‘It is required you do awake your faith…’

Bodesmuseum

So speaks Paulina in the Winter’s Tale. She is about to unveil a statue of Leontes’s wife, Hermione. He is responsible for her death and has been grieving for sixteen years. Within a few moments the statue will appear to come to life, reuniting the pair in a very unfashionable kind of reconciliation. There are textural hints that this is a piece of trickery for Leontes’s benefit, not magic; but the feelings that a good production of the Winter’s Tale can provoke in an audience suggest that something more powerful than an appreciation of good stage-craft or an eccentrically-handled spousal reunion is being experienced.

Depending on who you believe, Shakespeare was getting on a bit when he wrote the Winter’s Tale; he was one of the last playwrights old enough (or geographically placed) to have seen the Coventry mystery plays before their suppression in the 1570s. Hermione’s secular resurrection feels saturated in the mysticism, self-conscious theatricality and promise of redemption that must have infused both the mass and the festival performances of the old faith.

The use of magic and, equally, of unlikely and emotional restitution, often involving the ‘resurrection’ of one presumed dead, are obsessive themes of Shakespeare’s late work.* The ghosts of church ritual won’t die, sure, but nor will the magic itself, or the audience and the artist’s need to assert its power, even its supremacy.

Pier Paolo Passolini said “If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”

My statement might read: “I am an unbeliever who has a need for a belief.” And I find it in our collective ability to create art.

Such a desire for magic, faith, wonder or joy in art is routinely dismissed or exploited. And it always was, not least by the church. As a critical starting point, this is probably correct. To enter a state of wonderment we must often surrender our critical faculties and many of us probably aren’t willing to do that for, say, Cirque de Soleil in Vegas, a mass in St Peter’s square or the revelations of the divine feminine contained in the Da Vinci Code. But I, at least, need art to offer me these moments. And I want to experience them with my critical faculties intact. I want to read a book, watch a play or listen to piece of music that will lift me up in joyful rapturous wonderment without dropping me out at the other end feeling daft, conned or coated in dimming fairy dust.

There is art that offers a kind of personal revelation – the closest thing childless secularists such as myself are allowed to come to the full-on Gnostic soul-shock. It’s there in music, from Spem in Allium to Tears of a Clown; in the visual arts (that’s me in rather rapturous appreciation of a medieval Madonna and Child in the picture above) and in theatre.

But do we find these qualities in literature, where irony, melancholy and the intellect rule, where an accusation of sentimentalist is only beaten by plagiarist as the word any author would least like to see appended to their name, how can that magic, that potential for genuine – not the paltry, mealy, equivocal part-redemptions of so much literary fiction – redemption survive?

I’ve found it in Don Quixote; in the humour of the digressions, in Cervantes’s compassion-cruelty towards Sancho and his master. Everything is Illuminated had a similar effect when I read it; laughing at – and with – the characters, whilst tipping further towards atrocity and disappointment. In a dark, cold way, Nabakov can send chills of wonderment through me; his daredevil mastery of language, the audacity of such wit and beauty being used in such repellent contexts. Yet these are more gasps of amazement at the authors’ skill, wit or sense of beauty and none of these offer hope or redemption. Even Don Quixote’s death, with the old knight’s friends gathered around his bed, left me disappointed as he returns to his senses and renounces his errantry. I would have him die in the arms of a loving if entirely non-existent Dulcinea; the joyful counterweight to Lear, cradling an imagined-breathing yet dead as clay Cordelia.

It’s least present where it’s promised. Life of Pi told me it would make me believe in God. By the last page I didn’t even believe in tigers. Perhaps the joy experienced in literature can only be melancholic, so tinged is most great work with an awareness of what someone described as Shakespeare’s great subject, time. And a novel, rather than a painting, which freezes a moment, thwarting time, or music, which renews when played, or theatre, where the dead resurrect each night and step forward for applause, perhaps a novel, which must tell a story and must end, is of all these art forms both the most modern – thus the least rooted in church ritual – and the least capable of inspiring in us that illusion of magic and redemption. Or am I wrong?

*

Incidentally, my own entirely subjective and unscholarly theory for this is that – regardless of his relationship with his own daughters, troubled or otherwise – Shakespeare, as a writer rather than a father, somehow went too far, by killing off Cordelia in King Lear. Notoriously unfounded in either Holinshead or the anonymous play that precedes Shakespeare’s effort, Cordelia’s death adds nothing to the story other than to definitively destroy all hope. Nahum Tate certainly thought so; in his popular ‘improved’ version, Cordelia is cut down from the noose and marries Edgar. My feeling is that WS did help to would himself with this cruelty. In the Winter’s Tale, Tempest, Pericles and Cymbeline, daughters are (after much capture by pirates etc) protected, loved and rewarded; they win through, marry-for-love, are proven right, have adventures and always end up hand in hand with daddy. For what it’s worth, I sense atonement.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “‘It is required you do awake your faith…’

  1. mishari

    Thought provoking stuff (puffs furiously on pipe) but I want to take you up on the idea that a novel can’t offer that same…what? Transcendance? as, say, a painting. While I agree with everything you say, I’m not sure about that. You may well be right. I’m going to have to give it some thought before I try to formulate a response…

    BTW, I got your address and I’ll send the 2 lps I mentioned and a few others that might interest you. Skip James: The Complete 1930 Recordings, Son House: The Complete 1940-41 Library of Congress Recordings for Alan Lomax and Peg Leg Sam’s only LP. Also, another, larger collecion of Brazilian music because you can never have too much aural sunshine…

  2. ‘I’m not sure about that’

    Quite. Neither am I. I only posed myself the question as I got further into writing the post. I expected to conclude with examples from various loved novels but – as you see – I struggled to find any that matched the criteria I’d set out.

    The transcendence in novels seems to come – for me – from humour and affecting human detail; Wife of Bath’s Prologue, Falstaff, the Baron de Charlus, perhaps. But they don’t offer me the same, erm, mystical transportation maybe, that I encountered again and again when visiting Florence, for example: a kind of falling backwards and being caught. Hard to explain.

    Very interested to hear of any examples you can think of. Generally, even if a novel has given me that feeling (I loved Life of Pi until I got to the end), I soon look back and feel conned. If it wasn’t so big I’d re-read Famished Road to see how that stands up ten years after I first read it.

    Very excited about the music, Mishari. Thanks, as ever.

  3. mishari

    I’m still trying to think of examples of novels that have had the same effect on me as a great work of art. In the meantime, it’s interesting to speculate why it might be the case that a novel can’t (if we establish to our satisfaction that it can’t) provide what art can.

    I suspect you’re on to something when you say you feel ‘conned’, although I think I’d use the word ‘manipulated’. But perhaps it’s partly the function of a narrative to ‘manipulate’, just as it is in film and the theatre. To provoke the desired response to this or that situation, this or that character.

    Perhaps, because our response to art tends to be more visceral, less mediated, we feel that it’s purer, more honest. But is it?

    Again, these are matters that require some more thought. (assumes Arnie accent): Ahl be beck..

  4. @Mishari

    ‘Manipulated’ is fine; I have no problem with being manipulated. It’s the artist’s job to manipulate me. ‘Conned’ is when I’m coerced into an emotional response and then, on reflection, realise it was smoke and mirrors with no enduring substance (I confess the fault must be mine, but still). In contrast, I will feel that buzz of the miraculous whenever I see, for example, the Jan Van Eyk Ghent altarpiece, even though I’ve squinted close at the brushstrokes and I know the angels aren’t really singing.

    Perhaps the distinction I’m looking for is similar to your past definition of sentiment; to con is to induce unearned emotion in the reader/viewer etc. I appreciate this is slippery ground – one person’s con is another’s rapture.

    Perhaps it’s the wordlessness of art and music that create this illusion of transcendence. A case of ‘that of which we cannot speak we must remain silent’ or ‘I can only give words to that which is already dead in my heart’ (although I’m paraphrasing and mis-quoting all at once here). I hope I’m wrong; that sensation is something I aspire to create in my own long works, although not the grim short stories online.

  5. mishari

    Aside from the ‘wordlessness’ factor, which I think you’re right in saying helps to persuade us that we are in the presence of the transcendant, I wonder if the fact that the strings and scenery shifting, so to speak, are far less obvious in art.

    Perhaps we resent being conned by a novelist more because we’re more aware of the mechanisms of the con. With art, maybe we conspire with the artist to con ourselves. All the mechanisms for the con pre-exist in us: desire, yearning, receptiveness.

    I mean, nobody comes to a work of art as a blank slate–we all bring a great deal of baggage; personal, aesthetic, emotional, historical, etc. The scaffolding is there in us, waiting for an artist to throw up a structure around it. Is that a kind of con? Just thinking out loud…

  6. For me Raymod Queneau’s Bark Tree ( now published as Witch Grass ) had the same eye-opening, light going on in my brain effect that I had when I saw Giotto’s chapel in Padua, Royal de Luxe’s show with giant puppets in Calais or Yuri Norstein’s animation film “Tale of Tales” in the cinema.

    I read it 30 years ago and although I was a voracious reader back then I had never read anything like it. Like all Queneau’s novels it’s about mundane life but the playfullness of the writring ( he’ll interrupt lyricAL description with something exquisitely stupid ), the multi-viewpoint way of telling a story ( including a short chapter written by a dog ), the inclusion of dream stories and the variety of styles within the story all made their mark on me. to discover a set of photo-booth photos of him pulling silly faces at the camera ( an they are really silly ) was the icing on the cake. It’s not perfect – I rarely react strongly to perfection but there’s something utterly fantastic about it that just clicks strongly with me. I’ve read it at least 5 times and will read i again soon.

  7. Will read I again soon? Cripes turning into Yoda I feel we are. Or Boris Johnson …. even worse.

  8. ‘The scaffolding is there in us, waiting for an artist to throw up a structure around it’

    I like this image a lot. I think maybe you’re right about the structure of a novel being more apparent; we can never experience a novel in one moment of revelation, as with a painting.

    I’ve also been thinking about something I can only think to call the intangible, that cannot exist easily in fiction – where narrative demands that everything be defined and purposed. A picture or a piece of music can regenerate its mystery, tell a new story, each time we encounter it. The characters in the background of an Adoration, whispering to one another, whisper words we don’t hear, or that we imagine differently each time; the intangible aspects of the scene. There is a renewable mystery that defies limitation. In contrast, a novel must tell us what was said, and have a clever solution. Otherwise we feel cheated.

    I keep being reminded of a Bob Dylan quote about traditional song versus protest music,

    ”these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans and turn into angels – they’re not going to die…Songs like “Which Side Are You On?” and “And I Love You, Porgy” – they’re not folk music songs; they’re political songs. They’re already dead.”

    One could add several of Dylan’s own ‘protest’ songs to that second list but I think what he’s saying is that songs, or poetry, or paintings, that present raw imagery and assert mystery over explanation, become new each time they are heard because the imagery is unstable, unexplained. To take an obvious example, Da Vinci never has to tell us what Mona Lisa is smiling about, whereas it is, perhaps, the novelist’s duty to do so. Once we know, the mystery ends. And mystery, the idea of truth just out of reach, contributes hugely (for me, at least) to experiences of transcendence.

  9. @Alarming

    Great recommendation. It sounds fantastic. Humour and joyfulness in fiction definitely give me a sense of being lifted. And playing with form, cheeky interjections, which it sounds like Bark Tree has in abundance, perhaps they remind us of our own near-miraculous minds, our capacity to imagine?

    I saw the Giotto frescoes in Assissi last year. They have so much of the compassion and gentleness that most religious art (and most religion?) lacks. At to see them next to Cimabue’s work; Like witnessing an episode of evolution or new invention captured in its moment (if that makes sense! I’m getting over-heated).

  10. XB Giotto’s chapel in Padua has a huge ceiling of lapis lazuli blue ( a colour that we can’t make anymore ) dotted with gold stars. The effect is difficult to put into words which I suppose is the point. Whereas words are put into words ( as it were ) and so the by-product is what’s left floating in your mind afterwards or in the case of the Bark Tree how you feel when you are reading it as well. It’s like peeling skins off an onion and each skin brings a new pleasure. Now I’m getting over-heated!

    BTW good photo – it looks like something from a horror b-movie or a sand-cast of a worm on a beach not a religious artefact.

  11. mishari

    I think you’re right. At the heart of all great art is something ineffable and renewably so. Mind you, I’m still going through my memory banks trying to think of a novel that’s had the same effect on me that one of De Chirico’s disturbing, time-blown (for want of a better term) cityscapes or one of El Greco’s Christs has on me. The Great Gatsby comes close. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

  12. @Al ‘good photo…’

    Thanks…I think. You’ve been watching Slugs, haven’t you? Actually, a moment after the photo’s taken I push my tin drum into the Christ Child’s hands and screech at him to start drumming if he thinks he’s better than me.

    @Mishari

    Do let me know what you come up with. As I say, I was surprised at how few examples I could think of and even those I found I could equally argue against. Did you see the El Greco exhibit at the National a few years back? My first encounter with him and I was anstonished at how savage he is compared to his contemporaries, those corckscrew-pillars of figures toppling up to heaven. Wow.

    I saw a wonderful painting a few days back, but forgot the artist’s name. I’ll go back and find it. A contemporary of Vermeer, similar style. There’s a gentle domestic scene but, in the background, a little girl is facing away, staring out of an open doorway from which light spills over her. This is how I feel in the face of beautiful/ineffable things. The artist can leave us to wonder forever what the little girl sees. A novellist would have to tell us, break the spell. I’m convincing myself that this is the difference.

  13. mishari

    I wonder if this painting by Pieter de Hooch is the one you mean?

  14. mishari

    Yes, El Greco is marvelous. I first discovered him (appropriately enough given the context of our discussion) through an essay on El Greco by Aldous Huxley called “Inside The Whale”. I was inyrigued by what Huxley wrote and sought out the work. It was, as Huxley had said, like nothing else, certainly nothing of the period.

    Those violent, slashing strokes, the virulent colours, those dangerously foreboding skies over Toledo, those etiolated, anguished figures–faces drawn in existential agony. I thought then and still think that there was something modern about him: modern in the sense of a refusal tto prettify or soften,

    Compare him to any of his contemporaries: say, Zurbaran. Zurburan is like a Sunday school lesson, El Greco’s like the fucking Apocalypse…moves and alarms me in a way that Zurbaran, for all his talent, never could…

  15. Captain Ned

    @ exitbarnardine
    You might try (if you haven’t already) a book I read just recently: ‘Under the Glacier’ by Halldor Laxness. It’s about a young man who’s sent by a bishop to a remote corner of Iceland to investigate reports of unorthodox behaviour by the local priest (a more accurate translation of the title would be ‘Christianity at the Glacier’; you can see why they changed it). It’s extremely droll in the best dryly surreal manner, but combines that drollery with a strange, intense lyricism that touches on the visionary. The ‘spell’, for me at least, hasn’t been broken; the mystery (whatever it is) is not explained. It’s one of the oddest books I’ve ever read; I don’t know quite what to make of it, except that it’s absolutely marvellous. And it’s translated by Magnus Magnusson of Mastermind fame.

    Some of the interior scenes that were featured in the recent RA exhibition of the Danish artist Hammershøi had the same effect on me as the Dutch painting you mention. There was one, in particular, showing the broad back of a woman engaged in some domestic task – washing or peeling potatoes. It was very reminiscent of Vermeer, in fact. It was the sheer awesome extent of the woman’s back that made it so hypnotic – the face unseen. I went round the exhibition a couple of times, and kept coming back to this one painting. But there were many others that possessed a similar quality.

    @alarming. Norstein – good shout. If animation were more generally esteemed, ‘Tale of Tales, I am sure, would be considered one the great works of art of the century, as would ‘Hedgehog in the Fog’. For the past two decades he’s been working on a feature-length version of ‘The Overcoat’; excerpts were due to be shown at a festival last year (Berlin?), but no, they weren’t ready. He’s getting on a bit now, so one has to wonder if he’ll ever finish it, but I certainly hope he does.

  16. XB it was a day last week on Crosby beach with Gormley’s crowd of people that gave me the comparison in the photo, sand rippled by water and wind with curlicues of sand-string where whelks have burrowed below. Gormley’s figures “work” very well in the space but it’s a bit thin. They were better on the London rooftops a few years’ ago.

    There is DVD collection of his films which has excerpts of the Overcoat. Now that is transcendant stuff – just a bloke in a room but so extraordinarily and innovatively animated that it becomes something else.

    Rather like Royal de Luxe’s giants. Big populist stuff but done with such artistry and an eye for the right detail that it avoids banal slickness and vacuous generalising and becomes completely engrossing.

  17. Hi Al, Mish, Ned

    Thanks for the comments, recommendations, rhapsodies, etc. I’m just off to learn all about the Stasi (what could be more cheerful on a Saturday afternoon). But I’ll get back to you in detail upon returning…

  18. Oh, and Mishari,

    That is indeed the picture I saw. Very impressed. Have an oliebol (or two).

  19. Didn’t make it to any of the Stasi museums. Ended up at Burger King in Alexanderplatz instead…

    ‘It’s one of the oddest books I’ve ever read’

    For me, Ned, that’s a recommendation in itself. I’ll add it to my list. It’s interesting you say the woman in the painting’s back is turned away; this goes back, I think, to the point I made about visual art being able to obscure, and therefore keep mysterious and ‘almost glimpsed’ those things that fiction – the non oddest kind, anyway – must expose. Do you think the effect would have been the same if you could see the woman’s face?

    @Al ‘curlicues of sand-string where whelks have burrowed below’

    I love these details; there’s a horseshoe-shaped bay in north Norfolk where, when the tide goes out (and it goes out for miles), the sand is covered with a layer of razor-shells – I don’t know the proper name. Millions upon millions of life-husks. The Gormley statues were fun to see in London, although I almost walked into one on Waterloo Bridge. Communicating with you, I’m realising what a grumpy Londoner I am – ‘giant elephant? Held the bus up. Bronze man figures? Almost broke my nose. I don’t know much about art but I know what I like etc…’

    @Mishari

    I don’t know Zurbaran, although Google image finder will soon address that. My knowledge of Spanish art before the c20th is pretty limited, Goya and Velasquez excepted. Perhaps there’s a reason that few have become renowned, El Greco himself being from, ah, where was it? Was Spanish art too orthodox and church-controlled to allow for individual vision.

    I was once shown a tree that El Greco definitely climbed as a child. My guide, Hermes ‘Tappy’ Metaxas, told me all about it.

    This discussion has me thinking of something related, which I may share in the near future.

  20. XB The perils of outdoor work are of course that it really impinges on daily life so the complaints against it are more understandable and potentially more serious than ” The lighting in the gallery was a bit feeble and the sculpture was badly sited” or “Uncomfortable seats and the man in front didn’t take his top-hat off”.

    I didn’t see the elephant in London – far better to catch it in Calais where you can stay in a nearby hotel and not worry about public transport. But it was only 3 days so the miserable Londoner label could be proven in court.

  21. Of course, Al, as this blog post hopefully testifies, I love anything that makes the everyday become new and strange. The bronze figures, especially, were wonderful. Glimpsing them high on rooftops; magical. The elephant just caught me on a bad day. You know, where you’re running late, you miss your bus, you’ve had an argument and then to top it all there’s a thirty-foot elephant in the way.

    I love outdoor, site-specific theatre for the same reason. Do you know London Bubble? I only saw them once (shame on me), seven years ago, doing Pericles at Greenwich Naval College. I’ve seen a lot of theatre (a lot of Pericleses) but I could almost tell you, line for line and image for image, how that production looked and played out. Rough magic indeed.

    The company I used to work with once produced Macbeth in a cellar bar. Tiny, with the audience as punters and the Macs as landlord and his wife. Claustrophbic and, when M washed his hands in blood behind the bar – using rather old liver – the smell hit the audience in a way that, it seemed, reminded them what blood is in a very immediate, visceral way.

  22. Captain Ned

    @exitbarnardine
    Well, maybe. It would depend on the face – think of Vermeer’s milkmaid, for example.

    Since you’re talking about theatre, I thought I’d mention the Tim Supple production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ that was on at the Roundhouse a couple of years ago. This was with a cast of Indian actors, speaking a mixture of Shakespeare and various Indian languages (not sure how much of this was translated WS, but most of it was devised by the cast members themselves). The Pyramus and Thisbe play-within-a-play is, of course, one of the great comic highlights of English literature, and in terms of its comedic efficacy, Supple and his players managed the scene superbly. But the tone changed magically when it came to Thisbe’s suicide. This is the text of her speech:

    Asleep, my love?
    What, dead, my dove?
    O Pyramus, arise.
    Speak, speak. Quite dumb?
    Dead, dead? A tomb
    Must cover thy sweet eyes.
    These lily lips,
    This cherry nose,
    These yellow cowslip cheeks
    Are gone, are gone.
    Lovers, make moan.
    His eyes were green as leeks.
    O sisters three,
    Come, come to me
    With hands as pale as milk.
    Lay them in gore,
    Since you have shore
    With shears his thread of silk.
    Tongue, not a word.
    Come, trusty sword,
    Come, blade, my breast imbrue.
    And farewell friends,
    Thus Thisbe ends.
    Adieu, adieu, adieu.

    It’s hard to see how any production, with these words, might avoid the note of comic bathos Shakespeare so brilliantly sounds – or why any production would want to. But Supple didn’t use these words. The actor spoke in an Indian language alien to my ears, and spoke with such an extraordinary emotional intensity that for a few brief, electric moments I was transported from watching Pyramus and Thisbe to watching Romeo and Juliet. I don’t think I’ve ever had a theatrical experience quite so rapturous – and then, making the effect even more remarkable, the sudden switch back from high tragedy to knockabout comedy. Sheer brilliance.

  23. @CaptainNed

    Sorry it’s taken me a while to reply (if you’re out there!). Trying to say anything about Shakespeare in performance always leaves me spinning with too much to say and I end up saying nothing. A friend of mine saw the same production as you and I know from experience what a great venue the Roundhouse can be. I saw possibly the finest Shakespeare performance I’ve ever seen there, last year, when the RSC ran the entire History cycle over four days, with the same ensemble playing the same characters, relatives, etc, throughout.

    Theatre can create extraordinary magic. Midsummer Night’s Dream always, always makes me laugh, from the school production I saw that persuaded me to change schools and study theatre, to the last version I saw (the fabulous Propellor a few years back). There is always something unexpected that a good company can find in these plays, usually by being very simple and quietly listening to the text,which often instructs the more vigilant performer in exactly what to do.

    An example of this; when watching Richard II at the Globe, played by Mark Rylance, then last year by Jonathan Slinger at the Roundhouse, both created the precise, extraordinary, electric response of laughter and shock with the same inflection of the same line:

    BOLINGBROKE. The shadow of your sorrow hath destroy’d
    The shadow of your face.
    KING RICHARD. Say that again.
    The shadow of my sorrow? Ha!

    At ‘say that again’ the audience gasped and flinched. I can’t quite explain it; on the page it seems a passing phrase but in performance it was stunning, funny, sneering, self-pitying, cruel. Shakespeare does that, I think, sometimes planting little bombs in the rhythm.

    Just ordered Under the Glacier, by the way.

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