David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Category: Visuals (page 2 of 4)

Xenakis’s Rebonds

Feldman: Do you think that some memories are better than other memories? I mean like in psychoanalysis: one goes there to free one-self of the memories that makes it impossible to live in reality, and I would say as a metaphor about becoming a composer that one has memories that one has to get rid of.

Xenakis: I prefer artistry instead of psycho-analysis because in psycho-analysis… infact what you do is, you’re trusting on some traces of your memory, something different in your story and when you think you have left that story you’re building something different and it becomes your new past..

Iannis Xenakis and Morton Feldman in Conversation

Saw an excellent performance of Iannis Xenakis‘s solo percussion piece “Rebonds” last night by the very fluid Ayano Kataoka. From the number of performances on Youtube, I guess it’s repertory now. This is a pretty good one:


Wilson Knight’s Chart of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe

Shakespeare's Dramatic Universe!


G. Wilson Knight was a mid-century critic probably most known for an infamous little essay on Hamlet he wrote in 1930 called “The Embassy of Death” (collected in The Wheel of Fire). The essay is sort of a troll. He argues that but for Hamlet himself, Denmark is a happy, lively place under the wise, gentle rule of Claudius. But for Hamlet’s mad injection of himself into the proceedings, which destroys most of the characters and the state itself, things would have been fine. Hamlet is the sick, deranged soul who drags down a healthy world.

Now, Wilson Knight has some very keen points to make that go against the standard interpretation, but the essay is written in a gallivanting style that makes it clear that Wilson Knight knows he is being provocative. And so he is going over the top to make Hamlet as bad as possible and make every excuse for Claudius (who did murder the old King, but come on, let’s not dwell on it). You can imagine Wilson Knight barely able to keep a straight face as he goes into hyperbolic rhapsodies over Claudius’s pax Denmark and Hamlet’s malevolent presence:

Claudius, as he appears in the play, is not a criminal.  He  is—strange  as  it  may  seem—a  good  and  gentle  king, enmeshed by the chain of causality linking him with his crime. And this chain he might, perhaps, have broken except for Hamlet, and all would have been well. Now, granted the presence of Hamlet—which Claudius  at  first  genuinely  desired,  persuading  him  not  to  return to Wittenberg as he wished—and granted the fact of his original crime which cannot now be altered, Claudius can hardly be blamed for his later actions. They are forced on him. As King, he could scarcely beexpected to do otherwise. Hamlet is a danger to the state, even apart from  his  knowledge  of  Claudius’  guilt.  He  is  an  inhuman—orsuperhuman—presence, whose consciousness—somewhat like Dostoievsky’s Stavrogin—is centred on death. Like Stavrogin, he is feared by those around him. They are always trying in vain to  find out what iswrong with him. They cannot understand him. He is a creature of another world. As King of Denmark he would have been a thousand times more dangerous than Claudius.

I have concentrated on Claudius’ virtues. They are manifest. So are his faults—his original crime, his skill in the less admirable kind of policy, treachery, and intrigue. But I would point clearly that, in the movement  of  the  play,  his  faults  are  forced  on  him,  and  he  is  distinguished  by  creative  and  wise  action,  a  sense  of  purpose,  benevolence, a faith in himself and those around him, by love of his Queen…In short he is very human. Now these are the very qualities Hamlet lacks.  Hamlet  is  inhuman.  He  has  seen  through  humanity….

He has seen the truth, not alone of Denmark, but of humanity, of the universe: and the truth is evil. Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of  flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.They are helpless before his very inactivity and fall one after the other, like victims of an infectious disease. They are strong with the strengthof health—but the demon of Hamlet’s mind is a stronger thing than they. Futilely they try to get him out of their country; anything to get rid of him, he is not safe. But he goes with a cynical smile, and is no sooner gone than he is back again in their midst, meditating in grave-yards, at home with death. Not till it has slain all, is the demon that grips Hamlet satisfied. And last it slays Hamlet himself.

“The Embassy of Death” (1930)

I really like the essay as a performance, since it does (if you’re not completely alienated by it) make you realize how equally unlikely the contrary and common interpretation is, with Hamlet the good guy and Claudius the fount of evil. But Wilson Knight evidently saw that if he was going to make a critical impact, there was no point in being restrained. He might as well push his own account to the limit, even if it completely broke with plausibility. Outrage trumps reasonableness and moderation.

Yet it wasn’t especially a cynical gesture, seemingly more a temperamental one. Years later he published his chart of Shakespeare’s Dramatic Universe. Here it is again:

Shakespeare's Dramatic Universe!

And the first thing I think on seeing this is, “You would have to be insane to come up with something like this.” Maybe not to come up with it, but to publish it, along with a long explanation of which this quote is representative:

On the right we have personal qualities; on the left, social and political. In the centre is a creative ‘conflict’ (not exactly ‘disorder’) related to the clash of individual and society. This conflict is nevertheless mainly inward and spiritual, and most fully experienced within the protagonist. It next tends, like a cyclone or hurricane, to move down the chart, developing into ‘armed opposition’, with the area columns showing a strong divergence of personal and communal symbolism as the rift widens; and so on to a tragic resolution.

The Shakespearean Tempest

It reminds me a bit of the schemas that Joyce made for Ulysses, except that those were (a) explicitly partial and ex post facto, and (b) by the author for a single work. To come up with something like this for the entirety of Shakespeare’s works is a whole different level, and my next impulse is to start tweaking it and adding to it, shortly before I realize that it would be silly, because this chart is an attempt to turn Shakespeare into his near-antithesis, Dante. And clearly another bizarrely perverse impulse of Wilson Knight’s, as he pretty much says:

But our chart should at least serve to indicate the danger of saddling Shakespeare’s world with any static scheme whatsoever. Only when these various powers are recognized shall we understand the true process of harmonization at work.

And then I think that James Joyce really did achieve as close of a merging of the two as was possible, by taking a million schemas and attempting to superimpose them over one another simultaneously in his last two novels. And Wilson Knight’s choice of anchoring motifs–music and tempests–are pretty good ones.


House with Shingles - Egon Schiele (1915)

Otto Dix’s War Sketches

I was lucky enough to see the exhibit of Otto Dix’s paintings in Montreal last year. I previously thought of him as one of the weaker expressionists, being too unsubtle even by their standards (check out his doctors, but his war portraits in particular really impressed me and showed a far greater range than his portraits and paintings. This site with Otto Dix’s War Cycle has a good selection, but many are missing and who knows how long it’ll be up, so here are some of the ones that most struck me. I’m not going to post any of the most unbearable images, and I’m starting with the milder stuff. Some of the most overwhelming are from a cycle he did in 1924, but there are other equally good drawings from around the same time and before.

Before gas masks became a horror staple:

Storm Troopers Advancing Under Gas

There’s a bit of an EC Comics vibe to this one. Art Spiegelman loved the expressionists, Grosz especially, and I think their influence shows up strongly in a lot of the RAW comics of the 80s, Sue Coe for example. Not that it hadn’t shown up earlier in the underground too.

Wounded Soldier

Likewise this one. Recently the black and white drawings of Lorenzo Mattotti seem to have taken on the quality of the scribbled figure here:

Nocturnal Encounter with a Lunatic

This sketch bizarrely seems to anticipate George Grosz:

Card Players

This one I would swear was *by* Grosz:

War Cripples

As a side note, some apt music for these sketches. I think Richter has the edge but Sokolov here is very, very good. I’m usually a speed demon but this particular movement should not be played too fast.

This one jumps out at me for the dominance of the landscape rather than of the figures, and the overall brilliance of the composition. Usually my eye is drawn toward some central horror of a work by Dix (not just in the war work, but all of it), but here the whole print is balanced.

Disintegrating Trench

This picture of barbed wire with bodies needs to be seen in much better resolution, though it’s a lot less horrifying at this size. The whole cycle is compared to Goya but the lines here remind me of Rembrandt.

Barbed Wire in Front of the Trenches

The linework here is amazing:


Finally, as a bookend, an allegorical painting from around the same time. The colors here are not captured well; the painting was much more compelling “in person.”

Still Life with Widow's Veil

Dante: Old Maps of Hell

Divine Comedy Map

I’m always surprised that there haven’t been vastly more attempts to capture, in a single image, the architectural entirety of Dante’s Hell, if not the other two regions. (You can see which one dominates in the above picture.) Hell is by far the most sensible (sensory, that is), visceral realm, as Anne Stevenson so well put it:

In the Museum of Floating Bodies and Flammable Souls

Anne Stevenson

Painters who painted the flights of martyrs for money,
Who filled the drapery of angels with rose-tinted oil,
Had to please rich patrons with trapeze acts of the body,
Since no one can paint the electricity of the soul.

My lady in her blue silk cowl must by now be topsoil;
She swans into Heaven, almond eyes uplifted in piety.
My lord kneels at prayer in a cassock, blade at his heel.
Not a single electron remains of his sin or sanctity.

While in Hell, for example in the water church of Torcello,
The wicked receive their desserts. Disembowelled and dismembered,
They are set upon eternally, yet their bodies alone are touched;
Unless souls, flushed out of the flesh, are the flames that torch them.

No wonder evil’s so interesting and goodness so pitifully dull.
Torture of the body symbolizes torture of the mind;
And burning in the bonfires of conscience is hardly confined
To hell for bad Italians, who, being damned, are being saved as well.

I suppose the thing is just too massive, encompassing an entire cosmos, as Erich Auerbach said in his book on Dante. Botticelli certainly did brilliantly on the massive front, but I have an affection for the more human-scale version by Bartolomeo, which replaces the vastness with claustrophobia:

Bartolomeo's Inferno

The Driftless Area Review recently posted a set of Infernal images in The Landscape of Hell, including this lovely version of Dante’s:

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