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.


Dec 28 2016

The City Toad and the Country Toad

A Conversation Concerning Some Things I’ve Read & Reread in 2016.

Odious toadies are
All we, rolling in dust,
Licking ants red as rust.

Recently I  read the following:

I then compared the ideas gained by reading these things to other things read awhile back (listed in the footnotes) and the conversation between two toads is the below result:

Moses: It’s strange a book should poison me into believing the corruption of my prior innocence is what has lately made me more…. civil.[1]

 Mercury: Who?

 Moses: Me: Moses.

 Mercury: Who?

 Moses: Mr. Hughes. Mr. Moses Hughes, brother of Nimrod. We are the Brothers Hughes who chartered the city of Healthy Rapids out in the west Texas country, just off Quicksilver Creek. [2]

 Mercury: I’m sure the rapids of that creek were once healthy, but now that you’ve built a city along its banks, I wonder if the running waters are still so salubrious? No, I bet not, because it’s to the country where you must go for fresh air and clean water. As is written: for the lost who are weary of the maze of the city, the countryside offers sanctuary.

 Moses: Well, I don’t agree. I say the city is amazing, and it’s in the country where one gets lost in the woods. As is written: where one remains stationary, one stagnates.

Mercury: Yes, but wildflowers may grow out of doors––

Moses: ––But in a drought they stay stunted! Meanwhile, flora planted inside a greenhouse burst and blossom all winter long.[3] Yes, I’m afraid innocence is corrupted by experience––

Mercury: ––Ha! That is no secret! Hence innocence preserves itself by evading the dangers of the city, by retreating to the balmy countryside, where everything’s quite cozy and carefree.

Moses: Yes, certain pleasures attend us upon the absence of particular pains, and yes, their attendance may sometimes occur in the country, but the innocence you describe remains inert, cold and motionless as a marble obelisk. Yes, it’s easy to be carefree in a country cemetery among the obelisks. Perhaps the grass is always greener over there. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling among its urns.

Mercury: You may mock me, Mr. Hughes, but when in the city, whether in the street or on the sidewalk, you may get run over,[4] for as it is written:  the word on the street is the language of the city. [5] The city speaks to you and about you, yet you cannot speak back. You are too lost in its maze, too busy questing for better paths between pylons and shopping carts.

Moses: In the city I walk beside my friends, and they talk to me. But I confess that, later when I’m home alone, I realize I’m only “me” to others, not to myself. I am only me to them when I’m not around them. (Furthermore, this means that since I’m always around me, I can never be me to me.) In the city I’m around my friends, but when I go to the country, they miss me. Yet it’s the being missed that makes me me,[6] just as the white spaces of the Constitution make just as much a part of the Law as the black marks on the animal hides which constitute it. One seems to hide the other, and yet they both reveal everything.

Mercury: In other words, it comes down to either our presence in the census, or our absence.

NOTES

[1] Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Ch. XI. Compare also: “Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us,” (Ch. II).

[2] Moses Hughes (1819–1903) is buried at Pleasant View Cemetery, Troy, Bell County, Texas; his brother, Nimrod Hughes (1830–1862) at Cook Cemetery, Lampasas, Texas. See also: Elzner, Jonnie Ross. Relighting Lamplights of Lampasas County Texas. 1974. pp. 18–22; Lampasas County Texas: its History and its People. Vol I. eds. Lampasas County Historical Commission. Walsworth Publishing Company: Marceline, MO. 1991. pp. 1–2, 217–18; O’Neal, Bill. Lampasas: 1855–1895: Biography of a Frontier Texas Town. Waco, TX: Eakin Press. 2012. pp. 1–13.

[3] From The Picture of Dorian Gray:

Anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilized. Civilization is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate. (Ch. XIX)

Compare also Wilde’s use of “uncivilized” above to Mark Twain’s usage of “sivilized” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), Ch. I, VI, XLIII.

[4] Gary Toth has pointed out how modern American streets constitute one-third of a city’s geography space; furthermore, streets are now exclusively for vehicles when they used to also be play areas, much more public than they are now. See: Toth’s “Place-Conscious Transportation Policy.” Why Place Matters. (eds.) Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister. NY: New Atlantis Books. 2014. p. 55.

[5] See Wittgenstein:

“Do not be troubled by the fact that languages (2) and (8) consist only of orders.  If you want to say that this shews them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;—whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language.  (And how many houses or streets doe sit take before a town begins to be a town?)  Our language may be seen as an ancient city:  a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions form various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” (Philosophical Investigations, I, #18)

“Language is a labyrinth of paths.  You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” (ibid I, #203)

[6] Based on three quotations:

Most of what matters in our lives takes place in our absence.” (Rushdie, Salman. Midnights Children “I “The Perforated Sheet”).

I don’t know what doesn’t change—within me….” (Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. (1932. Untitled, XV, 827.) [p. 354]).

I am I, and wish I wasn’t.” (Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World 1931. NY: Harper Collins – First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition. 2006.) Ch. IV, p. 64.


May 14 2016

Commentary on Proust – No. 1

bookbread Canterbury

Because my bookclub is reading Proust this month, I thought I would start posting some portions of my notes. Let’s start with what other artists and critics have had to say:

Paul Valéry in 1913:

For every man, and from the same materials, several ‘personalities’ are possible. Sometimes coexisting, more or less equally.––Sometimes a childish personality re-emerges during one’s forties. You think you’re the same. There is no same.

We believe that we might, from childhood, have become a different person, lived a different life––We picture ourself being quite different. But the possibility of re-grouping the same elements in several different ways still remains––this calls into question how we see time. There’s no lost, past time, as long as these other persons are possible.[1]

J. Murray in 1926:

What Proust aims at is a mental reconstruction of his past. He tries to recapture all the forgotten sensations that constitute his past life. In this ‘novel of memory,’ as his work has been called, the greatest innovation is Proust’s conception of memory itself. He maintains that, in reconstituting the past, it is not conscious memory but involuntary memory that is the most important factor. It is not the things we have always remembered of the past that keep the past alive in us, it is the things which, having been completely forgotten, are recalled in all their original vividness by some trivial sensation, and not by an act of the intelligence at all….[2]

If we can only recapture the past by recapturing the actual sensation belonging to it, Proust concludes that our past joys and griefs are not always in our possession. But if by any chance we are brought into contact with the whole framework of sensations in which our past joys and sorrows are stored away, then these past sensations can again exercise a great power over us, because for the time being they instal [sic.] within us, as it were, the being we were at the time when they first affected us….[3]

Proust reduces love at most to a mere series of ‘intermittences’ of the heart. He regards it as something relative, and denies its existence as an absolute reality. It is only because we are forgetful or ignorant of the extent to which we are creatures of change that the illusion of love is possible. [4]

Henry Miller in 1934:

I find myself in a world so natural, so complete, that I am lost. I have the sensation of being immersed in the very plexus of life, focal from whatever place, position or attitude I take my stance. Lost as when once I sank into the quick of a budding grove and seated in the dining room of that enormous world of Balbec, I caught for the first time the profound meaning of those interior stills which manifest their presence through the exorcism of sight and touch. Standing on the threshold of that world which Matisse has created I re-experienced the power of that revelation which had permitted Proust to so deform the picture of life that only those who, like himself, are sensible to the alchemy of sound and sense, are capable of transforming the negative reality of life into the substantial and significant outlines of art. [5]

NOTES

wood-h-small

[1] Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1913. N 13, V, 92.) [p. 329].

[2] Murray, J. “Marcel Proust.” The Modern Language Review, Vol. 21, No. 1. (January 1926.) 34–43 at 38.

[3] Murray, “Marcel Proust” 40.

[4] Murray, “Marcel Proust” 40–41.

[5] Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. 1934. NY: Grove Press. 1961. VIII, 162–63.

 


Feb 21 2010

The Limits of Logic within the Limits of Fiction

At D.G. Myers’ A Commonplace Blog, a post entitled “Fiction’s Job,” endorses American Fiction Notes‘ Mark Athitakis’ definition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction.”  For Myers, this proposition by Athitakis is not a true tautology.  Myers goes on to explain that the modified statement, “fiction’s job is to be fiction,” would be tautological.

Assuming, with Wittgenstein [01], that all words are either tautologies or contradictions, the question beckons: Cannot attentive readers, whenever trying to define literature, rely on contradictions to the same extent they do towards tautologies?

The question is proposed because Bookbread abides by Paul Valéry’s proverb that “even in the best head, contradiction is the rule, correct sequence the exception.” [02]

After endorsing Athitakis’ proposition, Myers writes: “The real question is what such a proposition denies and rejects.” So Bookbread must also ask: How limiting is Athitakis’ proposition that “fiction’s job is to be good fiction?”

Can literature/good writing/good fiction be redefined as a sequence of words (that is, a text) that alleviates the reader’s apathy towards that sequence and the author of it? Yes, but only by further conceding to a contradiction which underlies this new definition: the contradiction that not-reading might also alleviate individuals from textual and/or authorial apathy. After all, there are plenty of fiction authors whom folks may claim to “like” and think “are good” even though they’ve yet to read them. People have no qualms against living fictitious lives, and novelists have never hesitated to write about them.

Continuing with “Fiction’s Job,” Myers supports his position on the limits of fiction via Chesterton, whose views on fairies and fiction, particularly the necessity of the believability of a story, can be supplemented by Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” (1939):

What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. [03]

Like the limits of fiction, we arrive at the limits of logic: And whether or not we book bloggers limit our logic by agreeing on either a tautological or contradictory definition for fiction, we should learn to never completely rely on logic for support of our literary judgments—because as Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928) reminds us:

It is quite true that logical speech is tautologous and cannot add to the sum of meaning or of knowledge. But the historical function of logical method has not been, to add to the sum of knowledge. It has been to engender subjectivity—self-consciousness. Once this has been achieved, as in the West it has very largely been achieved, today, there is no more that logic can do. Self-consciousness is indeed a sine qua non of undreaming knowledge, but it is not knowledge, it is more like its opposite; and once it has been achieved, logic, as far as the business of knowing is concerned, is functus officio. Or rather its surviving function is, to prevent a relapse. [04]

Notes:

[01] Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus. 1921. See § 6.1, 6.11, 6.111, 6.12. See also: Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 16.

[02] Valéry, Paul. “The Course in Poetics: First Lesson.” Translated by Jackson Matthews, from the Southern Review, Winter 1940, Vol. 5, No. 03. Extracted from The Creative Process. Ed. by Brewster Ghiselin. UC Press. Mentor Books Edition, Ninth Printing. 1952. pp. 92–106. pp. 100, ¶ 48.

[03] Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” 1939. The Monsters and the Critics. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Harper Collins. 2006. pp. 132.

[04] Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction. 1928. Third Edition. 1973. Wesleyan UP. pp. 30.