Tag Archives: essays

The Echo

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I was sitting at my desk yesterday with no work to do, so I did what I always do— picked up a book. The sort of job I have is the sort of job where a book such as Victorian Photographs of Famous Men & Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron with introductions by Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry is laying at arms reach. It’s quite wonderful.

It was impossible, they found, not to love that “genial, ardent, and generous” woman, who had “a power of loving which I have never seen exceeded and an equal determination to be loved”  (4).

Woolf’s introduction is a short biography of the fascinating character of Cameron. Born in India to “the biggest liar in India” as her father was called, and who eventually, spectacularly drank himself to death, and to a French mother who was the daughter of one of Marie Antoinette’s pages, Julia Margaret Cameron was a famously eccentric and lovable woman. Woolf tells a wonderful story of the perils of rejecting Cameron’s generosity: she was fond of giving shawls as gifts and if they were not wanted she would threaten to throw them in the fire, but if they were returned, she would sell them and use the money to purchase a an expensive invalid bed for the local hospital—donated in the name of the person who had rejected the shawl, naturally! much to the surprise of the bemused shawl-rejector cum donor. Better to “submit to the shawl,” as Woolf delightfully relates the tale.

She wrote letters till the postman left, and then began her postscripts. She sent the gardener after the postman, the gardener’s boy after the gardener, the donkey galloping all the way to Yarmouth after the gardener’s boy. Sitting at Wandsworth Station she wrote page after page to Alfred Tennyson until “as I was folding your letter came the screams of the train, and then the yells of the porters with the threat that the train would not wait for me,” so that she had to thrust the document into strange hands and run down the steps (4).

I’m sure I would have loved her as well. She didn’t begin to take photographs until her son gave her a camera when she was fifty years old—that is the sort of detail that always encourages me. And what beautiful photographs they were.

Sir Henry Taylor, Plate 12

Sir Henry Taylor, Plate 12

But it was “The Echo,” plate 21, that caught my heart in my throat. To think of Echo—who bore the brunt of Hera’s jealousy and was thereby helpless to do anything other than repeat the last words spoken to her causing her to tragically lose her love, Narcissus—and to see how Cameron’s photograph perfectly captures that muted love, is heartbreaking on a gray day such as this one.

As for Cameron, she seems to have had a happy life. Her marriage to the philosopher and jurist Charles Hay Cameron was of seeming felicity. I love everything about Woolf’s version of events and hope it was all true. Woolf ends the essay in such a way that I can hardly be in doubt:

The birds were fluttering in and out of the open door; the photographs were tumbling over the tables; and, lying before a large open window Mrs. Cameron saw the stars shining, breathed the one word “Beautiful,” and so died” (5).

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The Vital Imagination

“Our true awareness of one another is intuitional, not mental. Attraction between people is really instinctive and intuitional, not an affair of judgement. And in mutual attraction lies perhaps the deepest pleasure in life, mutual attraction which may make us “like” our traveling companion for the two or three hours we are together, then no more, or mutual attraction that may deepen to powerful love, and last a lifetime.” 
D.H. Lawrence, Pornography & So On (69)

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

A friend who knows of my love for D.H. Lawrence recently bought me two books: a first edition, fifth impression of the 1929 pamphlet Pornography and Obscenity and the 1934 book Pornography & So On which includes the former essay and then expands upon the thesis ending with several poems on the subject. The subject, of course, can not be in doubt in either case. Having been censured and accused of writing pornography frequently in his career, Lawrence takes an understandable interest in the subject.

“We take it, I assume, that pornography is something base, something unpleasant. In short, we don’t like it. And why don’t we like it? Because it arouses sexual feelings?
I think not. No matter how hard we may pretend otherwise, most of us rather like a moderate rousing of our sex” (10, P and O).

Lawrence  proceeds to try to uncover the root of the perversion of sexual feeling in English and American society. How such words as ‘pornography’ and ‘obscenity’ are used given that the meanings are so nebulous. He tracks it back to the 15th century, at the time when syphilis, or ‘pox’ began to ravage England and the royal families in particular. The recoiling in horror that ensued caused a fear and sense of ‘dirtiness’ which implanted itself deeply into the psyche of the affected societies.

“And pox entered the blood of the nation, particularly of the upper classes, who had more chance of infection. And after it had entered the blood, it entered the consciousness, and it hit the vital imagination” (63, P & So On).

The morbidity of fear, Lawrence argues, shuts us away from our own bodies. And once a feeling of shame or dirtiness sets in, all natural desire and comfort in one’s body becomes, as Lawrence puts it, “a dirty little secret.” The problem is not the words, the problem is the loss of individual instinctual relation to ourselves and eachother.

“The reaction to any word may be, in any individual, either a mob-reaction or an individual reaction. It is up to the individual to ask himself: Is my reaction individual, or am I merely reacting from my mob-self? […] Now if the use of a few so-called obscene words will startle man or woman out of a mob-habit into an individual state, well and good. And word prudery is so universal a mob-habit that it is time we were startled out of it”(9, P and O).

“Word prudery,” I love that. Now that swearing isn’t so universally shocking the politically correct mob has moved in, but that’s another subject. In Pornography & So On the second essay explores the consequences of our profound fear of consequences (I would add in here that women have several thousand years a head start on fear of consequences that, one could argue, may credibly account for the perceived, but proven false, difference between men’s and women’s capacity for arousal). Lawrence takes up those consequences as they pertain to the sad state of the visual arts.

“We have become ideal beings, creatures that exist in idea, to one another, rather than flesh-and-blood kin. And with the collapse of the physical, flesh-and-blood oneness, and the substitution of an ideal, social or political oneness, came a failing of our intuitive awareness, and a great unease, the nervousness of mankind. We are afraid of instincts. We are afraid of the intuition within us. […] Intuitively we are dead to one another, we have all gone cold” (70). 

Without naming him, Lawrence takes Clive Bell and his “Significant Form” to task, as well as other theorists of art, for a shallowness and blindness that misses the sorry truth of the state of art in modern times. Dripping with indignant sarcasm he writes:

“So the prophets of the new era in art cry aloud to the multitude, in exactly the jargon of the revivalists, for revivalists they are. They will revive the Primitive-Method brethren, the Byzantines, the Ravennese, the early Italian and French primitives (which ones, in particular, we aren’t told): these were Right, these were Pure, these were Spiritual, these were Real! and the builders of early Romanesque churches, Oh, my brethren! these were holy men, before the world went a-whoring after Gothic. Oh, return, my brethren, to the Primitive Method, lift up your eyes to Significant Form and be saved— “(93).

I don’t think Lawrence intends to be funny, but sometimes he does make me laugh with his passionate exhortations and implorings. They are over-the-top to most people’s sensibilities, but then, that may be his very point, and I really cannot help loving his consistency, good sense, and absolute commitment to his philosophy which makes healthy sense to me. In “Introduction to Painting,” Lawrence writes of the masses as “grey” people. Cold and grey. He points to Cézanne’s apples as the only instance he can find in which an artist truly paints the thing, is not afraid of the physical thing, and paints the whole thing in all its “appleyness.” I have written of Lawrence’s essay on Cézanne’s apples here, but I will end here with one last quote because I think it captures what he is on about. Lawrence doesn’t want cheapened, shallow, fleeting feelings. He argues for a true connection, without fear, between real bodies, the whole body, all the way around.

“Oh, be an apple, and leave out all your thoughts, all your feelings, all your mind and all your soul, which we know all about and find boring beyond endurance. Leave it out—and be an apple!—It is the appleness of the portrait of Cézanne’s wife that makes it so permanently interesting: the appleyness, which carries with it also the feeling of knowing the other side as well, the side you don’t see, the hidden side of the moon. For intuitive apperception of the apple is so tangibly aware of the apple that it is aware of it all round, not only just of the front. The eyes see all fronts, and the mind, on the whole, satisfied with fronts. But intuition needs all-aroundness, and instinct needs insideness. The true imagination is forever curving round to the other side” (123).

Plaster of Canova's Cupid and Psyche from The Met. The detail, which to me holds the appleyness is in that missing shoe...for some inexplicable reason Canova eliminated that powerful expression of the instinctive imagination in the finished sculpture at the Louvre.

Plaster of Canova’s Cupid and Psyche from The Met. This unfinished detail I photographed looks to me as a sandal, I can’t tell if Canova never intended to have a sandal, but to me, that (mis?)perceived detail of only one sandal left on her feet holds the appleyness. I was so excited when I saw it. Nevertheless, what seemed to me a powerful expression of the instinctive imagination, is absent from both finished sculptures at the Louvre and The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Apart From Naughtiness

There are many ways of knowing, there are many sorts of knowledge. But the two ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of apartness, which is mental, rational, scientific, and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.
—D.H. Lawrence, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (55)

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It was only once I was walking down the dark empty hallway that an awareness began to percolate back into my brain alerting me that I had left my glasses behind. Before the realization entirely sank in, while I was still merely in an optical haze of confusion, I spun around and ran back hoping to beat the timer I had turned—I didn’t want the light to go off and have to blindly find my way back to the stack among multiple stacks. Not my fault. I had gone there to get one book. Just one. But in my arms were four. I got excited and was dashing off like a thief in the night.

People wallow in emotion: counterfeit emotion. They lap it up: they live in it and on it. They ooze it (18-19).

What began as My Skirmish With Jolly Roger, (which I found in there! in the general stacks—a first edition! —I’m going to have to talk with someone about that.) —a stand-alone limited edition of Lawrence’s forward to the “Paris edition” of Lady Chatterley’s Lover— turned into A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, extending the original essay by some fifty pages. I added both to my check out, naturally.

And with counterfeit emotions there is no real sex at all. Sex is the one thing you cannot really swindle; and it is the centre of the worst swindling of all, emotional swindling. Once come down to sex, and the emotional swindle must collapse. But in all the approaches to sex, the emotional swindle intensifies more and more. Till you get there. then collapse (21).

In the essay, Lawrence seems to be trying to find his reader. Not the one who skips to the dirty words, not the one who is sanctimoniously looking for moral outrage, but his reader–the one who craves something true. It is a delicate and precious thing:

Herein lies the danger of harping only on the counterfeit and the swindle of emotion, as most “advanced” writers do. Though they do it, of course, to counterbalance the hugely greater swindle of the sentimental “sweet” writers (23). 

It is even harder, in this day and age, to resist the cynics and avoid the fools. This week I began my summer internship. I am working in the editorial department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spend my lunch hour wandering the sublime halls of the museum. I let myself approach each piece of art instinctually—yes or no. It is simple. I have time. No pressure. It is just me. Is the answer to the multiple choice question yes or no? I wish life were so simple.

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table (40).

Poor blossom, indeed. Lawrence advocates passionately, in this essay,  for marriage, which, having been married, forces a sort of reckoning within me. Additionally, as the novel’s plot involves adultery, his stance is interesting. And yet, marriage for marriage’s sake–for stature or security or any other shallow or temporal purpose is exactly what he most vehemently rails against…so,  I do come to see his point. I am not only a dedicated observer of art, I am also an observer of couples, and when I espy the authentic thing—I rejoice with a yes in my heart. Life can be all that.

For an essay that begins, ostensibly, as a warning to the reader of the myriad pirated editions of his work, Lawrence diverges with such fervent passion into the heart of the matter, into our very hearts, that I cannot help adoring him. He is a sane man in a mad world, which may make him appear crazed, but it doesn’t make him wrong.

When the great crusade against sex and the body started in full blast with Plato, it was a crusade for “ideals”, and for this “spiritual” knowledge in apartness. Sex is the great unifier. In its big, slower vibration it is the warmth of heart which makes people happy together, in togetherness. The idealist philosophies and religions set out deliberately to kill this. And they did. Now they have done it. The last great ebullition of friendship and hope was squashed out in mud and blood. Now men are all separate entities. While “kindness” is the glib order of the day—everyone must be “kind”—underneath this “kindness” we find a coldness of heart, a lack of heart, a callousness, that is very dreary (57).

It’s the “dreary” that makes me smile. Yes, it is indeed dreary.

*title from pg. 32

Salt of Words

The object in which power is inscribed, for all of human eternity, is language, or to be more precise, its necessary expression: the language we speak and write.”
—Roland Barthes, A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag. From the essay “Inaugural Lecture” (460).

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Bons mots, bon app’!

I have been deeply engaged in reading as many books about the French Enlightenment figure: Denis Diderot as my wearied eyes can manage. I love the way his mind is organized around a passionate principle of discursive delights. I am planning on writing a short research paper about him, but I have gotten so involved in so many varied primary source essays, novels, and secondary source material— not to mention the impetus of my  fascination: l’Encyclopedie des Sciences— that I was complaining to a friend that I had read far too much to be able to write a mere 7-8 page paper. He suggested that I get some sort of learning disability dispensation stating that my inability to stop reading requires that I be allowed to write twice as much.

Worsening my condition, thanks to Diderot, I now have a new person of interest: Roland Barthes. I got the book A Barthes Reader because it had an essay about the plates of  l’Encyclopedie (the area I will try to narrow my focus upon), but was unable to rest until I had read all of the other varied and wonderful essays within and then, yes, request another book of his: A Lover’s Discourse (but how could I resist that title, I ask you?), possibly, I need help. But nevermind that–

The act of stating, by exposing the subject’s place and energy, even his deficiency (which is not his absence), focuses on the very reality of language, acknowledging that language is an immense halo of implications, of effects, of echoes, of turns, returns, and degrees. […] Writing makes knowledge festive (464).

In Roland Barthes’ essay “Inaugural Lecture,” which is a lecture that he gave upon the inauguration of his position as Chair of Literary Semiology for Collége de France, asserts that it is literature alone which can “understand speech outside the bounds of power” (462). He breaks his argument into three parts based on Greek concepts: Mathesis, Mimesis, and Semiosis. 

Mathesis, or acquisition of knowledge, of which literature is replete—this is not to say that literature is a manual from which one studies, nor is it an either/or proposition—simply, it is really something more: “science is crude, life is subtle” (463) and it is literature that negotiates that line. For Barthes it is significant that the French words (this essay was translated by Richard Howard) flavor and knowledge have the same root. Beautifully put:  literature is the “salt of words,” and it is this, this quality in literature, this “taste of words which makes knowledge profound, fecund” (465) that lifts the burden of acquiring knowledge.

For all knowledge, all sciences are present in the literary monument. Whereby we can say that literature, whatever the school in whose name it declares itself, is absolutely, categorically realist:  it is reality, i.e. the very spark of the real. Yet literature, in this truly encyclopedic respect, displaces the various kinds of knowledge, does not fix or fetishize any or them (463).

Mimesis is of course related to representation, “literature’s second force” (465).

The real is not representable, and it is because men ceaselessly try to represent it by words that there is a history of literature (465).

This is the aim of literature, this realism which the writer will persist “according to the truth of desire” (467) in demonstrating even though, as Barthes’ concedes, “literature is quite as stubbornly unrealistic; it considers sane its desire for the impossible” (466). But even at its most modernistic, literature is based in describing the real, that is what allows a reader to connect to the work.

[The semiology of the speaker] is not a hermeneutics: it paints more than it digs, via di porre rather than via de levare. Its objects of predilection are texts of the image-making process: narratives, images, portraits, expressions, idiolects, passions, structures which play simultaneously with an appearance of verisimilitude and with an uncertain truth (475).

Semiosis is then the effort to “elicit the real” (474). Barthes only concedes that semiotics has a relation to science, not that it is a science. It “helps the traveler” but is not a “grid” meant to make clear a “direct apprehension of the real” (474). It can’t possibly because  it is affixed to a moving target. Language is not static, nor apolitical, nor ahistorical: “I cannot function outside language, treating it as a target, and within language, treating it as a weapon” (473).

It is a fascinating and thought-provoking essay, and it is just one of many in the book. I knew I had to read them all when the premier essay was the very first one Barthes had ever published in 1942 on one of my favorites: André Gide. The penultimate essay described here is “Inaugural Lecture” and it stays with me. He recounts towards the end his experience of reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and how he was struck, powerfully, by the force of reading that historically removed novel about a disease which he himself had had and yet which was, because of modern treatment, a different disease than it had been in Mann’s time. This realization of a connection, through his body, of being linked to the past, was something he said he must forget so to be free for a vita nuova. He distilled his insight into his closing remarks which left me with chills:

There is an age at which we teach what we know. Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research. Now perhaps comes the age of another experience: that of unlearning, of yielding to the unforeseeable change which forgetting imposes on the sedimentation of the knowledges, cultures, and beliefs we have traversed. This experience has, I believe, an illustrious and outdated name, which I now simply venture to appropriate at the very crossroads of its etymology: Sapientia: no power, a little knowledge, a little wisdom, and as much flavor as possible” (478).

God that’s lovely.

*French macarons with raspberry or chocolate hazelnut filling.

A Bit of Naughty-Naughty

When Henry Miller’s novel The Tropic of Cancer, appeared in 1935, it was greeted with rather cautious praise, obviously conditioned in some cases by a fear of seeming to enjoy pornography (95).
– George Orwell, from the essay Inside the Whale,  in All Art is Propaganda

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Ah, Henry Miller. We have something going on….Henry and I…. It began in the spring when I was bemusedly alerted by a shallow online quiz that my literary soulmate was M. Miller himself. Well. What to make of that, I hardly knew. I decided I better at least read his work which I wrote about here and where I blathered on a bit about the literary soulmate bit and Tropic of Cancer.

For the most part it is a story of bug-ridden rooms in workingmen’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs. And the whole atmosphere of the poor quarters of Paris as a foreigner sees them–the cobbled alleys, the sour reek of refuse, the bistros with their greasy zinc counters[…]the peculiar sweetish smell of the Metro, the cigarettes that come to pieces[…]–it is all there, or at any rate the feeling of it is there.
On the face of it no material could be less promising (96) –
 George Orwell, Inside the Whale.

Miller and I took some heat for my praise, but then, by pure good fortune I worked with a beautiful poet/artist/activist Cecilia Vicuña this summer and on my first day of work discovered that she had had a small but lovely correspondence with Miller. She adored him, his love and passion for life. I told her the trouble I was having convincing people of his (rather lovely) sincerity, she confirmed, on a personal level, what I had felt reading his book.

Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened. This brings me back to Henry Miller (129).

That, Orwell writes, after a thirty-something page discourse on the history of early 2oth century literature and the effect of politics: fascism, communism, laissez-faire capitalism and many more isms on writers and literature. But, yes– Miller, where were we?- after another of his novels Black Spring, was thrown on my path I started to wonder what was in the water–what was in my water?!  Over the course of the summer as I worked archiving collections of books, books about books, and the art of books with Granary Books, as well as Vicuña’s archive and copious notes and writing….I had compiled a long list of artists, poets, and books that I would read when I got some time. Orwell’s All Art is Propaganda was one of those books. He is, by far, one of my favorite essayist, and what a title! Imagine my lack of surprise when after flipping around reading the essays in odd order as to my interest, I came upon a quite long (45 p.) essay all about, yes, my dear soulmate Henry.

The truth is that in 1917 there was nothing that a thinking and sensitive person could do, except to remain human, if possible (136).

Inside the Whale is sweeping, discursive, and at the very heart, brilliantly true. Orwell elucidates on the conditions which make good novels possible, how politics affect writers, directly or obliquely, and how Miller’s insouciance, and refusal to get taken in by the flimsy dictats of nation, class, and persuasion, is so sincerely expressed that one can, if one lets oneself, marvel at his genius (a human scale of genius, but genius can be writ small).

Progress and reaction have both turned out to be swindles. Seemingly there is nothing left but quietism–robbing reality of its terrors by simply submitting to it. Get inside the whale–or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting it; simply accept it, endure it, record it. That seems to be the formula that any sensitive novelist is now likely to adopt. A novel on more positive, “constructive” lines, and not emotionally spurious, is at present very difficult to imagine (138).

Orwell’s essay is fascinating historically, but his concerns and thoughts transport the mere temporal- finding a way to stay human in any time is the challenge. For myself, I’m convinced Miller met that challenge, and had fun doing it, I am convinced he had a good heart, and if that is what makes a soulmate for me – I’ll take it.

*title from: From a mere account of the subject-matter of Tropic of Cancer most people would probably assume it to be no more than a bit of naughty-naughty left over from the ‘twenties (97).

Mazarine, Luteus, Vermilion

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The other day at work in the library while prying apart two colossal artbooks- my left hand pushing the row as far over as it would budge, while holding between right thumb and forefinger another sizable tome, the remaining three fingers were left with thrusting the opposing mountain of books to the opposite side when Lo! a small book revealed itself recessed in the deep shadows of the imposing giants surrounding it. With all of my fingers engaged, I let out an exasperated sigh. With reluctance, I released the hard earned space I had created. I  deftly (more likely, spasmodically) slipped my left hand in before the hidden entrance snapped shut in the jungle of books squeezed onto the shelf. If it hadn’t been a high shelf I might have engaged my foot to keep that damn space, but alas, I do try to maintain a professional demeanor.

My wearied fingers just managed to coax the little book out. I had only intended to help it reclaim its allotted space, but when I read the title, The Primary Colors by Alexander Theroux, I had to take a look. That very morning I had finished reading The Manticore by Robertson Davies, so when his back-of-the-book-two-cents blurb promising essays of “prodigal and vagarious adventure” as oppose to the “terse and apophthegmatic” sort, well, I ask you – how could leave it on the shelf?

The word sings. You pout pronouncing it, form a kiss, moue slightly, blowing gracefully from the lips as if before candles on a birthday cake (3).

Blue. It can only be blue, of course. Theroux’s discursive, plaited, and enigmatic exaltation of the primary color is a crazy delight to read. In equal parts: laundry list, rapturous praise, historical, poetical, and literary- azure my love, and blue, blau, bleu…some 50 pages into the thicket of illusive, expensive, pensive, doleful, blithe, yet blissful blue, Theroux insouciantly begins a new paragraph by saying, “Speaking of blue…”

Georgiana Peacher in Mary Stuart’s Ravishment Descending Time may well have given us the greatest passage on yellow eyes ever written, which I include here for, among other things, the edification of those undermedicated hacks, shameless book-a-year novelists, and jug-headed commercialists yahoos whose predictable prose comes cranking out of the trafila of their heads like streams of common pasta (104).

Yellow seems the perfect color to evince such a vitriolic run of the pen. At once sickly and weak it just as easily turns to exuberant luster. The sultry and louche lemonade pucker in no way disturbs the energetic primordial yellow, “I was going into the yellow” as Theroux quotes Marlow looking at a map of the Belgian Congo, “I was going into the yellow” (157).

As to barbaric richness of color, Francis Bacon, who wanted, among other things, to make the human scream into something “which would have the intensity and beauty of a Monet sunset,” like the color of blood, whether Antioch-red or paintbox bright or cherry: “It’s nothing to do with mortality, but it’s to do with the great beauty of the color of meat” (193).

Indeed, it is not accidental, I think, that  “there is no red Necco wafer” (172). Of all the names for red: cochineal, carmine, rubious, crimson, scarlet, a seemingly endless array of nuance and aspects. The copse of all that red denotes, connotes or promotes seems to tangle Theroux a bit in the final essay. As if there is too much to feel in this – the true primary color (no matter the language, “red” is always the first color named after black and white). Love and death, fervor, pain, a blush, the saucy and tart – my heart! my heart! Cranberry that it is, bursting with bitterness, but ever awaiting the sweet start.

 

*luteous (from lutum, mud) one of those perfectly good English words completely ignored nowadays as pretentious and arch, except by literate people like Virgil, who in his day used the word “luteus” as a synonym for yellow (73).

** Print by Dana Jennings Rohn

 

Coenesthesia of Art

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All remarks as to the ways and means by which experiences arise or are brought about are technical, but critical remarks are about the values of experiences and the reasons for regarding them as valuable, or not valuable (23). – I.A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

The book Principles of Literary Criticism was mentioned in The Story of Ain’t and for some reason, I felt I had to read it. Published in 1924, Richards seems to use perspectives in psychology to try to understand the value of the arts and outline principles with which to appreciate and critique them.

The basis of morality, as Shelley insisted, is laid not by preachers but by poets. Bad taste and crude responses are not mere flaws in an otherwise admirable person. They are actually a root evil from which other defects flow. No life can be excellent in which the elementary responses are disorganised and confused (62).

I came across Andrew Wyeth’s study for his painting Black Velvet the other day in the book Writers on Artists. The writer was John Updike and the focus of his essay was (mostly) on his complaining of the titillating speculation and hype surrounding the relationship between Wyeth and his long time model Helga Testorf (Black Velvet is one of the so-named “Helga Series”). I sent a picture of the finished painting via facebook to my daughter because she loves this series of works (I couldn’t find the above study online, for this post I scanned the image from the book). My oldest son commented on it, “that’s creepy.”

The two pillars upon which a theory of criticism must rest are an account of value and an account of communication. We do not sufficiently realise how great a part of our experience takes the form it does, because we are social beings and accustomed to communication from infancy (25).

I looked at the painting as it must have appeared to him, a woman lying corpse-like, almost being swallowed by a rich black background against which her hair, individually limned with golden light, glimmered intoxicatingly.

There is no kind of mental activity in which memory does not intervene (106).

But it was exactly her pose that had resonated with me. I told him: never mind the obvious reference to Manet’s Olympia, or the beautiful lines and (in the painting) the use of lights and darks – it is her pose! That it happens to be the exact position that I sleep in fascinates me, (as my children have, even a friend once checked to see if I was alive when we once shared a bed, I was so persistent in my odd, still repose).

Tragedy – is still the form under which the mind may most clearly and freely contemplate the human situation, its issues unclouded, its possibilities revealed (69).

The hands over her chest, wanting to cover her heart, her crossed limp feet, head turned away- it is evocative of a vulnerability, a melancholy and…becalmed spirit that so overwhelms. Quite the opposite of Olympia’s pointed command and assurance.

We rarely change our tastes, we rather find them changed (198).

My son’s two word reaction made me organise my thoughts about my own judgments. What made me stare at it, feel and think so deeply? For Richards, that is the very key – organising the chaos of our thoughts as a direct function of critique. Yes we all have thoughts and/or feelings, but it is the making sense of them and the communication of them with which the artist intuits and the viewer aspires to illume meaningful existence.

To put it briefly the best life is that in which as much as possible of our possible personalities is engaged. And of two personalities that one is the better in which there is more which can be engaged without confusion. We all know people of unusually wide and varied possibilities who pay for their width in disorder, and we know others who pay for their order with narrowness (288).

It doesn’t matter that my son and I had different reactions, only that we have an organized and expansive sense of ourselves with which to understand our reactions – because we always react. Literature and the arts engage sense and sensibility, order and organic harmony, through which we discover we are more than all that we see, hear and read. We are more than all this.

 

*title from Chapter XIII, Emotion and Coenesthesia:  In alluding to the coenesthesia we came very near to giving an account of emotion as an ingredient of consciousness (98). […]  As a rule a process of extraordinary complexity takes place between perceiving the situation and finding a mode of meeting it. This complicated process contributes the rest of its peculiar flavour to an emotional experience (102).