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.


Nov 22 2016

A Dialogue of High Adventure & Misdemeanors

bookbread typewriter

let us try / Adventurous work

––Satan, Paradise Lost[1]

Everything is legal.

––Thénardier, Les Misérables[2]

SCENE: Consider the Plagiarist who was successful and had money to spare and how he encountered the Crime Writer who was muddling through her career, sometimes writing fiction, sometimes non:

I.

CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever called you a criminal?

PLAGIARIST: I prefer to be called a “master of disguising quotations.” It’s the thrill of masquerade when all the world’s a stage….

CRIME WRITER: Has anyone ever accused you of being an adventurer?

PLAGIARIST: No, but I think I know what you mean. There is something of a riddle in how adventure sometimes functions as a synonym for criminal enterprise. An Oxford don named Tolkien played around with this idea in the opening chapter of The Hobbit (1936). But I first learned of this riddle from that Gallic journalist André Gide (1869–1951) and his character of Lafcadio in The Caves of the Vatican (1914): a motiveless criminal:

“No doubt his apparent inconsequence hides what is in reality, a subtler and more recondite sequence—the important point is that what makes him act should not be a matter of interest, or, as the usual phrase is, that he should not be merely actuated by interested motives…. A crime without a motive,” went on Lafcadio, “what a puzzle for the police! As to that, however, going along beside this blessed bank, anybody in the next-door compartment might notice the door open and the old blighter’s shadow pitch out. The corridor curtains, at any rate, are drawn…. It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he’s capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point…. What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! … And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there’d be no interest in the game! …. Between the imagination of a deed and … Hullo! the bank’s come to an end….”  He preferred adventure—a word as pliable as his beaver and as easily twisted to suit his liking…. There is no reason that a man who commits a crime without reason should be considered a criminal.[3]

CRIME WRITER: You certainly can quote when called upon. But don’t expect me today to pay you for yesterday’s words.

PLAGIARIST: There’re plenty who do pay. I don’t need you. And I can perplex at will. I will perplex you with a question: can one be a law-abider––a non-criminal, full of motives or empty of inclinations––and still, nonetheless, possess “the philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do?” Or is that urge something that happens only amid the anarchy in the heart of the African jungle of Nod, rather than the governance of the Arabic garden of Eden?[4]

CRIME WRITER: With all my experience of writing about high adventures and misdemeanors, I well remember what Captain Conrad taught me:

Curiosity being one of the forms of self-revelation, a systematically incurious person remains always partly mysterious.[5]

which was why––

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to [Jim’s] imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages.[6]

So to seek adventure—to pursue crime—is rather boring, at least for crime writers like me. Yet the incurious teem with intrigue….

II.

CRIME WRITER: Gide, Conrad, and Gramsci. Besides being a bunch of men, how are these relevant to our dialogue?

PLAGIARIST: the political prisoner Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), whether or not technically a “criminal,” certainly possessed motives and rendered them upon the pages of his notebooks. He was motived to philosophize in order to rise above religion and common sense:

Philosophy is intellectual order, which neither religion nor common sense can be. It is to be observed that religion and common sense do not coincide either, but that religion is an element of fragmented common sense. Moreover common sense is a collective noun, like religion: there is not just one common sense, for that too is a product of history and a part of the historical process. Philosophy is criticism and superseding of religion and “common” sense. [7]

On the other hand, for sea captain Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) if a society’s objects of royalty and religion make not good targets for terrorists (who are criminals, members of anti-society), then– at least in his novel The Secret Agent (1907)––science emerges as the preferred target for terrorists, the new motive of criminality:

“You are too lazy to think,” was Mr Vladimir’s comment upon that gesture. “Pay attention to what I say. The fetish of to-day is neither royalty nor religion. Therefore the palace and the church should be left alone. You understand what I mean, Mr Verloc?” …. But there is learning—science. Any imbecile that has got an income believes in that. He does not know why, but he believes it matters somehow. It is the sacrosanct fetish….[8]

Finally, through his character of James Duffy, exiled penman James Joyce (1882–1941) shows that to be a good citizen of a murderous empire, a non-criminal needs merely no royalty (if Irish at least), a few friends, and a little religion. These things make the life of the good citizen “adventureless”:

He had neither companions nor friends, church nor creed. He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died. He performed these two social duties for old dignity’s sake but conceded nothing further to the conventions which regulate the civic life. He allowed himself to think that in certain circumstances he would rob his hank but, as these circumstances never arose, his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.[9]

CRIME WRITER: Crime and adventure….

PLAGIARIST: Advice and censure….

NOTES

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[1] Milton, John. Paradise Lost. 1667. X, 254–55. Compare 439–41.

[2] Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. 1860. IV, vi, i.

[3] Gide, André. Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures.) 1914. Translated by Dorothy Bussy. NY: Knopf. 1953. IV, vii; V, i and ii.

[4] Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. 1899. § I.

[5] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale. 1907. XI.

[6] Conrad, Lord Jim. 1900. II.

[7] Gramsci, Antonio. Quaderni del carcere. 1929–1935. (Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci.) Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. NY: International Publishers. 1971. “The Study of Philosophy” 325–26.

[8] Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale II.

[9] Joyce, James. Dubliners. 1914. “A Painful Case.”


Nov 15 2016

Pondering Pipes with Conrad, Gide, & Dostoevsky

bookbread pencil shavings

Each of the five sections of Les caves du Vatican (Lafcadio’s Adventures) begins with an epigram. The fifth section, “Lafcadio” begins with an epigram from Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900),[1] written fifteen years prior. Gide writes:

His beaver hat was pulled down over his eyes and kept out the landscape; he was smoking dried juniper, after the Algerian fashion, in a little clay pipe and letting his thoughts wander at their will.[1]

Now compare Lord Jim:

When he moved, a skeleton seemed to sway loose in his clothes; his walk was mere wandering, and he was given to wander thus around the engine-room skylight, smoking, without relish, doctored tobacco in a brass bowl at the end of a cherrywood stem four feet long, with the imbecile gravity of a thinker evolving a system of philosophy from the hazy glimpse of a truth.[3]

On the other hand, Dostoevsky’s character of Makar Devushkin can do anything but think when he puffs his pipe:

Frankly, sweet, I can sit with them, listen to what is said, even smoke a pipe like them, but when they begin to argue about all sorts of lofty maters, I just keep quiet. Yes, dear, I’m sure that both you and I, we’d have to keep quiet most of the time. I turn out to be a real, poor fool, and I am ashamed of myself sitting there all evening, trying to put in a word on those lofty subjects, but never finding that wretched word! And I’m sorry that I’m not up to them, Varinka, that, as the saying goes, “a man can be fully grown and still have no mind of his own.” For what do you think I do with myself in my spare time? Well, I just sleep like a fool. Ah, it’d be better if, instead of wasting my time sleeping, I could do something useful—sit down and write, for instance. It’d be good for me, and perhaps of some use to theirs. Why, my dear, you can’t imagine how much they get for it, God forgive them![4]

So what was Gide getting at? Why did he feel the need to rewrite the passage from Conrad? What was the basis for the Frenchman’s anxiety of influence?

NOTES

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[1] Gide, André. Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures.) 1914. Translated by Dorothy Bussy. NY: Knopf. 1953.  “V. Lafcadio,” i, 176.

[2] Gide, Les caves du Vatican. (Lafcadio’s Adventures) “V. Lafcadio,” i, 178–79. The quotation runs:

“There is only one remedy! One thing alone can cure us from being ourselves! …” “Yes; strictly speaking, the question is not how to get cured, but how to live.”

–Ch. XX

[3] Conrad, Joseph. Lord Jim. 1900. Lord Jim: The Authoritative Text. Edited by Thomas C. Moser. NY: Norton. 1968.  III, p. 15–16.

[4] Dostoevsky, Poor Folk. 1846. In Dostoevsky – Three Short Novels. Translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew. Bantam Books, NY. 1966. “June 26,” p. 70.