May 9 2017

Unartistic Portraits We Paint of those around Us

The other day I read:

As Ronan Fanning has pointed out, the homes of the Irish Republic were adorned with the triptych of Pope John XXIII, Robert and John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s, then the Unionist household gods were the king-emperor, William III, and––above all––Carson….[1]

And this got me to thinking about how when I was growing up, I knew no one who had portraits of people other than their family members hanging on their home walls. No JFK, RFK, no Pope, no Queen, Ben Gurion, Che Guevara, no Ronald Reagan or Tom Landry.

Chiam Potok’s novel The Chosen (1968) has a scene where the narrator remarks that for many American Jews, Roosevelt’s death “was like God dying”—recall the cover photo for Look Magazine that a young Stanley Kubrick shot and was awarded for.[2]

I do know a white American woman in her fifties who’s infatuated with the late Diana, my father once named a pet dog Stevie Ray Vaughn and another Bruce the Boss, and as an adult I once visited a Mexican–American woman’s house that held a shrine dedicated to Elvis. But, for the most part, such hero worship and its accompanying iconography is deeply unfamiliar to my personal experience.

As Professor Proust teaches us, when we fall for someone––sexually, politically, philosophically, artistically—we imagine them. We image-make them. We make a portrait of them. And in doing so, we mistake the map for the territory it marks.[3]

Yet when we imagine ourselves, we distort the self-portrait of ourselves all the more. Compare that old pagan Goethe (1749–1832):

His attention was not distracted by the report of individual events or momentary emotions, sympathetic comments enlightened him without embarrassing him, and he saw a picture of himself, not like a second self in a mirror, but a different self, one outside of him, as in a painting. One never approves of everything in a portrait, but one is always glad that a thoughtful mind has seen us thus and a superior talent enjoyed portraying us in such a way that a picture survives of what we were, and will survive longer than we will.[4]

Consider André Gide (1869–1951):

You can’t imagine, because you aren’t in the trade, how an erroneous system of ethics can hamper the free development of one’s creative faculties. So nothing is further from my old novels than the one I am planning now. I used to demand logic and consistency from my characters, and in order to make quite sure of getting them, I began by demanding them from myself. It wasn’t natural. We prefer to go deformed and distorted all our lives rather than not resemble the portrait of ourselves which we ourselves have first drawn. It’s absurd. We run the risk of warping what’s best in us.[5]

And Oscar Wilde (1854–1900):

The painter bit his lip and walked over, cup in hand, to the picture. “I shall stay with the real Dorian,” he said, sadly.

“Is it the real Dorian?” cried the original of the portrait, strolling across to him. “Am I really like that?” [6]

And Paul Valéry (1871–1945):

What you don’t do; what you’d never do––that’s what draws your portrait for you. It’s my profile, my inner profile, the outline-plan of my whole being. [7]

Finally, From Karl Kraus (1874–1936):

Kokoshka has done a portrait of me. It could be that those who know me will not recognize me; but surely those who don’t know me will recognize me.[8]

NOTES

[1] Jackson, Alvin. “Unionist Myths 1912–1985.” Past & Present. No. 136. (August 1992.) 164–85 at 172.

[2] Potok, Chiam. The Chosen. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1967. Fawcett Crest Book reprint. June 1968. 177.

[3] As Proust articulates:

Variance of a belief, annulment also of love, which, pre-existent and mobile, comes to rest at the image of any one woman simply because that woman will be almost impossible of attainment. Thenceforward we think not so much of the woman of whom we find difficult in forming an exact picture, as of the means of getting to know her. A whole series of agonies develops and is sufficient to fix our love definitely upon her who is its almost unknown object. Our love becomes immense; we never dream how small a place in it the real woman occupies. And if suddenly, as at the moment when I had seen Elstir stop to talk to the girls, we cease to be uneasy, to suffer pain, since it is this pain that is the whole of our love, it seems to us as though love had abruptly vanished at the moment when at length we grasp the prey to whose value we had not given enough thought before. What did I know of Albertine? One or two glimpses of a profile against the sea, less beautiful, assuredly, than those of Veronese’s women whom I ought, had I been guided by purely aesthetic reasons, to have preferred to her. By what other reasons could I be guided, since, my anxiety having subsided, I could recapture only those mute profiles; I possessed nothing of her besides. Since my first sight of Albertine I had meditated upon her daily, a thousandfold, I had carried on with what I called by her name an interminable unspoken dialogue in which I made her question me, answer me, think and act, and in the infinite series of imaginary Albertines who followed one after the other in my fancy, hour after hour, the real Albertine, a glimpse caught on the beach, figured only at the head, just as the actress who creates a part, the star, appears, out of a long series of performances, in the few first alone. That Albertine was scarcely more than a silhouette, all that was superimposed being of my own growth, so far when we are in love does the contribution that we ourself make outweigh––even if we consider quantity only––those that come to us from the beloved object. And the same is true of love that is given its full effect. There are loves that manage not only to be formed but to subsist around a very little core––even among those whose prayer has been answered after the flesh….

But apart from this, had the portrait been not anterior like Swann’s favourite photograph, to the systématisation of Odette’s features in a fresh type, majestic and charming, but subsequent to it, Elstir’s vision would alone have sufficed to disorganise that type. Artistic genius in its reactions is like those extremely high temperatures which have the power to disintegrate combinations of atoms which they proceed to combine afresh in a diametrically opposite order, following another type. All that artificially harmonious whole into which a woman has succeeded in bringing her limbs and features, the persistence of which every day, before going out, she studies in her glass, changing the angle of her hat, smoothing her hair, exercising the sprightliness in her eyes, so as to ensure its continuity, that harmony the keen eye of the great painter instantly destroys, substituting for it a rearrangement of the woman’s features such as will satisfy a certain pictorial ideal of femininity which he carries in his head. Similarly it often happens that, after a certain age, the eye of a great seeker after truth will find everywhere the elements necessary to establish those relations which alone are of interest to him. Like those craftsmen, those players who, instead of making a fuss and asking for what they cannot have, content themselves with the instrument that comes to their hand, the artist might say of anything, no matter what, that it would serve his purpose. Thus a cousin of the Princesse de Luxembourg, a beauty of the most queenly type, having succumbed to a form of art which was new at that time, had asked the leading painter of the naturalist school to do her portrait. At once the artist’s eye had found what he sought everywhere in life. And on his canvas there appeared, in place of the proud lady, a street-boy, and behind him a vast, sloping, purple background which made one think of the Place Pigalle. But even without going so far as that, not only will the portrait of a woman by a great artist not seek in the least to give satisfaction to various demands on the woman’s part–such as for instance, when she begins to age, make her have herself photographed in dresses that are almost those of a young girl, which bring out her still youthful figure and make her appear like the sister, or even the daughter of her own daughter, who, if need be, is tricked out for the occasion as a ‘perfect fright’ by her side—it will, on the contrary, emphasise those very drawbacks which she seeks to hide, and which (as for instance a feverish, that is to say a livid complexion) are all the more tempting to him since they give his picture ‘character’; they are quite enough, however, to destroy all the illusions of the ordinary man who, when he sees the picture, sees crumble into dust the ideal which the woman herself has so proudly sustained for him, which has placed her in her unique, her unalterable form so far apart, so far above the rest of humanity.

(À la recherche du temps perdu. (In Search of Lost Time.) Vol. II. À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs. (Within a Budding Grove / In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower.) 1919. § “Place Names: The Name.”)

[4] Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.) VIII, i, 309.

[5] Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures.) 1914. Translated by Dorothy Bussy. NY: Knopf. 1953. “V. Lafcadio,” ii, 195–96.

[6] The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. 1890. Barnes & Noble Classics Edition. 2003. II, 31–32.

[7] Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1912. H 12, IV, 726) [pp. 328].

[8] Halftruths & oneandahalf truths: selected aphorisms. Edited and Translated by Harry Zohn. Engendra Press: Montreal. Reprint Chicago UP. 1976. p. 42.


Jan 27 2016

GERMANS, JEWS, & SOUTHERNERS: Knowing Your Place & Knowing Your Purpose

bookbread Canterbury

In both The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013) and How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015) Rod Dreher writes about experiencing exile from his Louisianan hometown, an exile that had been imposed upon him. Yet, perhaps some of that exile was self-imposed, for Dreher is not a prophet:[1]

For the first time in all my life I was going home and [my sister] Ruthie would not be there. Ruthie, the anchor, the fastness, the tower and the ark that would carry our West Feliciana family into another generation. Long ago I accepted that I would never settle there, and I always felt ever more free to roam the world over, knowing that Ruthie would always be present on the ridge in Starhill…. There has never been a time in my life when I have not acutely felt that I was disappointing my father…. The cold war between my father and me.[2]

These feelings Dreher shares––“the cold war between my father and me”––compare well to an early conversation in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen (1967) where two high school boys discuss the relationship one of boys, Daniel, has with his father Reb Saunders, the chief tsaddik (or righteous man) in their Polish-Hasidic-American community:

“My father doesn’t write,” Danny said. “He reads a lot, but he never writes. He says that words distort what a person really feels in his heart. He doesn’t like to talk too much, either. Oh, he talks plenty when we’re studying Talmud together. But otherwise he doesn’t say much. He told me once he wishes everyone could talk in silence.”

“Talk in silence?”

“I don’t understand it, either,” Danny said, shrugging. “But that’s what he said.”

“Your father must be a quiet man.” [3]

Both Potok’s fiction and Dreher’s nonfiction use the conflict between family members—particularly the angst between fathers and sons––to illustrate a  cultural severance experienced between silence and space, a spiritual chasm between purpose and place larger than just their individual experiences. And the notion of speaking in silence reminds me of a dictum from Gershom Scholem: “teaching is transmitted in silence—not by silence”[4] as well as Oscar Wilde’s just observation:

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.[5]

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This disjunction between an individual’s place to live and that individual’s purpose for living isn’t just a problem that emerged in the middle of the twentieth and early twenty-first century America. The conflict of family and place may not be anthropologically universal, but it can easily be found when kicking over stones and thumbing through books.

It can, for example, be found in late nineteenth-century Northern Germany, as in Thomas Mann’s novel Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family (1901) where the character of Toni Buddenbrook and her choice of an unsuitable fiancé––unsuitable in terms of the community and culture of Lübeck and its old family of the Buddenbrooks––leads to a letter containing a tender rebuke from her father the Consul:

We are not born, my dear daughter, to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain; and it is inconceivable that we would be what we are without those who have preceded us and shown us the path that they themselves have scrupulously trod, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but, rather, following a venerable and trustworthy tradition.[6]

The point of view of Consul Buddenbrook is of a successful mercantile capitalist and statesman, and no doubt his particular brand of nineteenth century German conservatism tolerates far less individuality expressed by cheerleaders of American conservatism in the twenty-first century. The Consul expresses a faith in tradition-for-tradition’s sake based on an even deeper faith in the totality of good intentions of his own ancestors, the sound examples of his fellow citizens of Lübeck, as well as the experiences of all of that community’s past ancestors.

While the example from Thomas Mann offers a reply from the father, Franz Kafka, in his Letter to My Father (1919) replies as a son. Kafka uses an image of two ladder-climbers to illustrate the non-relationship shared between his father Hermann (a middleclass merchant businessman of Prague) and himself:

It is as if one person [you my father] had to climb five low steps and another person [myself] only one step, but one that is, at least for him, as high as all the other five put together; the first person will not only manage the five, but hundreds and thousands more as well, he will have led a great and very strenuous life, but none of the steps he has climbed will have been of such importance to him as for the second person that one, firstly high step, that step which it is impossible for him to climb even by exerting all his strength, that step which he cannot get up on and which he naturally cannot get past either.[7]

Both Kafka as the nonfictionalized writing-son and Mann as the fictionalized writing-father (Buddenbrook) act as teachers trying to impart lessons to students where the student-reader plays counterpart to the teacher-writer. Herr Buddenbrook knows his place as Consul of Lübeck. Kafka knows his place in relation to his father––perhaps he also perceives his own position (or imposition) within his immediate Jewish community––and Kafka knows he is confined to a low altitude, stuck looking upward at an unreachable rung on a ladder that progresses ever onward.

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If you don’t know your place, you’re agnostic about your environment. But for some, like Wilfred M. McClay in his introductory essay for Why Place Matters (2015), the knowledge and awareness in the United States of our past problems of conceptualizing and altering Place aren’t relevant to modern times:

Many of us can still remember when the idea of “knowing your place” was used to promote racial segregation and the social and legal subordination of women. But very little of that is relevant anymore, and it would be a grave error to think that the problems of the past are the same as those today.[8]

As demonstrated by Dreher’s cold war, Potok’s talking in silence, Mann’s trustworthy tradition, and Kafka’s unreachable ladder, today’s problems, while certainly not the same, most definitely share a family resemblance to problems of yore.[9] For when it comes to things like the lingering aftereffects of redlining districts by race––particularly in my own community of Austin, Texas[10]––unlike McClay, I don’t see how even old ideas about “knowing your place” cannot be relevant. (And no, “relevant” isn’t a code word meaning “successful” or “worthy” or “meeting my approval.”)

“The past,” said Faulkner, “isn’t the past; it’s not even over.” For the individual today in Texas in 2016 both a knowledge and awareness of the place where one lives emerge as  inescapable tropes that might best be rendered: if we don’t know our place, then we certainly know our placelessness. Yes, Bard Willie, we are all “on the road again,” but this time (as in all times) we don’t know where we’re going:

 

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NOTES

[1] Mark 6:4: “But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

[2] Dreher, Rod; The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. 176–77; How Dante Can Save Your Life: the LifeChanging Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. 7, 11.

[3] Potok, Chaim. The Chosen. NY: Simon and Schuster. 1967. Fawcett Crest Book reprint. June 1968. 72.

[4] Weidner, Daniel. “Reading Gershom Scholem.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. 96. No. 2. (Spring 2006.) 203–31 at 208–09.

[5] Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist: Parts I.” Intentions. London: Osgood, McIlvaine. 1891.

[6] Mann, Thomas. Buddenbrooks: the Decline of a Family. (Buddenbrooks: Verfall einer Familie.) Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods. NY: Knopf. 1993. III, x, 130–31.

[7] Kafka, Franz. Letter to his Father. (Brief An Den Vater.) Translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. NY: Schocken. 1971. 99.

[8] McClay, Wilfred M. “Introduction: Why Place Matters.” Why Place Matters. Edited by McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. 6.

[9] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G.E.M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwells. 1953. I, 66, 67.

[10] See the recent series from the Austin Chronicle:

 

 

 

 


Oct 5 2015

Beyond Flimsy; Beyond Fundamentalism

bookbread pencil shavings

Today at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher gives readers a pop quiz:

How do we find the middle path between these two extremes? The Benedict Option is, of course, in part a reaction against loosey-goosey Christianity, so I don’t have a big worry that versions of the Ben Op would be at risk of being too lax and liberal. The real concern I have is that we would go too far, and create institutions or communities that would be too controlling or otherwise unhealthy. A secondary, lesser concern is that fear of fundamentalism would be so overwhelming that the nascent Ben Op community would fail to create the practices and structures that would be effective in accomplishing what the Ben Op is supposed to do.

He then issues a call for ideas and suggestions. My response is that perhaps consulting Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen” (1967) would provide some understanding of the balance necessary for the BenOp. The book, and later a terrific movie (1981) adaptation, show the balancing act of friendship between two boys, one Orthodox Jewish, the other a Hassidic. Various cultural conflicts and misunderstandings between the more “liberal” Orthodox way of life and the more”fundamentalist” way of the Hassidim are explored and explained.

 

Actual Jewish readers and filmgoers may rightly criticize Poktok’s art as utterly middlebrow and overly sentimental–but for a post-churchgoing millennial from rural Central Texas, I found much to learn and think about in Potok’s book and the movie based upon it.