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Great artists are so frequently assholes that I have learned to compartmentalize. Ok, so Lord Byron was loathsome in his relations with women; doesn't stop me from admiring his work unstintingly.
Whether such compartmentalization is difficult to maintain or distasteful - probably a bit of both - it's not a popular approach. People prefer judgments. There's a pleasing equanimity in being able to say, for example, that because Picasso hated women, Cubism amounted to a visual violence against women - cutting up the planes of their faces and bodies and rearranging them - and that our assessment of Picasso's achievement should be accordingly tempered. In a world where bad produces bad, we find stability.
Such a world is not the one in which we find ourselves.
As a result, many people require a certain amount of creative narrative to rationalize situations in which bad produces good. Maurice Malingue is one such person.
Malingue was the editor of Paul Gaugin's letters to Mette Gad, his wife, and others. Working in the middle of the last century, Malingue attempted to reconcile aspects of Gauguin's life that were in some tension: on the one hand, he was a genius painter; on the other hand, he was an asshole.
The facts supporting Paul Gaugin's categorization as an "asshole" are as follows: After fathering five children, he quit his job, lived apart from his family and contributed little to his family's support or upkeep. He was openly unfaithful to his wife. He did not return home either when his favorite daughter, Aline, or his favorite son, Clovis, died, both in their early twenties. That Gauguin had syphilis, apparently of the variety that leads to madness, is something of a mitigating factor, though he seems to have contracted it after he set himself on the path of abandoning his family.
What Malingue made of these facts is laugh-out-loud funny to today's reader, who is at least 150 years too removed from the Romantics to be reflexively sympathetic to Gauguin's choices. Malingue has no such scruples. With a zeal unknown to generation acclimated to a divorce rate of roughly 50%, Malingue - in the Preface to Letters to his Wife and Friends
- attacks Gauguin's wife, Mette Gad, and condemns her for expecting Gauguin to support his family:
[Gauguin's] letters constitute the most . . . overwhelming indictments in the trial of Mette Gauguin, who can now be charged with incomprehension of the artist, indifference towards the man, and with having as a wife failed the father of her five children.
. . . .
Mette, in contrast with wives of innumerable artists, found it difficult to contemplate poverty for herself and her children.
. . . .
It is probable that Mette, the daughter of an official, brought up with some degree of mental freedom but in the observance of somewhat rigid moral principles, never could understand how a father of five children could throw up a comfortable position without bothering what was to become of his family.
Of Gauguin's abandonment of his children, Malingue remarks:
[Gauguin] is a father who suffered keenly in living apart from his children. Obviously, he could have had them with him if he wanted to. He renounced his paternal duties deliberately, because constrained to do so by the demands of his art. The presence of his children would have imposed on him paternal obligations.
As for Gauguin's infidelity, Malingue takes a (dare I suggest typically French?) brazen line:
[Gauguin] plunged into casual amours at Pont-Aven, set up house in Paris with a Javanese, and in Tahiti bedevilled hussies invaded his bed every night.
These "bedevilled hussies" were 14 year-old girls who Gauguin took as his live-in companions. (In Mario Vargas Llosa's telling - in This Way to Paradise
- far from finding his bed "invaded" every night, the aging, broke and syphilitic Gauguin, whose legs were covered with sores, and who lacked money necessary to feed even himself, struggled to find girls willing to live with him.)
Of course, Malingue is full of shit. Mette might not have been a creative woman, but she was in no way wrong (or even "rigid" in her morals) to expect financial support from her husband and the father of her many children. Caring for five children might be inconvenient for Paul Gauguin, but the existence of children - not their presence or absence - imposes parental obligations; abandoning one's children geographically does not absolve a parent of responsibilities, however much one's time needs to be devoted to art. As for adulterous husbands, at a minimum one can demand that they be discrete and steer clear of minors.
In fairness to Malingue, he lived in a different era, when he was not alone in being relatively receptive to justifying the bad acts of a genius, done in the name of his art. All the same, Malingue's thinking - in any age - is slavish and lazy, the automatic "yes" of a dazzled fan.
Today, the trend is towards the opposite error, of dismissing Gauguin's mastery because he was an adulterous pedophile and a deadbeat dad. But such reasoning would be equally slavish (to PC standards) and lazy.
We live in a world in which good can come from bad. In which - Malingue is almost certainly right - Gauguin could desperately miss his children, and yet do nothing to be with them or help them. In which Gauguin's actions can be wrong and sick, and still the general public is much the better for them.
The accurate narrative is the critical and rigorous one, the one that describes the world in its ambiguity, and that captures and conjures what beauty there is in such a world as ours. It's not an easy narrative to tell or to absorb, not a narrative that likely to gain popular currency. And yet it's the narrative in Gauguin's painting; it's the reason, in fact, that Gauguin is great.
(Image of Paul Gauguin's Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ from the National Gallery of Australia website
The Tate Modern's Gauguin show sparked an interest in Gauguin's life that prompted me to buy books. As I mentioned in a previous blog post
, one of the books upon which my hand fell (in the gift shop) was Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence
. Luckily, sitting beside Maugham's clunker was the Mario Vargas Llosa novel, This Way to Paradise
, which I also snatched up.
A fictional double portrait of Paul Gauguin and his part-Peruvian grandmother, Flora Tristán, This Way to Paradise
finds Vargas Llosa projecting himself into Gauguin's mind as he paints a number of his masterpieces, including "Manao tupapau" (pictured above), "Pape moe" (based on the Charles Spitz photograph below), "Nevermore" (below), "The Vision after the Sermon" (here
Vargas Llosa's imaginative reconstruction of Gauguin's psychology in the moment of creation captivated me. I was excited by Vargas Llosa's audacity, combined with the singular opportunity that the Tate Modern's show afforded: I could stand in the presence of the paintings and test whether Vargas Llosa's words made me experience Gauguin as the paintings had made Vargas Llosa experience him.
The second time I went to the Tate Modern's Gauguin show, I took This Way to Paradise
with me and read the passages that discussed paintings in the exhibit. Here's Vargas Llosa on "Manoa Tupapau":
The raw material was in his memory, the image he saw every time he closed his eyes.
. . . .
The naked girl would be obscene without the fear in her eyes and the incipient downturn of her mouth. But fear didn't diminish her beauty. It augmented it, tightening her buttocks in such an insinuating way, making them an altar of human flesh on which to celebrate a barbaric ceremony, in homage to a cruel and pagan god. And in the upper part of the canvas was the ghost, which was really more yours than Tahitian, [Paul]. . . . It was an old woman in a hooded cloak, like the crones of Brittany forever fixed in your memory.
(p. 23.) I didn't see it. The girl's eyes didn't show me fear, nor did I see an incipient downturn of her mouth - to me, she appeared to be smiling coyly. The arch of her body was wrong for what Vargas Llosa was describing. Far from the tautness that Vargas Llosa sees, the girl's lower half looked slack: her ankles are crossed, and her legs seem to be hanging off the bed. And however much I ran between the galleries to compare the crones of Brittany with the spirit in "Manao tupapau," I didn't glimpse the connection.
But it didn't matter. Tracking Vargas Llosa through Gauguin allowed me insight into the impact of visual arts on another writer's process. This Way to Paradise
isn't art criticism; Vargas Llosa isn't informing or educating his public about what they should see in the paintings. He's exposing instead what he sees when he looks at them.
That looking at "Manao tupapau" makes Vargas Llosa think about how Gauguin came up with the image reveals a mind intrigued by the artistic process, and one additionally that sees parity in the process between visual artists and writers. Although I have wondered how other artists arrive at their images, I hadn't speculated previously about Gauguin's, in part because (before the Tate Modern show) I didn't identify with him: but Vargas Llosa must have. And, although I sense that Vargas Llosa's connection with Gauguin is very masculine - a bond I can't share - Vargas Llosa nonetheless showed me one way of empathizing with Paul Gauguin.
Empathizing - with oneself, with other artists, and with one's characters - is part of the novelist's job, and it's not the easy part. Somerset Maugham couldn't do it for Paul Gauguin (nor likely for himself), which is why Maugham depicts a Gauguin-like character, Charles Strickland, as being without compassion (discussed here
But Vargas Llosa's way of always doing the hard part - and doing it well - is why I admire him so intensely. Even his lesser works (and This Way to Paradise
isn't his masterpiece) deepen and enrich my experience of life and art.
I've never before entered a blockbuster art exhibit clutching a novel. After This Way to Paradise
, I'm not sure I'll be able to enjoy future shows as fully without one.
(Image of "Manao tupapau" from Shafe
; of "Nevermore" from Tate
; and of Charles Spitz' photograph from Cultor College
Today is the closing date for the "NotAboutKarenBlixen" exhibition at The Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark. A collection of collaborative work between Kenyan, Danish and other artists from around the world, "NotAboutKarenBlixen" featured an installation performance art piece called "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" by Gillion Grantsaan (pictured above) and Ato Malinda (pictured below). Gillion and Ato constructed a shanty outside Karen Blixen's writing studio (pictured below), an artistic home for homeless real and imaginary writers in migration. Gillion and Ato invited a number of writers (including myself) to collaborate on the installation. Below is the piece I wrote in connection with the installation, which - consistent with the installation's themes of nomadism, immigration, displacement, alienation and assimilation - I developed in Denmark, wrote in Italy, and mailed to the The Karen Blixen Museum from England.
Maya Alexandri's stream-of-consciousness meditation on themes relating to Gillion Grantsaan's and Ato Malinda's installation "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" in the "Not About Karen Blixen" show at The Karen Blixen Museum, Rungstedlund, Denmark
Boats are destabilizing.
On a boat, humans come closest to experiencing the movement of the planet. Standing on the deck of a water bus in Venice, with the deck rocking beneath me, I place my backpack at my feet and worry about it slipping between the slats of the gangway gate and sinking. I watch an older couple standing at the wheel of a speedboat passing us. Neither member of the couple looks to be in great shape, and I am amazed that they remain upright as the lagoon bounces their speedboat into an imitation of an airplane taking-off.
Perhaps because of their ability to connect humans with the reality of the earth's motion, boats are vehicles of momentousness. Pirates sail on boats. Slavers carried their human cargo across the world on boats. Karen Blixen sailed to Kenya, and Paul Gaugin to Tahiti, and King Claudius banished Hamlet to England by boat.
Hamlet was kidnapped by pirates.
At Kronberg Castle in Helsingor, Hamlet's abode, the Maritime Museum contains a small visual memento of Denmark's slave trade: a painting of a slave ship below deck (pictured right). Black people, naked, peer out from where they are stacked in horizontal berths. Descending into their squalor are a black cabin boy and a black steward, both impeccably dressed. The painting is beautiful: did the artist think he was documenting a horror?
In a later room in the Maritime Museum, in an exhibit about Danish emigrants to the United States, the display is accompanied by the following blurb:
In the early days of emigration the voyage was made by sailing ship with the emigrant supplying his own food and drink, which had to keep for up to six weeks without refrigeration. Added to this was the lack of ventilation and bad hygiene, not to mention seasick passengers. Even though steamships and increased competition gradually improved conditions one can still safely conclude that a trip in emigrant class was often like a trip on a slave ship - an experience for life!
Whatever the phrase, "experience for life," means, emigrants, colonists and slaves all have it. Transplants, (mal)adjusters, uprooted, disconnected, identity-inventors - all. The difference is choice and humanity. Those who choose to uproot themselves may be crazy, but they're not property.
Paul Gaugin was crazy. Although he may have been born with a predisposition in this direction, at his death, the cause of his mental illness was syphilis. Who knows how long syphilis addled his brain?
When he arrived in Tahiti and learned that missionaries had banished paganism and converted the island a hundred years previously, he was despondent. He carved his own pantheon of pagan gods. He was going to out-savage the savages. He was determined to paint like a primitive.
What did Gaugin think "painting like a primitive" meant? Was he seeking a visual palette free from the overbearing influences of the Old Masters, of the Romantics, of the Impressionists? Was he enraptured by the stereotype of pure, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, uncivilized primitives? Did he think painting like a primitive was beautiful? Or was he just crazy?
Mette Gad probably regretted that Gaugin was a colonist (a pariah within the French colonial system in Tahiti, perhaps, but still a colonist), and not a slave. A crazy husband with no property was no good to her and their five children, freezing in Copenhagen while Paul was sunning his syphilitic phallus in Tahiti. At least if he'd been a slave, she could have sold him. (Being married to Paul Gaugin must have been an experience for life.)
Paul Gaugin never enriched Mette Gad, though. Carl Jacobsen was another matter. Gaugin's Danish wife correlated with a disproportionately large number of Gaugin's paintings landing in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the museum in Copenhagen housing Jacobsen's collection. In the Glyptotek's sophisticated, well-appointed nineteenth century art wing, Gaugin's paintings don't look particularly primitive. They don't have the appearance of paintings best viewed on a boat.
I wonder if Karen Blixen ever saw the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection. If she did, what did she feel? A visual artist before she was a writer, Karen, too, had painted "primitives." She, too, had sailed on a boat to live among primitives. She, too, sought to understand their customs, religion and mindsets. She, too, had syphilis. She, too, was a prominent authority on whom Danes relied for information about primitives. Did she see Paul Gaugin as her kindred?
Boarding my own boat - my imagination - I slip my toes inside Karen Blixen's feet and peer from her eye sockets at Paul Gaugin's painting, "Manao Tupapau." No, he is not my kindred. He is not noble; he represents nothing beyond himself. He's a sexual adventurer among the savages. I know his kind, and he wouldn't know the Crusades from the Renaissance.
(Isn't there always dissension among the ranks? Geniuses tend to despise each other. Byron and Shelley would've eventually hated each other if their premature deaths hadn't prevented them from doing so. Wordsworth's ultimate treatment of Coleridge is abominable. Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez couldn't remain friends.)
Imagining Karen Blixen viewing the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection, I am in a kind of matryoshka boat: a boat, within a smaller boat, within a boat smaller still. In the boat of my imagination, I sail on a boat of another sort: Denmark. For islands are boats more than other landmasses are. And the ground in Denmark is moving perceptibly.
Homogenous cultures breed conservatism that may mask the movement beneath the feet, but in the end it emerges because it exists: boats are destabilizing. Shaky ground is not the place for an unstable structure, but instability is relative. Paul Gaugin no doubt sailed on leaky ships, the Venetians rebuilt the Palazzo Ducale on its fire-damaged hulk, and a wobbly ladder didn't prevent Gillion and Ato from constructing the shack. Instability, after all, lasts only until it is assimilated or eclipsed by the next cataclysm.
Every life - if we're lucky - includes more than one experience for life.
(All photographs taken by Maya Alexandri)
Viewing the permanent collection at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
today, I was struck by the explanatory note accompanying Paul Klee's painting, "Zaubergarten (Magic Garden)" (pictured left). In this painting, the note claimed (I'm paraphrasing), Klee wanted to shed all his preconceived methodologies and techniques and paint like an unlearned child.
Klee's desire sounded familiar. Having just seen the Gaugin show at the Tate Modern
, I read two novels based on Gaugin's life: Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence
, and Mario Vargas Llosa's This Way to Paradise
. Both novels emphasize Gaugin's desire to paint like a "primitive."
Although to our ears - disinfected, as they've been, by political correctness - painting "like a primitive" sounds dangerously like racist twaddle (premised, as the desire seems to be, on the romantic and inaccurate assumption that primitives are pure, uncivilized, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, etc.), I believe the impulse exhibited by Gaugin, Klee and other modernists is legitimate, non-racist and non-romantic, even if the semantics are now dated. Here's why:
Humans have been making non-realistic visual art - figurative, but with elements of abstraction, two-dimensionality, fantasy, etc. - for vastly longer than they've been making realistic art. Despite the horrified reactions of art connoisseurs to the onset of abstraction in the late 19th century (and the continuing bafflement of the public to 20th and 21st century art), the realism of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic ages (and not the subsequent reintroduction of elements of abstraction) was the aberration.
The post-Renaissance artist desiring to make abstract art, however, faced a problem that didn't arise for his pre-Renaissance counterpart: literacy. As Walter J. Ong describes in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word,
the consciousness of people in primary oral societies is considerably different than that of people in literate societies (see especially pp. 31-77).
In particular, "the shift from oral to written speech is essentially a shift from sound to visual space." (p. 117). While people in primary oral societies experience language as sound, alphabets and print have the tendency "to reduce all sensation and indeed all human experience to visual analogues." (p. 76.) Sound, of course, is invisible and dissipates rapidly; words, in Ong's analysis, are "events." Writing, on the other hand, is visible and "immobile"; words become "things . . . for assimilation by vision." (p. 91.)
What writing, print and literacy mean for the post-Renaissance artist is that the visual arena is now invaded by the word. The instinct to seek a primitive state in order to paint is the impulse to return to primary orality, to a consciousness in which language is relegated to sound, and in which the visual sphere is uncoupled from linguistic communication.
The impulse goads the artist into a near impossible task. As is explained in Maryanne Wolf's, Proust and the Squid
(discussed in this New Yorker article
) and Stanislas Dehaene's, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention
(reviewed in the New York Times piece
) both primary orality and literacy are encoded at the neurological level in the brain. I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm guessing that to move from one system to another requires rearranging neural circuitry. (Ong laments that "we can never forget enough of our familiar present [literacy] to reconstitute in our minds any past [of primary orality] in its full integrity" (p. 15).)
On a more personal level, in writing my last novel, The Celebration Husband
, I attempted to portray characters from primary oral societies. To do so, I needed to achieve an understanding of their thinking patterns, logic, motivations, emotional processes, etc. Despite extensive research and imaginative effort, I am not confident that I got it right. Although I believe that the attempt to gain understanding of primary oral consciousness is critical (even in failure), I doubt that a medium of literacy can ever bring to life fully a person from a primary oral society (with the possible exception of poetry). Visual artists might have a better chance. In any event, I feel in a small way that through my work on The Celebration Husband
I can relate to the quests of Klee, Gaugin and other modernists to reconstruct a primary oral consciousness (even if they didn't understand their mission in those terms).
Significantly, conceptual artists represent an abandonment of this effort of the modernists. Conceptual artists accept a visual field occupied by the word, and they put the word (and its corollary, ideas) to work in the service of art.
The effect is necessarily less visually arresting. After all, we literates already experience a visual sphere cluttered with words; conceptual art may invite us to think differently about those words, but it does not present us with a visual arena in which words are absent, as they are in the art work of a person from a primary oral society (or a child).
Ong describes writing as "a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity that tends to assimilate other things to itself." (p. 12.) In Klee, Gaugin and other modernists, we may have witnessed the last resistance of visual artists to this imperialism. And though subsequent generations may not have picked up their fight, these rebel artists produced a legacy on par with that of the Renaissance. We have yet to see post-modernist artists do the same.
(Image of Paul Klee's Zaubergarten from the Guggenheim website
One of the (many) aspects I admire and appreciate about Mario Vargas Llosa is his interest in visual art. The connection between visual art and literacy being one of the great passions of my life, I feel a kinship with the author of In Praise of the Stepmother
, a novel that includes fantastical elaborations on six great paintings, each of which is reproduced in the text.
I was thinking of Vargas Llosa earlier this week when I was in the Tate Modern. First, I thought of him when I saw a Francis Bacon akin to the "Head I" that is among the paintings featured in In Praise of the Stepmother
. Then I thought of him as I walked through the Gaugin exhibit
. Gaugin's paintings seemed to court literary exploration.
In the gift shop at the conclusion of the exhibit, I found a copy of Vargas Llosa's novel, This Way to Paradise
, which is inspired by Gaugin's life. Imagine my delight at reading, in the second chapter, Vargas Llosa's take on the creation of Gaugin's masterpiece, "Manao Tupapau." Vargas Llosa had beat me to the very literary exploration I'd sensed the paintings invited.
Congratulations on the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa. The stunning accomplishment of your oeuvre
has merited this honor, but more importantly has earned your place among books well-loved for ages.
(Image of Mario Vargas Llosa from The Guardian
Mario Vargas Llosa's In Praise of the Stepmother
is a slim, nasty novel about the devastating consequences of allowing oneself to be too bedazzled by gorgeous painting.
The story charts the spectacular destruction of the marriage of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, a middle-aged couple in Lima who marry despite Donna Lucrecia's concerns about becoming a stepmother to Don Rigoberto's son, Fonchito. Don Rigoberto focuses so completely on his rich fantasy life - a fantasy life augmented by his reproductions of smutty nudes by the likes of Titian and Jordaens (left) - that he doesn't notice the hazards that cause Donna Lucrecia anxiety. For her own part, despite her awareness of the dangers, Donna Lucrecia doesn't know how to manage the risks and so falls prey to Fonchito, who first seduces her and then exposes her to Don Rigoberto.
The novel contains lovely reproductions of the paintings that animate Don Rigoberto's and Donna Lucrecia's sexual fantasies. These fantasies involve detailed narrative accounts of the naughty doings that the paintings portray, narratives that - in their attentiveness to the minutiae of the visual art - contrast starkly with the couple's myopic view of encroaching (and menacing) reality.
In his portrayal of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia, Vargas Llosa is not merely mocking people who devote more energy to their fantasies than to their flesh-and-blood lives. Rather, he takes aim at the narrowness and lack of ambition of the lives (and, consequently, the imaginations) of Don Rigoberto and Donna Lucrecia.
Don Rigoberto, for example, engages in an elaborate, nightly pre-sex ritual, during which he secludes himself in the bathroom and devotes obsessive attention to one part of his body each day of the week. One night - ear night (removing wax and tweezing unwanted hairs) - Don Rigoberto muses:
"Happiness exists," he repeated to himself, as he did every night. Yes, provided one sought it where it was possible. In one's own body and in that of one's beloved, for instance; by oneself and in the bathroom; for hours or minutes on a bed shared with the being so ardently desired. Because happiness was temporal, individual, in exceptional circumstances twofold, on extremely rare occasions tripartite, and never collective, civic. It was hidden, a pearl in its seashell, in certain rites or ceremonial duties that offered human beings brief flashes and optical illusions of perfection. One had to be content with these crumbs so as not to live at the mercy of anxiety and despair, slapping at the impossible. Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears, [Don Rigoberto] thought, in a mellow mood.
(p. 29.) I had wondered why Vargas Llosa (and his publisher) had gone to the trouble of reproducing the paintings in In Praise of the Stepmother
, since doing so inevitably made the book more expensive. But when I read, "Happiness lies hidden in the hollow of my ears," I had my answer. Anyone who can gaze upon the art slipped between the pages of the novel and yet still conclude that happiness is as confined a condition as may be experienced from wax-free ear canals deserves to have his wife seduced by his son.In Praise of the Stepmother
is a condemnation of the Philistine, and particularly of aesthetic pretensions of the nouveau riche
. Like a snubbed Yahweh smoting some unfortunate idolaters, Vargas Llosa deals pitilessly with this hapless couple, allowing them to ignore that the powers unleashed by great art are complex and uncontrollable, and ultimately crushing his protagonists under the weight of their ignorance.
Though Vargas Llosa's vengeance is confined to the imagined world of his novel, In Praise of the Stepmother
stands as an unmistakable warning to those who, rather than blind themselves with paintings, bury themselves in books. (Image of Jacob Jordaens King Candaules of Lydia Showing his Wife to Gyges
from National Museum of Sweden