Sunday, February 27

The sweet breath of flattery ....

Heraclitus. Detail from
School of Athens - Raphael

'Tis holy sport to be a little vain,
When the sweet breath of flattery conquers strife.
(William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors)

A couple of weeks ago I learned that this blog had been included on a list of the “Top 50 Art History Blogs”. What’s that you say? You are startled? You should be, I certainly was. I received an unexpected email kindly informing me of this distinction, with a link to the site and inviting me to put the link and badge for the list on my blog. On visiting the web page, I found that, sure enough, my humble pillow was listed there with this blurb:
“Alchemist’s Pillow: This lovely blog is intended as a respite for readers who at times find the world a bit jarring. We like the blogger’s refreshing perspective on familiar works. Featured artists include Ansel Adams, Rafael, Escher, and Goya.”
How nice, I thought, although quietly trying to remember when I had ever done anything on the painter Raphael (clue: never, but I did post a poem by Rafael Alberti). Even nicer, though, was the fine company I was in, as some of the other art sites on the list are long-time favorites of mine, like Margaret’s The Earthly Paradise, Bob’s Art Blog by Bob and a few others (though I was a bit puzzled and disappointed over some of the ones that were missing, like Linnea West’s Art Ravels and Jane Librizzi’s The Blue Lantern).

Although this little ego massage was not unappreciated, I decided not to insert a link/badge, mainly because the list is featured on a commercial site that seems otherwise unconcerned with art history. Although they have done at least some research, and the list is helpful in finding art history sites, it had all the makings of a marketing wiz’s ploy to build up traffic to a decidedly non-art commercial site. And, after all, how reliable can a top 50 art history blogs list be that includes a little lapis lazuli elephant whose most prized self-proclaimed talent is an ability to talk to fax machines? It had to be a gimmick.

Raphael — The School of Athens, 1510, fresco, Vatican
(There! Now, I have done something on Raphael)

And so it was… and it is not the only one. Apparently this is becoming a fairly common tactic, not just in art history but in many other appealing fields as well. The site I am cited on also carries lists of the Best 50 Buddhist Blogs, 50 Awesome Atheistic/Agnostic Blogs, Top 50 Insect Blogs, Top 50 European Travel Blogs, Top 30 Civil War Blogs... Isn’t it reassuring, at least, to see that we get fewer (only 30) civil wars than dragonflies, awesome atheists, presumably awed Buddhists and leaning-tower-of-Pisa-holder-uppers? And isn't it fun imagining a blog that could somehow manage to make it onto all of these lists (Jeffscape, and 10th Daughter of Memory, are you out there)? This weekend I found an excellent description and discussion of this trend, Top lists and award badges: art history bloggers beware, at H Niyazi’s superb art blog three pipe problem (3pp). I encourage you to read the article and treat yourself to a rewarding stroll through his blog.

Which brings me to the real point of this post: 3pp has just announced a new project, the art and history site database (AHDB). It is in part a response to the success toplisters are achieving in having their less than reliable lists and rankings of websites claim the choicest turf of the google-search hits list real estate.

In 3pp’s own words:
"The Art and History site Database (AHDB) has been created to serve a specific purpose. Searching online for quality sites dedicated to art and history has become a time consuming process. The Wiki entry for a particular topic or artist is usually the top result in many instances, followed by a slew of image gallery or painting reproduction sites. With particular regard to blogs on the topics of art and history, there is presently no detailed resource that attempts to catalogue these sites and create a search engine that searches only these sites. (…)

This project was commenced in November 2010 and has been tested by a closed group of students and art historians. The basic aim is to create a useful tool to make finding art and history sites easier. There are many resources for art and history online but one that aims to include blogs simply does not exist. An increasing amount of art historians, classicists and authors are now blogging, and there should be a resource to find them that is as easy to use as Google."
To be included on the list of sites that AHDB will search, a blog must be previously submitted to and approved by the AHDB administrator. I have the impression that the list is growing quickly and will soon become a very valuable resource for art history enthusiasts and researchers. I encourage all of you to check out the site, spread the word to bloggers who may be interested in using its search engine and/or being included on the site list. It is not a commercially driven project and will therefore be much harder to manipulate for toplisters and all those clever people out there who devote their time and talent to such things.

The address for the new search tool is I will probably put a link to it on my sidebar in the near feature. The alchemist’s pillow has been included there, and that is a distinction I am pleased to have been given and just as pleased to publicize. So, spread the word.

I know I have inserted many links here; if you only have time or patience or clicking stamina for one, it is this one for 3pp, a wonderful, rewarding and very enjoyable site.

Wednesday, February 23


Dad and me in Caracas 1957/8
I am still mulling and musing the followup to my previous post on olvidium ... In the meantime I thought I would post something different, although perhaps not completely unrelated to that term that I offered as the opposite of memory. We tend to think of remembrance and forgetting as individual processes in our minds, but there is, of course, also collective memory and amnesia. Today I wanted to float up something that has been nearly lost in my family memory, specifically, on my father's side.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, my dad was born over 84 years ago in Brooklyn, NY, to Lebanese-Syrian immigrant parents. Unfortunately, I am completely ignorant of my Arab ancestry and heritage, do not speak the language, never been in the Middle East, did not really know my paternal grandparents (my father's father died before I was born and my grandmother when I was still a toddler in Venezuela), and know next to nothing about the family tree. All I consciously carry of this heritage is a love for Lebanese food of the kind that accompanied all holiday gatherings at the Brooklyn home of my uncle Floyd and aunt Beatrice 'Beattie' Holway. The contrast with the centrality in my life of my Spanish family and heritage is striking. Although I never gave this more than a passing thought when younger, in recent years I have come to rue this silence and absence, the roots and trunk of a family tree sunk in a mysterious, almost exotic darkness.

Sometimes a distant flash of lightning has briefly pierced that darkness. I recall a night 20 years ago, when my aunt Beattie was visiting us in Spain from Brooklyn just a few months after our daughter Isabel was born. One quiet stay-at-home night in our small apartment in downtown Madrid, my aunt gathered Isabel up in her arms from her crib and began cooing her to sleep with a Lebanese lullaby sung in Arabic. I felt spellbound by the unknown music, as if witnessing the arc of time pass above me from lost generations of the past to the daughter child who in those days seemed nothing less than the gurgling, diapered concentration of my life's hopes and dreams. The moment still glows warmly in my memory, which searches itself futilely for the hushed hum of a tune I never learned and words I could not understand. That quiet night, the cooing arc, the way Beattie cradled my daughter in her arms, Isabel gurgling off to sleep are all so vivid in my mind — how is it that the music and words are nowhere to be found?

Some years later, at a surprise 80th birthday party for my aunt Beattie, I met George Selim, a scholar, researcher and translator of Arab-American poetry. He explained to me that his connection with the family was that he had done extensive research into a Syrian poet in my family's past who had lived in New York as a member of what he termed the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora in New York. The story piqued my interest but I pursued it no further and even forgot the name of the poet.

Grape Leaves: A Century of
Arab-American Poetry
Then last October, on a visit to my parents back home in New Jersey, I had lunch with a cousin who is much better versed than I am in Arabic and our Lebanese-Syrian ancestry. I asked about the poet and she told me about Jamil B. Holway, a distant relative of mine as it turns out (a great uncle, once or twice removed). Jamil Holway was born in Damascus, Syria in 1883 and studied at the American University in Beirut before emigrating to the US, where he practiced law, served as an interpreter and examiner for the Immigration Service, and worked for the US Office of War Information during World War II. A contemporary and acquaintance of Khalil Gibran (famous for The Prophet and other works), Elia Abu Madi and other Arab-American poets, he was himself a published and respected poet.

A bit of google research has allowed me to find the following poem by Jamil B. Holway, translated by George Dimitri Selim, the family friend I met at my aunt's birthday. It is called Throbbings (note that 'Zaynab' is a popular name for women in Arabic).

Zaynab complained against me
to the judge of love.
"He has sly eyes," she told him,
"which roam around me
to devour my beauty.
Judge of love!
I am not safe anymore.

"I think his eyes are two bees
raiding the honey
which sweetens my lips.
I see them as two eagles
hovering in space,
descending to snatch me.
I think, and from my fear,
I think strange things.
God knows how much I suffer from my thoughts.

"He invaded me with his eyes
and, as if this were not enough,
he tried to lower my standing among people.
Hypocritically, he said
that I have stolen my beauty from the universe,
and that it was not created naturally in me.
That I have plundered the morning for a face,
the dusk for hair,
uniting both in me.
That from the gardens
I have stolen the flowers for cheeks
—my cheeks are rosy.
That I have covered my neck with pure snow,
and that my eyes are tinted with narcissus.

"When my voice enchanted him
he denied it, and said:
'It's a nightingale singing in the garden.'
With sword-like glances I struck him,
he said, and in his deep-red blood
I dyed my finger tips
and in his poems he chanted alluding to me.
So people said:
'His meanings are necklaces of pearls.'
Lord of verdicts!
Administer your justice between us.
Enough of his straying in love.
I've had enough!"

When the time of complaint was over,
the judge asked me:
"What is your answer,
you who are so passionately in love?"
I said:
"I find ... that I am a criminal.
My insanity may not be deferred.
She has dispossessed me
of mind and heart."
         From the book Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry
            Published by Interlink Books, 2000; edited by Gregory Orfalea and Sharif Elmusa

I offer these 'throbbings' from the accused heart of an Arab-American poet in hopeful solidarity with the dramatic and inspiring stirrings we have been seeing these days on the Arab street.

As a soundtrack for these musings, I will leave you with the quartet led by percussion great Chico Hamilton, with a very young Larry Coryell playing his original composition "Larry of Arabia", from the 1966 album The Dealer:

Friday, February 18


Beyond the Nothingness
 Andrea Auf dem Brinke —
English, like all major languages, is hugely rich beyond our capacity to exhaust its possibilities. Not even Shakespeare would entertain the notion that he did or ever could plumb its full depths, float up all its sunken treasures. Language is as bottomlessly deep as mythic oceans, as our collective unconscious. But it does have boundaries, porous ones, but boundaries nonetheless. And it is sometimes when one straddles or crosses the borders with other languages that one can find our language does have some gaps, some missing pieces. I feel we have the duty and the pleasure of pondering and filling in those blanks.

A case in point: we do not have a word for … for … hmmmm … How can I say this? A word for …

Well, that’s just the problem, isn’t it? When your language does not have a word for something, it can be vexingly difficult to pinpoint that something or even be aware that it exists ... or that it doesn’t; like trying to imagine and describe an unknown color or spot a shadow in the dark. Not just any candlestick will do.

Let me take another tack… What is the opposite of memory? When we remember something, it is in our memory, but when we do not remember, where is it? Where do forgotten memories go? I know we have the term ‘oblivion’, but it is too dire and absolute for what I am grasping at here, its connotations too apocalyptic. Oblivion is where lost time gets irretrievably lost; I am looking for something lighter, less dire.

As you may have already noticed, I love wordplay and like to invent words. I have even coined a term for this, “woiding”, inventing a word to fill a void, whether real, perceived or imagined. Recently I devoted a post to one — hydrochromology: the search for a unified field theory of the water and color cycles. And today I need a term for the opposite of memory, for the graveyard of vanished recollections, the repository of things that we have forgotten.

Spanish, like other languages, has a word for it: olvido, from the verb olvidar, to forget, with the same Latin root obliv- as 'oblivion'. In Spanish, when things slip out of my memory, they slide into el olvido. Memory can be personal, mi recuerdo, mi memoria, my recollection, my memory, or universal/impersonal/collective, el recuerdo or la memoria. But olvido is seemingly never personal, no one ever says mi olvido; when something leaves mi memoria, it goes into el olvido.

In English we tend to use the gerund “forgetting”, as when translating Neruda’s es tan corto el amor y tan largo el olvido — “so short is love, so long forgetting”. But still, forgetting is the act, whereas olvido is a place … the place where misplaced memories get shelved … memories lost, stolen or strayed. Where are you?

I have toyed with different possible word corks to plug this gap, words like oblivium (an actual Latin word), oblitium, … Or a Greek morph: letheum, from the river Lethe of forgetfulness in the underworld of Hades, where it curls around the cave of Hypnos (the personification of sleep, twin brother of Thanatos, death, both born to the goddess Nyx, night, and Erebus, darkness — what a family!). Nice, but, again, these are so absolute sounding as to border on the cataclysmic. A less melodramatic and more English and Germanic-rooted stab in the dark would be forgotdom. Maybe dismemory or unmemory, dismemberdom, … no, none of these will do.

I gave close consideration to olvimory, but that sounds a bit clunky, and I have provisionally opted for olvidium, as it seems to roll off the tongue more smoothly, just the way recollections can roll out of memory. Even so, it is, admittedly, a rather awkward way of expressing something that we all do so easily and naturally, something we are as comfortably familiar with as sleep and silence and darkness. A clumsy grafting of a familiar suffix onto an uprooted Spanish word; rather than truly ‘woiding’, what I am perhaps doing here is smuggling a term across linguistic borders, a little mangled after being snuck by the customs agents, but I hope it’s meaning is nonetheless clear. Olvidium: the opposite of memory, the capacity to forget experiences, impressions, recollections that were once in memory. And please, if you can do better or prefer another of the above, do let me know.

But why do I feel the need to press this strange invention olvidium into service here? There is a reason. While I will not be so bold as to claim there is method to my madness, I do have my reasons, which I will be happy to lay before you, my esteemed and patient readers, in a future post.

To be continued … (I hope, please remind me if I forget)

Sunday, February 13

The hard struggle with his tools — Rilke and Rodin (part III)

{This is a continuation of the previous post on Rilke and Rodin;

Rodin's signature on The Thinker
As we have seen in the previous parts of this series, Rodin was a towering artist in Rilke's life and writings. The young German poet had immense respect and admiration for the elder sculptor whose works he regarded as 'strange documents of the momentary and of the unnoticeably passing'. And he was convinced that Rodin's greatness sprang from his unstinting dedication to his craft more than from any grand ideas on sculpture or art. For Rilke, Rodin's genius was the product of  'the hard struggle with his tools', of his relentless work discipline and of his insistence on direct, intense and minute observation as the starting point on the path toward finding and creating beauty.

This approach greatly influenced Rilke's own, and helped shape his cardinal notion that the currency of art was not ideas, but things, the everyday things of our world, which are here to be observed tenderly, almost feverishly. That "our task is to impress this provisional, transient earth upon ourselves so deeply, so agonizingly, and so passionately that its essence rises up again “invisibly” within us. We are the bees of the invisible. We ceaselessly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the Invisible".

The arrow of artistic genius arcs from the particular to the whole, from the visible to the invisible, the mundane to the eternal. And not the other way around. "The task of all tasks is to transform what is insignificant into greatness, what is inconspicuous into radiance; to present a speck of dust in a way that shows it to be part of the whole so that one cannot see it without also instantly seeing all of the stars and the heavens’ deep coherence to which it intimately belongs".

Eternal Spring — Rodin

For Rilke this was best exemplified by Rodin, whose "art was not built upon a great idea, but upon a minute, conscientious realization, upon the attainable, upon a craft. There was no haughtiness in him. He pledged himself to a humble and difficult beauty that he could oversee, summon and direct. The other beauty, the great beauty, had to come when everything was prepared as animals come to a drinking place in the forest in the late night when nothing foreign is there.”

This idea that the devoted eye was to be trusted more than the inventive imagination is beautifully expressed in this passage from Rilke's book on Rodin (which you can read and/or download here):

L’Home au Nez Cassé — Musée Rodin
“The mask of 'The Man with the Broken Nose' was the first portrait that Rodin modeled. In this work his individual manner of portraying a face is entirely formed. One feels his admitted devotion to reality, his reverence for every line that fate has drawn, his confidence in life that creates even when it disfigures. In a kind of blind faith, he sculptured L’Home au Nez Cassé without asking who the man was who lived again in his hands. He made this mask as God created the first man, without intention of presenting anything save Life itself — immeasurable Life. But he returned to the faces of men with an ever-growing, richer and greater knowledge. He could not look upon their features without thinking of the days that had left their impress upon them, without dwelling upon the army of thoughts that worked incessantly upon a face, as though it could never be finished. From a silent and conscientious observation of life, the mature man, at first groping and experimenting, became more and more sure and audacious in his understanding and interpretation of the script with which the faces were covered. He did not give rein to his imagination, he did not invent, he did not neglect for a moment the hard struggle with his tools. It would have been easy to surmount, as if with wings, these difficulties. He walked side by side with his work over the far and distant stretches that had to be covered, like the ploughman behind his plough. While he traced the furrows he meditated over this land, the depth of it, the sky above it, the flights of the winds and the fall of the rains; considered all that existed and passed by and returned and ceased not to be. He recognized in all this the eternal, and becoming less and less perplexed by the many things, he perceived the one great thing for which grief was good, and heaviness promised maternity, and pain became beautiful."

For your daily dose of Rilke, remember to visit A Year With Rilke.

Thursday, February 10

Chop down the memory tree

Nighthawks — Edward Hopper
No Rilke or Rodin here today. Just a bit of autobiography, an outbreak of remembrance triggered a couple of weeks ago when I came across this delightful poem by Elliot Fried at Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac blog (where amongst other treats you can hear Keillor recite it) ...

Daily I Fall In Love With Waitresses
by Elliot Fried

Daily I fall in love with waitresses
with their white bouncing name tags
and white rubber shoes.
I love how they bend over tables
pouring coffee.
Their perky breasts hover above potatoes
like jets coming in to LAX
hang above the suburbs—
shards of broken stars.
I feel their fingers
roughened by cube steaks softened with grease
slide over me.
Their hands and lean long bodies
keep moving so...
fumbling and clattering so harmoniously
that I am left overwhelmed, quivering.
Daily I fall in love with waitresses
with their cream-cheese cool.
They tell secrets in the kitchen
and I want them.
I know them.
They press buttons creases burgers buns—
their legs are menu smooth.

They have boyfriends or husbands or children
or all.
They are french dressing worldly—
they know how ice cubes clink.
Their chipped teeth form chipped beef
and muffin syllabics.
Daily I fall in love with waitresses.
They are Thousand Island dreams
but they never stand still long enough
as they serve serve serve.

This piece touched a soft spot in the tummy of my memory, recalling for me the fondness I have long felt for diner restaurants. My first meal in the United States was at just such an establishment and though I had not yet turned five, I remember still …

My parents, brother Phil and I arrived at JFK airport in New York in the summer of 1961, back when it was still known as Idlewild. We had flown in from Caracas, Venezuela, where I was born and spent my toddlerhood, which I now suppose ended on that flight to America. Leaving the only home I had known, my toys, bed and room, saying goodbye to family and friends and adiós to español, were all farewells a bit too outsized for me to comfortably pack and carry. On arriving in New York, there was more wild than idle at the airport; I vaguely recall a sense of feeling lost and adrift in the bustling vastness of the airport, with so many complete strangers hustling by as fast as the words I couldn’t understand. Nothing made any sense… until one of those seeming strangers picked me up and wrapped me in a hug; my Uncle Floyd, a gentle bear with a pencil moustache that stretched out above a rich deep voice as he bellowed “Larry, my boy!”, a call that would forever after in my life announce and rhyme with Thanksgiving and giving thanks, with Christmas trees and Easter eggs and all family holy days.

I suddenly felt less lost and, though perhaps nothing made much sense yet, there was now a possibility that it would, that my parents may actually have been right when they reassured me that I would be happy in America. This possibility began to flesh out soon after leaving the airport when Uncle Floyd wheeled his huge car and my entire family and our belongings into the parking lot of a diner, a real diner, one of those converted railroad dining cars, somewhere in Brooklyn (“God’s country”, as my Brooklyn-born dad must always clarify). Inside the curved silver walls of the strange restaurant, I now imagine that I was christened into my new American life with maple syrup and pancakes. No more arepas for Lorenzo; pancakes for Larry.

I digress … I actually wanted to talk about diners that came later in my life, all-night diners that I frequented for many years over a quarter century ago now, the diners conjured up by the Elliot Fried poem above. But, as my good friend Bonnie observed recently in a comment, sometimes we can only reach out by first reaching within, so while blowing on those memories, the long lost ember memory of Brooklyn baptismal flapjacks flared up, and I offer it here as the first course of this long all-night meal.

Unlike the daily enamoring of Fried’s poem, for me it was nightly that I fell in love with waitresses — the ones at the 24-hour diners I visited several times a week after work during the years I worked nights loading and unloading trucks. Perhaps that first Brooklyn diner planted the seed, but my fondness for diners stems from those years when me and my work buddies would punch out from work at 3 or 4 am and head for the diner nearly every night.

From 1976 to 1985 I worked as a Teamster at a transportation company that has long made scientific harassment the core of its management ethos and practice. The job did pay the rent and put food on the table, two concerns shared by poets and non-poets alike, or so I have been led to believe. But there was more to it than that. Somewhere in my history studies, I had been so taken by the thesis of two venerable Germans who long ago observed that philosophers have only interpreted the world but that “the point is to change it”, that I decided to drop out of college and go change the world from inside 42-foot semi-trailer trucks and from deep within a corrupt union. Working nights allowed me time during the day for community organizing where I lived and union organizing at work. A few of us took part in the founding of a nationwide rank-and-file reform movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and began a chapter of TDU in our own Local 177.

The pay was decent and we fought like hell to keep it that way. The work was physically exhausting, but we were young and grew strong in the punishment; mentally it was stultifying, our dreams were still unquenchable though. We got harassed and treated like trash by the supervisors, but some nights we gave as good as we got. Some nights. And our union was misrun by hacks; quietly we would swallow our pride and loudly we spit fire. Some nights.

Every night we would emerge from the trucks physically spent and covered with dust. Working the graveyard shift and the ever-present cardboard dust turned us all into a monoracial brotherhood of sorts; regardless of whether we were black, brown or beige when we punched into work, by the time we clocked out, we were all just different shades of grey. And ready for coffee and some eats.

There was a poem in here somewhere …. Oh yes, here it is, it begins in the diner washroom where we’d stalk in on arriving to try to remove our grey patinas of dust and sweat…

caked in dried sweat
gotta hit the head
a quick trip to the terlets
we grimly smeared the grey grime
across our faces
patted down
our uncooperative hair
scrubbed our hands good
yeah, got them real clean
before we pissed

and then for some eats
boob banter
chit chatter with the waitresses
who for some reason
my memory has now all named

The menu had French omelets
Spanish omelets
German omelets
Italian omelets
English omelets
yeah, we chowed down
a lot of Old World worldliness
right there in Edison, New Jersey
had home fries too

Cheesecake could turn the talk sweet
to what we would do
when we won the big weekly lottery,
that would get Johnny Paycheck
singing on the mini-jukebox at the table
Take this job and shove it

On those other nights when
unbending lottery numbers
only made the coffee extra bitter,
there’d be elaborate plans for
daring heists
to knock over an Atlantic City casino
maybe two

Or wolfman Chris might tell us about the poem
he would write one day
“chop down the Cadillac tree”
what does it mean?
I don’t know he would tell us
but it’s a great first line
and we would all agree
a great first line

Or we would retell and celebrate
the night that him and Sam drove
into the City in Sam’s revved up GTO,
common sense damped down
and their courage souped up
on some beers and bourbons,
and drove the wrong way
across the Brooklyn Bridge
all the way to the other side
all the wrong fucking way to fucking Brooklyn
(God’s country)
without killing anyone
or themselves
or landing their fool asses in jail
a great line

With our gutwanderlustfulness sated
or Dillinger derring-do depleted
with our wrong-way one-line poems doing u-turns
it’d be time to split
we’d leave
our Josie sisters of the night
outlandish tips next to
crumpled cigarette packs
and a song still playing
on the tabletop jukebox
Don’t let the sun catch you crying

on the way out
there were arcade machines with some jeopardy
question and answer game
but when we did not want to not be stumped
by who directed Cool Hand Luke
(what we have here is a faaaailyour to communicate)
we would play the great new thing
how sophisticated
better than Pong even
or another game where
my electronic blips and bloops
had to break through
the descending brick wall
before your blips and bloops

and they did
our late nights yawned
with such howling triumphs

we were resigned prisoners though
and tunneled our walls
only halfheartedly
while inviting the blips and bloops
to do on our minds
the same numbing number
the trucks and night
had done on our bodies

and we left dust trails
in the prison yard parking lot
on the way to our cars
on the way home
on the way to sleep

Damn! Is that the sun coming up already?
Tomorrow was already here
and all I wanted to do was
sleep away
such alarming wisdom
and scrub my face away
on the pillowcase
    © Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow

In affectionate memory of Wolfie, with whom so many of those all-night work and diner sessions were shared and who, 30 years ago today, mistook a sunrise for a sunset, the wrong end of a shotgun for a friend and quenched his thirst and his dreams with a cannonball instead of a bourbon. Oh, Chris, what you’ve been missing…

Brooklyn Bridge, A Tribute in Light

Well, not sure how I got from Fried's perky potato breasts landing at LAX airport to Chris going the wrong way over the Rubicon in his one-line Cadillac, but strange things can come down when one begins to shake that memory tree...

Ray Charles — Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying ...

Sunday, February 6

Rilke and Rodin (part II)

Rodin and statue of The Hand of God - Edward Steichen, 1907

{This is a continuation of the previous post on Rilke and Rodin;

Today, I will include one single passage from Rainer Maria Rilke's book-essay, Rilke on Rodin. It is long, but the writing is so beautiful that I trust it will be well worth your attention and momentary surrender here. I hope that after reading it you will feel, like me, that your view of Rodin's masterworks is forever changed and charged with new energy. Rilke's discussion of Rodin's treatment of wholeness/incompleteness, his rendering of hands, the central importance of the points of contacts between figures in the group sculptures as the flash points of his craft and genius is superb. It begins with his discussion of La Méditation (The Meditation), also known as Voix Intérieure (Inner Voice).

Voix Intérieure — Musée Rodin, Paris
“Never was human body assembled to such an extent about its inner self, so bent by its own soul and yet upheld by the elastic strength of its blood. The neck, bent sidewise on the lowered body, rises and stretches and holds the listening head over the distant roar of life; this is so impressively and strongly conceived that one does not remember a more gripping gesture or one of deeper meaning. It is striking that the arms are lacking. Rodin must have considered these arms as too facile a solution of his task, as something that did not belong to that body which desired to be enwrapped within itself without the aid of aught external. When one looks upon this figure one thinks of Duse in a drama of d’Annunzio’s, when she is painfully abandoned and tries to embrace without arms and to hold without hands. This scene, in which her body has learned a caressing that reaches beyond it, belongs to the unforgettable moments in her acting. It conveys the impression that the arms are something superfluous, an adornment, a thing of the rich, something immoderate that one can throw off in order to become quite poor. She appeared in this moment as though she had forfeited something unimportant, rather like someone who gives away his cup in order to drink out of the brook.

The same completeness is conveyed in all the armless statues of Rodin; nothing necessary is lacking. One stands before them as before something whole. The feeling of incompleteness does not rise from the mere aspect of a thing, but from the assumption of a narrow-minded pedantry, which says that arms are a necessary part of the body and that a body without arms cannot be perfect. It was not long since the rebellion arose against the cutting off of trees from the edge of pictures by the Impressionists. Custom rapidly accepted this impression. With regard to the painter, at least, came the understanding and the belief that an artistic whole need not necessarily coincide with the complete thing, that new values, proportions and balances may originate within the pictures. In the art of sculpture, also, it is left to the artist to make out of many things one thing, and from the smallest part of a thing an entirety.

Mighty Hand
There are among the works of Rodin hands, single, small hands which, without belonging to a body, are alive. Hands that rise, irritated and in wrath; hands whose five bristling fingers seem to bark like the five jaws of a dog of Hell. Hands that walk, sleeping hands, and hands that are awakening; criminal hands, tainted with hereditary disease; and hands that are tired and will do no more, and have lain down in some corner like sick animals that know no one can help them. But hands are a complicated organism, a delta into which many divergent streams of life rush together in order to pour themselves into the great storm of action. There is a history of hands; they have their own culture, their particular beauty; one concedes to them the right of their own development, their own needs, feelings, caprices and tendernesses. Rodin, knowing through the education which he has given himself that the entire body consists of scenes of life, of a life that may become in every detail individual and great, has the power to give to any part of his vibrating surface the independence of a whole. As the human body is to Rodin an entirety only as long as a common action stirs all of its parts and forces, so on the other hand portions of different bodies that cling to one another from an inner necessity merge into one organism. A hand laid on another’s shoulder or thigh does not any more belong to the body from which it came — from this body and from the object which it touches or seizes something new originates, a new thing that has no name and belongs to no one.

The Kiss
This comprehension is the foundation of the grouping of figures by Rodin; from it springs that coherence of the figures, that concentration of the forms, that quality of clinging together. He does not proceed to work from figures that embrace one another. He has no models which he arranges and places together; he starts with the points of the strongest contact as being the culminating points of the work. There where something new arises, he begins and devotes all the capacity of his chisel to the mysterious phenomenon that accompanies the growth of a new thing. He works, as it were, by the light of the flame that flashes out from those points of contact, and sees only those parts of the body that are thus illuminated.

The spell of the great group of the girl and the man that is named “The Kiss” lies in this understanding distribution of life. In this group waves flow through the bodies, a shuddering ripple, a thrill of strength, and a presaging of beauty. This is the reason why one beholds everywhere on these bodies the ecstasy of this kiss. It is like a sun that rises and floods all with its light.

L’Éternelle Idole

Still more marvelous is that other kiss “L’Éternelle Idole”. The material texture of this creation encloses a living impulse as a wall encloses a garden. One of the copies of this marble is in the possession of Eugène Carrière, and in the silent twilight of his house this stone pulsates like a spring in which there is an eternal motion, a rising and falling, a mysterious stir of an elemental force. A girl kneels, her beautiful body is softly bent backward, her right arm is stretched behind her. Her hand has gropingly found her foot. In these three lines which shut her in from the outer world her life lies enclosed with its secret. The stone beneath her lifts her up as she kneels there. And suddenly, in the attitude into which the young girl has fallen from idleness, or reverie, or solitude, one recognizes an ancient, sacred symbol, a posture like that into which the goddess of distant cruel cults had sunk. The head of this woman bends somewhat forward; with an expression of indulgence, majesty and forbearance, she looks down as from the height of a still night upon the man who sinks his face into her bosom as though into many blossoms. He, too, kneels, but deeper, deep in the stone. His hands lie behind him like worthless and empty things. The right hand is open; one sees into it. From this group radiates a mysterious greatness. One does not dare to give it one meaning, it has thousands. Thoughts glide over it like shadows, new meanings arise like riddles and unfold into clear significance. Something of the mood of a Purgatorio lives within this work. A heaven is near that has not yet been reached, a hell is near that has not yet been forgotten. Here, too, all splendor flashes from the contact of the two bodies and from the contact of the woman with herself.”

Large Left Hand of a Pianist, bronze
The passage is taken from the 1919 English translation of the book (translated by Jessie Lamont and Hans Trausil), available for download at the Internet Archive site here.

Remember to read your Rilke every day at the A Year With Rilke blog.

Left Hand (26), plaster