Wednesday, April 28, 2010

He doesn't show anything to anybody

James Fenton on Michelangelo (from the TLS, April 9, 2010):

"He did not like to show his work around. 'Non mostra cosa alchuna ad alchuno,' his agent wrote to the Marquis of Manuta: he doesn't show anything to anybody. His drawings constituted his stock of original, never-repeated ideas, and they were of intense interest and usefulness to fellow, and rival, artists. But whether it was an artist who broke into his workshop in Florence in 1529, and stole around fifty sheets, history does not relate. Michelangelo notoriously burnt his drawings and cartoons in the last days of his life. What survives can only be a small part of what once existed."

Can you imagine not showing your work to anybody? Burning sheets of your work at the end of your life? Somebody stealing drafts of your ideas? No, you can't!


And so we might go on very placidly, just as we were doing three months ago, until the undrained marshes of human thought stirred again and emitted some other monstrous beast, ugly with primal slime and belligerent with obscene greeds. Decidedly we shall not be safe if we forget the things of the mind. Indeed, if we want to save our souls, the mind must lead a more athletic life than it has ever done before, and must more passionately than ever practise and rejoice in art. For only through art can we cultivate annoyance with inessentials, powerful and exasperated reactions against ugliness, a ravenous appetite for beauty; and these are the true guardians of the soul.

So it is the duty of writers to deliberate in this hour of enforced silence how they can make art a more effective and obviously unnecessary thing than it has been of late years. A little grave reflection shows us that our first duty is to establish a new and abusive school of criticism. There is now no criticism in England. There is merely a chorus of weak cheers, a piping note of appreciation that is not stilled unless a book is suppressed by the police, a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger. We reviewers combine the gentleness of early Christians with a promiscuous polytheism; we reject not even the most barbarous or most fatuous gods. So great is our amiability that it might proceed from the weakness of malnutrition, were it not that it is almost impossible not to make a living as a journalist. Nor is it due to compulsion from above, for it is not worth an editor's while to veil the bright rage of an entertaining writer for the sake of publishers' advertisements. No economic force compels this vice of amiability. It springs from a faintness of the spirit, from a convention of pleasantness, which, when attacked for the monstrous things it permits to enter the mind of the world, excuses itself by protesting that it is a pity to waste fierceness on things that do not matter.

But they do matter. The mind can think of a hundred twisted traditions and ignorances that lie across the path of letters like a barbed wire entanglement and bar the mind from an important advance. For instance, there is the tradition of unreadability which the governing classes have imposed on the more learned departments of literature, such as biography and history. We must rebel against the formidable army of Englishmen who have achieved the difficult task of becoming men of letters without having written anything. They throw up platitudinous inaugural addresses like wormcasts, they edit the letters of the unprotected dead, and chew once more the more masticated portions of history; and every line they write perpetuates the pompous tradition of eighteenth century "book English" and dissociates more thoroughly the ideas of history and originality of thought. We must dispel this unlawful assembly of peers and privy councillors round the wellhead of scholarship with kindly but abusive, and, in cases of extreme academic refinement, coarse criticism. [...]

Now, when every day the souls of men go up from Finance like smoke, we feel that humanity is the flimsiest thing, easily divided into nothingness and rotting flesh. We must lash down humanity to the world with thongs of wisdom. We must give her an unsurprisable mind. And that will never be done while affairs of art and learning are decided without passion, and individual dulnesses allowed to dim the brightness of the collective mind. We must weepingly leave the library if we are stupid, just as in the middle ages we left the home if we were lepers. If we can offer the mind of the world nothing else we can offer it our silence.

-- Rebecca West, "The Duty of Harsh Criticism," ca. 1914


O Garden, Garden!

Where the metal is akin to a father who reminds his sons that they are brothers and stops a bloody fight.

· Where the Germans come to drink beer and the belles to sell flesh.

Where eagles perch like eternity, marked by this day with its yet unfinished evening.

Where a camel knows the clue of Buddhism and suppresses the smirk of China.

Where a deer’s but a fright, blossoming wide and stone-like.

· Where people's outfits thrill and the Germans exude good health.

Where the black stare of swan, who is each inch a winter while his beak, a knoll in autumn is too apprehensive even for him.

Where the bluest splendifor fans out its tail, resembling Siberia as seen from the Pavdin Rock, when a blue net cast by clouds runs across the golden foliage of the singed or still green forests, and all of this is unevenly shaded by the roughness of surface.

Where monkeys, variously maddened, display their torsos' limits.

Where elephants, wriggling as mountains wriggle at an earthquake, beg a child for food supplying with ancient meaning the utterance, Feeeeed meee! Where is my foooood! and squat like beggars for handouts.

· Where Australian birds provoke a desire to grab their tails, and strumming these strings extol the deeds of the Russians.

· Where we squeeze a hand as if it were holding a sword and swear an oath to defend the Russian race at the cost of life, at the cost of death, at everything's cost.

· Where bears with great agility climb up and then look down waiting for the attendant's orders.

Where bats hang capsized like the heart of a Russian nowadays.

· Where a hawk’s breast resembles the cirrus clouds before a storm.

Where a low-flying bird drags behind a golden sunset with all the embers of its fire.

Where in the person of a tiger, white-bearded and with the eyes of a venerable Moslem, we honor the first follower of the prophet and discern the essence of Islam.

· Where we begin to think that creeds are waves fanning out, that their running crests are the species.

· And that the reason that there are so many animals in the world is that they can see God in different ways.

Where animals, tired of roaring, stand and look at the sky.

Where a caged seal bustles about promptly evoking the lot of suffering sinners.

Where funny fishwingers attend to each other with the touching care of Gogol's old world landowners.

· Garden, Garden, where the stare of an animal tells more than heaps of finished books.


· Where an eagle laments about something like a child tired of complaining.

· Where a husky wastes her Siberian ardor by performing ancient rites of tribal hostility watching a washing-up cat.

· Where billy goats plead putting through the bars a forked hoof, and assuming a complacent and cheerful expression when their wish is granted.

· Where a gyrating giraffe stands and gawks.

· Where a cannon shot at noon forces eagles to glance at the clouds in anticipation of a storm.

Where eagles fall from their high perches like idols during an earthquake from rooftops of buildings and temples.

· Where an eagle, shaggy like a girl, looks at the sky, then at its talons.

· Where in the case of an immobile deer we consider a beast-tree.

· Where an eagle sits with its neck to the public, the wings oddly spread. Does it daydream it's soaring high in the mountains? Or is it praying? Or just suffering from heat?

· Where an elk, through the fence, kisses a flat-homed buffalo.

· Where deer lick cold metal.

· Where a black seal hobbles across the floor, bending long flippers, and these movements are like those of man tied in a sack, or like those of cast-iron monuments seized by paroxysms of uncontrollable gaiety.

· Where shaggy-haired Ivanov jumps and bangs with his paw the metal when the attendant addresses him as "Comrade."

· Where lions doze off, having lowered their heads on their paws.

Where deer tirelessly knock their horns against the bars and bump their heads about.

· Where ducks of the same class rise in the dry cage the unanimous cry after a short rain as though saying a thanksgiving Mass to their deity (does it have flat feet and a beak?)

· Where guinea-fowl often look like high-pitched matrons with naked and arrogant necks and silver-ash bodies, outfitted by the same seamstress that's hired by starry nights.

· Where in a Malayan bear t refuse to recognize a fellow-Northerner and expose the hiding Mongol, and I want to avenge him for Port Arthur.

· Where wolves express readiness and loyalty with their attentively slanted eyes.

Where, having entered a musty habitat in which it's hard to stay long, I am showered with unanimous "stuuuppid!" and husks of idly but fluently prattling parrots.

· Where a fat shining walrus waves, like a tired great beauty, its black slippery fanlike leg and then falls into the water; and when it surfaces again, its overfed powerful body displays a mustachioed, bristling, with a smooth brow, head of Nietzsche.

· Where the jaw of a white tall dark-eyed llama, or of a squat flat-horned buffalo or of other ruminants moves steadily left and right like the life of a nation.

· Where a rhino carries in its white-red eyes the undying rage of an overthrown king and alone among animals doesn't conceal its contempt for the humans as for rebellious slaves. And it hides inside Ivan the Terrible.

· Where sea gulls with long beaks and cold-blue as though bespectacled eyes have an appearance of international dealers which is confirmed by the inborn facility with which they snatch in flight the flight thrown to the seals.

· Where, recalling that the Russians, in the past, called their great warriors "falcons" and that the eye of a Cossack, deeply sunk under his sharply curved eyebrow and the eye of this, royally related, bird, we begin to comprehend who steeped the Russians in the art of warfare. O falcons, breasting storks down! For all their spear-like beaks pointed upwards, O seldom the carrier of honor, loyalty and duty resorts to pinning up insects!

· Where a red, standing on its broad feet duck makes one recall the skulls of those Russians who fell for their motherland and whose rib cages its ancestors built their nests.

· Where the golden lock of a certain kind of bird contains fire of the intensity known only to those who swore eternal celibacy.

· Where Russia enunciates the word "Cossacks" the way eagles scream.

· Where elephants are forgetting their tubalike cries and make sounds as though complaining about indigestion. Perhaps, discovering our insignificance, they find it only appropriate to make insignificant sounds? I don't know. O, gray wrinkled mountains! covered with lichens and grass in their ravines!

· Where some remarkable possibilities perish in animals, the way the breviary with The Song of Igor's Campaign did during the great Moscow fire.

-- Joseph Brodsky's "fairly literal" version of Velimir Khlebnikov's "A Zoo," from a review titled "The Meaning of Meaning," The New Republic, ca. 1986

Pictured: Joseph Brodsky (strangling a cat???)

1 comment:

Henry Gould said...

Oh, I like that photo...
- had a cat once named Pushkin...