Manual of painting and c.., p.17

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 17


Manual of Painting and Calligraphy

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  There seems little point in going down to the Sistine Chapel. To seek out Michelangelo and come face-to-face with hundreds of tourists looking up into the air and craning their necks in order to glimpse amid the shadows the creation of the world and of man, original sin, the great flood, the drunkenness of Noah—it is probably the greatest disappointment ever likely to be experienced by any serious art lover, unless he is fortunate enough to be allowed into the chapel at dead of night, which must be the only time the works of art in the Vatican are not on public view. So once having memorized the overwhelming impact of this titanic collection (a banal description, but I can think of no other), all one can do is to find a book with good illustrations and make a detailed study of the ceiling paintings and The Last Judgment on the rear wall, however poor a substitute it may be for the real thing.

  I have no idea what Cairo has to offer by way of mummies, but I very much doubt whether any of them could be as impressive as the one kept here: the exposed head and face are swarthy, withered and wrinkled, but most distressing of all are the hands, also blackened, but terrifyingly well conserved, with white nails in a state of perfect preservation.

  There is no end to the Vatican museums. One progresses through dozens of enormous halls and galleries, rotundas and rooms, always afraid at having left behind, perhaps forever, some picture, fresco, sculpture, or illuminated manuscript which might easily help us to reach a better understanding of this world and of our earthly existence.

  One finds here, for example, a Roman copy of a statue of Socrates, with round head, short neck, curved forehead, flattened nose, eyes which not even the emptiness of marble can erase—the most strikingly ugly man in history, he who exhorted other men to renew themselves, he who was accused of “having honored strange gods and trying to corrupt youth,” charges which led to his untimely death. And these are the two eternal accusations against man. I take a quick look inside St. Peter’s. Behold the splendor and overpowering riches of a triumphant Church, but here, too, are the works of mankind, the crowning achievements of man’s genius and manual skills. On the right once stood Michelangelo’s Pietà, which some suspicious madman vandalized. The tourists, however, show no real displeasure, nothing more than passing irritation that an item should be missing from their guidebook.

  A rapid tour of Naples gave me the impression of one great traffic jam, of a gymkhana of placid madmen (where was that verbal exuberance of the Neapolitans?). I also carried away the memory of the bay all lit up, which, seen from the balcony of the hotel, resembled a candlelight procession at a standstill all along the coast.

  Naples is also the city where I came across the initials MSI scrawled across the walls and hoardings and on the park benches by the neofascists. It is also the city where street vendors who feel nostalgia for Il Duce sell ashtrays which portray Benito Mussolini looking Caesarean in full uniform, with rousing slogans advocating the revival of fascism. It is also the city where I was twice warned “in my own best interest” not to leave any valuables in the car.

  But Naples, too, has its Museo Nazionale. I escape inside to take a look at what I missed in Pompeii or saw only fleetingly: the mosaics and wall paintings I only knew from well-meaning reproductions, which sadly lack that precious dimension achieved by means of deliberate irregularity in the case of mosaics and a rough finish in the case of wall paintings, which should be probed by one’s eye rather than touched by human hand. And this wealth of sculptures: very few of Greek origin, but an infinite number of Roman and Hellenistic statues, enough of them to populate another civilization, a resuscitated Pompeii, a peaceful Naples. On leaving the city, I lost my way. It was inevitable.

  And now I am resting in Positano on the coast of Salerno, a place I declared “blessed” before discovering that this region of Italy is described in the official guidebook as la divina costiera. We are both right: the tranquility here is divine and blessed. And whom do I see but Melina Mercouri, yes it is she, wearing a straw hat and long dress, pale and thin, and in the company of Jules Dassin. I rouse myself from my torpor in the heat of the sun and invent this imaginary dialogue between us: “So, Melina, you are still exiled from Greece. So near, yet here you are, forbidden to enter your native land. How are things going there?” And back comes her reply: “And how are things going in your country?”

  I return to my spot, gaze on the stagnant waters of this inner sea which could tell so many ancient tales, and repeat the question to myself: “And how are things going in your country?”

  IF THE DISASTROUS OUTCOME of Carmo’s affair had not deprived me of any hope of publication (if there ever was such hope and it was not simply a question of my complying with the decisions of others), what would I have done with these pages? Would I have submitted them for publication as a little booklet, pamphlet, notebook or brochure? To be frank, I think of them as exercises in autobiography for my personal use, worthless without the interpretation I put on them later. As travel memoirs, as an aesthetic or purely touristic guide, they are of no greater interest than the timid gesture of a Sunday painter, than that explanatory phrase which is so personal and intimate that it immediately arouses stolid hostility in the general listener. So blessed be Carmo, blessed be Sandra, who, by pushing Carmo out of her bed (or, to be more precise, out of the hotel bed paid for by Carmo), pushed me out of the publisher’s catalogue before I ever got into it. They say God writes straight on crooked lines, but I suspect that these are exactly the lines He prefers, first to show His divine virtuosity and conjuring skills and second because there are no others. All human lines are crooked, everything is a labyrinth. But the straight line is not so much an aspiration as a possibility. The labyrinth itself contains a straight line, broken and interrupted, I concede, but permanent and expectant. This geometrical god of whom I have been speaking must have become incarnate in Sandra, have prompted the decision, given Sandra’s thighs their fill of Carmo, and so things obediently fall into their rightful place. Blessed be Sandra, blessed be Sandra, blessed be blessed Sandra.

  But these pages exist and my task remains unfinished. The exercises, yes, but not what came before. Certain things are now becoming clearer. I would even go so far as to say that they now seem quite obvious, whereas in the past there was only chaos and confusion. They represented another kind of labyrinth, undoubtedly reducible to a straight line but resisting any such reduction, becoming entangled and compressing the spaces and making circulation impossible. Let us take the so-called carpenter’s rule. This consists of ten units of ten centimeters (or is it five of twenty?), joined end to end and appearing to be folded over, so the plan is correct but the measurement wrong. It is necessary to unfold the rule and extend it to its full extent. In my opinion the same should be done to men or they should do it for themselves. We are already doubled up at birth; like rules simply juxtaposed, we are compressed and confined. We have three meters inside us yet only move a hand’s breadth.

  I cannot say if this was in my mind when I recalled the head of Socrates I had seen in Naples. It was Socrates who obliged other men to be born from within, but knowing this is not enough to make birth occur by itself. And most likely his method of question-answer-question (which Plato himself recorded without the assistance of a shorthand typist or tape recorder) would not be enough to extricate us from our own labyrinths, to free us from the defective position we take up within our own womb. Just as any pursuit through creative channels and works of art is not nor ever could be sufficient. I am not referring to my own work but to that of the great masters, which sends me to my knees. This is purely subjective, as I believe I have more or less said before, and therefore should be treated with caution. If, for personal and aesthetic reasons, I speak of the regret with which I leave behind the illuminated manuscript, the statue, fresco or painting which might easily (I repeat: easily) help me to reach a better understanding of the world and our earthly existence, am I asking of art that tranquility Socrates systematically takes away from men, or the peace Socrates would bri
ng them once having destroyed that other one of conformity and habit? (This must be it, but there is a risk in saying certain things. All too often we utter nothing except words, and this is the great risk we take when discussing art. The same great risk we take when discussing anything.) Socrates, art, our understanding of this world and our earthly existence, joining stone to stone, combining color with color, the word recovered with the recovery of the word, adding what is missing in order to go on establishing the meaning of things, not necessarily in order to complete that meaning but to adapt it, to attach the piston to the connecting rod, the hand to the wrist, and everything to the brain. And on arriving at this point, as was foreseen from the outset, I rise from my chair, take a book from the shelf (Karl Marx’s preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) and, being a diligent student, I copy out several pages, convinced that Marx needs to be added to Socrates and to art before trying to make sense of what follows: “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—what is but a legal expression for the same thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations become their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations, a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic—in short, ideological—forms, in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so we cannot judge such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. No social order ever perishes before all its potential productive forces have developed; and new, higher relations of production cannot come about until the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind only sets itself tasks it can accomplish; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its completion already exist or are at least in the process of formation. In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production—antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individuals; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close.”

  A somewhat lengthy prehistory. I have also spoken of prehistory in a muddled and indecisive way, one moment touching on the conscious, the next on the unconscious, but trying, above all, to express this peculiar state or human flux of life, which appears to be the constant product of a conscience and which at heart is a contradiction resolved, or whose resolution is attempted by spanning bridges between the conscious and the unconscious, if at all possible. To put it more clearly, or perhaps less clearly: consciousness carries the unconscious like a parasite, like a huge tapeworm betraying signs of life or existence only by the loose rings which have surfaced in excrement, not in material excrement, but in those traces we leave behind which are nearly always malignant, rings which later multiply, suffocate, strangle and diminish when compressed. Now that I have quoted Marx, I should like to get closer to this concept of mine about prehistory. There is the prehistory of human society, the prehistory of the individual as a part of human society and therefore of his own prehistory, and once more the prehistory of the individual, which would be that period of time in his personal life when he becomes aware of having been turned into a parasite by his unconscious.

  These things are really much too complicated for me, but there is always something too complicated for someone, and notwithstanding, we must tackle them when there is no other solution. (Einstein was what we know or think we know he was, yet his life would have been much less fortunate had he been obliged to mend shoes or set up looms.) Meanwhile, I would be unable to go any further, but the sign of this incapacity, the scratch left by a nail, is already the first step, even though no others may follow. What distinguishes the one and only step from a first step is simply the patience shown or otherwise, while awaiting the second one. With Socrates, art and Marx, anyone can go far. Wearing one’s father’s boots is also a way of being a man, even though one’s feet may be too small for them.

  Besides, the best weapon against death is not our simple life, however unique or truly precious it may be to us. The best weapon is not this life of mine which is terrified of death, it is everything that was life before and has endured, from generation to generation, up to the present. I once held my father’s skull in my hand and felt neither fear, repugnance nor sorrow: only a strange sense of power like that felt by the swimmer when he is carried along on the crest of a wave. Covered with earth, stripped of flesh, so different from what it looked like with flesh, so similar to all other skulls, just like a building block. When Hamlet speaks to Yorick’s skull, it struck me, as I read the words (for the first time), that there is nothing more to be said between a corpse and a living man. Now I know better and through no merit of mine. Three hundred and seventy years have passed in the meantime, Marx was born, people have continued to write and paint, and Socrates has not been erased from history. All things in which I have personally played no part, either through deed or omission (and, in a manner of speaking, still play no part, for this is not writing, nor is this painting). But I believe I am doing my duty when I seize the opportunity and try to understand. No one can ask any more from an ordinary man.

  I gaze, for example, at this mummy in the Vatican (another deathly image from which I cannot avert my eyes), its flesh preserved beyond putrefaction and uncomfortably close. All that separates us is that hundredth of a second in which I continue to believe. If the museum guide were to come and tell me that two or three thousand years have elapsed between this corpse and my body, I would believe him, since one expects guides to know those things. But I am incapable of imagining what three thousand years might be when the body is there before me, the language barrier resolved by silence, and another dialogue already established. The hands, with their long, painted bones, covered with blackened flesh, without any trace of perspiration and seeking the contact of other hands. It would not take much to make them move, already halfway out of the coffin but not yet out of the glass case in which the corpse is enclosed. Those white nails, so very much alive, could soon be combing out the dandruff of the living with humility and humanity. Here is the lengthy history (not prehistory) of the material continuity of men. For millions of years, millions upon millions of men have been born from the earth and returned to earth. Terrestrial humus now consists much more of human debris than of the original crust, and the houses in which we live, made from what has come out of the soil, are human edifices in the strict meaning of the word “human,” made from men. For this reason I described my father’s skull as a building block.

  The world is full of probabilities. Let us imagine that the body was buried on some gentle mountain slope or on the extended curve of its ridge. No one can remember how long it has been there, perhaps for centuries, and this seem
s most likely. Winter rain and snow has fallen there four hundred times, autumn has made the grass green once more four hundred times, summer has dried it out four hundred times, and four hundred times spring has covered everything with flowers. This is a mountain where nothing has been planted other than a dead body, perhaps murdered and for this reason concealed there. But in this four hundredth and first year after its burial a living man climbs the mountain (as others have done before, but it is this man who concerns us), for no apparent reason, simply to inhale the air stirred by the wind, simply to look into the distance and gaze on other mountains to see if it is true that horizons are indeed always blue. He climbs the mountain, walks on grass, through the undergrowth, over stones, feels these things underfoot, as alive in these sensations as in all the others his senses transmit, and he stretches out on the ground in sheer bliss, lies there looking up at the sky, watching the clouds drift overhead, listening to the wind rustling amid the branches of nearby trees. He has achieved that illusion of plenitude weak mortals experience when they suddenly imagine they know everything and need no further explanations. Only he does not know that beneath him, faithfully tracing the outline of his body, one body covering another with barely a meter between them, the man who has been dead for four hundred years can now see through the eyes of the man who is alive, skull upon skull, a sky which looks the same and a few clouds made from the same water. The living man gets up knowing nothing and the dead man begins waiting for another four hundred years.

  I take my leave of the dead but will not forget them. To forget them, I believe, would be the first sign of death. Besides, after this journey through so many written pages I am convinced we must raise the dead from the ground, brush the loose earth from their faces now reduced to bones and cavities, and learn anew the fraternity out there. Contrary to the words written by Raul Brandão: “Can you hear the cry? Do you hear it getting louder, increasingly louder and deeper? It is necessary to kill the dead a second time.” Precisely (exactly; necessarily) the opposite. This is my honest opinion, despite what others have said.

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