Susan Sontag got it wrong when she said that photography was in part distinguished by the fact that there were so many good photographs to absorb. The same is true of all painting. A little bit of craft combined with a minimal eye for color and a good eye for perspective and composition can create a painting where you are transported into the texture of its life simply by looking at it before ever getting on with the job of seeing how the parts hold together or even noticing some of the more obscure parts, much less whatever meaning or meanings the painting may hold. It is the nature of the form that makes painting so beguiling, allowing itself, for example, to be noisy (like George Bellows’ “Stag at Sharkey”) or quiet (like Henri Rousseau or most Impressionists, even when they are drawing crowds of people), or else to be rich and tasty, sweet, like Matisse, or tart even if bittersweet, like Picasso even at his most romantic. Paintings invoke all the senses, not just the eye, including, not least important, a mind’s eye that turns itself to history and to abstractions. These remarks suggest that it is painting rather than the painter that makes for art. The medium has the resources to express a great number of things and any number of craftspeople working at their trade can provide satisfaction to their viewers, just as any number of novelists can tell stories well enough so that stories can engage our eternal desire to know what happens next.Read More
Kate Atkinson’s recently published novel “Transcription” is a very good minor novel. A major novel, for its part, is when an author invites his readers to enter a social world slightly skewed (or more so) from the world with which they are familiar and thereby to observe the lives of people who are slightly skewed (or more so) from people with whom they are familiar in the “real” world. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and James Joyce are major novelists. Minor novels, on the other hand, are plays on generic types of novels where the author adds a touch of style or insight that distinguishes the novel from others of its type. Kate Atkinson has adapted the spy novel for these purposes. She is less interested in character than is John Le Carre and less interested in the turns history can take than is Alan Faust, and doesn’t pretend to the deep and dark seriousness of Joseph Conrad. She most reminds me of a novelist of a previous generation, Muriel Spark, who also had a light, fey touch in dealing with metaphysical metaphors, although Spark’s frame was never, as I remember, a spy story.Read More
In Shakespeare’s major tragedies, there are two kinds of movements. The stages of a plot are symmetrical in that an initial situation, such as Hamlet coming home to the wedding of his mother so soon after the death of his father, is complicated by developments that reach some kind of climax in Act III, and then what follows is the unraveling of those events, which usually means that a person who has risen high, such as a Hamlet welcomed home with much pomp, is brought low, thought a madman, before he is done in because he is now disposable, in a duel arranged for that purpose. The same thing happens to Macbeth, who is amazed at his good fortune until he comes to bear the weight of his deeds and so sees a ghost and so drives forward to what he must know is his inevitable fate. Anthony arrives in Egypt as king of the world and ends as the tool of the queen.Read More
Alfred Bierstadt’s 1870 painting, “The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak”, is an iconic representation of the American West whose formal properties tell a lot about the American landscape and also about the art of landscape painting in general.
“The Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak” covers a lot of territory. In its center is an ice covered peak, and below that is a lake, and further in the foreground is an Indian settlement, with tepees under the trees or grouped out in the open and Indians congregating or moving their horses, all the bustle of a well organized community. The Indians are dressed so as to show that it is not warm in this part of the Rockies, but they are comfortable and so as civilized as a pre-literate society can be. There is an unimpeded view from the Indian camp across the lake to some waterfalls and then to the giant mountain behind. The unimpeded view is the key to the painting, more than its contrast of colors, the green of the trees and the land on the apron of the lake, the blue of the lake, and then the increasing white of the waterfalls and the mountain behind. The Indian community can consider itself nestled next to the lake, with nothing to fear from nature, because they have so many layers of separation between themselves and the uninhabitable mountain, that just a part of their scenery. The scene is welcoming. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such a vista from your own front porch! That would not be the case if a viewer saw the area abundant in fog coming from the lake and the mountain, or if the Indian community were hidden behind a ridge that gave it some shelter from the weather. Maybe, at another time of year, the landscape would be more foreboding of what nature might have in store, but here it is not, and I think the unimpeded view accounts for that.Read More
John Singer Sargent is such an excellent portraitist that he not only shows different faces to be different, which is very different from when Rubens painted a number of Rubens faces, he also uses different techniques to paint each of those faces. It is as if each face is an experiment in finding a way to render it. This focus on faces, however much Sargent dresses up his often not very pretty subjects in glamorous and carefully painted colorful gowns, replaces, for the most part, a concern with setting that would place the subject in their social context, as would be the case with Gainsborough. The faces speak for themselves to the extent that faces can speak to us at all and so makes of Sargent, often dismissed as a mere society painter, the greatest portraitist since Vermeer.Read More
Fiction is only sometimes an attempt to present a straightforward presentation of a story from beginning to end, which is what we would be led to believe by Aristotle’s dictum that stories have beginnings, middles and ends. To the contrary, writers tell their stories by wandering around between what is presumably past, current and future, each with their own way of doing this, and that in part is what makes their storytelling into an art, something controlled by the artist, So a story may have a beginning, middle and an end, but the telling of it is in the hands of the storyteller. Let us consider some of the ways authors do this.Read More
The Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is an impressive presence. I wondered how those who commissioned it had decided on the final design given that so many very different designs had been rejected in favor of this layered latticework of upturned terraces, and with whether the architecture would seem dated in a generation or so. The actual collection, covering the origins of slavery up through Jim Crow and the Second Reconstruction, begins in the deep basement, reached through an elevator, and then the visitor moves up in space as he or she approaches the present. I was impressed by the ability of the museum to move along its crowds, still quite large now that it is more than a year since the museum opened. I was also impressed by the various guards who were very helpful in assisting visitors, which is very different from the guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where they are likely as not to give you incorrect information about how to proceed to a room you want to visit. I was less impressed, however, by the narrative supplied by the placards that accompanied the artifacts, dioramas and other illustrations for the history of black slavery in the United States.Read More
Writers are often praised for being concise. Their sentences lack flab and are full of information and comparisons. Their plots get started right away without buildup or much preparation and various plot elements overlap so that the story or play or novel is at once an allegory, an insight into character and motivation, and also casts light on the society being observed. That is certainly the case with the sprawling novels of the English Nineteenth Century, where you learn from Dickens that Peter Dombey is at once imperious and weak, too readily the tool of his assistant and that tells you how an English law firm of the time works as well as how that will get in the way of the hero and heroine of the novel.
Concision, however, is not just a virtue demonstrated by a good writer. Rather, concision is implicit in all story telling which is, after all, the telling of events in a sequence which may not at all be the sequence in which the events described are purported to happen and where material not regarded as necessary to the telling of the tale is left out. You don’t depict every time a businessman has coffee or takes a bathroom break but deal with relating what you are trying to describe about business. An author also has to deal with the inevitable longueurs that occur in real life, nothing much happening until the next event important to telling the story. So days may go on before a break in a murder mystery a screenwriter is unfolding and that will be dealt with in a quick cut. News organizations face similar problems in telling their own stories. There may be an announcement by the Justice Department about the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in American elections, and then the news media will spend a few days or a week milking whatever is announced or turning to something else, like a cave disaster, to fill their airtime before returning to the main story when something new is anticipated or is revealed. News programming is a constant fight to make news into a story. In fact, the reader relies so heavily on the author to do his job properly that when there is a description or an interlude that is included that seems merely comical, as when Bloom goes to an outhouse in “Ulysses”, the reader has to ask himself what that incident signifies, for why else would it be included? The sophisticated reader is well trained in what he or she has to bring to the reading of a story. But there are very different ways in which authors handle concision and that is what I want to discuss.Read More
It is sad to sum up a lifetime of reading contemporary American fiction, as if that came anywhere near to summing up a life or the meaning that was found in it, but here goes.
Philip Roth, who died just the other day, made a big splash when his first book, the collection of short stories, "Goodbye Columbus", appeared when I was an undergraduate. All the young literary people I knew were much taken with him and not just because he was so clearly a Jewish writer. We also had Malamud and Bellow and the still then insufficiently appreciated I. B. Singer, who was the best of the lot. But we stayed with Roth because he delivered the goods-- at least his goods: his preoccupation with the lives of Jews, sex, the nature of irony, all of which seemed very repetitious until now, just this past year, when the tumescence of males has to be defended rather than, as in Roth’s day, merely recognized to be thought shocking. The themes of his late novels as in "The Human Stain" and "Everyman", become so much more universal. Often overlooked as a piece of serious literature is Roth’s “The Plot to Undermine America”, which is treated by critics as a polemic alternative history of the sort Sinclair Lewis fashioned in “It Could happen Here”, but is in fact a work which shows how welcoming America is to its Jewish residents, the Irish Newark Police Chief comforting Roth’s mother during the worst of an anti-Jewish riot by telling her that he would protect her by giving her special police protection. It is she who turns away at the door during that riot her own sister who had sided with Lindbergh as President and whose husband had set up CCC like camps for Jewish youth so as to assimilate them into American society. But Roth’s mother sees all this as malign intent against the Jews, while Roth the author sees it as non-threatening, and the demented Philip, the narrator, reflects his mother’s view, his breakdown not healed until 1963 when the alternative history becomes united with actual history on the date of JFK’s assassination. As if who is in the right is not made clear by Roth’s mother turning away her own sister at the time of the rioting. So much for blood being thicker than ideology. Would a German Jew have turned away on Kristallnacht a sister who had gone all secular? So the book is an exploration of how fantasies can turn malignant, and yet that still does not leave it as a major achievement, which is to invest the reader in a fantasy, malignant or not, from which it is not easy to awake, as is the case in Kafka and Mann and Faulkner.Read More
Classicists are awesome. Those that I know personally and those whom I have read are the smartest and most widely read people I know. They have mastered languages and history and literary criticism and whatever other fields of scholarship and social science that come to interest them. Well known classicists apply these skills far beyond the subject matter of the ancient world. Norman O. Brown became expert in psychoanalytic theory and Gary Wills has written very freshly about both the Gettysburg Address and The Declaration of Independence. Classics remains the hardest of the liberal arts, harder even then philosophy, in that classicists know ancient philosophy, and harder than history and English and the Romance languages, classicists also having to know the related disciplines of politics and art history, and classics is certainly harder than the social sciences, my own field of sociology coming out at or near the bottom of the pecking order. And so I picked up Mary Beard’s book “Confronting the Classics” with high expectations. She is a renowned classicist of this generation and I had very much admired another of her books, “SPQR”, which is a history of Rome, for its clear style and judicious appraisal of its materials and I thought that this book, which is a collection of essay-reviews, would give me an idea of how a classicist fits into her field and of the give and take of scholarly controversy in the field. The book does have her sprighty style and makes use of her vast knowledge of literature up to the present time, but it was disappointing because, to put it bluntly, the issues that she sees as concerning classical scholarship yield very little in the way of results and are resolved mainly by rhetorical flourish. Is the day to day work of classicists really such small beer?Read More
Cosi Fan Tutte is one of a triptych of operas wherein Mozart (and de Ponte, his librettist) deal with the way sexual relations are connected to the question of liberty. The other two, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, are concerned with the way aristocrats can have their way with women, and the two operas take the side of women, they to be treated more as equals rather than as objects of pleasure for the powerful, and so the two operas favor a revolution in morals that may require a political revolution, while Cosi inquires into the love between people who are social equals and so is about the universal characteristics of the sexes, what men and women are by their natures. In that, it joins with those other pre-revolutionary works, such as Dangerous Connections and Manon Lescaut, which use personal relations to reveal what an enlightened world would or would not be like and how sexual freedom points to what freedom in general means.Read More
The exhibit of Renaissance portraiture that was on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art some years ago allows a reconsideration of the tag line from Jacob Burckhardt that the Renaissance saw the birth of individualism. Commentators and art historians at the time of the show invoked Burckhardt as a way to explain what this show was about, even if they used Burckhardt as little more than a mandatory reference: oh yes, his name has to be mentioned, and if the show is not about individualism, what could it be about? Well, it was about the fact that some very, very beautiful pictures had been created; that’s what it was about. Look at the pictures rather than treat them as way stations in intellectual history. Moreover, instead of playing the game of periodicizing art, let us now be analytic and so associate different aspects of art to different aspects of individualism, presuming the forms of individualism to be present at the same time, just as the various features of any art work, such as its subject and composition and its conventions and the external knowledge brought to a painting, are also always all there at the same time. Perhaps not all concepts can be broken down into these four parts, but individualism certainly can be. If that is the case, that the concept of individualism has all the elements that go into visualization, then that is evidence that individualism is not just a concept but a description of something that actually exists in that it can be visualized, while other concepts, such as justice and God, cannot be visualized, and so perhaps do not exist at all.Read More
A default philosophy is a system of philosophy that claim to do no more than describe things as they are rather than offer a system that offers an alteration of our perception of the world by eliminating concepts which are ordinary in human discourse or add concepts noone before had thought necessary. Such philosophies can serve as defaults in the sense that they are the ones that can be gone back to as reliable and basic when philosophies with an ax to grind, a point of view to expound so as to create a new vision of the metaphysical universe, one not previously crafted. Aristotle and, I think, David Hume, and perhaps Kant, are of that first kind in that they offer a bottom line of accurate description without the intrusion of their own special views, while Spinoza is a philosopher of the second kind in that he finds no need, in his very comprehensive philosophy, ever to invoke the concept of justice, and therefore shows how you can account for the world without it, which is as much as to say that there is no such thing as justice. Freud, if he is to be considered among the ranks of philosophers, does his work by including a new concept, that of the unconscious, as necessary for the understanding of human life, and the bulk of his work is to show that this uncharted territory is not only there but how it works. Twentieth Century eliminators, as they might be called, include Gilbert Ryle, who says, contrary to all sense, that there is no such thing as subjectivity, and Wittgenstein, who gets rid of thinking that much of speech is about propositions, however much that may impoverish or, depending on your viewpoint, liberate language.Read More
Roland Wulbert said to me the other day, in a casual manner that belied the profundity of his remark, that literary critics use bits of a story they are analyzing to construct another story, which is what they are really up to. That observation strikes me as being true of even the greatest of literary criticism, though not necessarily true of literary theory, as that goes back to Aristotle, who did indeed try to capture what literature did as opposed to making what he would of the text before him. Contrary to some opinion, Aristotle did not distort Oedipus Rex into being something it was not, which was a tragedy as that was defined by Aristotle. It was a tragedy because literary theory had invented the category into which the play fit. Rather, what Wulbert is talking about is one way in which criticism cannot be true to its text. It just about always just generates another story. That is different from the usual reason why criticism is inevitably a reading into or a falsification of a text, which is that criticism is discursive prose, while texts are usually a different kind of thing altogether-- a narrative or a poem-- and so there are different media being employed, just as is the case when an art critic puts a painting into words when a painting, after all, is not a set of words but an image. You can tell students to describe a painting in words but that is not the same thing as what the painting is, which is something to look at, which has a “look” only in the sense that it generates a mood. A consideration of an exemplar of great literary criticism shows why Wulbert is correct.
Consider Erich Auerbach’s “Odysseus’ Scar”. Auerbach takes two of the greatest works of world literature, Homer’s Odyssey and the Genesis story of Abraham and Isaac, and turns them into a story about two different civilizations, two different ways of apprehending reality. It is fair to say that he provides a story rather than merely an analysis because he proceeds in the way the prose of an essay can become like a story because it creates, in its course, suspense that is then released, that sequence to be regarded as and in fact to be pleasurable. First, Auerbach provides the reader with the world as that seems from Homer’s point of view by focussing down on when his old nurse recognizes a stranger to be Odysseus in disguise because she observes a scar he had as a child. Rather than this just a single fact or a coincidental discovery that the author uses to move the narrative on, it is a set up for Auerbach to comment on the simultaneity of the current event and the time when the scar originated, an amalgam of the present and of memory, and so to allow Auerbach to describe Homeric culture as one in which the background of events, and this extends to setting as well as to memories, informs what is happening downstage, as it were, for the attention of the audience. That is a very satisfying conclusion to arrive at, which is an understanding of how narrative in the West works its way by making the past present.
But then the reader must not relax too long with the satisfaction of this resolution. Rather, the reader is immediately moved into a new kind of suspense. What, in the light of what has just been resolved, will Auerbach do with the Genesis story? He immediately unsettles his reader by saying that this second story has nothing to do with the conventions that underlie the Odysseus story. So how can it be a story at all? This is a question which remains troubling to those so taken with the Western kind of story telling that they do not know what to make of the short narratives of Genesis which are so bereft of description. Auerbach suggests that such an impulse is correct. This is a different kind of story telling. It does not refer to motives, however much those can be read into or presumed to be there as inferences from what the characters do. So these are stories without introspection as well as without detail about the setting, which is very far from the rich description of the house and household to which Odysseus had returned. Nothing is said of the journey Abraham and Isaac take to the altar, only that Isaac queries why they have not taken a sacrifice with them and is told by his father that God will provide, to which Isaac says nothing, the reader left to infer whether Isaac was naive or whether he understood what was going on and had already submitted to his fate. This is a very different kind of reading that a reader has to do with Homer. There, the reader luxuriates in the detail, in the reader’s own knowledge of what is going on and how the pieces of the setting fall into place in the narrative, while here in Genesis the reader is forced to speculate, to surmise, about what is going on. How can this be the same sort of literary satisfaction that supposedly comes from any work of world literature?
Auerbach breaks the suspense, resolves the tension, by introducing another concept, which is the temporality of this Genesis story (and by implication, other Genesis stories). What you learn from a Genesis story is what comes first and what comes next and what comes after that. The sequence of events in time provides the ability to infer meaning, just as the simultaneity of time had allowed meaning to be inferred in Homer. And so, Auerbach concludes, this is a very different kind of consciousness, the one that created Genesis, and yet it meets what might be considered an even more abstract standard for art, which is that it provides for ever afterwards memorable images and meanings. And, I might add, an insight into this god from the Asian coast who is as invisible as time itself and who creates events that occur within time, as memorable events, like the exodus, rather than having an existence as a spirit of place or of an emotion, thereby hovering over human events rather than intruding in them, though, of course, it must also be said that the Greek gods do also intrude sometimes into the lives of people, though it seems to me that they do that as a way to move along a plot, such as when Artemis develops a grudge against Agamemnon and that lets loose the series of events which describe the ways the House of Atreus is always undermining itself, that, rather than the initiating incident, becoming the burden of the playwright’s work, that revealing so much about human nature, the playwright not very much concerned about trying to reveal the nature of the gods . And so Auerbach creates a great bit of criticism because if his readers follow his story they will be awed by how far they have come in understanding not only Western and Hebraic literature but the nature of literature itself. They can see themselves growing.
Now it is to be remembered that the Odyssey is not about simultaneity any more than the story of Abraham and Isaac is about temporality. Rather, the term “about” means of direct and apparent concern, not import. “About” is whatever it is that drives the plot, what are the parameters of the plot, rather than what meaning is to be drawn from the plot. In the case of the Odyssey, “about” means the story of the return home of a war veteran, he undergoing the kinds of experiences that veterans undergo: untoward adventures with the cyclops: dalliances with women outside the bonds of marriage, with the lotus eaters or Circe, whether to forget the past or to taste again a bit of challenge and adventure; greeting and parting with old comrades in arms, such as Menelaus; and then, finally, reuniting with his family and reconstructing his relations with them. Similarly, the Abraham and Isaac story is about obedience to God, even, if one wishes to press it, what that term “obedience” means, something that has been argued about with regard to that story for millenia. But the Odyssey is not a reverie about how literature is related to life as it is nor is the Abraham and Isaac story. That is the invention of the critic, of Auerbach, and so we need to give him credit for an imaginative leap while he seems to occupy the much humbler role of commentator.
Well, we should know by now that commentators, whether within the Talmud or among the Church Fathers, are not ciphers but simply use this vehicle, the literary form of the commentary, to engage in vast and sweeping acts of reinterpretation that turn our heads around if we can bear the insult to our usual understanding of the texts upon which they comment and so they, in their way, become commentators on life every bit as much as the texts upon which they comment already have that station as ways to take note of life from a different angle than we would ordinarily use. In our own time, the role of commentator has been reduced to that of the literary critic, a somewhat superfluous sub-genre of literary and academic life, which could be revivified perhaps only if the texts on which commentaries are constructed are taken to be part of a necessary canon, which was the case with Homer, the Bible, and for a while, from the Nineteenth through the last parts of the Twentieth Century, a designated group of secular and religious literature that college students were expected to learn, but apparently that is no longer the case, students preoccupied with science and engineering and computer studies rather than with literature, and who knows what will follow from that fact.Read More
Cartoons and science fiction share in common that they don’t have to explain how scientific things work; all they have to do is show an arrangement of things that seems to be pleasant. So we did not know the mechanism by which Dick Tracy’s radio-wristwatch, and then his tv-wristwatch worked; we only had to contemplate how nice it would be if there were such things, which indeed came to fruition with the smartphone. But cartoons and science fiction are very detailed in the ways they spell out the social world in which that new science is set. Asimov spelled out very clearly in his Foundation series how Trantor took over the galaxy, moving from being the only planet that could guarantee the safety of its embassies to being a planet that ruled a galaxy wide empire and that imported goods from everywhere. The same is true of Robert Heinlein who imagines a system of world wide representative democracy in "Double Star"S, complete with a titular head from a royal house that originated in the Low Countries. Heinlein also spells out in "Starship Trooper" a world nation where citizenship is conferred only on people who have served in the military, a fascistic note that is the case in much of Heinlein and other science fiction writers who also emphasize the role of the strong man as leader and the military as the backbone of society. So it is not surprising that "Black Panther", which is a movie based on a comic book and is about a superhero who emerges from a futuristic black city in Africa that is unknown to the outside world, offers this same combination of unexplained gadgetry and fascistic government. The main reason to find fault with this entertainment, whose pretensions at explaining the way the social world works are not to be taken seriously except by social commentators like me because the preteen audience for which it is designed (there is not even a hint of sex) will not care about those meanings, is that they are contrary to my sense of the burden of African American history.Read More
Here is an exercise in literary theory.
Here is a straightforward question whose answer remains unsatisfactory even after millenia of consideration: what is a story? Clearly, a story is a less general form of communication than a narrative, which is a set of sentences which are related to one another in a time sequence. The art of narrative requires making some connection between the sentences so that they make some sort of sense in relation to one another, whether that consists of a list, such as the residents of a neighborhood, or a logical inference of effect from cause. Story requires something more than a sense of connectedness. It requires, to use Aristotle’s terms, a beginning a middle and an end or, to put it another way, a sense of exposition, climax and completion. A story therefore always involves suspense and the release of suspense, and not having these leaves disappointed the person hearing or reading the story. Supposedly, a great actor could read the telephone book and keep an audience enrapt but that is only because the actor would be able to bring suspense and release to the nuanced reading of any name. Sometimes the actor might pause over syllables, sometimes he or she might find a metre in a name, sometimes the actor could vary pitch or emotion. But mostly a telephone book is only a list and not even a narrative because the listing is alphabetical, which is a way of being arbitrary rather than a way of constructing a narrative whose sequential unfolding is meaningful, as when the list of begats in Genesis or elsewhere result in David or some other prominent figure.Read More
By the standards of Genesis, the story of Jacob and his two marriages, first to Leah, and then to Rachel, with Leah remaining as his wife, is told at a leisurely pace. It covers Genesis 29-Genesis 31 and is detailed in its incidents, borrowing for a narrative the practice of the chronicle sections of Genesis and so recounts the names of his children by both of his wives and those of his children borne by the handmaidens of his wives. That is much longer than the story of Abraham, who also has to deal with both a wife and a handmaiden and the children born to them, which is dealt with in a much briefer narrative, Genesis 21, even though the span of time is the same in each story: about a generation. The reason for the slower and more stately telling of Jacob’s family story is, I think, because the author is trying to convey a sense of how it takes time for familial relationships to change, and there is much merit in the wisdom being offered, even if we must apply it today to a world without polygamy and where people by and large don’t marry their first cousins. It also may be that the story of Jacob and his marriages is a reworking of a story that appears just a short time earlier in Genesis 24. That is the story of how Isaac met his wife. It has some of the same plot motifs, such as meeting at a well. But the earlier story has been simplified in that the servant delivering the offer has been dropped even though that adds a nice “Beowulf”-like set of repetitions. The loss of the literary mannerisms suggests that the author or editor of the later story was striving for a simplicity of storytelling that would allow the poignancy of the story to come through.Read More
Jacob van Ruisdael was a master of both landscapes and what we would now consider townscapes because they were paintings of what were then the urban vistas. Looking at his paintings allows seeing how he did these two kinds of paintings differently. That can supply the basis for generalizations about the nature of landscapes and cityscapes and, even beyond that, the nature of the human experiences that underlie aesthetic experience.
“View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds” is characteristic of van Ruisdael’s depiction of a town, which appears as a sliver in the middle of the painting, most of which is taken up by the grayish sky above or, beneath the sliver, a suburban part of town that contains a bleaching ground, where long strips of cloth are laid out to dry. The town itself is notable for a few church spires, one overlarge building, some windmills, and its rust color, while the bleaching ground is set amidst some trees and a few buildings, and its linearity can be taken to be an horizontal echo of the vertical linearity of the town. People, as everyone knows, make their marks on places by constructing with the use of straight lines. The other point to be made is that the downtown of Haarlem goes on for a while, stretching from the left to the right of the canvas, and gives a suggestion that it also bulges out, so that a bird’s eye view (there are birds in the picture) would see a great circle filled with houses, both residences and public buildings. The only people to be seen are, ironically enough, not in the town, but working the bleaching ground, and they are fairly small because the point of view van Ruisdael takes is remote from the scene, more concerned with the overall geography of the place than the life within it, many buildings to be found widely spaced from one another, in the plain between the bleaching ground and the town proper.
“Panoramic View of the Amstel Looking towards Amsterdam” is a townscape which is less parsimonious in that it gets close enough to its subject so as to portray much more of the way the city works. There is the Amstel River, filled with white sailed boats, broad in the south east corner of the picture, and then narrowing towards the bridge at the center of the picture, its horizontal line serving as the center point of the picture, the buildings of the city behind it, the far shore filled with buildings of various sizes, while the near shore has windmills, houses, and a promenade where the people who saunter up and down provide a sense of scale. The town is bustling with activity: men oaring a raft, fields with mounds of hay, and the activities that might be suggested to go on in windmills, residences and public buildings, though without the benefit of any particular story being unravelled, as was the case with the human interest sidebar provided in the portrait of Haarlem by the presence of the bleaching field, something remarkably noticeable then as it would be if one showed up today. A townscape is therefore a single place where people go about their business in close proximity to one another but where their stories do not intertwine. That remains the collective story of towns and cities.
Now consider how different is a landscape. In “Dunes”, perhaps his most famous painting, Ruisdael introduces an individual story into his portrait of a landscape. A man and his dog are trudging up a rutted path, one which can be traced back to where it disappears behind a hill. On either side of the path, interesting enough in itself because of its rise and falls, so that one would have a different perspective every few steps when wandering along it, are the brush that can be found on dunes, as well as some short trees. The plants go off in any number of directions, sometimes constituting a rough underbrush, sometimes a tiny copse of trees, sometimes the grass clinging to the tops of dunes, sometimes covering what is just a sandy stretch next to the road. There is no pattern in the flora to guide the eye, though an expert might know where and when different kinds of flora will grow on this kind of site. For the viewer to take hold of the scene, however, the man and his dog are very useful. The same is true of “Stag Hunt in a Wood with a Marsh”. The main pattern of the painting are the virticals of the trees, all of them leaning to the left, as if that is the way the wind blew them as they grew. They are planted both in the earth and in the marsh that takes up the center of the foreground of the picture. And yet Ruisdael relieves this landscape by putting huntsman into it as well as a stage being pursued by dogs who are catching up with it while it is in the marsh. Why this need to have a story going on rather than the landscape presented for itself alone. There needs to be a reason for the convention.
Not that all of Ruisdael’s landscapes have humans in the picture. Sometimes it is a waterfall that serves as a focal point, or an old ruined castle (the fact of which is proof of human engagement in the locale of the landscape). In “Waterfall in a Hilly Wooded Landscape”, the story line seems to be to be what I see as tree roots left over after, I presume, humans have harvested the lumber, though here again one would think that Ruisdael could have done without in that the broken tree in the foreground creates interest enough while the trees in the back stand tall and green.
Other Seventeenth Century painters follow the same convention of placing people in the landscapes, while not putting them in cityscapes. Meindert Hobbema, another Dutchman, includes people in his landscapes, “A Stream by a Wood” and in “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. The great Nicolas Poussin, a Frenchman painting in Italy at about the same time, has Orion, in “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun”, stumble down a path very similar to the one found in “Dunes”, though this time people moving up the path have to scurry out of the way of the blind giant. This scene takes place in the midst of very lush scenery, the greenery of trees, leaves, bushes, grasses, painted with great care. That is very different from what Poussin does in the urban scene depicted in “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. Yes, it does contain people, but is an urban scene in that there are multiple individual stories going on in the midst of the chaos of the Roman men selecting and dragging off the Sabine women, the whole scene observed from afar by people on their balconies. City life may seem chaotic, but it is organized. The exception to the rule that contrasts townscapes and landscapes is Bruegel, another contemporary, who presents the boisterous and communal lives of villagers, each going about their own business and yet also involved in one another’s festivities, like a wedding. That liveliness of a village scene earns Brueghel the commendation that would be awarded by William Hazlitt, to William Hogarth a century and a half later: that he was one of the great comic writers.
Here is a suggestion as to why this convention makes sense. The portrayal of nature is always confusing because there is too little to focus the mind. Rather, a viewer of a landscape or someone out in actual nature is over stimulated by the ever new vistas of conflicting colors, different kinds of growth, none of which give off straight lines. There is nothing to steady the mind except, perhaps, a fallen tree or a rock filled brook that constitutes a mini-waterfall. There are too many objects-- trees, blades of grass, fallen brush-- to make it easy to concentrate the mind or to organize the picture. Cities, on the other hand, are dominated by their formal activities of milling, boating, manufacturing, it easy enough to identify a structure with a function, and so, indirectly, of human activity. For that matter, we consider landscapes to be domesticated when they show the signs of human organization, as in the hedgerows of Normandy, or Robert Frost’s New Hampshire stone walls, or even the stately planned trees of Hobbema’s “The Avenue at Middelharnis”. So painters know how the human mind organizes its perceptions, how it gives them order, so as not to make people overcome with the information they need to process, as would be the case if one were left alone, standing in a forest or looking at a landscape, not knowing where the eye is to settle, or where are the borders of the image, or how one green becomes a darker and then a lighter shade of itself, all of these shades following no particular order other than the rules of shading that apply when a place is sheltered from the sunlight. Nature is, in itself, overwhelming and so the portrayal of nature requires toning that down by the introduction of people or some clear dramatic interest, because people understand motives, which are either invisible or only indicated, far more easily than they understand nature all and to itself.Read More
The Star Wars saga is remarkable for being overwhelmingly self-referential, and that may account for the duration of the franchise, the first Star Wars movie having appeared in 1978. Most science fiction movies are hardly about the future; they are recycling of ancient and contemporary allusions. The frame for “Blade Runner” was cinema noire and references to race relations in the United States, the artificial life creatures taking the place of American Blacks as those who are hounded down and killed for going off the plantation. The frame for the Terminator movies, for their part, was the Jesus and Mary story, a person from the future fathering a child whose mother protects him so that he can be the salvation of the world even though people think she is crazy for believing this story. H. G. Wells had the prospect of World War II in mind when he created “Preview of Things to Come”, fleets of aircraft destroying cities and civilization, when the war that came proved surprising in that cities such as Berlin remained as organized communities even as their buildings were overwhelmingly destroyed. “The Last Jedi”, the latest story in the Star Wars saga is noteworthy for how true it remains to the basic storyline, it’s imagery, and its own mythology and has few contemporary concerns. This self-referentiality constitutes a kind of originality, however much the Star Wars saga still remains something considerably short of art.Read More
The English novel is often thought to be realistic because it is about class: how Clarissa and Elizabeth Bennet find their ways to marriages beyond their station; how Pip, within the infinitely complicated world of High Victorian occupations and family lives, as those are so meticulously observed by Charles Dickens, will become a middle level bureaucrat even though he also had the Romantic ambition of regaining his first love. But that is to forget that the father of the English novel is Daniel Defoe, whose Robinson Crusoe is a figure on a desert island and so there is no class conflict at work there, only his interaction with someone who acts as his servant. It is therefore perhaps better to think of the English novel as being not about social class but about the virtues of the middle class: these people are ambitious and they are good at taking advantage of opportunities to improve themselves, even if those plans do not always work out. The middle class novel is engaging because it is filled with hope, people being capable of at least sometimes overcoming their adversities and making their lives what they want them to be. The protagonists act to improve their lives and so are neither pathetic, in that they are incapable of not being overwhelmed, nor tragic, in the sense that the gods or fate have doomed them to failure. The English novel therefore makes for a good read because in keeping track of the ups and downs of the fortunes of its protagonists. In the drama of whether or not they will succeed, the reader learns a lot about the social circumstances, the social reality, the protagonists must confront if they are to succeed. Success is itself a reality, not a feigned state, just as failure is a reality and not just the lack of appreciation for the inner workings of the protagonist, which are the two stories told by Camus (the first in “Caligula”, the second in “The Stranger”) and also by other Age of Anxiety novelists.Read More