From Church & State: Autumn 2006

Mrs Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Non-Sectarian

An Anecdote

In the last issue of Church & State I perpetrated a diatribe against the misconceived notion of non-sectarianism which I described as—

"…a pattern of social and cultural behaviour set foul to cripple the anti-sectarian purposes of constructive political engagement. It replaces a combative spirit with politeness and in so doing disables thought."

And I commented that: "It even disables poetry."

Well, a visit to the renovated Dublin City Gallery in July has shown me that the less immediately intellectual world of the plastic arts is not at all immune from the depredations of non-sectarian habits of thought.

One of the exhibits on view at the Hugh Lane is a sculpture by John Kindness (who I remember fondly from years ago in the South Belfast Young Socialists' den of iniquity in Salisbury Street) entitled Monkey and Dog. And in and of itself it is an aesthetically pleasing, entirely inoffensive, piece of work that I don't really have the specialised vocabulary to describe at all adequately. I certainly didn't find it politically problematic.

But then I read Margarita Cappock's critical appreciation of the piece in the catalogue of the permanent exhibition. She is Head of Collections at the Gallery and, by the testimony of an obsequious blurb, a major stockholder in the industry surrounding the life and work of the appalling Francis Bacon. And this is what she had to say about John Kindness's Monkey and Dog

"John Kindness…His work frequently contains irreverent satirical representations of the two opposing factions in his native Northern Ireland.

"In Monkey and Dog Kindness uses animal allegory to encapsulate the bitter sectarian conflict between Catholics and Protestants. A Republican dog is locked in combat with a Loyalist monkey. The artist's choice of animals was suggested by an eighteenth century print of Mrs Midnight's performing animals in which a monkey town is besieged by dogs. The image reminded him of depictions of the siege of the city of Derry.

"The eternal circular stalemate depicted leaves no possibility of resolution, with the animals inextricably intertwined and evenly matched…"

Well then, on first viewing, the very highly stylised piece had put me in mind of nothing much and nothing so much as the Midgard Serpent coiled upon itself as on the world biting its own tail. Its title seemed self-referential in some way that did not immediately occur to me, the absence of which I think I could have managed to live with.

Going back to it armed with Margarita Cappock's explanation of it I still could see nothing much in it so much as the possibility of Northern European references. I couldn't see a monkey or a dog. And as for Billys and Micks oh so crudely in the round, given that the colour scheme of the sculpture is blue and red, I couldn't see any of that at all.

Which leaves the really very obscure reference to monkeys and dogs in the oeuvre of Mrs. Midnight. And that in my inconsequentially contrary way I do happen to know something about. So now then who is this Mrs. Midnight?

Well, she is a he and he said: Hey Joe, Take A Walk On The Wild Side.

The Madness Of Poets

From Sweeney on the Irish have had mad poets aplenty. Even strait-laced blue-shirted William Butler Yeats flirted in verse with a wild bad madness that he was socially incapable of letting rip in the exuberance of. But Yeats was only Anglo—one of those tongue-tied sons of black Cromwellian bastards’ bitches or whatever it was that Joyce called the half-hearted half-breed heirs of our darling Spenser—Irish. He had only half the wit to be wonderfully witless.

Percy's Reliques Of Ancient English Poetry has a separate category of mad poetry which it claims is a speciality of English versification, giving six examples and claiming very many more, then wondering if it is something racial or something in the climate or the water that makes old English poets mad. But W. B. was only Hiberno-English. He was not the full Queen's shilling of a true born Englishman. The real mad poetry of that ilk wasn't in him.

Mad Tom Of Bedlam in all its versions and influence is a couple of dozen of the broader stuff that Percy cited. And grand wild stuff it is. But Mad Tom is just a mad poem with nothing to suggest it was written by a fully fledged mad man.

The real true born English Poet who was categorically mad with a career in Bedlam to prove it is Christopher Smart: marvellously mad author of the most glorious religious verse.

The poetry of Smart's lunacy isn't really mad in the sense of Percy's Reliques which is concerned with "songs and ballads on the subject of madness". Smart's poetry is not written on the subject of madness. It is quite possibly unique in simply being of a piece with his lunacy.

This is the lunacy as Dr. Johnson described it for his Boswell to set it down:

"Madness frequently discovers itself merely by unnecessary deviation from the usual modes of the world. My poor friend Smart shewed the disturbance of his mind, by falling upon his knees, and saying his prayers in the street, or in any other unusual place. Now although, rationally speaking, it is greater madness not to pray at all, than to pray as Smart did, I am afraid there are so many who do not pray, that their understanding is not called in question."

(Incidentally, that casual remark is all the insight that a couple of centuries later was painstakingly elaborated into a complete system of radical psychiatry by R. D. Laing in his once infamous, now I think mostly forgotten, The Divided Self.)

And this, a very brief section from Jubilate Agno, which was written while Smart was confined in St. Luke's Hospital and other private asylums, is an example of the lunatic's mad poetry:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, wch is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his fore-paws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the fore paws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For Sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For Seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For Eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For Ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For Tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider'd God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he surpasses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he's a good cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.

For that is something of Christopher Smart, mad bad and difficult to know in a Bethnal Green Bedlam in the middle of the eighteenth century. Seventeen Sixty Odd and getting odder. Now back to the question: Who was Mrs. Midnight?

The Badness Of Women

Well, before Christopher Smart took to praying on passers-by along the public highway he was unquestionably sane. And in those the days of his sanity he spent his nights as the Witch of Midwifery, Milady Misrule—Mistress Mary Midnight.

For ten years or so Smart trod the boards at the Castle Tavern in Paternoster Row and the New Theatre in the Haymarket in petticoats and such as Mrs Midnight, a caricature of a character he had come across and up with some years previously in a journal he edited on Grub Street called The Midwife. And this is Mrs. Midnight:

"I am what the World calls an accomplished LADY…I am married, and have several children, but I leave the poor little things to the care of my husband; my peculiar qualifications consist in the art of painting my face, and dropping my fan; I have acquired the most engaging motion of the eyes and lips; I can cheat at cards tolerably well, and in one word, I am possessed of all the qualities that make up an accomplish'd woman; I beat my husband one hundred times every day and spend twice the rent of his estate every year; I love pleasure, and give a ball at my own house every week."

Her later performances were in Mrs Midnight's New Carnival Concert in which the canons of established theatrical, literary and artistic taste were overturned, parodied and burlesqued. All to the accompaniment of troupes of performing dogs and monkeys. Which is more or less where we came in. So let's move on.

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even

With a literary work the medium imposes meanings on its object and in consequence the meanings of the work, however encrypted, obscure or downright befuddled, are at least discoverable. And there is an aesthetic of exploration.

Though there are very many 'literary' artists (Gustav Klimt for too many by half), works of art (objects produced by way of painting, sculpture, architecture and the like; things painted, stacked, cut, carved, blown, turned, woven, baked or simply found) are not meaningful within any similarly transparent system of words and the rules that enable their significant use.

But, bachelors though we are, we insist on stripping art’s bride down to her syntax, only to discover she's not wearing any.

So bachelorette Ms Cappock was impelled to strip Monkey and Dog down to what she could make of the concept of it. That is an obscene act and it resulted in an obscenity.

There is nothing eternal about the conflict in Northern Ireland. It is neither stalemated nor incapable of resolution. The problem in Derry is not that a bunch of monkeys are besieged by a pack of dogs. That is a reasonable description of how the cultural concerns which amuse the Southern establishment in its final decadence are played out. It has nothing to do with the real lives which really alive people are making for themselves, without benefit of any gallerified art that reflects or elaborates or as much as remarks reasonably upon them (dogs and monkeys that they are).

Unexplained, Monkey and Dog was colourful and pleasant enough to spend a minute with between Jack Yeats and Renoir. Explained by way of what 'high' culture imagines of the rest of us, in the concepts of a rarified non-sectarianism, it is…of itself, just what it was before.

The bride is innocent of her bachelors and what they make of her. And art is innocent of beaureaucrats and critics. I just wish John Kindness could have made more of an inspiration that began, if indeed it did so begin, with the magic Mrs Midnight.

For art should brisk about the life. And be an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.

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