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Juli | 2014 | via antiqua |
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Archive for Juli, 2014

#MuseumCats and Cat Symbolism in Poetry

In Allgemein by Francesca / 30. Juli 2014 / 0 Comments

The internet’s atwitter with images of cats in art, today’s trending hashtag on twitter being #museumcats. Powered by @CultureThemes and @CuratorialCats, two twitter feeds dedicated, as the names suggest, to thematic explorations and all things feline in collections, the month is going to be dedicated to cats and museums for summer fun. As such, the cat is cross-disciplinary and so all kinds of angles are coming into view and the hashtag has attracted tweets from a great range of museums.

For example, the Hello Kitty lunch box, from 1974, appeared in the feed of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, together with an article about its origins and significance and the interest in the lunchbox more generally as an indicator of social history. For its own part, the Wellcome Collection of the Wellcome Trust dedicated to medicine and its history, published a fantasmagoric blog post about the history of black cats and their connection with the black plague according to medieval European superstition. The national museums of various countries tweeted their 19th, or 15th, or 17th, or 20th century oil paintings, etchings and drawings depicting cats in art.

The look at cats in art through the centuries is like a mini-history of art: from the Hogarthian “mandatory” cat that we’re guaranteed to spot somewhere in every painting, in every drawing Hogarth did of human depravity in its many incarnations, via ancient Egyptian sculpture, the exoticizing depiction of lions and jaguars of the colonial era, to the oblong and bleary-eyed, phantomatic expressionist cats in black print, to Hello Kitty, Garfield and other comic characters and everything in between and beyond, we can see what a strong fascination cats really have to the human mind and eye. And we can see all the different styles of painting, sculpting and drawing as we go through the stream of illustrations on today’s twitter hashtag #museumcats!

As a literature person, I’ve taken this day as an excuse to get to the bottom of something I have wondered about for some years, Edgar Allan Poe’s influence on Baudelaire. Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat” tells the tale of an alcoholic murdering his wife, all entangled with deep symbolism and a lengthy preamble about cats and the main character’s relationship with them. The relationship with the domestic cat is used as a vehicle to illustrate how from loving and tender, the main character gradually turns into an unsavoury, brutish, and increasingly evil and sadistic character. The murder of the wife is told in only half a sentence, but the whole psychology of the violent alcoholic and wife-beating murderer is expressed through the medium of his relationship with the domestic cat. Because the cat – especially the black cat – carries a baggage of superstition, of equivocalness between wild and tame, captive and free, night and day, that so appeals to the human imagination.

Edgar Allan Poe’s is a short story of gin and alcoholism, of moral decay, of poverty and violence, all tied in with the semi-surreal and uncanny presence of symbolic cats with gallows tattoos, and the wreckage of reason; these themes are not difficult to trace also in the French poet Baudelaire, whose collection “The Flowers of Evil” was published in 1857, preceded by about a decade and a half by Poe’s “Black Cat” (1843). In his own country, E. A. Poe’s writings were not nearly as much appreciated as they came to be in France. Jonathan Culler in 1990 wrote an article on Poe and Baudelaire that summarized, compared and contrasted the critics‘ voices from the era in America, Britain and France, and also tracing how the works of E. A. Poe entered Baudelaire’s essayistic writing on literary criticism at the same time as they became an influence strongly felt in his poetry and poetic prose. The poem “Le vin de l’assassin” (“Assassin’s Wine”) is but one of many examples that pays homage to “The Black Cat” and, lastly, Baudelaire’s poem “Le Chat” (“Cats”) which I’ll reproduce here to honor today’s hashtag, amalgamates the imagery of the cat with that of erotic love much in the way that Poe’s short story used the cat to circumscribe the emotion felt for humans.

Poem and translation taken from baudelaire.org

Le Chat
Viens, mon beau chat, sur mon coeur amoureux;
Retiens les griffes de ta patte,
Et laisse-moi plonger dans tes beaux yeux,
Mêlés de métal et d’agate.
Lorsque mes doigts caressent à loisir
Ta tête et ton dos élastique,
Et que ma main s’enivre du plaisir
De palper ton corps électrique,
Je vois ma femme en esprit. Son regard,
Comme le tien, aimable bête
Profond et froid, coupe et fend comme un dard,
Et, des pieds jusques à la tête,
Un air subtil, un dangereux parfum
Nagent autour de son corps brun.
— Charles Baudelaire

The Cat
Come, superb cat, to my amorous heart;
Hold back the talons of your paws,
Let me gaze into your beautiful eyes
Of metal and agate.
When my fingers leisurely caress you,
Your head and your elastic back,
And when my hand tingles with the pleasure
Of feeling your electric body,
In spirit I see my woman. Her gaze
Like your own, amiable beast,
Profound and cold, cuts and cleaves like a dart,
And, from her head down to her feet,
A subtle air, a dangerous perfume
Floats about her dusky body.
William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

Further reading : BAUDELAIRE AND POE, JONATHAN CULLER, Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur, vol. 100, SPRACHWISSENSCHAFT · LITERATURWISSENSCHAFT · SEMIOTIK. Wechselwirkungen in Theorie und Praxis (1990), pp. 61-73.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Louvre Museum, Bastet Cats.

Oedipus Complex : What Can Freud Tell Us about Ancient Greece?

In Allgemein by Francesca / 24. Juli 2014 / 0 Comments

Sigmund Freud (1865-1939) has been an influential figure in the transmission and popularization of ancient myths and history, quite aside from his philosophy of the mind and the psychoanalytic method developed by him which have left a strong imprint on the way we now think and understand ourselves. The Oedipus-complex, for one thing, is probably better known than the Sophoclean play Oedipus the King, in which the events occur which became the conceptual building blocks of the now famous formulation of the Oedipus-complex.

Freud’s theory does not particularly enlighten — or at least enlightens only indirectly — the study of Sophocles. For instance, in the Oedipus complex theory, it is assumed that the young man sexually desires his mother, knowing that she is his mother, and desires to kill his father, knowing that he is his father. But in the Sophoclean version of this myth, everything revolves around the fact that Oedipus in fact does not know who his parents are since he grew up with adoptive parents. Only later does Sophocles‘ Oedipus discover that the woman he hastily married upon meeting her is in fact his mother, and that he inadvertently had previously killed his own father in a road fight with a man who, at that time, was a stranger.

The Sophoclean tragedy of Oedipus holds within it many questions and complexities about guilt, responsibility and blame in the scenario. How guilty is Oedipus of incest, and of patricide, since to his knowledge, these persons were rather a man and a woman he had never before met? Just like his marriage seemed to him a simple and legitimate affair, so too the road fight did not carry the intent to kill the opponent, and especially did not conceptualize the opponent to be his father. But, as Freud explains:

His destiny moves us only because it might have been ours — because the Oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father.

in: The Interpretation of Dreams, ch. 5


Freud made use of this legend to explain family dynamics and developmental issues in young adults which he studied at the time. As a keen collector of art and antiquities, he had surrounded himself with some 2500 antiquities by the end of his life, consisting of vases, sculpture fragments, and many figurines. Almost all of these are now on view at London’s Freud museum, his historic home, to which he transferred everything as he fled from Vienna at the onset of World War II. An enthusiastic amateur archaeologist, Freud was a keen art buyer, and involved in excavations in Hungary and elsewhere.

Throughout his opus, Freud drew analogies between the study of the human mind and the pursuit of archaeological digs, as he cultivated the view of the psyche and consciousness as layered and possessing deep and surface levels like the earth itself. Freud’s view was that the deeper, the more interesting, original, and sharply revelatory things one would find. Archaeology’s habit of collecting fragments of broken vases or sculptures, and bringing the pieces together in order to complete once again the picture of a now exploded reality, also found its way into Freud’s writings as a metaphor for how psychoanalysis can enter into the deeper levels of the mind and re-imagine the lost and forgotten elements. And there is more, besides Oedipus, besides the idea of archaeological excavations; Freud also used the word Thanatos, the Greek name for Death and the nether world, when he developed his thoughts on the human death wish which does seem to inhabit many persons at certain times in their development; or indeed Eros, the libidinal drive, again, Freud took straight from ancient mythology in order to give a palpable dimension to his explanations of psychology. At the time, psychology was a brand new field of study, attracting many sceptics and scoffers. References to the ancient Greeks were, in that sense, always a good idea, a way of showing one was well-educated and socially in a strong position.

It is thought that Freud’s strong commitment to the study of antiquity has its part to play in the naming process of his psychological insights. The Oedipus complex is discussed in the Interpretation of Dreams, which was first published in 1899; if we set that in parallel with the decade or so before the year 1899, we know that theatrical performances of Oedipus were popular in Vienna in this period, and were also very frequent. Philhellenism was in vogue at the time, in a multitude of incarnations, the theatre being only one of several media that enjoyed great influence at the time. Freud’s thought and his writings he has left as his legacy continue to fascinate and inform the way “we” think of mental processes and the psyche. And mediated through Freud, we also know something about Oedipus that continues to startle, and (darkly) fascinate.


The image shows Athena with the Medusa in her mirror; Athena is also sometimes represented with a shield embossed with the beheaded Medusa. It is said that Freud’s favourite piece from his own collection was a figurine of Athena with this beheaded Gorgon, as it symbolized at once the castration anxiety (the severed head) and a multitude of phallic replacement objects (the many snakes, the hair of the Gorgon).

Electric Elektra: Classics in the Modernist Metropole

In Allgemein by Francesca / 17. Juli 2014 / 0 Comments

Many things stand between the ancient Greeks and “us”. Still, we’re able to see ourselves in their ancient culture, recognize their preoccupations to be similar to our own. Ancient plays have graced the stage through its various incarnations in modern times, from mannerism to expressionist opera, experimental psycho-drama to sword and sandal film, multifariously produced for all kinds of performances in the metropoles of modern Europe and beyond.

Visionary stage directors and translators, script editors, actors, set and costume designers, composers and librettists have perpetually re-adapted ancient Greek plays to give them a contemporary spin that would appeal to the audience of, say, 1910s Vienna, 1860s London, or 1940s Paris (or indeed the African colonies, or America, or the provinces…).

There’s a case to be made that the musical genre Opera was first invented with Greek tragedy in mind, as the earliest operatic works known today pay homage to Greek drama. The earliest known composition is from 1597 Florence and by Jacopo Peri. His operatic work based on antique themes from Greek drama falls within the general zeitgeist of classical revivals so dear to the Italian Renaissance.

Opera as a genre and the production of libretto texts for operatic performances continued to go in pair with classical drama for many centuries, updated and upgraded as music developed new trends and styles, and costumes changed with time as well. In the late 1800s, national Italian themes flourished more than ancient Greek ones, as the romantic era of nationalism and post-napoleonic pride was in full swing; and in Germany, the mid- to late 19th century saw developments on the operatic scene exponentially intensified. Between Wagner, Strauss, and Berg, the advances and modernization of musical composing and staging are as fast-paced and startling as was the advent of modernism and the birth of the industrial megalopolis in the late 19th, early 20th century which engulfed all activities of the time. Early cinema and photography accompanied the developments of the all-new, over-crowded and high-rising, electric city with its trams and streetlights, its malnourished children and the broken shells of romantic aesthetics.

Berlin’s expressionist scene, powered by a group of poets whose first vocation had been medicine, under poet and psychiatrist Gottfried Benn’s influence especially, colluded together with Freud’s Vienna, where an passion for describing and studying dreams through the medium of poetry and literature had begun to produce an all-new set of literary works. The film “Dr. Caligari’s Cabinet” epitomizes the fascination with the subconscious mind, mixed with the fascination for horror of the deranged brain, the attraction of the mental asylum that was to become absolutely central for the surrealists of the 1920s and their aesthetic of contorted bodies and the twisted mind.


But I go too fast. What of the ancient Greek plays that were, after so many years, still underwriting many librettos and operatic productions?
In 1907, Richard Strauss asked Hugo von Hoffmannsthal for an opera libretto based on the poet’s play Electra which had been published a few years earlier. The production premiered first in Dresden in 1909, and soon thereafter also in London in 1910, where aside from the English King’s death, this opera and the debates it roused became the event of the year.
Why? Informed by the psycho-pathology of Freud’s Vienna and Benn’s Berlin, this production was ultra-modern for its time, and shocked the artistic sensitivity of many London opera-goers. With its heavily re-worked dialogue focusing all attention on grim and dark mental processes, *Electra* featured in the title role a woman seeming rather like a Bedlam escapee.
This Electra was all the opposite of what, by 1910, the public had come to expect of the Greek heritage: a dignified, high-minded, infinitely poised and rational picture of womanhood should have greeted the London audience that year, not a distraught woman in the rages of bloodlust and revenge. This Electra “Electrified” London, as the newspapers were quick to report. Not only did it turn on its head the image of the Greeks per se, but in the era of Britain’s colonial empire it was also customary to use Greek civilization as an anchor point of European culture, and now this culture was being made to look rather chaotic and tribal, full of violence and retribution, framed by harrowing new costume styles and the modernist music of the day.

It inaugurated a reflection upon classical drama itself in the universities, that had not yet been a focus of classical studies itself, and even if from today’s perspective, these productions seem in their turn dated, they’re a crisp window through which we can look at the differences between ancient and modern, “them” and “us”.



picture: Annie Krull as Electra, 1909. Wikimedia Commons.

Everyman’s Library & Literae Humaniores : Classics for Entertainment

In Allgemein by Francesca / 9. Juli 2014 / 0 Comments

Oxford and Cambridge Universities were founded in the middle ages as religious institutions of study, and held the duopoly of higher education in England until the 1820s, when University College and King’s College were founded in London. University College London famously championed secular higher education, taking its cue from the London Institution which had opened its doors in 1806 but closed them again rather quickly. In the meantime, Oxford and Cambridge updated their look, adding training in Mathematics to their curriculum in 1802 as well as Literae Humaniores, the study of classical texts not from a theological vantage point, but with the focus on human life contained in them and without reference to divinity.

Thus in the 19th century, the gates were opened to the founding and accreditation of many more higher education institutions. The latter half of the 1800s saw the birth of the redbrick universities dedicated to training scientific and technical workforces in the industrial cities of England. Specializing in the natural sciences, medicine and engineering, these schools owe the appellation “redbrick” to the terracotta bricks used to build them, and had themselves evolved out of various 19th century private research and education institutes.

Running in pair with these changes in the higher education system of the 19th century towards a more open-access model of education, was the introduction of compulsory education for children. Though not as deeply radical and systematically rolled out as the educational reforms in France that followed the French Revolution, with its ideological rooting in the declaration of human rights and the right to education, the 19th century in England doubtlessly saw literacy rates rise significantly amongst the population, allowing the expression of warm enthusiasm for popular education and for facilitating it.

None epitomizes this better than the rise of Everyman’s Library, producing pocket-sized hardback editions of classical texts in modern translation, and selling for the, then, remarkably low price of a shilling a piece. The Everyman’s library was established by London publisher J. M. Dent in 1906 with the collaboration of poet and editor Ernest Rhys and designer William Morris.

J. M Dent had made his name in publishing with his Temple Shakespeare imprint, which specialized in small runs of high-quality editions of classic texts. Already at the Temple Shakespeare venture, Dent had enlisted essayist and writer Charles Lamb, whose 1807 adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays for children, which he produced together with his sister Mary, is a beloved classic of educational reading in its own right until today.

But it was Dent’s passion for bringing books to the people which budged Dent to venture into the new model of producing books industrially on a large scale to make them available at a cheap price. William Morris had established The Kelmscott Press at his Kelmscott house, spearheading his signature design style in its application to bookbinding. As a socialist and keen medievalist, Morris was acquainted with the poet Ernest Rhys and no stranger to the Rhymers’ Club which was Rhys’ and W. B. Yeats’ dining club. Consisting of poets who would meet either in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street (the pub still goes on) or for private dinners in their homes, the Rhymers’ Club brought forth two anthologies of poetry featuring the works of some (but not all) of its members in the mid-1890s.

It was Ernest Rhys who, in 1906, spoke with the publisher J. M. Dent, and the pair went on to launching the Everyman’s Library. Ernest Rhys became the imprint’s first editor. Indeed, it was Rhys’ idea to call it Everyman’s Library, paying homage to the medieval play Everyman, of which a quotation appears in the front of every book in the series :

Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side.

Publishing ventures like the Everyman’s Library — George Routledge’s Railway Library comes to mind, too — are thought to have played a significant role in the popularization of classical reading and popular education in literature more generally. This kind of reading had previously been accessible only through membership in certain circles and in a higher education context, which made not only the study of classical texts a highly exclusive affair, but also the reading of classics for general entertainment. There used to be no scope for gladiator movies, before… This is what these inspired publishers had set out to rectify, and, judging from their legacy in the arts and education everywhere, they really succeeded.

image: book cover design by William Morris, taken from Wikimedia commons