In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is an artist who cannot find a wife that matches his ideal of what a perfect woman should be. So as an artist and sculptor he decides to make his own “woman.” Ovid says that the figure of a woman he sculpts is so flawless that one would think she is alive: ars adeo latet arte sua. (The art is especially hidden by its own skill.) In other words, the brilliance of Pygmalion’s art hides the fact that his sculpture is indeed art and not a real woman. Isn’t this the kind of seamless perfection towards which all artists or creators strive?
This idea concerning the creation of art came to mind as I was reading Josipovici’s novel about a composer named Pavone whose story is told to us by his longtime manservant, Massimo, after the artist has died. The narrative is told in a interview format, although we are never told why Massimo is being interviewed or by whom. The memories that Massimo has of his long-time employer are scattered and fragmented. The composer would have Massimo take him for long drives and would talk to him about his music, art, and his life. This fractured narrative is fitting for an artist whose work is considered flawless but who can’t quite describe what prompts such talent. We are given glimpses into Pavone’s life, from an early age as the only child of Sicilian aristocrats up until the time of his death. Sometimes the descriptions of his musical talent are bizarrely hyperbolic:
He said that he began to improvise at the piano at the age of three. I would rush upon any piano that happened to be around, he said to me, and I would beat it with my fists and kick it with my feet. But no one ever said to me: What are you doing? You will break the piano. No. Everyone was astonished, but they never told me to stop, he said. I am eternally grateful to them for that. All through my life, he said, I have rushed upon everything, music and poetry, women and food, with my fists and my feet flailing out, but no one ever told me to hang back. It is to that I owe my musicianship, he said, which is better than that of anyone in the world because it is an uninhibited musicianship.
But this still doesn’t fully explain his genius or his impetus for composing music. At other times Pavone, via Massimo, is more philosophical:
Music became too conscious at the beginning of the twentieth century, he said, it was necessary to return to its roots in the unconscious. Some people call this inspiration, a grand name for a simple thing. The root of the word inspiration is breath, he said, and all music is made of breath. If I have given anything to music, he said, it is that I have given music back its awareness of the importance of breathing, of breath.
A beautiful sentiment, but we are still non the wiser about the source of Pavone’s talent. Like many arts— that of Quignard’s character in Villa Amalia comes to mind—Pavone suffers a heartbreak which seems to be a catalyst for some of his best work. He has a tumultuous marriage with an English woman who leaves him and never contacts him again. In order to escape and make himself feel better, he takes a trip to Nepal which he believes is a turning point in his career. When his wife leaves he stays with Michaux in Paris and makes friends with the author’s cat and remarks, ” If only humans beings were as self-contained and undemanding as cats, he said, marriage would be a much more successful institution.” I don’t think Pavone truly understands cats or marriage. And the dissolution of this relationship and his travels don’t fully explain his artistic genius.
A childhood conducive to creating, heartbreak, travel—these are not unique things. Many artists have experienced these circumstances, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they will attain the level of talent that Pavone does. Pavone can go on and on, to infinity, trying to explain the source of his drive to create music. But, in the end, Ovid is right, the art is hidden by its own skill and there really are no words for it.
8 responses to “Ars Adeo Latet Arte Sua: Infinity by Gabriel Josipovici”
There are some interesting thoughts on this novel here, which I just finished last night. I have become interested in reading fiction about artists. I recently started Mann’s Doctor Faustus. I am the least musical person, but I was interested in Infinity, and I am enjoying Mann’s work (I’ve read The Magic Mountain and Buddenbrooks already).
Villa Amalia by Quignard which I mention is very good. Also short.
Josipovici is on the list of writers I’ve not yet read but want to. (Quignard on the list of those I’ve not read enough of!)
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What I like about Josipovici is that many of his books are short so you can get a taste of him.
Insightful post as per usual! For a visual incarnation of what Ovid described, consider this:
“Pygmalion & Galatea”
— by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c. 1890)
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Beautiful review, Melissa! Looks like a fascinating book! I love that Ovid quote! I want to read Metamorphoses one of these days. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
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Thank you, Vishy!! I hope you enjoy Ovid.