Friday, August 30, 2019

the vision of Gideon and the lightning of Damascus

“We begin, in all probability, by telling the youth of fifteen or sixteen, that Nature is full of faults, and that he is to improve her; but that Raphael is perfection, and that the more he copies Raphael the better; that after much copying of Raphael, he is to try what he can do himself in a Raphaelesque, but yet highly original manner: that is to say he is to try to do something very clever, all out of his own head, but yet this clever something is to be properly subjected to Raphaelesque rules…This I say is the kind of teaching which the Royal Academy lecturing, press criticisms, public enthusiasms, and not least by solid weight of gold, we give to our young men. And we wonder we have no painters.”
"Raphael had neither religion nor originality enough to trace the spirit of poetry and the spirit of philosophy to the inspiration of the true God, as well as that of theology, but that, on the contrary, he elevated the creations of fancy on the one wall, to the same rank as the objects of faith upon the other; that in deliberate balanced opposition to the Rock of Mount Zion, he reared the rock of Parnassus, and the rock of the Acropolis; that, among the masters of poetry we find him enthroning Petrarch and Pindar, but not Isaiah nor David, and for lords over the domain of philosophy we find the masters of the School of Athens, but neither of those greater masters by the last of whom that school was rebuked- those who received their wisdom from heaven itself, in the vision of Gideon and the lightning of Damascus.”

This is Ruskin on Raphael, first in a defense of the Pre-Raphaelites, and next in a lecture called “Pre-Raphaelitism”, given at Edinburgh University in 1853. So Raphael, says our John, not only elevates art above nature, he commits the Renaissance sin of elevating art above religion, which is to say, he places Man at or above the level of God. That about wraps it up for Raphael, if you're John Ruskin. Ruskin leapt into the Art Wars in Victorian England, on the side of the realists, the naturalists, the Pre-Raphaelites. They had a point, I think, about subject matter and mannerism, though they seem to have also ended up focusing on mythological/historical/literary subjects and painting in a highly artificial manner. So who knows what was going on. And while I must say that Raphael is not my favorite painter, I quite like a number of his works (the portrait of Castiglione in the Louvre is a masterpiece, as are many of Raphael's portraits). And while I like a number of the Pre-Raphaelite works I've seen, I would rather look at Raphael.

Nonetheless, or perhaps because of all this cunundra, Mighty Reader and I went to an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite works at the Seattle Art Museum last night. There was a Ruskin watercolor! I've never seen a Ruskin with my own eyes. I must say he was probably a better draughtsman than he was a painter, though this painting is not as blurry as my photo makes it appear. I was doubtless trembling with the excitement of seeing something Ruskin had touched.

The details are quite clear when you see them closely. The buildings on the lake shore are delicate and finely rendered:

The biggest influence Pre-Raphaelite work has had on me is my love for the graphic arts and especially the style of illustration that came out of the period. Here is an edition of Chaucer, with a gorgeous design and illustrations that remind me of every book I loved as a child:

I do not remember who the artist is. The image below is a detail from a large painting of a market square where a variety of tradespeople were preparing for the work day. Thomas Carlyle is painted off to the side, chatting no doubt about society with another philosopher, whose name I forget because I had never heard of him. Anyway, the forget-me-nots were lovely.

I leave you with a modern work hanging in the same gallery, a piece of anonymous post-Pre-Raphaelism:

The Victorian Art Wars and the rising ideas of naturalism versus artistic beauty dovetail nicely into the Zola essays I'm currently reading. Perhaps I'll write about those essays in the near future. Zola was not the clearest thinker, I am discovering.

Monday, August 26, 2019

the lettuces lounged in line with an air of careless indolence

Florent Laquerriere escapes from Devil's Island, where he has been wrongfully incarcerated by the government of  Louis Napoleon, and returns to Paris where he takes a position as one of the fish market inspectors in the immense new marketplace Les Halles. Devil's Island was a deforested purgatory of drought and starvation; Les Halles is a different sort of purgatory. The first chapter has Florent, upon his initial return to Paris, staggering around in Les Halles before the market opens, surrounded by food of every description (and Zola does, in fact, give every description of the food), weak and delirious from starvation. The book's first irony; there are countless more, for example this passage from a scene fairly late in the book, where Florent and Claude (a painter) visit a farm outside of Pars:

Florent paced backwards and forwards amidst the perfume of the thyme, which the sun was warming. He felt profoundly happy in the peacefulness and cleanliness of the garden. For nearly a year past he had only seen vegetables bruised and crushed by the jolting of the market-carts; vegetables torn up on the previous evening, and still bleeding. He rejoiced to find them at home, in peace in the dark mold, and sound in every part. The cabbages had a bulky, prosperous appearance; the carrots looked bright and gay; and the lettuces lounged in line with an air of careless indolence. And as he looked at them all, the markets which he had left behind him that morning seemed to him like a vast mortuary, an abode of death, where only corpses could be found, a charnel-house reeking with foul smells and putrefaction. He slackened his steps, and rested in that kitchen garden, as after a long perambulation amidst deafening noises and repulsive odors. The uproar and the sickening humidity of the fish market had departed from him; and he felt as though he were being born anew in the pure fresh air. Claude was right, he thought. The markets were a sphere of death. The soil was the life, the eternal cradle, the health of the world.

 Not that The Belly of Paris is a novel that condemns the city and urges us to some primitive life instead. The Belly of Paris is really about consumerism and acquisitiveness, which Zola describes as a battle between The Fat and The Thin. Fat and Thin do not mean Rich and Poor; it is about something deeper within humanity, more like gluttony versus...I don't know; what's the opposite of gluttony? moderation? abstinence? Maybe. Some people are just not hungry, even when they don't eat. In a metaphorical sense, that is. Perhaps this is a novel about materialism, then.

Zola gives a lot of pages over to descriptions of food. One of his narrative gambits is to carry the reader from a celebration of food, a glorious cornucopia of delight, to a suffocating and poisonous bacchanalia of death and rot. The book begins with page after page of wagons laden with fresh vegetables, entering Paris in the wee small hours of the morning, a caravan of good healthy stuff. As the book goes along, the the heaps of carrots and cabbages are replaced by bloody heaps of sheep's tongues, by cheeses melting and reeking in the sun, by a halfwit gleefully slitting the throats of forty pigeons as his bloodthirsty lover watches.

Meanwhile, Florent has become radicalized and has joined a revolutionary group who plan a coup against Louis Napoleon and his regime. This plot is mostly for comic relief, the revolutionaires being mostly idiots and police informants. The real action is the lower middle class squabbling of the women of the market, a collection of misogynist stereotypes Zola has brought together and animated with some amusing verve.

A tall female pushed the shop door open. It was the handsome fish-girl, Louise Mehudin, generally known as La Normande. She was a bold-looking beauty, with a delicate white skin, and was almost as plump as Lisa, but there was more effrontery in her glance, and her bosom heaved with warmer life. She came into the shop with a light swinging step, her gold chain jingling on her apron, her bare hair arranged in the latest style, and a bow at her throat, a lace bow, which made her one of the most coquettish-looking queens of the markets. She brought a vague odor of fish with her, and a herring-scale showed like a tiny patch of mother-of-pearl near the little finger of one of her hands. She and Lisa having lived in the same house in the Rue Pirouette, were intimate friends, linked by a touch of rivalry which kept each of them busy with thoughts of the other. In the neighborhood people spoke of “the beautiful Norman,” just as they spoke of “beautiful Lisa.” This brought them into opposition and comparison, and compelled each of them to do her utmost to sustain her reputation for beauty. Lisa from her counter could, by stooping a little, perceive the fish-girl amidst her salmon and turbot in the pavilion opposite; and each kept a watch on the other. Beautiful Lisa laced herself more tightly in her stays; and the beautiful Norman replied by placing additional rings on her fingers and additional bows on her shoulders. When they met they were very bland and unctuous and profuse in compliments; but all the while their eyes were furtively glancing from under their lowered lids, in the hope of discovering some flaw. They made a point of always dealing with each other, and professed great mutual affection.

A good deal of the action involving the women of Les Halles has to do with gossip, women making up stories about their neighbors, stories that take on essentially cash value: a good story will get you a free meal from one or more of the shops. A gossip with an established reputation for titillating stories can save a lot of money on groceries, and lives are made or broken in Les Halles on the strength of gossip.

I am not doing a good job of describing The Belly of Paris. For that, you should go read Tom's excellent posts at Wuthering Expectations. Meanwhile, I picked up a copy of L'Assommoir at a used bookshop yesterday afternoon, so apparently I plan to read more Zola. Zola was a student, you could say, of Flaubert. He took many of Flaubert's techniques and ran with them. Possibly he used them with less precision than Flaubert, or let's say with fewer strictures, and I'm going to say that I probably prefer Zola's writing to Flaubert's.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

When the Father sends his Word, he always sends his Breath.

It would be possible to think of The Odyssey as a detective story rather than (as is more common) as the Hero's journey: while Odysseus makes his way west from Calypso's island back to Ithaca, Telemachus is making his way east across the Greek world in search of news, asking everyone he meets to tell him what they know of his father. This is the structure of the first half-ish of Homer's book. I would like, actually probably, to read a version of The Odyssey that brings these detective elements to the fore, a narrative that builds an image in the mind of Telemachus of his father based on what he is told, and how much of the tales he believes, and how that image fares when Telemachus is confronted by the man himself, washed ashore on Ithaca in the guise of a beggar. Telemachus evaluating the myth and the man. That could be pretty interesting. Someone may have already written this.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

democracy in action

Celebrating the privilege of voting. The cocktail is a French 75, which contains gin, champagne, simple syrup, and lemon. Vive la liberté!

Casting our ballots at the Sunday farmer's market. Seattle has ballot drop boxes all over the city. You can also mail your ballot without the trouble of a postage stamp.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

the clearest eye

“Make up a story... For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul.”  
Toni Morrison, The Nobel Lecture In Literature, 1993