Monday, May 31, 2010

Saint Lucy

"No one's body is polluted so as to endanger the soul if it has not pleased the mind. If you were to lift my hand to your idol and so make me offer against my will, I would still be guiltless in the sight of the true God, who judges according to the will and knows all things. If now, against my will, you cause me to be polluted, a twofold purity will be gloriously imputed to me. You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me" - Saint Lucy.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lady Jane Grey

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833), by Paul Delaroche.

An image like this fills my mind. I can't escape it. It works in me, arresting me with its cold horror until abstraction is lost and all I can imagine is the reality of those last moments. It's an over-charged human sympathy: an inability to extricate myself or to enjoy any sense of detachment. It activates inside and tightens into a knot that makes me feel ill; it casts a shadow over the world. The delicacy of this particular image is tormenting. It's the last whispers, the slow reluctance, the inevitable swing. No one involved seems to want this act to happen. And yet it will happen. It's a moment in history. History removes, the lines blur, the human moves further away. Lady Jane Grey, queen of England for a little over a week, was executed by beheading in the Tower of London because she was protestant. She was either sixteen or seventeen years old. History slouches through the blood of individuals and personal moments of horror and sorrow.

Middlemarch (excerpts)

One fine morning a young man whose hair was not immoderately long, but abundant and curly, and who was otherwise English in his equipment, had just turned his back on the Belvedere Torso in the Vatican and was looking out on the magnificinet view of the mountains from the adjoining round vestibule. He was sufficiently absorbed not to notice the approach of a dark-eyed, animated German who came up to him and placing a hand on his shoulder, said with a strong accent, "Come here, quick! else she will have changed her pose."

Quickness was ready at the call, and the two figures passed lightly along by the Maleager towards the hall where the reclining Ariadne, then called the Cleopatra, lies in the marble voluptuousness of her beauty, the draper folding around her with a petal-like ease and tenderness. They were just in time to see another figure standing against a pedestal near the reclining marble: a breathing blooming firl, whose form, not shamed by Ariadne, was clad in Quakerish grey drapery; her long cloak, fastened at the neck, was thrown backwards from her arms, and one beautiful ungloved hand pillowed her cheek, pushing somewhat backward the white beaver bonnet which made a sort of halo to her face around the simply braided dark-brown hair. She was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking of it: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor. But she became conscious of the two strangers who suddenly paused as if to contemplate the Cleopatra, and, without looking at them, immediately turned away to join a maid-servant and courier who were loitering along the hall at a little distance off.

"What do you think of that for a fine bit of antithesis?" said the German, searching in his friend's face for responding admiration, but going on volubly without waiting for any other answer. "There lies antique beauty, not corpse-like even in death, but arrested in the complete contentment of its sensuous perfection: and there stands beauty in its breathing life, with the consciousness of Christian centuries in its bosom. But she should be dressed as a nun; I think she looks almost what you call a Quaker; I would dress her as a nun in my picture. However, she is married; I saw her wedding-ring on that wonderful left hand, otherwise I should have thought the sallow Geistlicher was her father. I saw him parting from her a good while ago, and just now I found her in that magnificent pose. Only think! he is perhaps rich, and would like to have her portrait taken. Ah! it is no use looking after her--there she goes! Let us follow her home!"


She did not really see the streak of sunlight on the floor more than she saw the statues: she was inwardly seeing the light of years to come in her own home and over the English fields and elms and hedge-bordered highlands; and feeling that the way in which they might be filled with joyful devotedness was not so clear to her as it had been. But in Dorothea's mind there was a current in which all thought and feeling were apt sooner or later to flow--the reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth, the least partial good. There was clearly something better than anger and despondency.


But Dorothea remembered it to the last with the vividness with which we all remember epochs in our experience when some dear expectations dies, or some new motive is born. To-day she had begun to see that she had been under a wild illusion in expecting a response to her feeling from Mr Casaubon, and she had felt the waking of a presentiment that there might be a sad consciousness in his life which made as great a need on his side as on her own.

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is not longer reflection but feeling--an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects--that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Christina's World

Christina's World by Andrew Wyeth

I've been staring at this all day. I have no vocabulary for this sort of art. My grammar is entirely literary and cinematic. I can say this looks like an image from a Terrance Malick film, for instance; and if I had never seen this painting and someone told me it looked like something from Days of Heaven, I'd have had a surprisingly accurate, though admittedly rough, sense of its feeling--of its loneliness, its pathos, its desperate beauty. But the still, mute force of an image like this... I'm not equipped to write about it. All I can do is sit in front of it all day.


Vor dem Spiegel

Place de la Concorde

Vier Tänzerinnen


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Portrait of a Lady (excerpt)

Mlle. Irene Cahen d'Anvers (detail) (1880) by Jean-Auguste Renoir

This last week I read The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. Isabel Archer, I think, shall live long in my imagination. Most of the time, characters in a novel make sense only within that novel. What they say, what they do--it's all contained in a limited vision. They begin and end between the book covers. These characters exist as pieces of a large machine, moved and plotted by events and fitted exactly to situations. Isabel Archer is larger than her novel. Rarely have I felt so convinced of a character's reality. She is real. She is living now, in my imagination. I felt hollowed out, emptied, after I finished the novel, which I devoured... or rather, I think, which devoured me. This is one of my favourite early passages. Enjoy.

"One wet afternoon, some four months earlier than the occurrence lately narrated, this young lady had been seated alone with a book. To say she was so occupied is to say that her solitude did not press upon her; for her love of knowledge had a fertilising quality and her imagination was strong. There was at this time, however, a want of fresh taste in her situation which the arrival of an unexpected visitor did much to correct. The visitor had not been announced; the girl heard her at last walking about the adjoining room. It was in an old house at Albany, a large, square, double house, with a notice of sale in the windows of one of the lower apartments. There were two entrances, one of which had long been out of use but had never been removed. They were exactly alike--large white doors, which an arched frame and wide side-lights, perched upon little "stoops" of red stone, which descended sidewise to the brick pavement of the street. The two houses together formed a single dwelling, the party-wall having been removed and the rooms placed in communication. These rooms, above-stairs, were extremely numerous, and were painted all over exactly alike, in a yellowish white which have grown sallow with time. On the third floor there was a sort of arched passage, connecting the two sides of the house, which Isabel and her sisters used in their childhood to call the tunnel and which, though it was short and well-lighted, always seemed to the girl to be strange and lonely, especially on winter afternoons. She had been in the house, at different periods, as a child; in those days her grandmother lived there. Then there had been an absence of ten years, followed by a return to Albany before her father's death. Her grandmother, old Mrs. Archer, had exercised, chiefly within the limits of the family, a large hospitality in the early periods, and the little girls often spent weeks under her roof--weeks of which Isabel had the happiest memory. The manner of life was different from that of her own home--larger, more plentiful, practically more festal; the discipline of the nursery was delightfully vague and the opportunity of listening to the conversation of one's elders (which with Isabel was a highly-valued pleasure) almost unbounded. There was a constant coming and going; her grandmother's sons and daughters and their children appeared to be in the enjoyment of standing invitations to arrive and remain, so that the house offered to a certain extent the appearance of a bustling provincial inn kept by a gentle old landlady who sighed a great deal and never presented a bill. Isabel of course knew nothing about bills; but even as a child she thought her grandmother's home romantic. There was a covered piazza behind it, furnished with a swing which was a source of tremulous interest; and beyond this was a long garden, sloping down to the stable and containing peach-trees of barely credible familiarity. Isabel had stayed with her grandmother at various season, but somehow all her visits had a flavour of peaches. On the other side, across the street, was an old house that was called the Dutch House--a peculiar structure dating from the earliest colonial time, composed of bricks that had been painted yellow, crowned with a gable that was pointed out to strangers, defended by a rickety wooden paling and standing sidewise to the street. It was occupied by a primary school for children of both sexes, kept or rather let go, by a demonstrative lady of whom Isabel's chief recollection was that her hair was fastened with strange bedroomy combs at the temples and that she was the widow of some one of consequence. They little girl had been offered the opportunity of laying a foundation of knowledge in this establishment; but having spent a single day in it, she had protested against its laws and had been allowed to stay at home, where, in the September days, when the windows of the Dutch House were open, she used to hear the hum of childish voices repeating the multiplication-table--an incident in which the elation of liberty and the pain of exclusion were indistinguishably mingled. The foundation of her knowledge was really laid in the idleness of her grandmother's house, where, as most of the other inmates were not reading people, she had uncontrolled use of a library full of books with frontispieces, which she used to climb upon a chair to take down. When she had found one to her taste--she was guided in the selection chiefly by the frontispiece--she carried it into a mysterious apartment which lay beyond the library and which was called, traditionally, no one knew why, the office. Whose office it had been and at what period it had flourished, she never learned; it was enough for her that it contained an echo and a pleasant musty smell and that it was a chamber of disgrace for old pieces of furniture whose infirmities were not always apparent (so that the disgrace seemed unmerited and rendered them victims of injustice) and with which, in the manner of children, she had established relations almost inhuman, certainly dramatic. There was an old haircloth sofa in especial , to which she had confided a hundred childish sorrows. The place owed much of its mysterious melancholy to the fact that it was properly entered from the second door of the house, the door that had been condemned, and that it was secured by bolts which a particularly slender little girl found it impossible to slide. She knew that this silent, motionless portal opened into the street; if the sidelights had not been filled with green paper she might have looked out upon the little brown stoop and the well-worn brick pavement. But she had not wish to look out, for this would have interfered with her theory that there was a strange, unseen place on the other side--a place which become to the child's imagination, according to its different moods, a region of delight or of terror."

The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. New York: The Modern Library, 1951. 27-30.