Shepherding thought (and a coda from Varro)

I love the frisson of terror that live theatre produces. For me, in the audience, it’s as thrilling as a high-wire act to see people transformed by stepping into performance space, becoming something entirely other to their everyday selves. Will that transformation stick? Will I suspend or wallow in my disbelief? Will some element of the complex negotiation between audience and actors break down? Will it seem real, or true, or make-believe?

The ‘Orpheus’ Grotto at Schloss Hellbrun (Salzburg) is just one element of a landscape populated by disturbing automata and startling water-trickery. Monteverdi’s Orfeo was performed at the palace’s Rock theatre (1616), and the estate’s motto (’The divine unifies even opposites’ is especially interesting for this blog, and the ‘Orpheus’ theme. Image (c) Hellbrun Palace Administration.

When one participates in drama it’s never a done deal, and I was thinking hard over the past weeks about this odd compact that theatre produces. The reason was that unusually, given my normal term-time scheduled panic, I could have gone a number of times to the theatre. It is of course thanks to Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences. Before Christmas LANS had tickets for two performances each of which sounded intriguing and challenging, first, Nosferatu (at the Midlands Arts Centre), then Orpheus (The Studio, at the Birmingham Rep). Logistics meant I had to abandon hope of getting to Nosferatu, but Orpheus was on.

Dracula (1979) The luscious visual juxtapositions brought out the Romantic quality in the mythos, but also emphasised the art/technocracy vs nature topos.

Nosferatu’s basis in the Dracula mythos has terrorised and tickled me since childhood. I watched a succession of movie versions (who didn’t fall for Frank Langella?) through cracks between my fingers, my knees drawn up to my chin, curled into a corner of our sagging second-hand sofa. I thrilled to Bram Stoker’s novel, first read when I was going on seven, and a rare and delicious occasion, actually alone in the house. I sat cross-legged with it, absorbed, on the floor of my bedroom, back to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Eventually I was so paralysed by terror that I couldn’t bear to open the door to the landing. Who knew what might lurk behind that too-solid wooden barrier?

Of course academic study has subsequently veneered layers of scholarly discourse over the horror I felt as a child; the ways in which Nosferatu (1922) embodies and interrogates the ‘walled garden’ of German cinema in the years after 1916 is thoughtfully explored in studies such as this one. If you’re interested. Murnau’s later Faust (1926) explores similar themes of desire and repression, but one particular twist on Stoker’s Dracula is to my mind crucial to understanding how and why Nosferatu so interestingly develops the theme of technocracy and its limits.

HAL 9000 takes the next step for AI (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968. Image source)

The landscapes of German Expressionism are disorienting and hint at spatio-temporal entropy, and at the heart of the movement was an interest in understanding how psychic interiority (of an individual, but also specifically an individual within society) relates to and is manifest in warped topographic scenography. Saviour Catania’s ‘Absent Presences in Liminal Places: Murnau’s Nosferatu and the Otherworld of Stoker’s Dracula’ (Literature/Film Quarterly 32.3 2004: 229-236 — a journal going open access in 2017) is a good example of how this spatial approach is developing, while Judith Halberstam (‘Technologies of Monstrosity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Victorian Studies 36.3 (1993): 333–352 — jstor subscription required) sets the scene for reading the vampire as a reaction to technocracy, a model that continues to resonate through entities as morally diverse as Stanley Kubrick’s tragi-sinister HAL (‘Open the pod bay doors…’ 2001 A Space Odyssey, 1968) or Deckard, the surely-human(?) born out of Philip K. Dick’s imaginary, as reconceived by Ridley Scott for his 1982 sci-fi noir Blade Runner. Sandy Feinstein’s subtle analysis of Stoker’s Dracula brings a range of these issues into focus: subjectivity itself, central too to the Expressionist project, is locked into a kind of mise en abyme whereby the metaphoric potential of chemistry allows investigation into how ’the rejection of alternative perceptions of reality, expressed in distinct and sometimes contradictory discourses, results in error, misdiagnoses, and failed treatments’ (‘Dracula and Chloral: Chemistry Matters‘. Victorian Review 35.1 (2009): 96-115, at 100 — jstor subscription required).

How does that intersect with Orpheus? Well, the production that we saw in Birmingham was remarkable for its complexity, its tonal sensitivity, its brio. But most of all, for the delicate but vivacious way it brought together themes of sight and insight with a genuinely powerful musical performance; a variety show with elements of vaudeville, which transported the audience from 21st-century Birmingham through Paris in the 30s, to the confines of a supper-club whose exits included the Styx (and whose outcomes included yet another take on life-beyond-life).

Possible worlds colliding, here, were linked thematically by the things ‘we’ choose (not) to see, the blinding power of music, harmonic intersections between competing mythic imaginaries (Persephone: a man, a musician, haunting in his/her choral autobiography; Eurydice: a Piaf-esque and slightly ludicrous chanteuse, a perceptive pathfinder, blind to realities), all the while nudging the audience to recall the greater blindness already enveloping the nocturnal Parisian alterity of wine and song. This was also a painted vision of a Europe across which lamps might soon, again, be said to be going out (the comment is attributed to Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary at the start of World War 1) — tangentially, recall The Divine Comedy’s ‘When the Lights Go Out All Over Europe’, 1994).

Something like 35 years after we first stood by the Rometta water feature at the Villa d’Este, my mum and I were there again (April 2013)…

Perception of reality is about so much more than sensory data, it’s about the evaluation, analysis, and interpretation of data to create a meaningful experiential narrative. I’ve been interested for some time in how this operates for artificial landscapes where hydraulics and planting schemes tell interestingly on each other (hence my book, Roman Landscape, 2010); but also my interest in pleasure-scapes — I’ve recently become especially intrigued by the genealogies rippling out from the Villa d’Este (Tivoli), emerging from Pirro Ligorio’s archaeological imagination, by way of the ruins of second century CE Emperor Hadrian’s nearby estate, through e.g. the sixteenth-century Medici Villa di Castello, near Florence, with its sculptural programme conceived by Niccolò Tribal (see Natsumi Nonaka, 2005. ‘The Garden of the Villa Medici at Castello (revised and translated)’. Bulletin of Saitama Women’s Junior College 16: 189–213; or [subscription needed] Liliane Châtelet-Lange, [1968] ‘The Grotto of the Unicorn and the Garden of the Villa di Castello‘).

Tomaso Francini, the gifted engineer later employed by Ferdinando I de Medici, was then lured by Henry IV to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. There, he fantasised and made real a landscape that brought together complex, mind-bending hydraulic jokes, modified reflections of real-world sights, and ruptures the certainty of where human and divine part company (see Jessica Riskin [2010] ‘Machines in the Garden’ Republics of Letters 1.2). I started recently to think through this bundle of ideas (basically: how reality, the imaginary, expectation, desire, and discourse brew up something interesting) when working on the revisions to my book about M. Terentius Varro and his (mid first-century BCE) study of Latin, de Lingua Latina (Varro’s Guide to Being Roman — just about ready to go back to the publisher after phase 2 edits). This was particularly the case when I was re-examining book 6 and Varro’s discussion of how the passage of time, marked up as a calendar, was manifest in Rome.

‘The community of words is manifold: the Vinalia, without wine is a non-starter [expedire], and the Curia Calabra is un-openable [aperire] without the call-out’ (Varro, Ling. 5.13).

The silly/right logic is unassailable in its truthiness (but could lead to an English assertion that Christmas without Christ is… Hmmm, we know where that one goes). Formally, Romans in Varro’s era might experience their calendar as something with distinctive somatic overtones, heard monthly when key dates were ‘called out’ or ‘announced’, from the Curia Calabra (or Proclamation Hall) in Rome. The Pontifs, on the first of the month (the date known as the Kalends) announced how the moveable, relative dating system would operate in a given month; in the light of which, business, politics, law, everyday life might slot into place. The Communicative function of the Curia Calabra is so etymologically bound up in its name that the site, the sound, and the action form a unit that complements the dual senses available from the verb aperio (opening something up, bringing it to light, and rendering an account). This is just one example, but it shows how something that seems banal and self-evident in language can have powerful, community-forming nuances when teased logically out into elemental forms.

Varro’s verbal family-history linking words beginning with co– (Ling. 6.43) offers another, especially lively, sequence that I think warrants brief comment here. First, exemplifying traditional popular political movement, he evokes the mass meeting (in Latin, contio), that is to say, public broad-based politics in which people come together to take decisions. From collectivising movement Varro’s etymological focus shifts to transformational movement on a much smaller scale: the practice of marriage by mock-sale (the Latin term coemptio), that is to say, to the interface between the private bonds of families and individuals, and the position of families within the framework of the res publica (Commonwealth). Finally, readers reach with Varro the compitum (crossroads), that is to say, a place where designated, frequently trodden paths meet: having a place where journeys intersect is a key signifier of developed infrastructure (that’s self-evident) but in Rome it also bridges the semiotic gap linking human and divine space. Etymology makes this a site associated with an important festival, the Compitalia.

Trees now demarcate the Via Latina as it approaches/departs Rome, more persistently than the remaining tombs (July, 2012)

Varro included the Compitalia (earlier, in book 6) as his first example when he sset about explaining the quirky language-games as part of a discussion of moveable festivals. But when he gave this initial etymology for competa (sic) it focused on competunt: where the highways meet (a third-person plural verb). When roads meet the geniuses (deities known as Lares) of the highways are seldom far from view, nurging travellers to see roads as the Lares’ infrastructural embodiment as they oversee routes through the landscape. Roads, especially near Roman cities, do double-duty as funerary parks; each tomb recalling its inhabitants to passers by.

So by thinking about the cosmic and human significance of where roads cross Varro encourages readers to find something Other and perhaps a little disturbing (or at least unexpectedly uncontrollable) at a crossroads. Their space symbolically alludes to an interface between humans and the divine, and by their intersectional and transitional nature, crossroads (getting back to Varro’s ostensible focus…!) echo the shifting calendrical position of the Compitalia festival and its relationship to the vagaries of climate and environment.

Varro’s turn after exploring the verb cogere brings readers to the ‘active’ noun cogitatio. Here, ‘consideration’, a high-level action that is implicitly a function of individual mental processes, takes on topographic resonance by generating concilium (meeting; consultative assembly): a framework for collaborative intellectual activity. Next follows a transition to the marginally different consilium (both a deliberative body with executive connotations, and the purposeful resolutions or plans determined by an individual or group). Varro then closes the list of co– prefixed terms by drawing the reader back to his trigger word: cogere. ‘Consideration’ (cogitare) is when the mind gathers disparate things into a unity in order to make an informed choice; taking the passive form, ‘to be united’ or ‘brought into line’ (conciliari) is the action performed on individuals when they are formed into a concilium and this, Varro picturesquely observes, is just like when clothing is pressed (cogitur) at the laundry. As his audience might add, procuring a well-laundered outfit is central to effective participation in public speech.

Rome’s walls, see feature marked ‘Small Aventine’ (

While strolling in San Saba, not far from where I live when in Rome (you can get a sense of that little hill’s delights by way of Rome, Art Lover’s illustrated ramble) I was recalled to Varro’s active, topographic cogitation. The heart of San Saba, the crest of an outlier of the Aventine hill, is characteristically unusual (for central Rome): a community of small houses rather than tall apartment blocks. It’s also a place that plays an idiosyncratic role in part of Rome’s cycle of foundation legends.

As I put it (writing last year) ‘stories had it that within augural templa sighted from Rome’s Aventine twin peaks (or from Aventine and Palatine, depending on the storyteller), the flights of birds observed in ritual fashion determined that Romulus, not his twin brother Remus, would found the new city, and would do so on the Palatine hill’ (via jstor, see Skutsch 1961; for ancient evidence, e.g. Cicero, De Diuinatione 1.48 (quoting Ennius, Annales 72–7)). The smaller of those Twin Peaks (I truly believe that Varro would have squeezed in an intertextual nudge) became modern San Saba.

For Varro, one Paaaaalatine etymology was onomatopoeic: from the hill’s supposed history as pasture for sheep (Ling. 5.53; I’ve written about this in a 2011 collection of essays, ‘Movement and the Linguistic Turn’, p.74). Among ancient authors of the first century BCE we see ripples of that early conceptual oddness (the most extreme city could only come from a site formerly the most perfect countryside, a territory ruled by the ‘Good Man’, one etymology for the legendary king Evander). It continues too to shape my movement through the city. Rome’s mythical fraternal quarrel, by way of the oddness of Rome’s intensely metropolitan gloss on a myth of rustic origins, is already an interesting bundle of associations. If it is combined with the dangers that fascism illuminated, steeped in aggressively retroactive nostalgic visions of pristine, rural virtues (as a contrast to a decadent present), this quiet quarter of the city begins to buzz with background noise.

New-Old boundary marker, San Saba (2/11/2014)

What brought all this to mind? In part, it was an encounter with the interesting, fragmentary ‘Psychogeografic guide of Rome’ project; in part, the faux-historical boundary inscription asserting Augustan authority from the wall of a 1930s condominio; and in part, a bas relief shepherd sculpture that rather like an ancient herm (or Priapus) marks a property line.

The ripples of psychogeography continue to ebb and flow, but the originary impetus  in the Situationist International had a political dimension, radical and individually empowering in its day and closely connected to scrutiny of what has been called the cultural logic of late capitalism (extracts from Fredric Jameson’s seminal 1991 work, here). Psychogeography draws out the complex nuances of human movement through an inhabited landscape, explicitly palimpsestic and not solely because urban. Whilst the flâneur is typically a solitary figure, his or her storytelling power is charged up by toponyms: social constructs of an urban landscape and also predicated on, and born of, an environment that has been deliberately fabricated (whether wholly or in part). To understand, and read oneself into, San Saba from a more recent project, there are sample ‘Lynch maps’ (named for urban theorist Kevin Lynch) and more here, in a 2010 report from Cornell University, ‘San Saba: L’oasi di Pace’.

Pensive shepherd, San Saba (2/11/2015)

What this means for me, when walking up one cracked, travertine stair from Viale Aventino, is that depending on day and mood I see a craggy, overgrown height rising ahead of and behind me, barricading (as well as generating) the circus “valley” to the north, while the undulating dip between the peaks offers vistas south toward the sea and historic Alba, and north toward the looming Palatine. The ‘pensive shepherd’ (complete with miniature crag) pictured also gazes in Palatine direction and toward the Servian Wall’s now mostly imaginary course, perhaps recalling that now silent but still present pull between Aventine (traditionally the ‘outsiders’ hill’) and Palatine (jostling in antiquity with the neighbouring Capitoline for patriotic supremacy).

I also feel the flex and ebb of the academic year entwining with the calendar — the two images I’ve used for the San Saba sites in this blog post are separated by exactly a year, by chance, and by University lacunae in teaching enabling research trips.

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