The Thief's Journal

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I tolerate this century, but I don't enjoy it.

All of the ephemera that is far too trivial to be bothered with elsewhere on this site or, depending on your point of view, a meta-commentary on it. This ephemera includes, but is not limited to art, music and literature. Most of the content here will be discussed in terms that are as abstract as possible, reality being a singularly overrated concept.

Hyper-Realism in Pre Raphaelite Art

Posted in Art, Victorian on January 17th, 2011 by Richard

Morgan Meis writes about the parallels between Pre Raphaelite mediaevalism and its pre-occupation with photographic accuracy:

"Raphael made a painting that showed the kingdom of theology presided over by Christ on one wall, and the kingdom of poetry presided over by Apollo on the other. The implication, as Ruskin saw it, was that Christ is but one truth among many. And so, thought Ruskin, all that was holy was profaned and mankind experienced a second fall from grace. Ruskin was thus quite enthusiastic about the Pre-Raphaelite rejection of everything post-Raphael, of the entirety of the ‘modern world’ from the early-15th century onward…. The real world, the one we inhabit in a day-to-day manner, has been banished altogether.

As an excellent show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (’The Pre-Raphaelite Lens: British Photography and Painting, 1848–1875′) makes clear, the Pre-Raphaelites were, in fact, heavily influenced by what was at that time the newest of technologies. They loved photography. Specifically, they loved the way photographs captured elements of nature and human beings in such realistic detail. Often, the Pre-Raphaelites tried to make their paintings look like photographs, carefully painting every blade of grass, every fleck of color. One of the paintings in the show, John William Inchbold’s ‘Anstey’s Cove,’ looks as if it might be a touched-up photograph in the way that the shrubs and the water and the birds are so painstakingly rendered. And the photographs Pre-Raphaelites took—like Colonel Henry Stuart Wortley’s ‘The Clouds Are Broken in the Sky’ — have a distinct painterly feel as well….

We are thus left with something of a dilemma. We have an artistic movement with a professed desire to escape from modern times and return to a medieval aesthetic on the one hand, and a commitment to extreme realism and immediacy on the other. The house of Pre-Raphaelitism, divided against itself, cannot stand. Unless, of course, those two impulses can go together."

Certainly Pre-Raphaelite can be realist in a conventional sense (as with the contemporary reaction to Rossetti’s depiction of the infant christ), I wonder if the division is actually quite that marked. As Sontag observed, the assumption that photography is a medium of detail and painting a medium of impressions seems a rather anachronistic one. The photography of Frank Meadows Sutcliffe and Julia Margaret Cameron is often blurred and indistinct, while Pre-Raphaelite art is often hyper-realist. The level of detail in an Inchbold painting is impossible even with digital photography, with the amount of detail defying perspective as objects near and far are rendered in intense detail. The effect is rather more reminiscent of Hopkin’s concepts of instress and inscape than of photography.

Twilight of the Modern

Posted in Art, Modernity on February 19th, 2010 by Richard

I wrote previously of how novels increasingly seem to be recastings of previous novels. This article caught my attention recently, presenting a similar thesis:

"Mannerism is the most commonly despised period in Western art history and, I think, the one that best befits creative culture today. We are mostly Mannerists now… As the Mannerists toiled in the twilight of the Renaissance, so do we in relation to the modern age — the word "modern" having been torn from its roots to signify things that loom behind us. The cinquecento artists would be intrigued by one of our musical genres, the mashup: new songs cobbled from scraps of old songs. (It shares an arch intricacy with their most popular form, the madrigal.) The movie "Avatar" strikes me as Mannerist through and through, generating terrific sensations of originality from a hodgepodge of worn-thin narrative and pictorial tropes. Ours is a dissolving, clever culture of mix and match. We are ready for Bronzino."

The Black Sun: A History of Melancholy

Posted in Art, Culture, Literature, Melancholy on February 3rd, 2008 by Richard

"Besides my other numerous circle of acquaintances I have one more intimate confidant—my melancholy. In the midst of my joy, in the midst of my work, she waves to me, calls me to one side, even though physically I stay put. My melancholy is the most faithful mistress I have known, what wonder, then, that I love her in return." — Kierkegaard

Following my earlier piece on ruins, I had for sometime intended to write a companion piece on melancholy. This intent never succeeded in fully manifesting itself, until I was reminded of it by this article, In Praise of Melancholy:

"I for one am afraid that American culture’s overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society’s efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life’s enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

I’m not questioning joy in general. For instance, I’m not challenging that unbearable exuberance that suddenly emerges from long suffering. I’m not troubled by that hard-earned tranquillity that comes from long meditation on the world’s sorrows. I’m not criticizing that slow-burning bliss that issues from a life spent helping those who hurt. And I’m not romanticizing clinical depression. I realize that there are many lost souls out there who require medication to keep from killing themselves or harming their friends and families. I’m not questioning pharmaceutical therapies for the seriously depressed or simply to make existence bearable for so many with biochemical disorders… Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treats melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness — happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment. Of course the question immediately arises: Who wouldn’t question this apparently hollow form of American happiness? Aren’t all of us late at night, when we’re honest with ourselves, opposed to shallow happiness? Most likely we are, but isn’t it possible that many of us fall into superficiality without knowing it?"

As an argument, this cleaves to the ideas of dystopian novels like A Clockwork Orange or Brave New World that the possibility of stripping away unwanted aspects of ourselves will also dehumanise us or deprive us of our freedom. It’s an argument I have a lot of sympathy for, as I tend to feel that modern society mandates happiness, demands it as something to be conformed to even as depression becomes an every greater social ill. According to the World Health Organisation, depression is now the fifth leading cause of death and disability in the world, leaving ischemic heart disease trailing in sixth place. I also feel that modern society is equally capable of embracing melancholy as a uniform, as with the gothic subculture. It becomes a little difficult to complain too much of modern happiness when bands like The Cure, The Smiths, The Manic Street Preachers or Nirvana have had albums outselling their manufactured counterparts.

Melancholy as a concept exists in multiple forms, which warily circle one another, never joing but never quite departing from one another. The Portuguese term, saudaude denotes a feeling of longing for something that one is fond of, which is gone. It is as close to nostalgia as melancholy. The Finnish Kaiho means a state of involuntary solitude in which the subject feels incompleteness and yearns for something unattainable or extremely difficult and tedious to attain. The German Sehnsucht relates to an inconsolable longing, while Japanese "empathy toward things," or "pity toward things," is used to describe the awareness of the transience of things and a gentle sadness at their passing. The importance of the cherry in Japanese culture is due to cherry blossoms symbolising the transience of life because of their short blooming times. In Italian, noia, or ennui, is a particular nuance of melancholy, infused with lingering, incompleteness, loss, and inconsolability. In Russian, toska translates as "the ache." As Nabokov put it in his notes on translating Eugene Onegin; "No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom, skuka." The Arabic word found as huzn and hazan in the Qur’an refers to the pain and sorrow over a loss. Two schools further interpreted this feeling. The first sees it as a sign that one is too attached to the material world, while Sufism took it to represent a feeling of personal insuffiency, that one was not getting close enough to God and did not or could not do enough for God in this world. Orhan Pamuk argued in his recent biography of Istanbul that in modern Turkish it has come to denote a sense of failure in life, lack of initiative and to retreat into oneself, symptoms quite similar to melancholia.

Nonetheless, melancholy was known within Europe as "the English disease." Even as apparently stolid a figure as Dr Johnson could believe that he was damned, wished to be confined and whipped, take opium to alleviate his miseries and write that "this day it came into my mind to write the history of melancholy. On this purpose to deliberate. I know not whether it may be too much to disturb me… I inherited a vile melancholy from my father, which has made me mad all my life" In 1733, Dr George Cheyne speculated that the English climate, combined with sedentary lifestyles and urbanisation, "have brought forth a class of distemper with atrocious and frightful symptoms, scarce known to our ancestors, and never rising to such fatal heights, and afflicting such numbers in any known nation. These nervous disorders being computed to make almost one-third of the complaints of the people of condition in England." To the English, the disease was "the English malady." One can go back further, to 1586 and Timothy Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholie; "The perturbations of melancholy are for the most parte, sadde and fearful, and such as rise of them: as distrust, doubt, diffidence, or dispaire, sometimes furious and sometimes merry in apparaunce, through a kinde of Sardonian, and false laughter, as the humour is disposed that procureth these diversities."

The term "melancholia" comes from the old medical theory of the four humours: disease being caused by an imbalance in one or other of the four basic bodily fluids, or humours. Personality types were similarly determined by the dominant humour in a particular person. Melancholia was caused by an excess of black bile; leading to a melancholic disposition. Melancholia was described as a distinct disease with particular mental and physical symptoms in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Hippocrates, in his Aphorisms, characterized all "fears and despondencies, if they last a long time" as being symptomatic of melancholia. The actual word Melancholia is derived from Arabic, specifically Ishaq ibn Imran’s essay entitled Maqala fi-l-Malikhuliya, which discovered a foolish acts, fear, delusions and hallucinations under the term "malikhuliya," which Constantine the African translated into Latin as "melancolia." The doctrine of the four humours was modified somewhat in the fourth century when it came under the influence of the portrayals of madness in Greek tragedy and the Platonic notion of "divine frenzy," beginning the transformation of an essentially pathological taxonomy (the classical doctrine of the Four Humours) into a psychological one (the medieval theory of the Four Temperaments). As Agamben puts it; "Melancholy or black bile (melaina chole) is the humour whose disorders are liable to produce the most destructive consequences. In medieval humoral cosmology, melancholy is traditionally associated with the earth, autumn (or winter), the dry element, cold, the north wind, the color black, old age (or maturity); its planet is Saturn, among whose children the melancholic finds himself with the hanged man, the cripple, the peasant, the gambler, the monk, and the swineherd."

Aristotle had seen a connection between melancholy – an excess in a person of black bile – and eminence in philosophy, politics, and poetry, instancing the mythic hero Hercules and the great philosophers Empedocles, Socrates, and Plato. According to Aristotle, the ancients called melancholy "the sacred disease." Before him Plato had linked trance-like raging or frenzy to the abilities to prophesy, to perform priestly functions, to compose divine poetry, and, even, to love truly. Marsilio Ficino’s De vita triplici (1489), the first book to treat of melancholy at any length, rehabilitated the Aristotelian notion of the gifted melancholic, and expressly tied it in with the Plato’s "divine frenzy," thereby laying the intellectual foundations for a new type of man, the tortured genius, pitched back and forth between the heights of rapture and the depths of despair. Ficino linked melancholy to the astrological notion of being born under, or being at critical moments influenced by, Saturn or his spirits – Saturn being the furthest and slowest of the seven known planets and the god of old age and contemplation. From this analysis of planetary influence emerged the idea of our possessing an inner "saturnian" spirit, "daemon," or genius, and eventually the romantic and modern notion of the mad, afflicted, or wounded genius.

Predictably enough, the origins of English and European melancholy are also inextricably linked to christianity and the context of a society with high rates of mortality and comparatively brief lifespans. Rather than looking to medicine, early christianity had attributed sadness and lethargy to a condition called acedia, which opened the way to the work of the Devil. Anglo-Saxon literature was preoccupied with ideas of destiny and transience, with the Old English word dustceawung denotes contemplation of the dust. The Ruin depicts a fallen city, whose majesty has been vanquished. Poems like The Wanderer and The Seafarer treat of exile and isolation, with the latter proclaiming that "hotter for me are the joys of the Lord than this dead life fleeting on the land. I do not believe that the riches of the world will stand forever." The typical images of melancholy are often those that arise from medieval art; the danse macabre, with its dancing depiction of the Grim Reaper carrying off rich and poor alike, as with Holbein’s later engraving of the Totentanz. Doom painting would show rich and poor languishing in the fire of hell, as well as graves opening on the day judgement. The imagery of skulls and hourglasses on tombstones. Sundials decorated with refrains like ‘Orimur morimur’ (We have risen and we have set) or ‘We shall soon die all’ (the latter being a rather excruciating pun on sundial). The thanatophilia is qualitatively different from the sense behind ‘carpe Diem’ or ‘nunc est bibendum.’ Clocks were decorated with mottos such as ‘ultima forsan’ (perhaps the last) or ‘vulnerant omnes, ultima necat’ (they all wound, and the last kills) and most famously ‘tempus fugit’ (time flies). Private people carried smaller reminders of their own mortality. Mary Queen of Scots owned a large watch carved in the form of a silver skull, embellished with the lines of Horace, Nunc est Bibendum. Astronomical clocks would often have the skeletal figure of death emerge to strike the hour.

Death Comes for Thomas Miller

Nonetheless, the period most associated with melancholy is the fifteenth century. At this period, the transi, or cadaver tomb, a tomb which depicts the decayed corpse of the deceased became a fashion in the tombs of the wealthy. The advent of painting created the Vanitas genre, with its depiction of skulls, flowers losing their petals and broken loot strings. Holbein’s The Ambassadors famously includes the distorted image of a skull as an intercision into a scene of courtly ostentation. This is the period of Dowland’s In Darkness Let Me dwell, Campion’s The Cypress Curtain of the Night (both following Josquin Desprez’s chanson Plaine de dueil et de melancolye, which speaks of an unbearable woe which can be relieved only through complete submission to an object of love.) and Donne’s A Valediction of Weeping. As Dean of St Paul’s, Donne carried a hourglass into his pulpit to remind the congregation "from the first minute that thou beginst to live, thou beginst to die too." This is also the man who proclained; "they tell me it is my melancholly. Did I infuse, did I drink in melancholly into myselfe? It is my thoughtfulnesse, was I not made to thinke?" Shakespeare was to return to the theme many times, as in The Taming of the Shrew, where "melancholy is the nurse of phrenzy." Later, John Milton was to write in Il Penseroso; "Hail, divinest Melancholy!, Whose Saintly visage is too bright, To hit the Sense of human sight; And therefore to our weaker view, O’er-laid with black, staid Wisdom’s hue."

More specifically, this is the period that saw the rise of subjectivity or the discovery of the individual and of the artist, with the transition from craftsman and workshops to named artists. The European nobility had already undergone this sort of psychological shift in their transformation from a warrior class to a collection of courtiers. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, the change becomes far more widespread, affecting even artisans, peasants, and labourers. The new emphasis on disengagement and self-consciousness made the individual potentially more autonomous and critical of existing social arrangements, but also transformed into a kind of walled fortress, carefully defended from everyone else. Mirrors in which to examine oneself become popular among those who can afford them, along with self-portraits (Rembrandt painted more than fifty of them, not to mention Foucault’s preferred examples of Velasquez and Las Meninas or the fact that Durer was one of the first artists to draw and paint his own mirror reflection) and autobiographies in which to revise and elaborate the image that one has projected to others. In bourgeois homes, public spaces that guests may enter are differentiated, for the first time, from the private spaces – bedrooms, for example – in which one may retire to let down one’s guard and truly "be oneself." More decorous forms of entertainment – plays and operas requiring people to remain immobilised, each in his or her separate seat – begin to provide an alternative to the promiscuously interactive and physically engaging pleasures of carnival. The very word "self," ceased to be a mere reflexive or intensifier and achieves the status of a freestanding noun, referring to some inner core, not readily visible to others.

A number of social trends are cited in this context, such as the prevalence of death through plague and warfare and the failure of the society to provide occupations for its educated class. Under Elizabeth there had been a considerable increase of educational activity, with a consequent heightening of men’s expectations, exacerbated by self-fashioning texts in the vein of Castiglione’s The Courtier. Even before the close of the sixteenth century there were more than a few who could find no place in the existing organization of the state. The notion of a self hidden behind one’s appearance and portable from one situation to another is also often attributed to the new possibility of upward mobility. In medieval culture, you were what you appeared to be – a peasant, a man of commerce or an aristocrat – and any attempt to assume another status would have been regarded as rank deception. But in the late 16th century, upward mobility was beginning to be possible or at least imaginable, making "deception" a widespread way of life. You might not be a lord or a lofty burgher, but you could find out how to act like one. Hence the popularity, in 17th-century England, of books instructing the would-be member of the gentry in how to comport himself, write an impressive letter and choose a socially advantageous wife. Hence, too, the new fascination with the theatre, with its notion of an actor who is different from his or her roles. Shakespeare’s Portia pretends to be a doctor of law; Rosalind disguises herself as a boy; Juliet feigns her own death. Writing a few years after Shakespeare’s death, Burton bemoaned the fact that acting was no longer confined to the theatre, for "men like stage-players act [a] variety of parts." It was painful, in his view, "to see a man turn himself into all shapes like a Chameleon … to act twenty parts & persons at once for his advantage … having a several face, garb, & character, for every one he meets."

Most importantly, the reformation has inaugurated a shift from the more socially directed aspects of Catholicism to Protestantism’s focus on faith alone; an emphasis of the self was an unintended product of this, in contrast to the medieval focus on the extinction of the self advocated by Thomas a Kempis. Catholicism offered various palliatives to the disturbed and afflicted, in the form of rituals designed to win divine forgiveness or at least diminished disapproval. By contrast, the Puritan strains of Protestantism did no such thing; instead of offering relief, they provided a metaphysical framework for depression: if you felt isolated, persecuted and possibly damned, this was because you were predestined to be so. In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, carnival is the portal to Hell, just as pleasure in any form – sexual, gustatory, convivial – is the devil’s snare. Durkheim found that Protestants in the 19th century – not all of whom, of course, were of the Calvinistic persuasion – were about twice as likely to take their own lives as Catholics. More strikingly, a recent analysis finds a sudden surge of suicide in the Swiss canton of Zurich, beginning in the late 16th century, just as that region became a Calvinist stronghold.

The overthrow of the Catholic church was also an assault on all known metaphysical certainties, leading to the importance of the concept of mutability in Elizabethan literature, as in Spenser’s cantos on the subject. As such, with Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, the melancholic is also often the malcontent, the overreacher. Edmund in King Lear notes that "My cue is villainous melancholy, with a sigh like Tom o’Bedlam." For Shakespeare, living in an age whose metaphysical certainties had been upturned by state decree, conviction is rarely possible. His characters instead defy augury, dramatising their consciousness and examining their own roles. Hamlet is the overreacher, the machiavel, the fool and the wronged hero, failing to become, as Eliot had it, a clear objective correlative for the events of the play. The particular religious significance of Hamlet is that at the head of the hierarchy of sins held by the Elizabethan religious orthodoxy lies the sin of despair. Despair represents a refusal or inability to enter into relationship with God, and, as a result, a distancing from God’s grace. Hamlet’s melancholy causes him to distrust his first inclinations toward the apparition he has encountered (an apparition whose very existence ran contrary to the theology of the time), and to test them through the device of the mousetrap scene. In effect, he accepts the popular belief that the Devil considers melancholics to be ripe for deception – a belief which looks suspiciously upon melancholy and considers it to be a possible reflection of moral or ethical lapses. But equally, Hamlet’s soliloquies can be read as conventional statements on the transience of mortal life; "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours." If medieval melancholy is a simple ailment or expression of theological commonplaces, it is an expression of both theological and metaphysical confusion in Elizabethan literature. Hamlet’s "fellow of infinite jest" is surely a conventional and orthodox memento mori.

The Egyptian Avenue

The same theological and metaphysical confusion lies at the heart of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, with its influence on Byron, Keats and Lamb. Burton describes his text as "a rhapsody of rags gathered from several dung hills, excrement of authors, toys and fopperies confusedly tumbled out," and frequently withdraws from any sense of authorial authority; "But where am I? Into what subject have I rushed? What have I to do with Nuns, Maids, Virgins, Widows? I am a bachelor myself and lead a monastick life in a college." It can probably be best described as a fallen summa theologica, an attempt to account for the lack of metaphysical certainty in a post-reformation world ("the superstition of our age, our religious madness"), cataloguing the myriad schisms undergone by the church and the number of fanatics that have founded new cults as "they drive out one superstition with another… how many silly souls have imposters deluded!". It incessantly probes the boundaries of the immaterial and the naturalistic, cataloguing anecdotes in an encyclopaedic manner (a painter who tortured a man in order to depict it, a Swiftian tale of medical treatment by applying bellows to the fundament). The summa encompasses both the christian and the pagan, leading Burton into some rather heterodox observations. For instance, his dismissal of asceticism; "a company of cynics… that contemn the world, contemn themselves… yet in that contempt are more proud than any man living whatsoever," his dismissal of the virtuous nature of poverty "there are those that approve of a mean estate but on condition that they never want themselves," or his appeal for understanding of suicides; "we ought not to be so rash and rigorous in our censures as some are." Whilst still avowing religious orthodoxy, the dialogic approach Burton adopts castigates other religions and christian sects as well as questioning some of the basic tenets of christianity; "why does he suffer so much mischief and evil to be done, if he is able to help, why doth he not assist good or resist bad?" Burton also decouples religion and morality, arguing that "the nature of injury" is sufficient to keep men obedient to the law. Finally, he also questions the validity of a universal religion, suggesting the need for infinite religions for infinite circumstances.

Similarly, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Burial has a marked tension between Browne’s faith in christ and the resurrection on the one hand and by his antiquarian interest in such pagan habits as cremation and mummification on the other; Baconian scepticism and mysticism in one text. As he put it "I perceive I doe anticipate the vices of the age, the world to me is but a dreame or mockshow, and wee all therein but Pantalones and Antickes to my severer contemplations." Therefore "tis all but one to lie in St Innocent’s Churchyard as in the sands of Aegypt… The winter sun shows how soon the light fades from the ash, how soon night enfolds us. Hour upon hour is added to the sum. Time itself grows old. Pyramids, arches and obelisks are melting pillars of snow…. The heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man is to tell him he is at the end of his nature."

The consummate expression of melancholy in the visual arts is undoubtedly Durer’s Melencolia I, with its individualized and self-absorbed figure, lost in thought and unable to take up her tools. The prototypical pose of melancholy dates back to the classical period, with statues of the deranged Ajax existing in that pose. It was followed by Domenico Fetti’s St Peter (Fetti also gave one of his works the simple title Melancholy), Mary by de Zurbaran, St John, a 13th-century icon by Deodato di Orlando, and St. John the Baptist in the Desert (1480-85), a painting by Gérard de Saint-Jean, both show the prophet’s head resting on his right arm. The posture was soon borrowed by secular painting, as in Nicholas Hillard’s Portrait of Henry Percy and, in the 17th century, in Michael Sweerts’s Portrait of a Young Man. A century later, Goya used it for Portrait of Don Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, as did van Gogh in Portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet and arguably Rodin in The Thinker.

Thanatos

Erwin Panofsky believed that Melencolia I presented "a spiritual self portrait of the artist inspired by celestial influences and eternal ideas, but [one who] suffers all the more deeply from his human frailty and intellectual finiteness." One of the characteristics of Durer’s picture is its superabundance of ‘overdetermined’ symbols, the comet and the rainbow, the ladder that appears to change plane halfway up, the three nails, one with a double tine and their possible allusion to the crucifixion. The purse, the keys and the clenched fist, for example, are all associated with avarice, one of the vices attributed to melancholy in the medieval period; the crown of watercress and water parsley around the angel’s brow are an antidote to the dry humour of the melancholic; the magic square is designed to invoke the healing influence of Jupiter. Panofsky concluded that Durer’s angel is a personification of Geometry overcome with Melancholy (or Melancholy giving herself up to Geometry) and was in all likelihood inspired by a follower of Ficino, the German philosopher Agrippa devon Nettesheim, whose book, De Occulta Philosophia, draws heavily on the Italian’s work, and a draft of which was sent to Dürer’s friend Johannes Trithemius, in 1510, just four years before the engraving was made. In De Occulta Philosophia, Agrippa distinguishes three kinds of melancholy: melancholia imaginationis, melancholia rationis and melancholia mentis, arranged in an ascending hierarchy. The first holds sway over the untutored, a category that includes architects and painters; the second, over philosophers, physicians and orators; the third, over contemplatives to whom God’s mysteries have been revealed. Shakespeare advanced something similar in As You Like It: "I have neither the scholar’s melancholy, which is emulation; nor the musician’s, which is fantastical; nor the courtier’s, which is proud; not the soldier’s which is ambitious; nor the lawyer’s, which is politic; nor the lady’s, which is nice; nor the lover’s, which is all these: but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness." Panofsky concludes from this that Durer’s angel is a portrayal of the first of these, melancholia imaginationis, surrounded by her instruments but sunk in gloom at the thought of having accomplished nothing. More recently, Joseph Leo Koerner, has argued that Durer’s symbolic presentation of melancholy offers more clues for cultural analysis more than personal biography: "The Melencholia engraving thus seems to articulate a pivotal moment in the history of subjectivity. Where the Middle Ages substantialised inwardness as the excess of black bile and moralized that excess as the deadly sin of acedia [moral sloth], the Renaissance abstracted inwardness as an inherent quality of creative genius and valorized its effects in the originality of the artist, whose works are wholly his own."

Subsequently, melancholy seems to be held in abeyance. Diderot and Alembert dedicate a short article in their encyclopaedia to it, which recapitulates many medieval commonplaces regarding bile in spite of references to examining the brains of melancholics during autopsies. This is the age of "la douce melancolie." Nonetheless, the school of graveyard poetry developed much of what was to become romanticism, as with Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard; "Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife… Melancholy mark’d him for her own" Sentimental novels like Manon Lescaut were to create a new focus upon the interior life in terms that were often highly similar to sixteenth century descriptions of the melancholic lover. Prevost’s Manon Lescaut is like the works of Defoe and Fielding, episodic in nature rather than operating a linear narrative; events proceed through coincidence and accident rather than by causality. The characters of the novel accordingly vary with the circumstance; Manon being devoted and fickle by turns. Although the narrative is cast in the form of a fable, there is no redemption or repentance anymore than there is damnation ("a craven little soul, so devoid of feeling, that he could not see the humiliation of it… or else a christian… I was neither one thing or the other"), with Des Grieux even arguing that his love for Manon is akin to religious devotion or that it is unexceptional when one considers "that a mistress is nothing to be ashamed of nowadays." Prevost also suggests that Des Grieux’s crimes are not of his own making; "knowing neither the mad lust for money.. nor the fantastic notions of hnour that had turned my father into an enemy." The novel is fundamentally a sentimental one, valuing natural emotion over the unnatural morals of his father, something that further serves to distort the moral fable at the novel’s core.

The Anatomy of Melancholy

Similarly, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther also presents an interesting dialectic between Romantic ideas of nature and rationalist ideas. Werther speaks of "my resolve to keep to Nature alone in future. Only Nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist." Nonetheless he also later reverts to a less idealised conception of nature when he writes; "Nature, which has brought forth nothing that does not destroy both its neighbour and itself." Werther’s fall is characterised by his loss of feeling for nature (though the editor speaks of Werther’s ‘natural powers’ being confounded) but it equally suggests that Nature has a dual role within the novel. When debating with Albert he defends the Romantic individual against the contempt of the mundane masses, only to be told; "a man wholly under the influence of his passions has lost his ability to think rationally," before Albert states that suicide is simply a display of weakness where fortitude was called for.

Only towards the very end of the century, when the French Revolution begins devouring its own children, does the black sun of melancholy once more start to rise. Most famously, the term is reintroduced by Keats in his Ode to Melancholy; "Aye, in the very temple of Delight, Veiled Melancholy has her sov’reign shrine, Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue, Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine, His soul shall taste the sadness of her might, And be among her cloudy trophies hung." Keats had written that "I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence… Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?" repeating the idea of the melancholic as one given special insights; the only way to engage the great mysteries of life is to suffer "Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression."

This next chapter in the history of melancholy comes once more with a change to how society came to regard the individual, with the advent of romanticism. The romantic stress upon the internalised quest romance further accentuates the role of the individual, as tormented genius and as rebel, as in Byron’s Manfred and Shelley’s Alastor. There are two aspects to this. Firstly, the destruction of the ancien regime itself acted to further decouple the individual from their assigned social roles, ending Burke’s "age of chivalry" and introducing a paradox whereby although romanticism often tended to be radical in its politics it also aestheticised medieval chivalry. Individuals felt that they should be able to rise up through society in the same way that Napoleon had done, leading once more to the problem of over-educated young men unable to realise their ambitions, as with Stendhal’s Julien Sorel or Balzac’s Philippe Bridau. More crudely put, the unleashing of the terror, and the consequent betrayals of enlightenment aspirations, create a new emphasis on the melancholic, the most noted examples of which being Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters, and Yard with Lunatics, the latter rearticulating the melancholic linkage of imagination and madness that is also present in Fuseli’s paintings (The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins alludes to sublimity in its title but also uses the standard tropes of melancholy in its depiction).

Secondly, romantic aesthetics existed at a particular intersection with religion that emphasised only remote and fleeting glimpses of the infinite being granted to solitary individuals. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Burke had defined these two modes as being "ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain , the other on pleasure." , going onto define the one as dark and gloomy, the other the reverse." Kant views the sublime as an attempt to grasp an absolute conception of magnitude, while the beautiful is restricted to the phenomenal world. Kant describes the sublime as a complex feeling that combines both displeasure and pleasure. The displeasure is caused by the agitation and overwhelming of the senses and imagination which struggle but fail to take in the vastness or power of the sublime object. In the dynamically sublime the displeasure also seems to be caused by a feeling verging on fear. We feel so overwhelmed by the object that we would fear for our lives, except that we are safe and secure, and thus able to experience a sense of awe rather than genuine fear. Kant points to how sublime objects invite melancholy: "Thus any spectator who beholds massive mountain climbing skyward, deep gorges with raging streams in them, wastelands lying in deep shadow and inviting melancholy meditation, and so on is seized by amazement bordering on terror." The experience of the sublime is consequently a devastating one that the individual is not fully able to intuit. Thus Wordsworth in The Prelude writes of how "I grew up, fostered alike by beauty and by fear… terrors, pains, and early miseries, … interfused within my mind … (made) up the calm existence that is mine." The Lyrical Ballads are replete with examples of solitary figures; for example in The Mad Mother the narrator writes that "I am happy when I sing, Full many a doleful thing… if thou art mad, my pretty lad, Then I must be for ever sad." In some respects romantic melancholia is a critique of Kantian aesthetics, emphasising horror and fear rather than awe and terror. Something similar pertains to literature and to the creation of the gothic novel in particular. Ann Radcliffe drew a distinction between terror and horror; the former we are told expands the soul, the latter only creates revulsion, with that being the part dwelt on by the likes of Lewis, Beckford and Maturin. Similarly, Edgar Allan Poe opens Premature Burial by declaring "there are certain themes of which the
interest is all absorbing, but which are too entirely horrible for the purposes of legitimate fiction". The opening section of the story constitutes a discussion of the division between the sublime and the grotesque, terror and horror. The discussion is nonetheless strangely inconclusive. Intitially, we are told "these the mere romanicist must eschew, if we do not wish to offend, or to disgust". Many of Poe’s critical principles are romantic so we would naturally assume that
he himself ought to avoid such themes, but the phrase "mere romanticist" alerts us that this issue is more complex that that. Poe justifies his continuation by saying "they are with propriety handled only when the severity and majesty of truth sanctify and sustain them". As the story progresses the cataleptic malady becomes equated with horror rather than terror. The narrator describes his "very horror of thought" and states that "my fancy grew charnel". In
the earlier section we had been told that "fancy" usually viewed as inferior to the imagination in romantic thought, as with Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, is impressed by terror which is here seen as inevitably degenerating to horror and disgust, as in the narrator’s dream "I fell prey to perpetual horror". By Poe’s own criteria, he seems to indulge these "morbid" instincts on the part of both reader and author, only to disperse them "the imagintion of man is no Carathis, to explore with impunity its every cavern".

The Hardy Tree

This critique of sublimity through melancholy is perhaps most evident in the work of Kleist and Thomas DeQuincey. Kleist’s works presents rather bizarre combination of ontological ideas. One the one hand, he developed a pre-Nietzchean form of pessimism surrounding Kant’s distinction of the unknowability of things as noumena and as phenomena, so that his work is replete with ironic misprisions, with tragic consequences in The Betrothal in Santo Domingo, The Foundling and The Earthquake in Chile. However, this also leads to an emphasis on supernaturalism as inThe Beggarwoman of Locarno and St Cecilia or The Power of Music, implying a divine ordering in the sense that Kant had originally intended, rather than Kleist’s original pessimistic interpretation. At one point in The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater DeQuincey informs the reader that "in his happiest state, the opium reader cannot present himself in the character of L’Allegro; even there he speaks … as becomes Il’ Penseroso." In his Letters To a Young Man DeQuincey writes that Kant did not offer universal rules by which certain problems could be tested, but that "by raising the station of the spectator… the very faculty of comprehending these questions will often depend on the station from which they are viewed." The spectator is the centre of a number of varying reactions, making the narrator the centre a function as much as a persona. To Kant the mind exists in an indeterminate relation to the aesthetic object, unless in the presence of the sublime. At this point the imagination fails to grasp totality but because of this failure the reason is able to intuit the existence of the infinite. The obvious problem with this is that order in the system is maintained at the temporary expense of the subject, which is crushed by the overbearing presence of the sublime. Whereas to Wordsworth the shock of the sublime encoded within the spots of time has the effect of forcingan ultimate awareness of the infinite upon an closed mind, DeQuincey remains unconvinced as to whether the sublime allows anything other than the mind reconstructing reality upon its own terms. It therefore comes as no surprise when The English Mail Coach we were told of how "the dreamer finds housed within himself – occupying … some separate chamber in his brain … his own nature repeated." The finite self is left eternally striving in much the same manner as Piranesi on his staircase, "God, seems to be scure and deep, only so long as the presence of man and his restless and unquiet spirit are not there."

The Natural History of Destruction

Pre-eminent in the visual arts are works like Caspar David Friedrich’s Cloister Graveyard in the Snow and Arnold Bocklin’s The Island of the Dead. As an aspect of conventional romantic aesthetics, David Friedrich’s paintings often feature landscapes with a single figure with her or his back to the beholder, but both themes, dwell rather more on decay and contain echoes of the Middle Ages, for, much as the medieval hermit withdrew to the desert for purgation, only to fall prey there to the temptations of demons, so the solitary Romantic turns to nature for spiritual replenishment, only to be beset by visions of an infinite and possibly indifferent universe. The Romantic fascination with ruins can, after all, ultimately be traced back to the medieval tradition of apocalypse.

The nineteenth century can in many respects be regarded as the zenith of melancholy. Schopenhauer had written of how "abnormal sensitiveness produces inequality of spirits, a predominating melancholy, with periodical fits of unrestrained liveliness. A genius is one whose nervous power or sensitiveness is largely in excess; as Aristotle has very correctly observed, Men distinguished in philosophy, politics, poetry or art appear to be all of a melancholy temperament." The pessimism of Schopenhauer’s philosophy, combined with the death of god heralded by Nietzsche and Darwin led to Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Arnold’s Dover Beach (" Sophocles long ago, Heard it on the Aegaean, and it brought, Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow, Of human misery… The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore, Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear, Its melancholy"). The lines in Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, "While you live, Drink! — for, once dead, you never shall return," mark the return of a pagan melancholy that had not been witnessed since the likes of Horace. Equally, this was a period that constructed lavish funerary monuments in the style of classical temples or gothic cathedrals and decorated them with Egyptian spinxes. The impression is invariably of an industrialised and deracinated society that had lost contact with its own funerary traditions and instead retreated into something that more resembled a collage of differing styles. The invention of photography also ushered in the advent of mortuary photography, something daguerreotype photography was well suited to. Intrigued by psychiatric research some artists and photographers followed in Hogarth’s footsteps to visit asylums to paint and draw the insane. Nonetheless, it was also a period when melancholy’s connections with ideas of the divine frenzy and the sublime were severed and it grew increasingly marginalised as something decadent and diseased. This went hand in hand with, for the middle classes at least, a declining awareness of death and mortality. Even tuberculosis, the disease feted by Sontag as the central metaphor of the Victorian era, was something increasingly confined to sanatoria. As Walter Benjamin put it; "It has been observed for a number of centuries how in the general consciousness the thought of death has declined in omnipresence and vividness… in the course of the nineteenth century bourgeois society has, by means of hygienic and social, private and public institutions, realized a secondary effect which may have been its subconscious main purpose: to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying. Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one. In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living. There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not died. Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs." Put in Foucauldean terms, it was a period when the birth of clinic sundered the melancholic from society into a specially devised category. Experiences like those of the Bronte sisters, growing up amidst the graves of the churchyard, were to become increasingly unusual, with new cemeteries being built outside of populous areas, as with Brookwood and Kensal Green.

Highgate Egyptian Avenue

During this period, the historian Janet Oppenheim argued, "severely depressed patients frequently revealed fears of financial ruin or the expectation of professional disgrace," as with characters like the Dorrit family in the Marshalsea prison in Little Dorrit. This is not autonomy but dependency: the emerging "self" defines its own worth in terms of the perceived judgments of others. For far from being detached from the immediate human environment, the newly self-centered individual is continually preoccupied with judging the expectations of others and his or her own success in meeting them. As Emile Durkheim saw it, "Originally society is everything, the individual nothing … But gradually things change. As societies become greater in volume and density, individual differences multiply, and the moment approaches when the only remaining bond among the members of a single human group will be that they are all [human]."

This led Durkheim to draw theoretical conclusions on the social causes of suicide, seeing it as resulting from too little social integration (London and London bridge were almost synonymous with suicide, as with the Hexams in Our Mutual Friend or any number of suicides in his novels, from Merdle to Lady Dedlock). Those individuals who were not sufficiently bound to social groups (and therefore well-defined values, traditions, norms, and goals) were left with little social support or guidance, and therefore tended to commit suicide on an increased basis. Sporadic decreases in the ability of traditional institutions (such as religion, guilds, pre-industrial social systems, etc.) to regulate and fulfil social needs played a part in this, as did the long term dimunition of social regulation. Durkheim identified this type with the ongoing industrial revolution, which eroded traditional social regulators and often failed to replace them. Industrial goals of wealth and property were insufficient in providing happiness, as was demonstrated by higher suicide rates among the wealthy than among the poor. Thus opens the canvas of the nineteenth century social novel, with its scores of atomised characters and suicides, characters like Dicken’s Miss Wade and the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground or works like Thomson’s City of Dreadful Night where Melancholy presides as London’s goddess; "O melancholy Brothers, dark, dark, dark!, O battling in black floods without an ark!, O spectral wanderers of unholy Night!.. My wine of life is poison mixed with gall, My noonday passes in a nightmare dream.".

The Liverpool Medici

As the century drew on, melancholy was increasingly regarded not only as an illness but as a form of criminal degeneration. This change was effected by three men; the psychiatrist Benedict Auguste Morel, the criminologist Cesare Lombroso and the writer Max Nordau. Where the Neoplatonist philosophers had seen in the spiritual torments of the "children of Saturn" the seeds of genius, for Lombroso and company the imaginative powers of Baudelaire, for example mark him out as, quite literally, a madman. "Baudelaire," the criminologist wrote, "strikes us as the true type of lunatic possessed by the manie des grandeurs: provocative appearance, defiant gaze, extreme self-satisfaction" and so on.

Baudelaire’s poetry itself reminds me of Arnold’s line about "alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night." Where Arnold’s response to the death of god is comparatively straightforward, Baudelaire’s is considerably more complex. In reading Baudelaire, one soon discovers that his world is urban (following the lead of Poe’s The Man of the Crowd with its depiction of the regimented urban bustle thrown up by the Industrial Revolution), where that of his predecessors was natural; the world of the flaneur is one of alienation and anomie, not encounters with the sublime. The poet, the artist, was thereby displaced, even in his own eyes. He was no longer the hero, the seer and prophet who leads a grateful people to a higher spiritual life. He was now an outcast — maudit (accursed), doomed to misery, poverty, disease, and death. The city it is that gives rise to the comprehensive word for the unrelieved Baudelairean experience: &quotSpleen." Its connotation in French is depression; it is not tender like melancholy, nor does it carry the idea of resentment as does English "spleen." In a sense, Baudelaire’s egotistical sublime rather resembles Burton’s encylopaedianism. Since his work is essentially symbolic, the symbol always seems to lack something stable to represent, so that his Hymn to Beauty asks "did you come from the depths of heaven or up from the pit?" (just as Horreur Sympathetique speaks of how "your shafts of light are the reflection of hell") suggesting that clear knowledge of the noumenal is beyond the poet. The result is that his poetry is over-signified, being replete with meaning. At times, his stance seems to be akin to that of Arnold, of a poet caught in a world without the divine (the line about "my soul tossed.. on a monstrous, shoreless sea" in The Seven Old Men having more than a passing resemblance to Dover Beach), at other times his mythology remains essentially christian ("a damned man without a lamp" in Abel and Cain) and at others he resembles Blake, feeling sympathy for the devil (in The Irremediable there is "an angel, unwary traveller tempted by the love of the misshapen… as if it were reproaching god" while in The Rebel there is "a furious angel… but the damned rebel always answers "I won’t!" Finally, Abel and Cain speaks of throwing god down upon the earth). Baudelaire’s poetry works by overthrowing oppositions between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, company and isolation as he writes in Crowds that "the poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able at will to be himself and someone else."

Similarly, De Nerval’s writing is deeply embued with German metaphysics but nonetheless represents a point where the death of god leaves sublimity undermined by melancholy (Nerval’s Aurelia, his Beatrice, is imagined as Durer’s Angel of Melancholy). Whereas earlier Romantic aesthetics emphasised the ability to intuit the noumenal through the phenomenal in brief epiphanies, Nerval foregrounds the question of the potentially subjective and misleading character of such spots of time, both through his emphasis on the difficulty of distinguishing the real from the metaphysical and through the foregrounding of his insanity and experience of the asylum. For example, in The King of Bedlam, Spifame’s imaginings of himself as the king lead to his being placed in the asylum only for him to end up leading a parallel existence to the monarch as he lives in luxury and has most of dictats implemented; "Spifame could recognise himself in a mirror or dream, he could take stock of himself even as he changed roles and personalities." Sanity and reason exist in a strangely liminal relationship rather than as opposites in Nerval; his characters remain aware of themselves even as they lose themselves. Similarly, in The Tale of Caliph Hakim, the sultan emerges first as the double of himself, sane even while mistaken for a lunatic, only to realise that he has a double he had been unaware of. The ruin strewn landscape of Sylvie similarly emerges as a place of mistaken identities where neither the phenomenal nor the noumenal can be taken for certain; "but how could I be sure I was not merely the victim of one more illusion.. such are the chimeras that beguile and misguide us." Travelling to the Orient, Nerval found it too quotidian ("the Orient is no longer the land of marvels") and prefers his friends’s opera set designs, travelling to Paris, Nerval found it a land of fantasy in contrast to British realism. His masterpiece, Aurelia, continues this: "the overflow of dream into real life… Spirit from the external world suddenly takes on the bodily shape of an ordinary woman." although at one point after a vision of the afterlife, Nerval proclaims that there is a god, he elsewhere proclaims that there is no god ("the virgin is dead and all prayers are useless… there is no god, god is no more!") and that he is god ("I myself was god, trapped in some sorry incarnation"), with the additional complication of his frequently esoteric view of religion, which has more in common with the druze than with christianity. Nerval is plagued throughout by his own double, as well as the question of whether his beloved exists as spirit or simply as a lost love, whether is insanity is precisely that or simply a form of vision. Throughout, Aurelia, opposites are overturned and nothing is left stable; everything is swallowed by the black sun.

In their fascination with ruins and the macabre the Romantics had gestured toward the existence of melancholy, but its scientific grounding came with the work of Freud. Here, the melancholic is no longer a romantic figure. Entrapped in narcissistic regression, he or she resists any consolation and inhabits a surround devoid of affect and feeling, other than that of a compulsive desire to "repeat the trauma of loss." Ever since he wrote On Transience in 1915, Freud acknowledged that mourning was the crucial conundrum that the therapist must penetrate. "Mourning over the loss of something that we have loved or admired seems so natural to the layman that he regards it as self-evident. But to psychologists mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back." In Freudian theory, "mourning follows a loss that has really occurred," asserts Agamben; "in melancholia not only is it unclear what object has been lost [self or other], it is uncertain that one can speak of a loss at all." In a 1917 essay titled Mourning and Melancholia, Freud began a meditation on the manner in which the human psyche deals with loss. "Mourning," he wrote, "is regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person." We rest assured that after a lapse of time it will be overcome, and we look upon any interference with it as inadvisable or even harmful." This is grief at the "normal" register. By contrast, "melancholia," though sharing many of the surface characteristics of "mourning," is identified by Freud as a pathological illness, marked by an inability to recover from the loss, to "overcome" it, and to return to daily activities. Thus, "the complex of melancholia behaves like an open wound," a wound that refuses to heal, a loss that cannot be salved.

Unsurprisingly, after Freud melancholy lost its organizing status and became a minor category subsumed into the larger realm of developmental psychology. Similarly, the melancholy and the tragic are perhaps too integral an aspect of modernist aesthetics for it to be distinguishable amidst the surrounding sound and fury; consider Eliot’s "Webster was much possessed by death, And saw the skull beneath the skin" or Benjamin’s "Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in its contemplation, in order to redeem them…. The persistence which is expressed in the intention of mourning is born of its loyalty to the world of things." Modernist literary discourses are generally haunted by the spectre of loss: loss of a coherent and autonomous self, loss of a social order in which stability reigned, loss of metaphysical guarantees, and in some cases loss and fragmentation of an empire. Holderlin’s elegiac sense of modernity’s profound loss; Rilke’s elegiac metaphysics of absence, the loss of personal identity in Woolf’s novels, the loss of authentic existence in Hamsun’s novels (Hunger perhaps being the modern work that most deserves to be labelled melancholic) Heidegger on the forgetting of Being or the nightmare worlds of Beckett and Kafka. In the midst of all this, the pleasurable sense of melancholy is either at a loss or is simply subsumed, in the same way as the traditional idea of the ruin began to seem merely picturesque by the twentieth century. As EM Cioran put it "Melancholy redeems this universe, and yet it is melancholy that separates us from it." Modernism was the culture of an age of mass death. It was, as Matei Calinescu has said, an "aesthetic thanatophilia." Richard Howard, in his homage to Ford Madox Ford, called the modern "that all-inclusive negative." By the end of the second world war the question had become even more difficult, with the likes of Plath termed a depressive rather than a melancholic; the two terms may be congruent but they are far from synonymous.

After David Friedrich

Some visual arts continue to reference melancholy, as with De Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street, or several works by Edvard Munch all entitled "Melancholy," Several versions depict a pensive man sitting by the sea (for example, paintings from 1891; 1892), many repeating the pose depicted previously by Fetti and Durer. Even so, there’s little doubt that his painting of The Scream was rather more in keeping with the spirit of that age. Conspicuously present in the background of Durer’s engraving is an enigmatic, eight-sided, and up to the present inscrutable polyhedron, one whose very inscrutability makes it mysterious, even uncanny. Alberto Giacometti based a sculpture on this work, sculpting a plaster version of the singular-looking polyhedron in Durer’s composition. It seems to summarise well the displacement of the traditional iconography of melancholia.

Melancholy was ultimately parasitic on christian theology and its secularised equivalents in romantic aesthetics. However, there has been at least one noteworthy resurgence. In his recent book Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk draws connections between representations of Istanbul by French writers who visited the city in the nineteenth century such as Nerval and Gautier, and those by prominent Turkish writers of the early twentieth century. Pamuk emphasizes the melancholic tone in all of these "western" and "eastern" representations of Istanbul, which in turn constructed his own perceptions of his home city. "A sense of deprivation and hopelessness" which was verbalized by Baudelaire as the definition of beauty, and which can be seen in Nerval’s and Gautier’s depictions of Istanbul’s landscape, also appears in Pamuk’s Istanbul, as the melancholy raised by wandering in the poor back-streets of Istanbul, in its ruins from past civilizations, in the midst of an urban landscape that has lost the glorious days it had during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire. The huzun inscribed deeply in the urban landscape of Istanbul is a collective melancholy for Pamuk that unifies its residents. In Baudelaire and Pamuk, melancholy is no longer something internal to the subject, but something connected to the object. It is not a single individual who is melancholic, but the city’s landscape (manzara), "the beautiful object", that elicits the feeling of melancholy as a collective emotion. Melancholy thus leaves the isolated individual and infiltrates the city itself. In the book that juxtaposes his autobiography with the biography of the city, Pamuk suggests melancholy caused by "poverty, defeat, and the feeling of loss" as the primary common emotion of Istanbul.

The Work Of Art In An Age Of Digital Reproduction

Posted in Art, Literature on December 11th, 2007 by Richard

There’s been quite a bit of comment in a recent talk by Mike Figgis on the subject of whether there’s too much culture. The essential argument is that immediate access to digitally stored copies of films, texts and music has had a stultifying and conservative effect on art. As transcribed by Imomus:

"The 1950s was the birth of rock’n'roll. And let’s say we can argue that the king of rock’n'roll is Elvis Presley. One of the most famous actors of that period is Marilyn Monroe, but there’s also James Dean, there’s Marlon Brando, and any number of other figures that we would now call icons. And they were recorded in the 1950s. And I wonder why, fifty years on, 2007, when you go to an event, say popular music, we’re still seeing Elvis Presley. We’re still seeing someone accompanied by two guitars and a bass and drums, and a chord structure which is pretty much three chords and twelve bars. There’s nothing wrong with rock’n'roll in its limited way. But fifty years on they’re still wearing the same clothes. They’re still singing the same songs. And they’re still trying to look like Elvis. Think about it — it’s jeans, it’s leather jackets, nothing’s changed. Now let’s take 1957, say, and go back fifty years. That would be 1907, right? Can you imagine in 1957 the youth wanting to look and sound like someone from 1907? It’s unthinkable. Because that seems like the dark ages. That’s prehistoric, baby. So why? Why suddenly are we stuck in 1957? And I think the reason why is that we’ve become the prisoner of this reproductive image of ourselves, and we can’t let it go."

Figgis is quite good on the subject of the emotional implications of our access to digital reproduction, with films and programmes instantly available where they would previously have been something ephemeral, that one might see only once, performed and consumed simultaneously. Nonetheless, I find it rather hard to agree with him with for any number of reasons. As several of the commenters at Click Opera acerbically point out, Mod culture was to a large extent predicated on imitating Edwardian styles of dress (in exactly the same way as David Wilkie Wynfield’s photographs depict Victorian writers and artists dressed in medieval costume), which would seem to rather vitiate the argument from the outset. Art does after all tend to evolve very gradually with often little change or development over protracted periods of time; modernism’s exhortation to make it new is the exception, not the rule. Nor is Figgis entirely consistent on this point; while decrying the conservatism he see digital reproduction as enforcing, he also welcomes its economic implications for film production, seeing it as leading to smaller and less mass market films.

More specifically, these sort of arguments could easily have been debated in relation to earlier forms of reproduction, such as photography or printing. This sort of argument tends to remind me of Gianni Vattimo’s essay The Death or Decline of Art which argues that once art resists tradition and loses its cult value, it loses its status and has to engage in self-referential dissidence and postmodernist pastiche; a kitsch aesthetic played out against a vapid culture. Bt contrast, Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction argued that modern art had discarded with the ritualistic cult value attached to works characterised by their unreproducability and authenticity. To Benjamin this creates a space for a form of art that is both more political and more democratic (though in practice, Benjamin also decries the commoditisation of art, while his admiration of Kafka is on the basis of the occluded and ritualistic character of a work that had more in common with folklore than with the contemporary novel). Communist aesthetics aside, I tend to agree with Benjamin and it seems to me that novelists like Pynchon or Stephenson could easily be described as producing the sort of work that best suits an age of digital reproduction, by embracing the overload of information rather than by rejecting it.

The Apologists

Posted in Art, Literature, Politics, Romanticism on March 24th, 2007 by Richard

An interesting discussion of the controversy around the Austrian author Peter Handke’s views on Serbian nationalism:

"Like Heidegger, Handke now claimed he wanted to awaken in his readers a new sense of "the mystery of being." To that end, he had his fictional creations travel to places in which new perceptions of exterior reality would enable them to surpass rational thinking and engage directly with objects themselves rather than the preconceived notions of them induced by language. His characters are finally able to achieve moments of happiness, but only in an irrational way as they sink below the threshold of mind and participate, if only for a moment, in the unfolding processes of life.

For the first two decades of his writing career, Slovenia, in Handke’s mind, symbolized everything Austria wasn’t: it, together with the rest of Yugoslavia, stood outside the Western free-market system in something of a preconsumerist idyll. Moreover, it was, in his view, a self-enclosed world of peasants and artisans who were “at one” with the land, where language counted for little and what it did count for was still "pure" and retained an exact fit to the surrounding reality.

But all this changed in 1991 when Slovenia, followed in rapid succession by Croatia and Bosnia, gained independence and sought greater ties to the European Union. Handke was outraged over the destruction of his utopian fantasy, which he wrote about in a book called, appropriately enough, The Dreamer’s Farewell (1991). Predictably, he laid the blame for his disappointment on those countries, including his native Austria, that had supported independence for the former Yugoslavian provinces.

As war intensified in the Balkans in the 1990s, Handke devoted more and more of his energies to speaking out about the conflict. He employed arguments similar to those being made on the far left that what was occurring in Yugoslavia was, in Handke’s words, "a civil war, unleashed or at least co-produced by European bad faith" and that Europe and the United States had decided to carve up Yugoslavia to fill the coffers of their bankers and industrialists."

As an argument, this runs into problems by conflating the question of the political with the aesthetics. Having already dismissed Handke’s politics, the author feels that he must reinforce his case by doing the same with his aesthetics, consequently arguing that Handke’s dwelling on the mechnical nature of the minutiae of existence represents a betrayal of writing. This seems a rather unjustified addition of the polemic but, nonetheless, the idea that certain apparently apolitical aesthetics so entail political commitments is an interesting one. The most famous exposition of this argument is Susan Sontag’s Fascinating Fascism:

"Riefenstahl’s particular slant is revealed by her choice of this tribe and not another: a people she describes as acutely artistic (everyone owns a lyre) and beautiful (Nuba men, Riefenstahl notes, "have an athletic build rare in any other African tribe") ; endowed as they are with "a much stronger sense of spiritual and religious relations than of worldly and material matters," their principal activity, she insists, is ceremonial. The Last of the Nuba is about a primitivist ideal: a portrait of a people subsisting in a pure harmony with their environment, untouched by "civilization."

All four of Riefenstahl’s commissioned Nazi films—whether about Party congresses, the Wehrmacht, or athletes—celebrate the rebirth of the body and of community, mediated through the worship of an irresistible leader. They follow directly from the films of Fanck in which she starred and her own The Blue Light. The Alpine fictions are tales of longing for high places, of the challenge and ordeal of the elemental, the primitive; they are about the vertigo before power, symbolized by the majesty and beauty of mountains. The Nazi films are epics of achieved community, in which everyday reality is transcended through ecstatic self-control and submission; they are about the triumph of power. And The Last of the Nuba, an elegy for the soon-to-be extinguished beauty and mystic powers of primitives whom Riefenstahl calls “her adopted people," is the third in her triptych of fascist visuals…

Although the Nuba are black, not Aryan, Riefenstahl’s portrait of them evokes some of the larger themes of Nazi ideology: the contrast between the clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical. A principal accusation against the Jews within Nazi Germany was that they were urban, intellectual, bearers of a destructive corrupting "critical spirit." The book bonfire of May 1933 was launched with Goebbels’s cry: "The age of extreme Jewish intellectualism has now ended, and the success of the German revolution has again given the right of way to the German spirit." And when Goebbels officially forbade art criticism in November 1936, it was for having "typically Jewish traits of character": putting the head over the heart, the individual over the community, intellect over feeling. In the transformed thematics of latter-day fascism, the Jews no longer play the role of defiler. It is "civilization" itself."

Sontag suggests that aestheticised aspects of fascism appear in contexts where it may have been deliberate (the movels of Mishima) or inadvertent (the films of Kenneth Anger). The aesthetic carries a set of political connotations that exist beyond its own artistic conception. The most obvious example of this is how Nazism and romanticism are often considered as related concepts in their rejection of bourgeois society in favour of the heroic self and idealised visions of the past. For instance, Heidegger’s ideas of authentic existence and of being was not only present in but also able to transcend its situation, are key romantic concepts but they also relate to his acceptance of the Fuhrer principle, of hero-worship ("that unyielding spiritual mission that forces the fate of the German people to bear the stamp of its history").

Also central to the joining of Nazism and romanticism was the distinction of gemeinschaft and geschellschaft. Volk was a German romantic response to French Enlightenment ideas of social contract, a characteristically romantic response to the problem of the separation, or alienation, that was seen as typical of life in modern society. Lawrence’s ’savage pilgrimage’ was opposed to what he saw as a dehumanised and mechanised society in which "the machine works him, instead of he the machine." In Women in Love Gerald and Loerke wish to create "an activity of pure order, pure mechanical repetition." In The Plumed Serpent, the cult of the machines had transformed the Americans into a "mechanical cog-wheel people," who robotically performed their functions within "that horrible machine of the world" Similarly, Celine’s Voyage to the Edge of the Night partly takes place in a factory characterised by the "earsplitting continuity of the thousands and thousands of instruments that commanded the men… we ourselves became machines, our flesh trembled in the furious din, it gripped us around our heads and in our bowels and rose up to the eyes in quick continuous jolts… everything you still manage to remember more or less becomes as rigid as iron and loses its savour in your thoughts. "

In some cases, such as Lawrence and Nietzsche, notions of volk and imperialism were largely repugnant to them, effacing some of the more authoritarian elements of their work. In others such, as Wagner, Pound and Heidegger, it is considerably more difficult to effect any rehabilitation. One such case is the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun a supporter of the Quisling government who openly wrote in support of Hitler. For instance, in Pan Hamsun contrasts the authentic self of his soldier protagonist, who lives alone in the woods with his dog as his sole companion, to the bourgeois Edvarda, who lives in society and marries a Swedish count. As with Lawrence, Hamsun’s novels typically depict outcasts from an alienated bourgeois society; "I loathe your whole taxpayer’s existence… I feel indignation rising within me like a rushing mighty win of the Holy Spirit." Heidegger sought from Nazism "a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety… Only a spiritual world gives the people the assurance of greatness.. and the spiritual world of a people…is the power that most deeply preserves the people’s strengths, which are tied to earth and blood." Similarly, Nagel "couldn’t understand what human beings would gain by having life stripped of all symbols, of all poetry," often speaking in parables, the fairy tales of a pagan christ. Influenced by Nietzsche, Hamsun’s characters do not believe in god but continue to believe in a religious life, the same ambivalent relationship to religion that Nazism had.

But equally, his characters are deluded fantasists, inventors of falsehoods and contradictions. As one character says in Nagel in Mysteries; "I cannot figure out why you are turning yourself inside out for me." He himself speaks of his sudden jumps of thought, being a thinker who has never learned to think; "I admit I am a living contradiction." The vial of prussic acid he carries and his killing of a dog point to a dark aspect to his fantasies, parodying and mocking christ in the same way Nietzsche did. The element of romantic heroism is absent. Perhaps rather predictably, Hamsun’s novels cannot easily be diminished to a set of unambiguous propositions. It seems flawed to analyse Hamsun’s works for traces of Nazism when it was romantic culture, of which Hamsun was only one example, that acted to create Nazism. Celine’s depiction of ‘machine culture’ is mild in comparison to that of Huxley. Lawrence’s mythology of nature and eros owes a great deal to Hardy, Blake and Freud and is paralleled to a large extent in writers like Forster. Conversely, fascists like Marinetti openly embraced the machine and rejected nature. If the enlightenment is not viewed as being irredeemably tainted through its association with communism, it seems unfair not to grant romanticism the same benefit of the doubt. In practice, romanticism often acted as a necessary corrective to the extremes of other ideologies, a fact that should efface its own extremes a little.

The reformation of the image

Posted in Aesthetics, Art, Literature, Religion on October 1st, 2006 by Richard

I‘ve just been reading this interview with Joseph Koerner about his work on the reformation of the image. Amongst many other things, it raises the question of whether the iconoclastic tradition within Protestantism was to undermine art by severing its link with faith.

“The dispiriting didacticism of this Lutheran art has often been commented on. Nineteenth-century Romantics blamed Luther for the death of art for art’s sake, and its replacement with mere propaganda. Hegel thought that the Reformation inaugurated a tragic but necessary shift towards interiority which had robbed art of its intrinsic holiness, a disjunction between the beautiful and the true. The material world, fetishised by medieval Christianity in the cult of relics, the eucharist and holy images, was now disenchanted, and from that point onwards, however skilfully God, Christ or the saints might be portrayed by painters, ‘it is no help, we bow the knee no longer.’ Art was no longer sacred, immediate, an encounter with the ultimate: instead, it offered an alternative form of textuality, mere food for thought…

The Lutheran aesthetic, Koerner believes, broke decisively with the past in transforming art from a direct encounter with the sacred into a cognitive instrument, a didactic device in which understanding was everything, veneration banished. He therefore insists on the corresponding absence of this cognitive priority in medieval religion… Koerner here effectively articulates a modern version of an accusation often made by Lutherans at the time of the Reformation: Catholicism was external, magical and mechanical, Protestantism was interior and rooted in personal responsibility.”

It’s an interesting argument, albeit one perhaps more familiar from TS Eliot’s theories concerning the dissociation of sensibility (where such writers as the metaphysical poets felt “their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose”). In The Open Work Umberto Eco commented that “the order of a work of art in this period is a mirror of an imperfect and theocratic society.” Medieval literature is a place where every single sign was remorselessly subjugated to serving a transcendental order. As Thomas a Kempis wrote in his The Imitation of Christ; “Stand without choice and without all manner of self and thou shalt win ever; for anon, as thou hast resigned thyself and not taken thyself again, then shall be thrown to thee more grace.” In other words, from the retraction that concludes the Canterbury Tales to the writings of mystics like Julian of Norwich, art was inseparable from religion. This is an old argument, shared by Bloom in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human and originating with Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy; "their powerful individuality made them in religion, as in other matters, altogether subjective… and markedly worldly… we are individually developed, we have outgrown the limits of morality and religion." The idea of subjectivity as a renaissance development is one that was later to be disavowed by Burckhardt and challenged by medievalists, but it has nonetheless persisted and does indeed seem to account for much of the difference we might find in the autobiographies of Abelard and Cellini. The lack of a sense of subjectivity in medieval art makes it especially difficult for an atheist like myself to appreciate it; there are simply very few naturalistic, non-religious, reasons to do so.

Medieval art and literature are things I can bring myself to admire but not something I can often bring myself to actually like. Reading the above comment from Eco, I find it very difficult not to think of Czeslaw Milosz’s study of how writers were prepared to deform and contort their views to fit the prevailing ideology of communist states. The term Milosz uses to describe this is one derived from religion, ketman, a concept that seems highly applicable to the medieval worldview; “If one penetrates into the minds of these people, one discovers utter nonsense. They are totally unaware of the fact that nothing is their own, that everything is part of their historical formation – their occupations, their clothes, their gestures and expressions, their beliefs and ideas… The pressure of an all-powerful totalitarian state creates an emotional tension in its citizens that determines their acts.” This tension is perhaps best observed in what is, to my mind, the most interesting work of medieval literature, Langland’s Piers Plowman. This is one of the few medieval works where theological conformity is not a given, with Langland being deeply concerned with the relation of his radical social views to heterodox theological positions like Lollardy for the relationship between art and religion to be an unproblematic one.

For myself, art begins with the likes of Cranach and Holbein where the intermingling of the spiritual and the temporal is perhaps rather more uneasy than in their predecessors. Similarly, in literature characters in Shakespeare and Marlowe inhabit a world where god and the knowledge of god are no longer certain (as with Shakespeare’s “as flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport”). The infinite variety of a Cleopatra or a Falstaff is something quite different to the trompe l’oeil effect Chaucer gives to characters like the Wife of Bath who at first sight appear fully rounded but to my mind never quite escape the taint of allgeory.

Update: Nigel Warburton quotes Richard Norman on the question of whether atheists can apreciate religious art:

“Haldane does however pose a genuine problem for the atheist when he turns to the specific case of religious art, and I want to consider this in more detail. He argues that any serious work of art is ‘a presentation of the reality and values in which the work seeks to participate’, and that in evaluating the work ‘we are judging the credibility of what it proclaims’ (pp.171-2). It would seem to follow that if a work presents religious beliefs and values, the atheist is bound to reject those beliefs and values and is therefore committed to judging the work less highly. And this appears to exclude the atheist from fully appreciating and valuing religious works of art. One of Haldane’s examples is Piero della Francesca’s painting The Resurrection in Borgo San Sepolcro. The atheist might try to take refuge in praise of the formal qualities of the work, but as Haldane rightly says, its form and content are inseparable. The arrangement of the figures, with the sleeping soldiers in their poses of disarray ‘contrasting with the simple sweeping contour of Christ’, who divides the background landscape between the deadness of winter and the new life of spring – all of this serves to point up the content of the painting, and the painting seems to be inescapably religious.”

From a personal perspective, I do find appreciation of religious art to be far from straightforward. To continue to take medieval art as an example, I love the pigments and styles probably more than I do their Renaissance equivalents but do tend to find that art altogether impossible to relate to in a way that I don’t for art after the Renaissance. Art is about content as much as form and the two are not easily separable. The aesthetics of art depend on its propositional elements to a very large extent; I doubt any art can be deflated down to such content but I’m equally inclined to doubt that it can exist independently of it. I’ve never really liked the idea that is some sort of all transcending concept rather than a product of specific cultures. It seems to me that it is more difficult to apprecicate a lot of religious art for much the same reason that the Victorians saw something in Little Nell’s death that we can’t. Certainly there are authors and artists that depict or propound viewpoints of such extremity that is very difficult to be other than revolted by them (the depiction of saints being tortured and killed in medieval art, some of the bloodthirstier parts of the Bible, Hitler’s writings or Riefenstahl’s films); pure aestheticism seems to me a position that very few people will actually hold in practice even while they happen to evince it in theory.

As a final point, it does seem somewhat unreasonable to me that atheists are incessantly questioned on their ability to appreciate gothic architecture or Bach cantatas, when the question of whether the same applies in reverse is never raised. A committed christian could well have a cap on their appreciation of DH Lawrence, Gide, Genet, Bataille, Pasolini, Burroughs, or Bunuel given that all of those have marked divergences from a christian worldview in their work. Or even to Victorian writers like Hardy, Arnold and George Eliot, whose work takes the death of god as essentially a given. My own objection to christianity is mostly that it seems a very cramped worldview that would exclude a great deal if I were to adhere to it.

Against Nature

Posted in Art, Nature on August 12th, 2006 by Richard

“Nature has had her day; she has definitely and finally tired out by the sickening monotony of her landscapes and skyscapes the patience of refined temperaments…In fact, there is not one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and so wonderful, which the ingenuity of mankind cannot create.” – Huysmans

George Eliot once wrote that “A human life should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth.” This conception is one that is woven throughout Victorian literature (though even there, the themes of displacement and exile are beginning to manifest themselves) but is less commonly found in modern times. As Anthony Shaffer wrote in Equus, the modern era has gone a long way to banishing the very idea of place, as travel has the effect of making all places seem to dissolve into each other. It was with that in mind then, that I was surprised to come across this wonderful piece by Richard Mabey, which begins with an analogy as to how the mandrake would scream when its roots were torn up:

“When I think about my unweaned experience of the Chilterns, and what I made of it in my writing, they both have the air of ritual acts of possession. There were fixities in it, a kind of vocabulary of place: a valley with a woe-water, supposed only to flow in time of trouble; bluebell woods and dragon trees; the ludicrously romantic lychgate to my old school. But it was the rites and ceremonies through which I folded this landscape into my young self that counted then. The marking of the first swifts, over a particular meadow on May Day; the libations poured on bee orchids; an obsessive walk I took maybe three times a week, following the same route, touching trees, beating my own bounds.

When I lost my Chiltern house as well, moving became another act of serendipity, and I was blown like a fleck of spindrift to a river valley in south Norfolk, a thin seam of fenland slap in the middle of the great grain prairie. There isn’t much scope for appropriating the landscape here, even if I’d wanted to. The flatness, the treelessness – they give you no cues, no signposts. Back in my childhood woods, there was no trouble in finding a niche in the intricate tangle of natural growth and human markings. But here the fieldscape has been flattened out, simplified…
The wetlands can’t be pinned down in neat charts and perambulations either, not because they’ve been drained of meaning, but because they are elusive. They shape-shift. They’re defined less by landmarks than ebb and flow and the gradations of wind. When I walk around the fen at the end of the lane in winter, it’s not the same two days running. The paths vanish underwater. The trees collapse, the reedbeds are blown flat. The half-wild Konik horses are browsing in the alder thickets one day and wading deep among the darting teal the next… Water makes renewal a continuous possibility, and is a central feature of East Anglia’s narrative about itself.”

For myself, I’ve never really had such an intimate relationship with nature. To me, it is the artificial parts of a landscape that give it sense and meaning, whether they are the redbrick pottery kilns, blackened sandstone cathedral walls and dry stone walling of the Midlands, the flint walled churches of the South East, the honey coloured stone of the Chilterns or even the Portland stone that was used for so many of the London’s landmarks.

Growing up in the Midlands, it was impossible to forget that the landscape was the product of man’s design rather than nature. England is a country that for the most part lacks the wild and hidden The nearby lakes had formerly been gravel pits, while electricity pylons stalk across this landscape while the cooling towers from a disused power station competed with a radio transmitter mast to dominate the horizon. As many hedgerows and trees were cut down and burnt over the years, the flat plains of the Trent valley came to take on an ever more barren aspect that was only occasionally relived by surviving copses. For all of the English tradition of pastoralism, the English countryside has always been more utilitarian than beautiful. Nonetheless, there was what could be called a pastoral beauty to the place, as the screams of owls filled the nightime air and tree sparrows threaded through the sky during the day.

By contrast, the South East of England meets all the conventions of pastoral. Its landscape remains more heavily wooded, with beech trees leaving thick carpets of mast behind in autumn that are than covered in bluebells as the spring arrives. The villages remain more traditional, with many retaining their village greens. To my eyes, it nonetheless has something wrong with it, a sense that these places have been preserved like a fly in amber. At the very least, the Midlands always left me with the sense that these was a landscape that had been lived and worked in for centuries and that it continued to be so. The South of England does not, resembling instead and idealised Constable painting that corresponds neither to wilderness nor to a place where people live and work.

Single Form

Perhaps because of this, my own attitude to nature is essentially post-romantic; I recall being fascinated to read Hardy’s Sue Bridehead describe railway stations as the cathedrals of her age or hear of Auden taking picturesque walks to disused factories. Benjamin’s flaneur has come to mean great deal more to me than Wordsworth’s meanderings down country lanes. If I think of gardens, it is the tradition of the formal garden, where nature was artfully contrived and sculpted into patterned forms (rather like how wunderkammer artists would turn nautilus shells and ivory horns into sculpted objects that retained vestiges of the original shape), that interest me, rather than Capability Brown’s romanticised landscapes, which are every bit as contrived as earlier gardens but instead seek to create the illusion of naturalism. Today, it is places like Little Sparta, or Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage that most appeal to me, places where nature and sculpture have been combined to blur the distinction between art and nature, in the way that Japanese gardens like Ryoanji do. Consider the role of Bonsai, the deformation of a living entity into a sculpture. Something similar can be seen with Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, which ape the organic form but are cast in cold metal and therefore always seem an anomaly when they are seen alongside nature itself.

Non-Photography Day

Posted in Art, Images, Slowness on May 15th, 2006 by Richard

An interesting manifesto from this website:

“Non-photography day is an effort on my part to revive the moment by putting down the camera. It is a day to think about how life exists, in essence and not appearance and to understand the inadequacy of the photograph in describing this essence, to bring awareness of the perils of living through the view finder or the display screen…

This day was made after trekking through the Jungle on the Thailand/Burma Border with a group of travellers. As you would expect we came across many wonderful views, villages and creatures on our way; however I noticed that the people around me were living in these moments through their camera, and as soon as we stopped and were still, all reached for their camera… I felt my fellow travellers rarely really appreciated the essence of the moment they were in or engaged in any relationship between themselves and the places we stopped. They were more concerned with gaining the pattern the camera made. I felt sad for them, as it seemed they were missing out on so much reality through their obsession, an act of possession- of wanting to own the appearance of the place, as if this was all it had to give and photographs were their way of taking it.

What interested me about this was that this was the view I originally held but have since completely changed my mind. Originally, I felt that photography was a mechanical way of viewing the world, which only served to dim the immediacy of experience. Since then, I’ve come to see it as a way of slowing experience and regaining observation of intricacy and detail (as Susan Sontag put it, “All photographs are memento mori”). I’m thinking of how neuroscience has come to describe consciousness as a series of individual moments, which like a flickbook are asembled to create the illusion of a continuous stream; photography or painting return us to the moment that lies underneath the illusion:

“Consciousness also does funny things with time. A good example is the “cutaneous rabbit”. If a person’s arm is tapped rapidly, say five times at the wrist, then twice near the elbow and finally three times on the upper arm, they report not a series of separate taps coming in groups, but a continuous series moving upwards?as though a little creature were running up their arm. We might ask how taps two to four came to be experienced some way up the forearm when the next tap in the series had not happened yet. How did the brain know where the next tap was going to fall?”

Nonetheless, I still feel to some extent that any form of art, photography included since it is every bit as contrived a representation of reality as impressionist or cubist painting (certainly in my own photography I have gradually become increasingly conscious of different techniques and styles I was repeatedly using without having thought that at first that it was anything other than a transparent reflection of my subject), is an objectification of experience, something that necessarily involves standing outside life and at a remove from it. In that sense, I think of a line from Derek Jarman’s film of Caravaggio; “all art against life.”

The Devil’s Critic

Posted in Aesthetics, Art on March 7th, 2006 by Richard

Daniel Green has taken upon himself the not especially enviable task of spending time with Steven Pinker:

“Pinker comes close to suggesting that any art that does not confirm the hypothesis that art originates in other human attributes–adaptations that helped us to navigate and control what Pinker and the evolutionary psychologists he cites like to call our “ancestral environment”–is perforce bad and irresponsible art. But how could this be? Why should otherwise serious and creative works and art or literature be disparaged because they allegedly do not reflect the use of faculties developed to confront conditions our ancestors confronted hundreds of thousands of years ago?

Pinker has elsewhere discussed the fallacy of thinking we cannot in some cases overcome or simply ignore the prescriptions issued to us by our genetic inheritance. Referring specifically to the biological command to bear children, Pinker advises that it is possible for us to metaphorically inform our imperious genes to “go jump in the lake” (How the Mind Works)… At the very least, it seems worth asking why, if we are capable of redirecting “drives” as powerful as these, we cannot also similarly modify, even ignore, the effects of those biological prompts Pinker considers the ultimate sources of art: “hunger for status,” the “pleasure of experiencing adaptive objects and environments,” as well as “the ability to design artifacts to achieve desired ends.” “

It always seems to me that the problems of Darwinian aesthetics are not dissimilar to those of an earlier school of literary theory. In Freudian analysis, the difficulty is presented that there is no consistent and accurate methodology for determining whether aspects of a text are the product of the author’s unonscious mind, their conscious mind or whether their presence is largely coincidental or even illusory. The same problem manifests itself for Darwinian approaches, whereby no equivalent methodology exists for determining whether aspects of an artwork are consistent with the principles of evolutionary pyschology or are some form of cultural aberration. Neither our genes nor our unconscious are likely to be especially forthcoming on this subject; just-so stories are less than helpful in either case.

Art and Elitism

Posted in Art, Literature on June 7th, 2005 by Richard

There’s already been quite a bit of comment about John Carey’s latest book:

“When it was published, The Intellectuals and the Masses was criticised for going too far in eliding British intellectuals’ snobberies with fascist ideology, as if modernism taken to its logical conclusion would automatically lead to Nazism. Academic and critic Stefan Collini, for example, attacked Carey’s “breathtaking tendentiousness” for seeing “Virginia Woolf’s tart remarks about shop-girls or Eliot’s sneers about typists [as] part of that disdain by intellectuals for ordinary people which reached its culmination in the death-camps”…

Carey takes an uncompromising relativist position on aesthetics, denying the possibility of absolute values. There is no way of determining what constitutes a work of art – Carey concludes that it is merely anything that anyone has defined as such – and evaluating such works is a purely subjective activity… It is the absence of God which, ultimately, leads him to deny the possibility that there can be absolute values in aesthetics, and indeed in ethics (”Once belief in God is removed, moral questions, like aesthetic questions, become endlessly disputable”).”

As it happens I don’t have any particular difficulty denying an absolute standard for aesthetic judgements; in practice such matters of taste have always been based around arbitrary distinctions that continually change and shift. Art has very often been an essentialy social concept and requiring it to be justifiable from first principles seems more than a little excessive. To put the issue in pragmatic terms, the absence of a solid foundation has surprisingly few implications for the superstructure as a whole. To fail to have a clear definition of aesthetic quality drawn from first principles is unlikely to prevent anyone from concerning themself with such matters or to change anyone’s view of why such a definition might be needed. Culture can still be defended in the same terms that Arnold put forward as “contact with the best which has been thought and said in the world,” or a Leavisite view or any number of other ideas and definitions.

Where Carey is correct is that one cannot do this if one wishes to reconcile an idea of culture with any thoroughgoing egalitarianism. Ideas of culture have more often than not tended to be formed by elites, often through patronage or subsidy in the absence of a free market. In modern history, the former Soviet Union was alone in retaining a central role for culture rather than leaving such matters to the free market (where they inevitably withered; it reminds me of Gianni Vattimo’s notion that art, an implicitly subsersive force that undermines conventions and traditions, loses its privileged status and is forced to compensate for this by becoming increasingly self-referential and kitsch against the backdrop of an increasingly vapid culture). It does seem rather odd to me that Carey’s liberalism extends to issues of equality but not as far suggesting any basis for culture other than the free market.

Update: This piece from Blake Morrison explains things more clearly:

“In pre-industrial societies, Carey argues, art was “spread through the whole community”. But once the word “aesthetics” was coined in the mid-18th century, it became the preserve of a priestly caste. To Kant, art was good insofar as it accessed a “supersensible” realm of beauty and truth, and only certain kinds of artist – geniuses – were capable of that. Kant’s view of art, as developed by Hegel and Schopenhauer, also required that the audience for art (readers, spectators and concert-goers) be unusually gifted. To expect the blind, striving creatures who composed the mass of humanity to appreciate art was clearly futile. The best that could be hoped was that, as one philanthropist involved in setting up the National Gallery in London put it, art might “wean them from polluting and debasing habits”.

Snooty though it is, this view of art dominated much of the Romantic and Modernist period. Carey gives countless examples – and might have added to the list Henry Treece’s physiologically intriguing claim that to be an artist is “to have your blood running a different way to other men’s blood”. The legacy persists to this day. There’s Jeanette Winterson, for example, contrasting her own superior taste with that of her mother’s preference for the “hideous” and “factory-made”.”

Certainly a more clear explanation, but not necessarily a more helpful one. In particular, I have to admit to a rather considerable degree of scepticism as to whether this distinction between post and pre-industrial societies really stands examination. One of the dominant forms of art for much of the industrial and post-industrial age has been the novel, which has tended towards being the most popular of forms. Conversely, the pre-industrial period was very far from being a stranger to poetry and art that was essentially aristocratic, particularly when large swathes of the population would not have been able to read or have the luxury of being able to attend (state-subsidised) galleries or concerts.