On art as Baron Munchausen’s pigtail

BaronMunchThere is an age-old paradox inherent in any attempt to “live a better life”, or “to better oneself” consciously: your life reflects who you are, and you are shaped by your life. To change your life, you’ve to got to change yourself; and to change your self, you’ve got to change your life; so where to begin? Whether you want to or not, you find yourself in the position of Baron Munchausen trying to pull himself (and his horse) out of a swamp by his pigtail (I believe this is called “bootstrapping” nowadays).

I was reminded of this paradox when I read the following passage from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book on “Creativity”, where he explains why it makes sense — for any one of us — to study lives of extraordinarily creative people:

“Their lives suggest possibilities for being that are in many ways richer and more exciting than most of us experience. By reading about them, it is possible to envision ways of breaking out from the routine, from the constraints of genetic and social conditioning, to a fuller existence. <…> Indeed, it could be said that the most obvious achievement of these people is that they created their own lives. And how they achieved this is something worth knowing, because it can be applied to all our lives, whether or not we are going to make a creative contribution.”

Is it really possible to change one’s life in this way, just by learning how extraordinary people live theirs?

I believe it is, if only because sometimes it’s just a matter of removing a “blind spot”: you suddenly see a possibility for change in your environment — maybe something easy, small, seemingly insignificant — which will turn out to be a catalyst for further changes, in your life and in your self, the beginning of a new path.

What resonated with me most in Csikszentmihalyi’s book is what he says about the role of our visual environment: beauty not just a source of pleasure and fleeting enjoyment, but as a shaper of our thoughts and feelings. I did read before about stubborn scientific problems magically solved when a scientist all but gives up and goes on vacation to one beautiful place or another — but I used to assume all these stories were mainly about letting one’s thoughts incubate below the threshold of consciousness rather than about the role of beauty in this process.

I now think it might have been a wrong assumption. Csikszentmihalyi writes:

“The belief that the physical environment deeply affects our thoughts and feelings is held in many cultures. The Chinese sages chose to write their poetry on dainty island pavilions or craggy gazebos. The Hindu Brahmins retreated to the forest to discover the reality hidden behind illusory appearances. Christian monks were so good at selecting the most beautiful natural spots that in many European countries it is a foregone conclusion that a hill or plain particularly worth seeing must have a convent or monastery built upon it.”

A possible reason for this, he suggests, is that complex and harmonious sensory experiences influence our cognition even when we don’t focus on them, and lead our minds to “novel and attractive patterns” — not a simple causal connection (just go to a beautiful place, and your mind will overflow with beautiful solutions and beautiful thoughts), but a connection nonetheless.   

Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers. 1888.
Vincent Van Gogh. Sunflowers. 1888. Oil on canvas. 92.1 × 73 cm.

What, then, about art? — not as a grand transformative experience one might have in a museum, or in the Sistine chapel, but as something just silently present in the visual environment of your life, often below the threshold of conscious attention.

There is a chapter in Csikszentmihalyi’s book about what people make of their home (and office) environments — and this, of course, applies not only to extraordinary people, but to every one of us. He writes:

“In one of my studies we interviewed two women, both in their eighties, who lived on different floors of the same high-rise apartment house. When asked what objects were special to her in her apartment, the first woman looked vaguely around her living room, which could have passed for a showroom in a reasonably pricey furniture store, and said that she couldn’t think of anything. She gave the same response in the other rooms—nothing special, nothing personal, nothing meaningful anywhere. The second woman’s living room was full of pictures of friends and family, porcelain and silver inherited from aunts and uncles, books she loved or that she intended to read. The hallway was hung with framed drawings of her children and grandchildren. In the bathroom the shaving tools of her deceased husband were arranged like a tiny shrine. And the life of the two women mirrored their homes: the first followed an affectless routine, the second a varied, exciting schedule.”

Here, of course, there is no simple and direct causal connection either: its not like the homes of the two women created their lives all by themselves. It seems much more likely that each woman created her own home and her own life: the same difference between them that we see in their homes is also reflected in their lives. After all, we are who we are, and changing our home decoration won’t change that, right? We are back with Baron Munchausen, and his horse, and his pigtail…

But let me tell you a story about myself, and how home decoration saved my life… 

Vincent Van Gogh. Head of a woman. 1883.
Vincent Van Gogh. Head of a woman. 1883.

 In 1996, we moved to Germany because I accepted a job at the University of Bielefeld. This town, Bielefeld, had been almost completely ruined by the Allied aviation during the Second World War, and then rebuilt in the spirit of austerity and pragmatism: reasonably comfortable, but without a touch of beauty. We rented a furnished apartment; it used to belong to the owner’s elderly mother, and the furnishings reflected that — it probably looked similar to that old woman’s apartment visited by Csikszentmihalyi. I remember there were remote controls for the bed and for all armchairs and only one small writing desk (certainly not enough for our family of three).

I was completely focused on finding my way in the university, learning to teach  in a rather unfamiliar language, arranging my son’s school matters, dealing with the quirks of department head’s temperament, and so on, and so forth — the usual routine of life, made more stressful by the move to another country. Our visual environment wasn’t on my list of priorities. In retrospect, I believe I took it as an immutable fact of this new life, without giving it a moment’s thought.

But then we went to Paris for a few days, and somewhere, in a small street behind Musée d’Orsay, serendipitously found a small dark shop filled with heaps upon heaps of reproductions in various sizes. Believe it or not, the idea that we can add reproductions of our favourite paintings to our environment in Bielefeld had not even crossed my mind before this chance encounter — it was only then that I understood clearly what had been missing in my life all along.

Marc Chagall. Over the town. 1918.
Marc Chagall. Over the town. 1918. Oil on canvas. 45 x 56 cm.

I don’t remember how much time we spent there, browsing through all these heaps of prints, but we went away with several huge posters to bring back — Chagall, Matisse, Van Gogh —  most of them for our apartment, and a nude by Matisse for my office (the very anticipation of shocking my head of department was just too tempting to resist; to his credit, he took it in his stride, which had the unexpected effect of improving our working relationship).

Henri Matisse. Nude seated with crossed legs. 1941-1942.
Henri Matisse. Nude seated with crossed legs. 1941-1942.

It would be a lie if I told you that our life changed miraculously once these posters were hanging on the walls of our Bielefeld apartment— all problems resolved, stumbling blocks dissolved, research ideas flowing freely and happily. Not quite. But it had certainly become much more of a life: I was feeling more alive every day, there seemed to be more reasons to get up in the morning, more laughter, more research, more trips to beautiful places.

What is probably more important and more to the point, I began to see more aspects of my life as changeable: seemingly unbreakable constraints and routines were being gradually unmasked as limiting but transient illusions. To repeat Csikszentmihalyi’s words, I was growing more and more aware of “ways of breaking out from the routine, from the constraints of genetic and social conditioning, to a fuller existence”. Now — nearly twenty years since that trip to Paris — I see that my life and my self have transformed completely, or at least more than I could have imagined then; this seemingly small change opened a path to revitalising — and living — my childhood dreams.

Does it all sound like one of Baron Munchausen’s adventures?

Have I pulled myself out of a swamp by my own pigtail (which doesn’t even exist)? I don’t think so — I believe it was the presence of Matisse, Chagall and Van Gogh that pulled me out. Since then, I had never again forgotten that I need paintings on my walls to be alive, and our collection of printed reproductions had been constantly growing before (much, much later) I began to replace them with my own oil studies of my favourite paintings.

And yet I obviously used to have this “blind spot” before that visit to Paris: I didn’t see what was lacking, even though the depressing emptiness was right in front of me. That’s what I recalled when I read about this old woman living in a showroom of a furniture store — maybe it’s not really who she was at all. Maybe she could have lived a different life — but no serendipitous occasion had helped her to recognise a similar “blind spot”, to become aware of what’s missing, what can be changed in her environment.

 I wish I had a time machine to go back and give her the right poster for her wall — for some reason, I imagine a nude by Matisse might have amused her… After all, if it did amuse my department head in Bielefeld, then everything seems possible.

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If the dull substance of my flesh were thought: on painting sonnet 44

Lena Levin. Sonnet 44.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 44: if the dull substance of my flesh were thought. 20″x20″. Oil on canvas. 2013.

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought
From limits far remote where thou doth stay

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought
To leap large length of miles when thou art gone,
But that, too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Receiving naught from elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 44

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Where does landscapes’ power to touch our emotions come from — beyond the pure enjoyment of beautiful or exotic views, or comforting peacefulness of green pastures?

Painting this sonnet has given me a novel way of looking at this question, because the sonnet connects so sublimely sea and land — as elements of a landscape, and water and earth — as fundamental elements of life’s composition: the speaker’s woes, and the dull heaviness of his tears, are made of exactly the same stuff as the sea and land that separate him from his beloved. From this perspective, looking at a landscape is like looking into the inner life of a human being.

For all its apparent pre-scientific naiveté, the theory of “four humours” recognises our essential unity with nature, in a striking contrast to the more modern experience of an isolated self.

Alan Watt writes in “The book: on the taboo of knowing who you are”:

“Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body—a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”

But the sciences (be they modern or antiquated) cannot really touch us emotionally — after all, that’s not how they are supposed to work. One can read a hundred books about one’s thoughts and desires being — if not exactly air and fire, but some bundles of electrochemical activities in a highly organised lump of neural cells, which are themselves highly organised lumps of simpler elements —  and all this knowledge won’t change the emotional experience of lonely self in the slightest.

Poetry, though, is another matter entirely.

Letting this sonnet sink into myself, living with its change of rhythm from nimble jumps to heavy slowness, with its almost imperceptible transformation of see and land into tears and dullness, I cannot help but feel this unity, perceive it as my own experience. The landscape (or, more precisely, the seascape) that emerged as my painting translation of this  sonnet fuses together several of my own impressions associated with the images of distance, space, separation.   

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Lena Levin. Tomales Bay Blues. 20"x16". 2013
Lena Levin. Tomales Bay Blues. 20″x16″. 2013

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Lena Levin. Pacifica. 20"x16". 2011.
Lena Levin. Pacifica. 20″x16″. 2011.

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But the sonnet isn’t simply a poetic expression of the “four humours” theory with its inherent unity between man and nature. There is a tension between two world views, two experiences of self: the ancient identity of fundamental elements in all their manifestations (from sea and land to human woes and dullness) versus the modern separation between thoughts and flesh, which echoes the separation between the lovers. A clash between antiquity and modernity.

William Turner. The blue Rigi lake of Lucern sunrise. Watercolour. 1842.
William Turner. The blue Rigi lake of Lucern sunrise. Watercolour. 1842.

The process of painting reflected this tension: I felt it as a continual struggle between two opposing impulses: one drove me towards establishing a clear contrast between nimble thought and dull substance of flesh, while the other kept trying to obliterate these contrasts in favour of unity, to dissolve the self-imposed formal boundaries (which seemed increasingly artificial and simplistic). The painting, as it is now, emerged as a blend of partially erased pictorial contrasts — in the blue-green colour harmony, in the horizontally divided composition, in the opposing rhythms in different areas of the painting.   

Pablo Picasso. Houses on the hill. 1909. Oil on canvas.
Pablo Picasso. Houses on the hill. 1909. Oil on canvas.

In the end, the painting’s organising contrast, which clarified itself in the process, is between the heavy, cubist-like geometry with its hard, rectilinear edges — and the light, subtle, almost Turner-like build-up of closely related colours. Somehow — I cannot really tell why — this contrast stands, for me, for all the multilayered oppositions of the sonnet at the same time: flesh versus thought, water and earth versus air and fire, isolation versus unity, modernity versus antiquity.

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On life’s composition: reading sonnets 44 and 45

What are we made of?

This diptych of sonnets, forty forth and forty fifth, is a fusion of two answers to this question — answers which seem like they come from two different worlds.

[accordion][accordion_item title=”Sonnet 44“]
If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way,
For then despite of space I would be brought
From limits far remote where thou doth stay

No matter then although my foot did stand
Upon the farthest earth removed from thee,
For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

But ah, thought kills me that I am not thought
To leap large length of miles when thou art gone,
But that, too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Receiving naught from elements so slow
But heavy tears, badges of either’s woe.
[/accordion_item]

[accordion_item title=”Sonnet 45“]
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.
[/accordion_item][/accordion]

Shakespeare begins with a dream all too easy to co-feel for anyone who has lived through what is now called “long-distance relationships”:

If the dull substance of my flesh were thought
Injurious distance shouldn’t stop my way…

Wouldn’t it be just glorious if we could travel as fast as our thoughts can:

For nimble thought can jump both sea and land
As soon as think the place where he would be.

A familiar experience, isn’t it: our thoughts easily, and with supernatural velocity, carrying the mind wherever it wants to go, quite unconstrained by dull physical limits. If only our whole bodies could do the same — if only teleportation were possible…

Johannes Vermeer. Woman reading a letter. 1662-1663
Johannes Vermeer. Woman reading a letter. 1662-1663

So here we have our first answer: our life is made of thought and flesh, mind and matter — the fundamental duality of human condition.

It may not be an ultimate scientific truth, but it is something that we seem to have a direct, everyday, experience of: I have thoughts, and I have flesh; I experience myself as a mind in a body — and for all I know, this is generally how modern people experience themselves, give or take. It seems like a fundamental property of our worldview — shared, it would seem, by Shakespeare.

But not quite, because there is the second answer — it is brought into the poem by mere mention of sea and land, which immediately transform into earth and water:

… too much of earth and water wrought,
I must attend time’s leisure with my moan.

Here earth and water are two of the four fundamental elements of life, or roots, along with fire and air — which make their appearance in the beginning of the forty fifth sonnet:

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.

periodic tableSo humans, just like everything else, are composed of earth, water, air and fire. In contrast to the flesh and thought answer, this ancient idea (traced back to Empedocles, a fifth century BCE Greek philosopher) may sound quite bizarre to the modern ear — at least to a Western one (an Eastern one may just notice that the fifth element is lacking, or that the elements are not quite right). We no longer think of the world, let alone ourselves, as being composed of these elements; and they aren’t even elements anymore — we have a whole periodic table instead, and beyond that, all those fascinating particles of the modern physics.

In spite of this, the imagery still works within the domain of poetry — a space protected as it were from the changing challenges of our scientific worldview. We hear these words as metaphors — and these are strong and very intuitive metaphors: even now, with the underlying theory all but forgotten, we still see that fire and air are “quicker” than earth and water, and that desires are rather like fire than like earth, and that life would sink to death without air and fire. But in Shakespeare’s time, this theory was science as it were — and the foundation of their understanding of human condition, both in medical practice and in psychology.   

(c) Welcome images
(c) Welcome images

The theory of “four humours”, first introduced by Hippocrates (ca. 450–370 BCE), was very much in vogue in Shakespeare’s time (and influenced medical practice for quite some time afterwards). The “four humours” were thought of as four bodily fluids (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood), but they were supposed to correspond to the four “elements of nature”. To be more precise, the humours themselves were composed of two elements each (for instance, the black bile was air plus water) — there is a remarkable resemblance, in fact, to the Ayurvedic teachings (emerged at about the same time), where the “humours” (called doshas) are also composed of two elements each. And similarly, health was assumed to depend on all the elements being in some sort of balance, and that was what the various cures (like blood-letting) were aiming at.   

By ABenis at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons"
By ABenis at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons”

What is really important about this theory — but hard to “get”, looking from our age of fully internalised mind-body divide — is that the “four humours” didn’t belong to either side of this divide: they were both “mental” and “bodily” at the same time. In fact, we know them somewhat better in their purely psychological guises of “four temperaments” (melancholy, sanguine, choleric, and phlegmatic) — even though this classification, too, seems to have been rejected in the modern psychology. The crucial point is, it’s not that a melancholy disposition, or an excess of melancholy, was explained as resulting from out-of-balance “black bile”: the “black bile” and “melancholy” were the same thing (“melancholy” is “black bile” in Greek). In a sense, the state of mind is the state of the body, and vice versa.

That’s why this ancient theory wasn’t a particular favourite with the Christian Church in medieval times — because of this glaring contradiction with the basic Christian distinction between body and soul; but it served as the starting point for the Western medicine during the Renaissance. Here is what one finds on the National Library of Medicine website about medical views in Shakespeare’s time:

During the Renaissance and early modern periods (ca. 1350–1650), most practicing physicians and medical writers continued to understand health and illness within the framework handed down to them by their ancient and medieval predecessors. Medieval representations of the humoural perspective circulated widely in the Renaissance period, book publishers produced attractive editions of Hippocrates’ and Galen’s works, and Avicenna’s Canon continued to enjoy great success as a textbook well into the seventeenth century.   

Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia I. 1514.
Albrecht Dürer. Melencolia I. 1514.

So for Shakespeare, these were not “just” poetic metaphors; the theory of four humours was very much part of his worldview — and his understanding of psychology, which thoroughly informed his plays. Apparently, he was most interested in melancholy: from Open Source Shakespeare, one can learn that he used this word seventy times — compared to ten for choleric, five for sanguine, and a mere one for phlegmatic.   

But the forty fifth sonnet doesn’t quite follow the theory: according to the theory, melancholy is composed of water and air, whereas water and earth combined give phlegm. And yet Shakespeare writes:

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;

Is it just because being phlegmatic isn’t really an appropriate state of mind for a lover seized with longing for his beloved — and so his melancholy, in contradiction to the theory, is composed of water and earth?

Not quite, it seems: the ultimate reality of his sadness isn’t in the exact identity of remaining “elements”, nor even in his separation from his beloved — but in the separation between thought and flesh, which violates life’s composition:

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.

The cure, the forty fifth sonnet seems to suggest, comes not from the body following the mind to where the beloved is, and not even from the beloved’s own return, but just from the lighter elements, fire and air, returning to join the heavier elements, water and earth — or, in other words, from thoughts being reunited with flesh, the mind returning to its body.

As we would probably say now, from being present here and now.

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On the first performance of “Hamlet”

[content_band inner_container=”true” padding_top=”0px” padding_bottom=”10px” border=”all” bg_color=”#efefef”]This is an accidental post: a writing assignment for the course on “Hamlet” on FutureLearn.com I am taking (by the way, it’s a great place to learn). The assignment is to pretend to be an Elizabethan who has just been to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time ever. They asked to write as a blog post, and I decided the topic is quite fitting for my “Studio Journal”, especially because I just saw the old BBC production with Derek Jacobi… [/content_band]

I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on a new production of Hamlet — I saw it yesterday — but the only thought that’s floating in my head right now is that I couldn’t be more thoroughly confused.

The public — me included — seemed to expect a remake of Kyd’s Hamlet we remember from a few years back: an honest revenge play. We should have known better: one can always trust Shakespeare to introduce confusion, and befuddlement, and a heap of questions instead of answers and straightforward action.

It’s not that there is no action at all: everyone dies by and by; but — at first at least — most of its happens off-stage and to wrong people (the main villain is also killed eventually, but not before he has managed to bring about the deaths of almost everyone else, Hamlet included).

But otherwise — I felt as though we are witnessing not what is actually happening, but what’s going on in Hamlet’s head (interchanging madness and reason, without any warnings). First of all — what is this Ghost? Is he real or is he an illusion? The soldiers and Horatio see it, too — but then, why doesn’t the queen, in a later scene?

And where does it come from? From what he says it seems like he resides in Purgatory (“for a certain term”, if I remember correctly) — but don’t we, in our enlightened age, already know that Purgatory is a vile invention of Papists? What might Shakespeare possibly mean with this? And then Hamlet talks of death as of a country from whose bourn no traveller returns — and yet he seems to take the Ghost quite seriously (if not without some mistrust — quite justifiable, by the way, if you ask me).

Is Hamlet mad? He himself seems to think that he just “puts it on”, that he is “mad in craft”… But isn’t “putting it on” madness in itself — all it seems to do is to arouse the king’s suspicions, so Hamlet is constantly being watched — not the best way to accomplish his revenge, if that’s what he has in mind. It looked to me as though he has just found a pretext (for himself, if for nobody else) to let his inward storm of madness out — I know firsthand how tempting it might be when the whole world seems to crumble around you.

Why doesn’t he kill his uncle right after the play, when he is finally sure that the Ghost was telling the truth? Does he really believe that a murderer and a villain will go to Heaven? Or is he just more interested in having his say with his mother? Or maybe he just doesn’t like to kill (no wonder here)?

As I said, I am befuddled. All these questions just keep boiling in my head, as though I have become a bit of a Hamlet myself…

On Marc Chagall’s “The Blue House” as commentary on Self

Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917. Oil on canvas. 66 x 96.8 cm.
Marc Chagall. The Blue House. 1917. Oil on canvas. 66 x 96.8 cm.

[feature_headline type=”left” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h6″ icon=””] “… the strange blue creature that is barely visible inside the house gradually begins to emerge as a realistic depiction of Self.”[/feature_headline]


The contrast between inner and outer, soul and body, substance and showthat same duality Art has the power to overcome — this contrast is one of the central motives in Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence (just as it is a central motive of our lives). Can a painter express this contrast in colour, which is, after all, nothing but “show” par excellence?

This is exactly what Marc Chagall does in “The Blue House”.    

Marc Chagall. La Mariée. 1950. Gouache, pastel.
Marc Chagall. La Mariée. 1950. Gouache, pastel.

“The Blue House” is as it were duality embodied: the house and its surroundings don’t really belong together; they come as though from different sides of reality.

Of course, combining things that don’t belong together is a hallmark of the twentieth century painting, and Chagall was no stranger to this trend.

But “The Blue House” is different: unlike violin-playing goats, houses naturally belong to landscapes (and cityscapes). So where does this tangible feeling of non-belonging, of separateness come from?

It is achieved (almost) entirely through colour: the yellow-green-red landscape versus the monochrome blueness of the house. There are touches of blue here and there in the landscape, but that’s because there are certain insurmountable limits to disintegrating a single painting into two clashing parts, which, apparently, even Chagall could not break. As someone who has attempted this kind of disintegration many times in my own paintings, I am almost sure that he did try to make it work without any blues outside the house — but the painting needed these blue patches in order not to fall apart completely. So he confined these blues to roofs and fences, and made his point by not letting any appear in the sky, even though the overall child-like, honey-and-milk quality of the landscape seems to call for a bright blue sky.

Apart from these patches of blue, the colours on the left are straightforwardly realistic, albeit in their child-like, somewhat too straightforward, way. There is nothing unexpected in this yellow ground, green river bank, the white walls and red foods of houses, and (last but not least) the brownish dog in the foreground enjoying the sunny day. It’s all as it should be.

Vincent Van Gogh. The Yellow House. 1988. Oil on canvas.
Vincent Van Gogh. The Yellow House. 1988. Oil on canvas.

But the blue house? In contrast to, say, Van Gogh’s “yellow house” — which, we may assume, was yellow “in real life” — the blueness of this house belongs decidedly to the painting, not to the thing being painted. We see that the house is bare wood; its “true” colour would be close to that in “The house in grey” (below), from the same year (quite likely, another approach to the same pictorial motive). The blue of the house comes into the painting as though from another world entirely — not from the visible, but from the invisible.

Marc Chagall. The house in grey.
Marc Chagall. The house in grey. 1917. Oil on canvas. 68 x 74 cm.

And the house is not just blue – not in the same sense Van Gogh’s house is yellow; not as a “real” blue house would look like in a realistic or impressionistic painting. It is monochrome (with blue standing for black), without any variations in hue. That’s how we see things in the darkness, when the cones of our retinas don’t have enough light, and only rods are doing the seeing.

The landscape and the house are painted in two quite distinct value ranges, as though they existed in different lighting conditions: the landscape is light, the house is dark. There is nothing unusual in contrasting value areas in a painting; what is unusual here is that both light and dark areas are rich with essential details. Painters generally avoid this, because the human vision works in such a way that we cannot see both sets of details simultaneously:

1-the-blue-house-1918Concentrate on the landscape, and your eyes adjust to its sunlight, and then you notice the reflections in the river, and the grazing cows on the other bank, and the dog.

1-the-blue-house-1917Concentrate on the house, and your eyes adjust to its darkness, and then you see a strange, lonely, human-like creature inside.

We experience this adjustment of vision in real life when we enter a dark house on a sunny day, but we would normally expect the outside of the house to be just as sunlit as its surroundings. Here, it is as though the outer walls of the house, not only its interior, are lit not by the sun outside, but by some meagre blue light source within.

There is an additional effect of this blueness which might not be obvious when you look at the painting on your computer screen, but would be quite conspicuous if you were to look at the original: blues “recede”. This is because, in real life, the farther away something is from us, the bluer it looks; reds, yellows, greens — they all disappear with distance. This effect is commonly used by painters to suggest distance in landscapes to the viewer’s eye, but Chagall does quite the opposite — almost all his reds are reserved for the distant vista, almost all his blues, for the house in the foreground. We know that the house must be closer to us than the cityscape, but this effect of receding blues still works on another, unconscious, level.       

To strengthen the near-split of the painting into two separated realities, Chagall defies one of the major laws of composition and divides the pictorial space right in the middle of picture plane. He couldn’t have known it in 1917 (at least not consciously), but a modern scientifically-minded viewer might notice that if they view the painting as a whole, it’s the left eye (hence the right hemisphere of the brain) that sees the landscape, while the right eye (and thus the left hemisphere) is presented with the blue house. If a viewer spares this painting but a brief glance (as, unfortunately, people often do in museums), the two sides of their brain would, for all we know, go away with two nearly opposite impressions of what is actually depicted in the painting, let alone its overall mood.     

While writing the above, I even began imagining an experiment to check this hypothesis, but, of course, it is far more interesting to know what the painting conveys to an attentive viewer — someone who would spend some time switching between two conflicting views and letting a coherent impression emerge in its own time, as the two sides of their brain try to integrate these two quite different pictures into a coherent image through their (rather narrow) channels of communication.

For me, the viewing of this painting feels like switching between two states of mind: the state of complete, child-like openness to the visible world, with all its richness of colour, and the state of being immersed in my own thoughts, in the dialogue between me and myself; the mind directed outside and the mind focused on itself; vita activa and vita contemplativa. And then the strange blue creature that is barely visible inside the house gradually begins to emerge as a realistic depiction of Self.

Maybe even somewhat too realistic for comfort…

P.S. If I was briefly tempted to offer an explicit interpretation of the message Chagall wanted to convey to the viewer in “The Blue House”, he himself dispelled this temptation with a small detail of “The house in grey”. You might have missed it if you don’t read Russian (and even if you do), but there is a graffiti message on the fence, right in the center. It says, in capital letters: FOOL.  

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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.   
MC-Escher-Moebius-Strip-I-1961
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.

[/accordion_item]

[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.