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Posts Tagged ‘Fyodor Dostoevsky’

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. . . . . For art to merely display the workings of man’s lower nature is not enough; if it is to be edifying, the portrayal needs to be placed within a spiritual context… For it is only against such a framework that darkness can be perceived as the lack of light, evil as the absence of good.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine– page 88)

Even as he felt most estranged from the world and most conscious that the black bird of insanity was making its dangerous escape from the cage of his soul, the white bird of outward appearance was stretching its wings to fly into an annus mirabilis.

(Prideaux – page 237)

More about the Man

In the previous post I referred to key early losses that impacted heavily on Munch throughout his life, and left their mark on his art as well. There is more needs to be said about his personality, scarred as it was by these tragedies, and the ways he tried to manage his post-traumatic reactions.

His relationships with others were fraught, especially perhaps with women, as Prideaux explains in her biography (page 191): ‘. . . he fled if [women] got too close . . . but if they did not, then he felt alone.’

He felt that his art had benefited from his troubled state of mind (page 229):

‘I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.’

He makes the link quite explicit (page 251):

‘My art is grounded in reflections over being different to others. My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.’

A key and traumatic early relationship coloured his attitude to women for the rest of his life and culminated in a shooting which damaged the finger of his left hand (page 227):

For the rest of his life he hid his finger. . . . The feeling that his life had been marked by a heavy doom from birth had been greatly increased by this visible sign.

This was not the end of the impact of a gun on his life. Drink contributed to poor impulse control so that, after a drunken spat with an artist he was painting, he later fired at him with a shotgun from the window of his house. He missed (page 237): ’Trembling, he withdrew [the gun], realising how close he had come to murder.’

Alcohol, as well as frequenting prostitutes and heavy smoking, were taking their toll. In the end he broke down completely (page 248): ‘[Jacobsen, his psychiatrist,] correctly diagnosed Munch as suffering from dementia paralytica as a result of alcohol poisoning.’

As a result of his, for that time, enlightened treatment (page 251):

He accepted the idea that from now on he would have to confine himself to ‘tobacco-free cigars alcohol-free drinks and poison-free women.’

He was afraid that his sanity had been bought at the price of his art: more of that later. He used novel ways of activating his creativity (page 294):

The dissection of [a] cadaver was not the only time Munch had felt the need to shock himself during the later part of his life… Aware of the danger of lapsing into the emotional bluntness of middle age… he requested a butcher if he might be present while a bull was slaughtered.

When his end approached, his characteristic stubborn curiosity determined his behaviour (page 323):

He was very adamant that he did not want to die in his sleep; he wanted consciously to experience the last struggle.

Hopefully that has conveyed some sense of how powerfully Prideaux confronts us with Munch, the man.

Now for the treatment of how Munch felt this all related to his art, before we focus in the final post on his art and the explicit ideas behind it.

Anxiety from The Frieze of Life (scanned from Prideaux’s biography)

His Life in his Art

Prideaux’s introduction flags up where this is likely to take us now (page vii):

Munch was twenty-eight when he embarked on the lifelong effort to paint his soul’s diary . . [something which] Munch described [as] ‘the terrible struggle inside the cage of the soul.’

She also highlights his high regard for a Russian writer in this respect (page 49):

‘No one in art,’ he told a friend, ‘has yet penetrated as far as Dostoevsky into the mystical realms of the soul…’ [T]hroughout Edvard’s life, Dostoevsky was the writer of greatest importance to him. . . [He] succeeded in conveying in parallel the outer and the inner life. This was exactly what Edvard wanted to achieve with paint. ‘Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy and dissected corpses, so I was trying to dissect souls.’

The Frieze of Life, a key body of work (page 64) is ‘a sequence of paintings showing the progress of a soul through life,’ fulfilling his ambition (page 81) ‘to paint soul art.’

She goes into more detail than is possible here into two key experiences in about 1890 (pages 118-120):

Two intensely private and ecstatic visions came to him in two separate moments of mystical transport . .

He first came as he ascended the sun-warmed hill of Saint-Cloud. . . . He perceived [a cock’s crow, smoked dissolving into nothing and green shoots appearing] ‘as metamorphoses. How foolish to deny the existence of the soul.’

The second vision came in altogether darker circumstances [involving a Spanish dancer. He concluded as a result] he would paint themes that were timeless, personal, and in some manner sacred; pictures in which could be read the psychological reality of man’s connection to the world-soul that he had glimpsed from the sunlit hillside and in this fusion of music and colour.

It helped shape what turned out to be a long-term project, perhaps lasting the whole of his life in some respects (page 132):

He had been thinking for a long time about the concept of a series of paintings depicting the secret life of the soul.

Self=portrait with wine bottle (scanned from the Taschen edition)

Discussions of the self-portrait he painted with a bottle of wine nearby have interpreted the two waiters springing out of his shoulders as symbolising his state of mind. He was deeply divided as a human being (page 228): ‘My soul is like two wild birds, each flying in its own direction.’ I’m no stranger to a divided mind as my sequence about my Parliament of Selves testifies, which obviously served to increase my interest in Munch.

It is not surprising, given this inner split, that conflict should be a key element in his work when it was so rooted in his deepest experience of self (page 254):

‘I am making a study of the soul, as I can observe myself closely and use myself as an anatomical testing ground for this soul study. The main thing is to make an art work and a soul study…

Munch’s later reading perhaps gives some sense of that this might have been like for him (page 292):

Ludvig Ravensberg noted that Munch was reading Plato’s Phaedrus at the time. A central image of the text is that of the soul as two horses harnessed together. One is light and seeks to rise upward, while the other is a dark and pulls downwards. [The driver] seeks to control the balance between two conflicting impulses in the soul.

A sense of divisions within is not rare and not restricted to creative artists, as my own experience testifies. However, it is perhaps worth flagging up two other examples of this phenomenon in highly creative people. I’ve explored Pessoa’s experience of this at some length elsewhere on this blog. Briefly for present purposes, in a post of 2016, I wrote:

For the first time since I read him in the late 90s, this September I was triggered to go back to Fernando Pessoa by reference to his multiple personalities in Immortal Remains by Stephen E Braude (page 170):

Apparently, Pessoa considers the heteronyms to be expressions of an inherent and deeply divided self. In fact, one of the principal themes of Pessoa’s poetry is the obscure and fragmentary nature of personal identity.

Pessoa himself clarifies exactly what he meant by heteronym (A Centenary Pessoa – page 133):

A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; the heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be.

What I had not remembered until yesterday, when I re-read the introduction Xon de Ros placed at the start of her book on Antonio Machado, that he also experienced a similar thing (pages 1-2):

 . . . His most memorable dramatis personae were not written for the theatre but for the press. These were his apocryphal creations, mainly Juan de Mairena and Abel Martín. . . . one of Mairena’s fragments [reads] ‘¿pensáis . . . que un hombre no puede llevar dentro de sí más de un poeta? Lo difícil sería lo contrario, que no llevase más que uno.’ [do you think . . . that a man cannot carry more than one poet inside? The opposite would be what is difficult, that he doesn’t carry more than one.]

Machado specifically refers to the ‘essential heterogeneity of being.’ From a spiritual point of view this raises interesting questions which I have explored elsewhere and need not be investigated here. What is intriguing is why this heterogeneity has only relatively recently been reflected so explicitly by creative artists and writers.

Perhaps we are now ready to look more closely at the art, rather than the life. This could be shaping up to be the most time I’ve spent blogging about a painter since the Van Gogh sequence.

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How to live: Peterson’s self-help book, 12 Rules for Life, is offered as ‘an antidote to chaos’. Photograph: Phil Fisk for the Observer

Last Monday I read about an intriguing interview with Jordan B Peterson on the Guardian website. Given that I have recently stated that spiritually oriented psychologists are almost as rare as the Phoenix, I may have to eat my words. Peterson may say some things I don’t quite agree with, but more often that not what he says about giving life meaning resonates strongly with me. I think I will have to buy his book. I can hear my shelves groaning with the weight of that thought. [I have now bought the book and my views are expressed in a short sequence starting in March.]  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.

His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre. . .

Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.

“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”

. . . “It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”

But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.

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