24 November, 2007

Millais vs. Roth

Today I learnt that my old English teacher Jim Cogan—who nursed me through the adolescence of my writing career, each week insisting I stick only to prose or poetry from now on, and teeming with suggestions, privately dismissive of my classmates as 'little shits', and father to a legendary beauty whom none of us had ever seen—died a couple of months ago. He got a Times obituary and all. Without him Conrad would have looked very different on the page, I can assure you. The distant hoarding is empty tonight, shorn of its commerce and capital, image and word; just black, in a square of light, like the page for Yorick in Tristram Shandy, or a black flag flown at half-mast, for the dead.


My friends and I went to the Millais exhibition at the Tate. Mrs. Roth, who actually likes Millais, did not come, due to a butterfooted accident, earlier in the day. It is just as well. It might have riled her to hear me go on about Millais so. I walked round passively for a while before really venting my opinions. It has been a hard week, dour and pluvious, with crows craking on the rooflight, mordant winds, and a chill springing up in the common room.

I have been sombre, pent-up, pensive, apprehensive, paranoid, frustrate and cantankerous. The usual, yes, but a little more so. I needed something vituperable, and so I found it. Jim would have been proud, possibly.

One's first sight upon entering the show's first room—painted a charming prussian green, by some margin the prettiest shade in the whole show—is a certain 'hideous, blubbering, wry-necked, red-headed boy in a bed gown', and beside him a 'kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing that it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a monster from the vilest cabaret in France or the lowest gin shop in England'. That would be, of course, Christ in the House of his Parents. Thankfully, the massed ranks of gapers swiftly obscure the painting, but in doing so, they sadly reveal other canvases of equivalent ugliness—Millais's 'first exhibited work', for instance, daubed in 1846, when the lad was just 16; in technical terms impressive for a man of any age. It is there for contrast, we are told:
In 1848 Millais's art underwent a dramatic transformation when he established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood with a group of six other rebellious young artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt. This movement was formed in a spirit of opposition to the operatic illusionism that underpinned British academic painting and which characterises Millais's own Pizarro of 1846.
So runs the blurb affixed to the wall of the first room, in large letters for the sand-blind, who must be making up a sizable majority of the crowd, and getting their full money's worth. A while ago, Gawain interrogated guidespeak on the matter of Titian. I did not hear guidespeak, nor was I about to shell out 3 quid (and that's on top of an exorbitant nine for the show, with student discount) for an audiobox to tell me what to think; so I will have to rest content to interrogate wallspeak instead. Do you like that word, 'underpinned'?

In the third room, Millais shifts 'dramatically' from pre-Raphaelitism to a 'new manner', here labelled Aestheticism: 'Retrospectively, such works appear to have heralded the inception of British Aestheticism's ideal of Art for Art's sake, anticipating the subsequent work of Rossetti, Whistler, and Albert Moore.' This is, of course, meaningless. How can any painting appear to herald the inception of an ideal, retrospectively or not? Is there really such a difference between the pre-Raph Millais and the 'Aestheticist' Millais? Is it just that his brushstrokes are a bit looser? The first offering in this room, apparently painted with his forehead, is the Eve of St. Agnes, which looks like a Degas that has just died:

With aestheticism goes decadence, I suppose, and third-room Millais is certainly into decay, or I should say, 'transience'. Here is a great Gawainian word—transience. It recurs again and again. Here's what Tate says of Autumn Leaves, an 1856 canvas featuring the facial talent of Millais's new cuñada, Sophie Gray:
The figural composition resembles a Renaissance altarpiece, and the picture has been seen as a rumination on the transience of life. But Millais presents the girls on the verge, not of death but of maturity, to awaken a sense of nostalgia in the viewer.
The commatic structure of that last sentence is wrong, I think. It should say, 'on the verge not of death, but of maturity, [so as] to awaken'. It is also unclear just how a scene of girls on the verge of maturity might awaken nostalgia in a viewer—'a sense of' is mere padding—and how the hack can be so damn sure of this 'viewer' in the first place. Wikipedia, incidentally, agrees with 'transience', and uses the same passive weasel-words to assert it:
The painting has typically been interpreted as a representation of the transience of youth and beauty, a common theme in Millais's art.
But Wikipedia at least has the grace to use the word 'representation'. Tate has described the painting as a 'rumination', yet another offensively meaningless article of artspeak. Now, Gawain has a 'nothing ugly' policy for pictures on his site. I don't. So let's have a look at the bloody thing:

Does the figural composition resemble a Renaissance altarpiece? Malcolm Warner thinks something similar: 'These gestures on Millais's part towards religious symbolism, along with the hieratic detachment of the girls from one another, and the way the two sisters to the left look out to us as if offering some kind of intercession, gently recall a company of saints in an altarpiece.' The problem with this sort of comparison is that it is impossible to refute.

Transience and mortality are everywhere. Take another third-room picture, Spring (above), painted in the three years following Autumn Leaves, and possibly the least unattractive work on display. If 'Autumn' is about transience—or maturity, or nostalgia, or something like that—then surely 'Spring' should be about fertility and fecundity?
Spring equates Millais's new ideas of female beauty with natural and human mortality. . . Alice Gray posed for the girl on the far right. Above her a scythe acts as a symbol of mortality, and makes plain the meaning of the picture—that human and natural beauty will fade.
Aargh—death again! Yet more transience! And the internet agrees:
The girls, relaxing in an orchard of spring blossom, are tasting curds and cream. The underlying theme, however, is the transience of youth and beauty. This is expressed in the fragile bloom of adolescence, the wild flowers and the changing seasons. The scythe on the right indicates the inevitability of death.
I want you to consider these statements. For Tate, the scythe reveals the 'meaning of the picture'. Implied is that the picture has a meaning—that it makes sense for pictures to have a meaning, to be 'about something'—and that that meaning is central to the picture's value. In this example, the 'meaning' of the picture is that 'human and natural beauty will fade'. The meaning is a proposition, to which the picture can be reduced. For the online text, from the Lady Lever Gallery in Liverpool, transience is not the 'meaning', but rather the 'underlying theme', which is both 'expressed in' and 'indicated by' the surface details. If this sounds either confusing or wrong to you—it is. Both.

All of these sentences are easy to glide over. Tate and Lever want you to read them like this: 'Spring, Millais, female beauty, natural and human, mortality, scythe, symbol, mortality, meaning, human and natural, beauty.' The gawker, one of the middles taking a cultured day off from her nine-to-five, and probably nodding along to the voice piped in from the audio-tour—a voice, no doubt, using words like 'beauty' and 'meaning'—smiles contentedly that she has decoded the symbolism and enriched her spiritual life with beauty and meaning. She is fed her pabulum, and moves on. Every time we go to a gallery, we are fed this pap, over and over again, and hardly notice it. We start talking pabulum. We talk of beauty and meaning, and of themes; we say that paintings are about things, or rather some paintings, good paintings—we like the paintings of which we can say that they are about things—we flatter ourselves—we perpetuate pap.

But if we actually read the bloody sentences, and think about how the words relate to ideas, and the ideas to each other, we should begin to realise how little these sentences mean as propositions. 'Spring equates Millais's new ideas of female beauty with natural and human mortality.' I defy you to get any sense—let alone any good sense, and let alone something true—out of that.

At times the cant reaches grotesque levels. Room Five is the most ghastly of all rooms, not only in this exhibition, but in any exhibition, in any museum. The Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's has nothing on it. They have banned smoking in enclosed public spaces; I move to ban Millais's 'Fancy Pictures' in all public spaces, enclosed or not. Avert your eyes, for here is one:

And here—oh, you've been waiting for this, you damned cynic—is the blurb:
In taking on a genre widely perceived to have degenerated into something rather trite and whimsical, Millais sought to elevate it by imbuing his child subjects with a sense of mortality. Emblems suggesting the fragility of existence such as flowers, birds and bubbles were common in these works, and models were often posed as philosophers lost in thought or contemplating the beauty and transience of the natural world.
If only Millais himself had been imbued with mortality at an early age. I ask you, if a flower is now shorthand for the italicised phrases, then there a god's lot of philosophical gardeners out there. I could only think of the poor children pressed into service as Christ, Ralegh, leaf-bearers or, god forbid, philosophers.


My companions in torture, who in fact loved every minute of it, and tolerated my contempt with good cheer, thought that perhaps I might be saying that Millais is 'sentimental'. The word is initially appealing, but does not get us very far. If I am, as I claim, a formalist, why should I object to sentiment? If a formalist, it must be pure form—rosy cheeks, luminous outlines, soft focus, pastels—that offends me. But then: is my objection to this form arbitrary? Or is it, rather, a response conditioned by long association of that form with the sentimental? Genuinely, I am not sure. Occasionally I see things I almost like: the cavalcade of receding profiles in Isabella, the Ernstian foliage in Ophelia, or the Rorschach tree-silhouettes poking up above the horizon in Autumn Leaves. But these details are always, always, ruined by context: the incessant brightness and over-modelling of Isabella, the structural flaccidity of Ophelia, and the clashing purples and reds, cold and wan, of Autumn Leaves.

And curiously, I love the actual Pre-Raphaelites; why should I like one and not the other? Are they very similar at all? I suggested that one of the advantages of Renaissance altarpieces (for example) is that one doesn't need to worry about meaning or themes, let alone transience. A picture of Christ taken down off the Cross is just that—it is not about anything. This frees us to concentrate on form. Towards Raphael start appearing problem paintings whose meaning is very much under discussion—the Grand Boojum being the Primavera. But the vast majority of the religious and secular painting of the Quattrocento wears its 'meaning' on its sleeve. And that 'meaning' is never transience—not until the Seicento. It is a tremendous relief.
Pre-Raphaelite works revived medieval and early-Renaissance art and featured a deliberate naivety in composition and a psychological intensity which insisted on the quirks and specifics of human physiognomy.
We're back to the first room now. The presentism is obvious: Quattrocento composition must be 'naïve', just as its artists are 'primitives'. But whence cometh 'psychological intensity'? Is the century before Raphael noted for that? I think of it as an era of flat arrangements and elongated figuration, miniaturist style, perspectival experiment, the sweet and tasteful soft, classical erudition, sinuous lines, colours glowing subtly on an understated ground—all this I saw in the Siena show at the National, and none of it do I associate with the PRB, with its chunky figures, plain light, garish jewel-tones and cloy. Millais was an artist of undoubted technical ability, but no warmth, and no confidence. In the 1870s he started painting the sort of academic pompiage his 1848 self hated, but Tate is on hand to save his reputation:
As well as expressing the persona of the artist, gestural brushwork also communicated his identification with an Old Master tradition in painting epitomised by Titian, Velázquez and Rembrandt.
Everywhere we turn, his reputation is saved. It is to be saved. He can do no wrong: even the bucketworthy tableaux of Room Five are 'elevated' by 'a sense of mortality'. Here he is richly allegorical: there he paints for 'non-specialists eager for drama, characterisation and narrative'. He winds up painting landscapes, full of 'celebrations of autumnal scenery and light, and unresolved narratives'. I wonder if there is transience somewhere in that autumnal light. Millais clearly wanted it all—and the Tate has given it to him. We should be refusing this, we few, no less strongly than we refuse the junk shored up against Britain each year by the Turner Prize. Let us have some pride in our cynicism.

19 November, 2007

On the Patriarchy

Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness is an odd book, that's for sure. In what other work of modern scholarship would you find an expression like 'a crotch of upper branch awninged with green leaves'? The OED does indeed list 'crotch' in the sense (#4) of 'The fork of a tree or bough, where it divides into two limbs or branches', though it has no more recent usage than 1889. But the use of 'branch' here is very strange: it is treated almost as a mass noun, without article or quantifier. And although 'awninged' is correct, I wish it were 'awned'.

If you dipped into the first chapter, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a book on language. Jaynes, like Mencius, likes toying with English and coming up with new terms—for instance, he coins 'struction' to cover both instruction and construction. After insisting (as would George Lakoff, much more famously, four years later) that metaphor is the 'very constitutive ground of language', Jaynes goes on to coin 'metaphier' and 'metaphrand' as the two parts of a metaphor. (I. A. Richards had already done this, of course, in his 1936 Philosophy of Rhetoric, with the terms 'vehicle' and 'tenor'. And let's not even talk about Saussure, whose semantics had largely been invented by the ancient Stoics.) Science, declares Jaynes, like Vaihinger before him, is determined by metaphors, while
Even such an unmetaphorical-sounding word as the verb ‘to be’ was generated from a metaphor. It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, “to grow, or make grow,” while the English forms ‘am’ and ‘is’ have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi, “to breathe.”
A. S. Diamond, in his brilliant Origin of Language, reckoned the original of am and asti as 'to eat', noting the similarity of Latin esse (to be) / esse (to eat), and correlating food with life. In his 1690 Essay, Book 3, chapter 1, section 5, John Locke had asserted the 'sensible' (sensory) origin of all words:
SPIRIT, in its primary signification, is breath; ANGEL, a messenger: and I doubt not but, if we could trace them to their sources, we should find, in all languages, the names which stand for things that fall not under our senses to have had their first rise from sensible ideas.
Sadly, as Hans Aarsleff has pointed out, there is no sensible origin for the root of the word 'mind', 'mens' etc. And similarly, linguists have come up dud on the two roots of the verbum abstractum, es- and bheu- as Watkins lists them. Finally, Jaynes gets to consciousness itself, which he visualises as 'an analogy of what is called the real world. . . built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world'. Truth be damned, this is sublime stuff! Finally he introduces the 'paraphrand', or the body of associations and salient attributes of the metaphrand. This lets him write:
The map-maker and map-user are doing two different things. For the map-maker, the metaphrand is the blank piece of paper on which he operates with the metaphier of the land he knows and has surveyed. But for the map-user, it is just the other way around. The land is unknown; it is the land that is the metaphrand, while the metaphier is the map which he is using, by which he understands the land. And so with consciousness. Consciousness is the metaphrand when it is being generated by the paraphrands of our verbal expressions. But the functioning of consciousness is, as it were, the return journey. Consciousness becomes the metaphier full of our past experience, constantly and selectively operating on such unknowns as future actions, decisions, and partly remembered pasts, on what we are and yet may be. And it is by the generated structure of consciousness that we then understand the world.
So consciousness is sort of a map of reality, generated by language and used by memory, in a constant oscillation. Presumably Jaynes is riffing on, or perhaps just ripping off, that famous motto of Alfred Korzybski. Consciousness comes to be built up from a linguistic model of events via 'narratization', by which our actions are moulded into coherent patterns of cause and effect over time. (MacIntyre thinks this narrativity has been lost. Raminagrobis agrees, sort of.)


Later, much later, Jaynes describes superstition as 'only a metaphier grown wild to serve a need to know'. This rather reminded me of a description of Elizabethan prose I once came across: 'the intense elaboration of the vehicle causes the tenor to recede uncomfortably close to disappearing altogether'. Both lines evoke a fault: the supererogation of the subaltern, by which the map is taken for the territory, the model extended too far. Thus Marx generalised from his time to all time; Freud from a few patients to all patients, and all symptoms. Wittgenstein had claimed something similar in the 1921 Tractatus:
There is no possible way of making an inference from one situation to the existence of another, entirely different situation. There is no causal nexus to justify such an inference. We cannot infer the events of the future from those of the present. Superstition [Aberglaube] is nothing but belief in the causal nexus.
(Our friend Yusef will be keen to learn Hitler's opinions on superstition, no doubt: 'Superstition, I think, is a factor one must take into consideration when assessing human conduct, even though one may rise superior to it oneself and laugh at it. It was for this reason, to give you a concrete example, that I once advised the Duce not to initiate a certain action on the thirteenth of the month. Such things are the imponderables of life, which one cannot afford to neglect, for those who believe in them are quite capable, at a moment of crisis, of causing the greatest consternation.')

The view of superstition presented by Jaynes and Wittgenstein has its roots in classical antiquity. Theophrastus simply defines deisidaimonia (superstition) as 'cowardice in regard to the supernatural'. But Plutarch, writing about 400 years later, develops deisidaimonia, literally a 'fear of the daemons', as manifest in a propensity to over-interpret natural signs: 'he who is afraid of the gods, is in fear of everything—the sea, the air, the sky, darkness, light, a call, silence, a dream'—'to the superstitious man, every infirmity of body, every loss of money, or loss of children, every unpleasantness or failure in political matters, are called "plagues from God," and "assaults of the demon"'. This is line with Plutarch's general approach to the world as a system of signs to be decoded: superstition is a failure to interpret signals, an inference beyond that which can be made, just as for modern thinkers it is a misconstrued model of reality.

11 November, 2007

Obitur dictum

So, the world is one week deeper into factionalist chaos, and more importantly, the old fugger is dead. That will teach him to go licking Chinese toys, won't it? No doubt we'll have our fair share of laments and threnodies, not just for a man, but for an era that he may, or of course may not, have represented. To me he represents only that whole worthy crowd of modern American penmen whom one is supposed to admire. The old fugger has that aura—the one that makes latterday Trillings spill prose all over their pants in the NYT, LRB or TLS. I could have admired them. If I had done my MA in American literature at Oxford in 2003, I would have admired them, and would admire them still. After all, there is so much to admire. But I made my choice. I've read hardly a novel, hardly anything post-war of artistic significance for five years—and my admiration has cooled, inevitably, though I daresay not irrevocably. Our modern literature says nothing to me, despite all its bravura. It was lucky, in a way, that I read Cur Vietnam?, the fugger's best book, and for some reason the one never mentioned by commentators (here, for instance), back when I was still charmed by the modern line, back when it could still speak to me.
Mailer is one of the last Western writers to create a self-contained intellectual universe out of strong, idiosyncratic convictions about the relationship between spiritual, psychic and social existence.
Amazingly, this sentence was written before Mailer's death. It comes from a long, adulatory piece by Lee Siegel in the New York Times, only nominally about Mailer's last book, The Castle in the Forest. I'd dearly like to see someone slip it out again, under cover of dark, as part of obituary, altering only 'is' to 'was'. It could have been written at any time, and about any author. One might change 'Mailer' to 'Shakespeare' and attribute it to Harold Bloom, or slot in 'Joyce' and give it to Cyril Connolly in 1929. In 1929, Connolly wrote an opinion piece on the fragments of Finnegans Wake then appearing in Eugene Jolas's little magazine for rebels and misfits, Transition. In Connolly's opinion,
Literature is in essence a series of new universes enforced on a tardy public by their creators.
That is how one defends Joyce, and it is, I think, the only serious way of doing so. Connolly is praising experimentation against the 'bucolic and conservative' literature being produced in his England. He mentions E. M. Forster. (I once heard a snatch of Where Angels Fear to Tread on the radio, not knowing it, and took it for a child's dabblings. Connolly has a review essay called 'Where Engels Fears to Tread', wittily.) Connolly goes on to say of the Work in Progress that
This one may be a fake, but it is not from a writer who has previously given us fakes; it may be a failure, but it surely an absorbing one, and more important than any contemporary success.
I do not know whence comes the 'x's failure is better than others' successes' trope. Do you? Siegel, who hates bloggers, has this to say of Norman Mailer:
This restless vastness of Mailer's ambition (''In motion a man has a chance'') is such that his ''failures'' are seminal, his professional setbacks groundbreaking. His willingness to fail—hugely, magnificently, life-affirmingly—expands artistic possibilities.
Personally, I loathe this sort of writing, but then, it is cultural criticism in an age almost entirely lacking in serious culture, or serious criticism. I was once recruited by a young, clean-shaven Argentinian—practically the Anti-Conrad—to rewrite his application to a Harvard MBA programme. At the head of his personal statement he'd put his life motto, apparently cribbed from Norman Vaughan: Dream big, and dare to fail. I thought this was the most offensive thing that could possibly begin a personal statement. But padded with a tricolon of Disney adjectives in a New York Times mushdrip, it is, naturally, far worse. How bucolic and conservative have we become?

02 November, 2007


In 1942, besieged in his Florentine villa, Bernard Berenson kept a diary of his reading, subsequently published. It isn't a great work, by any stretch of the imagination, but nevertheless, I find myself coming back to it now and then, for little aperçus, offhand remarks and obiter dicta, some valuable in their own right, others revealing a lost world. I have already quoted the book several times on this site. On the 21st of January, Berenson wrote,
Began also the Nazi Koran, Mein Kampf, for Hitler, besides much else in common with Mohammed, has given his adherents a book.
Talk about 'Islamofascism'! Berenson continues to report on Mein Kampf for some weeks, admiring and deploring the work in (almost) equal measure. Being a Jew—by birth a Lithuanian, Bernhard Valvrojenski—he of course laments Hitler's maniacal misosemitism. A month and a half after Berenson began Mein Kampf, Hitler was at dinner with his officers, spouting off as usual. Heinrich Heim was still taking stenographic notes; his successor, Picker, had not yet taken over those duties. Hitler is alleged to have said that
The English language lacks the ability to express thoughts that surpass the order of concrete things. It's because the German language has this ability that Germany is the country of thinkers.
One reads Hitler for these sorts of statements—one reads him as a barometer, just as one reads Berenson. German is the language of grand nouns, of course—nouns like Geisteswissenschaft—which is why the Philosophen are so difficult to translate, and why I decided to drop German classes at the Warburg. But what is interesting is the move from a grammatical style to an intellectual one. Hitler's remark rather reminds me of the discussion in Karl Vossler's 1925 The Spirit of Language in Civilization, in which he argues that languages with definite articles—such as Greek, and to a lesser extent Mediaeval Latin, by contrast to Classical Latin—are well suited to philosophical thought. It is with the definite article, and with long, agglutinated nouns, that we are better able to isolate and objectify abstract concepts, and hence to analyse them. So goes the logic.

German already had a reputation, quite unwarranted, for slowness and solidity. In 1783, Johann Christoph Schwab, in his Grand Concours lecture for Frederick II's Academy—done into French (1803) as Dissertation sur les causes de l'universalité de la langue françoise et la durée vraisemblable de son empire—fascinating, but now little read—argues that the German poets are superior to the French in profundity and originality, but complains that the language lacks the sweet charm and pleasantness that has made French, deservedly, the lingua franca of European intellectuals. French and German turn out to be natural opposites. In her extremely influential 1810 work on Germany, Madame de Staël asserts that the chief limitation of the language is its end-placement of the verb, making it effectively impossible to understand a sentence until it is finished. French unfolds quickly, encouraging a lively badinage and play of social wit, whereas German is civil, still and deep. The latter is, likewise, better for poetry than prose, and better for writing than speaking. German is also better suited to the abstract.

Later in the same century, Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Hitler's many pseudo-inspirations, made a string of soon-to-be-notorious remarks on the German language, in his 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil, 2.28:
A German is almost incapable of presto in his language; thus also as may be reasonably inferred, of many of the most delightful and daring nuances of free, free-spirited thought. . . Everything ponderous, viscous, and solemnly clumsy, all long-winded and boring types of style are developed in profuse variety among German—forgive me the fact that even Goethe's prose, in its mixture of stiffness and elegance, is no exception, being a reflection of the “good old time” to which it belongs.
Kaufmann, somewhere, quite rightly objects to this, on the grounds that in Nietzsche's hands the language is most certainly capable of presto, of daring nuances and free-spirited thought. Nietzsche is, for Kaufmann, the greatest writer of German prose since Luther. That is the gangasrotagati Nietzsche.

Still, Hitler would certainly have agreed that the style of a language 'has its basis in the character of the race'. As a German, how could he not have? Hegel was in the blood, in the kraut and pilsner, in the fumes of the sewers. And having just insisted that Germany is the country of thinkers, Hitler continued to maunder, free-associating on the topic of language, happy, one presumes, to blurt out anything that came to mind, safe in the knowledge that the assembled officers would nod sagely, or perhaps laugh in sympathy, whatever it took—
We Germans are not inclined to talk for the sake of talking. We don’t become intoxicated with sounds. When we open our mouth, it's to say something.
Ach so.