Review of Sarah Kennedy’s The King’s Sisters

by Courtney Watson

Sarah Kennedy. The King's Sisters. Knox Robinson Publishing: Atlanta. 320 pages. 2015.

The King’s Sisters, the third novel in Sarah Kennedy’s standout The Cross and the Crown series, is a beautifully-written story that engages the reader from the first page to the last. This novel is a vibrant work of historical fiction that teems with urgency and suspense amidst a world of 16th treachery and palace intrigue. With vivid sensory descriptions and expert plotting, Kennedy continues to weave a story that offers compelling insight into the political minefield that characterized life during Henry VIII’s reign.

As with its predecessors, the best part of The King’s Sisters is Kennedy’s nuanced portrayal of the women in her story. Beyond her heroine, the determined and intuitive Catherine Overton, the female characters in this novel are well-explored and fully-realized. There are no one-note characters lingering in these pages. Every woman is well-developed with a complex backstory that brings her to life. Kennedy’s portrayal of women in this era is thoughtful and extraordinarily well-done; though they suffer, they are not limited to being bloody footnotes from Henry VIII’s rampage through history. In Kennedy’s gifted hands, they are complicated and compelling, and they matter. Though the author accomplishes many feats in this novel, perhaps the most moving is her exploration of the depths of female friendship.

During this third journey with Catherine Overton, whose life has changed so much since her days as a nun at the Mt. Grace Priory, readers are invited into the fraught world of the court of Henry VIII. At this point history, in the days after fifth wife Catherine Howard’s grisly execution, proximity to the cruel and temperamental king is the most dangerous place in England as Henry VIII’s insanity and suspicion grow:“The queen was a child…He has murdered a little girl this time,” (7). Fear is palpable in these early scenes, and it becomes more pronounced as the novel progresses. From her place at Richmond Palace, where she serves Henry’s divorced and displaced fourth wife, Anne of Cleves (a tremendously well-written character in her own right), Catherine has a front row seat to one of the most turbulent and violent periods of English history.

The king’s madness is perhaps felt most acutely in the opening scene of the novel, where the reader rejoins Catherine Overton as she stands in the crowd watching the young queen’s brutal decapitation. It is a difficult, wrenching scene, punctuated by Catherine’s fear of her own scandalous transgression of being unwed and pregnant. The mood at the palace is dark and grim: “…all the reveling, the feasts and dancing, the flirtations and love-making, had ended, and the king disappeared into the inner rooms of Hampton Court after he signed the death warrant” (1). For Catherine, the stakes have never been higher; her world is full of peril, and she has never had more to lose.

One of the brightest parts of the novel is Kennedy’s characterization of the future Queen Elizabeth I as a child. Since so much is known about the extraordinary woman she became, it is easy to forget that, as the only child of the beheaded Anne Boleyn, she was an unlikely heir and her path to the throne was laden with peril. Kennedy does wonderful work illustrating for the reader the young princess’s awareness of the precariousness of her position:

When my brother is king, I will do as he says, and he will love me. Is that the way I must go to keep my head from being taken from my neck?…I will suffer his kindness and his direction and perhaps he will repay me with my life. I see how things stand. But if he seeks to marry me to some low-born idiot, I will cut my own throat before I submit. Do you hear? I will slash it myself! I will not have my head hacked off by a drunkard with an ax! (14-15).

Kennedy’s version of Princess Elizabeth is brightly lit and crackling with intelligence, lending vital insight into how the violent deaths of two of her father’s wives—one of them her own mother—would shape the marital views of the future Virgin Queen. Even as a child, her presence is commanding, a powerful portent of the future she will create.

Elizabeth I is by no means the only historical figure to make a lasting impression in The King’s Sisters. Catherine serves a vividly-imagined Anne of Cleves, who fell out of favor with Henry VIII shortly after their marriage but who survived through divorce, unlike her successor, and continued to love him. Kennedy does a beautiful job portraying the often-misunderstood Anne of Cleves with pathos and humor, creating a character who is both intelligent and surprising. The same can be said with the dark and bewitching Mary Tudor, who goes to great lengths to keep practicing her Catholic faith right under her father’s nose.

Another interesting character is Lady Jane Dudley, who serves as the head of Anne of Cleves’ household at Richmond Palace. The events of the novel play out a few short years before Jane Dudley’s moment in history, when her husband, the Duke of Northumberland, and her favorite son, Guildford Dudley, made a disastrous attempt to displace Mary Tudor from the throne in favor of Lady Jane Grey. Though the political maneuver resulted in the executions of both her son and her husband, Jane Dudley guided the rest of her family through the scandal relatively unscathed. Another of her sons, Robert Dudley, went down in history as the famed Earl of Leicester, beloved by the Virgin Queen. There are many references throughout the novel to future events, and it is fascinating to watch so many key figures in the early stages of their development. Jane Dudley, for all of her hysteria, is also canny and shrewd, characteristics she will desperately need to weather the coming storm.

Along with the main characters of the novel, the plot is tightly-written and has momentum from the first page. This entry in the series fully-immerses readers in a familiar world, and it is exciting to revisit locations from the first two novels as well as new places. From palaces to dungeons, there is a lot to experience in The King’s Sisters, which rewards the reader with intricate and lush sensory descriptions of Catherine’s world: “The table was covered with roast ducks and platters of carrots and leeks. Loaves of white bread and jugs of ale. Catherine took the edge of a bench and a manservant filled her cup. She sloshed the ale around until the colors of the candles, swimming in its golden surface, loosened her mind and she could swallow” (207-208). The novel, a true feast for the senses, is brimming with evocative descriptions of 16th century England.

While there is so much to praise about The King’s Sister’s, the best part of the novel is watching Catherine’s determined struggle for agency and autonomy during a time period when women generally possessed neither: “Martin coughed out a laugh. ‘The name of a woman is nobody,’ he said. ‘The name of a woman signifies the master to whom she belongs and nothing more. The name of a woman is a hole into which a man must drop his meaning and his seed. A woman makes nothing happen’” (275). What makes Catherine Overton an extraordinary character—and such a thrilling heroine to follow along her journey—is that she clearly understood the truth for women in her world, and she refused to accept it as her fate. She saw the possibility of a different future for herself and her daughter and her friends, and from there she rebuilt her world. Inspiring, smart, beautiful, and harrowing, The King’s Sisters is a must-read.

Review of Richard Burgin’s Don’t Think

by Miriam Kotzin

Richard Burgin.  Don’t Think. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2016.  184 pp.

Richard Burgin's Don’t Think is a superb book, a remarkable addition to his substantial, impressive oeuvre. The dark, sometimes bizarre, sensibility of his earlier work that once made Joyce Carol Oates compare him to Poe, remains, but it is joined in this volume with a more hopeful side.  Together these joined forces make Burgin one of best and most eloquent writers of the American short story.

Like his earlier writing, this collection of stories is both accessible as well as profound—and more than occasionally funny. Burgin’s ninth collection of short stories returns to his life-long exploration of memory’s power to comfort or torture, its role in creating identity, and its slippery relation to the truth.  

The eponymous “Don’t Think” naturally uses the second person, and by naming what must not be thought of, creates it. The ruminations and reminiscing, the regrets and recriminations take place as the protagonist talks to himself while he waits for his son to arrive for his shared custody time with him. The opening line is nostalgic and idyllic, “Don’t think of the roses on the trellis overhead—you motoring through, captain of your tricycle…” The story is filled with the losses of a life intensely lived. The love of his son outweighs all the negatives in his life, and much of the story is devoted to the habits of the protagonist’s son, and their custom of telling stories together, stories that are never written down.

As for stories that are written down:  “Don’t think of literature, the most pathetic of all religions, with its church of art that enforces the belief that great art will endure forever. Don’t think of how we constantly misuse words like ‘forever’ without grasping their meaning. We could not bear it if we did. And avoid the thought that if the world ends we’ll lose everything in art including Shakespeare and Beethoven but if the world goes on forever they’ll be lost and forgotten as well.”

In “Of Course He Wanted To Be Remembered,” two young women, talk about their professor, with whom each has had an intense relationship and discuss his theories: “‘your memory is your fiction’ “ and “ ‘memory has no objective basis in reality’ ” and “ ‘Personal memory is the first casualty of infinity. Cultural memory is the second’.”

The power of memory is one of the themes in “Uncle Ray.” The protagonist chooses a vacation destination taking into account his memories.  Visiting his parents would mean possibly being “ambushed not only by a possible fight in the present but by any one of a number of lurking, only temporarily hidden memories that could suddenly appear and shock you, as if your memory were playing hide-and- seek with you.” He chose a place based on his belief that going there will mean being surrounded by only pleasant memories, but, when he’s on the raft in the lake, discovers, instead, a negative memory of a sexual ambush by “Uncle” Ray, who had propositioned him when he was a “young thirteen.” The reader may remember Little Red Riding Hood’ comment to the wolf, “What big teeth you have!” as “Uncle” Ray, whose self-presentation was genial and, avuncular  “had a fairly toothy smile, too; his front teeth were often visible…” 

The protagonist of “Don’t Think” says, “It’s a good thing we have so many aches and pains as we get older or it would be too difficult to face the end. It’s selfish, in a way, to love a world where there is so much suffering.”

These stories celebrate the redemption offered by even the smallest kind gesture, such as found in the close of “Of Course He Wanted To Be Remembered,” in which a dying professor opens “his umbrella and sheltered [a young woman] from the rain.”

Over the years, Burgin has written about a number of imaginary societies, among them are:  The Identity Club, Memo, Oblivion, The Global Justice Society, and, here. V.I.N.—Victims of Infinity and Nothingness: “We see a little bit of infinity and then we become a permanent part of nothingness…” 

Connect this thought with what the protagonist of “Don’t Think” says, having first  “beg[u]n thinking about infinity and the limits of consciousness” when he realized he’d never become a composer. “It’s deeply ironic how people believe art expands consciousness and therefore life when it actually does the opposite. Anything with a design, with a beginning, middle, and end, is in opposition to infinity (or reality) and therefore is purposely a lie and a colossal deception.”

Two of the nine stories in Don’t Think were published in Per Contra: “The Chill,”[ http://percontra.net/issue/fall-2015/fiction/the-chill/] and “Olympia.” [http://percontra.net/issue/winter-2015/fiction/olympia/]

Don’t Think is another first-rate book on the shelf devoted to Richard Burgin’s writing: works that have won him a reputation for masterful, darkly comic forays into contemporary angst and the human condition, ameliorated by acts of kindness and honest love. His is an extraordinary, invaluable voice in contemporary fiction.

Joe Beneveto’s Poetry: The Voice of Learning and Experience

by Lee Slonimsky

 Joe Benevento.  Expecting Songbirds.  Purple Flag Press  2015.  108pp.

Joe Benevento is a fascinating and original poet, a master of, among several varieties of poetry, the poem that tells a story.  Benevento’s recently published Selected Poems: 1983—2015 from Purple Flag Press gives the reader an opportunity to sample the multiple strengths of his work in depth. There is considerable autobiographical content in Benevento’s work – from an ethnically diverse experience growing up in a working class neighborhood in Queens, NY – but the content is not at all the self pitying inner scrutiny of so called “confessional” poetry.  The introspection consists of wry and self-deprecating humor, honest emotion, and highly intelligent observation.  And it’s accompanied by a refreshing and insightful focus on others: vividly drawn characters, not just the narrative voice that, from a less skilled and authentic poet, can lapse into self-absorption.  

“My Puerto Rican Past,” for one example, with its lists of women like Sylvia Ramos (“just mentioning your names brings me/to the brink of irredeemable loss”) and counterpart “boys” (“now just men who do not know where I am”) is emphatic in the interest it expresses in others, and in fact another culture, not his own Italian-American one.  This is a colorful, flavorful poem, with its reminiscent longing for “the aroma of arroz con habichuelas,” “the blaring sounds of salsa,” and “…how beautiful Sylvia Ramos/ looked, like love, on an endless August evening/in working-class Queens.”

The second stanza of “My Puerto Rican Past,” with its intellectual passion for Spanish language and literature that Benevento in “real life” went on to study, relates to another distinctive aspect of Benevento’s poetry: he is an academic poet in the best sense of the word.  Not a dry, or technique-dominated, or excessively abstract or rhetorical poet but (quite the contrary): a poet whose passion for the highest values in literature (characterization, specifically) informs his work in a compelling way.  Benevento, who wrote a Ph. D dissertation on a quite original pairing of writers (Whitman and Jorge Luis Borges), and who is the author of a scholarly article with the title, “Walt Whitman and Jorge Luis Borges: The Open Road and Its Forking Paths,” seems to suggest in “My Puerto Rican Past” that this bicultural literary passion is related to his bicultural youth in Queens.  And even if this is not the case, the numerous poems of striking yet concise characterization in this excellent collection (vivid examples include “Work Song,” “The Banker Does Not Smile on the Way to Work,” and “Frankie”) feature humanity as a subject in a way that is not always the case in contemporary poetry.  “The Banker Does Not Smile on the Way to Work” is focused on what the poet can glean of the banker’s psyche based on the man scowling at slush on his dress shoes, but the poet also brings in sympathy for the banker’s perceived general frustration.  A kind of mini Sherwood Anderson sketch, it’s a great example of the human connectedness of the author.

Thematic focus should not omit reference to the quality of Benevento’s language, imagery, and music, all of which are woven with abundant beauty throughout.  The range of imagery and metaphor includes moments like “…the clouds on fire,/ the way the horizon rode red and purple/against the snow-covered, lifeless earth”  (“Sunset in Iowa”) and “Night Break”’s “A silver white moon, wider than doubt/stayed whole in the early light/of an all blue sky.”  No quote or poem marks the reverential luminescence and insight of this collection better than “May 31, 1989,” with its array of memorable lines related to Walt Whitman:

“It’s Walt Whitman’s birthday
so I should write a poem.
…I like to believe I cannot sing a song myself
without him hearing it,
cannot cross into Brooklyn
or remember Rockaway Beach
is part of Paumanok, that fish-
shaped Long Island without
conjuring him up as real as
any phantom on these
crowded streets, still, sandy beaches.”
…What a comfort, to believe eternity
need not dismantle death to maintain
its own integrity…”

The profundity of the last three lines seems to me a modern equivalent of the passion of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” lines that could only have been written by a poet of deep seriousness as well as self-deprecating humor.  Times and culture have changed dramatically but Benevento’s contemplative and idiomatic humanism, his voice coming from learning and experience, is as clear and committed as that voice of Donne T. S. Eliot so admired. 

It’s a voice that should be heard and read by all readers interested in distinctive poetry, with deft and compelling characterization of people, regions, and experiences.  

The Romantic Subject: Art As the Embodiment Of Creative Illness

by Donald Kuspit

Let me begin by comparing three works of art, two paintings by Ingres and a print by Goya, all of which are about the romantic subject, who is of course the modern artist–the symbol of the modern idea of the fundamental irrationality of the human subject.  We see him, in all his dramatic splendor and intensity, in Ingres’s portrait of Paul Lemoyne, circa 1810-11. His hair is not properly combed, his dark eyes pierce us with their intensity, his shirt is open at the collar, so much so that there is a suggestion of nakedness, for his upper chest is partially exposed. The collar stands on end, and supports the head, like a pedestal, a very peculiar, almost immaterial pedestal, for the open collar resembles the fragment of a halo, as though Ingres wanted to suggest that there is something sacred about Lemoyne. The collar raises his head into another space, suggesting that there is something special about his mind and person.

His coat is also wide open, like a stage curtain, further framing his dramatic presence.  The sharp contrast between Lemoyne’s dark hair and illumined face adds to his drama, as does the subsidiary contrast between his brown coat and white shirt. The sense of the informal, which brings with it a sense of the private and indiscreet , seems stretched to the limit.  Lemoyne is not simply in a state of casual disarray and partial undress–but his coat or cape suggests that he is ready to show himself in public–but seems to flaunt himself.  Indeed, he confronts us, almost thrusts his face  into ours, and seems to stand on our feet.  The fact that he comes as close to the picture plane as it is possible to come without breaking the boundary between himself and us–so close that his body seems to dissolve into or merge with the picture plane, as though to confirm that he is a vivid material reality rather than a fiction–suggests as much.  His confrontational glance adds to his vivid presence, confirming that this is no conventional individual, but one with temperament.  In short, Lemoyne makes a strong, lively impression.  His is a dashing, let us say romantic presence.

Clearly our relationship with this intense young man is not going to be easy or boring. He is not exactly at ease with himself , indeed, the wildly open collar seems like a metaphor for inner turmoil, suggesting that Lemoyne is a troubled and troublesome character.  He is dangerous to relate to, and seems endangered in himself . The fact that his collar is unbuttoned and raised, and twists and turns, so that iits corners move in opposite directions, suggests a figure at odds with itself–subtly conflicted, perhaps inherently unbalanced.  In general, the abrupt contradictions of Lemoyne’s appearance, which test, indeed flaunt, the boundaries of propriety, as though he does not take them seriously, suggest a somewhat uninhibited, disturbed, even rash person.  He wears civilized clothing, but he seems eager to break the constraints of civilization, or indifferent to them, for he wears them casually, so that we become aware of his bodily presence without being sure of his social position.

Lemoyne is, for his times, a somewhat spontaneous character, vital but threatening–just because his  vitality is not reined in by his clothing, his expressiveness is not mitigated by good manners, his forcefulness is barely under control.  Ingres gives Lemoyne a remarkable density of presence–genuine mimesis is not simply about conveying an accurate likeness, but about concentrating the experience of a person in a singular image that convinces us that we have grasped his inner being, which is what gives him presence. The task of mimesis is to find the subject in the object, and convey its synthesis of uniqueness and universality. Objective appearance becomes a metaphor for subjective reality. It must evoke the subjectivity of the individual as well as the dynamics of subjectivity as such.  Lemoyne is in fact a singular being.  As Philip Conisbee writes, his “dishevelment… belongs to a pictorial tradition, well established since the eighteenth century, signifying the unfettered genius of the creative artist.”(1)

There is also something else that makes him unusual, even for an artist genius: he is pictured by himself, suggesting that his art comes entirely from within himself, indeed, has to do with his exploration of himself–of his moods and feelings, which he attempts to convey in all their intensity and complexity. This sense of interiority and independence, which Ingres brilliantly conveys, confirms that Lemoyne is a modern artist–a genius who looks into himself for creative inspiration, who has sufficient strength of character to rely on himself completely, sufficient autonomy to be his own creative resource. Compare Ingres’s painting of Lemoyne with his later painting of the somewhat more traditional artist genius in Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry, 1842–traditional because the artist is pictured with his muse, the female personification of his inspiration, the externalization of his creative impulse.  Both paintings depict ideal types of artist geniuses, but Lemoyne is the modern romantic type while Cherubini is the traditional classical type.  Ingres seems to know that the traditional type is on the way out, for although “the face of the illustrious composer is imprinted with the highest character, ” as Theophil e Thore wrote, “Ingres conceals neither age nor weakness ,” as Charles Lenormant wrote,(2) suggesting the approach of death, while Lemoyne looks young and fresh–a symbol of the future rather than the past.  We know that Ingres was torn between the past and future–stood on the cusp between the classical past and the romantic future. We know of his great feeling for music, and his love of Mozart, Cherubini, Gluck, and Haydn, whose “masterpieces become ever younger,” as he said,(3) even as he knew they seemed old in the modern world.  Mourning the death of Pierre Baillot, whom he praised as “the Poussin of the violin,” Ingres remarked that “it’s the modern world that killed him.”(4)  It would no doubt also kill the classical music Baillot performed.

The classical muse is the source of Cherubini’s genius. Without his dependence on her he has none. Without his special, intimate relationship with her. he is just another ordinary uninspired human being–a human being who cannot transcend his troubles. Indeed, Cherubini sits in a kind of melancholy trance. He may “hear some harmony within himself ,” as Thore said, but “a profound feeling of sadness is imprinted” on his face, as Lenormant said. Indeed, Cherubini leans his head against his right hand in a version of the traditional pose that symbolizes melancholy. Cherubini’s depression is more explicit in Ingres’s study for his 1840-41 portrait of him. Cherubini and Ingres were in fact both somewhat “sour egos,” as Theophile Silvestre wrote. who understood “each other perfectly,” suggesting, as Gary Tinterow writes, that “Ingres’s picture can easily be viewed as a kind of self-portrait by projection.”(5) In other words. Ingres was often as depressed–sour–as he shows Cherubini to be.

Cherubini waits, in a melancholy state, presumably indicative of his introspection, to be touched by the muse. But it is not clear that he does expect her touch–that he can be sure of it–for he seems altogether unaware of her presence behind him. We can see that she is about to touch him, but he doesn’t know it.  He remains passive, however active she is.  She may be a reassuring, facilitating presence, a maternal guarantee of primary creativity–I would argue that Ingres has shown us what it means to be creatively alone with oneself, in Donald Winnicott’s sense(6)–but she it manifest.  One might say that he wishes to compose. but that he has composer’s block, until the mothering muse liberates him from his melancholy.

Ingres shows us a divided Cherubini, split between masculine melancholy part and feminine creative part. They may about to be reconciled, but they are not yet united in the picture. The former is mortal, the latter immortal, suggesting that the art that will be most enduring will be feminine in spirit and feeling–that it will convey the sense of creative vitality and grace associated with woman, who has the capacity to give birth to new life, which is a kind of physical grace, a  grace  of  the body–however masculine its form may seem. But  that  form is  likely to  be  as  classical, harmonious, and discreet as the classical, harmonious, modest garb of the muse. The emotions the content generates will be constrained and contained by the reliable classical form–the stylistic proprieties of reassuring tradition. Lemoyne’s wide open look and clothing are certainly a far cry from the closed look and buttoned up clothing of Cherubini.

The modern artist genius, then, goes it alone–without the mothering muse. From the point of view of tradition this is sheer folly and madness, that is. it can only lead to serious mental sickness–profound, perhaps incurable emotional suffering. Indeed, Goya’s The Sleep of  Reason Produces Monsters, 1799 shows us the mad, sick dreams–nightmares–of the modern romantic creative genius. who makes art without the help of the muse. She alone can give the wild i imagination civilized form, presumably without compromising its fantasy–the kind of fantastic , all too exciting, disturbing dreams the apparently healthy Lemoyne (but he seems a little too intense to be healthy) probably had when he fell asleep.  Here is Jose Lopez-Rey’s description of a 1797 drawing that is close to Goya’s famous aquatint, which is the final plate of  Los  Caprichos.  There is “a large blank area in the background to the left: the only animal figures are now those of bats and owls, and a huge weird cat,  sitting on the ground and looking toward the slumbering artist.  The middle area is taken by a gigantic bat which is counterpoised to a bulky owl.  This crouches on the dreamer’s back peering at his hidden face, while the bat hovers above displaying its lurid breasts and belly in a show of obscenity.”(7)  Lopez-Rey comments that “the actions and attitudes of the various huge  animals make all the clearer the world of superstition they represent.”  This follows from the caption at the bottom of the drawing, which reads: “The artist dreaming. His only purpose is to banish harmful, vulgar beliefs, and to perpetuate in this work of caprices the solid testimony of truth.”(8)

But in the final print there is something more–something deeper–at stake, as Lopez-Rey acknowledges .  Goya’s own commentary on it conveys something quite different from the earlier caption:  ”Imagination, deserted by reason, begets impossible monsters.  United with reason, she is the mother of all arts, and the source of their wonders.”(9)   L6pez-Rey writes :  ”This explanation coincides with a passage in Addison’s essay, Pleasures of Imagination which, approximately at the time when the Caprichos were published, was being translated by Don Jose L. Munarriz, one of Goya’s friends.  Addison wrote:  ’When the brain is hurt by an accident, or the mind disordered by dreams or sickness, the fancy is overrun with wild, dismal ideas and terrified with a thousand hideous monsters of its own framing.”‘(10) Thus,  while the 1797 sketch has to be understood as expressing “a rationalist attitude,” as Lopez-Rey says, the final version of The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters has to be understood as expressing “a romantic…point of view.”(11)

The social and moral meaning of the nightmarish animals has disappeared. They are now unequivocally irrational–monsters of the imagination. We dream of them when we have completely lost our reason, and there is no way to rationalize them with the help of morality, and for that matter aesthetics. Goya remains conflicted about their meaning, as the announcement of the publication of Caprichos indicates. He begins by asserting that their purpose is “the censure of human errors and vices”-­ presumably represented by the monsters–and ends declaring that he “reunites in a single fantastic personage circumstances and characteristics that nature has divided among many.”(12) Thus, the monsters exist for their own irrational sake, conveying, as Goya suggests, what is universal–his own word. It is the ”universal language” of dreams that ultimately interests him, as the inscription on the side of the desk in the 1797 drawing suggests. There is no longer any pretense of reason–no longer the belief that the imagination has to combine with reason to produce art. Art can be purely imaginative, with no admixture of reason–without being compromised and made palatable by reason. And to be imaginative means to represent dreams, however painful or pleasurable–more painful than pleasurable, as the Addison quotation indicates. With whatever difficulty and uncertainty, Goya is in transition from socially critical art to psychologically critical art. The Sleep of Reason Produces  Monsters shows him trying to convey the subjective roots of objective problems. He may still be concerned with superstition, but he realizes that superstition is rooted in the imagination–in the psyche. H e still has social concern, but his fascination with dreams is greater .

The dark, blank area in the left background of The Sleep of  Reason Produces  Monsters is the abyss of the unconscious . The dream monsters–representatives of the animal side of human beings–emerge from it.  It is a kind of Pandora’s box without the hope–a nurturing female in the myth–at the bottom.  The muse remains subliminally present, but she has become evil–a predatory animal–because she has been rejected, that is. because the hope for reason she represents has been extinguished . She is no longer a classical goddess, but a romantic monster. The artist is completely in the world of imagination–victimized by his dreams–in Goya’s print. When de Chirico states that the only source of art is “the metaphysics and mystery of dreams”(13) he is speaking in the spirit of Goya’sThe Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. When he pays homage to Max Klinger’s Paraphrase on the Finding of a   Glove, 1881, as he does in The Song of Love, 1914, because it “produces a deeply disturbing dream-reality ,”(14) he is speaking Goya’s emotional language . H  e concedes absolute artistic power to the imagination in his Goyaesque assertion that “To become immortal a work of art must escape all human limits:  logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken it will enter the regions of childhood vision and dream.”(15)                     As Lopez-Rey says, it was the surrealists who regarded The Sleep of  Reason Produces Monsters as their first manifesto.

What exactly is the artist dreaming in Goya’s print?  His own madness. The “hideous monsters” that terrify him are “of [his] own framing,” as Addison said.  His “fancy is overrun with wild, dismal ideas” because his mind is “disordered,” that is, has  lost all reason. For the romantic artist, creative genius consists in dreaming–giving imaginative form to his own mental states, more precisely, his own irrational feelings, indeed, disturbed subjectivity.  Some of his wild, dismal ideas—the hideous ideas—the hideous monsters that stalk and haunt him–are depression, perversion, violent mania, all of which have been associated with creativity in psychoanalytic studies.  It takes genius to give one’s dreams–the fantasies that signal one’s madness–convincing imaginative form.

Ingres dreams his own depression in his portrait of the melancholy Cherubini, giving it viable social form.  Because he can do so the artist shows the universality of what he dreams, which redeems his artistic display of them from arbitrariness.  He in effect bares his breast, as Emile Zola said(16)–as we see Paul Lemoyne doing–but in doing so he shows us what hides in everyone’s breast.  The content of his dreams are the content of everyone’s dreams, however different their form—and it is not always clear that their form is so different.

There is no doubt a disruptive obscenity in this display of irrationality in a world struggling g to be objective and civilized, the same obscenity that Lo pez-Rey n oted in the exhibitionistic female bat–the muse become perverse and monstrous–in the 1797 drawing for The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. It may be maladaptive and subversive, but it also gives the work of art a personality, an uncanny individuality . The authentic work of art–authentic by modern romantic standards– is “a personality, an individual,” as Zola said.(17)  Artist and art are virtually indistinguishable–not the artist in his everyday appearance–but even that has a certain artfulness  to it, as Ingres’s portrait of Lemoyne shows–but in his emotional reality.

Ever since Goya the creative use of mental illness in which rationality seems completely lost–in effect the transformation of complete irrationality into art–has been the implicit i artistic norm. Whatever form he gives it, the genius of the modern romantic artist consists in his capacity to tolerate and communicate madness or mental illness without entirely succumbing to it, more particularly, to courageously articulate his fear of completely losing his mind, and showing everybody that they are afraid of the same thing–of the loss of rationality, and with that of sociality. In short, modern romantic art is about the catalytic effect of madness–of the tendency to madness–on creativity. “Works of art are always the result of having been at risk,” Rilke romantically writes, “of having pursued an experience to the very end,”(18) and the experience is of one’s own subjectivity, one’s own irrationality, one’s own madness. “And the further on this road, the more personal, the more unique does this experience become,” continues Rilke, “till in the end the work of art is the necessary, the insuppressible, the most final expression possible of this uniqueness .”  But the romantic point is that this subjective uniqueness  is universal, which is what justifies its artistic expression. People experience their own irrational subjectivity–their own madness–in the dream of the work of art, which restores them to a larger sanity than the everyday world affords-­ than society makes possible. As Andre Haynal writes, “The dream has a restorative function.  In dreams… it is the withdrawal connected to suffering and depression that makes possible St. Augustine’s ‘return into yourself .”‘(19)  And with that a return to creativity and the unconscious joie de vivre inseparable from it –they are the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s monstrous box of ills–which is the point Ingres makes in his portrait of Paul Lemoyne, which can be understood as a projection of his own creativity and joie de vivre. They as much a part of romanticism as depression, perversion, uncontrollable mania. Romantic art, then, is as much a healing process as a revelation of innate madness. “Suffering is the great decadence ,” Colette said,(20)

and romantic art is decadent, but it also involves creative healing–the return to primary creativity and true selfhood that have been lost to suffering. Romantic art deals with the suffering that is a drain on life, and symbolizes the death instinct, as it gets the better of the life instinct, but it also symbolizes the recovery of the life instinct, embodied in creative apperception, to use Winnicott’s term–the creative apperception that is the alternative to the sickness unto death, to refer to Kierkegaard’s description of depression . After passing through what seems like hell, the self reaches its own creativity. Or as R. D. Laing puts it, the journey through inner space, which “tends to be regarded as antisocial withdrawal, a deviation, invalid, pathological per se, in some sense discreditable,” is part of a “natural healing process.”(21)

The concept of creative illness is quintessentially romantic, as Henri Ellenberger suggests. “According to Novalis there exist certain illnesses of superior essence that are, so to say, more wholesome than health.”(22) In these illnesses “the disappearance of a physical symptom was followed by the appearance of an idea.”(23) Viktor von Weizsacker calls this logophania. According to Ellenberger, he is the only psychosomatician who realized that “if misdirected emotions or ideas can be transformed into illness,…illness [could] disappear through a transformation into an idea.” This is a creative transformation : illness opens the way to a new idea. It is as though the illness broke the hold of preconceptions and stereotypes, conventional logic and prescribed rules of thinking, allowing for the emergence of an unconventional idea. The whole weight and authority of traditional thinking and ideas is cast off by the illness –worked through, as it were, by the illness. “The modern dissolution of firm bonds with tradition” occurred “in the Romantic era,” as Hans-Georg Gadamer observes,(24) and it is the romantic creative illness that is at once the instrument and expression of this dissolution–this destructive loss of faith in tradition, undermining iits power.  To be modern means to make a break with tradition, and every modern artist must make his break with tradition, even if tradition goes no deeper than yesterday’s prominent art.  He must declare his difference, optimally a radical difference. Discontinuity becomes the rule rather than continuity.  Thus the proliferation of modern movements, each contradicting the other, suggesting the meaning of postmodernism : their reconciliation, that is, the recognition that they no longer seem so discontinuous with each other .  Postmodernist moments are scattered throughout modernism, e.g., Cube-Futurism , Magic Realism, Abstract Surrealism. Perhaps there are more of them than purists care to acknowledge, and indeed a pure modernist like Clement Greenberg ignores and dismisses them .

The break with tradition has to make the modem artist romantically ill, for tradition is the parent of us all, so that to rebel against tradition is to break the taboo against parricide.  Indeed, the elimination of the muse from Ingres’s portrait of Paul Lemoyne can be understood as a kind of matricide.  Certainly the anti-traditionalism that has become a staple of avant-gardism is perverse, if perversion means “to make a mockery of the law by turning it ‘upside down’,” as Janine Chasseguet-Smi rgel says.(25)  For the avant-gardist, turning the law of tradition upside down is to be innovative.  He does not realize that to be upside down is to have no place to stand. His position is all the more precarious–unstable and insecure–because of the urge to stand right side up, however suppressed. Falling over is unavoidable, which is why so many avant-garde movements are shortlived–break down, just as they break tradition down by turning it upside down.

To break the law of tradition—the rules and concerns of art that tradition has established, and that take precedence over any innovation that may occur within it, which is either dismissed as a monstrous anomaly or praised as a refinement of the familiar, purged as a misguided deviation or appreciated as an insightful nuance–has to be depressing, for one is ridding oneself of what is commonly regarded as the ground of creativity, or at least of the guidelines that structure it. One seems to have lost one’s creative foundation or else to be creating blindly–a depressing situation, for it suggests one’s creative inadequacy.  No doubt it is also weirdly exhilarating, for the full force of the imagination is released, in a rushing stream of turbulent dreams. Dream-reality liberates one from everyday reality.  Impulses and emotions are no longer under control, making one seem free.  Losing discipline, one seems to gain life, if only for a fitful moment.

One must be in a manic state to overthrow tradition, all the more after one has done so, for mania hides the feeling of “death inside,” as Winnicott said. It is the feeling of emptiness left by the loss of tradition, the emptiness that conveys its  absence, and that covers up its murder. Modern romantic creativity is necessarily manic, for there is no other way to be creative when there is no clear purpose or limiting form to the imagination–when the bonds between intelligibility, civilizing purpose, represented by moral and social concern, and imagination, which were forged by tradition, have been dissolved.  All that is left is raw imagination, which is indifferent to aesthetics, if to be aesthetic means to discipline the imagination by giving it a moral and social purpose, which makes it intelligible.  If, as Edmond and Jules Goncourt wrote, “equilibrium is only maintained in art by the law of contradictions , by the battle and the opposition of different currents,”(26) then it is the battle between imagination and civilizing purpose that gives the work of art the inner equilibrium we experience as aesthetic harmony. It is necessarily tense and precarious by reason of the contradictions it has reconciled, a reconciliation that is never more than tentative, and that always seems unreal–an aesthetic illusion. Art can never do more than propose the ideal of the unity of opposites, for they are always subliminally in conflict, irreconcilable. The monsters of perversion, depression, and mania arise when imagination has broken with civilizing purpose, destroying the ideal, which is the larger meaning of the break with tradition. The break, as I want to emphasize, occurred explicitly in Goya’s The Sleep of  Reason Produces Monsters, however much Goya realized that imagination by itself was not the ground of art. The unity of imagination and civilizing purpose–internal reality and critical consciousness–is  the only fertile soil in which true art might grow–the only real creativity.  This suggests that an art of pure dreams–the romantic ideal of creative art, never completely realized, like most ideals–is pseudo-art.

The artist is necessarily creatively ill when he has no aesthetic expectations, that is, when art is no longer implicated in civilization, but a matter of pure imaginative expression–the staging of dreams.  For creative illness is the on.ly way to arrive at new ideas when one can no longer be original on the basis of tradition, which Winnicott thought was the only way one could be original.  That is, the avant-garde artist is necessarily creatively ill because he has no tradition to make him creatively healthy, at least according to the conventional idea of what it means to have creative health. Ellenberger outlines four phases of creative illness, which from my perspective are phases of avant-garde creativity. “The illness appears generally right after a period of intense intellectual effort, long reflection and mediation,”(27) which seems to go nowhere, to have no creative fruit.  One has in effect made “oneself sick through study or worry ,” as Ellenberger comments–worry that all one’s study is futile. The potential avant-gardist studies tradition, worrying it to death, because he cannot make personal sense of it.

In the second phase, “the subject is generally obsessed with an intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic problem that is dominant, which he will sometimes display publicly, but which he often hides.  The individual is preoccupied with the search for a thing or an idea the importance of which he sets above everything and never loses sight of completely.”  This thing or idea is the alternative to tradition, which exists as a problem. He has a sense of the solution, but the alternative is not yet concrete or real enough to be one.  The spiritualist ideas that motivated the pioneering abstractionists Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian are classic examples of this, and finally bear avant-garde fruit–finally become concrete–in their art.  In the third phase, “the termination of the illness is experienced not only as the liberation from a long period of psychological suffering but as an illumination.”  Thus the emotionally liberating illuminations of Rimbaud, and the general feeling of Promethean liberation and illumination every avant-garde movement claims as uniquely its own, and offers as a gift to humanity, indeed, praises as the basis for a new idea of humanity.  Art becomes a monstrance in which the new thing or idea is displayed, to the benefit of all. It is a blessing for all humankind, mediated by art.  Visionary insight into the future of art and humanity and liberation from the stifling art of tradition with its inadequate idea of human possibility go hand in hand.  Finally, “the cured illness is…followed by a lasting transformation of personality.  The subject has the impression of entering into a new life.”  Avant-garde art is the beginning of a new emotional life–a supposedly more honest emotional life.  The avant-garde artist is a new self, and a proselytizer for avant­ garde art as a way to new selfhood.

The whole process of creative illness resembles a religious conversion.  The convert is initially a divided self, a term that both William James and Laing use.  The likely convert to avant-gardism finds himself torn between tradition and originality, civilization and creativity, moral and social concern and the irrational dreams of the imagination.  He is sick with indecision, and becomes healthy and whole–at least in his own mind–only when he chooses his own original dreams over collective concerns, which seem unoriginal and unsolvable. Uncertainty is replaced by self­ certainty, creative block by creative excitement.  To put this another way, when he begins to believe that he is superior to society–because nothing can be done with society, but everything remains to be done with the self–and turns away from its reality to personal fantasy, he feels creatively alive if also heroically isolated.  In short, losing faith in society, which cannot be changed–recreated–he gains faith in himself, for he can creatively change for the better.

He thus resolves, however onesidedly, that is, undialectically, the perennial conflict between social reason and personal unreason.  It seems exacerbated in modernity, and commonplace, because of the modern pursuit of instrumental reason. The dialectic between socialization and individuation breaks down, so much so that they come to seem opposed to one another.  Society seems to interfere with and limit individual development, however much it superficially encourages it–at least enough so that one can take one’s instrumental place in it–and the individual seems able to be creative only when he takes a decisive stand against social authority, even creating a new language–a non-instrumental language, socially useless but emotionally communicative arid exciting, and comprehensible only to the happy self-selected few. Such a radically subjective esoteric language sometimes seems the very substance of avant-gardism.

If, as Winnicott argues, the child’s toy is a device that helps him separate from  his mother and his own subjectivity and emotions, and make the transition to the socially shared reality outside himself–the harsh reality of the world, as Freud said-­ then the work of art, a toy for adults, and especially the esoteric avant-garde work of art, which is a toy for emotionally desperate adults, helps the adult make the transition back to the subjectivity and deep emotions he has suppressed and even forgotten he was capable of in order to function and get along in the socially objective world. It is emotionally defective and deficient, that is, i indifferent or unempathic, just because it is socially objective. To put this another way, if art is a “highly refined sensorimotor nutriment” that “evokes latent emotions,” as Gilbert Rose asserts,(28) then avant-garde art is a necessary dietary supplement in a world that rarely affords enough emotional nourishment, indeed, a world of emotional malnutrition.

The modern instrumental world of social role playing affords even less emotional nourishment than the traditional pre-industrial world, which at least had the emotions generated by and encoded in religion. Avant-garde art, which developed partly in response to a world that has lost religion, has become a substitute religion for those who suffer most from instrumental and social reductionism and the insensitive denial of emotions inseparable from it.  It is a religion for the individual rather than collectively given–a mysterious religion not unlike the Eleusinian mysteries, for avant­ garde art involves a descent into the emotional depths, with no guarantee of return.

Without emotions, one experiences an excruciating loss of being, and the modern instrumental world tries to force us to function without emotions, or else reduces them to mechanistic terms, a simplification that is an insidious betrayal of them , and a form of denial. It must do so, for intense organic emotions interfere with smooth instrumental and social functioning, since they register its detrimental existential effects, thus bringing it into question.  Indeed, such functioning is unconsciously a kind of living death for many, especially when its human purpose seems trivial or unclear.

Organic emotions represent inner imperatives, while instrumental social functioning represents outer imperatives. For those who think the latter have come to exist at the expense of the former in the modern world–that outer necessity has won the war wi inner  necessity–the worship of avant-garde art is a way to right the balance, even more crucially, to survive as a subject and person in a world that they experience as all impersonal outer necessity and all too objectively the case. It is the imperative of emotion they discover in avant-garde art at its most irrational–the  legitimation of emotion in a world that has little interest in it, except when it disrupts smooth instrumental and social functioning. It must then be neutralized, indeed, cauterized.

In short, in the modern world, which has lost religion but found collective entertainment– it can be regarded as a religion without the emotion of transcendence , and without complex emotions and the sophisticated symbols necessary to convey them–certain emotionally starved individuals, for whom secular entertainment is inadequate, for it is as instrumental and reductionist as every other modern industry, experience the religion of sacred avant-garde art as the only hope for emotional life and truth, that is, as the only way to discover and develop their deepest feelings and thus feel creatively alive. As Wallace Stevens writes , “The paramount relation between…modern man and modern art, is simply this:  in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting, and the arts in general, are, in their measure, a compensation for what has been lost.”(29)  Thus the religion of avant-garde art, which is modern art at its most unreasonable and unsociabl e, is emotionally necessary in the secular modern world. Avant-gardism , then, can be regarded as a last ditch assertion of individuality, true selfhood, nonconformity, and sacredness–all apparently irrational in a superficially rational world–in a profane society of conformists, false selves, and instrumental servitude.   It is in effect an ironically regressive attempt, in the guise of spiritual insight and progress, to make the best of social alienation.

Writing about Rameau’s  Nephew, Diderot’s “great dialogue,” Lionel Trilling observes that “It lays bare the principle of insincerity upon which society is based and demonstrates the loss of personal integrity and dignity that the impersonations of social existence entail.”(30)  For Diderot, “society…is the root and ground of alienation.” “This is scarcely new,” Trilling notes. What is new is Diderot’s suggestion that the Nephew–who has been understood in terms of Robert Jay Litton’s concept of the protean self, by reason of his perpetual metamorphosis of social identity-­ represents “the liberty that we wish to believe is inherent in the human spirit, in its energy of effort, expectation, and desire, in its consciousness of itself and its limitless contradictions.” Rameau’s Nephew is in effect the first avant-garde artist. This seems confirmed by the fact that the climax of the dialogue is his “disquisition on the superiority of the new forms of opera to the old,” that is, of modern art to traditional art-­ a discourse essential to avant-gardism.  He becomes opera, “a musical Proteus” impersonating all the instruments, enacting all the roles, “portraying all the emotions.”  It seems he was the first performance artist, and a consummate one. He may have been, as Diderot wrote, “a compound of elevation and abjectness. of good sense and lunacy….He has no greater opposite than himself.” But he was also an artistic prodigy and innovator .

Trilling remarks: “The astonishing performance proposes the idea which Nietzsche was to articulate a century later, that man’s true metaphysical destiny expresses itself not in morality but in art.” There is a conspicuous anti-social dimension in Nietzsche’s revolutionary substitution of artistic authenticity for moral authenticity. Such anti-sociality–in Nietzsche it shows itself in his contempt for what he calls the herd, that is, the collective at its most compliant–is the emotional underpinning of the romantic avant-garde revolution, the dark side of its supposedly enlightened and  liberating re-thinking of life. Goethe implicitly understood romantic anti-sociali ty when he wrote: “I have totally separated my political and social life from my moral and poetic one.”(31) H e  added: “Only in my innermost plans and purposes and endeavors do I remain mysteriously self-loyal and thus tie my social, political, moral and poetic life again together into a hidden knot.” In other words, Goethe was classical as well as romantic, which is why he was able to conceive and sustain inner unity of purpose however outwardly split he knew he was.  He was not an avant-garde revolutionary, for his art had moral and social intention as well as imaginative and personal significance.

Artistically washing one’s hands of moral concern, as the avant-garde artist does, does not do society much good–and I hope to show that it does not do the avant-garde artist much human good, whatever its short run of artistic good–and may in emotional fact acknowledge the futility of trying to do social good, at least any that durably makes a dent in social misery.  It seems more difficult to be morally authentic than artistically authentic, even when artistic authenticity is regarded as a kind of moral authenticity.  Of course, what has been suppressed always returns, however obliquely, that is, in the formalist tendency to aesthetic order.  This is vaguely civilizing, and thus loosely not to say lamely moral, however illogical and ironic–and irony is a moral cop-out–avant-garde aesthetics often seems.

Now the unforeseen thing about the creative illness of the avant-garde artist is that the transformation of the illness into a new idea is in complete .  Avant-garde creativity remains contaminated by   rippling illness, and as such is peculiarly abortive and self-defeating.  Its products remain marred–indeed, permanently marked–by morbidity, which continues to feste ,  like a canker , in their creative core.  It never quite overcomes the illness that is its point of departure, and thus is symptomatic as well as original.   Indeed, its originality may consist in its symptomatic uniqueness, or at least novelty. Unlike the shaman, who endures “psychopathological troubles” before becoming a shaman, but “once cured, enters a new, higher life,” as Ellenberger says,(32) the avant-garde artist never leaves his psychopathological troubles behind. This suggests that while, like the shaman, he brings “to the surface of his mind a world of images and thoughts buried in the depths of the unconscious,”(33) avant-garde creative illness does not heal as well as shamanistic creative illness.  For the shaman re-integrates with society after his mental illness, despite the fact that he continues to “live constantly” in a “fantastic world” of his own invention, as Ivan Lopatin remarks about Alaskan and Siberian shamans.(34)  ln contrast, the avant-garde artist never reconciles with society, even when he becomes famous and properous, which is a kind of  pseudo-reconciliation.

Laing puts the issue very well : “the list of artists, in say the last 150 years, who have become shipwrecked…is so long–Holderlin, John Clare, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud.”(35)   Few of these figures sustained a convincing creativity, however interesting their final works may be, nor did it transform their personalities for the better.  They may have solved “an intellectual, spiritual, or aesthetic problem,” as Ellenberger says, but it did not liberate them from “psychological suffering,” nor did  their “new idea” give them “a new life.”  For Laing, “any personal awareness of the inner world…has grave risks,” and these modern artists succumbed to the peril, which means they could not find their way back to the outer world.  If, as he writes, “the outer divorced from any illumination from the inner is in a state of darkness,”(36) then the inner divorced from any connection with the outer is in a state of madness.

To Laing’s list we could add Ensor, who while never overtly mad, or so it seemed, produced art that has been described as “the expression of an enormous fear and hatred of the human race which men turned against their own persons.”(37) According to Werner Haftmann, “the autistic world of hallucinations becomes the real world for him. He is unable to transmute natural experience into form , but can only evoke it as hallucinatory vision….he does not take the world as raw material to be processed into form ; his raw material consists of hallucinations, dreams that irrupt into reality….dream  and reality, morbid hallucination and ultra-lucid perception , satanic hatred and loving affection…became hopelessly confused.  The self and the world kept changing their relative positions, but always they remained alien and hostile to one another .”(38) There is a certain family resemblance here to Artaud, who has been thought to have “suffered from confabulatory paraphrenia , a delusional psychosis which is not accompanied by intellectual deterioration and in which some symptoms-­ hallucinations and confabulations–are close to those of schizophrenia.”(39) Anais Nin, who could never resist the pseudo-sexual game of kiss and tell, felt that when she kissed Artaud she was “drawn towards death, towards iinsanity,”(40) which no doubt gave her a special thrill.

All this suggests that the avant-garde artist breaks his links with the external world and enters an internal world which becomes more and more nightmarish, and thus hateful, so that he attempts to break his link with it–his hatred is already that effort –leaving him nothing, that is, with little or no sense of his own or the world’s being. To use Wilfred Bion’s distinction, he becomes insane without knowing he is insane, while in breaking with the external social world he is knowingly insane.  Are van Gogh’s sadistic brushstrokes–which is the way W. R. D. Fairbairn understands them(41)–an attack on his relations with his internal as well as external objects (merged in his representation) , and as such an attempt to destructively uproot them from his psyche and destroy their very reason for being?  Such ontological terrorism seems to be standard operating procedure in avant-garde art, as Fairbairn implies when he observes the sadistic mutilation of subject matter in Goya and the Surrealists, climaxing in gross distortion and fragmentation, especially in Picasso.(42)  Certainly Duchamp’s attack on the idea of art can be construed as ontological terrorism–an attempt to terrorize, petrify, and finally annihilate all artists by calling into question their creativity, indeed, the very idea of creativity–however cloaked in the garb of Dadaist farce, that is, however legitimated as another category of art called anti-art. (At one point, in an interview with Pierre Cabanne, he mischievously wondered what it was to be an artist, suggesting that it was to be nothing at all.)

Laing argues that “sanity today appears to rest largely on a capacity to adapt to the external world–the interpersonal world, and the realm of human collectivities,”(43) and he tends to disparage the external world, associating it with the “appalling state of alienation called normality,” which the voyage to the inner is “a natural way of healing.”(44) However stirring his call to end the “state of sin” that he calls “alienation or estrangement from the inner light,”(45) the fact of the matter is that to be alienated or estranged from the external world is also a “state of sin.” The former is as unbalanced as the latter. Inner light can make one indifferent and blind to natural light. The light within seems to exist at the expense of sunlight and starlight.  Inner light may liberate the soul from its bondage to darkness. but it can be another kind of blindfold.  Both kinds of alienation involve “radical estrangement from the totality of what is the case,” to use Laing’s own words.(46)  The avant-garde artist is as estranged from the totality  of what is the case as the so-called normal person, but the former errs on the side of inwardness where the latter errs on the side of outwardness.

It is worth noting that Hermann Broch thought “that art that does not render the totality of the world is no art.”(47)  Broch thought that the task of art is to “counterbalance …the hypertrophic calamity” of “splitting the world into fragmentary disciplines.” This rather utopian view of art certainly credits the artist with extraordinary power of integration and visionary knowledge. But it seems that art that is exclusively a personal representation of the inner world—which is what romantic avant-garde art aimed to be, even as it l ost its bearings in the inner world–is as hypertrophic and fragmentary as art that is exclusively a representation of the external world, which is what the avant-garde artist thought traditional art was, and why he rejected it. What Richard Cork calls Brancusi’s “extreme purging of form”(48) amounts to such a rejection, and is characteristic of much avant-garde art. Such a purge destroys the link to the external world, leaving in its wake forms that can be regarded as symbolic of internal verities, such as archetypes . Brancusi contemptuously dismissed Michelangelo’s figures as “beefsteak,” pinching his own flesh to show that they had too much flesh on them . His own figures are hardly flesh at all, for their bodies have become emblems of their spirit. They are ghosts from the inner world, having little or nothing to do with the external world.  Brancusi’s visionary bird is a long avant-garde way from birds in the sky, which is why it remains immobilized on a pedestal.

My point is that the avant-garde visionary, however ecstatic and insightful his subjective art, is as limited and incomplete as the traditional master of mimesis, however penetrating his precision and intense his recognitions of what is objectively the case. The former tests for interior reality, the latter for exterior reality, each ignoring, or at best giving lip service to what it neglects to engage and study in depth. But the sin of the avant-garde visionary is greater, for he ignores the fact that subjective reality is as common and shared a reality as objective reality. Such sharing, and the illusions of intelligibility and intimacy that come with it, is built into traditional mimesis. Thus, when Redon somewhat onesidedly asserted that “everything [in art] is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the ‘unconscious’,” and declared that “the future belongs to a subjective world,” and dismissed the “seen reality” of the objective world as no more than a support for the artist’s “dream,”(49) he seemed to forget that everybody dreams and has an unconscious, and that his own is in principle and substance like everyone else’s. If it was not–if the artist’s unconscious was r radically different to the point of being  utterly unique–nobody would understand his art.

The avant-garde artist, then, never quite makes it out of his illness–never quite transforms himself into a healthy person–and the creative results of his illness seem too irrational and subjective for their own artistic good. This illness is the unavoidable result of the abandonment of tradition, which represents the socialization and durability of art.  Even more, it is a measure of value:  it represents standards.  When  Picasso stated that artists today “are in the unfortunate position of having no order or canon whereby all artistic production is submitted to rules,”(50) he was expressing the despair that comes from the loss of tradition, with its codified rules.  Breaking them may have been liberating, but this was quickly followed by deep uncertainty.  When John Golding writes “that quite often the Cubists were not fully aware of what they were doing,” “that many Cubist paintings were begun as pictorial adventures,”(51 ) he is describing the floundering–call it creative floundering, if you want–that follows from the loss of direction that follows from the loss of tradition.  Yes. a “destination” is “achieved ,” as Golding says, and Cubist paintings can be regarded as “great and extraordinarily original,” but nihilism is built into this originality, and the destination is unclear.  Much has been lost on the way to it.

Cubist paintings are quintessentially avant-garde–perhaps the first truly avant­ garde works–because they show us what it means to make art without guiding u rules and social support–without any foundation–which is what tradition supplies. They seem to break the rules, but they don’t know what they are, so they can’t build on them–extend them creatively–the way, for example, Borromini built his mannerist churches on classical rules, showin g that they still made creative sense. The spatial flexibility and seductive indeterminacy–better regarded as uncertainty (“ambiguity” isthe polite word)–of Cubist images lends itself to a variety of interpretive determinations just because they have no structural necessity, only irrational inner necessity, which is their saving grace. Just as Picasso said “what forces our interest is Cezanne’sanxiety,”(52) what forces our in terest in Picasso’s Cubist paintings is their anxiety.

At its best, traditional art balances the claims of the external and internal worlds, using each to contain the other, whereas in Picasso there is no containment for either world, which is why is, as he famously said, his works are a sum of destructions. Indeed his texturalized planes can be understood as the irrational sensory phenomena left after the annihilation of containing structure. To use Bion’s terms, one might say that Picasso’s paintings are a high jinks beta performance, more particularly, they reverse the usual artistic process, which involves the transformation of chaotic beta elements into comprehensible alpha elements, contained and sustained by the picture so that they can b e remembered in reflective tranquility.(53) Picasso’s irrational destructiveness–or is it destructive irrationality–is perhaps most evident in his remark that “when one paints a portrait, one must stop somewhere, in a sort of caricature. Otherwise there would be nothing left at the end,”(54) that is, the portrait–a surrogate for a human being–would be annihilated. Picasso’s Analytic Cubist portraits are viciously dynamic. We admire Picasso most when the death instinct is most active in his art.

All this suggests that where in traditional art inner and outer worlds texture and comment on one another, so that the viewer can reverse perspective and experience the traditional work as a subjective statement with objective implications or an objective statement  with subjective implications, Cubist art only has subjective–depth psychological–implications. If it introduces time into space–if what we see is timespace, as has been claimed–it is internal time consciousness that is externalized, not external measurable time that is suggested.

It may be that modern excitement about the unconscious–the modern determination to explore what was once the terra incognita of the unconscious–and that led art to turn inward to the world of dreams and impulses, catalyzing the development of avant-garde art, fed to the exaggeration of the significance of the internal world, at the expense of the significance of the external world. The philosopher Francis Bacon famously declared that “there is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,” and it seems that in avant-garde art strangeness is read as beauty. The more excellent the strangeness–the more the avant-garde work of art lacks inner measure, and thus is experienced as irrational–the more uncannily beautiful it seems, at least to modern eyes. Such beauty–the beauty of irrationality carried to an absurd extreme–would be regarded as ugliness from a traditional point of view .  But avant-garde art is a religion–traditional art was an adjunct to religion–and, like religion at its most extreme, one believes in avant-garde art because it is irrational to the point of absurdity, and thus seems to be a sacred mystery. This is exactly why Tertullian believed in Christianity.

When finally there is no sense of rational measure and intelligibility at all–no sense of inner and outer limits and control–the avant-garde work of art collapses from the weight of its own absurdity–its absolute irrationality. It becomes nihilistic, indeed, suicidal, as Jean Tingueley’s self-destructive sculptures show, and before them Duchamp’s readymades, which annihilated the idea of art even as they gave lip service to it. In my opinion conceptual art is the ultimate nihilistic absurdity–the entropic climax of avant-garde irrationality. Is dubious Solomonic wisdom–it absurdly cuts the art work in half, discarding the material part and elevating the conceptual part, which means less work goes into its making, and it is emotionally dead–suggests as much.

Paradoxically, such nihilistic irrationality ensures avant-garde art’s success, for such success is measured in terms of social resistance, and the more absurd the avant-garde work the more resistance to it there is. It threatens and embarrasses the social contract because it creates an absurd situation. Resistance to Mike Kelley’s nee-dadaist quasi-conceptual exhibition of paintings by murderers(55)–a mockery of painting, murderers. and the art institutions and communities in which it was shown, making the exhibition a veritable grand slam of nihilistic contempt, in-your-face bravado, and  anti-social arrogance and offensiveness–confi rms its “critical” success, that is, its avant-garde credentials. The institutionalization of avant-garde art, a sign of its social success, seems to undermine its avant-garde credentials and criticality, but it in fact confirms them , for having the social weight of an institution behind it makes the avant-garde even more absurd than it was when it seemed just plain mad. The institution that exhibits avant-garde art acquires avant-garde cachet, confirming its absurdity, that is, shock value. Indeed, the art institution–the museum–is itself the avant-garde place to be these days, for it is the only real avant-garde art left. It is a kind of avant-garde installation art, for the museum generates avant-garde absurdity by exhibiting many different kinds of works together, in effect throwing society’s contradictoriness back in its face, which has to have an unconscious effect, that is, make it doubt its emotional equilibrium. A single work of avant-garde art is a rather minor uninfluential madness in comparison.

Nonetheless, an appropriated and assimilated and, to use Gauguin’s word, plagiarized and collectivized avant-garde art is a depersonalized, not to say castrated avant-garde art, and thus ultimately less intimidating emotionally. It is an avant-garde art that has lost its inner irrationality–an avant-garde art that has been intellectually administered–to the extent of becoming clichéd. It is no longer experienced but explained. Indeed, the artists themselves are eager to explain and administer it, that is, rationalize its irrationality by making it seem theoretical in import or giving it a theoretical basis and thus intellectual justification. Gauguin once declared “Emotion first! understanding later,”(56) but today’s avant-garde is all grandiose self­ understanding and little or no emotion–certainly passion  is not au courant in a conceptual art world–indicating that it is not really creatively ill.

Of course Gauguin, who wrote that “at times I am under the impression that Iam mad….the more I think … the more I believe I am right,”(57) never used his art to understand his madness and thus perhaps become sane–realistic about his life.  He in fact preferred to “see without understanding,” as he said,(58) suggesting that he regarded madness as a means of making art a mystery–which is what he called Cezanne’s “mad” paintings,(59) in one of the earliest uses of this somewhat overused accolade–and thus saving it from banality and conventionality.  The creative transformation of mental illness into an avant-garde idea is not its cure, for it does not necessarily lead to self-understanding, perhaps the most essential understanding, especially because it helps one survive, which Gauguin did not.  Not using art for self­ understanding confirms that one is mad, for it sooner or later leads to self-destruction, which takes many insidious forms, including that of making art.  Creativity can be as much an expression of mental illness as a defense against it.  Art can be as much a matter of self-forgetfulness as a way of possessing one’s self, that is, as much an ostrich hole in which the artist happily hides from himself as the one site in his life. where the artist dares experience, or at least intimate, the unhappy truth about himself.

In short, the acceptance of avant-garde art, which has become rather instant, with few remaining surprises at its novelty–some of it remains upsetting to the unsophisticated, usually for ideological rather than emotional reasons, although ideology no doubt stirs up a lot of emotions–suggests that avant-garde art is no longer really avant-garde, certainly not emotionally avant-garde, for it no longer involves “personal awareness of the inner world,” to recall Laing’s words, that is, a plunge to the emotional depths.  Resistance to such awareness and depth remain as strong as ever in the external world, as Laing suggests.  Such resistance is a form of insanity almost as great as the insanity that was once avant-garde art.  The emergence of neo­ avant-garde art–a somewhat stale avant-garde art–indicates that avant-garde art is no longer a matter of an individual’s   creative  illness but another social pathology.  As T. W.   Adorno writes, “avant-garde” has degenerated into a “label…monopolized by whoever happened to consider himself most progressive,” conjuring up “comical associations of aging youth,”(60) more particularly, of petrified youth. Today avant­ gardism is an aspect of the social pathology that idealizes and even idolizes youth, despite the fact that it has shown that it has feet of clay.

Today’s avant-garde, which is seemingly a permanent fixture of society, is a reified and hypostatized avant-garde–a pillar of avant-garde salt, the petrified ruin of the avant-garde–and a familiar and important part of our society’s cosmetic cover up of its social pathologies. The fact that avant-garde anti-sociality has become a social style confirms that the avant-garde has become banal as well as pathological. It is best to leave the irrational innovations of the avant-garde to the entertainment industry, with its fatuous simulations of human madness, abnormality, and absurdity. Horror films, with their morbid effects, aesthetically as well as emotionally exciting to the masses however nightmarish, are perhaps the case par excellence of media avantgarde invention. No doubt media science fiction, with its even more extravagant –virtually cosmic–special effects, is a close second. The media specialize in stylish hallucinations–dreams in which one “finds oneself transported into fantastic regions, in which all behavior has become confused, all established ideas contradicted…where the impossible mingles with the real,” as Baudelaire said, (61) which are given social assent, robbing them of their personal significance. Turned into a social spectacle–a matter of pyrotechnical, hyper-theatrical special effects–madness and absurdity become palatable to the masses.  Indeed, it is the only form in which they are socially acceptable, all the more so because turning madness and absurdity into a spectacle keeps the masses from recognizing their own madness and absurdity, however much enjoyment of it in spectacle form implies unconscious self-recognition . The socialization of madness and absurdity by way of their spectacularization helps keep the masses in a somnambulist state of normality, immune to the fact that “the ‘norm’ becomes the straitjacket of the soul and the cemetery of imagination,” as Joyce McDougall says.(62)  ”A handful only–artists, musicians, writers, scientists–escape the icy shower of normalization that the world pours upon them,”(63) which certainly privileges abnormality , as her “plea for a measure of abnormality” suggests. The more clearly fake and manufactured, indeed, mass produced madness looks, the less the masses have to face and fear their own madness–the insanity of their lives, the fact that, in McDougall’s words, they are “afflicted with normality.”(64) In part this means that they never put themselves into question, which would make them ill, if not creatively ill, although eventually they would have to become creative, and transgress the norm of normality, if they are to find an answer to themselves, however tentative. So long as they are out of contact with their imagination they will remain normally mad. That is the way Ensor imaginatively showed the masses–pictured the obscenely   insane spectacle which his own transgressive insanity allowed him to realize is what society is, normally.

Notes

(1) Gary Tinterow i and Philip C onisbee, eds., Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams. 1999) p. 132

(2) Both quoted in ibid., p. 382

(3)Quoted in ibid., p. 383

(4)Quoted in ibid., p. 316

(5)lbid., p. 383

(6)0. W. Winnicott, “The Capacity to be Alone,” The Maturational Processes and the Facili tating Environment (New York: International
Universities Press, 1965), pp. 29-36

(7)Jose Lopez-Rey, “Goya’s Caprichos: Beauty, Reason, and Caricature,” Goya in Perspective, ed. Fred Licht (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice-UHall, 1973), pp. 129-3

(8)Quoted in ibid, p. 130 (9)Quoted in ibid., p. 132 (10)Ibid., p. 132

(11)Ibid., p. 130

(12)Ibid., pp. 130-31

(13)Giorgio de Chirico, The Memoirs of Giorgi o de Chirico (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), p. 65

(14)Ibid., p. 249

(15) Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 401

(16) Quoted in Elizabeth Gilmore Hope, ed., The Art of All Nations 1850-1873: The Emerging Rol e of Exhibiti ons and Critics (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1982), p. 468

(17) Quoted in ibid.. p. 467

(18) Quoted in Donald Prater, A Ringi ng Glass: The Life of Rainer Mari a Rilke (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986), p. 148

(19) Andre Haynal, Depression and Creativity (New York : International Universities Press, 1985), p. 142

(20) Quoted in Richard Gilman, Decadence : The Strange Life of an Epithet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), p. 29

(21)R. D. Laing, The Poli tics of Experi ence (New York: Ballantine, 1967), pp. 125-26

(22)Henri F. Ellenberger , “The Concept of ‘Maladie Creatrice,”‘ Beyond the Unconscious (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 328

(23)Ibid., p. 329

(24)Hans-Georg Gadamer, Phil osophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 21

(25) Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel , Creativity and Perversion (London: Free Association Books, 1985), p. 11

(26) Quoted in Hope, p. 134 (27)Ellenberger, p. 330

(28) Gilbert J. Rose, Necessary Illusion: Art as Witness (Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1996), p. 1

(29) Wallace Stevens, The Necessary Angel : Essays on Reali ty and the Imagination (New York : Knopf, 1951), pp. 170-71

(30) Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenti city (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 31. All subsequent citations from Trilling are from this book.

(31) Quoted in Heinz Lichtenstein, The Dilemma of Human Identity (New York :
Jason Aronson, 1983), p. 237

(32)Ellenberger, p. 331

(33)lbid., p. 334

(34)Quoted in ibid., p. 332

(35)Laing, p. 141

(36)Ibid.’ p. 142

(37) Hans Sedlmayr, Art in Crisis: The Lost Centre (London: Hollis and Carter, 1957), p. 141

(38)Werner Haftmann , Painting in the Twentieth Century (New York and Washington: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), vol. 1, p. 64

(39)Margit Rowell, “Images of Cruelty: The Drawings of Antonin Artaud,” Antoni n Artaud: Works on Paper
(New York : Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 11 (40)Quoted in Ronald Hayman, “Antonin Artaud,” ibid., p. 21 (41)”Prolegomena to a Psychology of Art,”
From Instinct to Self: Selected Papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn (Northvale, NJ and London: Jason Aronson, 1994), vol. 2, p. 389

(42)Ibid., p. 390

(43)Laing, p. 142

(44)Ibid., p. 141

(45)Ibid., p. 167

(46)Ibid., p. 142

(47) )Hermann Broch, “The Style of the Mythical Age,” Gesammelte Werke.
Dichten und Erkennen. Essays
(Zurich: Rhein, 1955), vol. 1, p. 260

(48) Richard Cork, Jacob Epstein (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999),
p. 26

(49) Quoted in John Rewald, “Odilon Redon,” Odilon Redon. Gustave Moreau.
Rodolphe Bresdin
(New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1961), pp. 25, 29., 18

(50)Quoted in Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (New York :
Signet, 1965), p. 68

(51)John Golding, Cubism: A History and an Analysis, 1907-1914 (London:
Faber, 1968), p. 9

(52)Quoted in Dore Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 11

(53) Hanna Segal, Dream . Phantasy and Art (London and New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), p. 51 remarks that “beta elements are raw,
concretely felt experiences which can only be dealt with by expulsion.” that is, destructively. But when they are “projected into the breast they are
modified by the mother’s understanding and converted into…’alpha elements’.” These can be stored in memory and “function in a symbolic way.” “The
mother’s capacity to bear anxiety that is projected into her by the infant is crucial in this interplay.” One wonders if Picasso
painted women so often because he was looking for a mother into whom he could project his raw and thus anxiety-arousing sensations and emotions, and so not have to “eject them in “an immediate discharge of discomfort,” which is what Cubist planes look like.

(54) Ashton, p. 82

(55)1n May 1999 “the Seattle Art Museum planned a show that included Pay for Your Pleasure, a traveling exhibit by Los Angeles
artist Mike Kelley. The final item is a piece of art by someone who has murdered people in each community where the
exhibit is shown. When Pay for Your Pleasure was shown at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, it culminated
with a painting by ‘freeway killer’ William Bonin, the slayer of 14 who was executed in 1996. At the University of Chicago, it spotlighted artwork by
Chicago serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 people before being executed in 1994. Pay for Your Pleasure’s appearance in Seattle was canceled
in response to community outrage, but not before Tara Reddy, the museum’s assistant · curator of modern art, defended the show, including Kelley’s
contribution, as ‘cutting­ edge stuff ‘.” “Cutting-edge” clearly means anti-social here. Tami Sheheri,
APBnews.com, quoted in Reader’s Digest,156 (Jan. 2000):144 (56)Quoted in Chipp, p. 66

(57)Quoted in Henri Dorra, ed., Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 186

(58)Ibid.I p. 209

(59)Ibid.’ p. 187

(60)T. W. Adorno, Aest hetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 36

(61) Quoted in Dorra, p. 5

(62) Joyce McDougall, Plea for a Measure of Abnormali ty (New York:

Brunner/Maze!, 1992), p. 484

(63)Ibid., p. 483

(64)Ibid., p. 468

Beginning Nature Again: Joe Danciger’s Landscape Paintings

by Donald Kuspit

If the waves crash up against the beach, eroding dunes and destroying houses, it is not the awesome power of Mother Nature. It is the awesome power of Mother Nature altered by the awesome power of man, who has overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born.
Bill McKibben, The End of Nature

…the seemingly fortuitous disorder of landscape-form hides the inevitability of nature.
Max J. Friedländer, Landscape Portrait Still-Life

Why paint nature these days? There’s only one reason: it’s at an end. One paints it to begin it again: art always begins with nature, and now that nature is near its end, art can re-start it, so to speak—make it speak from its death-bed, even bring it back to life the way Christ brought Lazarus back to life, or at least give it a decent burial. Or, better yet, find its forgotten backwaters, the isolated spaces in which it still flourishes, holdouts against increasingly encroaching civilization, so-called. Its unnatural urban environment, nominally fit for life but lifeless in itself, dismisses nature as beside the social point, valuable only if it can be exploited, used and abused. Its decorative remains are ghettoized in parks, or left to fester on sidewalks, bushes and trees lining urban streets, distracting from their barren anonymity. We cultivate and cherish plants and flowers in our houses and gardens, supporting their lives as though to support our own, unconsciously realizing and compensating for the feeling that we were not adequately, let alone properly, cultivated, cherished, and supported—nourished–by society. Such cared for, “civilized” plants and flowers serve a therapeutic, narcissistic purpose, but they are not as hardy as plants and flowers that grow in the wild, where they are more assertively alive, having to hold their own against the elements. One has to go into the wilderness—whatever is left of it–to find the truth of nature, and with that escape its falsification in society. In the raw nature is authentic, refined it is oddly inauthentic, even artificial—all too artful.

Joe Danciger does that: retreating from society in a proverbial return to nature—but now a nature that can be seen and known only in fragments, in piecemeal form, haunted and marred by signs of human presence and power, unlike, say, the fulsome nature the Fontainebleue Forest painters idolized, devoting themselves to it as the embodiment of Mother Nature herself, seen whole and intact, uncontaminated by humankind. Nature can no longer be romanticized—it is too tainted—as John Constable did: it can only be “real-ized.” Nor can the emotions one instantly invests in it be as violent as those of Caspar David Friedrich. Nature can no longer be inflated by feeling–its inevitability is all that’s left of it. With a kind of clear-eyed detachment, Danciger returns us to its origin in inevitable change, reminds us of its capacity to begin again and again, never end in a cycle of seasonal, physical change indifferent to human concerns and feelings, and slowly but surely ridding itself of any signs of human presence, burying them the way the snow buries the tow path in his painting of a Sycamore on the Tow Path, 2011.

It is a winter scene, the majestic tree is desiccated—almost leafless and blanched, as though dead, yet uncannily alive, as its twin trunks and wildly spreading branches suggest. The bits of leaf remaining on it are yellowish, as though tinted by sunlight, and the trunks are rooted in brown soil: nourished by the sun and the earth, fresh leaves will grow on the tree, making it more glorious. It has a figural presence, but there are no human figures in the scene, only the tow path, cut like a scar into the earth, as its sunken character suggests. More to the point of the picture, at least as I see it, snow almost completely covers the man-made tow path, as though nature was trying to eliminate it, at least make it difficult to use, implying that human beings have no place in nature, certainly not welcome in the wilderness. The same message is implicit in Gallows Run in Winter, 2013, with its small path, stale and dull with mud, pushed aside by the rushing water of the run, moving much more swiftly than the plodding path, passively present but beside the point of nature and its constant activity.

Trees, now lush with green—the season is now summer–all but hide the house in Tow Path in August, 2013. Man-made constructions—mechanical bridges and umbrellas—appear in Black Eddy Bridge and Landscape with Two Red Umbrellas, both 2015, but the bridges are absorbed into nature by way of their green color and the flaming red umbrellas become gorgeous flowers in full blossom. Lively nature triumphs over inert human inventions—a triumph of life over death, more particularly of the organic over the mechanical. The difference and struggle between them is emblematic of the difference and struggle between the “open system” organic and “closed system” robotic models of human being. According to Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the developer of systems theory, it is a conflict over our self-definition that will decide our fate. Dacinger is clearly in open rebellion against the closed mechanical model of life and art—completely rejects Constructivist machine-model type of art as his organic painterliness, with its expressionistic vitality, evoking the vitality of nature, indicates. Nature for him is not a robot at our command, but a body that changes with the seasons of life, just as the human body does. The struggle between organic expressionist “bodily” type art and inorganic mechanical “anti-body” type art is basic to modern art.

Danciger is not on the tow path, but on its side, like the untamable sycamore, and as silently intense as it: unconsciously identifying with it–it surges with instinctive energy, suggesting that it is a symbol of the instinctive energy, implicit in his brisk brushstrokes, he brings to art-making (their quixotic turbulence mirrors the wildly growing tree)–he becomes part of nature, as solitary as the tree, and as innocently alive. I could not help thinking of Thoreau’s remark: “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” But then the sycamore is Danciger’s companion. He is not projecting any particular feeling onto the tree, but rather mirroring its dynamic, restless, changing form in his dynamic, restless, ever-changing handling. Only an artist sure of his own vitality would venture into this oddly utopian wilderness—a desolate nowhere, reminding us that utopia is a hope-filled nowhere.

Technically the tow path leads us into the distance—puts the scene into perspective—but the sky flattens to the canvas, acknowledging it in a modernist manner, while the wild growth in the middle ground, with its richly textural tangle of branches, finesses that flatness, suggesting the implicit abstractness of the picture. It can in fact be read as a study in blues—airy light blue in the sky, watery dark blue on the earth—and brownish yellows, with the few completely dead growths accenting their presence with blackness. Light is everywhere, indeed, the sycamore seems made of light, giving it a ghostly aura. The medium may not be all for Danciger—after all, he’s representing an external observed reality—as the modernist critic Clement Greenberg argued it is for an abstract painter, but he is clearly a master of it, as his vigorous painterliness indicates.

I think of Danciger’s landscapes as reparative: he wants to repair a nature that has been damaged—certainly soul murdered–by human beings. He searches out untouched-by-human-hands nature—the raw nature in Purple Marsh, 2013 and Ice and Wild Rice, 2014, among other works, all-site specific (generally in over-populated New Jersey or Pennsylvania)—taking its pulse with his artistic hands, confirming that it is alive and well, and undisturbed. He comes across these places as though by accident, as On the Road to Sea Breeze, 2015 suggests. He has painted scenic places near the Delaware River, which divides New Jersey from Pennsylvania, and adjoins Philadelphia, where he lives. He is clearly more intimately at home in such rural places than in urban Philadelphia, which, as far as I know, he has never painted. He has particularly painted where land and water meet, suggesting a fusion of opposites, or at least their comfortable togetherness. Early landscape painting, from Joachim Patinir to Albrecht Altdorfer, always had some sign of human
presence, as though to suggest that nature was manageable and orderly if not completely under control. In Altdorfer’s great Danube School painting, Saint George Slaying the Dragon, 1510—they’re positioned at the bottom of a dense forest of tall trees with seemingly eternally green leaves systematically arranged—the dragon the saint is slaying is implicitly the daemonic spirit of the surrounding nature. Nature, however seductively beautiful, remains a threat: after all, the dragon is the snake that tempted Eve enlarged to monstrous, grotesque proportions. But nature has been all but conquered and enslaved in modernity—or so we think—which is why there is no need for a masterful human being in Danciger’s landscapes. He is alone with its inconsequential traces, suggesting they are a new beginning of nature, even as he memorializes them.

Writing about the landscape painting that they saw in “The Salon of 1859” in Paris, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt declared that “landscape is the victor of modern art. It is the pride of nineteenth century painting.” They noted that “when nature is condemned to death, when industry dismembers it, when iron roads plough it, when it is violated from one pole to another, when the city invades the fields, when industry pens it in…that the human spirit hastens towards nature, looks at it as it never has before, sees this eternal mother for the first time….Will landscapes become a resurrection, the Easter of the eyes?” Landscape painting seems to have had its day in the 20th century, and seems beside the point of the 21st century, with its relentless technologization of society, but people still hasten to nature, as the tourists in the national parks and the people who camp in what is left of the wilderness show. But nature is more tightly penned in than ever, exists in a sort of solitary confinement, although one can no longer be alone with it, as the crowds that flock to gaze at it, in search of a numinous, uplifting experience, suggest. Danciger, determined to preserve what remains of pure nature, makes pure landscapes, that is, landscapes unsullied by signs of human presence. Those that appear are drained of human import, as I have suggested, that is, “naturalized.” Danciger has resurrected landscape painting, making it a feast for the eyes, but it is no longer the Easter of the eyes, but rather a sort of child taking its first steps, beginning to walk, not quite on its own, for it needs Danciger to hold it up, to keep it moving.

Review of Colette Inez’s The Luba Poems

by Alexis Levitin

The Luba Poems
Colette Inez, Pasadena, CA
Red Hen Press,
2015. 90 pp.

Fifty years ago, dining at the Eberharts in Hanover, New Hampshire, Robert Lowell leaned towards me like a stricken man and said, with painful gravity, “Macbeth is very, very dark. The only thing that saves it is the poetry.”

I would now like to add that whether we contemplate a tragic or comic vision, a realistic or fanciful one, in the end what saves all poetry is the poetry itself. Nowhere else in our efforts to communicate do the musical qualities of language contribute so intimately and inescapably to the so-called “meaning” of a text. In poetry, without the sound there is no sense. There is no salvation.

Colette Inez’ new book The Luba Poems dwells mostly in the realm of the capricious, the witty, the gaudy, the playful, the comic, the spritely, the joyous, the fun-filled, the exuberant. Mercurial Luba, her name the Russian diminutive for Love, bounces around the real world and the world of diction with the spontaneity of a puppy dog. However, all that effervescence, that undeniable joie de vivre, springs entirely from the language in which it is rooted. Without that language, Colette, Luba’s confidant and puppeteer, might be filled with an incredible élan vital, but we would never know it.

If I had to place Colette in the modern poetry scene, I would say she is a most mischevious kid sister to Wallace Stevens. Listen to this:

They sang to choristers        
Who swayed like trees
In the rush of huzzahs
Before rain crashed down 

Luba Quince at the Clavier, no?
We all have feelings. Only poets have words. In any case, here is a poet, armed with words, and delighted to fulfill her role as Homo ludens. Playful, delightful, and serious at the same time.

Let us watch and listen as the adventurous journey begins:

“When the name
                       Luba lifts away
like a leaf in hard rain
                       or goes missing
from its cage—
                       a parakeet not answering
or a scrap of light
                       snagged by a cloud…

How about the pure music of this lightly lilting phrase: “in a frangipani-scented mist,” drawn from a poem about poets called “Noting Names,” in which
“her known identity  [is] named
by the pull of the tide, the unlettered sun.”

Or, in “Din Spool, a Bibliophile,” the lively contrast between a harried world of “drill, whine,/buzz, bang,” from which she “longs to be soothed by anapests at the crest/ of the waves”—and there they are: anapests and waves together.

Often enough, the titles of her poems refer to music:  “Cadenzas for Johnny,” “Serpa Bell Song,”  “Luba Looks at a Menu and Thinks of Music,” and the concluding poem in the book “The Singers.” As for pure sound, here are just a few whiffs drifting among these poems: “Coco Chiroco,” “the moon/frazzled blue jazz in riffs     over    the river,” “disco, jazz, twist, funk…plunked bumpty-bump/from a neighbors whoopee room piano…,” “swerve on like the moon-June jackpot/ of dicey days in the mean meantime,” “in the freeze-grip-crunch of their last bang,” “hunters/ of springbok, dik-dik, antelopes,” “ hey hey di hay… glory wa wa… Doba dee da doba da dee.” Yes, the lady loves sound. And does she sing scat!

However, I would like to note that mixed in with the joyous life-affirming music, there are reminders of the grave side to the human condition. In a poem imagining an abandoned polar bear cub, she concludes “How can he know she, too, /has lost her mother/to blue infinities?” To readers familiar with Colette’s life work and life story those “blue infinities” suggest a poignant sorrow, never utterly healed. In “Luba Reads Merwin,” the conclusion is both valiant and philosophically rather desperate, as it portrays in lovely language our lovely, lonely pathos: “knowing words are tireless and travel/out of nothing to a vacancy of stars.” And in the important final poem of the collection, she concludes with a paean of praise to song and an acknowledgment of its dark source:

We sang
glory wa wa to the highest
bird lit by the sun
Stones applauded
from the stream
clouds leaned in
gathered that dark
where singing comes from
Doba dee da doba da dee

If we are saved, our salvation is both exultant and fragile, a salvation fresh with stream, sunlight, and song, but all in the moment.

Read this book. It is a book of love, as the title suggests: love for the world, love for language, love for us all in our painful, glorious human condition.

Review of Lee Slonimsky’s Red-Tailed Hawk on Wall Street

by David Beckman

Red-Tailed Hawk on Wall Street
Lee Slonimsky, New York
Spuyten Duyvil,
2015. 89 pp.

How many poets plant their flag where Wall Street and poetry intersect? Wallace Stevens stood at a similarly unusual corner, that of the insurance business and poetry. But Stevens never attempted to capture his corporate geography in his poems.

Now comes Lee Slonimsky’s 6th book of poems, Red-Tailed Hawk on Wall Street, where his dual identity of poet and stock trader meets and generates creative fire, often captured in his alter ego, Paul, a stock trader who inhabits some of these poems:

Paul loves this glade, where time almost stands still
away from stress and brawl of trading floor.
Still numbers, yes: he loves to count the leaves
that brim so green mid-May.

These poems, rooted in the fact of a red-tailed hawk living on a ledge above Manhattan’s canyons, achieve a unique vision that transcends city and country, Wall Street and woods. Indeed, the hawk’s true habitation — the natural world — is home for deep contemplation and tranquility that stock trading can never deliver, yet which Slonimsky chooses fiercely to embrace:

                                             Time’s ancient road
looks brand new to us, like a cresting wave,
effects of wind, a storm, pale lightning’s sear.

But every patch of grass has history,
invisible yet summoned easily
if one would only let thoughts, feelings move
as slowly as the ground dries – yes – right here.

Slonimsky’s hawk, native to country and woods, yet now inhabiting the city, gives wing to these finely etched poems where the poet’s keen eye and relentless imagination capture nuance, feeling and insight:

                                                      No fear:
how grand his lofty view of river, park!
And then he feels himself inside this bird,
as if his arms were winged, his face a beak,
as if transformed by some primordial Word
(if this be sleep, then let him never wake).

Here is the superb achievement of these poems: observer becomes hawk; poet becomes metaphor.

The way a hawk rests on this concrete cliff,
then circles high above the jostling throngs
and glides, her wings agleam, through early mists,
you’d think that Wall Street is where she belongs.

The book’s other sections show Slonimsky’s astonishing range, where poems evoke love in Italy and France (he’s every bit as evocative of affairs of heart as those of hawk); metaphysics of place; and meditations on weather where sunlight, rain, clouds and wind become charged elements in diurnal dramas:

Huge shadows dance on this steep wooded hill
whenever sunlight seeps between some clouds
that quiver in the wind. It’s quite the thrill
to watch clouds waltz and pirouette, the floods
of all last week receded. We’re awash
in breaking skies and warming gusts, the glow
of sudden sun on tangled greenery.

Delight for the reader resides in the arc of this collection, but also in the poet’s skill as a craftsman. Here, the sonnet may be Slonimsky’s chosen habitat, but other forms enrich his palate, allowing line, rhyme and meter to frame and feed the living pulse of these extraordinary poems.

Review of Lewis Turco’s The Hero Enkidu

by Miriam N. Kotzin

The Hero Enkidu
Lewis Turco, New York
Bordighera Press,
2015. 102 pp.

To say that Lewis Turco’s The Hero Enkidu is clever, is to understate its virtues both as a page-turner action story and as an accomplished poem. Enkidu is a companion to Gilgamesh, from the Ancient Sumerian The Epic of Gilgamesh, which, as Turco tells us is “the oldest long narrative poem in the world”—indeed, if there’s another more than 4,000 years old, we’ve yet to discover it.  Instead of being a sidekick to Gilgamesh, Enkidu is the hero, whose development and adventures are presented in Anglo Saxon prosody with metrical five-line “bob and wheels.”  It is a matter of amazement that this construction seems to vanish as the reader gets caught up in the story of Enkidu.

It doesn’t vanish, of course—even the presence of a sestina, with a bob and wheel following each of its stanzas— serves to foster character development or advance the plot.  The bob and wheel sometimes enjambs with the line above, sometimes with the line following, impelling the reader forward. Moreover, the poetry offers evocative descriptions, such as: “….The windowsill /Swallowed shadows.” or “northern light/Would glance from glaciers   laid like tiles/Upon the tundra.”

The epic begins before Enkidu speaks when he is “fully feral.”  He is transformed by Lilitu, but one night Enkidu wakes and finds his bed-companion, Lilitu, is missing, and he sets out to find her.  She had lured him and transformed him from his feral life, but now, anger transforms him to a beast-like creature:
                                        Enkidu raged
To think that Lilitu      had betrayed him.
The moon was full      in the night’s heavens
When Enkidu howled    beneath its beams.
He dropped again     to all four  feet
As he had erstwhile    done in the forest,
Before he became    a human male.

At last he found her    in a crypt of ghouls
Consorting with them   and drinking the blood
Of infants from bowls    made of skulls.
Enkidu entered    trembling with fury
And with disgust.    He called aloud
In the voice of a lion,   “Who are you
Who gather here     to engage in the rites
Of the gods of Evil?”

He gets his answer:  the Seven Spirits who “grind the earth/ like wheat.”  Enkidu gets rid of them:  “With one  mighty / Thrust Enkidu      brushed the spirits /Into the wind…”
 
The caesuras (pauses) in the following passage increase the drama of the dialogue. Lilitu’s speech is strong, and is followed by Enkidu’s silent turning away.   

She looked at him    with eyes of fire.
“I am not your kine,    Enkidu my love.
My soul is mine     as is my body.
I do with it as    I please; I go
Whereever I go     whenever I wish.
You have no rights     to me or mine.
Why did you banish   my Seven Spirits?”

Enkidu said nothing,   He merely turned
And hastened away.   He had to find
A place to stay   and be alone
To deal with such   immense betrayal.

Equally engaging is Canto VI, the goddess Ishtar’s proposal to Enkidu—and his refusal, which reads, in part:

What, then would be   my advantage?
You are a ruin   that gives no shelter
From the weather   to any man.
You are merely   a rear door
Without resistance     to blast or storm.
You are a palace     that dashes the heroes
Living in it     into shards and pieces,
A pitfall covered     with twigs and leaves
That will fail and trap     him who walks
Upon its surface.   You are a bottle
That leaks in the desert,     limestone that rots
And lets ramparts    crumble in ruins.
You are chalcedony   that does not guard;
A sandal that tears   and causes its wearer
To fall by the wayside.     How many husbands
Have you loved faithfully,    who has been your lord
And had the advantage?     Let me unfold
The endless roster     of your husbands,
And you will vouch     the truth of the list:

These invectives make “bitch on wheels” seem a quaint raised eyebrow of disapproval. Enkidu then lists Ishtar’s husbands and what befell them—e.g., transformed into a spider.  Her revenge follows.

With all its violent exploits, battles, the living dead “night walkers, ” and seductions and attempted seductions, this poem would be R rated were it to be made into a 3-D animated film, which it should be.  Imagine Lilitu transforming into an owl and flying away with her owl daughter out over the heads of the audience, or The Bull of Heaven incinerating the men, its flames leaping upward to the cinema’s ceiling.

The Epic of Enkidu is great fun to read.  In addition to the poem itself, this volume includes an informative introduction by Michael Palma and an Afterword by Turco, about 20 pages that begin with a discussion of prosody and then move to a fascinating literary memoir. Per Contra published The Prologue, Canto I, Nimrod and Lilitu and part of the Afterword, in the Winter of 2013, and a revision of Canto 5, The Forest of Humbaba, which incorporates a newly published translation of a tablet of Gilgamesh.  

All Nonfiction

Below is a list of nonfiction published in Per Contra since Issue 37. Older work can be found in the archive.