Tag Archives: Ovid

Freed from the Block: Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

I had intended to finish the year reading a stack of German literature that I have acquired, but instead I have fallen down a John Berger rabbit hole.  Bento’s Sketchbook is one of those titles recommended by a friend with the very strong assertion that it is something I “must read.”

We know from different sources that the philosopher Baruch (Benedict or Bento) Spinoza (1632-1677) enjoyed drawing and that he always carried his sketchbooks around with him, none of which seemed to have survived.  When John Berger’s friend gives him a virgin sketchbook, he decides, “This is Bento’s!”  Berger begins to making drawings “prompted by something asking to be drawn.”  He comments about the development of his book, “As time goes by, however, the two of us—Bento and I—become less distinct.  Within the act of looking, the act of questioning with our eyes, we become somewhat interchangeable.  And this happens, I guess, because of a shared awareness about where and to what the practice of drawing can lead.”

For Berger a cluster of irises, a painting in the National Gallery, a friend’s old bicycle all become subjects for drawing and reflection.  The stories and the sketches are simple yet fascinating.  My favorite, one of the more abstract and philosophical pieces, begins:

Around her is a block.  The block is invisible because totally transparent.  Nor does the block restrict her movements.  Is the block what separates Being from Becoming? I don’t know, for this is happening where there are not words.

Normally, we face words frontally and so can read them, speak them or think them.  This was happening somewhere to the side of language.  Any frontal view of language was impossible there.  From the side I could see how language was paper thin, and all its words were foreshortened to become a single vertical stroke—I—like a single post in a vast landscape.

The task was to dismantle the block—to take it apart and lift it off piece by piece.  She allowed this to happen—No. Active and Passive have merged together.  Let us say: She happened this to herself with the utmost ease.  I was with her in what she (we) were doing.

The lovers slowly begin to dismantle the block starting from her head.  The task is tiring, he says, and he needs to take breaks.  But when he is tired he also embraces her and they gain strength from one another.  Finally the block is completely gone and:

She was there whole, looking exactly as she had at the beginning, capable of the same actions and no more, having the same name, the same habits, the same history.  Yet, freed from the block, the relations between her and everything which was not her had changed.  An absolute yet invisible change.  She was now the centre of what surrounded her.  All that was not her made space for her.

This passage of Berger’s pulled my thoughts toward Ovid’s version of the Pygmalion myth.  Although it is oftentimes viewed as a commentary about unattainable standards of beauty, I’ve always seen more in the Latin than this message.  Pygmalion, in his daily solitude, uses the utmost care and love to gently coax a form out of the white block of marble that will become his beloved: “Pygmalion is amazed at his creation and drinks up the with his heart the passionate fires of her simulated body.”  Both stories demonstrate the power that love, kindness, and, most importantly, patience can have on our relationships.

 

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Pain and Pleasure: Some thoughts on And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger

Time and Space are the focus of Berger’s brief yet lovely writings in this impossible-to-classify book.  Part one, entitled “Once” is an attempt to capture  the enigmatic, human experience of time while part two, entitled “Here” explores the concept of space especially in relation to sight and distance.  The text feels like a series of snapshots into Berger’s mind as he uses art, photography, philosophy, poetry and personal anecdotes to grapple with time and space; Hegel, Marx, Dante, Camus, Caravaggio are just a few of the artists and thinkers that are given fleeting attention in his text.

At times Berger addresses his narrative to an unnamed “you” that is his lover.  Time and space have, perhaps, the greatest impact on love, sex, and desire: “The sexual thrust to reproduce and to fill the future is a thrust against the current of time which is flowing ceaselessly towards the past.  The genetic information which assures reproduction works against dissipation.”  And, “Love is a reconstitution in the heart of that holding which is Being.”  Berger’s thoughts to his beloved highlight a painful distance that separates them.  He is writing to her about going to a post office to send her a package or a letter, or he is reminding her of stolen moments spent together or a conversation about art while in bed.  Thoughts on vision and light are mixed with those on distance: “The visible brings the world to us.  But at the same time reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost.  The visible with its space also takes the world away from us. Nothing is more two-faced.”

Berger’s thoughts on the close association between pain and pleasure as they relate to time and space and love were the most interesting for me in this book as it brought to mind other authors who have also delved into this complicated association.  Berger writes, “Pleasure and pain need to be considered together, they are inseparable. Yet the space filled by each is perhaps different.”  And:

It has never been easy to relieve pain.  The productive recourses have usually been lacking—food, adequate medicines, clothing, shelter.  But it has never been difficult to locate the causes of pain: hunger, illness, cold, deprivation…It has always been, in principle, simpler to relieve pain than to give pleasure or make happy.  An area of pain is more easily located.

With one enormous exception—the emotional pain of loss, the pain that has broken a heart.  Such pain fills the space of an entire life.  It may have begun with a single event but the event has produced a surplus of pain.  The sufferer becomes inconsolable.  Yet, what is this pain, if it is not the recognition that what was once given as pleasure or happiness has been irrevocably taken away?

It is no wonder that the Epicureans attempted to follow a philosophy that was constructed around the close experiences of pleasure and pain.  I’ve tried to embrace Epicureanism in particular during this past year, jettisoning things and relationships that bring more pain than pleasure.  It is not an easy philosophy to follow, to say the least, but I have seen some value in it.

Berger brings into his discussion of pain and pleasure the paintings of Caravaggio and the facial expressions he captures in his art.  Berger writes, “I have not seen a dissimilar expression on the face of animals—before mating and before a kill.”  Jean Luc Nancy, who also explores the association between pain and pleasure in his book Coming, uses Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene on the cover of his text.  Nancy argues that pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful: “Sartre says, ‘There is no pleasure that does not know itself as pleasure.’ We could say the same thing the other way around: There is no pain that does not know itself as pain.  Pleasure is a state that seeks out its own perpetuation, while pain seeks out its own cessation, but it’s exactly the same thing in each sense.”  Pain is always present in jouissance, Nancy argues, because its extreme intensity becomes unbearable—it pushes us to our limits.

This connection between pain and pleasure is expressed by Quignard as a constant tension manifested as desire that never achieves jouissanceIn Sex and Terror, a book whose style of prose mixed with poetry and thoughts on art is similar to Berger,  writes:

Something that belonged to happiness is lost in the lovers’ embrace.  There is in the most complete love, in happiness itself, a desire that everything should suddenly tip over into death.  What overflows with violence in sexual climax is overtaken by a sadness that is not psychological.  By a frightening languor.  There are absolute tears that mingle.  In sensual delight, there is something that gives way.

And finally, Berger’s text brought to mind what I think is perhaps one of the greatest poetic renditions of the deep connection between pain and pleasure.  Ovid, in Book IV of the Metamorphoses, describes the death of Pyramus who, because of time and space, is not able to be with his lover.  Ovid’s description of Pyramus’s tragic death becomes infused with the erotic pleasure that he should have experienced with Thisbe (translation is my own):

He draws his own sword and plunges the iron into his guts,
and as he lays dying, without delay, he withdraws the sword
from the hot wound.  And as he lays prone on the earth, blood
spews high in the air, similar to when a pipe is split
because of a weak part in the lead and ejaculates a great
amount of water from its  thin, hissing stream and ruptures
the air with its blows.

The thrusting and withdrawal of the sword (ilia in Latin can mean “guts”, “intestines” as I translated it here but it is also the word for “groin”) and the ejaculating (eiaculator in the Latin) could just as easily have been words used to describe Pyramus’s consummation of his relationship with Thisbe. I will end with a fitting quote from John Berger from And Our Faces, which applies, I think, to Ovid’s description of pain and pleasure: “Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem’s labor. The result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers. There is often nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty and indifference of the world than this caring.”

Pierre Gautherot. Pyramus and Thisbe. 1799.

 

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Charges by Elfriede Jelinek

Aeschylus’s tragedy The Suppliant Women is a unique piece of Ancient Greek theater because the poet uses the chorus, normally reserved for a secondary role, as the protagonist of his play.  The Danaides, the fifty daughters of Danaus, are refugees from Egypt where they were going to be forced into marriage with their cousins.  Having chosen flight from Egypt instead of  mandatory betrothal, The Danaides arrive in Argos seeking asylum.  As the chorus/protagonist of this tragedy, these women tell us, with one, strong, loud, simultaneous voice, about the hardships they’ve suffered and they beg, as suppliants at the altar of Zeus, for protection.

Elfriede Jelinek adopts the narrative structure, setting and themes of Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women for her drama entitled Charges which delivers a powerful, raw, emotional depiction of the refugee crisis playing out globally.  The nobel prize winning author witnesses via television and other media—she is an agoraphobe—the plight of a group of refugees from Central Asia and the Middle East who arrive in Vienna in November of 2012 and set up a camp in front of a church.  The local populace engages in an intense debate about what to do with these illegal immigrants, politicians and the media get involved, and some of the refugees take shelter inside the church where they go on a prolonged hunger strike.

At the same time that this humanitarian tragedy is unfolding, a world-renowned, Russian opera singer and the daughter of Boris Yeltsin, both very wealthy with powerful political allies, are given citizenship.   While the refugees from the church are shuffled off to a monastery where they can be kept out of public site these two privileged women are bestowed with the freedom and honor of asylum and naturalization.  Although she uses this scenario that takes place in her hometown as the backdrop for her drama,  Jelinek chooses not to mention Vienna or  other specific place names in her text;  she makes her themes of displacement, fear and privilege universal, ones that can be applied to any of the current refugee crises we see playing out on a daily basis in various parts of the world.

Les Danaide, by Paul Oesten, 1908

By using the chorus, in the tradition of an Ancient Greek tragedy, Jelinek is able to employ several dramatic techniques to emphatically get her point across about the desparate and sad plight of the refugees.  For instance, as is common in ancient tragedy, the chorus in Charges repeat themselves, in a rhythmic way, circling back often to the same themes and topics.  In addition, punctuation and connectives are dispensed with in order to give their speech a vehemence that conveys the deplorable hardships that they have suffered and continue to suffer:

We lie on the cold stone floor, but this comes hot off the press, here it is irrefutably, irreconcilably, poured into this brochure like water that instantly runs down and out instantly, like water thrown from cliff to cliff, turned into water as well, sinking like statues, almost elegantly, with raised hands, no, no, from dam to dam, into the bottomless, into the micro power plant, down, down it goes for years, we vanish, we vanish as we become more and more, funny, we still vanish, though our numbers increase, our  courage does not vanish, there are ever more, though also fewer and fewer of us, may don’t even arrive, the suffering people are falling like water off the cliff, down the butte, into the chute, over the mountains, through the sea, over the sea, into the sea, always thrown, always driven…

The most striking similarity between The Suppliants and Charges is the explanation that the refugee choruses give in both plays for choosing flight from their homelands and for seeking refuge from strangers. Aeschylus’s chorus begins the play with an justification for their sea voyage to Argos:  “This exile is our own decision.  We have fled a despicable situation.”   The words spoken by Aeschylus’s chorus more than two thousand years ago, which evoke sympathy and compassion from the audience,  is equally fitting for Jelinek’s refugee chorus who, by their own choosing, have also escaped dangerous conditions in their homeland and at sea.  Escape into the unknown is a theme that Jelinek’s refugees return to repeatedly in the play; they speak of family members who have been murdered and their attempts to avoid the same fate for themselves.  Some of the most heartrending parts of the chorus’s speech are when they recount their griefs and their woes and the endless indignity of their misfortunes:

…We look around, but how does prosperity work?  If it is that common, should we have it too?  At least be able to obtain it?  After those monstrous killers back home, no, that isn’t your fault, we aren’t throwing that in your face, we are throwing ourselves in front of you, after they took everything from us, we should be able to get something, anything back, no?  Something should be accessible to us, we should get something, instead you call us a cursed, raging brood, brood, brood!  Like animals! Brood of foreigners!

Hearing the refugees speak, in the first person, about their escape, rejection and maltreatment from other citizens of the world increases the pathos of Jelinek’s narrative.  There is a point in their speech during which the tone of the narrative becomes decidedly angry; these feelings of resentment come from the fact that two prominent Russian women are given citizenship while these refugees live in squalor like beggars.  The opera singer, in particular, becomes the focus for Jelinek’s outrage as the author uses parallels between this privileged refugee’s circumstances and the mythic character of Ovid’s Io.

Io was loved by Zeus and in order to protect his lover from his wife’s wrath, Zeus disguises Io by turning her into a cow.  In Jelinek’s narrative the opera singer becomes that cow, traveling around the world, not suffering any consequences for her transgressions.  Once this prominent woman is issued citizenship, she chooses not to live in this country but instead travels the world.  Io is usually a character worthy of sympathy because of her seduction by Zeus; but in Charges the opera singer becomes a derogatory cow, the name of which animal is uttered with biting sarcasm:

How did she become a citizen?, alright then, we guarantee you no one died there, in that dump, not the daughter either, the European cow, excuse me, she turned into one only now, an official main residence has been registered here, which we don’t have, she does, but she does not live there either, you are here to stay, you have a say, you have the voters, at least on your side, you the but sponsors but no trace of those—now I don’t know myself whom I mean.

In his book The Greeks, H.D.F. Kitto argues that the Greek dramatists used myths infused with moral, religious and philosophical meaning to instruct their fellow Athenians on how to live a good life.  Drama becomes “an explanation of human life and of the human soul.”  Jelinek has brilliantly adopted the medium of these ancient poets in order to enlighten us about those who have been displaced from their homes and cannot return safely.  The chorus of refugees in Charges, speaking in one loud, emphatic, emotional voice is distressing and tragic.  We should treat them with dignity, kindness and generosity instead of with disgust and xenophobia and recognize that this has become a human rights crisis of epic proportions.

Vitvkirche, Protest of Refugees, 2012. © Bwag/Commons

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