The beginning of Rembrandt study and the unbearable lightness of being (February 5, 2016)

2016-02-05 16.18.19There seemed remarkably little to journal about this day.

A strange experience: the day feels full, but it’s completely devoid of stories. It’s been filled with unbelievable, story-less lightness of pure being. That’s the experience I’ve longed for, but it feels strange nonetheless. I wanted my mind to stop working vainly wasting its energy in pointless circling thoughts, and it did. I feel both light — light-hearted, and strange at the same time. I am not quite accustomed to this way of being yet — it’s as though I don’t quite know what’s been happening.   

2016-02-05 13.02.02One thing is clear, though: I finally started my Rembrandt study today, however scary it seemed. I just understood that the emotions stirred by all the preliminary studies of this painting, “The return of the prodigal son” — they created the inner need, the right inner environment, for doing this work, and I could no longer delay it.

My canvas, 60”x48”, is somewhat smaller than Rembrandt’s, but it’s the largest I’ve ever worked on (not counting the whole sonnets compositions, but that’s slightly different). And I started it in a decidedly non-Rembrandt fashion, with a Cézanne-like French Ultramarine preliminary drawing — and with a very vague plan to build up colour from the darks up to the lightest lights. I am not sure yet how dark my background will be — how far the painting will deviate from Rembrandt’s original.

2016-02-05 15.03.43For now, I was just surprised by the flow — how light and easy this work has been so far — just trusting Rembrandt, and my brush; listening rather than thinking. I see that my brush deviates from the original quite strongly, but still — in some other sense — stays with it at a deeper level. And it somehow happens “on its own”. I had thought this study might take a year, but now I think I’ll just dedicate the whole of the next week to it, and see where this takes me. It changes some other plans, but that feels like the right thing to be doing.

2016-02-05 16.18.06I had assumed I’d limit myself to blue outlines during the first day, but then colour started to introduce itself, with the background faces. There is a certain risk in painting them without the support of background colour, but this study has always been a risk to begin with…  For now, I just enjoy watching this painting emerge.

Sadness of irises (February 1-3, 2016)

2016-02-02 14.16.55A brief pause in both of my “core” studio pursuits, the sonnets and the Rembrandt study.

I woke up this Monday uncertain whether I will return to the study of Rembrandt’s old man, or to the eighty second sonnet painting, and the first though that crossed my mind was that I need to paint something from life. The first idea was a still life with fruit, but then I remembered I had irises, a friend’s gift. Hence, irises — not an easy subject to deal with even in the best of times, with the memories of Van Gogh to add to their intrinsically challenging form. I didn’t want to make it small — so a 20”x24” canvas, and a bouquet of irises. This first decision has changed all the plans I had in mind for this day. But that’s, after all, is how I’ve decided to live my life now — to listen to emerging impulses, rather than to plan and control.

And then another thing happened, in the midst of the morning meditation: a wave of deep, incredibly bright-blue sadness; a wave of insatiable longing for parental love. It was as though some inner dam gave wave, and let in an ocean of sadness and longing. In retrospect, I believe this was another wave of emotions unblocked by studying “The return of the prodigal son”. Had I realised it right away, I would have probably returned to this study with this sadness inside. But I didn’t — so this sadness was poured into painting irises instead.

Shakespeare on subjective experience of time: Painting sonnets 50 and 51

Our subjective experience of time is one of the most mysterious and paradoxical things I know. Mostly, we seem to just flow with the time, unable or unwilling to step outside and marvel at the strangeness of the whole experience.

Shakespeare’s “horseback” sonnets (fifty and fifty one) give us an opportunity to look at this strangeness “from the outside”, while still experiencing its emotional repercussions vicariously. They share a very well-defined “objective” setting: their speaker is on a road, riding away from his beloved. The scene is so concrete and tangible that it’s easy to think about these sonnets as a missing soliloquy from “Romeo and Juliet”: Romeo on the road to Mantua.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 50: How heavy do I journey on the way
Lena Levin. Sonnet 50: How heavy do I journey on the way. 2013. Click the image to see the sonnet and the painting together.

The continuity of this setting forms the background for an amazingly swift and drastic change of the speaker’s subjective experience. Heaviness, sadness, and anger of the fiftieth sonnet transform into lightness, joy, and love in the fifty first. Even the speed of the horse seems to have increased dramatically, but this cannot be the case — what have changed instead is the rider’s experience of time.

Just try to read these sonnets aloud to yourself to feel this change and notice how the rhythm changes, reflecting this increasing speed (or, if you prefer to listen to them, click the first line to hear Edward Bennett reading them):

How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
‘Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!’

The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider loved not speed being made from thee.

The bloody spur cannot provoke him on,
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;

For that same groan doth put this in my mind,
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.

Thus can my love excuse the slow offence

Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.

O what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind;
In winged speed no motion shall I know:

Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh — no dull flesh — in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade:

Since from thee going he went wilful slow,
Towards thee I’ll run, and give him leave to go.

The question was, how to translate this transformation into the language of painting?

The answer I found is in the next question: how the rider sees what’s in front of him before and after the transformation? Since its the mind that constructs visible “reality” from the data supplied by the eyes, the view must change dramatically. This is what these two paintings show: one landscape as seen from inside two different states of mind.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 51: In winged speed no motion shall I know. 2013.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 51: In winged speed no motion shall I know. 2013. Click the image to see the sonnet and the painting together.

If you don’t think such a change is possible, it’s just because such extreme changes in the inner state tend to detract our attention from visual experiences.

But how did this happen?

A levelheaded, reasonable person might probably answer that the speaker sees things “as they really are”, “objectively” in the first sonnet  — but then moves to a dreamy (if not downright hallucinatory) state in the second. I must admit, my paintings might seem to suggest something of this interpretation: the first one certainly looks more “representational” than the second — but wouldn’t the swift extremity of motion blur the landscape?

Anyway, I believe this reasonable character I imagined in the previous paragraph would miss the whole point: the mental shift that accomplished this transformation is not from “objective reality” to a hallucination, and not from the present to the future — but from one future to another, just a bit more distant one. If someone looked at the whole scene really, really “objectively”, from outside the speaker’s mind, then the momentary present state of affairs would be exactly the same on the journey back — the same road, the same horse, the same aloneness of the rider (well, the horse would be looking in the opposite direction, but this certainly isn’t enough to explain the sudden change of mood).

This means it is not the present that is reflected in the rider’s gloomy mood in the first sonnet, it’s the future — the future of being away from the beloved. This future shapes the rider’s present into the sensations of weight in me, sadness and irrational anger towards the poor beast (who, after all, just follows his unexpressed wish to slow down even more). That’s why this swift shift to another future is enough to change subjective experience of the present so completely. And after all, the moment-to-moment subjective experience is all we have — and thus the future appears to define the present (instead of being determined by it, as we ordinarily think about it).

Why is it that the future has so much power over the present?

Take love, for example: the illusion of “happy ever-after” is so seductive that the genuineness of present love is often equated with its indefinite extension into the future. If we followed this idea to its logical conclusion, it would turn out that one cannot know for sure if the love they feel now is “true” until they are dead. Doesn’t this sound absurd? Thankfully, love tends to bring one into the present moment so forcefully and irresistibly that the subjective experience of time almost dissolves into thin air, as though the time didn’t exist at all. Otherwise, the uncertainty of future would lead us to hopelessly loveless lives and cancel any possibility of “happy ever-after” altogether. 

What if, like I suggested in the beginning of this post, we read these sonnets as a “missing scene” from “Romeo and Juliet”? Here are the words that would precede this scene (the link will take you to the whole farewell scene on the “Open source Shakespeare” website):

Juliet: O think’st thou we shall ever meet again?
Romeo: I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our time to come.

This the exact same motion of the mind towards another future that we see in the sonnets (this parallel is what made me imagine the speaker of the sonnets as Romeo in the first place). But if the rider of the sonnets is Romeo, then we know that this better future never happened; Romeo’s return to Verona was in fact more tragic than the journey to Mantua. But what of that? When this new present came, it could in no way change the quality of this moment. Romeo just creates for himself a present moment of love-filled joy out of thin air (just like Juliet creates an earlier moment of togetherness by believing that a lark is a nightingale, and that it is not yet near day in the farewell scene). And in the timeframe of their short lives, every moment of joy is worth a year at least.  

 The Romeo and Juliet interpretation of the sonnets is, of course, totally speculative. It’s just a way to illustrate the idea that the future need not exist to affect the present. These three scenes — Romeo and Juliet’s farewell, his journey away, and his journey back — are nested within one another like Matryoshka dolls: as the farewell contains the journey away as its defining moment, so the journey away contains the journey back. This nesting seems to me to be a fitting metaphor for all the futures that shape our present moments: they are contained within the present, and that’s where their power over it comes from.

It’s quite likely that what I will say in conclusion is the most obvious thing in the world for you — or, on the contrary, it might sound most counterintuitive and bizarre. As for me, I tend to vacillate between these points of view, yet these sonnets made me experience the visceral truth of this: At any present moment, the future doesn’t exist except within this moment (and of course, only insofar as it is present within someone’s mind).

The good news, of course, is that one can choose a “future” that shapes their personal present with sheer power of imagination — and see the world transform, (more or less) as it does in these two paintings.

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On love

Lena Levin. Night's candles are burnt out.... . 2014
Lena Levin. Night’s candles are burnt out…. . 2014. Click the image to see more.

What is love?

Believe it or not, I had never really thought about it till last week. Or if I have, it was more about how language shapes and constrains our understanding of love — but not about what love really is, the reality this word points to. This reality of love must predate language, both in the evolution of humankind (just think about dogs!) and in an individual life story, beginning in the circle of parental love; it is this un-linguistic reality that I have never even tried to think about. In retrospect, I believe this is because the concept of love seemed unproblematic, just as any concept which matches direct experience easily and organically, like “apple”, or “joy”, or “sky”. You wouldn’t just pause to think “What is apple?”, would you?

I was shaken out of this blissful, un-thinking, dog-like understanding of love about three weeks ago, when I joined an online course on Shakespeare. Come to think about it, it had to happen sooner or later: how can one work with Shakespeare’s sonnets without facing this challenge? The first play to be studied in the course was “Romeo and Juliet”; but it was not the play itself that problematised love for me, but some discussions on the course forums: a surprising number of them revolved around one or another way of devaluing Romeo and Juliet’s love (“puppy love”, “physical love”, “childish infatuation”, “superficial”, “just hormones” — I am sure you get the gist). Let me share with you my favourite recording of the first balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet”; had I been asked what love is three weeks ago, I might have pointed to it and say: This is love.

[x_video_embed type=”16:9″][/x_video_embed]

After reading these forum discussions, I knew it mightn’t have worked. I am not generally given to the well-known “someone is wrong on the internet” syndrome, but I felt as though these conversations bared a hidden rupture in the very fabric of life. Here was a difference in worldview so painfully deep that it makes no sense to argue, but it — in a sense — hurts just to see it. But I couldn’t put my finger on the source of this frustration until I read one of the introductory lectures to the second play of the course (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), “What is love?” by Joshua Calhoun.

Calhoun’s core point is that the English word “love” is ambiguous: it covers a range of disparate experiences, and it is this ambiguity Shakespeare exposes and plays with in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Greeks, he believes, got it right (or at least less wrong) with their four different words:

  • Agape for charity, compassion, the love of God for man and of man for God,
  • Eros for sexual passion,
  • Philia for affectionate regard and friendship, and
  • Storge for child-parent relationship.

Calhoun writes:

“I like to think of these as Grecian urns, appropriately labeled so that love can be sorted out. The English language dumps all four containers—Eros, Agape, Storge, Phile—in the middle of the floor in a big pile, much like my daughter used to do with her toys when she was a toddler.”

But is that so? Languages move from specific to abstract along with the humankind’s attempts to increase knowledge and understand reality — and ambiguity and abstraction are very different things. If dumping all the toys in a big pile is a metaphor for ambiguity, then abstraction would be figuring out that some toys belong to the same category (for example, sorting them by colour), or, at a still higher level of abstraction, discovering the very concept of “toy” (as opposed to other, “grown-up”, things).

The existence of many different kind of toys doesn’t make the word toy ambiguous, and there is a good test for that: one can talk about toys without meaning anything more specific. If I say “Kids love toys”, I don’t necessarily have any specific toys in mind, and you — if you hear or read it — are not supposed to disambiguate this statement and figure out which particular toys I meant. Compare this with the word word, which can mean “a unit of language” or “a piece of news”, but it cannot mean both at the same time. If I say: “the first word of this sentence”, I mean the former, and if I say “I received word from home”, I mean the latter. In either case, the listener would resolve the ambiguity, that is, pick the meaning appropriate to the context.

What about love, then: is it ambiguous, as Calhoun argues, or is it a valid abstraction? When one says “love”, does one always mean something more specific, something which would nicely fit in one of those Greek urns? Or are there contexts where these distinctions don’t matter, and, furthermore, it is essential not to make such distinctions to grasp the meaning? Here is an example of such a context, a quote from Alan Watt’s “The Wisdom of Insecurity”:

“The further truth that the undivided mind is aware of experience as a unity, of the world as itself, and that the whole nature of mind and awareness is to be one with what it knows, suggests a state that would usually be called love. For the love that expresses itself in creative action is something much more than an emotion. It is not something which you can “feel” and “know,” remember and define. Love is the organizing and unifying principle which makes the world a universe and the disintegrated mass a community. It is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole.”

In this context, the word love cannot, I believe, be replaced with either of the more specific Greek alternatives. This thought itself could not have been expressed without a concept abstract enough to cover all kinds and types and shapes of love. Another example, even more to the point, from Joseph Campbell’s essay “The Mythology of Love”:

“We can safely say, therefore, that whereas some moralists may find it possible to make a distinction between two spheres and reigns—one of flesh, the other of the spirit, one of time, the other of eternity—where ever love arises such definitions vanish, and a sense of life awakens in which all such oppositions are at one.”

One can, of course, disagree with these thoughts — but I happen to believe that Shakespeare expressed a similar sensation of essential unity of all forms of love in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (and, moreover, in the parallels between this comedy and the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet).

In thinking about these two plays, and the meaning of love in them, I’ve come to a somewhat idiosyncratic metaphor of love as water: it can be in a glass, in a pool, in a river, in an ocean, in a waterfall; one can drink it, wash something in it, swim in it, stand in front of it in awe and wonder, and one can drown in it. Shapes are different, experiences are different, but it’s still water. And so love can take different shapes, and be experienced in a variety of ways, from rapture to agony, from comic to tragic — but it’s still love. For me, denying the truth of Romeo and Juliet’s love sounds like saying that there is no water in Niagara since one can neither drink from it nor swim in it.

Language can constrain the mind and force it into superfluous divisions and dangerous metaphors, but the concept of love seems to give an example of the opposite situation: language provides us with a unified abstract concept, which has psychological validity for some people, while the others see it as an ambiguous umbrella term for experiences that have little, if anything, in common. In the latter case, nothing remains but to stick adjectives in front of it for disambiguation, or try and narrow the concept to one or another “right” sort of love. In a sense, it is a case of ambiguity after all, but on another level: love can point either to specific experiences or to the unified reality behind all of them.

In the essay already quoted above, Campbell tells of five degrees of love “through which a worshiper is increased in the service and knowledge of his God” in Indian theology. The first four are described through appropriate social relationships: servant-master, friends, parent-child, spouses (in this order). But what is the fifth, highest degree of love? Campbell writes:

“It is passionate, illicit love. In marriage, it is declared, one is still possessed of reason. One still enjoys the goods of this world and one’s place in the world, wealth, social position, and the rest. Moreover, marriage in the Orient is a family-made arrangement, having nothing whatsoever to do with what in the West we now think of as love. The seizure of passionate love can be, in such a context, only illicit, breaking in upon the order of one’s dutiful life in virtue as a devastating storm. And the aim of such a love can be only that of the moth in the image of al-Hallaj: to be annihilated in love’s fire.”

What is recognised here, I believe, is that a human society is built around taming the natural energy of love into a range of “useful”, constructive forms, which maintain the community and its order rather than disrupt it, just like we do it with fire and water. If we try and understand “true love” in terms of these experiences only, it is bound to feel ambiguous. But just as fire and water, love cannot be fully domesticated; it doesn’t make it less of a love, rather more — and that’s the truth of Romeo and Juliet’s love. Their love is, of course, formally sanctified — they are married, albeit in secret; but it still has the same quality of a devastating storm breaking against the social order, of a moth flying towards fire, of the highest and purest degree of love. “The underlying thought here, Campbell continues, is that in the rapture of love one is transported beyond temporal laws and relationships, these pertaining only to the secondary world of apparent separateness and multiplicity.

So, what is love, after all? I agree with Alan Watts that one cannot “define” it, but Joseph Campbell comes close in linking the unified concept of love to Schopenhauer’s contemplation of the ability of an individual to put themselves and their life in jeopardy for the sake of another (in “The Foundation of Morality”). This ability comes “…out of an instinctive recognition of the truth that he and that other in fact are one. He has been moved not from the lesser, secondary knowledge of himself as separate from others, but from an immediate experience of the greater, truer truth, that we are all one in the ground of our being.

This is love.

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On Romeo’s story as a hero’s journey

I’ve been re-reading “Romeo and Juliet” for an online course on Shakespeare I am taking, and it seems as though, for the first time in my life, I actually paid attention to the opening words of the Chorus. It’s strange: I know these words by heart (in two languages, in fact), but somehow I’ve never really noticed how they clash with the play itself. Here are the words:

Chorus: Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend. (Prologue)

It is an accurate summary of the events to unfold, but the thing is, one and the same sequence of events can make a multitude of different stories depending on the perspective, on our way of perceiving them. And here, in Prologue, the play is announced as a story of civil feud, in which the love story is but a chapter; nay, even less: a means to an end. But the play as we know it is a love story, in which the feud is but the context, the hostile environment. By the end, it turns into Juliet’s story:

Prince: A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.(Act V, Scene 3)

August Rodin. Romeo and Juliet. 1905
August Rodin. Romeo and Juliet. 1905

The focus of the play shifts gradually. In the first act, it mostly keeps to the Chorus’s original perspective (with three of its five scenes taking place in locations vaguely described as “a public space”). Before the second act, the Chorus appears again to introduce Romeo and Juliet’s perspective, and four of its five scenes happen in enclosed private spaces. The first, public, story culminates in the first scene of the third act (when Mercutio and Tybalt are slain) and then disappears from our view till the very end of the play (the last scene of Act V, the churchyard scene).

By this time, nobody in the audience (I guess) really cares at all about whether or not civil peace is going to be restored in Verona, and yet this is exactly the promised “happy end” of the larger story introduced by the Chorus from the start (and even now, anyone can go to peaceful Verona and see the promised statues). Shakespeare’s humanistic impulse moves the story away from the social plane and makes the private tragedy of a two lovers larger than everything else in the play, but he doesn’t really forget about the social calamities. It just turns out that their resolution is found not in “a public place”, but within the private, psychological space of love.    

This contrast between two stories — located as they are in two different spaces, public and private — gives rise to the third story, the story of Romeo, which, in the light of this contrast, begins to look rather close to the mythological “hero’s journey”. In the beginning of the play, we find him in the “outer” world, pining for Rosaline, fully immersed in the by then long-established tradition of love for an unattainable lady (which makes one avoid life rather than live it). He is called for adventure — crushing Capulet’s party, and here, just before they go, we get the first inkling that Shakespeare has given him a deeper (albeit not always quite conscious) awareness of what is going on and what is his part in it:

Romeo: I fear, too early: for my mind misgives
Some consequence yet hanging in the stars
Shall bitterly begin his fearful date
With this night’s revels and expire the term
Of a despised life closed in my breast
By some vile forfeit of untimely death.
But He, that hath the steerage of my course,
Direct my sail! On, lusty gentlemen. (Act I, Scene 4)

We, in the audience, know that he is right, but to him, the actual events of the night would seem to show the contrary — so blessedly happy he feels once he enters the magic private world of Juliet’s orchard. He now meets the true, life-inspiring, love, and it calls him into action.

As mythological heroes usually do, he goes to his “ghostly helper”, Friar Lawrence, who — among other things — tells him directly about the role his love story must play in the world of politics:

Friar Laurence. But come, young waverer, come, go with me,
In one respect I’ll thy assistant be;
For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households’ rancour to pure love. (Act II, Scene 3)

And Romeo replies in a way that always puzzled me enormously before this re-reading:

Romeo. O, let us hence; I stand on sudden haste.

What can it mean, “sudden haste”? He has actually been hasty all along (so there can be nothing particularly “sudden” about it), and now that the friar has agreed to his request, he might, on the contrary, calm down a little. Why this feeling of sudden haste instead? But if we assume for a moment that his prophetic dream the night before means that he somehow has more knowledge of his fate than he is conscious of, then it might be that the friar’s mention of the feud serves to remind that “knowing” part of him how little time he has left — hence the sudden urge to hurry even more.

I won’t recount Romeo’s trials here — everyone knows them — except for one, his first meeting with Tybalt after the wedding, the first attempt to conquer hate with his newfound power of love, and thus to fulfil his destiny:

Tybalt. Romeo, the hate I bear thee can afford
No better term than this,—thou art a villain.

Romeo. Tybalt, the reason that I have to love thee
Doth much excuse the appertaining rage
To such a greeting: villain am I none;
Therefore farewell; I see thou know’st me not.

Tybalt. Boy, this shall not excuse the injuries
That thou hast done me; therefore turn and draw.

Romeo. I do protest, I never injured thee,
But love thee better than thou canst devise,
Till thou shalt know the reason of my love:
And so, good Capulet,—which name I tender
As dearly as my own,— be satisfied. (Act III, Scene 5)

This takes enormous courage in the “culture of honour” (an essential part of Romeo’s public, ordinary world), as witnessed by Mercutio’s reaction (O calm, dishonourable, vile submission!), but, of course, it doesn’t work anyway — he would have to lose more than his reputation of valour.

Just as his entrance into Juliet’s world of love earlier, this ultimate loss is also presaged by a dream, almost a mirror-image of the first one. He recalls it just before he receives the news of Juliet’s “death”:

Romeo. If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep,
My dreams presage some joyful news at hand:
My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne;
And all this day an unaccustom’d spirit
Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts.
I dreamt my lady came and found me dead—
Strange dream, that gives a dead man leave to think!—
And breathed such life with kisses in my lips,
That I revived, and was an emperor. (Act V, Scene 1)

Just like the first one, this dream seems to be immediately contradicted by reality, but the audience knows that the dream is actually closer to the truth than these news: Juliet isn’t really dead and had he but kissed her a bit longer the following night, he would have seen her awaken to life. Shakespeare seems to be telling us once again that his dreams are more than the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy.

Death is never too far from his waking thoughts, either; he is always ready to die (I suppose one must be in the world he lives in). What he is not ready for, his worst fear, is Juliet’s death — this seems to him to be against all “rules”:

Romeo. Is it even so? then I defy you, stars! (Act V, Scene 1)

And he springs into determined, single-minded actions which would bring the story to its end, and public peace to Verona’s streets. Defying the stars doesn’t seem to prevent them from having the last word, does it?

So, then, is this a failed hero’s journey? Could it have worked out better for them (could he have transformed into “an emperor”) had he not defied the stars, that is, if he had been able to accept and conquer his worst fear, the fear of life without Juliet? Because, after all, it was all a delusion, a seeming death (and his dream has, in fact, told him so).

Frankly, I have not expected that the logic of this post would lead me to this question — and I have no answer.

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Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespearean Beauty, and some absurdly optimistic thoughts on love and vision

Once upon a time, as a ten-year old girl, I found myself contemplating “the three wishes” I would ask a fairy to fulfil; not that I really believed in fairies, but I reckoned it would make sense to be prepared just in case.

I had some qualms about my appearance, so the first thought that floated up my mind was “beauty”, but I had read enough fairy tales to be careful. I knew all the fairies have this uncanny ability to turn one’s wishes upside down by understanding them too literally. I imagined that if I asked for “beauty”, without any specifics, I might accidentally turn into some kind of boring and stupid “ideal”, which would have nothing to do with me. For example, I was sure I would by no means want to end up as a fair blue-eyed blonde; I’d rather turn into a frog.

Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches. 1887.
Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches. 1887.

Faced with this very real danger, I spent some time trying to make my wish more specific and close any potential loopholes for the future fairy’s mischief, but the more I thought about it, the more hopeless the whole enterprise seemed: whatever desirable quality I tried to formulate with the required precision, my mind would immediately come up with some overblown, absurd visual interpretation. I ended up resolving that I’d rather remain as I am, with all my imperfections on my head, than risk any of the fairy’s cosmetic efforts.

Thus, as a child, I stumbled upon the conflict between beauty and individuation, this feeling that turning into a perfect beauty may, by the same token, turn me into some “non-me” (and the resulting impossibility to describe beauty as a set of specific qualities), which, according to Stephen Greenblatt, originates in Renaissance ideas on beauty. He begins his essay on “Shakespearean beauty marks” (in the Shakespeare’s Freedom) with this quote from Leon Battista Alberti’s Art of Building:

“[Beauty] is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse… ”   

 Greenblatt writes:

“The cunning of this definition is its programmatic refusal of specificity. It is not this or that particular feature that makes something beautiful; rather it is an interrelation of all the parts in a whole.”   

This way to think of beauty explains

“<…> why there is so little specificity in Renaissance accounts of beauty, including Shakespeare’s. Responses to beauty are everywhere in his work, and they are often remarkably intense, but for the most part they are, to borrow Musil’s phrase, “without qualities”. “Those parts of thee that the world’s eye doth view,” begins sonnet 69, “Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend.” The visible beauty of the beloved literally leaves nothing to the imagination, and the fact that the parts are not specified in any way only reinforces the sense that the effect is produced not by this or that attractive attribute but by a harmonious integration of ideal proportions.”

Indeed, although the young man’s beauty is a major “hero” of the sonnets, we know next to nothing about how he actually looks. There is no specific image, no individual features; nothing to help us picture him. His beauty might leave nothing to the viewer’s imagination, but the way it is translated into sonnets leaves (paradoxically) everything to the reader’s imagination (so I, for example, am free to imagine him as Titian’s young man with a glove). Greenblatt’s point, though, is that this very lack of individuation is a representation of the Renaissance highest ideal of beauty, which finds its expression in painting as well:

Featurelessness is for Elizabethan culture the ideal form of human beauty. In her many portraits the queen’s clothes and jewels are depicted with fantastic attention to detail, but her face again and again is a blank, expressionless mask. Perhaps, despite the intense emphasis on materiality in the representation of dress, the mask of the face is the Renaissance intimation of what Schiller called the “annihilation of the material” in a truly beautiful work of art or what Winckelmann termed the quality in beauty of Unbezeichnung: “Beauty should be like the most perfect water drawn from the lap of the spring, which, the less taste it has, the healthier it is considered to be, because it is purified of all foreign parts.” The figures Shakespeare celebrates as beautiful cannot altogether float free of matter, but the conspicuous lack of content in the term beauty, as he uses it, is a gesture toward this freedom.”

Leonardo da Vinch. Lady with an ermine. 1489–1490
Leonardo da Vinch. Lady with an ermine. 1489–1490

Any sign of individuation, any mark of uniqueness, any kind of personality can only be a deviation from the ideal canon of beauty. In short, what makes us different — distinguishable from one another in any way — is what makes us ugly.

In Shakespeare’s time, according to Greenblatt, this fusion between individuation and ugliness was underscored by the fact that blemishes (moles, birthmarks, scars) and deformities were the only evidence available to identify someone, be it — as often happens in Shakespeare’s comedies — a long-lost child, a fallen soldier on the battlefield, or a run-away slave. In absence of dental records, fingerprints, and DNA samples, if you are to be recognised at all, it’s by blemishes on your skin and deformities of your body, these obvious deviations from the ideal human being. As an aside, I cannot help thinking that our age of Botox and Photoshop has but materialised the Renaissance ideal of expressionless faces and spotless bodies.

Shakespeare, on the contrary, did a lot to subvert this ideal — I will return to this theme when I come to the “dark lady” sonnets. The “young man” sonnets, though, seem to embody the ideal of featureless perfect beauty, but with one important qualification: what is challenged in this sequence is the mythological (one might even say, spiritual) foundation of this ideal, the implied Neo-Platonic link between goodness and beauty, between sin and ugliness.

Greenblatt traces the idea of featureless beauty to the power of Christianity:

“For centuries, Jesus and Mary were both routinely described, in the most literal as well as metaphoric sense, as immaculate, uniquely born without blemish or mark. Beauty, writes a mid-seventeenth-century English clergyman, “consists in three particulars; the perfection of the lineaments, the due proportion of them each to other, and the excellency and purity of the colour. They are all complete in the soul of Christ.” And it is not Christ’s soul alone, the preacher observes that is the epitome of perfect beauty, but his body as well.”

Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta. ca. 1490.
Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta. ca. 1490.

The reference is to a book of sermons preached by the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank, printed in 1672. The reverend goes on to observe that every human being ever born has some defect, some kind of stain or mole; in fact, if we cannot see one another’s ugliness (representing outwardly our inescapable sinfulness), it’s only because of congenital defect of our vision. Greenblatt writes:

“Such defect, in this time-honoured Christian vision (a vision that effortlessly crossed the boundary dividing Catholic and Protestant), is the outward mark of the inner sin that stains all humans from their conception. Could we see with perfectly clear eyes, we would find nothing to praise in mortal bodies.”

The perfect beauty, then, is the outward manifestation of perfect goodness and innocence, impossible for mortals:

“Thus it is only in and with Christ, in the resurrected bodies of those who are saved, that human beings are cleansed of their unsightly blemishes. At the Last Judgment, according to theologians, all scars, wrinkles, and other marks on the flesh of the blessed would disappear, and each individual body would achieve its perfect form. All forms of “spottedness,” as John Wilkins enumerated them—“Blemish, Blot, Blur, Mote, Mole, Freckle, Speck, Stain, Soil”—would be erased.”

From this vantage point, the young man’s perfect, indescribable beauty is as subversive as it gets (if not outright blasphemous), especially because his inner goodness (the beauty of thy mind) is often questioned, in sonnet 69 as in many others. There is something no less subversive — and, in some strange way, fascinating — in the idea that today’s Botox parlours, along with the whole industry of commercialised beauty standards and artificial eternal youthfulness, are deeply rooted in medieval Christianity: what they sell, indeed, is nothing short of earthly resurrection.

As a painter, I was particularly struck by the idea of “congenital defect of vision”, which — apparently — prevents us from seeing “with clear eyes” that there is no beauty in this world. What is it that makes us blind to one another’s ugliness? The answer, though, has nothing to do with painting. It was given long ago (Greenblatt quotes Lucretius and Shakespeare on this, but they are certainly not alone): it’s love that makes us blind, and it’s the one we love that we see as most beautiful.

But the effect is broader than the concept of romantic love suggests, because one doesn’t see everyone else as ugly either, at least not always. We see everything through the mind’s eye, and there are moods that make one see inherent ugliness everywhere, but there are also states of mind which make everything and everyone beautiful. And this — quite unexpectedly — leads me to an absurdly optimistic conclusion that the humankind is more capable of love than we generally give ourselves credit for — insofar as we don’t see this ugliness in everyone the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank talks about. What he sees as our congenital blindness is, by this reckoning, just our inborn love and compassion for one another.   

The question remains, of course, whose eyes are “clear” (or at least clearer): the eyes of someone who loves, or the cold eyes of someone perfectly indifferent? The eyes (and mind) of someone who sees beauty or the eyes of someone who sees ugliness? This is, to me, but one version of the eternal question of whether we say “yes” or “no” to life — and, frankly, I am all for “yes-saying” (as, I believe, is Shakespeare, most of the time), which means — doesn’t it? — that love clears our vision rather than blinds us.

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Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall)

Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall). Oil on canvas. 2014. 36"x24".
Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak and Marc Chagall). Oil on canvas. 2014. 36″x24″. Click image for more.
From Boris Pasternak’s “Magdalene”:

Each night, my demon is here again,
My reckoning for the past,
Memories of harlotry
will come and suck my heart,
When, a slave to men’s whims,
I was a raving fool,
And the street was my shelter.

A few minutes left,
before the deathly silence.
But, before they pass away,
Having come to the edge,
As an alabaster vessel,
I break my life before thee.

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Painting sonnet 42: On metaphors of love and the pain of betrayal

Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: A loss in love. 20"x20". 2013-2014.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: A loss in love. 20″x20″. 2013-2014. Click the image to see the painting in its context.

Have you ever wondered, what is language and where it is? It’s in your brain, but it is also in other people’s brains — the same “thing” residing in millions of brains, and easily occupying newly born ones. And you don’t even have conscious access to it: there may be some varying level of conscious control about what one wants to say, but the how of it — both in speaking and in understanding what others say — is supplied from outside the realm of consciousness. The science of linguistics has spent decades in trying to formalise our hidden “knowledge” of language, to make it accessible to conscious rational minds at least potentially — but so far, it has proved to be impossible. And the most troubling aspect of it is that language is not just a means of communication, it is also an essential instrument of thinking, a covert shaper of our understanding of the world.

Poetry is a very special kind of relationship between the human mind and its language, and poets have, for all I know, a very different type of access to language from the rest of us (or maybe language has a different type of access to them). But in this sonnet, I believe, something still more special is happening: the speaker tries to free his thoughts and emotions from the constraints of language. Shakespeare is wrestling with his Language — just like in the story of Jacob wrestling with his God in Genesis 32:21-33. And in doing so, he shows the reader the power language has over her own mind.    


[accordion_item title=”Read Shakespeare’s sonnet 42“]That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.

Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.

If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:

But here’s the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone.



On the surface, this sonnet sounds like a feeble attempt to talk oneself out of a painful situation: My lover and my friend are having an affair, and this hurts badly — so I try to find an explanation for this ultimate betrayal, an explanation which would safeguard my belief in their love for me and thus ease the pain.

Modern psychology tells us that we all make up such “narrative painkillers” for ourselves all the time, creating self-serving stories of our lives in which the story-teller, our conscious self, is the major protagonist. Here, the reader may suspect that the affair has nothing to do with the speaker — in this love triangle, he is the forgotten apex. But his self-story transforms the triangle into a cross, putting himself into the centre of the whole situation:

Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.

But consciousness is a liar, and its stories are incomplete at best, and often amount to self-deceit. One is usually unaware of it (otherwise, the self-deceit wouldn’t have worked), but not here. The sonnet is spoken as though by two “selves”: the one who is trying to deceive himself, and the one who is witnessing the deception. The speaker is aware of self-serving nature and weakness of his own story: it’s all empty words, sweet yet ineffectual flattery against this cross of two betrayals, a vaguely blasphemous image of unbearable pain. In this visually deserted sonnet, the cross is falling on me, like the naked truth breaking through the veil of empty lies.

The sonnet suggests, and not very subtly, this “self-deceit” interpretation: the first quatrain reads as a forthright statement of facts, and what follows is framed as excuses and sweet flattery. Frankly, the idea that two people who are betraying you with one another do so out of love and for your own good is as a preposterous example of self-deceit as any, and the reader might enjoy a fleeting delusion of “seeing through” Shakespeare’s feeble defences: surely, none of us would ever console ourselves with something that absurd.

But why is it that the first quatrain reads as an “objective truth”? One can think of many reasons, but there is one that, I believe, is harder to notice than others: it is written completely within the “love-as-ownership” metaphor, and ownership is all about “hard, objective facts”. This metaphor is pervasive in the English language, and it makes it appearance elsewhere in the sonnet, too (in the use of words like loss and gain, and even in the pronoun my), but nowhere as blatantly as in the first quatrain. And metaphors shape our thoughts and, through them, our emotions, whether we want it or not. With this in mind, this sonnet reads as the poet’s battle against the “love-as-ownership” metaphor governing his view of the situation and his feelings.

What I first viewed as making up a self-soothing story is now revealed as an attempt to replace the “love-as-ownership” with understanding love as co-feeling. But it doesn’t quite work: by the end of the third quatrain, the pain is still there, more vicious, it seems, than ever. It’s exactly when the speaker invokes compassion (If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain), that the cross, this striking image of his pain (and the sole image of the sonnet) pierces the veil of words. It’s as though his pain tells him: whatever words you try, I am still here within, ready to destroy you. If love is compassion, the pain would seem to be unjustified: it is not validated by love anymore. This is, I believe, why the pain strikes back at the speaker at this point: its inner truth would not be denied.

The thing is, metaphors have the power to shape our minds even if one doesn’t consciously believe in their content. I, for one, loathe the idea of love as ownership, but my mind accepted the first quatrain of this sonnet as an objective description of reality without a moment’s hesitation, simply because this metaphor is more deeply embedded in the language than its alternatives. And so it is with the speaker of the sonnet: he knows that this metaphor is the source of his pain, but consciously replacing it with compassion doesn’t quite help, because it sits deeper, in the very core of the language. And the language strikes back at its poet with the pain-as-cross metaphor invoked by his attempt to move away from love-as-ownership, towards higher, self-sacrificing understanding of love.

So, is Shakespeare defeated by his language? Not quite. He turns the tables in the couplet, with the love-as-unity metaphor (my friend and I are one). For a brief moment, the unity metaphor dissolves not only the nightmare of love-as-ownership, but also another, more fundamental linguistic constraint on his feelings, the strict “I – Thou – Other” structure it imposes on our interactions with the world.

The speaker has to choose his thou from the onset, in the first quatrain: he could have addressed his lover (rather than his friend) as “thou”, but what he absolutely cannot do is have two “thou”s at the same time. Not that he doesn’t try: the second quatrain is an attempt to do exactly that: Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye, pulls both of them into the domain of “second person”, the addressees of the sonnet. Together, they can be ye, and yet they cannot both be thou. The language completely blocks us from maintaining several distinct thou-relationships at the same time, and the speaker’s futile attempt to have two of them promptly leads him to lose his thou altogether. From now on, both the friend and the lover are “third persons” (the plot of the sonnet in a nutshell), until the unity metaphor is introduced in the couplet and pulls the friend into the domain of “I”.

But the unity metaphor cannot really replace the love-as-ownership metaphor in the fabric of language, because language is all about drawing distinctions, not about recognising unity. Nor can the human mind dwell in this high place for too long: the distinction between “I” and “other” inevitably reappears, and turns love-as-unity into sweet flattery: then she loves but me alone… This me alone is the final paradox, the unresolved battle between poetry and language: syntactically, it’s a part of the “sweet flattery” (she loves only me), but it’s also the last chord of the sonnet, resonating in the reader’s mind long after the sonnet is over: remaining alone.

Even though I’ve known about the power of metaphors for a long time, I’ve never realised it so fully and viscerally as in painting of this sonnet. This clash between my belief about how I experience love, and the ease with which my mind swallows the love-as-ownership metaphor as a “fact” revealed rather painfully how little I know myself, and what a powerless slave of language I am.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: the 2013 version
Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: the 2013 version

At another level, the sonnet added something essential to my understanding of my own relationship with colour, something I am not ready to put into words yet (if ever). The painting of it turned into a battle with colour; the first version, of 2013, was nearly black-and-white, but I had to return to the painting more than a year later. Or maybe it’s the colour that had to return to it, and I just did what Rilke thought is the right thing for a painter to do, and let the colours settle the matter between themselves.

It is incredibly tempting to see this battle with colour as the painting counterpart of Shakespeare’s battle with language, but, I feel, it would be too superficial, too easy (let alone being, obviously, way too self-flattering) to give in to this temptation—in short, it would be a falsehood. I don’t (yet) have a complete understanding of what has happened here, so I will have, in Rilke’s words, to live the question.

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On Vincent van Gogh’s vision, or memory of the Garden of Eden

Vincent van Gogh. Memory of the garden at Etten. 1888.
Vincent van Gogh. Memory of the garden at Etten. 1888. Oil on canvas. 73.5 × 92.5 cm.

Last week, we talked about how to see like Claude Monet — that was an easy one: to begin with, his was an insight that, once found, is easy to share; and, probably more importantly, seeing like Monet is a mental skill that, once learned, tends to fill one’s life with joy. In a very palpable sense, it makes you a happier person (not unlike meditation practice). That’s why he created this movement that’s still alive today: you won’t find too many post-impressionists or cubists working today, and — more to the point for today’s topic — hardly any “cloissonnists”, but there are many a painter working today associate their work with impressionism.

Vincent van Gogh’s is an entirely different story. No easily shareable insights, no trainable skills to acquire. In a sense, one just cannot learn to see like van Gogh; and to the extent you can, it is very unlikely to make you happier. More intense, more compassionate — perhaps, but hardly happier. And if he can be said to have had any followers in the history of painting, they departed from any representation of visible world altogether. I know why: many, many years ago I stopped painting because there was just no point in painting after van Gogh. I distinctly remember the moment of this decision, which had defined my life for the following twenty years at least: I was standing in a doorway to my room in my childhood home and taking in, for a millionth time, a reproduction of his blue tree trunks on the wall.

Vincent van Gogh. Tree trunks in the grass. Oil on canvas. 1890.
Vincent van Gogh. Tree trunks in the grass. Oil on canvas. 1890.

I was overwhelmed by a confusing mixture of admiration and despair, love and pain; it was the beautiful, irresistible path I felt I had to follow, but could not, not even close. It was like to be or not to be, which, at that moment, was resolving itself into not to be — to stop what I had, by then, come to see as my life, to make my quietus — not with a bare bodkin, but by abandoning my childhood dream. This is the memory that his “Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)” keeps bringing back to my mind.

What is the mystery of van Gogh’s sense of vision? I believe the closest anyone had come to expressing it in prose was Rainer Maria Rilke, in a letter to his wife (June 24, 1907; published in “Letters on Cézanne”):

“<…> works of art are always the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity …”

Except for van Gogh, it was — almost always — a direct visual experience. He could see all the way to the end, to the point where a visual motif becomes personal, singular, and irrepressible, to where there is no difference between the outside and the inside; I believe this was (or it had gradually become) an immanent part of his sense of vision. And it is not a skill one can learn: it’s a new danger, new risk, new void every single time. No wonder Rilke’s train of thought — begun as a contemplation on art in general (and based, doubtlessly, on his own experience) — lead him to van Gogh. He writes in the same letter:

“I often think to myself what madness it would have been for van Gogh, and how destructive, if he had been forced to share the singularity of his vision with someone, to have someone join him in looking at his motifs before he had made his pictures out of them, these existences that justify him with all their being, that vouch for him, invoke his reality. He did seem to feel sometimes that he needed to do this in letters (although there, too, he’s usually talking of finished work), but no sooner did Gauguin, the comrade he’d longed for, the kindred spirit, arrive than he had to cut off his ear in despair, after they had both determined to hate one another and at the first opportunity get rid of each other for good.”

I said “almost always” just now, because this painting, “Memory of the Garden at Etten (Ladies of Arles)”, is, in a sense, an exception: not a single visual experience, but its explicit, conscious merger with the memory of another one. This painting is a response to his attempt to open himself to Paul Gauguin’s influence, during their nine-weeks sojourn in Arles — something that happened within Rilke’s “no sooner”. Here is what van Gogh wrote to his sister about this painting:

 “I do not know if you can understand that it is possible to express poetry by means of a good arrangement of colours and nothing more, just as one can express consolation by means of music. In addition, the bizarre, contrived and repetitive lines that twist through the whole picture are not meant to represent the garden as it normally looks, but to render it as we might see it in a dream, in its true character, yet at the same time stranger than in reality.”

For all we know, this intentional distance from what how things “normally look” is a result of his attempt to follow Gauguin’s concept of painting as an abstraction from nature, simplified and formalised, subordinated to a two-dimensional visual idea designed by the artist (rather than borrowed from visible reality). Living as they were in the midst of an earth-shattering change in painting, they all seem to have been obsessed with finding the one true path for it, and Gauguin had just participated in launching a new movement, called “cloisonnism”. And van Gogh didn’t just (in Rilke’s words) “share the singularity of his vision” with Gauguin, he almost completely opened himself to Gauguin’s influence, trying to absorb this new approach to painting. Almost, but not quite. Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger write in “Vincent van Gogh. The complete paintings”:

“Paul Gauguin, after giving the matter careful thought, had evolved a ethos of making painting independent of the obsessions, spontaneous reactions and passing moods of the artist, and Vincent van Gogh, appropriating the method, used it for his own immature purposes, his own self-admiring ends, his need for intense dedication!”

Incidentally, isn’t it strange that, while writing a book on van Gogh, they seem to identify completely with Gauguin’s point of view? One can almost hear Gauguin’s own frustration in their choice of words: “immature”, “self-admiring” — even though, from what we know, if there was any “self-admiration” in their studio in Arles, it was all Gauguin’s.

Rilke’s concept of art was, it would seem, closer to van Gogh’s:

“So surely we have no choice but to test and try ourselves against the utmost, but probably we are also constrained to keep silence regarding it, to avoid sharing it, parting with it in communication before it has entered the work of art: for the utmost represents nothing other than that singularity in us which no one would or even should understand, and which must enter into the work as such, as our personal madness, so to speak, in order to find its justification in the work and show the law in it, like an inborn design that is invisible until it emerges in the transparency of the artistic.”

He pinpoints — with precision which would have been almost unbelievable in anyone but Rilke — the exact point of divergence between van Gogh and Gauguin. One feels that, for Rilke, the very idea of “independence” of a work of art from artist’s mood and obsessions would have sounded as shallowness, falsehood, self-deceit.    

 But that summer in Arles, that wasn’t — I believe — what van Gogh must have felt. His attempt to follow Gauguin’s path, his admiration and reverence were genuine and sincere. And fully opening himself to influences — nearly dissolving himself in other artist’s visions — this was his strength, his way of enriching his sense of vision. This is, after all, what van Gogh’s famous “discovery of colour” in Paris was all about. And it was also, I believe, one of his ways, in Rilke’s words, to put himself in that danger that leads to artistic insight— and he had to go through this “experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further”. “Memory of the Garden at Etten” was such an end to this particular experience: he couldn’t follow Gauguin any further.

Paul Gauguin. Old women of arles. Oil on canvas. 1888.
Paul Gauguin. Old women of arles. Oil on canvas. 1888.

Van Gogh’s painting is arguably much more powerful than Gauguin’s simplified, decorative take on the same motive. Gauguin’s painting is visually impressive, but not much more than that; van Gogh’s is, as he intended, poetry expressed in colour — the poetic unity between human beings and nature, and between seemingly distant moments in time, the present as seen now and the past remembered and contained in the present. All its black contours (a defining feature of cloisonnism) cannot interrupt the unity and fluidity of colour and shapes; their conspicuous presence just stresses their inability to break this unity.

But there is something else here, too: the experience of an end, of a path one felt one had to follow, but couldn’t. There is this sadness, a to be or not to be on the verge of resolving into not to be, an overwhelming self-doubt— this is why, I believe, this painting makes me relive the moment of abandoning painting again and again. Etten is a small village where van Gogh’s father served as a pastor, but I must have misinterpreted this unfamiliar name as a child — and had been convinced, for an embarrassingly long time, that this painting is about the memory of the Garden of Eden. Such childish errors are usually corrected soon enough, but not this one. Is there something in the painting’s dreamlike quality that reinforced this interpretation in my mind, or is it just that painting is, and always was, my “Garden of Eden”, my own lost paradise? I don’t really know…—  but I have always known I would return.

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These present-absent with swift motion slide: On painting sonnet 45

Lena Levin. Sonnet 45: The other two, slight air and purging fire.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 45: The other two, slight air and purging fire. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2013


The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are both with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

For when these quicker elements are gone
In tender embassy of love to thee,
My life, being made of four, with two alone
Sinks down to death, oppressed with melancholy;

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 45


This is the second painting of the diptych for two sonnets, forty fourth and forty fifth; in a sense, another essay on the same question: the source of landscapes’ power to touch our emotions, to express a state of mind.

The first painting explores one answer, suggested by the theory of four elements: looking at a landscape is like looking into the inner life of a human being because they are composed of the same fundamental elements. Another answer — or maybe just another version of the same answer, I am not sure — has to do with the way our brains create what we see from the input of our senses.   

What one sees, and how one sees it, is not just “what is there”. The image is modulated by the beholder’s state of mind. The brain doesn’t just perceive what’s presented to the eyes; it creates an image based both on the sensory information and on its own state —  it’s not for nothing that “rose-coloured glasses” became an idiom. And a painted landscape — in contrast to a natural one — contains as it were both the view and a pair of mind-altering glasses created by the painter: as the beholders share in the way the artist re-created the view, so they share in the state of mind intrinsic to this recreation.

Thomas Cole. Catskill Mountain House, The Four Elements. 1843-1844.
Thomas Cole. Catskill Mountain House, The Four Elements. 1843-1844.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that the state of mind perceived by the beholder is identical to the state of mind consciously intended (or unconsciously channelled) by the artist; nor that you and I will have the same emotional reaction while looking at the same painting. Obviously, each viewer adds their own “inner glasses”, tinted by their own mood and life experiences, and their brain recreates the image once again (by the way, looking at a painting together with friends opens this quite unique channel of communication — an opportunity to compare your ways of seeing the world).

Even if the viewers’ perceptions will inevitably vary, and the artist knows that, a landscape usually represents a unified, harmonious image: in a sense, one state of mind, one mood. But this conventional approach wouldn’t do for painting the forty fifth sonnet, where the mood changes back and forth quickly, as though something happens within the time frame of writing the sonnet, even but now:

Until life’s composition be recured
By those swift messengers returned from thee,
Who even but now come back again, assured
Of thy fair health, recounting it to me:

This told, I joy; but then no longer glad,
I send them back again and straight grow sad.

 Some commentators believe that these assurances of fair health must come from a letter (arriving just as the poet is pouring his depression into the sonnet).

I don’t think so. The whole point of the sonnet is in this incredible swiftness with which one’s thoughts and desires move (sliding from here to there and back):

The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion slide.

I believe it has nothing to do with letters, and everything to do with the very nature of our thought processes, and the barely controllable rapidity of their unpredictable jumps from place to place, from subject to subject, from memory to imagination. Our thoughts don’t need letters (or any other external stimuli) to change from moment to moment; they change all the time as it is (unless one happens to be fully immersed in something truly challenging and/or exciting — but more about this later).

In my experience, there are people who know this about themselves, and those who don’t. Maybe there are even some sages who are exempt (from what I’ve read, a lifetime of meditation practice can probably do that to a person), and it’s never a good idea to generalise too broadly from one’s own experience — people, I am finding, may differ from one another more than we (or I, at least) tend to assume. Still, I believe that some people are unaware of this swift motion within themselves simply because consciousness does its best to conceal it from us and present itself as a more consistent and reliable guide to reality than it is. As Tor Norretranders writes in his book on consciousness, it is a very good liar. But these lies can be unmasked with a smallest attempt at introspection: just close your eyes, wait for the first thought to occur and make your best effort to keep it there, in the focus of your conscious attention, unchanged.

My guess is that you’ll find your thoughts flying somewhere else fairly quickly, within a minute; suddenly, you are somehow — you don’t know why and wherefore — thinking about something else entirely. If that’s the case, you are in good company, because this, I am sure, is what this sonnet is about.     

So am I trying to say that a human being is incapable of consistently focused thinking (not even Shakespeare)?

Of course not. The modern science seems to have discovered the neural underpinnings of two “modes”: one is a mind concentrated, immersed in something, “in the flow”, and the other is a mind left to its own devices, wandering, “absent” (they call the latter “default mode”). It’s in the “default” state that one’s thoughts and desires jump from “here and now” to other places (and moments in time) all the time.

My guess is that focusing on the very experience of one’s thoughts and desires being elsewhere — concentrating enough for the experience to emerge as a poem — would “switch” the brain’s mode to the state of complete immersion in the process. If so, then it is this immersion in creating a sonnet that brings the thoughts and desires (slight air and purging fire) back to the poet to restore life’s compositioneven but now — and then this meta-experience itself goes into the poem, too. But once it’s recognised for what it is, the thoughts and desires immediately go straight back to the original experience of separation and longing.

Where does this leave me as far as my painting “translation” is concerned?

The thing is, the painting process — at its best, at least — has the same effect; it vacillates between a state of mind (or an emotional state, if you wish) the painter brings to the view to begin with and the (completely different) state of focused interaction between the painter and the painting, the flow of painting — when life’s composition is restored. At a risk of oversimplification, there is a joy in a painting going well even if it expresses (or is intended to express) sadness. My challenge, then, was to express this meta-experience of swift vacillation in a single painting (while still holding the painting together as a unified visual impression).

To do so, I have made a compositionally risky decision to follow the sonnet in its reliance on the theory of four elements and four humours.

The view itself contains, of course, all four elements — earth, water, air and fire (if you accept the sun as a manifestation of fire). It is, originally, a real-life view from Anchor Bay in Northern California; the painting is based on this plein air study.

Lena Levin. Talking to Vincent at Anchor Bay.
Lena Levin. Talking to Vincent at Anchor Bay. 12″×16″. Oil on linen panel. 2013.

But the four elements also make their appearance as “states” of human mind, in the way — or, to be more precise, in the multiple ways — the view is re-created in the painting. The painting is structured as four overlapping squares — roughly corresponding to water, earth, fire and air if you look at the painting clock-wise beginning from the bottom left. I think of them as four semi-transparent slides, four pairs of “inner glasses” through which the inner state of mind modulates one’s way of seeing what’s presented to the senses.

In the centre of the painting, where all four squares overlap, all elements are united to recure life’s composition.

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