Tuesday, January 29, 2008
"As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness."
This psalm moved me deeply when I read it last week, and it hasn't ceased rolling through me since then. It begins with a repeated heartfelt cry for the LORD to hear, and to answer. It is a plea which echoes throughout the entire book of Psalms (Tehillim)--hear me LORD, remember me. The singer is beset with enemies; he is oppressed and compassed about. It seems that whichever direction he turns, all he can see is row upon endless row of his fat foes, while his Heavenly Friend is nowhere to be found. He proclaims, like Job, his own righteosness, and demands that the LORD give him satisfaction by rewarding him for his goodness.
But suddenly, in the last verse, a change comes over the singer and he ends the psalm with the calmly radiant statement: "I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness." When he is spiritually awake, fully aware and completely conscious, he will see the face of God, for to the awakened soul, the likeness of God appears throughout His Creation, and everything the singer sees becomes a divine manifestation. If the singer awakens, he will see that the LORD has been beside him, around him, and within him at all times and that he was never alone or abandoned, merely asleep. He will see that those he views as his enemies also partake of divinity and are made in the image of God, each bearing a unique seal of His creative power. His enemies will cease to be his enemies. In his sleeping state, the singer has assumed that his own goodness merits reward, while the actions of his enemies merits punishment, but when he is awake he will see that there is really very little difference between him and his fellows, as they are all children of the same God and each animated by His divine breath. The world and its inhabitants are God's mirror, and His likeness is reflected in its various forms, each varied and individual, but each bearing the stamp of His Presence. When the soul is awake, we may see God's likeness in any direction we turn.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
The dragon-slaying story had other roots, as well. The St. George story also may have descended from story of Cadmus and the dragon: after finding a nice spot to build a city (Thebes), Cadmus went to fetch water from the well of Dirce, where he slew a dragon dear to Ares. He sowed its teeth in the earth, and out sprang a gaggle of angry fighting men who promptly killed each other (except for 5, who helped him build the city). Cadmus, to atone for killing the dragon, had to be Ares' servant for 8 years before becoming the first king of Thebes. Later, he and his wife were transformed into serpents as a final punishment for killing Ares' darling serpent. In the mids of Italian Renaissance artists, the story of St. George was surely related to the Book of Revelations, where St. Michael the Archangel defeats the serpent Satan in an apocalyptic battle.
The story was of great importance to Italian Renaissance artists. Like the story of David and Goliath, it represented an underdog victory, which had political resonance in the recently triumphant Florence. But more importantly it illustrated the Renaissance ideals of reason triumphing over the bestiality of Nature--the triumph of Order over Chaos. In all of them, the long phallic lance is an important symbol of the male ego opposing the wildness of the the natural world.
Occasionally, as in the case (above) of Leonhard Beck's murdered mother and child, the dragon is feminine, and St. George represents male chastity trampling on unbounded female sexuality. His overcoming represents the overcoming of natural desire and the binding of sexuality within the Church-sanctioned bonds of marriage. The role of the rescued princess is pivotal in this reading: she ‘chooses’ to be with St George rather than the dragon, and in some late medieval versions she is offered to him as a bride. He refuses, of course (he is a representation of chastity, after all), but her future role is clearly indicated--she will be a safely-married woman, not a dangerous, single, sexual female like the dragon. Like Michelangelo's famously female serpent in Eden, the serpent-dragon was a symbol of Mother Nature's poisoned gifts.
Beginning in at least the fourteenth century, the traditional image of St. George and the dragon was of beautiful muscle-toned horse rearing up, shining and impassive St. George gripping a long lance and impaling the ferocious dragon's neck like a piece of butter, often with a lovely princess hanging about somewhere in the vicinity, either distressed with the violence of the apocalyptic battle or, more often, calm in the purity of her prayer. St. George was encased in his ego-armor, his intricately articulated shell of persona. George's armor, finely wrought as a Greek torso and burnished to emphasize it's surface, exalts intellectual beauty over the formlessness of nature.
As the Italian influence began to creep northward, other artists began to turn to the story as an artistic subject. Generally, a very Italian approach was adopted, albeit within the traditions of Northern art.
Bernt Notke (a German painter/sculptor) presents an absolutely spectacular Swedish victory sculpture, commissioned by the royalty of Sweden to commemorate their military supremacy over rival Denmark. Made of painted wood, it features a hideously frenzied dragon and a golden St. George.
Albrecht Altdorfer created a wonderful print with a flamboyantly befeathered George slaying a mean-looking beast with a distinctly female torso.
Albrecht Altdorfer (c. 1480-1538) studied the art of Cranach, Durer, and Mantegna. Like Durer, he studied in Italy and was fascinated by the Italians' figural ideas. He became more and more Italian throughout his career, and even tried his hand at fresco. But his natural affinity was for landscape, and the raging beauty of the southern German countryside. Landscape tends to overpower figures. His genius responded most vividly to the world of weeds and roots, of looming trees and massive cliffsides--it is the same southern German landscape which so richly informs the tales of Grimm, which were likely circulating in early forms at this time. Altdorfer's is perhaps the first European art since prehistoric times to concern itself directly with mysterious powers of the vegetable underworld--the epic grandeur and monstrosity of inhuman Nature. Altdorfer's art is tortured by a tension between the wildness of German landscape, Nature's ferocious spread, and the refined Italian figural tradition, which he admired but never truly made his own.
This fascinating dichotomy is evident in Altdorfer's 1510 masterpiece, St. George in the Forest. Almost the entire panel is filled with the ferocious wildness of the forest, from which the lumpy, froglike dragon seems to emerge, slobbering with primordial slime. In a little window where the trees open, the light of the outside world burns through. St. George, in contrast to the vibrant Italian imagery we have seen, is not in the act of killing the dragon—rather, he seems to be looking down on it with pity. His lance hangs limply at his side. Altdorfer's George looks tired, his armor is dingy, and the horse seems to shrink back in disgust at the sight of the formless, murky dragon. The figures become lost in the ferocious foliage (ferocious like the dragon traditionally should be) which threatens to choke out the figures themselves (who should traditionally be the focus), and they all seem to merge into monochrome. The knight seems to be musing on something within himself which he knows he must slay in order to leave the dark forest of the unconscious and emerge into the distant light of the ego-world. His armor glints dully, the fragile boundary of his blurry persona. The princess is nowhere to be seen, so what is the purpose of this "battle?"
The "battle" is taking place not on an Italian stage, but in the thick woods of southern Germany, or, more accurately, in the the strangling thickets within George's own wounded soul. Cadmus' destiny was to become a serpent one day--he already had serpent qualities within himself before he slew Ares' beloved pet. Like Cadmus, George must overcome the chthonian aspects of his own nature so that he might emerge intact, able to build a city of Order. It is not an easy task, nor is it a glorious one. Rather, it takes place when George is up to his knees in primeval muck. Cadmus was haunted by his decision for the rest of his life. The name "George" is derived from the Greek words for "earth" (ge) and "work" (ergon), making "George" a tiller of the soil. Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend describes St. George as a "holy wrestler," and goes on to say, "So George is to say as tilling the earth, that is his flesh."
Altdorfer's genius was to internalize the Apollonian drama of the Italian St. George, altering the setting from the opera stage to the choked swamps of George's inner life. It is a movement from the ornate outwardness of Catholic iconography to the inward individual consciousness of Protestantism. By removing the apparent motive for the battle, Altdorfer forces us to reinterpret what exactly is happening. Altdorfer's St. George is struggling with his murky inner trolls--he is loath to kill them, and his only prize is a private one. George the holy wrestler is tilling his own flesh.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Look! It is the consecrated mount
Of suits sans bodies
Footless shoes and neckless necklaces
Empty belts still buckled
to the hard-won third notch
Whispering in ghastly pizzicati
Rustling, shivering in the thin breeze
Patient for their inheritance
Patient as valleymaking drops.
Does not see the door—
Does not discern the window-glass—
Flutters desperately from shelf to shelf
Staying near to the ceiling—
Charting divine parabolas
Along the grid of asbestos tile—
The trees are paused in ice
No one breathes
I do not breathe
Slipperquivering flesh of red unreason
Legs twitching, you groan
and from your amphibious lungs bubble
the mumbled syllables of incoherent prophecy
a bubblebabble of koax and brekkek
gurgling to the heavens...
Do angels stand at the four corners
of your bed, drenched in their scaly commodities,
trumpets at their licked lips?
When you ripplerise you wash away
your frogface, and straightening your tie
step out the door, leaving
wet footprints in the crimson clay.
And it was there in the firefly-gilded night I saluted you
blazing through my body
strumming like fat thumbs strumming
on the glass bones of my translucent body, sliding
through my eyes and filling my lungs
as fire fills a forest—
What shadings of desire were yours
when you stepped onto this asphalt
the soles of your feet blackening with each step...
Hovering between heaven and earth
Between the terrible crystals and the crystals of my bones
swooping down boltfalling
O cormorant angel
I felt your black skyfilling wing
brush the nape of my neck
at night on Claremont Avenue
under the sparkling bulbs of false light
and my lungs slammed against one another like massive bells—
I knew then that darkness is truth
for only in darkness can a man feel a thing
feel it in all its thingness
not sliding off its surfaces...
For you are the angel of longing,
full of light but shrouded in manifold mantles—
For true light is touched and not seen
True fire flies away from your worldcovering wings;
It is perceived through our eyes, not with them—
I was blessed that night, blessed
not to have been snapped up in your curved bill
as you descended upon gibbering prey mysterious to me...
Covering Cherub, Angel of History
What you do not know, what you must never know
is the purple ocean that boils through the veins of men
the foaming crashing endless ocean that will never be content with its shores
You must never know, O Mighty One,
that when two shattered naked humans meet
in the dark green obsidian of your sky
when they truly meet
They travel backwards into themselves through themselves
burst out the other side bathed in the vermilion sea of newness
discerning the unity the originality lost so long ago
which they have forgotten and you remember
you remember remember for it is inscribed in every filament of your pinions
its memory gallops through the airless bloodless tubes of your veins—
And they have found what you shall never find
for an endless moment
Outside of time where time begets new times
Outside of space where space begets new spaces
Breaking through the walls and the cast-iron moldings and gratings
of this brick-and-gutter world
an instant—an instant between instants—an eternal newness
its duration less than the pulse of an artery
but extending far beyond falsified centuries...
It is this, O angel of faded photographs, that you cannot know
for to know it would be your fall
a snap of northwind would strip you of your feathers
and you would crush the spired city with your drop...
We keep this single secret, you and I,
locked away like a volcano—
Heal us O Lord and we shall be healed—Amen
Overcranked with seasilt
And do your lips moistly part
Like a pungent oyster
Your pearlglistening eyes
Coldly reflecting across their surface
The forgotten face of your brother,
His features blank with unreason—
As you rise to meet him?
Can Love journey into such depths
And retain its name—
And can an angel, feathers choked with oil,
Lungs packed with silt—sing of wonder?