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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, James Hall (Thames & Hudson 2014)

I enjoy books that have me taking notes and looking for more online. This book certainly had me doing that: it’s erudite and informative, full of fascinating asides and anecdotes. Did you know, for example, that the arrow transfixing the martyr’s neck in Pietro Perugino’s St Sebastian (c. 1493-4) actually consists of a narrow line of text: PETRAUS PERUGINUS PINXIT, meaning “Pietro Perugino Painted (This)” in Latin? I didn’t know that and I’m not sure I’d’ve noticed anything strange about the arrow if I’d looked at the painting for myself. Good art-criticism enriches and informs our experience of art like that. And if you wonder how you missed something that seems so obvious once it’s pointed out to you, well, that’s a reminder that you should look more carefully when you’re on your own.

But I wasn’t so sure that this book was good art-criticism as I worked my way through it. Or at least, I wondered whether it was as good as Laura Cumming’s A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (2009). I don’t think it is, but Cumming set a high standard. She also followed a well-trodden track that Hall has followed again. Dürer, Rembrandt and Velázquez appear in both books, but it would be perverse to avoid them in a history of the self-portrait. Then again, perversity is one way of making a name for yourself when so many critics have written about a limited amount of art for so long. James and Cumming don’t employ it, but I wish they had in the case of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c. 1638-9). It would be perverse of an art-critic to call Gentileschi a bad painter and this second-most famous of her works an ugly, awkward and uncouth mess.

But it would also be true. Hall and Cumming aren’t perverse: they treat paintress and painting seriously. Where’s Brian Sewell when you need him? Six foot underground, that’s where. I think he could have written a better book on self-portraits than either James and Cumming have done. It would certainly have been more idiosyncratic and politically incorrect. But would Sewell have been able to draw a parallel between self-portraiture and acting by quoting from Diderot? I don’t think he would. James could and did (but I’ll put the original French first):

Garrick passe sa tête entre les deux battants d’une porte, et, dans l’intervalle de quatre à cinq secondes, son visage passe successivement de la joie folle à la joie modérée, de cette joie à la tranquillité, de la tranquillité à la surprise, de la surprise à l’étonnement, de l’étonnement à la tristesse, de la tristesse à l’abattement, de l’abattement à l’effroi, de l’effroi à l’horreur, de l’horreur au désespoir, et remonte de ce dernier degré à celui d’où il était descendu. – Denis Diderot, Paradoxe Sur le Comédien (1773/1830)

Garrick puts his head between two leaves of a door, and in the space of four or five seconds, his face passed successively from wild joy to moderate joy, from this joy to composure, from composure to surprise, from surprise to astonishment, from astonishment to sadness, from sadness to gloom, from gloom to fright, from fright to horror, from horror to despair, and then back again from this final stage up to the one from which he had started. (ch. 7, “At the Crossroads”, quoting from Diderot’s The Paradox of Acting, written 1773, published 1830)

That was one of the parts of The Self-Portrait that had me taking a note and finding out more online. But erudite and informative as the book was, it was still, like all artistic criticism, trapped inside a web of words. Critics write constantly about geniuses but can’t explain them or analyse their work other than superficially. Dürer, Rembrandt and Velázquez all had special brains. I want to know how those brains evolved not just in a cultural sense but in a biological sense too. And I don’t believe that all races were capable of producing the dazzling art that’s discussed here.

Biological analysis of art will seem perverse and even blasphemous to critics, who mostly belong to the biology-denying Guardianista community, but their prejudices won’t stem the flood of perversity that is on its way. And if art criticism is something will never be the same again, then nor will the human race.

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The Wreck of Western Culture by John CarrollThe Wreck of Western Culture: Humanism Revisited, John Carroll (Scribe 2010)

I hadn’t heard of John Carroll before I picked up this book, but I felt as though I’d read him before. The Wreck of Western Culture reminded me strongly of John Gray. But it’s much longer than Gray’s recent books and discusses art, music and film, not just literature. I also think Carroll is a deeper thinker and better writer. He’s an Australian professor of sociology, not an English philosopher, but his very clever and compelling analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) isn’t marred by jargon or pretension. Anyone who has looked at the painting and noticed the distorted skull hanging at the feet of the two ambassadors must have wondered why the skull is there.

Carroll supplies a convincing answer:

Death is the master, and there is no other. These eminences of the Renaissance have failed to find a place on which to stand. Their inner eye stares into the face of their Medusa, into nothingness, and they are stricken, blind, rooted to the spot. (ch. 3, “Ambassadors of Death: Holbein and Hamlet”, pg. 32)

Humanism, the attempt to make man the measure of all things, was a grand experiment that failed. Or so Carroll claims. His own response to the failure seems to be a suggestion that we make God the measure of all things again. He certainly doesn’t accept the strictures of perhaps his greatest predecessor in the study of nihilism: “What is so admirable about Nietzsche is that he saw clearly what was at stake, and refused to give up the hopeless struggle” (Prologue, pg. 5).

The Ambassadors (1533) Hans Holbein the Younge

The Ambassadors (1533), Hans Holbein the Younger


But the suggestion of a return to God is never fully explicit: he says at the very beginning that this book is about diagnosis, not prescription:

Doctors cannot recommend a cure if they are blind to the disease. I have begun the subsequent task – of ‘Where to now?’ – in later work, principally Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (HarperCollins, 1998) and The Western Dreaming (HarperCollins, 2001). (Preface, pg. viii)

Does he recommend a return to God there? I’ll be interested to find out, but I think I’ll re-read this book first. His analyses of paintings, books and films may be mistaken, but they are profound and wide-ranging, conveying a strong sense of the richness of the art and culture he is discussing. But, like John Gray and many others, he betrays one great weakness in his analyses: he doesn’t seem to know much about science and statistics. History and culture are not simply about minds and ideas, but about biology and genetics too. Carroll is constantly discussing geniuses – Holbein, Caravaggio, Bach, Nietzsche – but he never discusses genius and its biological foundations. Ideas both shape human biology and are shaped by it. European history and European genius are distinct in part for biological reasons.

Like Gray, Carroll doesn’t acknowledge this. I suspect that he believes that the human race is one and indivisible. It isn’t. Science needs philosophical foundations, but philosophy benefits from scientific guidance. Carroll writes a lot about Protestantism and its proponents Luther and Calvin. But Protestantism had biological aspects, because Europeans aren’t one and indivisible either. Science may be contributing to the wreck of Western culture, but without it we will never understand the roots of that culture. You should bear that in mind if you try this clever and stimulating book.

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The Soul of the Marionette by John GrayThe Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom, John Gray (Penguin 2015)

The philosopher John Gray is an interesting mixture of conservative and liberal, like a cross between Roger Scruton and a Guardian-reader. Like Scruton, he writes well, eschews pretension and offers some good critiques of liberalism. Unfortunately, he shares something else with Scruton: he seems to know very little about human biology and genetics. I’ve never seen him suggest that culture has biological roots, for example, or hint that human beings are more than superficially different. Does he really believe that Icelanders, Somalis and Japanese are part of a single, more or less identical human race?

If he doesn’t, he’s keeping very quiet. Perhaps he’s being prudent. It wouldn’t be good for him to deny the central dogma of modern liberalism: that we’re all the same under the skin. It would distress his many fans in the Guardian-reading community, lose him his reviewing gig at the New Statesman and make it much harder for him to get books published. But something else may stop him publishing books: the passage of time. Like the Oozalum bird, he seems to be moving in ever-decreasing circles and his books are getting shorter and shorter. If he goes on like this, by 2025 he’ll be issuing postcards.

Perhaps he should already be issuing them. If The Soul of the Marionette were a postcard, this is what might be on it:

Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.

That’s Kant: “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing can be made.” I agree with Kant, but I would say that some human timber is crookeder than others. Gray doesn’t say this. He’s got the Guardian-reading community to think of. Instead, he illustrates the imperfectability and illusions of humanity by discussing writers like Heinrich von Kleist, Bruno Schulz, Giacomo Leopardi, Philip K. Dick, Stanislav Lem, Borges, Poe and so on. We think we’re free but we aren’t. Our behaviour has mysterious roots and takes place in an often unknowable world. This emphasis on literature helps explain his appeal to Guardianistas: lit crit is much more to their taste than genetics or neurology. Gray flatters his readers’ intellects without ever discussing the concept of intellect or intelligence.

How are they relevant, after all? We’re all the same under the skin and have been for many millennia. That’s the central dogma of liberalism. In fact, we aren’t the same and big differences between human groups can evolve very quickly. If Gray recognized this, he would have even stronger reason to attack the illusions of men like George Bush, Tony Blair and the neo-conservatives, who thought that democracy could be brought to the Middle East using violence. For example, he wrote a mordantly funny “Modest Proposal” in defence of torture, which was collected in Gray’s Anatomy (2010). There’s nothing as powerful as that here, but I think the writing is better here. The ideas are often vague but always interesting and you’ll want to try the authors he discusses, if you haven’t already. All the same, I would prefer more genetics and less lit crit.

His Guardianista fans wouldn’t like more genetics, but that’s precisely why I would. Prominent among the distressed Guardianistas would be Will Self. He’s one of those thanked at the end of this book for “conversations that stirred the thoughts” that went into it. Self’s friendship with Gray, like Self’s friendship with J.G. Ballard, is a worrying sign to me. It’s also puzzling. Gray thanks Nassim Taleb at the end of the book too. How is possible for him to take both those men seriously? Taleb is a highly intelligent and interesting writer. Self is a tedious charlatan. He’s also full of liberal illusions about the unity of humanity and the benefits of mass immigration. If Gray is still writing books in 2025, I hope Self is no longer a fan of his. I certainly think the illusions of Self will have been even more starkly exposed by then.

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Scented Flora of the World by Roy GendersScented Flora of the World: An Encyclopedia, Roy Genders (Robert Hale 1977)

It’s hard to believe that even a horticulturalist as expert and dedicated as Roy Genders (1913-85) was personally acquainted with every flower, tree, and shrub in this large and detailed book. But the back cover claims that it was “a thirty-year labour of love”, so perhaps he was. Either way, he was a lucky man. There is a Chinese saying that runs: “If you want to be happy for a day, get drunk; happy for a year, get married; happy for a lifetime, get a garden.”

Plants and flowers are endlessly rewarding and in a way the absence of pictures here intensifies the romance and sensuality of its subject. Even the appendices, running from “A” to “T”, are good to read: “Night-Scented Flowering Plants” combines the mystery of night with the strangeness of scientific names (Heliotropicum convolvulacaeum), the evocation of scent (vanilla, honey, lily), and the enchantment of distance (Mexico, Brazil, South Africa).

Then there are “Scented Aquatic Plants” and “Scented Cacti and Succulents” — and that is only the appendices. In the first part of the book Genders discusses the history, chemistry, culture and psychology of scented flora, then plunges head-and-heart-long into the encyclopedia of the book’s title. There’s everything from Abelia chinensis, with its “rose-tinted flowers, like miniature fox-gloves”, to Zylopa glabra, whose seeds, “much sought after by wild pigeons… impart their particular odour to the birds’ flesh”. In between there are plants like Illicium religiosum, an omnifragrant Japanese tree used for incense and for strewing at funerals. Genders says that it’s known in China as “Mang-thsao, ‘the mad herb’, for it is said to cause frenzy in humans”.

Scent can do that, either by attracting or by repelling. And Genders doesn’t neglect the repellent side of his subject: he describes the pongy and pungent with the sweet and soporific. The final appendix draws up a “Phew’s-Who” of “Plants bearing Flowers or Leaves of Unpleasant Smell”. It’s like a remainder of the death and decay that await us all, but those are what nourish the plants that are beautiful and sweetly-scented, as well as those that are only one of those or neither.

So Scented Flora is big both in bulk and in its themes. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “encyclopedia” is spurious Greek for “all-round education”. Despite its focus on one aspect of one subject, that’s what Genders reveals and provides here. He knew a lot not just about horticulture and science, but about literature and culture too. We call Filipendula ulmaria “meadow-sweet” nowadays, but Ben Johnson knew it as “Meadow’s Queen”, perhaps after the French reine-des-prés, “queen of the meadows”. The herbalist Gerard said that its scent “makes the heart merry and delighteth the senses”. It does exactly that, but there are thousands more scented plants to explore and anticipate here.

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