BOOK REVIEW / A godforsaken way to get our goat: 'The Pan Principle' - Fiona Pitt-Kethley: Sinclair-Stevenson, 16.99 pounds
Sunday 27 February 1994
Down in the reeds by the River?
Avoiding Fiona Pitt-Kethley, I bet. Her avowed purpose in this fatuous book is to track down Pan, by visiting sites where he was worshipped in Greece, Sicily, Italy, Turkey and Israel. Not surprisingly, she does not succeed.
Pan originated as one of the eight Great Gods of the Egyptians, a goat god of fecundity whose horns represent the life-giving rays of the sun, whose hairy legs and cloven hooves tread the barren earth in a dance of regeneration. In Greece his cult began in the bleak rocklands of Arcadia, spreading further only in the fifth century BC. As a god of flocks and shepherds, of lonely mountain pastures and silent forests, his cult was celebrated in caverns, rural shrines for a profoundly rural deity. He became a patron of huntsmen, of fishermen, and he brought panic to the world, sometimes by driving armies crazy with unearthly clangour, sometimes simply by watching a solitary traveller in the still, menacing heat of summer noon. The music of his pipes could soothe or terrify. Like other Greek gods he drank, boasted and pursued nymphs. His assistance in the battle of Marathon earned him a shrine on the Athenian Acropolis.
Finally, during the principate of Tiberius, the helmsman of a ship sailing from Greece to Italy heard a dreadful voice cry out across the water, three times proclaiming that the great god Pan was dead.
So what does Fiona Pitt-Kethley do with this material? All that I can offer by way of positive comment is the fact that she does walk; uphill and down dale she stomps and yomps in an endless, repetitive search for caves which are almost never there. Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Patrick Leigh Fermor could all have woven fascination into this. Not she. First and foremost, she can't write. Lost as usual, she complains: 'The instructions depended on knowing the names of the ravines ahead, but ravines are never labelled.' She quotes an ancient inscription from the entrance to a cave, and comments: 'It beats Chez Nous.' Not a scintilla of wit illumines the ugly, leaden prose, not a glint of the numinous. Plod up the mountain, plod into the museum, plop into the water, squelch on to the masseur's slab. And speaking of squelch brings me to the animating principle of the whole dreary saga, the pulsating author's sexual encounters.
Those who are foolish enough to read this book in search of the erotic will be disappointed. The Pulsatrix is eager to share each moment of each experience with us, but it's even more boring than the treks round the shrines: ' . . . his main problem was that he liked to thrust before he'd got his cock well positioned. Often it would hit the perineum hard.'
Dead sexy. I recommend Elizabeth Bowen's A House in Paris, where a girl takes off her glove and lays it on a cafe table, in one of the most erotically charged moments in literature. But of course we're not talking about literature with the Pulsatrix. We are treated to bons mots and pensees: 'Stone is not easy to work'; 'Luck is something we can all do with'; 'There's something rather moving and exhilarating about recognising the odd historic name from the past.'
Fellow travellers and indigenes are treated with snide contempt. Only the complacent Pulsatrix knows what's what. She says that older men are jealous of her career; she says that without make-up she looks 10 years younger than she is; she says that she is a poet. She rashly quotes from Pope: 'A little learning is a dangerous thing. / Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring.' Guess what she does with the fountain of the Muses? 'I suppose I must be the only poet who can claim to have washed her private parts in water from the Pierian spring.' Should we gasp at her raunchy irreverence?
Towards the end of the book, Pitt- Kethley expresses anxiety about her career, about her professional status, and she prays for a miracle to restore it. This pathetic, pernicious trash will do nothing to help. I review it only to warn off the unwary. Cave Pulsatricem.
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