Seeing the Human Face Correctly

… suit the action to the word, the word
to the action; with this special observance, that you
o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so
overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end,
both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere,
the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure. (Hamlet, Act 3, 2, 17-24)

… O, it offends me to the
soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear
a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the
groundlings, who for the most part are capable of
nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise (Hamlet, Act 3, 2, 8-12)

In my last post I confessed to being a cultural snob. On reflection, perhaps it would be more accurate to call myself a cultural gourmet. Once one has experienced fine dining, it is very difficult to be satisfied with a fast-food diet. Everybody loves a greasy burger every now and then, but once one has experienced the more holistic sensual delights of cuisine crafted by a true culinary master, one sees the burger for what it is. Art is really no different. I pity the poor blighter who can only find pleasure in the artistic equivalent of a Big Mac.

I am certain you have at some stage in your life become exquisitely entranced by a piece of music. But have you ever just stared at a painting, and allowed yourself to get lost in it? Have you ever stared intently into the mirror that is a play, held its gaze – even when it becomes uncomfortable to do so – and let it shine a light into the dark, cobwebby corners of your heart? If you have been brave enough to do that, you will begin to appreciate gourmet art.

I am not talking simply about appreciating expert craftsmanship. Often a piece of art can be expertly crafted but relatively soulless. I am talking about looking into a carefully placed mirror and realising that the terrible figure staring back is yourself. I am talking about the thrill of not turning away at the recognition, but studying him (you) and accepting his (your) reality.

When I pity the futility of Othello’s attempts to resist the brutality of the racial stereotyping levelled against him and gape in horror at the tragedy that stems ultimately, I believe, from his own acceptance of his outsider status, I realise that I am witnessing the havoc that might be caused not only by my prejudices, but also by my doubting my own worth. I am both Othello and Iago.

I am Hamlet. When I stand appalled by his hypocrisy: his belief that he – the “scourge and minister” of heaven – has been “born to set things right”, yet can coldly orchestrate the deaths of Polonius, and his old friends, the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I stand appalled at myself. How just he is to warn Ophelia:

Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder
of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I
could accuse me of such things that it were better my
mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful,
ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have
thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape,
or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do
crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us. (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, lines 121-129)

Claude_Monet_-_The_Magpie_-_Google_Art_Project

Monet’s The Magpie is one of my favourite paintings. We have had many silent conversations, The Magpie and I. Through them, I have come to see that I am the magpie and the snow, as well as the mysterious intruder who gapes upon them, whose beholding gives meaning to both. The entirety of that wintery landscape is me. To quote Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man:

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

 

We are not, therefore, unwise to fear art, because there is much about ourselves that ought to scare us. But the mirror does not only show the wrinkles and the blemishes. There is beauty there too. It is too easy to see only Othello’s foolishness and insecurity, or to focus entirely on the manner in which Hamlet’s belief that his actions are divinely mandated  perverts his moral integrity. They are also “great of heart”, courageous enough to attempt to act morally in an immoral world. That is me too.

Claude_Monet,_Impression,_soleil_levant

Being a gourmet consumer of culture will leave you sated, for you will ingest all that you are. There is truth in the old adage that you are what you eat. I am Othello. I am Iago and Desdemona and Emilia too. I am Hamlet and Claudius, Laertes and Polonius. I am all that is beautiful and all that is repulsive in art. I am, like the unknown sailor in Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, adrift on currents I cannot control, searching in the halflight for something that will sustain me. And somewhere in the brokenness of the landscape of art, I began to find myself.

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