Friday, January 11, 2008

El jardin de las delicias -- Part 5 1504

In 1504, the year Hieronymus Bosch probably painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, hundreds of miles to the south the Florentines set up in the center of their city Michelangelo's just completed David, a 14-foot-tall white marble statue of the young Israeli king. The statue was meant as symbol of Florentine power -- the giant-killer becomes a giant -- but it was more than that. It was a supreme Renaissance recognition of the power of humans to control their own destinies. No longer need men and women be the playthings of gods who must be placated by incantations and sacrifice. Tall, youthful, mesmerizingly beautiful, utterly naked -- Michelangelo's David paid only the slightest nod to its biblical source. It was set up in the Piazza della Signoria, outside the Palazzo Vecchio, a secular setting for a secular work of art. Hubris? Perhaps. But confidence too, a confidence that would be largely confirmed by history.

Meanwhile, in that same year, Copernicus began to make the celestial observations that would allow him to tear the Earth from its cosmic foundations and send it spinning through the heavens. If the Earth is in motion around the Sun, then the absence of stellar parallax requires that the stars be vast, almost incomprehensible distances away. This was more than a recondite matter of mathematical astronomy. Suddenly the tidy cosmos of Dante and the theologians, contrived by God as a stage for the drama of sin and salvation, was smashed. Humans broke free of the great chain of being. They discovered new civilizations across the Atlantic (and cruelly destroyed them in the name of religion and gold.) Eventually, they would send ships across oceans of interplanetary space.

Hieronymus Bosch does not interest us, I think, for his qualities as an artist. It is as an explorer of the human psyche that we engage him. In the Garden of Earthly Delights triptych he takes us where no one else will quite so explicitly go until Freud appears on the scene four centuries later. He grasps the human psyche by its ankles and shakes it out onto his "canvas." It's all there. Our hankerings for a prelapsarian Eden. Our propensities for envy, gluttony, avarice, sloth, lust, anger, pride. Our capacity for violence. The itch of sex. Altruism. Reverence. Curiosity. Beauty. Love.

Evolutionary psychologists debate what parts of human nature are genetic and what parts are cultural. I think it would be foolish to underestimate biology. Foolish, too, to underestimate our ability to transcend biology. Our neuro-biological natures are sufficiently complex to confer upon us a de facto freedom to choose the good, not because we fear eternal punishment but because reason and experience assures us that our own happiness depends upon the happiness of all.

Tomorrow: One last visit to the jardin de las delicias.