Category Archives: fine arts

Najwan Darwish on living in doubt

(Translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, from Najwan Darwish, Exhausted on the Cross, NYRB Books 2021.)

I don’t know the Arabic word that is the title of this poem. The English word can mean a logical fallacy–changing the meaning of a term between one part of an argument and another–or a deliberate trick. Macbeth calls a promise “that lies like truth” “th’Equiuocation of the Fiend.”

Deceit is a fault, but equivocation can also imply an inability to decide, or even a choice to remain undecided, like Keats’ “capab[ility] of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts. …” One can equivocate because several options seem attractive, or because all seem terrible.

I read Darwish as self-critical. He is confessing his equivocation, his failure (sometimes) to take a stand, much as, in “In Shatila,” he asks himself how he could have turned smilingly away from an old refugee:

How could you smile, indifferent
to the brackish water of the sea
while barbed wire wrapped around your heart?

How could you,
you son of a bitch?

But what should be expected of him? At a time when everyone is supposed to take one side, to state one truth–when we are all our own communications departments, and silence is called complicity–I resonate with the poet’s equivocation. His uncertainty becomes a doubt about who he is, and that doubt becomes the country he dwells in, wherever he goes. It’s the only country he has.

(By the way, I have no idea whether Darwish feels equivocal today, and I don’t mean to attribute any stance to him in this moment. The poem is several years old. It does speak to me today.)

three great paintings in dialogue

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC displays The Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini with additions by Titian (1514/1529), The Old Musician by Edouard Manet (1862), and The Family of Saltimbanques by Pablo Picasso (1905). These major works talk to each other.* We might say that the Bellini is a work of art, the Manet is a work about art, and the Picasso is about the artist.

Bellini’s painting illustrates a story from Ovid (Fasti I:415ff.). Mario Equicola, a courtier in service to the Duke of Ferrara, had given Bellini detailed and learned instructions about how to represent the original passage (Colantuono 1991). Equicola argued that poetry was the greater art; painting was merely derivative. Some contemporaries disagreed with this assessment, but all expected art to represent classic texts: usually Scripture, but in this case a pagan myth.

Bellini creates a kind of set for the gods, a flat area with a backdrop (which is now mostly Titian’s work). The characters are shown frozen in the midst of action.

Giovanni Bellini and Titian, The Feast of the Gods, 1514/1529, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.1

The artist counts on certain expectations that make the image easily legible. As usual in Renaissance art, light comes from a sun behind the viewer’s left shoulder. Space is reserved between the major objects and the edges of the canvas, so that the scene is “framed” both aesthetically and literally. Objects that are further away are not only smaller but blurrier and lit differently from those at center-stage (sfumato). Although the characters are Greco-Roman gods, they wear costumes and hold props from Bellini’s own time. Their bodies and other objects are represented with glowing detail; for example, the ceramics represent the earliest depictions of Chinese porcelain in European art.

If this is what we expect from art, then it is hard to see how anyone could surpass Bellini. He knows all the tools and techniques. He can represent round objects and faces rotated on all axes; light reflecting on metal, glass, porcelain, and liquid; water flowing through space; shadows and highlights; and naked and clothed bodies with discernible weight. But once this kind of painting has been produced at a high level for several centuries, the whole approach could become tired–especially once artists become enthusiastic about radically different styles from other cultures and times.

Detail, showing water flowing into a glass vessel

Manet’s The Old Musician bears some similarities to Bellini’s work. Again, several characters are presented on a flat stage with a tree and the sky behind them and light coming from the upper-left. However, the edges of this image cut right through one human figure and the tree, reminding us that we are looking at a painted canvas. Especially in the foreground and around the boy’s silhouette, the paint strokes are easily legible (another reminder that this is a painting). A horizon is visible, but the background is ambiguous. Flat ground behind the boy seems to morph into a low wall behind the young man. The sun casts shadows to the right of the violinist but to the left of the man in the tall hat. Perhaps the setting is the outskirts of Paris or another great city, but the location is obscure.

Edouard Manet, The Old Musician, 1862, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.162

And there is no story. Maybe the people will move later on, but they are not evidently in the midst of doing anything now. The musician has stopped playing his violin, which might have animated them before. No character looks at any other, except that the musician stares at us.

You need a guide, such as Charles Fried (Fried 1969) or David Luban (Luban 1994) to tell you that the figures here are quoted from previous works of art, including an ancient statue of the philosopher Chrysippus, Watteau’s Pierrot (1718-19), and Manet’s own Absinthe Drinker (1858-9). The subject of this painting is not any story but art itself. The tradition within which Bellini painted has come to an end, like a tune previously played by a musician who is now “old.”

The figures in Manet’s painting are timeless and may combine costumes from diverse periods, but it’s safe to say that they are socially marginal. The young girl is barefoot and responsible for a baby. This is not a conventional family or a respectable organization but perhaps a band of homeless people. One of them, the violinist, is clearly a kind of artist, and the painting implies that artists in general are outsiders. In contrast, Bellini had painted his work for the private study of Duke Alfonso d’Este. From Bellini to Manet, successful artists have evolved from well-placed courtiers to bohemians.

Picasso was a spiritual heir to Manet. A young migrant from Spain, living in bohemian Paris among poets and artists, he embraced a marginal and critical role. He and such friends as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire regularly visited the circus, where they felt (or at least claimed) an affinity with the performers. In The Family of Saltimbanques, Picasso depicts a group of acrobats from the lowest tier of that profession. The landscape is even emptier than in the Manet.

By Pablo Picasso – Digital reproduction or scan of original painting: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27675009

The harlequin figure may be a self-portrait, the large jester is probably Apollinaire, the woman may be Picasso’s lover and model Fernande Olivier, and the girl may represent an orphan whom Olivier and Picasso had recently adopted, only to return her–rejected–to an orphanage. This image, then, is self-referential and confessional, in contrast to the outward stance of both Bellini and Manet. It exemplifies Picasso’s Rose Period, which had recently succeeded his Blue Period, and it can be understood as an objective correlative of the painter’s evolving mood.

These three paintings share several motifs. For instance, the feet. The Naiads in the Bellini are barefoot, per Ovid:

Naides effusis aliae sine pectinis usu,               405
     pars aderant positis arte manuque comis;
illa super suras tunicam collecta ministrat,
     altera dissuto pectus aperta sinu;
exserit haec umerum, vestes trahit illa per herbas,
     impediunt teneros vincula nulla pedes. 

There were Naiads, some whose hair flowed down without a comb,
   others having arranged it by hand with skill.
This one serves with her tunic gathered above her calf,
   another opens the robe to reveal her breast: 
This one uncovers a shoulder, another drags her hem in the grass
   No tender foot is shackled with a shoe. 

These naked feet are meant to be mildly erotic. Not so with Manet, whose shoeless young girl is poor and encumbered with an infant. With her dirty feet, she may refer to Caravaggio’s Madonna of Loreto (1604-6). And Picasso’s saltimbanques wear slippers for acrobatics.

All three paintings relate in important ways to poems. I’ve mentioned that Bellini’s work illustrates a passage from Ovid’s Fasti. This is a somewhat distasteful story. Priapus (whom Bellini shows erect under his tunic) is about to rape a Naiad named Lotis while she sleeps, but a donkey brays, awakening the whole company and subjecting Priapus to ridicule. He then kills the donkey with his scythe. (In Bellini’s version, it looks as if Mercury was already watching before the donkey brayed.)

Manet’s friend Baudelaire encouraged him to paint modern society. These lines of Baudelaire’s can be compared with The Old Musician:

À une Mendiante rousse

Blanche fille aux cheveux roux,
Dont la robe par ses trous
Laisse voir la pauvreté
Et la beauté ...,

To a Redhead Beggar Girl

Pale girl with auburn hair
Whose clothes though their holes
Let your poverty show
And beauty ...

Most of all, the fifth of Rilke’s great Duino Elegies is entirely about Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques, with which he lived (in the Munich home of Hertha Koenig) for several months in 1915, after having seen the same painting in Paris. The poem addresses each character in turn.

Rilke begins:

Wer aber sind sie, sag mir, die Fahrenden, diese ein wenig
Flüchtigern noch als wir selbst, die dringend von früh an
wringt ein wem, wem zu Liebe
niemals zufriedener Wille? Sondern er wringt sie,
biegt sie, schlingt sie und schwingt sie,
wirft sie und fängt sie zurück; wie aus geölter,
glatterer Luft kommen sie nieder
auf dem verzehrten, von ihrem ewigen
Aufsprung dünneren Teppich, diesem verlorenen
Teppich im Weltall.
[...]

But who are they, tell me, these drifters, just a bit
More fleeting than ourselves, wrung out from early on--
by whom, for whose desire, by what insatiable will? Instead, it wrestles them,
bends them, loops them and swings them,
throws them and catches them again; as if through oiled,
slippery air, they come down 
on the worn-out mat, worn ever thinner by their constant 
leaping, this carpet that is spent in space.
[...]

Rilke takes Picasso’s static image and gives it a story, a before-and-after, much as Bellini had turned Ovid’s narrative into a snapshot. Not only does Rilke imagine that the acrobats were jumping before the calm moment captured in paint, but he discusses how they gradually learned to leap.

He begins a later stanza:

Ach und um diese
Mitte, die Rose des Zuschauns:
blüht und entblättert.

Oh and about this
center, the rose of onlooking:
it blooms and sheds its leaves.

Most translations (collected by Martin Travers) presume that the acrobats form the rose. That is probably correct. However, I suspect that Picasso is also the “rose of onlooking.” During his Rose Period, his pink-ish mood suffuses his work. The painting is a kind of self-portrait as well as an answer to Manet and the tradition of narrative art that preceded them both.

*Picasso definitely knew The Old Musician. Manet may not have known The Feast of the Gods, which was in England in his day. He’s responding to the overall tradition of European painting. References: Anthony Colantuono (1991) “Dies Alcyoniae: The Invention of Bellini’s Feast of the Gods,” The Art Bulletin, 73:2, 237-256; Michael Fried (1969), “Manet’s Sources: Aspects of His Art, 1859-1865,” ArtForum, vol. 7 no. 7; David Luban (1994) Legal Modernism, University of Michigan Press. See also: Velazquez, The Spinners; an accelerating cascade of pearls (on Galileo and Tintoretto); Manet’s “Old Musician” (from 2004).

sexual politics in Milan Kundera’s Laughter and Forgetting

While on a quick but lovely trip to Prague–and since Milan Kundera had died recently–I decided to read a book that I had not read before, Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (translated from French by Aaron Asher).

It is a set of linked stories with some essay-like passages, “a novel in the form of variations” (p. 227). The stories constantly recombine leitmotifs: the acts of laughter and forgetting that are named in the title plus dancing (especially in circles), caches of letters, literary writing, and sex. I think the novel as a whole avoids any theory–any consistent and organized way of combining its major themes that might reflect a truth about the world. Instead, it plays with them. Perhaps the resistance to theory and the embrace of free play is itself a theory of both literature and politics, a kind of liberalism that emphasizes the right to have and to express a complex and individual inner life.

The gender binary is very evident, and there is a lot of sex as well as some rape. The most admirable characters are women; most of the men are pretty bad. But the women are mostly defined by their relationships to male lovers.

For instance, exiled in France, Tamina is surrounded by privileged bourgeois citizens of a free republic who want to express themselves in writing (for the sake of being writers), bend her ear with their concerns, or have sex with her, and none of them is willing to assist her at any personal cost. The narrator says:

[This] is a novel about Tamina, and whenever Tamina goes offstage, it is a novel for Tamina. She is its principal character and its principal audience, and all the other stories are variations on her own story and meet with her life as in a mirror (p. 227).

One of Tamina’s admirable features is her steadfast love for her late husband, an exiled Czech dissident/writer–someone who sounds rather like Milan Kundera, albeit with a shorter lifespan.

Tamina doesn’t have much of an agenda: cultural, political, or otherwise. That’s fine; she’s just trying to live her life. But one gets that sense that this is not really “a novel about Tamina.” It’s a novel about someone like Kundera, as seen by his devoted wife. Indeed, as a deceased Czech dissident, Tamina’s husband is now purely good–a figure worthy of grief who cannot possibly do any harm. Tamina strives to preserve his memory.

The narrator writes:

The gaze of a man has often been described. It seems to fasten coldly on the woman, as if it were measuring, weighing, evaluating, choosing her, as if, in other words, it were turning her into a thing.

Less well known is that a woman is not entirely defenseless against that gaze. If she is turned into a thing, then she watches the man with the gaze of a thing. It is as if a hammer suddenly had eyes and watched the carpenter grip it to drive in a nail. Seeing the hammer’s malicious gaze, the carpenter loses his self-confidence and hits his thumb.

The carpenter is the hammer’s master, yet it is the hammer that has the advantage over the carpenter, because a tool knows exactly how it should be handled, while the one who handles it can only know approximately how (pp. 285-286).

Could this be reversed, to talk about a woman’s gaze at a man? Could the hammer think about anything other than the carpenter?

I cannot address the whole of Kundera’s oeuvre, let alone his peers and influences, but I did find this general thesis in Matonoha (2014):

The reduction of women to objects, which are observed or used by male subjects, is a conspicuous feature of Czech prose. By the same token, this classic feminist critical topos (man in the position of a subject, woman reduced to the position of an object) is further internally structured in Czech prose. Generally speaking, the following model is more or less repeated: at first glance — objectification, reification, fetishization, trivialization; on a second plane — proving that the male character is misunderstood, reduction of the female character, and the uncovering of his existential dependence on a loving female character; however, it is the next, higher, plane that uncovers the real, unreflected patriarchal and androcentric groundwork of the whole epistemological and ethical complex. Therefore, the model does not only include banal sexism and scopophilia (although they are plentiful) but also, on the second plane, paradoxically flattering and therefore even more treacherous identities …

Matonoha discusses Lucie from Kundera’s The Joke (1967) as the novelist’s first example of a recurrent type, the “idealized silent woman.” This also seems to be Tamina’s role in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. And the narrator tells us that she is the center of that whole book.

Kundera is a political writer insofar as he sees state communism as hostile to individual flourishing. His female characters are among the victims of that system. But he seems to miss the possibility that they are also oppressed on account of their gender and that men like him can play a role analogous to the state’s.

Source: Matonoha, J., 2014. Dispositives of Silence: Gender, Feminism and Czech literature between 1948 and 1989. In The Politics of Gender Culture under State Socialism (pp. 162-187). Routledge. See also: Ivo Andric, Bosnian Chronicle, Or, The Days of the Consuls; The Dictionary of the Khazars, pro and con; Vaclav Havel

Mani Rao’s innovative Sanskrit translations

How can you translate writing that’s densely allusive if you expect few of your readers to recognize the allusions? How can you translate poetry–or any other formally complex writing–into a totally different language while conveying some of the experience of the original form? And how can you translate passages from a language that has one kind of grammatical structure into an entirely different one?

One option is to translate loosely into a poem that works in your own language, sacrificing accuracy for experience. An alternative is to translate into literal prose and provide many footnotes or other explanations. That gives your readers some of the information they need, but it offers a very different experience from reading the original poem.

For instance, consider these two translations of the first stanza of a Sanskrit classic, The Meghaduta or Cloud Messenger by Kalidasa. First, H.H. Wilson (1786-1860) offers a loose translation into Victorian rhymed couplets.

Spoiled from his glories, severed from his wife,
A banished Yaksha passed his lonely life:
Doomed, by his lord's stern sentence to sustain,
Twelve tedious months of solitude and pain.
To these drear hills, through circling days confined,
In dull, unvaried grief the god repined... 

In contrast, E.H. Rick Jarrow (2021) translates “scrupulously and thoroughly,” avoiding constructions that would sound “choppy” in English but striving to convey each name and idea from the original text

A Yaksha, banished in grievous exile from his beloved for a year,
his power eclipsed by the curse of his Lord for having swerved from his duty,
made his dwelling among the hermitages of Ramagiri
whose waters were hallowed by the ablutions of Janaka's daughter
and whose trees were rich with shade.

“Drear hills” may convey some of the mood of the poem but gives us no sense of the importance of the particular hills where the Yaksha has to live. Jarrow’s “The hermitages of Ramagiri whose waters were hallowed by the ablutions of Janaka’s daughter” incorporates more information but sends us to notes if we want to make sense of the references. Both translations are poems, but Wilson’s is rhymed and metered in a way that is typical of Victorian verse and perhaps honors the formal regularity of the Sanskrit.

Both translations have merit, but I am excited by the innovative approach of Mani Rao (2014). Here is how she renders the same first stanza:

Some yaksha who made a mistake was cursed by his master: 
Suffer! 
One entire year 

   An ordinary yaksha 
   Not a hero 

   When even a season’s separation’s unbearable 
   Imagine six 

   What mistake 
   Kalidasa does not specify 
   Some lapse of duty 
   Same word for ‘duty’ and ‘right’ 

   Has the hero lost the reader’s heart
    In the very first line? 

Heavy the pangs of separation from his beloved 
His prowess gone like a sun that’s set 
   Year-long night 

He lived in hermitages on a mountain 
named after Rama 

Groves cool, waters pure 
Sita once bathed here 

    Remember Rama remembered Sita 
    Remember messenger Hanuman 
    Flying like a cloud 
    Why hermitages, in the plural? 
    More than exiled. Unsettled.

The plain text is her translation of the original poem into free English verse. The italicized text is her own commentary, also in verse. It’s as if we were listening to someone–or perhaps a chorus–recite the poem while another person interjected comments and questions from the side.

Rao’s additions are not exhaustively explanatory. For instance, she does not retell the story of Rama remembering the absent Sita, which is an allusion at the beginning of the Meghaduta. I do not know that story–but I can look it up once someone mentions the names. The explanation, being a poem itself, is marked by explicit emotion, irony, misdirection, and other literary features.

Rao’s approach may have precedents. (I would not necessarily know.) I have appreciated how Anne Carson supplies prefaces to her Greek translations that are themselves poems. For instance:

                      i wish i were two dogs then 
                             i could play with me 
         (translator’s note on euripides’ bakkhai) 

Dionysos is god 
of the beginning 
before the beginning.

What makes 
beginnings special? 
Think of 

your first sip of wine
from a really good bottle.
[...]

I see great potential in this general approach of using verse to convey context for verse.

Sources: The Megha d?ta or Cloud Messenger: A Poem in the Sanskrit Language
by K?lid?sa
, translated by Horace Hayman Wilson, revised edition (London: R. Watts, 1843). E. H. Rick Jarow, The Cloud of Longing: A New Translation and Eco-Aesthetic Study of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta (Oxford University Press 2021); Mani Rao, Kalidasa for the 21st Century (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2014); Anne Carson, Euripides: Bakkhai (New Directions, 2017). See also: The Kural; translations from Kuruntokai; there are tears of things.

Gillray and Blake

During the “Age of Revolution,” London was a hub of rapid technological, aesthetic, and economic change in the marketplace for political communications, foreshadowing our current experiences with digital media and propaganda.

James Gillray has been called the father of the political cartoon. As Clare Bucknell notes, he and William Blake, the visionary Romantic artist and poet, studied academic drawing and painting at the Royal Academy Schools in Somerset House around 1778. Later, Blake demonstrably borrowed from specific prints by Gillray (Marcus Wood, 1990). They were both part of the same London scene of artistic and technical experimentation, mass publishing, and political debate and censorship that Esther Chadwick, among others, explores. Their similarities and differences are interesting to trace.

The first illustration with this post offers a taste of Gillray. With the French Revolution at full tilt and a rebellion brewing in Ireland, the Prime Minister, William Pitt, called up the militia. The leader of the opposition, Charles James Fox, accused Pitt of stoking fear to confuse and oppress the people. Gillray depicts Pitt atop a coastal fort, clinging to the personification of England, John Bull, who is depicted as a yokel with symbols of both the French Revolution and the British monarchy attached to his hat.

James Gillray, John Bull bother’d:-or-the geese alarming the Capitol (1792) Copyright British Museum. Creative Commons

Watching geese through binoculars, Pitt cries, “There, John! – there! there they are! – I see them – get your Arms ready, John! – they’re Rising & coming upon us from all parts.” He claims he sees French revolutionary mobs, “the Scotch [who] have caught the Itch too; and the Wild-Irish have begun to pull off their Breeches!” He issues panicked orders to address the crisis: “down with the Book-stalls! – blow up the Gin-shops! – cut off the Printers Ears!”

John Bull answers, “Wounds, Measter, you frighten a poor honest simple Fellow out of his wits! – Gin-Shops & Printers-Ears! – & Bloody-Clubs & Lord Mayors! – and Wild-Irishmen without Breeches, & Sans-Culottes! Lord have mercy upon our Wives & Daughters! – And yet, I’ll be shot, if I can see any thing myself, but a few Geese, gabbling together – But Lord help my silly head, how should, such a Clod-pole as I, be able to see any thing Right?”

The gabbling geese might be a metaphor for the “public sphere” of political debate, treated as powerless. This is a satire of conservative nationalism and propaganda, by an artist who was equally adept at mocking radical ideas–and who accepted money to design cartoons for and against both parties at various times.

And here is an image by Blake from just about the same moment.

William Blake, Plate from Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), depicting Nebuchadnezzar, via Wikimedia Commons

The Devil has just said, “I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.” The text in the image reads, “When he had so spoken, I beheld the Angel, who stretched out his arms embracing the flame of fire, and he was consumed, and arose as Elijah.”

Blake appends a “Note.—This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world shall have if they behave well. I have also the Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no. One law for the lion and ox is Oppression.” The next section is entitled “A SONG OF LIBERTY” and offers numbered points, beginning:

  1. The Eternal Female groan’d; it was heard over all the earth:
  2. Albion’s coast is sick silent; the American meadows faint.
  3. Shadows of prophecy shiver along by the lakes and the rivers, and mutter across the ocean. France, rend down thy dungeon!

It’s likely that Blake really did experience a devil as his particular friend and read the Bible with him; mystical experiences influenced him as strongly as partisan cash motivated GIilray. Here Blake sings the very song that terrifies Pitt, the song of radical liberation.

Both Gillray and Blake incorporate their own handwritten text into their etchings or engravings. In both cases, the dialogue is fevered, histrionic. Neither has patience for the stuffed shirts of their day or any allegiance to “rules,” whether artistic, social, or sexual.

(Supposedly, Gillray and his business and personal partner, Hannah Humphrey, were on their way to church to be married when he remarked, “This is a foolish affair, methinks, Miss Humphrey. We live very comfortably together; we had better let well alone.” Blake and his spouse were once found stark naked in their garden, doing a dramatic reading of Paradise Lost.)

Those are similarities, but Blake was intensely earnest, whereas Gillray seems to have been a manic cynic (unless he was a canny subversive). I’d love to know what they said to each other when they were studying drawing and history-painting under Sir Joshua Reynolds.

See also: the role of communications in the French Revolution