Saturday 31 August 2019

Norman Douglas, Siren Land

I was reading Norman Douglas, Siren Land, in the middle of the night, the chapter on the Blue Grotto of Capri, with lavish quotes from Ouida and other, only slightly less rapturous visitors, then went back to sleep and dreamed of a stretch of calm sea with, every few yards, a horse showing through: head and neck and mane. Then the horses went back under the water, though you could still see them, shadowy, moving slightly.

You need to take some kind of deep breath to read Norman Douglas. This erudite, hedonistic, cheerfully opinionated writing is not of our time. Siren Land (1911) feels more natural to him than South Wind. He treats his historical knowledge and feeling for place with more relish and comfort than the social world he reconstructs in South Wind. 

The popularity of the Blue Grotto arose in the high Romantic period, 'on the crest of an immense wave of cavern and ruin worship that overswept Northern  Europe', and might not have happened if tastes had gone some other way. They would have found the Blue Grotto by now, I thought; they have found everything, and what they haven't found, they have constructed, in this, the high Capitalist period.
Shelley warbled of odorous caves so tunefully that men were almost tempted to become troglodytes again; Rousseau raved of noble savages; he showed us how to discover beauty in Switzerland.... long may it continue to attract, and wholly absorb, the superbly virile energies of our own upper-better-middle classes! Thanks, Rousseau; thanks for not living in Italy. 
Norman Douglas is similarly acerbic about England. 'English nature is too green, he wrote, and that green too monotonous in shade and outline; it is (entre nous) a salad landscape. '

Other riotous chapters include one about Sister Serafina, the local not quite saint of Capri, so much the antithesis of Norman Douglas' own tastes in life, like pleasure, and wine, and lying under carob trees in golden light, that he gets into perverse stride.
I linger upon the personality of this energetic single-minded woman, for she is the embodiment of what the Hellenic spirit was not: its very antithesis. Earthly existence she held to be an illusion; the world was death; the body a sinful load which must be tortured and vexed in preparation for the real life—the life beyond the grave. To those Greeks, the human frame was a subtle instrument to be kept lovingly in tune with the loud-voiced melodies of earth and sky and sea; these were the realities; as for a life beyond, let the gods see it it—a shadowy, half-hearted business, at best.

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