24 June, 2008

Lutus Lutetiae

Squit, squit, squit, all weekend. Ten times a day, or more. It was horrible. Must have been something I ate—bad salmon or prawns, maybe. At least I could read as I squote, a small consolation. Other consolations were denied me. Normally in this condition, one's cul is easily torché, so wet and dilute is the dung. But this time—oh! I had a rich macerate umber paint with every swab. This morning the smell of a regular session was enough to put me off my imminent pain au chocolat. My arse, in fact, was itself like a huge pain au chocolat, after a minute in the microwave. (Georges Perec taught Harry Mathews the expression, avoir le pain d'épice au bord des lèvres.) I clench; I suffer.

Dali, in his Passions, which I purchased last week at a bouquiniste opposite the Île de la Cité—a worthy addition to my burgeoning collection of Daliana—tells the story of the Caca Dauphin. 'In the presence of dignitaries and the best artists of the realm, the divine child freed his bowels. There were collected coppers, ochres, greens, browns, and the Court was clothed in the colours of the Dauphin-poop. I know nothing at once more traditional and more subversive, nothing more legitimate and more scandalous, nothing more nobly alive.' Dali, of course, loves shit, scybales, sir-reverence, ordure. And he adores the thick palette of Moreau (detail, right): 'Gustave Moreau, the most glorious of erotic and scatalogical painters, pursued only one aim, but that fanatically: to make gold appear at the end of his brush. It is with excremental colours, ochres, burnt umbers, that a good artist succeeds in suggesting the matter of gold. Gold, as with Moreau, is born of the shadows, of the abysses of dark matter, and this is why our civilization, lacking grandeur, is that of fresh, gay colours—that is to say, inhuman and indivine. See America.' Moreau's hues are, as Dali puts it, antibonbons.

I did not visit the Musée Moreau. I meant to. But I wound up beat from all the skiting. I barely got to the Louvre without passing out from the sun and the din of tourists not even trying to parlay frongsay. But I did get to the Louvre. It was a necessity. Unfortunately I was really only there to see the Italian Renaissance, and that meant wading through all the run-off from the Gioconda. It was all creaking floorboards and Ah, Botticelli! Oh, Giotto! More interested in the name-plates than the paintings. March swiftly through the Tuscan Trecento—'don't like this stuff'—Raphael, check; Titian, check. Snap snap snap at the Veronese Cana. Peer appreciatively at the speck of the Leonardo. 'It's a self-portrait, you know.' For some reason they didn't want to flow out the back of the room to see the Ingres Roger and the rest of the famous French rubbish. So I was stuck with them.

Clearly, the Trecento was the room for the Moreauiste. The Trecento is the excremental century par excellence, with its defecund gold and ochre, the superb and unromantic brutality of its figuration. Who can fail to enjoy the Master of the Rebel Angels with his tumbling nasties—

What image could be more stercorine? Let us allegorize the fall of Lucifer and his infernal host as an expulsion of congurgitated matter from the white celestial vaults of the buttocks. Likewise, we discover Christ recast as a dung-beetle, with a stylised carapace for a chest, wrapped in a torchecul, and mounted on iconic gold, a classic Catholic gilt complex:

Dali says of Catalonia: 'The passion of God, of gold, and an erotics of non-consummation go together in the mystical soul of my country.' But it is not only Catalonia, as this Tuscan crucifix testifies. No wonder all the American tourists, accustomed to their deodorised, puritanical pastels and primaries, fresh and gay, walk right past this stuff, their glazed bored eyes hiding an unconscious dread. The Trecento room also contains Quattrocento primitives, including a very fine little Sano di Pietro predella with a St. Jerome comic-strip.

We are in the same world as the St. Anthony I wrote about here: a St. Anthony tempted by gold, mysteriously vanished, or metamorphosed into the brown landscape. Here Jerome has cast off his cardinal's hat, to reveal the aureate radiance of a halo, among trees studded with gold; his excrement has been transformed into vipers and scorpions. The vermilion towns sketched in each top corner are gorgeously charming, aren't they?


Oh, enough of shit. I've had enough, believe me. My wife, as always so pharmaceutically astute, has just given me a couple of Imodium tablets, chewable, mint-flavoured, and literally nauseating. I don't think they have taken effect yet. I continue to suffer.

Strangely, there are some marvelous paintings in the Louvre of a wholly inexcremental nature. In the long corridor of Italian Quattro- and Cinquecento proper, it is Mantegna who really holds my interest, as he generally does. For instance, look at his astonishing treatment of marble as a decorative element in the magnificent Virgin of Victory (1496):

And contrast this, in terms of technical skill, to the treatment of marble by an earlier generation, for instance Castagno's very fine Last Supper of 1447:

In 1497-1505, Isabella d'Este commissioned a number of matching works for her first studiolo in the Castello di San Giorgio; Mantegna painted the first two, Perugino the third, and Lorenzo Costa the last two. Mantegna, again, creams the competition. In my post on Quattrocento painting, I showed a mysterious cipher-text from a 1453 manuscript attributed to Mantegna; and here, fifty years later, the old bastard is at it again. A long scroll is entwined around a dryad-like figure to the far left: the topmost involution has some Latin, but below it are two visible faces containing nonsense-scripts of a Voynich variety, the second rather resembling (but not, in fact, being, at least not entirely) square Hebrew forms.

This thrill of obscurity recurs on the Paris streets, in a very rare moment of mystery. Just south of the Seine, at the entrance to the Jussieu campus, currently under re-construction, one finds high thin twin walls of graffiti, or possibly art of a strange urban sort, utterly illegible and incomprehensible:

Greg Afinogenov, a jolly nice chap and fellow blogger whom I met over beer near the Bastille last week, thinks Paris a dead city, replete with bobos and lacking all remnants of authenticity. I am inclined to agree. The city fills me with a slight horror, and yet I can't put my finger on quite why. Perhaps it is the visual monotony, or else the surfeit of grand architectural statements begging to be photographed, just like the Gioconda. Paris hardly allows you to find out for yourself. Everywhere is known, or not worth knowing. In London, the most known is also ripe with opportunities for new knowledge. Walk down Tottenham Court Road, looking not at the electronics stores but at the rooftops. At Buckingham Palace, walk around the corner to Lugsmoor Lane and the back streets of Pall Mall. Head north off Oxford Street and stroll down pre-Regency ways still intact. But Paris is without respite: it retains the totalitarian aesthetic of Haussmann. Consequently, its only successes are in the monumental, and for me, only in the modern monumental, or in other words, the monumental not betrayed by endless ornamentation. Thus the crystal city of Les Halles:

Or the oppressive and hieratic interior of the Bibliothèque Nationale (the reason for my visit), which a friend of mine rightly compared to Karnak:

But very little of the quiet succeeds in this city. We read about, and so desire to retrouver for ourselves, the quiet and cloistral streets of Maldoror, of Eugène Sue, of the Surrealists. This is why I took, to read on the train, the Williams translation of Soupault's Last Nights of Paris. But it is no good; and even Soupault is dull in the light of day. Dali writes: 'My entire mental life is made up of the recording of visions, with a view to total orgasmic superposition. There is a stretch of the Rue de Rivoli that I find sublime, from the Hôtel Meurice to the Place Vendôme. And, well, I always make it 'come out' at the last moment.' But I ask you: is this, said stretch now, sublime?—

When I at last return home to my wife, only the second woman to whom I have ever remotely mattered, cut off from telephone or internet contact for six painful days, and two of raw squitting, the relief on both sides is palpable.


A. Ominous said...

"At least I could read as I squote..."

I shall never forget this line.

Raminagrobis said...

But what's this? Hah! oh, ho! how the devil came I by this? Do you call this what the cat left in the malt, filth, dirt, dung, dejection, faecal matter, excrement, stercoration, sir-reverence, ordure, second-hand meats, fumets, stronts, scybal, or spyrathe? 'Tis Hibernian saffron, I protest. Hah, hah, hah! 'tis Irish saffron, by Shaint Pautrick, and so much for this time. Selah. Let's drink.

Couldn't resist quoting that. Hibernian saffron indeed!

Robert said...

Hope you are sleeping all right these days, sorry you have had tummy palaver, always good for focusing the mind away from more interesting things!

No wonder all the American tourists, accustomed to their deodorised, puritanical pastels and primaries, fresh and gay, walk right past this stuff, their glazed bored eyes hiding an unconscious dread.

This definitely needs a good witty comment to attend it! I will leave it to someone else to say it.

Paris in the early sixties was fun and exciting, in the seventies even more fun, now I must try it again in the naughties!

I am in London next week, coffee?

Conrad H. Roth said...


A wonderful euphemism that doesn't feel at all like a euphemism. I thought it was U's coinage but OED gives Robert Greene of all people first (on the page of course).

"I am in London next week, coffee?"

Yes, sure. I'll be in touch.

Anonymous said...

No wonder all the American tourists, accustomed to their deodorised, puritanical pastels and primaries, fresh and gay, walk right past this stuff, their glazed bored eyes hiding an unconscious dread.

Is the implication that English tourists, with their fog-trained eyes and fearless subtlety, flock to the trecento room and focus with unerring clarity on the appropriate details of technique?

Also, shouldn't it be scybals or scybala?

Quips and quibbles aside, a most enjoyable post, and I wish a speedy recovery to your blasted bowels.


R J Keefe said...

What happened to "night soil"?

Andrew W. said...

Conrad, sorry to hear about the dire oi oi.

Funny thing, I loved that crucifix you mention enough to snap a photo of it when I was at the Louvre back in 1994!

I think not knowing much about art (or anything for that matter) made my trip there, as well as to the Vatican, that much more enjoyable - I just looked at what I liked.

And I share your sentiment about Paris. I recall being disappointed by the incessant greyness - this is the city of lights, I thought? Well yes, white lights, grey buildings. Woo hoo. Nice people though.

I took a panorama shot from the Triumphal Arch - I should dig it up and post it, such a strange and bleak city from up there...

Anonymous said...

I loved Paris, but then I avoided the official buildings and major thoroughfares as much as possible and stuck to side streets (and wandering into courtyards of random buildings -- can you still do that, or do they lock the gates?).


Conrad H. Roth said...

Andrew: what a coincidence!

Steve: "Is the implication that English tourists...?"

No, not at all! All tourists are American tourists now, even the British and Spanish ones. Even the natives actually.

"Also, shouldn't it be scybals or scybala?"

Yes. I was being sloppy.

I think most of the gates of random buildings are locked now, but probably there are still a few open courtyards. I find the back streets just as monotonous as the boulevards, myself.

Thanks for well wishes; bowels do seem to be better today.

Anonymous said...

All tourists are American tourists now

Just like Le Monde said!


Unknown said...

'Walk down Tottenham Court Road, looking not at the electronics stores but at the rooftops.'


Conrad H. Roth said...

It is!