Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Through deep water

Our view is into an amniotic pool where mother whales are feeding their babies. Melville's Ishmael narrates the scene this way: "The lake, as I have hinted, was to a considerable depth exceedingly transparent; and as human infants while sucking will calmly and fixedly gaze away from the breast, as if leading two different lives at the same time; and while yet drawing mortal nourishment, be still spiritually feasting upon some unearthly reminiscence;—even so did the young of these whale seem looking up towards us, but not at us, as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed in their new-born sight." (346) What I had tried to suggest in my last post is that this cloven view might be interestingly connected to the conception of Courbet's picture-beholder as articulated by Michael Fried. Whether or not that reading entirely holds water, I want to return to is the way that the dreaming, infant whale gazes up toward Ishmael through the water. Our narrator and his compatriots are less seen in the briny air than plotted on the surface "as if we were but a bit of Gulf-weed." (Melville, 346) Contrary to the views out over water that we met most prominently with Kant, Burke, Alÿs and Roberts, Ishmael's anthropomorphism projects ruptured sight out from the water back at the narrator. 

In Walter Pater's spell-binding account of Leonardo da Vinci, views up from or out through liquids figure prominently and repeatedly. "He learned ... the art of going deep," Pater writes of Leonardo's early studies, "of tracking the sources of expression to their subtlest retreats, the power of an intimate presence in the things he handled. ... Two ideas were especially confirmed in him, as reflexes of things that had touched his brain in childhood beyond the depth of other impressions—the smiling of women and the motion of great waters." (81-2) In the context of thinking about liquid intelligence, I find it fascinating that Pater repeatedly appeals to the secular and frankly physiological language of "brain" rather than more poetic evocations -- say, "the soul" used by Ishmael. This morbidity, this mortality of the brain becomes explicit for Pater when he turns to the Medusa in the Uffizi, which he credits to Leonardo: "The delicate snakes seem literally strangling each other in terrified struggle to escape from the Medusa brain. The hue which violent death always brings with it is in the features; features singularly massive and grand, as we catch them, in a dexterous foreshortening, crown foremost, like a great calm against which the wave of serpents breaks." (83) The inversions of liquidity and intelligence figured in Michael Cole's reading of Cellini's Medusa and Perseus are pronounced here. Rather than the ingenious male artist trying to get molten metal to pour into the Medusa head, Pater imagines the writhing snakes as wave-like in their frantic flight from that morbid seat of monstrous, female intelligence.

Waters act as a kind of solvent to Leonardo's intellectual pursuits, softening the hard edges and making pliant the dry bits of his science that would otherwise crystallize into esoteric arcanism. "In him first appears the taste," Pater tells us:

... for what is bizarre or recherché in landscape; hollow places full of the green shadow of bituminous rocks, ridged reeds of trap-rock which cut the water into quaint sheets of light,—their exact antitype is in our own western seas; all the solemn effects of moving water. You may follow it springing from its distant source among the rocks on the heath of the Madonna of the Balances, passing, as a little fall, into the the treacherous calm of the Madonna of the Lake, as a goodly river next, below the cliffs of the Madonna of the Rocks, washing the white walls of its distant villages, stealing out in a network of divided streams in La Gioconda to the seashore of the Saint Anne—that delicate place, where the wind passes like the point of some fine etcher over the surface, and untorn shells are lying thick upon the sand, and the tops of the rocks, to which the waves never rise, are green with grass, grown fine as hair. It is the landscape, not of dreams or of fancy, but of places far withdrawn, and hours selected from a thousand with a miracle of finesse. Through Leonardo's strange veil of sight things reach him so; in no ordinary night or day, but as in faint light of eclipse, or in some brief interval of falling rain at daybreak, or through deep water. (Pater, 87)

I imagine this watery flow pouring down from the rocky cranium enclosing Leonardo's brain, filling his eyes and ultimately depositing on the shoals of his art a creature as weird as the Mona Lisa in Pater's conception.

I know you can recite this passage by heart, but let's go over it once more together:

The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the heard upon which all "the ends of the world are come," and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside on of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea. (Pater, 98-9)

Among the amazing things happening in this celebrated passage, the positive/negative conception of the forces shaping Lady Lisa as Leonardo's evolving fantasy brain intersects with a historical individual as they meet the Kunstwollen head-on. Made from the waters, she appears beside the waters created both as "wrought out from within" and "etched and moulded" by the world.

Arthur Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat" takes this move still one step further: the body in the water becomes the narrator. So we read: "Green waters seeped through all my seams, / Washing the stains of vomit and blue wine, / And swept away my anchor and my helm." (95) Later, the narrative voice identifies itself specifically: "But I, lost boat in the cove's trailing tresses ..." (99), before pleading to be made one with the murky, hallucinatory waters through which it passes: "Drunk with love's acrid torpors, / O let my keel burst! Let me go to the sea!" (101) Indeed!

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