Saturday, December 06, 2008

A writer walks into A Bar. . . : Two writers' meditations on famous paintings

Via 3 Quarks Daily:

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882). Click to enlarge. Image found here.

Philip Pullman reads a painting. Or tries to:

Which is the real girl, this one, or the one in the mirror? Is she two people, one whose character is as shallow as everything else in the mirror, only as deep as the glass itself, no more truly there than anything else in that glittering surface, because it's all surface - and the other who is as complex and profound as the expression on her face, a look that defies all description?

She stands patiently, thinking of something else, in a dream, abstracted, miles away. The one in the mirror is not really there, and the one who is really there is not there either. She's somewhere else, thinking of her lover, or her debts, or her parents in the village she comes from, who haven't heard from her for months; or her little sister who has consumption . . . or thinking of nothing. Because of course she can't think, she's not real at all - she's a painted surface, no more real than her reflection. But what a surface, and what depths of mystery that surface can imply.

Lucas Cranach, Adam and Eve (1526). Click to enlarge. Image found here.

And, from the same Guardian piece, Hisham Matar's rich and strange "fictional response" to Cranch's painting, in its entirety:
Forty days after Mother's death, after all the mourners had left our home, Sultan, the legendary circus lion of Cairo, attacked Mohamed al-Hilo, the man who had cared for him since he was a cub. Father read the news to me over lunch at the dining table.

"'Uztas al-Hilo committed a most fatal mistake during the performance, he gave the beast his back. Sultan pounced on his trainer, as if wanting to ride piggyback, and dug his teeth into the trainer's neck.'"

"Making a bit of a meal of it," Father said, putting down the newspaper for a moment to have another mouthful of rice.

"'Parents covered their children's eyes. Some brave citizens jumped the barrier, chucking their chairs in before them, and stood in a wide circle, pointing the wooden legs at Sultan. Now pacing around his bleeding master, Sultan sniffed, licked, insanely allowing himself another snatch. The men closed in until the lion was persuaded back into its tunnel, where metal bars shut it in.'"

"Maybe Sultan had tried to turn back out of concern for his master," I suggested.

Father scanned the article. "Not sure about that," he said and continued reading aloud.

"'Was Sultan rising against tyranny?'" I caught a new emotion in Father's voice as he read, "'We are all Sultan, the majestic prisoner, reduced to pacing the walls of our cage.'" That was the first time since the funeral that I had seen blood fill his cheeks.

As was usual during those days, I spent the rest of the day looking out of the window of my room. When it was evening I heard Father shave. The thought of him going out made me restless. He put his head through the door and said, "All right then, I'm off." I listened to his heels on the marble floor, the door shut behind him, and the silence that always followed.

When it was nighttime I began to notice a couple in the building across the way. Their bedroom was on a slightly lower level than mine. Their bed stretched like a faraway landscape, and on it spread a newspaper. I found Mother's small binoculars in her drawer of scarves. Her smell still trapped in there. The binoculars were beautiful: the rings where you place your eyes were of oyster shell and, on the other end, two rings of ruby peered at the world. I switched the lights off. The woman walked past a couple of times, then was naked. She tossed the newspaper off the bed and laid a little stiffly on her back as if waiting for the doctor. She looked like spilled milk. The man, also naked, his back patched in dark hairs, leaned and began kissing her feet. It didn't seem to tickle her. He kissed her shins, her long thigh, sunk his lips in the bush of her hair, and then, rapidly, perhaps too rapidly, he kissed his way up to her breasts. I would have lingered, I thought, at the pale pool of skin around the navel, and not rush like that, attacking her breasts as if they were pudding. I was convinced I would make a better lover. When he reached her face she wrapped him in her arms and I was convinced then that she had really been cold all along.

The following morning over breakfast, Father read from the newspaper again.

"'Mohamed al-Hilo, the most famous lion trainer in the Arab world, died yesterday in hospital. His murderer has been moved to the zoo.'"

"Can we go?" I asked, and Father beamed.

"I think it imperative that we visit the great Sultan."

It was noon when we arrived at the zoo, a small crowd already gathered in front of the lions' cage. We joined them, looking at the cats as if they were a criminal identity parade.

"Are you after Sultan?" one of the zoo gardeners asked.

We followed him to a separate cage under the shade of a large eucalyptus. Sultan was spread on the hay-covered floor. His chin, which he lifted when he saw us approach, was resting on a bandaged paw.

"On tranquilisers around the clock," the gardener said. "Whenever he surfaces he starts eating himself. He has already bitten a good chunk off his front paw."

A new silence fell on the crowd. I watched their faces, and it was then that I spotted the couple. Slowly, I moved near them. Now I was standing right behind them, almost between them, as if I were their child. She smelled like a rose. He had that masculine, earthy saltiness some men have. I was convinced I would be better for her. And for a long moment I allowed myself to imagine the two of us together.


R. Sherman said...

I need to the think about the response to the Cranach for a bit.

As for the Manet, this painting has always bothered me. I'm not sure we have a mirror, at all. The reflections are off. The artist give us the perspective of being directly in front of the girl, looking into her eyes. If so her reflection would be obscured behind her. Plus, the people "in the mirror" are too far away.

Me thinks we are looking at two individuals and not one.

Unless, I'm an idiot, which of course is high on the list of probabilities.


John B. said...

Thanks for stopping by.

You're (still) not an idiot. I don't know if you read all the Pullman piece at the article, but he goes on at some length about the particulars of not just how the mirror doesn't work right but also how the space Manet paints doesn't correspond to the actual building.

Maybe the foregrounded woman is actually looking into the mirror--in other words, her back is to the seating space, and the viewer is in the space of the mirror: we're the 4th wall.

I don't know--maybe I'm an idiot, too.

As for the Cranach piece, I kind of like it because it hints obliquely at themes lurking beneath the story of Eden and the Fall that theology doesn't (usually) overtly address but which nevertheless do come up in very different contexts: male/female relations and just what exactly is the place of humans in the world. Its resituating of the story in a narrative space culturally alien to most readers makes me, at least, consider more closely what I think I know about Adam and Eve, in much the same way that reading Kierkegaard's multiple retellings of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling will make you wonder if you ever really knew that story.