Monday, May 27, 2013

Secret chords, cracked faces, and beauty

I've been a little obsessed lately with HistoryRobert Lowell's 1973 180-page sequence of blank-verse sonnets, which vaults across the length of the history of Western civilization (in a pretty traditional, almost stodgy, sense of the term). Among other themes, Lowell writes a number of ecphrastic poems about famous artists and works of art, including this poem, "Rembrandt":
His faces crack . . . if mine could crack and breathe!
His Jewish Bridegroom, hand spread on the Jewish Bride's
bashful, tapestried, level bosom, is faithful;
the fair girl, poor background, gives soul to his flayed steer.
Her breasts, the snowdrops, have lasted out the storm.
Often the Dutch were sacks, their women sacks,
the obstinate, undefeated hull of an old scow;
but Bathsheba's ample stomach, her heavy, practical feet,
are reverently dried by the faithful servant,
his eyes dwell lovingly on each fulfilled sag;
her unfortunate body is the privilege of service,
is radiant with an homage void of possession. . . .
We see, if we see at all, through a copper mist
the strange new idol for the marketplace. 
Lowell refers to three, possibly four paintings in the poem. The first is The Jewish Bride:

Rembrandt: The Jewish Bride, ca.1667. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. 121.5 cm × 166.5 cm. Hi-res here at Wikipedia.

What strikes me about this is Lowell's subtle insertion of motive around the edges of description. There's no reason internal to the canvas to think that the bridegroom is especially faithful, or that the bride is bashful. We could just as easily call them duplicitous and unembarrassed. But once you've read the poem, Lowell's projections are hard to shake. Why is the bride looking away? What do the gestures—that knot of hands crossed in the middle of the painting—connote? I think Lowell is reading bashfulness into the bride's hand loosely draped over the groom's as if in modesty. He's concerned only with her (faithful); she's worried someone might be watching.


The second is Rembrandt's Flayed Ox: "the fair girl, poor background, gives soul to his flayed steer."
Rembrandt: The Flayed Ox. Ca. 1655. Louvre, Paris. From Wikipedia.
Lowell does pick out the one detail that turns this painting from being an impressive, gruesome, technical exercise into something more felt—intimate, horrifying, dark: the faint, lightly sketched girl who stands behind the ox. He picks up on what most of us find enthralling about Old Master paintings: the dance of gazes intersecting, the watched watching the watchers. Something about the mere presence of another human—not even a human, an image of a human—imparts a quality of humanness (of "soul?") to the things around it. Anthropomorphization starts with other people.

And the third is one of Rembrandt's most famous (although the Flayed Ox is already pretty famous), the 1654 painting of Bathsheba, feet washed by a servant:

Rembrandt, Bathsheba. 142 cm x 142 cm. Prob. 1654. Louvre, Paris. From Wikipedia

The story of Bathsheba is one of the most dramatic involving King David, who is sitting Jerusalem while a war rages on nearby:
And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king's house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon. And David sent and enquired after the woman. And one said, Is not this Bath-sheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite? And David sent messengers, and took her; and she came in unto him, and he lay with her; for she was purified from her uncleanness: and she returned unto her house. And the woman conceived, and sent and told David, and said, I am with child. (2 Samuel 11.2-5)
David has a devious solution to this problem. He sends Uriah, who is a soldier, into battle with a letter dispatching him to the front lines, where—in no uncertain terms—David makes it clear that he wants him left undefended and thereby killed. Uriah dies; the battle is lost; and David marries the pregnant Bathsheba.

But he doesn't get away with it. The prophet Nathan comes to reprimand him with a fable:
[Nathan] came unto [David], and said unto him, There were two men in a city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him. And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had not pity. And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. (12.1-7)
Bathsheba falls sick, and David repents; but the child she gives birth to dies shortly after birth. Having repented, however, the next child they conceive is Solomon, who will go on to succeed David as king of Israel.

When I was younger and in school, this story was used (in a slightly bowdlerized form) to warn us away from greed—to be happy with what we had, not take others' things, and even share. There was a memorable VeggieTales episode about it titled "King George and the Ducky." (If you don't know what VeggieTales was—well, watch the video below. Suffice it to say it was a major part of my childhood.)


On one level, it is kind of noxious that Bathsheba (or, if we're going to be more linguistically accurate—which we should—Bat Sheva) is treated throughout the story merely as a piece of property figuratively analogous to chattel (or, erm, rubber duckies). But Rembrandt's painting exercises a remarkable sympathy for its time, making Bat Sheva the center of the story and focusing on her moral quandary: allegiance or fidelity? (One of the artful subtleties of Lowell's poem is how it dances around this question: "faithful" is the only repeated substantive, yet neither time is it applied to Bathsheba.) In Bat Sheva, there's a female figure in the Bible who manages to transcend simple distinctions of Mary/Eve—a character who is forced to do as well as she can in circumstances that compel her into some kind of moral wrong. It's not dissimilar from the myth of Antigone; her story—implicit and buried in the text though it is—may be closer to Greek tragedy than any other character's story in the Tanakh. Rembrandt "tells" that story in one of its most forceful forms.

There are echoes here and there of the same story. One of the best known—and best-loved—is Leonard Cohen's 1984 song "Hallelujah," which loosely alludes to the story of David and Bathsheba. (Albeit, in the middle of the second stanza, David and Bathsheba some how get superimposed upon/confused with Samson and Delilah.) The song stages itself as an echo of a hymn ostensibly sung by David (who was a harpist—a quality important in his rise to the throne, for reasons too complicated to explain here):
I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth,
The minor fall, the major lift,
The baffled king composing: Hallelujah,
Hallelujah, Hallelujah... 
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah:
Hallelujah, Hallelujah...
It's not Leonard Cohen's version of the song most people know, though; in fact, a lot of people dislike the original, with its synthesizers and gospel choir and, well, Leonard Cohen's voice. It's Jeff Buckley's 1994 recording that inspires the most loyalty, and, in some sense, plucked the song out of obscurity, as Ashley Fetters describes in a review of Alan Light's book on the song (yes, on just this one song):
Jeff Buckley, a hungry young singer-songwriter from California, first heard "Hallelujah" on a Leonard Cohen tribute album he discovered in a friend's home while cat-sitting in Brooklyn in 1992. He began performing the song regularly in New York's East Village clubs, and called it "a hallelujah to the orgasm ... an ode to life and love." Buckley's close friend Glen Hansard—who went on to win an Oscar in 2007 for his song "Falling Slowly," from Once—had moved to New York with him, and described Buckley's rendition of "Hallelujah" as a loving critique of Cohen's somewhat stoic original: "He gave us the version we hoped Leonard would emote, and he wasn't afraid to sing it with absolute reverence. Jeff sang it back to Leonard as a love song to what he achieved, and in doing so, Jeff made it his own." 

But most of my generation encountered the song for the first time in the middle of the movie Shrek, as sung by Rufus Wainwright. It has suffered other indignities since then, most recently being reshaped into a profane pro-New Jersey, anti-hurricane tirade by Adam Sandler at a charity event in the wake of Sandy. It has been sung in oh-so-slightly rushed versions by too many American Idol contestants. "Hallelujah" risks being culture-industried to death—an evocation of a feeling that used to actually be there before the song wore down into cliché. Cheap college-student cultural Marxism still does a pretty good job of explaining the fear; Theodor Adorno put it somewhere even beyond the hippie-ish divide of "real/inauthentic":
It enjoys a double victory: the truth it extinguishes without it can reproduce at will as a lie within. “Light” art as such, distraction, is not a decadent form. Anyone who complains that it is a betrayal of the ideal of pure expression is under an illusion about society. ... Serious art has been withheld from those for whom the hardship and oppression of life make a mockery of seriousness, and who must be glad if they can use time not spent at the production line just to keep going. 
It's a pity, because if you can put aside the reality-show stages and the CGI cartoons, it really is a beautiful song. But it's as hard a feeling to excavate as what it was like to hear "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for the first time, or to see van Gogh's "Starry Night" before it was the Starry Night. We keep trying to tear through our own cultural scar tissue lest something that really matters be buried too deeply to recover under layers of cheese and parody and irreverence. Lowell turns despairingly toward the same conclusion in the closing line of the Rembrandt sonnet: "We see, if we see at all, through a copper mist / the strange new idol for the marketplace." The Bathsheba, too, he worries, will turn into a thing seen rather than a thing felt.

Zadie Smith evokes some sense of what it's like to listen to the song, unalloyed and unsullied, in her 2005 novel On Beauty. Kiki Belsey remembers her husband Howard describing the Leonard Cohen version, spinning on a cheap record player, as "a hymn deconstructing a hymn." And then she goes on to remember hearing the Jeff Buckley version of the song for the first time, years later:
When, on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Jerome had played his parents an ethereal, far more beautiful version of 'Hallelujah' by a kid called Buckley, Kiki had thought yes, that's right, our memories are getting more beautiful and less real every day. And then the kid drowned in the Mississippi, recalled Kiki now, looking up from her knees to the colourful painting that hung behind Carlene's empty chair. Jerome had wept: the tears you cry for someone whom you never met who made something beautiful that you loved. 
The novel takes its title from On Beauty and Being Just, a book by Elaine Scarry that argued against the kind of skepticism and even revulsion towards beauty that Adorno felt was necessary in order to maintain a coherent social vision. Smith's novel pits the art professor Howard Belsey's dogmatic distrust of beauty in art against his incorrigible susceptibility to beauty in life—a susceptibility that proves to be his personal and moral undoing. David-like, Belsey keeps getting pulled into stupid affairs with women he craves but doesn't love. But there's no way out, at least not on the level of ideology, she suggests; radical disavowal of the beautiful just makes us even more enthralled to its power. The best we can do is own up to it. If you don't really care for music, you're even more likely to be devastated and obsessed by the one song that breaks through.

And there's one more note in this chord I need to hit: Howard Belsey is a Rembrandt specialist. 

1 comment:

  1. Spencer, I LOVE your blog. You've expanded my summer reading list tenfold. Thank you! -Lizzy Hoham

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