and monsters were interpreted as revealing in many different ways: as in the Arabian Nights, the sea gave evidence of the plenitude and infinite variety of creation and the maps enriched understanding of the Book of Nature and its mirabilia. Artists working for the mapmakers portrayed elements of monstrosity with wonderful ingenuity, shuffling tusks, horns, fins, flippers, flukes, blowholes, tentacles, gills, scales, spikes, tails, and limbs to produce a catalog of jumbled creatures with eyes on their bodies and jaws on their tails and so forth. Many of these are “Poetical Animals,” as Thomas Browne called griffins, but others approximate whales and sharks, polyps and crabs, and in the view of these studies, the mappers were fumbling toward an empirical grasp, and trying to guide and protect navigators.

An echo of monere, to warn, may also sound in the word “monster,” and while sea monsters may have embodied physical dangers, they were also frequently taken to be divine portents—Leviathans to punish the wicked or prophesy doom. Olaus Magnus was facing both ways, backward to medieval allegory, forward to empirical inquiry; but ancient fears still suffuse Melville’s vision of the white whale and Ahab’s pursuit, while recently, when two dead oarfish were discovered in California, one eighteen feet long, the other fourteen feet, they were immediately connected, rather shiveringly, with a local legend that such colossal snaky deepwater fish only surface when an earthquake is pending.

Medieval and early modern mapmakers, before and after Olaus, invoke eyewitnesses, the kind that still report sightings of Nessie in Loch Ness. They are early travelers like Marco Polo, sailors, pilgrims, collectors of curiosities, and the mountebanks who showed wonders and freaks in their shows in Amsterdam, Venice, and London. Petrarch is one of the unexpected authorities—cited by the explorer Sebastian Cabot—for the remora, a monster that, though small in size, attaches itself to a ship, stalls it against wind and current, and sucks it under. In illustrations it looks like a gigantic wood louse.

Magnification and accumulation are the mapmakers’ principles. “The richest collection of sea monsters in any one manuscript” appears in the fifteenth-century Latin version of Ptolemy’s Geographia; Van Duzer has counted them: 476 in all, of which 411 are “generic,” leaving sixty-five “more or less exotic and interesting sea creatures.” These are pen-and-ink doodles, bobbing in a sepia sea of undulating lines; fanciful creatures drawn rapidly, spontaneously, and humorously, they are closer to mischievous marginalia than terrifying scriptural portents. The warnings that monsters issue do call attention to perils and evils, but they can also remind us what relief there can be in fancy, in the spirit of play. “More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, and though the lines don’t describe the rich pigments on display here, they do apply to the light touch of some of the maps’ artists.

In the oceans charted here, the monsters are correspondingly huge: indeed hugeness, an attribute of sublimity, is a defining characteristic of monstrosity—Robert Hooke turned a common flea into a grotesque and terrifying apparition when he drew what he saw through his microscope at approximately 288 times life size. The Bible gave its authority to the existence of sea monsters, with its story of Jonah and the whale, and its blazing poetic invocation of Leviathan in the story of Job:


Who can open the doors of his face? his teeth are terrible round about…. Out of his mouth go burning lamps, and sparks of fire leap out. Out of his nostrils goeth smoke, as out of a seething pot or cauldron…. He maketh the deep to boil like a pot; he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment…. Upon earth there is not his like, who is made without fear.

The colossal sea dragons that blast and spout in the observed sea lanes of Olaus’s and others’ maps owe more to the furious rhetoric of the author of Job than to the sightings of mariners.

The gigantism of the monstrous is also an effect of an imagined, primordial time of emergence and infinite possibility. Even from a post-Darwinian perspective, the sea inspires wonder—and fear. Since the latest of the maps reproduced in these books were made, zoologists have found more and more extraordinary life forms deep in the ocean, with peculiar, rare properties: bioluminescence already has beneficial uses, and more are being researched, while the starfish and other animals’ ability to generate new limbs is being closely studied; the miraculous glass sponge, an intricate mesh of silica, has exceptional tensile strength and durability, and withstands high stress in ways that give new dreams to the architects of Gulf State follies.

Anxiety might be behind the encyclopedic impulse: knowing your monsters can help contain them. One particular section of the Indian Ocean pictured on the Catalan Estense mappamundi (circa 1460) displays three varieties of sirens, including a centaur-like, female hippocampus. With his keen eye, Van Duzer has noticed that blank spaces were left in the sea for a different artist to fill in later, an artist whose speciality would have been sirens. Indeed, Van Duzer reminds us that the majority of old maps do not show monsters—they were expensive and beyond most patrons’ reach. But when they could afford them, patrons wanted them.

Shakespeare, who was writing in the world that Olaus Magnus and his successors were charting, shows every sign of fascination with bestiaries and their legends and lore, and The Tempest, which was first performed in 1611, interestingly conveys this double nature of the monster, perpetually oscillating between illusion and actual presence. Caliban as monster—and a fishy-smelling one—is a phenomenon and a figment; on the one hand, the “savage and deformed slave” of the cast of characters is treated as a sport of nature, whom Trinculo and Stefano plot to capture and exhibit, but on the other, the play also reveals Caliban to be the subject of misprision by those who maltreat him. When Prospero says at the end of the play, “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” his avowal could mean many things. But it patently shows us Prospero recognizing that the darkness belongs to him, too, figuratively.

The development of modern cartography unexpectedly produced a Counter-Enlightenment result: to make monsters real. Both authors assume that the mariners had seen something, which they had mistaken for something else, and then identified the phenomenon with an existing mythical monster—jellyfish are called Medusae, the remora becomes Echidna, zoology constantly poeticized according to prior imaginative construction. Did sex-starved sailors really mistake walruses for mermaids? Or even the swollen, ungainly manatee? A glossary at the back of Nigg’s book tentatively matches some of the marvels tossing in the sea charts to known species: the prister as sperm whale, for example. Cryptozoology, the science of imaginary monsters, only emerges as distinct from zoology and biology after the period covered by the maps that are explored with such rich delight in these two studies.

Some other tales of sea monsters are not so far-fetched, however, which makes them more deeply troubling. For example, when the chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reported that in the year 1187 a wild man was fished up from the sea off the coast at Orford, in Suffolk, England, what can have happened?


The wild man was completely naked and all his limbs were formed like those of a man. He was hairy and his beard was long and pointed. Around the chest he was very rough and shaggy…he devoured fish raw rather than cooked, squeezing the raw fishes in his hands until all the moisture was removed and then eating them. He did not wish to talk, or rather did not have the power to talk, even when suspended by his feet and tortured….

He survived this treatment over a long period, but eventually “secretly fled back to the sea and was never seen again.” The chronicler concludes, “Whether this was some sort of mortal man, of whether it was an evil spirit inside the body of a drowned man or whether it was some fish in human form, it is not easy to tell….”

Neither author is much concerned with alternative myths of mingling and cooperation. Yet in the far distant past, there were stories told about humans and monsters that promised a mutual alliance: in the Arabian Nights, mortal men fall madly in love with jinn who live under the sea, as in “The Tale of Julnar the Sea-Born”; unlike European legends of man and sea creature (Undine, Rusalka), these interspecies marriages are not doomed.

Today’s sea monsters are less sublime frights than “beguiling” diversions. Yet “why mermaids still swim in our dreams” (as the poet Michael Symmons Roberts asks) leads to more questions about the structure of the minds that produce such marvels, comic and terrible, beguiling and ghastly. In Fishskin Trousers, a lyric drama inspired by the Wild Man of Orford, which was staged in England earlier this year, the playwright Elizabeth Kuti takes up the challenge that the monster from the sea sets us in modern times, when the ignorance he figures is no longer epistemological but ethical, and does not belong to him as much as to his tormentors: scientific overreach, as well as cruelty, exclusion, intolerance. The monstrousness of the monsters can still show us dangers, from the sea and from ourselves.

The Genius of Jonathan Swift:.....Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch Yale University Press, 573 pp., $35.00; The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift: Parodies, Hoaxes, Mock Treatises: Polite Conversation, Directions to Servants and Other Works edited by Valerie Rumbold Cambridge University Press, 821 pp., $130.00


Cover illustration for Gulliver’s Travels by Grandville, 1838

Early in the twentieth century, a collector of folklore spoke to a farmer in County Cavan, near to where Jonathan Swift had written much of Gulliver’s Travels almost two hundred years earlier. The farmer told the folklorist that there were still people called Bradley living in the area and that they were remarkably small. Their equally tiny ancestors, he said, had worked as laborers for the more prosperous landowners, the Brookes, who were in turn neighbors of Swift’s friend Thomas Sheridan. Sheridan’s laborers were unusually large men. Swift, the farmer claimed, had watched the two sets of workers laboring together and “was so amused at the contrast, and at seeing the giant Sheridans lift up the dwarf Bradleys in their hands and place them like dolls on the haycocks that he joked and laughed with Mr. Brookes at what he had seen that day in the hayfield.”

The farmer’s delightful tale, with the implication that these local dwarfs and giants became the natives of Lilliput and Brobdingnag, is a typical just-so story. It seeks to explain a great literary invention by tracing it back to a biographical incident. Few scholars would take it seriously as evidence of anything other than Swift’s remarkable presence in the Irish popular imagination, even though a version of it also appears in an early biography written by Sheridan’s son. Yet critics themselves have, for centuries, belabored Swift with just-so stories. They differ from the farmer’s lovely yarn principally in being Freudian rather than folkloric and bleak rather than warm. But their status as evidence is hardly more secure.

Swift is almost unique among great prose writers in that, as well as being admired by the literate, he was also loved by the illiterate. There is a Swift contained and explored in thousands of books; there is another Swift remembered and celebrated in Irish oral traditions that were alive up to the 1930s. The Swift of this oral tradition is not a high Tory with a bitter disposition and a streak of misanthropy. He is funny, quick-witted, humane, and human. He is often heard, as in the farmer’s story, joking and laughing. As late as 1933, an informant in County Kerry told a folklore collector of Swift that “people say he was honest, and a good friend to this country while he lived. He was witty and well-spoken, and his intellect and his learning and his cunning were better than that of anybody before him or since.”

In the large body of stories about him in the collections of the Irish Folklore Commission, Swift is almost always “the Dean”—he was dean of Saint Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin from 1713 until his death in 1745—or, in popular pronunciation, “the Dane.” The name shows immediate awareness that he was a high functionary of the established, Protestant, Church of Ireland—an institution unpopular with the oppressed Catholic majority. Yet he transcends these sectarian divisions. He was revered by middle-class Protestants, who named inns and ships after him and built bonfires to celebrate his birthday. Catholics, meanwhile, attached to “the Dean” many of the common trickster stories that circulated around Europe. Swift and his servant, usually called Jack, form a comic double act.

The Dean of this popular imagination is a connoisseur of human foibles. In one story, he is walking through a field when he sees a boy slouched lazily against a fence. Swift asks him for directions but the boy is so lazy that he merely points his leg in the right direction. Swift is so amused that he offers the boy a shilling if he can do anything lazier than he has just done. The boy says, “Put the shilling in my pocket,” and the Dean laughs with pleasure. When Swift asks which way the wind is blowing and the boy answers “Sou’ southwest,” he offers him another shilling if he can elaborate on this laconic reply. The boy drawls “Sou’ southwest, sir.” The Dean again laughs heartily and hires the laziest boy in Ireland as his servant.

The story is striking for its image of Swift’s pure comic delight—and for the way it, and most of the other oral yarns, contrast with the literary record. In the folktales, Swift and his servants compete in trickery almost as equals and the Dean is amused by roguery. In literary biography as early as Samuel Johnson’s Life of Swift, written in 1780, Swift’s maltreatment of servants forms part of the case for the prosecution: “To his domesticks he was naturally rough…a master that few could bear…. Tyrannick peevishness is perpetual.” Here is considerable irony: the descendants of the servant class remembered the Dean as a lovable master; those rich enough to employ servants themselves recorded him as an unbearable tyrant.




This clash between the folkloric and the literary memories encapsulates a larger division: Swift as peevish misanthrope or laughing friend to humanity. How might such a contradiction, emblematic of so many others, be resolved? We can look to documentary evidence. It suggests that on the one hand, Swift (not unreasonably given the prevailing squalor of eighteenth-century urban life) was fastidious and afraid of dirt—making him a demanding master indeed. It also shows that he was kind (he paid very good wages) and affectionate. As well as the famous monuments to himself and his devoted companion “Stella” (Esther Johnson) in St. Patrick’s, there is, more remarkably, a plaque that Swift erected to his servant Alexander McGee. Interestingly, in the text that Swift wrote for it, he referred to himself as McGee’s “grateful friend and master,” but “friend” was deleted as too scandalous a term: senior clergymen could not be friends with their servants. Even then, Swift’s gesture of affection was quickly interpreted by literary commentators as satiric misanthropy—by memorializing a mere servant Swift was surely engaging in a bitter burlesque. He cannot be allowed to be merely a man mourning a friend.

What, then, do Swift’s imaginative works tell us? He seems, in his own poems, much more like the Dean of folklore than the Swift of the early biographies. In “My Lady’s Lamentation and Complaint Against the Dean,” he has one society hostess disturbed to find her eminent guest overly familiar with her servants: “Find out, if you can,/Who’s master, who’s man;/ Who makes the best figure,/The Dean or the digger;/And which is best/At cracking a jest.” In this self-portrait, Swift is remarkably like the figure of the folktales who engages in duels of wit with his own servants.

More importantly, Swift makes comic art out of this very relationship. The funniest of the mock-treatises collected in the latest volume of Cambridge’s splendid new edition of his works is “Directions to Servants.” It is a parody of contemporary manuals on the management of domestic staff. Typically, it instructs the servants in every form of sloth, surliness, mendacity, and unhygienic practice. It can be read, on one dull level, as a mere attack on bad servants. What gives it comic life, however, is the way Swift, like his folkloric alter ego, takes a childlike delight in the tricksters who outwit their masters:


While Grace is saying after Meat, do you and your brethren take the Chairs from behind the Company, so that when they go to sit down again, they may fall backwards, which will make them all merry; but be you so discreet as to hold your Laughter till you get to the Kitchen, and then divert your Fellow-servants.

Socially and intellectually, Swift may be with the unfortunate guests. But his comic imagination is always in the kitchen, laughing with the insolent servants.

More than any other writer, Swift has suffered from the biographical fallacy that someone whose work is so often grotesque must have harbored, beneath his witty and brilliant Ego, a rather foul Id. His words are occasionally spattered with excrement, from Strephon’s horrified discovery about his beloved in the mock-pastoral poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” (“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!”) to Gulliver being literally shat upon by Yahoos. Therefore Swift must have thought about little else but dung: George Orwell tells us that he “thought about [human dung] incessantly, as is evident throughout his works.” Gulliver urinates on the fire in the palace in Lilliput, therefore, to Henry Miller, “the name Swift was like a clear, hard pissing against the tin-plate lid of the world.”

The self-described “savage indignation” with which he viewed war, poverty, oppression, and folly is evidence not of an entirely sane response to the era of the interminable War of the Spanish Succession, the South Sea Bubble, and famine in Ireland, but of his own nihilism. Orwell, again, declares Swift a man animated only by “disgust, rancor and pessimism,” deformed by his “inability to believe that life…could be made worth living.”

He subjects women to the same satirical gaze he trains on men; therefore he must have, as his generally sympathetic biographer Victoria Glendinning puts it, a “screwed-up attitude to women.” His skeptical view of sex, insistence on the reality of the body, and unconventional relationship with two younger women, “Stella” and “Vanessa” (Esther Vanhomrigh), mean that he must have been incapable of having sex. Orwell declares him “presumably impotent,” and his leading biographer Irvin Ehrenpreis defines him as asexual. No one quite claims that because, in “A Modest Proposal,” Swift has his “author” suggest the eating of babies, he himself must have harbored cannibalistic fantasies, but pretty much everything else in his work is read as the manifestation of a sick mind.

This pathological approach amounts in reality to nothing more than a collection of just-so stories. It treats a comic writer, whose stock-in-trade is exaggeration, wild invention, and anarchic juxtapositions of the high-minded and the filthy, as if he were a psychological realist. It conveniently forgets that Swift is very, very funny and that the best humor is never far from its roots in the outrageous, the scatological, and the obscene. It largely ignores the context of the work. The excremental strain in Swift is just that—one seam among many others. It is hardly all that surprising in a writer who lived at a time when the chances of having a chamber pot emptied on your head as you walked through the streets were pretty good. The petty, rancorous pessimism that Orwell detects is hard to see in the man who devoted so much of his life—at high personal risk—to arguments and projects for the practical improvement of Irish economic life. The Swift who, in his thin disguise as the Drapier, ran a brilliantly effective political campaign against English financial control over Ireland disappears from view.

Swift’s alleged obsession with the unfortunate realities of the human body is much more obviously a counterpoint to falsity and decorousness in both manners and art. It is also a philosophical position. Swift is an anti-Cartesian: against the dualism of mind and body, he reminds us that we are inescapably (and none too prettily) embodied. As he puts it in the mock-scientific “Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit”:National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin
‘Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral’; pencil sketch by Isaac Whood, 1730


The Spinal Marrow, being nothing else but a Continuation of the Brain, must needs create a very free Communication between the Superior Faculties and those below: And thus the Thorn in the Flesh serves for a Spurto the Spirit.

Unfortunately for Swift, biographers have tended to take him entirely at his word, and to reduce his spirit to his flesh.

As for Swift’s “screwed-up attitude to women,” one might ask—compared to whose? All those eighteenth-century feminist clerics? Swift loved the company and conversation of women (he wrote to Alexander Pope of being ensconced among a “triumfeminate” of literary women in Dublin), treated many as intellectual equals, and passionately supported women’s education. His closest friend was Stella and he was clearly loved by Vanessa too. The evidence that he was impotent is as strong as the evidence supporting the Irish folktales in which, on the contrary, he is depicted as a hearty sexual adventurer. (In one of the most common tales, the duties of his servant include the provision of a different woman for his master’s bed every night.) It, too, is a just-so story. There is nothing to suggest that it is true and, as we shall see, a great deal to suggest that it is not.

As well as these biographical fallacies, Swift’s reputation was assaulted by the medical fallacy—the insistence that physical ailments carry moral meanings. Swift (an early enthusiast for jogging) was generally healthy, but he was afflicted by two complaints. One—as later diagnosed by Oscar Wilde’s father, the distinguished doctor Sir William Wilde—was Ménière’s syndrome, a deformity of the inner ear that gave him spells of dizziness and nausea. It was all too easily taken as evidence of his mental imbalance.

The other was what we would call Alzheimer’s, probably accompanied by minor strokes. In his last five years (he lived to be seventy-seven), he was barely seen in public. This allowed his enemies, even before his death, to put it about that he was “awaked from a mere animal life into a thorough misanthropy and brutality of lust,” or as Johnson disgracefully crowed, “Swift expires a driv’ler and a show.” The point of these rumors was not that Swift has thereby fallen away from his real self, but that this was his real self and that all of his accomplishments had been but a veneer. As Thomas Birch reported, “I doubt that these were always the real dispositions of him; but now it happens, that the thin disguise, which before scarce covered them, is absolutely fallen off.”

Why did this vile exploitation of Swift’s illness prove so effective that its traces still linger? Because it was oddly comforting. To read Swift is to experience Ménière’s syndrome for ourselves. His vast comic invention, his dazzling ventriloquism, his peerless orchestration of multiple voices, none of them securely his own, his vertiginous shifts of perspective, make us dizzy. And his rage at human degradation does induce nausea.

No one before or since has taken such a powerful verbal blowtorch to all forms of authority—religious, political, military, intellectual, scientific. Against this assault, there is just one effective defense—the idea that Swift was, after all, mad or degenerate or both. It is not war or exploitation or poverty that is insane. The problem lay with Swift, who merely projected his own twisted misanthropy onto the world. As Lord Orrery put it in the Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift, which created the template for later writers, Swift failed to sustain his political career in England, became embittered, and thus “from his early, and repeated disappointments, he became a misanthrope.” Swift’s nasty writings do not merely express his own nastiness, they deepen it: “In painting YAHOOS he becomes one himself.” This gives rise to Thackeray’s imprecation on Swift: “filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.”

Freeing Swift from these fallacies has not been easy. David Nokes’s Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed (1985) is relentlessly negative, arguing that Swift was so terrified of seeming a hypocrite that he behaved appallingly. When not taking evidence merely from the long line of anti-Swift polemics, it relies on grandiose assertions: Swift “realized that, although he did not love Stella, he had built up a life in which he had grown dependent upon her unchallenging submissiveness.”

Glendinning is more balanced, but her book, published in 1998, is a broad “portrait” rather than a detailed biography. Both Nokes and Glendinning write in the shadow of Irvin Ehrenpreis’s monumental three-volume Swift: The Man, His Works and the Age, completed in 1983. Ehrenpreis’s biography is, and remains, the standard and indispensible work. It is, however, as his former colleague at the University of Virginia, Leo Damrosch, argues in the preface to his own book, deeply indebted to a rather mechanical and reductive Freudianism for its psychological interpretations. As Damrosch justly puts it:


An older man—even if just a few years older—must be a father figure, or else resented for not being one. A woman Swift’s age or older is a mother figure. And, inevitably, a younger woman is a daughter figure.

This is not unfair: Ehrenpreis himself writes that “much of my discussion of Stella and Vanessa is speculation based on Freudian psychology or on inferences drawn from a few data.”

The first pleasure of Damrosch’s breezy and engaging book is therefore what it does not do. It does not set out to ask the question that is implied in most of its predecessors: What is wrong with Swift? It does not approach him with the assumption that some kind of perversion must be identified in order to explain how the man wrote books with such disturbing matter in them and how he carried on long-term relationships with two younger women without marrying either or them. It does speculate—with a life in which so much is irredeemably obscure, it is impossible to do otherwise—but not by placing an imaginary Swift on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Damrosch makes the assumption—unusual in Swift biographers but usual in almost any other context—that his subject is a normal man. Thus, for example, the contrast between his treatment of Swift’s relationship with Vanessa and that in Ehrenpreis. Ehrenpreis assumes that Swift did not have sex with this attractive and devoted woman, more than twenty years his junior, and resorts to tortured prose: “In her own yearning for a surrogate father who would prefer the daughter to her rival brothers, I think she responded magically to Swift’s effort to enjoy sexual excitement while transcending sexuality.”

Damrosch, without the shadow of Freud to obscure his vision, simply looks very closely at the letters that passed between them. He notes that they are full of suggestive references to “coffee”—a drink that was often associated with sex: “I wish I were to walk with you fifty times about your garden, and then—drink your coffee”; “I drank no coffee since I left you, nor intend till I see you again, there is none worth drinking but yours….” Swift’s godson and first Irish biographer, Thomas Sheridan, wrote that it is implausible to imagine that, in all the hours they spent alone together over almost a decade, Swift and Vanessa never gave way to “the frailty of human nature.” Damrosch, freed from the burden of proving Swift impotent or sexually pathological, agrees. So, perhaps, does Swift himself in “Cadenus and Vanessa” (Cadenus being himself):


Cadenus, to his Grief and Shame,
Cou’d scarce oppose Vanessa’s Flame….

This leaves the other woman in Swift’s life, Stella. They met in 1689, when he was secretary to Sir William Temple in Surrey and she was just nine, and they remained in a loving relationship until her death in 1728. The prosecutorial question has always been why Swift did not marry her. It is by no means certain that he did not—contemporary gossip spoke of a secret wedding and even a secret child. Damrosch, though, tends to discount these rumors and seeks an explanation instead in a speculative but not inherently implausible idea. He gives a sympathetic hearing to a theory put forward by the playwright Denis Johnston in his 1959 book In Search of Swift: that Swift and Stella were, in fact, closely related by blood. It is highly likely that Stella was the “natural daughter” of Sir William Temple himself—hence his generosity to a girl who was, officially, merely the child of his housekeeper.

What makes this intriguing is the obscurity of Swift’s own origins. His apparent father, a relatively lowly legal clerk, died before he was born. Yet money was made available for his education, after which he was taken into the Temple household in England. This was not accidental: the Swifts were “intimately acquainted” in Dublin with Temple’s father, Sir John. Johnston’s theory is that Sir John was in fact Swift’s father—making him, by blood, Stella’s uncle.

Damrosch hedges his bets, describing this as “perhaps a wild conjecture” that nonetheless “bears thinking about.” It is, in any case, no wilder a conjecture than most of what passes for psychological insight into Swift’s supposedly strange sexuality. It has the advantage, moreover, of rendering the more tortuous speculations redundant. If Swift and Stella were related (or, perhaps more to the point, if Swift suspected they were), their close but asexual relationship is simply what it appears to be: a profound and loving friendship. Damrosch, in turn, is liberated by the conjecture. He doesn’t need to plumb the depths of Swift’s supposed perversity, so he can concentrate on what he does very well: providing a clear, well-paced narrative of Swift’s literary and political career.

That career is itself fascinating enough. It is a tale of marvelously productive failure. Swift, like any normal man of high intelligence and forceful personality, wanted to make the most of himself. He hoped to be an Anglican bishop, even though he seems to have had very little religious belief. (Damrosch says that “there is no reason to doubt the genuineness of Swift’s faith”—A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels surely seem reason enough.) His loyal service to the church—and his satiric attacks on its enemies—were motivated by a mixture of personal ambition and a belief that, since all religions are hypocritical, it is as well not to allow religious differences to start wars.

He also wanted to be a powerful political figure: a status he came close to achieving through his links with the Tory administration of Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, between 1711 and 1714. The collapse of all those hopes and his return to Dublin gave him the setting—marginal but urgent, relatively powerless but passionately engaged—for his greatest work, both as a political agitator and propagandist of genius and as a satirist with unparalleled powers of creative destruction. Damrosch tells this story with occasional repetitions and contradictions but for the most part with great energy and elegantly worn erudition. He restores to Swift the dignity he deserves, reminding us that the really shocking things about him lie not in his life but in his work.

In October 1984, when the Gaiety Theatre, a Victorian music hall in Dublin, held a gala performance to mark its reopening after refurbishment, the actor Peter O’Toole was invited to do the opening turn. He decided to read, slowly and deliberately, Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” with its suggestion that the children of the Irish poor should be sold as food for their landlords, “who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”

Some members of the audience began to heckle; others walked out. The state television station, which was broadcasting the show live, cut O’Toole off in the middle of the reading and went to an ad break. The Irish Times reported next day that it had received “a number of calls, which were preponderantly critical of O’Toole.” Swift would surely have been pleased that even after more than two centuries, his sharpest words were still unutterable in polite company. He might have wished it just so.

From Shame to Sin: Sex Education and Morality in Antiquity : The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity by Kyle Harper Harvard University Press, 304 pp., $33.95



Bridgeman Art Library

Fresco from the House of the Centurion, Pompeii, first century BCE

One of the most lasting delights and challenges of the study of the ancient world, and of the Roman Empire in particular, is the tension between familiarity and strangeness that characterizes our many approaches to it. It is like a great building, visible from far away, at the end of a straight road that cuts across what seems to be a level plain. Only when we draw near are we brought up sharp, on the edge of a great canyon, invisible from the road, that cuts its way between us and the monument we seek. We realize that we are looking at this world from across a sheer, silent drop of two thousand years.

Antiquity is always stranger than we think. Nowhere does it prove to be more strange than where we once assumed that it was most familiar to us. We always knew that the Romans had a lot of sex. Indeed, in the opinion of our elders, they probably had a lot more than was quite good for them. We also always knew that the early Christians had an acute sense of sin. We tend to think that they had a lot more sense of sin than they should have had. Otherwise they were very like ourselves. Until recently, studies of sex in Rome and of Christianity in the Roman world were wrapped in a cocoon of false familiarity.

Only in the last generation have we realized the sheer, tingling drop of the canyon that lies between us and a world that we had previously tended to take for granted as directly available to our own categories of understanding. “Revealing Antiquity,” the Harvard University Press series edited by Glen Bowersock, has played its part in instilling in us all a healthy sense of dizziness as we peer over the edge into a fascinating but deeply strange world. Kyle Harper’s book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is a scintillating contribution to this series. Not only does it measure the exact nature of the tension between the familiar and the deeply unfamiliar that lies behind our image of the sexual morality of Greeks and Romans of the Roman Empire of the classical period. It also goes on to evoke the sheer, unexpected strangeness of the very different sexual code elaborated in early Christian circles, and its sudden, largely unforeseen undermining of a very ancient social equilibrium in the two centuries that followed the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312. As Harper makes plain on the first page of his dense and vivid book, “Few periods of premodern history have witnessed such brisk and consequential ideological change. Sex was at the center of it all.”

Why was this so? It is a question that has often been asked in recent times. What is original in Harper’s book is his approach to the question, and the trenchancy with which he provides an answer. This answer is based on an appreciation of the real-life social structures of the classical Roman Empire and of the irrevocable changes in the public sphere brought about through the access to power of a hitherto alienated and perfectionist Christian minority in the last centuries of the empire.

But before we examine Harper’s answer in detail, it is worthwhile to conjure up some previous attempts to measure the drop of the canyon that cuts its way between us and false familiarity with the ancient world. Scholars in the field began to appreciate the strangeness of the Romans, in matters of sex as in so much else, starting in the late 1960s. To take one small but revealing example, in 1965 the Cambridge historian and sociologist Keith Hopkins showed with zest that Roman women were married off at the age of thirteen. It was an age of marriage as low as that current among girls in modern India. At a stroke, the chasm between ourselves and the ancient Romans seemed to be as great as the one that, in the uneasy imagination of Western countries, appeared, in the 1960s, to exist between themselves and the “underdeveloped” countries of the third world.

Similar vigor was displayed in France. Here the sense of intimacy with the ancient world had been fostered by a sense of continuity between Roman civilization and the Catholic Church, seen as the natural successor of all that had been great and good in Rome. Scholars looked back to the Roman Empire of the second century CE to trace a Praeparatio Evangelica—a “Preparation for the Gospel.” It was believed that this “preparation” could be seen at work in the rise of companionate marriage in the circles of Pliny and Plutarch, in the spread of notions of universal benevolence associated with Stoic teaching, and even in a few hesitant steps toward the “humanization” of slavery. It was claimed that Christianity inherited and made more widespread these moral advances.




In the 1970s, this comforting panorama was subjected to searching criticism. In a great book written in 1976, Le Pain et le cirque, Paul Veyne laid bare the exotic idiosyncrasy of the system of public benevolence in the Greek and Roman world that earlier studies had acclaimed as the forerunner of Christian almsgiving.1 In 1984, Michel Foucault’s Le Souci de soi insisted on the utter specificity of the moral codes of the elites of the high Roman Empire.2 In neither work was Christianity in sight. The reassuringly straight road that seemed to lead from Rome to Catholic Europe ended in a vertiginous drop. The Catholicism of medieval and modern times would be reached only after the rise of an entirely new paradigm of society and of the body.

I began my own work on The Body and Society (which appeared in 1988) with that brisk new wind in my sails.3 The work of figures such as Veyne and Foucault marked for me the end of a worldly-wise complicity with the past—based on the assumption that we knew all about sex and what early Christians must have thought about it. The Body and Society was a book written to instill “a sense of salutary vertigo” about the early Christian past.

Harper’s From Shame to Sin brings its own fresh wind to the subject. For instance, in his first chapter, “The Moralities of Sex in the Roman Empire,” he firmly takes his distance from a recent tendency to minimize the role of eroticism in second-century upper-class marriage and in society in general.

Harper will have none of this. He points out that the dark picture of what Roman married sex should be like took too seriously the writings of the Stoic philosophers—a “gloomy tribe”—and of contemporary doctors, whose advice, on matters of the heart, had always been “bourgeois, and a little geriatric.” He points to very different, more full-blooded bodies of evidence. He provides a commentary of admirable warmth and humanity on the sexual codes implied in the great Greek novels of the time, especially the Leucippe and Clitophon of Achilles Tatius. He also reminds us of the obvious—the overwhelming testimony of the erotic scenes on terra-cotta lamps that reached a height of production at just the time when sex was supposed to be frosting over in Rome. Those energetic males and their plump Venuses tumbled, in innumerable positions, beside every bedside. Philosophers might advise couples to blow out the light, but


Romans not only had sex with the lamps on—they had sex in the flickering light of lamps that had images of them having sex by lamplight on them!

So do we blame the Christians for bringing down the curtain on those merry scenes? Yes, but against a background that comes as a chill reminder of the lasting strangeness of the ancient world. If one asks if women in these scenes were free persons (and even how many of the men were free, for some might be slave gigolos), the unexpected answer would be: far fewer than we would wish to think. Many of the women were slaves. The jolly free-for-all, which we like to imagine as forming a timeless human bond between us and the ancients, was based upon the existence of a vast and cruel “zone of free access” provided by the enslaved bodies of boys and girls. Slavery, “an inherently degrading institution,” was “absolutely fundamental to the social and moral order of Roman life.”

On this topic, Harper speaks with rare authority and, given the nature of the subject, with impressive restraint. In his first book, Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275–425, Harper showed that the late Roman world had remained a slave society deep into Christian times.4 In From Shame to Sin, Harper takes us back into this world. It is one that we rather wish it had not been: “a society whose moral lineaments were sculpted by the omnipresence of slaves” and where “the flesh trade was a dominant institution.”

Harper’s book makes plain that the modern spate of works on sexuality and on the construction of gender in Roman and early Christian times, ingenious though they may be, are lightweight confections compared with this gross, ever-present fact of Roman life. We must look up from our literary games and see what is almost too big to be seen—the fact of slavery, towering above us like the trees of an immense forest of unfreedom that covered the Roman world. What mattered, in Roman law and in Roman sexual morality, had little to do with sex. It had everything to do with whose bodies could be enjoyed with impunity and whose could not be touched without elaborate formulas of consent.

The joys of sex were there for all. Harper shows how the puritanism of the Romans in relation to their own spouses has been greatly exaggerated. But the primary school of sexual endeavor remained, to an unusual degree, the bodies of slaves—along with the bodies of the poor and of prostitutes, who were all too easily sucked into the gravitational field of dishonor associated with outright slavery. Then Harper sums up his feelings: “The laws deflected lust away from the freeborn body, and slaves provided a ready outlet.”

This view could lead to a banal conclusion. Sex was shocking to the early Christians. Sex in the Roman world was intimately linked to slavery. Ergo: Christians, once they came to power after the year 312, predictably hammered the sexual codes of a society glutted on the ready availability of servile bodies and even cut away (if somewhat more tentatively than we might wish) at those parts of the slave system—such as prostitution—that fostered sexual indulgence.

But Harper realizes that this is too facile a conclusion. The excitement of his second chapter, “The Will and the World in Early Christian Sexuality,” lies in the manner in which he traces the sheer fierceness of Christian attitudes toward sexuality back to how sexual morality merged with the charged issue of freedom. Christians rethought these ideas in profound alienation from a society that took unfreedom for granted. They also dissociated themselves from a view of the cosmos that seemed to support a chill “indifference toward the brutalities accepted in the name of destiny.”

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‘Satyr and Maenad’; detail from a fresco in Pompeii, first century BCE

This is the second grand theme in Harper’s book. From Saint Paul onward, the great issues of sex and freedom were brought together in Christian circles like the enriched ore of an atomic device. For Paul, porneia—fornication—meant a lot more than premarital fooling around. It was a brooding metonym, “enriched” by an entire spectrum of associations. It stood for mankind’s rebellion against God. And this primal rebellion was shown most clearly in the topsy-turvy sexual freedom ascribed first by Jews and then by Christians to the non-Christian world.

But then, what was true freedom? Freedom also was a mighty metonym, of which the freedom to decide one’s sexual fate was only one, highly “enriched” part. Above all, it meant “freedom” from “the world.” And by “the world” Christians meant, bluntly, the Roman society of their own times, where unfreedom was shown in its darkest light by the trading and sexual abuse of unfree bodies. It no longer mattered, to Christians, with whose bodies, from which social categories, and in what manner sex might happen. From Paul onward, for Christians, there was right sex—sex between spouses for the production of children; wrong sex—sex outside marriage; and abhorrent sex—sex between same-sex partners. Wrong sex of any kind was a sin. And a sin was a sin. It was not a social faux pas, deemed an outrage in one situation and accepted in another.

Seldom has so great a simplification been imposed on a complex society. The unexpected victory of Christian norms in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries was so thorough that any alternative ordering of moral frontiers within a society became unthinkable. The intricacies of a status-based morality still require patient reconstruction by modern historians of Rome, like the bones of some flamboyant creature of the Jurassic age. The Christian victory was one that caused a chasm to open up between ourselves and the ancient world.

So what happens next? Harper’s third chapter, “Church, Society, and Sex in the Age of Triumph,” unfolds with the chilling inevitability of an endgame. Harper, in effect, brings public power back into the history of late Roman sex. Here we are no longer confronted with a free-floating evolution of moral sentiment. We march to the pace of imperial laws enacted under Christian emperors. In 390, male prostitutes were publicly burned in Rome; in 438, the abolition of prostitution was proposed (or, at least, the abolition of the taxes previously raised from prostitution, thereby removing the state’s investment in the flesh trade). We end with “the haze of ruin and violent puritanism that characterized the reign of Justinian,” who became emperor in 527.

In Constantinople, in the 540s and again in 559, edicts designed to “cure the disease” of same-sex love circulated in a city burned out by the bubonic plague, along with grim processions of mutilated offenders. Away from the solemn tread of the laws, the battle for a new sexual code was fought out “parish by parish,” aided by “the megaphone of public preaching.” When we go down “into the trenches of Christianization” with a preacher such as John Chrysostom, in late-fourth-century Antioch and Constantinople, what we hear is the voice of a bruiser, denouncing same-sex love in an unparalleled “spasm of hatred.” Faced by outbursts such as these, we are tempted to think that, when it came to issues of sexual morality, the revolution in popular communication that we associate with the rise of the Christian sermon in late antiquity all too often placed the megaphone in the hands of bullies and loudmouths.

But it may be more complicated than this. How were such sermons heard? Here I am less convinced than Harper that the effects of so much public hectoring were as instant and as chilling as the speakers might have wished. We study the messages that went out over the megaphone. Volume after volume, the collected sermons of the Fathers of the Church line the shelves of our libraries. But we know next to nothing of the earphones through which average Christians listened to these messages. It is quite possible that the good Christian mothers and fathers of Antioch and Constantinople left the basilica unpersuaded, or that they scrambled the message to fit their own views.

They were like the good bourgeois of fifteenth-century Siena, who would listen for hours to San Bernardino of Siena as he preached against homosexuals (with even more vehemence and circumstantiality than did Chrysostom) but remained convinced that, whatever the preacher said, it was still better for their boys to chase boys than to mess with the virginity of girls of their own class. Chrysostom was a man of great humanity when it came to preaching on the care of the poor and the reception of repentant sinners. Perhaps he had to shout so loud on sexual issues in order to be heard at all.

Altogether, preachers had to persuade large congregations to accept an ideology that had been “for centuries the possession of a small, strident band of vociferous dissenters.” Even in the days before Constantine’s conversion early in the fourth century, the sense of being members of a privileged minority unraveled easily. We have become increasingly skeptical whether early Christians were ever, in fact, “a small, strident band.” Early Christians did not spend their entire time being early Christians. The brilliant recent study by Éric Rebillard, Christians and Their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200–450 CE, has pointed out that the current image of early Christians as a compact group, committed to a single definition of “Christian-ness,” is greatly exaggerated.5

Christians were not locked into a single identity. Like other Romans, they were happy to wear many hats, of which their religious identity was only one among many. It was their leaders who wished to lock them into a single, intransigent identity. They did not always succeed. When we read the sermons of Augustine, we can often hear a grating noise, as his message ground its keel against barely hidden sandbanks of reluctance or, even, confident alternative interpretations of what it was to be a Christian.

But these hesitations do not affect the overall direction of Harper’s argument. They merely delimit the speed with which an unchallenged code of public Christian values emerged and the completeness with which it was enforced. For what Harper has done with this peremptory material is remarkable. He has imposed a firm narrative structure, based on the progress of the laws, on the history of sex in late antiquity. He has achieved his professed aim: “To integrate a credible account of structure and change in the legal system into a broader narrative of the history of sex.”

At the risk of being personal, let me measure the debt that we all will owe to this book. When I completed my Body and Society in 1988, I was very conscious of what it lacked: a coherent narrative of the evolution of public attitudes toward sex as the Roman world changed from a pagan to a Christian society. In my preface, I made plain the reason for this lacuna. It was a simple one: the books were not there. The study of late Roman family law and of the development of late Roman notions of public morality, shared by Christians and pagans alike, had only just begun. Now things have changed. I wish that I had had a book as clear, as cogent, and as intellectually responsible as Harper’s From Shame to Sin before me when I began to write on similar topics in the early 1980s, some third of a century ago. One can only envy the good fortune of those who can now embark on their own work with such a book in hand.

But what is the long-term meaning of this great change? Harper spells it out in his last chapter, “Revolutionizing Romance in the Late Classical World.” It is a searching comparison between the novel of Achilles Tatius, in the second century, and the flamboyant legends of converted prostitutes that appeared in the sixth century. Harper does not see the change between the two ages as exemplifying a growing hatred of the body. Rather, in the Christian legends of conversion, we are faced with daring explorations of the power of the will. These are bodies that have become all will. They had fallen through their own free will. They returned to God also from their own free will. Pure wills, they were as detached from nature as they were from the constraints of society. Their bodies were as dried out and featureless as the desert sands and the rock-strewn wadis to which they had retreated. Their sexual attributes were flattened, even when nude. They belonged only to themselves and to God. They no longer belonged to society or to nature. These were bodies freed from the cosmos itself.

Nothing could be more different from the worldview of Achilles Tatius. For his heroes and heroines, sex is less about the will than about the great chain of being that linked humans to the gods and to the stars. Sex was the moment when human beings allowed themselves to sink back into the embrace of a universe into which their own bodies had been ingeniously

woven. They would draw on the life-giving energies of a vast world. Sex was the gift of ever-present gods. Like wine, itself the gift of the god Dionysos, sex filled the body with “an immanent divine force, and the wash of its warm energy was experienced as a communion” with the divine.

To bring this heady elixir into the marriage bed itself was risky, precisely because it was so closely linked to divine powers beyond the social self. Yet our novelist dared to do just this. He presents a cosmoswhere the feral power of eros is harnessed by marriage, not dampened by it [where the marriage bed—naughty lamps and all!—lies] on an indistinct border between wild nature and human civilization.

Never again, in Europe, would the person in love be seen as so open to a vast and half-tamed world. In Christian late antiquity, the will won out over the cosmos. When love returned, in the courtly lovers of amour courtois and the German Minnesänger, we find bodies without the gods. Except for their vulnerability to the thin rays of the planets (known through astrological works that were continuous with late antiquity), there is little sense that they derived their love from the refulgent energy of cosmic powers. They are their wills. And beautiful wills they are, polished thin with courtoisie. “The Cave of Lovers” described, in around 1210 CE, by Gottfried von Strassburg in his Tristan, is a cave of smooth, translucent walls—simplicity, integrity; and in the bed itself—a bed of pure crystal—the couple find transparency.6

It is with these long-term contrasts in mind that we can now return to look over the precipice again, to view with clearer eyes one of the most momentous changes ever to have occurred in the history of the ancient world.


1

Paul Veyne, Le Pain et le cirque: Sociologie historique d’un dualisme politique (Paris: Le Seuil, 1976); translated by Brian Pierce as Bread and Circuses: Historical Sociology and Political Pluralism (London: Allen Lane, 1990).
2

Michel Foucault, Le Souci de soi (Paris: Gallimard, 1984); translated by Robert Hurley as The Care of the Self (Pantheon, 1986).
3

The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity: Twentieth-Anniversary Edition with a New Introduction (Columbia University Press, 2008). I have tried to make my own evolution at that time and my debts to Foucault, Veyne, and other scholars plain in the new introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition of 2008.
4

Cambridge University Press, 2011.
5

Cornell University Press, 2012.
6

Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan, 26:16927–16988, edited by P. Ganz (Wiesbaden: Brockhaus, 1978), No. 2, pp. 223–225; translated by A.T. Hatto as Gottfried von Strassburg: Tristan (Penguin, 1960), p. 264.

Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid. Alan Wieder. Monthly Review Press.


It was a stormy relationship that only a bomb planted by an apartheid agent could blow up. Ruth First was a great researcher and thorn-in-the-side of the apartheid government before her assassination by letter bomb in 1982; Joe Slovo was the lawyer turned guerilla mastermind, who blew up power stations and military headquarters before becoming a minister in Mandela’s first government, and laid to rest in Soweto’s Avalon Cemetery. Together, they were two of the most famous and important of South Africa’s anti-apartheid activists, and lived the sort of lives that made for great stories and even greater myths. Now, as the 20th anniversary of the first democratic elections in South Africa draws nearer, their lives’ worth and sacrifices are at risk of being relegated to the dusty shelf of history.
That is exactly what Alan Wieder – a professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina, with previous appointments at the University of the Western Cape and Stellenbosch University in South Africa – has set out to prevent by publishing this, his most recent book on South Africa’s apartheid history. He is on a quest to stem the tide of forgetfulness that means that “few young South Africans know of the contributions or the sensibilities that Ruth and Joe represented regarding the social justice and the revolution against class disparity and racism in the world” (p. 353).
Wieder knows his subjects well and cares deeply about them. Their stories have been written before: Ruth First’s prison memoir – the short 117 Days – and Joe’s posthumous Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography form part of Wieder’s sources, but he also makes use of his skills and contacts as an oral historian to gain better insight into the First-Slovo dynamics, and their relationships with each other and others. As a result, his book comes stamped with the approval of many of their contemporaries, and contains interviews with several anti-apartheid activists who all help to bring a clearer picture of the protagonists to the fore.
As the first chapters make clear, Joe and Ruth were very different. She was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Latvia, a well-educated middle class journalist who grew up in a communist household and was not afraid of the risk involved in telling the stories of those most oppressed and impoverished by apartheid. He was an immigrant, a poor Jewish boy from Lithuania, who served in the Second World War before becoming a streetwise lawyer representing – among others – Nelson Mandela. They met at Wits University in Johannesburg and were fused together by passionate politics, channelled through the African National Congress (ANC) and its close ally, the South African Communist Party (SACP) – both banned and forced underground by the apartheid regime.
English Heritage plaque commemorating First and Slovo, at 13 Lyme Street, Camden, NW1. Credit: Simon Harriyot CC BY 2.0
Their differences shaped their relationship: Joe was a seemingly loyal communist and a senior-ranking SACP member, while Ruth’s academic mind saw her move much closer to the New Left than the SACP was comfortable with. Chapter three contains detailed accounts of their arguments – often public – about Stalinism and the invasion of Hungary in 1956, which gives a clear insight into a household divided along ideological lines. Wieder does not shy away from the controversies of his subjects – among them SACP’s close ties to the USSR, and its resolve to use violence in the quest to the liberate South Africa from minority rule. Personal flaws are also laid bare: Ruth in particular comes across as a ruthless reviewer or other people’s ideas and intellects, while Joe’s complicated relationship with his daughters is a red thread throughout the chapters. In fact, Wieder’s oral history method works particularly well when it adds to the information the reader might have picked up from the autobiographical works mentioned above, including the hardships and heartbreaks of life in exile, and Ruth’s great reluctance to leave South Africa even after it became obviously dangerous for her to stay, as outlined in chapter six.
But one comes away with a wish that Wieder had spent more time deciphering the gender ideas of the generation born, like Slovo and First, in the 1920s. Yes, they were of a generation for which even women working full-time for a revolution needed to bear the lion share of the housework, but the attributes given to Ruth and Joe by many of Wieder’s interviewees often seem very gendered, amplifying the former’s feminine vulnerability and the latter’s masculine certainty and strength. Ruth does seem to have undergone a feminist awakening during what would prove to be the last decade of her life: in chapter eight – “Academics and Revolution: Taking the Struggle Home” – Wieder details how Ruth “blossomed” after moving to Mozambique from London in the late 1970s to take up a position as Director of Research at the Universidade Eduardo Mondlane’s Centre of African Studies in Maputo, where she began to leave her hair natural and abandoned the need to stay fashionable. It seems something of a missed opportunity not to explore the impact of this awakening and transformation on her political ideas further.
If given another few hundred pages to tell the story, the author might very well have addressed these issues (a similar title by another author, Elinor Sisulu’s Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime, is a couple of hundred pages longer and still filled to the brim). Wieder might then also have been able to devote more space and time to charting Ruth First and Joe Slovo’s separate political deeds, thoughts and developments in a clearer way, with more time dedicated to their differences, which would help those readers who are not yet familiar with their lives and work. Regardless of that, however, this is an interesting book that deserves to be well-read for its insight into the impact of Ruth First and Joe Slovo on political developments in South Africa and beyond during the last half of the 20th century, and their relevance for understanding contemporary events in Southern Africa.