On Art as Möbius strip

In their recent book, “Art as therapy”, Alain de Bottom and John Armstrong write that the question of what Art is for “has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent.”

Do I share this feeling — and the accompanying reluctance to discuss this question?

Leonid Pasternak. Rilke
Leonid Pasternak. Rilke

I think so, yes: if someone were to ask me this question, “What is Art for?” in a personal conversation, I would probably feel awkward and look sheepish (or arrogant — these two are commonly confused). Questions feel impudent if you feel obliged to know the answer, but don’t. And so it is with this question: I don’t know the answer — even though, as a painter, I feel that I probably should have one ready. But then again, it may be one of the questions that don’t really have the answer; one may have to live the question, as Rilke said in a letter to a young poet. “Perhaps, — he continued, — you will then gradually, without noticing it, one distant day live right into the answer.

Perhaps I should just go ahead and memorise Rilke’s suggestion just in case someone asks me? Because insofar as I feel like I have lived into some answer to this question (an answer if not the answer), how can I put it into words? Try to put it in general, universal terms — and it sounds too audacious, too lofty, way over the top (I almost hear myself telling myself “Come off it” before I even open my mouth). Try to be more personal — but then the question feels way too private, the answer too intimate to be voiced (as though someone were to casually ask me to explain what it is I love about my husband).

Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863
Edouard Manet. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Oil on canvas. 1863

And so, unfairly or not, but the question does end up feeling illegitimate and impudent — which makes it immensely tempting to resort to the familiar “art for art’s sake” adage; perhaps Kandinsky was right: it’s the best the age we were born into can attain to.

But there is the rub: we aren’t just born into this age; it’s also we ourselves who make it what it is, complete with its growing art-alienation (which may be but another aspect of the life alienation of the modern world). As Kandinsky puts it, “those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing.”  Or, in de Botton and Armstrong’s somewhat more detached language:

“We are likely to leave highly respected museums and exhibitions feeling underwhelmed, or even bewildered and inadequate, wondering why the transformational experience we had anticipated did not occur.”     

And this is what they propose to change with their concept of “art as therapy” — the concept of art as a “tool” that, like other tools, “has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with.” Art “compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties.

Lascaux animal painting
Lascaux animal painting

Metaphors are our way of understanding the unknown: we equate it with something familiar, something we feel we already know. “Art-as-therapy” is such a metaphor: therapy stands for a familiar, established way of healing human psyches — or, if we abandon Greek and put it in plain English, of healing our souls. If an artist were to tell you that he is out to heal and transform your soul (as Kandinsky does, by the way), it would likely sound pretentious and overblown to a modern sceptical ear. “Art as therapy” metaphor has exactly the same meaning, but adds a demystifying, comforting, almost “scientific” ring to it. Actually, I am hypothesising here, because I happen to be less familiar with (and more suspicious of) therapy than with art. After all, art has been around for fifty thousands years at least, while therapy is what? Barely one century old?

“Art-as-tool” is another demystifying metaphor; after all, we’ve got lots of tools for expanding the capacities of our minds — so art must be just one of them, something like an old-fashioned Google Search (in fact, compensating for the inborn weakness of human memory is the very first “function of art” discussed in the book; I suspect Google Search might be a more effective tool for this particular job).

The value of these metaphors (of which, as you might have noticed, I am not entirely convinced) will become clear (or not) in how well they “work”: whether they make their way into our shared worldview and help to decrease the art alienation in our world (and the book is filled with specific proposals to this end).

In the meanwhile, they made me think of another metaphor for art — something I could honestly say if casually asked what art is for. Here it is:

Art is a Möbius strip for reality.   
M.C. Escher. Möbius strip I. 1961

If you don’t know what “Möbius strip” is, it might not seem like a good metaphor. But you can do it yourself very easily: just take a paper strip, give it a half-twist, and then join the ends to form a loop. What happens is this: the paper strip now has only one surface. If you look at it at any specific point, it still seems to  have two neat sides — but follow it from this point with a finger tip, and it will soon find itself on “the other side”, without ever actually jumping from one side to another. With one movement, you have created an object with a single surface. And not only this: it now has neither a beginning nor an end. I still remember the sense of unbelievable miracle when my father showed me how it works (I must have been about five — one is eager for miracles at that age, but this one still stays with me).

But what does it have to do with art? The thing, our lives are happening in the constant state of duality — between spirit and matter, between soul and body, between consciousness and nature, between “inner” and “outer” (each age choosing its own terms).

Whether this duality is real or illusionary is an interesting question, turning the duality on itself: Does it reside in consciousness or in nature? Does it belong to the mind or the matter side of itself? And which of these sides is actually real? Be it as it may, we are stuck with it, because it is so deeply and unavoidably embedded in our languages: one cannot even begin to talk without, consciously or unconsciously, dragging the duality in. Notice how it is right there when de Botton and Armstrong explain the function of art (in the quote above), in this case opposing the mind and the body.

What art does with reality is exactly what a Möbius strip does: it temporarily banishes its duality. It gives the reality a half-twist and momentarily joins the ends. It quite simply, literally doesn’t belong to either side (or belongs to both of them, which is the same thing), however we define or describe the split: it’s the inner making an appearance in the outer, the mind shaping the matter, the subjective transforming into the objective (and vice versa).

As I was writing this, Maria Popova published a post about Anne Lamott’s book (“Stitches: a handbook of meaning, hope and repair”). Here is one quote:

When you love something like reading — or drawing or music or nature — it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great. If you are lucky enough to know this, then your search for meaning involves whatever that Something is.    

This sense of connection comes, I believe, from the dissolution of duality — from connecting the two sides of life into one. That’s what Art is for.

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On holding Time: the painting of sixty fifth sonnet

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65: Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 20"x20". Oil on canvas. 2014
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65: Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back? 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2014

[accordion_item title=”Read the sixty fifth sonnet again…“]

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil o’er beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.


[pullquote type=”right”] Wouldn’t holding the flow of time amount to dispelling an illusion, the illusion that there is anything to hold to begin with? [/pullquote]

The first, blurry, visualisation of this sonnet came easily: it’s all about holding something, or failing to hold (the verb hold is repeated thrice in different contexts, in every quatrain). And then there is this beautifully mixed metaphor of strong hand holding Time’s swift foot back in the eleventh line — so hands appeared in the very first sketch for this painting.

The hand imagery also offered a straightforward “translation” of the miracle of the sonnet: poetry transformed into painting. One hand will be holding a brush and actually painting the painting; just like this in this miracle self-references the sonnet, the painting will reference itself (I was indeed painting this hand from life, while working on this very painting).

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]But what is it that these hands are trying to hold?[/feature_headline]

The question kept teasing me: I was convinced my vision of the future painting was so blurry because I didn’t have the answer, yet I decided to start, in the hope that the answer will come in the process. That’s, after all, what I probably love most about the process of painting: painting as a peculiar way of thinking, a word-less dialogue between the vision and the material. “Wordless” sounds like an oxymoron for a sonnet painting; but it’s only the words of the sonnet that are present: no inner discussions of its meaning or interpretation.      

Has the question resolved itself in this painting? The answer is both yes and no. The “yes” of it is this: the hands are trying to grasp the meaning of life. I spent some time looking for a historical grounding for this reading, but it emerged in my mind all by itself in the process of painting, an offspring of this strange interaction between poetry and colour.

It’s there in the painting: this is why there is, in a sense, nothing they hold, except for the chaotic movements of colour and the brush: the meaning of life is as impossible to grasp and hold as summer’s honey breath.

And this is the “no” of it: I don’t know what the meaning of life is, so all I could do was paint the question. Or put it this way: I know the meaning of life as it happens, but one cannot grasp it and cage it — neither in words, nor in concrete images. The blurriness of my initial image, it has turned out, was not an imperfect visualisation; it was its essence.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]But Shakespeare doesn’t say a word about the meaning of life, does he?[/feature_headline]

The sonnet is all about the non-existence of immortality, the impossibility of holding Time. Am I not, then, adding something alien to the sonnet, something that was never there at all? Maybe I am — it might even be inevitable (openness to such bizarre interactions with future minds is, arguably, what makes a poem immortal). Still, I believe this reading, the seed of it at least, is right there in the sonnet: immortality is relevant to the life of mortals only insofar as it is conceived of as the locus of meanings, the larger-than-life context of mortal life.

After all, it might have been natural to understand the meaning of life in terms of immortality when the world around humans was immortal. That’s how they looked at it in antiquity:

”Praise, from which came glory and eventually everlasting fame, could be bestowed only upon things already “great,” that is, things that possessed an emerging, shining quality which distinguished them from all others and made glory possible. The great was that which deserved immortality, that which should be admitted to the company of things that lasted forever, surrounding the futility of mortals with their unsurpassable majesty” (Arendt “Between Past and Future”, 1961: 47).

But if the world is mortal, as it is now (and as it evidently was for Shakespeare), then there is no obvious reason why something should be immortal to be meaningful: if something is fleeting, it is not necessarily futile; its fleetingness makes it all the more glorious. And yet, when we see and recognise this emerging, shining quality, the inherited conceptual link in the time-worn semantic network of our intellectual tradition still points to immortality, calls out for it, but there is only a great void where immortality used to be.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h3″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]Shakespeare sees this shining quality in fleeting beauty, faces the great void, and hopes to fill it with poetry. How? [/feature_headline]

Can art hold the flow of time: hold Time’s swift foot back, hold out against its wrackful siege, hold a plea with its rage? Can it capture the fleeting, shining moment of transient beauty? This, I feel, is just another version of the question I’ve been painting; another way to put its elusive answer in words: what these hands are trying to hold is Time. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t seem as inherently, despairingly impossible as to hold meaning.

Holding a moment, making it “sit still” for a while, even if only within the pictorial space, is the very essence of painting. It’s harder to depict, in a painting, the flow of time, its swift movement. This painting tries to achieve this with two explicit pictorial contrasts: one between movement and stillness, and the other, between (the illusion of) three-dimensionality and two-dimensional flatness.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 65 (Detail).
Lena Levin. Sonnet 65 (Detail).

This latter strategy exploits the way we (or rather: our languages) spatialise Time, that is, the way we think and talk of Time as the fourth spatial dimension, in which we can travel in one direction only, and with the pre-ordained velocity (unless, of course, we are time-travelling in our imagination). As holding the flow of time would reduce this four-dimensional time-space to a three-dimensional single moment, so the painting relinquishes its illusion of three-dimensionality in the bright warm area in the top right corner, above the brush. This area, the “painting within painting”, is both still and flat, overtly two-dimensional: the painting hand holds the flow of time and so protects the shining brightness of summer’s honey breath against the chaotic movement of cold colours.

This gives rise to the final paradox: after all, this painting, as any painting, is still and two-dimensional, whatever its contents and technique; movement and depth are but illusions created in interaction between a painting and its viewer’s sense of vision. The painting hand “collapses” the third dimension and “stops” the movement that were never really there in the first place. It has always been an illusion, a trick of senses, perhaps as illusionary as the fourth spatial dimension, in which our future pretends to exist “before us” and the past, “behind”. Wouldn’t holding the flow of time amount to dispelling an illusion, the illusion that there is anything to hold to begin with — no swift foot, no wrackful siege? Wouldn’t the world then be just like a painting that is still and flat, with neither depth nor movement? Wouldn’t it be boring and utterly devoid of meaning?

I don’t have answers, and these may well be the wrong questions — but these are the questions painting this sonnet leaves me to live with…

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On sonnet 65: art and immortality

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””] ... is it immortality that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace immortality of nature? [/feature_headline]

J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.
J.M.W.Turner. Ulysses deriding Polyphemus. 1829. Oil on canvas. 132 x 203 cm.

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil o’er beauty can forbid?

O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 65

There is one inevitable stage in the process of painting a sonnet: getting thoroughly puzzled with something about it. For this sonnet, the puzzle was this:

The couplet seems to give a tentative promise to preserve for eternity the young man’s beauty, but then why does the sad mortality of long-lasting things play such a huge role, taking over the whole body of the sonnet?

Does one really need this grandiose background to appreciate the fleeting transience of human beauty? We know much more about the mortality of nature than Shakespeare and his contemporaries possibly could, accustomed as we are even to the perishability of stars and the universe itself, but I could neither feel nor see the connection: What does the death of the sun in the distant future have to do with the imminent ageing of one’s lover? How might it possibly help if the sun was, indeed, immortal?

Here is the answer I’ve found…

The seductive idea of immortalising something (or someone) in poetry originated in the Greek antiquity, and outlived its cornerstone: the ancient belief in the absolute immortality of nature. For the ancients, all things in nature were immortal, either ever-present (in inorganic nature) or constantly renewing themselves (in organic nature). They simply didn’t know that neither brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea but sad mortality over-sways their power, and so they lived in a now barely imaginable world where everything was eternal except humans. This is how Hannah Arendt describes this worldview in her 1961 essay “The concept of history”:

“<…> embedded in a cosmos in which everything was immortal, it was mortality which became the hallmark of human existence. <…> The mortality of man lies in the fact that individual life with a recognisable life-story from birth to death, rises out of biological life. […] This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.(Arendt 1961: 42)

Hence the fundamental tragic paradox of Greek culture:   

“<…> on the one hand, everything was seen and measured against the background of the things that are forever, while, on the other, true human greatness was understood, at least by the pre-Platonic Greeks, to reside in deeds and words […] This paradox, that greatness was understood in terms of permanence while human greatness was seen in precisely the most futile and least lasting activities of men, has haunted Greek poetry and historiography as it has perturbed the quiet of the philosophers.” (Arendt 1961: 45-46)

Poetry’s role was to resolve this paradox by praising great deeds and words and thus immortalising them in the everlasting memory of humankind (that’s why Mnemosyne is the mother of all muses)— as an animal species, the humankind shared in the immortality of organic nature, so one could rely on the immortality of its memory.  

Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.
Claude Monet. Camille Monet on her deathbed. 1879. Oil on canvas. 90 x 68 cm.

Shakespeare is separated from the antiquity by a whole epoch defined by Christianity and its radical reversal of the ancient worldview (now nature was perishable, and individual humans were immortal). But in the sixteenth century, things were a-changing; as the Roman Church was losing its central political role, intellectual and public life was gradually being secularized; in the words of Hannah Arendt, “men once more had become mortals”. When the Renaissance humanists went back to the source of their intellectual tradition, “the ancient opposition of a mortal life to a more or less immortal world failed them. Now both life and world had become perishable, mortal, and futile” (Arendt 1961: 74).

This, then, is the historical context of this sonnet. Its lament over sad mortality of everything actually subverts the immortalising power of art, traditionally grounded in absolute immortality of nature. Paradoxically, though, the couplet reasserts the power of art: what the sonnet seems to be saying is that this miracle of poetry may still “work”; art might be able to replace immortality of nature, instead of relying on it. But how? If earth and boundless sea are perishable, then so is, evidently, black ink

And yet, that’s the world we live in now, don’t we? We don’t exactly know how and why, but art is still here. And even if its original promise of absolute immortality is gone and forgotten, the conceptual link between art and immortality persists. In the following quote, for instance, Aaron Copland invokes this conceptual link as the raison d’être for arts:

“The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant.” (quoted from Brainpickings.org)

Great works of art are actually our only direct experience of immortality, almost the only context which keeps this very word alive in the world: we wouldn’t call earth or sea immortal, but we do still use this word for poems and paintings. But the key word here, I believe, is significance — the meaning of life.

Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.
Rembrandt van Rijn. Danaë. 1636-1643. Oil on canvas. 185 x 202.5 cm.

Shakespeare belongs to the age when the sad mortality of nature first threatened the meaningfulness of life. The modern age has grown habituated to the idea that not only earth, but the sun, the stars, the universe itself — everything is mortal, nothing is forever; so habituated to it, indeed, that, for most of us, this knowledge has lost its personal urgency, the immediacy of its connection to our own lives: that painful urgency that can still be heard in Shakespeare’s voice. As Arendt writes, “Today we find it difficult to grasp that this situation of absolute mortality could be unbearable to men” (1961: 74).

This may be true (it is certainly true for me, personally), but this personal longing for immortality in nature has not disappeared from our world completely; Alan Lightman, in a very recent book, writes of it as of an intrinsic paradox of human condition:

To my mind, it is one of the profound contradictions of human existence that we long for immortality, indeed fervently believe that something must be unchanging and permanent, when all of the evidence in nature argues against us. I certainly have such a longing. Either I am delusional, or nature is incomplete. […] Despite all the richness of the physical world — the majestic architecture of atoms, the rhythm of the tides, the luminescence of the galaxies—nature is missing something even more exquisite and grand: some immortal substance, which lies hidden from view. ” (Lightman 2014). 

Perhaps that’s why we can still hear Shakespeare’s pain in his verse, even though the longing has been gradually dulled by resignation and acceptance. But this longing for absolute immortality in a perishable world may not be an eternal universal of human condition, as Lightman suggests, but rather an unhappy part of our intellectual inheritance from the Greek antiquity. It left us with the concept of immortality and its implicit connection to meaningfulness, handed down through generations neatly “packed” in our various languages for easy, unconscious acquisition, even though immortality itself disappeared from the world.

But is it immortality per se that humans long for, or rather its perceived ability to give meaning to life, its seductive promise of significance? And isn’t this, then, the role in which arts can replace the antiquated immortality of nature? Isn’t this what Shakespeare’s tentative hope in this miracle is about?    

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On compassion as co-feeling

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””]We cannot foresee how our words will be heard, but we are given compassion, like we are given grace. — Fyodor Tyutchev [/feature_headline]

In 1978 my father, Sergey Maslov, started a small underground (samizdat) magazine in St.Petersburg (then Leningrad), called ‘Summa’ (‘The Sum’). It was a really small affair: only eight copies ‘printed’ (meaning ‘typewritten’), four for Leningrad and four for Moscow.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death's eternal cold
Lena Levin. Sonnet 13: Against the stormy gusts of winter day and barren rage of death’s eternal cold. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas

Typewritten copies, sometimes barely readable: that’s the form our most interesting reading took in those days. That’s how I first read Orwell’s “1984”, and Huxley’s “Brave New World”, and even something as seemingly apolitical and innocent as Nabokov’s “The Gift”. Since the copies were so scarce, one often had to read really fast (it wasn’t unusual to get a book for one night only). Both production and distribution of these uncensored texts were punishable offences, because they were deemed, by virtue of being uncensored, “anti-Soviet” (the reading of them, remarkably, wasn’t illegal).

My father started “The Sum” because he painfully felt the chasm between two schools of free (uncensored) political thought: atheist, Europe-oriented liberals and orthodox, conservative, anti-Western “Slavophils”. This chasm began when Peter the Great first tried to “westernise” his empire in the beginning of the eighteenth century, and then kept reemerging whenever a brief period of even limited political freedom occurred in the Russian history. As crippled as the freedom was in the seventies, it was still a freedom compared with Stalin’s times — and the chasm was there again. “The Sum” was an attempt to heal it, to inspire mutual understanding, and my father used the Russian word for compassion to describe the only path to it he saw.

Although I translated the Russian word he used (сочувствие) correctly just now, it has a broader semantic range than the English ‘compassion’. At one point in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, Milan Kundera halts the story to make a similar linguistic point. Here is what he says:

“All languages that derive from Latin form the word ‘compassion’ by combining the prefix meaning ‘with’ (com-) and the root meaning ‘suffering’ (Late Latin, passio). In other languages, Czech, Polish, German, and Swedish, for instance — this word is translated by a noun formed of an equivalent prefix combined with the word that means ‘feeling’ (Czech sou-cit, Polish współ-czucie, German Mit-gefühl, Swedish med-känsla). In languages that derive from Latin, ‘compassion’ means: we cannot look on coolly as others suffer; or, we sympathise with those who suffer. Another word with approximately the same meaning, ‘pity’, connotes a certain condescension towards the sufferer (French, pitié; Italian, pieta; etc.). ‘To take pity on a woman’ means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.

That is why the word ‘compassion’ generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second-rate sentiment that has little to do with love. To love someone out of compassion means not really to love.

In languages that form the word ‘compassion’ not from the root ‘suffering’ but from the root for ‘feeling’, the word is used in approximately the same way, but to contend that it designates a bad or inferior sentiment is difficult. The secret strength of its etymology floods the word with another light and gives a broader meaning: to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the other’s misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion — joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion (in the sense of soucit, Polish współczucie, German Mitgefühl, Swedish medkänsla) therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.”

Marc Chagall. The birthday. Oil on canvas. 1915.
Marc Chagall. The birthday. Oil on canvas. 1915. 80.5×99.5 cm.

English, of course, doesn’t (strictly speaking) derive from Latin, but it has a long-standing habit of borrowing words without translating them part-by-part, and that’s how Middle English borrowed the word ‘compassion’ from Old French. Its inner structure has had no power over its meaning, since the word ‘suffer’, albeit also originally from Latin, had been borrowed even earlier, via the Anglo-Norman route. I suppose ‘compassion’ could have linked itself to the word ‘passion’ in the course of language evolution, but it didn’t — so for the sake of Kundera’s sweeping comparison, English belongs with French and Italian.

I am not completely sure Kundera is right about all languages that created this word by translating its components (as with-feeling, or co-feeling); the secret power of word’s inner structure doesn’t necessarily work in the same way even in similar circumstances. But, obviously, he is right about Czech — except he also felt the need to make this point within his novel, which, after all, was written in Czech. Come to think about it, one doesn’t go into lengthy linguistic asides for every word one uses in a novel, unless there is a certain semantic fluidity, maybe a not fully realised potential, some intrinsic variability in the word’s meaning (I wrote about this potential for instability in words describing inner experiences in an earlier post).

Or maybe this thought crossed my mind just because I feel this instability in Russian. Its word for ‘compassion’ has the same inner structure as in Czech or German, translated part-by-part from Greek, as co-feeling, so the structure exerts a similar pressure on its meaning. Since the structure is quite transparent, the word would connect itself — quite literally, on the neural level — to feeling with in each new brain where it is ‘replicated’ in childhood. My own version of this word is certainly inherited from my father, but I am not sure this particular ‘mutation’ of its meaning has ever been common among the speakers of Russian. I remember he used to separate the prefix from the root by a hyphen in writing, со-чувствие, as though he wanted to re-awaken this inner structure and its semantic potential in his readers’ minds.

Rembrandt. Two old men disputing. 1628.
Rembrandt. Two old men disputing. 1628. Oil on oak panel. 72×55 cm.

The meaning he had in mind was, I believe, close to Kundera’s ‘emotional telepathy’, but more intellectual than romantic: it was co-feeling as a path to understanding another’s thoughts, truly understanding them; a path that lies through feeling another’s feelings: the feelings that fuel thoughts, and the feelings invoked by thoughts. A synthesis between co-feeling and co-thinking. At least that’s how I understood him.

This variation on the theme of compassion can be traced back to a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, a nineteenth century Russian poet. He wrote: We cannot foresee how our words will be heard, but we are given compassion, like we are given grace. Like the word ‘grace’ points to the experience of unity with the divine, so ‘compassion’, in this sense of co-feeling, points to the experience of unity with other human beings.

Both Kundera’s experience of the supreme form of romantic love, and my father’s experience of the supreme form of intellectual communion — both these experiences certainly exist, which is to say, they are possible. But I am afraid they don’t really have names, not even in Czech and Russian, respectively, because these meanings are hidden – drowned, as it were, in the semantic pond of compassion. In his linguistic aside, Kundera tells us that the words for co-feeling are used “in approximately the same way” as their French (and English) counterparts (and if they are used in approximately the same way, then, mutatis mutandis, they have approximately the same meaning).   

I am afraid these experiences belong to what Hannah Arendt calls, following René Char, “inheritance with no will-and-testament”, a treasure occasionally found by some, but lost again and again — because there is no name, no “tradition which selects and names, which hands down and preserves, which indicates where the treasures are and what their worth is” (Hannah Arendt “Between Past and Future”). And that’s a pity, because these are glorious treasures, aren’t they?

But what can one do? No one can create a tradition by themselves (it requires a multitude by definition), but anyone can contribute. It’s always like this with languages: no single speaker can change a language, but everyone can add to a language change — just by talking in a certain way, and thereby influencing others. It’s a peculiar process, language change: with few exceptions, it’s impossible to pinpoint its beginning, because a novel usage would pop up here and there, sometimes for a long time, without any apparent long-term effect. And then, out of the blue, it takes off and spreads — and the change is complete in what seems like no time, as though it has always been that way.      

Isn’t that what Milan Kundera was doing with his aside about a particular meaning of soucit — willing the experience into the future? And my father with his consistent use of сo-чувствие — both in “The Sum”, and in other writings, and in talking? It certainly feels like an inheritance, willed to me in the most primal sense — I’ve always known where this treasure is, and its worth (even if it took me some time to realise it). Finding it, though — ay, there is the rub.


On Titian’s “Man with a glove”

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””]…the magic of painting is in this alchemic unification of all layers of meaning and expression; the essence of co-feeling is in this temporary fusion of minds between the sitter, the painter, and the viewer[/feature_headline]

A portrait is an act of love. It suspends the ordinary boundaries between two people, between the subject and the object, between the body and the soul. It is a state of co-feeling; sym-pathy in its original Greek etymology, but an asymmetrical one: the roles of the painter and the sitter are distinct but inseparable, like yin and yang, like the knower and the known.

I know it’s an act of love because I cannot do it unless I love my sitter in the deepest sense of the word to begin with. At a risk of sounding too biblical, I cannot do it unless I love the sitter as myself. Incidentally, it means I also know that I cannot love a random neighbour as myself; maybe when (and if) I can, I will finally be able to do portraits of strangers.

Titian, quite obviously, could. But at the time of painting this portrait, in the early twenties of the sixteenth century, he was yet to become this universal (and universally sought-after) portraitist we know from the art history, the prince of painters and the painter of princes. So he was painting portraits of friends, of people close to him in age and sensibilities; people to whom he must have felt a natural, easy sympathy as a living human being, not as a master painter or as a sage proficient in universal love; a kind of sympathy one can easily identify with, co-feel.

Art historians don’t know for sure the identity of this young man — there are several competing hypotheses. This uncertainty eerily resembles the enigma of Shakespeare’s young man, but here, at least, one can be certain that there existed one, very concrete and very individual, young man who, somewhere in the beginning of the sixteenth century, was sitting for this portrait holding his glove with easy elegance. The sonnets, for all we know, could have been addressed to different young men, or to none in particular. Shakespeare, this master of creating living, breathing individuals in his plays, gives you next to nothing about the young man of the sonnets and so sets you free to imagine him as you like it.

So I am free to imagine him as Titian’s “Man with a glove”. Of course, this boy is Italian or Spanish (not English and not even Welsh), and time-wise, too, it’s not exactly right: he could have been Shakespeare’s young man’s grandfather or even great grandfather. But he is also young, beautiful, elegant, rich; and he, too, belongs to the age of Renaissance. And in the end, these objective differences and similarities don’t really matter: there is something deeper, more fundamental, that connects this portrait to Shakespeare’s sonnets and their young addressee.

There is a seductive quality in the portrait, born out of two contradictory forces. One is the tangible psychological closeness, the illusion of sharing in his feelings and thoughts, of knowing him. Immersed in the portrait, I find myself as though within this act of love, understanding, sympathy which was happening at its conception. For a brief time, I can be one with both the painter and the sitter, experiencing my own looking at the portrait as essentially the same act as this young man’s looking at something or someone I don’t see, and as Titian’s looking at his sitter in the process of painting. In this safe, sanctified space created by the painting, I surrender my own mind to both of them: co-feeling with the sitter, co-knowing with the painter.

TItian. Man with a glove. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm. ca. 1520-1525.
TItian. Man with a glove. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm. ca. 1520-1525.

I know, even though I am not directly conscious of it, that some neurones in my brain “mirror” the pose and the facial expression of the young sitter as though he were really here, while others react to the painter’s representational choices. And one of these choices is to impose a distance, a separation the sitter from the viewer — the second force that contributes to the power of the portrait. This boy with his glove is completely in his own space, separated from me by the marble pedestal.

The pedestal has Titian’s signature on it — and even as just now I felt myself within the flow of sympathy between the painter and the sitter, this feeling is spontaneously replaced the next moment with being thrown out from this space, the painter putting an impenetrable barrier between me and the sitter. In marked difference with Titian’s later portraits, this man doesn’t engage with the viewer in any way; he doesn’t make eye contact — he looks resolutely elsewhere, at something I don’t and can never see, completely within his space and his moment in time, undisturbed by my gaze.

This tension between closeness and distance, attraction and alienation, love and estrangement, heat and cold — that’s, I believe, what gives the portrait is seductive strength, and also connects it with the sonnets and their emotional roller-caster.

TItian. Man with a glove. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm. ca. 1520-1525.
TItian. Man with a glove. Oil on canvas. 100 x 89 cm. ca. 1520-1525.

Titian uses the distribution of whites in the painting to underscore this contrast: with the background so uniformly dark, it is the whites that play the lead in establishing the viewer’s relationship with the sitter. And here, the whites make two very different gestures. One is the sharp triangle of the boy’s shirt, which points to the face directly and straightforwardly: if you trace its edges upward in your imagination, they will enclose the face. The opening of his coat is like opening of his soul to the viewer.

The other gesture is the graceful, indirect, discontinuous curve which begins at the bottom of the painting, with the cuff on the right hand, goes slightly up and to the right, through the exquisite greys of the gloves to the other cuff, and then up and leftwards, to the collar, and only then to his eyes; the invisible continuation of this curve is the direction of his gaze.

And then, of course, there are hands: the right, gloveless, hand with energetic, direct movement of the index finger and the relaxed left hand, covered by one glove and carelessely holding the other — probably the most straightforward expression of the contrast between openness and aloofness. He is here, and yet he is not. I feel like I am one with him, and yet he is distant.

These compositional devices work, it would seem, at different layers of the painting. The sitter’s own nature with its combination of sincerity and aloofness, simplicity and elegance: the viewer pays attention to the expression of his eyes, his pose, the gesture of his hands as if he were sitting right here in the same room, in flesh and blood. The relationship between the painter and the sitter, with its sympathy and distance: the painter absorbs the sitter, both his outward appearance and his inner world, but he cannot let himself be absorbed (otherwise there would be no painting); the sitter lets himself be lovingly observed, but looks away — he keeps his distance, too. And finally, the relationship between the portrait and the viewer: the time-defying connection established right here and now, as you look at the portrait. So where, in whose mind, does this tantalising, seductive feeling, the contrast between attraction and separation, belong?

I don’t know, and that, in a sense, is the point: the magic of painting is in this alchemic unification of all layers of meaning and expression; the essence of co-feeling is in this temporary fusion of minds between the sitter, the painter, and the viewer.

On the miracle of mutual understanding

[feature_headline type=”left, center, right” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h5″ icon=””]…one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. [/feature_headline]

Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.
Edouard Manet. The Railway. 1873. Oil on canvas. 93.3 × 111.5 cm.

Have you ever wondered what a miracle it is that we are able to understand one another at all, even if imperfectly, when we talk about inner, invisible things, about the contents of consciousness?
I used the word thing in the previous sentence, even though these inner states and events are not really things at all, and herein lies one aspect of this mystery. The words of our languages are well-adapted to point to something in the outer world (and, come to think about it, we ourselves are well-adapted to orient ourselves in this world). But when the mind turns upon itself, it all quickly grows increasingly confusing.

Consider how a child learns a word like table or tree. In understanding the meanings of these words, she is helped along by all the tables and trees she sees around her; she only has to understand that that is what the adults are “pointing to” with these particular words (and children are really good at it, that is how we are able to acquire our native languages so easily). And so these words are able to re-create themselves in newly arriving brains with a high degree of what geneticists call fidelity of replication: you can be fairly sure that the word table in your child’s brain is a good, faithful copy of the same word in your own brain.

But what about love, or shame, or courage? The faculty of language acquisition we are born with ensures that a child would guess that there is an inner state such a word must point to, and try to identify this hypothetical state with something she feels in herself. Nowadays, parents are often advised to try and understand what their child is feeling and name these feelings for them. I am not sure how many parents actually try to do that, and how accurately they are able to identify their child’s feeling even if they do. But it certainly wasn’t a common parenting practice over the course of our languages’ evolution; most children are, and have always been, on their own in this daunting task.

It doesn’t help that some states of mind are supposed to be experienced much later in life, when the normal age of language acquisition is long since over, and we have lost the childhood’s natural ability to acquire language as though by osmosis. How many times was a youngster’s question about love answered with something like “You’ll know it when it happens”? (And then, when she finally believes that she knows, she is quite likely to be told that what she feels cannot be “real love”…)

And languages differ wildly in what a child is supposed to be able to understand and experience. In Russian, for instance, the word for conscience was borrowed very long ago from Greek by translating its components, as co-knowledge (Russian, со-весть) and belongs by now to a very basic vocabulary: generally, a Russian child is supposed to infer, at a very early age, that she is expected to have something within that is able to tell right from wrong (and in exactly the same way, I might add, that it does within her parents, because, obviously, the word is most often mentioned when a child misbehaves in one way or another). And if she doesn’t feel that she has it? Well, it’s just too bad to even think about.

But there is more: the faculty of language acquisition works in such a way that a child must believe that different words must point to different things; it really helps in learning words like apple and pear; in the domain of mental states, this leads one to the unconscious assumption that there are as many distinct feelings, states of mind, mental faculties, etc. as there are words in one’s native language for them. Can this be true, in view of how widely languages vary even in size (let alone the details) of their mental and emotional vocabularies? Frankly, I am not sure.

It’s no wonder, perhaps, that there is now a new word, alexithymia, for inability to name one’s own emotions — a personality trait supposed to characterise about ten percent of the general population (it would be interesting to learn whether this percentage depends on the native language). All in all, it seems stranger that most of us somehow succeed in this seemingly hopeless endeavour of establishing a correspondence between the words of our languages and our own states of mind, at least enough to go through life believing that we actually do have shared meanings for these words (in spite of constant misunderstandings and failures of communication).

But even if we do succeed, it seems clear that the fidelity of replication must be much, much lower for mental and emotional vocabulary: one can never be sure that the variant of a word that lives in one’s own brain matches the one that lives in the brain of another. I ran into this problem the other day, when I was trying to write about Titian’s “Man with a glove” (it was the original plan for this day’s post). I knew that the word compassion is a key to my relationship with this painting, but suddenly realised that I might have a completely idiosyncratic variant of this word living in my head.

It’s partly a matter of language interference (two languages coexisting in one brain make things even more complicated than they normally are), but not quite: at least as much, I believe, this particular mutation of meaning is part of my life’s story, and it may be more essential for the whole “Sonnets in colour” project than I understood before. And so I’ve decided to spend some time exploring the very concept of compassion, and my own mutated version of it.

I would so much like to know whether this means I also have a mutated experience of compassion, but that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? We have very limited ability of comparing our experiences directly, without the mediation of words. Or art…

Kandinsky on “art for art’s sake”

[pullquote cite=”Wassily Kandinsky” type=”left, right”]…art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul.[/pullquote]What is Art for? In their recent book, “Art as therapy” (Public library), Alain de Botton and John Armstrong write: “This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent”. In my experience, this usually happens when people don’t know the answer but feel they ought to.

In the case of art, of course, we have this saying, “art for art’s sake”, to fall back on — originally a slogan of artists’ defiance of contemporary utilitarian and moral conventions, which has turned into a platitude over its almost two centuries long history. Wassily Kandinsky didn’t shy away from the question of what art is for, and this is what he had to say about “art for art’s sake” in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” (Public library):

With cold eyes and indifferent mind the spectators regard the work. Connoisseurs admire the “skill” (as one admires a tightrope walker), enjoy the “quality of painting” (as one enjoys a pasty). But hungry souls go hungry away.

The vulgar herd stroll through the rooms and pronounce the pictures “nice” or “splendid.” Those who could speak have said nothing, those who could hear have heard nothing. This condition of art is called “art for art’s sake.” This neglect of inner meanings, which is the life of colours, this vain squandering of artistic power is called “art for art’s sake.”

These words of bitter indignation are for the viewers, but the artists aren’t spared either:

The artist seeks for material reward for his dexterity, his power of vision and experience. His purpose becomes the satisfaction of vanity and greed. In place of the steady co-operation of artists is a scramble for good things. There are complaints of excessive competition, of over-production. Hatred, partisanship, cliques, jealousy, intrigues are the natural consequences of this aimless, materialist art.

Here Kandinsky is harsh, and unapologetic, but he certainly has a point (the century that has passed since the time of his writing has hardly improved the condition of art, and it’s easily recognizable). And yet later on, he mentions the idea of “art for art’s sake” with more compassion. He writes:     

Painting is an art, and art is not vague production, transitory and isolated, but a power which must be directed to the improvement and refinement of the human soul <…> If art refrains from doing this work, a chasm remains unbridged, for no other power can take the place of art in this activity <…> at those times when the soul tends to be choked by material disbelief, art becomes purposeless and talk is heard that art exists for art’s sake alone.

And then, in a footnote to the last sentence:

This cry “art for art’s sake,” is really the best ideal such an age can attain to. It is an unconscious protest against materialism, against the demand that everything should have a use and practical value. It is further proof of the indestructibility of art and of the human soul, which can never be killed but only temporarily smothered.

It’s not even only about “practical value”, I believe. The idea of “art for art’s sake” was the art’s revolt against the increasing identification of meanings with purposes (which, according to Hannah Arendt, foreshadows “the growing meaninglessness of the modern world”), an attempt to build a defensive wall around art. But while protecting art from meaninglessness, hasn’t this wall separated art from life itself?