Against the storm

Ever since Oedipus refused to cede priority to Laius at the intersection of three roads and ended up killing him -in self-defence when the king tries to run him over in his chariot- the younger generation has ached and longed to take over from the older one. The myth is pregnant with symbolism. Unwittingly, Oedipus has killed his own father, fulfilling a disturbing prophecy and the elements of power, sexuality, and adulthood are explored to terrible effect. Little wonder that Freud, when coming to analyse the deepest and darkest aspects of human nature had recourse to Greek archetypes that encapsulated his theories. The episode occurs at a crossroads and pride is present in both characters, imbued with a youthful stubbornness on the part of the young man, and an engrained stubbornness on the part of the elder man, in both cases a different manifestation of a patriarchal and deadly trait. Ingres’s version of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx, below, executed in 1808, in the wake of the French Revolution’s merciless dismantling of the old order of things, captures the ambivalence of Oedipus. He is seductive, endowed with the timeless allure of youth, yet there is something dangerous in his self-assured posture, consolidated by the elements of destruction and death to be found on the canvas.

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Pier Paolo Pasolini in his Edipo Re uses the story as an implicit commentary on his time. The movie was made in 1967 and the young traveller has an acute case of road rage. The incident takes up 9 full minutes of the film and Oedipus picks off the guards one by one, then brutally slaughters a helpless Laius (the full clip is here). It seems that the director is both entranced with the unbridled frenzy of the youthful social revolution of the 1960s and aware of the risks of it allowing to have its full expression.

ImageThis struggle, youth rebelling against its elders, has punctuated history in every place, every culture, at every time. Societies have had their own statutes and taboos in attempts to contain it but it is never far beneath the surface in even the most oppressive, or repressed, environments. The most potent literary portrait of this phenomenon is in Shakespeare’s brilliant yet difficult King Lear. The play deals with many power struggles and women have parity with men in their desire to seize control from their elders. It is not a coincidence that the work was begun in 1603, the year of Elizabeth I’s death and during which James VI of Scots, son of the monarch the tyrannical Elizabeth had had executed, came down to London to take the English throne. James was in his 30s and provided quite a contrast with Elizabeth who died in her seventieth year. The aged Lear decides to abdicate and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, with the largest portion going to the child who loves him the most. The two flatterers gain a half-share each. The other daughter, Cordelia, genuinely loves her father but cannot find the words to express her affection. Lear is infuriated and disinherits her. It soon transpires that the two heiresses despise him and consider him to be a liability as well as a fool. When the monarch finally realizes his gullibility, the product of his vanity, he rushes out in a storm and rants furiously and impotently against the tempestuous conditions. It is one of the most striking and affecting moments in any drama of any age, represented above by William Dyce (c. 1851).

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

The former ruler is on the threshold of despair. He has lost everything, including his judgement and is beginning to lose his mind. And yet, Shakespeare does two marvellous things at this juncture. Firstly, Lear might be without hope, hopeless in the true sense of the term, but he has one remaining weapon that does, despite everything, empower him: his tongue:

Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then let fall
Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man. (III.2)

 The other significant feature of this scene is that Lear is not alone during this iconic moment of irascible realization. There is a fool present to paraphrase the most tragic words that we can ever hear: “I told you so”. Yet the company and interjections of the fool during this powerful scene add an unexpected ingredient: they moderate Lear’s fury and in so doing, they serve to humanize this headstrong, silly person.

Recently, in fact during the course of the past few months, Pope Benedict XVI, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and King Albert II of the Belgians have all abdicated, citing the infirmity of age as the reason. Media commentary has, on the whole, been positive, hailing the chance of different, younger people to have their turn. There is, I think, something quite dangerous about this implicit form of ageism. It relies on the belief that younger people have more energy and dynamism and therefore can prove to be more effective leaders. As I’ve dealt with in a different post, The destroyer of worlds, it was the young John F. Kennedy who very nearly precipitated a global nuclear war in October 1962. It was an elderly, peace-loving Italian, Pope John XXIII, who played a major part in averting the wicked possibility. We can learn from older, wiser people. Unfortunately, we now live in the midst of a cult of youth which goes hand in hand with a disdain for knowledge of the past. And those who do not know the past will inevitably repeat its errors. Our elders might be slower, less fit, and more physically frail and vulnerable than younger men and women, but we are making a capital mistake in not tapping the wisdom of our previous generations. Winston Churchill was 71 years old at the end of the Second World War. Set this aside, and we commit metaphoric patricide, leaving us orphaned and exiled in the realm of our pride.

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Churchill was Queen Elizabeth II’s first prime minister, a fact of which she reminded Tony Blair in 1997 during the audience in which she appointed him prime minister after a landslide general election victory. It was an important fact to remind the young premier of; his time would come and go. Every week, the Queen has an audience with her prime minister. They are alone and no record is made of the occasion. One former prime minister spoke of this hour as the most precious of his week since he could tell her anything at all and know that it would never be repeated to another human soul. The same ex-premier, James Callaghan, added that this was an invaluable asset, particularly when sometimes one’s very own colleagues could not be trusted. The birth of the child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is imminent and there has been some speculation about the Queen’s continued role as sovereign, given the fact that there will be three heirs apparent in line to the Crown, an unprecedented occurrence in British history. The Guardian, which claims to be a newspaper, has been running a series of articles urging Elizabeth II to abdicate. In all of these, the journalists miss the point. It is precisely her age and wisdom which make her an attractive asset as head of state and abdication would be nothing other than a shameful enslavement to the spirit of the age and the outrageous and ageist youth cult of contemporary society. I think the photographic portrait of the Queen taken by Annie Leibovitz in 2007 eloquently shows why Her Majesty should not bend to pressure. Her pose, with the mediocre and menacing conditions outside is both regal and human, at once assured and exposed, and, above all, reassuring. Throughout the storms that we endure, we desperately need the anchorage of constants, whether it be in our leaders, our values, art, or liturgy. Fortunately, the Queen believes that hers is a job for life and she is not going anywhere just yet.

ImageToday’s cufflinks are hand-wrought, etched copper cufflinks made by Gret Barkin in the mid-1950s. She specialized in copper and almost all of her work involves this fetching metal, operating out of the delightfully named Hope, Pennsylvania. I have three pairs of Barkin cufflinks, this one consisting of two superimposed, etched disks with the top disk curving upwards, shown better in the second image below.

ImageHer ouput is spectacular, in particular her women’s jewellery. I like the fact that she had simple yet enduring designs with an attention to small details. Gret was active right up to her death in 2007 at the age of 99 years old, injecting a lifetime’s expertise and craft into her work, a well-needed anti-ageist beacon for these troubled times.

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7 comments on “Against the storm

  1. “It is precisely her age and wisdom which make her an attractive asset”

    Please note that the Queen’s “age and wisdom” would not be affected by her abdication. Her majesty’s wealth is the result of generations of plunder, corruption and duplicity by the English crown. Despite being one of the richest women in the world, the Royal Family currently costs the British taxpayer approximately $42 million every year not including the cost of security provided by the police and the Army, the lost revenues of the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster and other expenses. Also, I note that her “wisdom” does not extend to the justice of attempting to reimburse those from who her wealth was taken.

    I realize that the Guardian is not advocating the abolition of the institution of the Royal Family but your otherwise interesting post raised my blood pressure sufficiently to prompt this comment.

    • Hello Malcolm! Regardless of the origins of the monarch’s wealth, HM is merely the custodian of it. I suspect all property ownership reverts back to conquest or usurpation at some point. The annual revenue of the Crown Estate, the Queen’s personal income as landowner, amounted to 240.2 million GBP in 2012, all of which was surrendered to the Treasury, as with every year of her reign. In fact, then, it is the Queen subsidizing the taxpayer rather than the reverse, with the Civil List acting as compensation.

      As to the costs of security of the sovereign, I suspect (though haven’t verified this) that it costs far less than most Western heads of state. The Civil List costs less to the taxpayer per annum than does the British Embassy in Washington DC to maintain…!

  2. “I suspect all property ownership reverts back to conquest or usurpation at some point.”

    Well, that’s certainly a cop-out if ever there was one 🙂

    Also, last year the Queen was eligible for a payment of 31 million GBP to fund her official duties, an increase of 16 percent on the previous year despite sharp public spending cuts elsewhere. According to the Sunday Times Rich List, even ignoring the assets belonging to the Crown Estate the Queen had a personal net worth of $500 million as of April 2012.

    However, returning to my original point. If you really think her age, wisdom and poise are such valuable qualities then you and anyone else could avail yourself of them even if she was just a private citizen. Indeed, if these qualities are as important as you suggest, even as a private citizen she would be immediately recognized by all as an example of nobility at its finest and her advice and wisdom (and poise) would be widely sought. There would be no need to bilk taxpayers of their hard earned pennies,the Queen could just charge clients the same way other consultants do.

    • I think that the fundamental problem is that, with some institutions, if you treat them as other business entities, you end up eviscerating them of the mystery that makes them so appealing and necessary. We can see this with the widespread sexual coverage on the Internet which is divorcing love from intimacy; we can see it in the liturgy which has been reduced to the status of a committee-based exercise; we can see it with those monarchies in which the head of state has no concept of dignity.

      I will always give allegiance to a monarch as my head of state and am proud to be a subject notwithstanding any defects in the system if only because the prospect of President Thatcher or President Blair is such an egregious one.

  3. Cufflinkcatholic, I am much more sympathetic to your (or Edmund Burke’s) defense of institutions than my above comments suggest. However I make a distinction between institutions that have emerged over time as a result of the voluntary interactions of individuals (e.g. organized religion) and institutions which have imposed themselves on civil society through force of arms (monarchy). You are welcome to give your allegiance to anyone you wish but forcing others to give allegiance against their will violates the moral autonomy that forms the basis of individual dignity and worth.

    • Sadly, failing a John Rawls’s kind of reinvention of society, individuals will inevitably be forced to submit to systems, rules, or norms that violate their sense of autonomy. However, as Foucault observed, where there is power, so too is there always resistance. 🙂

      • “individuals will inevitably be forced to submit…”

        Markets, morality, law, language, money, mores, cities, customs, culture etc are examples of spontaneous orders that evolved as a result of human actions but not human design i.e. nobody was in charge of the process. Spontaneous orders maximize human autonomy and human happiness in a social context. If you value human dignity your goal should be to maximize spontaneous order in society not the top-down order of a monarchy. One analogy would be that you are supporting the top-down order characteristic of the military compared to the ‘anarchy’ of the internet which also has an order but a spontaneous order.

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