Friday, May 25, 2007


Smutty Postcards, Panzeatic League, and Caledonian Antisyzygy

Dear Mr. Gilleland,

I like the escutcheon – a roundel with porc statant azure, which leaves dignity intact. The heraldic wallowing of ‘porc couchant’, possibly framed dexter and sinister by knife and fork, is best left to the hardline sybarites. Purists and the bellicose might insist on a boar tusked, unguled and bristled, but ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’.

Your post on ‘The Art of Donald McGill’ inspired me to dig out the original since I have a crumbling and tatty but much prized collection of Horizons (about three-quarters complete). I like to think that some of them at any rate are salt-stained from convoy duty, were rescued at Dunkirk, or parched in the African desert. You are usually impeccable bibliographically but I eventually found the essay (along with a short memoir of Robert Byron) in the September 1941 issue (vol. IV, no. 21) and not February 1942.

I was struck by the close of the essay:
“Like the music halls, they [saucy cartoons] are a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue. ...a whole category of humour integral to our literature till 1800 or thereabouts, has dwindled down to these ill-drawn postcards, leading a barely legal existence in cheap stationers’ windows. The corner of the human heart that they speak for might easily manifest itself in worse forms, and I for one should be sorry to see them vanish.”
Prophetic words. Orwell didn’t live to see the “barely legal” become incontrovertibly illegal, when McGill was prosecuted for obscenity in 1951 and his postcards did indeed all but vanish. ‘Hard Rock’ below was used in the case for the, on the face of it, rock-hard prosecution.

Compare this to an etching by another London Scot, James Gillray, 1757-1815 (The Satirical Etchings of James Gillray, ed. Draper Hill, Dover 1976) and you can appreciate Orwell’s point concerning eighteenth century antecedents.

What connects Gillray, McGill and the occasional scatologist Michael Gilleland is of course – nomen omen – Scottish Gaelic ‘gille’ – servant, the word which would be the likely candidate to render Spanish ‘escudero’ - squire in any Gaelic translation of Cervantes. So you could say there was a sort of hard-wired earthiness there (a Panzeatic League) - as there is indeed in the Scottish tradition - locked in creative tension with the elevated.

The critic Kurt Wittig gives some credence to the notion of ‘Caledonian Antisyzygy’:
“From the beginning to end, Scots poetry showed a combination of two or more seemingly irreconcilable qualities: of high pathos and everyday realism, of stark tragedy and grim humour, of high seriousness and grotesquerie, of tenderness and sarcasm. ...This emotional and intellectual dualism – the “Caledonian Antisyzygy,” as Gregory Smith called it – may possibly have been reinforced by the schizophrenic tendencies of a nation which came to use one language to express thought, another to express feeling. It may also have been hardened by the stern intellectual discipline of Calvinism; and, as the impact of the Reformation gradually wore off, people may have become increasingly conscious of the latent emotional and moral dualism implicit in the overt contradiction between the Scottish Sabbath and the Scottish Saturday (or Friday) night.”
(The Scottish Tradition in Literature, Oliver & Boyd 1958, pg. 250).

The point I suppose that Orwell makes is that the voyeur eyeing voluptuous figures on the beach, who might laugh at one of McGill’s smutty postcards, may also be the person who gazes the next moment wistfully out to sea, and then opens a novel, a novel, say, that begins:
“The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine. With the tide turning, it leans quietly against the land, almost unflecked by ripples or by foam. Near to the horizon it is a luxurious purple, spotted with regular lines of emerald green. At the horizon it is indigo. Near to the shore, where my view is framed by rising heaps of humpy yellow rock, there is a band of lighter green, icy and pure, less radiant, opaque however, not transparent. We are in the north and the bright sunshine cannot penetrate the sea.”
“The sea lost nothing of the swallowing identity of its great outer mass of waters in the emphatic, individual character of each particular wave. Each wave, as it rolled in upon the high-pebbled beach was an epitome of the whole body of the sea, and carried with it all the vast mysterious quality of the earth’s ancient antagonist.”
“The sun had not yet risen: The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually, as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.”
Barring distractions, he might read on, or then again he might not.

Kind Regards,

Andrew MacGillivray

Mr. MacGillivray's final three quotations come from (1) Iris Murdoch, The Sea, The Sea; (2) John Cowper Powys, Weymouth Sands; and (3) Virginia Woolf, The Waves. Panzeatic League (league of men with paunches) is of course a pun on Hanseatic League.

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