Lecture TWO Summary
[Prefatory note. One way of tracking the postclassical image of Orpheus is through opera. Monteverdi and Gluck created notable examples, but the libretti omit the final phase in Thrace. Haydn’s splendid "Orfeo ed Euridice," 1790, recently broadcast, does deal with the maenad attack in a somewhat sanitized version. Possibly, Offenbach’s 1858 "Orphée aux Enfers" (Orpheus in the Underworld), a comic opera that generated much commentary and cartoons, provided some of the background for Moreau’s painting of seven years later. Such considerations belong to the thematic approach, which will be addressed in the latter part of the course.]
The first lecture alluded to the “chain of custody” scheme, whereby the spirit of advanced art was claimed first by impressionism, then by postimpressionism, followed by fauvism and cubism. Voila! Abstract art is the “inevitable” result. We noted several problems with this formalistic monism.
Another issue is where does Symbolism fit in? In truth there is no single Symbolist style. Moreau remained largely faithful to his academic training. Redon, with the value contrasts of his “noirs” and the jewel-like color of his later style, is romantic. Khnopf is a kind of pre-Raphaelite. And so on. Thus Symbolism is a tendency, not a style.
Or perhaps, as we suggested last time, it is an ethos or a world view. In this light one may be tempted to seek a “perennial Symbolism” (paralleling “perennial abstraction”). The names of Chirico, Whistler, Cocteau, and Beckett came up. It is best to avoid this expansionist temptation, at least for the present, sticking to the historical core.
One way of defining Symbolism is in terms of absences.
1) Breaking with a venerable European tradition, the Symbolists abjure clarity and directness of statement. For this reason didactic works, such as those of conventional religious imagery, are generally excluded.
2) Also missing is the related project of enlightenment. They are more concerned with obnubilation: what you think is bright and clear is dark and murky.
3) There is a death of irony. Symbolists seem to lack a sense of humor. Or if they have it, it is not qua Symbolist. Oscar Wilde had a marvelous sense of irony and humor, but in his one Symbolist work, Salome (written in French) he renounces it. There is nothing funny about Salome. This lack is striking in the era of Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Alphonse Allais, and the invention of the comic strip. Sometimes, though, there is a kind of bitter satire, as in the coarse graphic works of Félicien Rops.
4) System is eschewed. For this reason comparisons with philosophy and religion only take us so far.
5) Even in a patriarchal era, the Symbolists seem to be notably misogynistic. The Salome theme-—part of the larger preoccupation with the femme fatale-—is characteristic. The Symbolists were virtually an all-male club. Exceptions are the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859), whom Verlaine admired, and Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery). Monsieur Vénus, Rachilde’s 1884 novel, boldly addresses the issue of sex roles, with Raoule, the heroine, playing the man’s part. Among painters the lesbian Romaine Brooks may rank as a late-blooming Symbolist. Perhaps, then, there is some redeeming quality in the way that Symbolists raised the issue of sex roles. Indirectly, there may be a connection with “Sapphic Paris,” so welcoming to creative women from foreign lands.
Viewed as such, this onslaught of deficits raises a question. In presenting, and indeed advocating for the Symbolists, are we not trying to turn a collection of quaint knickknacks into profound evidences of the Absolute? The answer, I think, is that all historical inquiry is “dated” to some degree or other. Yet with their affinities with postmodern indeterminacy, the Symbolists seem to have acquired new relevance.
We now return to the question of mysticism.
Maurice Maeterlinck translated John of Ruysbroeck from the Dutch. The writer was a Flemish priest (d. 1381) who retired to a hermitage with a few followers. He would wander in the woods writing down his ideas as they came to him. “We are one with God,” he observed. He was accused of pantheism. God does not reside in some remote spot, looking down on humanity, but pervades the universe. Spinoza equated God with nature. Some find the idea in the Upanishads. The idea that the divine is ever present (even though we may not realize it) has affinities with Surrealism.
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a distinguished Swedish scientist who experienced a religious conversion in his middle years. He claimed to have talked with angels, devils, and spirits while visiting Heaven and Hell. Christ commanded him to proclaim the doctrine of the Second Coming. To spread his message Swedenborg founded his New Church, which still thrives in a number of countries.
Swedenborg influenced a number of artists, notably William BLAKE (cf. his daring observations in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”) . He also had adherents among American painters, such as George INNESS. In France he influenced Balzac (who produced two Swedenborgian novels) and Baudelaire. The latter’s “Correspondences” is a kind of Symbolist charter (see text in Dorra). In this sonnet Baudelaire set forth three types of correspondence. Horizontal links occur between different entities in the visible world (this corresponds to common garden symbolism). Vertical links connect elements of the phenomenal world with their numinal counterparts. Finally, synaesthesia connects experience in one sense with another, as in “scarlet sounds,” “loud colors” and so forth. Synaesthesia, especially in the appeal to music, became an important component of abstraction.
As it happens, three of the four paintings presented last time as typical Symbolist productions incorporate classical mythology (the works by Moreau, Redon, and Khnopf). However, the artists tend to “tweak” the stories, so as to provide a personal interpretation. This practice assumes that mythology is familiar, but also presupposes that a certain loosening of its canons has taken place.
In Greek mythos simply meant “plot.” Today, the word myth has two meanings, broadly speaking: 1) something that is not true; 2) a profound truth presented in an allegorical fashion.
This loosening just noted is the product of the New Science of Mythology, of which an extended discussion ensued. In the course of the presentation it emerged that three major explanations for the origins of mythology have been dominant. 1) Euhemerism assumes that the gods and goddesses were originally human beings who were immensely charismatic. First they ascended to the status of heroes (cf. (Hercules and Orpheus), and then achieved full divinity. Perhaps in future centuries such figures as John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe will make such an ascent. 2) The gods and goddesses are simply names for natural forces, e.g. Helios, the sun, and Selene, the moon. Sometimes, as with Apollo and Diana, these forces have other names. 3) Mythology reflects social stratification. Thus there are three types of deities representing sovereignty (Zeus, Mitra) , power (Ares, Indra, Athena), and fecundity (Aphrodite and many others). Early European and Indian society was divided into three classes--priests, warriors, and producers.
In might have been expected that with the rise of Christianity, classical mythology would die out. In fact this lore survived through the Middle Ages. In the early Renaissance classical myths received powerful support from the Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino, who sought a kind of universal understanding of religious truth.
Sandro BOTTICELLI’s “Birth of Venus” (ca. 1482) is a celebrated attestation. The classical goddess emerges from the water on a shell, blown towards shore by the Zephyrs, symbols of spiritual passions, and with one of the Horae, goddesses of the seasons, handing her a flowered cloak. Contrary to our off-hand modern view, the naked goddess is not a symbol of earthly love (lust) but of spiritual love—she is Aphrodite Urania (as distinct from her humbler sister Aphrodite Pandemos; see Plato’s Symposium). Her origins were explicated by a strange story, in which Ouranos, the sky god, suffered castration at the hands of his own son, Kronos or Saturn, who threw the genitals into the sea. One motivation for allegorical interpretation of such myths is to mask such indecencies, which caused embarrassment even to the ancient Greeks.
Anthropologists surmise that mythology may be universal. All the same, for a long time Greek mythology (and its Roman adjunct) mythology enjoyed a uniquely privileged status. Books by Hesiod and Ovid, supplemented by a tradition inaugurated by Giovanni Boccaccio, provided a rich repertoire. Yet during the 19th century this Greco-Roman monopoly ceased, for two other types of mythology became known. Copiously attested in written records, these “other” mythological systems cast light on poorly understood parts of Greco-Roman mythology. The first of these sisterly rivals was Norse or Germanic; the second Indian.
Remarkably, traces of Germanic mythology survive in our days of the week; Tuesday (Tur), Wednesday (Woden), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Frigg). In fixing dates we unknowingly pay tribute to these deities. (As they say, maybe it can’t hurt.) Around 1800 scholars began to study and translate the Old Norse myths where these deities are ensconced. Wagner adapted this store of Germanic mythology in his Ring cycle, and Wagner was a big favorite among the Symbolists. The set of four operas ends with the Twilight of the Gods, or Götterdämmering. This is an image of cosmic decline, reflecting the Scandinavian myth of Ragnarok.
The second competitor, India, was perhaps even more important. New comparative material appeared in the wake of the fundamental discovery of Sir William Jones (1784). For the first time, Jones demonstrated conclusively that Sanskrit was a sister language to Greek and Latin. He noted pitar (=pater), bhratar (=frater, brother), agni (=ignis) and thousands of other correspondences. By showing that Indian languages were not exotic products of “barbarism,” Jones poked a big hole in the ideology of imperialism, which relied on the assumption of the “otherness”of the subject peoples. . His findings were instrumental in founding the science of Indo-European linguistics, whose comparative perspectives extended from India and Persia in the East to Ireland and Scandinavia in the West.
If words could be compared, why not myths? The Vedic documents, the earliest surviving Indo-European texts, contain much mythological material
At first a good deal of confusion reigned, for assimilating new truths is always difficult, particularly when they go against ingrained beliefs—-in this case the idea of the inherent superiority of Europe. In this way Schopenhauer conflated Brahmanism (which he studied in the Upanishads) with Buddhism. Once the latter became known it was understood in terms of simple categories, such as “nothingness.” While that idea exists (as the shunyata), there is much more to Buddhism. In these initial speculations, Buddha was even identified with Wotan! Comparison sometimes goes too far.
Some attempts to combine religion are deliberate, reflecting the idea that there are truths common to all religions. This idea, already adumbrated by Ficino, seems to underlie Paul RANSON’s “Christ and Buddha” (ca. 1890-92).
Eventually, it emerged that the leading advocate of the Indological approach to mythology was Friedrich Max Müller, a German savant who settled in England. This scholar was responsible for a whole library of translations, the Sacred Books of the East. Many of these volumes are still consulted. He was an almost fanatical exponent of the idea that the ancient gods and goddesses represent natural forces, especially the sun.
Max Müller’s ideas reached France by an indirect route. Reverend Cox, his disciple, condensed them into a single book, which adds Norse and Indian examples to the Greco-Roman core. This book in turn was translated by no less a figure than Mallarmé, in his Les Dieux antiques of 1885.
One more figure must be cited in this reorientation of mythology. Friedrich Nietzsche’s first book,The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), represents a turning point in the understanding of ancient Greece. The German thinker posited a basic polarity of two drives, one ruled by Apollo, the other by Dionysos. The first, the Apollonian component, reflects the principles of rationality and clarity that the conventional wisdom had long taken to be the exclusive hallmarks of ancient Greek civilization (“Noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur,” as Winckelmann put it) The Dionysian pole is one of ecstasy and excess. For the Apollonian reverie, a dream or order, clarity, and rationality, it substitutes frenzied intoxication. The Dionysian is the irrepressible, overflowing surge of life itself. A typical Apollonian gathering would be a committee meeting, governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. A Dionysian gathering would be an orgy. Yet we cannot allow the Dionysian impulse to rage unchecked. Civilization requires the interplay of both, but the Dionysian is primordial, for it is the ultimate principle of creativity. The Dionysus pole comes to the fore in music (Nietzsche is thinking of Wagner), while the Apollo trend is dominant in the visual arts. The whole construction is part of Nietzsche’s “metaphysic of the artist,” the assumption that the creation of great art is society’s highest task. The world itself is governed by a kind of artistic interplay of opposing forces. Nietzsche’s ideas remain controversial among classicists, but have insinuated themselves into the ground structure of our thinking about culture, and perhaps life itself.
In our own day, the heirs of Nietzsche’s Dionysian principle are such beat writers as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Rock and Roll has also been named. These allusions make Nietzsche’s point that the contrast of Apollonian and Dionysian does not simply apply to ancient Greece, but reflects fundamental human drives.
The final unit of the lecture broached the question of words. Time permitted only a discussion of Decadence, the rival of Symbolism ostensibly replaced by the latter term in 1886. The ultimate reference point for decadence is the Fall of the Roman Empire, leading (ostensibly to the Dark Ages). The painting by Thomas COUTURE (1847) offers a lurid portrayal of supposed Roman excesses.
We must avoid this fate ourselves. But can we? It may be inevitable. With this prospect some discovered (rightly, I think) attractive features in “Dark Age” art, such as the splendid Byzantine mosaic of the Empress Theodora in San Vitale in Ravenna (547). Des Esseintes showed a predilection for sophisticated literary works of Late Latinity.
The word decadence is an example of “detoxification” of negative terms. For further information, see Decadence, below.
Several strands come together in a beautiful poem by Paul Verlaine, “Languor” (1884).
“I am the Empire at the end of the decadence,
Watching great and white barbarians pass by
As I doodle my lazy acrostics
Scribed in gold beneath a play of languid light.
“Lonely would weighted down by ennui,
There, they say, it’s long and bloody war.
Ah, what if slow and weak desire stopped
Trying to make life sing with color?
“What if the need to die there went?
Everything’s been drunk. Stop laughing, Bathyllus.
Everything’s been consumed. Nothing left to say.
“Just a silly poem for the fire,
Just a wanton slave neglecting you,
Just afflictions of ennui sprung from God knows where.”
(trans. Martin Sorrell)