Friday, March 12, 2010

The Sleep of Reason

We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. … The rest is the madness of art.

– Henry James, “The Middle Years,”
Complete Stories 1892-1898, ed. David Bromwich and John Hollander (New York: Library of America, 1996) 354.

In 1781, Francisco Goya was asked to provide a group of frescoes for the refurbishment of the cathedral in Saragossa, his home town. The commission, which came to him through his father-in-law, the then far better-known painter Francisco Bayeu, proved to be a bit of a headache from the first.

At 35, Goya had already earned himself a solid reputation in the capital, Madrid. Discovering just how much of a nobody he still was to the folks at home can hardly have been a comfortable experience, and when the "licentiousness" of his designs for the four cardinal virtues (Faith, Fortitude, Charity and Patience) was criticized by the cathedral authorities, he responded with an immense document detailing his intentions as an artist and his disdain for their ill-informed views (most cutting of all, perhaps, was the suggestion that his father-in-law "correct" his anatomy and choice of colours).

This letter could be seen as the birth-cry of the Romantic Artist, at odds with his time and convinced that his only duty was to listen to the promptings of a higher voice. It's the threat to his own livelihood that Goya begins with, though:

a master's reputation is a thing of great delicacy: his very subsistence depends upon it, and once darkened by some cloud his whole fortune may be destroyed ...

- Goya: A Life in Letters. Ed. Sarah Symmons.
Trans. Philip Troutman (London: Pimlico, 2004): 103.

He goes on to denounce the general frivolity and ignorance of those making the complaints:

after his professional work was presented for public examination at the unveiling of the paintings in the Cathedral of Our Lady of El Pilar, his attention was drawn to a certain group of people whom he overhead seeking to criticise his work and whose intention was clearly not inspired by any impartial criticism, or at least had nothing to do with the art of painting, which alone is relevant to just criticism of his work.

The points that Goya makes in his letter have a continuing relevance for any criticism of the arts. It's easy to feel that subjective irrelevances constitute the main criteria of judgment for those uninformed in the technicalities of one's metier; also (alas) that professional jealousy and feuding colours the assessment of those who are.

And yet, one can't help feeling that Goya's paintings, then and now, can be quite difficult to assimilate. Their blurred outlines and exaggerated figures make them far less sensuously appealing than his immediate predecessors (Velázquez, in particular). The fact that Goya's titanic genius would come to tower over his contemporaries can hardly have been apparent to those shocked and horrified by his brutally uncompromising series of engravings The Disasters of War, or the nightmarish intensity of Saturn Devouring His Chidren.

Goya, in short, had a lot to say. But his continued success as a professional painter at the Spanish Court depended more on his technical dexterity as a portrait painter than on his self-appointed task as chronicler of the abuses of the age.

You're all (I presume) familiar with Goya's print "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" (1799). A man resting with his head on a pen and piece of paper on top of a desk is besieged by bats and creatures of the night. The design is generally seen as a comment on the French Revolution, or the Age of Reason generally – the return of the repressed unconscious forces of nightmare the moment one is distracted from the pursuit of Enlightenment.

Francisco Goya: Preliminary Sketch for The Sleep of Reason (1797)

Goya himself wrote an interesting caption for an earlier state of this engraving:

The author dreaming. His only purpose is to banish harmful, commonly-held beliefs and to perpetuate in this work of caprices the solid testimony of truth. Universal language drawn and engraved by Francisco de Goya in the year 1797. [52]

The sleeping figure is intended to be the author, then. And the "universal language" he refers to is, presumably, the language of art. Any suggestion of satire on the pretensions of Enlightenment savants seems entirely absent here. And yet, when Goya's print was actually published two years later, Robespierre's reign of terror was what it appeared to be commenting on.

Perhaps that's the lesson to be drawn from this little artistic parable. When we're most sure of what we're trying to express, we're most liable to be misinterpreted - or, rather, even more disconcertingly, to find out that we were really talking about something else all along.

Diego Velázquez: Las Meniñas (1656)

What is the "meaning" of "Las Meniñas", for instance? The observer being observed is clearly part of it - Velázquez can be seen painting the actual picture that we're looking at, overlooked by the Spanish King, who's standing by the back door. Is it the claustrophobia of court he means to comment on? The maids ("meniñas") tending to the famous troop of royal dwarfs? Or is it some larger mise-en-abime of self-reflexive consciousness he wants to set up in our minds? Nobody knows. One doubts that the painter himself could provide much elucidation on such complex and teasing subject-matter. Quite apart from the instinct for survival which led him to cloak his meaning in airy allegories.

I quoted, above, from Henry James, never the easiest of authors to fathom. The Sacred Fount (1901) is not popular even with his greatest admirers. Rebecca West denounced it as a “small, mean story” in which:

a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant … in an unsuccessful attempt to discover if there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people than it is among sparrows.

I could never quite see where the sparrows came in, but (leaving that aside for the moment), we can say that it is the story of an unnamed – and almost certainly unreliable – narrator, who is attempting to find the source of a strange influence on two acquaintances of his. One, a woman, looks much younger than before, and the narrator equates this with the fact that her youthful husband now looks much older. The second, a man, has grown far wittier, and most of the book is occupied with an increasingly frustrated (and finally futile) search for the “fount” of this enrichment.

Edmund Wilson decided that the point of the book was that it contained “two separate stories to be kept distinct: a romance which the narrator is spinning and a reality which we are supposed to divine from what he tells us about what actually happened.” The strange story of sympathetic vampirism is therefore the narrator’s invention, which is meant to mask a more sordid – but still deducible – reality. It is, in essentials, the method of "The Turn of the Screw," but Wilson sees it as working well in the latter context and falling flat in the former: “Henry James was not clear about the book in his own mind.”

It's difficult not to value the strident courage of a Goya above the sinuous emblematic subtleties of a Velázquez or a James. Were either of them ever really "clear about" their work even (especially) in "their own minds"? Yet the burden of bolshie Goya's greatest works seems to be precisely these forces of irrationality that redirect us when we feel most clear.

Perhaps the best model for the artist, then, remains the Haruspex, that Roman priest, trying to divine the future from the entrails of a bird?

Francisco Goya: Saturn Devouring His Children (c.1819-21)

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