Corbyn’s Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in response to the Peterloo Massacre, allegorising contemporary politicians as personifications of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy. Contrasted to these is Hope, ‘But she looked more like Despair’. Hope delivers an anatomy of Freedom (incorporating Justice, Wisdom, Peace, and Love) and calls on the English to rise up against Oppression’s slavery. Jeremy Corbyn quoted from this poem during his final speech of the June 2017 election campaign. His quotation is loaded with ironies and symbols.

One irony has become horribly apparent in the last two days since the avoidable fire at Grenfell Tower in west London. Governments tend not to commit massacres against their people these days, but the process of oppression and killing is more subtle: through cutting services, cutting regulations, incentivising landlord profits. These policies led directly (according to all informed reports) to the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire. The political ideology of division and social cleansing is the hidden successor to overt state violence.

The Peterloo Massacre (in which yeomanry charged at a crowd of peaceful advocates for parliamentary reform) inspired the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper which in its current form actively opposed Corbyn’s leadership until a few days before the June 2017 election. (For an informed comment on this particular irony, see this blog)

Shelley’s poem had been circling Corbyn’s campaign for a while, activating the mutual resonance between the campaign slogan “For the many, not the few” and the lines which close the poem (repeated from stanza 38) “Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number— / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you— / Ye are many—they are few.”

The reading by Corbyn, addressing a large crowd of supporters at the Union Chapel in Islington on the eve of the election, amplified through a booming PA system, is not intrinsically beautiful, but in the context, as his audience joins in the final line, and following an impassioned speech of stridently optimistic rhetoric, Corbyn’s performance is deeply moving. (At 29’46” here.)

Corbyn introduces the poem with reference to Mary Wollstonecraft, resident of Newington Green, her Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The connection Corbyn draws is political, befitting the occasion, but prefaced with the simple remark ‘you should never be afraid to say you love poetry’. This is perhaps in response to accusations from the philistine press of the sort that he would be better singing the national anthem or demonising immigrants than accepting a booking for an evening’s discussion with Ben Okri at the Royal Festival Hall.

There is also something implicit in this invocation of the traditions of English Romanticism. Beyond the immediate political exhortation and the Romantic contemporary context of Peterloo, the French Revolution, the counter-Enlightenment, and so on, there exists idealism, transcendence and living mythology. Symbolist critic G. Wilson Knight, commenting on Shelley’s Queen Mab, wrote, ‘The agonies of history with their paradisal goal ahead are seen in panorama, time being laid out flat beneath the Fairy’s dome’ (The Starlit Dome, 185). The temporal and the eternal meet in a panoptic symbol of communal responsibility. Corbyn’s Shelley is a vision of transcendent possibility in the political present.

The Last Wave

To ‘Pages of Hackney’ last month for a book launch. Pages is a great small independent bookshop I’d not visited before (it opened around the time I left London), with a lively programme of events and extensive second-hand department in the basement. The launch was held in the basement, where I found myself sat next to a display cabinet of pulp erotica. A couple of boxes of LPs were in another corner, and there was so much wine that bottles were stacked up the stairs.

The launch was for The Last Wave, the debut novel by Gillian Best. It centres on the life of Martha, told through the alternating first-person narratives of her family, neighbour, and Martha herself, jumping across time, non-chronologically, from her childhood, and resolving in a symbolic doubling involving her granddaughter.

The opening chapter is set towards the end of the story, boldly breaking the narrative arc by revealing the story’s trajectory, thus placing the novel’s emphasis on individual moments in a family’s life. As each chapter changes voices through the book, we are brought into lives which contain some joy and plenty of regret, and I had a better time with some members of the family than others. I was most won over by the granddaughter, Myrtle, whose combination of drive and wit optimistically counterbalanced the anxieties of adulthood.

The novel is weighted by what one might think of as hot topics for a newspaper: not just Alzheimer’s, but also cancer! Not just post-war sexual repression, but also twenty-first century lesbian coming out! But Best deals with delicate themes authoritatively, avoiding crassness, and with some subtly powerful detail, as in a quiet observation of death’s bureaucracy. When siblings Harriet and Iain are shown a catalogue of cremation urns, Harriet’s thoughts turn unexpectedly to the copy-writer: ‘I thought about the person who had had to write the copy for the brochure, to quietly and sombrely extol the virtues of a gold-plated urn over a simple and understated china white urn. […] It was absurd’ (283-84).

The sea, specifically the English Channel, provides a persistent backdrop for the book, whoever the narrator, and whatever the time-period. Martha derives spiritual strength from the sea, but this remains elusive to those around her, and the sea stops short of taking on the archetypal or transcendental status of a character itself. Yet the book begins with an archetypal image, introducing a terrifically tense opening chapter inside the mind of Martha’s husband. John reaches out for the absent Martha in their bed, her whereabouts unknown. This is a motif that goes back to the ancients: Menelaus does it to the absent Helen in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (424-5); more recently, Mr Ramsay does it in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (Time Passes §3). Best takes this image and embellishes it with items from the world she has created – the sand, the seabed – making it resonate freshly.

Madrid, myths, emotions

In October I presented a paper at the biennial myth conference at Universidad Complutense, Madrid: ‘Myth and Emotions’. This was my second visit (the first, in 2014, culminated in a chapter in the fine collection Myths in Crisis: The Crisis of Myth, which I covered below). It’s a big conference, from Monday to Friday with papers in Spanish, French, and English, and I wasn’t able to attend the whole week. When I arrived, part way through an afternoon session, my Englishness painfully apparent, the empty bowl of tea-bags was instantly replenished. That’s the sign of some devoted and thoughtful conference organising.

Detail of horse from Picasso, Guernica (1937)
Pablo Picasso, Guernica detail, 1937. Museo Reina Sofia

The Essex myth blog hosts an endearing report on the conference, and I wrote some preliminary remarks there, so here I’ll limit my comments to other matters. In 2014, I planned an afternoon away from the conference to see Guernica at the Reina Sofía museum (it was controversially relocated from the Prado a few years ago). It is, of course, an absorbing work; one detail that impressed me, seeing the painting in the room, was the care paid to the texture and shading of the horse’s teeth, and then the paint being allowed to run. This juxtaposition of painterly verisimilitude and deliberate carelessness creates a rupture: a small piece of artistic violence as a focus for the horror depicted throughout the canvas.

Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child (Prado)
Bernard van Orley, Mary and Child, 1515-1520. Museo del Prado

On this latest visit to Madrid, my gallery destination was, naturally, the Prado. With just a few hours, it is only possible to see a small fraction, hence it became a trip through the greatest hits, taking in Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Brueghel, The Triumph of Death, and whole rooms of Velázquez. I somehow managed to miss Titian entirely. These days I don’t get out much, and I could tell I was missing my family because some of the paintings moved me terribly: Bernard van Orley’s Mary and Child, in which the Christ child tugs on a red rosary, symbolising his eventual crucifixion; the geographical scale and quotidian detail of the Rest on the Flight to Egypt credited to a follower of Joachim Patinir, which recalls the Shield of Achilles in scope; the small exhibition ‘Childhood unveiled: Images of children in Spanish Romantic art’ had some wonderfully, delightfully expressive young faces, especially the gentle care in Joaquín Espalter y Rull’s Manuel y Matilde Álvarez Amorós, and the playfulness of Carlos Luis de Ribera y Fieve’s Retrato de niña en un paisaje. But it was Velázquez’s The Coronation of the Virgin which made me shudder. For some reason, the paintings in the Prado made me particularly sensitive to the human emotion of the Christ narrative. Well, the title of the conference was Myth and Emotions, and here I was, profoundly affected by the great numinous tale of the common era. Happy Easter.

Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin (Prado)
Diego Velázquez, The Coronation of the Virgin, 1635-1636. Museo del Prado

Translating Myth Q&A

Last month, the Open University Classical Studies blog posted a Q&A about Translating Myth. Pietra Palazzolo, my co-editor (who works for the OU), and I answered a few questions about the book, its rationale, and the associated events at the Essex Centre for Myth Studies. If our fellow editor, Leon Burnett, seems enigmatically silent in the conversation, it is because he was spared the interrogation, but he nodded his assent. Many thanks to Emma Bridges for her questions and for hosting the interview.

Brakhage on Tarkovsky

I personally think that the three greatest tasks for film in the 20th century are (1) To make the epic, that is to tell the tales of the tribes of the world. (2) To keep it personal, because only in the eccentricities of our personal lives do we have any chances at the truth. (3) To do the dream work, that is, to illuminate the borders of the unconscious. The only film maker I know that does all these three things equally in every film he makes is Andrei Tarkovsky, and that’s why I think he’s the greatest living narrative film maker.

The quotation is from Stan Brakhage, on the occasion of Andrei Tarkovsky’s award at the 1983 Telluride Film Festival. (This site describes in startling detail how Brakhage’s admiration was not reciprocated…)

What was true, to Brakhage, for cinema in the 1980s remains a high ambition for all art in this century. And it strikes me as quite a serviceable definition of myth: encompassing the social, the personal, and the unconscious.


I hadn’t noticed what has happened to “so”. I thought it was so last year to diss “so”. I’d been encouraged by Heaney’s Beowulf, where he translates the initial, throat-clearing utterance “Hwæt” as the Irish idiomatic, yarn-commencing “So.” which obliterates all previous narrative and commands attention.

But here’s Iain Sinclair, in the LRB (link here), who’s always sharp in spotting the petty indignities suffered by language, describing the initial “So” as the “entry code” to a gentrified, socially-cleansed London.

And in Sinclair’s article I discover that Tom Raworth has died. He didn’t make the news in the way that Derek Walcott did, and it had passed me by. I have fond memories of Raworth’s readings at Essex in recent years. Poetry readings are often poorly-attended affairs, but for one, Raworth’s audience was swelled by a keen email sent to all in the department of Literature at the university. It was a simple instruction not to miss “the great (-est?) modernist poet, Tom Raworth”. The email was sent by the late Joe Allard, an infectious enthusiast for Icelandic literature, among other things, and a fixture in the literary and drinking life of the town of Wivenhoe. The entire email — a plug in under 30 words, including time and place — was arresting and compelling: as if to say, here is Modernism, returning to revivify the Brutalist architecture of the Essex campus. It lives today.

This is my first post on here in a while. I have been writing more formal pieces, and the free time I’ve had when I could be writing blogs has been spent reading instead. Reading for pleasure, I mean. No-one can argue with that excuse.

Mythologism / Neo-mythologism

A new entry for the slow work of my glossary of myth-theoretical terms. Here’s a curious one: ‘neo-mythologism’ is a rather unlovely term that crops up more often in Russian studies than elsewhere. In seeking its etymology I have taken some unexpected turns.

mythologism and neo-mythologism

The earliest use of ‘mythologism’ I have found is in the work of French linguist Pierre Fontanier (1765-1844). Mythologisme is indeed a finer word in French than ‘mythologism’ in English. For Fontanier, ‘mythologisme’ strictly refers to the use of mythology as a shared, recognized symbolic system, or a stock of cultural images, to make a proposition – to explain a case or present an argument – rather than acting as simple metaphor. In the system of mythologisme, the personification of a god, for example, works in its emotional, identificational affect, rather than through allegorical explanation. Consequently, some critics have used mythologisme to argue for the ideological uses of myth, i.e. that myth is used emotively to uphold the status quo.

As for ‘neo-mythologism’, the earliest usage I can find is from 1962. The previous year, the Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi released Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide (1961; in the UK titled Hercules Conquers Atlantis, in the USA re-edited as Hercules and the Captive Womenwatch here). Considered a highlight in the ‘peplum’, or ‘swords and sandals’ genre, Cottafavi is also credited with describing it as ‘neo-mythologism’, but I have found no authoritative source for this, nor an Italian equivalent for the term. The earliest reference is in a 1962 article in Fiction, a French science fiction magazine: Jacques Goimard, ‘Néomythologisme et Paléo-science-fiction’. I haven’t tracked down the article in a library (although the entire magazine is available on EBay for a few Euro… I may succumb). I’m inclined to presume that Goimard, rather than Cottafavi coined the expression, perhaps by mutual agreement. Both néomythologisme and paléo-science-fiction describe the mix of familiar myth and the allegorisation of contemporary concerns as found in Cottafavi’s film. See this synopsis by Derek Elley: ‘The plot is tailored for the Nuclear Age: Antinea (Fay Spain), Queen of Atlantis, possesses a drop of Uranus’s blood buried deep in a dark shaft which gives her a terrible power over mankind; Hercules [Reg Park], through superhuman feats, exposes this to the sunlight and causes the destruction of Atlantis.’ Here, then, neo-mythologism refers to the use of ancient myth in modernity when combined with contemporary allegory.

A differing view, however, is offered in an alternative commentary on Cottafavi: Martin Winkler avers, ‘Today, even complex myths can be told or retold entirely in images. Italian director Vittorio Cottafavi, who made several films about ancient history and myth, aptly described this phenomenon as “neo-mythologism.”’ Once again, though, the ultimate source of the quotation is elusive: Winkler cites the English translation of a French book, by Pierre Leprohon, on Italian cinema. Leprohon dates the arrival of neo-mythologism in Italian cinema to 1960 (233), but it is not clear what the Italian term is: the usage seems to be a product of translation from Italian to French (where mythologisme is more idiomatic) to English (where it isn’t). I would guess that the Italian may be as simple as ‘nuova mitologia’, and Leprohon was following Goimard (although Goimard does not appear to be credited).

As an aside, in Gianni Rondolino’s book (in Italian) on Cottafavi, the films are described as featuring characters ‘della storia e della mitologia — o meglio della storia mitologizzata e della mitologia storicizzata’: ‘from history and mythology – or rather of mythologized history and historicized mythology’. This seems to be a reasonable description of Goimard’s usage of néomythologisme in the apparent absence of an equivalent term in Italian. The characters reflect historical tensions in a metaphysical dimension.

Neo-mythologism then returns in Russian. Victoria Adamenko, in Neo-Mythologism in Music, attributes the coinage to Eleazar Meletinsky. Meletinsky’s major work on myth is Поэтика мифа (1976: translated as The Poetics of Myth, 1998). Only once, as far as I can tell, does he use the term неомифологизм (98) which is transliterated neo-mythologism (73). More frequently, on the twentieth century resurgence of myth, he speaks of ремифологизация (27, for which the translators supply a gloss: ‘re-mythification (“re-mythologization”—the re-emergence of myth)’ 16). A few times, he mentions мифологизм (8, ‘mythicizing’, xx). Meletinsky’s sole usage of ‘neo-mythologism’ here does not seem sufficient to justify its seeming popularity in Russian studies, but that will have to be a story for another day.

Adamenko’s book is the most prominent usage of ‘neo-mythologism’ in English of which I am aware. Following Meletinsky’s discussion of the mythical method of writers of the Modernist period (in particular, Thomas Mann), Adamenko uses ‘neo-mythologism’ to separate modern myth-making from archaic myth-making. In this way, ‘neo-mythologism’ can be a usefully distinct term for describing the use of myth in modern, secular, or demythicised cultures. Adamenko’s interpretation is, then, not too far away from Goimard’s.

A final note. When Meletinsky uses ‘neo-mythologism’, it is alongside a reference to Charles Autran (1879-1952) and his work on epics. I have yet to find (néo-)mythologisme in these large volumes, but Autran’s work emphasises the importance of culturally significant ritual language. In this way, Autran’s theory is suggestive of an older theory in French thought, namely mythologisme.

How to untangle this and arrive at a synthetic definition? First, I shall refuse to transliterate it into English where the word is horrible. Instead, I propose the following:

  • mythologisme (French): a system of mythologizing which draws on a stock of cultural images and symbols with an emotional affect and results in the presentation of an argument.
  • néomythologisme (French) or неомифологизм (Russian): the use of myth in modern, secular, or demythicised cultures in order to allegorise contemporary conditions.


Pierre Fontanier, ed., Les tropes de Dumarsais avec un commentaire raisonné par M. Fontanier, I, Paris: Belin-Leprieur, 1818 (a commentary on César Chesneau Dumarsais [1676-1756], Traité des Tropes, 1730). See also Fontanier, Les Figures du discours, Paris: Flammarion, 1968, which compiles Manuel classique pour l’étude des tropes, ou Élémens de la science du sens des mots (Paris: Belin-Leprieur, 1821) and Des Figures du discours autres que les tropes (Paris: Maire-Nyon, 1827).

Jacques Goimard, ‘Néomythologisme et Paléo-science-fiction’, Fiction, 101, 1962, 139-144.

Derek Elley, The Epic Film: Myth and History [1984], Abingdon: Routledge, 2014.

Martin M. Winkler, ‘Greek Myth on the Screen’, in Roger D. Woodard, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007, 453-479: 454.

Pierre Leprohon, The Italian Cinema [Le cinéma italien, 1966] trans. R. Greaves and O. Stallybrass, New York: Praeger, 1972, 174-79.

Gianni Rondolino, Vittorio Cottafavi: cinema e televisione, Cappelli, 1980, 74.

Victoria Adamenko, Neo-Mythologism in Music: From Scriabin and Schoenberg to Schnittke and Crumb, Hillsdale, NY: Pendragon, 2007.

Eleazar M. Meletinsky, The Poetics of Myth [Поэтика мифа, 1976], trans. Guy Lanoue and Alexandre Sadetsky, New York: Routledge, 2000.

Charles Autran, Homère et les origines sacerdotales de l’épopée grecque, 3 vols, Paris: Denoël, 1938-1943 and L’épopée indoue: étude de l’arrière-fonds ethnographique et religieux, Paris: Denoël, 1946