15 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of How Many Armies?

I went to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies yesterday, thereby wrapping up a cinematic adventure that began for me back in December 2001. The film, I think, is definitely a mixture of good and bad drawn from Peter Jackson’s urns of blessings and ills, but my main thought coming from it, as since I saw Return of the King back in 2003, is that Jackson doesn’t really understand Tolkien.

I have friends who get furious about this, and rant about all manner of little changes the films make from the books, but I see those kind of changes as – in the main – simply the price of adaptation. Books aren’t films. When we change media, we change stuff. That’s what happens. Characters change and get compressed, dialogue gets trimmed, episodes are cut or even invented, depending on what the story needs. Bill Goldman's very good on this, in both Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? What shouldn’t change, though, is the theme and tone. If you’re going to change those, why are you bothering at all?

As I said nearly eleven years ago, Jackson eviscerates the story by leaving out the Scouring of the Shire, that conclusion to the Lord of the Rings which sees the hobbits returning home and having to clean up their homeland, where petty greed and viciousness and power hunger have taken over, as hobbits willingly serve Saruman’s new dictatorship and rejoice in holding forth over their weaker neighbours. There’s a sense in which the episode is an anti-climax, and it’s probably for that reason that Jackson omits it from the films, but given he has about seventeen other endings to The Return of the King, I think he could have ran with it.

The omission of the episode shows up a profound difference between Tolkien and Jackson. Tolkien, it has to be remembered, was an articulate, informed, and orthodox Catholic, something that runs right through his books, such that you tend to miss half of what’s going on, not least the point of Tolkien's stories, if you can’t see with his eyes. Tolkien, indeed, called The Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work, unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision," explaining that what he called "the religious element" in his writing was not on the surface, but was "absorbed into the story and the symbolism."

Catholic that he was, Tolkien believed very strongly in Original Sin, in the notion that there’s a darkness in the heart of man, and that cracks run right through all of us; for Tolkien the Ring is something that deepens our darkness, that widens our cracks into chasms, that magnifies the faults that are already within us, and that amplifies our tendency towards sin. Crucially, though, while the Ring is a corrupting force, it is not an originating one: it doesn’t make people evil, rather it fosters and worsens the evil already within. As such, even when the Ring is destroyed, evil remains in the world. It’s a petty, cheap, brutish thing, and it doesn’t go away. The Hobbits save the world, and still have to save their homes.

Not so for Jackson. For Jackson, evil is an external phenomenon. The Ring is, of course, an externalisation of Sauron’s power, but that’s not to say that Tolkien thinks evil is external. On the contrary, he sees it as within, with the eternal frontline in the war between good and evil being in the depths of the human heart.  But for Jackson, once the Ring is destroyed, the shadow falls and evil is banished from Middle Earth. Prices still have to be paid – Frodo will carry his wounds as long as he remains in the world – but there is no wickedness in the world after the Ring is destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom.

Jackson sees evil as something outside us, and something that’s embodied in a Ring or “other people,” especially ugly monstrous ones – orcs, goblins, trolls, dragons, giant spiders – or swarthy foreigners from the east and the south.  Yes, Tolkien makes these identifications first, but he does so in a context where we all have the capacity for evil. Not so for Jackson, as is shown by his removal of the “Scouring” without a substitionary episode or speech to make the same thematic point: no, get rid of the Ring, his story says, and everyone will live happily ever after.

And so to The Hobbit.

Leaving aside his failure to understand Tolkien, I think Jackson had two main problems with the first Hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey. One was that Tolkien could distinguish between his dwarves by just giving them different names, whereas Jackson had to make them all into recognisable individuals with distinct appearances, voices, mannerism, and personalities, all of which added time to the film, making it far longer than the tale it was telling merited. The more serious problem, though, is that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings sprang from The Hobbit, and grew far beyond it in a deeper, darker, richer way. Jackson can't do that: his Hobbit has to function as a prequel to his Lord Of The Rings, and has to maintain the already established tone and look of the original trilogy.

He's done impressive work on that front. The opening shots of Erebor as a Dwarf metropolis to surpass the Elvish magnificence of Rivendell set up the world of The Hobbit as a real part of the Middle Earth he’d already envisaged.  In some ways it shows what Balin must have dreamt of in the darkness of Moria. His dwarves became a race of armoured Gimlis in leather and mail, almost wholly supplanting the books’ jolly chaps with colourful hoods – Dwalin in dark green, Balin in red, Fili and Kili both in blue, and others in purple, grey, brown, white, yellow, pale green, and in Thorin’s case sky blue with a silver tassle. The significance of the story had to be brought out: this is not just the story of Bilbo’s adventure, but is rather the story of the return of Sauron, of how new relations were seeded between Elves, Dwarves, and Men, of how one of Sauron's greatest potential allies was preemptively taken off the board before the War of the Ring, and above all how the Ring was restored to the world, and Hobbits entered into the world.
 
When you get down to it, Jackson's telling a huge six-part story of how the most insignificant and unlikely of people find the greatest weapon in the world and then destroy it and he manages to do it in a way that makes sense and looks consistent. Credit, so, where it's due.

For all the glory of Erebor, the first Hobbit film annoyed me. It retained enough of the chirpiness of the book to be childish without retaining enough to be childlike. My Maths teacher used to say “between two stools you fall to the ground,” and, well, I think that's what happened. There was far too much dwarf humour, a failing in Jackson’s original trilogy but one taken to excess here. How much falling over did there have to be? And did the whole Goblin chase sequence need to go on for quite so long?

The Gollum scene, though, was good, and I'm left wondering if Jackson will follow George Lucas’s precedent by tweaking The Fellowship of the Ring to show Martin Freeman, rather than an artificially young Ian Holm, as Bilbo finding the ring. I was okay with the Azog stuff too, to be honest. Sure, he’s not in the book, but he is referred to in the book as having killed Thorin’s father. I think giving a bit of individuality to the orcs wasn’t a bad thing. He also looks straight out of Guillermo del Toro’s sketchbook, which isn’t a bad thing.

The second film, The Desolation of Smaug, I found vastly better, though I wonder how much of this was due to me not watching it in 3D-HFR. The images were ones into which I could get absorbed, rather than ones that distracted me. I thought the sequence where they're all floating downriver and Tauriel's doing her arrow stuff absurd and straight out of a game, but, er, I'm not going to criticise Tauriel too much, for predictable reasons. I also liked the Smaug sequences, and the spiders, and quite liked Jackson’s casting of Steven Fry as the smug, self-important, oleaginous Master of Laketown.  Beorn was largely wasted, I felt, though I consoled myself with the thought that that otherwise irrelevant section might bear fruit in the third film, as indeed it does in the book, when Beorn shows up at the battle, retrieves Thorin’s mortally wounded body, and kills the Goblin leader Bolg, son of Azog. I thought too that the dialogue between Tauriel and Kili really could have been better, but overall I found it a smoother and much less laboured film than the first one, and came out of it thinking that while it was further away from Tolkien than ever, perhaps this was necessary to set up Jackson's – not Tolkien's – Lord of the Rings.

Bilbo’s discovery of the Arkenstone in the second film just hammers home, of course, how he clearly has the cheat codes for The Hobbit game, finding plot coupons everywhere he goes: elvish blades, the Ring, the Arkenstone. And game is right: if the Moria scene in The Fellowship of the Ring had felt like a game, the Hobbit sequence feels like a game time and time and time again.

And so to the third Hobbit film, The Battle of the Five Armies, whatever the five armies are meant to be: in the book it's clearly goblins, wargs, elves, dwarves, and men, but here it's definitely Azog's orc army, Thranduil's elves, Dain's dwarves, and Bard's men... but who else? Bolg's second orc army? Thorin's band of dwarves? The eagles?
 
Unfortunately, I watched it in 3D-HFR, having forgotten how much I’d disliked it in the first film, with everything seeming overlit, and the general feeling being as though we’re on set with people traipsing about in silly costumes and make up and fake ears. It couldn’t help but distances me from the action, as through it all I thought it all looked dreadfully fake, as did the longer shots of the CGI armies which looked like trailers for a game.

There is good stuff in the film, it has to be said. Thorin's madness is very well handled, echoing Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While this seems yet another instance of someone being corrupted by an external force, in this case the treasure burnished for decades by Smaug’s greed, it nonetheless feels more normal, somehow, than the corrupting effect of the Ring, especially in combination with Steven Fry's common or garden greediness, and that of his henchman. The film, then, at least recognises that it doesn’t take a monstrous evil to turn people into monsters, but that most of the time evil is a petty, small thing, people bearing cracks of original sin that such as the Ring can turn into chasms. This goes some small way to remedying the deepest problem with the original films. Martin Freeman is great as Bilbo, and Bard is very well done. So yes, the film really does have good points.

Unfortunately, it’s not just got good points.

The appearance of Dain is written in a way to suit the actor far more than the character, I'm afraid. It is immensely enjoyable, but still, it's jarring, and shatters any sense of immersion you might have been lucky enough to get even with the blasted 3D-HFR. You’re not watching Dain Ironfoot, the eventual King Under The Mountain who will fall with Bard’s grandson decades later at the Battle of Dale while hundreds of miles to the southwest Aragorn and Legolas and the lads – and Eomer – are doing their thing at the Pelennor Films. You're watching Billy Connolly being, well, Billy Connolly.

The armies look dreadfully false in the battle scenes, row upon row of faceless automatons in identical armour moving as one as though telepathically commanded. If you know anything about ancient or medieval warfare this simply doesn’t hold up: warriors tended to own and supply their own equipment, and would have had distinct shields and helmets and variations in their armour. Having them all look uniform just feels dreadfully wrong.

The fighting too owes more to 300, or the games that inspired that, than to reality: elves and dwarves don’t get on, we’re told, and bear old grudges, and yet when the moment comes, with no planning – let alone training – they all know exactly what to do. The dwarves form an impressive shieldwall, with hints of the Roman testudo, and look set to withstand the orcish attack, establishing an unpassable barrier behind which the elves could use their long bows and winnow the orc forces. Instead, though, the elves cast aside their massive tactical superiority in terms of their lengthy killing zone, and vault over the dwarf wall, rendering it pointless, and start swirling among the orc forces, laying into them to cinematically impressive and militarily ludicrous effect.

This is a thing. Too many people rave about the battle scenes in Jackson’s films, oblivious or indifferent to just how ludicrous they are. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen.  If you want to see plausible cinematic renditions of pre-modern battles, you can’t do much better than The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, and Ran. More recently, the one at the start of Gladiator is okay too, and obviously people love the ones in Spartacus and Braveheart, but really, it’s the Kurosawa ones that bear most rewatching.

There’s an astounding lack of tactical sense in the Battle of the Five Armies, with nobody attempting to take out the Orc signalling system until Thorin shows up and decides to target Azog who is directing commands from the signal tower.  Not that sense is really part of the sequence: if I’d thought the bit in The Two Towers when the horses run down a cliff one of the most absurd things I’d ever seen, it’s solidly trumped by Legolas leaping from falling block to falling block in a manner reminiscent of Mario, somehow resisting the urge to headbutt gold coins out of the air.

Beorn does appear in the battle, but rather than mysteriously appearing and saving the day, as in the book, he instead joins battle as an airborne bear, flown from the far side of Mirkwood, presumably, by the Eagles ex Machina, and isn’t shown doing anything especially impressive other than running into the fray. He doesn’t kill Azog’s son and lieutenant Bolg, that honour being left to the wonderful Tauriel, or any other prominent orcs, and the overall effect is to leave me wondering what the point of Beorn being in the story was. We don’t see him accompanying Bilbo home either. It’s all very odd.

“Farewell, good thief,” the dying Thorin says to Bilbo in the book, continuing, “I go now to the halls of waiting to sit beside my fathers, until the world is renewed.” It’s an impressive line, pointing to the importance of an afterlife to the dwarves, but the line doesn’t make it to the film; indeed, to see Thranduil’s sorrow at elvish blood being shed, you’d never imagine that fallen elves have their souls cleansed and their bodies reborn in their own land, never to return to Middle Earth. For a film that’s about battle from beginning to end, it has precious little to say about death – and never touches on how Tolkien saw death in the context of Middle Earth. In these films, when you're dead, you're dead. That's it. Maybe modern audiences prefer things that way, but it's not how Tolkien thought, and it's not how things are meant to be on Middle Earth.

There seems something pointless about showing indistinguishable CGI automata trading blows for as film does without showing us what death really involves. All else aside, I’d like to have seen Thorin’s funeral. That would have been a suitable ending, or part of it,
“They buried Thorin deep beneath the Mountain, and Bard laid the Arkenstone upon his breast.
‘There let it lie till the Mountain falls!’ he said. ‘May it bring good fortune to all his folk that dwell here after.’
Upon his tomb the Elvenking then laid Orcrist, the elvish sword that had been taken from Thorin in captivity. It is said in songs that it gleamed ever in the dark if foes approached, and the fortress of the dwarves could not be taken by surprise. There now Dain son of Nain took up his abode, and he became King under the Mountain, and in time many other dwarves gathered to his throne in the ancient halls.”
The Iliad ended with the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses. It’d not have been a bad example for Jackson to have followed.

08 December 2014

The Immaculate Conception: For the Day that's in it

From an old email to an Anglican friend of decidedly Calvinist leanings...

"Two big issues there, but I’ll do my best with one anyway. For the sake of brevity I’ll put off saints in heaven to another day, as I need to think about how to explain that concisely. It takes time to write short emails.

Mary’s preservation from sin has been mainstream Christian belief from about as early as we can tell in Christian history; it’s been embraced through history by Catholics, the Orthodox churches, and such Protestants as Martin Luther. Partly, it has to be said, the belief derives from incredulity that the flesh from which Jesus was made – Mary’s and Mary’s alone – could ever have been tainted by sin and been what C.S. Lewis called ‘enemy-occupied territory’.

At Luke 1:28, the angel salutes Mary as Kekharitōmenē, traditionally translated ‘Full of Grace’, but more accurately rendered as something along the lines of ‘you who are already, absolutely, and enduringly endowed with grace’. It’s an extraordinarily unusual grammatical form, and is also the only instance we know of that an angel ever honoured any of us with a title. Being completely graced by God leaves no room for sin; this can’t be dismissed as though it just means ‘highly favoured’.

Following 1 Corinthians 15:45-9, the early Church looked at Genesis 3:15 and saw our redemption as a re-enactment of Eden: just as Eve’s disobedience opened the way to Adam’s sin, so Mary’s obedience opened the way to Jesus’ saving of us. You’ll see this in such second-century writers as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons, who, as you’ll know, was taught by one of John’s pupils and was the first person we know of who to describe the four Gospels – and those alone – as canonical. By the fourth century, it was almost proverbial that Mary was the new Eve, and could hardly have been created less than her: as Eve was created sinless, so must Mary have been.

Jude 1:24-5 points to how this could have happened in a way in harmony with the rest of the Bible. There are two ways of saving people: you can rescue them after they’ve fallen into a hole, or you can prevent them from falling in to begin with. It’s obviously better to be saved by prevention than cure, and it’s in this sense Mary was saved by Jesus: he preserved her from sin, rather than allowing her to fall into it and dragging her from the hole like the rest of us. And why wouldn’t he? He loved and honoured his mother: if he could save her by preserving her from sin, rather than allowing her to fall into sin in the first place, why would he have done otherwise?

The point of the Immaculate Conception is to glorify Jesus, the new Adam made from untainted flesh and the perfect saviour who is able to keep us from falling."

His reply, to my amazement, suggested I'd almost convinced him and that he needed to think more on this. I must ask where he got to with that.

02 November 2014

All Souls: For the Day that's in it

Adapted from my journal last year...
 
It being November, today is the feast of All Souls, or The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, as my missal has it.
 
I was somewhat bemused just before All Souls' Day last year when a dear Anglican friend asked me whether Catholics celebrate All Saints’ day, or “All Hallows”, as she called it; we do, I thought, surprised that Anglicans celebrated the day, and wondering what it meant for them; Catholics believe the saints in heaven are praying for us and acting for us and can be addressed by us as we seek their prayers, but I’m not sure what Anglicans believe on this score.
 
The funeral rites of the Church of England’s official prayer-book say of each dead Christian that he or she died “in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life”, but I don’t think Anglicans, as a rule, believe that the saints can intercede for us; indeed, I’ve been quizzed in the past about why it is that I think the saints are even aware of our prayers, let alone that they can act in response to them.
 
The confidence of the Anglicans’ “sure and certain hope” seems to me unwarranted, in any case; while it’s easy to believe that the greatest of our predecessors were graced by God in this life and are now blessed by him and partaking in the Divine Vision, but what about the rest of us? What about those of us who’ve done monstrous things, who are not merely sinners but who are, by sheer force of habit, sinful?  What about ordinary plodders like me and probably most of us, who try to love God and live as he wishes us to, but who stumble and fall through our lives, and leave this world sullied and stained by the muck of our human frailty – what of us?
 
The Bible’s pretty clear that nothing imperfect can enter heaven and just as gold must be refined by flame, so too those of us who are not purified in life are purified in death by God’s consuming fire; Catholics used to envisage Purgatory as a mountain we climb towards heaven, confident of our ultimate and eternal destination, but whether we think of Purgatory as a place or as a process or as an event, we cannot get away from how for Catholics the Church is seen as a Divine ecology, where we seek the prayers of our brethren in heaven, while offering prayers for our brethren in Purgatory. We all help each other.
 
“Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory,’” sneers Thomas Cromwell to himself, mentally addressing Thomas More, in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. More, of course, wouldn’t accept the premise of the question: “Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Trinity’,” he might counter, before explaining that though Catholic teaching must always be in harmony with the Bible, it does not and never has originated with the Bible; the Church came first, after all, and the Bible was written within and canonised by the Church as a book – indeed, as the book – of the Church. And he could have pointed to plenty of reasons outside the Bible for the Catholic belief.
 
Still, he might then have indulged Cromwell by pointing to how 2 Maccabees 12:39-45 shows how the ancient Jews who rededicated the Temple before Our Lord’s day believed that prayers for the dead mattered, and if they mattered, one is forced to wonder how; the blessed hardly needed our prayers, and they surely couldn’t benefit the damned. Jesus seems never to have condemned this practice, and evidently joined in celebrating the Maccabees’ achievements, so it seems he agreed with this, and even in Cromwell and More’s own day, as now, Jews would pray for the purification of their brethren after they died. Again the question must be “why?”
 
Of course, Cromwell would counter by saying that he didn’t regard either book of Maccabees as being part of the Bible, glossing over how More would simply have cited it as a historical attestation to a practice that had continued through Our Lord’s time into their own day, with a belief implied by that practice, rather than as an inspired Scriptural mandate, so More would probably have been forced to look elsewhere.
 
Nothing unclean shall enter Heaven, according to Revelation 21:27, and after death what we’ve done will be tested by fire, with some of us being saved through fire with our badness burned away, if 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 is to be believed.  God, after all, as Malachi 3:2-3 points out, is like a refiner’s fire; he purifies us, refining us like silver and gold till we can “present right offerings to the Lord”.
One of the great works of mercy the Church requires of us, according to the famous image of the Sheep and the Goats at Matthew 25:31-46, is that of visiting those in prison. Oddly, though, prison is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament; aside from in that dramatic image of the Last Judgment, Jesus only mentions it when talking of people being put in prison until their debt is paid, notably at Matthew 18:23-35 and Matthew 5:25-26, where he juxtaposes “prison”, with those in prison not being released till they have “paid the last penny”, with Hell, from where there is no release.
 
It’s clear from the text that Jesus isn’t talking of earthly imprisonment, which invites the question of what this prison is where we can be placed till we have paid the last penny – and it’s worth remembering how the New Testament tends to use the language of debt when speaking of sin. Could this be the same prison that 1 Peter 3:19 has in mind in referring to how, after the Crucifixion, Jesus “went and preached to the spirits in prison”?
 
The word “Purgatory” may not appear in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean the doctrine isn’t there, readily drawn out from references to prayers that help the dead, to a fire that purifies us after death, and to a prison where souls go till their debts are paid.
 
Just as it’s for the Blessed to pray for us, so it is for us, then, to visit those souls in prison, praying for those destined for heaven that they may be purified less painfully and may more quickly reach the top of Dante’s mountain of hope.
 
With that in mind, then, I pray today for all those for whom I prayed this time last year, and also those, dear to me and dear to those near to me, who have joined them over the past year, including Christy Bailey, Agueda Pons, David Fitzgerald, Mary Ward, Tom O'Gorman, Michael Kerrigan, Marian Emerson, Kitty Temple, Michael Heywood, Christine Buckley, Agnes and John Ainsworth, Tom Savage, Clare Edmonds, Spiros Polyzotis, Audrey Gilligan, Phyllis Shea, Brian Spittal, Noel Sweeney, Joe Harris, and Father Martin Ryan.
 
May the Lord God almighty have mercy on their souls, and may his perpetual light shine upon them; may they rest in peace.

22 October 2014

Converts and Reverts: Floundering towards a Catholic Taxonomy

'It is a curious thing, do you know,' says Stephen Dedalus' friend Cranly to Dedalus in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 'how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.'
 
I've been thinking about this in recent weeks, following discussions with friends where the subject of Catholic 'reverts' -- those who'd been raised Catholic, but left the Church, only to return as adults -- has come up.
 
I don't mean cradle Catholics who just turned their back for a few months, or lapsed for a little bit, or doubted. The latter, especially, is pretty normal: as Pope Benedict said back in the day, believers never really are free from doubt, and it's that doubt that saves them from complete self-satisfaction; as Flannery O'Connor puts it, 'Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea.' For plenty of us, though, that doubt has implications that can lead us, perhaps combined with laziness or misery, away from the Church, at least for a while.
 
No, I mean Catholics who've lapsed or who've determinedly rejected the Church for significant periods of their lives, baptised Catholics who've abandoned ship and spent years away from it, living apart for a period that can't be dismissed as a passing phase, a mere whim, only to come back to it, whether following a sudden change or slowly, painfully, inch by reluctant inch.
 
Does it make sense, as has been ventured in recent conversations, to think of these reverts as more akin to converts than to cradle Catholics? Or are they a separate breed altogether?
 
Friends have said they're best thought of as closer to converts than cradle Catholics. I'm not so sure. Some weeks ago, when researching an Aleteia piece, I was advised by a priest friend that it was especially important for vocations directors to visit secondary schools in order to help build a 'culture of discernment', by planting seeds that may come to fruition later. There's more than one important point there, I think, and one of them is that the blossoms and fruits of our adult lives may well spring from seeds planted much earlier: the faith of reverts may have very deep roots.
 
One of the more interesting -- if sometimes far from persuasive -- books I've read on Catholic culture is Andrew Greeley's The Catholic Imagination. He talks at great length of how our religious cultures shape our minds, something which may horrify the more ardent secularists among us, but only if they are, as George Weigel puts it, 'the most ghettoized people of all [...] who don't know they grew up in a particular time and place and culture, and who think they can get to universal truths outside of particular realities and commitments.'
 
Religious culture, if Greeley is right, can saturate our minds, such that even artists who've left the Faith -- one might think of Joyce, Anthony Burgess, Umberto Eco, Don DeLillo, Frank Capra, Martin Scorcese, P.T. Anderson -- still 'feel' Catholic in some sense when you read them or watch their films. Growing up Catholic isn't indoctrination -- massive lapsation rates are proof of that -- but it is inculturation, and something of their Catholic upbringing stays with Catholics as they grow and lapse. When reverts return to the Church they bring that back with them.
 
Reverts have something important in common with converts, of course, in that both groups practice and believe largely because of conscious adult decisions and have probably had a lot of catching up to do. They differ too, though, because reverts tend to have loads of mental furniture that converts lack; it's inevitable, really, given sacramental preparation, innumerable Masses, childhood prayers, local churches as focal points of childhood, and the sacramental small change of Catholic family life.
 
And that leaves aside the realities of grace brought about through having been baptised and even confirmed in childhood, not to mention having received communion and absolution a fair few times! It makes sense to dismiss the importance of this if you don't believe in sacramental realities, of course -- if it's a symbol, then to Hell with it, as O'Connor famously said of the Eucharist --  but what if you do?
 
Taxonomy is a tricky game, and I haven't even gotten here into whether there tend to be cultural, philosophical, theological, or imaginative differences between converts from other Christian traditions, other religions, or atheisms. As it stands, though, I'm really far from convinced that reverts are more like converts than cradle Catholics. It seems, to be blunt, that reverts actually are cradle Catholics, albeit ones who've followed a strange path in life.
 
I say strange. I don't mean unusual. The other day, I heard of how research on Maynooth seminarians found that 42% of those surveyed identified with the statement 'I fell away from the Catholic faith at some point in my life but later returned to it'.
 
It looks like there are are fair few of us around.

21 October 2014

Put Not Your Trust In Princes

'Put not your trust in princes.'
 
So Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, bitterly remarked on hearing that Charles I had signed his death warrant. Or, at any rate, so I was taught when I was thirteen. I didn't know then it was a quotation from the Psalms; I'm not sure, now I think of it, whether I was told that or not.
 
I have, for reasons I'll not go into here, been pondering that phrase a lot over the last year, and was mulling it over this afternoon when I visited Westminster Cathedral, puzzling briefly as I slipped in over why a Union Jack was fluttering next to the Vatican flag: the cathedral is mother church of England and Wales, after all, not of the entire UK.
 
As usual, once in the cathedral I turned right to the little chapel where Basil Hume is buried; with its mosaic of Saints Gregory and Augustine, it's always been a special place to me, and is a spot where I made a very important decision some years ago. It came to naught, as our plans so often do, but still, for good or ill it mattered, and pointed me along my path for a few years.



The path ultimately led to a cul-de-sac, but there you have it. These things happen. Still, the old decision was very much in my mind as I knelt down in the chapel and looked up at the mosaic.
 
The mosaic, as you'll see, is centred upon a picture of Pope St Gregory the Great and St Augustine of Canterbury, sent in the late sixth century as 'apostle to the English' after Gregory's hilarious 'not Angles but Angels' gag. A dove, representing the Holy Spirit, hovers above Gregory, while Augustine is holding an image of Christ, presumably that described by Bede in his accounts of Augustine's dealings with Ethelbert of Kent in 597.
 
As Bede puts it in chapter 25 of book one of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People,
'Some days after, the king came into the island, and sitting in the open air, ordered Augustine and his companions to be brought into his presence. For he had taken precaution that they should not come to him in any house, lest, according to an ancient superstition, if they practiced any magical arts, they might impose upon him, and so get the better of him.
But they came furnished with Divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come.
When he had sat down, pursuant to the king's commands, and preached to him and his attendants there present, the word of life, the king answered thus: ­ "Your words and promises are very fair, but as they are new to us, and of uncertain import, I cannot approve of them so far as to forsake that which I have so long followed with the whole English nation. But because you are come from far into my kingdom, and, as I conceive, are desirous to impart to us those things which you believe to be true, and most beneficial, we will not molest you, but give you favourable entertainment, and take care to supply you with your necessary sustenance; nor do we forbid you to preach and gain as many as you can to your religion."
Accordingly he permitted them to reside in the city of Canterbury, which was the metropolis of all his dominions, and, pursuant to his promise, besides allowing them sustenance, did not refuse them liberty to preach. It is reported that, as they drew near to the city, after their manner, with the holy cross, and the image of our sovereign Lord and King, Jesus Christ, they, in concert, sung this litany: "We beseech Thee, O Lord, in all Thy mercy, that thy anger and wrath be turned away from this city, and from the holy house, because we have sinned. Hallelujah."'

I've always thought of the chapel as being a chapel of Gregory and Augustine, but looking at it earlier it struck me that the chapel's less a commemoration of the two saints than it is of the Gospel they brought. They're very much commemorated as missionaries, as conduits, as mediums for the message. Look at the heart of the image.
 
 
Gregory's hand is raised in blessing, but in doing so draws our eyes and thoughts to the Holy Spirit, which seems to be speaking to him, as though his blessing only has merit insofar as he's guided by that Spirit; Augustine points directly at an image of our Lord, directing us to look solely to him. It's as if they're saying that in themselves they don't matter at all, and only have any significance insofar as the grace of the Spirit leads us through the Cross to Christ.
 
Those of us who find it difficult to trust can sometimes overcompensate, I think, placing our trust in those who haven't earned it, whether princes or priors, presidents or pretenders: in this imperfect world, getting the balance right can be very tricky, but in the meantime, the meaning of the system lies outside the system.

11 October 2014

Blackboard Politics: UKIP and BBCQT

A good, smart, and principled friend of mine posted the below picture on his Facebook feed earlier today. It makes a case I've heard time and again over the last few years, that being that UKIP is disproportionately present on BBC Question Time when compared to, say, the Green Party, which actually won a parliamentary seat in the last election.



Now, without getting into the fact that Nigel Farage is what TV producers would describe as "good value" from a viewing standpoint, or how Caroline Lucas's vote in Brighton was a mere 31.3%, which is hardly a resounding mandate, such that it's fair to say that her victory was an odd quirk of the First Past the Post system which requires candidates not so much to be "first past the post" as to be "just one vote more popular than the next candidate", I think this is a dodgy approach to the issue.

The fact is, as I said to my friend, that I think this chart is misleading for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that MP stands for "Member of Parliament", not "Member of Panel show."

First, the unbalanced nature of the UK's demographics means that if parties aren't seriously active in England, they're basically not playing the national game. I'm not saying that parties shouldn't be regarded as serious ones unless they're present in the rest of the Union too, but the reality is that England, with 85% of the population, is key to the whole thing, and this matters when it comes to presence on a national television programme. 

Second, if the BBC site is right, the Greens (1%), Sinn Fein (0.6%), the DUP (0.6%), and Plaid Cymru (0.6%) combined got 2.8% of the national vote in the 2010 general election, compared to UKIP's 3.1%. If anything, it looks like UKIP is slightly underrepresented compared to them.

Third, given the unrepresentative nature of the British electoral system, where the typical voter is less likely to have voted for his or her MP than otherwise, using the number of MPs as a measure of anything seems unwise. 

Fourth, in the 2009 European elections, UKIP was the second party across the UK, with 16.5% of the vote, and in the 2014 elections they were the leading party, with 27.5%. Aside from beating Labour, the Tories, and the Lib Dems, that's roughly three times what the four parties on this blackboard got combined.

I think UKIP gives wrong answers -- even dangerously and stupidly wrong answers -- to things perceived as serious problems, but I think their answers, and the problems they're addressing, need to be tackled properly.

And I don't think stuff like this helps.

07 September 2014

The Carthaginian Mask of Command: Leadership in a Multinational Army

Warfare has traditionally been studied, as a rule, from the viewpoint of the commander with regard to such matters as strategy, tactics, and organisation. In the light of John Keegan’s pioneering work in such books as The Face of Battle and The Mask of Command such an approach seems fundamentally flawed. Even to see the commander’s role as inevitably being primarily focused on strategy, tactics, etc. is to ignore the fact that different societies expect different things of their leaders and military command can therefore widely differ in nature from society to society.

In practice, commanders have two broad areas of responsibility: ‘function related’, which mainly concern administration, and ‘output related’, which involve the army’s basic raison d’être: to defeat the enemy in battle at minimum cost to itself. ‘Output related’ responsibilities themselves require two sets of skills, those of generalship and leadership. The former are essentially technical in nature and concern such things as intelligence gathering, tactics, and putting those tactics into practice. Leadership is a more difficult concept to define which involves exploiting the psychological factors governing the behaviour of troops to encourage them to fight more effectively.

It is interesting that Polybius, a second-century BC Greek historian, in evaluating Hannibal as his commander, regards his leadership as far more important than his generalship, thinking it his supreme achievement to have actually kept his polyglot army together as an efficient fighting force:
‘For sixteen years he waged ceaseless war in Italy, and throughout that time he never released his army from service in the field, but, like a good pilot, kept those numbers under his control and free from disaffection towards himself or one another. He succeeded in this despite the fact that he was employing troops who belonged not only to different countries but to different races. He had with him Africans, Spaniards, Ligurians, Celts, Phoenicians, Italians, and Greeks, men who had nothing naturally in common, neither their laws, their customs, their language, nor in any other respect. None the less the skill of their commander was such that he could impose the authority of a single voice and a single will even upon men of such totally diverse origins.’ (9.19.3-5)
 This passage is highly significant as it largely flies in the face of modern military historiography, which has tended to emphasis the skills of generalship rather than those of leadership. This tendency is understandable as military history has generally been seen as most useful as an education for young officers and the principles of strategy and tactics are relatively straightforward.

Commanders have thus been evaluated primarily with regard to these easily understood principles. The problem with such an approach is that it assumes that the ‘rules of war’ and the commander’s role throughout history are unchanging. This is not the case. Armies are a reflection of the societies from which they issue and fight for their objectives and according to their values. As societies differ so too do armies, and the commander’s role varies in accordance with this fact.

Carthage, a powerful commercial city on the North African coast, seems to have been something of an anomaly in Antiquity in that her army was not essentially based on her citizen body; by the late third century BC there was no real citizen militia except for a small force of cavalry supplied by the aristocracy. Instead, the Carthaginian army, led by an officer corps of Carthaginian aristocrats, was made up of allied levies augmented by foreign mercenaries. This polyglot force was of many races: Libyans and Liby-Phoenicians from Carthage’s hinterland, Numidians, Moors, Balearics, Iberians, Celtiberians, Celts, Greeks, and Italians of various types.

Such an army, essentially fighting for booty, would have had no real commitment to the army, though in theory defeated generals could be crucified. The generals were evidently not trusted as, though elected for a specific campaign rather than a restricted time period, their role was a purely military one with no civil powers whatsoever. This peculiar limitation of powers may have been unique in the Classical world.

To a large extent then, the army was isolated from Carthage and became a society in its own right with a rather special link between the general and troops. In fact, by the time of the Second Punic War, in the late third century BC, the Barcid family, of which Hannibal is the most well-known member, had effectively become an imperial dynasty leading Carthage’s army in Spain.

In practice it seems that the citizen’s assembly in Carthage merely ratified the army’s choice as general, if Diodorus Siculus (25.12.1) and Polybius (3.13.3-4) are to be trusted in their accounts of the successions of Hasdrubal and Hannibal respectively. This may not always have been the case but the soldiers’ choice was certainly an important feature in the First Punic War, when they were so impressed by the generalship of the Spartan mercenary Xanthippus that the generals gave way to the soldiers’ demands for him to lead them into battle (Polyb. 1.22.4-5). In Carthage’s subsequent war with her former mercenaries and Libyan subjects the joint commanders of Carthage’s own army, Hamilcar and Hanno, quarrelled and the army was allowed to reject one of the two (Polyb. 1.82.5.12); Hanno was rejected and Hamilcar, Hannibal’s father, led his men to victory.

Such an arrangement as developed would certainly have made sense as the army would be picking a tried soldier who had served with them as a junior officer and in whose abilities they would have had confidence. This would have allowed an impressive esprit de corps to develop, focused on the mystique of the commanders who virtually became a hereditary monarchy in Spain with political power in Carthage, based on and justified by their military authority and success.

However, to command effectively, commanders cannot solely rely upon their hierarchical link with their men. Rather they must know how to speak directly to them, especially at times of crisis, such as the eve of battle. This is what Keegan identifies s ‘The Imperative of Prescription’, one of the most important duties of any commander. The failure to fulfil this can lead to a distinct lack of morale among the men, as the ‘chateau generalship’ of the First World War clearly showed. Troop morale was described by Montgomery as ‘the single most important factor in war’ and while as a rule the Carthaginian commander would have been a significant enough focus for the soldiers’ loyalty to bind them together, this was not necessarily so at times of crisis.

Prior to his account of the Battle of Cannae in late Summer, 216 BC, Polybius has Aemilius Paulus, the Roman commander, declare to his men that he has no real to exhort or address them before battle as they are already fully commented as they are fighting for their homes and families, but that:
‘For those who in some countries serve for hire or for those who are about to fight for their neighbours by the terms of an alliance, the moment of greatest peril is during the battle itself but the result makes little difference to them, and in such a case exhortation is necessary.’ (3.109.6)
 Whether Paulus ever said such a thing is debatable; the speeches before Cannae have been described as full of commonplaces and unlikely to go back to a genuine record. Nevertheless, what is significant is that Polybius deems such a sentiment worthy of inclusion and favours a citizen militia as being more highly motivated than an army consisting of hired troops, as he points out elsewhere in his Histories, when he contrasts the military system of Carthage with that of Rome (6.52.).

An examination of the early books of Polybius seems to support the claim attributed to Paulus, as exhortation is far more frequently referred to in a Carthaginian context than a Roman one. Polybius refers to exhortations by Carthaginian officers several times in his account of the First Punic War (1.27.1, 32.8, 44.1, 45.2-4, 49.10) but never mentions any Roman exhortations. Furthermore, Polybius only refers to two instances of exhortation by Romans in the Second Punic War prior to the battle of Cannae (3.64, 109), one of which, being that of the elder Scipio at the Trebia, is definitely unhistorical, and the other, being Paulus’ speech prior to Cannae, is fraught with problems, whereas he mentions Hannibal exhorting his offers or men at least eight times (3.34.7-9, 43.11, 44.4-13, 54.1-3, 63, 71.8, 71.10-11, 111). It would seem that exhortation was one of the most important duties of Carthaginian commanders and its frequency was a hallmark of their leadership style.

Of course, the question must then be asked of how this was done. The first obvious problem is one of scale. Apparently Hannibal had over 50,000 troops at Cannae, yet he is presented as addressing the entire army at once. If this was the case it seems unlikely that he could have been heard by the bulk of the army. To take some modern examples, Benjamin Franklin was able to prove to his own satisfaction that a certain travelling preacher, reputed to have addressed crowds of 25,000, could have actually addressed up to 30,000 at once, but Lincoln was badly heard at Gettysburg, addressing 15,000. Gladstone was regularly heard by crowds of 5,000, but that was indoors. In practice it seems that it would not have been feasible to address gatherings larger than 5,000 unless a natural amphitheatre was used. This may well have been done – Philip V of Macedon addressed his men in Corinth’s amphitheatre at one point (5.25.4-5). It would seem to have been more common to ride along the line of battle or among the army addressing units of troops, as was done by Ptolemy and Antiochus at the Battle of Raphia in 217 and by Scipio Africanus at Zama in 202 (5.83.1-2, 15.10.1). It is worth noting that even doing this, Philopoemen had difficulty being heard at the Battle of Mantinea because of the reaction of his men:
‘Such was their ardour and zeal that they responded to his address with what was almost a transport of enthusiasm, exhorting him to lead them on and be of good heart.’ (11.12.2)
 Another major problem for Carthaginian commanders would have been that the army, being multinational in character, lacked a common tongue. Such problems weren’t unique to Carthaginian armies, as Persian armies had been polyglot in character too, as was Alexander’s army after the conquest of Persia.

Interpreters could be used to address armies, as they were at Raphai (5.83.7), and Hannibal did have interpreters with him (e.g. 3.44.5), but there is no record of him using them to address his army. Hannibal’s own knowledge of languages other than Punic and Greek is uncertain, though Zonaras claims he knew several languages, including Latin (8.24). At Zama, having arranged for the Ligurians, Celts, Balearics, and Moors, as well as the Carthaginians themselves, to be addressed by their own leaders (Polyb. 15.11.4-5), he apparently addressed the troops he had brought from Italy himself, imploring them to ‘remember their comradeship of seventeen years’ (15.11.6). He may well have addressed them in Punic rather than in their own languages or through an interpreter, as this seems to have been a lingua franca, to some extent, among veterans in Carthaginian armies; in the mercenary army that rose against Carthage after the First Punic War, a Celt named Autaritas became very influential due to his command of Punic, a language which all the mercenaries were familiar with to some degree (1.80.5-7).

Assuming the army was not addressed as a whole, Hannibal would have been able to appeal to each national grouping on different grounds. It was not unusual to exhort different parts of armies in different ways; for instance, at Raphia both Ptolemy and Antiochus spent more time addressing their phalanxes than any other part of their armies, as these were seen as the most important part (5.83.2). Such an approach made sense in forces as diverse as Successor or Carthaginian armies as the various contingents had their own very different reasons for fighting. Livy effectively describes how Hannibal and his officers did this at Zama, where:
‘In an army composed of men who shared neither language, customs, laws, weapons, dress, appearance, nor even a common reason for serving , the best means of arousing the fighting spirit was no simple matter; hopes and fears, to suit the case, had to be danged before their eyes.’ (30.33)
Different appeals were made to each grouping: booty as well as cash was offered to the auxiliaries; the Celts were inspired by their hatred of the Romans; the Ligurians were reminded of the riches of the plains of Italy; Moors and Numidians were threatened by the prospect of being ruled by the pro-Roman Masinissa; and the Carthaginians were urged to think of what they had to lose. In Polybius’ account the various national contingents are also described as being addressed in different ways.

To conclude, the commander’s role in any army is not limited merely to the traditional tasks of generalship, nor are these inherently his most important tasks. In the polyglot army of Carthage the leader’s skills were more important for commanders such as Hannibal than were the more technical skills of the general, though it must of course be borne in mind that the two were not necessarily mutually exclusive and exclusive and could often overlap.

Being chosen by the army for their ability, Carthaginian commanders had enough influence to bind the diverse elements under their command into an effective fighting force personally loyal to them, if not to the distant paymaster that was Carthage. However, at times of crisis, such as on the eve of a battle, that esprit de corps might not be enough to convince the troops to risk their lives, and so it would fall to their commander to speak to them and rouse their spirits. Despite the many obstacles to doing this effectively in such a large multiracial force, Hannibal proved so adept at this that Polybius considered the fact that he kept his army together in hostile territory for so long to have his supreme achievement.


-- Limerick, August 1997.


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My first ever paper, this is another piece discovered recently in the parental shed, originally given as a talk to the Classical Association of Ireland's annual conference, which that year was held in Mary Immaculate College in Limerick. Some of this I still think holds up well, but other bits rather channel Keegan a bit too much.

If you've liked this, before I wrap up, then I suspect there's a high chance you'll also like Darkness Over Cannae. Don't take my word for it. Take a look.

01 September 2014

Classic Comics: Thoughts from 1997

Most people think they know what comics are: “crude, poorly drawn, semiliterate, cheap, disposable kiddie fare” in the words of Scott McCloud in his groundbreaking 1993 work Understanding Comics. Recognising this to be a ridiculously narrow, not to mention subjective, definition, McCloud set out to discredit it. Starting from Will Eisner’s description of comics as “sequential art”, McCloud eventually reached a far more precise and comprehensive definition of comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.”

Having seen McCloud demonstrate how things as diverse as the Bayeux Tapestry and the Stations of the Cross can thus be regarded as comics, I began to consider whether or not the classical world might have contributed to the artform. When I was fortunate enough to meet McCloud in 1994, he persuaded me that there were probably plenty of examples of comics in classical art and a course in Roman relief sculpture later that year convinced me of this. 



In this article I shall not attempt a comprehensive survey of such examples, as, space restrictions aside, I am hardly qualified to do so. Instead, I shall focus on a very small number of art works that clearly illustrate that the principles of comics were quite evident in Greek art.

Narrative was a vital element in ancient art and by the middle of the seventh century BC Attic vase painters were painting pictures that often continued around vases, separated by bands of decoration. Having an oblong shape, the pictures lent themselves to subjects such as processions, races, and hunts, as, being essentially narrow friezes, they required many figures to fill them. Though these friezes did not always have a chronological element they certainly sometimes did, an excellent example of this being found on the Francois vase, painted by Kleitias around 570BC.

Along with more conventional subjects such as the procession of guests at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and the funeral games of Patroklos, the vase also illustrates the story of the pursuit of Troilos. The frieze extends halfway around the vase and shows a number of distinct scenes, clearly separate from each other in both time and place, on a continuous background. At the far left is a fountain house where a girl stands waiting for her hydra to fill. Next are the figures of Hermes, Thetis, and Troilos. After is Priam receiving the bad news in sorrow, and finally two of Troilos’ brothers can be seen setting out from the city gates to avenge his death. Assuming that the frieze is “read” in this way, its sequential nature is clear.



Greek art was clearly not “photographic” in nature, in that it was not taken for granted that a single image should represent a single moment. A good example of this is evident on the neck of a mid-seventh-century Attic amphora found in Eleusis. It features an illustration of Odysseus and his men blinding the Cyclops Polyphemos. In the Odyssey the story is clearly related: Odysseus plied Polyphemos with alcohol, the Cyclops then fell asleep, and Odysseus blinded him. Here, however, the Cyclops is depicted sitting up, with one hand trying to push away the heated stake wielded by Odysseus, while clutching his wine cup with the other. Clearly the wine cup, which really belongs to an earlier part of the story, is depicted in order to hint that the Cyclops is drunk rather than still drinking.

Perhaps the most well-known “non-photographic” image in Greek art is a scene showing Achilles and Ajax playing some form of board game on an Attic black-figure amphora made and painted by Exekias between 540 and 530 BC. 

This vase features “speech balloons”, perhaps the most distinctive element of modern comics, a device which through attempting to represent sound in a scene also introduces the concept of time. 

Extracts from Understanding Comics, explaining how in comics speech bubbles can subvert otherwise 'photographic' images.


Achilles says “four” and Ajax responds “three”, possibly referring to dice scores. It is not clear whether Ajax is responding to Achilles, Achilles is responding to Ajax, or both men are speaking at once; what is certain is that this image does not represent a single moment, but rather the length of time it takes the two men to speak.

The two heroes are labelled above their heads: Achilles is on the left, with Ajax on the right.


One black-figure vase, Boston 08.292, is a perfect example of Greek comics. This vase features what McCloud calls an “action to action” transition, probably the most common type of “panel to panel” progression in comics. One side of the vase shows a man in a vineyard courting a young boy. When the vase is turned around, however, the young boy is jumping to embrace the man. Though the background remains continuous, the pictures are clearly intended to represent the same couple, with one scene obviously following the other.

Greek vase painting, therefore, clearly provides examples of what would now be termed comics, but there are also examples to be found in architectural sculpture.

The low-relief metopes on temples offered an obvious opportunity to tell a story in pictures, but it is difficult to tell how often this opportunity was taken. The Parthenon metopes, for instance, seem to have been put in place in such a way that sequence was largely irrelevant, whereas the metopes on the temple of Zeus at Olympia, dating from the second quarter of the fifth century BC, may have been intended to tell a story.



The twelve metopes there represent the twelve labours of Herakles, and are ordered in such a way that Herakles is evidently older in the twelfth metope than the first. The final metope depicts the cleansing of the Augean stables, two places later than conventionally related, with the acquisition of the apples of the Hesperides and the capturing of Cerberus being brought forward to the tenth and eleventh places. This might suggest that the metopes are merely showing scenes for Herakles’ life in no particular order, but as the traditional order postdates the building of the temple at Olympia this seems an unsafe conclusion; it seems more likely that this collection may represent the first attempt to assemble the twelve episodes into one story.

Atlas offering the apples of the Hesperides to Heracles, with Athene watching.

The continuous frieze common to temples built in the Ionic order, however, can be seen to demonstrate principles of comics with remarkable subtlety. The Parthenon offers an excellent example of this.

The Parthenon’s Ionic frieze was about 160 metres long and showed an idealised version of the Panathenaic procession. Though the frieze was continuous and therefore seemed to be one image, there was clearly chronological progression in it. 



The western end, the first to be seen by people coming from the Propylaea, featured horsemen gathering for the procession, which begins at the south-west corner. Continuing along the northern side the procession had many elements –  horsemen,musicians, etc – before reaching the eastern end. Here it culminated with the gods looking on as a group of people held a peoplos, which would have been presented to the sacred olive-wood statue of Athene on the Acropolis. The south side of the frieze, which was not as visible as the other three sides, also had an eastwards direction converging at this scene.

The Parthenon frieze, assembled as one text, read from right to left and top to bottom.

Clearly this was sequential art, the appearance of which would have been heightened by the bright colours in which it was painted. 

The fact that it would have also been seen through gaps between columns would also have given it an added element of timing – the columns would have acted as “gutters” or panel divisions.

Overall, therefore, I think it can be plainly seen that the principles that make comics what they are were quite evident in Classical Art. Though I’ve only dealt with Greek art up to the mid-fifth century BC, the traditions of sequential art continued throughout the Hellenistic period as can be seen in the Telephus frieze surrounding the altar of Zeus at Pergamon and thrived in the Roman world, with Trajan’s column being but the most obvious example.

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Originally published in UCD Classical Society Journal, 1996/1997, and tweaked here merely to amend the most clunky of sentences. I found this in the shed today, and was amused to see how my writing had changed. Glad, too. Mind, it has been a very long time. 

24 August 2014

X and Y, or Being Careful What You Ask For

"The constitutional equal right to life of pregnant women and unborn children means that viability closes off the possibility of abortion," wrote Fiona de Londras in Tuesday's Irish Independent. It's a powerful soundbite, but in some ways a redundant one, as it's not really Bunreacht na hEireann that causes viability to close off the possibility of abortion. It's basic medical reality that does that.

The Oxford English Dictionary's primary definition of abortion says that an abortion, of its very nature, occurs before a child "is capable of independent survival". The previous edition of the OED spelled out that from a medical point of view, "abortion is limited to a delivery so premature that the offspring cannot live, i.e. in the case of the human foetus before the sixth month." Stedman's medical dictionary spells this out, saying that abortion takes place "before viability" which it defines as "(20 weeks' gestation [18 weeks after fertilization] or fetal weight less than 500 g)".

If we trawl the report of 2000's All Party Oireachtas Committee on Abortion we find that the then-Master of the Coombe said that abortion constituted the premature ending of a pregnancy at any point before the foetus or baby is viable, with both the then-President of the Medical Council and the then-Master of the National Maternity Hospital saying that abortion meant the ending of a pregnancy in the first trimester, so within fourteen weeks.

There's obviously some disagreement here, but still, it seems clear from all of these points that medically speaking it is oxymoronic to talk of aborting a child who could -- with help -- survive without depending wholly upon its mother. In other words, it's just not that it's immoral or illegal or against the Constitution to abort a viable child. Medically speaking, it seems to be impossible. 

That's not to say that it's impossible, medically speaking, to kill that child. Just that such an act may not, medically speaking, be abortion. Or so, at least, the medical authorities would seem to believe.

With that it mind, it's worth considering what happened in the horribly sad case of the lady we'll presumably all know henceforth as 'Miss Y', a story which is filling Ireland's papers and which has two victims: a small child, prematurely taken from the womb and currently fighting for its life, and a young woman who has been the victim of a rapist, a culture that left her terrified of pregnancy, a state unprepared to help asylum seekers let alone pregnant ones, and a pro-choice charity that her own account suggests allegedly gave advice both incorrect and incomplete. 

The backstory we can only imagine, of course, but if all the papers other than the Irish Times are right, Miss Y arrived in Ireland as an asylum seeker and someone who'd been raped before leaving her home country; here she would have lived in one of those pitiful Direct Provision centres, and a fortnight or so after arrival she underwent a medical examination.

This examination established that she was eight weeks pregnant; shocked by this news she immediately expressed a desire to end the pregnancy,and the nurse with whom she was dealing suggested she talk to the IFPA. It makes no sense to paint this as her having been denied an abortion at this point, as she'd not spoken to the proper people, and there's no suggestion in her recent Irish Times interview that she was immediately suicidal. In shock, yes, and distressed and surely sick with worry, yes, but not suicidal. 

It looks like she was given no meaningful care at all at this stage, which doesn't reflect well at all on how we treat those who would seek asylum among us. 

Anyway, Miss Y followed the nurse's suggestion and contacted the IFPA, which on the face of it seems to have mucked her about for ages: it talked about 28-week limits in Britain when the reality is that there's a 24-week limit there -- leaving aside how most abortions in England are almost certainly technically illegal -- and it apparently never told her about how such pro-choice charities as the Abortion Support Network might have helped her with money. It seems too that it didn't send her to doctors or arrange for her to get proper counselling or psychiatric help. Certainly, she said nothing about such things when being interviewed.

During this period she became genuinely suicidal, even attempting suicide -- she tried to hang herself -- shortly after the IFPA informed her that it would cost her €1500 to go to England for an abortion. In an article she wrote a day after interviewing Miss Y, Kitty Holland said it is understood that Miss Y was referred to the HSE in May, which suggests that if she was referred to the HSE it happened in the aftermath of this incident. However, leaving aside how it is unclear whether Miss Y ever acted on the reference and contacted the HSE, it is difficult to accept this detail as true: if this really happened, did Miss Y say it in the Irish Times interview with Kitty Holland? If she said it, why didn't Kitty report it? Is it really plausible that Kitty failed to ask whether Miss Y had any dealings with the HSE between her initial examination and her mid-July approach to a GP?

Eventually, during her twenty-third week of pregnancy, she went to a GP who directed her to hospitals where she was established as being both suicidal and 24 weeks pregnant; although she wanted an abortion, she was told that it was too late for one. She then attempted to starve herself to death -- technically this was her second suicide attempt, and should probably be seen as such rather than as a hunger strike -- and the HSE took out a court order so she could be forcibly hydrated, though this was not acted on, as Miss Y was persuaded to start eating again in the belief that she would need to be strong if there was to be an abortion. 

Instead, though, she was presented with the decision of her termination panel to the effect that her pregnancy could be terminated by by premature delivery through caesarian section. Miss Y accepted this, as she felt she had no choice, and the delivery took place, it appears, on Wednesday 6 August, 26 weeks into Miss Y's pregnancy, and two weeks after her arrival in hospital. 

(Nothing that has been reported suggests that the criteria for evaluating risk were established in line with the sensible principles laid down by the High Court in the 2006 Cosma case, which required that patients should be evaluated in the context of ongoing therapeutic relationship involving counselling and all psychiatric treatment that she needed and that the evaluation should show that all other ways of treating suicidality should have been considered properly before the 'last resort' was deemed necessary. But perhaps these principles have been deemed null and void by the X Legislation; I am no expert, and cannot say. I would like to know, just as I would like to know what is the normal therapeutic response when presented with a suicidal patient, and indeed with a patient seeking to starve herself to death. Without knowing these answers, I'm loath to comment.)

Now, much of the early outrage on this -- and you'll see it being picked up on in the likes of the Guardian and following that the New York Times -- seems to have been based on the assumption that Miss Y had sought an abortion for seventeen weeks and had been deliberately denied one until it was too late and a caesarian was the only option. However, by her own account she only went to the proper authorities in the twenty-third week of her pregnancy; things moved quickly after that.

It seems, therefore, to have been on the first day of her twenty-fourth week of pregnancy that Miss Y went to hospital to be assessed and scanned. Should she have been granted an abortion at that point?

Many, clearly, think so; many others, equally clearly, do not; both views are defensible, depending on one's premises. Medically, though, it seems that there's a case that an abortion at that point would have been not merely illegal or immoral, but, as detailed above, impossible. Miss Y's child was by this point not simply a unique human being, but a unique and viable human being, and it is impossible to abort viable human beings. You're not engaging in an abortion then, medically speaking. You're doing something else.

It is crucial to remember that this very scenario was foreseen during the discussions surrounding last year's X legislation. Indeed, the heads of the bill spelled out the obligation to preserve the life of the unborn child if at all possible, noting that:
"In circumstances where the unborn may be potentially viable outside the womb, doctors must make all efforts to sustain its life after delivery. However, that requirement does not go so far as to oblige a medical practitioner to disregard a real and substantial risk to the life of the woman on the basis that it will result in the death of the unborn."
Last year's legislators didn't pluck this obligation out of the air. They were acting, after all, in strict accordance with the provisions of the 1992 X judgment, which the aforementioned Fiona de Londras summed up last year as demanding the following reading of the Constitution:
"Article 40.3.3 of the Constitution recognises the equal right to life of pregnant women and the unborn. This means that abortion is generally prohibited in Ireland but is constitutionally permissible where three conditions are met: (i) there is a real and substantial risk to the life of the woman, (ii) in all probability that risk can be averted only by termination of the pregnancy, and (iii) the foetus is not viable such that abortion (rather than early delivery) is the appropriate means of termination."
(It should be remembered that in 1983, when article 40.3.3 was added to the Constitution, twice as many people voted for it as against it; it's utter nonsense to talk of a cadre of "Catholic fundamentalists" getting their hands on Bunreacht na hEireann and jamming the eighth amendment into it, as I saw one particularly crude piece claiming during the week. The eighth amendment was twice as popular than it was unpopular, and of those eligible to vote, only one person in six voted against it.)

So the X judgment ruled that abortion was permissible only when there was no other way of saying a woman's life, or, if you like, that it was legitimate to take one human life if not doing so meant the loss of two. It did not rule that abortion was permissible when it was the best, or the most humane, or the least distressing way of saving a woman's life. It ruled that it was permissible if it was only way of doing so.

What does this mean? Well, to start with, every single person who for the last twenty years and more has been arguing that we should be legislating for the X judgment has in effect been campaigning for what happened to Miss Y. I'm not saying that they were campaigning for this knowingly; I don't believe that for a moment. I am, however, saying that all their slogans and marches and articles and banners have implicitly demanded the very mess that happened in the last month or so. Every single one. They can hardly say they weren't warned. 

Breda O'Brien, for instance, wasn't joking when she wrote in the Irish Times on 6 July 2013 that the bill allowed that "a baby can be delivered prematurely, but cannot be killed after viability." Scorning the notion that this supposed "protection" for the unborn was an appealing facet of the Bill, Ms O'Brien described this "much vaunted provision" as a "truly monstrous proposal", posing a grim and challenging rhetorical question: 
"In a couple of decades, there will be young adults appearing before tribunals, passionately demanding to know why they, as perfectly healthy unborn children, were singled out for deliberate premature delivery, and left blind, disabled or suffering from cerebral palsy? All in the complete absence of any demonstrable benefit to their mothers."
One would, at the very least, wonder where the burden of proof would lay in such cases. Would doctors be obliged to demonstrate that there they couldn't think of any other way to keep desperate mothers alive? 

Breda O'Brien was hardly alone in pointing this out. It was in the heads of the bill, after all. Everyone who campaigned for X legislation, who voted for X legislation, who supported politicians because they'd promised X legislation, who cheered when X legislation was passed -- this is their mess. And that includes those who saw this as a step towards the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, and the eventual introduction of openly pro-choice legislation, because they were willing to allow situations like this, horrible messes like this, as a 'step'. They were willing to use human beings as a means to the end they wanted. 

They were willing to treat people like things.

It won't do for supporters of the X legislation to say that they didn't realise this would happen: they were campaigning for X to be given legislative force, and as such it was their duty to understand what it was they were campaigning for. If they campaigned in ignorance then, why should they be assumed to be campaigning in an informed way now? Why would they even believe that of themselves?

I'm not blaming those who were open in their opposition to so-called 'Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act'. I may disagree with those who want to repeal the Eighth Amendment, but at least they're consistent in their thinking, wrong though I believe it to be. No more than Ireland's pro-lifers who opposed legislating for X, they didn't do this. They'd rather the problem had been dealt with discreetly in the first place. Out of sight, out of mind.