Monday, February 25, 2013

Literature, Art, Death

I started reading Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997) this weekend, and I'm really enjoying it.  I really enjoyed White Noise (1985) as well, so this isn't a huge surprise.  I'm having so much fun, in fact, that I've added Libra (1988) to my list of books to read.

But I don't want to blog about Underworld just yet--or at least, not completely--since I'm only about a third of a way through it (it's a long novel, but so far, it's worth it).

What I do want to blog about is an odd coincidence that I noted in my reading this weekend.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I'm rereading Dostoevsky's The Idiot (1869).  I've slowed down in my reading (perhaps because I got side-tracked by another 800-page novel), but one of the things that has remained with me is a crucial scene in the novel in which the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, notes the reproduction of an unusual painting at the residence of the antagonist, Rogozhin.

Here's the image. 

Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb," 1520-1522

I confess, if I dropped by your place and this was the image you had over your mantle, I might not drop by all that often.  And, if I did, I'd be sure to bring you some baked goods or something, to cheer you up a bit.  (Maybe?)

It's considered an unusual painting because Holbein has depicted the crucified Christ, not in a state of beatific resurrection, but as an actual corpse, complete with wounds, rigor, and decaying extremities.  His emaciated body and his facial expression capture the viewer's attention, precisely because they are so entirely at odds with what we associate with the imagery of Christ.

Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin comments that it is a painting that could cause a man to lose his faith.

In Underworld, DeLillo depicts J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra in attendance at the famous October 3, 1951 Giants-Dodgers Playoff Game, in which Bobby Thomson hit the home-run known as "the Shot Heard Round the World" (prompting the famous Russ Hodges' radio commentary, "THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!")

As this scene unfolds, DeLillo represents J. Edgar Hoover as enthralled with the photograph of a Bruegel painting, "The Triumph of Death."  Here is the image:

Pieter Brueghel, "The Triumph of Death," 1562
In both of these novels, there is a fascination with materiality--with death and what it does to the human body--and in both texts, this theme is invoked by a reference to a 16th-century painting.  Why?

I find it fascinating when writers, who are no slouches themselves when it comes to artistry, feel compelled to direct their readers' attention to a visual image.  It creates an odd moment in the text: if we don't know the painting, will we go look for it?  If we do know the painting, how is its imagery invoked and used by the novels themselves?

At one point, one of the protagonists of Underworld comments on the relationship between art and death.  The artist, Klara Sax, is describing what is known as "nose art": during World War II, bomber pilots decorated the noses of their planes with images, often of scantily-clad pin-up girls (you can see reproductions of some 20th-century nose art here).  Why?

When you think about it, it's an interesting gesture: the planes are designed to bring death and destruction to others and, potentially, to the pilots themselves.  No one can see the nose art when the plane is in flight, so why personalize it?  Why invoke sex, in particular, at the moment of death?

Once again, it's a reminder of human materiality, a return to the body, at a moment when the body is most vulnerable and in imminent danger.  As Klara Sax observes in Underworld,
"Because it's all about luck, isn't it?  The sexy woman painted on the nose is a charm against death.  We may want to place this whole business in some bottom pit of nostalgia but in fact the men who flew these planes, and we are talking about high alert and distant early warning, we are talking about the edge of everything--well, I think they lived in a closed world with its particular omens and symbols and they were young and horny to boot."
At another point in DeLillo's novel, the protagonist Nick Shay comments on the spectacle of art itself.  Observing Klara Sax's project, he comments,
"Sometimes I see something so moving I know I'm not supposed to linger.  See it and leave.  If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock.  Love it and trust it and leave."
Perhaps this is what writers like DeLillo and Dostoevsky are suggesting in their novels: a way to love and trust and leave the visual experience itself.  To remain with the "wordless shock" in the realm of words, without actually lingering or staying too long.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."