“The Dead,” Illustrated by James McNeill Whistler

February 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: Dubliners, by James Joyce.

And so I have read “The Dead” again.

“The Dead” is the best thing to read if you find yourself questioning the whole literary enterprise.  It is full of small miracles of language, character, and structure, and its smallness expands into a sense of the cosmic in the most astounding ways.  Its odd length — a very long story, or a short novella, or another thing altogether — is somehow perfect.  (In this and in “Grace,” the also-long preceding story, it really does seem that Joyce found his rhythm, and that this rhythm was decidedly mismatched to that of the commercial press of the time.) An incredible amount of literary energy has been spent trying to catch up with Joyce’s exploration here of the gaps between even the closest human minds, and the community of even the most deliberately estranged, and the ambiguity inherent in all joy and sorrow.

Both times that I’ve read this story, the following passage has been the first to stop me in my tracks:

Gabriel’s warm trembling fingers tapped the cool pane of the window.  How cool it must be outside!  How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park!  The snow would be lying on the branches of the trees and forming a cap on the top of the Wellington Monument.  How much more pleasant it would be there than at the supper-table!

This is simultaneously ironic and deeply familiar, this feeling.  It is Christmas, with family; you are intended to feel cozy and happy and glad to be by the hearth.  And you do, in a way.  But the room is close and quite warm; the desire to be alone, by yourself, can be overwhelming, especially if you have a melancholic disposition.

Throughout the story, I kept thinking, in passages like these, of J. M. Whistler’s Nocturne paintings, those gorgeous, proto-Modern impressions of tint and shadow, form and motion.

J. M. Whistler, "Nocturne in Gray and Gold," 1876

Whistler makes an interesting complement to Joyce.  Both were controversial expatriates, and both were quite self-consciously artists, interested foremost in the form and beauty of their works.  Joyce was, certainly, more political and social in his art, less of an aesthete and decadent.  And yet there is an emphasis on form and aesthetic in “The Dead,” as certainly as there is in Whistler’s most famous painting, Arrangement in Gray and Black:

J. M. Whistler, "Arrangement in Gray and Black," 1871

Use this painting to illustrate the famous passage near the end of “The Dead,” a passage that serves not only as a premonition and insight into Gabriel’s state of mind, but also to give a formal bookend to Dubliners, which began with a wake:

Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees.  The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died.  He would cast about in his mind for some words that might console her, and would find only lame and useless ones.  Yes, yes: that would happen very soon.

Obviously, Whistler was most interested in the composition and artistry, not the content, of his famous painting.  And yet, one would willfully and needlessly reduce the significance and impact of the painting by ignoring the fact that it portrays his mother; form and content are joined here in a beautiful whole, as in “The Dead.”  Beyond its place in the whole of Dubliners, the story itself hinges on a type of artistic expression: Gabriel’s speech honoring the three Misses Morkan.  The two paragraphs before Gabriel begins are, I think, among the most beautiful I know.  I’ll quote the second here, which is another beautiful, sensuous imagination of snowy night:

Gabriel leaned his ten trembling fingers on the tablecloth and smiled nervously at the company.  Meeting a row of upturned faces he raised his eyes to the chandelier.  The piano was playing a waltz tune and he could hear the skirts sweeping against the drawing-room door.  People, perhaps, were standing in the snow on the quay outside, gazing up at the lighted windows and listening to the waltz music.  The air was pure there.  In the distance lay the park where the trees were weighted with snow.  The Wellington Monument wore a gleaming cap of snow that flashed westward over the white field of Fifteen Acres.

J. M. Whistler, "Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea," 1871

The oration is a self-conscious piece of rhetoric, and its delivery preoccupies Gabriel throughout the first half of the story.  We see him planning out how he will use the occasion to score points off of a foe, Miss Ivors, and we even get this: “What did he care that his aunts were only two ignorant old women?”

And yet the speech works.  It is a moving tribute to the hostesses, to the dead, and to Ireland, both to its fictional listeners and its real readers.  As the work of Gabriel, a writer and lover of literature, married to a woman from Galway, it is possible to read this as a microcosm of Joyce’s own ambiguous and constantly shifting emotions toward his homeland.  If Gabriel had planned to score rhetorical points despite his own reservations about the ignorance or vulgarity of his own people, he ends up meaning it anyway, in spite of himself.

Both the speech itself (and its status as the self-evident focus of the story) and the turn of Gabriel’s thoughts thereafter to memories of he and his wife, young and in love, point to “The Dead” as a work of art about art’s creation, and its power.  The story moves toward its astounding conclusion beginning with this paragraph:

He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was singing and gazing up at his wife.  There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something.  He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of.  If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude.  Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones.  Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.

As it happens, “distant music” is also what I hear when I look at Whistler’s paintings: they evoke soft music, sounds of night.  And distant music is precisely what Gretta’s thoughts end up being, to Gabriel: the music of memory, a memory he knew nothing of, and that had nothing to do with him.  As devastating as this is to Gabriel, there remains the power of the “sudden tide of joy” he feels when she sees him; the “proud, joyful, tender, valorous” thoughts she evokes in him; the sweetness and fondness of his memories of moments of their life together.  The ambiguity of being human with another, in the end.  The mingled emotion of a rocket falling back to earth.

J. M. Whistler, "Nocturne in Black and Gold," c. 1874-75

Three or More Madmen

March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy.

Reading next: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Art sometimes comes at you in waves, whether you choose it or not.  More or less unintentionally, after the jolly laffs of You Know Me Al I’ve been spending the past few weeks with art like a series of hard slaps across the face, forehand and back, the skin rubbed raw.  That image is one of the trademarks of the Japanese army in Masaki Kobayashi’s film trilogy The Human Condition.

Almost ten hours of pain, suffering, and moral anguish, it becomes, somewhere around the third of its six parts, hypnotic and all-consuming, thanks mostly to the astounding brilliance of its cinematography, editing, and formal composition, and the performance of the great Tatsuya Nakadai.  That is, unless you find it completely unwatchable.  Which is perfectly valid.

As for me, watching it while I was also reading Tolstoy — not just Tolstoy, late Tolstoy, prophet-howling-in-the-wilderness Tolstoy — left a sense of having my brain scrubbed thoroughly and left out to dry: unpleasant, perhaps, but necessary.  The works share a directness and search for fundamental principles and truths that’s more or less absent from contemporary discourse.  You can’t subsist on a steady diet of this stuff — at least I can’t — but you need some of it, or your soul dies.

As with Kobayashi’s film, Tolstoy is readable thanks to his formal genius and artistic integrity, through which he attempts to  wake his audience to the insanity of so many societal conventions.  And yet the works themselves are hardly transparent panes through which to show problems.  Madness runs deep in each work, and in three consecutive Tolstoy stories I read, it was inescapable as text or as subtext.

“The Diary of a Madman,” a short work left unfinished, shows how a man comes to a kind of holy madness — the madness of Lear and mysticism — through three lonely confrontations with death and God.  Tolstoy presents these experiences as uncanny, and they are, but they also felt familiar to me, a kind of universal:

A clean, whitewashed, square room.  How tormenting it was to me, I remember, that this little room was precisely square.  There was one window, with a curtain — red….  And anguish, anguish, such spiritual anguish as comes before vomiting, only spiritual.  Eerie, frightening, it seems you’re frightened of death, but then you recollect, you think about life, and you’re frightened of your dying life.  Somehow life and death merged into one.  Something was tearing my soul to pieces and yet could not tear it.  Once more I went and looked at the sleeping men, once more I tried to fall asleep, it was all that same terror — red, white, square.

The translation here is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and they convey the confusing rush of words, the crisis of this uncanny sensation of coming face to face with the point of your existence.  It comes across as the kind of spiritual vomiting the narrator mentions.  But there are those lucid details, in this incident and those that follow it, those sensory impressions, and that artful recapitulation of “red, white, square.”

I wonder if this story and the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonata” all function as entries in a madman’s diary on a metafictional level, as well.  If Tolstoy was trying to rid his work of decadent description and layers of meaning and present experiences from soul to soul, he could not help himself: he was too much an artist.  There is too much ambiguity in the ending of “Death of the Madman,” in the holy-foolishness or actual insanity of a character who gives away his possessions and claims to be afraid of nothing, and too much ambiguity in all of his stories.  Thank God.

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is certainly a moving work of art on Tolstoy’s terms (as I understand them, which is surely rudimentary).  I love the section near the end, when Ivan “lying face to the back of the sofa,” dying in “solitude… had lived only on imaginings of the past,” memories from his childhood of tastes, incidents, family.  As he dies, at the end, we read the following:

He indicated his son to his wife with his eyes and said:

“Take him away… sorry… for you, too…”  He also wanted to say “Forgive,” but said “Forgo,” and, no longer able to correct himself, waved his hand, knowing that the one who had to would understand.

Okay, fine.  God will understand.  But what about us, and what about his family, from which he feels so estranged?  Did he want to say “Forgive” because he is forgiving them, or because he wants them to forgive him?  And what are they to understand from “Forgo”?  One last message of moral disapproval from him, telling them to give up their decadence?  (It’s clear, from the beginning of the story at Ivan’s wake, that they do not.)  The story is something of a tragedy, something of a comedy in the Dantean sense, thanks especially to that “Forgo.”

Finally, there’s “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which is a feverish nightmare.  The nightmarish quality of the story comes in part from its narration by a murderer, Pozdnyshev, in a train compartment with the framing device’s first-person narrator, but it also stems from our (or at least my) confusion about Tolstoy’s stance towards Pozdnyshev, towards the narrator, towards the events of the story.  It reminded me a bit of Dickens killing off Dora in David Copperfield: is Pozdnyshev speaking for Tolstoy in his justification for murdering his wife, a kind of wish-fulfillment like Dickens’?

Whatever the case may be, Tolstoy presents Pozdnyshev as driven insane by sexual jealousy, with or without justification, and Tolstoy seems to be arguing primarily against the basic human sexual impulse.  This is so crazy that even at the time people were misreading the story as an attack on the institution of marriage.  And yet, as a document of the inextricable complications of sex, love, marriage, feelings of “ownership,” it’s an enduring work of art.  Into this work of art Tolstoy inserts another, the titular sonata, which Pozdnyshev calls “a fearful thing,” presenting a brief theory of art and especially music as neither “elevating” nor “abasing,” but “provoking.”  He equates the artist with the hypnotist, fearing that “this hypnotist [artist] should be the first immoral man who comes along.”  The stakes of art are high for Pozdnyshev, and it’s no stretch to see him as a surrogate for Tolstoy here.  He takes on the voice of a man who loses his mind and kills his wife.  He writes this story and shows us the murder occurring, using it to form a passionate argument against passion.  Moral or immoral?  Did Tolstoy create beautiful, ambiguous  works of art in his right mind, or in spite of himself?

Western Devils, Eastern Devils

April 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

One of the more interesting sections of Mandeville is his description of the “Vale Perilous,” which so far as I can tell he thought was somewhere in India.  It is full of gold and silver, or at least the illusions thereof.  It’s also full of the corpses of Christians and others who have been tempted by the riches, only to be killed by the demons that live there.  This is the scary-campfire-story section of Mandeville, and for whatever reason this passage did give me a little chill:

In the middle of the valley under a rock one can clearly see the head and face of a devil, very hideous and dreadful to see; nothing else is seen of it except from the shoulders up.  There is no man in the world, Christian or anyone else, who would not be terrified to see it, it is so horrible and foul.  He looks at each man so keenly and cruelly, and his eyes are rolling so fast and sparkling like fire, and he changes his expression so often, and out of his nose and mouth comes so much fire of different colours with such an awful stench, that no man can bear it.

Quite a word-picture, that; for some reason the thought of seeing a devil’s head under a rock spooks me.  I’ve been interested in demon iconography for quite a while; I’m especially fond of Hieronymus Bosch’s whacked-out devils, and this Schongauer engraving is one of my favorites.  I’ve gotten really interested in Buddhist sculpture in recent years, especially Japanese.  This guardian figure in the Boston MFA is one of my favorites, and is scary as hell in person (it’s the crystal eyes).  Interesting that this is actually a benevolent figure in Buddhism, a protective deity and defender of the Buddhist law.  Also interesting that it’s dated to the 14th century, when Mandeville was touring around Asia.

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