Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Flaming Soul

W.H. Auden wrote famously that "About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters; how well, they understood/ Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along" mentioning the painting "The Fall Of Icarus" pictured here along with "The Potato Eaters." To Auden, the remarkable thing about "The Fall of Icarus" is how the world creeps onward, unaware of the mythical attempts of Icarus to fly ever closer to the sun and his eventual crash to earth, the sailing ship "that must have seen /Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/ had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on." Indeed the painting depicts a faintly discernible leg sticking out of the green water, off the bough of the ship, obviously NOT the subject of the painting, but a mere afterthought, or depicted that way to suggest, as Auden noted, that OB-LA-DI Ob-La-Da. Despite your suffering, the world rolls by unaffected. Click on the painting. Blow it up and you'll see that tiny leg sticking out of the sea. It's funny almost-- that tiny leg--the Sudan that doesn't make the evening news.

I wrestled with Peter Carey's "Theft" while on the beaches of Thailand, a novel about the artist in the modern world, the philistines that dictate the "worth" of "art." The novel laments the dealers, themselves much more than mere consumers, who make or break the life of the artist. Interwoven in this discussion was a more relevant topic, for me at least, the subject of love. Carey complains about the dealers, saying "suddenly this pile of crap was real? It was worth three million? It made me ill. Not so much the dirty money, but the complete lack of discrimination, the fashion frenzy. De Chirico is in. Renoir is out. Van Gogh is hot. Van Gogh has peaked. I wished I could kill the fucks, I really did."

A man named Peter Carey told me to read this book by another man named Peter Carey. We were in Nepal and my friend Peter was suffering the impermanence of love, silently enduring as others had "somewhere to get to and [walked] calmly on." This book was about love he claimed, the final sentence concerning these art dealers and love both. I thought of him as I pondered that final sentence, the meaning carrying a weight far more vast than a simple critique of art collectors: a simple query "how do you know how much to pay if you don't know what it's worth?" With love, or with anything which causes suffering, how do you know how much to endure if the outcome or the value is uncertain?

I was on a walk with Amanda this morning in search of something free to do about Taipei-town. Despite the recent ups- and downs of our relationship, we were both in good spirits. The air was warm and it felt like spring. We talked about what we do with the kids we raised together, our three fish, when they had outgrown their fishbowl and I suggested that we set them free in the ponds at the botanical gardens. Our conversation had an easy flirtatious tone, and we were both happy. We soon walked past the National Museum which was now charging 300 Taiwan Dollars admission, owing to the fact that they were hosting a travelling exhibit of several early paintings by Vincent Van Gogh. Short of going to Amsterdam, when would we again see the world famous works which changed art forever? It was 10 bucks. Can I have 10 bucks baby? Preeeety pleeease?

The exhibit was awkwardly titled "The Flaming Soul" the Taiwanese authors of the title, no doubt unaware of the connotations of the word "flaming" which include online mean spirited roasting and gayness.

No doubt the intended meaning for this particular diction lay in the fact that Van Gogh is best seen now as a legendary figure, an example of the archetypal tortured artist whose drive to create stems from the fundamental discomfort that characterizes his existence. Carey's narrator lambasts Van Gogh as "mad as a toilet brush--why not?--and as boring as a painter." The works arranged in the museum, all in chronological order were "boring" indeed, many of them just hastily done "studies" which would later contribute to other works. The first sketches, his earliest work, in what turned out to be a relatively short career, were uninspired, but as we moved through the exhibit, forward in time to the paintings surrounding the death of his father, we began to see characteristics of his later style, the mad ravings of distorted forms created with cheap materials. Even with his brother hawking his work, he could still barely afford the materials of his craft, his work now worth millions. All of the signs explaining his work, those which were in English, pointed to a pivotal time period in which he created "The Potato Eaters" pictured here. What is so special about this work, you might ask, alongside other works which depict the anguish of the rural poor in Holland at the turn of the century? It is different because Van Gogh thought it was his best work.

Despite Van Gogh's belief that "The Potato Eaters" was the best evocation of the suffering of those hardworking poor, and the savage inequality and deprivation that summed up his life as an artist, the other pieces on exhibit had similar qualities. Each unquestionably evoked a sense of unbearable isolation, the painter's attention often so focused on the contortions of his subject's grimacing face that he lost sight of the other details of their anatomy. In one sketch, he neglected an entire finger, the creative energy directed so ardently into the expression of grief so undeniably present in the face. I'm not bullshitting you here, I felt it. Seldom has art affected me in this way. I felt the tortured twistings of his flaming soul.

A work done in 1883 "Loom with weaver" was revelatory. So much darkness characterized his sketches and his oil paintings, that the briefest glimpse of color in this painting practically glowed, the light from a window illuminating the toil of the weaver in an otherwise unlit room-- the painting practically oozed claustrophobia, the weaver's work his world entire.

He killed himself and the world "sailed calmly on." I was sincerely affected. Amanda had lost interest, in favor of the more pressing concern of her bladder, which was set to "urgent." She was waiting for me outside, and when we were done her mood and mine had changed. She said "I don't know how to act around you." We walked in the general direction of the Chiang-Kai-Shek Memorial where there was to be a free concert at 6 pm. We shared a bag of cashews purchased from 7-11. She cared for me affectionately as if I were one of those lost animals she wanted to adopt. But I could talk, and that was usually what ruined things.

Inevitably, the conversation turned again to "our relationship." She wanted to know how much to pay, how much was it worth? I don't know what it was that made her so close to tears, because if I did know I would not have said it. I think it was that terrible urgency, the desperate reaching clawing grabbing... grabbing at straws, both of us just fragile egos afraid of abandonment, anxious of commitment. It was that palpable sensation that was the elephant in the room that made me broach the subject again. This mysterious feeling of tortured longing made her into a Van Gogh painting for me then, right there and all I could feel was sadness.
But again, the world sailed calmly on. It was my mother's birthday, and there was phone call to make. We skipped the free concert and boarded the train home, my stop just three minutes before hers. I tried to tell her about the book I had just finished and that last memorable line-- "how do you know how much to pay if you don't know what it's worth?" Her response was typical of her. She asked "why are you telling me this?" She usually asked this question innocently, trustingly, when she wanted me to try to explain myself, and it was at that moment when I could have salvaged things; I could have made her happy or I could have made her retreat again into some far corner of herself, alone, where I could not reach her anymore-- a weaver in a dark corner. But I was at a loss for words. I don't know what it means--I was hoping you could tell me. We sat in silence until the doors opened and I hurried off the train, kissing her on the cheek as I hopped down onto the empty platform into the stillness of the night.

I walked down my dark street toward my messy apartment past the Japanese restaurant where the owner knew me and waved as I walked past. I thought I heard Amanda say my name, and I turned, but it was just a cat scampering through the alley in the darkness. She had followed me enough it would seem.
A review of Peter Carey's book, by John Updike, himself an incredible author, is available here: