Thursday, March 25, 2010

Stokes Point

[Stokes Point, Northcote]

I'm co-editing a book on Auckland for our Massey University monograph series. The working title is A Super City: Views of Auckland, and it will consist of a series of essays by members of the School of Social and Cultural Studies, where I work, on various aspects of the city seen through the lenses of our diverse disciplines. You can find further details here.

Since our school happens to include Anthropologists, Historians, Linguists, Literary & Media specialists, Political Scientists and Sociologists, we're hoping the results will be pretty interesting. It's intended for a general audience as well as the students in our "Auckland: A Social and Cultural Study" summer-school course.

My co-editor Grant Duncan has already posted the abstract for his essay online, and you can request a draft of the whole piece from him here.

[Felton Mathews: Map of the Harbour of Waitemata (1841)]

My own essay is about Stokes Point, in Northcote (originally called Pt. Rough), which is the little reserve right under the Harbour Bridge, the spit of land from which it launches itself out towards the city. The particular angle I take on it might be seen as somewhat controversial, so I won't say any more about that here except to say that the working title is "The Stokes Point Pillars." If you want to know more, you'll have to read the book (due out in October).

What I thought I'd post here instead is a kind of suite of views of Stokes Point, from my visit there last Saturday with Bronwyn's digital camera.

[The View from the Shore]

[The Avenue of Pillars]

[Pohutukawas in Plastic]

[Car Park]


[War of the Worlds]





[The Convergence of the Twain]

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Strange Coincidences

[Jan Potocki: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. 1989.
Trans. Ian Maclean. 1995 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1996)]

Yesterday I went into town to return a few library books and meet up with some literary cronies. The bus was a bit late, though, so I had time to duck into the local Opportunity Shop. If you've read the post below, you'll understand how surprised I was to find this book, which cost me all of two dollars.

Yes, there it is, Goya's Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (though I notice that the translation on the back cover gives it as the "dream" of reason - an equally valid translation).

But there was something else waiting for me in that op shop - this:

[Jack Ross: Requiem. Hutchinson (London: Random House, 2008)]

I know I've made rather a song and dance in the past about doubles and doppelgängers and other such appurtenances of the Gothic (in fact, you may not have noticed, but in the sidebar to this blog I've got a little collection of "Jack Rosses": the Aboriginal Artist, the Alabama Treasurer, the Bearded Muser, the Brooklyn Copperhead, the Chartered Accountant, the Footballer, the Spoonerist, the Thriller Writer, and the Australian WW1 Veteran ...). This one was the Scottish thriller-writer.

So far so good. That's not the end of it, though. You see, I have a bit of a history with this Manuscript found at Saragossa novel. The reason I didn't already have a copy of this - very handsome - Penguin edition was that I bought the book in French when it first appeared in 1989, on the strength of a long and laudatory review in the TLS, which made it sound like the literary discovery of the decade.

[Jean Potocki: Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse. Ed. René Radrizzani (Paris: José Corti, 1989)]

It's hard to separate fact from legend where this bizarre book is concerned, but it appears to have been written in French by the Polish Nobleman Count Jan Potocki sometime between the years 1805 and 1815 (when he committed suicide, allegedly with a silver bullet which he'd had blessed by his parish priest in advance). He published a few extracts from it in his lifetime - first in Saint Petersburg, in Russian, and then in Paris, in the original French. The complete manuscript is, however, lost, and while four-fifths of the text survives in something approaching Potocki's final text, the other portions had to be retranslated into French from a Polish translation made in 1847). This is probably what delayed the first complete edition of his book until 1989.

I bought my copy in Brussels, hot off the press, and promptly started to read it (I guess what attracted me was the pattern of nested stories within a complex frame, so like the Oulipo-ian fictions of Georges Perec, whose Life, A User's Manual (1978) I'd also recently discovered). There was, however, an error in my copy - a missing line (or lines) on p.403.

I had to wait till the second edition of the French text, in 1991, before I was able to fill it in. It turned out to consist of just one word: "parts".

[Potocki: Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (1989): 403]

The passage (spoken by the Wandering Jew, one of the innumerable storytellers in the book) translates more or less as follows:

At this time, the Essenes had already formed their bizarre association. They had no wives, and their goods were held in common: on all sides, one could see nothing but new religions, mixtures of Judaism and Zoroastrianism, mixtures of Sabianism and Platonism, and above all lots of astrology. The ancient religions built themselves up with pieces from everywhere.

The missing word comes on p.403 of a book written almost two centuries before the appearance of its first edition. Four and three make seven (just that weekend I'd been discussing the mystic associations of the number seven with a group of students, à propos of the seven gates of the Underworld traversed by the goddess Ishtar).

The passage comes from the 36th day of a story which extends over 66 days (allegedly written down by its narrator, Alphonse van Worden, in 1769, thirty years after the events described, and then sealed in an iron box form which it is extracted by a French soldier at the siege of Saragossa in 1809). 3 and 6 make nine, another number of mystic efficacy (three trinities, etc. etc.)

Hard to say what it all means (if anything), but suffice it to say that mysteries are all around us ... I hope all these omens promise good fortune and not bad. Not for nothing did I put down my religion as "irrational superstition" in the last census!

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Sleep of Reason

[Francisco Goya: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799)]

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)]