Ivan’s Singer


Image Source: Franz Riss Skomorokh in a village, wikipedia

Noone knows for sure how Ivan the Terrible died. The Tsar of all Russia, Grand Prince of Vladimir and Moscow and all the rest, died in 1584, but how we do not really know. The uncertainty, together with the availability of scientific methods, led to the exhumation of his bones from his grave within the Cathedral of the Kremlin that houses all the bones of the fallen Tsars, except, of course, the last Romanov.

There is an account of his death from the unreliable commercial adventurer, Jerome Horsey, but it is an eyewitness account, which is an uncommon thing in the history of the death of kings. According to Horsey, Ivan the Terrible who suffered from multiple ailments and was a believer in all kinds of magic and religion, called for precious stones to be brought to his private chamber. He placed coral and turquoise stones on his body and declared to his private court: “I am poisoned with disease; you see they show their virtue by the change of their pure colour into pall; declares my death.”

Ivan then spent the last hours of his final day with the comforts of his doctor and his alchemist, which were comforts he had denied thousands upon thousands who he listed in his sinodiki (prayers for the dead, listing the many names of his victims, which Ivan sent to monasteries in the deranged grief that followed his murder of his son and heir). He took a bath and there “made merry with pleasant songs as he useth to do.”  Ivan had always loved the singers of his court, the skomorokhi, who sang ballads and ribaldry and performed clowns. They had roots in peasant and even pagan culture, and were suspected of fomenting heresy and disrespect by the Russian church.

Indeed such was Ivan’s love for the skomorokhi that as part of perhaps his most infamous act – the sack of Novorod and the massacre of its citizens – he captured all the loved and artful skomorokhi of Novgorod, and after using them to shame the insubordinate Archbishop of this city, still too proud of its religious and republican traditions, carted them off to Moscow. Russell Zguta’s Russian Minstrels: a history of the skomorokhi (public library) identifies at least one of these skomorokhi who would later serve Ivan for over 20 years, indeed most likely till the day of his death.

Was it one of these captive artists of this perfect monster of power who helped Ivan approach his death, stained with sin, but merry with song? I like to imagine that one of these skomorokhi became the cruel man’s most loyal singer, and so found in captivity, like much art does, a comfortable life. But such a lowly singer does not appear in the next scene of Jerome Horsey’s account of the Tsar’s final moments.

Returning to his bedchamber fresh from his bath and in new linen, the Tsar called for a chess board. Beside the bed stood the two rivals for the Tsar’s favour – Boris Godunov, who would uniquely later become Tsar, despite not being a part of any dynastic family, and the sly and surly drinking partner of the Tsar, Bogdan Belsky. Would they have been the Tsar’s chess opponent – it seems odd indeed. But perhaps it was the singer, who like Roy in Bladerunner, used a game of chess to confront his maker?

Then Ivan suddenly fainted and fell back, and now the confusion and omissions of details in Horsey accounts demand the imagination. The apothecary was sent for some usual rememdies, and the doctor, and the confessor. A strange scene of rivals in power standing alone with a minstrel clown before their suddenly vulnerable terror. And in these moments, Horesy writes most enigmatically of all “In the mean he was strangled and stark dead.”

So the great biographer of Ivan the Terrible Isabel de Madariaga wonders: “Was Ivan murdered?” (p 353) Not poison. But there were motives: with Tsar in disarray with grief and madness and sorcery; his war plans ruined; his own dynasty brought to the edge of extinction by his rage-filled impulse to kill his own son.

Madariaga forms the cautious view the Horsey’s strangling was a spasm or suffocation of a heart attack. But I see another possibility. There in that room, the captive artist finally struck out at the domination of power and terror. Too late of course; far too late for all the dead souls whose fate the singer did not celebrate; too convenient, but is that not the way of all patronage art, which imagines it seduces power, when power controls its every step? So I imagine, in the black spots of history’s recall, that the moment the tsar fell back, and panic filled the room, his late chess opponent, his loyal skomorokhi, seeing his power wane, reached across the board and strangled the Tsar to death, while Belsky and Godunov looked on and did not intervene. Moments the two rivals conspired together to take the sad and broken life of Ivan’s Singer, and we can only begin to know of this drama because the clumsy Horsey let slip one stray word – strangled.


On a requiem

Requiem Kyrie master chart | Photo: Duschene&Marx

Image Source: Requiem Kyrie Master Chart, from Vienna Review

This morning I listened to an old CD recording I had of György Ligeti’s Requiem, which transported me, with its mesmerising and floating clouds of sound, back to my love of avant-garde music.

Ligeti was a Hungarian composer who fled the communist regime, and pursued his development of new musical techniques in Austria. The Requiem dates from 1965, and together with several other excerpts from Ligeti’s music was featured in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. To me it resembles a chorus of the city of the dead, reeling in horror at the destruction of culture at the hands of culture through the horrible first fifty years of the twentieth century. And this chorus has all the chaos and detailed and movement of a great fallen city.

Through techniques I cannot really explain, and certainly not reproduce, Ligeti composed music that is strangely mobile, as if it comes not from one source or place, but is alive in the air, moving to and from many places in a desperate clambering to beauty in the face of horror. I recall in the late 1980s I attended a concert conducted by Pierre Boulez at the Sydney Opera House. The ensemble performed one of Ligeti’s chamber works, and my abiding memory of the concert, other than walking past David Malouf at interval, was how Ligeti’s music seemed to move all around the concert chamber, and worked its way through wormholes in the physical soundscape that no other music does.

Back then, when I was a graduate student, I was committed to the avant-garde, and in some ways I still have something of that post-romantic belief in transcending the structures of culture that you are bequeathed so that a terrible new beauty will be born. And this was Ligeti’s philosophy. He said in an interview once

When I think of the avant-garde, I have this image in my head: I am sitting in an airplane, the sky is blue and I see a landscape. And then the plane flies into a cloud: everything is grey-white. At first the grey seems interesting if you compare it to the earlier landscape, but soon becomes monotonous. I then fly out of the cloud and again see the landscape, which has completely changed in the meantime.

I believe we have flown into such a cloud of high entropy and great disorder…. The instant I emerge out of the cloud, I see, and this is being very critical, that the music we wrote was in fact rather ugly.

I am not sure anymore if I will ever emerge from the cloud – or is it smoke and ash? But, at least for today, Ligeti’s music reminded me that beauty can be born, despite terror, and without changing everything, changing it utterly.

5 reasons games add to culture

As well as being a serious student of literature and history, and the occasional listener to melancholy and sometimes merely strange music, I play computer games, most especially, over the last 10 years, world of warcraft. Or at least I do play them now, and over the last week have returned to playing world of warcraft. Before then I went through a long stretch of 4 to 5 years during which time I played this game only spasmodically and with a sense of shame and embarassment. I was concerned that I played too compulsively, and that the long hours in these imagined worlds deprived me of time to write and to read and to imagine.

I also wondered if I could marry my identity as a man of culture who performed a serious job in government with the night time playful sense who prowled forests and dungeons as a night elf. Gamer and poet and governor? That is a bit odd, surely.

But over the last week I have realised those different identities can co-exist well, and in a way that I am more happy and more fulfilled when I do play games. Returning to world of warcraft has been a kind of personal and artistic recovery. It returns a sense of play and adventure to my life.

I realise now that over the last five years I made the playing of this game into an embarassed secret, yet another addiction to overcome, yet another part of me to be hidden away in secrecy and surrounded by shame. My creative instinct to play was suppressed and put to shame in my silent self, and so I lost something important and suffered, if not for these reasons alone, some periods of deep depression.

Gaming and culture can wed, both within my personal life and within the wider culture. I am not saying that I like everything about gamer culture – a lot of which is male youthful exuberance. But I am saying that any strong culture has a strong element of play.

These reflections bring to mind the medieval historian and cultural theorist of the earlier twentieth century, Johannes Huizinga. During the second world war – in no less serious a time of dire catastrophe, if in the neutral territory of Switzerland – he published Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture (Yale have made a pdf of this treasure available online).  There he asserted that humans need to be understood not only as the wise animals (homo sapiens), nor makers and producers in a remorseless economy (homo faber), but as Homo Ludens, Humans the Player.

Huizinga identifies five characteristics of play, and it is these five traits that make my list for this week – five reasons games and, more broadly, play add to culture (with thanks to wikipedia authors for their summary of Huizinga).

The list – five reasons play and games add to culture

Play is free, is in fact freedom. So by playing games we enlarge our personal freedom, and enrich our culture with that freedom.

Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. By giving us a second life, games and their virtual reality bring into being the play of freedom, and the creation of culture. They make any ordinary life richer – they are the double realm.

Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. Play and games are not escapes, so much as the separateness, not of the sacred, but of the playful.

Play creates order, is order. And in order is the beautiful, of after Foucault where there is oeuvre, there is not madness but free expression of each person’s terrible strangeness.

Play demands order absolute and supreme. In playing games you are still subject to the supreme fiction; and the experience of playing the game is to reach for that order, not to dissolve into futility and abandonment.

Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it. And equally all can play – there are no gatekeepers to play, only different orders of the game.

Let us all enjoy both play and culture.



Akhmatova’s Agony

Late last week I rearranged my desk and put in place several mementoes of my single overseas trip, which was the long train journey from Beijing through Mongolia across Siberia and to Moscow, ending in St Petersburg. There I encountered the history about which I had read so much but now could for the first time allow to get under my skin.

IMG_0084.JPGI walked Raskolnikov’s murder trial, stood in the cells of St Peter and Paul Fortress, followed Catherine the Great’s collections in the Hermitage, stood at the sites of massacres and revolutions, and looked out onto the mist-laden Neva with Aleksander Nevsky at my back

But the most moving visit was late autumn afternoon spent at the Anna Akhmatova Museum, which has been established in her old communal apartment. There you can look out at the gardens that were her refuge, stand in her modest shared kitchen, and look upon her meagre study, where it is said she would speak the words of her great poem to a friend, to pass them on in memory, before the scraps of paper on which they were written were burnt in the ashtray. For poetry, like Akhmatova’s, was a perilous rebellion in Stalinist Russia, and a solemn reminder that writing is more than marketing and self-promotion, at least if it seeks to serve something beyond the writer.

Her great poem – Requiemcan be heard here (a big thank you for this superb production available from a poetry channel on Youtube) – in a superb reading, accompanied by music and images evoking the sufferings of the Russian people and the victims of the Gulag. It was only ever fully published in Russia in 1987, more than thirty years after its initial composition.

The hour has come to remember the dead.

In my collection of her poems, there is a short preface by Joseph Brodsky in which he says her readers memorised her poems by heart “to temper their heart against the new era’s onslaught of vulgarity. The comprehension of the metaphysics of personal drama betters one’s chances of weathering the drama of history.” Akhmatova Poems [introduction by Joseph Brodsky] (Norton 1983) p xix.

From Requiem (Epilogue)

I’ve seen how a face can fall like a leaf

How, from under the lids, terror peeks,

I’ve seen how suffering and grief

Etches hieroglyphs on the cheeks,

How ash-blonde hair, from roots to tips,

Turns black and silver overnight.

How smiles wither on submissive lips,

And in a half-smile quiver fright.

Not only for myself do I pray

But for those who stood in front and behind me,

In the bitter cold, on a hot July day

Under the red wall that stared blindly.

Parables of Shame


Franz Kafka was a poet of shame and guilt. So writes Saul Friedlander in his Franz Kafka: the poet of shame and guilt (2013, public library).

Friedlander reveals to me the Kafka of sexual fantasies, spurned homoerotic thoughts, disgust at his sexuality and animality. This Kafka does not interest me, although I am intrigued to learn that the Max Brod editions of his works and his diaries were lightly censored by Brod to remove some of these references.

Kafka’s wretchedness in life, and his fitful, frustrating search to pursue the immutable in writing were dangerous models for myself, especially in my twenties. I absorbed a parable from Kafka’s life that writing could not be reconciled with a life of contentment – that contentment was a sign of corruption that would take me adrift from the winds of my inner life, and that writing would demand the sacrifice and spurning of loving relationships, as Kafka himself spurned Felice Bauer. It is 20 years or more since I read much Kafka, and his torments can still be mesmerising.

So Friedlander quotes Kafka from his diary of August 6 1914, as the the great war swells in the world’s belly:

What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. Any talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, and will not cease to dwindle. Nothing else will ever satisfy me. But the strength I can muster for that portrayl is not to be counted upon…” (Friendlander, quoted p 130)

So begins the song of shame I know too well – I am not good enough, my inner life is not good enough, my inner life cannot survive contact with the human world, as if it were the reverse of the contact with the Angelic orders evoked in Rilke’s Duino elegies.

So Kafka goes on:

Thus I waver, continually fly to the summit of the mountain, but then fall back in a moment. Others waver too, but in lower regions, with greater strength; if they are in danger of falling, they are caught up by the kinsman who walks beside them for that very purpose. But I waver on the heights; it is not death, alas, but the eternal torments of dying.

I have told my own story through this image of the mountaineer who has scaled the mind’s mountains alone, without a kinsman, and beyond his strength. I have stood there in the snow drifts, beyond help, lost, disoriented, but needing to go on. Having committed to scale the heights, there is only the one path home: death on the mountain is home

But it is also an image and a torment that I must free myself from, and so, like Rilke’s Orpheus, find my way back to infinite praise. I have found in later life a form of writing that Kafka professed not to know. For him, his nights were spent writing through insomnia, shame and self-hatred, distanced from the world, maladapted to a world which prompted so much disgust and shame. Here he made his “descent to the dark powers” (Letter to Brod, July 1922). I believe I can leave the underworld, and celebrate the springs that come from my losses.

Still there are in Kafka these haunting parables of the doomed quests of life, which Friedlander glosses as the search for an unattainable goal, on which “the possibility of entering (or returning to) some land imagined as free and promised is blocked by insuperable obstacles.” And yet, despite the doom, we must go on. And this is the unmutable call to the writer to scale those heights and to test the world’s powers of destruction, and to trust that your words can withstand them. In an aphorism of 1917 he wrote

“Man cannot live without a permanent trust in something indestructible in himself, though both the indestructible element and the trust may remain permanently hidden from him.”

So despite futility, despite inevitable failure and self-destruction, like Sebald’s silk-worms in The Rings of Saturn, Kafka makes images, stolen from the immutable fires, of artists, of life as artistry, and their undeniable affirmation, as Beckett, Kafka’s Irish heir, would later say: to keep going, going on; call that going, call that on. In “The Burrow,” the animal who makes this falsely secue, perfect fortress, which at any moment, it knows, may be shattered, says of its labours: “All this involves very laborious calculation, and the sheer pleasure of the mind in its own keenness is often the sole reason why one keeps it up.”

The most perfect parable of the shamed writer is “Before the Law.” There a man comes upon a powerful doorkeeper who stands at the gate of The Law. For years he seeks admission through the gate, but does not have the words, the nature or the questions to find his way past the obstinate and inscrutable gatekeeper through to the Law. Finally, in his late hours, in darkness, with not much longer to live, he gathers all his knowledge, all that he has learned from his many failures, and weakly puts one last question to the gatekeeper:

“Everyone strives to reach the Law”, says the man, “so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?”

The gate keeper sees the man has reached his end. He has, at last, realised the question that in his shame and his pursuit of his goal prevented him from seeing before death. And then, triumphant the gatekeeper “roars in his ears:”

“No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

From Franz Kafka The Collected Short stories of Franz Kafka (Penguin, 1988), p 4.

The appeal of fantasy


When I am not studying serious literature or reflecting on the state of the world I do rather like to play this game of World of Warcraft.

It has been maybe two years since I played the game but something made me long for it the other day.

It is I think the deep imaginative appeal of the fantasy genre – to be a night elf and to wander in moonlit forests and encounter a pre-industrial world under siege by the forces of demonic modernism.

I think I have passed my days of compulsive playing – when I would do without sleep and undercut my devotion to writing and the study of literature and history to play this game that includes all other games.

Maybe, just maybe I will lift the personal ban, and allow myself to have some play time with the Allusions of Azeroth.

A list of writers of fragments

A blog is a fragmentary artwork, or at least it can be. So the blog’s aesthetic philosophy is at odds with the virtues of the masterpiece – completion, mastery, comprehensiveness, a vision fully and perfectly realised. I guess there are some blogs that present their niche as an encyclopaedia of their author’s thought-world. But much of the writing that I enjoy reminds us to be “Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,/
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.” (Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus 2.13)

Much of the best writing survives or was made in fragments. This afternoon I picked up a book of aphorisms made after Kafka’s death although reflecting his part-fulfilled design. From this collection, there is the remarkable parable, which I was introduced to by Howard Felperin in the only year at university when I studied literary studies.

Leopards break into the temple and drink the sacrificial vessels dry; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance and becomes part of the ceremony. (Franz Kafka, The Collected Aphorims, #20)

Harold Bloom places Kafka in the Western Canon for fragments: the good parts of the incomplete novels, the aphorisms or parables, the stories, some not finished, and parts of his diaries and letters. Bloom writes “one must range widely in his writings, because no particular genre that he attempted holds his essence. He is a great aphorist but not a pure storyteller, except in fragments and in the very short stories we call parables.” (Harold Bloom, The Western Canon, p 448) Famously, these writings survive since Max Brod, Kafka’s friend and executor, refused to carry out Kafka’s instructions to burn all his writing.

So, my list this week is of writers like Kafka who made their art in fragments or who only survive in fragments. It is itself as yet itself a fragment; I will need to do more research to develop this list.

  1. Franz Kafka
  2. Sappho
  3. Maurice Blanchot
  4. Emile Cioran
  5. Walter Benjamin
  6. Heraclitus

This is quite a paltry list as yet. Let me know by comments if there are others that you would add.

Perhaps next week I will write a variation on this theme – a list of lost works.