Perpetuity: And then some

Just a thought

Perpetuity is defined as a state of continuing forever – isn’t that wonderful?

I have missed my blog – more anon –

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Herman Posthumus: What’s Left Behind

The word ‘discard’ is a Renaissance invention, related literally to gaming and the notion of de-carding, or throwing a card away, but also used figuratively from at least 1580 and perhaps earlier in its earlier form, and perhaps even earlier, the 1550s, to refer to the notion of something ‘decarded’ as something thrown away.  It is no surprise to know that the Renaissance, which was a period of great invention, should also have been a period in which new terms had to be invented to describe those things left behind or thrown away in the face of ruthless modernity.
I’ve thought of ‘discard’ in the sense of being left behind in relation to an unusually evocative list compiled recently by Travelodge UK, detailing  the top ten books, within the past year, to have been left behind in hotel rooms.  Judging by the titles – every shade of grey and then some – most of them are the kind of sad, awkward, slightly risque stuff that I suppose habitual travelers, who frequent places like the Travelodge, read to enliven their habitual boredom with something that is, well, equally formulaic and boring, but that aspires to some notion of escapism.   Such is the detritus of our time.
Not so for the Renaissance, an era of rediscovery predicated on what was left
behind – fragments of antiquity were perhaps the most productive
kind of ‘waste’ ever produced and recognized by history.   The Renaissance
might well have been the first (and only?) era of productive waste
management – to recognize the evocative nature of what had been discarded.
This is what I think about when looking at the great elusive and allusive
work of Herman Posthumus, depicting Rome’s ruins (below) – 
???????
 
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Titian’s Sisyphus: An Eternity of Doubt

I have a fondness for words with repeated soft aspirants that make them satisfying to pronounce (favourite is ‘aspidistra’).  ‘Titian’s Sisyphus’ is not only wonderful to say, it’s incredibly wonderful to look at, which, as an art historian, makes me doubly happy.

The Sisyphus was painted as part of a series of four works, depicting the labours of the damned (sometimes called the Furies) made for Mary of Hungary, regent of the Netherlands and sister to Emperor Charles V.   The works were intended as a warning to those who tried to defy the Emperor in his struggles against the Protestants.  Sisyphus hung in the company of similarly Herculean images of Tityus, Tantalus, and Ixion, and is the only one of the series to survive the Alcazar fire of 1734.  

Sisyphus was a king of Corinth but because he was a trickster and deceiver of the gods he was condemned by Pluto to spend eternity pushing a boulder uphill.  The point was that he would be kept occupied and unable to escape his fate, and that his task would never be completed.

It is this last point that makes Sisyphus so poignantly appropriate to artistic striving. Like Durer’s Melancholic angel (a symbol I keep circling), Sisyphus engages in an struggle to complete an impossible task.  I wonder if that’s why Titian’s rendering of his taut gigantism is so lovingly precise and yet so achingly beautiful in its range of fleshly tone and flickering brushwork.  In his deathless struggle Sisyphus is as alive as Titian’s art could make him – a metaphor, in Titian’s troubled times, for what art might accomplish. In it’s Counter-Reformation idealization, the figure of Sisyphus ranks among the saints of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement – all of them made of a solid but uncertain beauty, trapped in eternities of doubt –

The Sisyphus is now in the Prado –

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An Etymology of Melancholy: Durer, Hugo, Sontag

melancholy (n.) Look up melancholy at Dictionary.comc.1300, “condition characterized by sullenness, gloom, irritability,” from Old French melancolie “black bile, ill disposition, anger, annoyance” (13c.), from Late Latin melancholia, from Greek melankholia “sadness,” literally (excess of) “black bile,” from melas(genitive melanos) “black” (see melanin) + khole “bile” (see Chloe). Medieval physiology attributed depression to excess of “black bile,” a secretion of the spleen and one of the body’s four “humors.”

I can’t say I’ve noticed any pronounced overproduction of black bile (unless that’s what gives you acid reflux) but I have found myself, most curiously, suffering a rather acute post-sabbatical funk best defined by ‘melancholy.’  By which I mean not sadness exactly, not hopelessness nor loss of interest, but an underlying sort of pewter-gray hue to days spent trying to reconnect with my job.  I sift through emails and find myself NOT bristling at bureaucracy, nor particularly fraught about schedules, modules, the latest teaching technology or the intricacies of departmental border wars –

Might I be (gasp?) content? Is contentment silver-hued and amorphous – a cloud of cotton batting, blocking out the world? Victor Hugo evidently wrote that ‘melancholy is the happiness of being sad’, which might mean it is the inevitable and ineffable by-product of some accomplishment, the completion of which leaves one sadly happy – or happily sad – passing through from one state to another. Melancholia is not sadness but stasis, a kind of ebb – like Durer’s angel in the famous print – not falling – fallen, but still possessed of wings.

As Susan Sontag wrote, “Depression is melancholy minus its charms.”  

Or, to invert Stevie Smith,  ‘Not drowning, but waving’ –

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An Etymology of Melancholy: Durer, Hugo, Sontag

melancholy (n.) Look up melancholy at Dictionary.comc.1300, “condition characterized by sullenness, gloom, irritability,” from Old French melancolie “black bile, ill disposition, anger, annoyance” (13c.), from Late Latin melancholia, from Greek melankholia “sadness,” literally (excess of) “black bile,” from melas(genitive melanos) “black” (see melanin) + khole “bile” (see Chloe). Medieval physiology attributed depression to excess of “black bile,” a secretion of the spleen and one of the body’s four “humors.”

I can’t say I’ve noticed any pronounced overproduction of black bile (unless that’s what gives you acid reflux) but I have found myself, most curiously, suffering a rather acute post-sabbatical funk best defined by ‘melancholy.’  By which I mean not sadness exactly, not hopelessness nor loss of interest, but an underlying sort of pewter-gray hue to days spent trying to reconnect with my job.  I sift through emails and find myself NOT bristling at bureaucracy, nor particularly fraught about schedules, modules, the latest teaching technology or the intricacies of departmental border wars –

Might I be (gasp?) content? Is contentment silver-hued and amorphous – a cloud of cotton batting, blocking out the world? Victor Hugo evidently wrote that ‘melancholy is the happiness of being sad’, which might mean it is the inevitable and ineffable by-product of some accomplishment, the completion of which leaves one sadly happy – or happily sad – passing through from one state to another. Melancholia is not sadness but stasis, a kind of ebb – like Durer’s angel in the famous print – not falling – fallen, but still possessed of wings.

As Susan Sontag wrote, “Depression is melancholy minus its charms.”  

Or, to invert Stevie Smith,  Not drowning, but waving’ –

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Daguerre, Dioramas and Deceptions

diorama (n.) Look up diorama at Dictionary.com1823 as a type of picture-viewing device, from French diorama (1822), from Greek di- “through” (see dia-) + orama “that which is seen, a sight” (see panorama). Meaning “small-scale replica of a scene, etc.” is from 1902.

Most of us are familiar with the notion of ‘diorama’ in the context of museum displays; those occasionally hokey miniature reproductions of historical events, much like the ones that come to life in the film Night at the Museum.  Some people are less familiar with the notion of the diorama as a picture-viewing device, invented in Paris by Louis Daguerre (for whom the Daguerreotype, an early form of photograph, is named) and introduced to the public in 1822.

The diorama was presented in a purpose-built theatre in which the audience was seated on a kind of large turntable that could be turned from one large panorama to the other. The large stage area  – 24 feet wide by 21 feet high – was used to hang a series of painted, layered linen scenes, overlaid in a long, truncated tunnel and left transparent in certain areas, Sunlight was then redirected, through the use of apertures and mirrors, screens, shutters and coloured blinds, and these light effects would cause the painted landscapes to shift and shimmer and change, in shows that lasted about ten to fifteen minutes.  These spontaneous shifts of effect were considered miraculous imitations of nature, conjured magically before the eyes of an astonished audience.   Water would appear to dance in fountains, storms, rainbows, moonlight and starlight were all accompanied by soundscapes of music and mimicry, creating immersive magical environments.

It has often occurred to me that Courbet’s famous Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory (1855), which hangs in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, shimmers in its expansive background with the effects of a diorama, deepening the conceit of the painted landscape on his canvas,  These intimating layers of imitation engage in a reiterative dialectic between his doctrine of Realism and the conjuring tricks that the painting of realism requires, doubling back on the wry oxymoron of his title.  As Picasso put it, “art is a lie that makes us realize the truth” and perhaps we apprehend Realism more fully when it is filtered through the truth of our imaginations.

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Goat-Songs: The Real Meaning of Tragedy

tragedy (n.) Look up tragedy at Dictionary.comlate 14c., “play or other serious literary work with an unhappy ending,” from Old French tragedie (14c.), from Latin tragedia “a tragedy,” from Greek tragodia “a dramatic poem or play in formal language and having an unhappy resolution,” apparently literally “goat song,” from tragos “goat” + oide “song.” The connection may be via satyric drama, from which tragedy later developed, in which actors or singers were dressed in goatskins to represent satyrs. But many other theories have been made (including “singer who competes for a goat as a prize”), and even the “goat” connection is at times questioned. Meaning “any unhappy event, disaster” is from c.1500. – from the Online Etymology Dictionary

‘Tragedy’ originated in Greek theatre as the enactment of unhappy events which provoked audience ‘catharsis’ – literally, ‘cleansing’, ‘purgation’ – the ability to rid ourselves of pity or fear through witnessing the sufferings of others – a concept originating in Aristotle’s Poetics. In a classical sense it’s used to define creative empathy.

I am increasingly averse to the overuse of the word ‘tragedy’ in contemporary media, who apply it to everything from the accidental to the criminal – although I’m well aware that it has been used in this sense since the sixteenth century, when it became more generally applied to any events disastrous or fatal.  

All sad endings are not, however, ‘tragedies’ in the classical sense – to release responsibility for the preventable to some sense of fatalistic human failing seems to me childish and dangerous in our confused and confusing world.  

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