Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Author: ashok (page 1 of 181)

W.H. Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”

Musée des Beaux Arts
W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Comment:

Assigned this poem, I produced a paper full of billowy nonsense I hesitate to term “writing.” That was 15 years ago, and thankfully lost forever. A few years later, I had a few insights as to what details might matter. I still didn’t understand what this poem was about.

I

In the museum hang the paintings of the Masters. They are attempts to depict an aspect of their time, with one slight problem: Is it actually possible to convey one’s everyday experience to people of another time? Strictly speaking, it is not possible; one recreates the past by looking to what is presently at hand; it is the fact we are human, that we react certain ways, which art uses to imitate life. At some point, art may even communicate with us.

Before communication, however, one must create a compelling imitation. We viewers have to want to engage imaginatively. Something pointed, something potentially meaningful, stands prior to the composition as a whole. To see the world, ironically enough, is to react to it first:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

Strolling through a museum, “just walking dully along,” treats the window into suffering as those eating in the painting treat those who suffer. The Masters, in never being wrong about suffering, in understanding its human position, understand the limits of their art.

To be sure, they understand the possibilities also. The poem as a whole provokes our moral indignation, as we are outraged to hear of those who do not feel pity or compassion! How dare they be blind to what is happening right in front of them! To be so blind is to ignore our pain, our promise, evident in scenes of Old Testament prophets fervently praying, or shepherds near holy and wise men, all gathering around a manger:

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood…

We may dismiss the skating children as ignorant, or turn on them as worshippers of a lesser god. It is far less likely we will remember the words of the child miraculously born, “Let the children come to me.”

II

It would be wrong to say that using suffering this way is a trick of some sort, that it is only done to make an ordinary work of art look profound. It is true the world cruelly goes on while cruelty occurs, as the poem and the paintings both attest. But what of it? We, as observers, correspond with those of the paintings who are almost entirely oblivious. If they weep and gnash teeth while a saint dies, does that make the painting more moral? If we feel morally superior because we recognize someone suffering in an image, are we better people?

The first stanza contains a regression. It started with those who were “eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” Then, the next group blind to suffering and hope were “children who did not specially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of the wood.” It ends with a horse and dog going on with their lives, while a martyr is tortured to death:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

The first stanza moves from adults to children to animals. Silently, it implies that recognition of suffering has some meaning, for rationality falls away as the suffering becomes more pronounced and stays ignored. However, whether suffering, God becoming man, or torture and death can cause life to pause is another issue. The paintings tell the story that it is difficult to even expect art to pause.

III

Surely, a chain of observers must result in some reaction, somewhere. Those witnessing the ghastly scene of Icarus’ death in Brueghel’s The Fall of Icarus “quite leisurely” turn away. The ploughman and the sailors are busy about their work, and if Icarus had been less full of hubris, he too would be sailing or plowing, not trying to fly:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Breughel’s painting is cruel, but cruel to his world, not Icarus. Art itself is hubris in a world where the truth has been completely revealed and everyone knows their place. The indifference of those witnessing pain in the first stanza has been replaced by contempt in the second.

The poet makes this substitution quietly, as the paintings did. Not all the Masters may have understood the human position of suffering. If they did, they may have understood it different ways. Their attempt at meaning, what unites them in the poem’s narrative thread, indicates the centrality of merely shining light on an event: “the sun shone as it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green water.” These painters provoked through the theme of suffering, and in at least one case, asserted something about their own time, simply to get us to see the event. Without the provocation, without the contention, we would not bother seeing the more fundamental truth. Prior to that, we would neither think about the type of people a given age has, nor wonder how a myth endures as it changes.

The coldness of our narrator is itself a provocation. He has been “quite leisurely” turning away from painting after painting, taking in bare facts. A splash, a cry, sunlight, green water, an expensive, delicate, ship. He also has somewhere to go and will move calmly on. We’re not more moral for looking at suffering in paintings. Maybe a bit more clever for seeing how it functions in bringing us to respond to art. This much is true: if we can take in the details, reconstruct the story, we too can narrate. What that means, though, is up to us, alone.

William Butler Yeats, “The Choice”

The Choice
W.B. Yeats

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

Comment:

Recently, I attempted a more comprehensive comment on Yeats. The first few paragraphs went pretty well. I observed that loving something or someone, even worshipfully, does not mean you become it or them. Yet Yeats’ poems are infused with a peculiar yearning. He’s in love with something (and, at times, someone). What transformation do his poems intend to create in the reader that could satisfy his specific needs? This may be obvious in love poetry like Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (maybe the best love poem ever written), but what’s happening when he deploys occult imagery or speaks about the end of an age?

At the moment, I’m content to see how Yeats develops a thesis of his own without running into too large a question. Not that my train of thought is wrong: it’s just that following it out might be a lifetime’s worth of work put the way it is above. I need to narrow my focus.

Yeats, to say the least, does not seem to think the same way as me. He begins The Choice with a thesis that only has a surface specificity: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work.” If we care at all about our intellect, if we attempt to be knowers, then we can either perfect “the life” or “the work.” It sounds like he means that we can either perfect our lives, or create some work that has a chance of lasting, either being perfect itself or informing perfection.

If we pick the latter and attempt to be creators ourselves, we “must refuse / A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.” This probably alludes to Matthew 22:2-14. A king held a wedding feast for his son, telling his servants to gather guests. Some of the servants were killed out of spite, leading the king to declare war against the murderers and significantly change the guest list. People then came from all the highways, but one man came dressed in a most unbecoming manner. He was bound by the king and cast into the outer darkness, where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Does perfection of the work mean directly challenging God? Independent of considering theism or organized religion or theology, there’s a simpler proposition: it’s really hard to make something worthwhile that might last. A lot of creative people put significant resources into making something, getting virtually nothing during the process or at the end. In some cases, it does feel like life, or something larger, is toying with one. There is raging in the dark, there is refusal of set answers or accepted ways, independent of any specific blasphemy.

But we do have to take the blasphemy seriously, if only for the reason that Yeats devotes the rest of the poem to perfection of the work. When I first put notes together on this poem, 9 years ago, I held that perfection of the life and the work were the same thing, that any choice between them was ultimately illusory. People try to create in order to make life better. Even one who tries to perfect her life in accordance with a strict moral standard thinks herself part of a divine plan. Life is better for everyone because of the work her faith generates.

One might think that last example anything but intellectual. Yeats brings us back to it, though, by casting despair on our attempted accomplishment:

When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

He first makes work sound worthless, like as if it were possible to choose “perfection of the life” alone: “When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?” All we do is rage against the dark. Why didn’t we initially choose to make our lives better? Yeats answers that query with dead silence, and I take that silence to be evidence for my above remark. He only elaborates on intellectual labors as opposed to results, as “in luck or out the toil has left its mark.” If we think such labors actually make our lives better immediately, we probably have not truly used our intellect, instead unknowingly benefiting from conventionality.

The mark of serious toil is an “old perplexity,” an “empty purse.” By day we might have something resembling perfection of life, some “vanity,” some noble or intellectual standing. At night, nothing of the sort, as raging in the dark is perpetual. The intellect wants answers that it cannot have; revelation does offer comfort of a sort, as opposed to continually questioning. Still, one cannot really choose “perfection of the life” with the intellect, unless we consider one an intellectual who is satisfied with the explanations others give. Even someone who thought they were acting in accordance with a divine plan may not be satisfied with such explanations. They work, after all, to see grace demonstrated in some way in this life.

Aubrey Beardsley, “The Death of Pierrot” (1896)

Aubrey Beardsley, "The Death of Pierrot" (1896)

Aubrey Beardsley, “The Death of Pierrot” (1896)

The clown’s passing is not unremarkable. “The thinness of [Beardsley’s] tragically elegant lines suggest the breaking off of everything” (1).

The lines are indeed everything. Death comes into the room stealthily, majestically, in four dressed as though they left a masquerade or performance. Supple lines convey their agility and figures, their easy confidence comparable to how power suits a horse. Pierrot’s head sinks, but is solidly composed. Dotted lines define his outfit as well as the lace curtains. All guises and covers are unraveling; the spider silk the fineness evokes is useless. Death himself travels lightly, smiling, insisting on our respect – telling us to be quiet – as he pays his. He is the only true measure of who we are, as the opinions of others are nowhere to be found here. And he takes our guises, our laughter, our performance in a role seriously. A self-confrontation all of us fear is final, but gentler than one would expect. It’s as if we’ve been living with death the whole time.

Notes

1) Jed Perl, “Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World,” p. 28. Many thanks to Perl for bringing to my attention this magnificent work of art. His observations form a basis for my own and are mingled with mine. His discussion of the Beardsley can be found on pages 25-28.

Emily Dickinson, “I never saw a Moor” (1052)

I never saw a Moor (1052) (from the Emily Dickinson Archive)
Emily Dickinson

I never saw a Moor —
I never saw the Sea —
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given —

Comment:

On the surface, a simple statement of faith. There are many things I mean; I take for granted I can mean them. God is one of things.

As always, the devil is in the details. The first stanza presents two analogies. Neither a moor (a marshland) nor the sea has been seen. Despite a lack of direct experience, in both cases it is known how aspects of them look. The moor has heather, which are purple flowers. The sea is composed of billows.

The first stanza actually raises the question of “common sense” in a specific way. We use words to signify wholes that define our experience. We are not of the moor, nor of the sea. It sounds strange to talk like this, as it feels like one has no idea what was just said. Wholes depend on parts of which we do have more specific knowledge. However, there are at least two problems with the way the poem depicts those parts. First, it isn’t clear the speaker has experience with either heather or billows. Second, the knowledge transmitted is that of nature. The second stanza advances supernatural claims:

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given –

Initially, it looks like there will be two analogies paralleling the previous stanza. But stating that one has neither spoken with God nor visited in heaven does not produce any further reasoning. Instead, it yields to certainty of a place to which one has a ticket (“checks” was a word popularly used for railroad tickets). Before, what seemed to be proclaimed knowledge of a whole demanded some sort of accounting of its parts.

However, Dickinson’s speaker never claimed to know a moor or the sea! This poem doesn’t reduce to a simple statement of theism or atheism. What it does instead is force the question of what the parts of the kingdom of God are on Earth. One could say it answers that question cynically: death is a pretty certain “spot” for which we have tickets. Still, the first two lines of the second stanza are specific about something. Speaking to God or visiting in Heaven might reinforce her certainty about that “spot,” whatever it is.

The funny thing is how our preoccupation with death makes the mythic central and in an ironic way certain. To recapitulate the poem’s theme: we mean at least two things by belief. First, there’s belief in terms of the knowledge which humans gather and preserve and give to each other. Our shared experience comes to us through conventionality; we possess an image of nature. Then, there’s belief in terms of the risk we take for the sake of the divine. Knowing we will die, we hope and pray to be saved by what is supernatural. Benardete once said that belief and knowledge are of different orders, and I think this is an illustration of what he means. This little poem keeps reasoning by analogy limited to the natural world while advancing a mock ontological proof (the certainty of God is dependent on the most certain thing that will happen to me). Belief and knowledge talk past each other, but as venturers, we engage, use, and want to know both.

On Having Too Many Books

The yelling echoed throughout my skull. I’ve bought too many books. I won’t read them, they’ll lie around collecting dust. I’ve wasted money and space, as well as abused my health.

No one was there, but the three books were bought from Half Price with that nagging guilt. They could join a pile lying around in my apartment unread. Volumes of poetry, academic essays, a few art history studies with “plates” (I know. It sounds fancy!), graphic novels, excerpts from an older critic’s diary. Not to mention the virtual pile on my hard drive. Quite a lot on there. Heck, Stumbleupon got me in the habit of bookmarking everything. How many essays and articles have I left unread, or read once with the stated intent of scouring again?

It is tempting to imagine a simpler mode of learning. Milton may very well have read all the books at the library in 17th century England. Plato frequently brings up parts of Homer and Herodotus. Did he only know a few books well, and make the most out of those? If so, could the nice people on reddit be justified in thinking they can find deep philosophical insight by thinking really hard while reading next to nothing?

It’s difficult to know what thinking well is. It certainly isn’t owning lots of books one hasn’t read. But it does entail a comprehensiveness that is like owning a lot of books. It’s a familiarity with a range of experiences, theories, opinions. It’s an ability to navigate the human things.

It struck me earlier how badly we’ve failed those who want knowledge to translate into a better experience for themselves and others. They think they espouse a certain maturity as they enforce rules, conforming and demanding conformity to certain standards. Our young intellectuals are the most pressing problem. For years now I’ve watched talented university students be the worst offenders in promulgating and abusing unwritten rules for the sake of keeping others out. I thought they were the exception, as a lot of things happen that are far from acceptable in small, cloistered circles, tucked away from scrutiny or reality. Now I’m thinking this is more than likely happening at every school across America, public or private, large or small, religious or secular. The issue is how we relate to rules generally. The response of our most talented is to worship them, because knowledge directly applied to one’s everyday life creates the markers of status that set one apart. The vicious cliques we bemoan in grade school and high school are ignorant, but not in the way we think. They’re nerds too, just nerds about other things. In their own way, they’re in love with school.

They want knowledge to be effective, to be practical. All of us want this, and it might be the worst of all temptations, precisely because knowledge has to be effective and practical at some point. Knowledge, or whatever part of it we have, turns into rules, into laws. In a similar vein, one might say justice is relative; the worst injustices come from those who have some part of the truth and a disproportionate, unrelenting need to believe in that part.

We don’t know everything. A corollary of this is that we’re always learning what it means to be moral. There are lots of books that promise knowledge, but I can’t really say I collect those. Mostly, I’m searching for the books that remind me of what I don’t know. The ones that demonstrate the pain of ignorance, as well as the honesty, the experience, of finding an answer that matters.

On Stuff

For H.M.W.

For me, Jerry Seinfeld’s stand-up on Jimmy Fallon was funny, though marked by a peculiar darkness. At first, it seemed a fairly typical look at how ridiculous materialism is. Fallon had just handed out flat-screen tv’s to the audience. Seinfeld asserted this more a problem than a blessing, as most of the audience already possesses flat-screens. He then went on to say our whole lives are bringing objects home and turning them into garbage. How “garage,” where items once banished never find their way back, must be cognate with “garbage.” How nowadays, he’s happy to hear at funerals that someone wants to be buried with their stuff: “Take your crap with you.”

Like all of us, comedians tend to become more bitter as they get older. There are exceptions. Joan Rivers was so awesomely caustic that it didn’t matter how old she got. George Burns spoke of Gracie so quietly, so matter-of-factly, you didn’t quite realize how grateful he was for his time with her until well after he was done. The exceptions, I think, prove the power of the rule. Someone said you pretty much have to be psychotic to be a good comedian, and that might be correct. Strong, biting jokes are more than shameless. They spell things out so starkly that resentment, disgust, self-righteousness are only a degree away from being thought a natural response.

Disgust, of course, is anything but natural. Comedy at its best, comedy at its worst, reinforces the power of conventionality. There are some very notable exceptions to this. Still, Seinfeld’s above case doesn’t prove one. A lot of us say we want to simplify. We laugh and cry at hoarders on television, all while skirting the edge of becoming one ourselves. Obnoxiously, we impose “simplification” on everyone else. Everyone else is materialistic, and thus they’re holding us back from a cleaner, less-stressed, safer life.

This would be the most trivial of discussions if it weren’t for the fact I can recall relatives telling me to throw out books I was reading at the time. I think we can all relate stories where “cleaning” was really code for stop what you’re doing. Stop what you’re working towards. Throw what’s different away. Our materialism so thorough that it is manifest in our response to it. We don’t know why what we have is valuable, we don’t care to know what’s worth building or possessing. So we attack the idea of possession itself, as if life can be lived without objects. Or lived with very few objects that are disposable, yet almost sacred in their conception.

Either way, our response is about control. It probably is unhealthy to pretend it concerns anything else. A dark, biting tone makes Seinfeld’s cynicism look serious, but what exactly is he cynical about? That someone could do something, or make something of value, is what I feel has been buried in our day and age. It sounds strange to say this, as it looks like we celebrate achievement in so many ways. But if you asked me to write the history of our age, I’d show example after example of how ungrateful and uncharitable we are. We don’t mean to be this way; it’s a kind of ignorance at work. In order to appreciate something, we’d have to let it speak to us, at least pretend to take it seriously. Throwing away or buying objects mindlessly makes us secondary to stuff. Understanding how an object comes to be a possession, how other people possess or don’t possess – I can’t say that’s wisdom. I can say it’s wiser.

Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” and “Stardust Memories”

I could almost care less about the storyline of Manhattan, especially given the accusations against Woody Allen. But the plot advances an idea: to be childlike is to innocently accept the power of images. I remember watching the film on a larger screen, the room dark for the sake of attending to the movie only. Awash in nostalgic, black and white scenes of New York, I felt like I was flipping through a photo album. The one image which stuck with me was that of a moving car on the highway. How the light at night gave a surprisingly rich set of reflections, how magical it all seemed.

Stardust Memories uses a more subtle palette. It trades the objects of NYC for portraits of people. A director not unlike Woody Allen is the center of the plot. He’s got crazy fans and a bunch of critics either dismissing him as trite or praising him as a genius. As a creator, he’s alone. Bittersweet and powerful to watch, it remains an open question of whether it is simply self-indulgent or genuinely profound.

I side with the latter opinion. The movie brings into focus three lovers of his, tempting us to dismiss them as crazy or shallow or both. The movie also establishes where it is happening: this is all in his head, these are his own stardust memories. Given that setting, we’re seeing things his way, and we can identify where he would be most biased.

Thus, what could easily be an exercise in narcissism becomes the question of other people, of one’s relation to the world. Charlotte Rampling’s Dorie is who we most want to watch. She’s extremely attractive and very much insane. It pains over and over to watch her beauty break. As a result, I think, director Sandy’s film about the train only reaches cliche, as the critics pronounce in the opening scene. For us and him, it’s a distraction from her. Unwittingly, she is the Muse.

Inspiration, for one who creates, comes from bleakness and pain. This is not an innocent thought. It neither humbles us before some authority nor limits us, as we are still creating, even if utterly dependent on how our mind is pulled one day and the next. Hence, the most out of place joke in Stardust Memories. It seems to come out of nowhere, only consistent with other egomaniac jokes scattered throughout: “To you, I’m an Atheist. To God, I’m the Loyal Opposition.” Why God and atheism had to be mentioned at all is the puzzle.

The egomania is more than self-critical. It brings the creator down to the rest of us. If the portraits of the various lovers feel a bit shallow, it’s in large part because of the shallowness of the vision extended to them. Our director offers, at the end, happiness as love on a train with a beautiful woman fixated on her looks. If there is anything profound to be had, it emerges from childish sentimentality. The director/creator realizes this, and is accordingly frightened. He’s more than willing to acknowledge his childishness, his failure to make sense of it all, his dependence on putting images in a sequence of sorts. Maybe what endears me to this film is its honesty, buried under layers of pretension. Layers, to be sure, which exist no matter what we want to attempt.

Writing is editing, but that just means more work for me

The best thing I can do is open the blog in one tab, reread an old entry, then write a new post based on it.

I’m not saying that to put my older stuff down, though I do think almost all of it needs to be fixed.

I’m saying it because I’m that much better a writer and editor, and the possibility of crafting something amazing very much exists. I don’t know how consistent I’ll be – I don’t think this can be done all at once – but a few posts at a time makes sense. It’s just as important to keep finding new things and trying to write on them.

One might think this process haphazard. But even when I’m writing as little as 4 times a month, consider the scope of what I’ve been doing. It’s very difficult to keep the ideas streamlined, the arguments flowing correctly. There’s too much to observe. To not observe it – to not pay attention – defeats the entire purpose of why I study anything in the first place, why I write anything.

Exhibition: “Bouquets,” French Still-Life Painting from Chardin to Matisse

“Bouquets” runs from October 26, 2014 to February 8, 2015 at the Dallas Museum of Art.

1. That morning, the job interview did not happen. I was misled, to say the least.

I walked to Starbucks. While there, I tried to read. To my credit, there was poetry. There was history. There was also the loud self-praise – I’m sorry, “conversation” – a nearby douchebag directed at a lawyer. D-bag was a graduate of a very fine school, afterwards serving in the military in a leadership role. “Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor:” sure, you love Bogart movies, especially when you’re talking to an older, established gentleman who dresses like he’s from The Maltese Falcon. Sure, you love the South, especially when talking to someone who’s lived here his whole life. Etc.

I thought my stop at the Dallas Museum of Art would be brief. I did want to spend a day downtown, I didn’t want to waste being dressed up on my day off. But I imagined I’d be outdoors more, walking to various cafes, sampling food and coffee, burning through money I don’t have.

Bouquets was $8 admission. You’d think that since I’m reading a book on Van Gogh, that alone would prompt me to go see his work. Truth is, as soon as the attendant at the museum said they had floral still life on display, I paid. I know nothing about still life: Why would artists ever feel the need to paint a bunch of flowers?

It’s almost a ridiculous question. To try and answer it is to enter an entirely different world. To talk about memento mori paintings or the symbolism various flowers have is to scratch the surface. The use of symbols, or even confronting death, does not make sense without trying to imagine the mind housing such concerns.

2. An ancient painter is said to have depicted grapes so lifelike that birds couldn’t help but peck at them. One might be dismissive of such artistry, finding it more of an attempt to grasp power rather than meaning. In such a vein, you could look at Gerard van Spaendonck’s “Basket of Flowers on an Alabaster Pedestal” (1785) as decadent. The flowers are so varied, of so many colors, lines, and textures, that it is quite a feat he keeps every form meticulously distinct. All around, birds, butterflies, and insects try to make a home of the display. They can’t. On the pedestal itself, a relief where someone seems to be placing a bouquet to honor something divine. There may be more to the story – a Cupid and Psyche reference? – but I wonder if the theme could be how inadequate our attempts to be stewards of nature are. Our artifice is beautiful, whether well-wrought containers or well-placed flowers. The painting seems to know it is more style than substance.

Adele Riche’s “Flowers with Green and Red Grapes” (1831) I think far smarter. The prominence of the backs of the flower heads, the leaves not just marginalized for the bloom. My eye felt drawn to the fruit, as if it were entirely continuous with the large, vivid blossoms. The fruit reveals itself to be very much a flowering.

There are painters utterly in love with their technique, painters who skillfully use artifice, and virtuosi who maybe understand too deeply how their techniques work. Baudelaire, I learned in the exhibit, was utterly dismissive of a school of painting from Lyon. He called it the “penitentiary of painting – that part of the known world where they manage the infinitely small details best.” To that end, consider Antoine Berjon’s “Fruit and Flowers in a Wicker Basket” (1810). He groups what he paints so as to both enhance the image and reveal his ability to manipulate our eyes. The coarse leaves are next to coarser gourds; lustrous white wicker stands near a lustrous pinecone, while various grapes display different colors but a similar sheen. Flowers in the basket, again, are organized by color, sometimes forming lines of pinks and whites, other times fields of blue and purple, orange and peach.

Berjon does not show any subtlety about the surfaces of things. Indeed, I think he unwittingly made a comment about philosophy. All the surfaces prod one to ask what is inside. The wicker basket is both open and closed. In either case, it is filled with stems. That might be Berjon’s answer to what we get in life beyond images: only groupings of them. I can’t say he’s wrong. I can say, in this case, there’s a cynicism at work Baudelaire was right to deride.

3. Delacroix’s “Still Life with Dahlias” (1833) is one of the unsung gems of this exhibition, but perfectly placed. After seeing so many paintings too carefully planned, too well-made, one witnesses an organic unity that impresses the eye, compels a movement.

Degas’ “Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas” (1872)
also has an unfinished feel to it. There is considerable debate about whether it was simply left undone or meant to be completed later. It’s hard to describe its power. Her features emerge from the blocky, half-painted canvas. Their emergence coincides with her action of putting the bouquet together. The flowers themselves look a lot less defined than her face and hands, but I think they’re more defined by their color, their vibrance. Their form not so important as what they are.

Manet’s “Flowers in a Crystal Vase” (1882) must be seen to be believed. From a room away, the impression is of real flowers in a crystal vase. Up close, he’s used so few brushstrokes that the nearly bare canvas constitutes part of the crystal. The painting is one of his last, and one wonders about the scope of a vision where mastery of technique serves to make us think it purely a function of the mind’s eye.

Similarly, the Van Gogh paintings are a pilgrimage unto themselves. He does not waste a millimeter of canvas. I have plenty of notes in my journal about them. There will be many more. I don’t know that I’m going to be teaching any time soon. I do know what I will be doing in the meantime.

Kay Ryan, “Thin”

Thin (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

How anything
is known
is so thin —
a skin of ice
over a pond
only birds might
confidently walk
upon. A bird’s
worth of weight
or one bird-weight
of Wordsworth.

Comment:

Control breath, focus. Only time to get more oxygen, avoid a blow, respond with training when possible. A professional fighter knows he knows when he can act properly. Indeed, for one educated so, it might be said that he can act at all is entirely a matter of knowledge. The method taught, the body molded, the assumed scenarios: maybe sports are so unintellectual at times because the thinking has already been done.

“How anything is known is so thin” – when discussing this with S., she talked about the unfathomable. Her initial read of the poem: birds which walk upon the ice also reach into a sky we can never truly know. Ice covers a watery depth also not home for us. Knowing, in a way, always stands beyond us. If you know how you know, you are incredibly wise. If you know how you know how you know, you’re insane or nearly god.

S.’s is a brilliant and correct thought. I do think the poem leans another direction. To know is to engage a thinness like “a skin of ice over a pond only birds might confidently walk upon.” The image isn’t exactly clear. Maybe those birds look fearless, or at least nonchalant. I tend to think of birds upon the ground as having abbreviated, mechanical motions. That if people moved like they did, they would look nervous. In any case, there is no confidence shown by us humans upon the ice. The problem is that our knowledge does not directly inform our experience. We doubt our knowing, we doubt ourselves; we’re in the way of our confidently, prudently acting.

There are attempts to deny the problem. If you really knew, you would do it and do it well. Sorry, but you can know how to dismantle a nuclear bomb and someone can shoot you in the face while you’re trying to do it. A failure of result does not indicate a failure to know. Self-actualization involves a denial of the self; the self is the obstacle to true knowledge. This misunderstands priority. How we come to know is a subject worthy of discussion. Genuine communication is not a pseudoscience.

The last sentence of the poem indicates acceptance of the problem. “A bird’s worth of weight or one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” You could say the birds do fine on the ice because they tread so lightly. If we use knowledge in the most refined, elegant ways, maybe we will avoid undermining ourselves. Ryan’s speaker refuses to go this direction, as she does not posit a know-how in order to properly use each thing known. “A bird’s worth of weight” is an impossibility for us. We carry more, much more. What we need is “one bird-weight of Wordsworth.” The best words are light and carried with us. They enable us to grasp images better, but perhaps not reality. Not know-how, but why exactly we wanted to know in the first place.

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