3. No Pain, No Gain
Okay, so what if we just say “enthusiasm” is not the most serious part of making or observing art? I am as guilty as anyone of pushing the serious aspect of art. When I speak of my principle influences as a writer, I say Iris Murdoch, or John Ruskin. But what I really want to say is Joanne Worley (“Whoopee!”) and Don Martin, that MAD magazine cartoonist.
“Art is not cozy and it is not mocked,” says Iris Murdoch at the end of The Black Prince, “it sheds the light by which all human things are mended and tells the only truth that ultimately matters; and after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing. Art hurts, dammit, and it doesn’t put much food on the table, either.
In Richard Adams’ Watership Down, the herd of homeless rabbits encounter a group of bunnies who are, it turns out, evil bunnies because they live in a warren that is fed well by the local farmer; he sets snares to catch the occasional sacrificial fattened rabbit, and the rabbits are willing to give up one of their numbers now and then rather than waste time foraging. What do these evil, effete bunnies do with all their extra time? They compose—ye gods!—poetry. Silverweed, getting his thanatos on, orates,
Where are you going, wind? Far, far away
Over the hills, over the edge of the world.
Take me with you, wind, high over the sky.
I will go with you, I will be rabbit-of-the-wind,
Into the sky, the feathery sky and the rabbit.
The problem is, I have always had a problem separating work from play. My favorite vacation is hiking long distances. Sore feet, sunburn, spider webs in the face, but you don’t know about the other stuff, the endorphins running through the body, the druglike high created by dehydration, stinkiness, and apoplexy. And when I hike through old Europe, I love to rest my stinky self in old churches.
I don’t know why, except to say that I was raised Catholic and, with a writer’s infantile need for narrative and symbol, Catholicism satisfies that need with all gruesome images and tropes and lives of the saints. I am comforted by Christ on the cross; images of suffering breed beauty, if done right: no pain, no grain. I admit that I sometimes wish I could feel what many non-Catholics feel when they see a particularly gruesome crucifix, as I witnessed through the 6-year-old daughter of some Jewish friends I was traveling with in as we entered a cathedral into that solemn apse, our little novice gaped at a stunningly large and gruesome crucifix, Christ’s eyes rolled back into his head as he hung from the nails. “Mommy,” she shouted, “what happened to him?!” It’s a long story, sweetie.
A long story I know pretty much by heart. What, then, does surprise me are the departures from the churchy norm. These departures are not immediately evident, especially to the casual observer, but they are there. Sometimes, they have been hidden for hundreds of years, out of sight, out of mind. Why? Because they are too far away from the naked, or ancient eye to see. I am referring to the capitals at the tops of columns in the great gothic cathedrals of Europe, photos of which I have been showing you for these three days.
For centuries—and as far as the sculptors of the capitals were concerned, for eternity—nobody could see there. While one of the defining developments of gothic architecture over Romanesque was letting in more light (the flying buttress reinforced from without and allowed for more bigger windows), still the gloom was pervasive, and the sheer height of the greatest cathedrals made it impossible to see anything up there, unless you were God. Only through the miracle of the zoom lens have so many of those images been made manifest.
Arthur Schopenhauer, a humorless atheist, wrote that the column is the symbol of the will to work. “I am here to hold up the roof,” says every column. Many columns are fashioned into caryatids, those brawny beings who carry the weight of the building on their heads or shoulders. Every column, then, is like a human body, so what does that suggest the capital represents? All of us, all of our actions, all of our passions, all of our enthusiasms, all of our silliness, all holding up the roof of one serious house.
Images of historical characters and religious events, sure, but also zodiac symbols, angels with firebrands and demons with mouths in their bellies, Boschian orgies and elves in combat, saints being converted and saints being tempted, nudes and dudes and babes with boobs, two-headed women and two men sharing one head (problematic), women suckling pigs and men with their heads up their own asses, adulterers and gamblers and bendy acrobats and animals that play musical instruments, and gruesome beheadings and nasty torture devices, basilisks, zombies, snakes devouring themselves and men devouring snakes, and I swear that's Princess Leia. These church builders, then, must have believed that everything we did was not unholy, wholly human, success and failure, life and death, pain and gain.
“…A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.”
Philip Larkin, from “Church Going”