Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Psalm 46: It's Melting Time

This psalm evokes the recurrent Biblical images of chaos-sea and order-walls, exploring the theme of boundaries. Images of roaring waters are associated with raging warfare, emphasizing destruction and chaos. Waters are tied to chaos because they are unbound, primeval, disorganized--water is the ferocious and impassive source from which creative life springs. The story of Yahweh and the sea monster Leviathan is scattered throughout the Bible, and like the manna of Leviathan's shattered head (Psalm 74:14), it nourishes and enriches the text.

When the LORD utters the words, "Be still," the whole earth melts. The melting process involves dissolving the boundaries between things so that they merge together. Ice cubes are rigidly bound individual pieces of water, but when they melt they lose their defined shapes and descend into formlessness, merging together into a puddle and making it impossible to know where one cube ended and another began. When we hear God's voice ("Be still"), things melt away to reveal the unity behind apparent multiplicity. God's voice dissolves boundaries.

However, God also creates boundaries. In the next verses, the psalm speaks of "a river whose streams make glad the city of God." The city image is one of a complex organization opposed to nature, while the river is the flowing, boundless water of chaos-nature organized into a directional pattern, bounded on either side by banks. It is an image of organized chaos, of organized innocence. The total image is one of high systemization nourished (and made glad) by the living waters of organized innocence. As I conceive it, the city is surrounded by walls, boundaries that separate and strengthen it. The river rushes through the gates and around the gardens within, providing life, growth, and change. At the center of the city of God, in the holy-of-holies, is the LORD himself ("God is in the midst of her"), an internal creative fire. Essentially it is a wild chaos of water outside and an untamed flame within, surrounded and separated by the walls of restraint. It is a cartography of the divine man utilizing the subterranean wonder of messy life and the endless expanses of the heavens--bounded, vivified, and holy. God shows us the essential unity behind the many facades of life, then shows us how to draw from this boundless unity and drink from the waters of Life.

*By the way, to anyone who cares, the phrase "It's melting time," comes from Ibsen's Peer Gynt, where the wryly grim Button Moulder threatens Peer with identity-dissolution.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Jan Lenica (1928-2001)

Jan Lenica began as a brilliant poster artist and became a brilliant animator.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533)

I just finished reading Ariosto's Orlando Furioso a couple of days ago, and it's my new favorite book. Ariosto's poem is a miracle of lightness, speed, and brio. His very name gives a clue to his primary characteristics--it's related to arioso, which means (in Italian) "airy" and is also a musical term referring to a brief song between a recitative and an aria ("Melodious, graceful; a short composition in the style of an aria but less symmetrical in its construction"). Ariosto's writing is all about brief, songful, asymmetrical moments gracefully crammed between beauties--his poem races gorgeously from one wild moment to the next. Imagine all the brightest and most "airy"qualities of Byron, Spenser, Calvino, and Cervantes jumbled deliciously together, and spiced with a dash of Kafka. It's little wonder so many other artworks sprang from such fertile soil--from further poems and books to Italian operas to paintings and engravings. C. S. Lewis (whose literary criticism generally rankles me) wrote that an ignorance of Ariosto would "rob us of a whole species of pleasures and narrow our very conception of literature."

The Furioso doesn't really begin or end--it is a gleaming chunk of life. It is all about pursuit, opening with a frantic chase and ending with a fleeing, howling spirit. It is filled with an infinitude of zany episodes; a trip to the moon (to recover Orlando's lost mind--everything we lose on earth pops up on the moon), the flights of the ludicrous hippogriff, angelic fistfights, the exploits of the fearless women warriors Bradamante (everyone's favorite) and Marfisa, an enchanted steel castle of endless mirrors and unattainable objects. The Furioso is about the labyrinthine impossibilities of desire and the wild weavings of destiny, told in a wry tone that jumps so quickly from person to person and scene to scene that the reader is soon swept up in Ariosto's ironic whirlwinds of Amor. Ariosto himself never gets caught up in his own whirlwinds, however--he remains serenely on the outside of his book, a master puppeteer.

This brilliant book has had many admirers and inspired artists over the 500 years since it's publication in 1516.
Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata is a child of the Furioso. Spenser's Faerie Queene directly imitates the Furioso, while Ariosto's tongue-in-cheek moments of chivalric lunacy provided an example for Cervantes' sublime Don Quixote. Voltaire claimed the Furioso to be the equal of the Iliad, the Odyssey and Don Quixote all rolled together. Hegel took serious note of the work as a philosophical demonstration of the fallibility of human perception. The urbane, ironic style of Byron's Don Juan owes an immense debt to Ariosto. Calvino wrote a delicious trilogy of novels (The Baron in the Trees, The Cloven Viscount, and The Nonexistent Knight; collected as Our Ancestors) as a delightful homage to Ariosto's genius. Sir Salman Rushdie's wondrous recent novel, The Enchantress of Florence, breathes the air of Ariosto as well. It has been a favorite of Spanish-language authors from Lope de Vega and Cervantes to Borges and Garcia Marquez. Scores of Baroque operas emerged from Ariosto's shining volume--from Handel's Alcina, Rinaldo, and Orlando to Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso and Rameau's Les Paladins, to name only a few. Here, for your viewing pleasure is a random assortment of wonderful images inspired by Ariosto's masterpiece. Tiepolo, for me, captures the pristine air of Ariosto's lyrical world perfectly (he devoted several frescoes to the Furioso in the Villa Valmarana), but some of the others (such as Dore) conjure up the bizarreries that makes this world unsettling.



This is truly the kind of book that one can read from every day, like the Divine Comedy or Finnegans Wake or the Bible. It is what Anthony Burgess fondly termed a "bedside book;" a book to live with and grow old with. It fashions a mercurial world of passion, mobility, wonder, longing, vivacity, and humor--an uncanny, shifting world that may change the way you view the world you happen to live in. I hope our world never forgets Ludovico Ariosto, but if we do, I'm sure he'll be very happy living on the moon with all of our other lost treasures.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

"J. J. Grandville" (1803-1847)

J. J. Grandville was the pseudonym of Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard (1803-1847), a fantastical French illustrator who later inspired the Surrealists. He was born into a theatrical family and inherited the name Grandville from his grandparents, who had previously used it on stage. He made his name as a caricaturist, with memorable lampoons of his contemporaries, such as his famous image of the bombastic tendencies of Hector Berlioz's orchestra.

His genius bloomed into its fullest fruition in 1829, with Les Métamorphoses du jour, a series of seventy satirical scenes depicting human-animal crossbreeds.

I don't know whether Grandville ever met Gerard de Nerval, but they should have been pals. Surely, Max Ernst must have pored over Grandville's ouvre.

Later in his career, due to renewed censorship laws, Grandville shifted into book illustration, fashioning superbly-crafted images for literature like Fontaine's fables, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, and Don Quixote.

Wonderful as these are, his real genius lay in the bizarre and witty juxtapositions of his earlier work. Sadly, Grandville lived out his final years in a psychiatric asylum after his child choked to death beside him at the dinner table.

There is a nice tribute to Grandville's art on the great Bibliodyssey, along with links to more of his work.