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Was not poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?
For what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side and the future on the other.
All had grown dark. The tears streamed down his face. Looking up into the sky there was nothing but blackness there too. Ruin and death, he thought, cover all. The life of man ends in the grave. Worms devour us.
Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography; movie stills from Sally Potter’s Orlando
Last night, after attempting to visit Francis Alÿs at Tate Modern (we only got as far as to Agnes Martin when the insight into our human imperfections and inadequacies quenched our determination and made the pub a more tempting option), we were sat on Bankside, rosé in hand and with a view overlooking St Paul’s in front of us (which prompted a most depraved conversation of which I shall spare you the details). It is the first time in many years I have seen St Paul’s without any scaffolding and it is such a pretty sight. This is the year it has all been leading up to: the 300th anniversary of its completion. It is rather comforting to look upon something which looks exactly the same now as then, with the rest of London so much changed. My infatuation with lavish Baroque has (temporarily) cooled down, and I never thought I would say this, but I am actually quite happy some restraints were put on Sir Wren’s building plans. Pieter Jansz Saenredam might have something to do with it.
Such depth and breadth and height! I love these Dutch Gothic church interiors with their ashen walls and supple, curved shapes creating grandeur in all their austerity. Far from the spectacle of Catholic adoration, in Saenredam’s paintings, light flows through empty Protestant churches, bare and whitewashed in the Calvinist Reformation. They speak the visual language of architecture, concerned with surfaces and structure rather than people and symbols. Roland Barthes writes that never has nothingness been so confident. Saenredam’s sugary, stubborn surfaces calmly rejects the Italian overpopulation of statues, as well as the horror vacui professed by other Dutch painters. Saenredam is in effect a painter of the absurd; he has achieved a private state of the subject, more insidious than the dislocations of our contemporaries. To paint so lovingly these meaningless surfaces, and to paint nothing else – that is already a “modern” esthetic of silence. Indulging in these white spaces, with acute precision, Saenredam escapes what Barthes and Robbe-Grillet 300 years later would call ‘the tyranny of signification’: the dawn of modernism in the 17th century.
The title of this lecture is “The Concept of Irony,” which is a title taken from Kirkegaard, who wrote the best book on irony that’s available, called The Concept of Irony. It’s an ironic title, because irony is not a concept – and that’s partly the thesis which I’m going to develop. I should preface this with a passage from Friedrich Schlegel, who will be the main author I’ll have to talk about, who says the following, talking about irony: “Wer sie night hat, dem bleibt sie auch nach dem offensten Geständnis ein Rätsel.” “The one who doesn’t have it (irony), to him it remains, even after the most open disquisition, an enigma.” You will never understand – so we can stop right here, and all go home.
Paul de Man, “The Concept of Irony”
Anton and Olga
I’m reading a most divine compilation of correspondence between Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper called Dear Writer, Dear Actress.
They are such sweethearts, Anton and Olga. They spend much time reproaching each other for not writing often enough, long enough letters, or for writing about the wrong things. But ay ay, with such tenderness, such passion, such wit! Dear me, did those pre-technology folks know how to write letters. And, it has to be said, the 19th century European postal service appears to have been both more reliable and swifter than our modern-day Royal Mail (who would have thought?).
Heartless, savage woman, a century has passed without a letter from you. What does it mean? Now my letters are being sent to me properly and if I don’t get them the only one responsible, my faithless one, is you….
Anton, darling, dearest, why the sad letter, the despondency? Why the rust in the heart? … Throw of the gloom, my dove, my darling. Do you love me? … You ask about the play? What nonsense to think of failure! God help you! The play is terribly interesting to see. We haven’t been through it all yet. Everything is going well for all of us, only Meyerhold lacks joie de vivre and Sanin still hasn’t found the tone….
Darling little actress mine, exploitress of my heart, why send me a telegram? It would be better to wire about something yourself than for such silly reasons. How is Three Sisters? Judging by your letters you’re all spreading utter and complete nonsense. … Be healthy, sweetheart, my dear despondent actress, don’t forget me, love me just a little, even a penny-worth…
And so Knipper is rehearsing Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters while Chekhov is penning away at The Cherry Orchard. And while the letters do give some insight into the work at the Moscow Art Theatre and of the writing process of Chekhov, I think for the sake of focus, much has been omitted. And it is all the better for it. Knipper, herself full of joie de vivre, is impulsive, passionate and changeable in moods. Her writing, notes the editor, assumes the style of the character she is playing and is, during the rehearsals of Three Sisters, Marsha-like (And look how cute she is! And she dances the mazurka with Stanislavski til 7 in the morning!). She meets the more serious-minded Chekhov in 1898, as the MAT is formed. The tragedy of their story (and the reason there are so many letters) is that they are separated for much of their short time together. Chekhov is required to live in Yalta, or travel the continent, due to his poor health and Knipper is committed to the stage. They are dear friends and lovers before marrying in 1901, on the condition that everything must be as it was, i.e. she must live in Moscow and I in the country and I’ll go visit her. I can’t bear happiness that continues either from day to day or from morning to morning (My sentiment exactly). Chekhov dies in 1904, Knipper in 1959.
Almost any tale of our doings is comic. We are bottomlessly comic to each other. Even the most adored and beloved person is comic to his lover. The novel is a comic form. Language is a comic form, and makes jokes in its sleep. God, if He existed, would laugh at His creation. Yet it is also the case that life is horrible, without metaphysical sense, wrecked by chance, pain and the close prospect of death. Out of this is born irony, our dangerous and necessary tool.
Iris Murdoch, The Black Prince
Frederick Cayley Robinson (1962-1927) has been dug up from the dark abyss of forgotten artists in the National Gallery’s exhibition Acts of Mercy where the main attraction is four large-scale panels, originally commissioned by the Middlesex Hospital and now owned by the Wellcome Trust, of which BBC has made a neat little Audio Slideshow. But what really caught my attention was this:
“Pastoral” usually resides at Tate (although I have never seen it there on display) and trust me; it is a thousand times more beautiful and radiant in real life. That moonshine, shining like mercury, shoots through the air like a bright flash of light. It is wonderfully subtle and loud at the same time and strikes a chord with me in very much the same way as this other National Gallery painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela.
What I like here is that double focus of realism and symbolism…that slightly intangible shift into figurative modernism, still anchored in heroic symbolism (Gallen-Kallela is best known for his illustrations of the Finish national epic Kalevala). But aesthetic merits aside, I think it’s mostly got to do with the water. I’m not a sea person you see. I’ll happily visit the seaside every once in a while and like maritime art very much indeed (especially stormy seascapes). But I am, devotedly and entirely, a lake person. Yes, the sea, the sea brings into our minds ‘the turbid ebb and flow of human misery’ etc. etc. But the lake is serene, mysterious and poetic. It records the changing of seasons in the mirror of its surface, soft like velvet in the summer and hard like the earth in the winter. It hoards memories and silence, regrets and desires: a keeper of secrets.