Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Gaudy Night and l'ecriture humaine

A l'ecriture humaine often overlaps with a l'ecriture femme in ways that ought to be celebrated. As a friend rightly points out, women's voices should not be erased. I can't emphasize too much how central women's writing and outlook is to a  humane literature. But women also write in a different mode, what I call the aggressive mode, as this passage from Dorothy Sayers Gaudy Night illustrates.

Harriet was glad that in these days she could afford her own little car. Her entry into Oxford would bear no resemblance to those earlier arrivals by train. For a few hours longer she could ignore the whimpering ghost of her dead youth and tell herself that she was a stranger and a sojourner, a well-to-do woman with a position in the world. The hot road spun away behind her; towns rose from the green landscape, crowded close about her with their inn-signs and petrol-pumps, their shops and police and perambulators, then reeled back and were forgotten. June was dying among the roses, the hedges were darkening to a duller green; the blatancy of red brick sprawled along the highway was a reminder that the present builds inexorably over the empty fields of the past. She lunched in High Wycombe, solidly, comfortably, ordering a half-bottle of white wine and tipping the waitress generously. She was eager to distinguish herself as sharply as possible from that former undergraduate who would have had to be content with a packet of sandwiches and a flask of coffee beneath the bough in a by-lane. As one grew older, as one established oneself, one gained a new delight in formality. Her dress for the garden party, chosen to combine suitably with full academicals, lay, neatly folded, inside her suitcase. It was long and severe, of plain black georgette, wholly and unimpeachably correct. Beneath it was an evening dress for the Gaudy Dinner, of a rich petunia colour, excellently cut on restrained lines, with no unbecoming display of back or breast; it would not affront the portraits of dead Wardens, gazing down from the slowly mellowing oak of the Hall.
Triumphalism and a linear narrative mark Harriet's rumination as she travels to Oxford. She denigrates her former, implicitly weaker self of years past. She describes it as a "whimpering ghost." It has been replaced with something more powerful: but we note the power is superficial and materialist: she is now "well-to-do" and has "position."  She is "eager" to shed and scorn the vulnerable, humbler self who "had to be content" with with a picnic of sandwiches and coffee under a tree. (That lovely pastoral image of simplicity is somehow humiliating to Harriet.) Maturity to her means more money and a "new delight in formality." Her worth is measured by a life narrative that parallels the road driven quickly to Oxford, a straight line of "success" from point A to point B. It is marked too by expensive and conservative clothing that will garner the approval of "dead Wardens."

It is very possible that Sayers is meaning to reveal Harriet's flaws in this paragraph: her self-congratulatory vanity, the self-hatred implied in her scorn towards her younger self, her misplaced materialism in denigrating a delightful picnic lunch in favor of wining and dining at a restaurant where she can reassure herself of her place in the class hierarchy. At the restaurannt, she leaves the waitress a big tip: an act that has nothing to do with compassion for the waitress and everything to do with Harriet's ego.

This picture of Harriet Vane is likely to leave the average reader feeling diminished. It speaks very strongly to hierarchy: what makes Harriet feel good about herself is the triumphant sense she has come further than most. Her life is not what we might imagine the reiterative cycle her waitress's life must be. Harriet expresses no sense of identity with that fellow traveler.

Harriet has proudly left this kind of life behind.

One could argue that this is woman's literature: it celebrates the "empowerment" of a woman enjoying career success. It shows a woman who has ostentatiously become one of "adults in the room." It dwells on the sensuality of woman's dress, the kind of domestic detail  (if we stereotype) denigrated by men but beloved of women; we women might enjoy the "rich petunia color" of her evening gown, for example.

Yet while female, this is not a humane portrait: Harriet is aggressively alone, on her own, making it alone-- the aggressive model of literature and life we often identify with male heroes. She is climbing a hierarchy and knows it. She places her worth in the markers of outward career success. She despises vulnerability. She lacks empathy with her younger self: she thus internalizes self humiliation. The circular and repeated rhythm of life--eating a meal--has value to her only as a status marker.

We hope that over the course of the novel Harriet Vane--though her name suggests not--may find a deeper, more humane soul. Otherwise, she becomes a cautionary portrait of how a shallow life looks.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

L'Ecriture Humaine: What is it?

The stories we tell have implications for the lives we lead. What kind of stories are we telling as a culture? Are they humane or inhumane? Do they lead us toward or away from compassion? With critically acclaimed stories or films that may be troubling or violent, how do we tell if they are humane or not?

 I will point to five ways to identify a l'ecriture humaine or humane writing. Humane writing is both a political and an ethical act.

The humane is found in moments of quiet contemplation or creativity, in domestic spaces where the interior life can be nurtured.

First, l'ecriture humaine shines a light on personal domestic spaces, the spaces often overlooked by the dominant discourse. These spaces depict small scale community, class differences or solidarity, and sociality. They are where human relationships can be nurtured or exposed.  

 “The house shelters day­ dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. The values that belong to daydreaming mark humanity at its deepest." Bachelard,  The Poetics of Space

A less domestic story might focus on “great feats” in government, on the battlefield, in the marketplace, among kings and important people doing important things. In 1981, Diana Trilling , author of Death of a Scarsdale Diet Doctor was accused on William Buckley’s Firing Line of confusing the “aesthetic with the ethical” when she focused on the “cruelty” of Scarsdale’s living space, including animal heads in the dining room. Did she get confused? Probably not. 

An illustration of a battle scene from War and Peace. The human individual is reduced to a mass in this image. 

The TV series West World revels in showing gigantic and monumental structures that radiate power, spaces reminiscent of a totalitarian architecture that dwarves and diminishes human life. 

Thinkers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thomas Kelly, and Audre Lorde saw small spaces as crucial for developing the deeply spiritual or erotic—deeply felt—community that could become political and fight oppression, be it sexism, racism or fascism.

Second, l'ecriture humaine is circular not linear. Life is not progress towards a defined end goal that ends in triumph or defeat  but a series of reiterative relationships, a return to the same ground in order to deepen it. Circularity is often associated with women or the subaltern. We circle through the repetitive tasks that keep life going for the great ones, and when we can, circle back to those activities that give life it greatest meaning, either creative or social. In Saving Paradise,  Brock and Parker show that early Christian art is not a linear heroic narrative focused on a single experience of crucifixion, but a physically circular paradise that shows the reiterative work of shepherding and welcomes us to join in.

The labyrinth represents the reiterative journey

Third, l'ecriture humaine rejects or critiques ritual humiliation, which is an exercise of the power of hierarchy. Movies or series in the last quarter century often include a scene where a lead woman is humiliated so that she can learn her place in the social order, be punished for transgression, or become an acceptable subordinate partner to the dominant male. In 1998's You’ve Got Mail, for example, lead Meg Ryan is ritually humiliated. 

L'ecriture humaine, however, treats women and  other subaltern peoples with dignity and nuance. The far more recent  Man in the High Castle is an example of l'ecriture humaine. It does not ritually humiliate  Juliana Crain, the lead female character, who is accorded dignity and agency. Her humanity saves humanity. She treats all people, even a young Nazi, as worthy of life. In 1940’s Shop Around the Corner, the inspiration for You’ve Got Mail, the lead female, Margaret Sullivan, also is not ritually humiliated. 
Game of Thrones involves a long drawn-out scene of ritual humiliation of a strong woman. 
Juliana Crane is not ritually humiliated for exercising power. 

Shop Around the Corner shows a strong woman in 1940 without having to humiliate her. Why does the 1998 remake insist on ritual humiliation?  

Fourth, l'ecriture humaine is a poetics of empathy. Feelings matter. They are not subordinated to action or inviolable principle. They bring us face-to-face with the particular and the vulnerable. 

In contrast, other kinds of narratives emphasize “strength” as the ability to shut off emotions. In I Claudius, Antonia, Claudius’s mother, locks her daughter in a closet to starve, because she is unchaste and sits in front of the closet as she screams, waiting for her to die. Antonia sees her action as old-time Roman virtue and strength. 

Marx’s Capital  shows, however, a sentiment that pulls us towards a politics of empathy.  Marx writes “Children of nine or ten are dragged from their squalid beds at four a.m. and compelled to work until ten, eleven, or twelve at night, their limbs wearing away, their frames dwindling, their faces whitening, ...” Famous biblical narratives are l'ecriture humaine, such as  the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. In The Levite’s Concubine, in which a man throws his concubine out to be gang raped, the initial story ends on a note of l'ecriture humaine: the pathos of her corpse’s hand reaching for the door. The outcome  leads us, however, away from l'ecriture humaine into warfare and retribution,  as the tribes of Israel take violent revenge on the concubine’s death. This leads ironically to mass violence against women as the Israelite tribes kidnap women from non-Israelite communities to replace those they killed. This kind of social breakdown leads to the installation of a king, against the advice of God, who tells them the Jews they will be oppressed. 

Cold-bloodedly murdering one's daughter is not humane nor "strong." It might, however, be sociopathic.

Children toil in factories. It is worth noting that two books that led to social change were unabashedly novels of sentiment: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Sinclair Lewis' The Jungle
The Levite's concubine loses her life due to lack of empathy. 

Fifth, a l'ecriture humaine flattens or undermines notions of hierarchy. 

A humane literature shines a light on the subaltern. 

The horizontal qualities of this  painting reinforce the idea of women in equalitarian community
These five attributes of l'ecriture humaine—foregrounding of the domestic space, circularity, rejection of humiliation, an emphasis on empathy, and flattening of hierarchy-- can point us towards a literature, and especially filmed media, that is humane and away from that which is not. We perhaps have an urgent need to create and support a l'ecriture humaine as both a humane and a political act. This is always a literature of truth, not lies, of sentiment, not sentimentality, of telling difficult stories with an ethical compass pointing at empathy, compassion and generosity.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Schitt's Creek as pastoral

Hath not old custom made this life more sweet

Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods

More free from peril than the envious court?

Sweet are the uses of adversity,

Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,

Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.  

                                                       Duke Senior, As You Like It

Starting in the early 2000s, as I grew tired of the ritual humiliation of women in film, I gradually developed a theory of l'ecriture humaine or humane literature. Inhumanity is particularly inscribed in the media we watch--miniseries like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones, and more subtly, I would argue, in series like Downtown Abbey, inherently cruel because it celebrates, beautifies, and falsifies a hierarchy based on birth. A humane literature celebrates the domestic, the empathic, the cycles of life, flattens hierarchy, and avoids ritual humiliation of the weak. It tells truth, not lies, shows sentiment, not sentimentality, and tells difficult stories with an ethical compass pointing at empathy and compassion.

Therefore, I delight in a television series with a terrible name: Schitt's Creek. The name was vigorously opposed by the Canadian network that first aired the series; it was just as vigorously defended by the series' creators, who took out a phone book to convince their corporate sponsors that Schitt is, in fact, a common name.

The Roses: Johnny, next to him Stevie, who manages the motel, Alexis, David, and Moira

The series is in ways reminiscent of the iconic 1960s Green Acres, though that earlier series veers far closer to madcap self-ironic parody than this. Schitt's Creek is a gentler fantasia. It is in a classic tradition of pastoral--not Raymond Williams' enameled pastorals of The Country and the City, never Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to his Love." The show is pastoral in the tradition of As You Like It, which presents the absurd and impossible to highlight the tantalizing if fantastic ideal of the gentle as within grasp. Paradoxically, the Roses become safer as they lose all their money: a radical upending of the logic of the security of wealth. The predators once surrounding them become distant in Schitt's Creek, reduced to the occasional snobs who descend, sneer, and seeing nothing to value, gallop off with haste.

Melancholy, too, hovers beneath the surface in As You Like It and Schitt's Creek: life can overturn for us at any time, sadness and trouble descend, and then we discover where our values lie.

As Jaques in As You Like It grieves the wounded stag, the Roses view life from below. 

The show has a personal connection for me to Covid: in Mexico, as I began to comprehend the enormity of the pandemic, we started to stay home.We were unable to access much via Roger's iPad (American series can be blocked in Mexico)--but we did find Schitt's Creek. Without the pandemic, it is unlikely we would have watched this show.

The premise resonated with me initially because it paralleled my experience: the fabulously wealthy Rose family has lost all its money, so they are left only with a small town--Schitt's Creek--that family patriarch John Rose once bought as a joke. They move there because they can have free lodging in two rooms in a shabby motel.

I have never been anywhere close to wealthy, and our family has never lost all its money. But we did, for other reasons, move to a small town in the Midwest twelve years ago, six weeks before the 2008 market crash.

In Schitt's Creek, the family consists of the older Roses, John, who once owned a chain of video rental stores, and Moira, once a successful "B" actress in soaps and similar vehicles. They have two adult children, the beautiful and personable Alexis, and the sensitive, fashion-conscious bi-sexual David.

The family in the parents' motel bedroom. Moria, the mother, has decided to return the $3,700 Harrod's gown she is wearing that the entire family admires on her: the family needs the money. There is melancholy in Moira's "maybe someday" ... a someday that probably will never come. 

Schitt's Creek is a hard landing for the Roses, who are used to a far more urbane world with more options, more sophistication, and more taste. (The artistic adult son, David gets a job at The Blouse Barn in a nearby town; Alexis becomes a receptionist for a vet.)

In my favorite episode thus far, the older Roses go to a restaurant in a nearby town for an anniversary dinner.  There they meet up with old friends from their former wealthy east coast world, people who happen to be passing through en route to somewhere else. The Roses are then joined by their new friends, the mayor of Shitt's Creek, Roland Schitt, and his wife Jocelyn. The east coast friends' put downs of the place--how awful, backward, and ugly--what a joke--are hurtful to the Roland and Jocelyn, and finally so offensive to John (Johnny) that he delivers a heartfelt defense of his new home. What makes this scene satisfying is its truth: how often have I had to endure friends laugh at my new small town, put it down, and assert a false superiority, over it. These people think they are superior--why? Because they have more degrees (if not more real education in the truest sense of the word), better "taste," live or have lived in more affluent places with more restaurants, more culture, more amenities, a nicer house, have perhaps travelled to more places or assume they have, are, to their own minds, more sophisticated.  But what are you if you spend all your time puffing yourself up by putting others down? Or if you judge a place only by its superficial prettiness or its affluence? Johnny shows a true humanity in his ability to see through the facade of his new home to the worth of the new place and new people he has been thrust amongst.

“Therefore, the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream” Bachelard

It would be easy, if one only looked at outward wrappings--generic plots, probably well worn when "I Love Lucy" brought them to television, overly abrupt cuts,  jokes that fall flat-- to dismiss the show as drivel (though it has been nominated for Emmys and won other awards). A far crueler series, such as Downtown Abbey, certainly appears far more polished, appealing, and civilized while valorizing a cruel social hierarchy completely missing from the pastoral equalitarian world of Schitt's Creek.

The settings are small scale and domestic: the motel rooms, a local restaurant, the vet's, the town hall. The Roses have to worry about money. When they finally get some, all they can afford to buy for a car is a 1978 Lincoln.

Moira at the local restaurant with Twyla, the waitress. Moira wears one of the upper class designer outfits of her former life: one of the show's running gags is the satirizing of grotesque fashionista dress.

The younger Roses begin to be able to establish long term relationships with other people, something not a part of their former superficial, high powered lives where human beings could be used and discarded like consumer goods--as could they, who carry multiple scars of rejection and hurt.

Much of the gentle humor of the series, however, lies in the vanities and foibles of the characters: selfishness, vanity, ego, manipulativeness--but none of this is ever hardened or mean.

What I like too about the series is that "winning" is never framed as the outcome of ruthlessness (though, admittedly, sometimes underhandedness works) or cruelty, and being the "top dog" is never valorized: there never is a top dog in this world where, like the Forest of Arden, everyone is roughly equal. In fact, there is no real "winning,"  except as the characters make it decently through a day. Women are never ritually humiliated because this fantasia is not set in a real patriarchy. We learn from this series, as in As You Like It, that:
gentleness ... more than ...force move[s] us to gentleness.
In the loneliness of pandemic's social isolation, I will miss this family and this show when the series ends.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Wide world of Square Hauntings

What most enticed me about the last three chapters of Francesca Wade's Square Hauntings--those that focused on Jane Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf--is the web of community Wade foregrounds. We usually see Virginia Woolf as a single portrait, alone in a lovely frame or surrounded only by family and the closest of friends. Instead, Wade shows glimpses of the larger crowd rubbing shoulders with Woolf, perhaps turning towards her with a common cause or to share a chocolate cream or giving her one of their books. A housing square like Mecklenburgh--a place where many people lived and dreamed and walked in a central park--becomes a  metaphor for conveying the vibrant interwoven life of this community.

Jane Harrison
Harrison, Power, and Woolf, though focused on scholarship and art, each passionately wished to use their knowledge to build a better world. They were not effete intellectuals lost in their own indvidual upperclass bubbles but part of a network of intellectuals who, in the most despairing of times, pushed for political transformation. All of these women and many others in their circles centrally yearned to change society--even at the cost of their own comfort and status. This kind of moral courage can seem almost unfathomable now.

Knowing more about the early generations of university educated women surrounding Woolf helps put into focus her resentment at her lack education. While much has come to light in recent years to show that Woolf had more formal education than previously known, including courses at the University of London, she did not have the kind of formal degree that opened doors for people like Harrison and Power. For instance, Woolf was not going to be offered a position, as Power was, to chair a department at London School Economics. Woolf was not, either, to her "annoyance," going to receive the same invitation Jane Harrison and Roger Fry did to an annual colloquia at twelfth century Cistercian Abbey.

Harrison was deeply distressed at the outbreak of World War I, stating that  "with every fiber of body and mind, I stand for Peace.” She opposed domination in any form and evinced a hatred of “arbitrary authority.” Later, she left a comfortable position at Cambridge because she longed  to be in position where her non-conformism could make a difference. In her 70s, she made a new life for herself, part of it in Mecklenburgh Square, learning Russian and helping Russian emigres. Her legacy as classical scholar continues through Mary Beard and Virgina Woolf. According to Wade, Harrison offered Woolf:

an alternative lineage in which she could see herself reflected: a different Cambridge, a different Bloomsbury, a different approach to history, and the possibility of a different future. 

Eileen Power
Power was similarly dedicated to peace, politics, and making a difference. For example, on a trip to India, she refused to be a "lady of leisure" and went to the Nagpur conference, where she met the "saintly" Gandhi. She did everything in her power, including a radio program, to promote her version of history, believing the only way to build peace was to dethrone war as a central narrative. Wade writes:

Power's response to militarist patriarch took the form of direct action, through her valiant efforts to reshape the narratives that uphold those systems of exclusion.

London School of Economics, where Power held prestigious positions, was at the center of a confluence of scholarship, vision, and politics that planned for a better future. Wade highlights in the chapter on Power the important ties between Bloomsbury intellectuals and this university dedicated to economic ideas that would benefit the broad spectrum of society. Clement Atlee, the post World War II Labour prime minister who ushered in the social welfare state that gave Britons a national health care system, a social safety net, and broad access to free higher education emerged from the intellectual environment of LSE and was intimately connected with upper class people we normally associate with the arts.

Wade also firmly places Virginia Woolf as centrally concerned with politics. Wade records that when Vita Sackville-West's son Benedict Nicolson accused Bloomsbury of elitism, Woolf was piqued and protested “vehemently,” pointing to her own social justice work, to Leonard Woolf and to Keynes. “Accusations of a lack of class consciousness stung Woolf,” Wade writes.
Virginia Woolf

She also writes that Woolf kept:
a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings revealing Hitler’s deplorable attitudes toward women, as well as his hatred of Jews—his idealization of marriage, his anxiety about falling birth rates, his punitive legislation against women’s education and work. 
Woolf  feared and despised fascism's sought after return to a “Victorian model of public and private spheres.” Her long-lasting loathing, similar to Harrison's of “any dominion of one over another” assailed  her when she traveled to Germany with Leonard in 1935 and saw “adoring crowds waving banners.” Woolf shared Leonard's internationalism,  believing that England's enemy was not Germany, but militarism. Finally, in a poignant foreshadowing of our own pandemic times, Woolf, when she lived in Mecklenburgh Square in the early days of World War II,  found the silence in London oppressive, recalling the days when houses were open and “crowded with friends,” phones ringing, and everyone “brimming” with “radical ideas and possibilities.”

London 1939, Waterloo Station: a place of crowds though we see people like Woolf as lone portraits
Agatha Christie

Perhaps in the future, we can find more links between people working on the same goals: Katherine Burdekin comes to mind, and even Agatha Christie (if one cringes at her writing) wrote from a deep ethical sensibility and in her autobiography has an enthusiastic-- or jolly hockey sticks-- take on Atlee's post-war social welfare state. In any case, she is not bitter about changes that affected her class. 
Katherine Burdekin

As an aside, I would push back against Wade's critique of the private/public divide in Woolf. I imagine Wade had to mention Woolf's snobbery to preempt the predictable criticism that would have rained down on her had she ignored it, but I think it is not uncommon for people who devote their lives to a subject--such as literature-- to despair at widespread ignorance while still working heart and soul politically for the public good. 

Woolf, Harrison, and Power did not share the common idea today that literature and history can't directly influence politics. Could our ideas be wrong?  Could it be that literature is attacked and bullied into a corner because it is so powerful? Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin ended serfdom in Russia while Upton Sinclair's The Jungle brought the U.S. the food and drug administration.

Whatever the case, Wade's  book "lifted" me, and will, I hope, lead to further revisioning of how we understand Woolf and the intersection of her politics and art.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Rockwell Kent's World Famous Paintings: Art's Remarkable Afterlife

 "Begone purity!" cries Woolf in Orlando.  When Woolf's Purity speaks she says:
With my robes I cover the speckled hen’s eggs and the brindled sea shell; I cover vice and poverty. On all things frail or dark or doubtful, my veil descends. Wherefore, speak not, reveal not. Spare, O spare!
Or as the captain reminds Crusoe in Tournier's Friday, before the ships sinks:

“Crusoe,” he said sternly, take heed of what I say. Beware of purity. It is the acid of the soul.”

As a child, I lived in a state of innocence. This is never total, and I was well enough aware of seeing poverty in Baltimore and witnessing unhappiness in adult lives that seeped into my own. Nevertheless, my experience of looking at paintings in an art book was innocent and unmediated.

As a child who liked to swing on swings, for example, I was fascinated with the fantasy quality and wretched excess--the extraordinary sensuality, as I would now see it--of Fragonard's "The Swing," especially the voluminous gown and the shoe flinging off. As a child, I thought losing the shoe was an unfortunate accident that would mean the woman would have to get off the swing (!) and retrieve it, not the flirtatious device it probably is with two lovers hiding in the bushes. I thought, too, because of the lost shoe and what looked to me like a ball gown (though it is not) that the painting had something to do with Cinderella, a story I had listened to on a record many times with rococo Swan Lake as the background music.

Rococo excess 

In my years of experience, I know something of the cost to others of maintaining this idyllic world.  We remember innocence, but overlay it with experience, bypassing  purity that clings to a false reality.

Kent writes of "The Swing: with the words "From Swing to Guillotine," causing  me wonder to if these very words inspired Yinka Shonibare's headless version below. That is a fanciful idea, but hardly impossible.

The excess of beheading in a story retold

Shonibare, the Tate's page tells us-- British Nigerian and dressed his darker skinned woman in bright African print fabric. This 2001 version leaves out the men hiding in the bushes, and allows us to walk around it and view it from all angles. One can take on the voyeuristic pose of the men below and look up the woman's skirt: she is dressed in knickers beneath her dress. Is the installation showing the bad end of frivolity in the decapitated swinger? Or is it showing that her life was mindless from the start. Why dress her in African prints: to universalize her or to show the Deleuzian flows of colonialism that supported French excess--though in the eighteenth century these would not have been the main support?

"Hope" by George Watts

The painting above used to appall me and confuse me as a child. Why was the woman blindfolded? Why did the blindfold seem to be attached to a strange, tortuous instrument? Why was such an odd image in this book? I sometimes would stare at it and sometimes flip quickly past it. I remembered this painting being called "Justice," thinking, in later life, that it represented justice as blind, but I now see it is called "Hope." Rockwell Kent shows his dislike of this nineteenth century painting by quoting Hazlitt: 

"Indifferent pictures, like dull people, must absolutely be moral." 

Kent calls it "pure allegory" and goes on to say that this picture has "probably appeared more often than any other on illustrated calendars." How times have changed: I have never seen this image on an illustrated calendar. I suppose it makes sense that hope is blind? Is the woman playing a lyre?  Is she attached to it, as I thought as child? (Probably not.) 

I did some research on it. This "research" meant a trip to Wikipedia, where I found useful information. I am currently be reading Tocarczuk's Flights in a online group and enjoy her words on Wikipedia: "Mankind's [sic] most honest cognitive project ... it will hold everything! Let's get to work." The Wikipedia entry says:
Radically different from previous treatments of the subject, it shows a lone blindfolded female figure sitting on a globe, playing a lyre that has only a single string remaining. The background is almost blank, its only visible feature a single star. Watts intentionally used symbolism not traditionally associated with hope to make the painting's meaning ambiguous. While his use of colour in Hope was greatly admired, at the time of its exhibition many critics disliked the painting. .... 
Despite the decline in Watts's popularity, Hope remained influential. Martin Luther King Jr. based a 1959 sermon, now known as Shattered Dreams, on the theme of the painting, as did Jeremiah Wright in Chicago in 1990. Among the congregation for the latter was the young Barack Obama, who was deeply moved. Obama took "The Audacity of Hope" as the theme of his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote address, and as the title of his 2006 book; he based his successful 2008 presidential campaign around the theme of "Hope".

 I am fascinated by the idea of life as circular journey, and so it is satisfying to circle back and revisit images from early childhood, seeing them through the double lens of childhood response and adult knowledge. My own life trajectory from innocence to experience (or awareness) is reflected in the unexpected ways very conservative pieces of art have been redeployed to make a commentary on oppressed peoples.  My pleasure in these paintings spikes as I understand they have grown with me: they are not dead art but have been enlivened with new meaning based on new political realities.

My aware self can look at the original of  "The Swing" with the unadulterated pleasure of viewing a fantasy scene, but I experience pleasure, too, in knowing that justice fell on the class depicted--and that a new version of this work exists that shows that. Likewise, I feel affirmed that initial critics were sometimes repelled by "Hope" just as I was. I feel buoyed too, that this painting by a privileged British artist fascinated by Greek sculpture, with all that implies, found a home as an inspiration for the American Civil Rights movement and inspired our first black president. I imagine Kent would be happy too--happier than he could have anticipated.

A labyrinth. Circling to the same center, knowing it will always be different when you arrive. 

Returning to Woolf, she too was drawn to time's circularity, such as in the return of more experienced and aware Lily Briscoe to a site of love and (adult) origin as journeys back to Isle of Skye to finish her painting in To The Lighthouse. Circularity can bring a sense of completion as we bring a new consciousness to bear on what has gone before.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Rockwell Kent's World Famous Paintings: From Innocence to Experience

There's something thrilling about finding a lost book from childhood. I had in years past tried and failed to find an art book that my younger brother and I spent no doubt too much time perusing: A few days ago I located the book on-line without then knowing the author or title: it is Rockland Kent's World Famous Paintings. My used copy has now arrived.

As is often the case, childhood memory exaggerates size. This book is a hefty tome of biblical proportions but not quite as heavy and thick as I had remembered. The volume we had on the coffee table decades ago lacked the wear of this copy. 
I did not learn to read until age six, though everyone else in the world seems to have been poring through Narnia at age four and reading Milton at five, so the heyday of this art book dates to my pre-literate years. At best, I was gazing at it when I had the minimal skills to read a bit of it--ironically, as soon as I could read well enough for chapter books, my need to fill the time by looking at paintings disappeared.

So I was delighted to re-encounter this book with all the advantages of literacy and context. I read Kent's introduction and was so pleased with its kindness and good humor that I looked him up. He was a humane and decent man, an artist who found himself in trouble in the McCarthy years. He had his passport revoked in 1950 for being part of World Peace Council, which launched the Stockholm Appeal calling for nuclear disarmament. As a pacifist myself, this added to a strong sense of identity. In another  serendipity, I was thrilled to find out his former artist's cottage in Maine is on Monhegan Island, just a few miles off the shore from the home of my friend Jane.

Rockwell Kent's Monhegan Bay in Winter. This hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 From Kent's introduction, in which he invites the viewer to have an unmediated encounter with the art on his pages (in other words, to trust one's own instincts), I realized that a young child is a perfect audience for him. Today, as I could not then (not being able to read) I appreciate his light-hearted and humorous disparagement of the stuffy formality of art galleries and his enthusiasm for the freedom that comes from being able to leaf through an art book in the casual comfort of one's own home.  I was also surprised to find out that he did not choose the paintings for the book. He says he would not have picked all of them, but also states he tried not to let us know which ones he didn't like in the comments on each one he wrote with a partner. Only one work is by a woman: a self-portrait with her daughter by Madame Vigee Le Brun. The non-western tradition does not enter in at all--except as far as Kent can insert a few hints. Abstract art is also not on these pages, though Kent does mention Picasso in his introduction.

I had forgotten that a Van Dyke portrait of King Charles I graces the cover. The book is indexed--all by plates as the book has no pagination.  An oddity is the order of the paintings. While they start in the Renaissance and are in roughly chronological sequence, Cezanne, Renoir, and Van Gogh are stuck in the middle, ahead of Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Turner: a curiosity. Did the typesetter get confused? I don't know if that was remedied in a later edition.

I remembered almost all of the 100 plates in the way one recalls intensely the details of childhood while the important facts of the present quickly fade, but some pictures remained more firmly lodged than others in my memory.

Two that jump out at me are as follows:

The De Hooch below is called "Interior of A Dutch House." I offer a detail that shows what Kent notes--that you see the tile floor through the serving woman's skirt. Kent attributes this to the servant painted in as "a hurried afterthought." I first thought it might be evidence of a forgery, but that doesn't seem to be the case.

The fuller picture is below this, showing the height of the room and the clarity of the paint and the light.

This painting fascinated me as a child because I had never quite seen a room like this--and it seemed oddly empty to me. I was also fascinated that the floor was very much like the asbestos tile floor in our basement (though there the darker tiles were a deep green).  Kent praises the simplicity of Dutch rooms, though this looks to me like a well-heeled interior. (As a child, I thought the people must be poor because of the lack of furniture.) One can vaguely see what look like bones--food refuse--thrown on the floor.

I had utterly forgotten the painting below, called "Between Two Fires" by American Francis Davis Millet, until I leafed through my newly-purchased tome. What would always startle me about this painting as a child, which I now know is a late nineteenth century evocation of a scene from the Puritan American colonies set in the same period as the de Hooch, was how oddly bright and white it was, unlike any other painting in the volume.

The curve at the top of this photo reflects the way the page curves down toward the binding while the shadow in the lower left is one I cast--it is not in the original. I placed an internet version below.

This internet version loses some of the startling white brightness of the painting. I learned reading Kent's introduction that Millet went down with the Titanic in 1912.

I will stop here, at a point where I am still looking at a painting through a child's eyes: the surface features, quality of light, squareness of line, empty space in a room, each encounter with these paintings a place of emotional intensity and new discovery, as if I both had and never had seen the picture before I looked again.

However,  a new encounter with the past changes everything, and a sense of purity gets lost as we dig beneath the surface. As Woolf says in Orlando--"Begone purity!" Or as the captain reminds Crusoe in Tournier's Friday, before the ships sinks:

“Crusoe,” he said sternly, take heed of what I say. Beware of purity. It is the acid of the soul.”

Bonhoeffer, too, deeply distrusted purity.

With that as a prelude, the child's purity and innocence of perception will be replaced by something perhaps deeper and richer in the next blog, as I briefly explore how two mainstream iconic examples of elite--or effete--Western art in World Famous Paintings have been redeployed for purposes undreamed of by their artists.