“Death is Nothing to Us”

Death is inevitable. What it entails is largely unknown. Some believe that it permanently ends an individual’s existence; others that it simply provides a transition to another form of life. Most people fear it, but some consider it with equanimity. Among the latter are the followers of Epicurus, who claimed

Death is nothing to us. For what has been dissolved has no sense-experience, and what has no sense-experience is nothing to us.
(Epicurus, reported by Diogenes Laertius, translated by Inwood and Gerson, 1997, p 32; another translation is by Yonge, 1983, p. 474).

Epicurus proposed
that human beings are made of complex compounds of atoms. At death these
compounds dissolve, releasing the atoms to form other things. The body decays
and the soul evaporates. Once we are dead, we are no more. We cannot feel what
it is like to be dead. And the dead certainly cannot experience pain. Death should
therefore not be feared.

Epicureanism was
popular during the Roman period. A common Latin epitaph summarized the life of
the Epicurean as a brief interlude between the nothingness preceding birth and
the nothingness following death:

          Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo
          (I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care).



Gustav Doré’s illustration (1857) of Dante’s Sixth Circle.

As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Epicureanism faded into obscurity. Dante placed the Epicureans in the Sixth Circle of his Inferno (1320, Canto X). Those who did not believe in the afterlife were forced to spend eternity in graves that were completely closed just as in life their tenants’ obstinacy kept them from the truth. The graves were filled with fired graves just as in life the Epicureans were consumed by their heresy.

As the Western world
moved away from the dogmatism of the Middle Ages, the idea that man was not immortal
was once again considered. Those who now reject any belief in an afterlife sometimes
adopt the bravado of the Epicurean epitaph. But more often than not they care
deeply about death as the defining event in a life. It is not nothing.

Atoms and the Void

The philosophy of
Epicurus derives from the atomism of Democritus (460-370 BCE). Democritus was
born and lived in Abdera, a city in Northern Greece, at about the same time as
Socrates was active in Athens. Democritus maintained that everything was made
of tiny indestructible atoms (Berryman, 2016). He claimed to have learned this
from Leucippus, about whom little is known, and who may be more mythical than
real.

Democritus was called the “laughing philosopher” to distinguish him from Heraclitus (535-475 BCE), the “crying philosopher,” who believed that nothing was indestructible and that everything is forever changing. The cheerful and the tearful.

Jusepe de Ribera’s imagined portraits of Heraclitus (1615) and of Democritus (1630), both now in the Prado Museum

Of the many
writings of Democritus, we now have only fragments, the most famous of which
is    

By convention sweet is sweet, bitter is bitter, hot is hot, cold is cold, color is color; but in truth there are only atoms and the void (translation by Will Durant, 1939, p 393).

The concepts of
the atom and the void were derived from a combination of observation and logic.
Everyone perceives that the world contains objects and that these objects move:
matter and motion. Objects can be broken down into smaller pieces, and these
pieces can themselves be broken down into even tinier particles. But this
breaking down can only proceed so far, or all objects would by now have been
broken down to nothing. There must therefore be some indivisible particle
beyond which matter cannot be further broken. These atoms (from the Greek atomos,
uncuttable) are so tiny that they are cannot be seen by the eye: invisible and indivisible.
The void is necessary to explain how things move. How could something change
its location unless there were empty space for it to move into?

Atoms are infinite
in number but of a finite number of types. Moving atoms collide with one
another and join to form compounds. These compounds interact with each other to
create all that exists in the world. Combining atoms is like forming words with
the letters of the alphabet. From a few letters come a myriad words.

Though atoms are
eternal, the compounds that they form are transient. Rock erodes to sand, which
under pressure becomes stone again. Water evaporates and then condenses. Living
things develop, become mature and then die. At death, the components of the
body break apart, releasing its atoms for making other compounds.

          Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
          Might stop a hole to keep the wind away (
Hamlet, V:1)

The soul is
composed of atoms just like everything else. The atoms of the soul are extremely
fine, perhaps similar to the atoms of fire. They permeate the body, giving it a
conscious spirit. When the body dies, the atoms of the soul dissolve back into
the void like all the other atoms of the body. The soul does not persist beyond
death. There is no afterlife. We are transient like everything else, mortal
like all other living things.

Democritus’ absolute materialism differed from the philosophy of Plato, who proposed the primacy of ideas. Indeed, Plato was so upset with his rival’s teachings that he reportedly urged that all the books of Democritus should be burned (Diogenes Laertius, p 393). So much for freedom of thought in a republic governed by philosophers.   

The Garden of Epicurus

The ideas of
Democritus were extended by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), who was born on the Greek
island of Samos off the west coast of Turkey. In 306 BCE Epicurus established a
school of philosophy in Athens that met in a garden below the Acropolis (Jones,
1989; Konstan, 2018; O’Keefe, 2010; Wilson, 2015).

Epicurus (a digital reconstruction by Bernard Frischer that combines a head from Naples with a body from Florence)

He wrote extensively though none of his books survived the anti-heretical campaigns of the Christian Church. Most of what we know about Epicurus is preserved in the biography written by Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century CE), which includes some of the letters written by the philosopher to his colleagues, and a listing of his Principle Doctrines (Kyriai Doxai). The philosophy of Epicurus was popular in the Roman Empire, and several statues of Epicurus have survived in Roman copies (see right).

Among the lost books
of Epicurus was the Kanon (Rule, Criterion) which discussed how true knowledge
could be obtained. Epicurus proposed that sensation is the most dependable
criterion of truth – the world is what we perceive. Ideas derive from rather
than precede the analysis of sensory information. This seems to have differed
from the ideas of Democritus, who believed that our perceptions were as much
convention as reality.

In the lost Peri
Physis
(On Nature) Epicurus presented and extended the atomism of
Democritus. He acknowledged that there are only atoms and the void. The body
and the soul are made of atoms that fall apart when the corporeal body dies and
the conscious soul ceases. We do not live forever.

Epicurus appears to have deviated from the fixed determinism of Democritus byproposing the idea of the clinamen (swerve). Atoms falling through the void would never collide to form compounds unless some atoms at some time swerved from their predetermined path. Democritus also suggested that this unpredictable random movement was the basis of our free will, when we act according to what is desired of the future rather than what has been ordained by the past. In recent years similar ideas based on the uncertain behavior of atoms in the brain have been used to explain free will. Unfortunately, these ideas have little explanatory value. My actions are no more free when determined by random events in the present than when determined by the fixed events of the past.

Free will was
important to Epicurus because he wished us to choose the good life. This depended
on maximizing our happiness. Although maligned by Christian polemicists as a decadent
libertine, Epicurus actually practiced an ascetic hedonism. He valued most the
simple sensory pleasures of his garden and the friendship of his colleagues. He
eschewed any participation in politics as causing too much anxiety. His goal
was ataraxia (tranquility, peace of mind, from a- not and tarasso,
disturb). 

Although he was
described as an atheist, Epicurus thought that the gods were real because our
ideas of them were just too clear to be ignored. However, he argued that the
gods were not in any way concerned with human affairs. Like true Epicurean, the
gods enjoy themselves and refuse to be bothered by human politics.

Epicurus proposed
that we should not be frightened of death. Since our consciousness ceases when
we die, death is not painful. Since the gods are not concerned with human
beings, they have not provided an afterlife of punishment for all that we have
done wrong. If we attain a life of ataraxia, it matters not how long we
live (Lesses, 2002; Mitsis, 2002). Death is the natural and inevitable end to
life. The following is from the Letter to Monoeceus:

Get used to
believing that death is nothing to us. For all good and bad consists in
sense-experience, and death is the privation of sense-experience. Hence, a
correct knowledge of the fact that death is nothing to us makes the mortality
of life a matter for contentment, not by adding a limitless time to life but by
removing the longing for immortality. For there is nothing fearful in life for
one who has grasped that there is nothing fearful in the absence of life. Thus,
he is a fool who says that he fears death not because it will be painful when
present but because it is painful when it is still to come. For that which
while present causes no distress causes unnecessary pain when merely
anticipated. So death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us;
since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then
we do not exist. (Inwood & Gerson, 1997, p 29)

Epicurus practiced
what he preached. He died from an attack of kidney stones. Despite severe and
prolonged pain, he maintained his ataraxia. His cheerfulness of mind and
his memory of philosophy counterbalanced his afflictions.

De Rerum Natura

In about 50 BCE
Titus Lucretius Carus published a long Latin poem about the Nature of Things.
The poem probably derives from the Peri Physis of Epicurus. Little is
known about the poet. In his Chronicon (circa 380 CE), written some 400
years later, Saint Jerome included an entry for the year 94 BCE:

Titus Lucretius,
poet, is born. After a love-philtre had turned him mad, and he had written, in
the intervals of his insanity, several books which Cicero revised, he killed
himself by his own hand in the forty-fourth year of his age. (translation by
Santayana, 1910, p 19)

Saint Jerome was a
devout Christian, completely opposed to the beliefs of Epicurus, who claimed
that the gods had nothing to do with human life, and who denied the immortality
of the soul. Most critics feel that Jerome was simply trying to belittle the
poet and to cast his work as nonsense: be not seduced by Epicureanism, since madness
and suicide follow from such heresies (e.g., Sedley, 2018, and Smith, 1992 in
his introduction to the Loeb edition of De Rerum Natura). However, the
biography may contain some threads of truth:   

The love-philtre in this report sounds apocryphal; and the story of the madness and suicide attributes too edifying an end to an atheist and Epicurean not to be suspected. If anything lends colour to the story it is a certain consonance which we may feel between its tragic incidents and the genius of the poet as revealed in his work, where we find a strange scorn of love, a strange vehemence, and a high melancholy. It is by no means incredible that the author of such a poem should have been at some time the slave of a pathological passion, that his vehemence and inspiration should have passed into mania, and that he should have taken his own life. (Santayana, 1910, pp 19-20).

De Rerum
Natura
is like no other
poem: a scientific treatise expressed in verse. The poetry is characterized by
brilliant language and intense imagery. Most impressive is the ongoing energy
of the argument as Lucretius moves from atoms to death, from the soul to the
cosmos, from the weather to the plague.

The poem begins
with a beautiful invocation of Venus as the mother of Aeneas, founder of Rome,
as the patron of all the creative forces in the world, and as the
personification of Epicurean pleasure:

     Life-stirring Venus, Mother of Aeneas and of Rome,
     Pleasure of men and gods, you make all things beneath the dome
     Of sliding constellations teem, you throng the fruited earth
     And the ship-freighted sea — for every species comes to birth
     Conceived through you, and rises forth and gazes on the light.
     The winds flee from you, Goddess, your arrival puts to flight
     The clouds of heaven. For you, the crafty earth contrives sweet flowers,
     For you, the oceans laugh, the skies grow peaceful after showers,
     Awash with light. (I: 1-10 Stalling translation)

On the right is the first page of a 1483 manuscript copy of the poem made for Pope Sixtus IV by Girolamo di Matteo de Tauris. The Latin text begins

Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas,
Alma Venus, caeli subter labentia signa
Quae mare navigerum, quae terras frugiferentis

The beginning of
the poem immediately questions the Epicurean view that the gods are not
involved with the human world. Why should Lucretius invoke Venus as a partner
in his poetry? The gods are a problem for Epicureanism: if they are real, they
must be made of atoms and, if so, they cannot be immortal; yet, if they are
mortal, they are not gods. Lucretius probably considered the gods more as
metaphors than as real beings. Later in the poem (II: 646-660) he remarks that it
is customary to call the sea Neptune, the corn Ceres and the wine Bacchus
without actually meaning that these things are divine.

Lucretius quickly indicates that superstitious belief in the gods can lead to terrible wrongs by recounting the story of Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, who was sacrificed at Aulis to propitiate the anger of the goddess Artemis, and obtain fair winds to send the Greek ships to Troy. The illustration at the left shows a fresco in the House of Tragic Poet in Pompeii from about the same time as Lucretius. Iphigenia is carried by Achilles and Ulysses to be sacrificed by Calchas the priest, while her father on the left refuses to observe her death. Above, the goddess Artemis arranges for a stag to be substituted for Iphigenia, who will be spirited away. However, this will be done without any of the Greeks realizing that Iphigenia was not actually sacrificed. Human sacrifice is also part of the Hebrew Bible, which recounts the attempted sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 and the actual sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11. As Lucretius clearly states, Iphigenia was

          An innocent girl betrayed to a sort of incest
          To be struck down by the piety of her father
          Who hoped in that way to get a good start for his fleet.
          That is the sort of horror religion produces.
          (I: 98-101, Sisson translation).

De Rerum
Natura
recounts the
principles of atomism espoused by Epicurus. Lucretius describes the clinamen
or swerve, and notes its importance for free will. We are not completely
determined by our past:

Again, if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order in-variable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this free will in living creatures all over the earth, whence I say is this will wrested from the fates by which we proceed whither pleasure leads each, swerving also our motions not at fixed times and fixed places, but just where our mind has taken us? (II: 252-260, Rouse translation).

Lucretius considers death in many ways. The following passage provides the principal Epicurean argument:

           So death is nothing, and matters nothing to us
           Once it is clear that the mind is mortal stuff.
           …
           So when we are dead and when our body and soul
           Which together make us one, have come apart,
           Nothing can happen to us, we shall not be there,
           Nothing whatever will have the power to move us,
           Not even if earth and sea got mixed into one.
           (III: 830-1, 838-842, Sisson translation)

Lucretius also
adds the analogy of the mirror to the Epicurean comparison of the time before
birth to the time after death. If we are not concerned with what occurred
before we are born, why should we be afraid of its mirror-image: the time after
we have died and once again do not exist:

           Now look back: all the time that ever existed
           Before we were born, was nothing at all to us.
           It is a mirror which nature holds up for us
          To show us what it will be like after our death.
          Is it very horrible? Is there anything sad in it?
          Is it any different from sleep? It is more untroubled.
          (III: 972-977, Sisson translation)

The poem goes on
to consider many natural phenomena. Some of the explanations that Lucretius
offers are good, and some are similar to those proposed in modern science.
However, most of the explanations are wrong. Science and poetry are not well
suited: poetry attempts to say things that will last forever, whereas science is
always changing.

At the end of the
VI Book of De Rerum Natura Lucretius vividly describes the great Plague
of Athens that began in 430 BCE during the Peloponnesian War. There is great
debate about the nature of the plague, which was perhaps caused by an
Ebola-like hemorrhagic fever. 

     The symptom first to strike was fiery fever in the head,
     And both eyes, burning hectic bright, were all shot through with red.
     The throat as well would sweat with blood, all black within. And stung
     With sores, the pathway of the voice would clog and choke. The tongue,
     Interpreter of the mind, oozed pus, and, made limp with the smart,
     Was too heavy to move, and rough. Thence the disease would start,
     Passing the gullet, to fill the chest, and flood the heavy heart
     Of the afflicted, and then, indeed, all of the gates of Life
     Began to give. From the open mouth, there would exhale a rife
     Stink, like the stench of rank unburied corpses left to rot.
     And then all of the powers of the mind and body, brought
     To the very brink of doom, began to flicker. Mental strain
     Ever danced attendance on intolerable pain;
     Pleas mingled with moans. Ceaseless retching, lasting day
     And night, was ever causing seizure and cramp, and wasting away
     The strength of men already racked with suffering and worn out.
     (VI: 1145-1161
, Stallings translation)

Death was everywhere. Below is a detail of an engraving (from the Wellcome Library) from a 1654 painting by Michael Sweerts, once thought to represent the plague of Athens:

The Plague of Athens

The prevalence of
death tore at the moral fabric of the city:

     The present grief was overwhelming. No one any more
     Observed the rites of burial they had observed before,
     For the whole populace was thrown in disarray and cowed.
     Each mourner buried his dead just as the time and means allowed.
     Squalid Poverty and Sudden Disaster would conspire
     To drive men on to desperate deeds — so they’d place on a pyre
     Constructed by another their own loved-ones, and set fire

     To it with wails and lamentation. And often they would shed
     Much blood in the struggle rather than desert their dead.
     (VI: 1278-1286, Stallings translation)

De Rerum
Natura
ends here. Most
critics feel that Lucretius died before he could finish his poem, and that he
probably intended to explain how philosophy could help one face the horrors of
such a plague with equanimity. But he did not. And one wonders if he could not.

Stoicism

At the time of
Epicurus, Athens was home to several other schools of philosophy. The most
important of these were the Skeptics who refused to believe in anything, and
the Stoics who differed from the Epicureans mainly in their promotions of
virtue rather than pleasure as the goal of human life (Baltzly, 2019; Long, 1986).
The Stoics proposed that the universe proceeded according to its own Logos, and
that human benefit was not necessarily part of this determined path. One had to
accept one’s fate and do the best that one could. The Stoical idea of the Logos
goes back to Heraclitus. Indeed, Stoics and Epicureans can trace their
emotional origins to tearful Heraclitus and cheerful Democritus.  

Marcus Aurelius

The Stoics also differed from the Epicureans in their approach to death. While the Epicureans tried to ignore death, the Stoics paid it constant attention. Death brings one’s life to an end, and therefore settles the sum of one’s virtues and achievements. Life should therefore be lived as if death were imminent. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the 175 CE statue of whom is illustrated on the left, voiced these Stoical precepts in his Meditations:

Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man, to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thy self relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee.

Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good

(Marcus Aurelius, 180 CE, II: 5 and III: 17, translation by Long)

Stoicism became
more popular with the Romans than Epicureanism. And Stoicism fitted more easily
to the doctrines of Christianity, which accepted and transformed the Stoic idea
of Logos, making Christ its personification.  

Epicurus and Modernity

The works of Democritus
and Epicurus did not survive beyond Roman times. However, a manuscript of De
Rerum Natura
by Lucretius was diligently copied and re-copied by Christian monks,
and finally discovered in a German monastery in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini (Greenblatt, 2011). The
first printed publication of De Rerum Natura was in 1473.

The rediscovered book
brought the atomism of Democritus and Epicurus to the attention of the
philosophers and scientists of Europe. Pierre Gassendi (1592-1665) in France
and Robert Boyle (1627-1691) in England were attracted to the explanatory power
of atoms and developed a “corpuscular philosophy” (Wilson, 2008). They tried
but failed to reconcile this atomism with Christian beliefs in the immortal
soul and a beneficent God.

As science progressed, corpuscular philosophy developed into modern chemistry. Atoms of different types combine to form molecules of various chemical compounds. The pressure of a gas depends on the force exerted by the continual movement of its molecules. This is illustrated on the right, in which five of the molecules are colored red to make their motion easier to follow. The molecules move like the motes of dust in the sunlight that were described in De Rerum Natura (Book II:62-79). Science now knows that atoms are not indivisible, but modern science owes much to Lucretius. 

As the Enlightenment
progressed, some thinkers decided to reject God and immortality and to accept
Epicurus’ views of death. Of these perhaps the most famous is David Hume
(1711-1776) who, when dying of cancer, was interviewed by James Boswell
(1740-1795). Boswell was disconcerted by Hume’s refusal to believe in the
afterlife, and by his cheerfulness in the face of death (Miller, 1995):

I asked him if the thought of annihilation never gave him any uneasiness. He said not the least; no more than the thought that he had not been, as Lucretius observes. (Boswell, 1776).   

Fear of Death

Despite the
cheerfulness with which Epicurus and Hume faced death, Epicurean logic fails to
convince most human beings not to fear death. Since death before maturity
prevents us from reproducing, evolution must clearly have given preference to
those whose fear of death made them avoid potentially fatal situations.

Epicurus promoted
pleasure as the goal of life, but had difficulty handling its relation to time.
Common sense definitely presumes that pleasure is greater when it lasts longer.
A death that shortens a potentially pleasurable life should therefore be
feared. Epicurus proposed that ataraxia is the same regardless of the
duration, but his argument is unconvincing:

Epicurus holds that pleasure is the supreme good, and yet claims that there is no greater pleasure to be had in an infinite period than in a brief and limited one. Now one who regards good as entirely a matter of virtue is entitled to say that one has a completely happy life when completely virtuous. Here it is denied that time adds anything to the supreme good. But if one believes that the happy life is constituted by pleasure, then one cannot consistently maintain that pleasure does not increase with duration, or else the same will apply to pain. Or are we to say that the longer one is in pain the more miserable one is, but deny that duration has any bearing on the desirability of pleasure. (Cicero, 45 BCE, II: 88)

Nagel (1990) makes
a similar point:

Observed from without, human beings obviously have a natural lifespan and cannot live much longer than a hundred years. A man’s sense of his own experience, on the other hand, does not embody this idea of a natural limit. His existence defines for him an essentially open-ended possible future, containing the usual mixture of goods and evils that he has found so tolerable in the past. Having been gratuitously introduced to the world by a collection of natural, historical, and social accidents, he finds himself the subject of a life, with an indeterminate and not essentially limited future. Viewed in this way, death, no matter how inevitable, is an abrupt cancellation of indefinitely extensive possible goods. Normality seems to have nothing to do with it, for the fact that we will all inevitably die in a few score years cannot by itself imply that it would not be good to live longer.

Most people feel
that death comes before their lives have been properly completed. Some things
have not yet been experienced, others have not yet been atoned for; their
achievement is not enough, their legacy not sufficient. As Cicero (44 BCE)
remarked “No one is so old that he does not expect to live a year longer.”

The Makropulos Case

How much longer should
one then wish to live? Forever may be as frightening as tomorrow. This idea was
considered in an important paper by Bernard Williams (1973) that took as its
point of origin a play by Karel Capek that premiered in Prague in 1922 – The
Makropulos Case.
Leos Janacek’s operatic version of the play was produced
in Brno in 1925.

In the play Emilia
Marty, a beautiful and successful opera singer, turns out to be Elina
Makropulos, a young Greek woman who was given an elixir of longevity by her
physician-father in 1601. Having lived over 300 years without aging she has
returned to Prague to find the elixir’s formula so that she can further prolong
her youth. The following photograph from the San Francisco Opera (2016) shows
Nadja Michael in the role of Emilia in the first act of the opera (which takes
place in a law office):

In the end Emilia
decides that she does not want to live longer. She explains to the others:

               Oh, life should not last so long!
               If you only realized how easy life is for you!
               You are so close to everything!
               For you, everything makes sense!
               For you, everything has value!
               – for the trivial chance reason
               that you are going to die soon.
               … It’s all in vain
               whether you sing or keep silent –
               no pleasure in being good
               no pleasure in being bad.
               No pleasure on earth,
               No pleasure in heaven.
               And one comes to learn
               that the soul has died inside one.
               (Janacek version)

Williams (1973) agrees
with Emilia. After a while immortality will become tedious. Human desires are
designed for shorter periods. Evolution has made us long to live longer. Yet
the usual span of human life gives us about the right amount of time to
experience what we can, and to accomplish what we should.

Aubade

Another aspect of
death not considered in Epicurean philosophy is that it is the end of the
“person.” Each individual spends a lifetime developing a collection of
experiences and achievements, out of which are derived a set of values and an
accumulated knowledge. Warren (2004, chapter 4) considers these as the personal
“narrative.” At death the story ends. The person vanishes. Some traces will be
preserved in the memories of others but these are but faint copies of the
original.

This is the reason
why Lucretius’ analogy of the mirror does not work. We are not concerned with
the time before we were born because we did not exist then. However, this is
not the mirror image of the time after our death when we again do not exist.
Because in the meantime we have existed. Time only goes one way.

Personal annihilation is perhaps the most frightening part of death. On December 23, 1977, Philip Larkin published a poem about death in the Times Literary Supplement. (The full text is available at this link). In a letter to a friend he called it “a real infusion of Christmas cheer” (Larkin, Burnett, 2012, p 495). Fletcher (2007) provides some discussion of the poem and its relation to one of John Betjeman’s. An aubade is typically the dawn song of a lover as he leaves his mistress. Larkin’s poem is a death song about leaving his life. He is intensely afraid:

          The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
          —The good not done, the love not given, time
          Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
          An only life can take so long to climb
          Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
          But at the total emptiness for ever,
          The sure extinction that we travel to
          And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
          Not to be anywhere,
          And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

He laments the
inability of religious faith or philosophical reason to provide any comfort:

                                 Religion used to try,
          That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
          Created to pretend we never die,
          And specious stuff that says
No rational being 
          Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
          That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
          No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
          Nothing to love or link with,
          The anaesthetic from which none come round.

Larkin provides us with no resolution of this fear. In the final lines of the poem he watches as the dawn breaks and people get ready for work. Phones will ring and letters will be delivered. Communication is perhaps our only comfort. The following is Larkin’s recitation of the poem.

Endings

So we come to the
end of this essay on endings. Though death is not desired, it is inevitable.
Epicurus was right about there being nothing after death, but death itself is
not nothing. It marks the transition of a life from the individual
consciousness to the memory of others. Henry James noted in 1916 when his final
stroke began, “So here it is, the distinguished thing” (Edel, 1968, Callahan, 2005).

References

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Berryman, S. (2016). Democritus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Boswell, J. (1776, reprinted 1970). An account of my last interview with David Hume. In Weis C. M. and Pottle F. A. (Eds) Boswell in Extremes. 1776-1778. New York: McGraw Hill. (pp 11-15). Also available at PhilosophyTalk website.

Callahan,
D. (2005). Death: ‘The Distinguished Thing,’ Hastings Center Report, 35, S5-S8.

Čapek,
K., (translated and introduced by Majer, P., & Porter, C., 1999). Four
plays
. London: Methuen Drama.

Cicero, M. T. (45 BCE, translated by Woolf, R., and edited by Annas, J., 2001). On Moral Ends. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Available at Archive.org

Cicero, M. T. (44 BCE, translated by A. P. Peabody, 1884). Cicero de Senectute (on old age). Little Brown, Boston. Available at Archive.org

Diogenes Laertius (3rd Century CE, translated by Yonge, C. D., 1853). The lives and opinions of eminent philosophers. London: Henry G. Bohn.  Available at Archive.org

Durant, W. (1939). The story of civilization: Part II: The life of Greece. New York: Simon and Schuster. Available at Archive.org

Edel, L. (1968). The deathbed notes of Henry James. The Atlantic Monthly, (June 1968)

Fletcher, C. (2007). John Betjeman’s Before the Anaesthetic, orA Real Fright’: A Source for Philip
Larkin’s ‘Aubade’. Notes and Queries, 54, 179-181

Greenblatt, S. (2011). The swerve: How the
world became modern
. New York: W.W. Norton.

Inwood, B., & Gerson, L. P. (1997). Hellenistic
philosophy: Introductory readings
. 2nd Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Jones, H. (1989). The Epicurean tradition.
London: Routledge.

Konstan, D. (2018). Epicurus. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Larkin, P. (edited by A. Burnett, 2012). The
complete poems of Philip Larkin
. London: Faber and Faber.

Lesses, G. (2002).
Happiness, completeness, and indifference to death in Epicurean ethical theory.
Apeiron, 35 (4), 57–68.

Long, A. A. (1986). Hellenistic philosophy: Stoics,
Epicureans, Sceptics
. 2nd Edition
Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lucretius, C. T. (~50BCE, translated by W. H.
D. Rouse, 1924, with introduction and revisions by M. F. Smith, 1992). De
rerum natura
. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical
Library). (Latin with English prose translation)

Lucretius, C. T. (translated by C. H. Sisson,
1976). De rerum natura: The poem on nature; a translation. Manchester:
Carcanet New Press. (Blank verse translation)

Lucretius, C. T. (translated by A.E. Stallings, 2007). The nature of things. London: Penguin Classics. (Translation in rhyming couplets)

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (180 CE, translated by G. Long, 1862). Meditations. New York: F. M. Lupton. Available at Archive.org.

Miller, S. (1995). The death of Hume. Wilson Quarterly, 19 (3). 30-39

Mitsis, P. (2002).
Happiness and death in Epicurean ethics. Apeiron, 35 (4), 41–55.

Nagel. T. (1970). Death. Nous, 4,
73-80. Reprinted in Nagel, T. (1979). Mortal Questions (pp 1-10)
Cambridge UK; Cambridge University Press.

O’Keefe, T. (2010). Epicureanism.
Durham, UK: Acumen.

Santayana, G. (1910). Three philosophical poets: Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Sedley, D. (2018). Lucretius. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Warren, J. (2004). Facing death:
Epicurus and his critics
. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Williams, B. (1973). The
Makropoulos case: Reflections on the tedium of immortality. Reprinted in his Problems
of the Self.
(pp 82-100).  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, C. (2015). Epicureanism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  

Wilson, C. (2008). Epicureanism at the
origins of modernity.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.




Antigone

Sophocles’ play Antigone tells the story of a young woman who defies the laws of the state in order to do what she believes is right. The issues considered in the play remain as important now as they were almost two and a half millennia ago. Should one follow one’s conscience or obey the law? Does justice transcend the law? How does one determine what is right?

In the words of Hegel, Antigone is

one of the most sublime and in every respect most excellent works of art of all time. Everything in this tragedy is logical; the public law of the state is set in conflict over against inner family love and duty to a brother; the woman, Antigone, has the family interest as her ‘pathos’, Creon, the man, has the welfare of the community as his. (Hegel, 1975, p 464).

The word pathos most commonly means the quality of something that evokes pity. However, Hegel uses the word to denote “an inherently justified power over the heart, an essential content of rationality and freedom of will” (p 232). Pathos is the emotional commitment that defines a person – his or her driving passion.  Sophocles’ play presents the conflict of these passions.

The Theban Myths

In order to understand Antigone we need to know what has happened before the play begins. Antigone (441 BCE) was the first of what are now known as Sophocles’ three Theban Plays, the others being Oedipus Tyrranus (429 BCE) and Oedipus at Colonus (409 BCE). The plays were not conceived as a trilogy and Antigone was written before the other two. Aeschylus had also written three plays about Thebes but the initial two of these (about Laius the father of Oedipus and his version of Oedipus) have been lost. Only the third remains: Seven Against Thebes (467 BCE), which describes the siege of Thebes by the Argives. Antigone begins just after the events described in this play.

From the extant plays we can piece together the mythic narrative that leads to Antigone. Laius, king of Thebes, married to Jocasta, is told by the Delphic Oracle that he can only keep his city safe if he dies childless. After having drunkenly fathered Oedipus, Laius has his son left on Mount Cithaeron to die. However, the boy is found by a shepherd and ultimately adopted as a son by King Polybus of Corinth.

When he comes of age Oedipus is told by the Oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. Oedipus flees Corinth to prevent this from happening. On the way to Thebes at a place where three roads meet, he comes upon another traveler. They argue and fight; Oedipus kills the man; the man was Laius.

Oedipus continues on to Thebes. The city has long been plagued by the Sphinx, a monster sent by the gods because of some ancient crime of the Thebans. The Sphinx poses a riddle to all who pass by and devours those that fail to answer correctly: “What goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon, and three at night.” The illustration at the right shows a representation of Oedipus and the Sphinx in a vase from around 500 BCE, now in the Vatican. (The sphinx seems much less monstrous than the legend indicated.) Oedipus solves the riddle – “man, who crawls in infancy, walks as an adult and uses a cane in old age.” This releases the city from the monster’s power. In gratitude the citizens of Thebes make Oedipus king and grant him the recently bereaved Jocasta as his wife. Oedipus and Jocasta have four children: the boys Polyneikes and Eteokles, and the girls Antigone and Ismene

The gods, displeased at the unrevenged death of Laius, bring a plague down upon Thebes. In order to stop the plague Oedipus searches for his father’s murderer. In the course of his investigations he realizes first that he was the killer, and ultimately that Laius was his father and Jocasta his mother. Jocasta hangs herself. Unable to bear the pain of his knowledge Oedipus blinds himself with Jocasta’s brooch pins. Exiled from Thebes he seeks sanctuary in the grove of the Furies at Colonus, a village near Athens. Here Theseus, king of Athens, takes pity on him.

His daughters Ismene and Antigone come to comfort their father in Colonus. In Thebes the sons of Oedipus initially decide to alternate the kingship, but Eteokles then banishes his older brother Polyneikes and becomes sole king of Thebes. Polyneikes visits Oedipus in Colonus to get his blessing for a revolt against his brother, but Oedipus curses both his sons and prophecies that they will die at each other’s hand. Oedipus dies. His daughters return to Thebes.

Polyneikes and six other generals raise an army from the rival state of Argos and attack Thebes. The Thebans ultimately defeat the besieging army. Near the end of the siege, Polyneikes and Eteokles fight and kill each other.

The deaths of Polyneikes and Eteokles became a popular motif for sculpture, the illustration below showing a relief on an Etruscan funerary urn from Chiusi (circe 200 BCE).

The following illustration from a 19th century jewel shows a more restrained view of the brothers’ deaths.

The Story of Antigone

After the deaths of Polyneikes and Eteokles, Kreon, the brother of Jocasta, becomes king of Thebes. He decrees that Eteokles be given a hero’s funeral rites but that the body of the traitor Polyneikes’ be left to rot. Anyone who disobeys this ruling will be put to death. Despite the warnings of her sister, Antigone refuses to obey Kreon’s commandment and casts earth over Polyneikes’ body. The illustration below shows Juliet Binoche in the 2015 production of Antigone at the Barbican in London.

Antigone is caught in the act. The following illustration from a Greek vase (circe 400 BCE) shows Antigone, flanked by two guards holding spears, brought before Kreon.

This is the crucial exchange between the two:

Kreon:     Now tell me, not at length, but in brief space,
Knew you the order not to do it?

Antigone:                                          Yes
I knew it; what should hinder? It was plain.

Kreon:     And you made free to overstep my law?

Antigone: Because it was not Zeus who ordered it,
Nor Justice, dweller with the Nether Gods,
Gave such a law to men; nor did I deem
Your ordinance of so much binding force,
As that a mortal man could overbear
The unchangeable unwritten code of Heaven;
This is not of today and yesterday,
But lives forever, having origin
Whence no man knows: whose sanctions I were loath
In Heaven’s sight to provoke, fearing the will
Of any man. I knew that I should die –
How otherwise? Even although your voice
Had never so prescribed. And that I die
Before my hour is due, that I count gain.
For one who lives in many ills, as I –
How should he fail to gain by dying? Thus
To me the pain is light, to meet this fate:
But had I borne to leave the body of him
My mother bare unburied, then, indeed,
I might feel pain; but as it is, I cannot:
And if my present actions seems to you
Foolish – ‘tis like I am found guilty of folly
At a fool’s mouth! (ll 446-470, Young translation)

This is one of the greatest speeches ever spoken on the stage. It comes in four parts. First, Antigone scorns the proclamation of Kreon. Made neither by the gods of Olympus nor by the lords of Hades, this was an “order” rather than a “law.” Second, she vaunts the eternal “unwritten code of Heaven” that guides human behavior and that must not be disobeyed. In the third section of the speech, Antigone recognizes that her defiance might bring about her death. However, this will bring relief to one who has already lost father, mother, and two brothers. Finally, she tells Kreon that she is not the one who is acting foolishly. He who does not understand the code of Heaven is far more fool than she. The following film-clip shows Irene Papas as Antigone and Manos Katrakis as Kreon (Tzavellas, 1961):

The chorus is upset by Antigone’s defiance. Kreon refuses to grant Antigone mercy and sentences her to be buried alive in a cave. Kreon’s son, Haimon, in love with Antigone, pleads with his father, but Kreon remains adamant. In his defense, he states the case for the rule of law:

Obedience is due
To the state’s officer in small and great,
Just and unjust commandments; …
There lives no greater fiend than Anarchy;
She ruins states, turns houses out of doors
Breaks up in rout the embattled soldiery;
While Discipline preserves the multitude
Of the ordered host alive. Therefore it is
We must assist the cause of order.
(ll 665-676, Young translation)

Haimon urges his father not to be so stubborn:

it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man,
to learn many things and not to be too rigid.
You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent,
how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig,
but not the stubborn—they’re ripped out, roots and all.
Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing:
haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch,
you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage
keel up and the rowing-benches under.
(ll 710-717, Fagles translation)

Kreon refuses to listen to his son.

Meanwhile, Antigone bemoans her fate. She accepts that she did what she had to do, but she regrets that she was not able to marry or have children. She does not understand why the gods have not intervened to save one who served them truly. Before she is taken to the cave she asks the Thebans to behold one who has been condemned

τὴν εὐσεβίαν σεβίσασα. (ten eusebian sebisasa) (l 943)
In an act of perfect piety (Carson translation)
For doing reverence where reverence was due. (Brown translation)

The noun eusebia means an act of reverence or piety; the verb sebizo is to worship or honor. Carson (2015, pp 5-6) remarks about this emphatic conclusion:

Both noun (eusebia) and verb (sebizo) derive from the Greek root seb-, which refers to the awe that radiates from gods to humans and is given back as worship. Everything related to this root has fear in it. But eusebia is a fear that moves as devotion – a striving out of this world into another and of another world into this.

Teiresias, the blind seer, tells Kreon that the gods are displeased: they wish Antigone to be freed and Polyneikes properly buried. Kreon orders Antigone’s release but she has already killed herself. In grief at her death, Haimon commits suicide. In grief at the death of her son, Kreon’s wife Eurydike also commits suicide. Utterly broken, Kreon is led away, his life emptied of any meaning. He is “as a dead man who can still draw breath.” (l 1167, Gibbons translation)

The Choral Odes

One of the great attractions of Sophocles’ play is the way in which the chorus of Theban elders comment on the action. The play contains six main choral odes. The first is a celebration of the Theban triumph over the besieging Argives. The most exciting recent translation of this begins

The glories of the world come sharking in all red and gold
we won the war
salvation struts
the streets of sevengated Thebes
(ll 100-102, Carson translation)

The choral odes were sung and danced by a chorus of about fifteen men in the area of the theatre known as the orchestra (“place for dancing”). Carl Orff wrote music for the performance of Antigonae (1949) that suggests how the chorus might have sounded. The following is Orff’s  music for the introduction of the Chorus and the beginning of this first ode:

The second ode, often known as the Ode to Man, considers how wonderful is the creature called man, who can navigate the sea, cultivate the land, tame the animals, build homes for protection against the elements, and find medicine for his ailments. The following translation of the beginning of the ode attempts the rhythms of the Greek:

At many things – wonders
Terrors – we feel awe
But at nothing more
Than at man. This
Being sails the gray-
White sea running before
Winter storm-winds, he
Scuds beneath high
Waves surging over him
On each side
And Gaia, the Earth
Forever undestroyed and
Unwearying, highest of
All the gods, he
Wears away, year
After year as his plows
Cross ceaselessly
Back and forth, turning
Her soil with the
Offspring of horses.
(ll 332-345, Gibbons translation)

The following is Carl Orff’s 1949 setting of the opening of the Ode to Man. Orff used the words of Hölderlin: Ungeheuer ist viel. Doch nichts ungeheuerer als der Mensch (Many things are wonderful but nothing more wonderful than man). Orff’s music captures the awe at the beginning of the ode, and then gives a driving rendition of human achievements.

The Greek word used to describe man at the beginning of this famous ode – deinos – usually means “extraordinary” or “wonderful.” It also has connotations of the supernatural or uncanny, the unexpectedly clever, or even the monstrous. The word comes from a Proto-Indo-European root dwei denoting fear. An example of this root in English is “dinosaur.” Deinos has no obvious equivalent in English. The German ungeheuer (enormous, terrible, unnatural) used by Hölderlin captures many of its meanings.

The later choral odes in Antigone tell how human hopes often come to naught, describe the power of human passion, console Antigone as she is led away to her fate, and at the end of the play praise the gods who teach us wisdom. The following are three modern translations of the final words of the chorus:

Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy,
and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded.
The mighty words of the proud are paid in full
with mighty blows of fate, and at long last
those blows will teach us wisdom
(ll 1347-1353, Fagles’ translation)

Wise conduct is the key to happiness
Always rule by the gods and reverence them.
Those who overbear will be brought to grief.
Fate will flail them on its winnowing floor
And in due season teach them to be wise.
(Heaney translation)

There is no happiness, but there can be wisdom.
Revere the gods; revere them always.
When men get proud, they hurl hard words, then suffer for it.
Let them grow old and take no harm yet: they still get punished.
It teaches them. It teaches us.
(Paulin translation)

Fagles has the gods teaching all of us, whereas Heaney has them only teaching the proud. Paulin gives both meanings. This section from Orff’s Antigonae is appropriately otherworldly: Um vieles ist das Denken mehr denn Glückseligkeit. (Thought is much greater than happiness).

The following is a clip from the ending to Tzavellas’ 1961 film with Manos Katrakis as Kreon and Thodoris Moudis as the leader of the chorus:

Conflict

The heart of the play is the conflict between Kreon and Antigone. Steiner (1984, pp 231-232) notes that

It has, I believe, been given to only one literary text to express all the principal constants of conflict in the condition of man. These constants are fivefold: the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s). The conflicts which come of these five orders of confrontation are not negotiable. Men and women, old and young, the individual and the community or state, the quick and the dead, mortals and immortals, define themselves in the conflictual process of defining each other. Self-definition and the agonistic recognition of ‘otherness’ (of l’autre) across the threatened boundaries of self, are indissociable. The polarities of masculinity and of femininity, of ageing and of youth, of private autonomy and of social collectivity, of existence and mortality, of the human and the divine, can be crystallized only in adversative terms (whatever the many shades of accommodation between them). To arrive at oneself—the primordial journey—is to come up, polemically, against ‘the other’. The boundary-conditions of the human person are those set by gender, by age, by community, by the cut between life and death, and by the potentials of accepted or denied encounter between the existential and the transcendent.

In his assessment of the play, Hegel focused on the conflict between a person’s kinship-duties and the allegiance owed to the state (Reidy, 1995; Young 2013, pp 110-139). In his mind Antigone represented civilization’s necessary change from family-loyalty to state-citizenship. This fits with Hegel’s general view of history as a sequence of dialectic conflicts between different world-views. Progress occurs as the two competing ideas become reconciled. The tragedy occurs because neither Antigone nor Kreon can see the other side of the conflict. Antigone feels no duty to the state; Kreon pays no attention to his family, completely disregarding his son’s concerns.

The balance between Antigone and Kreon is what makes Antigone a tragedy. Albert Camus (1955/1968, p 301) differentiated tragedy from drama:

the forces confronting each other in tragedy are equally legitimate, equally justified. In melodramas or dramas, on the other hand, only one force is legitimate. In other words, tragedy is ambiguous and drama simple-minded. In the former, each force is at the same time both good and bad. In the latter, one is good and the other evil (which is why, in our day and age, propaganda plays are nothing but the resurrection of melodrama). Antigone is right, but Kreon is not wrong.

In the conflict Antigone and Kreon are very similar in character. Steiner (1984, pp 184-5) points out

Both Kreon and Antigone are auto-nomists, human beings who have taken the law into their own keeping. Their respective enunciations of justice are, in the given local case, irreconcilable. But in their obsession with law, they come very close to being mirror-images.

The tragedy evolves because neither Antigone nor Kreon is able to compromise. They are both bloody minded – obstinate to the point of bloodshed. However, Kreon is the more reprehensible: his edict forbidding the burial of Polyneikes is not based on either divine rule or reasoned thought.

Three conflicting  forces are at play in Antigone. One is the law (nomos) of the state (polis). The second is the set of “unwritten rules” (agrapta nomima) that tell us what is right. The third is fate (moira) – the working out of what must necessarily happen. Of these only the first is easy to understand.

Natural Law

Antigone’s “unwritten code of Heaven” is often considered the same as the “natural law” – that which we know because it is an essential part of our being (Robinson. 1991; Burns, 2002). Natural law is understood by “conscience” – our intuitive sense of what is right and wrong. Regardless of how we are educated or how our society operates, conscience tends to work similarly: murder and incest are wrong; hospitality and compassion are right. Human history has long realized that the laws promulgated to maintain order in particular societies may come into conflict with an individual’s conscience. In these cases, the natural law should generally be paramount. This is the basis of civil disobedience. An unjust law – one that is out of harmony with the natural law – need not be obeyed:

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. (King, 1963).

However, the natural law is often difficult to determine. It is understood by intuition, and followed by inclination (Maritain, 2001, pp 32-38). So when should conscience take precedence over the law? The laws promulgated by a state should be and often are derived from the natural law. However, they sometimes also exist to entrench the status of the powerful.

The laws or commandments proclaimed in religious scriptures are also related to the natural law However, even this relationship is complex. On the one hand, the natural law can be conceived as independent of divinity. Hugo Grotius famously stated that we know what is right “even if we concede … that there is no God” (etiamsi daremus … non esse Deum). Others, such as Maritain (2001, p 46), propose that the natural law as perceived by man derives from the “eternal law” as perceived by God. Human perception of the divine law is as yet imperfect.

The relation between natural law and nature is also complex. Laws of nature (phusis) are deduced from experience of the real world. They portray what is rather than what should be. Such laws can be demonstrated, analyzed and tested. The natural laws for human behavior are understood by intuition. We know what is right but we do not understand how we know. Nor can we demonstrate or test the laws that we follow.

If the natural law is the sum of human dispositions, then we might be able to study it in terms of evolution. Since most of human existence was spent in small bands that hunted and gathered on the African Savannah, many human dispositions to behave in particular ways may have been selected to promote the survival of these small groups. Commandments against murder (other than in self-defense) clearly facilitate group-survival. Edicts against incest decrease the probability of deleterious recessive genes becoming homozygous, and by promoting exogamy (marriage outside of the group) enlarge and strengthen the group.

If natural causes such as evolution are the basis for our morality, perhaps we can determine what is right by what is considered natural. Many people consider homosexuality “unnatural.” In the Abrahamic religions, early laws expressly prohibited homosexual relations on pain of death.

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13).

Aquinas argued that homosexuality is unnatural because it does not lead to procreation, which is the natural purpose of sexual intercourse (Summa Theologica II I 94). Yet who or what defines the natural purpose of an act and why should there be only one purpose?

How does Antigone know that she is right to bury her brother, even if her act will entail her death? She is following a “custom” – the Greeks buried their dead. Other cultures cremate their dead, or leave them out to be devoured by carrion-eating birds – “sky burial.” It is difficult to see burying the dead as an absolute requirement of natural law, though some unspecified honoring of the dead seems common to all human cultures.

Fate

The Ancient Greeks attributed much that happens in life to fate. Fate was often personified as three women – the moirai. The word derives from meros, a part, share or portion. Clotho spins the thread of a life; Lachesis allots the life to a particular person; and Atropos cuts the thread at death. Neither human nor divine intervention can affect the actions of the fates. The following is a print of The Three Fates (1558) by Giorgio Ghisi.

Although Antigone has obeyed the unwritten code of heaven, the gods cannot intervene to save her from her ignominious death. That has been otherwise ordained – it is her fate. After Antigone is led away, the Chorus remarks that such apparently unjust ends have been suffered by others before her. Fate is a terrible thing:

The power of fate is a wonder,
dark, terrible wonder –
neither wealth nor armies
towered walls nor ships
black hulls lashed by the salt
can save us from that force.
(ll 951-954, Fagles’ translation)

Fate is described as deinos (terrible), the same word that the chorus used to describe man. We are both made and unmade by fate. We should follow the unwritten code of the gods, but doing so will not prevent death. The Fates operate according to some other code. Perhaps they follow necessity rather than justice. Perhaps they follow laws that operate beyond the individual life. The chorus briefly mentions such a possibility: Antigone may be paying for the sins of her father. However, it is possible that the Fates do not follow any code of justice. They may just enforce the physical laws by which the universe operates.

Justice

Justice is the human concept of what is right. Our words related to justice – law, morality, fairness, equity, right, righteousness – overlap in their meanings. The Greeks at the time of Sophocles also had many words (Steiner, 1984, pp 248-251; Nonet, 2006). Precise translations distinguishing these one from another are usually not possible, and the usage of the terms changed over the years.

The Greeks often personified their ideas in terms of gods. Themis was a Titaness who personified divine law. Zeus and Themis had three daughters: Dike, law; Eunomia, order; and Eirene, peace. Dike is customarily represented with a sword and a set of scales for weighing right and wrong (as in the illustrated statue from the Frankfurt Fountain of Justice, an 1887 bronze replacement for the original 1611 stone statue). Another Greek word dikaiosune came to mean both a system of justice and the virtue of righteousness (Havelock, 1969). Antigone appeals to Dike as the supporter of the unwritten laws which require the burial of the dead.

The Greeks differentiated nomos – the set of socially constructed laws – from phusis – the laws underlying the universe. The word nomima (laws, regulations, customs) derives from nomos but Antigone used it to distinguish the eternal and unwritten laws from human laws. Words do not clearly show us what is right. And they fail to clearly differentiate laws that are given from those that are constructed. Sophocles’ tragedy deals in part with our inability to know with certainty what is just.

Modern Adaptations

The story of Antigone has been retold many times (Chancellor, 1979: Steiner, 1984). These versions stress different aspects of the story, supplement the main plot with other events, or place the story in a different time and place. For brevity I shall only consider a few recent adaptations.

(i) Anouilh

During the Nazi occupation of France, Jean Anouilh wrote a version of Antigone that was set in modern times. The play was accepted by the censors and produced in Paris in 1944. Anouilh made Kreon a more sympathetic character. He removed from the play the character of Tiresias, who in Sophocles’ original play confirmed that Antigone was right. The chorus was no longer a group of Theban citizens who commented on the actions. Rather the chorus acted as a foil between the audience and the actors, describing what was going to happen and why. In this way Anouilh distanced the audience from becoming directly involved in the tragedy.

Anouilh’s Antigone is more of an existential heroine than a tragic one – she did what she did because she was seeking a reason for her life. As Kreon explains

She wanted to die! None of us was strong enough to persuade her to live. I understand now. She was born to die. She may not have known it herself, but Polynices was only an excuse.

At the end after everyone who had to die has died, Kreon goes on about his work of governing the city. The chorus explains

It’s over. Antigone’s quiet now, cured of a fever whose name we shall never know. Her work is done. A great, sad peace descends on Thebes, and on the empty palace where Creon will begin to wait for death. Only the guard are left. All that has happened is a matter of indifference to them. None of their business. They go on with their game of cards.

Anouilh’s chorus thus appears to attenuate the tragedy. However, Anouilh and his audience most certainly understood the nature of Antigone’s fever as La Résistance.

How could the German occupation authorities have allowed such a production? Steiner (1984, p. 190) notes that the evaluation of Antigone’s story in Germany between the world wars differed from that in other countries. Frightened by the communist revolts that followed the Great War, Germans saw the need for people like Kreon to maintain the safety of the state. So even if they might have felt that Antigone was right, they also knew that Kreon was not wrong. The great German philosopher Hegel had said that the state must necessarily take precedence over family and personal conscience.

(ii) Brecht

Bertolt Brecht wrote and produced a theatrically stunning version of Antigone in Switzerland in 1948. The play was preceded by a prologue set in Berlin in April 1945. This tells the story of how a young deserter from the army came to his sisters’ home bringing food for his hungry family. However, he was captured by the police and hung for treason. His body was left hanging as an example to other would-be deserters. The prologue is doubly distanced from the play. As well as being set in the near present, the prologue is narrated to the audience by one of the sisters but acted out by both. The prologue ends with a police officer asking the sisters whether they knew the traitor. The first denies her brother, but the second goes out to cut down his body.

The play then reverts to Thebes. However, the situation differs from that of Sophocles’ Antigone. Thebes had not been under siege. Rather Kreon had embarked on a war against Argos to gain their iron ore. Eteokles had been brutally killed during this war. Polyneikes saw his older brother being trampled to death, deserted from the futile battle, and was then killed by his own people. The opening choral ode, rather than celebrating the survival of the city, welcomes the wagons of booty and plunder returning from the war.

When Antigone is captured and brought before Kreon, she is bound to a board. Effectively she is carrying a door upon her back. A door she cannot open. The illustration (taken from the Suhrkamp edition of Brecht’s play) is from the first production:

Brecht’s Antigone acts politically. She defies Kreon not so much because of any unwritten laws but because she considers him an evil tyrant. She tries unsuccessfully to goad the chorus to join in her defiance. The exchange between Antigone and Kreon is more extended than in Sophocles. After her initial speech of defiance (much the same as in Sophocles), Kreon praises the success of the war, and Antigone continues:

Antigone: The men in power always threaten us with the fall of The State.
It will fall by dissension, devoured by the invaders
and so we give in to you, and give you our power, and bow down;
and because of this weakness, the city falls and is devoured by the invaders.

Kreon: Are you accusing me of throwing the city away to be devoured by the enemy?

Antigone: The city threw herself away by bowing down before you,
because when a man bows down he can’t see what’s coming at him.

The story plays itself out as in the original Greek, but at the end the city falls to its enemies. The tragedy is that of the people who foolishly followed and who keep following a tyrant. The final words of the chorus are those of despair:

For time is short
and the unknown surrounds us; and it isn’t enough
just to live unthinking and happy
and patiently bear oppression
and only learn wisdom in age.

(iii) Fugard

Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona created and produced a play called The Island in South Africa in 1973 as a protest against the persecutions of apartheid. The play is set in an unknown prison camp clearly modelled on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held. The play follows two cell mates, played by Kani and Ntshona, in prison for the minor offences of belonging to a banned organization and burning an identity card.

In successive scenes, the two men work at digging holes in the sand and filling them up again, rehearse a performance of Antigone that they plan to present to the camp, learn that one of them may be released but not the other, pretend to talk on the phone with friends and relatives, and finally present the dramatic confrontation between Kreon and Antigone. Below is a photograph showing Ntshona and Kani in the National Theatre revival of the play (2000):

Winston fears that his appearance as a young woman will only cause ridicule, and indeed John bursts into laughter when he first sees him in wig and costume. Yet no one laughs during the final scene when on a makeshift stage Winston tells John

You are only a man Creon. Even as there are laws made by men, so too there are others that come from God. He watches my soul for a transgression even as your spies hide in the bush at night to see who is transgressing your laws. Guilty against God I will not be for any man on this earth.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in 1962 for conspiring to overthrow the state. He was not released until 1990.

(iv) Carson

In 2012 Anne Carson wrote Antigonick, a version of Antigone that is more concerned with depicting the ideas and feelings of the play than rendering a literal translation. She added to the play the character of Nick, a surveyor who intermittently and mutely takes measurements of what is happening. Nick stands for the modern viewer who must somehow assess the play coming from a society many hundred years before our own.

The book is presented with a text that is handwritten by Carson in small black capitals and illustrated with desolate landscapes and surrealistic images by Bianca Stone. These illustrations do not directly relate to the text but add to the book’s sense of incomprehensible passion. Below is a representation the book’s pages at the beginning of the Ode to ManAs can be seen in the ode Carson’s choice of words is designed to bring the audience the sense of the original Greek. The word deinos becomes “terribly quiet” – a description that captures the connotations of incomprehensibility and menace.

Many terribly quiet customers exist but none more
terribly quiet than man
His footsteps pass so perilously soft across the sea
in marble winter

The following illustration shows three other images from the book, one of a wedding cake in desolation, the second of cutlery flying apart under the influence of a thread (perhaps of fate), and the third of a horse upsetting a feast.

In addition, Carson sometimes includes commentary in the text. This brings the meaning up to date. In the original play just before Antigone exits to her death, the chorus provides a long discussion of the way in which fate has acted unfairly, quoting various stories from Greek mythology. A modern audience would not know these examples. In Antigonick Carson therefore replaces this choral ode by verse that slowly goes from mundane commentary to intense grief:

how is a Greek chorus like a lawyer
they’re both in the business of searching for a precedent
finding an analogy
locating a prior example
so as to be able to say
the terrible thing we’re witnessing now is
not unique you know it happened before
or something much like it
we’re not at a loss how to think about this
we’re not without guidance
there is a pattern
we can find an historically parallel case
and file it away under

Antigone buried alive Friday afternoon
compare case histories 7, 17 and 49

now I could dig up theses case histories,
tell you about Danaos and Lykourgos and the sons of Phineas
people locked up in a room or a cave or their own dark mind
it wouldn’t help you
it didn’t help me
it’s Friday afternoon
there goes Antigone to be buried alive
is there
any way
we can say
this is normal
rational
forgivable
or even in the widest definition just

no not really

(v) Zizek

In 2016 Slavoj Zizek, a provocative philosopher and communist, wrote a version of Antigone that provides three different endings. This idea of multiple endings came from Tom Tykwer’s film Run Lola Run (1998). The plot of Zizek’s Antigone proceeds as in Sophocles until Kreon sentences Antigone to death and is told by Tiresias that he has offended the gods. The first ending then follows as in Sophocles and results in the death of Antigone.

In the second ending the people of Thebes enflamed by the way Kreon offended the gods, rise up and murder him. They set fire to the city. Antigone survives though she is half-mad and does not understand why her simple act of defiance has led to such devastation. The chorus tells her that divine laws are not the ultimate authority:

A society is kept together by the bond of Word,
but the domain of logos, of what can be said,
and this mysterious vortex is what all our endeavours
and struggles are about. Our true fidelity
is to what cannot be said, and the greatest wisdom
is to know when this very fidelity
compels us to break our word, even if this word
is the highest immemorial law. This is where
you went wrong, Antigone. In sacrificing everything
for your law, you lost this law itself.

In the third ending Kreon and Antigone are reconciled, but the citizens of Thebes rise up against their rulers. Kreon is brutally executed because

Much greater evil than a lack of leadership
is an unjust leader who creates chaos in his city
by the very false order he tries to impose. Such an order
is the obscene travesty of the worst anarchy.
The people feel this and resist the leader. A true order,
on the contrary, creates the space of freedom
for all citizens. A really good master
doesn’t just limit the freedom of his subjects,
he gives freedom.

Antigone claims to be on the side of the revolution. But the leader of the people has her executed:

But the excluded
don’t need sympathy and compassion from the privileged,
they don’t want others to speak for them,
they themselves should speak and articulate their plight.
So in speaking for them, you betrayed them even more
than your uncle — you deprived them of their voice.

There is no catharsis. The revolution is brutal. The chorus attempts to excuse the horror by repeating the Ode to Man

There are many strange and wonderful things
but nothing more strangely wonderful than man

But one is left with the nightmare of revolutionaries settling scores by murder. One longs for the simplicity of Sophocles’s original wherein Kreon and Antigone were both striving to do what they thought was right. In Ziztek no one is right. Violence is the only outcome. Justice is not possible. This is not my idea of Antigone. Zizek has not found a way out of the conflict at the basis of the story. Nor has he, a committed communist, portrayed the necessity of revolution as in any way attractive.

Novels

Natalie Haynes has retold the stories of Oedipus and Antigone from the point of view of Jocasta and of Ismene in her novel The Children of Jocasta (2017). In Sophocles’ play Ismene, Antigone’s younger sister, is the only member of Oedipus’ family to survive. She initially serves as a foil for her sister, proposing compromise instead of defiance. Later she stands by her sister, though Antigone refuses her support. In Haynes’ novel the plot has changed from that of Sophocles’ plays, but the story still has its necessary confrontations and reconciliations. The plague plays the role of the Fates.

In Home Fire (2018) Kamila Shamsie has reinterpreted the story of Antigone in terms of Aneeka a young Englishwoman of Pakistani background. Her brother Parvaiz is recruited to ISIS and serves with the terrorists in Syria. Parvaiz is assassinated in Turkey when he tries to leave ISIS. The English government refuses to allow his corpse to be returned to England for burial, and arranges for it to be sent to Pakistan. Aneeka goes to Pakistan to protest this ruling but ultimately the body, the sister and her fiancé are blown to pieces in a suicide bombing.

The situation envisioned by Shamsie is clearly very possible. A citizen should have the right to be buried in his homeland. This right was recently tested in the case of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the bombers at the Boston Marathon (Mendelsohn, 2013). No funeral director or cemetery in Massachusetts would accept his body. After much dispute, a Christian woman in Virginia intervened, and the body was finally buried in an unmarked grave in a small Muslim cemetery in Virginia.

Novels are discursive. They provide us with a wealth of detail, in terms of both things and thoughts. They can discuss what might have been as well as what was. They lack the harsh simplicity of a play.

A Play for All Time

Sophocles’ Antigone remains as a stirring invocation to do what is right. The world needs its Antigones. This was particularly evident in the days of Hitler (von Klemperer, 1992). Those who resisted Nazism did not succeed in changing their government. Yet they did show their countrymen that there were other ways to live and die than slavishly to follow a leader more concerned with power than with humanity.

Sophocles’ play returns time and time again. Whenever governments repress the conscience of their people. World War II generated the Antigones of Anouilh, Brecht and Orff. The situation in South Africa brought about Fugard’s The Island. The situation in Northern Ireland led to Paulin’s The Riot Act. Judith Malina translated Brecht’s Antigone while in jail in 1963 because her Living Theatre had run afoul of the US government.

The philosophy of Sophocles combines a respect for human morality and responsibility with an acquiescence to fate (Kitto, 1961, pp 123-127). In this recognition of the role played by fate, Sophocles differs from his predecessor Aeschylus:

The Aeschylean universe is one of august moral laws, infringement of which brings certain doom; the Sophoclean is one in which wrongdoing does indeed work out its own punishment, but disaster comes, too, without justification; at the most with ‘contributory negligence.’ (p 126)

Wonderful though man is he cannot control everything. This is most obvious in the fact of death. Yet before we die we can do what we believe to be right. This will not prevent our death but it will pay reverence to whatever ideas of transcendence we have conceived, be it the gods or the good.

We do not understand fate. I have already quoted the final words of Sophocles’ chorus – their praise of wisdom. Just before this they make two comments about fate. In reply to Kreon’s desire to die the chorus states

That’s in the future. We must do what lies before us.
Those who take care of these things will take their care.

And then when Kreon says that he prayed for what he longed for, they answer

Don’t pray for anything – for from whatever good
Or ill is destined for mortals, there’s no deliverance.
(Gibbons translation, ll 1334-5, 1337-8)

Sophocles is clear. Do what you think is right. Be open to the ideas of others. Do not expect reward. You will die. Life will carry on.

 

Texts

Note: the lines for the quotations in this posting are those in the original Greek (Brown edition) and may not fit the lines of the translations.

The Perseus Library Antigone has the full Greek text with translation and commentary by Richard Jebb (from the early 20th century).

Brown, A. (1987). Sophocles: Antigone. Warminster, Wiltshire, England: Aris & Phillips (Greek text and English translation on facing pages; good commentary)

Griffith, M. (1999). Sophocles: Antigone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Greek texts, extensive notes and commentary, but no English translation).

Performances

Orff, C., Hölderlin, F., (1949, CD conducted by Sawallisch, W., 1958, CD 2009). Antigonae. Neuhausen: Profil.

Tzavellas, G. [dir.] (film 1961, DVD 2004). Antigone. Kino International Corporation.

Translations

Carson, A., (2015). Sophokles Antigone, London: Oberon Books. This was performed at the Barbican with Juliet Binoche. It is a subdued version of Carson’s Antigonick.

Fagles, R., & Knox, B. M. G. W. (1982). The three Theban plays. London: Allen Lane/Penguin (a fine modern translation)

Gibbons, R., & Segal, C. (2003). Sophocles: Antigone. New York: Oxford University Press (a translation paying close attention to Greek poetic forms)

Heaney, S. (2004). The burial at Thebes: Sophocles’ Antigone. London: Faber and Faber. (perhaps the most beautiful of the translations)

Hölderlin, F. (1804) Sophokles Antigone. (This served as the basis for Carl Orff’s Antigonae). A translation of Hölderlin’s Antigone is available by David Constantine (BloodAxe Books, 2001). The German original is available

Paulin, T., (1985). The riot act: A version of Sophocles’ Antigone. London: Faber and Faber. (translation in modern colloquial English).

Young, G. (1906/1912). The dramas of Sophocles rendered in English verse, dramatic & lyric. Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons. (the classical blank-verse translation). Available at archive.org

Adaptations

Anouilh, J. (1946/2005). Antigone. Paris: La Table ronde. (English translation by B. Bray & T. Freeman, Bloomsbury Methuen, 2000).

Brecht, B. (1948, edited by Werner Hecht, 1988). Brechts Antigone des Sophokles. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. (English translation by Malina, J., 1990, Sophocles’ Antigone. New York: Applause Theatre Books).

Carson, A., (2012). Antigonick. (illustrated by Stone, B.). New York: New Directions. Carson and her colleagues presented a reading of Antigonick in 2012 at the Louisiana gallery in Denmark. The Chorus was read by Carson, Antigone by Mara Lee and Kreon by Nielsen.

Fugard, A., Kani, J., & Ntshona, W. (1974). Statements: Sizwe Bansi is dead. The island. Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act. London: Oxford University Press.

Haynes, N. (2017). The children of Jocasta. London: Mantle Books.

Shamsie, K. (2017). Home fire. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin)

Žižek, S. (2016). Antigone. London: Bloomsbury Academic

References

Burns, T. (2002). Sophocles’ Antigone and the history of the concept of natural law. Political Studies, 50, 545-557.

Camus, A., (1955, translated by Kennedy, E. C. 1968). On the future of tragedy. In Thody, P. (Ed.) Lyrical and critical essays. (pp. 295-310). New York: Knopf

Chancellor, G.  (1979). Hölderlin, Brecht, Anouilh: Three Versions of Antigone Orbis Litterarum, 34, 87-97

Grotius , H. (1625) De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace). Paris: Nicolaus Buon. (Preliminary Discourse XI) English translation available

Hegel, G. W. F. (1835, translated Knox, T. M., 1975) Hegel’s aesthetics: Lectures on fine art. Volume I. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Available 

King, M. L. Jr. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham jail. Available

Kitto, H. D. F. (1939/1961/2011). Greek tragedy: A literary study. London: Routledge.

von Klemperer, K. (1992). “What is the law that lies behind these words?” Antigone’s question and the German resistance against Hitler. Journal of Modern History 64, Suppi. (December 1992): S102-S111.

Maritain, J., (edited by Sweet, W., 2001). Natural law: Reflections on theory and practice. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press.

Mendelsohn, D. (2013) Unburied: Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the lessons of Greek Tragedy. New Yorker (May 14, 2013)

Nonet, P. (2006). Antigone’s Law. Law, Culture and the Humanities, 2, 314-335.

Reidy, D. A. (1995). Antigone, Hegel and the law: an essay. Legal Studies Forum, 19, 239-261.

Robinson, D. N. (1991). Antigone’s defense: a critical study of “Natural law theory: contemporary essays.” Review of Metaphysics, 45, 363-392.

Steiner, G. (1984). Antigones. New York: Oxford University Press.

Young, J. (2013). The philosophy of tragedy: from Plato to Žižek. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 




Mitchell and Riopelle

From February 18 to May 6, 2018, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is presenting an exhibition of the paintings of Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle entitled Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation. This is the first time that many of these paintings have been seen together. The paintings are stunning, the relations between them fascinating.

Abstract Expressionism

The abstract expressionist movement in painting began in New York in the 1940s (Anfam, 1990, Sandler, 1970). Among its major artists were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell. Each artist had his own particular style, but they all attempted to convey meaning and emotion without recourse to representation.  The Americans promoted the development of abstract expressionism as their particular artistic “triumph” (Sandler, 1970), and other abstract artists working later or in other countries have lived too long without proper recognition. Among these are Joan Mitchell and Jean-Paul Riopelle.

Riopelle developed his technique independently of the New York artists. He had studied with Paul-Émile Borduas in Montreal, who had extended the ideas of surrealism into a movement called Les Automatistes. Finding the society of French Canada unreceptive to his new art, Riopelle moved to Paris. Mitchell had been impressed by the New York Abstract Expressionists, particularly de Kooning and Kline, but began to evolve her own particular style after visiting France.

In parallel to New York, Paris had developed a similar artistic movement called Abstraction Lyrique (Moszynska, 1990, p 120). This differed from the New York movement mainly by rejecting the geometric approaches, such as those of Barnett Newman or Josef Albers, which was considered “cold abstraction.” Mitchell and Riopelle painted most of their major works in France, and could be considered proponents of this type of abstraction. However, the term is ambiguous since “lyric abstraction” was also used to describe a group of New York artists in the 1960s.

Lives of the Artists

Mitchell and Riopelle came from vastly different backgrounds. Mitchell (1925-1992) was born into a wealthy family in Chicago. Her maternal grandfather Charles Strobel was an accomplished engineer who had designed many of the early Chicago steel-frame skyscrapers. Her mother was a poet and co-editor of Poetry, her father a very successful dermatologist and amateur painter. Riopelle (1923-2002) was from the middle class. His father was a builder and Riopelle started out with the idea of becoming an architect. For both Riopelle and Mitchell, early teachers inspired their artistic talents, and they both decided to pursue painting – Mitchell in New York with the Abstract Expressionists, and Riopelle in Montreal with the Automatistes. Mitchell visited France in 1948 but began her painting career in New York. Riopelle moved to Paris in 1948 and soon became recognized for his large abstract paintings, such as Pavane (1954) (not in the AGO exhibition) but reproduced below:

Mitchell and Riopelle met in Paris in 1955. Both were married, but Riopelle was living apart from his wife and Mitchell had divorced her husband. They were mutually attracted and spent time together, ultimately moving into a shared studio apartment in Paris in 1959. Paris was the city where art was created and love was enjoyed. Mitchell considered the beginning of their relationship in terms of Piaf’s famous La Vie en Rose. Their relationship was passionate and tumultuous, productive and persistent. Below are 1956 photographs of the artists in their Paris studios:

In 1967 Mitchell purchased an estate in Vétheuil about 65 km northwest of Paris. This was close to Giverney, where Claude Monet had painted his famous series of Water Lilies, and near a house where Monet had lived before Giverney. Riopelle initially lived at Vétheuil, but he later purchased a separate studio several miles away, and spent much of his time working there or travelling.

The paintings of Riopelle and Mitchell give the same sense of shimmering light as the impressionist works from fifty years before. This is shown in the following illustration which compares a part of a Monet Water Lilies from 1916 to Mitchell’s Mon Paysage (1967). Mitchell’s painting seems to have abstracted the feelings from a landscape of flowers. Not water lilies – but the colors and the feelings are similar.

One might perhaps consider Mitchell’s work as “abstract impressionism.” This formulation has been used to describe some of the later abstract expressionists such as Riopelle, Mitchell, Sam Francis and Patrick Heron, but it never really caught on, and Mitchell disliked the term (Michaud in Martin et al. 2017, p 118).

And as for any artist, the sources of present art have many different predecessors. Some of the late Cézanne paintings which pieced together blue and green color-fields to represent the garden at his home Les Lauves in Provence (1906) parcel out a similar experience to Mitchell’s untitled diptych form her 1975 Canada series. Mitchell uses a different palette of colors and her painting is about twice the size, but the feelings evoked and the experiences suggested are very similar:In 1974 Riopelle constructed a studio in the Laurentians in Canada and began to spend more and more time there. Mitchell visited. Some of her later monumental abstract paintings were inspired by the Canadian landscape, such as Canada I (1975) shown below.

However, the relationship between Mitchell and Riopelle was beginning to fall apart. Mitchell’s large quadriptych Chasse Interdite (1973) was initiated by an angry argument about hunting, which Mitchell deplored and Riopelle enjoyed. In 1978 Riopelle began an affair with Mitchell’s young protégé and assistant Hollis Jeffcoat. In 1979 the relationship between Mitchell and Riopelle ended. Mitchell stayed in France and Riopelle returned to Canada. After their rupture Mitchell painted another quadriptych, bitterly entitled La Vie en Rose (1979). Though not in the AGO exhibition, it is reproduced below:

Abstract Meanings

All paintings convey meaning. However, representational art is far easier to understand than abstract art. The meaning is in the scene, person or object that the painting describes. The style of the painting can highlight certain aspects of this meaning, but ultimately the artist is saying something about what the painting represents.

Abstract art does not directly represent or portray the world. Moszynska (1990, p 7) suggest that abstract art comes from two different approaches. In one the artist starts from an experience of the real world but then simplifies and changes it to highlight its effect on the artist. This gives the viewer a new way of looking at the world. In the other approach the artist starts with some transcendent or mystical idea and tries to give it form. This provides the viewer with some insight into what is beyond any normal sensory experience. Mitchell and Riopelle used the first approach; Barnett Newman and Rothko the second.

Many people give up trying to understand abstract art. The artist provides little help, generally refusing to say what an abstract painting means. Sometimes the paintings are given simple titles, but these often come after the fact, and many paintings remain untitled or simply numbered. The artist insists that the painting means something that could not be expressed in words but only conveyed in paint.

The indefiniteness of abstract paintings has some similarity to music. A piece of music composed without any definite program is appreciated for its melody and rhythm, but most particularly for its emotional effect. William Pater wrote long ago that “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” (Pater, 1893). Though he was discussing classical representational painting, his idea fits best with abstract art. Herbert Read proposed that all art involves a response to “harmonies” and “rhythms,” whether they be musical or not:

All art is primarily abstract. For what is aesthetic experience, deprived of its incidental trappings and associations, but a response of the body and mind of man to invented or isolated harmonies? Art is an escape from chaos. It is movement, ordained in numbers; it is mass confined in measure; it is the indetermination of matter seeking the rhythm of life. (Read, 1931, p 42)

The difficulty in understanding an abstract painting can sometimes lead to hostility. Exasperated viewers may claim that a monkey or a three-year old could paint something similarly meaningless. They fear that the artist is putting one over on them.

Perhaps the best approach is to let the paintings directly provide a new sensory experience. This is helped by the large size of many abstract paintings, which can fill the viewer’s field of vision. What emotions do the paintings trigger? Emotions are difficult to put into words. But this does not make them any less powerful, or any less meaningful. The following quotation is from the play Red which brought the art of Rothko to the stage

Wait. Stand closer. You’ve got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you: let it embrace you, filling your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has ever existed or will ever exist. Let the picture do its work – But work with it. (Logan, 2009)

The direct sensory and emotional experience of abstract art can be illustrated in two paintings. The first is La Forêt ardente (1955) by Riopelle. The French ardent means “burning” or “passionate.” The experience of the painting is similar to that of being in an autumn forest. The darkness, the colored leaves, and the sky above are all there. But the essence of the experience is its passion.

The second painting is Girolata (1964) by Mitchell. Girolata is an isolated village on a bay on the west coast of Corsica. The following is a photograph of the bay by Pierre Bona (2006). And below that is Mitchell’s painting. The experience of the painting is one of serenity. All is right with the world.

In relation to the idea of turning landscape into feelings, one may quote Mitchell’s own words from the introduction to her exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1974 (Tucker, 1974);

My paintings aren’t about art issues. They’re about a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from landscape.

I would rather leave Nature to itself. It is quite beautiful enough as it is. I do not want to improve it … I could certainly never mirror it. I would like more to paint what it leaves me with.

The painting is just a surface to be covered. Paintings aren’t about the person who makes them, either. My paintings have to do with feeling, yet it’s pretentious to say they’re about feelings, too, because if you don’t get it across, it’s nothing.

Differences

When one compares the paintings, it is important to realize that the work of both painters, particularly that of Riopelle, evolved through different styles. So we must talk in terms of artistic tendencies rather than fixed techniques – dispositions rather than rules. And it will be easy to find contradictory examples.

Mitchell always used a brush, whereas Riopelle used a palette knife or trowel. Riopelle’s oil-paintings are characterized by an almost sculptural surface – impasto – whereas Mitchell’s are flat and fleeting. The paintings therefore catch the light differently: Mitchell’s reflect the light very gently and suggestively; Riopelle’s shiny irregularities glitter or coruscate. The following illustration compares their surfaces, Mitchell’s is taken from an untitled 1955 painting, Riopelle’s from La Forêt ardente (1955).

Riopelle tended toward saturated primary colors, taking them straight from the tube; whereas Mitchell mixed her paints and used a much broader spectrum. The number of different shades in a Mitchell painting is generally far higher than in a Riopelle. Riopelle’s colors are much more definite; Mitchell’s tend to be lighter, sometimes fading in and out. Riopelle tended toward the red end of the spectrum, Mitchell toward the blue.

Mitchell’s paintings almost always have a white or lightly tinted background – her shapes and lines appear briefly out of the mist. Many of Riopelle’s paintings have no background, the colors intermingling without any limits. In others the background is dark, with bright colors appearing out of some primeval chaos.

Mitchell’s paintings use two main structural elements. One is the color field – an area of color that floats in the background. The second is the free line that rides above the background and the color fields. Many of her lines are made with thin paint, and leave downward-dripping rivulets of color.

Riopelle’s most famous paintings are composed like a mosaic out of brilliantly colored tesserae. In some later paintings, lines appear over the background, as though crystalizing out of the face of the deep. In other later paintings the colored regions become much larger and one can see the shapes more clearly.

Similarities

Both painters were very sensitive to symmetry. This was no mirror replication. Rather there was a balance from left to right of color, lightness and shape. Both Mitchell and Riopelle painted large diptychs and triptychs, wherein symmetry prevails. The following are two examples: Mitchell’s 1992 untitled painting (finished just before her death) and one of Riopelle’s 1977 Iceberg series (triggered by a trip to Baffin Island in the Canadian North) entitled Le Ligne d’eau.

Both artists derived their paintings from sensory experiences. Their paintings are abstracted from but not divorced from the real world. One gets a sense of the Vétheuil garden from the Mitchell’s  1992 painting, and of Baffin Island from Riopelle’s.

Sometimes the artists appear to be imitating each other styles. The exhibit pairs two untitled paintings to illustrate this. The Mitchell is from 1957 and the Riopelle from 1958; Riopelle is clearly trying out his companion’s style.

The sharing between the two artists is perhaps more evident in Riopelle’s work. His gouaches, such as the untitled 1956 example on the right, and his lithographs are composed of lines rather than shapes and have a light rather than a dark background. Nevertheless they are still in his style. His lines are short and replicate themselves. They are not Mitchell’s long, independent and free-floating lines.

Mitchell’s style was more consistent over the years. She was not as much affected by Riopelle as he by her. However, in 1963 she adopted the idea of painting triptychs from Riopelle, whose first triptych had been painted in 1953 (Brummel in Martin Brummel & Michaud, 2017, p. 74). Triptychs were used by artists in the altar-pieces of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. Pollack and other Abstract Expressionists had used the form for abstract works. Yet Riopelle almost certainly triggered Mitchell’s first attempts in the early 1960s. Thereafter multi-panel works became a mainstay of Mitchell’s art.

Endings

In 1992 Joan Mitchell died in Vétheuil of cancer. Jean-Paul Riopelle retreated to a studio on the Île aux Oies (Goose Island) in the Rivière Saint Laurent just north of Quebec City. Using a completely new technique – spray-cans and cut-out figures – he composed a series of images L’Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg (1992) as his memorial to Mitchell. A portion of this work, which resides permanently in the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec and is not in the AGO exhibit, is shown below.

Riopelle’s nickname for Mitchell was Rosa Malheur, a play on the name of Rosa Bonheur, a 19th century French painter. From that it was not far to Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish communist who was murdered in Germany in 1919 for promoting revolution. The painting also makes rueful reference to Mitchell’s 1979 quadriptych La Vie en Rose. Riopelle’s painting uses the bird-forms that were common in his later lithographs. These appear to signify freedom and its loss. This was Riopelle’s last painting. He died in 2002.

References

Anfam, D. (1990). Abstract Expressionism. London: Thames & Hudson.

Cogeval, G., & Aquin, S (2006). Riopelle. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Kertess, K. (1997). Joan Mitchell. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Livingston, J., Mitchell, J., Nochlin, L., & Lee, Y. Y. (2002). The paintings of Joan Mitchell. New York: Whitney Museum.

Martin. M., Brummel, K., & Michaud, Y. (2017). Mitchell/Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation. Québec: Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec.

Moszynska, A. (1990). Abstract art. London: Thames and Hudson.

Pater, W. (1893, edited by Hill, D. L., 1980). The Renaissance: Studies in art and poetry Berkeley: University of California Press.

Read, H. (1931). The meaning of art. London: Faber & Faber

Sandler, I. (1970). The triumph of American painting: A history of abstract expressionism. New York: Praeger

Tucker, M., (1974). Joan Mitchell. New York: Whitney Museum of Art.  Available at archive.org.

Viau, R. (2003). Jean-Paul Riopelle. Québec: Musée du Québec.




Bruges-la-Morte

In 1892 Georges Rodenbach published a short novel entitled Bruges-la-Morte (“Bruges, Dead City”). Although the book deals more with internal emotions than external reality, Rodenbach included in his book 35 photographs of the city of Bruges (Flemish, Brugge). The city thus plays as much a part in the novel as its human characters. This was the first time that a work of fiction had been photographically illustrated.

The Author

Georges Raymond Constantin Rodenbach (1855–1898) was born in Tournai, Belgium. His French mother and German father soon moved to Gand (Flemish Gand, English Ghent) in the Flemish northern region of Belgium, not far from Bruges. Rodenbach studied law at the University of Ghent and practiced briefly before turning to poetry and journalism. He moved to Paris in 1888, where he married a fellow journalist, wrote for the Figaro and served as a correspondent for the Journal de Bruxelles, He became friends with the symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and participated in the literary salons of the day, where he met Edmond de Goncort, Auguste Rodin, the young Marcel Proust, and Odilon Redon. As the 1894 photograph by Nadar shows, Rodenbach became quite the dandy. Bruges-la-Morte was initially serialized in the Figaro and then published in book form by Flammarion.

Rodenbach died in 1898 from the complications of an appendicitis. He was buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery. His monument by sculptor Charlotte Dubray (1902) is outrageously romantic. A bronze likeness of the dead poet emerges from the shattered grave holding aloft a rose. Beauty triumphs over death! Joël Goffin suggests that the tomb alludes to various occult and gnostic ideas promoted by the Salon de la Croix+Rose (1892-1897) established by Joséphin Péladan.

 

The City

Bruges was a major city in the medieval County of Flanders in the northern coastal plain of what is now Belgium. Connected to the North Sea by the estuary of the River Zwin, Bruges became an important trading center, closely associated with England through the wool trade, and with Scandinavia and the Baltics through the Hanseatic League, which maintained a major office (Kontor) in the city.

The city promoted religion as well as trade. The Church of Our Lady has one of the tallest spires in Europe. The Basilica of the Holy Blood enshrines a relic of Christ’s blood brought back from the Holy Land after the Second Crusade. The city was home to one of the larger Béguinages, communities of lay religious women. Some say that these housed women of the middle and upper classes whose fathers or husbands had died in the crusades.

Religion and trade both fostered art. Two great Flemish painters of 15th Century, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, lived in Bruges. Within the Church of Our Lady is a sculpture of The Virgin and Child by Michelangelo, bought in 1504 by two wealthy merchants from Bruges.

Flanders changed hands several times during its golden age from the 12th to 15th centuries. At various times allegiance was paid to France, Burgundy, the Holy Roman Empire, and Spain. However, by the 16th century, the River Zwin had become too silted to allow the passage of merchant ships. Wars of religion and succession devastated the countryside and the city lapsed into obscurity.

 

 

In the late 19th century Bruges returned into the public eye as a center for tourism. Most of its medieval buildings remained intact. Most striking is the medieval bell tower on the main square with its carillon. The atmosphere of past glories evoked by the canals and cobblestones fit well to the melancholy sensitivity of the fin-de-siècle.

 

 

 

Bruges remains to this day a beautiful city. The following photograph (Emmanuel Parent, 2013, Flickr, cropped) shows the Spiegelrei canal looking toward the Jan van Eyck square and the Burghers’ Lodge (Poorterloge)

The Book

A brief summary of the plot of Bruges-la-Morte follows, with occasional quotations (from the Mosley translation) to illustrate the book’s poetic style.

Five years after the death of his beautiful young wife in Paris, Hugues Viane remains in mourning. He has moved to the city of Bruges, whose quiet melancholy suits his persisting sadness. He tries to remember all he can about his wife. He does little else. Every day he walks around the city:

In the mute atmosphere of the lifeless waters and streets Hugues felt his heartache less, and he could think more calmly about his wife. In the line of the canals, he was better able to see and hear her again, to discover her Ophelia face floating along, to listen to her voice in the high-pitched song of the carillon. (p. 18)

In a special room in his house Hugues keeps mementos of his wife: several portraits, furniture on which she had sat, cushions that she had embroidered, curtains that she had hung. The most treasured of these objects is a plait of her golden hair, displayed in a crystal case.

On one of his walks, Hugues sees a young woman who looks exactly like his dead wife. Entranced he follows her until she enters the theater. She turns out to be Jane Scott, a dancer in the opera Robert le Diable (Meyerbeer, 1831). She plays the spirit of the abbess Helena who comes back to life in the graveyard of the cloister along with her nuns. Tools of the devil, they convince Robert to steal the sacred branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie. This will give him magical but unholy powers.

Hugues meets Jane, and she soon becomes his mistress. Hugues installs her in a pleasant house on the outskirts of Bruges. The people of Bruges and Hugues’ housekeeper are scandalized by this affair. However, Hugues cares not. His sadness lessens. His memories have become a person.

When he took her head in his hands and brought it close to him it was to look into her eyes, searching them for something he had seen in others: a nuance, a reflection, pearls, even some flowers with roots in the soul. (p. 42)

After a while Jane tires of her sad and serious lover. She takes up with her old friends, though she keeps Hugues as her lover and financial support. One day she decides that she should visit his house, to assess his fortune and see what jewelry she might acquire. She cajoles him with

that tempting voice possessed by all women at certain times, a crystal voice that sings, swells into haloes, in eddies where men surrender, whirl around and let themselves go. (p. 88)

She visits Hugues on the day of the Procession of the Holy Blood through the streets of Bruges. Hugues is enthralled by the color and the music. Jane is bored, and jests about the mementos of Hugues’ wife. She pulls the golden braid out of the crystal case and plays with it, winding it around her neck like a scarf. Hugues tries to retrieve it. Jane resists. Hugues becomes incensed. He pulls the braid taut and strangles her.

She was dead – for having failed to guess the Mystery and that one thing there was not to be touched on pain of sacrilege. She had laid a hand on the revengeful hair, that hair which, as emblem for those who soul is pure and in communion with the Mystery – implied that the minute it was profaned, it would itself become the instrument of death. (p. 101)

The procession returns. The bells ring.

Hugues repeated incessantly, “Morte… morte… Bruges-la-Morte,” with a mechanical look, in a slack voice, trying to match “Morte… morte… Bruges-la-Morte,” to the cadence of the last bells: slow, small, exhausted old women who seemed languishingly – is it over the city, is it over a tomb? – to be shedding petals of flowers of iron.  (p. 102)

 

The Photographs

Rodenbach considered the photographs an essential part of his book. In his foreward he states that Bruges acts as a “main character, a city associated with states of mind, one that is able to advise, dissuade, induce action.” Since Bruges was not simply a back-drop but a force in the action, Rodenbach thought is essential to have the city “reproduced visually within the text: the quays, deserted streets, old residences, canals, Béguinage, churches, belfries, cult objects.”

The illustrations for Bruges-la-Morte were chosen from the catalogue of Lévy and Neurdein, who specialized in touristic photographs used for postcards, souvenirs and stereographs. Most of the chosen images contain no people.

The photographs are loosely associated with events occurring in the text. They show the reader with what Hugues might be seeing while the text describes what he is feeling. For Hugues, Bruges had become the incarnation of his lost love. Like his wife Bruges was once but is no more alive and beautiful.

But as evening fell, he liked to wander about, looking for resemblances of his sorrow in the lonely canals and the religious quarters of the city. (p. 18)

On the right is the illustration that faces the page containing this quotation. It shows the canals and the bridge leading to the entrance to the Béguinage.

The new art of photography was a way of fixing forever the essence of a person or a place – a way of stopping time. One of the main themes of the novel is that time can neither be stopped nor reversed. The dead do not return. Bruges-la-Morte is a novel about memory and representation. Does Jane represent Hugue’s lost wife or is she simply a resemblance? Photography is intimately related to memory. Old photographs are an aid to remembering the when and where of our past. Sometimes the photographs become our memories.

 

 

The canals in Bruges are a boon to the photographer. They allow the real and the reflected to be captured simultaneously. The images suggest another world in the reflection beneath the real.

The use of photographs in novels did not catch on. Readers thought that it was the writer’s responsibility to describe in words where things occurred as well as what was thought. Rodenbach himself noted in a later discussion about the concept of an illustrated novel that “even a mildly astute reader would always prefer to imagine the characters, since a book is only a point of departure, an excuse and a canvas for dreams.” (Dossier in Flammarion edition of Bruges-la-Morte, 1998, pp. 331-332). However, I believe he is more concerned in this comment with illustrations that depict the events and characters in a novel rather than just its setting.

Recently, W. G. Sebald has used photographs in his books Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1992), The Rings of Saturn (1999) and Austerlitz (2001). Like Bruges-la-Morte these writings deal mainly with states of mind. The low-resolution photographs provide a setting for the emotions.

 

Fernand Khnopff

Flammarion engaged the Belgian symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) to provide an illustration for the frontispiece of Bruges-la-Morte. Khnopff had spent his early childhood in Bruges. His etching shows Hugues’ dead wife lying upon the waters of Bruges before the bridge leading to the Béguinage.

Her pose recalls the 1852 painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. This fits with the text

In the line of the canals, he was better able to see and hear her again, to discover her Ophelia face floating along, to listen to her voice in the high-pitched song of the carillon. (p. 18)

Secret-Reflet (“Secret Reflection”), one of Khnopff’s later works (1902), is in the Groeningemuseum in Bruges. It combines two images. The upper circular picture shows Khnopff’s sister and muse Marguerite touching a mask of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. The lower shows a pastel drawing of the houses of Bruges reflected in the canals. This is similar to the illustrations in Bruges-la-Morte. The painting alludes to a secret life beyond or beneath our transient reality. The symbolists were fond of the tradition of hermeticism, deriving from the writings of the mythical Hermes Trismegistus. These brought together various strands of mysticism and Gnosticism to suggest the idea of a secret world, of which only the esthetically sensitive were aware.

 

Meanings

Bruges-la-Morte can be read as a simple story of how a young dancer was murdered by her lover. As such it vividly depicts the mental and emotional state of the murderer. Most importantly it shows how the atmosphere of a place – the mist, bells, reflections, loneliness, and religious processions of Bruges – can accentuate the emotions of love and grief, and allow them to change into rage.

This is a prototypical symbolist novel. Literary symbolism was a reaction against the naturalism of Balzac and the realism of Zola. Rather than dealing with the external forces that control one’s life, the symbolists focused on the internal emotions and motivations that cause action. The protagonist is typically a solitary and sensitive individual, a precursor of the existential hero of the mid-20th century. And the story looks less at the events and settings and more at their effects on the mind. As Stéphane Mallarmé remarked the goal was ‘to depict not the thing but the effect it produces.’

A symbol is a way of representing the invisible. It combines concealment with revelation: an idea is reproduced only through allusion, and yet this allusion increases our understanding of the idea. The Symbolist Movement tended to spiritualism and the occult. More concerned with the ideal than with the specific, it was perhaps literature’s way of replacing the religion that science and realism had defeated.

In his introduction to The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899/1919), Arthur Symons concluded

Here, then, in this revolt against exteriority, against rhetoric, against a materialistic tradition; in this endeavour to disengage the ultimate essence, the soul, of whatever exists and can be realized by the consciousness; in this dutiful waiting upon every symbol by which the soul of things can be made visible; literature, bowed down by so many burdens, may at last attain liberty, and its authentic speech. In attaining this liberty, it accepts a heavier burden; for in speaking to us so intimately, so solemnly, as only religion had hitherto spoken to us, it becomes ltself a kind of religion, with all the duties and responsibilities of the sacred ritual. (p. 9)

Much, then, rides below the surface in Rodenbach’s novel. The story alludes to various myths that tell of the return of loved ones after death, most importantly that of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the canonical version of the myth, Orpheus succeeds in convincing the gods to release Eurydice, but then disobeys their injunction not to look back to see that she is following him out of Hades, and she vanishes. Other versions (e.g. Plato) suggest that the returning Eurydice was only an apparition.

Rodenbach’s story is also related to the magical golden bough that mortals need to descend into Hades (e.g. Aeneid, Book VI, ll 171-203). Jane dances as one of the demonic nuns in Robert le Diable who convince the hero of that opera to take the magic branch from the tomb of the saint. The golden plait of his wife’s hair that Hugues has preserved has both magical and murderous properties. It maintains the memory of his love and acts as an instrument of death

 

Die Tote Stadt

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was impressed after reading a dramatic adaptation of Bruges-la-Morte that had been translated into German as Die stille Stadt (“Silent City”) or Der Trugbild (“Mirage”). In 1920 he completed an operatic version of the play – Die tote Stadt (“Dead City”). The libretto, attributed to a fictional Paul Schott, was actually written by Korngold and his father.

The operatic story differs for that of the novel. Hugues becomes Paul (P) and Jane becomes Marietta (M). Paul’s first assignation with Marietta occurs at his residence. She plays the lute and sings an old song, sounding exactly like his dead wife. The song itself is concerned with how love should persist after death. The singing becomes an ecstatic duet:

M: Glück, das mir verblieb,
rück zu mir, mein treues Lieb.
Abend sinkt im Hag
bist mir Licht und Tag.
Bange pochet Herz an Herz
Hoffnung schwingt sich himmelwärts.

P: Wie wahr, ein traurig Lied.

M: Das Lied vom treuen Lieb,
das sterben muss.

P: Ich kenne das Lied.
Ich hört es oft in jungen,
in schöneren Tagen.
Es hat noch eine Strophe—
weiß ich sie noch?

M & P: Naht auch Sorge trüb,
rück zu mir, mein treues Lieb.
Neig dein blaß Gesicht
Sterben trennt uns nicht.
Mußt du einmal von mir gehn,
glaub, es gibt ein Auferstehn

Joy, that near to me remains,
Come to me, my true love.
Night sinks into the grove
You are my light and day.
Anxiously beats heart on heart
Hope itself soars heavenward.

How true, a sad song.

The song of true love,
that must die.

I know the song.
I heard it often in younger,
in better days.
It has yet another verse—
Do I know it still?

Though sorrow becomes dark,
Come to me, my true love.
Lean (to me) your pale face
Death will not separate us.
If you must leave me one day,
Believe, there is an afterlife.

Paul falls passionately in love with Marietta. The rest of the story – the loss of love, the desecration of the golden plait, and Marietta’s ultimate murder – follow in a similar fashion to the novel. However, in the opera these events turn out to be a dream rather than reality, and Paul awakens to find that Marietta is still alive. His dream finally reconciles him to the death of his wife. He sings a new verse to the lute song, bidding her farewell until they meet again – not in this world but in the afterlife.

Harre mein in lichten Höhn –
hier gibt es kein Auferstehn

Wait for me in heaven’s plain –
here we shall not meet again.

The opera conveys the intense emotions of the original. However, the addition of music attenuates the sadness, and makes the story far more sensuous.

The following is a 1924 version of the duet Glück das mir verblieb with Richard Tauber and Lotte Lehman.

The duet is often sung as a solo concert aria. The following is a 1994 version by Anne Sofie von Otter with the accompaniment adapted for piano quintet.

 

Aria

In 1987, Don Boyd asked ten different directors to produce short films based on famous opera arias. These were put together to make the feature film Aria. Bruce Beresford visualized Glück das mir verblieb as an intensely erotic engagement between two young lovers (Elizabeth Hurley and Peter Birch) in the city of Bruges. The soundtrack is from the first recording (1975) of the full opera with Carol Neblett and René Kollo. Enjoy!

 

 

References

Texts

Rodenbach, G. (1892). Bruges-la-Morte: Roman. Paris: Flammarion.

The 1913 edition is available on archive.org

and also at Archives et Musée de la Littérature.

The 1998 Flammarion version reproduces the original text and photographs and contains extensive notes by J.-P. Bertrand and D. Grojnowski.

The illustrations are reproduced in Wikipedia Commons

My quotations are to the English translation by Philip Mosley, originally published in 1986, and reprinted in 2007 by University of Scranton Press. This has no photographs. Another English translation by Will Stone and Mike Mitchell, published by Dedalus Press in 2009, includes a series of photographs of present-day Bruges. Since the original illustrations were an essential part of the book, this seems inappropriate.

Bruges-la-Morte Website

Joël Goffin runs an impressive website Bruges-la-Morte, which is packed with information about the book and its author, and which presents his own book (2017) about the novel: Le Secret de Bruges-la-Morte.

Photographs

Edwards, P. (2000). The photograph in Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte. Journal of European Studies, 30, 71-89.

Elkins, J. Writing with Images. 3/1/ Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte. Website

Fontaine, X. (2012). La photographie non identifiée de Bruges-la-Morte. Tentative de percée d’un mystère, lui-même fonction de l’interprétation du lecteur.In V. Lavoie ; P. Edwards ; J-P. Montier (Eds.) Actes du Colloque: Photolittérature, littératie visuelle et nouvelles textualités. NYU: Paris. Available online

Long, J. J. (2003) History, narrative and photography in W. G. Sebald’s Die AusgewandertenModern Language Review, 98, 117–37.

Wilson, M. G. (2013) Sheets of past: Reading the image in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. Contemporary Literature, 54, 49-76.

Fernand Khnopff

 Dumont-Wilden, L. (1907). Fernand Khnopff. Bruxelles: G. Van Oest. Available at archive.org

The Bruges-la-Morte website has a section on Khnopff

Artifex in Opera Website discusses the painting Secret-Reflet

Symbolist Movement

Conway Morris, R. (2007). The elusive Symbolist movement. New York Times (March 16, 2007).

Olds, M. C. (2006). Literary Symbolism. In D. Bradshaw & K. J. H. Dettmar. A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture. (pp 155–162). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Ross, A. (2017). The occult roots of modernism: Joséphin Péladan’s mystical art exhibitions, in Paris, set the stage for everything from Kandinsky’s abstractions to Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” New Yorker (June 26, 2017).

Symons, A. (1899, revised 1919). The symbolist movement in literature. New York: E. P. Dutton. Available at archive.org.

 




Vanity of Vanity

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 2:1-2)

Thus begins Ecclesiastes, the most unusual book in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Unlike the rest of the Bible, this book claims that the nature of the world is neither revealed to us nor accessible to reason. The universe and its Creator pay us no particular regard. Man is not special. Heretical though these thoughts might be, Ecclesiastes contains some of the world’s most widely quoted verses of scripture. The words of the Preacher resonate through the seasons of our lives. This post comments on several selections from the book.

Qohelet

The author of the book is called Qohelet (קהלת in Hebrew). This word derives from a root meaning to “assemble” or “bring people together.” The name suggests a sage who teaches a group of disciples. The translators have taken it to mean someone who preaches in a church (Latin, ecclesia). Yet Qohelet was clearly neither priest nor preacher. He was a rich man, a master of estates and an owner of palaces. The title Ecclesiastes is inappropriate. As pointed out by Lessing (1998),

thus do the living springs of knowledge, of wisdom, become captured by institutions, and by churches of various kinds.

According to the first line of the book, its author was Solomon, the son of David and Bathsheba. However, although Qohelet may have been a descendant of David, linguistic evidence (reviewed in Bundvad, 2015, pp 5-9) indicates that he wrote in the 3rd century BCE during the Hellenistic period (323-63 BCE), some seven hundred years after Solomon. Other scholars have suggested that the author may have written several centuries earlier during the Persian period (539-323 BCE), but this would still be long after Solomon (10th Century BCE).

The first line of the book may have been added by a later editor who wished this scripture to partake of Solomon’s fame. More likely, it is original, indicating that Ecclesiastes is a fictional testament: an imagined description of what Solomon might have thought (see discussion in Batholomew, 2009, pp 43-54). However, the book is ambiguous in terms of its narration. As the book progresses Qohelet becomes clearly distinguished from Solomon. And even Qohelet vacillates between two minds: that of a Jewish believer and that of a Greek philosopher (Bartholomew, 2009, p. 78).

 

 

Ben Shahn (1971) imagines Qohelet as a simple teacher. Though once rich and powerful, his thoughts have led him to withdraw from high society. Although dismayed that he has not been able to understand its meaning, he still enjoys the life he has been granted.

 

 

 

Vanity

Qohelet’s summary of his philosophy is that “All is vanity.” Shahn (1971) presents the beginning of the second verse in calligraphy:

 

The full verse and its transliteration follows. Note that the Hebrew goes from right to left whereas the transliteration goes from left to right (As Qohelet later says, “The wind goeth toward the south and turneth about unto the north”):

הבל הבלים אמר קהלת הבל הבלים הכל הבל׃

havel havalim amar kohelet, havel havalim hakkol havel.

The sound of the Hebrew follows (just in case you wish to denounce the world’s latest frivolity out loud):

The key Hebrew word is havel (הבל). This

indicates the flimsy vapor that is exhaled in breathing, invisible except on a cold winter day and in any case immediately dissipating in the air (Alter, 2010, p 340)

The word can be directly translated as “vapor” or “breath.” Alter translates havel havelim as “mere breath.” It denotes something without material substance or temporal persistence. Many translators have characterized it in abstract terms: meaningless, transient, empty, useless, absurd, futile, enigmatic, illusory.

The word havel has the same letters as the name of Abel, the second son of Adam, slain by his brother Cain. Qohelet was likely aware of this association (Bundvad, 2015, pp 79-80). Abel was the first man to die. His life was fleeting and uncertain, his death unjust, his person only faintly remembered.

The King James Version of the Bible (1611) translates havel as “vanity.” This word comes from the Latin vanus meaning empty. The translators used “vanity” to denote a lack of meaning, value or purpose. The secondary, now more common, meaning for the word – self-admiration, excessive pride (the opposite of humility) – may have come about as a particular example of worthless activity.

At the time of the King James Version, the term vanitas was also used to denote a type of painting became popular in Flanders and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries. The example below is by Pieter Claesz (1628). These paintings arrange objects to show the transience of life, the limits of understanding and the inevitability of death. Despite their meaning, the paintings are imbued with sensual beauty:

The appeal of the vanitas painting tradition lies in its successful capture of the subtle balance between transient and joyful modes of living, so vociferously endorsed by Qoheleth. (Christianson, 2007, p 122).

Benefit

After introducing himself and summarizing his message, Qohelet poses the main question of the book:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? (Ecclesiastes, 1:3)

The word translated as “profit” is yitron (יתרון). This word is only found in the Bible in Ecclesiastes. Perhaps “benefit” might be a better translation (Bartholomew, 2009, pp 107-108). The “labour” involves both physical and mental work. The idea is how best we should lead our lives.

The answer begins with the glorious poem

One generation passeth away,
and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down,
and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The wind goeth toward the south,
and turneth about unto the north;
it whirleth about continually,
and the wind returneth again
according to his circuits.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full;
unto the place from whence the rivers come,
thither they return again.

All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it:
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.

(Ecclesiastes 1: 3-9).

The poetry is beautiful but there is no profit in it. Human beings come and go. The human mind cannot gain sufficient knowledge of the world to understand its workings or to change it in any significant way. The world is as frustrating as it is beautiful. The more one knows, the more one is convinced of one’s transience:

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1: 18)

Qohelet realizes that life can nevertheless be enjoyable.

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 2: 24)

This is the old man’s version of the Andrew Marvel’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” The sentiment is perhaps as old as poetry. The Roman poet Catullus in the 1st Century BCE also wrote how the sun arises after it goes down but man does not:

soles occidere et redire possunt;
nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux
nox est perpetua una dormienda.
da mi basia mille, deinde centum

Walter Raleigh in his History of the World (1614) translated this as

The Sunne may set and rise
But we contrariwise
Sleepe after our short light
One everlasting night.

Raleigh does not translate the continuation of the poem wherein Catullus goes on to request a compensatory thousand kisses from his lover Lesbia.

Time

Qohelet has been considering the passage of time. The word used for time in Ecclesiastes – eth (עת) – generally refers to a moment of time. The other Hebrew word for time is olam (עולם) which takes all of time into account and is usually translated as “for ever” (as in Ecclesiastes 1:4). In the first chapter Qohelet contrasted world time with human time.

In Chapter 3, he considers a different aspect of time. God has ensured that events occur at their appropriate time. Eternity has been arranged in its proper sequence.

To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up
that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace,
and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

 

 

 

Ben Shahn (1971) portrays the essence of these lines with a wheat field at harvest time:

 

 

 

These verses can be interpreted in two main ways. The first proposes that time has been pre-ordained to work out the purposes of God, that we cannot change these things, and that we should be resigned to what happens. Everything is for the best. The other interpretation uses these words to justify one’s actions. Martin Luther quoted these verses when the time had come to speak out against the Catholic Church (Christianson, 2007, p 166). Thus are human actions divinely justified. Luther believed in predestination. He spoke out not by choice but because he had no choice: he could not do otherwise.

These verses were set to music by the folksinger Pete Seeger in the late 1950s. His lyrics directly quote the King James Version using the first verse with the addition of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as the refrain. After “a time of peace” Seeger added “I swear it’s not too late.” The song became an anthem of the peace movement. The following is an excerpt:

Qohelet recognizes the beauty of God’s time. Yet he is frustrated that he can never understand it:

I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.
That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth that which is past.
(Ecclesiastes 3: 14-15)

This idea of time as divinely ordered but incomprehensible to the human mind pervades T. S. Eliots’ Burnt Norton (1935) which begins:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Qohelet goes on to state that since we cannot understand we are no different from other animals. We live, we die.

For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
(Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)

These statements go against all previous Jewish teachings. Qohelet’s book

amounts to a denial of divine revelation, and of the belief that man was created as an almost divine being, to care for and exercise dominion over the other creatures and all the works of God’s hands. … In the final analysis man is like the animals rather than superior to them (Scott, 1965, p. 205)

Johannes Brahms was devastated when his friend Clara Schumann suffered a stroke in 1895 and was close to death. During this time, he composed his Four Serious Songs Opus 121. The first song is uses Luther’s translation of Ecclesiastes 3: 19-22. The following is the beginning (up to wird wieder zu Staub “turn to dust again”) as sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

Denn es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh; wie dies stirbt, so stirbt er auch; und haben alle einerlei Odem;und der Mensch hat nichts mehr denn das Vieh: denn es ist alles eitel.
Es fährt alles an einen Ort; es ist alles von Staub gemacht, und wird wieder zu Staub.

This first song is desolate – we die like beasts, our life is empty, we are made of dust. The later songs in the series progress from deep sadness to quiet resignation. The final song sets verses from the New Testament, among them

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (I Corinthians 13:12)

Brahms called his songs “serious” (ernst) rather than “sacred.” This is a fitting description of the book Ecclesiastes.

Justice

After considering the inevitability of death, Qohelet turns to evaluate the course of human life. He finds that success does not necessarily reward those who most deserve it:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
(Ecclesiastes 9:11)

A brief adaptation of this verse was included in the posthumously published Last Poems of D. H. Lawrence (1932). The poem Race and Battle is notable for its image of the “streaked pansy of the heart” which recalls the title of his earlier book Pansies, itself a pun on Pascal’s Pensées. Lawrence attempts to explain how to accept that life may be unfair and preserve a personal sense of justice.

The race is not to the swift
but to those that can sit still
and let the waves go over them.

The battle is not to the strong
but to the frail, who know best
how to efface themselves
to save the streaked pansy of the heart from
being trampled to mud.

Lawrence’s poem adds to Qohelet’s resignation some of the later teachings of Jesus – Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God (Matthew 5: 5,8).

Instruction

Qohelet’s search for wisdom has led him to dismay. Death is inevitable and unpredictable. Life is without justice. Nevertheless, Qohelet urges us to enjoy our life:

Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.
Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
(Ecclesiastes 9:7-10)

White clothes are worn for festive occasions. Their whiteness contrasts with the black of mourning. Anointing one’s hair with oil is another sign of gladness. Yet the most important of Qohelet’s injunctions is to work at whatever needs to be done.

Qohelet’s advice is related to the philosophies of Epicurus (341-270 BCE) in its enjoyment of life and of the stoic Zeno (334-262 BCE) in its promotion of right action. If, as most scholars now believe, Qohelet wrote in the 3rd Century BCE, he could have been influenced by such Greek philosophies. He certainly based his search for truth on reason rather than on revelation. Yet his philosophy is his own. It is religious rather than materialist.

Scott (1965, p 206) summarizes Qohelet’s reasoning:

Thus the good of life is in the living of it. The profit of work is in the doing of it, not in any profit or residue which a man can exhibit as his achievement or pass on to his descendants. The fruit of wisdom is not the accumulation of all knowledge and the understanding of all mysteries. It lies rather in recognizing the limitations of human knowledge and power. Man is not the measure of all things. He is the master neither of life nor of death. He can find serenity only in coming to terms with the unalterable conditions of his existence, and in enjoying its real but limited satisfactions.

 

 

Ben Shahn presents the thoughts of Qohelet as balanced between his inability to understand and his realization that life can nevertheless be enjoyed:

 

 

 

Qohelet has much in common with the existentialism of the 20th Century. Albert Camus remarks in Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942):

Je ne sais pas si ce monde a un sens qui le dépasse. Mais je sais que je ne connais pas ce sens et qu’il m’est impossible pour le moment de le connaître. [I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I cannot grasp that meaning and that it is impossible now for me to grasp it.]

Camus is much more tentative than Qohelet in his conclusion that we should nevertheless enjoy our life. He retells the myth of Sisyphus who was condemned by the Gods because he had tried to cheat death. He was made to roll an immense boulder up to the summit of a mountain, but every time he reached the top, the rock would roll back down and Sisyphus would have to begin his task again.

La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un cœur d’homme; il faut imaginer Sisyphe heureux. [The very struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy. ]

Bread upon the Waters

Qohelet presents us with multiple proverbial injunctions about how one should live one’s life. Perhaps the most quoted of these is:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, and also to eight; for thou knowest not what evil shall be upon the earth.
(Ecclesiastes 11: 1-2)

The verses have been interpreted in many ways. Merchants have considered them in terms of overseas trade. Christians have proposed that it means to spread the teachings of Christ throughout the world. This idea derives from Christ’s statement that he was the “bread of life” (John 6:35). Qohelet had neither of these ideas in mind. He was encouraging us to be generous, to provide for our fellows. He was suggesting that such human charity could compensate for life’s injustice.

In his own old age, the wise Richard Wilbur (2010) wrote a poem about these verses

We must cast our bread
Upon the waters,
as the
Ancient preacher said,

Trusting that it may
Amply be restored to us
After many a day.

That old metaphor,
Drawn from rice farming on the
River’s flooded shore,

Helps us to believe
That it’s no great sin to give,
Hoping to receive.

Therefore I shall throw
Broken bread, this sullen day,
Out across the snow,

Betting crust and crumb
That birds will gather, and that
One more spring will come.

 

Light and Dark

Qohelet reminds us that life brings both enjoyment and dismay. The verses are illustrated by Ben Shahn on the left.

Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many.
(Ecclesiastes 11: 7-8)

 

 

Remember Now

The last chapter of Ecclesiastes contains its most famous poetry. Qohelet, who has become old and wise, advises his youthful followers. He tells them to rejoice in their youth for life is beautiful. Yet they must always bear in mind that they must grow old and die:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,
while the evil days come not,
nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say,
I have no pleasure in them;

While the sun, or the light, or the moon,
or the stars, be not darkened,
nor the clouds return after the rain:

In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble,
and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few,
and those that look out of the windows be darkened,

And the doors shall be shut in the streets,
when the sound of the grinding is low,
and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird,
and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;

Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high,
and fears shall be in the way,
and the almond tree shall flourish,
and the grasshopper shall be a burden,
and desire shall fail:
because man goeth to his long home,
and the mourners go about the streets:

Or ever the silver cord be loosed,
or the golden bowl be broken,
or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern.

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was:
and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

(Ecclesiastes 12: 1-8)

Qohelet refers to God as the Creator (borador, בוראיך). This is the only time he uses this term; elsewhere he uses Elohim (אלהים). Qohelet is here invoking Genesis: we must view the end of an individual life in relation to the beginning of all life. Some commentators (Rashi; Scott, 1965, p. 255) have remarked on the relations of this word to bor (בור) which occurs in the 7th verse.  This means “pit,” in the sense of either a “grave” or a “cistern.” This verbal association also brings the end of life back to its source.

The poem is as enigmatic as it is beautiful. The initial verse of the poem clearly states that it is concerned with human mortality. Yet how the images relate to old age and death is as uncertain as the breath that ceases. And the poem ends on the words that began the book – all is vanity, merest breath.

A literal interpretation is that the poem describes a village or estate in mourning for a once-great person lately fallen on hard times. Perhaps Qohelet is foreseeing his own death. The windows of the house are darkened, the mill is quiet as the workers remember their late master, the mourners go about the streets, and finally dust is scattered over the body as it is buried.

A long tradition has provided allegorical interpretations of the images, relating them to the physical and mental decline that attends old age. The underlying idea is that the aging body is like a house in decay. For example, the commentary of the 11th-century Jewish rabbi Rashi suggests

the keepers of the house: These are the ribs and the flanks, which protect                                    the entire body cavity
the mighty men: These are the legs, upon which the body supports itself
and the grinders cease: These are the teeth
since they have become few: In old age, most of his teeth fall out
and those who look out of the windows: These are the eyes.
And the doors shall be shut: These are his orifices.
when the sound of the mill is low: the sound of the mill grinding the food in                                   his intestines, and that is the stomach

The problem with such specific allegories is that different commentators provide different meanings. Do the doors that shut denote the eyelids or the lips?

Other interpretations are more abstract. Does the pitcher broken at the fountain represent the bladder or the loss of the life force? Is the silver cord the spinal column or the genealogical tree that ends at the death of a person with no heirs?

Some Hebrew interpretations consider these verses as representing the desolation of Israel following the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. The image of the golden bowl might then represent the broken lamp that no longer lit the sanctuary.

Some Christian interpretations see the imagery as a vision of the end times that will precede the final judgment. This fits with the epilogue that follows the poem.

No single interpretation conveys the sense of the poem. All meanings overlap. The poem is better listened to than imagined. The following is by the YouTube reader who goes by the name of Tom O’Bedlam

Judgment

The book concludes with an epilogue that many take to be the words of a later editor. However, it rings true to Qohelet:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
(Ecclesiastes 12: 13-14)

Why else should one remember one’s Creator? Why else should one bear in mind one’s ultimate old age and death? The sentiment is similar to Marcus Aurelius (167 CE):

Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.
(Meditations IV:17)

Qohelet is also proposing that to be good is to be truly human – “the whole duty of man.” Any judgment of us as human beings must rest on whether we have done good or ill. Qohelet’s instruction derives from man as much as from God.

The following presents the Hebrew (in Ben Shahn’s calligraphy) together with its transliteration and an audio version of Ecclesiastes 12:13

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

sovf dabar hakkol nishma eth ha’elohim yera eth mitzvotav shemovr ki zeh kol ha’adam.

References

Alter, R. (2010). The wisdom books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes : a translation with commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Bartholomew, C. G. (2009). Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Bundvad, M. (2015). Time in the book of Ecclesiastes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Christianson, E. S. (2007). Ecclesiastes through the centuries. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Lawrence, D. H. (Edited by Aldington, R., & Orioli, G., 1932). Last poems. Florence: Orioli.

Lessing, D. (1998). Introduction. In Ecclesiastes or, the preacher: Authorised King James version. Edinburgh: Canongate.

Scott, R. B. Y. (1965). Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. (Anchor Bible Volume 18). Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Shahn, B. (1971). Ecclesiastes: Or, the preacher. New York: Grossman.

Wilbur, R. (2010). Anterooms: New poems and translations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 




Aspects of Etruria

 

The Etruscans thrived from about 900 to 100 BCE. Although archaeology has revealed much about their life, even more remains unknown. After the Etruscans were assimilated by the Romans, their written history was lost. Although the Emperor Claudius wrote a 20-volume history of the Etruscans, not a page of this has survived.

Popular ideas that the Etruscans originated in Greece, Turkey or Phoenicia have given way to the idea that they were indigenous to the area where they lived – Etruria. This is the land north of the Tiber River, south of the Po River and west of the Apennine Mountains, comprising the present day Italian regions of Lazio, Tuscany and Umbria.

The Etruscan language was not written down until about 700 BCE when a modified Greek alphabet was used. What little we know, mainly from epitaphs on tombs and inscriptions on pottery, indicates a language that is not Indo-European in origin.

Without a history and with little language, our understanding of the Etruscans remains as fragmentary as the pottery in their graves. We piece together what we can.

cerveteri-841x-b

In his prologue to The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962), Giorgio Bassani describes a visit to the Etruscan tombs at the Banditaccia Necropolis near Cerveteri (illustrated above). A young girl, Giannina, asks her father why it is that old tombs are not as sad as new ones. Her father suggests that

‘People who have just died are closer to us, and so we are fonder of them. The Etruscans, after all, have been dead for a long time’ — again he was telling a fairy tale — ‘so long it’s as if they had never lived, as if they had always been dead.’

Giannina thinks about this for a while and then replies

‘But now, if you say that,’ she ventured softly, ‘you remind me that the Etruscans were also alive once, and so I’m fond of them, like everyone else.’

Etruscans often evoke these tender feelings. This post, which follows a visit to Etruria last month in a tour led by Nigel Spivey, considers some aspects of Etruscan culture which have intrigued me. Like Giannina, I have become fond of them.

Eternal Banquets

Most of what we know about the Etruscans come from their tombs. Their cities were destroyed and rebuilt by later civilizations, but the cemeteries remained largely untouched. Some tombs, especially those in the Monterozzi Necropolis near Tarquinia, have striking wall paintings. The Tomb of the Leopards from the 5th Century BCE (illustration below derived from Wikipedia) depicts a banquet (Tathje, 2013). Whether this represents the funeral celebration for the deceased or the eternal feasting to be expected in the afterlife is not known. Perhaps both.

tomb-of-the-leopards-xb

D. H. Lawrence described this painting in Etruscan Places:

The end wall has a splendid banqueting scene. The feasters recline upon a checked or tartan couch-cover, on the banqueting couch, and in the open air, for they have little trees behind them. The six feasters are bold and full of life like the dancers, but they are strong, they keep their life so beautifully and richly inside themselves, they are not loose, they don’t lose themselves even in their wild moments. They lie in pairs, man and woman, reclining equally on the couch, curiously friendly. The two end women are called hetaerae, courtesans; chiefly because they have yellow hair, which seems to have been a favourite feature in a woman of pleasure. The men are dark and ruddy, and naked to the waist. The women, sketched in on the creamy rock, are fair, and wear thin gowns, with rich mantles round their hips. They have a certain free bold look, and perhaps really are courtesans.

The man at the end is holding up, between thumb and forefinger, an egg, showing it to the yellow-haired woman who reclines next to him, she who is putting out her left hand as if to touch his breast. He, in his right hand, holds a large wine-dish, for the revel.

The next couple, man and fair-haired woman, are looking round and making the salute with the right hand curved over, in the usual Etruscan gesture. It seems as if they too are saluting the mysterious egg held up by the man at the end; who is, no doubt, the man who has died, and whose feast is being celebrated. But in front of the second couple a naked slave with a chaplet on his head is brandishing an empty wine-jug, as if to say he is fetching more wine. Another slave farther down is holding out a curious thing like a little axe, or fan. The last two feasters are rather damaged. One of them is holding up a garland to the other, but not putting it over his head as they still put a garland over your head, in India, to honour you.

Above the banqueters, in the gable angle, the two great spotted male leopards hang out their tongues and face each other heraldically, lifting a paw, on either side of a little tree. They are the leopards or panthers of the underworld Bacchus, guarding the exits and the entrances of the passion of life. (Lawrence, 1933/1950, pp 65-66)

Lawrence enthusiastically conveys the feelings of the banquet. However, he did not get everything right. The tomb was constructed later than he thought and the women were likely not courtesans. Although the symposia of the Greeks involved only wine and were limited to males (and occasional courtesans), the feasts portrayed in Etruscan paintings included food and allowed both male and female participants. The relations between the sexes may have been more equal in Etruscan society than in other ancient cultures. Probably the most famous piece of Etruscan art is the Sarcophagus of the Spouses (6th century BCE) from Cerveteri, now displayed in the Villa Giulia in Rome. A married couple partakes of the eternal banquet. The man was probably holding in his right hand an egg as a symbol of regeneration. The woman may have held a small jar of oil to pour onto the outstretched hand of her husband. Their archaic smiles suggest an enviable serenity in the face of death:

sposi-876xg-bThe banquet portrayed in tomb paintings and sarcophagi is a recurring theme in Etruscan art. The illustration below shows a fragment of a terra cotta frieze from the eaves of a temple. Three reclining Etruscans enjoy the music of the aulos on the left and the lyre on the right. Beneath the couch, the family pet scrounges for scraps of food:

terra-cotta-symposium-585x-aa-b

The painters and sculptors were either Greek immigrants to Etruria or Etruscans whom they had trained. The artists may have left Greece and came west because of war and tyranny in their homeland. In the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, large Greek colonies were founded in Sicily and Southern Italy. Although the Greeks did not colonize Etruria, they had extensive commercial and artistic interactions with the Etruscans.

In the first millennium BCE commercial shipping in the Mediterranean was very active: Phoenicians from both the Levant and Carthage, Greeks from both Greece and Sicily, and Etruscans all traded with each other (Bruni, 2013; Haynes, 2000, pp 62-64; Smith, 2014, chapter 5). Much of the trade involved luxury goods – wine, painted pottery, jewellery.

Afterlife

The central painting from the Tomb of the Augurs (6th century BCE) in Tarquinia shows a closed doorway (see below). This symbol, common in Etruscan funerary art and architecture, likely represents the portal between the realms of the living and the dead.

augurs-xb

The symbol recurs in the ruined tombs in the tufa cliffs of the Castel d’Asso necropolis near Viterbo (see below). The tombs were designed on three levels (as diagramed on the right). The top allowed for sacrifices and libations to the gods. The middle level provided a place for the funerary celebrations, and the tombs containing the sarcophagi were below.

castel-dasso-xb

The ruins of the Castel d’Asso necropolis evoke the melancholy and mystery that the Victorians found fascinating in the Etrucans. Below is an etching (from British Museum) by Samuel Ainsley prepared for the 1848 book by George Dennis, Cities and Cemeteries of Etruria. Today the site remains little changed.

ainsley-castel-dasso-bm-b

Divination

We are not sure what the two men standing on either side of the door in the Tomb of the Augurs are doing. Perhaps they are bidding farewell to the deceased who has gone beyond the door into the afterlife. Another interpretation, one that gives its name to the tomb, is that they are augurs foretelling the future through the flight of birds – auspicy. Indeed, a bird is seen on the left of the door.

haruspicy-2x-b

 

Etruscans also divined the future by examining the entrails of animals sacrificed to the gods – haruspicy (de Grummond, 2013). Etruscan graves have yielded fascinating models of the livers of sheep in bronze and in terra cotta (illustration on right). The bronze version (the Piacenza Liver) is extensively annotated to help guide the divination. The gall bladder droops down in the center; the caudate lobe is raised in the upper right, and the middle upper raised portion is likely the quadrate lobe.

 

Even during Roman times, Etruscans were renowned for their ability to foresee the future. The seer who warned Julius Caesar to beware the Ides of March was an Etruscan named Spurinna.

Portraits

Within the tombs, the Etruscan dead were usually placed within sarcophagi. Some of these were sculpted in terra cotta. The earlier sarcophagi – such as the Sarcophagus of the Spouses – have idealized features. Later versions of these sarcophagi present striking portraits of the deceased (Brendel & Serra, 1995, pp 387-400; Carpino. 2013). Greek sculpture tended toward the ideal, but later Etruscan sculpture was far more individual. The following illustrations show a sarcophagus from the 3rd or 2nd century BCE from Tuscania, and several portrait heads.

etruscan-sarcophagus
etruscan-heads-hhBucchero

The tombs of the Etruscans were full of grave goods. These represented prestige objects or keimelia – “things which are to be treasured when plundered or presented, but not cashed in” (Spivey, 1997, p 43). Pottery was abundant. Although some of the pottery was made by Etruscans in imitation of the Greek forms, much of the pottery in the tombs came from Greece. The Etruscans traded with the Greeks for these beautiful objects. Athenian painted pottery was particularly popular, and many striking examples of these vessels were preserved in Etruscan graves. Indeed, most of the Athenian pottery in the British museum was actually found in Etruria rather than Greece.

Nevertheless, one type of pottery found in the graves – bucchero – was specifically Etruscan (Perkins, 2007; de Puma, 2013a). So much so that its presence elsewhere in the Mediterranean indicated trade with Etruria. The name bucchero is of uncertain origin. Some have linked it with a type of black clay from South America named bucaro in Spanish. Most of the Etruscan pottery was discovered in the tombs during the 18th century, a time when pottery from the New World was being imported to Europe, and the Spanish term may have become generalized to denote any balck pottery. Perhaps, a more reasonable suggestion is that the word might come from the Latin poculum for drinking cup.

Bucchero pottery is black or dark grey. Not just on the surface but throughout. The color was caused by decreasing the air supply to the kilns in which the pottery was baked. Due to the lack of oxygen, the iron in the clay became black ferrous oxide rather than red ferric oxide. The surface of bucchero can be burnished to an almost metallic sheen. Depending on the light the black surface sometimes has a faint tinge of brown or blue. Some have suggested that bucchero was made in imitation of more expensive bronze or silver vessels. Yet bucchero is beautiful in its own right.

The earliest bucchero made in the 7th and 6th centuries in the southern parts of Etruria. This thin-walled bucchero sottile was often engraved with simple geometric patterns such as spirals or fans. Later bucchero pesante with much thicker walls was manufactured in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE and was more common in northern Etruria. This type of bucchero was adorned with relief decoration. The following two wine pitchers (oenochoai) illustrate the differences. The decoration on the right pitcher shows a typical Etruscan image of flying horses.

oenochoai

One of the most characteristic styles of bucchero is the kantharos. The design of this particular type of wine vessel (below left) may have actually originated in Etruria. The high handles make the kantharos far easier to hold and drink from than the typical flat Greek kylix, which may have been more frequently used for libations rather than for drinking. The Etruscans also made elegant chalices (from Latin calyx) which are similar to our modern wine goblets. The illustration below shows a kantharos and a calyx from ancient Etruria.

kantharos-kalyxMirrors

Bronze mirrors were also common in the grave goods of Etruscan tombs from the 5th to 4th centuries BCE (de Puma, 2013bc). The backs of the mirrors were occasionally decorated with relief carvings, but more often they were engraved with drawings. These typically depicted persons from Greek mythology. In the illustrated mirrors below, the top two are very similar  ̶  two nude men in the company of two women, one dressed and one not. This image occurs very frequently, and may have come from one particular workshop. Exactly who is represented varies. Sometimes the characters are actually labelled – as Achilles and Chryseis (Cressida) together with Helen and Paris (de Puma, 2013c, p 176). On other versions of this mirror, similar characters may be Castor and Pollux with Athena and Aphrodite (de Puma, 2013c, p 185).

etruscan-mirrors-hh

These mirrors indicate a people highly conscious of themselves, aware of what it means to be beautiful and fascinated by stories. The polished side no longer reflects Etruscan faces but the drawings on the back preserve the contents of their imagination.

Envoi

D. H. Lawrence found in the Etruscans a vitality and honesty that he considered lacking in the modern world (Spivey, 1995, pp 192-194). He ignored the facts that Etruscan society existed on the backs of slaves, and that only the aristocrats were able to enjoy the good life. Lawrence saw what he wanted to see. We all do.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Etruscans enjoyed life immensely. Wine, music, beautiful things and good company were central to their lives. Most impressive was their intense self-consciousness. Their portraits and mirrors tell of people who sought to understand themselves. Their sense of self was deep enough to convince them that they would persist after death. We may not have the same beliefs. But we must admire this confidence.

 

References

Bassani, G. (1962, translated by W. Weaver, 1977). The garden of the Finzi-Continis. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Brendel, O., & Serra, R. F. R. (1995). Etruscan art. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bruni, S. (2013). Seafaring: shipbuilding, harbors, the issue of piracy.  In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 759-777). New York: Routledge.

Carpino, A. A. (2013). Portraiture. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World.  (pp 1007-1016). New York: Routledge.

de Grummond, N. T. (2013).  Haruspicy and augury: Sources and procedures. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World.  (pp 539-556). New York: Routledge.

Dennis, G. (1848/1878). Cities and cemeteries of Etruria. 2nd Edition. Volume I and Volume II. London: John Murray.

de Puma, R. D. (2013a).The meanings of bucchero. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 974-992). New York: Routledge.

de Puma, R. D. (2013b). Mirrors in art and society. In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 1041-1067). New York: Routledge.

de Puma, R. D. (2013c). Etruscan art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Haynes, S. (2005). Etruscan civilization: A cultural history. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.

Lawrence, D. H. (1933/1950). Etruscan places. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.

Perkins, P. (2007). Etruscan Bucchero in the British Museum. British Museum Research Publication 165.

Smith, C. (2014). The Etruscans: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spivey, N. J. (1997). Etruscan art. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Tathje, A. (2013). The banquet through Etruscan history.  In J. M. Turfa (Ed.) The Etruscan World. (pp 823-830). New York: Routledge.




Stonehenge

Over five thousand years ago the Neolithic people of Britain began to erect a monumental stone structure known as “Stonehenge” on the Salisbury Plain. The name likely means “hanging” or “suspended” stones. The structure underwent several changes over the years of its construction, reaching its final form around 2000 BCE.

The stones are of two kinds. The largest are the sarsens, which have their origin in the hills about 40 km north of Stonehenge. The word “sarsen,” first used at the time of the Crusades, comes from “Saracen” and essentially means “pagan.”

The smaller bluestones come from the Preseli Mountains in Southwest Wales 240 km away. Most archaeologists currently believe that these were transported across the Bristol Channel and then overland to Stonehenge. The bluestones may have been used in several ways during the different periods of construction. In the final form of the monument they are arranged within the outer circle of sarsens and within the inner horseshoe of larger sarsens.

The monument has long been a symbol of ancient Britain. Over the years, however, our understanding of it has changed radically. This posting considers how Stonehenge has interacted with the British imagination. Because of its striking appearance, images are given as much space as words.

Past and Present Structure

The following figure shows a photograph of the monument taken from the Southwest by Diego Delso in 2014. A larger version of the photograph is available from Wikipedia.

stoneheng diego XB
In the center of the figure is a large standing stone – the only stone still upright from the great trilithon (“three stones” – two erect stones with a superimposed lintel). At its top is a small peak representing the tenon of a mortice-and-tenon joint that served to maintain the lintel on top of the two uprights.

tpmorticetenonBehind and to the right of this central stone can be seen the surviving arches of the outer sarsen circle. The lintels on this circle are held in position using tongue-in-groove as well as mortice-and-tenon joints. These techniques are similar to those used in woodworking (Chippindale, 2012, p 12; Johnson, 2008, pp 142-148). The figure on the right (modified from the English Heritage site) illustrates these procedures.

 

Many of the original stones have collapsed. Some fallen stones were probably long ago broken up and used for other buildings. Others lie on the ground; others are buried. Most of the sarsens on the south and west of the outer circle fell and vanished long ago. The following figure shows on the left a diagram of how the monument might have been in 2000 BCE (based on Johnson, 2008, p. 166). and on the right a plan of the present site (modified from the English Heritage Webpage).

tpstonehengeplan

The outer ring of sarsens with the superimposed lintels rose almost 5 m above the ground. The trilithons of the inner sarsen horseshoe varied in height: those at the open end of the horseshoe were about 6 m high, the adjacent trilithons a little higher and the great trilithon at the center of the horseshoe almost 7.5 m. The bluestones are much smaller and quite variable in size and shape. The illustration below shows a digital model by Hypnagogia of how the completed monument might have appeared as viewed from the Northeast at sunrise.

green model xbThe great trilithon collapsed long ago. The eastern upright broke in two over the altar stone. The western upright fell only halfway and was for many years held up at an angle by the inner bluestone. It was re-erected and stabilized in 1901. The first set of stones whose fall is historically recorded is the southwestern trilithon which collapsed in 1797. It was re-erected in 1958.

Stonehenge_render_labelled xb

As shown on the right, the standing stones are at the center of a larger circle marked by a ditch and by the Aubrey Holes. These are the oldest part of the monument, predating the sarsens by several hundred years. Parker Pearson (2012, pp 181-186) has suggested that the Aubrey Holes may have been the original location of the bluestones, which were later removed and placed within the sarsen monument.

Early Views of Stonehenge

BM egerton 3028 xb

 

One of the earliest accounts of Stonehenge occurs in Geoffrey of Monmouths’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136). Chapters 10 to 12 of Book 8 provide a fanciful tale of the stones being erected by giants under the supervision of Merlin, the sage of the Arthurian legends. The Egerton 3028 manuscript in the British Library contains an illustration of this story.

 

 

The first “realistic” depiction of Stonehenge was a 1575 watercolour by Lucas De Heere, a Flemish refugee in England. The painting shows the general size and arrangement of the stones as viewed from the Northwest but is woefully incorrect in its detail (Chippindale, 2012, pp 33-35). The most glaring error is that the monolith of the great trilithon is depicted as leaning outwards rather than inwards.

lucas SH xB
The great English architect Inigo Jones studied the monument in the 17th Century. John Webb collected Jones’ notes and published them posthumously in 1655 in a book entitled The Most Notable Antiquity of Great Britain, Vulgarly called Stone-Heng on Salisbury Plain. Jones thought that the stones were erected as a temple by the Romans during their occupation of Britain. He considered the ancient Britons too savage to have built a monument of such perfectly classical proportions.
jones stonehenge xbThis idea was disputed by John Aubrey, the author of the famous Brief Lives, who published his Monumenta Britannica in 1665. He made a careful study of the Stonehenge site and noted the circle of chalk pits around the stone monument, which are still called Aubrey Holes (Johnson, 2008, p. 57). He pointed out that the Britain and Ireland contained multiple Neolithic monuments and stone circles, and that many of these were in areas where the Romans had never penetrated. He therefore suggested that they were erected by the Britons as “Temples of the Druids” (Hill, 2008, p 33).

Aubrey’s proposal was promoted by William Stukeley, a friend of Isaac Newton. He published Stonehenge, A Temple Restor’d to the British Druids in 1740. Initially he had made some accurate observations of Stonehenge: he was the first to notice the “avenue” leading to Stonehenge from the Northeast (Chapter 8), and he noted that the monument and the avenue were oriented along a line pointing to the sunrise at the summer solstice (Chippindale, 2012, p. 75).

Imaginative Interpretations of Stonehenge

However, Stukeley soon let his imagination take over, and he concocted a narrative of how the Jewish patriarchs had visited England in ancient times with the Phoenicians (Chippindale, 2012, Chapter 8; Lewis Williams & Pearce, 2005, pp 169-172; Hill, 2008, pp. 39-49). This was all part of a grand universal history of humanity, with the pure original religion being initially subverted by idolatry and then restored by Jesus. He considered Stonehenge as a temple of this primordial religion, where divine observances were conducted by the Celtic Druids. Stukeley was so enthusiastic about these ideas that he took to calling himself Chyndonax, Prince of the Druids. His work has exerted a tremendous influence on the popular views of Stonehenge. Modern dating methods have shown that Stonehenge was built by Neolithic Britons more than a thousand years before the Iron-Age Celts (who only became evident in Britain by after 1000 BCE). Nevertheless, to this day druids still conduct services at Stonehenge on the days of the summer solstice.

Some of Stukeley’s ideas are present in William Blake’s poem Jerusalem:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

Hubert Parry’s 1916 musical setting of this poem has become an extremely popular anthem, traditionally sung with great fervor and flag-waving on the last night of the Proms.

blake milton xbBlake’s poem is contained in the preface to his illuminated book Milton a Poem (1811). The poem deals with the need for the creative imagination to liberate mankind from slavery to established morality. Some illustrations of megaliths (e. g. part of page 4 shown on the right) are included in this long poem, and at times Blake seems to suggest these as evidence of religion’s Satanic power over the people. Some interpreters have even considered the “Satanic Mills” of the second verse of the prefatory poem mean the established churches rather than the cotton mills of the industrial revolution.

However, Blake’s view of Stonehenge was ambiguous. The last page of a later illuminated book Jerusalem: The emanation of the giant Albion. (1821) contains a striking image:

blake jerusalem XB

The central male figure is Los, the personification of imaginative energy, with the hammer and tongs he uses to create. On the left is his spectre carrying the sun. On the right is his emanation, Enitharmon, the female personification of spiritual beauty. She holds what appears to be a spindle, from which descend the threads of life. Below them is a serpentine line of trilithons with a central circle similar to the Stonehenge. The meaning of this final image is not clear. In his notes to the facsimile edition of the book, Paley suggests that these structures may represent the creation of Jerusalem in England. However, the words of a prophet can be difficult to understand.

Romanticism

J. M. W. Turner visited Stonehenge in 1799. He made several drawings of the ruins. The following small sketch represents a view from the West.

turner stonehenge drawing 1799 xb

In 1827 he created a watercolor based on his earlier sketches. The final painting depicts Stonehenge during a storm. Lightning strikes the ground in the middle of the ruin, killing many sheep and the shepherd who lies in the right foreground. The shepherd’s dog howls disconsolately. An 1829 engraving of this image became very popular, appealing to the public’s new romantic fascination with the unrestrained power of nature:

turner stonehenge engraved robert wallis 1829 xb

John Constable’s 1835 watercolor of Stonehenge also sets the monument in a scene of great natural power. The view is from the South. In the North are dark storm clouds, onto which the sun has cast a double rainbow. At the time of this painting, Constable was grieving for his recently deceased wife. The painting is imbued with sadness; the rainbows are drained of color.

constable Xb

Constable (quoted in Chippindale, 2012, p 105) provided a caption when his painting was first exhibited:

The mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath, as much unconnected with the events of past ages as it is with the uses of the present, carries you back beyond all historical recall into the obscurity of a totally unknown period.

Modernism and Stonehenge

The Romantic approach to Stonehenge does not do justice to its austere beauty. However, Modernism also fails to capture the essence of the site. The following is a 1935 painting by Paul Nash entitled Equivalents for the Megaliths. Large geometric shapes are set down in a stylized English landscape. The painting does not convey the power of Stonehenge or the other megalithic monuments, though it does suggest their incomprehensibility.

nash equivalents xb

John Piper’s ink-and-wash painting from 1981 is more successful. This considers Stonehenge form the point of view of a Romantic Modernist.

piper painting xb

Photographs of Stonehenge

Photographs provide a realistic view of Stonehenge. The following is the first known photograph, a calotype by William Russell Sedgfield in 1853 (copied from Chippindale, p.149). The view is from the west. A carriage stands by the leaning upright of the great trilithon.

sedge002xb

Photographs also provide a record of the reconstruction. The following photograph by John Piper shows the upright resurrected. This photograph was taken before the 1958 reconstruction of the southwestern trilithon (which can be seen in the 2014 photograph at the beginning of this posting).

piper stonehenge xb

piper photograph XB

 

John Piper in another undated photograph in the Tate Britain collection focuses on the surface of one of the stones. In so doing he captures their very tactile impression. Unlike other megaliths, the stones at Stonehenge were dressed using stone axes so that their inner surfaces were smooth. Over the years lichen have painted upon them in an abstract expressionist style.

 

 

 

 

caponigro xb

 

 

Photographs can give a sense of the place as well as providing a simple record. The photograph to the left by Paul Caponigro is entitled Inner Trilithon through Circle Stones, Stonehenge (1970). Caponigro published a large book of photographs of the Neolithic monuments in Britain, Ireland and France in 1986. The outer reaches of Europe contain numerous stone structures dating back to several thousand years BCE (Mohen, 1999)

 

 

 

 

Prints of the Stones

trevelyan xb

 

 

Print-makers have been very successful in capturing the form and feeling of Stonehenge. Perhaps they are more comfortable with stones, since they work closely with them in lithography. Their prints concentrate on how the light plays on the monument. They tend to consider the monument in part rather than in whole. On the right is a 1961 aquatint print by Julian Trevelyan.

 

 

 

Henry Moore made a series of lithographs of Stonehenge in 1973. All are available at the Tate Britain website. Below is Stonehenge IV:

moore SH IV XB

stevens 1974 XB

 

 

On the right is a 1974 intaglio by Norman Stevens. Stonehenge at night has a brooding majesty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nature of Stonehenge

What purpose did Stonehenge serve? Many fanciful explanations have been proposed with little support other than the imagination (Hutton, 2013). Any ideas that the site served as a place for living are completely dispelled by the lack of any archeological evidence for everyday life. The people who built Stonehenge lived nearby but not at the site of the monument. They stayed close to the River Avon in a place called Durrington Walls, where archeologists have found signs of ancient wooden buildings, and the refuse of everyday life (Parker Pearson, 2012). Some of the wooden buildings, such as Woodhenge, were circular. The people then used the techniques of the wooden buildings when constructing Stonehenge.

Why then did they build their great megalithic monument? Was it a place for meetings or a site for religious observances? One would have thought that the objects used in such meetings or rites might have remained, but the site is largely empty of anything unrelated to the stones or to the burials. Was Stonehenge a shrine where the sick went for healing under the benign influence of the stones? The human remains do not show evidence of obvious illness. Was Stonehenge a celestial observatory to help predict the seasons and eclipses (Hawkins & White, 1965)? When one stands at the base of the great trilithon at the summer solstice, one can see the sun rise over the Heel Stone. Although the monument is laid out along the line of the solstices, most archeologists now feel that this was more of gesture to the heavens rather than a way to measure them (Brown, 1976; Ruggles & Hoskin, 1999; Hutton, 2013)

Because of the cremated human remains found in the Aubrey Holes, Parker Pearson (2012) has suggested that the site was built as a monument to the dead, perhaps as a place to honor noble ancestors. He tells an intriguing story of how he was told by Ramilisonina, an archeologist from Madagascar, that people in his country spent their lives in wood structures, but gave their dead stone houses to last them for eternity. Other great stone monuments such as the Egyptian pyramids were certainly built as places for the dead, as were the British barrows and dolmens that predated Stonehenge.

Words

Thomas Hardy set the penultimate scene of his 1891 novel Tess of the d’Urbevilles at Stonehenge. Tess has killed Alec, her seducer and tormentor. Tess and Angel Clare are now fleeing at night across the Salisbury Plain. When they reach Stonehenge, Tess is too tired to go on, and she lies down on one of the recumbent stones. She asks Angel if he believes that they might meet again after they are dead.

Like a greater than himself, to the critical question at the critical time he did not answer; and they were again silent. In a minute or two her breathing became more regular, her clasp of his hand relaxed, and she fell asleep. The band of silver paleness along the east horizon made even the distant parts of the Great Plain appear dark and near; and the whole enormous landscape bore that impress of reserve, taciturnity, and hesitation which is usual just before day. The eastward pillars and their architraves stood up blackly against the light, and the great flame-shaped Sun-stone beyond them; and the Stone of Sacrifice midway. Presently the night wind died out, and the quivering little pools in the cup-like hollows of the stones lay still.

The great stones are silent about what happens after death. They persist through the centuries. They evoke memories of those who built them so that they might, themselves, remember and honor their ancestors. Yet the world has moved on and all those ancient people are no more.

References

Blake, W. (1810, facsimile with annotations by Paley, M. D. 1991). Jerusalem: The emanation of the giant Albion. Princeton, N.J: William Blake Trust/Princeton University Press.

Brown, P. L. (1976). Megaliths, myths, and men: An introduction to astro-archaeology. Poole, Dorset, UK: Blandford Press.

Caponigro, P. (1986). Megaliths. Boston: Little, Brown.

Chippindale, C. (2012). Stonehenge complete. 4th Ed. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Hawkins, G. S., & White, G. B. (1965). Stonehenge decoded. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.

Hill, R. (2008). Stonehenge. London: Profile Books.

Hutton, R. (2013). Pagan Britain. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Johnson, A. (2008). Solving Stonehenge: The new key to an ancient enigma. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Lewis-Williams, J. D., & Pearce, D. G. (2005). Inside the Neolithic mind: Consciousness, cosmos, and the realm of the gods. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mohen, J.-P. (1999). Megaliths: Stones of memory. New York: Abrams.

Parker Pearson, M. & Stonehenge Riverside Project (2012). Stonehenge: Exploring the greatest Stone Age mystery. London: Simon & Schuster

Ruggles, C. & Hoskin, M. (1999) Astronomy before history. In M. Hoskin (Ed.) The Cambridge Concise History of Astronomy. (pp. 1–17). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.




Hammershøi

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has recently acquired a 1905 painting by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), the first by this artist in a Canadian public collection: Interior with Four Etchings:

hammershoi 4 etchings BThe etchings are arranged on the wall above an elegant side-table, upon which stand three pieces of Royal Copenhagen porcelain. The details of the etchings cannot be seen, but the upper two appear to be portraits. Light comes in from the window on the left, giving a subtle violet tinge to the grey walls and emphasizing their white trim. To the left of the table stands Hammershøi’s wife Ida. She faces away from us, and we cannot see what she is doing. Perhaps she has just placed the plate on the table and has turned to look out of the window; perhaps she has taken something to the window to look at. The sunlight on her neck is vaguely erotic. Everything is balanced: the shadows share the space with the light; the blue-white porcelain complements the red-brown frames; the human figure suggests movement in a room that is otherwise completely still.

To celebrate this acquisition, the gallery is exhibiting this picture alongside 25 other Hammershøi paintings, all except one coming from the National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst). The exhibition runs from April 16 to June 26, 2016. This is one of the most impressive exhibitions I have seen in recent years. I apologize that my enthusiasm has led to another long post. However, it contains more to see than to read.

Hammershøi is quite different from other painters. His palette is austere. The main colors are, gray and white and black. On one of the walls in the AGO exhibition is a commemorative poem by Sophus Clausen written in 1916. The poem, at least in the English translation, is unremarkable except for occasional lines:

How sweet to know that blacks and greys
Give shelter to the light and let it stay

Gray is not grey nor is black ever black.

The greys in a Hammershøi painting are subtly tinged, often with violet, sometimes with yellow, occasionally with pink or green. On the predominantly grey background, objects are delineated in subdued browns. The most striking characteristic of the paintings is the way that they represent light. Light seems almost to move through the painted surfaces, filling out the space, defining what is present, bringing people into existence, and leaving without a sound.

The restricted palate of Hammershøi’s paintings lead his friend Karl Madsen, an artist and historian, to suggest that he was Denmark’s first “neurasthenic painter” (quoted in Vad, 1992, p. 73). The diagnosis of neurasthenia was popular at the time (Harris 2013). Its various symptoms, both physical (fatigue, dizziness) and mental (anxiety, melancholy), were attributed to a weak nervous system, unable to cope with the stress of modern urban life. The diagnosis is out of fashion nowadays, though similar symptoms occur in modern disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome and dysautonomia. Although Hammershøi was quiet and withdrawn, he was far too productive to be considered neurasthenic. Nevertheless, his paintings have a tranquility that can provide respite from the hubbub of city life. They might represent a cure for rather than a result of neurasthenia.

In this posting, the paintings in the exhibition have been photographed within their frames; other paintings by Hammershøi and paintings by other artists are shown without frames.

Early Life

hammershoi drawing B

Hammershøi was the son of a prosperous Danish businessman. He displayed an early talent for drawing, and his family arranged for him to have lessons from the painter Niels Christian Kierkegard, a cousin of Søren Kierkegaard. The drawing on the right (Vad, 1992, p 11), from when Vilhelm was 11 years old, illustrates his early appreciation of light and shadow.

He continued his studies both at the Royal Danish Academy of Art and in the Free Study Schools. One of his teachers, P. S. Krøyer remarked that

I have a pupil who paints most oddly. I do not understand him, but believe he is going to be important and do not try to influence him. (quoted in Vad, 1992, p 24)

hammershoi anna B

 

His 1885 Portrait of a Young Girl (his sister Anna) was entered into competition for a prize at the Academy. Though it did not win, it was acclaimed by his fellow students, who protested the judges’ decision. It is a remarkable painting: the face and posture are sensitively portrayed; the muted palette of the background gently situates the figure; the hands suggest both rest and tension. Anna’s left hand steadies the image and allows the picture’s transition from three to two dimensions.

 

hammershoi old stove B

In the autumn of 1888, Hammershøi stayed with his friend Karl Madsen, who lived in an old house just north of Copenhagen. There he painted his first “interior” – a picture of an old stove with an open doorway leading into a brightly sunlit room. The light seems almost personified – it enters the other room, comes through the door, pauses on the floor and casts a shadow toward the stove. The painting makes the viewer long to go into the next room to see whence the light comes from. This type of painting was to become Hammershøi’s signature style. Though an accomplished painter of portraits and of architecture, Hammershøi is most famous for pictures showing the effects of light on lonely rooms.

In 1888, the dentist, writer and art-collector, Alfred Bramsen, bought his first painting by Hammershøi. Over the next quarter century, he was an unflagging promoter of Hammershøi’s work. After Hammershøi’s death in 1916, Bramsen arranged for the first catalogue of the paintings. Artist and patron were totally unlike: one introverted, reticent and solitary, the other gregarious, confident and worldly-wise.

With this patronage, Hammershøi became self-sufficient, and in 1891 he married Ida Ilsted, the sister of a fellow artist, Peter Ilsted. Following the wedding, Vilhelm and Ida went to Paris for six months. They then returned to Copenhagen, living for a while in the Hammershøi home together with Vilhelm’s mother.

Over the next few years, Hammershøi painted landscapes, portraits and architecture. In 1897 Bramsen commissioned a painting of Kronborg castle in Helsingør (Hamlet’s Elsinore). Hammershøi produced a masterpiece in terms of its striking perspective and subtle color.

hammershoi kronberg B

Strandgade 30

In December 1898, Hammershøi rented an apartment on the second floor of an old building on Strandgade in the old dockyard district of Copenhagen called Christianshavn. The building had been constructed in 1636. Hammershøi was likely pleased that his home originated in the time of Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch. The apartment was spacious and endowed with windows facing in all directions. As well as a home, it served as both studio space and subject matter for his art.

The building still exists. The following figures show its location on a google world-map, as well as a recent photograph (from Wikipedia) and the floor plan of the apartment (from Vad, 1992, p 187, with several revisions based on another published plan: the position of the window in room F corrected, the door between B and F doubled, and room D divided).

strandgade google

strandgade 30 plan and photo final

hammershoi strandgade sunlight

In his new apartment, Hammershøi began to paint the interior pictures that became his most recognizable images. Many of the pictures were painted in Room F facing the window and door. In some the room is empty; others include a portrait of Ida sitting or standing to the left of the window. Interior in Strandgade, Sunlight on the Floor 1901 (in the AGO exhibit and illustrated on the right) shows Ida working at some task at a table. The painting is both realistic and impressionistic. The old house had shifted slightly over the years, and the painting shows clearly that the door is slightly askew. Yet it is impossible to tell the subject of the etchings or the focus of Ida’s concentration.

This view painted with the room empty is the subject of some of Hammershøi’s most famous pictures, such as Dust Motes Dancing in the Sunbeams (1900, Ordrupgaard, Denamark) and Moonlight, Strandgade 30 (1906, Metropolitan Museum)

hammershoi sunlight and moonlight B

hammershoi interior with piano B

 

The AGO painting Interior with 4 Etchings (1905) was painted in Room A. Over the years the arrangement of the furniture changed. An earlier painting Interior with Piano, Strandgade 30 (1901), illustrated on the right, shows the same view but with a piano and a bookcase rather than a table. Hammershøi tended to simplify his pictures as he grew older. His later paintings show less detail and a more restricted palette.

 

hammershoi easel and bowlInterior with the Artist’s Easel (1910) was painted in Room B looking toward Room A. It is a variation on a theme long used painting: the artist at his easel. Yet here there is no artist other than the light coming in the window. Since we can only see the painting from its back, we have no idea of its subject. The true subject of the actual painting is the bowl on the table in the far room. The shape of the bowl and the reflections of the light upon its curves are rendered exquisitely. If this were a photograph rather than a painting, the bowl would be in focus, and the easel in the blurred foreground.   

Hammershøi’s new apartment was directly across from a striking building that housed the offices of the Asiatic Company. This was the subject of several large architectural paintings. The 1902 version in the AGO exhibition shows the offices in fog. The buildings are visible but the dockyard behind them, accessed through the arch, is obscure. Masts of ships are faintly visible in the harbor-fog. Other versions of this painting show the buildings without the fog.

hammershoi asiatic company XB

Sources

Hammershøi is often considered as isolated from the history of painting, as someone whose work was without either precedent or following. Yet all persons are part of the past they learn about, and all are made by the present that they experience. And everyone affects the future.

Hammershøi’s paintings ultimately derive from the great paintings of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th Century, when Vermeer and de Hooch depicted the effects of light coming through windows onto people. Hammershøi’s paintings study the way light plays on domestic interiors, but the interiors are minimal rather than extravagant, the light is cool rather than warm, and the people are either absent or unobtrusive.

In the late 19th Century, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) had begun to work with a restricted palette. His most famous painting is entitled Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871). In Hammershøi’s 1886 portrait of his own mother the color is even more subdued and the background even less detailed.

hammershoi and whistler

Many of Hammershøi’s interiors include a representation of Ida viewed from the back. This motif derives from the Rückenfigur (“figure viewed from the back”) used in German Romantic painting, most characteristically by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840). Most of Friedrich’s Rückenfiguren are in landscapes, but occasionally they are in domestic interiors. The following illustration compares Friedrich’s Woman at a Window (1822) with Hammershøi’s The Tall Windows (1913). The latter was painted after Hammershøi had moved across the street to Strandgade 25.

friedrich and hammershoi b

The Rückenfigur can be used for various purposes (Koerner, 1990, pp 233-244; Prettejohn, 2005, pp 54-59). One is to provide a foil for the viewer to enjoy the same perceptions as the artist who painted the picture. The Rückenfigur

is not just a represented object in the picture, but also the embodied subject of the aesthetic experience of the picture – we look with, rather than merely at the Rückenfigur. (Prettejohn, 2005, p 56).

In some sense the Rückenfigur obscures what the painting is about. We see the man rather than the sunset. We feel that we have come late – the glories of the sunset have already been seen and we can only imagine what the experience was like (Koerner, p. 233).

The presence of Ida in Hammershøi’s paintings differs from Friedrich’s Rückenfigur.  Most importantly, Ida usually stands or sits on the edge of the painting rather than in the center. She complements rather than obscures the picture’s subject. She gives the image a sense of intimacy: we are sharing her domestic space. We get a sense of her existence: the small tasks that make up the domestic day. She gives a human ground to what we see and prevents it from becoming too abstract.

hammershoi interior with woman standing

Sometimes, as in the Interior with a Woman Standing, Strandgade 30 (1905) painted in Room A looking into Room D, the viewer feels uncertain. By which door has she come in? Which door is she about to go out? The woman seems “caught in the moment of deciding which door to pass through” (Alsdorf, 2016, p. 271). Although this uncertainty derives simply from the static nature of the representation, it resonates with our inability to know what is in the mind of another person.

 

This particular problem fascinated the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). In a recent article, Bridget Alsdorf (2016) considers Hammershøi’s interior paintings in relation to Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or (1843). The title of the book highlights the idea of uncertainty. In the section of the book entitled Shadowgraphs. Kierkegaard wrote about the difficulty in representing in art the inner state of another person, especially the state of “reflective sorrow.” Kierkegaard’s idea is that art can only represent such a state of mind indirectly. He likens the process to a “shadowgraph:”

It is this reflective sorrow I now propose to draw out and render visible, so far as that is possible, in some pictures. I call them ‘shadowgraphs’, partly to remind the reader by the very designation that I am summoning them from the dark side of life, partly because, just like shadowgraphs, they are not visible straightaway. If I take a shadowgraph in my hand, I gain no impression from it, can form no real idea of it; it is only when I hold it up to the wall and look not at the immediate image but at what appears on the wall, it is only then that I see it. Similarly the picture I want to show here is an inner picture which can also only be detected by looking through the exterior. There may be nothing striking about the exterior, it is only when I look through it that I discover the inner picture, which is what I want to show, an inner picture too refined to be visible on the outside, woven as it is of the softest moods of the soul. If I look at a sheet of paper, to outward observation there may be nothing remarkable about it; it is only when I hold it up to the light of day and see through it that I discover the delicate inner picture which is as though too insubstantial to be seen immediately. (p. 130)

Unfortunately, Kierkegaard is quite unclear about the nature of a shadowgraph. On the one hand it might be like a transparency or silhouette through which light is projected to give an image on another surface; on the other hand it might be like a watermark seen when paper is held up to the light. In either interpretation, the image is not immediately apparent but only occurs when light is passed through the artistic representation. Kierkegaard’s metaphor is as ambiguous as the title of his book.

Kierkegaard then goes on to consider the state of reflective sorrow in three characters from literature. His bravura descriptions of their invisible state of mind either subvert his claim that such states cannot be represented in art or clearly demonstrate the process of the sympathetic shadowgraph.

Alsdorf also considers what Hammershøi might be trying to represent in his interiors by relating them to another section of Either/Or entitled The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage. In this section, Kierkegaard’s character Judge William compares romantic love with married love: the one an ever-changing erotic quest, the other an unchanging relationship. Hammershøi interiors certainly suggest the timeless intimacy of the latter.

Hammershøi’s images have a mystical aura to them. They are delicately balanced between serenity and disquiet. Perhaps a little like meditation when one begins to feel an underlying eternity but still senses the sorrows of the real world.

Many critics have remarked about the lack of narrative in Hammershøi’s paintings. When the rooms are empty, we cannot know what has happened in them; when the rooms contain a solitary person, we have difficulty seeing what she is doing and we cannot know what she is thinking.

Yet there is an emotional force in the paintings that no amount of exegesis can attenuate. The emotions are like those aroused by music. Hammershøi appreciated music, and counted the English concert pianist Leonard Borwick among his friends. We do not fault music for lack of narrative or the absence of simple interpretation. Hammershøi’s paintings fit very well with quiet music. Try them with the beginning of the Allegretto from Grieg’s 1887 Violin Sonata Opus 45 (Ingolf Turban and Jean-Jacques Dünki):

 

Portraits

hammershoi ida and teacup

Hammershøi was an accomplished and sensitive portraitist. The 1907 portrait of Ida with a teacup illustrates clearly the intimacy of their relationship. She stares off into space. We cannot know what she is thinking; perhaps even she does not know. The initial impression is of sadness although another version of the same portrait perhaps shows the hint of a smile. The portrait is very affecting. There is something timeless and classical about its serenity, but it is also quite momentary and individual. We can almost hear the clink of the spoon as she stirs her tea.

hammershoi willumsen

The 1901 portrait at the left is of J. F. Willumsen, a friend and fellow-artist. The strength of the gaze is clearly represented, but the portrait is otherwise unremarkable. However, this picture was a study for Hammershøi’s largest painting entitled Five Portraits, completed in 1902 and presently in the Thiel Gallery near Stockholm. This fascinating painting shows four colleagues seated around a table at night in front of the windows in Room A. Karl Madsen is on Willumsen’s right. In front of the table, Hammershøi’s brother Svend is seen in profile. The two colleagues on the edges of the painting are the architect Thorvald Bindesbøll and the painter Carl Holsøe. The latter has his feet up on a chair, and his shoes give the painting a striking three-dimensional tension. The group appears to be gathered for after-dinner drinks, following a late but not last supper. The painting’s darkness contrasts with the lightness of most of Hammershøi’s interiors (and makes it difficult to obtain a good representation – I have done my best):

hammershoi 5 portraits

The most striking aspect of this group portrait is that no one interacts with anyone else. Each person seems completely engrossed in his own thoughts. Monrad (2012, p. 29) quotes a review of the painting’s first exhibition:

The situation is more or less this; there has been profound talk about something or other that has moved everyone deeply, and they are now waiting for a conclusive word from a sixth party.

The sixth party could be the painter. This interpretation is possible, but Monrad discounts it as not in keeping with Hammershøi’s general lack of narrative.

Robert Rosenblum (in Fonsmark et al., 1998, p. 45) remarked:

The effect is like standing before a tribunal, which comes into fixed, focal focus with the hypnotic stare of Willumsen.

It is unsettling to be judged by a painting.

Despite its starkness, I find the picture comforting. Each person exists within his own intense solitude. Yet, as in the daylight pictures, the play of light on the faces and the table serves to bring them all together.

After Hammershoi

Hammershøi died of cancer in 1916. Bramsen donated his collection to the Statens Museum for Kunst in 1917. But fashions change, and in 1930 the paintings were returned to the donor. Hammershøi came to be considered only a minor artist in Denmark; in the rest of the world he was almost completely unknown. His reputation only began to change in the early 1980s when a retrospective exhibition of his paintings was mounted at Ordrupgaard, a gallery just north of Copenhagen, and other exhibitions were held in North America.

Hammershøi had little direct effect on subsequent artists. His friends Carl Holsøe and Peter Ilsted continued to paint interiors, though their pictures were more detailed and less affecting than those of Hammershøi. In France, Pierre Bonnard and Eduard Vuilliard painted domestic scenes. One might even consider the possibility of an artistic movement called “intimism’ (Hvidt, in Monrad et al., 2012, pp. 197-218). Yet their paintings lacked Hammershøi’s simplicity of color and the underlying mysticism.

The American Edward Hopper (1882-1967) painted pictures that are imbued with a similar mood to those of Hammershøi. They depict the same lonely silence, the same play of light on simple interiors, and the same existential anxiety (Rosenblum in Fonsmark et al., 1998, p. 42). Yet Hopper was likely unaware of Hammershøi’s work. Their relationship is an affinity rather than a direct connection. The following illustration compares Hammershøi’s Ida in an Interior with Piano (1901) with Hopper’s City Sunlight (1954).

hammershoi hopper

To me the glowing color spaces of Hammershøi’s paintings presage the completely abstract paintings of Mark Rothko. Rosenblum (1975) has suggested that a tradition in art that is particularly “northern,” one that sees light as cool rather than warm, one that tends towards abstractions, one that goes from Friedrich to Rothko. Rosenblum does not mention Hammershøi in his book, but we could easily place him along this path.

The Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) was profoundly affected by Hammershøi’s images (Balló et al. 2006). The closing scene of his 1ast movie Gertrud (1968; Schamus, 2008) ends on an image that could easily be a Hammershøi painting. The movie, based on a 1906 play by the Swedish writer Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941), concerns the passionate life of a woman who sought the freedom to love whomever she wished to love. At the end of the movie, the elderly Gertrud, living as a recluse, is visited by her old friend Axel Nygren. She returns his letters; he burns them: they say goodbye. The final minute can perhaps serve as our farewell to Hammershøi

 

References

Alsdorf, B. (2016) Hammershøi’s Either/Or. Critical Inquiry, 42, 268-305.

Balló, J., Fonsmark, A.-B., Hvidt, A. R., & Tybjerg, C. (2006). Hammershøi > Dreyer. The Magic of Images. Copenhagen: Ordrupgaard.

Dreyer, C. T. (2001). Gertrud. Criterion Collection (DVD)

Fonsmark, A.-B., Wivel, M., Loyrette, H., & Rosenblum, R. (1998). Vilhelm Hammershøi, 1864-1916: Danish painter of solitude and light. Copenhagen: Ordrupgaard.

Harris, J. C. (2013). Interior with piano and woman in black (Strandgade 30) Vilhelm Hammershøi. JAMA Psychiatry, 70, 774-775.

Kierkegaard, S. (1843, translated Hannay, A., 1992). Either/or: A fragment of life. London, England: Penguin Books.

Koerner, J. L. (1990). Caspar David Friedrich and the subject of landscape. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Monrad, K. (2012). Hammershøi and Europe. New York: Prestel.

Prettejohn, E. (2005). Beauty and art, 1750-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rosenblum, R. (1975). Modern painting and the northern romantic tradition: Friedrich to Rothko. New York: Harper & Row.

Schamus, J. (2008). Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Gertrud: The moving word. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Vad, P. (1992). Vilhelm Hammershøi and Danish art at the turn of the century. New Haven: Yale University Press.




Progress

Loss of Paradise

The ancients did not believe in progress (Bury, 1932; Pollard, 1968; Meek Lange, 2011). They had two main ideas of how the world changes over time. One was that an initial state of peace and plenty – the Garden of Eden of Genesis, the Golden Age of Hesiod, or the Arcadia of Virgil – had degenerated over time to our present world of strife and suffering.

The decline from our golden beginnings to the present age of iron might have been simply caused by the passage of time, but more often than not it was attributed to human foolishness. The Jews told the story of original sin and the Greeks recounted the myth of Pandora’s box.

Lucas Cranach (1530) portrayed the Golden Age as a time when we could dance without fear of the lion and eat of the tree of knowledge without concern for the consequences. The word “paradise” means an area enclosed by a wall. Suffering and death remained outside the wall.

cranach golden age xb

Our forefathers’ second concept was that nothing ever really changes. The world may go through cycles of improvement and deterioration, but in the end everything stays about the same. The world is not perfect and never will be. The Jewish preacher Ecclesiastes (3rd Century BCE, 1:9, KJV) claimed that all is vanity:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (180 CE, Meditations X:I, Staniforth translation) proposed that the soul

… can encompass the whole universe at will, both its own structure and the void surrounding it, and can reach out into eternity, embracing and comprehending the great cyclic renewals of creation, and thereby perceiving that future generations will have nothing new to witness, even as our forefathers beheld nothing more than we of today.

These two ideas of history were often combined. Our original paradise cannot be regained. The beings that began in Eden now find themselves condemned forever to brief lives characterized more by suffering than by happiness, and leading inexorably to death.

Eastern religions adopted a similar view. They conceived of human life as a continual reincarnation into a world of suffering. The only escape was from the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth (samsara) was to remove oneself from the changing world (maya) by abdicating all desire and dedicating oneself to wisdom and charity.

City of God

Into the gloom that pervaded much of our ancient wisdom came the idea of salvation. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ would allow the believer to escape to Heaven at the end of life. Failure to believe, however, would lead to Hell. In the 5th Century CE, Saint Augustine proposed that human beings can choose either to belong to the City of God or to remain in the Earthly City, the one founded by Cain (City of God, XV:1). People of the City of God progress “from earthly to heavenly things, and from the invisible to the invisible” (X:14).

bernini augustine xb

The illustration at the right shows a terra cotta maquette from the Hermitage, a model for Bernini’s 1650 statue of Augustine in St Peter’s Cathedral. Bernini’s sculpture was meant to seen from many different perspectives. So perhaps we are not amiss in interpreting Augustine’s work in ways not intended by the saint.

The idea of Christian salvation, like the benefits of many other religions, is basically mean-spirited and divisive. An elect will go to heaven; all others will not. Membership in the elite is not awarded on the basis of achievement but gifted by the grace of God. Indeed, Augustine believed that since God is omniscient, membership in the elect is pre-ordained.

Great Chain of Being

Augustine’s thinking was embedded in the notion of a Great Chain of Being (Lovejoy, 1936) that he derived from Greek philosophers, most notably from the Neoplatonist Plotinus. God created the world. Within this world everything was arranged hierarchically from inanimate matter at the bottom through plants, animals, man, and angels, to God at the top. This concept was extensively worked out in medieval Scholasticism, but persisted long after, as evidenced by Alexander Pope’s lines in his Essay on Man (1734, Epistle I:VIII):

Vast chain of being, which from God began,
Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,
Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see,
No glass can reach! from infinite to thee,
From thee to nothing!

The hierarchy also characterized human society with the anointed King placed at the top, the lords and clergy below and the peasants at the very bottom. Society was not supposed to change: one knew one’s place, and did not move between the levels.

Enlightenment

All this began to change with the emergence in the Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries of a new way of thinking that questioned the authority of the past. The very idea that we may not have understood the world correctly in the past implied that we might understand it better in the future.

This way of thinking led to the Enlightenment of the 18th Century. The new sciences had shown that we could understand more and more about the workings of the world, derive laws to predict what might happen, and harness energy to change the world which controlled us. Lives were becoming better.

turgot xb

The Enlightenment gave birth to our modern idea of progress. In 1750 Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de l’Aulne (1727-1781) published an essay entitled A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind. He agreed with the ancients that

All things perish, and all things spring up again; and in these successive acts of generation through which plants and animals reproduce themselves time does no more than restore continually the counterpart of what it has caused to disappear.

This sounds much like Marcus Aurelius. However, Turgot also noted that human beings were different from the rest of the world, since they can accumulate and communicate knowledge:

The succession of mankind, on the other hand, affords from age to age an ever-changing spectacle. Reason, the passions, and liberty ceaselessly give rise to new events …. The arbitrary signs of speech and writing, by providing men with the means of securing the possession of their ideas and communicating them to others, have made of all the individual stores of knowledge a common treasure-house which one generation transmits to another, an inheritance which is always being enlarged by the discoveries of each age.

This allows the idea of progress, whereby

… the whole human race, through alternate periods of rest and unrest, of weal and woe, goes on advancing, although at a slow pace, towards greater perfection (all quotations from Turgot, 1750, p. 41).

Turgot became most famous for his work on economics, his Reflections on the Formation and Distribution of Wealth being one of the foundational works of economic liberalism. Nevertheless, it is to him in particular and to the Enlightenment in general that we must trace the origin of our idea of progress (Younkins, 2006; Meek Lange, 2011). The statue of Turgot by Pierre Travaux (1853) illustrated above was appropriately photographed in the bright sunlight. Turgot was one of the giants of the Enlightenment.

Science advanced rapidly the 18th and 19th Centuries and by the beginning of the 20th Century it appeared that everything was within our reach. The study of thermodynamics had led to steam engines and automobiles, the study of electricity had given us artificial lighting and telephones, and the study of medicine had resulted in anesthetics and vaccines.

Society had become more humane. To some extent a belief in progress replaced our earlier belief in salvation.

Humanism is not science, but religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a world better than any in which they have so far lived … Christians understood history as a story of sin and redemption. Humanism is the transformation of this Christian doctrine of salvation into a project of universal human emancipation. The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christin belief in providence. (Gray, 2003. xiii)

No one was more enthusiastic in their belief in Progress than the people of the United States. They considered it their manifest destiny to replace the simple life of the Native Americans with the railways and industry of European civilization. The 1853 painting of Progress by Asher Brown Durand of the Hudson Valley School portrayed the changing American landscape. On the left are the Native Americans and on the right the New Americans. The unspoiled wilderness gives way to the glorious future. Both are suffused in sunshine: nostalgia for paradise is balanced by hope of heaven.

durand progress xb

March of Progress

The Theory of Evolution inverted the Great Chain of Being. God did not create the world and all that is within it. Rather, the world evolved from inanimate to animate and from simple to complex. Man descended from earlier humanoid species, that themselves had descended from monkeys. The universe developed from bottom up rather than from top down.

Religion generally rejected this world view. However some religious philosophers tried to combine evolution with divine purpose. Man was perhaps evolving toward a perfect being, an Omega Point where everything would be understood, time would cease, and God and man become one. (Teilhard de Chardin, 1959).

The evolution of man was often portrayed as a March of Progress. The most famous of these illustrations was by Rudolph Zaillinger for the Time-Life book on Early Man (Howell, 1965):

march of progress xb

The idea of the March of Progress was conceived in much the same way as the Great Chain of Being, although the sequence was temporal rather than heirarchic. Yet it remained a chain, and we often engage in a futile search for missing links.

Zaillinger’s picture suggests a linear sequence, with each humanoid species evolving into the next. This is completely wrong. Evolution has multiple branches, with most of the branches ending with extinction. Evolutionary progress is better illustrated by a bush than by a ladder (Gould, 1989). Furthermore, the evolution of man appears to have depended much more on chance contingencies than on an inevitable path. This does not make progress directionless, but does underline its precariousness.

Brave New World

As the Enlightenment progressed, the Common Man began refused to stay subservient. The Divine Right of Kings no longer held; revolutions occurred; democracy began to flourish. In the 20th Century governments began to grant Universal Suffrage.

However, we may have become too confident. Butterfield (1931) pointed out the human tendency to conceive of past history as necessarily progressing to the perfection of the present. Our present happiness simply confirms that our past policies were correct. The Great War shook this simple faith. Where could one place such terrible carnage in any concept of progress?

The tendency to see the present as the best of all possible worlds persists. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama announced the End of History (1989). Fascism had been defeated; communism had failed; democracy had triumphed:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

All that was then needed was to export democracy to the rest of the world. Today we live with the violent results of this idea. The world and human society are far more complex than they appear. Progress may be both desirable and possible, but it will require more foresight than we have shown so far.

Angelus Novus

Not everyone subscribed to the idea that progress is beneficial. The first half of the 20th Century undermined everyone’s faith. The rise of fascism in Europe, the war that it unleashed, the horror of the Holocaust, and the use of nuclear weapons were strong lines of evidence that history was descending into evil rather than progressing toward good.

klee new angel xb

Walter Benjamin gave terrifying poetic voice to this possibility by evoking a 1920 painting of Paul Klee:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Benjamin 1941, 257–8)

Benjamin’s warnings were disregarded in the years of peace and prosperity that followed World War II. In recent years, however, the idea that progress can be evil has been reconsidered:

To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive. (Gray, 2003, p. 4)

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. (Gray, 2003, p. 14)

It is not hard to find historical examples of progress leading to problems (Wright, 2006). For example, the invention of flint arrows facilitated hunting but may have also led to the extinction of the very game that early man was pursuing. In addition, arrows provided yet another way for human beings to murder each other. Wright considers this early weaponry an example of a “progress trap” something that initially improves our lives but ultimately makes them worse.

Many of the problems brought on by progress are linked to human failings, particularly to selfishness. Wright considers the discovery of agriculture in this light:

The invention of agriculture is itself a runaway train, leading to vastly expanded populations but seldom solving the food problem because of two inevitable (or nearly inevitable) consequences. The first is biological: the population grows until it hits the bounds of the food supply. The second is social: all civilizations become hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensure that there will never be enough to go around. (Wright, 2006, p. 108).

Modern democracies base their economies on capitalism. As well as being inherently unfair, capitalism cannot survive without continually increasing consumption. This has led to our current ills of pollution and climate-change:

Capitalism lures us on like the mechanical hare before the greyhounds, insisting that the economy is infinite and sharing therefore irrelevant. Just enough greyhounds catch a real hare now and then to keep the others running till they drop. In the past it was only the poor who lost this game; now it is the planet. (Wright, 2006, p. 124).

Nevertheless

Though we must properly consider the problems that we face, we must not lose sight of the fact that we are getting better even if the pace is slow and variable. Despite the tremendous loss of life in the two world wars of the 20th Century, we are less murderous now than in the past (Pinker, 2011, 2015). Though governments are far from perfect, the people of the present world have more rights now than in the days of kings. And even if science can lead to such terrible things as nuclear war, it has also provided us with the benefits of modern agriculture, transportation, communication and medicine.

We are right to be careful. Yet we should not do away with progress and retreat to the past. The paradise that we think we remember is not real. The future dystopias we imagine are warnings not necessary predictions.

Temple of Longing

To balance Benjamin’s vision of the angel we might conclude with another of Paul Klee’s paintings, Mural from the Temple of Longing (1922). The colors of the painting come from the desert. The surface is weathered as if by wind and sand. The shapes likely represent a mountain village in North Africa. Klee had been irrevocably changed by a brief sojourn in Tunis in the summer of 1914, and themes from that visit recur in many of his paintings. The blues of the picture suggest twilight, and the circular and semicircular shapes in the upper part of the picture may hint at a moon both full and waxing.

klee longing xb

The various vertical constructions terminate in arrows which move away from us, upward and deeper into the space of the picture. Arrows occur many times in Klee’s paintings and mean many things: the passage of time, the movement of things, and the force of desire. Here they may represent thoughts or questions:

The father of the arrow is the thought: how do I expand my reach? Over this river? This lake? That mountain? (Klee, 1925, p. 54)

A faith in progress is necessary. We should not simply accept our present state. We should long for a better world. However, we should always question how we should change the present to the future. And we should proceed with caution.

References

Benjamin, W., (1940, translated by H. Zohn, 1969). Theses on the philosophy of history. In

Illuminations. (pp. 253–264). New York: Schocken.

Bury, J. B. (1932). The idea of progress: An inquiry into its origin and growth. New York: Macmillan. Available at Internet Archive

Butterfield, H. (1931). The Whig interpretation of history. London: G. Bell and Sons.

Fukuyama, F. (1989). The End of History? The National Interest, Summer: 3–18.

Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, New York: W.W. Norton.

Gray, J. (2003). Straw dogs: Thoughts on humans and other animals. London: Granta.

Howell, F. C. (1965). Early Man, New York: TIME-LIFE Books, (pp. 41–45).

Klee, P. (1925, translated Moholy-Nagy, S., 1953). Pedagogical sketchbook. London: Faber. (p. 54)

Lovejoy, A. O. (1936). The great chain of being: A study of the history of an idea. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Meek Lange, M. (2011). Progress. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

Pinker, S. (September 11, 2015). Now for the good news: things really are getting better. The Guardian.

Pollard, S. (1968, reprinted 1971). The idea of progress: History and society. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books.

Teilhard de Chardin, P. (translated by Wall, B., 1959). The phenomenon of man. London: Collins

Turgot, A.-R.-J., (1750, translated by Meek, R. L., 1973). A philosophical review of the successive advances of the human mind. In Turgot on progress, sociology and economics. Cambridge, UK: University Press. Much of this is available on Google Books

Wright, R. (2006). An illustrated short history of progress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.

Younkins, E. W. (2006). Turgot on progress and political economy. Le Québécois Libre. 186. Available on webpage

 




Kitsch

The term “kitsch” came into being in Germany toward the end of the nineteenth century (Dorfles, 1969; Calinescu, 1987; Riout, 2004). The etiology of the word is unknown. One possible source is the verb kitschen meaning “to collect rubbish” (Rugg, 2002); another is verkitschen, “to make cheaply” (Dutton, 1998). Words used to describe kitsch – “tacky,” “tawdry,” “garish,” “chintzy,” “schmaltzy” and “cheesy” – suggest cheapness, ostentation, triteness and sentimentality. Garden gnomes are a classic example.

garden gnomes

Kitsch is bad art. However, the judgment of whether something is kitsch or not is highly subjective. Everyone has a personal idea of what is beautiful. In the words of David Hume

Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others. (Hume, 1757, section 7).

Nevertheless, Hume goes on to state that most people would agree to some general principles of beauty:

It appears then, that, amidst all the variety and caprice of taste, there are certain general principles of approbation or blame, whose influence a careful eye may trace in all operations of the mind. Some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please, and others to displease (section 12).

Experience and education allow one to understand and apply these principles. Thus we develop good taste. Kitsch is the art of bad taste.

The Rise of Kitsch

Kitsch is a phenomenon of the modern age. There has always been bad art, but this never became popular or widespread. In the past, bad art did not sell. Much of kitsch’s success in modern times derives from a commercial system that encourages its production and consumption. Kitsch is the art of the consumer society.

A major factor leading to kitsch was thus the rise of the bourgeoisie (Moles, 1971; Calinescu, 1987). In the nineteenth century the middle class expanded greatly. The upper middle class wanted to buy things of beauty, but they had not the education to do so with good taste. The lower middle class became able to purchase things beyond the bare necessities, but they were unable to pay for original art and settled for imitations. Industry quickly provided these and consumer kitsch was born.

The industrial revolution gave workers leisure time. So as not to be bored during this free time, people sought activities that were pleasing without requiring effort: entertainment rather than true art. Pleasurable relaxation was the goal of most of society; kitsch was the easiest means to this end. Abraham Moles (1971) considered kitsch to be l’art de bonheur the “art of happiness.”

One might therefore consider kitsch as the art of the people. The following is from Abraham Moles (1971, p. 28, the French is elegant and my translation necessarily inexact:

Le Kitsch est à ce titre essentiellement démocratique : il est l’art acceptable, ce qui ne choque pas notre esprit par une transcendence hors de la vie quotidienne, par un effort qui nous dépasse – surtout s’il doit nous faire dépasser nous-même. Le Kitsch est à la mesure de l’homme, quand l’art en est la démesure, le Kitsch dilue l’originalité à un degré suffisant pour la faire accepter par tous. [Kitsch is in this way essentially democratic: it is acceptable art, art which does not shock us to transcend everyday life, or require any extraordinary effort – especially any surpassing of our present selves. Kitsch stays within our easy reach, whereas art exceeds our grasp; kitsch dilutes originality enough to make it accessible to all.]

However, we cannot lay all the blame on the middle class. Aristocrats have often succumbed to ostentatious displays of wealth that would be generally considered kitsch. The “rich kitsch” of fake ruins and ceiling putti is every bit as bad as the poor kitsch of garden gnomes and fuzzy dice. Furthermore, the merchant class has sometimes displayed excellent taste. Patrons of fine art have come from wealthy members of the middle class as much as from the aristocracy.

Dwight Macdonald considered kitsch as essentially the same as the “mass culture” used to exploit the masses. He distinguished it from folk art which is created spontaneously by the people, and from high culture which is created for the elite:

Mass Culture is imposed from above. It is fabricated by technicians hired by businessmen; its audiences are passive consumers, their participation limited to the choice between buying and not buying. The Lords of kitsch, in short, exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class rule – in Communist countries, only the second purpose obtains. (Macdonald, 1953, p. 2-3)

Macdonald painted a pessimistic picture of our artistic future:

The Lords of kitsch sell culture to the masses. It is a debased, trivial culture that voids both the deep realities (sex, death, failure, tragedy) and also the simple, spontaneous pleasures, since the realities would be too real and the pleasures too lively to induce what Mr. Seldes calls ‘the mood of consent’: i.e., a narcotised acceptance of Mass Culture and of the commodities it sells as a substitute for the unsettling and unpredictable (hence unsalable) joy, tragedy, wit, change, originality and beauty of real life. The masses, debauched by several generations of this sort of thing, in turn come to demand trivial and comfortable cultural products. (Macdonald, 1953, p. 16, the reference to Seldes is to his 1950 book The Great Audience.)

However, I am not sure that we can always fault the taste of the masses. Popular culture can promote kitsch, but it can also make significant artistic contributions. Shakespeare was notoriously beloved of the masses. Furthermore, he gave the penny public what it wanted.

Macdonald considered as kitsch everything produced by the entertainment industry – radio, television, movies, and comics. Much is but not all. Some works in these modern art forms are both beautiful and significant.

Reproduction

A second factor in the development of kitsch was the development of techniques for reproduction. Multiple copies of an image could be cheaply produced and widely marketed (Benjamin, 1936; Dorfles, 1969; Moles, 1971). Reproductions lack the aura (and the value) of the originals. And when used for purposes other than those of the artist, they might be considered kitsch: Renoir images on biscuit tins, Pollock paintings on silken scarves, Rodin sculptures as bookends.

And yet, and yet. Art has always been reproduced. Engravings of pictures and casts of statues allowed the dissemination of artistic creations. How else can art history be taught or learned? Reproduction is not wrong. It is not forgery. However, reproductions may sometimes be disconcertingly different from the original. The deceptive quality of kitsch may lie “in its claim to supply its consumers with essentially the same kinds of beauty as those embodied in unique or rare and inaccessible originals” (Calinescu, 1987, p 252). Yet one can also say this about original artwork, which is an artist’s reproduction of an experience, not the experience itself.

Most would agree that plastic replicas of the Eifel Tower are kitsch. They serve no aesthetic purpose. In addition, such objects demonstrate “aesthetic inadequacy” (Calinescu, 1987) – their size and the materials they are made of contradict the aesthetic properties of the original.

However, visual art can be beautiful both in itself and in its contribution to our general set of images. A reproduction refers us to the image rather than to the original. Better a scarf should represent a Pollack painting than a cute kitten. The scarf is not the same as the painting, but it may still be pleasing to the eye and thoughtful to the mind.

What makes something kitsch rather than art?

So perhaps we need some criteria in terms of what is represented rather than with how or why it is reproduced. To say exactly why kitsch is bad can be difficult. Kulka (1996, pp 14-42) proposed that kitsch fulfills three conditions:

1. Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions.

2. The objects or themes depicted by kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable.

3. Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.

The next few paragraphs will consider and qualify these three conditions.

Overcharged Emotions

Kulka’s first condition is often considered as “sentimentality.” This characteristic of kitsch may have stemmed in part from the Romantic movement in art (Broch, 1969). In the late eighteenth century, art began to consider emotions much more directly than before. People enjoyed having their feelings aroused. Art sought to bring the viewer or the reader to tears. Yet this could easily be overdone, resulting in mawkishness or melodrama. Over the top can be more uncomfortable than uplifting. Tears should not be wasted inappropriately.

bouguereau jeune mendiante

Typical examples of kitsch are paintings of the poor designed to evoke feelings of pity. Pity at someone else’s suffering is an important human emotion, but it is meaningless when it does not lead to some action to relieve the suffering. It is difficult to understand why anyone would want to hang paintings of begging children on one’s walls even if they are as technically accomplished as those of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, whose Little Beggar (Petite Mendiante, 1880) is shown on the right. Bouguereau (1825-1905) was a famous academic painter who became quickly and completely forgotten after his death. He has been recently championed by Fred Ross, whose Art Renewal website reacts against the lack of figurative painting in modern art.

 

Kitsch often exploits pity – sentimental pictures of sad-eyed children are sold in the millions. Pity is a complicated emotion (Kimball, 2004): although it is primarily related to empathy and compassion, pity slides easily into feeling of superiority and contempt. Nothing can be done – the poor have only themselves to blame. The description of Bouguereau’s Petite Mendiante on the Art Renewal website states “She looks at the viewer with desperation and exhaustion, causing a feeling of sadness in the viewer who knows she cannot be helped.” This comforting conclusion is more rationalization than fact:  as William Blake (The Human Abstract from Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1795) said

Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody Poor

Distinguishing sentimentality from other emotions may be difficult. In J. D. Salinger’s 1959 story Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters, Seymour Glass quotes the Zen scholar R. H. Blyth “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it” (p. 78). However, unless we know how God feels about something, this is a difficult criterion to apply. Seymour recognizes that he is being tendentious, but he is sure that God would not be as enamored as his wife of kittens with “technicolor bootees on their paws.” Yet if we cannot appeal to God or some other absolute principle, how do we decide whether sentiments are high or tacky?

Opera is an art of great emotion. The plots are usually melodramatic, and some people may feel that grand opera borders on the realm of kitsch. The emotions are high and the audience’s involvement enhanced by the music. Yet high sentiment is not sentimentality. Opera opens itself up to meanings as deep as the emotions are high.

Art cannot exist without emotion. Art must move us to feel something about the world or about ourselves. The problem is that emotions can be used inappropriately, either commercially to sell worthless trinkets or politically to unite a population behind a party or its leader.

Kundera discusses political kitsch experience in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (p 251). A senator is moved by seeing children running on the grass.

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass. The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch. The brotherhood of man or earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch. … And no one knows this better than politicians. Whenever a camera is in the offing they immediately run to the nearest child, lift it in the air, kiss it on the cheek. Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

It is good to feel deeply even about simple things. It is wrong to indulge in these emotions for their own sake, to be to be carried away by them to foolish ends, or to use them falsely to gain the sympathy of others. Political advertising loves kitsch for its sentimentality and its immediacy (Lugg, 1999). Kitsch is the fastest way to a voter’s heart.

In his 1936 article The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction Walter Benjamin expresses his fear about the use of art for political purposes. He chillingly quotes the futurist Marinetti about the aesthetics of war:

War is beautiful because it establishes man’s dominion over the subjugated machinery by means of gas masks, terrifying megaphones, flame throwers, and small tanks. War is beautiful because it initiates the dreamt-of metalization of the human body. War is beautiful because it enriches a flowering meadow with the fiery orchids of machine guns. War is beautiful because it combines the gunfire, the cannonades, the cease-fire, the scents, and the stench of putrefaction into a symphony. War is beautiful because it creates new architecture, like that of the big tanks, the geometrical formation flights, the smoke spirals from burning villages …

This is art used to make the reader follow blindly in the path of fascism. The purpose of political kitsch it to stop critical thought. The viewer or reader succumbs to dangerous emotions and is carried away to inimical ends.

Effortless Appreciation

Kulka’s second condition is that kitsch is “immediately identifiable.” Greenberg (1939) suggested that all “academic” art – representational art created accorded to accepted conventions – is kitsch. He was reacting against the academic style of the late nineteenth century, the art of painters such as Bouguereau. He preferred modernist abstract art, which does not give its meaning easily. A skeptic might point out that some abstract art has no meaning to give. Indeed, some of the abstract art used to complement the furniture in modern dwellings is clearly kitsch. It is immediately identifiable as meaningless ornament, chosen on the basis of whether its color complements the sofa.

nerdrum self portrait with nose bleed

 

The art of Odd Nerdrum (1944- ) provides an interesting commentary on kitsch and its relation to representation. This Norwegian artist paints figurative rather than abstract art (Nerdrum & Li, 2007). His painting style is based on Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Some of his paintings are directly representational such as the Self-Portrait with Nosebleed on the left. The technique is breathtaking. The image is as powerful as it is disoncerting.

 

Most of his images are surrealist – haunting representations of embodied souls in life or afterlife. The painting below shows a group of five women and one boy lying on the ground. They are almost naked. They are wrapped in what seem to be burial shrouds. All are singing. Their eyes are closed; the two staffs suggest that perhaps two of them are blind. This dream-like image is difficult to interpret. Are they singing praises before the throne of God, awaiting the resurrection, or lamenting some tragedy?

nerdrum five singing women

Nerdrum has experienced great difficulty with art critics, who describe him as out of touch with our time. He was unable to get a university appointment despite his obvious talent. In defiant response he declared himself an “artist of kitsch” and published a manifesto to justify kitsch (Nerdrum, 1990). Although he is a painter who represents human bodies rather than abstract ideas, his work is not kitsch in the way we generally use the term. His claim is a reaction to Greenberg, who really did throw out the baby with the bathwater. Nerdrum’s impressive technique allows him to create images of great intensity. The paintings stay in the mind, slowly divulging deeper and deeper meanings.

Photography poses difficulties for the definition of kitsch, since nothing is as immediately identifiable as a photograph. Kulka tried to address some distinctions between photography and kitsch. Photography is perhaps too real to be kitsch. A photograph of a sunset is not kitsch.  It becomes kitsch if the photograph is printed on canvas to look like a painting, or on a poster with an inspirational quotation. Most photography is not art – it forms a record of something rather than an interpretation. Nevertheless, some photography can be considered art. Then the photograph captures an image in a manner that is meaningfully different from the usual, or preserves a significant moment of existence beyond the present.

Lack of Meaning

Kitsch is minimally meaningful. The image tells us nothing more than what it portrays. There are no levels of interpretation. When there is something more than meets the eye, it is no longer kitsch. Kitsch is always serious; kitsch never makes you laugh. Kitsch is always comfortable; it never unsettles you. Kitsch preserves the status quo; it is the art that is loved by dictators

Common examples of kitsch are the souvenirs that we buy to remind ourselves of an intense experience (Olalquiaga, 1998). The image has significance only for the person who had the experience. For anyone else it is meaningless. A deeply kitsch experience is watching the slide show of someone else’s holiday.

Many kitsch images involve nostalgia. They provide false memories of a time that never was, when we lived innocently in cottages with thatched roofs that never leaked and gardens that bloomed forever. Such images are immensely popular. They are the stock art of bed-and-breakfast and retirement homes. One of the most successful artists of recent times was Thomas Kinkade (1958-2012), the “painter of light” who provided reproductions of his paintings through either the internet or franchised dealers (Orlean, 2001). One of his masterpieces is Nanette’s Cottage:

nanettes cottage

The painting shows a thatched cottage at evening with all the windows ablaze with light. The chimney is reinforced with an iron ‘N’ for Nanette and a heart shaped stone for love. A small rowboat is tied up in the stream at the edge of the garden, with a teddy bear still sitting on the seat. Upstream beyond the bridge other cottages all have their windows lit in neighborly solidarity with Nanette. Although the profusion of flowers indicates high summer, the home-fires are burning and smoke ascends from all the chimneys. In the further distance, a church steeple rises high enough to touch the sky. Prints of this image can be obtained in various sizes. Special prints can be “highlighted” by artists trained by Kinkade to give them a special depth of color. This adds immensely to their cost. Art for the millions.

Pop and Camp

Any kitsch that aspires to meaning becomes pop art. Warhol’s images of soup cans consider the role of advertising in modern life, and Lichtenstein’s comic-book images comment on our simplification of reality. Pop art is infused with humor whereas kitsch is usually serious.

Another extension of kitsch is camp. The camp sensibility is difficult to pin down (Sontag, 1966). The emotions of camp are always intense and usually unrestrained – the art is usually described as “over the top.” Camp wallows in the exaggerated passions of opera and melodrama. Camp art is often associated with gender ambiguity in all its variety. Camp is simultaneously serious and satirical. Irony is a necessary feature: camp art can be considered at many different levels.

Peter Hujar’s 1974 photograph of the transvestite Candy Darling on her deathbed is one of the great images of high camp. Candy, one of Andy Warhol’s superstars, died of lymphoma. The facial makeup and silken blouse provide an erotic vitality completely at odds with imminent death. If a beautiful lady has to die, she should do so with glamour.

hujar candy b

The photograph evokes stock emotions. The death of the maiden is a story that has been told too many times. What is happening is immediately identifiable. This is a deathbed scene.

Yet this is not kitsch. The image conveys many different levels of meaning. Hripsimé Visser describes Hujar’s photographs as “permeated by a realization of the human masquerade” (Stahel & Visser, 1994). Peter Hujar was homosexual and ultimately died of AIDS in 1987. He was well aware of the ambiguities of gender, and death was a common occurrence among his friends during the AIDS epidemic.

Nevertheless, the artist of the image is as much Candy Darling as Peter Hujar. The photograph proclaims a self that was created in defiance of her birth and maintained in the face of her death. One can be whoever one wants to be. Beauty can cheat Death, even if only for a moment. This is both posture and reality, both over the top and down to earth.

References

Benjamin, W. (1936). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Translation by A. Blunden, 1998, available at

Broch, H. (1969). Notes on the problem of kitsch. In Dorfles G (Ed.) Kitsch: The world of bad taste. (pp. 49-115) New York: Bell Publishing.

Calinescu, M. (1987). Five faces of modernity: Modernism, avant-garde, decadence, kitsch, postmodernism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. (pp. 223-262).

Dorfles, G. (Ed.). (1969). Kitsch: The world of bad taste. New York: Bell Publishing.

Dutton, D. (1998). Kitsch. In J. Turner (Ed.) Dictionary of Art. London: Macmillan.

Greenberg, C. (1939) Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Partisan Review. 6(5): 34-49

Hume, D. (1757). Of the standard of taste.

Kimball, R. H. (2004). A plea for pity. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 37, 301–316.

Kulka, T. (1996). Kitsch and art. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Kundera, M. (1984). The unbearable lightness of being. New York: Harper & Row.

Lugg, C. A. (1999). Kitsch: From education to public policy. New York: Falmer Press.

Macdonald, D. (1953). A theory of mass culture. Diogenes, 1(3), 1-17.

Moles, A. A. (1971). Le kitsch: L’art du bonheur. Paris: Mame.

Nerdrum, O. (2001). On kitsch. Oslo: Kagge Forlag

Nerdrum, O., & Li, B. (2007). Odd Nerdrum: Themes: paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures. Oslo, Norway: Press Publishing.

Olalquiaga, C. (1998). The artificial kingdom: A treasury of the kitsch experience. New York: Pantheon Books.

Orlean, S. (2001). Art for everybody. The New Yorker, October 15, 2001

Riout, D. (2004/2014). Kitsch. In B. Cassin (Ed.) Dictionary of untranslatables: a philosophical lexicon. (translated by Rendall, S., Hubert, C., Mehlman, J., Stein, N. and Syrotinski, M., translation edited by Apter, E., Lezra, J. and Wood, M.). (pp. 538-539). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rugg, W. (2002). Kitsch. In Theories of Media. Keywords Glossary. University of Chicago.

Salinger, J. D. (1959). Raise high the roof beam, carpenters. And Seymour: an introduction. Boston: Little, Brown. (Seymour’s quotation from Blyth sounds authentic but I have not been able to find its source in Blyth’s published works).

Sontag, S. (1966). Notes on “camp.” In Against interpretation, and other essays. (pp. 275-292). New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Stahel, U. & Visser, H. (1994). Peter Hujar: A Retrospective. New York: Scalo Publishers.