Sunday, June 28, 2015
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.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
During the summer between my sophomore and junior years at the University of Notre Dame, while in the throes of newfound Catholic piety, I crafted a coffee table in my father's basement workshop, with a tiled chessboard built into the top. I designed and jigsawed a chess set, thirty-two pieces enameled black and white, hollowed and weighted at the bottom with solder, the bottoms then covered with green felt. I was hugely proud of the entire production, the finest thing I had ever made.
I was also racked with guilt. Pride is the first of the Deadly Sins. We are called -- so I believed -- to keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is not in this world but the next. The sin called for penance. I would chasten my pride by destroying one of the chess pieces, the white king. I laid the poor fellow on the cement basement floor. I raised the hammer. Then, in a change of heart, I replaced the king with a more easily replaceable pawn. Smash!
As you can see, I was neither a very good sinner nor a very good penitent. I was also already on my way toward apostasy from the bipolar Catholic theology of Paradise and Hell, those enclosing wings of Bosch's triptych. Already my secret longing was for the Garden of Earthly Delights.
The traditional interpretation of the central panel of Bosch's masterpiece is humankind's descent into wickedness, to be paid for in the fiery torments of Hell. And certainly we know from his other works that Bosch had a moralist's regard for sin. But no one could have painted the Garden of Earthly Delights who had not felt -- and did not long for -- pleasures of the flesh. I look at the Garden and see a world that is far more attractive than the sterile precincts of Paradise or the shuddering horrors of Hell.
Men and women, black and white, humans and beasts, enjoy a peaceable kingdom, a world that while tolerant of unconventional desires is devoid of violence. Couples make love in bubbles, in pools, in orchards, in teepees, in mussel shells, on grassy lawns. Everywhere there are luscious fruits -- cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries. The children of Adam cavort with the children of Eve, the lion lies down with the lamb. In the central pool the women bathe, their golden tresses hanging down; their companions circle, an unending parade celebrating the diversity of life. Even the birds, recognizable by species, look on with charmed delight, sharing fruits.
Bosch has pulled a sly trick. Never has "wickedness" been made to look so inviting. Forget for the moment, he seems to say, death, judgment, heaven, hell, all the dark preachings of Savonarola, the burkas, the hairshirts, the smashed chess piece, all those catalogues of sin. Enjoy beauty and pleasure where you find it. Treasure what is yours -- this Earth, this flesh, these creatures, these fruits and flowers. Let Venus rule; not gloomy Saturn or violent Mars.
I look again at the presumed portrait of the artist in the panel Hell. The old master seems to wink.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Three A.M., the hoo-ha hour. Wake from nightmarish dreams. Rehearse in darkness all the things that might go wrong, a catalogue of ominous thoughts. The edge of the bed might as well be the brink of the abyss.
How thin is the line between reason and unreason, civilization and anarchy, law and chaos. The library of Alexandria goes up in smoke. Plague, syphilis, civil war and fire ravage the serenity of Bosch's Flanders. The Germany of Goethe and Humboldt descends into 20th-century savagery. Planes smash into the World Trade Center, tumbling the towers like houses of cards. Our personal lives, too, teeter on a knife edge. A mutant gene. A germ. A drunken driver swerves into our lane.
Three A. M. The long-beaked bird takes me by the hand, leads me round and round.
If we can imagine Bosch's hell, it is because every detail has been drawn from the here and now. The burning cities. The marching armies. The rivers colored with blood. The blades and thorns, spears and arrows. The insect people, scurrying. The nightjar judge on its potty throne, devouring a hapless sinner -- you? me? -- who farts birds, the nightjar judge who defecates men and women into a dark pit. (Is that cesshole connected by subterranean channels to the dark pool at the foreground of Paradise?) The tables are turned. Musical instruments have become instruments of torture -- the officers of Auschwitz listening to Mozart on their gramophones. A pig, dressed as a nun, forces a kiss.
Three A. M. We need not wait for eternity. The judgment is now, day by day, moment by moment. The nightjar judge, with his iron pot crown, disturbs our sleep, his minions scuttle our neuronal passageways, like rats in sewers. I get out of bed. I go to the kitchen. I turn on the light.
But wait. Who is the white man peering out from the center of the panel, the man with the eggshell body, the treetrunk limbs? He is the one incongruous element in the painting, a Gulliver in a Lilliputian hell. Is it a self-portrait of the artist himself? Amid all the madness, his expression is eminently sane, kindly, mildly curious. He watches dispassionately. I dreamed all this up, he seems to say. It's all there, in my head. And if it's in my head, it's in your head too.
Three A. M. The heart of darkness.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
Tout les matins du monde sont sans retour: The mornings of the world are without return. The line is from a novel, and gave the title to a film. It might describe the left-hand panel of Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.
It is the morning of the world that Bosch depicts, the Judeo-Christian version of that ancient and almost universal myth of a time in the past before woe and worry. Eve kneels demurely in her nakedness to receive God's blessing. Adam looks on bemusedly, as if wondering exactly what it is he is supposed to do with the thing between his legs. Their wondrous paradise is filled with birds and beasts of every sort. (Bosch proves himself a careful observer of the natural world; dozens of species can be recognized.) There is indeed a bliss of sorts -- who would not want to wander within these zoological precincts, pet a unicorn, climb the bird-flocked mountain, discover sex for the first time? But all is not as benign as it seems. A cat makes off with a rat; a lion devours a deer. At the center right is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, with its tempting fruit, twining serpent, and slithering beasties emerging from the pond. And what, pray tell, lurks in the dark pool at foreground?
Never mind, forget the ominous hints that paradise is imperfect. It is morning. A passing shower during the night has washed the air. I sit on the terrace in almost Edenic nakedness and watch the sky brighten in the east. Our resident spider, Argiope argentata, six centimeters from claw to claw, has as usual rebuilt overnight her dazzling orb that fills the space between the porch and the white torch tree. The mocking bird, Mimus polyglottos, sings from the peak of the roof. No newspaper lies on the front stoop with terrible headlines from Darfur or Iraq. No television. The radio is silent. It is morning, and every day dawns anew -- awaits its Original Sin.
There is the wish to make this apparently perfect sunrise hour extend indefinitely, to live suspended between thought and action -- to live without thought and without action -- in the stillness of an unending dawn. Perhaps that is what took me briefly as a young man to the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Surely that is the attraction of the cloistered life, Simon on his pillar, the woman in the wall. The mornings of the world are without return, they dawn but once. Catch them if you can.
The itch of sex, the scratch of mind, the nagging voice of responsibility: these haven't yet dawned on Adam, haven't yet crossed Eve's mind. But they will, oh yes they will. Look carefully. Paradise is not what it seems. The great globe of the sun breaks free of the horizon, as it has done more than a trillion times since the first terrestrial dawn. I feel its warmth on my naked skin. Argiope argentata waits beneath her silver shield for the fly that bumbles into her trap. The myth of Eden -- the immaculate auroral hour -- is only that.
(You can click and then click again on any of this week's illustrations for enlargements.)
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Hieronymus Bosch painted his ever-intriguing triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights in or about the year 1504 -- on a cusp of history (click to enlarge). The Middle Ages are ending. Modernity is being born, most dramatically in the Italian Renaissance. Orthodoxy butts head with adventure, dogma with curiosity. The printing press has been invented. Luther will soon nail his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Copernicus is thirty-one years old.
The city of Florence has recently experienced a last gasp of theological repression with the brief ascendancy of the priest Savonarola, who railed against preoccupation with earthly delights. His bonfire of the vanities consumed mirrors, fine clothing, secular books, musical instruments and the equipment of gaming, perhaps even paintings by such masters as Michelangelo and Botticelli. It was not to last. In 1497, the people, especially the young, revolted, danced in the streets, reopened the taverns, threw wide the doors of their souls to an increasingly secular future. Michelangelo's monumental nude David can be taken as a symbol of a new immersion in the natural order, a new embrace of las delicias.
All of this can be seen working itself out in Bosch's Flemish masterpiece. In the left-hand panel Adam and Eve are blessedly -- and nakedly -- at peace in Eden, in a state of innocence, before the Original Sin (although the lion does not quite lie down with the lamb). In the right-hand panel is the ultimate bonfire of the vanities, a vision of Hell more terrifying than any sermon of Savonarola. And in the central panel, men and women nakedly cavort, indulging themselves in every sort of sensual pleasure, much like the beautiful young people in the streets and bedchambers of Florence once Savonarola had been toppled from influence, and for which, in the traditional interpretation of the painting, they will pay a horrific price in the nightmarish Hades to their right.
Anyone who has seen Bosch's painting, even in reproduction (the original is in the Prado in Madrid), will not have forgotten it. It is one of those works which mirror our souls, in which we see our own dreams and nightmares. Over the next few days I will reflect at length on each panel separately, from a purely personal perspective. In doing so, I am mindful that a much-admired colleague in the nature-writing community, Terry Tempest Williams, spent seven years looking at her own soul in Bosch's mirror, and reported what she found in a remarkable book, Leap. It has been some years since I read Leap; in any case, there is unlikely to be much overlap in our responses.