Monthly Archives: January 2014

“You’ve invented a metaphor!”

One of the most beautiful scenes in cinema is the invention-of-a-metaphor scene in in Il PostinoAn eager-to-learn mailman becomes seasick after listening to a poem of a restless sea recited by Pablo Neruda. He feels like he were “tossing on words”.

Pablo Neruda[after reading a poem] What do you think?

Mario Ruoppolo: I felt seasick, in fact.

Mario Ruoppolo: I can’t explain it. I felt like…like a boat tossing around on those words.[…]

Pablo Neruda: Do you know what you’ve done, Mario?

Mario Ruoppolo: No, what?

Pablo Neruda: You’ve invented a metaphor. Yes, you have!

The castrated woman of Laura Mulvey

 Venus at the Opera (1844) by Grandville is the best illustration to the male gaze

Yesterday, a fascinating but notoriously obscurantist text became a little clearer. In the process I was reconciled to French philosopher Jacques Derrida.

My eldest daughter, now in her second year of theatre studies, is studying one of the texts that had for a long time baffled as much as fascinated me: “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema[1], a 1970s film theory essay by Laura Mulvey.

Now, it is my belief that the most valuable philosophers are not always the most lucid ones. I agree with Emil Cioran: ‘between the demand to be clear, and the temptation to be obscure, impossible to decide which deserves more respect.’

Philosophers such as Georges Bataille (‘Eroticism … is assenting to life up to the point of death’) and Gilles Deleuze (‘flying anuses, speeding vaginas, there is no castration’) I’ve never fully understood, but I’ve always been fascinated by them and and felt that it was not impossible to reach some kind of comprehension of their texts, even if the explanation remained ambiguous.

However, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure …” is so stooped in litcrit and psycrit jargon that it is almost unreadable. Key terms in the vocabulary of that essay are lack, castration, fetishism, voyeurism, gaze and scopophilia. So far so good. These are difficult terms to grapple with but not beyond comprehension (except for perhaps the Lacanian lack).

The trouble starts on the first line of the second paragraph:

“The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.”

Castrated woman?

I start Googling.

I find the phrase ‘castrated woman’ in Spurs, Nietzsche’s Styles (1978), a work by Jacques Derrida in which one reads, toward the end:

He was, he dreaded this castrated woman.
He was, he dreaded this castrating woman.
He was, he loved this affirming woman.

So that’s were the notion of the ‘castrated woman’ comes from.

I continue my quest. I find a video[2] by American professor Rick Roderick who defends Derrida’s sense of humor.

I’ve never much cared for Derrida. I’m fond of many 20th century French philosophers but Derrida has been my least favorite and the most dislikeable ‘bums to be kissed by American academics’, to say it in Paglia’s words.

Nevertheless, the premise of Spurs is fascinating. In it, Derrida “imagines that Nietzsche left behind, among his many papers a little scrap of paper that says: “I forgot my umbrella”. Then Derrida goes through a long, complex way that an academic interpreter would try to fit this brilliant aphorism of Nietzsche’s into the body of his work. I mean, after all, it might just mean “I forgot my umbrella”, but on the other hand…”

I am reminded that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I’m happy with my philosophical detective work.

And I may just seek out that “I forgot my umbrella” book by Derrida.

Illustration: Venus at the Opera (1844, Grandville), perhaps the best illustration to the male gaze.

I call myself an amateur

The Monkey Connoisseurs (1837) by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps

I call myself an amateur and a dilettante, despite the negative connotations these two terms carry.

I want to restore to them their original meaning, which is to be found in their etymologies, love in the case of amateur (from amor) and delight in the case of dilettante (ultimately from delectare from whence also came delicatessen for example).

I even dislike the antonym of amateur and dilletante, which is professionalism, a term tainted by the connotation of monetary pursuits and of being close-mindedly ‘stuck’ in a field of expertise.

I’m sure the monkeys agree.

Marie Bonaparte on humankind’s deep-rooted sadism

A few days ago, while studying Goya and his depiction of the horrors of life, I was reminded of a dictum on rape:

“if a woman is raped by an individual, she stands a good chance of surviving the ordeal. If, however, she is raped by a multitude, a mob, the risk is real that she will pay for it with her life.”

It’s from a book by Roland Villeneuve (1922 – 2003), either from Le Musée des supplices or La Beauté du diable, since these are the only two books by him I own.

I started googling for the exact quotation.

Unsuccessfully.

I did find this intriguing dictum instead:

“When one of these great perverts such as Vacher [a French serial killer] or Kürten [a German serial killer] appears on the scene, men who kill simply for pleasure, a wave of excitement sweeps through the masses. Not only by the mere horror, but by a strange interest in the crime, which is our deep-rooted sadism‘s response to theirs. It is as though, civilized and wretched, with our instincts fettered, we were all, in some way, grateful to these great and disinterested criminals for offering us, from time to time, the spectacle of our most culpable, primitive desires at last enacted.” —[…]

These words are from Marie Bonaparte (descendant of Napoleon and known for surgically displacing her clitoris at least two times), from her book The Life and Works of E. A. Poe: a Psychoanalytic Interpretation which I reviewed a while back[1].

The dictum diagnoses human nature as inherently cruel and sadistic, which is hardly a secret when taking into account for example the historic fascination with public executions.

What Marie is saying is that there is a sadist in all of us. That humankind’s collective unconscious is a bit like that of a cruel serial killer.

That’s sociatry for you.

Isn’t it?

Jan van Kessel and the Flemish fantastique and grotesque



I hail from Flanders so I’m biased when I say I love Flemish art, and equally biased when I say I love the Flemish fantastique and grotesque.

It’s not every day I find something new and yesterday my eye caught the wonderful Shells, Butterflies, Flowers and Insects on White Background [image] by Jan van Kessel, senior (Antwerp, 1626 – idem, 1679).

Van Kessel senior, born in Antwerp, hometown of Rubens, where I have lived since 1987.

Furthering my research today, I find Festoon, Masks and Rosettes Made of Shells (1656) by that same Jan van Kessel. It is a “decorative and anthropomorphic composition with shells[1].

Not a classic composition as a matter of fact, more a composite of small composites actually, in the vein of those of Arcimboldo, king of composites.

The detail is reminiscent of one of the grotesque masks [image] by Joris Hoefnagel produced a hundred years earlier.

Van Kessel’s work is a species of early intermedia, located in the no man’s land between natural history illustration and fine art.

Delving into the life of dictum

Ritterburg / Felsenschloß (1828) by Karl Friedrich Lessing

When you delve into the life of a dictum (see prev. post), you may find that it was not uttered by the person you (and everyone else) thought uttered it.

For years, for example, I thought that the winged words “back to nature!“, the credo of Romanticism and later a creed of hippiedom, can be attributed to the Swiss Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In fact, he never said such a thing.

Dictologists (I just made that up) call such errors misattributions.

There is a second misattribution of Rousseau: the term “noble savage,” found 20,000 times in Google Books alone[1]. Nowhere did Rousseau write that. As Peter Gay says “in the years I taught the history of political theory at Columbia to a sizable class of undergraduates, I would offer students a hundred dollars if they could find “Noble Savage” anywhere in Rousseau. I never had to pay up”.

The reason for these misattributions is what we call the “popular imagination,” a ‘space’ in which ideas (or memes if you want) start to live lives of their own, like urban legends, tall tales, traditional stories, myths, misconceptions and apocrypha.

Coming back to Rousseau, one has to admit that there is no smoke without fire. Indeed, Rousseau said things similar to “noble savage” and “back to nature”, as attested for example by “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” which is the incipit of Emile, or On Education which indicates that man in state of nature is good and becomes corrupted thereafter.

And then there is Voltaire’s notorious letter to Rousseau in which Voltaire said:

“I have received your new book [The Social Contract] against the human race and thank you for it. Never was such cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs on reading your book to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of renewing it.”

And of course, there exists an undeniable link between the “cult of nature” and Romanticism, which is best exemplified by the painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.

But since that painting is known beyond cliché, I give you Ritterburg / Felsenschloß (above) by German painter Karl Friedrich Lessing.

My heart in my hands

Il Sacro Cuore, Church of the Gesù, Rome by Pompeo Batoni

I love art. I love kitsch. I love independent body parts.

Unite these three and you get Pompeo Batoni‘s uncanny painting Il Sacro Cuore (above), a depiction of Jesus who is holding his Sacred Heart in one hand and pointing to it with another. The work has become a staple of Christian art and the flaming and bleeding heart shining with divine light, pierced by the lance-wound, surrounded by the crown of thorns, surmounted by a cross, is familiar not to Christians alone.

In all honesty, when I say kitsch, I’m not being fair to Batoni, since his original work[1] (an oval portrait) is far less kitschy than the campy paintings that are derived from the original.

The visual trope of the sacred heart (with flames and blood) originates in a mystical vision by the French nun Margaret Mary Alacoque, who in 1674, described one of her visions:

“The Divine Heart was presented to me in a throne of flames, more brilliant than a sun, transparent as crystal, with this adorable wound. And it was surrounded with a crown of thorns, signifying the punctures made in it by our sins, and a cross above signifying that from the first instant of His Incarnation, […] the cross was implanted into it […].”

Jesus holding out his own heart reminds me of Denis, the patron Saint of Paris, holding his own head in his hands after he was decapitated.

One of the finest versions of the Sacred Heart is the frontispiece to De Culto Sacro Sancti Cordis Dei (above), 1726 by Charles-Joseph Natoire.

it unites art and anatomy and reminds me of  Goats & Heart (Ventriculi quatuor Caprilli) [image], a highlight from my days at Tumblr.

The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing

The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing (c.1887) by Odilon Redon, a dictum from the Pensées (1669) by Blaise Pascal

Over the course of the last six months, I’ve assembled a collection of dicta.

dictum is an authoritative statement; a dogmatic saying; an adage, a maxim, an apothegm.

My method of collecting: Every time I read or heard or thought of an interesting dictum, I added it to the category.

There are now 200 articles in this category, a list of which you find below. 

A

B

C

D

E

F

G

H

I

I cont.

L

M

N

O

P

P cont.

Q

R

S

T

U

W

Y

I took a playing card on the back of which I drew

Stendhal’s depiction of the process of falling in love, ending in crystallization from On Love[1].

What a likable drawing. And in this particular case it may even be true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Stendhal describes or compares the “birth of love” in a new relationship as being a process similar or analogous to a trip to Rome. In the analogy the city of Bologna represents indifference and Rome represents perfect love. In the words of the narrator who writes the words of Madame Gherardi on the back of a playing card:

“While Signora Gherardi was speaking, I took a playing card on the back of which I drew Rome on one side, Bologna on the other and between Bologna and Rome, the four stages which Signora Gherardi had listed.” –tr. Isidor Schneider

Why are the towers in Bologna falling?

Mind the process of it all. The narrator (or is the narrator Stendhal himself?) hears someone speaking, takes a card and makes a drawing of what is said. Stendhal puts the words in the mouth of the narrator and reproduces the drawing. Depiction – ekphrasis – depiction.

Book illustrations are always somewhat of a pleasant surprise in works of literature. It is the only drawing in On Love, which sadly is not available in a public domain English edition.

Why read the classics?

[Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

I finished reading Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino, a book featuring 36 essays on classic books.

Excellent reading. Highly erudite. Such ease of narration.

Of course, I love the genre, books about books. The last I read of its kind was Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986–1999 by J. M. Coetzee[1].

Highlights, you ask?

The large essay on Stendhal and on De l’amour in particular.

That the Anabasis is a war novel.

That Twain was not much of a stylist.

That Orlando Furioso is an example of the fantastique.

A reference to the Encyclopédie des sciences inexactes by Raymond Queneau which reminded me of Umberto Eco’s pet project the Cacopedia.

And … the prose poetry of Francis Ponge:

“Kings do not touch doors. They do not know that pleasure of pushing open in front of you, slowly or brusquely, one of those big familiar rectangular panels, and turning back to close it in its place again – holding a …”
“. . . the pleasure of grabbing, at the belly of one of those tall obstacles to a room, its porcelain knob; the rapid duel in which you hold back your step for the instant it takes for the eye to open and the whole body to adapt to its new surroundings.”
“With a friendly hand you hold onto it still, before decisively pushing it back and closing yourself in another room — a feeling of enclosure which is reenforced by the click of the handle’s powerful, but well-oiled spring.”
“The Pleasures of the Door” [2]